Featured on The Guardian. Author: Mark Kilbey
When I was a child, my mum said I had a depressive personality. I was prone to low periods that intensified as I reached adulthood and when I started my police career.
There was and still is a huge stigma around mental health, so I, like many others, tried to mask it in the hope it would go away. In secret, I visited my GP for what they thought was clinical depression, worried that my job as a detective would be compromised. I managed to convince other people that I was living a normal and successful life, but behind closed doors I was living a different story – just about managing to cope with my depressive episodes. When in a manic phase, I couldn’t sleep and would work 18-hour days. I wasn’t really looking at the evidence that I had a serious mental illness.
Unable to sustain the charade, I lost my job and embarked on a new career project managing building sites. Now working alone, I slipped further into depression. After a particularly hard day, I found myself contemplating taking my life so that all my problems would go away. From that moment, it was all I could think about. Several failed suicide attempts later, I checked myself into hospital.
After I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I struggled to relate to the therapeutic treatment on offer, so gave up on it. It was only at my last admission that I decided I had to try something and made some clay egg cups in the shape of chicks. Keen to put them to use, I asked my occupational therapist where I could boil eggs and was told I couldn’t. I felt inept, but needed to do something; my occupational therapist finally let me make pizza for the other people on the ward.
This was my turning point. Sharing pizza that I’d cooked myself not only made me feel useful, but gave me a way to start conversations with other people. I let go of previous thoughts that I was not like the other patients and allowed myself to share my emotions in a way I’d never done before.
Mental illness can bring with it a sense of guilt and shame, but here I wasn’t judged. I was with others who had gone through the same as me, many whose illnesses had destroyed their lives. I learned about their insights, coping strategies and how they planned on staying well when discharged. At last I felt heard and gradually saw the positive effect on my wellbeing. With the right diagnosis, medication and peer support, I started to feel well.
There was a lack of peer-to-peer support therapy in the UK, and I found myself asking: if this was a huge part of my recovery, couldn’t it work for others? When I joined the charity, first as a volunteer, I was keen to offer this service – aren’t people who manage their mental illness the best people to advise on the condition?
Take Off helps 3,500 people in Kent in this way. Everyone who works for us, from the trustees to the cleaner, has experienced mental health difficulties. All our services, from support to creative groups, are designed, developed and delivered by service users. I hope this model continues to help others so they can get back to their own normality. Full peer-to-peer support gives people some of the things that are still missing in recovery.
I’ve been well and managed my condition for several years. If I can get better after what I’ve been through, I think it’s possible for others too – I’m not all that special.
The one thing this has taught me is that mental illness does not have to be a death sentence.
- Mark Kilbey is director of the charity Take Off