By Clare Sherrard
Key Themes: Mental Health, Substance Abuse, Medication, Diagnosis, anorexia, bulimia, cannabis addiction, alcoholism, OCD, Borderline Personality Disorder, drug induced psychosis and Schizoaffective Disorder
Carry On Psychiatry! This is a pretty good description of this book as my life has seemed at times like a bad but fairly smutty joke involving a lot of mental health professionals. I have been a bit of a walking psychiatric disaster for the past 20 years and this book chronicles the merry hell that I have been through with a list of diagnoses which are probably longer than your arm – anorexia, bulimia, cannabis addiction, alcoholism, OCD, Borderline Personality Disorder, drug induced psychosis and Schizoaffective Disorder. The narrative essentially deals with my descent into various shades of madness thanks to substance abuse and an early life that was blighted by family dysfunction and tragedy. However, I have consciously tried not to make it all doom and gloom because ultimately I am a mental health survivor and the book chronicles not just my hardships but also my glories – an Ivy League education, finding my vocation, making peace with my past. Central to my recovery has been clozapine therapy. There is something in the book for every mental health survivor. Who among us hasn’t encountered a sadistic psychiatric nurse on the ward? Who among us hasn’t been down on our knees praying to Jesus/Buddha/Krishna for desperate help? Who among us hasn’t cursed the little yellow tablets for giving us massive ‘pill bellies’? And who among us doesn’t like a good mental health saga of a plucky heroine overcoming the odds despite her many foibles? For the mentally healthy, the book is still a rollicking good read and all proceeds of the book will go to PRAXIS (Coleraine branch), a Northern Irish mental health charity for whom I am a voluntary tutor.
About the Author
Clare Sherrard was born in 1978 in County Armagh in Northern Ireland. She had a fairly normal childhood until one day her eldest sister suffered a severe injury whilst riding a horse. This tragedy cast a long shadow over both Clare’s life and indeed her whole family’s life. At home, things began to unravel with marital infidelity, alcoholism, financial penury and domestic violence. The teenage Clare turned to self injury and survived a serious suicide attempt in 1994 when she was 15 – she was later diagnosed with having Borderline Personality Disorder. Clare had always been extraordinarily bright and threw herself into her studies as a coping mechanism. Overcoming a bout of severe anorexia in 1996, Clare went on to gain four top A Level scores and a place at the University of St Andrews to study International Relations. She went onto further academic success with an M Phil in Ethnic and Racial Studies in Trinity College Dublin. It was during her period at both universities that she became addicted to marijuana and this led to terrifying bouts of drug induced psychosis. After fleeing the drug culture in Dublin, she came back North but remained plagued by psychosis. She also struggled with alcoholism. Clare was hospitalised 3 times between 2005-2010 and she was eventually diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. However, she has not let these challenges weigh her down. Clare is a Reiki Master, reflexologist, nail technician, nail artist, tarot card reader and palmist. She makes jewellery and also teaches this on a voluntary basis. At the heart of these abilities is the success Clare has had in taking Clozapine which is enabling her to find out what her vocation is and what her purpose in life is. What she can do to assist other mentally ill people is at the forefront of her mind and her mission.
When I was discharged, I went to stay with my father. My darling baby Fly was dispatched to us so we could take her out every day on nice long walks. I was cured of anorexia but I now had a stinking case of bulimia. Everything I ate, I felt compelled to purge and I’m sure I tortured my poor father puking every thing he fed me. Whenever I left his place to go back home, I brought back with me 23 plastic bags full of vomit. Nice ain’t it?
However, before I went home, my father and I had an ‘exciting’ trip to the city of Oxford in England. I had put in a half arsed application to study Ancient History at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University. Why? I do not know. Intellectual vanity? Heck, I had to give it a go or I would never know. I was not assisted with this application in any form by the teachers in my school. And I went to Oxford less than a week of getting out of the Bin. My father and I endured a long train ride from Stranraer to Oxford and I got to stay in the student quarters.
I met the other students, and I know I am probably speaking stereotypically here and you probably expect it from me as I was rejected from the college, but they really were a pack of knobs. The applying students were great but the actual citizens of the college were alarmingly… irritating. There were pub crawls and daddy and I went shopping. The interview was a failure – I told my interrogators that I wanted to do Ancient History because I enjoyed I Claudius and one of them kept asking “Why did Robert Graves write about Claudius? Why Claudius? Why Claudius?”. Erm, I dunno. Maybe because it was an interesting story. When we got back home and the result came through that it was a big fat no to Oxford, I cried bitterly and proclaimed to my father – ‘Nothing good ever happens to me’. In retrospect, it was a very good thing that I did not get accepted by Oxford. I could not have tolerated the pressures and I doubt I would have made any friends. It was not to be and I am glad with the way things panned out.
I went back home to my mother in December 1996, just before Christmas. I remained tormented by bulimia. I was referred to an eating disorders social worker. My father would meet me every week and we would have a cup of tea in Coleraine and a natter. I remember one time I had watched Dawn of the Dead (the original 1970s George Romero version) on TV for the first time the night before and I was blown away by it. I regaled my father with my tale of the zombies. He was a horror freak like me after all. That was my paternal genetic inheritance!
The bulimia was hard to cope with. It is an awful illness. With anorexia you get a sense of purity and self righteousness which comes from not eating and being ‘good’. With bulimia you feel like a demented, out of control pig with filthy habits. I took to the drink (as we put it here in Ireland) and wallowed in gin for a while, crying my eyes out in the evenings. My days were occupied with my older sister’s (the teacher) new Labrador puppy Misty who was cute as a button but who could pooh and pee for Ireland. I went down with Fly everyday to see Misty, mop up her ablutions and take her for a walk. The two dogs clicked and in the future, Fly would turn out to be the only dog Misty ever genuinely liked. She could tolerate other dogs at a push but she had authentic regard for Fly. Misty was a cracker of a dog, an amazing swimmer and just like Fly was to me – she was my sister’s beloved baby.