Storying Sheffield

Mental Health, Narrative and Me

by Chrissy Bonham

I was no stranger to mental health services when I reached the point in my life where I had to become what I used to call a ‘full time service user’. I first experienced seeing a psychiatrist at the age of fourteen years old and this continued on and off for the next decade or so. I lived with continuous mental health problems which sometimes became so severe I had to engage with services in desperation for help. It was not something I wanted to do, early experiences had deterred me from receiving psychiatric help and I was reluctant to revisit. Whenever I did I could not commit myself to the process. I usually committed for about as long as crisis and its aftereffects lasted, I would then start missing appointments and avoiding medication I was prescribed.

Unless I was in crisis I felt I could cope okay, yes I spent a lot of time distressed and very ill, but I was managing to function and I had plenty of unhealthy coping mechanisms helping to keep me in check! At this point my narrative existed beyond my mental health, I had a life I felt I could talk about, I had a social persona, I had a function in the world, the fact I had several diagnosed mental illnesses faded into the background. The flippancy with which I could brush off suicide attempts, self-harm, psychosis etc. absolutely astounds me, I was able to act as if nothing had happened and carry on with my life. I have always compared it to people having a balance between their work life and their home life. My work life was not being mentally ill and my home life was being mentally ill, I managed to separate the two for years, until the inevitable day came when I could no longer separate the two strands.

The rate at which my mental illness began to uncontrollably infiltrate every part of my life seemed quite slow at the time. I really don’t think I noticed it at all (I suppose because I was extremely ill) but looking back it was frighteningly quick. Within six months I destroyed nearly every good thing I had – my business, my finances, my relationships and my reputation were all gone and what remained was me lying in a hospital bed being sectioned. It finally seemed I had no choice other than to accept the fact I was severely mentally ill and had suffered a breakdown. I had to engage with services and enter into primary care, I had no other option and in some strange way, at that point, I feel I committed myself to being the best mentally ill person I could be.

My former identity disappeared as I engaged fully with being a mentally ill person. I do not wish this to read as if I really had a choice in the matter, I didn’t, but there was a definite point where I abandoned all hope of being anything else. My sense of self evaporated and was replaced by a list of symptoms associated with my mental health diagnosis. The concept of having an identity other than this became alien to me. The only narrative I found myself able to construct was a deficit story filled with loss, trauma, mental illness and my failure to be able to function as a ‘normal’ human being.

This narrative became the only constant in my life and was really quite a paradox, on one hand I felt it kept me safe and on the other hand it caused me horrendous levels of distress. As I conditioned myself to the process of regularly talking to mental health professionals about what was wrong with me I found I lost the ability to question and try to understand how things made me feel. I could reel off lists of symptoms, dangerous behaviours I was engaging in, side effects medications had upon me without thinking. I feel I spent many of my sessions with my psychiatrist on autopilot as I could have written the conversation before it happened. I knew what responses I was going to get and it seemed that the script rarely changed, I was never asked to do anything other than talk about my distress and illness. My deficit story was never challenged and I certainly didn’t want to let it go, I wore it like a security blanket keeping me safe from the uncertainties of the outside world. The story was predictable and held no nasty surprises, why would I wish to let go of something which I felt kept me safe? However, I can now see how this story disabled me and limited my life in ways far beyond the realms of my mental illness.

Eventually it began to transpire that the more times I reeled off my list of symptoms, the worse they became. The more discussions I had about how my mental health limited my life, the more limited it became. Every time I focused upon the negative aspects of my lifestyle, further negatives began to arise. The story I was telling myself and everyone else had started writing itself and influencing patterns of events. My narrative became so powerful it controlled nearly every thought and every decision I made with me remaining completely unaware of the process.

I spent nearly two years inhabiting this story. My only social interactions became seeing mental health professionals and going to the job centre. I sometimes saw family members but pushed my remaining friends away. I lost the ability to communicate about anything other than what was wrong with me and how ill I was. In my isolation I would talk to myself in the mirror constantly reaffirming the fact that I could not contribute to society, I could not function properly, I would never feel well again, I should not be alive…a vicious unending cycle of hideous beliefs about myself. I feel physical terror when I think back to that point in my life, how quickly I fell into that story and how difficult it was to break free from is something that has marked me indelibly. Those years are the one thing I often think I will never ‘recover’ from, I carry them inside me all too close to the surface sometimes.

The moment of change for me was unexpected. I attended a psycho-educational group under great duress and probably (if I’m honest) because my benefits required me to be making some sort of progress. This was the first time I had ever been in room full of other people who were all experiencing similar life events to myself. There was a quiet acknowledgement that we were all dealing with significant mental health problems which therefore led to there being no need to talk about our mental health.

I remember sitting with a recovery worker who, after noticing them, didn’t ask me about the fresh self-harm marks on my forearms as I expected her to. She asked me what I had been listening to on my headphones when I came in the room and we had a discussion about music. I engaged in a human interaction which had nothing to do with me talking about my mental health. It made me feel uncomfortable and frightened, it was an unfamiliar world but I persevered and soon found myself talking to some of the other group members about the fact that I had a dog and that I was obsessed with Fleetwood Mac. Years on, those small interactions that day seem somewhat trivial, but they weren’t, they forced me to reconnect with something inside myself which existed beyond my mental illness. For me, it was a life changing moment.

I remember going to see my psychiatric nurse the next day. I sat on the floor of her office, held my knees up to my head and began sobbing from the deepest part of myself. She had never seen me cry, as partial as I was to erratic emotions I was certainly not one for tears in front of her. I remember her alarmingly asking me what had happened at the group that was so bad. I couldn’t find the words for a long time but eventually I managed to piece together what I was feeling in a way that was somewhat understandable. I told her I felt as if I was a shiny penny that had been dropped in the gutter and covered up with layers of dirt, mud, grime and dead leaves. I had been laid there for years with more and more layers of dirt collecting on top of me. Yesterday, in that group, I felt as if some rain had fallen on that penny for the first time in a very long time and washed away a tiny bit of dirt, allowing a bit of the old penny to shine through.

That was the feeling I was granted by those simple conversations, essentially I feel it gave me a brief glimpse of what it felt like to be human again. That brief glimpse is the one thing that allowed to begin to move beyond existing within my deficit story. It took a while as a narrative doesn’t change overnight. These days my internal narrative constantly shifts and changes with my moods and my mental health, but essentially I inhabit a story a million miles away from the one I found myself stuck in all those years ago.