So long, lithium

I can tell you pretty accurately when I started taking lithium, because I blogged about it (wow, I have been blogging for a long time). In fact, that post tells me that it’s very nearly seven years to the day. If you checkout out you’ll see that I was very apprehensive about lithium, although I was amused to discover that it once provided the “up” in 7 Up. I was worried about all sorts of things, the blood tests, potential renal or thyroid function damage, the risk of toxicity. What I never worried about was the possibility of it… not working.

There has been no time in the intervening seven years that I have thought for one minute, “I think the lithium at least does something.” It seemed relatively easy to get my blood serum level to a therapeutic one, although it took quite a high dose (1.2g) to achieve this, but considering it remains the “gold standard” treatment for stabilising mood I have been consistently disappointed in lithium’s failure to have any effect. I have, at times, felt the lamotrigine improve my functioning. Lurasidone has been a game changer. But lithium? Nope. I don’t even really have any side effects. I felt very nauseous after taking it when I first started, but that was quickly solved by learning to swallow it with a starchy snack. So overall, I don’t feel any good effects, and I don’t feel any bad effects. What I feel is… nothing. And in recent years I have been wondering why I am still taking a drug that I feel does nothing, yet could be secretively eroding my kidney or thyroid function.

It’s been a relatively low-maintenance affair really, considering all my worries about the blood tests. These quickly settled down to every three months. It wasn’t a faff or a hassle – until my recent stay in hospital. My bloods came back with a serum level of 1.0mmol/L (against a usual 0.8) and suddenly everyone was in a flap, the hospital doctors, my Community Psychiatric Nurse and, especially, the Crisis Team. A Royal College of Psychiatrists summary of various guidance documents suggests that 1.0 is at the very top of the target range, but not into toxicity territory. I felt fine. I had no worrying symptoms. But the Great Toxicity Flap of 2018 was on.

I was immediately advised to skip a dose, and from then on drop the dose by 1/3 (I had been taking 3x 400mg, so that meant a drop from 1.2g to 800mg). I had a long talk with Tom about where to go from there. It seemed like the time might actually have come to stop taking it all together, because the Flap had reminded me that there were potentially serious costs against (from my perspective) zero benefits. Tom was all for me just stopping then and there, but I did some research and was a little worried about rebound mania. His view was that I have had endless crises and four hospitalisations on it, so if I had another crisis we would never know whether it was caused by stopping the lithium anyway. But I remained cautious, so I’ve been tapering off over several weeks, and tonight – tonight! – will be the final time I take the final dose of 400mg.

I wouldn’t say I was actively doing this against medical advice. Nobody has said, “Charlotte, I strongly urge you to keep taking it,” but my team would prefer for me to do it collaboratively with the psychiatrists. I might have been more inclined to do so had the psychiatrist actually turned up to my last scheduled appointment, but he didn’t, so I left telling the nurse that although I too would’ve liked a shared plan, in the absence of any input I was going to go ahead anyway. My CPN is twitchy and has booked me an appointment with the Consultant, but I can’t get in to see him for another month. In the interim she is trying to get me in to see the no-show guy (I assume he’s a registrar, although I don’t think I have actually been told his grade) but no appointment has been forthcoming as yet.

My blood serum whilst on 800mg came back as 0.5, at the lowest end of the therapeutic window, and I didn’t feel any different. I haven’t felt any different during these last couple of weeks on 1/3 of the original dose. I did say to my CPN at one point that I don’t rule out going back on it if I begin to get ill, but then as Tom says, why bother? I got ill all the time on it anyway.

So. The end of my decidedly lack-lustre relationship with lithium. I know it’s great for some people, I know it saves lives, but it won’t save mine and I’m not a big believer in putting heavy duty drugs in my system for no positive outcome. The only thing that has held me back from dropping it years ago has been fear (mine and clinicians’) that things would get worse without it, but there is no worse to go than the bad times I have had on it. I’ll down the last pill tonight – with  my starchy snack, of course – then it’s so long.


Image shows a supermarket shelf full of two litre bottles of 7 Up fizzy drink. Image by Mike Mozart, located on Flickr and free for commercial use.

