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Friday Features: Documenting My Mental Health

By Eché Egbuonu

If we were given yearbooks after finishing secondary school, I doubt that I would have received many votes for the ‘most likely to get sectioned.’

Getting sectioned means being admitted to a mental health hospital, regardless of whether or not you agree to it. During the summer of 2015, I had numerous encounters with the police in response to my erratic behaviour. Most of my contact with the officers was mild. However, after leaving the hospital without permission, I was greeted by many officers, who, having failed to wrestle me to the ground and handcuff me, resorted to firing a taser at me. After receiving 50,000 volts, my legs immediately buckled and, in one fell swoop, the officers had quashed my resistance. Subsequently, I was placed in cuffs and dragged back to the hospital.

The authority to hold individuals against their will comes from the mental health act (MHA) rather than that individual’s consent. Therefore, the length of time that someone can spend in the hospital depends on the section of the MHA invoked. Under section 2 of the act, I spent four weeks inside the hospital. Before I talk about what it was like inside,  though, I’ll mention some of the events preceding it.

Growing up, I was very reserved. One of my friends described me as “painfully shy.” That description perfectly captures my experiences of childhood, adolescence, and, most regrettably, adulthood. Like a turtle, I sought refuge from the world by retreating inwards. In my eyes, the best way to prevent emotional and social pain, was to avoid those situations as much as possible. My first contact with any mental health service was during my final year at university, where a perfect storm of loneliness and financial trouble led me to see the university counsellor.

Two years after graduating, I was working on a project seeking to address some of the disproportionate outcomes faced by young men in the borough of Hackney, things such as: work prospects, criminal justice and, most saliently, poorer mental health outcomes. I encountered statistics that suggested black people were more likely to face detention under the mental health act and have a higher risk of psychosis. Little did I know, I would soon become a part of these statistics!

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when my elevated mood began. The transition was seamless. One of the earliest symptoms was abnormal sleeping patterns. Paradoxically, I was getting fewer hours of sleep, but I was feeling more energised than ever. Colours appeared more vivid, and experiences I ordinarily paid no mind to, were now suddenly imbued with wonder. Another significant change in my perception was the sense of connectedness I felt with the universe. Ever so often, I would glance a the clouds, feeling immediate reassurance that some greater force was guiding my actions. Skewed decision-making and extreme grandiosity don’t usually lead to excellent outcomes. The following three weeks would see me making a series of poor decisions – with the after-effects of some of these, still haunting me to this very day.

I took out five credit cards along with payday loans, bank loans and any other form of credit I could access. The debt didn’t concern me because I was using one credit card to pay off another, like some Ponzi scheme. At the time it made perfect sense. But, clearly, the part of the brain that scrutinises these thoughts wasn’t fully operational. Impulsiveness was a constant theme, and each emotion I felt was heightened to the nth degree. Positive feelings grew exponentially into euphoria and frustrations multiplied in a similar way. On a whim I quit my job, giving away my belongings to bemused members of the public. These examples are but a fraction of the unfortunate scenarios and predicaments I created that summer.

This manic episode culminated in me being sectioned under the mental health act and staying in mental health wards where nurses administered a cocktail of medication. I spent a couple of days in the less secure unit, but left without permission. I was subsequently brought back to the hospital ward and then, transferred to a psychiatric intensive care unit, in which I spend the best part of four weeks. It was very difficult to navigate having my freedom taken away and living life in a controlled manner, while trying to make sense of what is happening to me! Bipolar disorder was the official diagnosis and I was about to find out what it feels like to be on the other end of the spectrum. Depression was particularly crushing because it was such a stark contrast to the highs of mania.

Fortunately, my mood has been relatively stable since 2015 and I’ve not had any other periods of hospitalisation. My only time in a mental health ward since, is when visiting others. However, reintegrating back into society was a challenge. Thankfully, I received support from my family, friends and a special NHS division that works with individuals who have suffered from severe forms of mental illness. The first year was particularly challenging, with feelings of stagnation and boredom becoming almost overwhelming. I went from one extreme. mania – to the other extreme – depression. Because of the side effect profile and, because I wanted to recover on my terms, taking my medication was difficult during that period. The thought of taking pills for the rest of my life terrified me. I remember scrolling on Facebook and feeling a sense of dread as I saw how everyone else’s life was progressing. At best, I was stagnant and, at worst, I was regressing.

In, what now, seems like a moment of good fortune, my aunt informed me about a teaching course in east London. I didn’t want to do it, but reluctantly accepted after speaking with my mother. It’s not like I had anything better to do with my time, and it’d be good to stimulate my brain through study.

