Tag Archives: manic depression

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.

 

 

 

 

Passion

16 Mar

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cuddle up. Like a big hand shake – my cuddles tend to be bear-like and slightly asphyxiating. A cuddle is an essential part of the day as far as I’m concerned. My wife likes to add a hard squeeze – which, technically, makes her version of a cuddle a ‘cwtch‘ (fair play, the Welsh do much better cuddles than the insipid English).

Carpenters tend to develop a good grip and strong arms over many years of repetitive cutting, lifting, sanding, sawing and carving – actions which make for a  wiry strength. Because these activities are cyclical and repetitive (like breathing), they are meditative too. One can lose oneself and find a kind of tranquility.

henk carving

Thousands of years ago in China (long before before the birth of Christianity) a thinker distilled his thoughts in the spare and beautiful text we now call the Tao the Ching.  Lao Tzu, the author  老子  means ‘Old Master’ no-one knows his real name. The oldest excavated texts of date back to 4th century BC and are written on ancient bamboo silk. These writings are the font of tranquility.

The act of writing, to me is like carving – repeatedly searching for the right shape of a word or sentence; the right syntax, a pithy word association, a metaphor and a mood – and is, in my view, a craft like woodwork.

Craft requires discipline within tightly constrained boundaries, thus the Japanese Haiku poetry form of 5,7,5 syllables really appeals to me when I try to distil my meaning:

 

Like a breath, the Tao –

prayer beads on silk

joined by air, all of us string

HL 9/3/16

 

Constraint is the ‘grain’ of poetry, and in Haiku the grain is very tight – a bit like the timber from holly. The turned footboard pillars of this four poster bed I made are turned from a very old holly timber, as tough as old boots. The pillars represent the Celtic heroes Cuchullian and Emer – meant as inspiration for the bed’s new owners – who, like all our heroes are young and vital.

The frame of ‘Boudicca’ is made from Yew and spalted Ash and it is, I hope, a chariot fit for royalty.

When I make things in wood, I create from a ‘beast within’, a vital energy closely linked to the state of my mind.

Manic depression can be very exhausting – not least for the sufferer’s friends and family – it is not a tame condition. Like riding a flying chariot on axles of holly (as Boudicca did when she smashed the 9th Legion at Camulodunum in AD 60) rage and despair are separated by a heart beat. This is what fuels the ‘beast within’.

There is, however, an emollient more effective than Lithium – it is the Welsh cwtch. For it is from this cwtch that the boiling inner turmoil abates, the beast can purr and the poetry can flow.

Lao Tzu:

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu, Dao te Ching

The Romans never subdued the Welsh, and if 4.5 thousand hardened Zulu Impi led by the redoubtable Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande couldn’t manage it at Rorke’s Drift then no-one is going to, ever.

The Welsh anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – will release the beast within, for the name of the Beast is Passion.

Lift

7 Feb

Henk and Polly

(Henk and Polly 1986)

Old memories float back like model aeroplanes, flown in friendship years ago.  At the core of good therapeutic practice lies the skill of Listening. When I came out of the psychiatric hospital I had to learn to do this. I have concluded that ‘listening’ is one of the 3 ‘L’s’ of good mental health in my case; the other ‘L’s” of the trinity are Love and Lithium. They ring-fence the hell of manic depression.

One cannot ignore this diagnosis, nor be complacent, because it brings out the ‘feral‘ in me and the ‘fear‘ in you.

It takes real bottle to stand up to my kind of crazy, and calm the wild beast. My wife has it – she picked up the shards and helped me glue them back together with love. My shrink had it, he helped me with honesty, respite and Priadel – “It may screw up your thyroid, your kidneys and your liver and make you feel nauseous, take away some of your talents even, but you will be able to function in polite society” – Lithium. Three L’s for liberation from the black dog of suicidal despair to the vaulting madness of hypomania and hubris…. in one day, every day.

Speaking of bottle, I met Musaid Iqbal, when I was a postdoctoral research assistant in the Zoology Department of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was completing his Ph.D. on the ecology of the Cheer Pheasant (Catreus wallichii).

“I was hiking with my college mates in the Himalayas crossing the Pir Panjal range at about 17,000 feet (which separates the Valley of Kashmir from the Indian Plains). We were not carrying any maps – or food – and were going by whatever the occasional shepherd that we ran into would tell us or feed us. We ended falling down a scree slope which  in its brush had red bee nests. The bees attacked  some of us as we were trying to latch on to anything that we could grab going down! Luckily, the slope ended on a slight embankment which was helpful, but the steepness of the mountainsides above and below dictated that we had to cross the very cold and icy mountain stream that had very slippery, algae-covered boulders strewn about in its bed. I think I finally crossed it after many half attempts and falls and losing hold of the make-shift rope made out of ruck-sack straps. The clapping and exhortations from my mates were the only things that kept me going.”
Musaid revealed that he was not confident in water as a result of this incident in one of our common room chats in the Zoology Department at the University of Newcastle-u-Tyne.
I persuaded him that I thought I could help him to overcome his hydrophobia, as I had done with my daughter, Polly in our local swimming pool in Jesmond.