Posted in Bipolar, Medication, Mood disorder, Side effects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , ,

Zero hours

So next week I have to go to the GP to ask for an extension to my sick note. After initially signing me off for six weeks they gave me another certificate for four weeks, but this time I have to have a face to face before they will extend it. This means that it’s been ten weeks since my disastrous attempt at working, and in that interval I have been under the Crisis Team, hospitalised, under the Crisis Team again and am undertaking a medication change. I hope that’s enough to persuade the doctor to officially sign me off for at least another four weeks, but if it isn’t, I’ve been thinking about how I can possibly explain to him why I cannot do a job.

The thing is, I already have a job. It’s called “Having a Severe Mental Illness”. It’s not a catchy job title, and it’s not glamorous, but there it is. I wasn’t interviewed for this job but now I’m in it, no one will let me resign.

This job is pretty much a zero-hour contract. I have to be available for its demands 24/7, 52 weeks of the year. I do not know when I will be called up for “duty” as an actively sick person, but when I am, I have no choice but to go into the office. While I’m at the office, I won’t be able to do anything else but work. I could be at work for a few hours, or every day for a couple of months. This makes it very hard to plan any alternative career. Really, I would love to get a proper job, but last time I tried my old work came calling after a few days, pissed off that I had tried to seek alternative employment. I would love even more to be able to do some study, a higher degree maybe, but would work let me, even if I did it part time and flexibly?

Zero hour contracts don’t make for a good social life. I can never fully enjoy myself for fear that work will get in the way. I am scared to have houseguests – what’s the point in them coming if I can’t spend time with them because I am called in? Is it worth getting expensive concert tickets, knowing that on the night of the gig I might have to be in the office? Booking a holiday is a particular gamble. I might try and schedule time off but this is always a fragile arrangement and on numerous holidays the call has come and I’ve had to clock in.

I am exceptionally lucky that my husband has a stable income which allows me to even contemplate these things. My financial reward for being constantly on call is Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), but I don’t just automatically get paid for showing up at the coal face; I have to prove over and over again that I am forced to do the job. You could resign, people tell me, if only you dd the right thing. Do more yoga. Eat the right foods. Stop taking the zombie meds they are feeding you. Whatever there is out there, I have tried it (except the Ancient Art of Molten Russian Healing Metals Performed in a Cave in Australia, which was once proposed to me, probably my own fault I can’t get out of this contract now for not taking the person up on that one).

So here I am. Blocked from career progression.  I have been in the job since school days, it stopped me doing that higher degree when I was a young graduate and may stop me again now. Any chance at fun is overshadowed by the fact that I might never get to see the band, take the flight, eat the lunch. The job has taken many precious hours away from my time with my children. I am constantly at its beck and call. And every month I have to prove that it exists.

Posted in Bipolar, Crisis care, Employment and benefits, Mood disorder, NHS services, Primary care, Self-management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


During my first admission, I was bored. Really bored. Most of the time I sat around talking to other patients. In the absence of communal seating areas not dominated by a blaring TV, we sat on the floor in the corridor. We talked about anything and nothing, watching the micro dramas that played out as ward colleagues vented their frustrations at being refused a smoke or a pair of earbuds, at finding that their phone had not been on charge after all, at being asked to provide a urine sample. I quickly learned that the only way of alleviating the boredom for even a short time was to participate in any and all activities on offer, no matter how much I might usually scorn them.

I went to music group and experimented with percussion instruments I had never seen before. I went to craft sessions, which was like primary school except we weren’t allowed scissors. On Mondays I went to a gentle cardio class, and on Fridays I went to yoga. Once I was allowed to go to another ward for Tai Chi. I swallowed my hatred of the term and went to “recovery group” (I say group, no one else turned up). When it ran, I went to “healthy snacks” which had somehow, much to everyone’s delight, morphed into decorating cookies and making milkshakes. I did try to go to creative writing but it only happened once. All of these activities were organised by the tireless Activities Coordinator because the ward was “between” Occupational Therapists.

