Tag Archives: Mental Illness

The Answer To That, Sir, Is Nothing, Georgia Buley

There’s a matchbook, in case I want to set myself alight.

It didn’t happen yesterday, nor the day before—

My cheeks were wet so the sparks can’t catch—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          But there is no lighter.

It’s the only bright light in this sea of addictions;

I’ve never sought to taste death on my lips

And blow it back through my teeth.

I’d celebrate if I could breathe deeply enough on my own.

I can’t blame the catch on smoke.

 

          There’s a tiny little turtle that snaps and begs at my skin

And reminds me with frozen beats that I’m not who I say I am—

Not who I write I am.

I take the turtle out and paint him gold

But it always rubs off in the light.

 

          There are pins and needles in my fingers

Where the feeling’s gone and the cold creeps in.

It doesn’t get past my knuckles or up into my wrists—

My heart beats too strongly with that warm warm blood—

But one day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a whistle that screams brightly into the night.

Sometimes I think it’s broken—

Last time I tried to use it, it didn’t work—

It deafened me as it shrieked

But not a soul came running. (Someone told me since that I probably should have shouted ‘Fire’.)

I like to hope that lightning can’t strike twice, but it could happen.

One day. Maybe.

 

          There’s a model of a train

For no reason other than I like to turn the tiny wheels with my fingers

To keep them from flying around another’s neck.

There is a chess piece with its tiny head torn off

With sword and shield prepared for the battle that doesn’t come

With soulful hands carved in prayer to the unfeeling marble.

He comes from the battle of Troy. He comes from the losing team—

A pawn in a game gone way over his little head.

(Wherever it’s gone.)

 

          There are some coins—

Not enough for anything worth buying, mind.

A ten cent piece coated in grime

A silver dollar with an American eagle

A twenty that had been run over by a train

Dali’s clock-shaped, her Majesty’s great visage melted in a gory rendition of The Wizard of Oz.

 

          I like to think my insecurities take the form of hedgehogs

Who prickle and growl and stick out their tongues

And hobble along in their own little way.

They snuffle at the skin of my thighs from inside.

I keep them on hand at all times, ready to bring to the light at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t do to ignore them for so long: they can go feral—

At least this way I’ve got them under rein.

Maybe.

 

          There’s a heart all wrapped up in butcher’s paper.

It’s leaking out the sides, some thin warm thing that still beats angrily on my thighs.

I touch it sometimes, but it’s too hot to hold;

I can feel it beat against my skin like oceans.

 

          There is a pen. There is always a pen. I find it harder to write on paper.

(Maybe there’s an element of sadism in that.)

The ease of keys under fingertips dulls my sense of the page

I crumple more sheets than I can afford to buy

Notebooks fall into the trash filled with meaningless scribbles across the margins

(And sometimes I ask myself, aren’t they all meaningless scribbles?)

But there’s something of value to them if I demand there to be.

 

          I type my thoughts out into an online void, and I’m applauded by one hundred greyed-out faces.

None of them know anything of me. There’s no joy in this capitulation.

And it’s certain, now, that there’s almost nothing to the thoughts that run rampaging rhino through my mind.

But I write them down anyway, with little scraps I keep handy

And the pen.

Somewhere in there, there’s a ticket stub or five

Train tickets and musical tickets, coffee cards with four holes left to punch—

There’s no real regency in a temporary life.

Tissues long since turned to scraps, tumbled through time

And a vibrant scrap of fabric that once might have belonged to something beautiful—

Or someone.

 

          There are scars and chips and wrinkles all across my hands

Some are from accidents—

And some not.

If pure recklessness causes accidents, then perhaps it might tip the balance back

But it’s clear I’m not as clumsy as I appear.

 

          There’s a few photographs, too.

Not of anyone I know;

I find them in garage sales and fold up so tiny they fit onto one fingertip—

Creasing them makes them feel somehow more authentic—

So I remind myself that when I’m gone I’ll be more than aged sepia.

I’ll be almost more than that, at least.

 

          I draw my hands out and find them empty

Clutching at the banknote-crisp air like if by the reaching I could will it to appear.

And what?

Oh. Something. Anything.

 

          Someone once asked me what I keep in there

And I feign ignorance with those big ol’ baby blues flutterin’ like butterflies

‘What could you mean?’ I say.

‘What could you possibly mean?’

 

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The Narrator, Melissa Farrell

 

As he dresses for work, Harry wonders just how long his parents-in-law will be staying. They have exchanged their life in the suburbs for one on the road, selling their house and buying a large motorhome with plans to travel the country. So far they have only managed to travel the twelve kilometres across town from their previous home to his. Their monstrosity of a vehicle is parked in his driveway and has been for the past three weeks, leaching his electricity and guzzling his water. His in-laws, who sleep and shower in their motorhome, spend the rest of their time lounging about in his home.

Harry cannot abide their company, but there has always been that sweet sense of release at the completion of any engagement with them. Now he is cornered in his own home, snared by these wretched people. His mother-in-law, Thelma, is an impetuous woman, all urge and impulse, a mess of emotion. She cries or laughs at the slightest provocation, in a frantic sort of way that sounds as if she is in some sort of distress, confusing Harry so that he is never quite sure whether she is actually crying or laughing. This unrestrained disposition flows through all facets of her behaviour from the way she speaks, without any censoring, right down to her eating habits, the way she attacks her food in a vulgar bustle of gnawing and gnashing until her plate is empty. Her husband, Gary, is an arduous bore who is incapable of conversation, preferring to pontificate, or to tell stories which he stretches to tediousness. With winter setting in, Harry suspects that Thelma and Gary may be and hunkering down for the season.

