Wednesday, February 18, 2004

17 February 2004
a dear friend reproaches me for not keeping up my public diary. Reproaches me quite firmly. So I have to ask: why have it left it so long (more than a year)? And what has happened in the meantime?
As to why I have left it: the answer is simple. I have been ill. I couldn’t write about it at the time and it took me to a place I haven’t been willing to revisit.
But it is, I think, important to try.
It was the beginning of April last year, I think, that I fell ill. Mentally ill.
I turned up to work, it was the first day of term, and it was as if I could no longer function in the world. The simplest things were beyond me. Reading the timetable. Seeing a student. Fixing up a couple of meetings. Reading my email. I simply couldn’t do it. All I could do was cry. Cry uncontrollably.
A wise colleague said: “If you had broken your leg, you wouldn’t be here at work. You’d be at home, resting it and letting it get better. It is as if you have broken your leg”.
Sometimes people say things that save your life.
I tried to take her advice, I so badly needed to, and trying to remember what she told me and to believe it was incredibly helpful.
Because this incapacity, this not being able to function in the world, was not a temporary thing, and it was not confined to being in the office. It soon became very hard to leave the house. It was as if very simple sources of anxiety – have I got my keys? Have I left the gas on? – grew to a point where they became crippling and unbearable.
I could lie in bed. I could weep. I could listen to music. I could sleep. Sleep and sleep and sleep. And sometimes I just lay in a kind of daze, as if shell shocked.
The night after it happened, I had a dream: I was travelling along one of those high up Italian motorways, on a viaduct swooping over a deep valley. Only the viaduct ended half way across. I was at the jagged end, staring into the abyss.
And that’s how it was, in a way. It was as if my life had ended.
I was completely unprepared for this. I had never really thought about the effect of stress; and if I thought about it at all, it was vaguely as a rather good thing. As something that sharpens you up and makes you give of your best. I had no idea it could ever be this destructive.
It is very hard to live with. If I say: “my leg hurts”, then it is as if there is a kind of gap between me and the pain in my leg. And that helps.
But in a case like this, there is no way of detaching yourself. “I hurt” is all you can say.
And accompanying this is an immense loss of self esteem. I felt a failure. I felt I hadn’t measured up. I felt I had betrayed my colleagues and that I had let them down.
I suppose I had always known, in a theoretical kind of way, that there is prejudice and there is an utter lack of understanding of mental health issues.
Yet obviously all this prejudice, I had internalised it all. And this was not theoretical.
It’s why my colleague’s words were so helpful: I could grasp the idea that it was like a broken leg, that it wasn’t my fault, and that perhaps it would all get better.
Because that was something else: a feeling that this would never change, that this utter incapacity would somehow stay permanent.
GOD’S NEW FROCK was something else that saved me.
My breakdown happened soon after I had performed the show at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. 4 weeks later I was due to perform it again for four nights at the Traverse in Edinburgh.
In the circumstances, it seemed real folly to proceed. But as I lay in my shell-shocked daze, I found myself trying to remember the lines.
At first I would fall asleep, exhausted, or lose concentration in a very short space of time. But gradually I found I could remember more and more, and as the first night approached I found myself feeling oddly confident.
I have known actors whose personal lives are in utter chaos but who can somehow on stage put all that behind them and deliver immaculate performances.
That’s how it was with me. I wouldn’t say my performance was immaculate; but I got through it. And all the shows sold out.
I would turn up, generally after a blank shell shocked kind of day about two hours before the beginning of the performance. I would enter the empty theatre and immediately feel the strangest sensation of safety and peace. I would pace through the show and perform it in a state of happy wonder, I suppose.
At a time when the rest of my life felt as if it had fallen into ruin, the confined lit space of the theatre space felt like a kind of refuge. It was one place where I could still function: where I could still do a supremely difficult thing: perform a 75 minute one person show, with live music, keep to my cues, and get to the end of it without apparent disaster.
I suspect that did wonders to my sense of my self.
It was a sign that I could somehow slowly recover the rest of my functions.
Which was difficult. Writing, for instance, still felt impossible. It was almost as if the mental/emotional/spiritual limb that performed that function was paralysed or put out of action. Or at least that’s how it felt: and it seemed I had no guarantee I would ever recover it.
But I did. I did recover.
I owe it to (in no particular order):
· A humane system of healthcare that still functions, despite all the odds. That gave me the space to recover without significant loss of income and without subjecting me to compulsory treatment. That allowed me to recover in my own space and time.
· The support of my family. Although traumatised themselves they mostly never seemed to doubt I would get better
· Reiki. I don’t understand Reiki; but a friend practised on me, and something seemed to happen.
· Singing. This was something to do with getting back into my body.
· Dancing. My Reiki practitioner introduced me to a dance class called Biodanza.
· Massage. I can’t explain this either. But the massage lady is a wise woman with healing hands.

There is still a lot I don’t understand and I can’t explain. I know I have had to change my working practices; I have had to change my attitudes.
There is no magic cure: I have to take responsibility. And if things go wrong, or I take on too much, I still get flashes. I still go back to that nightmare place.
But mostly I live in a happier world. And all the happier because I understand its fragility, and try to take better care of it.
And I did recover, and I feel grateful. Grateful for who I am, the gifts I possess: and aware of the need to cherish, value, and look after them
I did start to write again. I was due to adapt Orwell’s HOMAGE TO CATALONIA for Northern Stage, Teatre Barea of Barcelona, and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. When they knew how ill I was, they dropped me from the project. I was furious at the time, but now I feel glad. The pressure was too great for me at the time: I could not have sustained it.
I did write a radio play: THE CHIMES, adapted from the story by Charles Dickens. It felt as if I had to fight for it, centimetre by centimetre. But I did it, I handed it in on the deadline, it was recorded and broadcast on Radio Four on the last Saturday of the year. And I feel proud of it.

I record all this because it’s worth bearing witness to. Mental health is something of a taboo, and we’re not really supposed to talk about it. But we should and we must. We mustn’t take it for granted. It effects all of us; and it’s important we learn to look after each other better. Each other and our own dear selves.

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