I didn’t know much about OT as a profession before I first went to hospital. Occupation in this sense has nothing to do with paid work, but with occupying time in a purposeful, meaningful way. According to the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, OT “provides practical support to empower people to facilitate recovery and overcome barriers preventing them from doing the activities (or occupations) that matter to them. This support increases people’s independence and satisfaction in all aspects of life.”

I appreciated that there was an effort to give us some purpose, but still I was bored. I did not feel that there was enough happening to occupy us to the degree that we would be helped to recover. Mostly there was only one activity for perhaps an hour a day, although if we were super lucky there might be two; sometimes, especially’ at the weekends, there was nothing. In my view, in order to be “occupationally theraped” we needed structure and purpose of something each morning and something each afternoon. For two weeks out of the five that I was there we had almost no activities because the Coordinator was on leave. I moaned about it to Tom and at the ward forum meeting attended by the Consultant and Ward Manager.

When I was in my next unit, I felt vindicated because there I found the structure I was looking for. During my couple of weeks as an inpatient I took part in more, and more imaginative, activities:

  • Singing group (twice a week)
  • Spirituality group
  • Art
  • Card making
  • Time at the gym (which was actually pretty decent)
  • “Nail bar”
  • Music appreciation group
  • Breakfast group (where we cooked bacon and eggs for ourselves)
  • Baking group
  • “Giant” games (Jenga, Connect 4, etc)
  • Relaxation group

I was still bored a lot of the time, but overall I felt both more occupied and more “theraped”. I went out of my way at ward forum meeting to let the OT and his assistant know how much I appreciated the range of the activities. He seemed really gratified.

When I was admitted to my current unit a week and a half ago one of the few things I was cogent enough to ask was, “What sort of activities do you have here?” “Oh, all sorts!” said the nurse checking me in. “Anything you like.” I was really pleased to hear this; I didn’t know how long I’d be in, and I knew how important it was to my recovery from a crisis to have that structure and purpose. The next day, there was no announcement or sign about activities, so I asked a nurse and was told that an OT would let patients know what was happening.

It was a short and easy message to convey. What was happening was: next to nothing. There was an OT room which was not always staffed, and I made sure that I got in there as soon as it was open. I met the OT and her assistant, and asked what there was to do. I was invited to contribute to a mosaic started by prior patients, although the OT explained apologetically that they didn’t have many mosaic tiles any more, so I might want to do some grouting (um, not really) or use some beads. It was hard to get the beads to stick in the adhesive; mosaic tiles are specially designed to adhere. I just about managed to use some alphabet beads to spell out “Quirky is cool”, which was the only vaguely meaningful thing I could think to make out of the letters I had.

I asked what else there was to do, and there were a lot of art materials, but everything was self-directed. There was no organising expertise or suggested theme to motivate the user. I grabbed some brightly coloured strips of Plasticine thinking to model some animals, but despite trying to moisten it, it was too old and too prone to cracking to be useable. I drifted away.

I did appreciate that the OTs were doing rehabilitative activities with individual patients, helping people shower, cook, etc, acquire or reacquire important living skills. They did assessments at people’s homes to see how those skills would be used in practice. A friend of mine could not wear her shoes because her feet were too swollen, and the OT assistant kindly went to her house to find her slippers for her. They were doing good work, but all with individuals.

So what did the rest of us do? Those that could, read – one good thing about the ward was the range of books. There was a surprising amount of classic Russian literature. I can’t help wondering who left that behind when they were discharged. Some people watched telly, but mostly it talked to itself, it was too difficult to find something that everybody wanted to watch. I did watch Love Island a few times, because that won the most number of votes.

In general, people were talking to each other. Yes, that’s a good thing, but it was very inconsequential because people’s stays were short and meaningful relationships were hard to achieve. The activity most commonly engaged in to alleviate the dullness was smoking. Two patients told me that they had been non-smokers when they were admitted but had taken up smoking because of the boredom. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the kind of physical health outcome the Health Board are looking for.