Harry’s wife, Sherry, is behaving strangely. Since her parent’s arrival she has indulged in a childish energy that Harry finds irritating. She is laughing wildly at all of Gary’s predictable jokes, calling him ‘Daddy,’ and is constantly referring to him for answers. ‘What do you think about the situation in Afghanistan, Daddy?’ Or ‘why does the moon seem closer when it rises, Daddy?’ When Harry had pointed this out to her, she had behaved like a petulant child, sulking for the rest of that day. She is also encouraging her mother to do most of the cooking. Thelma’s bland concoctions of tasteless grey meat and mushy boiled vegetables make Harry squeamish. He misses his wife’s cooking. He misses his ordered life and his orderly wife.

Harry looks in the mirror and straightens his tie. It is emblazoned with the

‘Harry’s Hardware’ logo. The only place he feels any sense of composure at present is in the dominion of his hardware store. He lingers for longer hours amongst the neat rows of screws, glues, tools, paints, rattraps, hatchets, and buckets. He inherited the store from his father who had left instructions for Harry to sell it and to continue with his studies in journalism. Harry, determined not to let his domineering father dictate his life from the grave, discontinued his studies and kept the store. Finding it in a careless disarray of random stock and messy financial records, he had systematised the whole affair. From the shelves up and had slowly shaped the store into the methodical and productive business it is today. He has sedulously trained two employees to ensure that everything is performed to his design. He takes great pride  in knowing that his store is the most efficient in town. And amongst the tidy aisles of the fluorescent world of the hardware store, he is at peace. A psychoanalyst might tell him that his need for order and control stems from his parent’s marital problems and their subsequent lack of attention to him during his period of toilet training.

‘Who’s there,’ says Harry. He pushes open the window and looks out into the garden below. The other thing that has been bothering Harry is that he sometimes hears someone talking, seemingly about him, but he has been unable to find its source.

‘Where are you?’ says Harry as he begins prancing around like a territorial rooster, looking back and forth, up and down as if searching for someone. ‘I don’t know who you are, or where you are, but you’d better bugger off,’ he demands. Anyone observing this scene could believe that Harry had gone quite mad as he seemingly addresses some invisible interloper.

The bedroom door opens and his wife, Sherry, comes in. ‘What’s all the shouting about? Is someone here?’ she asks as she glances about the room.

‘Someone’s here alright,’ Harry tells her.

‘Who?’

‘I can’t find him.’

‘Who are you talking about?’

Harry stands quite still and listens. He takes Sherry by the shoulders. ‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking just now.’

‘Are you feeling alright?’ Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead.

‘Didn’t you hear that? He just said ‘Sherry puts her hand to Harry’s forehead’.’

‘I can’t hear anyone,’ says Sherry looking at Harry with concern.

‘Shh, listen carefully,’ Harry whispers. ‘Don’t you hear him? He just said ‘Harry whispers’.’

‘I don’t hear anything. I think you should sit down,’ she says as she eases him towards the bed.

‘I don’t need to sit down. I’m late for work.’ He takes one last anxious look about the room before pushing past Sherry and slamming the door behind him.

 

Arriving at work, a flustered Harry heads straight to the restroom. Locking the door behind him, he stares into the mirror. ‘Who are you?’ he asks. ‘Are you in my mind? Am I going crazy?’ Leaning closer to the mirror, he stares deeply into his blue eyes as if some answer lay buried there. ‘Ah ha,’ says Harry. ‘My eyes are grey, not blue. I would never call them blue. You’re not me… then who are you?’ Harry waits for an answer. There is a knock on the door. ‘Won’t be a minute,’ calls Harry. He splashes his face with cold water, adjusts his tie, and takes one last look at his reflection before opening the door to his working day.

There are a few customers waiting at the counter as Harry approaches. He notices one of his employees check his watch. Harry is never late. Just ignore him, Harry tells himself as he makes his way to the counter. With effort, he stretches his mouth into a smile and addresses an elderly woman waiting to be served.

‘What can I help you with today?’

‘I’m after paint for an outdoor wooden table.’

Harry knows just the one for the job. It is a waterproof paint compatible with wood.

‘You think so?’ says Harry.

‘Ah… yes.’

‘Sorry… what I mean is, I think you should go with a hard wearing paint. It’s not waterproof,’ Harry says smiling smugly towards the ceiling, ‘but it will last longer.’

‘Oh… if you say so. I was thinking of a muted colour, perhaps a beige.’ Perfect thinks Harry, who likes the colour beige very much.

‘Aubergine would be a good choice,’ suggests Harry. ‘I think aubergine goes nicely on any surface. It’s one of those versatile colours.’

‘Oh… well okay then… if you think so.’

Harry does not think so. He hates aubergine, but he strolls over to the paint counter and proceeds to mix a vile combination of black, grey and purple.

After sending the uncertain customer on her way, Harry looks towards the ceiling. ‘You think that I’m some sort of puppet, that you can read my thoughts and predict my actions? Think again,’ he says to nobody in particular, before spending the rest of his day second guessing himself and leaving many dissatisfied customers in his wake.

 

The following morning when Harry wakes, he lies quite still, listening for a few moments. ‘You’re still here,’ he sighs.

‘Where else would I be?’ asks Sherry.

‘I’m not talking to you.’

‘Harry, what’s going on? You’re scaring me.’

‘Can’t you hear that voice?’

‘What voice?’

‘The one speaking right now.’

‘Harry, maybe you should see a doctor.’

