People’s lives can be devastated by poor mental health. They may be in touch with mental health services and they may not. In either case peoples experiences show us that acknowledging one’s spiritual self can be a force for change/good, aiding recovery from debilitating and milder distress. Here a user of Oldham services and a member of Manchester’s Friend’s Meeting House, shares her experience. We would like to hear of your journey good or bad and how you have coped. If you would like to share your story with fellow service users MUN will publish your story for the benefit of all. We thank Wendy for kindly allowing us to share her story. Thanks Wendy. Contact: www.manchesterusersnetwork.org.uk .
A DANCING STAR
It may seem strange to entitle a piece of writing about mental illness in such a positive way but I hope that my exploration of my life since my mid twenties and the bouts of serious mental illness which have played a huge role in shaping this life will make clear my choice of title. Friedrich Nietzsche once said ‘One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star’ and I first came across this quotation in a small book of inspirations to guide and heal given to me by David Harris who many of you may remember. David had had his own trials and played a large part in nurturing my blossoming spirituality when I first came to Quakers in my early thirties. I am prompted to write this article by the Mental Health Study Day which was held recently at Central Manchester Meeting House. The study day was a wonderful opportunity for some of us who have experienced mental ill health (and I am sure there are many more) to share some of our experience of and opinions about mental health and how, in our meetings, we can better help one another when we are in need of support so that we can live through our episodes of illness and distress whilst minimising the damage that can be done to our lives and to the lives of those around us.
Several of us are tentatively seeking to take forward further exploration of how we behave towards mental ill health in our meetings and how we can perhaps offer support to each other in a more creative and confident way than we are currently able to.
Walking alongside mental ill health or distress can be very challenging as not only can changed behaviour make it difficult to understand but the awareness that we all teeter at the edge of mental ill health from time to time can seem too real when faced with trying to be with someone who is currently having to cope with it.
Living with mental ill health takes courage not only from the person experiencing it but also from anyone trying to offer friendship and support. There are no definitive answers to the question ‘what should I do?’ I guess this is where faith comes in and ‘holding in the light’.
Obviously practical help like a cooked meal, help with shopping, noticing if someone is not looking after themselves are all important but ‘being with’ can be just as helpful unless the person is too frightened to share space with you and only certain individuals will do to provide peace at that time. At times like this making sure that the person is safe is essential and we are looking, in our group, at how information as to who can best be contacted both within our meetings and within health and social services can be made more readily available as a meeting (maybe Overseers) resource.
I particularly have an interest in helping to make it more possible to talk about mental illness and distress and to make it more possible to name it so that those who experience it don’t also have the double stress of needing to pretend as well as trying to make sense of their reality. I speak as having experienced episodes of severe depression since my mid twenties. These often lasted for months and could leave me eating very little, being unable to work and being totally lacking in energy both physical and mental. I have left jobs, moved cities, left relationships and once even had to sell a house because I had to move back in with my parents for a while at the age of twenty nine. Depression isn’t sadness; it is ravaging of lives and relationships, careers, hopes and dreams.
When I was twenty nine-ish I admitted myself to the mental hospital in Durham where I was at that time working at the university but, unfortunately, only got worse whilst there. My depression had developed into what I now know was a psychotic episode and looking back now I see this experience as a huge turning point in my life.
The psychosis was terrifying and I can still access those memories of a changed way of thinking and being which seemed real at the time but actually were all part of my internal chaos. Thankfully my depressions have never again sunk to quite those depths and I don’t live in fear of a recurrence. Such a fear would be extremely debilitating and I am sure there will be those who do live with this fear sapping their energy and confidence.
Whilst recovering from this episode I discovered my emerging spirituality and have been on a spiritual path ever since. The main thing which awakened me in such a way was the feeling that something had helped me and cared for me and prevented me from jumping from the bridges I would seek out at that time. Every time I got close to the edge a real feeling of peace came over me and I then stepped back to safety. This happened many, many times and I think, eventually, that I must have got tired of trying. I guess God (and I am only recently becoming more comfortable with that word) sort of both wore me down and held me up at the time until it was obvious that living was the only way forward and that I needed to go through what I was experiencing because it was part of my life.
