By John Sawkins
Key Themes: mental health, poetry, prose
About the Author
Recovery tends to imply some notion of going back to your old self. After all, that is what your friends and relations would most like – perhaps clinicians, too. For the author, however, this was not to be an option. He decided to dump the garbage and start afresh with a new persona, after experiencing a hypo-manic episode just at the turn of the millennium.
Like many who experience the life-changing effects of having had a nervous break-down, he found himself impelled to cultivate a totally different existence to that of the person he used to be. Fortunately for him, his employers were sufficiently sympathetic to allow him to indulge his more creative side and he effectively abandoned the modern language teaching he had done for thirty years, lecturing instead in more creative pursuits such as music and photography.
That is not to say that he had never had such interests, however. It was just that he never found the time to indulge them. After the break-down (which, incidentally, he regards as being the start of a therapeutic healing process), he could sense the need to adopt more right-brain oriented thinking, and a number of long-cherished aspirations came to fruition as a result. He felt the need to remove the clutter from his thinking, jettison the unwanted baggage and embrace a fascinating – if somewhat more challenging – future.
First of all, he recorded a CD of songs he had written back in 1968. Then he joined the Caithness Big Band and tried to teach himself bass guitar – in that order! he subsequently joined the North Coast Jazz Band and has been with them for around eight years now. More recently, he succeeded in getting his poems Rare Frequencies published through Chipmunka.
Recovery has been achieved by following his own best instincts and reading widely about mental illness, the history of its treatment and opinions of a wide variety of professionals who have challenged the received wisdom of their colleagues particularly concerning the long-term use of medication to modify behaviour patterns.
Taking up advocacy work through Advocacy Highland proved to be a kind of therapy for the author. He needed to get out of the self-pitying self obsession that isolation can bring. It is important, he feels, to avoid scenarios where negative thoughts and downward spiral syndromes are reinforced.
So what was it, you may rightly ask, that he recovered from? To be honest, he is not exactly sure, but since he exhibited some cyclothymic behaviour, that might have suggested bipolar just as the psychiatrist initially thought; but there were also other aspects of his behaviour patterns that did not quite fit the bill.
During the four weeks he spent in a psychiatric hospital, he had no choice but to take the medication (haloperidol, procycladine and zopiclone); but once he was out of there – and he is not necessarily implying that this was the most advisable course of action, though, at the time, it seemed quite reasonable – he decided to go cold turkey. Most folk who try this end up regretting it, for various reasons: some realise that they cannot function without their medication, and, however reluctantly, are forced to acknowledge the error of their ways. Others find the detoxification process altogether too horrendous. Still, he decided to ride out the storm, and this took about four weeks. He has not taken any form of medication now for ten years since that date.
His employer did not wish him to return to work as quickly as he himself had hoped, so, in the interim, he needed to find something useful to do. He discovered The Stepping Stones, a local drop-in facility for people with mental health issues, and soon found out that part of his therapy was to be found in acting as a volunteer. The advantage for the centre was that, having experienced a similar state of mind to the users of the centre (schizophrenia, bipolar, borderline personality disorder, etc), the author was better able to converse with them. Self-disclosure can do wonders when trying to open up people to discussion. He did poetry, art and music with the members and it was during such activities that spontaneous discussion arose. In helping others, he discovered an ability to help himself: his preoccupation with his condition and that destructive form of self-obsession that seems to accompany mental illness started to ebb away, as he found himself increasingly interested in and concerned about the issues preoccupying the members.
Six months after his “episode”, he was pronounced sufficiently recovered to return to his former job as section leader for communications in a college of further education. It was to be a further four years before he took on additional work as a volunteer with Advocacy Highland. He would like to think that his contribution to tribunals, meetings, and care review plans has made a significant difference, in a positive way.
There appeared to be three choices facing him as the would-be recoverer: independence, dependency or interdependence. He preferred the latter, though he could see the attractions of the other two, as well. In some ways, he learned most from fellow-sufferers, and this is where his concept of interdependence started, but he instinctively knew that he would eventually have to learn to be interdependent in a world that did not solely comprise fellow-sufferers.
