Thursday, 21 June 2012

Raymond Briggs

I wrote a letter to Raymond Briggs today.  I felt a bit mad doing so - like, why would I think he would be interested in hearing from me - but then I figured, if I don't try, how would I know?  He might be delighted to hear from me...

I met the great man a long time ago - about fifteen years.  I had read an article in the paper about his autobiographical picture book, Ethel and Ernest, which mentioned the fact that his late wife had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I read the book and was blown away - by the quality of his writing as much as, if not more than, the wonderful illustrations.  Such poignancy, and so simply phrased.  Clearly here was a master at work.

So, a relatively short time later, I was in Brighton.  It was around Christmas time.  I was staying at the De Vere Grand Hotel (a posh one) because at that time I was working as a chambermaid at the De Vere Hotel in Bournemouth and as a perk we got cheap accommodation at sister establishments.  I had gone to look at my old school, Roedean, and it was a wonderful visit.  They let me in to have a good look around and I even saw the wooden board on which the greatest achievement of my life so far was recorded - the time between 1980 and 1981 when I was appointed head of Austen (one of the four houses of JH, or Junior House).

Anyway, I thought that such a wonderful experience could definitely not be capped in one weekend.  I was feeling quite hopeful for my future at that point.  I was newly married.  I had stopped taking medication under the supervision of an endrocrinologist and was hoping to fall pregnant as a result.  I had started writing, and had several articles published already. 

I was walking along a main street in Brighton, and noticed a sign in a bookshop.  The great Raymond Briggs was within, signing books.  I was with my husband, actually (the first one) who went off to have a coffee while I went into the bookshop.  He was like that, he would never choose to do something together if we could do different things separately.  Or perhaps we just never had anything in common.

Anyway.  The book signing had already been going on for hours.  I managed to join the end of the queue, and only had a short wait.  I was so excited I could hardly breathe.  But somehow as the author was signing my books (I made him sign them all to me, even the children's ones which I should really have given to my nieces or nephews) I managed to start a conversation.  I said that I had read an article in a woman's magazine in which he had spoken about his wife and her struggles with mental health.  He looked at me almost dismissively and said, 'Oh that must have been the piece in...' (here he named a woman's magazine, a quite elitist one.  I think he had me pigeonholed as a Home Counties type). 

'I can't remember which magazine it was in,' I replied truthfully.  'I read it in the library'.  He looked at me with more interest then.  Clearly I had confounded his expectations.  Then I blurted out that I had a diagnosis of schizophrenia like his late wife, and he seemed quite surprised.

'You don't look it,' he said.  Then he told me a bit about his wife, how the drugs she was put on had killed her, and how he supported the National Schizophrenia Fellowship as far as he could.  (They are now known as Rethink Mental Illness).  He was lovely.  I told him I wanted to be a writer too and showed him the magazines I had written articles in (I have no idea why I was lugging those around Brighton).  He asked if they were for him to keep and I said they were my only copies, and he looked a bit confused (which I can understand, I really don't know why I wanted him to see them, other than to show him I was serious about being a writer.  I should have left them with him though, and often wished afterwards that I had). 

I told him too that what I wanted more than anything else was to be a mother.  I don't know why I told him that either, but he was interested and asked whether I took medication.  He was just nice and he made me feel normal (and this was not long after the end of my years festering in the day hospital; I had not felt normal for a long time). 

And that was about it.  I left the shop clutching my books, walking on cloud nine.  Then I realised that in my excitement I had not paid for the books; I rushed back to the shop and paid, crimson with embarrassment.  And that was it.

But I have thought about Raymond Briggs occasionally over the years, and wanted him to know that I did succeed in my dream of becoming a mother, and of becoming a writer too.  I have wanted to write to him for a long time - I should have done so ages ago, but was held back by a feeling of foolishness - would he even remember me, would he even care?

Tonight for some reason I just got on and wrote the letter.  It doesn't matter if he doesn't get it, or does and can't remember me - I did it for me, because I wanted to.  I don't suppose he will remember his words of kindness and encouragement to me, but I do, and it matters to me, and I just wanted to let him know that.  I should have written long ago.

So - a big day, today.  I did a lot of driving earlier on, to my place of work to get further instructions (does that make me sound like a spy?)  I don't want to be too specific about my place of work because I still like the idea of anonymity a bit - I get a few crazy comments on here, which I don't publish and try to ignore, but I don't like them and it makes me feel slightly edgy at times.  I am still not working much, but there is the promise of more in the offing, so I am holding on for that. 

Anyway, it is quite a long drive to headquarters and I have only done it a few times.  I got out the Sat Nav this morning.  Toddler looked at me askance.  'Why do you need the Sat Nav?' he asked.  'Don't you know the way to my play school?'

'I do' I said, 'But after I have taken you to play school I have to go to work'. 

'Don't you know the way to your work?' he asked with incredulity.

'I do,' I said, 'But I have only driven there twice before and it is quite a long way away, and I want to make sure I don't get lost'.

In the end I didn't take the Sat Nav out of my handbag.  Toddler was right, I should know the way by now, and I found that I did.  I also found that I really enjoyed the drive.  It is a bit more interesting than driving around town, and I enjoyed the challenge.  I didn't push myself or my vehicle, just kept up with the traffic and felt proud that I am now confident to drive distances, after years of being too crippled by nerves to ever drive my car on a fast road.

