Updated: Oct 29, 2020
I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1987, suffering a complete breakdown that led to me being sectioned under the Mental Health (Scotland) Act 1984. I’d been signed off work for a few weeks that summer, although the description my GP scrawled on my medical certificate – stress – barely scraped the surface of what I was actually going through.
Put it this way. During one appointment I became convinced he wasn’t a doctor at all, but the ringleader of a gang of football hooligans.
Worse than that: the tablets he was prescribing weren’t anti-depressants, they were a form of arsenic. Stress? I was drowning in a terrifying whirlpool of paranoia, agoraphobia, insomnia, and delusions.
The previous year I’d obtained a Publishing Degree at Napier University in my hometown of Edinburgh. Rather than heading to London, the UK’s major publishing hub, to take advantage of the posts being advertised to graduates, I decided to look for openings in Scotland. In the meantime, I signed up with a temp agency.
The mid-1980s were a boomtime for privatisation, and I found myself seconded to the Royal Bank of Scotland, processing personal applications for shares in various public utilities. This meant compulsory overtime, and for months and months I would work seven-day weeks, often starting at 8am and not leaving the office until 8pm. The hours were long but the weekly pay cheques reflected this. Surrounded by co-workers my own age, we responded to the drudgery of our daily routines by hitting the local bars with our bulging wallets at every opportunity.
We spent coffee breaks in the pub. We’d go straight there after work. We’d embark on pub crawls from Thursdays through to Sundays, frequenting Edinburgh’s nightclubs until 3am. With work again at 8am.
At some point my body decided it had had enough of a 25-year-old clerk behaving like a rockstar. I withdrew from my social life and I was signed-off work. The delusions got worse. So much worse. I stopped answering concerned phone calls from mates because I was convinced they were all working for a drug baron. I believed the neighbours held regular meetings about getting me evicted, and had harassed my mum at the shops.
On Monday 17 November 1987, my delusions reached their zenith. Sometime after the evening meal, in the presence of my mum and dad, I launched myself into my bedroom wall, head first.
I’d become convinced that knocking myself unconscious would reset my warped mind and I would wake up ‘normal again.’ Instead my parents were forced to dial 999, summoning an ambulance, a straightjacket and a police escort.
After hospitalisation came a steady recovery. But three years later my mind began unraveling again. Only this time it wasn’t depression, but constant elation. This impacted everything: family, friendship, work. Unable to control my exuberant thoughts, I was sectioned again.
Following my second discharge, I decided to keep the truth to myself. If anyone ever asked about the blank months on my CV I would mumble something about stints in rehab. That was footballers and celebrities went through, and was surely way cooler sounding than having been a mental patient?
That was then.
Into the 21st century, I became aware of growing evidence of the stigma surrounding mental health being confronted. Individuals would appear on TV, sharing their stories.
Rather than feeling embarrassed about having been there myself, I felt empowered.
I dug out notes I’d scribbled in hospital, began cobbling together a diary, a blow-by-blow account of what it had been like to go through a bipolar meltdown. These formed the basis of a biography, entitled BrainBomb. More than that, I felt the confidence to talk about everything.
Through the Scottish Book Trust I was invited to address community groups and schools. I even faced an audience of around 80 staff and inmates at HMP Barlinnie, then a smaller but equally responsive gathering in HMP Saughton.
Having gone through severe episodes of depression and mania, I feel a crucial aspect of my recovery has been developing the confidence to describe my journey, from the darkness inside the tunnel, to the light at the end of it.
Mark Fleming is a Speakers Collective Community Member. If you need to talk, you can call The Samaritans on 116 123 or find support in your area using the https://hubofhope.co.uk/
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