Up at the corners

Or; Why Anyone Saying That Needs To ask themselves why they’re in total denial

I didn’t smile much when I was a kid. It wasn’t some Dickensian horror-story about being made to be a pick-pocket or having to go round on a milk-float or frost on the windows inside in the winter. I only went round on a milk-float on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, because that was my Saturday job.

OK, my Milk Clothes stank of sour milk and couldn’t be used for anything else. Jeans on their literal last legs. A white sweatshirt I’d properly grown out of. A horrible blue nylon coat with weird gold fasteners on the front that now, would pass as a diamond-quilted hipster jacket, but not in Trowbridge back then it didn’t. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t awful. The deal, not the coat. The coat was.

We had Radio One on all the time and back then, that was something worth listening to. We also had the Christmas Eve we started way before dawn so we saw the sun rise through the steely high-pressure-over-Sweden blue winter sky, fuelled by home-made mince pies and whisky left out for us in the porch of council houses, next to the empties. I was fourteen or fifteen. It didn’t kill me. I wasn’t driving the milk-float.

For Proust it was little biscuits that reminded him the past was a different country. Not just one where they do things differently, but one where you can only get a visitor visa that goes out of date too soon. For me, bottles chinking together makes me wait to hear the clack of the solenoids, the deep rising tone of the electric motor winding up and then the sound of the float coasting to a halt again. A pipe tapped out on the door of the float.

Frost on the inside of the windows wasn’t special in those days. Pretty much everyone I knew knew all about that, rich and not very rich at all alike. A friend whose house was so big that the first time I saw it I mistook it for a hotel and asked directions to her house there had her own apartment on the top floor of what looked like half of Yorkshire. Her father refused to install heating up there on the basis that heated bedrooms were “bourgeois.”

On the top floor, anyway. They weren’t bourgeois on his own floor. The other floors were fine.  So was the £23,000 he spent on his Purdeys, back when that would buy you a flat in a nice part of Bath.

But little kids generally don’t need to be told to smile most days. I’m not a parent, but I think I can say that pretty safely. If they do there’s something wrong.

Because there was never anything acknowledged to be something wrong, and there is only a finite amount of internet so some other time for that, I didn’t work out there was something wrong. Instead I behaved like a dissociated, self-regarding arse for quite a long time. Sometimes I still do. These days I realise there’s a pretty big difference between self-regard and self-awareness. Usually.

The trouble is – and this is the bit that trips everyone up, including, if not especially, people trying to help – is that when you’re not thinking straight you don’t know you’re not thinking straight. Especially in a culture that doesn’t discuss it, criticises it or tells you to just buck-up and stop being so self-pitying.

It works like this. If you have a white hair in your eye-brow you can see it. When you do there are things you can do. You can accept it. You can dye it. You can pluck it out. But if you don’t know it’s there then you can’t do any of that. And the thing with depression is exactly that. You don’t know it’s there when it’s starting, unless you really, really plug in to what’s going on with yourself. Which sounds like the kind of yurt-hugging thing Kate Archer would say. Which doesn’t help.

Often, all you know is you’re getting in more arguments than usual. Or maybe that’s just me, but it’s a reliable reminder to go for a walk and crucially, don’t self-medicate, because as a friend rammed home to me after trying to drown her own demons, there’s no such thing.

I’ll say it again. There is no such thing as self-medication. When you drink too much and call it self-medication you’ve now got two problems, the thing and the drinking. Except you’ve actually got more than that, because you’ve now still got the thing, plus the drinking, plus the physical and social consequences of that and the stuff you did that you can’t 100% remember entirely, plus most people have zero, but zilch sympathy with drunks. Only drunks think they do. Especially if they’re buying. Obliteration doesn’t help. And it certainly isn’t medication. It’s more denial. Which is how we got here in the first place.

