Content warning: mental illness
Donning stripy knee-length socks, three-quarter length trousers, turquoise high heels, a purple vest top, no bra (despite being well-endowed), and yellow sunnies, I think I look the bees an’ees. I am 27, wearing the get up of a 17-year-old in the early noughties. I am swanning around like I own the joint, enjoying the attention that my getup attracts, thinking I’ve got it sussed. Hackney, with its murder mile, its reputation preceding it writ large, provides the background to my day. Its sirens, litter, and boisterous community provide the glamour. With the state I’m in, I’m right at home.
In reality, I am far from home. My place these days doesn’t resemble the foliage of Glasgow’s West End where I grew up. Yes, the two places share architectural history, canals, pubs, and clubs – but that’s where the similarities end. I’m exotic now.
The sun’s high and there’s a spring in my step. I’m feeling sensual and alert. Lacking a washing machine, I head to my old flat to use theirs. I don’t bother to phone and ask. As I walk up the road, I’m gaining speed, walking quicker than normal, losing inches off my already gaunt, wee frame.
I get to the old house, weaving in and out of the backstreets. I arrive on autopilot, gregariously pound the door and am greeted by my ex-flatmate who meets me with surprised and then unsure eyes as she gives me the once-over.
I stand on the threshold, not invited in straight away. Seems I’m not welcome. There’s a problem – it’s not the right time. But I need to clean my clothes. My wick’s quickly lit and my face is my tell. Scottish bluntness prevails over English politeness and, within seconds, wick snuffed and smoking, I’m in the door and on my way to getting what I want.
I invade the space in the kitchen, consuming more than my fair share. I sit on the counter and swing my legs, chatting incessantly with none of the usual niceties that make us rub along together. She’s on the other side of the kitchen with a concerned expression I’m unable to detect.
Self-absorbingly, I boom on. Why in the world would I consider anyone else? I’m high and have a quick wit that licks and spits. I’m a raconteur, a philosopher, an expert on anything anyone cares to listen to. I’m a wise, young woman with something to say – and boy, I’m on fire today.
But then I’m stopped in my tracks. My flatmate feels it’s time to draw a line. I’m interrupting and I need to leave. I’m initially confused, but then overwhelmed by anger. I lash out: accusing, abusive, and threatening.
I physically push another human being.
Not since primary school has that urge been as strong.
All hell breaks loose.
I’m thrown out of the flat. My clothes thrown onto the street. I shout threats, betraying my heritage: “I’ll take you right here, right now.” I’m not afraid. I want to be a real guttersnipe.
The door slams.
I collect the strewn clothes and storm off in the right direction. All the way home, I stamp rhythmically: I’m right. She’s wrong.
Raging, I tear on through the day. Once back inside the flat, I throw open the windows to my audience of pedestrians below. I turn on the stereo thumpingly loud and make music with my amp’s volume control, turning it up and down in sway of the beats. I dance, enthralled with my body’s suppleness, and wonder at my skills. The pictures on the walls become my audience as I dance for them, spinning and stepping, releasing energy I so desperately need. I drink water and forget to eat, so tied up am I in the euphoria of my ‘creativity’. I’m spiralling.
Night falls and the moon comes out. I think of witches and believe that I shine. I’m electric and wired to the moon, feeding from its light. Hair on end, like a threatened cat, I’m ready to prowl. I pull on a coat, pick up my mobile, wallet and keys, and storm into the night. The door slams again; I’m on a mission.
I meet Sonny, who approaches on a BMX. He offers me Next vouchers in exchange for hard cash. I’m more than happy to oblige. Our deal done, we walk back over the road to the flat. I’m happy to chat and as we come to the end of our encounter, he asks me for my phone. I hand it over. He thanks me and keeps it. This robber has no malice. I walk away, uncharacteristically accepting of the event.
I wander for hours, finally drawn to the park. A blue light installation under the railway bridge catches my eye, but I’m here for the trees. The unified rows of thick tree trunks remind me of home. As I shelter below, I hear a church bell in the distance strike midnight, signalling the end of round one.
I awake in bed, thankfully. Birds tweet outside in the trees as darkness evaporates into dawn. My head feels dull as I open my eyes to assess the damage. Boy, my flat is a mess.
I get up – forgetting to eat, clean my teeth, change my clothes – and head out. The high street is littered with a few stragglers from the night before, but is otherwise quiet. Quiet, but not calm, what with the railway and buses blasting past every ten minutes or so. I head for the 24-hour Tesco and proceed to buy five sandwiches – all different flavours. I also purchase a sparkly notebook and some Star Wars figures.
Next stop is Homerton Hospital, a building that looms large on the other side of the supermarket. I knew I would end up here, and yet I can’t quite bring myself to check in on a voluntary basis, as I’ve done in the past with damning consequences. By now, I’ve already lost a month of my life to that place and have met some pretty unwell people while trying to recover from the shock of my father’s sudden death. I know deep in my heart that this is the last place I want to be.
I meet some dustmen along the way who undertake the thankless task of picking up rubbish from the streets of east London and decide to give them the sandwiches I bought. The men accept this unusual gesture, some with puzzled looks, but I’m oblivious. There’s still too much going on in my head to really care what anyone else thinks. For ages, I sit overlooking the hospital, just surveying the area. I’m getting cold. I start to cry.
Clearly frazzled by endless days of activity and mental agility, I’m left a shell of my former self. I still can’t sleep, and the pull of the night prowl proves strong. Before going out, I ensure that my powerpack is filled with an eclectic array of items: a red pencil case (an essential item) – check; music and headphones – check; a picture of my brother – check; the recently acquired but now regarded as ‘essential’ Star Wars figures (I don’t even like Star Wars much, but they were the dancers from Jabba the Hutt’s bar) – check.
I’m signed off from work, so I’ve plenty of cash. This time, I decide that I’m just going to go and have a drink in the bar near my flat. El Capitan cap on, I’m out again. The usual Hackney dude serves me in the bar – a pint of lager. Under my breath, I call him a rapist. He doesn’t hear me, but it doesn’t take long for him to ban me from the place. I don’t take it lying down, but then, when manhandled out the door, it’s difficult to argue. I head back to the flat.
What seems like all of a sudden, I’m locked out and don’t know what to do. This is getting serious. As I edge closer to becoming a danger to myself and others, a hospital stay looms larger and larger…
[INTERMISSION FOR PERIOD OF TIME SPENT IN HOMERTON HOSPITAL MENTAL HEALTH SECURE UNIT]
They fix me again. Calm me down and give me a routine back. I’m discharged, but I am blue. The psychosis, mixed with the mania, has taken its toll and now I am to be hit by the next wave; Churchill’s black dog. I just feel and look bad. I have no energy – almost as if I had used it up while high. Drained, I cry and read melancholic poetry, as it’s all I can muster, my concentration shot. By now I know that in order to manage my depression, I should try to cheer myself up with comedy I like. But then I would wallow for hours. I don’t want to see anyone. I cry some more. Suicidal thoughts flicker through my mind every so often, but nothing that I would act on this time.
Thankfully, I survive this period unscathed. After weeks of darkness, chinks of light appear. This time, I have to ride out the depression, as my psychiatrist is concerned that if she prescribes antidepressants, I will become manic again. It’s all a balancing act – quite literally. I may have been lost, but now I’m found. Back but not the same person. With each episode, like any experience, I change a little more. In time, this makes knowing who I am more difficult. When your whole being, routine, demeanour, attitude, values and actions change, it’s difficult to know what ‘normal’ is.