Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Taking My Mental Illnesses to Italy for a Holiday, by Peter McDonnell

Last week I returned from a three week holiday in Italy. Because of my mental illness (grandiosely delusional psychosis and anxiety, more easily described as being ‘Crazy’—a phrase I am comfortable with) I haven’t been away from my hometown much since about 2004. These days I am so much better though, hence the bold move to leave my hometown for three weeks. I have put in a lot of work towards getting better, especially in my anxiety, and with some good luck as well, I have considered myself to be pretty much recovered since about 2016. In 2016 I flew to Ireland for my niece’s christening and in 2017 I flew to Holland for my cousin’s wedding, despite being afraid of flying, an endeavour that has the power to shake me to the core. These two trips were successful and enjoyable though, the flying was bearable, and they made me confident that I could safely enjoy three weeks in Italy, without my fading mental health issues getting in the way.

I had a good time in Italy, we stayed at a large villa next to San Gimignano, Tuscany, for two weeks, with family, including my nieces, three and one years old. My mum and I have gotten good at babysitting them, we see them quite a bit. I have found looking after them therapeutic and it has made me a wiser, more confident and happier person, even though two of them at once is challenging. For our third week, my mum, auntie and uncle and I went to Lake Como for four days, then Lake Maggiore for three days, then home to Hampshire.

I am so glad I went, that I was able to go without the holiday being ruined by mental health problems. Five years ago if someone suggested a holiday, which people did a few times, the answer was a confident ‘No’. There was no way I could leave my home overnight, what if I had a panic attack?

Italy was beautiful though. I was apprehensive about the flying, but that was all. We flew to Milan and stayed at the Airport hotel the first night. The flying went really well. It was only for one hour and a half, and it was smooth, in a jet powered Airbus. The next day, travelling with my mum, auntie and uncle, we got in the hired nine seater van, with manual transmission, and drove the five hour journey south to San Gimignano, about 30 miles from Florence. My uncle did a great job driving it, he usually drives an automatic car in the US and it was not a familiar experience to him. It was a bit funny when we scraped against other cars on the way out of the airport car park. To begin with there were some difficult gear changes, some close calls, and lots of ‘shit’s and ‘sorry guys’ before the driving became second nature to my uncle. Oh and the parking brake, or hand brake as we call it in England was a constant unremembered nuisance for the first hour or so. They don’t really use hand brakes in America as most of the cars there are automatic.

We stopped off in Parma for lunch and it was very hot and sunny, even for Italy in August. I felt comfortable in the van, amusing myself with my phone watching the GPS working on Google Maps helping to direct us southward. The roads were traffic jam free, and they sometimes wound around mountains with some spectacular scenery. We got to the villa at about six, and it was nice. A big pool, four double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, and it had makeshift foldaway beds, and had plenty of space for us all, twelve of us.

There were wineries and vineyards dotted around the landscape, this being Chianti country, which we went to for tours and tastings, and with the villa on top of a big hill, we could see them from the pool and villa grounds. The grounds were shared with lots of nine inch (nose to tail) lizards which liked to hang around basking. On the second day I saw a snake chasing one, and asked the villa owner, Vittorio, if they were dangerous. ‘Oh no,’ he said.

It was quite spectacular on the villa grounds, a lovely sunny place, with many olive trees, grapevines hanging over the two outside eating areas, a big pomegranate tree, two barbecues, and half decent Wifi, depending on how wisely we chose our bedrooms.

We took a train into Florence, where I saw the Ponte Vecchio and Michelangelo’s David, two things I’d wanted to see for years. There was good shopping in Florence too, especially if you like leather. Two thirds of the shops are leather shops.

After two weeks, eight of the party went back to our homes in Denver, Colorado; Bristol, England; and San Anselmo, California; leaving the rest of us to spend a week at the Italian lakes. I had had two amazing weeks at the villa, my mental health was never an issue and I felt completely happy and comfortable there, and I had no reason to think that another week in Italy would be difficult in any way. So we got in the nine seater van and headed for Lake Como, with a stop off at Milan Airport to change from a van to a regular car.

It was at this point where I noticed my psychosis and anxieties trying to upset my happy brain. I don’t really know why, I think it had something to do with the negative emotion of having to say goodbye to some of my family, knowing it might be a while before I saw them again. My nieces and their parents lived close to my mum and I for their whole lives, but two months ago they moved to America, so the reality that I couldn’t see them for a while and have them in my life a lot began to dawn. There was nothing else I can think of that was making me anxious, although I am over sensitive to cloudy weather especially when I was used to the blazing sun. On our last day at the villa the weather turned and the next three days were cloudy with rain.

The way I was feeling was like I’d forgotten to take my medication. But I wasn’t that bad really. I was feeling like I had defeated my mental health problems at least 95% recently, but it was becoming more like 80%, so like I say it wasn’t particularly bad, I was able to keep it at bay, but for the four days staying at Bellagio on Lake Como I couldn’t relax properly. I found myself taking quite a few smoke breaks at the apartment we were staying in, twenty metres away from the lake shore.

