Lou Morgan is a YA & genre novelist and short story writer. Her two urban fantasy novels, the “Blood & Feathers” books have been nominated for several awards, and her short stories have covered everything from sentient teenage zombies to Arthurian legend and lost streets in London. Her first YA novel, “Sleepless” is published by Stripes, and follows a group of students at an exclusive school after they take an illegal study drug.
She has written articles for genre magazines including SFX and the Guardian’s Children’s Books section, and is a long- and short-list reader for the Bath Novel Award. She lives in Bath with her family. You can find her on Twitter @LouMorgan or at https://loummorgan.wordpress.com
In Her Words: The Black Dog & the Terrier
When I was 19 and studying English at university in London, I lost a year. If I think back, looking for memories, there’s almost nothing; it’s like swimming through fog. Sometimes I wonder why – and then I remember. That was the first time I lost my mind… and it was only when I found myself at the side of the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, wondering whether it was deep enough to drown myself in that I realised something was very, very wrong.
When I was about 13, my GP father was diagnosed with manic depression (or bipolar disorder, as it’s now more commonly known) and the summer I was 18, he attempted suicide through an overdose of his medication. I won’t ever forget that night, or the following hours sitting in the hospital’s family room while he was in intensive care; tubes pumping different poisons into and out of him. I will never, ever forget the sound he made when he finally woke up again. It took a week in intensive care to pull him back to the world of the living.
And there I was, less than 12 months later, standing at an edge of my own and with no idea how I had got there… either literally or metaphorically.
This – knowing I was 19, knowing I was suicidal – is about the sum of my memories of that year. Without understanding it I had slowly slipped into the jaws of the kind of depression that devours you. As anyone who’s suffered from clinical depression can tell you, it’s not a case of feeling a bit down: it’s a systematic and complete dismantling of everything you are. I had lost my mind, my self… and probably very nearly my life.
In what I suppose you’d call a moment of clarity, I rang my parents and within minutes of my putting the phone down, I’m told they were in the car and driving from Wales to London to bring me home; bring me back – however you want to look at it.
I start having memories again after that. Not what you’d call “proper” ones and not immediately, but patches here and there. I remember the medication the family GP prescribed, and how sick it made me for 24 awful, awful hours. I remember being absolutely convinced that the top of my head was going to float away, so I spent the next fortnight wearing a beanie hat because that was the most logical way of stopping it. Obviously.
The first clear, sharp memory I have after finding myself at the edge of a pond is of the three goldfish we bought that summer and installed in a tank on our kitchen table: my parents said it was the first time I’d smiled since they’d brought me home. Those goldfish lasted for years. Well. Two of them did, anyway…
Just like that, I was suddenly Manic Depression Girl. (She’s a bit like Manic Pixie Dream Girl, only harder work and less fun.) When I was diagnosed with the same illness as my father, I felt sick and – more than that – I felt very, very afraid. Can you blame me, with the memory of all those tubes being one of the last tangible things I had laid down in my brain? With a certain degree of gallows humour, I’ve since discovered it’s possible that it runs in the family: my great-grandmother on my father’s side apparently died of “melancholy”. I didn’t even know that was a thing outside of Gothic novels, but you learn something every day, so.
I returned to university in the autumn, almost feeling like myself again, and the staff in my department went out of their way to help me find my feet. I was lucky. I was lucky to have a family GP who knew my background. I was lucky to have support and access to medication that worked exactly how it was supposed to, first time. I was lucky to have people around me who knew what was happening to the chemicals in my head and what that meant. All that luck, and I still felt incredibly alone.
It’s a frightening thought, knowing that you’re not completely in control of your own mind – and the worst part is that as you get better you look back and you can’t remember when it started. Was it a Tuesday? Was it a Thursday? Was it a week ago, a month ago; two? How long weren’t you “you”? Could the people around you tell that you’d been replaced by someone else; someone who looked like you and talked like you… but wasn’t? Can you ever trust yourself completely after that?
But if the “depressive” side of manic depression is a big black dog with claws and ever-open jaws, the mania is a small, yappy, overly-aggressive and under-trained terrier which likes to get in everyone’s face. It doesn’t need sleep and it moves so fast that it’s impossible to keep up. I always know when the mania is taking off because I start to stammer when I speak – not always noticeably to anyone else, but I can hear it – as my mouth fails to keep pace with the frantic whirring of my brain. A full-blown manic phase is an Icarus, and it wants nothing less than to drag me up to the sun with it. And we all know how that particular story ends.
Through it all, my luck has held. When I relapsed in spectacular style, I was fast-tracked to a newly-qualified CBT therapist, Sanjay, who – I am absolutely sure – saved my life. Even now, every January as regularly as a clock chiming, I’m summoned to the surgery where I’m registered to see my GP and make sure I’m still somewhere in the general vicinity of sane. (Although, you know… January…)
I would not be here without those people and the work they do within the NHS and I am grateful to them every single day. There are so many others who have been through similar experiences but who haven’t been as lucky as I have; I count several friends among their number.
But I am still here. I pinball from high to low and every kind of sideways in between. I can’t always trust that I know myself: after any kind of social event, I interrogate my husband to see whether I was “alright”: did the terrier make an appearance, or did anyone spot the large gloomy shape dragging behind me out of the corner of their eye?
I have to check, you see. I have to. I have to make sure that I’m still the one driving the bus; that I’m still me. And maybe that sounds strange, but that’s what it comes down to. That’s what scares me, losing my mind – and not being able to tell the difference.
Because if it happens, when it happens, how would you know? I didn’t. Twice.
But what’s changed is that now I think – I hope – that next time, if and when it comes, I will. And just like last time and the time before, when it’s over, I’ll be able to look back and say: I’m still here.
And then, I’ll get on with living.
If you need to talk…
MIND – for education and support on mental health issues: 0300 123 3393 / mind.org.uk
CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably, CALM seeks to prevent male suicide by offering support to men in the UK who need it: 0800 58 58 58 / thecalmzone.net
The Samaritans – 24 hour, non-judgemental support for anyone who needs someone to listen: 116 123 / samaritans.org
Right Now I’m…
Watching: Peaky Blinders seasons 1 & 2. It’s a whole world and it’s incredibly atmospheric.
Reading: Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Pride & Prejudice” update, “Eligible”. Mr Darcy as a surgeon in Cincinnati – who’d have thought?
Listening to: the “Hamilton” Broadway cast recording. Over and over and over. Yes, I know I probably have a problem.
Pass it on:
Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?
– My incredible literary agent (wise beyond belief and owner of the most infamous cats in publishing) Juliet Mushens, @mushenska.
– Filmmaker and writer Abigail Blackmore, @snaxhanso.
– Author (of the inspirational and very funny “How to be a Heroine”) and playwright Samantha Ellis, @SamanthaEllis27.