Originally posted last January…
In which I will examine how I seem to have traded my life for a label without looking to see whether or not it could be peeled off.
My first introduction to the wonderful world of mental illness came in the shape of a Sunday supplement article, luridly illustrated with spiders and scrabbling fingers and screaming mouths. I was at primary school and we were tearing up newspapers to make paper mache and I saw the spiders and fingers and mouths and that was that. Madness. That was what it was all about. I must have been about seven years old. I folded the paper up and took it home and looked at it later in my bedroom. It was terrifying. I was already something of a hypochondriac, and this ushered in a whole host of appalling new possibilities – that my mind might be over run with creepy crawlies, that my thoughts might be drowned out by wails and shrieks of unknown origin. Spiders and fingers and mouths. I obsessed about it in private – and for the next few years would hold my breath whenever we drove past the local psychiatric hospital, fearful that I might inhale the contagion of insanity.
Insanity – with its spiders and fingers and mouths – was frank psychosis; my child’s mind wasn’t yet nuanced enough to understand that one’s mental state might be a finely stratified spectrum. You were sane or you were howling mad. I remember overhearing my parents talking about someone they knew who’d lost the plot and shot his family and then his self. He must have had a brainstorm, they said. I imagined the poor man, clutching his head, shaking it against the howling winds that whipped through and around it, blinded and disoriented by the brainstorm, feeding shells into his shotgun in the dark. My dad had a large cabinet full of guns, and I began to look at him suspiciously, ever watchful for any impending psychiatric apocalypse that might drive him to slaughter us, moral compass sent spinning by a brainstorm of his own.
Just another hideous, long shadowed terror – but childhood’s full of them, and this was maybe no more significant than any of the other nonsenses that used to keep me awake at night, listening for footsteps on the landing.
At around twelve years old, things began to change. In my room on my own I would burst into tears for no reason that I could discern. I began to imagine myself dead. I would write elaborate suicide notes, apologising to my parents, then cry over them, heartbroken, before destroying them. Nobody ever read them – that wasn’t the point. I’m not sure what the point was, but I’m sure there was some element of self torture involved, some perverse impulse to make myself feel as wretched as possible, and then try to make myself feel worse. Life wasn’t really bad enough to justify such industrial strength despair. I was popular with my peers and teachers, academically gifted if rather lazy and disorganised, in good health. My mum was quite emotionally distant – my dad was physically distant, spending most of his free time wandering around the countryside on his own shooting things. He didn’t understand me. I annoyed him. I was too bookish and delicate for his liking – but so what? Not enough to explain such persistent misery.
When I was fourteen, my dad’s brother murdered his wife and killed himself, and my cousin came to live with us for a while. Not for very long – a year or so and then he was gone and my parents’ marriage finally came far enough off the rails that it was never going to get back on them again. There was a hideous period when my dad would mope around the house sighing and sitting in darkened rooms cleaning his guns and looking very much to me like he was whistling up a brainstorm. He then moved out, and the threats grew more explicit – he did actually go round town with pre-Dunblane handguns in his car, telling people he was planning to murder us. I went to college and started my A levels and thought about buying a gun to take my dad down before he got the chance to make good on his threats. I never did and he never did and I drifted into smoking a bit of hash and spending my student grant on booze, and after a year of this I ended up pitching a full blown panic attack. I was so alarmed that I went straight to the doctor – and that’s when I got handed my label…