Friday, 17 January 2014


I've had to live with mental health issues most of my adult life. The good news is, the experience can be a positive one and put to good use.

Everyone has a bad day, right? For those of us who’ve lived with mental health concerns for a lifetime, our bad days take some beating. I had a Bad Day on Wednesday, which consisted of lying awake in a depressed state until 2 in the afternoon, dragging myself out of the house to look at the internet for 3 hours in the library before dragging myself back home. I couldn’t be bothered to cook and made do with the cholesterol busters of a bacon sandwich and a bag of chips. I was back in bed with a Kate Atkinson by 8.30 (and no, that’s not a euphemism).

Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Who in their right mind (if you’ll pardon the pun, but I think I’m qualified to make it) would waste a day like that? In the past I've done worse, like sleeping the whole day around until the next morning. With my rational head on and having spent all of Thursday very productively, only a day later such behaviour seems absurd, but when you're in the thick of a depressive funk it's hard to get out of unless you really force yourself; also, the level of chemicals in your brain that improve your mood are at their lowest first thing in the morning, so shaking off a black mood is doubly hard. Why are some people affected like this and some not?

(Image: Bill Brenner)
It depends who you ask. Some medical practitioners will tell you that, at its root, depression is down to an imbalance of chemicals in the brain – some unfortunates have it and some don’t; others medicos will tell you that it’s nurture that affects the nature. I can only speak from my experience, and I’ve been through the mental health mill from 30 onwards: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, one-to-one therapy, group therapy, art therapy... I’ve tried them all and I'm sure they've all helped to some degree. All I can say is, that before I was diagnosed as bipolar in 2009, I’d spend six months, almost to the day, on a high – though not so high I thought I could fly, admittedly – and the next six months so down I could barely raise a smile, let alone my legs to get out of bed. All this was regardless of the kind of therapy and medication I was having or on.

From 2009 I’ve been stable for the most part thanks to the right combination of industrial strength drugs though, as I’ve noted above, the Bad Days can still sometimes seep through the chemical cosh. At the moment that’s not surprising, as I’ve been unemployed for over twelve months, and sometimes the battle to find work and make ends meet can just floor you for the whole day. This is going to sound ridiculously simple, but I've found the thing that's always worked for me in beating off depression is forcing myself to get up, feed the cats and make some breakfast. Once I've done that, I'm into the rhythm of the day and can usually get on with things and, for me, doing something creative like writing helps too. Sounds easy, but it isn't always.

At least now the depression lasts for a day rather than six continuous months. For all the trashing that the NHS gets, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be around now – the goodwill of friends and relations aside – if it hadn’t been for the NHS’s overworked and criminally underfunded and underrated mental health services. They supplied everything from respite care to home visits when I was really ill and, although my condition has taken several years to diagnose, eventually they got me on the right medication. I’ll probably have to stay on it for the rest of my life, but that's preferable to the alternative.

There’s a certain gallows humour to my personal situation at the moment, as I’m currently part of two stigmatised minorities, the mentally ill and the unemployed. The first is – still – almost taboo in today’s Britain (unless you happen to be a headline-grabbing micro-celebrity, apparently) and the second is the subject of demonising in the media. I’m not the stereotype of either minority, and though of course I don’t like being out of work, I can stand up and say I’m not ashamed of my mental history: despite – or because of – the crippling downers, I know how to cope and can lead a normal life and be creative, productive and sociable, and that takes strength. There will always be Bad Days and I'm resigned to always having them. But as I managed to survive all of last year on Job Seeker’s Allowance and be reasonably productive in terms of writing, helped out with events at the British Film Institute and stayed socially active, I think I’m almost at the point where me and my dark shadow have finally come to terms with each other.

(Image: MIND)
Which is why, as the search for the Holy Grail of permanent employment continues, I’ve decided to give something back. Firstly, I hope this blog does something, if only in a small way, for people who are dealing with mental health problems: I found the best thing was knowing I wasn't alone, and listening to people who'd been through, and survived, similar experiences. Secondly, I went for an interview with the MIND charity on Thursday for their Befriending service. In a nutshell, after you’ve been vetted and trained, this means committing and hour or so a week for six months to helping one of the ‘service users’ (terrible Cameron-speak phrase, that, but anyway...) who is starting out on the road to recovery and help them to rebuild their confidence, relearn life skills and re-socialise. MIND were very good to me when I wasn’t well and, interestingly, the volunteer Befriender who interviewed me had dealt with her own mental health issues in the past, as have a lot of the others. If you’re one of the ill-now-recovered, there seems to be a general consensus to help bring someone back from a bad place, and I’m all for that.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Befriending goes. I’m sure it won’t be easy some of the time, but as something that couldn't be more different from the media where I usually work, it’ll be intriguing to see how it changes my perspective on life, the universe and everything. The best thing, though, is knowing that I'll be helping someone's quality of life improve.

Despite my sarcastic comment about certain publicity-seeking celebrities above, Stephen Fry, bipolar himself, and Ruby Wax, who suffers from depression, have done a lot of good work in promoting awareness of mental illness and raising funds for MIND. The organisation is always on the look-out for voluntary workers, so if you fancy giving it a go, please take a look at the website:

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