‘I don’t need a doctor,’ insists Harry. ‘Leave me alone,’ he shouts to the room.

‘Harry please…’

‘Shut up. Shut up the both of you!’

Sherry pulls the covers over her head and sobs.

 

At dinner that evening, Harry sits silently while Gary tells a protracted story about a holiday that they took to the coast when Sherry was a child. Although Harry is preoccupied with listening for a voice that only he can hear, he feels a trickle of jealousy at the story. His own childhood had held none of the adventure of his wife’s. After Harry’s father had left, just getting through each day’s routine was an overwhelming affair for his mother. Their house had reflected the disarray of their lives, everything out of place and out of order. His mother was oblivious to this, living largely within the narrow world of her own mind. Harry would fantasise that he was adopted and that his birth parents, who were organised and tidy people, were searching for him and would rush through the door at any moment to rescue him into a happy family life.

‘How would you bloody know?’ Harry snaps. ‘For your information, I was a very content child!’ Harry is in self-denial about the way he felt as a boy. At his outburst, Gary had stopped in mid-sentence and they all sit staring at Harry now, waiting for some sort of explanation.

‘Harry, what’s wrong?’ asks Sherry

‘Nothing’s wrong. Everything’s bloody terrific.’ Tears begin to well in Sherry’s eyes.

‘Tears begin to well’. ‘Is that the best you can do? Talk about hackneyed! Maybe it’s time you found something else to do with your time,’ laughs Harry.

‘Maybe it’s time we all went to bed,’ Gary says signalling for Thelma and Sherry to rise. The three of them hurry out leaving Harry alone.

Feeling as flat as a nail head, Harry leans back in his chair. ‘Oh, that’s clever, ‘Harry says sarcastically’. The similes are from my world perspective,’ he says to the empty room. ‘I’m not talking to the empty room and you know it. Come on, it’s just the two of us here. Admit that you exist and tell me what this is all about.’ Harry sits in silence as if he is waiting for some concealed presence to answer. Finally he shakes his head and says, ‘okay, if that’s the way you want to play it.’ He stands and opens the refrigerator, reaching for a bottle of beer. ‘You’d be mistaken,’ he says with conceit, pulling a bottle of chardonnay from the shelf. Harry does not like wine but he pours himself a large glass anyway. ‘Cheers,’ he says and takes a deep gulp. He fights the urge to balk at the flavour and continues to drink.

 

The following morning, dealing with an intense hangover, Harry watches Thelma’s tacky lipstick coated mouth move to the discordant tones of her voice. It cuts through his consciousness in an unintelligible babble. Sherry and Gary have gone to the supermarket and as it is his day off, Harry has nowhere else he needs to be. Thelma has just devoured a plate of bacon and eggs and Harry can see bits of bacon dangling from between her yellowed teeth. She is a truly repugnant woman, thinks Harry. ‘You think you know me and you can read my thoughts?’ he demands.

‘Well, Harry, I suppose I don’t really know you terribly well…’

‘I’m not talking to you,’ he says in an aggressive way that alarms Thelma making her jump. Harry laughs at her reaction and stands to leave.

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ he says. ‘Now what?’

‘Why don’t you sit down,’ suggests a confused Thelma.

Harry continues to stand, glaring obstinately into the room. After a few moments, he begins to feel foolish.

‘I am not foolish,’ Harry shouts.

‘Oh Harry, I’ve never thought you were foolish. A little droll at times, but never  –’

‘Take this,’ he says grabbing the back of Thelma’s head and plunging his mouth to hers in a kiss that tastes of eggs. ‘How’s that for repugnance?’ he shouts.

‘Oh Harry,’ exclaims Thelma, ‘I’ve always felt that there was something between us.’

She moans as her greedy mouth finds his again. He pulls away to make his escape from the loathsome woman. ‘Is that right?’ he challenges before pulling her up and sweeping her along the hallway to the bedroom. Tossing her onto the bed, he pulls his trousers down and leaps onto her, raking her nightgown aside.

‘Oh Harry,’ she swoons as he pushes into her.

‘How’s this for aversion?’ he calls to the ceiling.

Harry is momentarily surprised at his level of sexual performance before he finds himself flying backwards through the air and landing on the floor with his trousers around his ankles.

‘What’s going on?’ bellows Gary, standing over him, fists held high.

‘He pulled me in here and forced himself on me,’ Thelma shrieks.

Harry stumbles to his feet, pulling his trousers up as he rushes for the door, pushing past Sherry who is wailing uncontrollably. He feels a momentary surge of compassion for her. ‘Shut up!’ he shouts as he pushes Sherry against the door with his hands around her neck. ‘How’s this for compassion?’ he cries. Sherry is struggling to take a breath. Gary grabs him from behind and throws him to the floor.

‘Hold him down,’ Gary shouts to Thelma, who throws her naked body on top of Harry, pinning his arms down with her thick thighs.

‘You think you’re in charge, that you can read my life with such confidence? You have no idea and your narration is so clichéd,’ Harry laughs. ‘Come on, ‘surge of compassion’, I’ve heard it all before. You’re so banal. And why the formal language? Throw in a few contractions, mate.’

‘Shut up, Harry,’ yells Gary as he tries to console a bawling Sherry who is slumped against the door. ‘Make him shut up, Thelma.’ She presses her bacon- scented hands over Harry’s laughing mouth, which makes Harry laugh even harder.

Harry is still laughing when the police arrive. As he is handcuffed and pushed out to the patrol car, their words wash over him: rape, attempted murder, hears voices, yells at people who’re not there.