Within two years of qualifying, I began working as a college lecturer. The offer surprised me as I was sure I’d made a mess of the interview. Once I had accepted the offer, though, I questioned whether I had the capacity to do this job. I googled ‘bipolar disorder and teaching’, hoping to find reassuring stories about teachers who manage to thrive despite their diagnosis. Unfortunately, I found no such thing. The search results sowed seeds of doubt, and I contemplated refusing the offer. Although the workload can be absurd at times and I am able to empathise with teachers whose job is often made more difficult through poor behaviour, I’m glad I took a chance! As time passes, I find I’m better able to navigate my periods of low mood. Despite the many challenges, teaching has played a pivotal role in my recovery.

Writing has also played a significant role in my journey to recovery. Coincidentally, I worked as a teaching assistant sitting in a GCSE English class when I felt a series of loosely connected ideas floating around in my head. Ordinarily, I would contemplate these thoughts until new thoughts replace them. But, like an internet browser, too many tabs were open at once and they eventually distracted me from my main train of thought. This time was different, though. I felt a strong compulsion to write these ideas down, giving them structure and even forming some narratives.

For me, one of the side effects of a manic episode, was pockets of memory loss. Some elements remained vivid, but other details were utterly absent. I would look at my bedroom and the many missing items with  no clue as to their whereabouts. Most terrifying was, having no idea what happened to my safe and its contents. Memories are unreliable at the best of times, and the possibility of replacing gaps in my memory by falsification, further dented my confidence. Despite this, I still felt compelled to jot down as much as I could remember about the manic episode I experienced and the events leading up to it.

These writings began as a mixture of different situations and events that occurred. The timeline wasn’t perfect, and certain elements were left out entirely, only to be brought to my attention through conversations with friends and family who’d been around during the manic episode. As the weeks passed, though, I continued to write, without any real goals; other than making sense of what happened to me.

There’s a steep learning curve for managing the fluctuating moods of bipolar disorder and I really struggled to maintain a semblance of balance. My behaviour naturally defaulted to the extremes. On a professional level, I found the wider implications challenging. One day, I’d feel like the most fantastic teacher in the world; but then, without any prior warning, my confidence would nose-dive and I’d be seeking refuge in the staffroom while running on fumes in the classroom!

Exercising, impulse control, and work performance were easy to maintain during high moods, but became difficult to manage in times of lower mood and writing was no exception.

My writing was sporadic and coincided with my mood at the time. I’d go from a consistent and a laser-focused obsession, to long stretches without even opening the word document.

The main difference between bipolar one and bipolar two disorders lies in the severity of the manic episodes caused by each type. If, as I did, you experience a full manic episode, then you are diagnosed with bipolar one. For those that only experience hypomania, the milder version of mania, a bipolar two diagnosis is usually forthcoming.

Within a year of my release from the mental health hospital, the number of words that I had written had reached five digits, and I began to flirt with the idea of releasing a book that tells my story. At this point, I’d told my story orally on numerous occasions, becoming pretty adept at doing so. However, this written format was much more intimate. This was reassuring and frightening in equal measure. Was I comfortable spilling out my thoughts, anxieties and some of my lowest moments for the world to read? When my mood was high, I was booking venues for the book launch but,, at my lowest point, Iwas contemplating saving the word document to an encrypted hard drive and locking it up in a safe somewhere.

Hyperbole aside, I still have significant doubts about whether this book will ever see the light of day. However, I am sure about one thing: writing has played a pivotal role in my road to recovery. The key difference between sharing my story verbally and writing it down, is the thought process I have to go through. Speaking comes more easily to me, whereas writing is more challenging; requiring a slower process and more reflection. It has helped me gain a clearer perspective on the events that were happening to me. The early scribblings and first drafts, written pretty close to my hospitalisation, contain the residue of mania. My paranoia is evident and I can see a complete distrust and disdain of the entire UK mental health system within them. However, over the past six years, my perception has evolved and grown in nuance.

The passage of time has allowed wounds to heal, anger to dissipate and reflection to occur. I’m grateful to be in a stable position.

I can’t mention my recovery journey without also highlighting the role of art therapy, talking therapy, and medication. Creativity is crucial, especially given my inclination to ruminate. For me, expression, regardless of which form it takes, has cathartic benefits. My job as a teacher further enables me to express myself creatively.

Now beyond that initial diagnosis, I’ve passed the point of survival. My goal is to continue to start to thrive instead, while documenting the pitfalls and successes along the way.


You can connect with Eché on Twitter/ Instagram: @echeinlife and on LinkedIn:

Issue 9 of Write On! Magazine is out now. 

My first contact with any mental health service was during my final year at university, where a perfect storm of loneliness and financial trouble led me to see the university counsellor.