Have you ever been asked that fateful question?
“Where do you see yourself in ten years time?”
Well I haven’t. But I’m pretty sure if that question had been asked ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer it.
Truth be told, ten years ago my future looked and felt very different to my current reality.
In 2011 I saw myself falling into one of three destinies…
- Saviour of the universe.
I know they range in desired qualifications and it’s difficult to explain how the third one came about but let me try.
Bipolar disorder doesn’t come with a script. You don’t get a synopsis with your diagnosis and you don’t get a manual to help you deal with your symptoms. It’s like being a kid at the dinner table; you have to eat everything on your plate even if you don’t like it and you have to use whatever utensils are in front of you regardless of how big or clumsy they are because that’s all you have.
As my illness unfolded throughout the years I experienced a range of symptoms that evolved and grew in intensity; they morphed into shapes that were the beyond my capability to comprehend and they left me damaged like a lost and beaten animal cast aside on the side of the road. I know that sounds dramatic but when Bernard the Bipolar cast a spell of a dark depression, all I wanted was death. When I was climbing out of that depression a mere simplistic existence was the most desirable outcome that I could picture for myself. And in the throws of mania I was cursed with torturous voices no one else could hear. I saw things, shapes, people, colours and smells that no one else around me could sense – try explaining that to your mates over a pint.
I couldn’t explain it, I couldn’t understand it and because of the absence of any kind of Bipolar instruction manual the only thing I learnt how to do was perform the art of…
“…I am completely fine…”
…and not a single soul would question me because to this day I can look and appear perfectly fine when in fact I am dancing with a faceless demon that takes no prisoners and spares the lives of no one.
On the 9th September 2011 I had been dancing with that demon for weeks and I had no idea. My lack of sleep gave me no indication that I had anything to worry about. My increased energy levels were a blessing because they made my twelve hour working day easier to cope with and nothing, absolutely nothing inside myself told me that the messages I was getting from the singers on my iPod were in any way detrimental to my mental health.
It’s funny; looking back at that last paragraph it just screams out…
“…MANIA MANIA MANIA!!!”
On Friday the 9th September 2011 I had a phone conversation with my psychiatrist (at the time) Dr Miller…I have never forgotten that call.
With a tight chest, my eyes streaming, I remember I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t speak but I remember him saying…
“You need to talk to me Katerini because I can’t see you until Monday.”
“I’ve got special powers and I don’t know what to do with them.”
“Go to A&E and I’ll send someone from the crisis team to meet you there.”
Following those few sentences I found myself an inpatient for four and a half weeks. I was almost sectioned and I spent my days writing the plans of how I was going to save the world because Chris Daughtry, Meat Loaf and a number of other singers were all communicating with me through the songs on my iPod.
They told me I was the saviour of the universe and I was the one person in the entire world who had the brains and the ability to create a plan of action to save the world. All I had to do was create the plan and let David Cameron do the rest…
…I’ll just leave that there…
In 2011 all I had in hospital with me was a tiny radio. No phone, no iPod, no internet access; nothing but my portable radio and a pair of potentially crusty earphones. All I wanted to listen to was Josh Groban and Meat Loaf but they were rarely played on the radio so I tried my best to remember the lyrics of my favourite songs and I tied them in with my save the world manual so it would be easier for me to explain how things would work.
In the first week of my admission I gave my “manual” to Dr Miller and he said…
“…What if this isn’t possible? What if you can’t save the world? What if you’re just ill?”
“…then this no way for a person to live.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I want a Lobotomy.”
And he was trying his absolute best not to smile as he said…
“You know we don’t do those anymore. What if you died?”
“Then you would know not to do it again.”
He could see I was deadly serious, there was no smile on my face and I was not budging on my save the world manual either; I was deadly serious about that too. But the one thing that made this admission different to the previous five was the feeling of it being make or break.
This was the worst one, this was the one that I didn’t see coming, this was the one where I would look back and I would say…
“…I don’t know how I survived that.”
This was the admission where my friends and my family would look at each other and my mum would say…
“…I don’t know how we’re going to get her back from this…”
…this blog is not about dredging up unpleasant memories. This blog is a celebration of me being hospital-free for ten years!
You can argue you against me if you like but for me this last ten years is almost like being sober or being clean. Hospital is not an addiction but it is a curse and it is impossible to return to a normal life without just a little bit of help.