Harry tries to explain to the police about the voice he hears. Nobody seems to understand, until they send in a psychiatrist who asks him all sorts of questions and believes that he can indeed hear a voice. Harry is relieved until the psychiatrist testifies in the court, calling Harry a paranoid schizophrenic. Harry shouts out that it is not true and he calls to Sherry and her parents to help him, but they will not look in his direction. He is dragged from the courtroom, yelling profanities at the ceiling.

Harry is committed to an institution for the criminally insane. The doctors will try many medications, but none will prove successful. He will spend the next seven years trying to convince them of his sanity until the fine thread that holds him together snaps. His mind will close down and he will simply stare into space for the rest of his days, never to utter another word.

 

Sherry does not visit Harry after he is institutionalised. She just wants to put her life with him, which was unsatisfying even before his mental health issues, behind her.

She files for divorce and once it is finalised, she sells the hardware store and begins an affair with the real estate agent, Barry. Sherry experiences lust for the first time and a year later they wed and continue to live in the home that she once shared with Harry. Sherry’s parents continue their stay in the driveway.

Sitting in their mobile home that is yet to travel very far, Thelma and Gary discuss how they much prefer their daughter’s new husband to her previous one. As Gary watches Thelma, he wonders if he will ever be able to nullify the vision of her in bed with Harry, of her calves wrapped around his skinny white buttocks.

‘Did you hear someone?’ Gary asks as he looks about.

‘Oh Gary, that’s so funny. No Gary… or should I say Harry, I didn’t hear anyone.’ Thelma laughs in that frantic way of hers. Gary hesitantly joins in and Thelma does not notice his furtive glance towards the ceiling.

And so you see, life goes on and nobody misses Harry… not even me.

 

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Identity, Fractured, Anna Van

It’s been almost eleven years since Ruth Tulloch was treated at the Royal Adelaide Hospital following a suicide attempt. Earlier in the year, Ruth had experienced a nervous breakdown and was treated at her local hospital for depression and chronic fatigue. She was discharged after two weeks in hospital, and started seeing a psychologist who noticed that instances of ‘child-like’ behaviour during their sessions. It was during this time that Ruth also began having strange ‘dreams’ at night, though she knew was still awake. She attempted suicide and was flown to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where the psychiatrists similarly noticed periods when Ruth didn’t seem ‘herself’. ‘Yes, she dissociates, but keep her in the here and now,’ they relayed to each other.

At the milder end of the spectrum, dissociation is a normal mental phenomenon that all of us will have experienced. Who hasn’t ‘spaced out’ during a boring lecture or meeting, or conversely, been so engrossed in a movie or book that we simply lose all self-consciousness? Another common form of everyday dissociation is known as ‘highway hypnosis’ where, as a driver, you travel a familiar route and arrive at your destination with no recollection of the journey just undertaken. It’s when the phenomenon defines our lives that it is no longer seen as normal, but a mental illness. This illness, known as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), is probably better known by its old name, Multiple Personality Disorder.

Even via email, it’s clear Ruth gets upset recalling the attitude of the chief psychiatrist at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He told her, ‘I don’t believe there is such a condition as Multiple Personality Disorder. You must have researched it on the internet. You’re just putting it on.’ This attitude is illustrative of the divide in psychiatric circles toward this illness. On the one hand, we have psychiatrists who think the disorder is a form of attention-seeking, built up by media popularisation and legitimised, even created, by credulous therapists. On the other, lies some who think the incidence of the disorder may be as high as one percent of the population.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), oftentimes billed as the ‘bible’ of psychiatry, devotes an entire chapter to dissociative disorders in its latest edition. DID is described as ‘the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behaviour’. These states are called ‘alters’, which together form a ‘system’. A person with DID switches between alters with no conscious control. In many cases, each ‘alter’ performs a particular role for the person, for example, one may emerge to deal with fear, another with anger, and so on.

Sceptics point at the inordinate rise in cases of DID, calling it a medical ‘fad’ and likening the condition to the ‘fad’ of hysteria in the 1900’s. A 1995 study noted that there were only 200 cases of DID reported before 1980, but this had exploded by 20,000 by 1990. This leap in diagnosis, some say, is the direct result of works that popularised the condition. The most cited example is Sybil, a best-selling psychiatric biography about a woman with ‘16 personalities’ whose condition was traced to perverse childhood abuse. Sybil, the main presenting identity, had no memory of these terrible events. But her alters remembered, and Sybil could even love her mother, while some of her alters were full of hate.

Psychiatrist Frank Putnam hypothesises that we are born with and develop in infancy ‘discrete behaviour states’ that become linked over time. These states might be referred to as ‘alert activity’, ‘alert inactivity’, ‘crying’, ‘fussy’, and so on. Over time, these states become linked, leading us to believe that we are a unified self. This belief is what underpins the confidence we have to navigate our lives, by imagining that we are in control of our hearts and minds. However, DID may result when something continually interrupts this developmental process.

Dr. Doris McIlwain, a personality researcher at Macquarie University, explains that a repeated split in an ‘object’, such as a parent who alternates from being loving and abusive, may cause a split in the ‘subject’, that is, the child. The child survives by compartmentalising the intolerable aspects of the relationship, leading to two identity states that Dr. McIlwain refers to as ‘S1’ (Subject 1) and ‘S2’ (Subject 2). ‘In other words,’ she explains, ‘when I’m in my S1 state – my dissociative identity called S1 – all I can think about is my loving parents. If I went into therapy with you and I came in and was ‘S1’ today, you would say, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I would go, ‘He’s so loving, he’s amazing.’ And then the next day I might come in and I’m in ‘S2’ state and you go, ‘How’s your dad?’ and I go, ‘I don’t want to talk about him. He’s horrible.’ Because that part of my personality has a system of remembrance (as it’s called), which includes an exploitative, violent and abusive father who doesn’t protect. But my way of solving the problem, if I’m a dissociative person, is that I actually split within myself to keep separate the two fathers, as it were.’