Since my early thirties I have regularly attended Quaker Meetings and became a member of the Society of Friends several years ago. I met my husband, James, at Central Manchester Meeting and we married there when our daughter, Rebecca, was around eighteen months old. I first decided to attend Quaker Meetings as I needed to find somewhere I could explore whatever it was that kept me alive when I was at rock bottom.
I continue to attend Quaker Meetings as I constantly find there challenge, support, peace and others on a similar path of questioning. My M.S. Matters magazine just popped through the letter box as though to say ‘don’t forget me!’ Since my mid twenties I have also had symptoms of M.S and was diagnosed when I was thirty two. That was a short sentence but contained years of not knowing and wondering. To this day no one can tell me whether my depressions have been partly physically caused by my M.S. but it is a possibility. I used to be unwilling to mention my M.S. but, thankfully, now I can talk about it freely and not worry about the effect it may have on someone else – that is for them to cope with not me.
I find that people are generally kind and helpful once they know even if they don’t understand much about it. In recent years I have had a long bought of depression during which I left my paid work as a counsellor in G.P. surgeries in Rochdale where I had worked for nine years. Fortunately around two years ago I was referred to a psychiatrist who specialises in patients with long term physical illnesses and emotional/mental difficulties.
Dr. Burlinson is wonderful and stayed with me through months of trying different anti-depressants and also an anti-epileptic. These were months fraught with horrid side effects as my body strained to adapt to the drugs.
My depression became a little less dire but life was still not much of a life. Dr. Burlinson suggested lithium as a possibility and gave me information and a month to think about it. I had to have an e.c.g. and blood test and then I saw Dr. Burlinson again and told her that I wanted to give lithium a go. She was pleased and arranged for the blood tests I would need so that we could get to a therapeutic dose which is not necessarily high but has to be within certain limits which are actually very tiny. Within a month I started to feel better and have continued on lithium and small doses of two anti-depressants ever since.
I have had no side effects with lithium and feel really well in myself. Lithium is an old drug and not everyone can take it but for me it has been a life saver. Dr. Burlinson also has given me a diagnosis of Bipolar Two which is a version of bipolar where you get mainly lows and very rare shallow highs. So – I now have two diagnoses of illnesses which mostly baffle people and sometimes frighten them.
The thing is that they are just facts and things which I live with. I can’t explain them quickly and rarely try and there is still plenty that I and the medical establishment don’t know about them so the not knowing of Meister Eckhart speaks to me in a very real way.
The ‘Dancing Star’ inside me now works as a voluntary chaplaincy visitor on Mondays in the gynae and then the stroke rehabilitation wards in Oldham Hospital. I love my voluntary work and hear the most amazing life stories. Many of the patients don’t know what is likely to happen to them next so we have much in common. I now receive Disability Living Allowance and have a free bus pass so feel that I have well and truly entered the world of the disabled. I find this far preferable to being half in, half out of the disabled/able bodied world.
My ‘Dancing Star’ has also taken to crochet groups with a vengeance and I have made many friends in this way. My story is of much not knowing but also of finding constancy in the settled relationship of my married life and being a mother which is upheld by my spiritual life, my lithium, my chaplaincy work and my considerable love of things woolly and creating with different yarns.
I guess that just about explains how I see furthering our mental well being. Relationships are of the utmost importance to us all in one way or another. A sense of being useful and being needed is of paramount importance to many of us. Medical intervention is sometimes needed. Being able to be creative in some way is also important whether it be making cakes, knitting, mending cars, gardening, writing, painting, dancing – the list is endless. Probably it is worth remembering that chaos is a medium for change and so can be a good thing. I can no longer dance on the dance floor but I dance inside. So go out today and “NURTURE YOUR DANCING STAR”.
Wendy Fitton (2012) Central Manchester Quaker Meeting