My Mental Health Journey

Back in June 2018 I was in full time employment but spending a couple of hours a week in group therapy at the Complex Needs Service in Oxford. I had no official diagnosis because I decided, on the advice of a Doctor, to keep any specific mental health diagnosis off my medical record, firstly because of the stigma around mental health problems but also because it felt wise to wait until I’d got further into my therapy, in order to make a more healthy decision. At that point I felt fairly certain that my main diagnosis would be for Borderline Personality Disorder (alternatively known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder), I had completed the relevant questionnaire (DSM IV) at least twice and examined the main traits of BPD, I felt I had all of them to a problematic degree.

In about 2016, I finally managed to be referred to an appropriate local mental health service and began a few years of mostly very intensive therapy. I did Mentalisation Based Therapy, Emotional Skills Group therapy, focusing on emotions, unhealthy thinking habits, grounding techniques. Then in 2018, I was accepted into a Therapeutic Community for 15 hours a week, along with up to 17 other people with personality disorder traits, trauma and various serious problems. There were several therapists in the group, plus a psychiatrist but this was not a traditional clinical setting. There were very clear boundaries in how the group worked, disclosure had to be kept within the group. Jobs such as cooking and shopping, were shared and rotated. There were weekly psychological education slots, where we would learn about things like Transactional Analysis, communication styles. Drama triangles and so forth. Largely though, it was about relationships, with others and ourselves. It involved understanding my unhealthy defences, stripping them away, being challenged by everyone, exposed to my vulnerability, for 18 months.

I had done 10 weeks of Mentalisation Based Therapy (MBT) and was about 10 months into the Emotional Skills Group (ESG). One of the possible places to go on to after ESG, is what is known as a Therapeutic Community (TC). The TC takes place in the same building as ESG and 2 members of the TC take part in the ESG group each week but as co-facilitators (along with staff members such as the therapists and a psychiatrist), so I was familiar with the concepts of the TC and some of its members. I had gained a lot from being in group therapy but I realised that my journey wasn’t over, actually in many ways, it had just begun. So I decided I would apply to join the Therapeutic Community. I knew joining the TC would be a big commitment, it’d be hard work but despite the preparation beforehand, I wasn’t prepared for just how hard it would be. I thought I might even be able to continue working part time whilst putting in 15 hours a week in an NHS mental health facility along with up 17 other people with personality disorders, who had suffered trauma. Part of me felt ashamed of the idea of not working but letting go of that later, proved to be a useful relief, to be able to get on with fixing myself without the anxiety around work. Initially I also thought I could get away with only doing 10 – 12 months in the TC instead of the full 18 months, partly because I knew that after 12 months, my employer would cease to pay me, I’d have no income and I’d be living off my savings, that idea also fell by the wayside quickly. I had timed things very accurately and close to time limits, done my afternoon and full week visits to the TC so that I would be in the best place to make up my mind. So I applied to do the “Joining Case Conference” for the Therapeutic Community

My ‘joining case conference’

My case conference was on a Tuesday morning at 9.30 am, about a week after I had booked it whilst still in the Emotional Skills Group. I was met in the foyer of the building by 2 TC ‘members’ who were acting as hosts that day and was welcomed into the building which I was already somewhat familiar with anyway. After hanging out in the kitchen and garden for a while with the TC members, we all went into the main large group room for the Opening Meeting at 9.15 am. All the TC members (including 3 therapists, a psychiatrist and 1 or 2 students) sat as usual in a big circle of chairs. There was 15 minutes of TC business, which as usual only TC members could speak in and then came my time.

I had prepared some text about myself, based on guidelines from the TC, which I read out in the allotted 10 minutes. There was a little bit about my history and problems at that time and I’d already got used to the idea that there’s not enough time to cover everything. I wasn’t on any medication so nothing to talk about there. I spoke about what I thought I could bring to the community and what I thought I might find challenging about being a member of the TC. I felt reasonably confident because I had been a reliable member of ESG, I was prepared to commit the time required of me.

Leon

This one should probably come with a Trigger Warning. It features abuse. Not very graphic, it’s about someone I once knew, a long time ago, but if you’re in a particularly sensitive state in relation to stuff like that, then maybe now is not the time to read it, so it may be best not to read on.

I think it was my first week as a member of a Therapeutic Community and perhaps as a baptism of fire, in the weekly psychological education slot, we were covering sexual abuse.

So there I was, about 44 at the time, sat in a group of about 17 people mostly with trauma, watching a therapist write some words on a white board. These words, were the definitions of sexual abuse. Aside from the subject matter being understandably anxiety provoking anyway, as I read the words, a wave of severe anxiety, almost panic, rose up from within me.

The specific wording, I cannot remember, but what read was something like “You don’t have to have been physically abused, for it to be sexual abuse”. I felt very ill and started to wrestle with myself over this, minimising my own feelings, comparing them to others, but this was a point of very profound realisation for me, which right now, sitting here writing this without my support network, I struggle to put into words but what I realised was, that by this definition, I had been sexually abused.

When I was 17, I a girlfriend who introduced me to a man called Leon. Leon was, I think at the time, a 41 year old, self proclaimed ‘old’ hippy, who lived on his own, he sold drugs (cannabis), and had fairly regular visitors, like me, and even some who were younger than me.

I was by this time, used to hanging out with older people, I was very immature, quite socially awkward, I had mental health problems, along with alcohol and substance abuse. Like many teenagers, I thought I was wiser than I really was and my personal boundaries were very poor, almost non existent at times. I was also still in the midst of discovering my sexuality, starting to accept that I was bisexual, at least internally. Also I was discovering my gender, but gender simply meant biological sex at the time, I had no good language to realise what my gender really was, it was mixed up with my sexuality, and I think, looking back, that I not only projected myself as a young girl, but I was treated in a similar way to other girls.

