It’s the summer of 2002. I’m 41 years old. I’m hiding in a foetal position under a bed in a small room in the accident and emergency department at the Royal London Hospital. There’s a doctor present and a close friend is there too. The doctor is trying to talk to me. My friend is observing the situation, bemused. How did it come to this?
I’d asked my friend to take me to hospital, a short walk from where we live, because I had reached a point where I no longer felt safe. I’d been having suicidal thoughts for some time and the urge to act on them had grown stronger. It had become a compelling and increasingly irresistible option.
There were lots of reasons why I wouldn’t make that fatal choice. I lived in a large house in central London which I co-owned. I had an interesting job in research at a nearby university. I served on the local council where I chaired the majority group. Above all, I had plenty of friends. Good friends. Supportive friends. People who cared.
But social and material benefits aside, things were a mess. The root of it was relational and it went back a long way. And despite a strong and close social network I felt alone in the world. It wasn’t that I thought my friends didn’t care. I had just stopped thinking about them at all. There was a huge disconnect. I was completely self-absorbed. Their voices weren’t getting through. Such can be the nature of acute mental illness.
That night I’m admitted to a decaying psychiatric hospital called St Clement’s in nearby Mile End, originally built as a Victorian workhouse and now thankfully gone. It’s a truly dreadful place, but it’s safe (sort of). I’m locked in. But as I’m soon to discover, if it was hard to get into hospital, it would be harder still to get out. A long, chaotic summer ensues. It’s the first of two short stays in the hospital, each of a few weeks.
I was put on quite a lot of medication but offered no therapeutic intervention. Eventually at the end of my second stay (I was initially discharged but couldn’t cope and asked to be readmitted) I was offered two assessment appointments with a psychotherapist. He showed a lot of empathy and somehow I wangled a third appointment. But the result of his assessment was that there was nothing I could be offered on the NHS apart from medication.
A month or so later in the autumn I wake up to find myself in hospital again, this time in Edinburgh which I’ve been visiting. I’m being violently sick having attempted suicide by taking 48 paracetamol tablets. I know how many there were because I spent several hours walking round the city taking them one by one, at one point bumping into someone I know outside Harvey Nicholls who was blissfully unaware of what was happening.
When I woke up I wasn’t sure where I was and then gradually I became aware that all the other patients in the ward had attempted to take their own lives. The prevailing atmosphere wasn’t particularly sympathetic. An unenviable place to work, but I had a sense that what we’d done was regarded as a nuisance.
I stayed in the hospital for a couple of days. Eventually I managed to get hold of some friends who lived in Edinburgh and they came to collect me to put me on a train back to London. When I got back to London my suicide attempt received a perhaps understandably mixed reaction. Some compassion, some incredulity and some hostility.
It proved to be a turning point. I had reached a position where things couldn’t get any worse and the way out I’d obsessed about for months hadn’t come off. I realised that I was going to have to get on with it. It wasn’t a volte face transformation, more a resignation that I had to resume the business of life.
I had one more appointment with the consultant who had prescribed the course of medication. She appeared more sympathetic than she had done previously. But the overwhelming feeling I had when I left the appointment was that I’d been admonished. She’d asked me to promise I wouldn’t try it again. I think I sort of agreed to get out of the encounter unscathed. But it was a ludicrous, if well intentioned, request. I was still very ill.
I stopped taking the medication of my own accord, abandoned any prospect of getting help from services and went it alone. But it wasn’t really a decision, more a place I found myself. Within a few months I had moved to Edinburgh after more than 20 years in London. I had to leave behind the emotional noise I’d inhabited and be by myself, for a while at least.
Recovery took a few years. It was a trudge, not a revelation. I did it with amazing support from friends whose voices had gradually got through. It wasn’t easy for them. I knew that I’d tested their patience. Despite the grind, I did have the odd light bulb moment. One memorable one came around four years later when I realised one day that I felt something I could call happy.
I could finally see what had happened with a level of perspective that had been absent at the time. Therein had lain the rub.
The purpose of this piece is not woe is me. I’m not telling the story to say how hard my life has been. I’m not writing it full of angst. I’m more than well aware that I’m privileged and very blessed. The ‘assets ‘ I had at the time when my life plunged into turmoil that summer more than a decade ago served me well. They helped me to create a story of recovery which was scarcely available to most of those I encountered in St Clement’s.
The reasons I ended up in that place are complicated and perhaps the subject for another piece. When the writer William McIlvanney said in a documentary recently that he wrote not so much for publication but for clarification, it resonated strongly. The reason why many of my posts include autobiographical content is that writing helps me to make sense of life.
But there’s nearly always a less personal reason for my posts and this piece is no exception. The SAMH role is a big one and I’m both excited and apprehensive about it. It’s a great honour. As with the board chair position I’m vacating after seven years at Scottish Adoption, my motivation for talking on the role is firmly rooted in my own experience.
I don’t think such experience is a requirement for board membership; strong boards need a range of skills and experience as do individual trustees. But I do think it’s helpful if lived experience is part of what some of us bring to the table, alongside other experience.
SAMH’s website describes it as an organisation that provides ‘community based services for over 3000 people across Scotland, offering support, training and recovery for those experiencing mental health problems, addictions, homelessness and other forms of social exclusion.’ And that’s what really drew me to the organisation when I became a trustee two years ago.
It’s not so much about giving something back. I’ve always got more than I’ve given from the various voluntary roles I’ve undertaken. It’s about making sure that lived experience is present in the room when we’re doing all the dryer, forensic stuff that trustees have to do, not least ensuring the charity’s resources are managed properly.
And it’s also about the fact that SAMH provides just the sort of services that I didn’t manage to access, both upstream and downstream. I was lucky because my circumstances meant that I was able to recover without them. But the experience reminded me that many are not so lucky and for them community based services offer a lifeline to coping and recovering.
The one in four statistic is often quoted and very powerful. It normalises mental ill health and provides the basis of an antidote to stigma. We really can all end up being one of those people at some point. But without the lifeline of services like those provided by SAMH, we don’t all stand the same chance of recovery.