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To survive bipolar disorder, I needed people who didn't love me

There is a unique hope in a stranger's kindness. Despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I knew that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. Part of Transformation's politics of mental health series. Content warning.

I realised it's possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave. Credit: Aisha MIrza. I realised it's possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave. Credit: Aisha MIrza.

My hair is falling out. Of course, the rogue hair on my chest is still there. Of course it is. But the hair on my head is falling out.

I find myself busy considering the potential impact of the hair loss on my identity. This is a sign that I am ok. I feel like I have an identity. The hair loss feels viscerally bad on many levels: the physical sensation of it dislodging from my scalp with such ease, with no fight, the political assault on my body as my form is altered in a way that is out of my control.

This is because of pills prescribed to me when I was barely conscious - ironic maybe, considering my passionate belief that women should be allowed to choose what they do with the hair on their bodies.

These are the thoughts that travel through my mind and out of my follicles.

It's a sign that I am ok because a few months ago, when I wasn't ok, I was trapped inside the badness of this feeling. There was no space for social analysis, or any sort of healthy interaction with the world. I would just sit, tugging my hair out of my head repeatedly, waiting for it to stop coming out, or I would fantasize compulsively about shaving it off and starting again. I would make up stories about all the bad things I had done to deserve this punishment.

I had lost my sense of self, the peace that comes with knowing who you are. I relied on external cues from friends, lovers, and doctors to navigate the world. I became my feelings, my moods. I became pleasure and pain. I lost all touch with my agency, even if from the outside it looked like I was doing whatever I wanted. I believed my thoughts were facts. 

People became a stand-in for my core. Their love sustained me, but I engulfed them. It's hard to come to terms with even now, but what was happening to me was too big for us to handle or survive, let alone fix. I needed the support of people, and systems, who didn't love me.

With regard to hair loss, I was unable to step back and come to terms with it as a side effect of medication that may or may not have helped me to survive falling into a catatonic depression 16 months earlier, after which – following a series of manic and psychotic episodes - I was diagnosed with what they call bipolar disorder. It just hurt, like everything else.

It has taken a long time to relearn how to deal with emotions, to interact, to empathise, to reason, to consolidate the mess inside my head with the jungle outside of it. The process is not over. I feel how I imagine it would feel to come out of a coma: clumsy, overwhelmed, full of promise.

That has been one of the most frustrating things about recovering from a period of insanity. The punishing slowness of it. At one point showering was all I could hope for in a day. Indeed it was a triumph.

But somehow, it was the speed itself that played a big part in the recovery. Eventually I realised that I couldn't move faster than I was ready to. When I accepted that, it was actually almost relieving. I moved onto a shower, a meal, a walk - on a good day, maybe a session of texting and one Guardian article!

It took me a long time to accept the slowness because I was not used to moving at a pace dictated to me. I had to realise that I was dictating the pace.

Once I was able to listen to my body, it was incredibly comforting because its rhythm belonged to me, it was coming from within me. The slowness wasn't something to fight against, it was the fight.

There is no doubt that it was society that saved my life when it felt as though there was nothing inside me, when I was hollow. A mix of medication, mindfulness, therapy, technology and unconditional love got me to this point. But it was this feeling, this slow, rhythmic pulse, from the inside out, that signalled the move from survival to recovery. 

I say “recovery” as if I've “recovered”. But I don't know that recovery is quite the right word. It’s too neat for something so messy. What I mean by “recovery” is really the process that began when I stopped waiting to recover. When I realised it's possible to transform trauma, rather than waiting for it to leave.

Waiting for an imagined future is no more healthy than mourning an imagined past. I had to work in the present, from the inside out. I had to stop the cycle of frantically grabbing for branches that couldn't support my weight. I learned to sit still and listen. 

That's not as zen as it sounds, by the way. The process isn't zen and neither is the desired outcome. When you sit still, everything that's been troubling you is still there. Pain starts peeking from behind the curtains, an anger problem or two stuffed in the bedside table. But the fact you've turned around to face it means you've already won.

Just like today, when I got frustrated while I was writing this article, and threw my notebook across the room and cried. That was me winning. I promise. How awesome, to be crying for a normal reason, like stress and frustration. How great to know exactly what the problem is, and live it fully but not in fear that it will take over.

I find it hard to use the language of 'transformation' to describe the way I am learning to live with depression, anxiety, mania, psychosis... or the way I am learning not to have to live with them. My moment of transformation was when realised I was me all along. Does that make sense?

There have been a lot of 'realisations' in this article. Almost all of them can be traced back to the whispered words of someone who loves me, or a conversation I've had in a white-walled NHS building. 

Humans cause the biggest transformations within each other, and within society. My recovery has been built, block-by-block, upon the support of people who love me, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

It was a person who held my hand in A&E as my life fell apart. It was a person who woke me up, made me packed lunches and escorted me to work, who gave me mouth to mouth until they couldn't breathe anymore. It is a person who has given birth to me so many times.

Their role in my transformation is still too big for me to comprehend.

But there is a unique sort of hope in the kindness of a stranger. Somehow, despite my catatonic state, despite barely recognising the people I loved, I remember feeling that a society with a system that cares the way the NHS does, is somewhere I could learn to live. 

That's not to say my experience with the NHS was plain sailing. Most of the time it felt like we were on a ship in a storm, pulling ropes and seeing what would happen, sliding across the deck on our arses. But there was a ship, and there was a crew, and we were trying.

In moments where I felt I couldn't live in a world as utterly fucked up as ours is, it was the humanity that I found in the kindness of strangers that was able to penetrate that fog that everybody else had become a part of, and keep that glimmer of self-awareness alive, that slowly became my identity again.

Suddenly my previous activism against this Government's brutal agenda of cuts to services like the ones that delivered these strangers to me made even more sense. Since December 2012, when I was diagnosed in hospital, to now, the NHS has been a constant and unconditional support and somewhere between the system, the strangers and the loves of my life, I started ticking again. And now I have the tools to rescueI h myself. I hope I’m someone’s stranger one day.


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