My friend and I would sit in the shallow end of the pool and chat. He gradually got used to the noise, the smell of chlorine and the splashing, and he felt ok because the bottom, the side rail and his friend were never far away. In his own time I got him to wet his face as if washing, and eventually I gave him a pair of swimming goggles. When he got used to the feel of these we progressed to full face immersion, and then to lifting his feet of the bottom of the pool and …floating!

After that, swimming was just a matter of flapping the sticky out bits, because he realised he was in control of the element that had nearly killed him all those years ago, and not at its mercy.

I received an email from Musaid after my mother passed away. In my grief he had thrown a rope made from his rucksack straps of memory into the icy torrent of my unbidden emotions. He had listened all those years ago.

“I found time today to visit your blog, and read the sad news about your mother’s death. I am sorry to learn about her passing away, but I was instantly reminded of bits of conversations I had with you whilst in Newcastle – going to the pool, or in the tea room in Ridley Building, or at other times – in a few of which you mentioned your mother. I remember you told me that when you demanded a toy once, she challenged you to build your own, and I also remember what she told you about what your money would be used for if you bought stuff at Marks and Spencers!”

johnnysevencatalog

The toy I had demanded was a ‘Johnny Seven‘ rifle. The ‘must have multi-functional toy rifle 1964 that every other boy in Wolds Rise, Matlock and the UK in general, seemed to me to possess (in the days when the Vietnam War was in the news these toys and war games in general were a preoccupation with boys). My mam could not afford much in those days as a single parent. She just said “Here, make your own!” handing me some Balsa wood. Genius.

Balsa wood grows in South America. Ochroma pyramidal is fast growing and consequently very light (like our willow) and, yet immensely strong. The timber can be cross cut with a sharp knife with great accuracy and is the favoured material of aero modellers everywhere, it is also spectacularly easy to make boats with it as it floats as well as cork.

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I believe my mother was given the Balsa wood by a family friend and neighbour – Mike Green pictured above in 1955 with his own design ‘Heatwave’ – a one-time world champion balsa wood maestro and legendary aero-modeller of the 1950’s and beyond. He also had a wickedly funny and mordant sense of humour.

Thanks to my mother’s wisdom, an new model maker and woodworker was created, the third world war was averted and Marks and Spencer impoverished!

Thanks to Musaid’s friendship my spirit has been given Lift, like the scores of aeroplanes I built in my youth. Perhaps all kids should be given Balsa, then fewer guns and more aeroplanes would be made so that they could understand lift(sic) and not death.

Hat

8 Apr

Fedora

I have always had a penchant for a good hat.

My most spectacular purchase was from a lovely speciality hat shop in Madrid. I was travelling with the Senior and U16 rugby teams of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne for a tour of Spain in 1999 and we were due to meet a local club for festivities and ritual blood letting. I felt I could do with a bonnet to inspire my young charges (a rather talented U 16 squad). There in the window of La Favorita, Plaza Major, in the centre of the main display window was a magnificent Borsalino, Fedora. “I’m going in,” I decided “and if it fits I’m having it, stuff the cost”.

For those of you that know, Borsalino, is the name of the finest hat maker in Italy. Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Errol Flynn all sported the brand at rakish angles in many famous films. It is the hat of peacocks, mountebanks and gangsters. It is my kind of hat.

Well I went in and asked in poor Spanish if I might try on the magnificent head piece. The young senorita obliged by fishing it out of the window and handing it to me with a flourish. I was wearing a rather natty linen two piece suit, and as the hat settled, nay caressed my head, I was in sartorial heaven. The senorita beamed at my reflection in the mirror. “Yo lo llevaré (I’ll take it)!” I pronounced. I paid  with a flourish reflecting on the fact that I had just blown a month’s salary on a mere hat. Profligate.

The next day at half time during a rather one sided rugby match I was busy fielding moans from the U 16 players who were losing heavily against a very hirsute and manly opposition:

“Sir, it’s just not fair, they’ve got 17 players on the pitch!”

“They’re MEN sir!”

“Sir, the ref is totally biased and keeps giving his side penalties”

“Sir, we’re going to lose”

….and so on, and so forth.

I nodded sagely in my new hat and said “What do you notice about the ref lads?”