Without meaningful activity designed to produce a therapeutic environment, what is the purpose of a ward? It becomes nothing but a warehouse, a place to contain people until they are no longer a risk to themselves or others. That’s it. Beds instead of shelves, but otherwise just a storage facility. By day three of my admission I was desperate to leave. Not because it was nasty, the staff were lovely, with very few exceptions the patients were nice to be around, there was a lovely garden (for smoking, of course). The food was bad, but it wasn’t dire, and you got a choice. But it was so boring. I didn’t want to be warehoused. I wanted to be occupied at a time when I found it hard to occupy myself until the danger had fully passed.

I know now that when I was complaining on the first unit, I had no idea that I was actually lucky. Since tweeting about the total lack of structure on my last ward, quite a few people have come back to me along the lines of, “Sounds like the ward I was on.” This is a widespread problem. I’m going to write to the Health Board expressing my concerns that any ward should be used as a warehouse and giving my perspective on what it is like to be in a non-therapeutic ward environment. I announced this plan to my Community Psychiatric Nurse, who I think was slightly amused, but I’m very serious about sharing my views. We’re vulnerable people, we’re not boxes, and we deserve better.

Posted in Crisis care, Hospital, Inpatient care, Mental health, Mental health services, Mood disorder, NHS services, Recovery, The arts, Therapy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Revolving door

TW: references to suicide methods

I remember the first time I was in hospital I was sitting on the floor chatting with my friend Phil, when he spotted somebody he recalled from a previous admission. “There’s Paul!” he said, looking really pleased to see him. “Great guy. Lives with his mum. Voice hearer. Whenever the voices start telling him to kill his mum, his CPN (Community Psychiatric Nurse) gets him in here for a few days, they have a little look at his meds, three days later, job done and he’s home.”

I felt sad for Paul. It didn’t seem like much of a life, an existence punctuated by admissions, although I admired his relationship with his CPN and his ability to spot when things were getting risky.

Today, as I was discharged from hospital for the fourth time in two and a half years, I reflected that I was becoming something like Paul. I have to accept now that when I get into a mixed mood state with intrusive, “loud”, relentless thoughts of ending my life, hospital is the best way to make it all stop and give me my head back. A week ago I couldn’t rest, couldn’t enjoy myself, couldn’t focus on anything other than how to run away from Tom and take my life. Now I feel completely normal.

I tried to manage things in the community. I was brave, and confessed to the overdose plan. Tom took charge of my medication boxes. I was brave, and confessed that I had extra boxes he had forgotten about. Then, as I always do, I kicked myself for giving up my means to my end. My CPN was involved in the decision to have Tom hide my meds, but told me that she would be on annual leave the following week.

An overdose now less possible, my whirring brain went on to the next thing. Having thought so much in the past about the train tracks, my mind went there next, especially as around last week I had been, ironically, very triggered by this Samaritans video on preventing railway suicide. I rang my CPN on the last working day before she went away and told her that things were “rough and rocky” (those were the words I believe I used). I don’t think I told her the half of what was in my head, but she was concerned enough to refer me to the Crisis Team.

The Crisis Team were a pleasant surprise. When we moved to Wales we were pretty much told that there was no home treatment as such, and that if I got into a real crisis situation I would have to go to A&E. Yet there they were, within hours of the referral, travelling in pairs and ready to visit twice a day if needed. I wasn’t 100% honest with them at first. My mind had moved on again. I lived in London when I had these kinds of plans before, but now we are in the country where the trains are slow and infrequent and it would have been easy for Tom or the Crisis Team to call the police and track me down. So my next plan was to take a very circuitous rail route to a big city and do the job there. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could keep changing up my route to evade the police.

By this point I was also into the practicalities. Tom and I went for a lovely country walk but in the back of my mind I was thinking about how to leave him my bank and life insurance details, the contents of the notes I would leave for my children, my social media passwords so that he could notify my family and friends. I couldn’t focus on anything. Being with those thoughts was like standing behind a waterfall; the noise of them drowned everything else out, yet I remained curiously emotionally untouched.