When you’ve been contained on a ward with people you would never normally encounter and your daily routine is driven by the allocated times that the tea trolly comes rolling out of the kitchen, it’s hard to know what to do when you can suddenly go wherever you want to go and eat food you don’t think is poisoned by the hospital staff. When I had my phone in my hand it was hours before I could decide on who I wanted to text first. As for my iPod…that took a little bit longer to fire up.
That last admission was like a long-drawn-out horror film. The last horror film I watched was Insidious – awful. It’s like watching that on a loop, you get used to seeing the same things every day, but it doesn’t get any easier to endure. But what made this admission different was my psychiatrist.
Hand on heart Dr Miller quite possibly saved my life. He was firm and he was to the point. He challenged my beliefs and my ideas and despite me arguing against his educated assumptions, I liked him. I have never had another psychiatrist quite like him and I know that everything he did for me, before, during and after hospital was just part of his job description, he has no idea of the effect he has had on my life since then.
In that first week of my admission he had in his hand my save the world manual and he had spent a good fifteen minutes (unsuccessfully) trying to question everything I’d written and suddenly he said…
“…Katerini, I will get you the life you want and the life you deserve.”
I thought that was such a beautiful and kind thing to say, but the life I wanted was the very manual he was telling me I couldn’t have. In that moment he reminded me where I was, a psychiatric ward, and he told me to think about why I was there, how had it happened because then maybe we could find a way out of it. He said…
“…you have to learn about your illness Katerini, so that you can take control of it, rather than it, taking control of you.”
I’d never heard anything like this before! No one had ever said this was an option. I had no idea that it was even possible to take control of something that was so debilitating and all consuming. When I left the review room that day, I walked back on to the ward; I saw the drinks trolly with the wobbly wheels, the TV was blaring, the patients were scattered around the lounge room sleeping in chairs, pacing the floor, there was a nurse playing chess, a support worker on obs and a student doing her best to talk to someone who really didn’t want to talk to her.
I looked around that room and I thought, this is my reality. This is where I am and…I don’t think I want to stay here.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still thought I could save the world, this realisation wasn’t magic. I simply thought if I could change my mindset slightly I could get out and I could still meet David Cameron and do what I needed to do, but take back some control.
During those few weeks Dr Miller changed my meds, he tweaked them, he listened, we agreed, we disagreed. He was strict, he made me cry, I got really cross, had a hissy fit and left the room, only to have a change of heart and apologise minutes later. I was not an easy patient and anyone who knows me as I am today finds it difficult to believe that I could ever have been the person I used to be. But that’s the nature of Bipolar, that’s what mental illness does, it changes everything about you beyond any recognition.
One thing Dr Miller did that I absolutely hated and I had a visible tantrum over – I might as well have sat in the room with my arms and legs crossed and spat a giant dummy out in protest – he referred me to community care. Oh god help everyone in that room. He said…
“How do you feel about being referred to community care?”
“No I don’t want it.”
“Well I’ve already referred you.”
“Well can you unrefer then please.”
He laughed (the cheek of it) and said…
“I’ll find you a good one.”
“Well you‘d better, because otherwise I won’t talk.”
See what I mean? Completely unreasonable. But you know what? That was the best thing he could have ever done for me. He didn’t mess about. He knew I was awkward and headstrong. I’d kicked community care to the curb countless times over the years. I’d refused social workers and psychiatric nurses entry to my house on account of their uselessness. I’d been offhand and rude, arrogant and stroppy and I had no intention of changing this side of my behaviour. As far as I was concerned the system was working against me, trying to keep me in a box where I wasn’t allowed to work or have friends or relationships. I was scarred from the words said by social workers six years before this moment and as far as I knew; that kind of attitude hadn’t changed.
Enter Aisha, my community psychiatric nurse…in my presentations I call her my caped crusader.
When I met her for the first time I was still an inpatient and she made the biggest mistake she could possibly make. She was fifteen minutes late… so even when she said hello with a kind smile I didn’t care. The first thing I said to her was…
Even when she apologised I still didn’t care. I’d had to wait, I couldn’t go anywhere but that wasn’t the point. We had an appointment arranged and she was late so that did not bode well for our future together. I went on to say…
“I don’t want this. I don’t want you, I don’t need you and I’m only in this room because Dr Miller said I have to be and he won’t discharge me unless I comply.”
I said exactly those words. I was horrible. I was a nightmare. I was that one customer everyone dreads serving in a restaurant because even though there’s nothing wrong with the food they still find fault with just about everything.
