By Donna Battams
This is my personal story. I am not a medical doctor nor do I have any medical qualifications. The contents of this series are part memoir, part polemic and full of sweary stuff. It is not meant to be construed as a self-help blog for mental illness. It’s also full of triggers – full of them.
I think my parents incorrectly named me Donna. It should have been Donna Autoethnographer – it has a certain ring to it don’t you think? Don’t bother Googling it, here it is explained:
Autoethnography – a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore their personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.
Don’t worry though. I’m not going to fill this blog with big words that have to be googled by the average person. I couldn’t be bothered being that smart. When I first started writing this blog, I was stressing about giving you all the context behind everything I wanted to say. I’m pretty sure though, you don’t need to read every little detail of my life with my ‘fantastical manic’ or ‘triggered to hell and back’ thought bubbles to boot. No that’s more suited to a journal where I can vomit all the garbage that has been residing inside for decades and then I could invite my closest people, those who know some of my stories – and we could have a burning ceremony. Let that fucker burn.
Or I could just sit with it all, write this stuff and come out the other side – it would be Peace Me. Yeah, that sounds like a better choice. Except for that life rarely turns out all peachy and sweet – there are lots of shitty times for all of us. None of us manage to escape without a few battle scars. My intention is not for you to read my story thinking yours isn’t valid or that I’m somehow better or worse off than you – we’re all in this shit together. We really are. Yeah, even the arse wipes who we would like to fuck right off to hell. I won’t get ahead of myself though. I’m just warning you that I don’t hide the ugly bits nor do I let anyone (including myself) come out smelling like roses.
What I write about in this section of this blog is my experience of living with untreated mental illness and unprocessed childhood trauma. The rest of the blog will be varied and onwards and upwards.
I have a mental illness classified as Bipolar 1. I have lived with this illness, despite my denying it and hiding it – for over thirty-five years – yeah I’m pretty talented like that. To make it even more of a wild ride I’ve never recovered from my traumatic childhood. The two (bipolar and traumatic childhood) have been hand in hand from the very beginning – they exacerbate each other right down to the finest details and accepting this marriage of the two has been my biggest struggle for the past four decades. Which is why I made the decision after my most recent psychotic episode, that those two need to get divorced because that’s what you do when you just can’t live with each other. Right? Obviously the bipolar is not moving out, so the childhood trauma needs to go.
Put simply, my bipolar episodes are often triggered by the constant looping in my head of unprocessed childhood trauma, on top of current stress. While it’s not the sole cause of my episodes it’s getting in the way. My resilience isn’t as strong as it could be with the day to day life stress that I can normally deal with on their own – but when stuff builds itself into a pile – I explode into a manic high, which is then followed by a low – a very dark depression.
What I aim to do is tell my story without getting too fixated on giving every little detail – just the backstory if you like. To put it bluntly, some of the details are quite traumatic for me and I’ll be able to give you the general idea without graphic details.
So why tell my story at all? Honestly, I need to tell it, to be finally heard and then, perhaps I’ll be better understood a little better. The story is not just for me but for others who suffer from mental illness and or childhood trauma. I often say ‘my bipolar’ because all of us with bipolarity are affected differently – we all sit on that spectrum swinging in the breeze – we share some commonalities but perhaps have slightly different labels. What I experience is not what someone else may experience and I believe the genetics, nature/nurture elements, lifestyle, historical experiences and a great number of other contributors come into play too. It has taken me nearly four decades to transform what felt like madness and weave it into my being. Yet, I still fall down spectacularly and it exhausts me. Sometimes I can barely keep up with everything pouring out of my brain. As I get older, I am finding myself remembering or reliving childhood events that I had chosen to hide away deep inside for a long time. I have found these long ago memories to be the most painful to process and for the most part – I didn’t process them. I was too busy dealing with mania, anxiety or depression. In fact some of them all at the same time (mixed states).
I hid or blocked memories as a way to protect myself as a child. When they arise, as painful as it is, the experience is often beautiful and profound because I am looking into my struggling child self with such a clear eye. As a newly medicated ‘compliant patient’ – I can still see and feel that beauty and profound ‘knowing’ that was with me throughout the decades of unmedicated madness. With nearly forty years of this ‘mostly and legally unmedicated’ madness under my belt, I am confident in knowing the difference between ‘unmanageable’ and ‘manageable’ episodes. To you that may seem arrogant, after all, I have no medical qualifications – however, what I do have is the hindsight of my own experiences over the past thirty to forty odd years and a staggering amount of reading and research, self-care and more importantly avoiding the psych ward since the early ‘80s. I’d say I pretty well have a handle on things when it comes to the bipolar. The childhood trauma is still a work in progress – hence this blog.
To give you an idea of my feelings about the medication I will quote a few paragraphs that I originally wrote when I first started writing a book. Since then, of course, I have experienced severe mania, hallucinations and psychosis. I am now a ‘compliant patient’. I take the medication I agreed on with my doctor and politely refused the rest for a variety of reasons that are not of importance for this blog. I can look back at the following example of my writing with love for the person I am and have been at various time in my lifetime.
I’m nobody’s lab rat. While I appreciate that many readers may disagree with me or my methods of managing my mental health, they are my well informed decisions. As you will read further on, my rocky start in the world of mental health, I suspect was, at the very least, greatly exacerbated by the physical and medical abuse sanctioned by leading psychiatrists at the time – along with chemical restraint as a form of control over vulnerable teenage children who had been institutionalised.
