It was 1997. The Spice Girls were top of the charts. My sister had left home for art school in the September. By Christmas she was checked into the psychiatric ward at our local hospital, heavily sedated. I was 17, she was 18. Little did I know that 20 years later I’d be experiencing something similar.
I remember my sister trying to plant the cut tulips I’d brought her in the flower beds of the hospital garden. Mum and me were desperately worried and had no idea what was going on. She was terribly thin, talking ten to the dozen about all sorts of things we didn’t understand, like being a princess – and she seemed very, very distressed.
The doctors said she was “a manic depressive” (now known as “bipolar disorder”). Apparently it was “genetic”. She was told this was the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Not that anyone could tell us what the right chemical balance was, let alone achieve it. That was the start of some tough years.
What I never expected was to find myself in my mid-thirties, also terribly thin, talking ten to the dozen about all sorts of bizarre things like being a messiah, and also very distressed.
I had married my partner of 8 years, decided to try for a family, fallen for someone else, left my husband, my home and my cat, split up with that someone else – and all within 12 months. I was all over the place. And heartbroken.
Falling in love blinded me – quite literally. The day after I left home, I briefly lost my sight and was overtaken by the most overwhelming joyful sense of wholeness, oneness, a sense that the soul connects and transcends. It was indescribably wonderful. Time stopped and physical space disappeared; I was floating. I felt I understood the universe – and everything was one, pure love. It brought me to my knees.
A few months later, with both relationships lost and in the midst of great grief, I crashed. I felt utterly alone and terrified: mind racing, full of gigantic ideas and dark thoughts. My mind was working so fast that I was very very thirsty all the time, my mouth was constantly bone dry, and I felt empty to my core, like no amount of food would fill me up. Most frightening, I felt I couldn’t control my thoughts. They were happening all at once on a runaway train hurtling down a mountain pulling me with them.
I was what doctors call ‘rapid cycling’ – semi-manic in the morning, ok around lunchtime, then non-stop crying every evening. It was immensely frightening. I felt out of control, alone, and that I couldn’t trust my own mind. I believed the whole universe was pointless, that I was effectively dead and that we should all kill ourselves.
The day I felt the worst I was on my way to work, terrifying thoughts racing, and I became very dizzy and disoriented. Kurt Cobain (my teenage idol) came into my head – and his suicide made total sense to me. I understood why he did it.
I scared myself so much by this I remember calling my sister confused and in tears and she told me to go straight to my GP. I don’t remember my journey to the surgery but I was lucid by the time I got there. The doctor offered me drugs which I reluctantly accepted, but never took, and I said I had a therapist – which, thank god, I did.
On one terrifying morning after this I called my sister and she told me that to control the racing thoughts I needed to focus only on the minute detail of the one thing in front of me. To do each small everyday thing with total focus. So I watched every bubble in the washing up bowl when I washed the dishes, looked at every branch of each tree I passed, at every leaf on the pavement. It was this that got me back. I’d never heard of “being present” before, but thanks to my sister, I discovered it. This was how I got through the worst.
Afterwards, when I was well again, I started to question. Did I have a brain “disorder”? Was I suddenly bipolar too? Having experienced both extremes, I just didn’t – couldn’t – believe that an inherent fault in my brain suddenly came alive and caused the frightening hellish experiences – for if it did, what “disorder” caused the heavenly one? I realised that it was my mind that had taken me to both heaven and to hell; I could create my own internal version of either.
I’d gone to see a therapist the day after I left my husband. My mum had always been an advocate of counselling – and thank god, because it meant I had no qualms about talking to a professional. And I started reading voraciously. Self-help books, books on marriage and relationships, divorce, self-esteem, the impact of childhood. My first therapist I saw on-and-off for around 9 months, then having turned a corner and feeling fine, I ended my sessions.
And things were good for 6 months. I was happy – working, dating, seeing my friends and making new ones, and I was reading and learning more and more about psychology and about myself. Then, I quite unexpectedly met someone special. When it didn’t work out it triggered a much less intense but still mildly-manic state in me – and I remember clearly thinking “No. This is not happening again” – and I went to find another therapist.
This time I let my emotions guide me. I didn’t go for an ‘expert’, or any old random therapist; I chose the person I wanted based on my very vague sense of what I needed … and chose the person who triggered an emotion in me.
I was scared to tell my therapist about these experiences, scared of being locked up in a hospital and of having it put on my medical records, a mark against me for eternity. I had terrifying nightmares about being locked in a padded cell, my therapist drugging me and giving me electric shock “treatment”. This made me very trapped at times – as if there was no way forward.
It took me 18 months of weekly sessions but I did manage to open up and tell my therapist about my crash, and what went on in my head (not all of which I’ve recounted here). I really wanted to know and sort out what was going on deep-down for me – but I didn’t fully trust him. Feeling able to trust, it turned out, was one of my most long-standing difficulties, going back to childhood.
Everything I was learning about myself and my past, and why relationships were triggering it, was a revelation. I started realising how my tumultuous childhood – characterised by grief and neglect, being left, losing my dad and the 8,000 mile journeys to the jungle to see him, constant goodbyes – had affected me deeply (and no doubt my sister, as we had the same parents and had experienced very similar traumas as kids).
I was so fascinated it eventually led me to training to be a psychotherapist myself. This in turn helped me fully trust the process.
Yet I learnt how our early years deeply affect us all. I was no different.
And I learnt how the brain is malleable. Experience, particularly our emotional experience, forms our “wiring” – and that wiring can be changed. I learnt how our mindset and personality is formed largely between 0-7 years old, when we form our “worldview”, adapt and find ways to cope and survive in our family and situation. It gave me such hope. Because what can be learnt can be unlearnt.
Through my professional training, I eventually understood my experiences on the edge of psychosis to be my mangled emotional memories – from the perspective of a very confused and scared small child. I found that it’s possible through therapy to de-confuse that small child, and grow into a fully present adult. Free from my past. That’s what I constantly work hard to do – and for sure it gets easier.
Now, I finally understand myself enough to be able to come out of the vacuum I’d lived in and create the kind of relationships I want, and to proactively prevent myself getting that way again. It’s taken a few years and was painful and scary at times, but I’m “cured”, if you like – although I don’t see mental and emotional experiences as ‘illnesses’. I think they are very normal.
When I hit rock-bottom, I was a slightly “toughened” (still working on that one!) semi-adult with nearly 20 years independent life experience. My sister, however, was an innocent teenager with zero adult experience to call on. And it was 1997. Mental health was unheard of, let alone spoken of. Therapy, self-care, healing weren’t even a “thing” back then.
But things are changing now. And I founded The Circle Line to keep changing them.
Through all this I learnt so much – the “breakdowns” became breakthroughs, losses became lessons – that I now wouldn’t rewrite it any other way. I’m oddly grateful. I discovered writing (which I love), choice, my creativity – one of my best ideas evolved into what is now The Circle Line, a self-development movement.
I think it’s time for a different conversation; I want to take therapy wide into the world and offer something to help others who want to be OK, who want to change their lives too. I believe we can heal ourselves. I believe we decide. That’s why I set up The Circle Line; it’s why we exist.
I guess life’s like the sea, or the weather. And we’re the boat. The changes are neither good or bad. But if we batten down our hatches and ignore the storm, like I did, we may manage to seal ourself off from the biggest waves for a while – but we’re also rudderless, and miss out on the sunshine. If we come out from below deck, feel the wind and ride the waves, look to the land behind us and the horizon ahead, eventually we can put up the sails.
For we chart our own course; we create our own life story.
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