If it wasn’t upsetting, though, it was tiring. Boy, was it tiring. The constant plotting and planning and evaluating was absolutely exhausting and in the end it was the exhaustion that drove me to full disclosure. The Crisis Team and I had been having the “Do you think you should be in hospital?” conversation for a couple of days, but on Sunday morning I had come to a point of such utter weariness that I decided that if they offered me admission, I would say yes. I would even tell them the full extent of my planning. I loaded up a couple of books onto my Kindle and charged my wireless headphones. Just in case.

Once everyone knew exactly what I was thinking, things moved very fast. One Crisis Team nurse called ahead to the ward, who said that they didn’t have a bed for me but would accommodate me in a visitors room until someone else was discharged. I packed as quickly as I could, desperately trying to remember my own advice in this BBC video. Everything felt very unreal. We got in the car and set off, following the Crisis Team to the hospital, and I was suddenly very anxious that I might be doing the wrong thing.

When we arrived, I was convinced that I had made a mistake and told everyone that I had changed my mind. Tom and the staff tried to convince me to at least stay one night; it was implied that now I was there, I would not be allowed to go again. “The Crisis Team are as worried about you as I’ve seen them in a long time,” said the nurse in charge. I cried and cried because it seemed there was no going back. When I saw that there was no actual bed in the visitors room, just a mattress on the floor, I cried harder.

But do you know what? It fixed me. Like all three of my previous admissions, being in hospital took the obsessive thoughts of absconding and/or killing myself and chucked them out of the window. Once in an environment where I can’t carry out my plans, they wither and die. Yes, tragically, people can and do take their own lives while in hospital, but it is much, much harder and only certain methods push my obsessive buttons. Again, I could try to abscond, but if being picked up the police was one of my main concerns, that wouldn’t be the smartest of moves.

On Monday, I felt so much better. I could think again, breathe again. I got my own room. On Tuesday I cried a lot, which I take to be a massive release of pent up tension. On Wednesday (yesterday) I was a tiny bit hypomanic, and woke up desperate to go for a run in the garden. This too, I have learned, is my usual pattern. By the afternoon I felt like… me. Again. I felt so well that the boredom of the ward really began to chafe. I have been on the three mental health units now, and without a doubt this one had the very least to offer in terms of ward activities. Two people told me that they had gone in non-smokers and taken up smoking just to counteract the boredom. I’m pretty sure that’s not the health outcomes the NHS is looking for. I began agitating for discharge and it was agreed that if I went out with Tom yesterday and felt OK, I could go home today.

I did feel OK. I felt supremely normal. “I feel,” I said to Tom, “that I have come back to myself.” He kissed me. I had come back to him too.

Tom, the ward psychiatrist and my favourite Crisis Team nurse were at my discharge meeting today and we discussed what it was about admission that had been beneficial. As a group, we drew the conclusion that in crisis, short admissions are, for me, the way to go. That perhaps I should even be asking for a hospital bed earlier, once I know things have become really risky. I never would have thought of myself as a person needing multiple admissions, but here I am, four under my belt, and all four did the job. Maybe I am Paul, and maybe Paul is an OK person to be?






Posted in Bipolar, Crisis care, Inpatient care, Mental health, Mental health services, Mixed mood, Mood disorder, NHS services, Psychiatry, Suicidal thought, Suicide, Treatment planning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trigger, no warning

I feel ambivalent about using the term “triggered” regarding my mental health. It comes from the language around Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and refers to being tripped into a flashback, intrusive thoughts or feelings of distress by some external cause. Some people sneer at the proliferation of trigger warnings, but knowing that a book, film or even a tweet contains content relating to trauma-inducing events might spare someone a real ordeal. I don’t want to diminish the experience of people with a PTSD diagnosis by co-opting their language. So I am hesitant.

Equally I don’t want to dilute the definition of trauma. Yet the fact remains: I have been traumatised by my own bipolar. Just as some people experience acute or prolonged physical pain as traumatic, the emotional pain I have been through is something I can never forget, never let go of, never “get over”. Sometimes I think I can – and then…

Then I hear something, or see something and I am triggered.