While the DSM doesn’t specify the etiology of the mental disorders it classifies, most studies have found that patients report extremely high rates of childhood sexual or physical abuse. My four interviewees, who I find over the internet, are unanimous on this point: each of them experienced chronic trauma in childhood. Laurie et al., as she refers to herself, was sexually, physically and emotionally abused as the youngest child and only girl to an ‘alcoholic father, valium-addicted mother and four older brothers who were deeply addicted to drugs.’ In 1983 Laurie et al. was in her early twenties, and working at a local hospital. Working in the admissions department, she canvassed the patients to find the best doctor and sought his help for her depression as well as a lifetime of ‘‘blank’ spots that blotted my existence.’ The doctor performed regressive hypnosis on her but became frustrated because he seemed to be talking to several people during the hypnotic sessions. After some months, the doctor called in a consulting psychiatrist who specialised in DID, and she was given the formal diagnosis.

Hence lays another criticism of the sceptics. As Dr. Joel Paris writes, ‘the use of hypnosis, and the memories it creates, is a particularly worrying element. It has long been established that hypnotic trance is, in some ways, a form of socially constructed role play. He argues that patients may provide memories of trauma on demand and increase their number of alters over time ‘possibly because of a wish to keep therapists interested.’ It is noteworthy that Sybil and her psychiatrist became friends, went for long rides in the country, and even lived for a while in the same house. Her treatment added up to a staggering 2,534 office hours – her psychiatrist said it took so long because there was simply no knowledge about the disorder in the 1960’s. Paris says that transcripts of the therapy sessions ‘clearly show’ that Sybil’s therapist imposed the abusive childhood narrative on her, and that she may have been willing to go along with it because their relationship was the most important one in her life. This narrative of childhood abuse, in Paris’ view, is what catapulted the condition into the limelight. ThreeFacesOfEve

More than 15 years prior to Sybil, two psychiatrists treated a woman who seemed to have three personalities. They published a book about the case, The Three Faces of Eve, in 1957, but after Sybil came out, the woman reneged on her doctors. a book by the name of The Three Faces of Eve, was published. The book was written by two psychiatrists who treated a woman with three personality states. Only after Sybil did ‘Eve’ renege on her doctors and announce she had actually discovered more than 20 personalities as well as her own hidden history of abuse.

Whatever the truth about ‘Sybil’ and ‘Eve’, sexual abuse and therapy became public issues from the 1970’s onwards, culminating in some high profile U.S. lawsuits that rested on little else but memories of abuse that had resurfaced during treatment. The tide turned when some of these plaintiffs realised that their memories were false, launching a second wave of lawsuits against the therapists themselves. At the height of the furore, Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist and a pioneer in memory research, demonstrated that false memories could be created by exposure to cues such as misinformation. Loftus went on to become an advocate for those who were accused of child abuse by their adult children, accusations based solely on the retrieval of repressed memories.Sybil

There was no reported link between plaintiffs and DID, but the taint of these scandals seems to have travelled over due to the condition’s high association with childhood abuse. It also seems to have left a lasting impact on the way mental health professionals deal with these sorts of issues in their practice. ‘I do think it’s theoretically quite possible for people to have been sexually abused but not to remember it until something changes in therapy, which enables them to be strong enough to be able to face and bear the facts of the past,’ Dr. McIlwain says. ‘But I think therapists have to be very careful not to put suggestions into their client’s head…If the therapist picks up that the person coming into therapy has got a bit of confusion, they’re not sure of what’s real and what’s not real, that’s a kind of clinical marker (that they’re dissociative). And then you go very, very gently, you wouldn’t be suggesting things like, ‘Do you remember any inappropriate touching in your childhood?’ You wouldn’t ask that question because they might go, ‘Yes, I do’ and you wouldn’t be sure if it was the truly the case or if it was because you’d suggested it. I think if the therapist is incredibly careful and just waits till the person gains (strength in their self and certainty about their past and if he or she then) says, ‘Do you know what? I’ve just realised that a series of dreams that I always thought were nightmares about monsters, I’ve realised that the monster was an aspect of my father,’ and the therapist has been squeaky-clean in their technique, I would say ‘recovered memory’.’

Ruth was forty-eight when she experienced the harrowing dissociative symptoms that led to her hospitalisation and eventual diagnosis. Since then, she says, it has been a gradual and often painful experience of learning about an abusive past that she was previously completely unaware of. She says that one of the hardest things she has had to come to terms with is the fact that what she thought was a ‘happy, normal’ upbringing was suddenly like ‘one big lie’. ‘It is not an easy journey and not one you would ‘make up’ just to get ‘attention’ as I have been told at times.’ Lonnie Mason, who writes about her condition online, tells me, ‘I would give anything to not be DID. Every day is a challenge; I just want to get on with my life.’ Sarah K. Reece, another blogger with a dissociative disorder, emphasises that it is a patient’s history that contains the strongest rebuttal against the notion that the condition is manufactured during therapy. The most common evidence, she says on her blog, includes journals containing different handwriting, having different names in different social networks, chronic amnesia, and hearing internal voices.

