“You know who you are when you're sixteen and every year after that you become less of yourself.”
This was a theory I had when I was fifteen and in the young person’s psychiatric unit in Edinburgh – it was an indisputable truth. The anger I felt at life and the state of the world, at the adults who put me in hospital. I would never turn into one of them. This theory made sense of everything.
I didn’t have such a negative mind-set before I got ill for the first time. I was a dopey kid. I tried to see the best in life, but I was also really lonely. I didn’t have many friends, if any. Life was something that just happened to me, which is fine when you’re in primary; you’re just waiting for Santa, then the summer holidays; cut to miserable grey high school, where every decision you make will have a permanent effect on this daunting spectre that is your future; I felt like I was falling. With the help of the very traumatic experience of being bullied, I had my first breakdown.
It started quite pleasantly. All my thoughts where speeded up and I was having great ideas, ten a minute; I started to be able to see music (well I thought I did), neon ribbons appeared in the air when I heard the radio or someone whistling. I didn’t sleep or feel I needed to and felt even more awake. This is what doctors call a hypomanic episode. Soon I began to feel like the world was ending and a strong suspicion that my parents were going to have me crucified. After screaming at someone at school I was sent home and soon found myself in the back of a car, nurses at each side, being taken to the Young Person's Unit in Morningside.
Waking up that morning in the hospital, I didn’t know whether I was dead or abducted by aliens, the idea of being sectioned in a psychiatric hospital seemed the worst of all. Mental illness was a stigma long before I knew what a stigma was, the only time the subject was mentioned was when a TV character was hilariously locked in a straightjacket or labelled with the common insult – psycho. But the YPU wasn’t all that bad; it was calm and cosy and I got on with all the staff. It probably helped with my social skills as well; in the three months I was there, I made some friends.
That was 8 years ago and it took me a long time to get over it. The worst part about my recovery process was going back to school, and today I wish I’d went straight to college instead. I was heavily drugged up and in all the pictures I have of myself at that time, I have big bags under my eyes. I was anxious all the time too; I vomited at least once a day for years. I dreaded anyone asking where I’d been to when I disappeared from school and was constantly making up lies to explain my absence.
This charade went on till I was 17 and at T in the Park. I was chatting to this girl long into the night when I let slip that I’d been in hospital in Morningside. “What for?” she asked. I froze. “Were you in the YPU? My cousin has schizophrenia and was in hospital there. You should never be ashamed of having a mental illness.”
I felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, how I imagine it must feel for a gay person to come out of the closet. Years of shame evaporated. And of course there never should have been any shame. I think about the bitter torn up kid I was when I was 15, and I feel for any young teenager about to take the same journey. I’m the same person as I was back then but I know more about life and have a head full of happy memories. I’ve had breakdowns since then, but every time they are a little less severe as I learn how to cope with them.
When I first made my statement about how you know yourself when you’re sixteen and every year you become less of yourself, I was talking to a French janitor who worked in the hospital, who was also an amateur filmmaker and my friend back then. He replied “Every year you’re alive you discover more of who you are”.
I agree with him now and try to live by that sentiment.
by Peter Johnstone