Yesterday evening I watched The Bridge with Tom. We’re big fans of Scandi drama and we’ve watched every previous season of the show, so I was looking forward to it. Only when I heard the theme music (Hollow Talk, by Choir of Young Believers) suddenly I was not in the living room. It came out of nowhere, but all at once I was in my old living room, when Tom and I still in our London flat, and I wanted to die. I was in a place of extreme pain, a place from which I was trying to escape, just for an hour, by watching a TV show. I knew that before the show started I had been in the kitchen, doubled over the counter, then curled up on the floor, trying to deal with the howling maw of psychological pain in my heart. I knew that I craved the relief of sleep, but that at the same time I would dread bedtime once the programme had finished. I felt it all as if the intervening 18 months had never happened. The feelings were the same. It was real.

Perhaps it is impossible to live through the level of pain I experienced and not be forever changed. I have spoken to other people who similarly feel traumatised by mental health crises they have lived through, who believe that their episodes generated genuine trauma. But how do you deal with trauma not caused by the actions of others, not the result of an aeroplane crash, not the aftermath of a conflict zone, just one part of your brain at war with another? Who can you blame?

The feelings were too much for me. I had pushed those experiences to the back of my mind but now I know I won’t, can’t live through that again. I went to bed vowing that I would never allow myself to experience that level of pain in the future. And the only way I could see of preventing that was to take my own life; quit while I was ahead, before things deteriorated.

I am aware that this is all in the context of some recent mood instability. When my Community Psychiatric Nurse came to visit a few days ago, she was concerned because I’d been a bit hypomanic. When she left she reminded me of how to get help out of hours, should I go into crisis. I told her some weeks ago that if I thought I was getting ill, that would be a risky time for me, because I would not be able to bear going through yet another loop, yet I felt disconnected from those words this week because I was a little high. And now my thoughts feel unconnected to either pole of mood. It simply feels like a question of simple, clear-headed logic.

Today I feel a little better, but not much. That taste of the horror that was my previous life remains in my mouth. I feel on the cusp of serious planning, of doing something irrevocable which could well result in much more intervention by services, maybe hospital. On paper, I have everything to live for. But that’s the point, that’s what I can’t bear to lose. If I’m going to lose it, I’d rather do it on my own terms.

Posted in Bipolar, Hypomania, Mental health, Mental health services, Mood disorder, Rapid cycling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Ellen Forney’s Rock Steady

I started out by really, really wanting to like this book. I adored Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me, which came out a whole six years ago. So I was excited when a friend told me that Forney had a new book out called Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life.

But I also kind of didn’t expect to like it, because generally I’m not keen on advice guides. They tend to be just too prescriptive, and the American ones I’ve read in particular seem to be very heavy on the “take your meds, keep to a routine” approach with little room for nuance.

I tried to keep an open mind.

The book is rendered in a combination of text (hand lettered, there is no standard print until you come to the resources section at the end) and cartoons, with some illustrated characters or features recurring throughout. Forney draws herself much as she does in Marbles, for example when showing herself interacting with her doctor, but as much of the advice is directed at any person with a mood disorder, people are usually represented as generic, well, person shaped figures (or occasionally a teddy bear). There are lots of tiny, quirky comments in the margins, some of which made me laugh out loud.

The main thrust of the book is that if you are stable, you might well relapse in the future, but you can improve your odds of staying well through self-management. Forney distils the basics of her programme for staying well into the self-consciously clunky “SMEDMERTS” – sleep, meds, eat, doctor, mindfulness, exercise, routine, tools, support system. Uh oh, I thought, mindfulness. Uh-oh, I thought, routine. Here we go.

Only every time I expected Rock Steady to become rigid or prescriptive, it – didn’t. There’s a healthy pragmatism throughout. Sure, it’s better to stay off devices late in the evening if you want to get a good night’s sleep. But the book doesn’t preach; if setting them aside “isn’t an option”, it suggests you might want to adjust the colour palette on your phone or find an a pair of blue-blocking glasses. I also liked that the book isn’t prudish – it suggests that giving yourself an orgasm is a perfectly nice, acceptable way to help you to get off to sleep. I’ve never seen that in a self-management book before.