There is a point to this story.  I was pottering along the dual carriageway at a modest sixty miles an hour when I noticed a car in my rear view mirror, on the horizon.  It was clearly going fast, and had its lights on, which was sensible, because if anything had been in its way there might not have been much time to brake.  It was in the outside lane. 

A few seconds later the car overtook me, and I couldn't help smiling, because it was just so beautiful.  It was a Porsche but - get this - a huge people-carrier sized  Porsche!  I didn't know such a thing existed.  It was just so lovely, and so slick, and so perfect.  I immediately wanted one - and then told myself I should not want such a thing - and then overrode that and just admitted to myself that I wanted one.  I am honestly not avaricious.  And I know I don't need one - it just cheered me up knowing that there was such a thing in the world.  I was grinning my head off for the next ten miles.

And the third big event of the day.  As regular readers will know, some time ago I saw my old psychiatrist and asked him to record in my notes that I have recovered from schizophrenia.  He suggested that it was perhaps not the correct diagnosis in the first place.  I recently realised that it had been some time since our meeting (although he had told me that it would take him a while to make his decision) so when I got back from the office today I called the office of the local CMHT. 

I spoke to the secretary, and told her I had seen the doctor ('Dr Jameson' from my book) back in April and he had promised to contact me when he had looked at my old medical records and come to a decision about my diagnosis.  She was very apologetic and said that he only works there on Mondays now, but that she would get a message to him and hopefully I would hear from him soon.

Two hours later he rang me.  He said he had looked at the notes, and I could come in to talk about what he had decided.  I said it would be quicker to speak on the phone.  Then he told me ......

I am not trying to build up the suspense.  I am just honestly not sure what he said.  Without wishing to be disrespectful, there was an element of doublespeak involved.  I think what he was saying was something along the lines of that the diagnosis was correct when it was made, but that I would not be given that diagnosis if I presented with those same symptoms today.  So I asked him whether that meant I am not now suffering from schizophrenia and he said, 'I think that is what I mean.  Does that sound like what I am saying?'

He talked about the fact that I don't have the cognitive impairment associated with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and I said that in my opinion that is because I don't take medication and the medication can cause cognitive impairment.   He did not answer that directly, certainly did not deny it. 

He said that the medication can be beneficial and I suggested that might be because of the placebo effect, which he also did not answer directly.  We then agreed that mental health is a huge subject, and he promised to put what he had told me about my diagnosis in writing, which I am hoping will make things clearer, although I am not entirely sure of that. 

I think what he was saying was that I have had psychotic episodes, which can with hindsight be related to life events and to my use of 'substances' (for the record, I only ever used one substance, which was cannabis - it was quite enough) so therefore I am not schizophrenic.  But he can't expressly say that, in case future events prove him wrong. 

He said I am still vulnerable to psychosis, but then said that everybody is, which is not exactly the point, as of course he knows.  I think, in fact, that I am not especially vulnerable to psychotic breakdown now, because I know the danger signs and because - most importantly - I have conquered my anxiety, which was what led me to break down on each occasion. 

The only time I have come close in recent years was when I had my operation last year and spent several days in hospital, on heavy drugs, without sleep.  That was before the CBT, which has made such a massive improvement in my life, by ridding my mind of anxiety.  And even in those circumstances I did not break down - and if I was ever in hospital again (I really hope I never am) I think I would now cope even better.

So it is all a bit of an anti-climax really, which is no more than I had expected.  The conclusion, as I had already realised, is that I know more about my mental health than anybody else does.  But it will still be nice to have the letter.  I might even frame it.  Or put it up on here.

I do not mean to mock or to belittle the good doctor.  He is a decent person, I like him, and I credit him with a lot - he certainly introduced the possibilty of recovery into my mind.  He is also the only psychiatrist who ever listened to or spoke to me properly, as a person, and that gave me a lot of confidence.  He even seemed to think I might not be a schizophrenic, during those series of meetings ten years ago!  Which led me to the eventual conclusion that I am not one.

I am also pretty sure, from our conversation today, that he has looked at the sites I referred him to on our last meeting, and perhaps he has even looked at this blog.  So he is hopefully becoming enlightened about all the alternative information out here on the Net - he is learning the language of hope, and of recovery.

It is just that I have now come a good way further than the whole issue of whether or not I have schizophrenia - to an understanding that psychiatry is not a very effective branch of medicine, given its over reliance on medication, and its tendency to box people in with negative labels and thus negate any hope of recovery.

I gained a lot more from speaking to that psychiatrist, and by having him listen, over the ten or less times than we met in the last ten years (most of those occasions around the birth of my second daughter ten years ago) than by all the drugs I have ever been given.   I will always remember his words, when we were talking one day, and he referred to my 'third and final breakdown' after my eldest daughter was born. 

That was the defining moment for me.  My final breakdown was behind me, I could now move on with the rest of my life.  It was an important realisation, and the start of my journey forward.  I have him to thank for that.

I hope the doctor continues to listen and to talk to his patients.  He is definitely a good man, and one day perhaps he could be a great one, if he will only look anew at his profession and how to properly apply the knowledge he has gained about the human psyche.  

Handy hint - the human spirit is a fragile and precious thing.  If broken, it can't be healed by drugs, only by love.  (Hey man, I sound quite hippy-ish!  But it's true).

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting post!I am sure psychiatrists are afraid of sticking their necks out because of the present compensation culture and because all the directives imposed on them by the NHS and NICE. I am sure you are well now and you have learned how to deal with life's stresses. We all get anxious sometimes, including psychiatrists. We are onlt human!