By Catherine Neish
If you were going to write a book about your life, what would be the title? Who would you want to read it? Would you cover anything up? Would you expose an area of your life into the light? I want to lend you a story: ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’. It’s a story about life with mental illness, but with none of the vocabulary you’d expect. You’ll read about depression, psychosis, mania, paranoia, anxiety and you will also read about recovery, finding being, mindfulness, healing, recovery.
‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’
My favourite stories are those that you can relay to a child and the adult reader also finds depth of understanding beyond the literal narrative. Are yours? Well, I hope that ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’, my story about life with mental illness, does just that.
In the last few weeks, I’ve added questions for individuals and book groups at he end of each chapter. I want to make it easier for you to have those ‘mental health conversations’. I find that when I have a metaphor to talk about, those chats are much easier to begin. “Have you read ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’? Well, you know when Lil gets stuck behind a window but can’t understand why she can’t fly – that’s exactly how I feel. I can’t grasp what I’m dealing with.”
A story about life with mental illness
The Flight of the Bumblebee was written over a 25 year period prior to and post my diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. It charts my personal experience using the power of narrative. After writing sections during different periods of illness and recovery, I realised in the final year that each section could work together.
I was brought up in the UK and after I left school at 18 years old, I chose a gap-year abroad so that I could learn French before I began university. There, I began experiencing awful, awful persecuting thoughts. I remember being very harsh on myself: I should ‘get a grip’, ‘stop making mountains out of molehills’. I felt imprisoned inside myself. It felt like a bumblebee trapped behind a window, not understanding or knowing what my problem was all about.
Stigma made me too scared to get help
I truly believed that ‘whatever it was’ was a huge flaw in my personality. Acutely aware of the stigma that can be associated with mental illness, I refused to go to my GP. Why was I so frightened? First of all, I thought that if the words ‘mental health’ were written in my medical notes, the words would be used against me at any medical I would need for my career. Secondly, I believed that medication would make me unnecessarily addicted. Thirdly, I didn’t want formal counselling because I thought it would open a ‘can of worms’ that I couldn’t deal with between appointments.
I opted for the most unsafe option: I simply deeply, deeply wished to believe that the emotional torture would stop! Family and friends who knew I was struggling did too. To be honest, none of us really knew what was going on, and that is also highlighted in this story.
An emotional ‘bungee-jump’
I began Durham University, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I experienced an emotional ‘bungee-jump’ at the end of my final year. It was like riding an emotional roller coaster. My moods swung very quickly from deep depressions to manic highs and then one day, very suddenly, my usual perception broke and my mind was flooded with thoughts, pictures and ideas of a symbolic nature. I lost my sense of social cues and even believed I could fly.
My psychotic manic experiences were very difficult to talk about and that in itself caused a social nightmare. I felt embarrassed and confused. My college, St. John’s College, bent over backwards to help me, nevertheless, I had to be hospitalised for my own safety. I resumed life without wanting any follow-up treatment, and I was sure it would never happen again. However, the emotional pendulum kept swinging.
I become acutely aware of complexities within myself
When the bumblebee finds it hard to remain aware of the garden and the colony, it reminds me of hard times where I become pretty self-absorbed. Hard times make me question myself, and it becomes difficult to distinguish what is ‘me’ from what is ‘illness’. It becomes impossible to hear my own voice affirming what I choose to value in life. It’s harder to perceive other people positively, harder to let go of day-to-day tensions, and harder to sleep. I become acutely aware of complexities within myself.
I had a further breakdown with psychotic depression when I was a third of the way through my Post-Graduate Teacher Training. My thoughts were terrifying and so were the hallucinations. Apparently I looked white with fear. This was the very point in my life when ‘I wasn’t able to take in the extent of the horror or let out any expression of repulsion’. I needed to be hospitalised, given medication and I also agreed to electro-convulsive treatment (ECT). I was given a diagnosis of Bipolar Affective Disorder and some people even thought I would never work again.
Coming to terms with life with mental illness
I couldn’t ignore that I had serious illness anymore! My family and supportive friends helped me enormously. I accepted that I needed medication and I willingly took Lithium Carbonate, as prescribed, with other drugs to make a personalised pharmaceutical cocktail. The combination therapy, arranged by my psychiatrist, was working well. By this stage, I was happier to take medication as I could certainly feel its benefits, but it took me years and years to come to terms with the horror of the illness and especially audio, visual and somatic hallucinations.
When we hear people talk about mental illness, we don’t often hear about the effects of stress on the body, tense muscles, headaches, digestion or other physical pains. Yet, mental illness can bring physical signs of stress as well as emotional stress. In the story, I have tried to include physical signs of stress for the bumblebee.
Consciously working with therapies
I think we all can make choices about our mental health. Sometimes it is easier to make skilful choices than at others, but choosing to work with a therapy can mark a turning point. Consciously working with the therapies, whether they’re talking therapies, physiotherapy, occupational therapy or art therapy, music therapy and dance therapy and so on, is beneficial. I am sure that choosing to recover makes a difference to the speed of recovery.
I was able to return to teacher training due to the enormous support from my tutor at Homerton College, Cambridge University. Visiting the local bipolar group was also helpful as it gave me a chance to learn from my own and other people’s experiences of life with mental illness. Some members there were working and a few were teachers, which inspired me to pursue my own teaching career.
Help from mental health services
I began my first teaching post in a rural secondary school, starting on a 45% contract, and I still teach part-time for health reasons. In that particular rural area there were no opportunities to meet other people with bipolar. However, a very competent Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) supported me on a continuous basis. I was helped by mental health services in pastoral and in practical ways.