At the present time, we don’t fully understand the brain (or gut) enough to treat all hypo-manic or mania episodes as something that we need to avoid – in my opinion many who don’t suffer any formal form of mental illness do in fact experience episodes of mild hypomania. Yes I am making a distinction between hypomania and full blown mania. My mild hypomanic states are mindfully and carefully driven and have a welcome place in my life – I just have to be sure to nurture and not fuel them to be more than they should. I have, in my younger years experienced full blown manic stages which were exacerbated by my heavy use of drugs and alcohol which resulted in extremely violent episodes. I would become aware of the familiar symptoms of the onset of mania and in order to hide it and to ‘cope’ – I would drink myself to oblivion. A not so cool party trick.
I can now admit to myself and others that my actions were, in my opinion, a direct result of being a victim of the previously mentioned chemical restraint without any reason other than staff convenience. This was while I was in the care of a government facility for which decades later, I received an official apology and a meagre compensation as part of a redress scheme for victims. I was terrified of this happening again and back then if you were manic – you got admitted to the ‘nuthouse’ as it was known then. Nonetheless, I’ll leave the experts to their quest of finding more evidence of the brain/gut connection and the role our modern world is playing in the field of mental health. I follow it with great interest as science does fascinate me but again, I tread with caution. I also want to be clear that mania isn’t always ‘great’ or ‘insightful’ – it also involves higher than normal levels of irritability, risk taking and quite a number of negative aspects.
Those words were written when I was in denial of how out of hand things were getting for me and those around me. In those words, I can feel the grasping, the anger and resentment surrounding past events I had no control over as a child.
This blogis about living with mental illness while processing past trauma and still being able to somehow find peace amongst the chaos. Obviously, you will learn some of my story in this blog because it’s relevant – what’s not relevant is all the gory details. We as a society must stop putting the onus on victims to reveal every gory detail in order for them to be heard. Having said that I would like to make it quite clear that I am not a victim. I was, however, a victim of abuses. There is a distinct difference between the two.
Also before I go on (geez Donna get on with it!), I want to acknowledge the fact we all suffer, we all have bad times and in those times we ought to be leaning into each other – connect – you know? I’m not a special snowflake who thinks she is suffering more than others or requires special treatment. I’m just doing my best to ‘be here now’. Not all of us who struggle, choose to write about it – I do because writing is the salve for my heart and my hope is that it’s a salve for you too, even in some small way, to know that you matter. So thank you for being the reader – it takes two to tango.
I have resisted for years with the flow of this blog. I am notorious for writing furiously for weeks or even months (dare I say a years or more?) only to delete the lot. And when I delete – there’s no coming back from it. I would tear the pages up, delete files and feverishly hunt down any last remnants of evidence of my mad manic writings. It would all be destroyed when my other self would come calling – ‘depression’ and she is a force to be reckoned with. Let her wallow or she will swallow you whole. She burns bridges with no thought to the future because, for her, there is no future. At those times she struggles to see her own worth or the point of living at all. Which is why my daughter has access to my writing so if I go through any of my chocolate box moments – she can have a copy should I change my mind later.
I better explain the chocolate box reference. I often have periods of paranoia usually accompanied by bouts of bone-numbing depression or anxiety or mania or the whole damn lot at once – it’s like a giant box of chocolates but you aren’t given a choice about which one you are going to get. When you get the manic one – woo, it’s good times – shit gets done! That is until it turns into bad times. When those bad times come, it’s the prelude to the bone-numbing depression, I tend to withdraw from everything and everyone and of course, those are the times when I reconsider the positives of being Earthside. Yeah, there are times I want to die. Is it any wonder that so many of us seem to prefer the mania – at least we feel alive – if we get the right chocolate! Hypo-mania can be addictive in a way – it’s when we create, take risks, try new things and everything is amazing. The light is brighter, the colours more vibrant and there’s so much more meaning in the world. Yeah – it’s pretty cool until it spits you out of the spiral – thump – go straight to depression! Or it takes you to even higher states and the hallucinations and psychosis start your engine. All over red rover – choose another chocolate!
Through all of my research, doctors and talk therapy and self-medicating I have learned that the best place to be is now – wherever I am, it’s now o’clock. To get there in my mind is another thing. Now is each moment I am in – it’s so that I am not constantly throwing my mind into the past (depression/trauma) or into the future (anxiety) and also not getting fixated on stuff (normally a sign of my hypomania or OCD). Now is right at this moment- it’s just after 6.30am and I am sitting here writing. I have committed to a ‘routine’. I know – it sounds terribly boring but it’s keeping me earthside – it has to count. (I write more about this ‘routine’ later on in my blog, that is solely about Bipolar.) All the routines and healthy choices will not, however, help me stay in the now – until I deal with my past. Isn’t that just a shit? Wouldn’t it be great if we could just throw all that away, sweep it under the carpet or just upload it to the cloud and let the stuff float away? Oh, what a relief that would be – but who are we kidding? We all know that unless we deal with the very things that have come forward with us from childhood to adulthood – it’ll just stick around and fester until it kills us. And really – carrying all that extra baggage is just a pain in the ass.
So I’ll delve a bit – and perhaps you will be able to too if needed. Perhaps we can lean into each other and feel some sweet relief.