Remembering life and illness

So many moments make up a life. Some are forgotten almost instantly, some fade with time, and some are written hard on memory. Some of these are happy, some painful and humiliating. Do we really remember them, or do they curl into something else, worn by memory itself? Do we talk about them, look at pictures and remember a version, acceptable to ourselves? Is there a need to remember the unhappy times, or should we let them go?

I have many memories, most of which hang, like separate moments, on the line of my life. Some of these are clear and coloured – the day of my wedding is green and blue and bright – and some are duller and more disorganised. I cannot make out their colours or their edges, and they feel tentative and uncertain. There are some moments that I want to remember, moments on which memory will hover and linger; and then there are other moments, lost and rejected by memory.

There are times, often trivial, scattered through any life that can seem strangely significant, sometimes for obvious reasons, some less so. I remember one, seemingly unimportant, standing in a garden in a hot summer, aged about ten, when I said to myself – This is a moment that I will not forget. I am a child. I will never be exactly this age again. I will always be older. And another, much earlier, when I was very young, and I saw my mother with a new haircut (it never really changed again), and I thought with sudden surprise, even fear – Is that really my mother? Or is it someone else?  What other moments have there been? The birth of my children. My first admission to a psychiatric hospital. Even getting my first tattoo. There are others that ought to be remembered but have vanished entirely – the moment that I got married. Passing my finals. My daughter’s beautiful little face when I picked her up from nursery when she was very small. I have no idea why I remember some, and not others. 

At the end of my childhood, I well remember the bright happiness of getting into medical school, and I remember the day when I arrived there, full of hope. Then there was the shock of what we had to learn, the difficulty and the sudden anonymity. It was totally unexpected; nothing had taken me beyond the starting point. Later there was the strangeness of the hospital wards and the patients, the harshness of some senior consultants, and a lack of any real meaning of life as a student. Later I wanted to be a psychiatrist, and hoped that I might be able to do this. Medical school was harsh, though, and crushed hopes. 

I remember meeting my husband in curious circumstances – or rather I remember the curious circumstances, but not him, not then. But later there were many more moments, all with him. There was the sea in the Isle of Wight, and in Cornwall. The clear air of autumns in Edinburgh. Then there was the brightness of Mexico, and my love and hatred of his long love affair with travelling. 

There was the joy and surprise of becoming a doctor after those hard years in medical school, and then the lingering, bruising shock of the work. There were long days and nights, alone and fearful, waiting to be called, the bleep a constant and hated companion. There was terrible fatigue and stomach-churning anxiety. Then there was the great unmatched happiness of coming home after a whole weekend on call. I didn’t love medicine, not then, but neither did I hate it. I worked; I did my best.

Later there were different moments, no longer coherent, or even certain. What happens to a young doctor who does not do what is expected of her, who is diagnosed with mental illness, one who wanted to be a psychiatrist herself? What do people say to her, and think of her? What happens to memories interrupted by disordered moods and thoughts and psychiatric treatments? There is a clear path for doctors, from medical school to success, with no place for illness, certainly not for mental illness. But some cannot follow this path, and drift off into the sidings, some are cruelly derailed. There are moments in life that are easily forgotten, and other moments that might be better forgotten. There is shame and sadness, and there are feelings that will never go away. There is a moment that hangs there for me, a voice saying – You have a 50% chance of ever getting back to work – and, to me, of ever getting back to life – and there is despair.

I remember the looks of pity in the eyes of those who knew me, especially in the eyes of my husband. There was his care of me, when I wanted love. What is pity but a reminder of lost hopes, or a glance over the shoulder at something that will never be returned? I remember, too, the false hopes of improvement, the anguish and the fear. And I remember the ever-diminished expectations of what I would become, and of what my life would be. I remember anger and bitterness, but not resignation.

I remember sitting in a grey psychiatric ward, where I was a patient, and where nothing happened; I was no longer a doctor, nor a student, as I had once been. The only view was a large stone wall, insurmountable but less so than my situation. I had no real idea why I was there, but there was nowhere that I wanted to go and nowhere that I wanted to be. I saw that wall and saw no way out of my life. If I didn’t know why I was there, how could I ever get out? How could I become the person that I once was, but whom I could no longer remember? And this person that I had become would never leave me. 

Another day, on that same ward, when I was sitting doing nothing, I saw some visiting doctors, people who had been in my year at medical school. I saw sudden surprise and more pity, and most of all embarrassment, and they hurried on quickly, eyes turning to the side, without greeting me. I felt then the bitterest shame at my continuing existence and wanted only not to be myself. Each bit of me, my voice, my skin, my space, was all repulsive to me. The realisation that I could not leave myself, that I must suffer every long moment there, was something that I could hardly bear.

I had wanted to be a psychiatrist, but I had no idea about mental illness, none at all. I had never understood it. I had no idea that this could happen to me, and no idea whether I could ever recover. I had no idea whether I even wanted to recover if it was to become this shadow of what I had been.

There were other, sadder moments that I can hardly bear to think of. Guilt and sorrow are unhappy bedfellows for a mother.

Yet, despite all this, I have been lucky through much of my life, luckier than many people. I know this now that I can look back, but a story is always easier when you know the ending. It is far less so when the early chapters hint at tragedy, and the rest is hidden. When I look back now I see a series of all those moments, held together by an uncertain narrative, one that is my story. They no longer hang together in a neat row; some are ragged, and some are quite gone. As a teenager moving into adulthood I would sometimes look back at my short life and see a clear timeline, one that bent back downwards into my birth. I couldn’t see where that line would go in future; nor could I know that events would shimmer or fade, and take on a different hue, that of both distance and hindsight. There is no certainty, but I can still tell my story, as I remember it now. Memory, or its lack, has long been a reason for me not to do so. But as I get older, I realise how frail and elusive memory is. Mine has had more of a battering than some, but what I do remember belongs to me.

Mine is not a story of a battle with mental illness, nor a battle with anything else. People do not generally choose their misfortunes and should not be required to fight them. It is just a story about what happened.

2 thoughts on “Remembering life and illness

  1. So painfully honest and eloquent. Thank you for sharing this part of your story. I look forward to reading more.

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