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Saturday, 9 June 2018

What it is like to live with a mental illness

News that Anthony Bourdain died has animated social media. He had a TV program apparently, because I’d never heard of him except in passing. People come out and express support for people living with a mental illness and telegraph positivity in a way they think such people will appreciate, but living with a mental illness is a complicated thing, as I know from first-hand experience.

Recently, I have been going back through the poetry I’ve written over the past 12 years and separating the good ones from the not-so-good. This is a kind of housework designed to help me to see where I’ve been so that I know where to go. Reading old poems is salutary because it shows you what has worked and what has not. And I also date all my poems, so that they stand as a kind of memoir for the past. Re-reading them lets me revisit things and people inhabiting that distant realm.

The poems start in 2007, in September. But in 2008 I had a relapse of the paranoia that has occasionally plagued my life over the past two decades. My world became very dark. Looking back now, it is difficult to really experience the kinds of feelings that motivated my actions in those days, so the poems give me access to places that might otherwise have remained hidden. There are a half-dozen or so from April and May in that year that show me where my mind was at the time. And I have to say that these poems have not made the cut. They are strange, with unwieldy transitions from one idea to another, transitions that are sort of spastic and certainly ungraceful. There are also lots of negative emotions, some curse words, and unworthy feelings are expressed such as jealousy and resentment. I consider these poems to have an interesting diaristic value only. They will never be published in my lifetime.

What they show is that you can never really empathise with someone who is experiencing a mental illness, or an episode given an ongoing condition, unless you make allowances for them that are abnormal. The poems tell me that when I see on my way to lunch a ragged man walking down the street swearing out loud, what I am witnessing is a man whose mind is enveloped in the clouds of a mental illness. We often talk of “demons” that a person with a mental illness is fighting, because this casual trope gives us a way to express the otherwise inexpressible. But in fact it is that man himself – or the woman herself – who has become a kind of demon that is animated by emotions that are alien to the experience of most people whose minds are properly regulated by the chemicals that control them.

From experience, I know that when I am in a delusional state most people cannot stand being around me. I have brought someone to tears because she tried to give me the company I craved when I was sick, and people do not stay around when you are living in a state like this. They flee to safer and more genial places. Professionals can cope, however, and it is a professional attitude, which holds fast to the real even while the world of the person they are talking with is disintegrating in a cascade of negative emotions and very strange ideas, that is useful. Giving succour to a person living with a mental illness is not easy. Mental illness is not something that is warm and fuzzy or aesthetically pleasing, it is weird, sometimes violent and often ugly.

In 2008, the poems that will survive restart again around September, so I know that from April until then I was living with the delusions that haunted me like savage ghosts, that turned day into night, and that tore away at my psyche with their restless claws. The September 2008 poems show someone with a distressed but basically ordered mind fighting with his demons, but staying afloat.

What got me back to normality in the end was physical exercise. I knew I had to beat the thing myself and so I started swimming every day, giving my poor brain the good chemicals it craved to replace the bad ones that the illness had been supplying up to that point in time. A regulated, calm, and ordered lifestyle is what people living with mental illness need. It has to have good food and plenty of exercise. But not every person responds to their illness in the same ways. These are just the things that worked for me.

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