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This first article is published on the website 'Stigma Fighters'
A trip to Ireland with my mental illnesses
In June 2016, my brother asked me if I would be godfather to his newborn daughter. Of course, I said yes, but there was one snag. I’d have to fly from my home near London to Dublin, where my sister in law is from for the christening. And stand up in front of a crowd at the church with my goddaughter.
A bit of background information.
I was diagnosed with psychosis in 2001 (which involved thinking I was Jesus and that I was telepathic) and picked up serious anxiety in 2004. I was put on an anti-psychotic, clozapine, in 2005 and it clicked with me. Since then I began a consistent recovery and by 2016 my mental health issues were barely there. Traveling from my hometown would bring them back a bit though, and it was certainly a big step to go to Ireland, especially by plane. I had a panic attack the last time I flew in 2004 on the way to see family in America and hadn’t flown since then.
My brother said that as I have such a great relationship with and responsible attitude towards my first niece, two years old at the time, that I was a natural choice as my second niece’s godfather, but I would have to bite the bullet and take a trip to Dublin for the christening for the privilege, and it was/is a true privilege. I think in my brother’s mind the fact that I was able to step out of my comfort zone for the journey showed that I was able and ready to be godfather. I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I went.
Having my mum travel with me was a source of great comfort. We got to Southampton airport, a small airport that is very easy to do business with and were called for the one hour flight after some breakfast and general appreciation of the airport atmosphere. In the present day I am still very afraid of flying despite six short flights in the last two years. For me it’s an uncontrollable sense of vertigo mixed with my increased anxieties when traveling. But I love planes – I think they are awesome, and I love airports.
We got on the bus to take us to the plane, and then we boarded the 90 seater propeller aircraft. My anxieties and fears shot right up, but there was no way I could change my mind now. I felt that there was a good chance that it might not be that bad once we got going, and I was half right. As the engines buzzed and we sped along the runway I was in two minds. Half of me was paralyzed by fear, clasping my mum’s hand and squeezing the armrest. But the other half was quite rational, happy even. I knew that planes are statistically very safe, and that I’d make it through. At the same time, I was also feeling a kind of relaxed anticipation that once the short flight was over I had nothing to fear about the rest of the trip. My general anxieties were gone when at home and minor when I was traveling by any form of transport that didn’t involve the creation of a potential 30 000 foot drop to my death if something went wrong. It was nice to know that after the flight would be three days with much loved family and of course my baby nieces.
The flight was a matter of fear but I began relaxing when we started our descent. We landed and the bad stuff was over. I’d never been to Ireland before and it was nice to see it.
The next day I put on my rarely worn suit and we got to the church. I was gladdened to learn that there was no congregation except two other families with their own children, about forty people in total and it was very informal. The service lasted five minutes and we were only in the church for about 30 minutes. Most of that time I was sat holding my beautiful niece and playing with her sister, as well as taking some photos of the terracotta coloured church. Afterwards, we went to my sister in law’s auntie’s house for a little celebration. We ate, had some drinks and socialised. It was fun. I was staying at a bed and breakfast with my mum and younger brother, which was fun too. Because of my anxieties I had only been away from home overnight once in the last 13 years. I slept very well that night, even though I knew I had to get on a plane the next day. Sometimes I am anxious, in small amounts. I used to be a serious panicker, and the fact that I wasn’t panicking over the prospect of an imminent plane journey the next day shows how far I have come with defeating my anxieties and panic. A person with a panic and serious anxiety disorder would be in a mess knowing that the next day they had to get on a plane. But I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was in the moment enjoying being in Ireland. For me, having moments like this is very special. The realization that my anxieties and my mental illnesses are a thing of the past is rather nice. Doing normal things like 60% of everyone else without being distracted by my internal problems is fantastic.