I was much more introverted in those days, hiding behind my long hair, still a child really, with so much anxiety, I felt paranoid a lot, but I have come to realise that mostly I think it wasn’t paranoia, it was my intuition. My self esteem was so low that I didn’t trust my intuition, or at least listen to it, and I didn’t really have the language to describe my feelings, or anyone I felt comfortable with talking about them.

I became friends with Leon (or so I thought). He was full of anecdotes about living in London in the late 60s and 70s, how people were very free with themselves, having sex in the park, being around famous musicians, taking drugs and that whole seemingly liberated lifestyle.

I started to look forward to going round to visit Leon. I felt noticed, wanted. I would go round, sit on the chair at the end of his bed, he always sat on his bed. We listened to his record collection, smoked, drank lots of tea, he might even make me food, so I kind of felt looked after, I felt special for a change.

Mostly Leon dominated the conversation, actually not just the conversation, but he dominated me. He sometimes made seemingly nice comments about me, I think he may have complimented me on who I was, but actually I am not sure, because what I do remember are comments on my appearance, for example, him telling me I had that cute strip of hair on my stomach below my belly button (while waving a finger towards it, pretty close to me).

‘Compliments’ on my appearance, weren’t the only comments he made though. Leon frequently showed annoyance, or even anger toward me, perhaps for turning up late, not doing some small thing, making me feel like I’d let him down. He started to pass comment on my friends, telling me that they were no good. Generally he built the relationship up to be an older man, acting ‘parental’, teaching me his way of thinking. He was person of rigid routine, and order, in control.

Sometimes mutual, young friends would also come round. There were even a couple of ‘group massage’ sessions.

The cat was very much out of the bag (and among the pigeons) when he offered my free drugs in return for him giving me a blowjob. I just froze, sat that dumb. I think he attempted to protest a bit, then fortunately shut up about it.

There were incidents with other young people as well. I turned up and knocked on his door one day, and a stranger answered the door, a young boy, younger than me, maybe only just a teenager, answered the door. “I don’t know what to do, Leon is having a fit on his bed”. So, Leon was epileptic, he made sure I knew it, and what to do if he had a fit, move objects out of the way, make sure he couldn’t harm himself, and just wait for it to pass. He did however, also make comments about him being a good fuck by sitting on his cock while he had a fit. We went upstairs to his room, and there he was, on the bed, seemingly having a fit. However, I’m pretty sure, I heard the words “fuck me” come out of his mouth. The boy looked pretty shook up, the fit ended, everything returned to normal. I never saw the boy again.

Clearly by this point I knew what was happening, and that’s where my feelings of shame took over. I knew it, but felt out of control, and I started to consider what I knew he wanted. I slept over a few times, slept on the floor, but I was only a very short step away from something happening, but it didn’t, I felt dirty, wrong. I think that annoyed him because he’d worked hard on me but was getting nothing back. He was I am sure, only a short step away from taking what he wanted, but I think he knew it’d be too risky to just go for it, because despite everything, there was still a risk I’d tell someone. Later in life, during therapy, I recognised this pattern as grooming.

I think all of this happened only over the space of a year or two, but it felt like longer to me. I even spent my 18th birthday with him, which word got around about, and comments were directed at me. I remember someone in my presence talking about “someone” having their 18th birthday at Leon’s house, probably clearly knowing it was me. I said nothing.

I continued to go off the rails, practically living like a hobo. One day I was went to see a friend, a girl who also knew Leon, and we decided to hitchhike to Glastonbury Festival, which we did, jumped over the fence, spent the £15 I had to my name virtually as soon as I was in, ended up begging for food, wandering around in a daze in the heat. I think there were problems between me and my friend, I had feelings for her, I had a lot of hormones racing around, and although she was around the same age as me, she was also more mature, and sexually active. Actually though, I think I just wanted affection, from someone my age, who felt safe.

After we got back from Glastonbury, I went round to see Leon. I was slightly drunk, which was pretty normal by that time. I sat down in the chair at the end of the bed, he sat on his bed. He started talking about Glastonbury, he had a disapproving, annoyed tone about him. Clearly he’d seen my friend before me, and he started having a go at me about how I’d been difficult with her.

That when I kicked off. I had enough, and I bit. I just got up out of the chair, annoyed with Leon, with being got at. That’s when it happened. Leon quickly got up off the bed, rushed toward me, and before I knew what was happening, he had me pinned up against the wall by my neck, growling in face. He must have released his grip, I was terrified.

I ran out of Leon’s house, and I never looked back. I bumped into him in the street one day, maybe a year or so later, where he tried to tell me *I* had problems. He had found a broken mirror that fell out of my pocket when he’d attacked me, and was probably telling people that I had tried to use it to stab him. I hadn’t, it was just a piece of mirror. A broken mirror, reflecting a broken person, me.

For years after, I minimised what happened to me. I even blamed myself. I was ashamed. I hadn’t been sexually assaulted, so how could it be sexual abuse? How could my experience be valid trauma, compared to others? I asked myself this, because I felt invalidate, and a big reason why I felt invalid, was because I had been a young person dominated and groomed by an older man, who enticed me in with stories of free love, with promises of drugs, and who used invalidation, isolation, shame to abuse me, to break me down, to control me. When I fought back, the moment I showed that I had an opinion of my own, that I might be able to take back control, he assaulted me, and at that point, he lost, but I had already lost, and this was no win for me.

How I truly take back control though, is to be the better person that I am. I am older now than Leon was then. He’s been the subject of one of my psychodramas in therapy, where people played back some of what happened to me, so I could be me, now, the adult, and look back on myself and him then. As part of that psychodrama, I went into the scene in the bedroom, before anything happened, and I spoke to my younger self, and I told that child, that they were ok, that they were loved, and valid, and this man was wrong. My final act, was to have the person playing Leon, try to talk to the adult me, and I chose to completely invalidate him, but ignoring him, making him irrelevant, instead focusing on the younger me, telling myself to get out of there now and don’t look back.