“He’s biased!”, “he’s blind!”…..

“Come on lads, be specific”

“He’s a fat bastard sir!” said Matthew Thomas – the hooker

“Correct ‘Hom. What do we know about fat bastards?”

‘Hom, “They don’t like running about sir!”

“Brilliant, so what you are going to do is ‘exhaust the ref’. Make sure you move the ball around the field and play as far away from him as you can, even if it means running backwards. When he is completely knackered, then you can play rugby. I’ll have a wee chat with him about rule interpretation right now”

“Yes Sir!” they all chimed

I strolled over to the club chairman (an ex-patriot Englishman) and asked if it would be ‘ok’ to meet the ref. He areed and we sauntered over to the centre spot in full view, but out of earshot of the partisan crowd (who jeered my hat). I asked the chairman to translate for us:

Me “Could you ask Bluto here if he is clinically blind or just a fat cheating bastard?”

Chairman – colouring up slightly, addressed the ref. “Por favor, etc, etc, blah blah blah ???”

Bluto, and I translate “Tell this fucker to take his hat off my pitch and go and play with the fairies”

Me “Well Senor Fat Boy, if you don’t start refereeing the match properly – Voy a pulverizar a usted. Entender? (I’m going to pulverize you, understand?)

Bluto….laughs. Chairman laughs nervously. I slap Bluto on the back. Hard. I walk off.

The lads used the new strategy to good effect before scoring 8 tries in the second half and thrashing the opposition.

I now know that I was probably having one of my manic mood swings during this period. Something which gave me quite an edge as a teacher, but marred my private life with profound periods of depression. Spending stupid amounts of money was another clue.

Hatters often went mad in the 19th century due to the constant exposure to Mercury salts used in curing the fine pelts used to make fine hats. They developed mood swings, and a behaved as if afflicted by the manic depression I live with.

Nevertheless, I’m sure it was the Borsalino, that inspired me and the lads on the day. Like the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland, I was able to steal (half) time. In the story The Hatter was punished by being perpetually forced to live at 6.00 pm at a tea party. Coincidentally I now inhabit a perpetual tea party with my wife Clare, having opened a Tea Shop called Tea with Percie in Sheffield. 557 Abbeydale Road, S7 1TR tel: 0114 327 0020

Mind you, I reckon I can rock a boater too

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Stuff

30 Mar

In the realm of Bonkers, the art of Victorian Taxidermy is King. I had the serene pleasure of stumbling into Warwick Museum this weekend whilst attending my niece’s wedding. As I stepped inside the old museum in the market square I was greeted by a glass case containing two stuffed Choughs, examining a beetle with very beady eye.

Just as the Victorians were fascinated by the natural world and wanted literally to own bits of it, preserved for posterity in their parlours, so we too collect trinkets. Today’s stuff is kept as digital files and posted on Facebook. It’s the same schtick: “Hey look! I found this amazing thing, shot it (with a gun/Victorians, iPhone/us) and ‘stuffed’ it – displayed it in an amusing pose for you to look at and admire.

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Peter Spicer, master taxidermist of Leamington Spa, stuffed this bear and rendered him in the anthropomorphic pose of a Roman Emperor. “Friends, Romans, Countrymen – lend me your bears”. Appropriate for Shakespeare’s county I feel and a moth eaten literal rendering of the County’s badge. Motto ‘Non sanz droict’  – literally – ‘Not without right’. What right had anyone to shoot and stuff this bruin, let alone chain him to a post and set the dogs on him?

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This distinctly anorexic Badger begs the topical question, “TB or not TB?”

And the fox with ear mange chasing the partridge seems a reluctant Rotten Reynard.

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My Bipolar mind is always stuffed with crazy unconnected images, sounds and ideas – such is the nature of manic depression. Natural History Museums are balm to this unquiet mind, because to see the physical expression of cultural obsession displayed with such rigour is somehow deeply soothing to me. One person’s Bonkers, is another person’s serene tranquility. Thank you Peter Spicer for this daft treasury, if only I could skin, stuff and pose the madness in my head. The quietness of curation, bliss.

A final absurdity in this little chocolate box of a museum was the magnificent skeleton of an extinct Irish Elk. A cracking display mounted so that it faces out of an obscure museum side window. Visitors to the gallery are greeted by an extinct deer’s arse and not the seven foot span antlers which so fascinated Charles Darwin.

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Darwin was able to come up with a reason for growing these magnificent antlers and shedding them annually – sexual display and mate acquisition. There is no evolutionary reason for manic depression that I can deduce – only the exhaust fumes of an unquiet mind.

Too much stuffing? Give me taxidermy, give me curation, give me peace of mind.