Mental illness is an odd thing. Some people suffer throughout their lives; for some it flares up occasionally; lifetime medication is needed for some people while others learn to manage it. Statistics tell us that a quarter of the population will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year; that is one in every four people you meet. It is also said that one in six will be experiencing a mental disorder at any one time and that almost half of the population will experience a mental illness at some time in their lives!
I remember a poster back in the seventies that showed two men with the caption “Which one of these has a mental illness” (paraphrased). The point being that you cannot tell by looking. Mentally ill people do not all look odd or behave in an odd manner. So, you could be meeting a dozen people with a mental health disorders every day and not be aware. Because, you see, mental illness does not require crutches, plaster casts or wheel-chairs.
So what is mental illness and how does it affect people? Asking that question is like asking “what is a virus and how does it affect people?” There is not a mental illness; there is not a list of symptoms or behaviours that mentally ill people exhibit. We are all different and, for each illness, symptoms and behaviours vary from person to person. Some people will lead a normal life and show no outward signs while a few, thankfully very few, will murder or rape. Stephen Fry, for instance, abandoned a play and escaped to Europe, never to return (but he did); Agatha Christie disappeared for eleven days with, apparently, no recollection; Virginia Woolfe filled her pockets with rocks and walked into a river; paranoia caused Oscar Pistorious to kill his girlfriend; Van Gough painted wonderful works of art (then cut off a bit of his ear).
Mind have published a whole list of mental disorders on their website.
While I can’t tell you how mental illness affects people, I can tell you how it has affected me and the embarrassing things I have done.
EARLY YEARS AND NERVES
I should have realised in my early twenties (mid-1970s) when I had, what was then referred to as “problems with my nerves,” that I had some issues with my mental health. I can’t remember exactly what I presented with but I do remember being prescribed Librium. At the time, I had recently moved into a bed sit with my girlfriend, we were struggling financially, I was out all hours working as a taxi driver, during the day I was attending a training centre to qualify as an electrician, and the landlady was trying to evict us.
Fast forward a few years and we’d moved into a council flat in the outskirts of Liverpool, I had gained my qualifications with flying colours (City and Guilds, BTec, HNC), I had a reasonable job as a senior lab technician in the local polytechnic, and had moved on to an electrical engineering degree. I was also working as a roadie (unpaid) for a local rock band, repairing all their electronic equipment – a thankless job, I can tell you.
PRESSURES AND FAILURES
I wouldn’t say we were ecstatically happy and I had periods when I preferred to be alone. I had many opportunities to be alone as my girlfriend worked in a pub a few nights a week. During those alone times, I failed to notice some of the signs of mental unrest. I became more and more wary of the telephone until I reached the point where I would never answer it. The same was true for the front door – I would only answer it if I was certain who was knocking. Outside of work, I was almost reclusive.
At work, pressure was building and I became snappy with people. Small things would distress me, like someone else setting up lab experiments when I had agreed to. I was getting into trouble because I wasn’t doing my job effectively; I was arguing with my junior technician and superiors regularly and was feeling out of my depth in my role as supervisor.
My degree course was harder than I’d ever thought possible. Although I left school with no qualifications, since I started my technical training at the age of twenty-one, I had walked every exam gaining distinctions across the board. Suddenly, I was floundering; I couldn’t understand much of the theory and the maths, which I had always been good at, was beyond my comprehension. I was a failure.
SWIMMING AND RELAXATION
On Sundays, we liked to visit the swimming pool. Neither of us were good swimmers but it was fun and relaxing. Sometimes, a gang of us would go, sometimes it was just me. I loved these alone times at the pool because I could relax, swim a little, watch people enjoying their lives and pretend that all of them were happy and comfortable with not a care in the world, unlike me, and I wished I could be them.
It was on one such Sunday that I finally snapped. I don’t know where it came from. Perhaps it had something to do with an incident I remembered from a few months previous in the men’s dressing room. In those days, the dressing room was a long row of cubicals, which were open both sides with curtains covering the openings; these curtains were mostly missing. On that occasion I had been drying off in one such cubical when two youths walked past on one side; as they walked down the other side and past my (not very private) cubical again, they giggled and I looked up to see, staring right at my nakedness, two girls of about fifteen! I couldn’t imagine anything more embarrassing at that time. They were caught by an attendant and ejected from the building. It’s odd, but it is only while writing this that I fully remembered that incident and made some connection. Such is the therapeutic effect of writing.
Maybe that memory affected my actions or maybe it was something else; who knows? Oddly, I can remember some details in vivid, Technicolor reality while others are a blur.
It was a lovely summer’s day and I had driven to the pool in my spruce-green, Mark 1 Ford Cortina with bench seat and column shift – a classic vehicle. On this particular Sunday afternoon my girlfriend had decided not to come with me for some reason. I had been indulging in the most relaxing activity I knew – floating on my back and slowly propelling myself up and down the pool; I know this because this is what I always did. This was most irritating for some swimmers because I couldn’t see where the hell I was going. Relaxing as it was, it didn’t stop the internal chatter. All the worry about my failing degree study was still niggling, as was the concern over my job, the arguments I was having in work, the tensions with my own parents (good Catholic boys aren’t supposed to live over the brush, especially with those wicked protestant girls), and a whole host of other things. This is about as much detail as I remember about the time prior to the incident and, even then, I can’t be sure that it is a memory and not a construct from memories of other days.