Chris

It was February 18th, 2001, a Sunday evening. I was 25 years old, and living with my then girlfriend, Katie, in her house in Oxford. As usual we were sitting in the kitchen at the back of the house, when a friend, Chris, turned up at the door. Chris had been a close friend of mine since 1993, actually, I was his registered next of kin, since he was estranged from his family, for very tragic reasons.

At the time, Chris (sometimes known as Kit), was 39. He suffered from very severe mental health problems, mainly paranoid schizophrenia, as well as having some fairly unusual physical problems, including a hunched back. In addition to this, he had been known locally, on the streets, often begging, wearing a long world war one Great Coat, sporting a long wild looking beard, with longish, unkempt dark hair. He was normally seen as quite a wild character, he tended to talk loudly, loved dancing and singing along, in a fittingly crazy manner, to classic and progressive rock, which he had a habit of playing very loud. Despite his appearance, and his deeply troubled and tragic past, Chris was, though, generally, and genuinely a very nice person, he was generous and caring, but there was a deep darkness, and sadness about him, for good reason.

There was something very unusual about this visit from Chris on that Sunday, and it was easy to spot why, because Chris, was very quiet, thoughtful, and subdued in his manner. Maybe because Chris wasn’t his typically loud self, his sadness, seemed to me, to be almost deafening, it more than filled the gap where the madness usually was, Perhaps this was why Chris was normally the way he was, the overt loudness would fill up the space, so the sadness had little room to show. It was always there though really. I could see it in his dark eyes, and I knew very well, his history.

Chris sat with us in the kitchen, though relatively quiet, he was still a potent presence in the room. Katie made us all some food, we talked a bit, and then went upstairs to my room where he sat in his wicker chair, and we watched an episode of his favourite TV programme, Star Trek: The Next Generation, on my old colour TV. After watching Star Trek, Chris just got up out of the chair, and quietly left. Katie and I talked afterwards, noting how strange the visit had been, due to Chris’s manner.

A few days later, we were in the kitchen again this time with another friend, Larry, when two police officers appeared at the door. I opened the door to them and they started asking questions. They asked us if we knew Chris, and asked us when we’d last seen him, so we told them about his visit on the Sunday. The officers explained that he’d not been seen for a few days, and then left, with the intention of visiting his flat again. After the police had left, we talked about what had happened, and I think we probably knew something bad had happened, but at the same time, Chris had gone missing before, for many days, then later turned up.

I can’t remember exactly what happened next, I think the officers may have come back later that evening. They brought with them some of the saddest news I’ve ever had. The police had been unable to locate Chris, I think they’d looked through his letterbox, and something roused suspicion, so they broke down his door.

That evening, when the police entered Chris’s flat, they found it in a mess, and they found my friend, lying there, dead.

Chris had a very tragic background, which I’ll explain a bit more about shortly, but although his apparent suicide, was a shock, it wasn’t a surprise. He’d talked many times about how he would take his own life, he even had some fantastical ideas about how he’d do it, including a plan make some homebrew wine, and fill his flat with gas from the wine, to suffocate himself. In the end, he used his bootlaces and a pair of pliers. Perhaps because I knew Chris so well, I think strangely, it was fairly easy to accept his passing. He’d been in so much mental pain, every day of his life, I knew it was like torture for him, and this was a release from that.

I was of course, still distraught though, I’d lost my friend. I considered him my best friend, and since I was his registered next of kin, I was considered family, and initially I was asked to formally identity his body. We got to the hospital to identify him, but fortunately, I was saved from a probably horrific, and damaging experience, due to the fact that Chris had some fairly unique physical aspects, which meant he could be identified easily.

So, to why it came this point.

About 8 years earlier, when I was 18, I was living in a shared house in Oxford. These were generally very crazy times, I was unemployed, very poor, and I had alcohol and drug problems. I lived in a culture that existed around people with serious problems. One of my housemates, had been doing Tai Chi lessons at the local community centre, and he mentioned this schizophrenic man, called Chris, who had also been in the lesson.

The house next door to me, 20 Crown Street, was ’emergency housing’, the landlord, Mr. Farooq, had a contract with the home office, he owned about 50 houses around East Oxford at the time, and these houses were filled with people with severe problems, ranging from alcoholics, heroin addicts, women who’d been in abusive relationships, criminals, people with HIV and AIDS, and schizophrenics, often all under one roof.

Chris was one of those people, placed in the emergency housing next door to me, and seemingly left to get on with it, for the most part, aside from having a Community Psychiatric Nurse, and a Social Worker.

My first encounter with Chris, was suitably Chris-like, a first impression that probably should have been shocking to me, but which seemed authentic. There was a knock at the front door of my house, and since I lived in the room closest to the front door, I opened it. Standing there, was a hunched back man with wild hair and beard. The next thing that happened, was this man walked up to me and said, “Hello, my name is Chris, and I killed my grandmother.”

Despite the very shocking introduction to Chris, for some reason, I did not feel threatened, I didn’t feel unsafe. Those words “I killed my grandmother”, I think were probably somewhat detached, possibly conditioning as a result of being in various mental institutions, an openness, that cannot be denied, it was what it was. I think I was quite immature though, possibly naïve even. It wasn’t the first time I’d met murderers who were seemingly ordinary, pleasant enough people, either. I had thing of just accepting people as they were, and not judging them simply for who they had been, and what they had done. I’d already met people who I instinctively knew, were dangerous, and I didn’t get that feeling from Chris, despite his honesty about the terrible crime he’d committed.

I am sure that Chris himself, knew more than anyone, just how awful what he’d done was. He often said that what he’d done, was the worst thing possible, and I believe, he totally believed that. He woke up every morning, knowing the full extent of what he’d done, and hated himself for it.

