Through my childhood and youth in the 50’s and 60’s in Perth, Scotland, I remember my mother having nervous breakdowns and stays in the local mental hospital. These episodes didn’t affect the happy memories of my upbringing as grandparents were there to support and protect. My father was a science fiction writer for the Daily Express and travelled up and down to London from Perth. However in 1970, aged 17, with my father now living permanently in London, I was the one having to support my mother who became unwell. We lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats and she took to going out at all hours. I had two younger sisters in the house. Hospital was the only option and I visited her in the locked ward where she stayed with other women, one of whom had killed her child which upset my mother. I often came away from visiting in tears.
I’ve always been resilient
and non-conformist, a natural leader and a ‘what you see is what you get’ type
of a person, so didn't expect to have mental health problems myself.
Then, 13 weeks after the birth of my second son in 1978, a traumatic
experience with ineffective pain relief, I had a postpartum psychosis,
voluntarily going into the local mental hospital in Lanarkshire.
Separated from my baby, it was a difficult time, and I didn’t want to take the
‘medication’ so was held down and jagged in the rear with chlorpromazine.
I soon started taking the drugs in liquid form, it seemed easier, then
when obedient got it in pill form.
It was a time in psychiatric care when
the patients got their clothes locked away and had to wear pyjamas, many layers
of them in my case. But when the nurses tried to persuade me to sign a
form for getting ECT, I resisted. My mother had received many courses of
ECT so I knew what it was and that she didn’t like it. I managed to avoid
the ECT being a voluntary patient and was discharged after a few weeks, back to
my husband, baby and 2 year old son in a sedated state. After about a
year I was off the drug and getting back on with my life, having gradually
reduced it, against the advice of psychiatrists.
In 1984 after the induced
painful birth of my third son, while still in the maternity hospital, I had
another psychosis -an escape from the trauma. Within days I was
voluntarily admitted to the same acute ward, where I buddied up with a fellow
female patient, for I found the ward a scary place. Chlorpromazine again,
administered involuntarily by injection at first, and discharged after a few
weeks, sedated and zombie-like, to try and care for 3 children. Friends
rallied round, coming in each day to help. I gradually started to feel
better, reduced the drugs and was off them all within a year, fully
recovered. A community psychiatrist supported my coming off meds, the
only time I have known this to happen.
For the next 18 years I was
in good mental health and supported other family members in their recovery and
navigating of the psychiatric system, for psychoses seems to run in our
family. (we are all high achievers, creative, musical, imaginative and
like to take risks) I gained some qualifications and worked in the
voluntary sector, in youth work and managing volunteers. It was while
working full-time in my home town, in 2002 and aged 50 that I had another
psychosis. I’d started the menopause and suddenly, within the space of a
week or two, had entered another universe or as I call it ‘went off the
head’. My sons were concerned and I went voluntarily into the local Fife
psychiatric acute ward.
It was a mixed ward which I was familiar with,
having supported others as patients. I saw the dormitory accommodation,
overlooked by male patients in single rooms, and decided to leave. I was
immediately detained for 72 hours under the mental health act and told that I
had to take the drugs. After 40 years experience of the psychiatric
system, although psychotic I knew that I had to do what I was told or I would
be ‘grabbed and jagged’. So I took the anti-psychotic, risperidone, and
was eventually discharged after a week.
As usual the anti-psychotic
depressed me but, with the cocktail of psychiatric drugs now available, I was
put on an anti-depressant, venlafaxine, which made me even more depressed and
flat. I took an overdose, something I had never done before, then was put
on maximum amounts of the same anti-D. The psychiatrist took me off
risperidone then prescribed lithium to ‘augment’ the anti-D. I was more
zombie-like than ever, couldn’t concentrate or make decisions or feel happy or
sad. At meetings with the psychiatrist I was told firstly that I was
bipolar then when I challenged this that I had schizo-affective disorder.
I didn’t believe any of it even though in a sedated state.
It was time for me to take
charge of my own mental health so I started doing some volunteering – as a
befriender on a mental health project, in a charity shop, at a support group
for people with mental health problems. To begin with it was very
difficult as I didn’t often feel like getting up in the morning or doing
tasks. The drugs slowed me down and mornings were particularly hard.
But I soon began to feel a bit better with the activities and meeting
people. I started to reduce the venlafaxine and soon was off it which
left the lithium. The psychiatrist said that I needed to be on it for
life. I didn’t believe him and started to reduce it by 200mgs a month, I
was on 800mgs. This was in early 2004 and within a few months I was off
all psychiatric drugs and feeling fine, getting back to myself.
Recovering from this last
episode was much harder than in the 70’s and 80’s, I think because of the cocktail
of psychiatric drugs now used and because of my past record of mental ill
health. When I had recovered the psychiatrist called it
‘remission’. As if my periods of mental ill health - 6 weeks in
psychoses, 4 years on psychiatric drugs – defined my life, rather than the 55
years spent in good mental health. I call it a ‘piece of nonsense’ and
now find myself an activist and campaigner in the Scottish mental health
world. There are areas of improvement in mental health services which is
good but it’s time for a transformation of the psychiatric system, so that
there are alternatives for people in distress, with no recourse to involuntary
or forced treatment.