The next day we flew again, and it was a very similar experience to the outgoing journey, I would guess I was 40% scared and 60% relaxed rather than 50-50 on the first flight, so it was a little better. We landed, got through the airport and took a 25-minute train journey to my hometown. Southampton being a small airport we were through it in a flash. We were at our front door in Basingstoke (my hometown) only two hours after taking off in Dublin.
The success of the trip empowered me to be confident about the next one. A few short months later I flew to Holland for my cousin’s wedding, then in summer 2017, I flew to Tuscany for a three week holiday traveling around beautiful Italy. In many ways, though I still have the fading remnants of mental health problems, I am a very happy man.
This next article is published on one of my favourite websites, 'Gum on My Shoe'
How writing a memoir has helped me to talk about my mental illnesses
I’m going to dive right in and begin. I hope people with similar problems with psychosis and anxiety can relate. Since writing a memoir of my experiences with psychosis, anxiety and recovery I have found that I can talk much more easily about my mental health issues.
Before I began my memoir in 2015 I had no interest in sharing how I was feeling about my illness with my supportive team (my parents who are both qualified psychiatric nurses, my various psychiatrists, my care coordinators etc.), friends, family and work colleagues. Now, just try and shut me up!
I often have to remind myself in general conversations that though my mental health and recovery fascinates me, other people are usually not as interested in my experiences as I am (but sometimes they are!). I had my annual appointment with my psychiatrist two weeks ago. She asked how I was, and so I began.
I am doing really well. I’ve been a bit blocked up with constipation – I understand that my medication (Clozapine) can sometimes affect this. I’ve been eating lots of fruit and veg and I bought some prune juice earlier today, so I expect the prune juice to work and I should be fine by tomorrow.
My anxiety is still improving, it’s at such normal levels now that I’m not really thinking about it and I’m not sure it’s any higher than what normal people get from time to time.
But I am wary that I’ve been challenging myself less recently. My nieces and their parents lived in London until a few months ago before moving to Denver, and taking the train or driving up to see them fortnightly was a challenge that helped me keep my abilities to stay on top of anxiety I think, and I do wonder sometimes if not having this regular challenge might make me rest on my laurels a bit and get too comfortable. For the last few years I have found that remembering to keep well is sometimes very important and if I forget to, I feel a certain dip in my general mental health.
I keep well by doing a mix of little and big things. Sometimes it’s just a case of asking my brain in the morning what kind of positivity I want to feel that day, and for reasons unknown to me, it works and eight times out of ten at the end of the day, I find that I have felt exactly how I told my brain I wanted to feel!
Other times I have found it helpful to push myself a bit and do more challenging things, like spending the day looking after my nieces in London. They lived in Chiswick and I’m very close to them, they are two and four years old. I think looking after them taught me responsibility and some of how to be a mature adult, and after doing the parenting thing for a bit, whether for an afternoon, overnight or for a few days and nights I felt very in step with the world.
It’s at this point that the doctor senses that I am doing well. I sense her sensing it. I then decide that I have more to say.
My psychosis and ideas of reference are still there, but I am controlling them well. I used to feel like people in queues and waiting rooms could read my thoughts, but it’s happening less recently. When it was bad I’d be standing behind someone in a queue and my ‘Telepathic Tourette’s’ would start and if the person in front of me was very ugly, then I’d hear in my mind “fuck me aren’t you ugly” and because of my stupid and annoying telepathic abilities (that I don’t think I have anymore) I’d think they heard me. Then in my mind I’d feel like I had to explain to them, telepathically, that I don’t really think they are ugly, even if they looked like a Hyena. I am a nice person who doesn’t insult the afflicted; I’m not a ten out of ten myself!
But then like Tourette’s syndrome all the other insulting thoughts come out and the people around me can hear them, like ‘you’re a prick with a stupid haircut’ or ‘you smell like a landfill site’. It’s annoying, but recently it hasn’t been a problem and thoughts are appearing in a softer way in my head in these situations, so that’s a good bit of progress.