Credit where it’s due though, Aisha handled me with expert hands. She was a breath of fresh air in a stale room and within twenty minutes she reigned me in, told me the truth and basically gave me back my dummy.
Aisha was the one person who corrected all of the wrongs I had been told in the past. She wasn’t there to tell me to stop working. If I wanted to do something in life she was there to support that. She was there to follow through on Dr Miller’s promise to get me the life I wanted and the life I deserved.
This was all I wanted. No one had ever told me that I could ever live a happy and fulfilled life with a mental illness. So I apologised.
A week later, on the day of discharge, I apologised to Dr Miller.
“You said you’d find me a good one and I think you might have done that, so I’m sorry if I was rude.”
I had Aisha as my CPN for nine years. She changed my life, she really did. She taught me how to take control of my illness when I had no idea that that was possible. She educated me on the medication I was taking and helped me to manage my working and social life, making sure I had a balanced mind. She taught me how to recognise my symptoms and the possible triggers surrounding them. I was a person, not a diagnosis. I never felt judged or belittled. I felt accepted, for the first time in years I felt human. Without Aisha’s help and guidance I would not be here to tell this story. I would not be the person I am today and anything that I have achieved since 2011 would probably not have been possible.
As I walked out of the doors of K3 in October 2011 I looked back as they locked behind me and I promised myself one thing…that I would never walk through them. No matter how hard life might be, I promised myself that I would never be an inpatient again.
Over the last ten years I have:
- Worked a full-time job
- I met a boy
- I bought a house
- I got married
- I became a public speaker
I swear this blog is not about blowing my own trumpet, but if I’m honest not one of those things would have been possible if I hadn’t recalled Dr Miller’s words and made the decision to take control of what was going on.
In 2021 I know I rely heavily on medication to keep my sanity in check and my rigid routine isn’t for everyone, but the lack of caffeine, being tee-total and cutting people out of my life in order to lead a better one has been worth it.
The blood tests, the scrutinising psychiatric appointments, baring my soul in therapy that didn’t really work and having to give up the possibility of a driving licence in exchange for a bus pass is worth it. It’s all worth it because when I wake up to the sound of my alarm and I stand in my shower listening to Smooth Radio I know it’s my shower. When I ride the tin can bus to work it’s because I know where it’s taking me and I know I have a purpose for the next six hours.
And when I walk past the Rivington Unit every day, that flicker of a moment when I remember the other patients I met on the ward, the ones who held me afloat, the ones who made it and the ones who didn’t, that momentary sadness is worth it because I know where I have been, and I know where I am now.
But most of all, I never forget to remind myself of how lucky I was ten years ago to have had the medical team I had. I’m not looking for a medal or a round of applause, I don’t deal well with praise so this is not a plea for congratulations and I’m not trying to seek attention – which coming from a public speaker who can stand in front of hundreds of people and talk about herself for over an hour is kind of hard to believe I know – but believe this, I’m not saying…
“…Look at me, look at what I’ve done…”
…I’m not. All I’m saying is, if you really want to achieve something, if you want a better life, then it is doable. It’s about taking control and deciding if what’s being laid out in front of you is really what you want.
A life yoyoing in and out of hospital, living in a world consumed by delusions of being the saviour of the universe, exhausting mania and crippling depression was not a life I would have chosen for myself. Growing up I never really knew what I wanted because I never really knew if I’d be around to actually have one.
Life is hard, for all of us. And I will never say that taking control of Bernard has been easy, no it hasn’t! I’ve had episodes over the years, bad ones, I’m not joking. I’ve had medication changes, I obsess over music on a daily basis and I am always one song away from wondering if whoever I’m listening to is trying to tell me how to save the world. That never goes away.
In the last two years I’ve learnt that you can never know it all. Bernard changes and he gets ugly and he gets big and sometimes I panic and I feel like a failure because I think to myself…
“…how the hell am I going to get through life if this keeps happening?”
When I left hospital in 2011 I had no intention of ever going back, so every single day I remind myself that I am not who I am because of my mental illness; I am who I am despite my mental illness, and this…
…is the best of my intention...
Dedicated to Dr Miller and Aisha. Should you ever see this please know that I am grateful for everything you did for me and still do to this very day. You might not know it but you play a huge part in my speaking career and one day I would love to have you both in my audience, I promise I won’t embarrass you…