Prison sentences and psychiatric illnesses

When reading a crime novel by Stuart Neville the other day, I came across a particular excerpt that encouraged me to put a belated pen to paper.

The piece was this:

Cunningham remembered taking a lifer called Brian to a newsagent’s. He had mumbled, “Polo mints, please.” The shopkeeper had set the sweets on the counter. Brian, who had strangled his girlfriend to death after a drinking binge, had grabbed the packet, dropped a twenty-pound note in it’s place, and walked out of the shop.

When she’d caught up with him, his change in her hand, Cunningham asked why.

Brian had stood there on the pavement, blinking tears from his eyes, before he said, “Cause I don’t know what they cost.”

Remove a man from the world for years then drop him back into it, expecting him to simply pick up where he left off. It doesn’t work.

Instantly, I felt empathetic for Brian and at first I wasn’t entirely sure how anybody could feel for a man who had strangled his girlfriend. But then, I realised. I realised that I feel for Brian because his character is not far from my own.

Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a criminal. I have not strangled anybody to death and I have never been to prison but the thing is, mental illness imprisons an individual in the exact same way as a prison sentence does. Mental illness removes you from the world and all that occurs around you, so on recovery, it is equally as impossible to simply pick up where you left off.

I began to fall ill at the age of 11/12, and by age 16 until the age of 20 I was in the depths of my mental illness. That’s nine whole years of a life completely engulfed by mental health and all things related. That’s also nine years of being removed from life’s natural pathway of growth and development, preventing my brain from absorbing any knowledge that did not revolve around my mental illnesses. Whilst my friends participated in everyday life, my mental illness ridden self was imprisoned in a life of my own.

At the age of 16, instead of learning how to form relationships with guys, I was learning how to destroy my relationship with food, how to vomit my meals in silence without the use of my hands.

By the age of 17 when my friends were attending party after party, I was cocooned in a blanket on a Saturday night, crying myself to exhaustion. Instead of learning how to love the company of others, I was learning how to fall out of love with myself. I was learning how to scar my body, making tools out of objects as blunt as spoons and as innocent as ripped up pyjama bottoms.

By the age of 18, my friends were learning the basics of politics, preparing themselves to vote for the first time in the upcoming election. Meanwhile, I had just been discharged from a lengthy psychiatric hospital admission and thus instead of learning Ed Milliband’s manifesto, I was learning how to readjust to the world outside of hospital. I was learning how to walk to the shops alone without having to ask permission from a consultant. I was learning how to master stairs again without exhausting myself after seven months of being forced to use the lifts. I was learning how to look at the magazines that hospitals ban the presence of and look at them as fashion advice rather than an instruction manual for what my body should look like.

By the age of 19 when my friends were using their new experiences as a university student to conjure up exquisite meals with ease (it’s a lie, not all students live on beans on toast), I was learning how to look at food as anything other than numbers. Instead of using my maths skills to understand the concept of mortgage repayments, I was using them to calculate the number of calories in an 80g apple, or in the alcohol that my friends were drowning their post-summative sorrows in but I was too afraid to touch in the fear that it would cause my body to uncontrollably expand.

By the age of 20, instead of learning how to cope with life without my parents, I was learning how to swallow fatal amounts of medication without even the aid of water. The teenage years that should’ve been spent learning how to function as an adult were spent trapped in the prison sentence of mental illness.

Now, at the age of 21, although my mind may no longer be imprisoned by numbers and anxieties,  I am still to an extent living in the mindset of the 11 year old I was before my mental illnesses set in. My friends may be moving out of home, getting married, having children and starting “proper” employment but I am nowhere near ready to leave the comfort of my parent’s home and begin life on my own.

Shame remains a dominant aspect of my life. I feel so far behind the maturity levels of my peers; I may know how much a packet of Polo mints cost but I have only just learned how to use the washing machine and still call upon my mum to show me how to work the iron without burning my favourite clothing items to cinders. My family call it a lack of common sense but I call it a lack of being in the common world in the first place. After all, they say that knowledge is a sum of experience and you cannot expect to learn from experiences you were never a part of.

I may in most senses be behind those my age, but in other senses I am so far ahead. Although my basic understanding of the mechanics of the world are still missing, I have developed a level of empathy that is beyond my years. I may not understand mortgages but I understand what it is like to feel emotional pain so intense that life no longer feels worth living and it is an understanding of that which I’m told makes me valuable when it comes to the job I work in.

Yet I continue to learn, mature and remain grateful for the unconditional support of those around me in achieving the impossible task of “picking up where I left off”.

Stay hopeful,

Shann x x x



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