OK, we all know that drinking alcohol when you’re on meds is not a great idea, but I do it, and lots of other people do too. Rather than just tell you that alcohol is BAD, Forney focusses on whether a person’s drinking is problematic in its own right, rather than yelling at you. There’s a healthy separation throughout between the ideal and the possible. It’s all about finding solutions that work for you. Can’t do a 15 minute mindfulness mediation like Forney does each morning? Well, guess what, she hasn’t always been able to either, and sometimes a walk in the forest can be just as nourishing.

In Forney’s world, it’s OK not to know what you want. It’s OK to feel multiple things at the same time. “Once when I was really low, I was conflicted… I really wanted a stuffed animal, but I was already struggling with feeling like a big baby. Then I had an idea for a stand-in: big soft fuzzy pillow.” It’s OK to have a complex blend of feelings about meds, and the book is careful not to assume that meds will always be a part of someone’s treatment package.

One thing I found particularly useful was the metaphor of “red flag poles” (things that could be triggers for an episode and that you need to watch yourself around) and “red flags” (warning signs that are running up the flagpole and may suggest you’re becoming unwell). I’ve already used this with my Community Psychiatric Nurse, because I’ve had a few red flagpoles recently, including losing my job and mega sleep disruption caused by a nasty cough. And just in the past few days there have been red flags. Feeling full of energy despite lack of sleep. Me, a notorious hater of housework, wanting to clean from the minute I wake up. The need to dance. Huge irritability. The CPN suggests I use the model when completing my crisis plan because it clearly makes a lot more sense to me than the format on the plan itself.

There’s a lot of “been there”, hands-on wisdom. How to swallow your meds easily. How to cut pills. Techniques for better sleep (and even this hardened insomniac is planning to give some a go). A massive range of helpful phrases to keep telling yourself to help you to hang on. A lot of the practical advice doesn’t really apply to a UK audience, though, as it involves choosing a psychiatrist and/or therapist, finding a hospital that will take your insurance, etc (although the way the NHS is going, perhaps we will all one day need this advice).

Should you buy this book? Obviously it will be of more benefit to those recently diagnosed with a disorder on the bipolar spectrum (the books does take care to mention major depression and dysthymia, but it’s really most useful for those with ups as well as downs) but even this old hand found some practical tips and some general inspiration for cleaning up my act a little bit in terms of looking after myself.

Put it this way: a young relative of mine has recently been diagnosed with bipolar. Rock Steady doesn’t come out until 29th May, and today is the 24th. I’ve already pre-ordered him a copy.

You can follow Ellen on Twitter (@ellen_forney

Image shows a red book, spine and open pages (sourced from Flickr, credit

Posted in Bipolar, Book reviews, Books and reading, Medication, Mindfulness, Mood disorder, Self-management, Treatment planning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I reached out, but no one grabbed on

Once again, social media is full of exhortations to talk about it, to talk about depression and suicide and mental health in general, with the core message being: reach out. Because even if you don’t feel like it, somebody out there cares. It’s brought to my mind a very dark period of my life when my children were tiny, and how I sought help again and again, only to be continually rebuffed. Many mothers with serious mental health problems worry that their children might be taken away from them; I needn’t have had any concerns, as agencies didn’t seem to care enough about us to notice the impact of my appallingly poor mental health on my kids. 17 years on and I get much better care, but you can bet that there are parents all over the country living through a nightmare of postnatal illness and being told that they’re OK.

Anyway. Here we go. Three vignettes of seeking help.


As promised, the Community Psychiatric Nurse came to my door. I had no idea what to expect as I’d never met one before. I really wasn’t sure what her role was. I was hoping she’d have some sort of plan, a package of support she could offer that might just help me carry on, but she opened with a question. “So, what is you want from me, Charlotte?”

I was nonplussed. How was I supposed answer, when I didn’t yet know what she could do? “I don’t know,” I said. “I just…so I just came out of hospital because I took an overdose, and I’m trying to deal with that, I suppose.”


“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I’m not sure where I go from here.”

The nurse looked annoyed and gave a kind of chuckle of irritation. “Look, Charlotte, this is a service for people with serious mental health conditions.

