Every year one in four adults and one in ten children will have a mental health issue. Because of the persisting stigma attached to mental health, only one quarter of those experiencing problems will undergo ongoing treatment.
It is so important to feel able to broach the subject and talk about issues. Sharing experiences is one positive step anyone with problems can take, helping them to feel less alone. Mental health awareness is certainly far more prevalent than it was, say, 10 years ago, but the stigma remains.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder over 30 years ago and have been living with the condition, thanks to medication and a loving family. I wrote a novel based on my experiences, BrainBomb, the first version of which was published in 2009. I've rewritten it extensively since. To mark World Mental Health Day I'll be tweeting excerpts, along with blog posts I've written about mental health issues.
October 1987. The central character, Neil, signed-off work with "stress," has actually been undergoing a serious mental episode for some time. Today he has tuned into TV coverage of the Tory party conference being held in the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. His delusions spiralling out of control, he thinks the latest speaker isn't talking to the crowd any more. He's talking directly to him.
I stare at Norman Tebbit addressing his rapt audience. His drawn and brutally humourless features remind me of a younger Peter Cushing, except there’s no endearing twinkle in these eyes. He seems scarcely less intimidating than his thuggish puppet on Spitting Image.
Although he’s referring to an autocue, I know the score. When he states the only thing restraining the economy is the prevalence of shirkers and social scroungers, it's not for the benefit of his middle-aged congregation. It's for me. He's talking to me. Blaming me. I feel his accusations boring into me. Everything grinds to a halt while I become his sole focus. Any moment now he’s going to mention my name.
Glancing out the window I notice two bricks on the walls of the opposite house, a sootier colour than those surrounding. They aren’t normal bricks. During Tebbit’s tirade they’ve been activated. They’re actually stereo speakers. As the Tory Chairman rails against me, his sunken eyes following me as I squirm, these twin amplifiers are channelling his diatribe across the back greens. Over the surrounding streets.
I march into the kitchen where Mum is rinsing dishes. ‘Okay, son?’ she says.
‘I’m going to hand myself in’.
‘What? What d’you mean?’
‘I’m going to hand myself in. To the police. Today’.
‘The police?’ She positions a bowl in the dish rack.
‘What are you on about now, son?’
‘I’m saying. I want to hand myself in.’
‘Well, what are you supposed to have done?’
‘I’m a malingerer.’
‘Aye. I’ve been warned.’
‘Warned? By who?’
‘Tebbit. Amongst others.’
‘Mum. I know I’m being watched. And it’s not just the stereo speakers.’
‘What are you babbling about, son?’
Although she’s maintaining a lucid tone, had I been capable of thinking straight I would’ve recognised the despair she was fighting to mask.
‘I’m not… babbling. It’s true. When I was in the bath yesterday, I could hear someone up on the roof. They were inserting bugging devices. Or a camera.’
Mum shuts her eyes. Sighs. Finally mustering a smile, she says: ‘Neil. There are people who can help. We’ve made an appointment for you.’
‘At the hospital. This morning. With a Dr Grant, one of the psychiatrists at the Andrew Duncan Clinic. Let’s see what he has to say?’
‘A head doctor? The Andrew Duncan? That’s the nuthouse! D’you think I’m round the twist, or something?’
'Of course I don't think you're round the twist, son,' she replies, grateful for the excuse to about turn and switch off the tap.
Dad’s back pain is acute. After having spent most of the past few days confined to his bed, eating meals from trays, peeing into a bottle, he’s heard me bleating to Mum I’m not going to be keeping any appointment. So he’s struggled out of his bed and is now resting on his knees in the hall, glaring up at me like an irate Toulouse-Lautrec.
‘Don’t be ridiculous, son. Why are you being like this? It’s for your own good. Please. You’re making your mother’s life a misery at the moment.’
Bunching my right fist I fleetingly entertain the sickening thought of sparking him out. But like so many other poisonous notions flitting through my mind the thought has scarcely materialised before it evaporates.
Turning, I scuff sheepishly into my bedroom. Wrench open the wardrobe door. How can I even contemplate setting foot outside? I can’t remember when I last ventured over the front doorstep. There are characters in post-apocalyptic novels crammed with humans mutated by nuclear fallout who are filled with less trepidation about facing the distorted world I know lurks out there.
I rifle through the jeans and trousers draped in their hangers. A musty smell clinging to everything. All these clothes are somehow spoiled, as if I’ve been living like a tramp for the past few months. Except Mum has been faithfully washing my garments as she’s always done; and if I get impression some of the clothing hasn’t been washed for a while, it’s simply because I haven’t been doing anything. For weeks on end.
Eventually I select a pair of beige Chinos and an Armani shirt with black and white stripes. My mates used to rib me I looked like an American ice hockey umpire. It has been a long time since I’ve been slagged by mates. Now those bastards just talk about me, scorn my failings. I wore this shirt to many night clubs; strutted up to single women, emboldened by alcohol and acting as brashly as its stark colours. Now that image merely mocks me it is so far removed from the person I’ve regressed to.
Mum holds open the passenger-side door. Further up the street, joiners are working on an attic extension. The rat-a-tat of their hammering synchronises with my motion as I stumble awkwardly towards the car. They are goading me, inferring I’m an automaton. I can’t look up as I jerk robotically at the handle.
Twenty minutes later we are seated in the waiting area in the Andrew Duncan Clinic. Mum squeezes my knee, hands me a travel mag. I glare at images of holiday resorts where the sea is flat as an ice rink but sun-dappled. Smiling people are draped on a golden beach where the only taboo conversations will be Great Whites and skin cancer. Another view of a world I am barred from.
An overweight man with a greying comb-over sits beside us. His baggy green cords are peppered with stains and he is puffing from the exertion of his two minute walk from the car park. Sweat courses in rivulets down to the creases between his chins. I imagine the dirty bastard has just left a dominatrix who danced a flamenco all over his pimply folds before fucking him within a hair’s breadth of cardiac arrest.
He says: ‘Hello, Neil. How are you?’
Recognition. Arthur Wells, one of my lecturers at Napier the previous year. But his presence compounds my dread. His coincidental appearance becomes another ingredient in the paranoid soup clogging my mindset. I turn to Mum. ‘I’m offski’.
With that I toss the magazine into Arthur’s flabbergasted lap, leap from my seat, march towards the exit. Mum heads me off just as quickly. ‘Neil. Be reasonable. How will you ever get better if you refuse to see any doctor?’
‘There's nothing wrong with me, Mum. This has all been a big mistake.’