progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

A post for World Mental Health Day

The story of (what went wrong with) my life

In which I confess everything. Well, almost everything. Actually, not everything. That'd take too long, and I'm not ready to talk about some stuff.

So I'm confessing some things which I think it's necessary to say about myself. It's not really sin, but as Marianne Faithful sang "I feel guilt, though I know I've done no wrong, I feel guilt". I am half a person, the other half is guilt. And writing and releasing this might help to relieve some of that guilt.

The personal is political to the extent to which cognitive biases are formed out of experience. What I mean is, our perception of the world is shaped by events that happen to us. So the following might go some way to explaining why I feel so strongly about power – the harsh inequality of political and economic power which diminishes individuals and which can only be challenged through collective struggles, through democratic processes.

Here goes...

I have suffered from a depressive illness since I was a teenager. This is as much a matter of physical health as mental. The black dog bites at your legs, slowing you down, the panic grips you, sealing your lips. Lethargy descends. A downward spiral. A miasma of misery.

It first emerged during the stress of making the transition from a primary school that was in walking distance from home to having to get two buses to comprehensive school. The separation wasn't only in terms of space but also people, close friends went to different schools and that made things much scarier and reduced what little confidence I had in myself.

As a result of illness, I missed a lot of secondary education. I have only three GSCEs - a B in Maths and two As in English Literature and Language. More shame. That I managed to pass any exams and complete at least some level of comprehension to a comprehensive education is thanks to several teachers, including those in the position to allocate assistance and those who provided it. They did their best, and I appreciate their efforts to help me.

But what happened in the years I was actually at school was incredibly stressful. I was on several occasions physically attacked by other pupils of my age, and threatened by a small number, including a few older boys. But the terror of being seen as “a grass”, and therefore weak, prevented me from telling anyone else. And it was only after a lot of pressure that I gave up names to my mother, aunt, and grandmother, which then to went to teachers at the school.

This didn't really help matters though. And I got into a few losing fights as a result of peer pressure to demonstrate my lack of weakness. But worse than physical violence was the verbal abuse which often felt like it was coming from all directions. I had always been a bit detached – I was an only child, and was raised by my mother and grandmother, and outside of school there were one or two kids in the same street to befriend. I was always more restricted in where I could go, a protectiveness which remains to this day, to be honest. My mother and grandmother's fear of my coming to any harm may have been harmful itself, as it's made it easier for me to retreat into isolation, to avoid making connections and spending time outside of their company.

Perhaps I was just being told the truth: I was soft, weak, a loner. I still am. But that this marked me out as someone it was acceptable to blank, to openly deride, to abuse, to harm physically. And so I did the same things to myself.

What's weird is that some of the reasons for being singled out related to coming from a low-income one-parent household: not having trainers or "fashionable" clothes to wear on dress-down days, not having a computer games console, and so on.

My mother worked part time, studied, and saved for my future and she couldn't really understand the peer pressure to have things which couldn't reasonably be afforded – trips to fast food restaurants rather than healthy meals, over-priced brand name trainers over cheaper logo-less alternatives.

I'm not saying it was all terrible - there was some sympathy from friends. But they often had the exact same problem, being marked out for the same kinds of treatment. And there was the extra guilt: perhaps I was fucking it up for other people, too? Guilt by association, by implication...

I could not see how my life could continue. Becoming a teenager was a completely unnerving experience. As a child I saw no appeal in growing up – and as I got older, I lost the imagination which had allowed me to escape pressures of being different or isolated.

For a long time I was so ill I could not attend school or often leave the house. I lost contact with the few close friends I had at various points in my teenage years. When I was around them, I could not explain or account for my awkwardness to an extent that relaxed my anxiety about them knowing.

So, I feel as if I've lived a double life. I didn't and don't want to have problems, but I do. Is my failing down to circumstances being against me, my own physical inability due to illness, or the weakness of my character? Am I a failure as an individual?

This is something that people with invisible illnesses have to live with. When able to perform, to pass as normal, this is of course what we desire and try to do. But it is also potential proof that we are not ill, that we are in fact feckless and deceitful. You look okay now, what's wrong with you? And in any case, am I really performing correctly – do I appear strange? But then, I am in a strange situation - the condition that clinicians tell me I have is strange even to myself.

For parents and relatives unaccustomed to mental illness in young children and teenagers, it can seem as if it is typical behaviour but taken to extremes. The arguments of those years have unfortunately inculcated doubt and fear – both about talking of the situation I am in, and of the illnesses I've had diagnosed.

From about the age of eleven or twelve I was prescribed anti-depressants, but only after much resistance from my mother. I was put on one or two before being prescribed one that I took for around four years. It is now no longer prescribed to children because of high incidences of serious side effects such as self-harm and suicide.