I have felt that all the mental health professionals with whom I have worked (Occupational Therapists, Social Workers and Psychologists) have become ‘professional friends’. They are there to join hands with and face, with me, a shared reality. I think that is why I find them so valuable. They provide a guide for me to measure my moods and perspectives.
‘Bee-ing’ describes my calmer and settled moods
I wrote about ‘bee-ing’ or wellbeing nearly ten years after I had written about the bumblebee crashing against the window. Bee-ing reflects the calmer and settled moods I felt. Life was kind. I found it easier to cope with day-to-day activities when my life ran at a gentler pace.
I know that, for me, symptoms of bipolar can be natural responses to life’s major ups and downs. Sometimes, it can be difficult to experience normal reactions without wondering whether I’ll become ill with a bipolar episode. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that everyone’s feelings need to be validated, whether they have bipolar or not!
The wisdom I have gathered over the years
Good friends and family members gently let me know if my feelings are not quite in proportion to my life’s events. Therefore, my life can be managed more assertively, and it is ultimately healthier for everyone. The message of the ‘air’ is the wisdom I have gathered over the years as I have listened and learnt from some of the largest world faiths, others and grown through my own experiences.
What about suicide? I admit that sometimes I am my own worst ‘thought-enemy’. I’ve experienced suicidal thoughts and have wanted to be granted blessed relief from my mind. I’ve heard many people say that suicide is selfish. I don’t think it’s about being selfish because at those times I have felt I have totally lost my ‘self’. I do get through though, somehow. Thankfully, most of the time, I have a healthier perspective and find life meaningful, life-affirming and fun!
A ‘mental health disability’?
How do I feel about having a ‘mental health disability’? When I meet other people with any long-term illness or disability, I feel a great sense of alliance with them. Nevertheless, the labels I’ve been given have, at times, created problems for me. The 3 D’s, coined by society, to describe bipolar: ‘disabled’, ‘disorder’, ‘disease’, are themselves disabling and can worsen existing symptoms.
The price of being pigeon-holed as ‘abnormal’ includes stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Mental health comes with a vocabulary of its own, and all the words seem to carry negative connotations that can be stumbling blocks. In my experience, other people’s irrational preconceived ideas about ‘madness’ are often amplified when the illness raises its head – presenting me with a double whammy! At these times, it is good to be viewed simply as an ordinary person with bipolar.
Diagnosis should be a route to the right care
In my view, the diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder’ should simply be seen as a heading for a range of psychiatric therapies, psychological therapies and additional therapies which can help control symptoms and help you to manage life with mental illness. It is a ticket to care, which includes protection by disability legislation.
With a diagnosis of ‘Bipolar Disorder’, people can legitimately say that they need time to eat healthy food, exercise, relax and go for a good work-life balance because they deserve the best foundation for good health. Helpful friends and relations find out about bipolar and also realise that no two people diagnosed with bipolar are alike because no two people are alike in the first place!
It’s crucial that workplaces are supportive
If someone with Bipolar Disorder can work, then it is crucial that the workplace is supportive. I do not find it easy living with bipolar secretly simply to protect myself from stigma. Nor is it easy to disclose that I have Bipolar Disorder!
I think there is less stigma than there was 10 years ago, but there is still a way to go before employers find helpful ways to support employees with mental health problems. Currently, I teach at a special needs school, and in past years my colleagues and senior staff have been supportive. I know, however, that it is rare to find such support in the workplace!
Therapies and counselling
In my early 30s, I was more open to other therapies, especially counselling. Psychotherapy has helped me realise how important it is to deal with emotional issues at the appropriate time and in an appropriate way. Storing emotions from childhood has been counterproductive for me and my lack of assertiveness has been self-detrimental in the past. At that time, writing became a major part of the way I processed my thoughts and opened my eyes to the choices I could make which would help me manage my mental health more skilfully.
It was the counselling process that led me to reflect on the air we breathe to keep us alive. Why do I love the concept of the air? It is an unseen worker. Spirituality describes aspects of life that we can’t touch, taste or see. Many guides to well-being recommend exploring spirituality.
In my view, prayer, meditation and thinking about what transcends beyond the here and now, such as beauty, laughter, love, understanding, peace, a sense of interconnectedness are part of well-being, and essential to managing life with mental illness. They are challenging, and helpfully so. Acknowledging spirituality provides a deep-seated sense of meaning, purpose and belonging. It is also very good to feel part of a community either through work, faith or secular groups.
The art of relaxation
Relaxation is an art and a science. By doing the things I love and that make me feel very safe and secure, I can learn more about the art of relaxation. I’m part of a drama therapy group, which I go to one evening a week and have done so for the last 6 years. It is a very positive and supportive group which often uses the ‘here and now’ for material. I’ve learnt that combining sound with movement is a really good way to get a break from constant unskilful ways of thinking.
I enjoy a variety of relaxing activities between drama therapy evenings, walking, gym, drama, swimming, yoga, gardening, art and writing. There is a huge variety of relaxation, meditation and hypnosis CD’s; the secret lies in regular practise. When I consciously give myself time to relax each day, I can almost memorise how it feels to be deeply relaxed and save it for a rainy day.
I hope you enjoy ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’
Currently, I teach and I’m training to become a counsellor. I have also have a magazine style blog. I’m not ‘sorted’ but, at the moment, I’m managing my life with mental illness better than I have been able to in the past.
I hope you enjoy The Flight of the Bumblebee.