November 14, 2011

Michael, Time to Change bloggerIn the space of a week in February 2007 my life changed forever. I was halfway through my second year of university when I started having panic attacks out of nowhere. I couldn't concentrate on anything, or go to my lectures or seminars. Eventually I had to go back home to my parents' house in London, where I have been ever since. I sank into a severe depression, coupled with debilitating anxiety and a form of OCD which I've been suffering from to this day. 

I thought my life was over. I was housebound for over two years- I stopped washing, shaving, taking care of myself. I totally cut off all contact with friends and my wider family. I often told my parents  that I wanted to die because the pain was so relentless that I just wished for a release from it. I have reached double figures for medications, tried various therapies and spent time in a day hospital, all of which have had varying degrees of success but none provided that magic solution which I so longed for.

I find looking back that what helped me most in terms of treatment was not a particular school of therapy or the cult-like ethos of a hospital, it was talking to and connecting with other human beings. I found my way to therapists and a psychiatrist who had vast experience but crucially, did not treat me like a diagnosis or test case. I was able to learn about my diagnoses and probe and be sceptical of those who gave them to me

I don't want to imply that I have recovered solely through some good healthcare professionals, not to mention my incredibly supportive family. In fact, I don't want to imply that I have “recovered” at all. I still feel my symptoms with me much of each day but there is progress, no matter how slow. 

Since I got my Cocker Spaniel Milo two years ago it has forced me out of the house every day. Knowing that he needs a walk and that it's my responsibility to give him one takes me out of whatever stuff I'm going through. It has also forced me to redevelop my social skills by talking to other dog-owners and people in the park.

Another thing that has led to a shift in my life is my novel, Sisyphusa. Writing the book, which is partly based on my own experiences of mental illness and the mental health system, helped me to express some of the things that had been trapped up in my head for so long. The last few months have involved a book launch  and discussion, being interviewed by a newspaper, enlisting authors and journalists to review the book, and various other surreal things which I wouldn't have believed I could have coped with even a few months ago.

I think the common thread between my dog and my book, apart from their importance to me personally, is that they have acted as 'enablers.' Both are good conversation-starters for a person who has lost his friends and whose conversation skills had ossified. Milo is daft as a brush and full of life which has helped me to build relationships with people by making him the main focus. The book has allowed me to talk openly about my mental illness in a way that I couldn't have when I felt the stigma so strongly early on, as much from myself as from others.

I am so glad that Time to Change is focussed specifically on the issue of stigma in mental illness. It would be easy for me, as someone who now personally understands mental illness, to castigate those who stigmatise it. But that would be hypocritical because before I got ill I had no idea how serious mental illness was even though people in my family had suffered from it. I'm sure I used terms like 'mental' or 'schizo' when I was at school because most kids did. The fundamental issue of stigma is exclusion. Human history is littered with tales of majorities of societies, usually out of their own fears or insecurity, categorising minority groups who were, or were said to be, different. It seems that mental illness is one of the few remaining areas where this is, if not acceptable, then certainly tacitly allowed.

It is our job to remind society that ignorance is no longer an option. Rates of mental illness in the UK are so frighteningly high that sufferers are no longer a small subsection of society, almost every person in this land has either had a mental illness or knows someone who has. I fully agree that it's Time to Change, and not just in my life but in our society.

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