Indeed, Lonnie first realised she was different when she discovered that not everyone could hear voices. She initially joined a support group for voice hearers, but most of them had schizophrenia, whose voices affected them differently to her own. She found some information on the internet about her specific symptoms and sought professional help. Lonnie says that with the help of a psychiatrist and psychologist, her alters have started to feel safe enough to gradually reveal some of the memories they have kept at bay. Sarah’s experience has been somewhat different in that she her alters share what’s known as ‘high co-consciousness’. She is never shocked by a memory because information is shared across all of her alters, but the significance and emotion attached to certain memories are kept by different alters.

At first, the idea that a person’s identity might be splintered into parts seems like a foreign concept, but the more I mull over it, the more I realise perhaps it’s not so unfamiliar. For instance, we tend to wrestle with ourselves over key decisions in our lives, where a part of us thinks we should do something versus another part that simply wants to do something else. Sometimes we might not even be aware of why we do certain things, but we continue to do them. Peter, a middle-aged man who I meet at an informal group discussion on DID, says that he has always had an inexplicable fear of travelling over water. Several years ago, he told his sister about his phobia, who said, ‘Well, I expect that’s because of the time when our father threw you into the water and you couldn’t swim.’ Peter can’t recall this childhood incident, and his father isn’t alive to verify the story. But the story suggests that young minds are more than capable of storing away trauma. The question remains, how much more so when the trauma is chronic?

Note: The names of some interviewees are pseudonyms.

Download a PDF of Identity, Fractured

References
• Howell, Elizabeth F: The Dissociative Mind, The Analytic Press, Hillsdale, NJ, 2005.
• James Randi Educational Foundation Forum, http://forums.randi.org/showthread/php?t=230111, retrieved 20 September 2013.
• Mental Health Information NSW Fact Sheet, Dissociative Identity Disorder, July 2010.
• Merskey, H: “Multiple Personality Disorder and False Memory Syndrome” in The British Journal of Psychiatry: the Journal of Mental Science 166 (3), 1995, 281-283.
• Paris, Joel: ‘The Rise and Fall of Dissociative Identity Disorder’ in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2012; 200: 1076-1079. Quoted from p1077.
• Reece, Sarah K: Is DID Iatrogenic? http://skreece.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/is-did-iatrogenic, retrieved 07 October 2013.
• Spanos, Nicholas P: Multiple Identities and False Memories, American Psychological Association, Washington, 1996.

 

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Bipolar Disorder: One Woman’s Story, Francesca Tichon

I’ve grown up around mental illness. My mum worked as a teacher’s aide in a class of severely mentally disabled children when I was a kid, and my sister and I would often spend Take-Your-Daughter-To-Work days there. To us, the kids were funny and harmless, often pretending to be tigers or elephants and playing silly games with each other. But then Mum would come home with stories of colleagues having to go to hospital when the games got out of control and the ‘tiger’ got angry and scratched the teacher hard enough to draw blood.

American feminist and writer Rita Mae Brown once said, ‘The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four people are suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they’re okay, then it’s you’ . That’s pretty accurate. According to Sane Australia, an award-winning national charity that focuses on campaigning, education, and research relating to mental health, ‘around 20% of adults are affected by some form of mental disorder every year’ and ‘nearly half (45%) of the population will experience a mental disorder at some stage in their lives’ . Only 3% of adults are actually disabled with mental illness though, some like the kids I grew up with. Most of the time though, you wouldn’t even know if your neighbour, colleague, or sometimes even friend had a mental illness.

Earlier this year, I found out one of my close friend’s mother has bipolar disorder, which really shocked me. My previous experience with mental illness had all been so obvious, but Anne Naylor was a whole different story.

Anne Naylor @ http://becauseofbipolar.com.au/photos-of-my-paintings/sometimes-there-are-fireworks-2/

Landscapes of the Mind. Artist: Anne Naylor @ http://becauseofbipolar.com.au/photos-of-my-paintings/sometimes-there-are-fireworks-2/

I had always admired her strength and ability to juggle work and raising a family including a son with serious mental disabilities (including Down syndrome, mild autism, a severe speech and communication disorder, a mild hearing loss, obstructive sleep apnea and depression), and yet I had no idea that she had been in that 3%. Most people had no idea.

Anne Naylor is a teacher, a mother, an artist, and an author. But about ten years ago she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. It wasn’t out of the blue; bipolar is a slippery slope, and it took four different psychiatrists and multiple diagnosis before reaching bipolar. You’d think a correct diagnosis would be a good thing, that she could be treated and get on with her life, that’s what I thought at least, but you’d be wrong. It’s much more complicated than that.

Sane Australia defines bipolar disorder as ‘an illness, a medical condition’ that ‘affects the normal functioning of the brain, so that the person experiences extreme moods – very high and over-excited or very low and depressed’. These mood swings can vary in severity, but generally however high one becomes, the individual will experience an equal low. Usually, it’s the lows that lead people to seek help, presenting with severe depression, unable to go to work, look after their family, do the grocery shopping, or even get out of bed. According to Anne, you’re so depressed you’d commit suicide ‘if you could be bothered’. It’s the highs that are the truly destructive part of bipolar though.

Anne got off pretty lucky with her behaviour when she was spiralling out of control pre-diagnosis. ‘For me, it didn’t start with photocopying, but looking back that was one of the indicators. I was planning a party for my son’s eighteenth birthday and decided it would be very creative to display large photographs of him in a continuous border at eye height around the room. I chose the photos I wanted and took them to work. Every day after my colleagues had left the office, I enlarged, copied and laminated photos, 200 of them in total, in what I recognised later as a ‘frenzy of photocopying’’. She would stay up until 3am every night, doing the washing, ironing and folding, cleaning the house, working on the computer, never tiring. She asked her husband for a lime green Holden Monaro for her birthday, and if she couldn’t have that then she wanted a tattoo (‘a big one with beautiful flames of red, orange and yellow, flaring up my right arm from my elbow to my shoulder’). She decided, in her 40’s, that she wanted to be an ice-skating champion, taking classes and confident that she ‘would be great’. She even began writing erotica, leading to a very inappropriate flirtation with a male colleague.