Medication and the various professional services, he feels, can inadvertently lead you down the road to dependency. This can encourage co-dependency issues, where both supporter and sufferer have difficulties weaning themselves off the relationship. Independence was another alternative, but, as he was soon to discover, no man is an island, and we need our friends and partners in order to lead a half-way normal life. He puts his road to recovery down in no small measure to meeting his wife, Aileen, whom he married in 2006. Whether he has totally “recovered” is for others to judge, but at sixty-one he can say with some degree of certainty that he now very much enjoys life with all its little ups and downs.
Though the main character, Matthew, inevitably has many character traits in common with the author, he is really more of a composite mixture of a whole plethora of personalities, borderliners and eccentrics, and acts as a mouthpiece for their shared plight, advocating on their behalf, too, at times. Since Matthew was never content to be just one individual, he became what might consequently be referred to as a dividual. We follow his various reincarnations, as he flits, like a butterfly, between professions, roles and identities. Though his character is by no means unsullied, (he’s more of an anti-hero) he eventually finds redemption, after he agrees to dump his charade of an identity and become, instead, what he might have been.
The reader will be faced by a number of challenges from the very start, for which a paradigm shift in his or her Weltanschauung may be required. Characters interact and join discussions across past, present and future time zones, both face-to-face and through the use of virtual reality devices. The dead communicate with the living and vice versa. They do this by meeting up inside Matthew’s head. Unless the reader has experienced a world where he or she can no longer differentiate between reality and fantasy, the blurring of the distinction between the two will be hard to imagine. Suffice it to say, that for some of us, our fantasy world is altogether more vivid, exciting and ‘real’ than our shared ‘reality’ with you normal people!
Language plays a key role in Matthew’s existence. He is constantly on the look-out for meaning. This perhaps justifies the inclusion of some rather esoteric material that flits from etymology to plays-on-words, occasionally across a number of foreign languages: primarily these are French, Latin and German. Just as he likes to extract meaning, however, Matthew is equally fascinated by the process of encryption of meaning. The roles he most successfully adopts are those of intermediary, and whether as a code-breaker, an interpreter or a medium, Matthew would no doubt have excelled, had he taken such opportunities offered to him when he was a young adult.
Like the communist German writer, Bertolt Brecht, Matthew has scant regard for religion, but he draws on the stories from the Bible in much the same way as Brecht did. And like Saint Paul, who ‘saw the light’ on the road to Damascus, Matthew, too, suddenly has his eyes opened after a lifetime of visual impairment, both literally and figuratively speaking. Whether we are believers or non-believers, there does appear to be an identifiable ‘God spot’ that occasionally lights up during functional magnetic resonance imaging. (fMRI). Perhaps mankind needs to rely on leaps of faith from time to time to adjust the intellectual balance which tends to be always biased in favour of the so-called ‘laws’ of science.
Along with the clutter of a superabundance of material possessions that really could do with recycling out to charity shops, and the like, Matthew has amassed during his lifetime a veritable dung-heap of emotional baggage and intellectual crap. Jean-Paul, the spirit-guide, assists him in the process of exorcising his demons, thus making space for new ideas and plans. In the bewildered state we find Matthew, the figure of Jean-Paul emerges as a trustworthy beacon who can guide him back towards sanity. Matthew has to decide what is truly worth keeping, valuable and collectable; what needs to be recycled; and what needs to go for garbage disposal. But he does not automatically throw things away: he first has to see if they can be fixed or repaired; just like the broken souls of the mentally ill. We all have a duty to do everything in our power to help them recover and not effectively consign them to the ‘happy dumping ground’.
Matthew was highly sceptical of scientists’ claims to have recently identified the genes responsible for schizophrenia: tiny genetic mutations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms. Since the same research no longer made a distinction between bipolar and schizophrenia, he promptly contacted Catherine and Alison, Brian and Graham to inform them that he was not so different from them, after all. Bipolars are perhaps no more and no less dysfunctional than schizophrenics: they have just been given a different badge to wear. So what does this ground-breaking research all mean? For the sufferers, remarkably little. It signifies merely that yet another generation of drugs will be manufactured for compliant zombies to take, just in order to make money for the shareholders in the pharmaceuticals industry.