So was it the drugs? The legal and medicinal substances I was taking to combat an illness, were they exacerbating it? Who knows? More uncertainty. I am still taking an anti-depressant. Is it working or is it having no effect and any changes that occur in my life are actually down to me, or to other factors beyond my control? Again, uncertainty.

Ten years ago I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital under duress. At the time, the clinical psychiatrist I was seeing felt it necessary to switch my medication from that prescribed by the previous psychiatrist to the one that he preferred – manufactured by a firm which he was rumoured by other patients to have a significant shareholding in. Going cold turkey on the old pills made me physically sick, which in turn made me very depressed and emotional. The shrink offered me a false choice: either be admitted voluntarily or be sectioned. I chose the “voluntary” option.

In hospital I spent several days in complete despair. Thankfully, because I was seventeen, they had to give me a room of my own. I didn't eat anything for a few days because I was so distressed at being hospitalised. I feel my admission at the time had more to do with the power-trip of the psychiatrist in question (remarked upon by other members of staff, for example, in meetings in which he reduced me to tears by attempting to restrict my contacts with my family and prevent me from leaving). There's more I could say about him, such as his apparent prejudices, but that's something which involves further confession, and what I'm writing about here is hard enough.

A few years ago, I was given a diagnosis of having an autistic spectrum disorder, despite having been told as a teenager that this was definitely not the case by a child psychologist with experience in treating children with Aspergers' Syndrome and other conditions “on the spectrum”. Was he mistaken? Or was he right, but I have changed in the intervening years? Who knows?

I managed to get a referral to have some tests done. But the unit carrying these out was apparently over-subscribed, insufficiently funded, and not within the local Trust. And then it closed. So, I didn't get an authoritative answer. I did receive some very important help from an occupational therapist – including group activities and education about illness which helped make a breakthrough.

Three years ago I started some abortive attempts at voluntary work and then a more successful Open University course. I also got involved in voluntary work with local campaigning organisations like Friends of the Earth and, yes, the Labour Party.

In all these activities, there has been the problem of accounting for what might appear to be odd behaviour or unaccounted absences. I can't say I've been as upfront as I'd like, and an inability to speak aloud and as coherently as I am able if I've written notes makes it that much harder.

The divided nature of political activities has provided me with much to think about as I study the social sciences and ponder levels and modes of participation in collective forms of lobbying and decision-making. Why was it that my involvement in the one activity has occasionally seemed odd, or at least unusual, to those primarily involved in another form of activity?

What worries me about making this confession public (or at least, known to people I know and trust sufficiently to let them know) is that it might then lead to a reappraisal of past or subsequent activities or expressions of thought in light of this. I will then become genuinely mad, a clearly mad individual, as opposed to someone who is a bit odd. Who will listen to a madman?

I sometimes don't even trust myself – or at least, I question if I can go on sustaining a level of selfness (that isn't even a word, but I can't think of any other description for it).

I struggle to communicate in person, or at least, I usually feel incredibly anxious whilst doing it. And I often find myself tormented with thoughts of what I did badly, where I didn't perform in a way which allowed people to understand me – perhaps I have hurt someone with what I have said, haven't said, or may have been understood to have said.

Social life is performative, productive: we do stuff to stuff, yes. Our labour transforms the natural world and other individuals, yet we may only be remunerated for certain of these activities – for others we expect no reward, rightly or wrongly, but nonetheless produce effects upon the material and social world we live in.

We attach a great deal of significance to those activities we perform, the ideas which give us guidance about reality and what's right – the descriptive and normative ideas which derive from material conditions, but also from the ideas which are, when you think about it, ultimately materially transmitted through the speech and physical activity of other individuals.

But it must be remembered that we also perform social life in a way that is about more than usefulness. You might wear sunglasses to shade your eyes, but also to signify style. A phrase or gesture might convey a practical message, but also one about status or desire.

The symbolic order works like this: a sign is comprised of the signifier (the word "hat") with the signified (the idea of what a hat is, the function it performs); a symbol is comprised of a sign (say, a top hat) which acts as a signifier for another signified concept (the cultural associations of what a top hat tells us about the wearer, the situation, the behaviour expected or likely to occur, and so on).

We are, to quote the title of a Fall album “Perverted by Language”. The curse and blessing of the species is the ability to develop signs into symbols. The curse and blessing I have is that these things are a challenge to my everyday life.

Perhaps things like endogenous depression and Asperger's Syndrome are actually about the symbolic order rather than anything innate – what I mean is, there's grounds for thinking that a social model of disability is an appropriate way of understanding these impairments. And if this model is of more validity than a medical one, then pharmaceuticals are of less or no relevance to treatment of the condition.

So it's hardly surprising if I've followed my teenage years, writing letters to pen friends who I never met, with writing emails, texts, blog posts, and communicating with people more in this way as a means to meeting people outside of the home. I face a struggle to go on, to build confidence, to maintain composure and to have the will to go on doing these things, to go on living.

The struggle continues...