In the following few days, possibly weeks, I spend a lot of time with Chris. We talked all night at one point. Chris was very open about his experiences, what he’d done. At one point, we were in Chris’s flat, listening to various pirated cassettes of rock music, on a tape machine that had no fast forward button, it was late at night, and Chris rummaged through some of his possessions, then pulled out a stack of papers and handed them to me. The large volume of typed papers, were Chris’s psychiatric reports. Which I then read through.

Thinking back, I don’t think I ever realised what effect all of this might have had on me. There I was, still a teenager, but one who had already been through plenty of struggles, living on benefits, in a house full of people with serious problems, sitting up all night, with a paranoid schizophrenic who had murdered someone, reading through his detailed psychiatric papers.

I learnt a lot about Chris’s life, very quickly.

So what brought Chris to this point?

It seems Chris had experienced a very difficult, probably very lonely childhood. He told me that he’d been told, by his mother, I think, that he was the product of a rape. I heard stories about how Chris believed his could control the weather, how he’d spent some time locked in a cupboard. Chris had some physical problems, particularly with his spine, I can’t remember the name of the condition, but I think it might have been genetic, and to do with the curvature. The story goes, that Chris, maybe still a child, or teenager, had an operation on this spine at one point, a metal plate of some sort had been inserted. Perhaps the worst thing he recounted, was that he’d had to lie down for a whole year of his life.

Chris’s mental state got gradually worse as he got older. Clearly he was suffering from paranoid delusions. He experienced a range of voices in his head, but to him, they were real, including the voices of seven sisters, and the obligatory voice from under the bed.

Chris lived in Bracknell, quite an uninteresting town, I think home to the 3M company. At one point, later on in his life, in the late 1970s or early 1980s, Chris decided to visit a friend on a caravan site. He walked to the site, in the pouring rain, wearing only a pair of jeans. At one point, the police stopped Chris during his journey, but for some reason, they just let him carry on. Chris reached the caravan site, soaking wet, and went inside. His friend had an open fire, maybe a stove, and as he was drying himself, a voice told Chris to put his hands in the fire, which he did.

There are probably a lot of stories that I’ve forgotten about and may never remember, but most important are the events leading up his grandmother’s death.

After leaving home, and I think this is coming up to around 1982, Chris was living in a house with one of his brothers. He didn’t have many possessions, at one point he lived off of apples he took from an orchard, which he ate whilst staring at the floorboards, probably listening the voices, left with only his imagination, listening to his own paranoid fantasies, which started to feel like reality to him.

The person who Chris felt closest to, in his life, was his grandmother. Chris really loved his grandmother, and would often visit her. She was probably his world, at least, his real world, rather than his internal one, based on fantasy. Sadly, the two worlds of reality and fantasy began to merge for Chris, to the point that he believed they were one and the same.

The paranoid fantasy that had become consuming Chris the most, was one in which Chris believed in the existence of extra terrestrials. These aliens, were abducting people, and experimenting on them. Where things took a turn for the worse, was that Chris started to believe that the aliens, were targeting his grandmother. Chris truly believed, that the aliens would abduct his grandmother, and place her in some form of machine, and as a result, she, the person he loved most in the world, would be in pain, forever.

This fantasy, which became reality for Chris, was too much to take, and so, one day, in 1982, Chris went to visit his grandmother, with the intention of ‘saving’ her from an eternity of pain. To this end, he committed the act that he would come to know as being the worst thing anyone could ever do, and would torture him for the rest of his life.

That day, Chris killed the dearest person to him, his grandmother.

I have decided not to say how he did this, it’s too traumatic and I don’t think its necessary. I think Chris realised quickly what he’d done, I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but he was arrested and put in a cell, probably sectioned under the mental health act, fairly quickly.

Chris was distraught. I don’t think there are words to convey just how bad he felt about what he’d done, instead his next actions speak for themselves. At one point, his was in a cell, with little, or no clothes, or anything. Chris managed to get hold of a biro pen, he then used the jagged bit on the pen lid, to try to kill himself, by digging out the veins in his wrists. He was unsuccessful of course, and the scars remained visible up until the day I last saw him.

Chris was assessed, convicted of the ‘altruistic’ murder of his grandmother, then sent to Broadmoor hospital, where he spent about 12 years, along with Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper, who also was committed to Broadmoor that same year), one of the Kray Twins, and various others, mostly other very tragic, seriously mentally ill, but dangerous people.

Chris was given ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), which I think at the time, may have been done without anesthesia, and which involved passing electrical currents through the brain, in order to trigger convulsions, which can treat some mental health conditions. Although Chris maintained that this didn’t really work, what it did was make you ‘smile’ so that you wouldn’t have to go through it again.

After 12 years of being in one of the most notorious secure hospitals in the UK, Chris was released. I think initially he went to Fair Mile Hospital, a lunatic asylum in the village of Cholsey, near Wallingford. Then from there, I think he was at Rutland House in Oxford, which at the time was a Therapeutic Community.

At one point, Chris was getting on the train, going to Oxford, and wandering the streets. Then somehow he got a place in emergency housing, which takes us up to that that day, in 1993, when I first met him.

Chris lived at 20 Crown Street for a couple of years, it was a very crazy time for all. Chris did not want to be alone, he would take in homeless people, and let them live on his floor. At one point I counted about 9 people living in Chris’s small flat in the attic of the house. Chris didn’t go out much, and kept an open door. He had a chair he’d sit in, in front of the door, and was always hospitable.

In order to control Chris’s schizophrenic behaviour, he was given drugs, sometimes forcibly, if he refused. The main drug he was given, by way of injection, was a drug called Depixol, an anti psychotic, which had some terrible side effects. After injections, Chris said it felt like his body was crawling inside, it was very uncomfortable, and he took pills called Procyladine (or Chemadrine) for the side effects, which I think had their own side effects too. One of the main side effects for Chris, was Tardive Dyskinesia, essentially, very bad, involuntary shakes. Chris like to write, he wrote Tolkienesque fantasy stories, but the shakes made it difficult, or even impossible to write.