I flinched, probably visibly so. It had never occurred to me that taking a big overdose when I have very small children might not qualify as “having a serious mental health condition”. But clearly it didn’t, because the nurse was already standing up and putting on her jacket. “I don’t think there’s anything we can really do for you,” she was saying, “so I’ll feed that back to the team. If you need anything else, it’s back to your GP, OK?”

I nodded, and showed her to the door. I had felt like I was drowning in my feelings, but now I felt completely numb. Was that an improvement?


We tried yet another drug, sertraline this time, and Dr Fiore sent the Health Visitor round. I knew I had met Pat a couple of times when Alice was very tiny, but I didn’t feel as if I knew her at all. I made her a coffee and we sat and talk about normal things – how the children were growing, what a lovely sized living room I had – until she asked about my situation.

I decided to be honest. “I can’t cope,” I admitted, shrugging slightly. “That’s the bottom line. I can’t cope and I was stupid to think I’d ever be able to, with my mental health history. I should never have had kids.” Pat was already looking slightly shocked, but I persisted. Since I’d already started divulging all these awful, unsayable things I may as well carry on until I’d aired them all. “This is not how I wanted my life to be. I am a terrible mother.”

“Oh, you’re not!” Pat exclaimed reflexively, reaching over to touch my knee. “You’re a lovely mum!” I cringed, feeling I’d been told to keep my emotional messiness to myself. “I think, though,” she continued, rummaging in her bag, “we’d better just do this Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, is that OK? I’ll just pop today’s date on the top… You can use my pen, look. Have you got something you can lean on?” I reached for Max’s dinosaur encyclopaedia, which was always handy.

As you are pregnant, the form stated, or have recently had a baby, we would like to know how you are feeling. Ha! Thank God somebody did. I was instructed to read through each question and consider how I’d been feeling over the past seven days. I looked down the list. Had I been able to laugh and “see the funny side of things?” Well, but I wasn’t really sure what funny side was to being trapped in a house with two completely dependent children I was incapable of looking after. Had things been getting on top of me? I sighed and tick the box marked, “Most of the time I haven’t been able to cope at all.” Yes, I’d had difficulty sleeping. Yes, I was miserable and crying most of the time. Jesus. What a fucking pain I must be to live with. I paused at the last question, then decide to tell the truth: the thought of harming myself had, again, occurred to me “quite often.”

Alice stirred, grizzled. I handed Pat the form and put the baby to the breast while she reviewed my answers. “Hmm,” she frowned, rechecking the score, “you’ve come out very high. But I think that’s just because you’re so self-aware.” She put the lid back on her pen, satisfied. Oh. That was all right then. I’d be OK being suicidal as long as I knew I’m suicidal.


One day I flicked through the Yellow Pages, looking for support of any kind. The drugs were ineffective, Pat was hopeless and I was desperate, so I decided I’d call a parenting helpline. They would have heard it all before, surely? Maybe they could give me something to go on, some nugget of wisdom that would keep us all OK, get us through this afternoon? I occupied Max with yet another cartoon, feeling shitty about the TV as babysitter thing, and waited until Alice was asleep. I sat on the rug with the directory open beside me. The phone was weighty in my lap and it was a struggle to make myself lift the receiver and dial, a further struggle not to slam it quickly down again when a woman’s voice answered. She wanted to know why I was calling, so out it all spilled: the toddler who screamed all day and the baby who cried all evening, the sense of being trapped in my own house by the chill of winter and the unreliable public transport. How I mostly lacked the energy to go out anyway, and when I did I had to endure the humiliating supermarket tantrums and the frosty mums at the toddler groups. How desperate I was.

“Parenting is hard!” asserted the call handler, tutting. “You sound just like my daughter. I said to her, what did you think parenthood would be like? Little House on the Prairie?”

I pressed my finger down to end the call. No one. There was no one.



[Image shows an outstretched hand. Copyright Emanuele Longo via Flickr


Posted in Bipolar, Depression, Family issues, GP, Hospital, Medication, Memoir, Mental health, Mental health services, Mood disorder, Parenting, Primary care, Suicide, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,