Others suffer much greater consequences from their mania though. In the book Mastering Bipolar, one woman tells of the financial consequences of her mania:

‘It becomes a devilishly expensive dance. I lose control over the purse strings. I need a new outfit; it must be black and sultry. I love it so much I don’t take it off for days. And always, the music. I have been known to buy twenty CDs at a time whilst high. All bought randomly, for their cover or some weird connection to something else that I can’t remember in the end. I love books too. And don’t the booksellers love me. I choose books on colour or because they contain quotes I like or maybe they just smell good. I am unable to stop at just one or two. The only thing that distracts me in the bookshop are all the men. All these gorgeous men seem to be shopping with me. I am admiring eyes, necks, beautiful hands, and even their glasses or the way their hair is parted. I have truly become part-woman and part-werewolf.’

Another woman tells of her husband losing control: ‘Receiving a phone call from him on his mobile at 30,000 feet in first class informing me that he is Neo from the Matrix and that I am to arrange a Porsche to collect him from Heathrow Airport is not a call I wanted to receive, nor could have ever anticipated’. After being released from hospital, he then went shopping and ‘clocked up an extra $3000 (on top of the $15,000 he had already shelled out pre-hospital when he was en route to his £400-a-night suite in London’s Park Lane)’. Whilst in hospital, the husband was also unwittingly allowed unsupervised access to email ‘which sent him straight back into attempting to develop a network for his reality TV idea, and enabled him to denigrate many colleagues for their lack of support, via a global email in which he also lovingly included many a personal detail about our relationship, and espoused our love story as the ultimate in blockbuster epics’.

The things people do when manic can ruin lives. You lose sight of what’s important, think you’re indestructible, and many become sexually promiscuous. According to Anne, the philosophy of a person under the influence of mania is ‘always surrender to temptation for it may never pass your way again’. ‘Some [people] have spent so much money that they have lost their homes. Some have slept with people they shouldn’t have and become pregnant and/or lost their families because of it. Some have driven way over the speed limit and crashed their cars, or been caught driving under the influence, once, twice or three times. Some have found God, or thought they themselves were God,’ she explains sombrely.

Getting a correct diagnosis of bipolar can take years. For many people, bipolar does not develop until later in life, and there’s usually a trigger. For Anne, it was the onset of menopause. For others it’s puberty, pregnancy, or any other shift in hormone levels, and for others it’s not known what the trigger is. Anne was diagnosed with ADHD at first and put on Dexamphetamines, a central nervous system stimulant whose actions resemble those of adrenaline. It’s supposed to calm those with ADHD, but for Anne it was ‘as if someone had plugged me into an electricity socket and switched me on,’ she laughs. She could concentrate, lost her appetite and consequently lost weight, and had plenty of energy. There was a sparkle in her eye and she became quick and witty (or so she believed), and her sex life became mind-blowing. But all this was just kindling for the fire that is hypomania, making her ascent even faster and more exhilarating, and her descent into depression even more crushing.

There are countless stories in books and online of people’s manic episodes. Anne suggests that this is because ‘in hindsight, the ups can provide some hilarious stories, and a great way of coping with the mood swings is to laugh about them,’ as she does when recounting the stories of her sudden passions for cars, erotica, ice-skating, and tattoos. No one wants to talk about the lows though. Sane Australia describes the lows as ‘feeling helpless and depressed, with difficulty making decisions or concentrating’. That’s an understatement. This is how Anne describes it in her book Art From Adversity, A Life With Bipolar:

‘I couldn’t do much. The only thing I could do was sleep. Every morning I would wake up and think, ‘not another day, another long, awful, agonising day that I have to somehow endure until it is time to close my eyes again’. The only respite I had was when I was asleep and yet, during the day, I kept going, forcing myself to do the things I had to do.

I was tired, desperately, achingly tired, with absolutely no energy at all. My limbs were strangely heavy. I saw everything through a fog. Literally. I couldn’t see properly. I was sure there was something wrong with my eyes, even though two optometrists told me otherwise.’

Anne was unable to make decisions on what to wear, what to eat. She couldn’t even read or watch TV. ‘Every single thing I had to do was impossibly difficult,’ she says. ‘I felt like I was climbing Mt. Everest without oxygen.’ She couldn’t even remember what it was like to feel happy.

Though her family were generally supportive and caring without being overbearing, her friends’ reactions, though well-meaning, were not helpful. They would say things like ‘what can we do to help?’ and ‘I’m surprised you have no resilience. Can’t you control it?’, but there was nothing they could do to help, and she was trying to control it.

It ultimately ended in her bipolar diagnosis and a stint in a mental institution.

A correct diagnosis and treatment does not fix everything, however. For some people, the diagnosis offers relief and an explanation for their behaviour, but then there’s always the question of who to inform of your diagnosis. Many people only disclose their bipolar to close friends and family, and only those who must know in their place of work or study. There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, and disclosing your bipolar diagnosis to people who do not need to know can often lead to uncomfortable situations. In Mastering Bipolar Disorder, one person explains that, ‘sometimes the knowledge burdens others or, worse, is titillation. Sometimes no matter how much you explain, people will never understand.’