At some point, relatively early on in our friendship, I was registered as Chris’s next of kin. I think possibly, initially, Chris wanted a friend with him, for visits to psychiatrists. I sat in with some of Chris’s sessions with professionals, I don’t think I was welcome though. As well as that, I went on daytrips with Chris, his CPN, and social worker, including a trip to the standing stones at Avebury, which was an interesting journey, as Chris had made some cookies with hashish in them, and attempted to offer them to his CPN and Social Worker, in the car on the way there. I think they looked at each other and politely declined!

There were times when things got very difficult living around Chris, aside from the sheer number of troubled people living with him, people tended to be up all night, and the sound of loud rock music, and Chris’s mad cackling, would annoy neighbours, One of my housemates, climbed the outside of the house one night, as for some reason, Chris had locked the door, and wasn’t answering.

Some of the people around Chris, were rough, and even dangerous. Such as Jimmy, who lived downstairs in Chris’s house. A Scottish heroin addict, with HIV, who was known for biting people in fights. In one incident, I can’t remember why, but it didn’t take much, Jimmy was in Chris’s room, with a wallet full of thousands of pounds, and I caught a glimpse of the knife he’d started to pull out on me, then I got out of there as quickly as possible.

In another incident, Jimmy and ‘Crackhead George’, had come into my house next door, then George left after a while. It was Christmas, and Jane, a young woman I lived with, had been sent some presents by her parents in New Zealand. The presents went missing, and we realised the likely culprits were the two drug addicts. I went out looking for George, found him in a phone box, scoring some drugs, and then demanded he come back to the house. When we got back to the house, he and Jimmy, laughed in our faces. One of my housemates, and I, cornered them both in my room, some money had gone missing too, Jimmy smugly pulled out his bugling wallet and proceeded to mock us by asking us which one of the many notes he had was ours. Then to my surprise, they both started stripping off, mocking us with a strip search, whilst George said to me “You’re enjoying this aren’t you”, implying that I was enjoying him getting naked in my room, which I wasn’t.

Chris was really having a tough time with both his mental health and the medication. At some, I think during 1994, everything got too much for him. For some reason, Chris got the idea in his head, that what had happened to him, with his grandmother’s murder, was triggered by a group of bikers he’d known, slipping him some LSD, although I’d not heard about these bikers before that point, and doubt the story was true. At that time, Chris had a man called Ady living with him, I think he had a girlfriend living there too. Ady had a motorbike, and they decided to take Chris back to Bracknell, for what reason I don’t know, maybe to find these bikers (although this was about 13 or 14 years later).

A couple of days later, Ady returned, without Chris. I think the story was that Chris just walked away and disappeared. I was very worried for Chris’s safety but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I think Chris only had the clothes he was wearing, including the World War One Great Coat, and probably some rolling tobacco.

Chris had been missing for days, maybe even a week or more. It seemed like a long time anyway. One night, I was at home in my room, when I heard some noise outside in the street. I recognised Chris’s voice, and looked out to see Chris sitting on the ground, against the front wall of his house, telling a taxi driver he had no money, and to take him to the police station if he wanted but he had no money to give him. I think the taxi driver just left, and I went outside, called Chris in. He was clearly in state, and had been avoiding taking his medication.

In another incident, Chris had a small walk through airing cupboard type space, just before his tiny bathroom. Chris had decided to grow 14 cannabis plants in this area. They were doing pretty well. I had been in Chris’s flat one day, and popped next door to mine for a few minutes, when I went to go back into Chris’s house, I found a police officer (whom I recognised from about 5 years earlier), outside the house. I asked him what was going on, and he told me they’d be called to reports of screaming, and asked me if I’d heard anything. I said I hadn’t, but perhaps someone had mistaken my friend’s crazy laugh for screaming (entirely possible). I went upstairs to Chris’s flat, and mentioned about the police being outside. The others in the flat, realised this was probably going to be a bust, and started trying to hide things. Of course, the police came upstairs, and walked straight in, all the doors were open. I watched them open the door to the bathroom, and then, well, oh look, 14 cannabis plants. Chris took all responsibility for everything, including telling others to take out what they’d stashed (as they’d have got searched anyway). The police took Chris away, whilst they were waiting for a big enough van to put all the plants into, they asked Chris tips on how to keep the plants. I watched from the upstairs window, as smiling police officers. loaded the cannabis plants into a van, and drive off.

Something odd happened then. Chris had to go to court, and was expecting to be sent back to the ‘looney bin’, especially since he was only out on certain conditions, and could be recalled for growing dope. Chris went to court one day, all ready to be locked up. Instead, someone from the court came out, and told him that his case had been dropped, and to go home. That was the last he heard of it.

Eventually, Chris moved out of next door (and I had to move out of my house, in very difficult circumstances, but that’s another story). Chris got a bigger flat in Salesian House in Cowley. A former monastery for Salesian monks, which had been turned into flats with people with various problems. This is where Chris spent his final years. He seemed a lot happier, but still wouldn’t allow himself to be alone, until around the time he killed himself.

After Chris’s death, the funeral was planned for around the same time as my birthday, March 8th. I had my final gig with the band I was in at the time, Nachala, on my birthday, and one (or maybe two) of Chris’s brothers, came along, it all seemed quite friendly really. A couple of days later, Katie and I went to his funeral at the Crematorium in Oxford. It was very strange, the coffin went out to sound of Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin (actually a favourite of Chris’s anyway). I got to meet some of Chris’s family, including his mum, who seemed nice. One of the strangest moments, was meeting another of Chris’s brothers, unlike the other one I’d met, this one, I forget his name now, looked a lot like Chris. For a moment, it was like seeing the person whose funeral I was at, alive and well. We also met Chris’s sister, Sue, and after the funeral, we went to visit her at her house. Sue had Chris’s ashes, and a short time after Chris’s funeral, Sue, Katie, and I, travelled to Bracknell, where we went to a church, and met a priest.

