October 29, 2008

If you asked me to tell you what I got for Christmas last year; I wouldn't have a clue. Having said that; I can remember the day I was first sectioned fairly clearly, and that was nearly 20 years ago. I was naked; talking to a light bulb; believing that I would be beamed up too heaven at any moment. My father, my sister, my sister's husband and his friend all witnessed this breakdown. I was told later that I had been acting weird for weeks. I had lost a lot of weight very rapidly; I was not sleeping, and I would continually go missing. My family did not understand what was happening and did not know what to do. All they knew was; I had gone mad, and they were absolutely right; I could not have been any madder; even if I tried.

Normally; I was able to deal with life's problems and carry on, just like anyone else. But life did what it does sometimes, and threw in a number of major problems on top of the everyday crap the average person has to endure. I had been struggling to keep it together for a few years. I tried to access help through the usual channels; I went to my GP hoping to find some answers. It was a waste of time. My GP was a middle class woman who had no idea what it was like to live on a rundown inner city council estate. I took the anti-depressants she gave me but I was not convinced they would do me any good. I had been using alcohol to help alleviate the stress I was feeling; but alcohol was no longer enough. I turned to drugs and found myself using heroin. Eventually; I lost everything, my family, my friends, my home, my job and I ended up talking to a light bulb as a result of trying to cold turkey. I decided to give myself one last shot at life. I moved to Nottingham in 2002. I rented a gloomy bedsit in the city centre and began the process of putting myself back together.

Before I could move on I needed to understand why my family and friends behaved the way they did. I spent many nights hating them for abandoning me when I needed them most. I eventually found some answers. I met and worked with other service users and I realised I was not alone. Other people had experienced the same hurt and rejection as me and it had a name, “Stigma". To understand the reaction of my family and friends; I had to be honest with myself. I realised that prior to becoming ill; I too had had a bad opinion of people with mental health problems; I too had made jokes about the “mad people" and I too was frightened of them. I too believed the stories in the press. I did not know that mental ill health could happen to anyone at any time, that the average human being could crack up under the stress of everyday life. In understanding my own ignorant attitude to mental ill health, I was able to understand the attitude of my family and friends and that helped me greatly. I was able to forgive them. I understood that they were acting out of ignorance and I believe they did not know any better.

I came to realise the NHS was limited in what it could do for me. It could only get me to a point of “fragile stability". I realised that if I was going to get well, I had to become the architect of my own recovery. Don't get me wrong, I could not do it alone, I needed the NHS, I needed my new friends and I also needed the help and insight of fellow service users. But I had to take control; I had to decide what worked for me. In planning my recovery path, I had to look at the obstacles. The biggest of which was stigma; not only the way society viewed me but also the way I viewed myself. Was I damaged goods? Would I ever participate in society again? Would society give me the chance? I came to the conclusion that I would be the one to decide the answers to these questions. I knew I had changed and even if I say so myself; I had changed for the better. All the pain, rejection, introspection and self analysis had helped me to understand myself. In turn; that helped me to understand others.

In 2003 I began volunteering with a service user advocacy group. I could only do a couple of hours a week to begin with because both my mental and physical stamina were very low and of course the medication was very powerful. Gradually I built up my stamina, before long I was able to do a full day's work. The following year I was offered 2 jobs within a week of each other. One was on a part time basis and the other was a full time post. The experiences that qualified me for the job were the experiences I believed would prohibit me from ever working again; namely, mental health problems, drug abuse and homelessness. I was given the chance to use all I had learned in the most difficult times of my life to help others. I was unsure as to whether I could hack a full time job; but a little voice inside said “Go on you have got to take a risk every now and then". I decided to take the risk and accepted the fulltime post, working on involvement with Nottinghamshire healthcare NHS Trust. It was difficult at first because of my poor stamina levels. By the time the weekend came around; all I wanted to do was sleep. I suffered a few relapses having to take time off sick, but gradually I got the hang of it. Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust has been exemplary in the support they have given me and I would like to thank them for supporting me in my second shot at life.

I am currently working as a Development Worker looking at employment opportunities for people who have experienced mental health difficulties and “STIGMA!!!" There are 2 service users in our team. Our role is to help the organisation employ and support people with experience of mental health difficulties. The greater the number of service users who get involved in trying to change the system; then the sooner it will happen. It is happening now, I have seen major changes occur and I have only been campaigning for 6 years.

I believe that a major contributing factor to my recovery (and it still continues to be) is working with other service users in helping to change the system. I have learned that the system has limitations and that the real experts are the people who live with mental health problems day in, day out. I think that when we as service users try to make a difference that helps us to understand ourselves and also we meet other service users along the way; who offer support, advice, experience and wisdom. We can get better; it is not easy and requires some effort especially as there are so many obstacles for us to overcome; the biggest being “Stigma" which includes out-dated ways of thinking. We can get better, believe me.

Tragically, Liam died just a couple of weeks after finishing this piece. After talking to his friends, we felt that he would have wanted his story to be read by others, so we included it in the collection. I very much enjoyed working with Liam - he was a fiercely intelligent, funny and interesting person to talk to – and his story is incredibly powerful. He was also a very talented writer and we are privileged to be able to show his piece on this site.

If you would like to comment on this story, Liam's friends have set up a tribute page dedicated to his memory: See the Liam O'Neill tribute page.

Helen Davies, Open Up Information and Communications Officer.

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