Jonny Benjamin's recent documentary The Stranger On The Bridge struck a chord. His campaign to find Mike, who turned out to be an affable chap called Neil, touched the hearts and minds of millions the world over. It's mental health awareness week and these are my thoughts.
I recall first seeing Johnny's face on a BBC3 documentary, in which he talked openly about his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder. In 2003 I was diagnosed with the same condition. Since I was a teenager, even younger, I always knew that something was not quite right; it's a journey that I delineate in detail in my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too (Muswell Hill Press, 2015).
Schizoaffective disorder is a complex condition, I can oscillate between extreme euphoric highs and suicidal lows, suffer visual and auditory hallucinations precipitated by sleep deprivation, and I am predisposed to psychosis. Day-to-day it is a real battle to do basic things that people often take for granted, then there is the mania, writing and painting in the early hours of the night, having grandiose ideas and boundless energy, and finally there are the gruesome, incessant visions and the rebarbative voice of Fred who is perpetually cruel with his taunts and digs. Fred is a constant companion in the prison that my mind can become without a 'small tent of blue' to peer out of (Oscar Wilde).
Portrait of Fred (acrylic on MDF board, 2007)
My condition, which was essentially depressive in nature as a teenager, mutated into a whole other beast in my late 20s. After I was diagnosed, I read that people with schizoaffective disorder often end up, 'homeless, friendless, jobless and impecunious'. My then psychiatrist told me, if you don't go on medication, 'You will be dead', well I am not dead, yet, nor am I on medication. I use art and writing to heal my mind and keep it diverted.
Fred is Trying to Eat Me - Part 2 (acrylic on MDF board, 2007)
In 2002 my life seemed to be collapsing on all fronts. I'd just finished work; I was making a film for the British Council called Connecting Faith about three young Muslims in Malaysia, Bangladesh and London. Throughout the day I had been distracted, Fred was ranting in my head telling me to, 'Do it.' He was referring to committing suicide. It felt like I was trying to push back the sea with my bare hands, I was at breaking point. Instead of walking back to my flat in Covent Garden I walked in the other direction towards Embankment, towards the bridge, towards the Thames. I still had all my camera equipment with me, it was a balmy summer's evening, and I found myself standing on the bridge and staring down at the water. The Thames resembled a big, black mouth and I saw my body falling and then being swallowed up in a swift, clean gulp. I stared at the water for a long time longing for a quick and sure death, but I was paralysed with fear, so I just stood inert fixated on the black ebb and flow below.
Then a stranger on the bridge approached me, he simply said, 'Are you ok?' in a quiet, unassuming voice. I glanced up briefly mortified that someone suspected me of not being ok, and in reply I said hastily, 'Yes, I'm fine' and looked away; he walked on. What if I had let him talk to me, what if I had opened up? My parents had been unable to deal with my rapid mental unravelling, case in point when I called my father and told him what I was planning he said, 'Go on then, jump!' His response was shocking, brutal and a sign he too was at the end of his tether, but his brusqueness worked snapping me out of my stupor. I began to walk away from the bridge. When I didn't jump Fred was disappointed and told me to buy pills instead, so I went into a shop and bought as many packets of Paracetomal as I could. The newsagent didn't bat an eyelid. Then I made neat elegant towers in my bedroom, willing myself to take them all. At this point my husband, who was abroad, alerted a friend, he arrived, chucked the pills and talked me out of it. I continue to live with habitual suicidal ideations and have learnt to ignore them, not giving them much credence. It is the default stance of my brain to say, 'Kill yourself', but it's emotionally draining to cope with something that is so recurrent.
This episode marked the beginning of a long road towards searching for the right sort of mental health care, I must have seen over 40 different mental health care practitioners in London and Brussels. I suffered psychosis twice in 2009 and 2010 and postpartum psychosis after the birth of both my children. I currently have no mental health provision - the pen and the brush are my substitute for meds.
Talking to that stranger on the bridge marked Johnny's road to recovery. His documentary made me think what would have happened if I'd dared to engage with that stranger? What perspective would he have offered? I found the conversation between the two men heart warming, it spoke volumes about humanity, compassion and kindness.
Often those with a mental health problem are seeking a kind, soothing voice that speaks back to them to counter the negative one in their head. I find that listening to a soft, Irish one helps.
Johnny's experience has inspired me to come out about my 'hot brain' to campaign about mental health awareness. My exhibition at Rich Mix (4th -27th June) deals with psychosis and postpartum psychosis; there will be a debate with three psychiatrists, Dr Bass (former psychiatrist in London), Dr Read (also my publisher) and Dr Thys (former psychiatrist and colleague in Brussels) on 4th June. There will also be a play about art, motherhood and madness on 5th June.
It's hard coming out and saying, 'This is me, I am a bit bonkers, but it's ok, I won't bite.' Johnny has been brave, honest and fearless. This is the only way forward, to liberate your mind from the shackles allowing the flowers to grow again instead of copious, thick and thorny weeds.
Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, Q S Lam (Muswell Hill Press 2015)
Need help? In the UK, call The Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90. For more support and advice, visit the website here.