My job is going well, I used to get anxiety at work a few years ago, but I don’t anymore. My mental health memoir and website is coming along, I recently had a friend with lots of Facebook friends share a link to it and I got 2000 visits in four days. I have been working with a website guru to improve my website which is going well too.
By this stage my Doctor begins indicating that she isn’t interested in a haphazardly scattered lecture and that she has other people to see. So I wind it down and she does the usual thing, checking that I am still taking my Clozapine without any problems and she says that we could do a full check on everything via blood test, a sort of annual check-up of glucose levels, lipids, Amylase, B12 and calcium etc. She says that I seem to be doing very well. She gives me a blood form to take to the phlebotomist and we say goodbye. I throw her an accidental curve ball as I remember that I wanted to ask if she could recommend a popular online psychosis journal that I might write a paper for. She says “No, sorry – but good luck with your writing, Peter”.
So that’s how I tend to speak to my psychiatrist. I hope it shows that a person can be comfortable talking about whatever they like to them. When you are ready, open up.
I rarely opened up to people about my mental health before I started writing about it in my spare time. For me it wasn’t really stigma or the taboo factor that made it difficult to talk. It was that the words were hard to find. It’s not easy to talk about why a panic attack may have started, or the processes involved with bringing about a period of good mental health, and often it’s complicated to answer a simple question like ‘how are you’ when you are at the doctor’s office. One is supposed to elaborate when they are asked how they are by their psychiatrist. In regular daily exchanges ‘fine thanks’ is sufficient.
If you are like me and have or have had limited social conversations due to staying at home a lot, because of anxiety issues perhaps, then the power of descriptive speech can begin to fade. Lots of people get embarrassed when discussing their mental health too.
Before I wrote my memoir, talking about the finer points of my mental health often felt like a fruitless endeavour – an impossible task. I felt like I could talk if I wanted to, but that there was no way I’d find the words to be understood properly. For many years I had very little insight or understanding of my illness. It felt like there was no way my team could understand it any better by me talking about it, because I didn’t even understand it myself.
But these days I talk about it all the time and talking is helpful for mental health for hundreds of reasons. So helpful in fact that there is a phrase assigned to the action of talking about mental health – ‘talking therapies’. Talking can help you take charge of your well-being.
The thing that allows me to verbalise it all is my writing. I have been writing about my mental health and recovery for at least four years now, including a book, articles like this one, papers for online mental health journals, travel articles and my blog. Writing has instilled a sense of enthusiasm, so now I find that my mental health and mental health in general (especially how my own experiences with mental health compare with other peoples) is my favourite subject. I can also find the right words when I need them and I am keen to pick up knowledge and tips through conversation.
If you want to use talking to feel better about your mental health I would recommend writing a journal of your thoughts about your mental health at the end of each day. Then when someone asks you how you are, either a friend at work or your psychiatrist, you will remember your journal and feel like you have some thoughts to share. You will often feel more enthusiastic and the words will be ready to go on the tip of your tongue.
This next article is another that is published on the website 'Gum on My Shoe'
The importance of family
This weekend my brother Will is home from Bristol, a rare things these days unfortunately. I live with my mum in my childhood home and my dad lives close by. At the moment we have just finished dinner and now we are sharing things on our electronic devices and relaxing. Will doesn’t share my opinion that my new Samsung Galaxy Smartwatch is worth every penny; unnecessary is the essence of his words. I agreed in part, but I have been looking for a nice watch recently and it makes so much sense to have a smartwatch instead of a normal one that could only tell time and date, even if it was emblazoned discretely with a mid-range maker labelling like ‘Citizen’ or ‘Seiko’. My new watch is like having James Bond’s watch. There are vast options for different designs for the watch face which on its own would be a clincher for the fashion conscious.
Will told us about his recent shenanigans over dinner and desert. He is learning to drive and we talked about that too, and we began telling old stories of driving experiences we had had pre-qualification. I was stopped by the police when I was a teenager after taking my mum’s car out for a quick night time joyride as I was just learning. She didn’t let me drive her car again until I was thirty. Kudos to her for sticking to her word.