The ceremony at the church, for scattering Chris’s ashes, was attended by just the 4 of us, and kept a secret. The reason for this, was because we’d decided to scatter Chris’s ashes on his grandmother’s grave. It all seems both odd, but at the same time, a fitting end, to a deeply tragic story. All was calm, this was peace, and closure.

The date of birth, on the grandmother’s headstone, read “19th February”. The day after Chris had visited us, probably had his last supper, and watched his favourite TV programme.

I had a couple of dreams in which I met Chris again, after his death, I cried, I’m still sad. It was a long time ago now, and it feels like mostly what’s left, has lived only in my head for all these years. What happened, with Chris, his life, his grandmother’s death, his death, was so unbelievably terrible and tragic, but at the same time, I’m very glad to have known him, and I know I’ll never meet anyone like him again. Reading this back, I am saddened about how awful most of what I’ve written it, but it’s incredibly difficult to not do justice to the story, in a way that seems positive. Chris is someone, who taught me about the complexity, and struggles of being human, that there are many sides to people. I’ll leave it there, just to say, goodbye Chris, it was a pleasure knowing you, it’s been a long time, but you’re not forgotten.

My Year In Review: The Worst of 2020

In January 2020, I finished my 18 months as a member of a Therapeutic Community for people with Personality Disorders and similar problems. Those 18 months had been unbelievably intense but rewarding. Leaving the community meant saying goodbye to the relationships I’d had with so many people, it also meant I’d be without my support network for the first time, as well as the sudden loss of structure in my life. I was completely alone at home (except for my increasingly elderly cat to look after), I had no real intimacy, as my 22 year long relationship had ended a few months into the therapy. I felt sad but also relieved. I remember thinking about the future with a mixture or excitement and opportunity, but also I was very anxious, lonely, sometimes depressed, deeply sad, and still suffering from times of what felt like crippling grief.

I’d learnt a great about myself and about other people, I’d come out socially as Non Binary Gender in September 2019, I’d been expressing myself mostly as a woman, although I only dared to do so on my leaving day at the community, and I wished I had done it earlier. I’d learnt much healthier ways of coping, but I never expected to come out of it all, fixed. What I needed to do, was figure out a way to carry on working with my mental health, without the community.

During February 2020, any structure I’d had in my life, pretty much disappeared. I was a bit hard on myself about that, I told myself I was going to structure myself, have some routine, but I was mentally exhausted, I just wanted to shut down. Most days I was up until 2 or 3am, I’d sleep, and then wake up around midday (or later sometimes). I did visit some friends, but it was still winter, not much happening.

I had started having meetings with my employer about the possibility of going back to work, these were going well, everything looked promising. We agreed to try a phased return to work, it was difficult though because I don’t think my employer’s healthcare provider, was equipped for someone with complex mental health problems. Trying to figure out what reasonable adjustments I might need, seemed practically impossible, the communication I had with them felt like I was treated more as a problem. I had not had a good relationship with my manager previously, so I had some anxiety around that, but I was very much willing to work with everyone, almost start again, or even put what I’d learnt in therapy, to good use at work. Turn it all into a positive.

In the final meeting with my employer, when we agreed my return to work, the person I had been speaking with, asked me if I wanted to go back to work. I replied enthusiastically but she responded in a way, which I interpreted to mean that she was disappointed. It’s possible I could have misread it, but actually I think not, I am pretty sure I wasn’t really wanted. I was also told, that they planned to close down the office in April 2021, which meant I’d probably have to move to being a home worker. I wasn’t surprised by this at all, since I’d spoken to Directors and others about it several times, the company had about 250 employees rattling around in a building made for about 900, costing millions a year. I was disappointed though, because I thought maybe going into the office would help give me much needed structure, and mean that I got to spend time with people.

We set a date for me to return to work on the week of my birthday, March 8th. I thought to myself that at least I’d get a year to see what I could do, it would give me something to plan towards.

It was a leap year, and so on February 29th I played a show at a local venue, with my band The Elephant Trip. It was one of the best I’d ever done, we organised it ourselves, only two bands on (so nice long sets, no rushing), themed the event, we dressed the stage and venue, had DJs, I put on some psychedelic projections which went down really well. I wore my nice psychedelic paisley dress, and I felt unusually comfortable on stage. The venue was pretty packed, which was unusual, and I remember looking at people in the audience, noting that everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves. We did well, managed to pay everyone, plus made some profit on ticket sales.

Around this time, a new type of Coronavirus had been getting reported on a lot in the news, something called “Covid 19”. Mostly it had been infecting people in China, there were people dying, an air of confusion, and fear that it would spread, but at that point, there had only just been 2 cases in the UK.

March 7th 2020, the Saturday night, before my birthday, I had a party at home. It went well, with about 20 – 30 people there perhaps. I managed to get a little sleep in the early hours of the morning, a few people were still around, sleeping in various places. I remember getting up to make some tea, and I realised I was feeling ill, so I got a bit worried. It was probably a cold but I had this new Coronavirus in mind, and I wasn’t sure yet about the range of symptoms it might have, given that common colds are also Coronaviruses. I thought it was probably too soon to have been from the party, and since I’d not been anywhere or seen anyone during the week, it must have been from the show at the end of February. I got pretty anxious, not just because of the worry of having a new potentially deadly virus, but because this was the week I was due to go back to work.

On the Monday, I called Public Health England to get advice about my illness. I had been checking my temperature, but couldn’t find the digital thermometer, only one of those that you put on your forehead. PHE seemed to have a very strict way of determining if it was likely to be Covid 19 or not, I had a cough, and felt a bit achy, but that could have been from the party. Since I wasn’t reporting a temperature, they told me I could go to work on Wednesday. I thought this was a bit odd, it probably was a cold, but then again we were talking about a new virus, plus I don’t normally get ill in March, and in anycase, suggesting I go to work with a virus, even a common cold, during a pandemic, didn’t seem like sound advice, so I declined it. I decided to postpone going back to work, I then completely isolated myself about 12 days. I really felt very mentally and physically unwell during this time. Things seemed to be getting worse fairly quickly with cases of Covid 19, and I started to worry about a possible lockdown, which meant my recovery plans might be in trouble.

