At the start of the winter in 1981, I was at my wit’s end. Having worked in central London at Guy’s Hospital as a management accounts assistant for 18 months, I was going through a nervous breakdown. I was later to find out that I was showing all the classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia and clinical depression.
In the office at Guy’s, I had been at my worst when a manager, Christine, taking on responsibility for the admin on the psychiatric wards, visited my boss Ali who sat at the adjoining desk. The bleak thoughts of psychiatry freaked me out, as I was half-aware that I could end up as a victim myself. Christine would remain and talk to Ali for two hours.
- See more: 'Working as a journalist and living with schizophrenia'
- See more: 'An introduction to schizophrenia'
All of this took place during an episode when I was mentally sick, and unable to function normally. I pretended to be busy intermittently using a calculator but, I made no progress at all as I was cut off from reality. As a result of schizophrenia, though this had not yet been diagnosed, I was unable to work in any meaningful way.
I decided to go to the Holy Land and to live and work there
I did not know which way to turn. In a completely fraught state where I had lost control, I experienced shocking delusions, voices and the worst symptoms of schizophrenia; my saving grace and only real hope was that I could seek refuge on a kibbutz – a sort of collective farm – in Israel.
So, I decided to put all my eggs in one basket and to purchase a one-way plane ticket to Tel Aviv, Israel. The final stage of the journey was to arrive by bus at Kibbutz Hatzerim located in the Negev desert. Here, I would find satisfaction in doing farm work, protected in a sanctuary, where I could feel confident that I'd recover from an illness that had plagued me since childhood.
The volunteer coordinator, Bob, welcomed me as I entered the kibbutz office to register my arrival. He next spoke about Hatzerim and pointed out what would be expected of me in terms of work and commitment. Temporarily buoyed by the respect and kindness Bob showed me and the thoughts of a new life, I must have made a good enough impression on him. Bob then walked me to a hut where was to be my living quarters.
I still had considerable mental anguish and looking back on the experience, how I managed to hang on remains a mystery. The mental blocks would be so acute that I found that I was unable to speak coherently. In these early days, venturing from my hut would be a risk, and not really an option for I had no short-term memory in place, and I so easily got lost.
I was soon assigned some work to do. It was menial and I quickly found myself working in the kitchens and on the land, and sometimes working nights.
I became assistant to the pest control officer, Ben, a former Russian citizen. I drove a tractor, making sure that the fly cages were ready to attract flies for capture, and I sprayed maggots with insecticide.
In what appeared to me like a miracle, I recovered almost fully living and working on the kibbutz. The hard work, which was neither mentally taxing nor stressful, contributed to what I thought would be a full recovery.
The recovery brought to an end, return to England and the vital role of medication
Yet in a year after my arrival, some of the worst symptoms, delusions, irrational thought and logic, hallucinations – reared their ugly head again. I still can’t answer why this happened – maybe it’s because there is a chemical imbalance in the brain, something that can be addressed using psychiatric medication.
So, I left the kibbutz, travelled back to London and applied to go to university to read politics and history; I was offered a place at a London University. While in the UK, I became increasingly unwell. I was hospitalised later and diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was given a depot of antipsychotic medication, and anti-depressant pills. Having an official name and description for the illness served to help me and my family to come to terms better with what was wrong. The medication too, despite the potential for unwanted side effects, was a godsend and ensured that I had no major upheaval to face anymore.
I went on to graduate, to pass two Masters’ degrees, and two doctorates, all while holding down part-time jobs in supermarkets, offices, or working as a security guard. To date, I have written eight published books, and about one hundred articles for magazines, journals, and newspapers, and I have passed the equivalent of six degrees.
While the kibbutz offered some respite in the short term, I found that the medication, though questioned by many, offers a definite way forward. I realize that there is no blanket solution to mental health, that the side effects of medication can be too difficult to cope with or that the answer to life cannot be found in a pill bottle.
However, the psychiatric medication continues to give me a lifeline and has opened the door for me to take on a career as an author, historian, and political scientist.
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