Sylvia and Me

All those sunny miles in the countryside just north of where I live has kept me away from these pages…..

Since the last time I posted it’s just been one thing after another. First it was Passover, all the preparation, the eight-day festival itself. Then it was…..

Or, I relapsed and was off sick from the middle of March for six weeks. I went back to work on a staged return (that took another month) before I could work my full 1350 minute week (including increasingly frequent breaks.)

And after that? I guess I just got out of the habit. Of cycling. Of doing anything particularly recovery oriented – to use the mental health workers’ phrase du jour.

Regular readers will know that there is a strong didactic  – some of you might call it hectoring and finger – wagging tone – to what I have to say. In my role as a peer worker I work one to one with peers who, (sometimes) have hospital – grade symptoms, to inspire hope that recovery is possible. However, it has recently come to my attention that I can do no such thing. I am reminded of when I was first diagnosed with depression back on 15 March 2001. ( that’s The Ides of March for all you lycra – clad Shakespearean scholars out there. Go figure.) The gods must have had some time on their hands then and decided it would be amusing to bestow upon me ( a – or so I thought at the time – bona fide manager of a mental health day centre and outreach team) an enduring mental illness that would involve years off work and regular extended relapses from then on in. Initially, I was off sick for, I think, a few weeks.I had told my team what was happening and they were supportive. When I ‘hobbled’ back in to work again for the first time I felt like such a fraud.

Before I submitted my first sick note inscribed in spidery, medical handwriting with that diagnostic imposter ‘depression’, I had felt frustrated when members – this was before the whole clunky ‘Service User’ vocabulary hit the streets – failed to turn up for activities at ten o’clock in the morning. And then left around four in the afternoon to watch a tv programme called ‘Countdown’. The Daily Mirror, endless cups of tea and all that training course – fresh empathy were no match for quality time spent in the smoking room spilling flakes of rolling tobacco on the floor thanks to the demeaning side effects of psychotropic drugs.

I had thought I knew what I was doing.

I can see that after years more experience of working in the mental health field, going on training courses in everything from Introduction to Counselling (dear Lord) to Motivational Interviewing (better, but aside from thinking the trainer was great, I can’t remember what I learnt that day.)

For those of you whose eyes are starting to glaze over because of this fog of self-pity, I plan to reward you with some insight into why I am feeling so chipper at the moment.

While I was off sick this last time I found it hard to concentrate. Now this is not normally a problem since I spend a good deal of time staring into space or exercising my vocal cords at such a volume, and with so little thought as to content or audience, that I fail to notice the less than useful effects this sort of behaviour has. But failure to concentrate enough to read even a mere paragraph of Yehuda Bauer’s scholarly tome ‘Rethinking the Holocaust’ before my mind wandered, is a sign so serious that even when I am low I cannot ignore it. But this inability to follow more than a few sentences of text, helped me to discover Picture Books for Adults aka Graphic Memoirs. While I have found these much easier to read, they are just as powerful as plain old novels without pictures.

Over the past  few days I have been reading Ellen Forney’s graphic memoir ‘Marbles, Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me’. It is the story of her journey from when she was diagnosed at 30 with Bi Polar Disorder 1 to the point 14 years later, when she can talk to her younger, newly diagnosed self, and reassure her that, while there will be times that are hard along the way, and that ‘life will be different’, the book ends on a hopeful note with Ellen looking in the mirror saying ‘I’m O.K.’

I cried so hard my shoulders shook when I read those final frames. I have returned to those last pictures several times since and the message is as clear now as it was the first time.

I am not O.K. I know this because I cannot reach back to my younger self, as Ellen does, with reassurance that ultimately I will be O.K. I am unable to do this because I know now, with a rude and abrupt certainty, that this recovery I speak so convincingly of is, in Andrew Solomon’s words, ‘a stone boat’.

For those of you who are wondering who Sylvia is, I will be kind and assume that you are new to this blog. She is the American poet Sylvia Plath. The photo above is of her. I have been reading her work (aside from poetry she wrote a novel and a children’s book) since my teens. I will say nothing else about her here. Almost exactly 51 and a 1/2 years after her death she can still speak for herself.

The Arrival of the Bee Box

I ordered this, clean wood box
Square as a chair and almost too heavy to lift.
I would say it was the coffin of a midget
Or a square baby
Were there not such a din in it.

The box is locked, it is dangerous.
I have to live with it overnight
And I can’t keep away from it.
There are no windows, so I can’t see what is in there.
There is only a little grid, no exit.

I put my eye to the grid.
It is dark, dark,
With the swarmy feeling of African hands
Minute and shrunk for export,
Black on black, angrily clambering.

How can I let them out?
It is the noise that appalls me most of all,
The unintelligible syllables.
It is like a Roman mob,
Small, taken one by one, but my god, together!

I lay my ear to furious Latin.
I am not a Caesar.
I have simply ordered a box of maniacs.
They can be sent back.
They can die, I need feed them nothing, I am the owner.

I wonder how hungry they are.
I wonder if they would forget me
If I just undid the locks and stood back and turned into a tree.
There is the laburnum, its blond colonnades,
And the petticoats of the cherry.

They might ignore me immediately
In my moon suit and funeral veil.
I am no source of honey
So why should they turn on me?
Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.

The box is only temporary.

Sylvia Plath (1930 – 1963)






This entry was posted in Bi Polar Disorder, Cycling, Depression, Holocaust, Mental Health, mental health services, mental illness, Poetry, Relapse, sick leave, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sylvia and Me

  1. writer's blogg says:

    Lovely post Nic. You are so elegant and informative with your eloquence. It is very difficult I know – but you must just continue to have faith and believe in yourself. Your ability to bounce back is all that matters in the end. We have a few more fits and starts- and the occasional demon that won’t stay in the box for too long, but to tie oneself to the label of depression is to stereotype yourself- and you are certainly far too accomplished to be anything but a unique , educated and vital human being who deals with punctures as well as your repair kit allows. Keep up the good work. Your family and your friends are proud of you.(And I’m sure all your Blogg readers, too , derive much that benefits, educates, informs and entertains them . Further- and perhaps most important of all- we are allowed to accept ourselves, our condition such as it may be, and to heal- even if it seems to take forever and the dance is long and difficult. Thoughts – always!


  2. i was looking for a new bipolar memoir. this one looks great. thanks.


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