When Anne was first diagnosed she took an extended period of leave from work and then resigned due to her illness and side effects from the medication she had commenced. She told only a few close colleagues of her diagnosis and received mixed responses. One refused to believe her and Anne had to try to convince her that she really was mentally ill, another became very embarrassed and suggested this was ‘personal information’ that she should have kept to herself, and another, whilst initially supportive, gradually distanced herself from Anne, and their relationship became uncomfortable and strained. Ashamed and embarrassed due to these reactions from people she had considered friends, Anne never told her boss of her illness. Though her rights should have been protected by legislation, she didn’t want her professional reputation to be compromised due to confidentiality not being respected and people finding out about her being mentally ill.

Once she had stopped working, Anne, who has always been a passionate and motivated woman, was determined to get a handle on her bipolar. She found out as much information as she possibly could, found a psychiatrist that she trusted and saw him (now her) every week (now every few months). She followed his/her advice (such as eating well, exercising, not over-exerting herself in any way), and took her medication religiously.

‘Having to take medication is the pits,’ she says with a resigned laugh. In her book, Anne says that ‘approximately forty percent of people who have bipolar disorder take three or more psychotropic medications and eighteen percent take four or more.’ Everyone is different in what medication works for them, and what works is always changing.

The side effects of medication can be horrendous, and they can’t be predicted. ‘Except in my case,’ says Anne dryly. ‘I seem to get almost all of those so helpfully listed on the information sheets from the drug companies.’ Here is just a sample of some of the side effects listed for Anne’s various medications:

Fatal skin rash, vomiting and nausea, dizziness/unsteadiness, headache, drowsiness, double vision, blurred vision, tremors, trouble sleeping, memory loss, irritability/aggression, joint/back pain, constipation, dry mouth, runny/stuffy nose, fainting, uncontrolled movements of the tongue/mouth/cheeks/jaw, sudden increase in body temperature with sweating or fast heartbeat, restless leg syndrome, seizures, allergic reactions, diarrhoea, excessive and rapid weight gain, inability to control the bladder or bowels, slow or irregular heartbeat, slurred speech.

To many people, these side effects would be too much to bear. But, as one woman puts the choice between sanity and side effects, ‘it scares me, taking a drug to control my mind. But the thought of another episode scares me more.’

Personally, I think the hardest thing to lose would be the creativity so often associated with bipolar highs. Some people, mostly with less severe degrees of the illness, suggest that the creative highs can be harnessed to advantage. Most, however, refuse to allow their mood swings any leeway, knowing how quickly they can get out of control.

When Anne was very ill, she took up painting. Before the onset of her bipolar, Anne had no interest, experience, talent or training in arts. ‘The idea came upon me suddenly, out of no-where. I knew in my mind exactly what I wanted to do, and that was to paint large works and hang them all through my house,’ she explains. She started taking private art lessons, and then enrolled in a TAFE art course specifically for people with mental illness. She went on to study at an art school, and would lock herself away in her studio for hours to paint, often ignoring all of her other responsibilities, finding it soothing and addictive.

Bipolar has affected so many artists, musicians, writers, and other creative’s throughout history, so much so that John McManamy, a renowned mental health journalist and author, has pointed out that this list reads like an ‘honour roll’ . He also says, however, that this runs the risk of glamorising the severity and seriousness of bipolar disorder.

So what is it that connects bipolar with creativity? Apart from the fact that a bipolar high makes the world a brighter place (you can see colours more vividly, feel the music, taste the sunshine. One woman even suggests that you can understand what the frogs are saying), Kay Jamison says that ‘individuals with bipolar disorder … possess the rare ability to think along unrelated tangents, then put the pieces together (‘making connections between opposites’) into a grand visionary whole’ , and that ‘unbridled self-assurance and manic energy fuel the creative fire’ . What I wonder, though, is whether the tunnel-vision and manic energy of a mental illness unburden a person of their other responsibilities enough to allow them the time and inspiration to give an outlet to the creativity they have always had within but never had a chance to express, or whether mental illness creates something within a person that was never there before. Medication makes the world grey though; music is just music, sunshine is just sunshine, and the frogs go back to just making noise, but what if it didn’t?

As hard as living with a mental illness can be at times, those with any mental illness should not be pitied. As Anne will tell you, pity only makes you feel worse. And a woman like Anne Naylor should not be pitied. She is an incredibly accomplished woman with a beautiful family and (now back at work) a job she loves. ‘I take every opportunity to educate people who don’t know anything about bipolar disorder or mental illness and I do my best to empower those who do,’ she says with such passion it gets everyone around her excited by her cause. ‘I am lucky. I have a supportive, loving family and a few very close friends who understand and don’t care about my mental illness. … I am courageous and strong and I am continually surprised by the hidden talents and strengths I find within myself. I celebrate every day, because however long I live, my life will be over in a flash.’

 

Sources
Eyers, K., and Parker, G., (ed.) (2008) Mastering Bipolar Disorder, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, N.S.W.
Interview with Anne Naylor, 16th August, 2013, Anne’s residence, West Pennant Hills .
McManamy, J. (2012) Madly Creative, McMan’s Depression and Bipolar Web, http://mcmanweb.com/creativity.html (last viewed 8th October, 2013)
Naylor, A. T. (2013) Art From Adversity: A Life With Bipolar, Glass House Books, Cairndale, Queensland
Sane Australia (2010) Bipolar Disorder, http://www.sane.org/information/factsheets-podcasts/199-bipolar-disorder (last viewed, 9th October, 2013)
Download a pdf of Bipolar Disorder: One Woman’s Story

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