After I’d self isolated, I did go into the office for the first time in about 20 months, there was hardly anyone else there though anyway. To make matters worse, my laptop, had suddenly corrupted, and it seemed couldn’t be fixed, so I’d need a new one.

It was around the middle of March, I went into work for another half a day, the following day, the company decided to close the office.

At that point, in terms of being able to do perform my role, it didn’t matter too much, as I was doing a phased return, and the company now had Microsoft Teams for connecting everyone, plus I had the ability to use some applications, Microsoft 365, Sharepoint based, with my personal devices. However, the anxiety levels were now rising, with other people, but also myself in terms of feeling my plans for recovery were likely to be railroaded.

In March, my cat died. He’d kind of adopted me and my ex girlfriend, Katie, back in around 2002. Katie thought he was a stray, she started feeding him, he’d jump in through the bedroom window of the ground floor flat we were living in at the time, then later he was one of the family and so he moved with us to the house. He must have been around 22 years old. It was an incredibly sad time for me, but also a relief. I was really coping with being isolated, still grieving for my relationship, and an elderly cat who could barely walk at time. He also stopped going out, and lost control of his bowels. I started keeping him downstairs, because the stairs were dangerous for him, yet he’d still come clomping slowly up the stairs, like an old man with a wooden leg, and then he’d make a mess on the carpet. He started doing this howling when he was on his own. I know I should probably have had him put to sleep but I couldn’t bare losing him really, and then sometimes he seemed okay, like he still had a reasonable quality of life. We did actually take him to the vets at one point, but the vet said just to make him comfortable and he’d probably go when he was ready. Sadly, I went downstairs one evening, I think, and I couldn’t see him, I thought maybe I had been mistaken and let him out, but then I found him lying on the floor on the other side of the chair he’d been on. I thought that was it, I picked him up and put him back on the chair and realised he was still breathing, kept trying to lift his head up. I was horrified, I knew this was it, I didn’t call the vet, I called Katie though. It was the middle of the night, I was on my own, living in isolation, feeling mentally unwell, with a dying elderly cat. Katie called the vet but the vet wouldn’t come out and just said to let him slip away. As we were speaking on the phone, it was over. I couldn’t believe it though, I kept checking, I stroked him, and talked to him. I needed to go to bed but I didn’t want to leave him there on his own, but I decided I had to walk away, so I wrapped a small piece of cloth around him, like a blanket, not over his head, in case he woke up and was scared. I don’t think I slept much anyway. I was going to bury him in the garden, but actually didn’t really want to, I couldn’t deal with it, or even having him there, I needed to let go. Thankfully the vet called back and offered to cremate him, so I put him in a box, still wrapped in the cloth, Katie came, picked him up in a taxi and took him away.

Now I was even more lonely (which I didn’t think was possible), not having any affection, no intimacy (physical or otherwise), and my best friend, Claire, was too far away, in Manchester. I become quite scared of the risk of catching Covid. My asthma had got quite bad, and I’m pretty sure if it hadn’t been for my inhalers, I’d have died from flu a couple of years prior. I had been getting used to shopping, getting over my social anxiety, and knew I needed to keep this routine up, but instead, I pretty much imploded and decided to continue isolating myself, including only doing my shopping online.

Then, with a national lockdown being talked about, the panic buying started. From about March 2020, my view of the world came from looking out of the window, and looking at a screen. Images of people wheeling around trolley fulls of toilet roll, as if the first thing people think of in the apocalypse, might be “how am I going to wipe my arse?!”.

The sight of people panic buying, made me panic, and so I bought myself about 4 months worth of powdered food, and managed to find some pasta, probably because it was the only pasta left due to it not being a popular shape. It took me 3 weeks of changing my online order daily, to get a delivery that contained everything I needed, because things kept running out, so I’d go in and replace them, like some kind of pre apocalyptic game where I had to find scarce resources to build up my settlement.

I wondered if it was just the local shops that were out of pasta, or whether the entire country might be running out of it, so I did some research. My research told me that the UK had indeed run out of pasta. I then wondered when we might get a much needed shipment of pasta again, bearing in mind that Italy, the home of pasta, was getting hit very hard with Covid 19. My continued pasta research also revealed that Italy does not grow enough Durum wheat to provide for its domestic pasta market and exporting pasta, the wheat is imported from other countries, all of which were also being hit by Covid 19.

At this point, my perception of time becomes a bit vague, as I slipped fairly quickly into being a recluse. I could have gone out, walked to the woods at least, but really I think I was just giving up, I had no motivation. I know a lockdown happened, and there were a lot of angry people saying that it should have been sooner.

I watched a press conference with some messy haired bumbling posh bloke flanked by a couple of scientists. The message seemed pretty clear at that point, which was something like, “lots of people are going to die, we can’t stop it, so we’re just going to try not to have everyone die at the same time”. There was also an awkward moment in which messy haired bumbled posh bloke revealed he’d been going around shaking hands with literally everyone, during a pandemic, with a deadly virus, that transmits from person to person, through contact, I think he probably thought this would appear to people like some kind of stiff upper lip, get on with it, English way of doing things, instead, it showed him to be an idiot. One of the scientists step in to advise everyone to wash their hands.

Then messy haired bumbling posh bloke got Coronavirus, attempted to convince the entire country he could carry on working, despite having a potentially deadly disease which was attacking his lungs, ended up in hospital, finally to re-emerge about 2 weeks later but looking about 10 years older.

