Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Robinson Crusoe Effect


When I was young I used to enjoy television on a Saturday morning and one of my favourites was an old black and white dubbed version of Robinson Crusoe. Apart from the ace title music I loved the story of a man who was on an island and was desperate to get off it. My child’s view was that, of course Robinson’s efforts were all about getting off the island and back to society. However, when I studied the original novel at University I realised that Robinson’s story was much more complex than that. After many years he had adapted to life on the island until the thought of rescue in the end became something that was bittersweet.

Life with a mental illness has been described in many different ways and one which resonates with me was from Sylvia Plath, the American poet. In an autobiographical novel describing her lowest points in her late teens and early twenties she described her life with Mental Illness as being like life inside The Bell Jar. I have related to this on many occasions, as sometimes it feels as if I have been trapped in a vacuum sealed glass jar; others could see me, but I had no way of making them hear me. At times the best way I could find to describe this was that I was 'inside my own head, screaming'. If you have felt the isolation brought by depression and other mental illnesses you may relate to this sense of being cut off from the rest of humanity.

Like Robinson Crusoe, depending on how long you may have struggled with mental illness, you may find yourself feeling in two minds about ending the isolation. On the one hand, emotional distress is exhausting and there is little energy to cope with others. On the other hand, remaining isolated from others only confirms some of the more negative thoughts about yourself and stop you from receiving emotional energy from others.


For me life on the island of Mental Illness was painful, but ultimately, I was 'safe' from humanity. Basically most of my emotional and psychological wounds were the result of the actions of others. This along with the combination of my biological predisposition has meant that I have battled psychological maelstroms all my life. When I was diagnosed and offered 'shelter' in MH services, I was able to find some respite from the dangers of relationships. I have been quite happy not engaging to any emotional depth with anyone over the past nearly fourteen years, since the last traumatic breakdown of a relationship. Being 'in treatment' has meant that I have had a focus on managing my BPD and it was a convenient excuse to ignore the need to engage with anyone outside my therapy bubble. Except, I have reached a point where I feel strong enough to manage relationships. I don't trust everyone yet, 'In God I trust, all others have some way to go to prove themselves...' But I have let some people in and it's been ok. I know I am healing because I can say I am fond of certain people and look forward to their company. I still enjoy my times of solitude, but I am no longer in danger of going for weeks at a time with no human contact. I would say that I have learned that in order to cope positively with my relationships and friendships I know I will continue to need those times on my own to recharge my emotional batteries - people I think will continue to tire me.

I have now been given a date for my final discharge from Mental Health services. I know that it is testament to the journey I am completing (at least this stage). I am happy that there is equilibrium in my life. It's not perfect. I still react emotionally in situations that other people take in their stride. I continue to battle some of the demons from my past. I have developed new skills and rather than my BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) controlling me, I am feeling that I can ride it's storms and maintain a level of stability which will allow me to step off my island and sail back to 'the mainland'. However, I am aware that I have been sheltered on my island, I have had safe places and people to whom I can speak to about my ongoing battles with my emotional extremes. I am at the point on my journey to recovery where I can see the docks looming into view and will face the prospect of walking the gangplank back to the life I was ripped from about five years ago. It's a scary thought.

However, I'm not going back to the same country. Anymore than Robinson Crusoe would recognise the world that awaited him back in England, following his many years on the island, the place I left behind no longer exists. Many of the friends I had then have fallen by the wayside. Some gave up on me, some have considered me 'lost at sea' and others just haven't been that interested in maintaining relationships in general. There are other friends, though who have strengthened the friendships with me because we have weathered the storms together. They have patiently waited for me to return from my desert island. These relationships rather than the therapeutic relationships are what will sustain me through my recovery.

I still face the pain of the final separation from people who have been really important to me, who have helped me, who have been privy to the most intimate details of my heart and soul. That's not an easy transition to make. In the past I have moved on too quickly, I have not allowed myself time to grieve friendships and relationships. The process of leaving services is yet another opportunity to learn a new way of doing things. Of allowing myself to feel grief and know that I can live with it. What is different about these therapeutic relationships is they have been honest, straightforward and have delivered what was promised. When we have had issues I have felt confident enough to be honest about the impact of mistakes on me - what has been refreshing is the level of self confidence in my CPN and therapist which has meant that they could own mistakes and we could work through the implications together.

My journey out of services has above all, been well planned. This ending has not taken me by surprise, and though I can acknowledge that it will be a difficult transition, I know I am ready to return to life after the island.