It’s very steeply hilled at the shore of some of Lake Como, with lots of dwellings all situated very compactly, narrow roads, and not much space to just lie there and relax. Because of my mental health problems I was oversensitive to being all crammed in to the towns and felt a bit claustrophobic. To someone without mental health problems it wasn’t an issue at all. But Lake Como was strikingly attractive, from my bedroom window at the apartment I could see the Alps in the distance.

My first view of Lake Como was of clouds hanging over the hills, and rain, and wasn’t the piercing blue water and sunshine like I’d seen on the TV. But we took some boat trips anyway, and I enjoyed them, 80% of the time. We had some nice food at local restaurants but by this time we were getting a bit bored of pasta and pizza. We went on a hydrofoil one day which was fun.

I did start to relax more when we had packed our things and got into the car to drive to Lake Maggiore. The sunny weather had returned, and the first view of Lake Maggiore was like a postcard picture. We stayed at a hotel on the lakeshore at Stresa, and I was happy to be almost completely relaxed again. Lake Maggiore was not so densely populated, the hills weren’t so close to the water’s edge, and there was lots of space. We had lunch on a boat trip northwards on the lake, and crossed into Switzerland, where we took a scenic train through the mountains (which may or may not have been the Alps) back down to Stresa. We had two hours in the lake town of Lacarno in Switzerland where we saw chocolate shops and that a Big Mac in McDonalds costs about ten pounds.

Our flight home from Milan was scheduled for midday, with British Airways. We arrived at the baggage check in at 9.30, at the back of a queue of 100 people. After fifteen minutes we hadn’t moved so I started to worry about missing our flight. There were four desks for British Airways passengers. One of them was closed, and two of them were for business and first class passengers. I wasn’t very happy about that. As we neared the front of the queue, after an hour and a half, it became clear that we had enough time, but I was still annoyed at all the chancers trying to skip the line and use the business and first class check in.

I began questioning any passengers who went to the first class check in. ‘Excuse me, are you business or first class passengers?’ I would say. ‘Yes, yes we are’ ‘Okay no problem, carry on.’ Twice though I asked and two separate couples were just trying their luck. ‘Excuse me, are you business or first class passengers?’ ‘No, but we have already checked in online and are just dropping off our bags’. I said ‘Yeah us too, but we have been queuing for an hour and a half now, and you need to go to the back of the line. ‘ There was no way I was letting anyone take advantage like that, and I was a bit stressed. I also told someone off for trying to push into the queue at one of the shops in the airport.

I don’t like flying. The journey outward was smooth, but I was angry at the turbulence on the way home. I wanted to be like normal people who are mostly unfazed by flying. I said to myself ‘never again’ in the middle of some panicky moments as we flew over Paris. I was pissed off because I wanted to enjoy it, but every time I glanced out of the window my body and soul felt more unsettled than I had ever felt in my whole life. I think I can do a short flight, but there is no way I can fly to America for example. But I got home in one piece, and it was amazing to have done it and now these happy memories and the success of meeting the challenge to leave home for three weeks will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A quick word about challenges and progression.

A few years ago I was so stricken with mental health problems that I could hardly leave the house. In 2011 I thought I’d try going back to college to learn something, as I was not doing much with my life. There is a college one minute’s walk away from where I live, so I was happy to try, knowing that I could come home quickly if the anxiety came. I stayed at college for three years, nearly full time, taking a carpentry and joinery class, and I didn’t miss a single lesson. It taught me so much and now I can fix things around the house and I like DIY. I have three paid part time jobs now (in 2010 I was unable to work) and two of them are as a carpenter and joiner. Since 2011 I have also passed my driving test and I now drive a lot.

In 2010 I had no hope of ever being able to spend time with another person in such close proximity like being in a car with them, but I can do it now and I have driven to London lots of times. Traffic jams were a real stumbling block, but I can do them now too. Leaving town doesn’t scare me anymore either. I was afraid of train journeys, but I like them now. I can socialise however I want and am not anxious about social situations. I have taken six plane journeys in the last year, I didn’t fly for 15 years because I was afraid of flying. I have joined a gym and I work out and eat healthy. I have written a book about my experiences with mental illness, and I am currently looking for a literary agent.

I was an unfunctioning mess not so long ago, but I have met challenge after challenge and put in the work to get better, and I am the happiest I have ever been, living life to the full and usually loving it. I’ve come so far and I hope that this might encourage people to keep going in their own battles. The only thing I have difficulties with these days is turbulence on aeroplanes, and sometimes even that doesn’t bother me.

About the Author

If you would like to read more, Peter has written a book about his experiences with mental illness and recovery, called Viva Mental Health, and has a website to support it with book extracts and more. Please visit www.petermcdonnellwriter.com.

 

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