Although allegedly there was a lockdown going on around me, I didn’t notice it much. There was a day when the traffic was much quieter, but then it seemed to get much worse, presumably due to people not wanting to use public transport. On sunny days, I remember seeing lots of cars go passed, with couples in them, smiling, driving around, some with the roof of the car down. I had hoped the schools would be completely shut down, given that have one about 2 metres from the bottom of my garden, but sadly it was still running, with fewer children. I remember thinking there much be a lot of keyworkers around, or maybe it’s just no one was really that bothered about checking. One thing that was so much better, was the lack of aircraft, the skies were almost completely clear.

Around May 2020 I think I was between feeling that I was doing okay given the circumstances, and these sudden panic attacks in which I felt trapped, and like had no idea when any of it would end (which I didn’t). I’d done a lot of research though, gathered information, and made some predictions. One first one was that the virus was probably seasonal, and that as we got closer to summer, the risk would be less. People started wearing masks as well, which would help mitigate the risk of spread, although, the Covid Conspiracy theories had ramped up, some Covid Deniers called the mask a “muzzle”.

I hadn’t been fully discharged from the mental health service at that point, but they had to close down the Therapeutic Community. I felt bad for the people who had been there at the time, those services were literally helping some people stay alive. The mental health team, all really good people who I’d got to know very well, did what they could. There is no substitute for group therapy really, but they started doing more regular one-to-one meetings on Zoom. I was having an hour with my care coordinator, every 2 weeks, which really helped.

My work hours, at home, were increasing, I didn’t have a lot of hope at first, but I started forging good, new relationships with colleagues. I put what I’d learnt in the Therapeutic Community, to good use, I felt like my relationship with my manager had completely turned around, we connected well, it seemed we were supportive of each other. I started working closely with the our Business Analyst, whom I had a good relationship with previously. She was frustrated with the way things had been, lack of structure to work to. I think at this point, my employer, for some reason, had been stalling on getting me a new laptop to be able to do my actual role (Software Developer) with, plus I’d not done that work for quite a while, needed to relearn my skills, and other members of the team had advanced way past my level during my absence. With all of that in mind, not wanting to feel like I was of no use, we worked together to get people on a particular, important project, to work in a structured, Agile way. I did some research into Agile methodologies, didn’t pick a specific one, but using some good software, we took a mess of requirements, turned them into good Features, and meaningful User Stories which showed who needed what, and why they needed it, then established Backlog Refinement meetings with the business owners and developers. It was tricky at first, as it was a culture change, I tended to do a lot of talking in meetings, which actually I was uncomfortable with, as I was hiding my lack of self esteem a lot. I used my therapy knowledge, communication skills I’d gained, to steer the meetings so that they become focused and productive. Prior to my return to work, and at the beginning, as I was doing my phased return and not involved so much, I think the project was struggling somewhat. It was very rewarding that everyone started working so much better together, and the developers started to be able to better understand what they needed to build. I did a lot of structuring and nurturing, a lot of listening, and making suggestions. So work started to feel much better, less anxiety for me. It still felt like a bit of a struggle with some people, in which I felt I fragile, because I felt like we finally had a good way of working but it wasn’t completely trusted, and that felt like I wasn’t trusted enough.

When summer came along, I felt some relief, but I didn’t really feel able to be free. I think I realised my prediction about the seasonal risks around Covid, were largely accurate but I remained cautious. Lots of people didn’t. There were scenes of crowded beaches, no social distancing (a new phrase for 2020 I think). I had been able to get into a routine with my shopping deliveries, making sure I now booked 2 weeks ahead most of the time. I had also been placed on the shielding list, so officially I was supposed to be avoiding going out but I had been doing that through my own risk management all along, even though it was incredibly difficult on me. I think I’d gone out of the house once in about 3 months at that point (aside from putting the bins out). I’d had the occasional visit from my ex girlfriend, which I don’t think officially I should have, but we maintained a safe distance from each other, and I was more concerned about my risk to others, than other people’s risk to me, but by living the way I had, there was no reasonable risk to anyone from me.

I wasn’t really coping well though. Lack of physical contact, even a hug, was really difficult. I was always battling my mental health problems, but things were getting worse with my gender dysphoria. Up until around the middle of 2020, I had identified as non binary. Maybe lockdown (or at least, my self isolation), had actually helped in a way, because it meant I didn’t need to go anywhere, I didn’t need to present myself to anyone, I didn’t have to worry about which toilet to use, and so from about March, I wore what I liked. Someone else later pointed out to me, that I had essentially been socialised as a trans woman for months. I had come to realise that really, calling myself “Non binary” was a safe place, more of a stepping stone. I was in the middle of the river, I knew for sure I didn’t want to go back, but I was afraid of crossing to the other side completely. This was for a few different reasons which I won’t go into here, but the realisation was that I was totally at home with being a woman really. I wasn’t gender neutral, or gender fluid. At one point I toyed with the label of “transfeminine” but it still didn’t sit right with me. I made friends with people in our work LGBTQ+ network, and conversations there, and elsewhere, showed me that people saw that how I am, fitted most into being a trans woman. So I started to get myself used to using that, which like many things, seems really strange at first, but gets easier, particularly when there are people around, who show acceptance of me. I had been using “they/them” pronouns, but started to use “she/her” instead. In terms of gender expression, this had got better too. Initially, I had needed the opinion of my best friend to find clothes that I liked, but I took some risks, started to trust myself more. I guess I’m lucky with my body and sizing, as Size 10 dresses always fit me, so no need to send things back, and with online shopping I could spend lots of time looking for clothes, without the social anxiety I suffered from in shops. I realised at one point, that actually, my main social anxiety around clothes shopping, which I was terrified of, was because of was frightened I might pick “the wrong clothes”. It turned out, that the wrong clothes, were actually the right clothes after all. Really the problem was that I had been afraid for most of my life, particularly since teenage years, of being found out to be trans, but then, things were different 30 years ago.