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Pyjama Girl and the lost decade

by Liz Main

22nd August 2007

It's my birthday this week, and I'm turning a number that ends with 0. The big 4-0. Telling people you are turning 40 seems to be almost as risky as telling them you have a mental health problem - cue the friend today whose response was "Oh no. Poor you, that's terrible".
"But you don't look it," is another thing they say. Funnily enough, I get a similar reaction when I tell some people I'm bipolar. When it comes to not looking bipolar, I'm a little confused. But when it comes to not looking 40, I'm flattered. As people pull their feet from their mouths and try and make me feel better by saying life begins at 40, I am less than enthusiastic, especially when I start to reflect on the happenings since my last landmark birthday at 30.

I have something of a lost decade between my 30th and 40th birtthdays, half of which I spent in and out of psychiatric hospitals, when I became homeless, when I lost my career, when I parted company with friends. For a few months, I lost my freedom too, when I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. I didn't count in the census because I was in hospital and I didn't vote at one election for the same reason.

I lost my mind, and then struggled to get it back. And without wishing to romanticise it, because it really wasn't fun, in getting back my mind, I think I have got back a part of myself that I'd lost somewhere between the ages of 10 and 30.

To put this in perspective, I'd better explain what happened. I'd struggled with depression of the clinical kind since I was a teenager. I'd been on and off antidepressants, had a spot of psychotherapy from which I fled 12,000 miles when it started getting tough, and had hypomanic episodes which were simply never diagnosed. I had a great job, and all the outward signs of a shiny, happy future waiting to unfold before me. And then I lost it. Big time. Sometime in the late 90s I decided to die, and started a new career as a psychiatric patient.
Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed leaving the Ritz Hotel in Paris before the fatal crash of 31 August, 1997
But let's begin the story back in happier times, at the advent of my last decade. The first half of my 30th birthday party counts as happier times because as my friends partied, Diana, Princess of Wales, was having a rather posher evening out in Paris before she disastrously left around midnight.

You can tell who left my party and when because of what they heard in the cab on the way home: some sort of crash, she wasn't hurt, she was hurt, she was seriously hurt, she was rumoured to be dead.

I learned of her death while I was cleaning up the next day. It was a rude awakening. I'd been riding a wave of hypomania for the month before my birthday and, like the rest of the nation, I was brought down with a jolt. An omen, perhaps, for the years to come. From that point on, my memories of world events seem inextricably linked to what was happening with my mental health or the consequences thereof.

3 August 2001: The Real IRA bombs Ealing - I was on the floor of my hospital room manically painting in the middle of a session of sleep deprivation therapy.
Smoke pouring from the twin towers of the World Trade Center on 11 September, 2001
11 September 2001: 9/11 attack on New York and Washington - I heard a rumour on the way to catch a bus to the hospital for an occupational therapy session, and when I got a text from my brother saying "I'm nowhere near twin towers", I texted back "I'm nowhere near Wembley either" because a) it never occurred to me he was in New York and b) I didn't hear the rest of it until I was sewing a frog in OT.

20 March 2003: The start of the Iraq war - Passenger jitters and cancellations about flying at this time got me an urgent seat on a plane out of Australia, where my family live, because I had to get back to London to claim the council flat that had finally been allocated to me.
The wreckage of the London bus bombed during the terrorist attacks of 7 July, 2005
7 July 2005: The 7/7 London bombings - I was home doing the ironing (a rare event since the madness set in, so my mood must have been quite good before it happened). I spent the rest of the day at the ironing board - i t takes a certain kind of numbness to get me ironing knickers.

21 July 2005: 21/7 attempted London bombings -- I was stuck in the Department of Health in a meeting about the Mental Health Bill when the next wave of bombs fizzled out. The Minister was handed one note, then another, as aides came in and out of the room, trying not to look stressed. Then as she finally revealed what was happening, an announcement came on the tannoy telling us we couldn't leave the building.

It has been quite a decade, really. When you put it in context, my madness seems to have been just a tiny part of a mad, mad world.

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