Before long we were sharing stories about underage alcohol consumption. When I was thirteen I got a bit too drunk after boldly swigging four big gulps from a whisky bottle while on holiday with my dad and brothers. While naughtily drunk / hung over I spent twenty-four hours hiding from my dad and hoping that lots of coffee would cure me but all it did was turn my vomit black. I’m not sure if my mum had heard that one before.
Will has recently visited a Whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye where they sell their whisky in their small shop at higher prices than the local supermarket. And also, get this: the local pub is 200 metres from the distillery and they buy whisky from that distillery online because it’s cheaper that way. So their bottles travel from the distillery many miles to the online distributors, then back to the pub. That’s just crazy. We agreed that it was downright unscrupulous and that some people are driven by profit a bit too much.
We revisited a bottle of walnut wine that hadn’t been touched since a French holiday in 2013. It went very well on my Belgian Chocolate ice cream. We spoke, as we often do, about whether microwaving ice cream ruins it. I have been microwaving ice cream for a quick softening for years and I have never ruined it. Lots of people seem to passionately disagree with me on this though.
We chatted about my two little princess nieces who now live in America, with my mum saying she is looking forward to them being teenagers and seeing how my older brother navigates the issue of having teenage daughters. I recalled about how my niece used to outsmart me at age two and a half. She’d take me away from her parents somehow who limit screen time and then ask if she could watch cartoons on my phone. I’d always say yes, without realising that she had a plan. She didn’t really want to pick out books and toys from her bedroom upstairs, she just wanted someone with a phone to watch cartoons on, but she couldn’t ask when her parents were in the room. I’ve always thought that was quite clever.
I do enjoy spending time with my nieces. It’s good for my mental health. The standalone best thing for my mental health is my family. When I first got ill in 2001 with grandiosely delusional psychosis it was my mum and dad who saw I was unwell and involved the local services. I was doing silly things such as planning to travel to France to meet an imaginary friend after she didn’t show up at The Ritz Hotel (I travelled to meet her at The Ritz the previous day). I needed sectioning on the local mental health ward. At this time, where I was following a delusional agenda of grandiosity, sectioning probably saved my life. My parents visited me every day during my incarceration which couldn’t have been easy, I was disrespectful and rude sometimes because nobody believed in my true identity as the modern day Jesus. I was frustrated and I accused my parents of lying to me whenever we discussed if they believed in me. Along the next few years of being in and out of mental hospitals they stuck by me closely as did my brothers and all family members who lived nearby. My grandparents were lovingly supportive; aunties, uncles and cousins too.
After three years I began to improve in my psychosis but contracted anxiety/panic. My mum, dad and brothers spent the next six years doing the balancing act of being sensitive to my anxiety while also trying to push me into doing more and more socialising. If they hadn’t started this process thirteen years ago I would be unable to socialise today. I also appreciated it when my brothers continued to laugh and joke with me. It showed that they still saw me as a person with a sense of humour even if I did have mental health problems.
I am over my anxieties now, and my psychosis is much, much, better. Both are barely even there and I owe it all to my family.
I became godfather to my second niece in 2016. Looking after them has made me a more confident person with adult responsibilities; someone who is in step with the world. I spent years trying to get back ‘in step with the world’ from about 2007 to 2013. By that I mean being normal: doing things that others do, like going to work, socialising and enjoying weekends. To have such a life, where once I was afraid of leaving the house, is just brilliant.
I have been lucky to have things fall back into place a bit for me. I hope it shows that a mental illness can sometimes pass. An important lesson I learned is to trust doctors and those that love you. I didn’t trust anybody involved in my care back in the day, but it has now become clear that of course they were not lying to me. Their advice and behaviour was a gift and I wish I had started trusting them earlier. My improvement gained good ground when I let my supportive team help me.