Churchill had it. He ended-up drinking two bottles of brandy a day and slurping mashed-up steak and kidney pudding out of the bowl. That and weeping at the thought of the charred cities the RAF were smashing and continued to smash, because he couldn’t get himself together to say ‘Stop this. Enough.’ A commander who couldn’t command, who couldn’t face down his own subordinate, Sir Arthur Travers Harris. Air Marshall. The man the press called Bomber Harris. The man the RAF called Butcher. This is real history. The nation’s hero was drunk most of the war. Nobody can drink two bottles of brandy and not be drunk. It isn’t possible. Idols always have feet of clay.

For me, trigger signs are not putting the lights on, or if I have to, to cook or wash, just one when a ceiling light would mean I could actually see what I was cooking. That and total silence, no radio, no laptop, no CDs, no noise at all. That’s when I know it’s coming. Just putting some lights on can stop it.

Now I think of it like flu. Once you get it you stand more chance of getting it again. It might kill you if you let it, but the thing is, you don’t have to let it. There are things you can do to make it feel better. Lots of them. And they work, more so if you’re blessed with real friends who watch out for you and spot for you. But first you have to realise you’ve got it. And you know that you can always get it again.







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For a day job I work for a mental health hospital. Today I read one of the descriptions of the services the hospital offers and wondered about the way the fear and stigma of mental illness has affected treatment, to the extent that it’s not the done thing to even talk about it. We can and do happily discuss mental health but it’s not really on to talk about mental illness. It’s frightening. It’s a total loss of control.

Out on the primal veldt if you break your leg the lions might get you sooner, but at least you can make a plan. Light a fire, sharpen a stick, do something to put it off. And maybe, maybe you’ll get through. But when your mind isn’t very well you’re the most vulnerable you can possibly be and still be alive. Your plan is going to be about as good as the lions’s and they’ve got much bigger teeth than you.

Watch a cat with another cat that just came back from the vet and acts woozy from the anaesthetic. That would be my fear of what would happen, that frightened people would lash out, as frightened people do. Unless you’re lucky. Unless you can get help.

The service description got me thinking of how sanitised the language of therapy has become. Maybe it’s a good thing. I honestly don’t know. In one way it helps by reminding people, maybe unintentionally, the thinness of the tightrope we all walk. I see people who’ve missed their footing every day. It’s a terrifyingly long way down.



Treatment for psychotic symptoms, including hearing voices and seeing things others do not, feeling paranoid or mistrustful, believing in an ability to read other people’s minds, feeling confused, irritable and depressed, not thinking clearly, feeling that bad things may happen to self or others, believing in one’s special powers or fame are classic symptoms of a psychotic episode.


The factsheet told me the symptoms are common

And extensively varied including hearing voices,

Or seeing things that other people don’t see and hear.

And it’s true. I hear voices that other people don’t.

Other people don’t share my memories

And I hear your voice still telling me it’ll be ok.

Feeling paranoid or mistrustful.

I used to think paranoid meant thinking

Everyone was out to get you

But in the end, one person’s quite enough

Especially when they don’t want to get you at all

But the opposite. They want to un-get you.

For good. And mistrust.

Where would I be without a healthy dose of that?

Signed up to share my bank account with a Nigerian prince

Who suddenly needs to get the money belonging to his uncle

Who sadly died in a plane crash out of the country.

If I’d only share my details half of it can be mine.

And I can tick another box now. I could read his mind

This prince with a distinctly un-royal address.

But maybe things are different there.

Where nobody is confused or irritable or depressed

Where everyone thinks clearly all the time,

Where the words psychosis and mental health

Or service user are hardly ever used,

Unlike American Express or bank account details.

It’s my attitude, isn’t it?

It’s all in my head, as if I could think anywhere else

And shift this feeling that bad things might happen to me

And they will without any question at all

Because nobody gets out of this alive.

Do I believe in my special powers? It depends.

Right now only my special power to survive

Unlike the tens of billions who went before me

Dying and being born, a flash and dust

Under an eternal flame

So yes. Hands up. Me sir! Me sir! Sir! Sir!

That’s my special fame.




This is not the thing I wanted to write about mental health treatment. It just came out that way. As some people seem to have problems, oops, sorry, I meant issues reading this and thinking ‘Is he?’ You know, is he like that?’ the answer is no. Not diagnosed, anyway.

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