Why now, and not then?

I wonder, at times, why I didn’t write more about my experiences of mental illness when it was hot off the press. Not necessarily when I was very unwell, but in the aftermath of early episodes, when I was young, and emotions were high. It would have been very different, and I might not like reading it now, but it would have told a story without analysis, or intellectual review, and it might have been worth it. I wasn’t even a psychiatrist then – I had a medical degree and a failed student psychiatry attachment under my belt, which hardly qualified me for much in the mental health field. But I was more of a blank slate. Now, I know better what my psychiatrist will often say or suggest – I didn’t then. I didn’t have any real knowledge of the limitations of psychiatry, either, and that was odd, looking back. When I talk to younger people, or read their comments on social media, they often have more hope than I do now. This may seem paradoxical, because there is also despair about services and care; but in some ways it makes sense, as it isn’t always easy to know what a psychiatrist can do, and if you don’t know, you hope. And when you have lost hope in yourself, you can crave it from others. I don’t think I know what to hope for any more.

My younger self was angry with her lot, and I’m curious about that now, too. I’d worked hard in my youth, done the right thing (despite some inner resentment), then mental illness struck, ruining my life. Now, looking back, of course I can see that it wasn’t that simple. However one’s life develops, there are always challenges and hardships along the way, and there was much in my life, growing up, that may have made me more vulnerable. But back then I decided my life had been easy, which made it possible to blame myself for everything. I have at times a rigid mind, I think, and no-one allowed me to be ill, certainly not me. But I would like to read now what I might have written then.

I wrote a little bit after my second child was born, when my foot had a more tentative step on the psychiatric ladder. But what I wrote seemed to horrify the consultant I was working for, when I showed him – he seemed taken aback by the anger expressed (which I didn’t think was particularly strong). At the time I was put off and embarrassed by this – now, I think – what on earth was wrong with being angry? It was the most natural thing. Surely, as a psychiatrist, he should have recognised this as a normal response to experiencing mental illness? Another senior psychiatrist to whom I showed it said – ‘wait until you’re old and grey. Don’t try to publish now.’ Again – why? I have since read this piece, and it’s not bad at all, so I can only assume that he thought it would damage my own prospects as a psychiatrist, which is puzzling.

A different person might have defied this advice, and I tried to, but not very hard. I anonymised my piece so much that it was unrecognisable, and it wasn’t accepted for publication. The whole anonymity thing is difficult, too. I didn’t feel any need to be anonymous, given that those who knew and worked with me were aware of my illness, but I was shaken by the assumption that writing of it would harm me. I feel, very strongly, that being pushed into anonymity is one of the strongest feeders of stigma – but I also think that being anonymous is a right, if preferred, given that life is not perfect.

There is never any necessity to talk or write about one’s personal life, including experiences of illness, and I would never suggest to others that they should do so, unless they wish to. People have said to me that I’m brave, but writing is important to me, and has helped me to understand things better, not just mental illness. I hope my writing can help others, but I am no hero, not in any way. I like writing. It’s brave to live with illness or misfortune of any kind, and to remain, if possible happy, and I don’t always manage that. Some people will write or talk about what they think and do, and others prefer to live and communicate in different ways. I find the necessity for continual reflection in medicine puzzling, and often rather contrived. My blog is my reflection, and serves me far better than any online form – perhaps I will just put a link to it on my appraisal forms, although this could be a little hard on my appraiser. I will recommend judicious reading!

I do wish that I’d started writing earlier, but I probably wasn’t ready. Maybe I am a writer of middle – and, hopefully, old – age. And when I think back to my youth, when I worked endless hours and staggered through pregnancies, both successful and unsuccessful, I think I am simply too hard on myself. I need time to write – I could never have written a novel by getting up at 5am every day – and I was also unwell a lot. Even now, my illness lies in wait for me much of the time, and yet often I barely notice it. I’ve become so used to it, to its literal ups and downs, and often I only see much later how it has limited me, how much time it takes from me. But now that I work less, and my children are grown and need me less, there is a bit of time left over. That is why I started writing – because I could. And there is little point in thinking how much more I could have done if I’d started earlier – the whole point is that I couldn’t.

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