Pride and pragmatism

I’ve always been a bit confused about pride. My parents were atheists, but my allegedly Anglican grandma (although I never knew her to go to church beyond the hatch, match and dispatch variety of service) would tell me that pride was a sin. This view was sometimes echoed in school assemblies, leaving me baffled when those very same teachers, frustrated by untidy handwriting and ink blots, would tell me that I needed to take more pride in my work.

When I signed up as a student midwife in 2000, our lecturers were very clear that we should feel proud, that in electing to become midwives we were embracing a special role as autonomous practitioners. “When you walk down the corridor in that uniform, you can hold your head high,” a lecturer told us on our first day, “because. You. Are. A. Mid. WIFE!” We got the message: we were supposed to see ourselves as a cut above mere nurses.

I couldn’t wait to get started. I was already a qualified  antenatal teacher running classes for the National Childbirth Trust, but I yearned to be in the delivery room, to be what our lecturers called “hands on”. My clinical mentors taught me to practice skillfully, to combine the science of the university with the art of the delivery room, to help women give birth where possible without the need of doctors, without the need for intervention. I took as much pride in carefully catching a baby or skilfully delivering a placenta as I did in my academic work. “Midwifery is the best job in the world!” my delivery suite mentor would say, before praising my intuition, my dexterity, my commitment to our clients. I knew she was right on all counts.

I quickly began to feel that midwifery was my absolute vocation, that if you sliced me down the middle you would see not a collection of viscera but “Mid. WIFE!” I started to feel that I was born to be a midwife, that I excelled at it and was already one step ahead of the rest of my cohort. The work was stressful, naturally. I was juggling classes and essays with clinical shifts and a young family. I was working people in extreme pain, where bad outcomes were possible, sometimes rushing into theatre, my heart in my mouth. I was sleeping very little, yet I felt more than able to live with the stress, to use it as a springboard for success. I was flying high, already envisioning a bright future in the profession, and so very proud of my progress.

Pride, my grandma also liked to remind me, comes before a fall.

I have seen mental heath crisis described as the point where you are no longer able to take care of yourself, where you fear that without immediate support your mind is in danger of snapping. For me, there is an additional element to a crisis, that of being stripped of all pride. Because it’s the point where I can no longer pretend, no longer put up a front or wear a mask of normality. It’s the point at which I no longer have a choice about who gets to see my suffering, and where. It’s all out there, in public, whether I like it or not.

Pride (or what I would now recognise as grandiosity, a tell-tale sign of hypomania, just like sensation of flying high, like the sleeplessness) came before an overdose. It came before being wheeled by paramedics through the front door of the very hospital I worked in. Pride came before realising that the chair of the local NCT was working on reception, before hearing the horror in her voice as she left her post and ran towards my trolley. Ensconced in A&E, numerous concerned relatives stood over me as I crawled around the cubicle floor in a hospital gown, leaning over an emesis basin and shoving my own fingers down my throat in response to the unbearable nausea. I no longer felt human, because I didn’t have any of the things that made up my persona – the ability communicate, the ability to relate to other people, the ability to care who saw my knickers.

In the 11 years since the overdose, yet my life has continued to be dominated by the peculiar tension between bipolar disorder and pride. I have continued to swing from the pathological pride of grandiosity to the pain of feeling stripped bare, the pain of having to allow unfriendly colleagues, bemused in-laws or unsympathetic duty doctors see just how desperate I am.

In my eight years of remission, I build what felt like a solid career with the National Probation Service. I did well, moving up through the ranks, doubling income in a few years. Was I wrong to be proud of my achievements? Of course not. Did I know how to separate pride in my work from bipolar pride, know how to notice the subtle slide into grandiosity? Unfortunately, no. The fall came when I could not stop crying openly at work and had to take leave. The fall continued when I lost my managerial contract, was forced to take step backwards to practitioner grade. I was once a skilled report writer, pulling together complex information from a variety of sources; after the fall, I couldn’t read a single page letter from the DWP. I found it humiliating to lost my work identity and it took me a long time to process my shift from professional person to “client material”.

As I consolidate my recovery, I am beginning to return to the world of work. If I have learned one thing from this most recent episode, though, it’s that this time I need to be pragmatic. I could easily take on more and more work; I like it when people to ask me to undertake jobs/tasks, and I hate to say no. And for a time, I would be fine doing that. Experience has taught me, however, that I cannot sustain it long term. The prideful part of me wants to prove how I can achieve in my new field, how high I can fly and how quickly I can get there but the newer, more pragmatic me, means relinquishing the buzz I get from pride.

I hope, though, that it also means reducing the pain of my next fall.



About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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8 Responses to Pride and pragmatism

  1. julie mccallum says:

    I found this really really moving, I totally get where you are coming from as been in the same sort of situations myself in the work place (never was nurse or anything so important tho) at inland revenue I was sacked and escorted from building by 3 security personel and couldn’t have given a toss I had been crying at work for weeks by that point and didn’t know up from down this following full on stress n targets for months & thriving on it. Very well put !

  2. butterflywgs says:

    Powerful post. Xxx

  3. karonn says:

    Somewhat desperate yesterday searched “Words of encouragement for the depressed.”
    I was looking for affirmations, but found identification in the words of C and others. Each post I have read clarifies the exhausting life of burning down ones house (so far metaphorically in my case) only to rebuild and then to be torn down time and again.
    I find myself now –past two years– having given up altogether.
    “Oh, but Karon you have such great potential,” say every friend or therapist. After 35 years of hearing this leaves me as C says, a greater sence of guilt and failure. Previous strengths and talents gone: Concentration, organization, planning, creativity and even humor.
    Self disapline non-existent. I’ve packed on 40 lbs. And then there are the bills, and bankruptcy and all kinds of disasters piling up (including two parking tickets that are about ready to have me arrested because and I can’t get it together).
    It is as though who I am has been high-jacked by a useless slug. Knowing C has not given up and continues to walk/write though it, helps me believe my house could be rebuilt again, and yet, my head and heart tell me the disappointment is not worth it. That I can not stand to lose everything again. That hope is a fools game because decompensation will steal it all as it always has. But, for the sake of family, here I am.
    Thank you for letting me get it out. Love Karon

    • Hi Karon and I hope you don’t mind if I send you a (((hug))) I was just discussing with a friend how much the internet has changed things, how much less alone I feel than I did when I was first diagnosed 18 or so years ago. Being able to read others’ stories has helped me so much. I really related to the idea of building things, only to have to watch them be torn down. Having a long remission (2002-2010) felt great – but in a way I had further to fall, having built up so much in that time. I relapsed in summer 2010 and only just now I am I able to start to rebuild things. After almost 3 years sick, I am about to get going (I hope!) with a new career. Really hope that you can find some peace and stability too. Love, Charlotte

  4. This sounds like my life at school. I think pride can be deadly if instilled into you at a young age and made to believe, I refused to ask for help until I was verging death at multiple points (sitting there after an OD thinking why couldn’t I have just asked for help). Thank yoi for writing something to help other feel less alone in what they are going through.

  5. Pingback: What’s it really like to live with mental illness? Stephen Fry, bipolar and suicide | Sectioned

  6. Pingback: Bipolar Depression: My Recurring Nightmare | Shaheen Hashmat

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