Mental Illness: Nobody is Immune

In this honest and unflinching account, Rikki May recalls his experiences as a psychiatric patient and hopes that others will be inspired by his successful struggle against mental illness.

Memory by association is incredible. A particular scent, taste or song can take you right back to a particular period in your life and help you remember it so clearly.

It was only recently that, after drinking lemon squash in the work canteen, I was whisked straight back to a difficult time of my life. In September 2012, I spent three weeks in St James’s Hospital and my abiding memory of that place is its lemon squash-like smell.

In my early teens, I struggled to cope in crowded situations. No-one could diagnose my illness until one doctor concluded that I was suffering from General Anxiety Disorder. Later on, when I suffered from prolonged sadness, I was told that I had clinical depression. After years of failing to deal with these problems I admitted myself to St James’s Hospital.

The media and the public have certain preconceptions about ‘the loony bin’ and ‘the nuthouse’. More accurately, we should call it a psychiatric unit inside a hospital. Many people think that you can only end up in such a place if you’ve been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. This isn’t true, as I found out when I looked a doctor in the eye and told her that I felt suicidal. ‘I attempted it two years ago,’ I added. ‘I’m worried I’ll do it again.’ I was given a bed.

Upon arrival, the hospital staff told me that no camera phones were allowed. This didn’t matter much as my phone was cheap and didn’t have a camera anyway. I broke down as soon as I got into my room. I called my line manager, barely able to string a sentence together, to explain I’d be away from work – indefinitely.

She was so understanding. ‘The priority is for you to get well, Rikki,’ she said. I’ve always been grateful to her for that.

A nurse physically examined me. My face was gaunt and colourless. My clothes were baggy. I was gutted that I now weighed 13 stone, and that the nurse ticked the ‘thin’ box on the ‘body type’ section of the form. Thin? I hadn’t seen myself this way since my school days. Earlier on in the year, I had weighed 16 stone and was training 4-5 times per week with aspirations to compete in a bodybuilding show one day. Where had it all gone wrong?

The longer I stayed in St James’, the more ground down I felt. All I wanted to do was sleep and missed breakfast most days. I tried to isolate myself because interacting with the staff didn’t come easy. I didn’t bother going to the coffee mornings but I did at least try to spend a bit of time in the men’s TV room. Although the unit was mostly gender segregated, everybody would sit together at meal times and that was about as much socialising that would go on. Sometimes I’d watch a film in the evening and recall noticing Donnie Darko amongst the DVDs. It was odd to find a film portraying schizophrenia in a psychiatric unit. The day would end at 10pm with us patients all queuing up to receive our medication.

Once a week I would have an appointment with a psychiatrist, my mental health practitioner and other care staff to discuss how things were going. I didn’t get to interact with the staff a whole lot within the hospital. This may have been down to my own reticence or the fact that they were so busy. Even so, I’m grateful for their overall care. One nurse in particular walked with me around the hospital gardens, which was a kind gesture.

I’ve always written and my material comes from two sources – my imagination and my personal experiences. In the activity room one day, I came across some poetry written by another patient, an older man called John. I read one of John’s  poems several times over. The poem described in vivid detail a man tortured by mental illness, tortured by his emotions. The final line read, ‘God save my soul.’

The moment I read that line, something in me clicked. I pictured myself, like John, well into my 50s and still struggling with illness. While there’s no shame in that – mental distress can get anybody at any time – I was now determined to fight with everything I had to rebuild my life. I had attempted suicide previously and I’d recovered, and I now knew I could recover even from the crushing low of suicidal thoughts.

As time went by, the medication began to work. My mood began to rise, albeit slowly. I no longer craved isolation. I wanted social interchange. I wanted to speak, and think, about something other than mental illness.

I got a message that my friends were concerned and wanted to see me. I’ve always had an odd, dry sense of humour and I told my two best mates that I’d I was popping out of ‘Shutter Island’ – as I was starting to call St James’s – for the evening to come and see them. When they realised I was joking, they came to visit me instead. We watched a football match on TV and I wanted those 90 minutes to go on forever. I really didn’t want to be back in the reality of hospital afterwards. That 10pm curfew came around too quickly.

After just under 20 days in hospital, my mum picked me up and I stayed with her in Cambridge for the week. I loved the freedom and gradually started to feel like myself again. Much like when I read John’s poetry, something else changed within me. I was tired of being tired and desired routine again. I wanted to get back to work. I had family, friends and colleagues to support me, and they were the people I needed to be around. When I got back to the hospital, I self-discharged against the advice of my psychiatrist. My recovery began.

During my time in hospital, I’d grown sick of sandwiches and soup for lunch. Having lost so much weight, I began to rebuild myself, both physically and mentally. I thought back to my younger years, watching my father fight for his life, before eventually losing a two-year battle with leukaemia. He hadn’t given up and nor would I. I imagined my beautiful younger sister growing up without her big brother. I didn’t want my mother to suffer more loss.

I’m thankful to those same faces that have been around supporting me over these past few years. Friends, family, medical professionals and colleagues. Nobody in this life can make it alone. External support is essential. I’m glad to say I’m happy with my life now. I count my blessings and make all the effort to remain an optimist. I try to help others by sharing my own experiences in order to raise awareness about mental health, reducing stigma at the same time. I have spoken publically at events across the University of Portsmouth, where I work, with the hope of encouraging others to seek help if they are in need. If you are somebody struggling with your mental health, whatever it may be – anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or something else – I encourage you to utilise support networks, have faith in people and seek help. You’re worth seeking that support. You matter.

Did I benefit from my time in hospital? I believe so. Did it prevent me from making a decision which would have led to an irreplaceable loss? It did. When I look back at this time in my life, I think of how it contributed to defining who I am today and what my purpose is in life. Now I know where I’m going. I sorted myself out and went on to get a full-time job at the University of Portsmouth as a Recreation Assistant.

I see St James’s and smell the lemon squash every day, but that’s OK. It doesn’t make me feel sad, low or self-pitying. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I want to keep trying to help others who are battling mental illness. On that note, I’d like to offer a thought: be kind, for everybody you know is fighting a battle that you know nothing about.