This next article is published on the blog/website 'I'm Not Disordered' by Aimee Wilson (she has hundreds of thousands of readers)
The benefits of talking about mental health
I am lucky – I have shown a very good recovery from my mental illnesses. I was diagnosed in 2001 with “cannabis induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature” and in 2004 I started having serious anxiety and panic attacks. My psychosis made me think I was the messiah, the modern day Jesus Christ, but after many years struggling with it I began to recover. Since 2005 it has been slow but steady progress towards wellness, healthier thinking and in present day I am pretty much over it. Both the psychosis and the serious anxiety. I still deal with the remnants and my problems are still with me at about 10% of the intensity that they were when I was seriously unwell. So I am doing well and I have been left with a keen interest in all things mental health. It’s my favourite conversation topic. I talk about it all happily and at length when I get the chance. Almost everybody else has something to say too, often the people I find myself chatting about mental health with have a friend or relative with mental health issues.
I had a haircut last week and I spent 20 minutes chatting about the hairdresser’s 22 year old son who has serious anxiety. I’d given her so much information/tips that she said she wished she’d taken notes as she took payment at the till. I spent 20 minutes talking about my own journey and what helped me, giving her as much description of my experiences as I could in the short time window. I hope she found something beneficial in my humble but much practiced spiel. I’ve written a book about my experiences with mental health and recovery and I’m a people pleaser and always hoping to help.
The week before that it was a friend at the local Conservative Club where I play snooker whose sister has bipolar disorder. I’m not a bipolar expert so I generalised and told him about how ten years ago my brothers started the process of finding humour in mental illness and that if they hadn’t I would still be humourless about things today. I found it helpful talking to my brothers, and we have a bond in present day that involves joking around in general too. It was because of my brothers input many years ago that today I am not embarrassed to share.
The week before that it was a lady having coffee at the sports centre where I work as a cleaner when I’m not writing who told me about her grandson, who has anxiety and hasn’t left the house for a while. He smokes weed in his room and it seems his anxiety is quite mild, but she worries. There are varying levels of seriousness to each case. When it is serious I usually advise talking to local mental health services. There are courses a person can take to learn how to deal with and help family members going through a mental health crisis, courses that my own parents never needed because they are both qualified psychiatric nurses.
It is not the end of the world to need hospitalisation or medication either. I advise when a family member is doing rather shit, to make it clear that you care about them. Hug them more, do things that let the person know without a doubt that you love them. Knowing that family care very much is very comforting and helpful when you are mentally unwell.
When the person is less acutely unwell, there are literally hundreds of ways to help. As the patient improves, it becomes so much easier to go about helping. Make them laugh. It shows that you still see them as a person with a sense of humour even if they do have a mental illness. If you want, encourage socialising. If they are not quite ready to party, take them somewhere quieter. Maybe they like golf? You don’t need social skills for that. My mum has taken me on so many walks over the years at weekends when I was still regaining my social confidence, that we began joking about writing and publishing a book about all the best places to walk in the area.
Over time, the person will get stronger. Then you can suggest socialising further afield. In 2013, after ten years of hardly leaving town, I went to France for my brother’s wedding. I was nervous at first, but I enjoyed it and now I like France and the French. I want to go back and I’d like to live in rural France one day. In 2016 I flew (a big step for me, I was afraid of flying for a number of reasons and hadn’t flown since 2003) to Ireland for my niece’s christening. Then in 2017 it was another scary plane journey to Holland for my cousins wedding. Then summer 2017 I flew to Italy for a three week holiday. These trips all went exceedingly well. If my family had not started the process of encouraging me, at times pushing me, to socialise more and more in about 2006, then I would be afraid of socialising in present day. I have had a great time travelling around Europe recently and it makes me very happy to know that I am strong enough to try new things.
In 2001 I was attempting suicide etc. and I was as low as anyone. I guess what I am trying to say is that even the worst mental illness situations can and do get better, and that sharing/talking helps.