Now, at this swimming pool was a particularly peculiar attendant. I never could quite figure what this guy’s job was. I don’t recall ever seeing him at the lifeguard station but I remember him well because he would watch me; he would be seen wandering around the changing rooms, checking on lockers and the likes and watching. He probably watched other people but he just seemed to give me odd looks all the time. Perhaps it was because I attended the pool alone so often. He also seemed to be very friendly with many of the kids that attended the pool. I found out why that was a while later.
My next memory is of being bawled at by said attendant and being told to get out of the pool. Someone had reported to him that I’d just removed by swimming trunks. I know this was true, because I remember having to pull them up before getting out of the pool.
The attendant escorted me to the dressing rooms and told me to get dressed. He continued to disappear and re-appear, keeping his eye on me so I didn’t escape; why would I want to escape when I had done nothing wrong, as I thought? By the time I had dressed, a male and female police constables were there to give me a ride to the local police station where I was accused of indecent exposure.
THE POLICE AND THE LAW
What I did next was stupid. Had I have realised my mental state, I would never have done this; had I known the law, I would never have done this; had I known exactly what was in the attendant’s statement, I would never have done this. I admitted it! Sure, at first I totally denied it; my cell was visited by a particularly burly constable and I was back-handed, quite viciously – no witness of course.
During the next couple of hours, I was alone with my thoughts in a police cell. In my confused, agitated state, I began to think about what was going to happen next. Obviously, I had removed, or partially removed, my costume in a public place; I knew that was not a good thing to do and had probably been observed by a number of people. Shit! What if some of them were kids? If there was a court case, witnesses would be called; I was probably guilty, anyway, and I didn’t want to be responsible for putting people through the trauma of appearing in court, especially if any of them were children. So, I said I would plead guilty. Big mistake.
As I understand the law now, thirty-odd years later, to be guilty of indecent exposure, there has to be intent to cause distress, shock or insult; there certainly wasn’t any of that in my case. I also think that some sexual arousal or sexual touching is required, which there definitely wasn’t.
Now, some people, regardless of the details and reasons, will accuse me of being a pervert; that one phrase “indecent exposure” may, in your mind, overshadow all the other words describing the issues mental illness. If any of you do feel like that, I invite you to take your small, prejudiced mind elsewhere and consider whether thou doth protest too much.
When I did appear in court, and after I’d committed to my guilty plea, the attendant’s statement was read out. I was stunned because what he described wasn’t actually possible and would have required more hands than I possessed. So I’m not even sure that, in the fug of what I now know to have been a nervous breakdown, I actually did do what I was accused of. I can’t remember the exact details of the statement and have tried to get a court transcript – apparently those sorts of records are destroyed after a number of years.
It is an irony, and somewhat suspicious, that the same swimming pool attendant was later prosecuted for handling stolen goods. Like Fagan, he had recruited kids that regularly attended the swimming pool to steal for him. How do I know this? Because one of those kids broke into my shed and stole my bike.
The magistrate obviously didn’t consider the offence serious and I was, clearly, not a danger to the public; he fined me a very small amount (can’t remember exactly), imposed a six month probation order and ordered a psychiatric report. He was right, of course, as I have never done anything like it since. So minor was the incident that I even had a letter from the Secretary of State for Education stating that it did not affect my ability to teach children and vulnerable adults. In fact, in recent years I have been CRB checked and was allowed to teach in a secondary school.
One good thing did come out of the whole incident – I got some medical help and accepted that there are times when we all need that kind of help.
I also found out who my true friends where. Not the guy who posted the local paper, containing the very small report on the case, though my door with something written on it that I was never shown. I later found that many of my friends knew about the incident but chose not to mention it nor let it affect our friendship. I’m sure my employers knew but never mentioned it, even though I was off work for about two months with stress. And yes, my girlfriend stuck around for another few years.
I suspect I will, once again, test friendships by choosing to publish this blog. Some people will delete me or block me from their Facebook friends list; some might distance themselves from me. If any do, so be it. I don’t want friends who are that small-minded and can’t separate a person’s identity from their behaviour.
You may well ask why, after over thirty years, am I choosing to publish this article. I’ve been asking myself the same question since typing those first words.
I’m not a big fan of our recent obsession with privacy. I think it’s over-rated and just puts obstacles in the way of getting to know people. Let’s face it, the more private you are, and the more obsessed you are with that privacy, the more you have to lose when the inevitable happens and people leak your secrets.
Over the past few years, I have found myself more and more in the public eye, particularly in the last few months since I established the Page to Stage new writing festival in Liverpool. I figure, if I keep this secret, someone is going to use it against me sometime in the future. It’s not a very good secret anyway, since a lot of people already know about it.
The final push actually came from my ex-partner and mother of my two sons. In a nasty exchange in a Facebook message about my eldest son’s housing predicament (long story), four of us were arguing. Being irritated by the fact that my younger son (who is in is twenties) was backing me up, she decided that she was no longer getting the better of the argument so brought out the nuclear weapons. In a moment of viciousness, which was low even for her, she wrote (paraphrasing because my Facebook account is temporarily suspended since, apparently, John Mc is not my name – ask my ex about that) “He’s a pervert that was caught waving his tackle at a couple of kids. That’s why he can’t teach.” A particularly odd lie since I have been a teacher, with a CRB check, in recent years and had absolutely nothing to do with the argument we were having.
So, I decided that no-one will ever wield that sort of power again.
So that is the story of my first breakdown and one of the embarrassing things I have done. I have done many embarrassing things when anxiety or depression have taken a grip, but that’s a story for another day.
NOTE: the collage of famous faces is from Robert Chaen’s website. I do not own the copyright and have tried to contact the website owner for permission to use.