A FEW years ago, Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury, was asked where God was on 11 September 2001. “Where he always is, always in the centre of things, always in the acts of love and generosity that people give to one another in times of crisis,” said Lord Williams, who had been in New York on the day of the terrorist attacks.
“People expect when they ask that question of where was God — they expect sometimes an answer in terms of a God who steps in and solves it all, stops it happening, or mops it up. But the way God works seems to be in the heart of it all, and through people.”
I’ve thought frequently about this good answer when reflecting on both the coronavirus crisis, and my decline and fall into severe mental illness between 2012 and 2015.
The low point came with a suicide attempt in 2014, from which I was revived by the Intensive Care Unit of St Thomas’ Hospital, in London, where the Prime Minister was recently treated for Covid-19: a reminder to me that, in different ways, we are all connected; for it was through people — nurses, doctors, social workers, and, of course, friends and family — that a light maintained itself, however dimly it flickered at times.
ALL had been going relatively well until the summer of 2012. Life wasn’t always amazing — I had for several years had mild depression, was drinking too much, and on anti-depressants — but it was good, and I was lucky. I had a reasonably successful career in television and print media, had co-written a book, and had a wide range of friends and a loving family.
The problem started with a set of what should have been easily soluble challenges. But faced with a book update while working on a long piece for the day job and contemplating the ending of a relationship, I began to come unstuck. Having always thrived on pressure — at times writing up to five stories a shift for a national newspaper — I suddenly couldn’t cope.
For the first time in my life, I had simply to walk out of the office. It was a sunny day in central London, and I was weeping in the street.
Now that I had effectively stopped functioning, a loved one recommended that, for reasons of speed and out of love and concern, I bypass my GP surgery and visit a private psychiatrist. It seemed a good, if extravagant, idea at the time.
It’s fair to say it was a mistake. At the first of several swift and expensive sessions, I was prescribed a cocktail of prescription drugs, including a powerful sedative and another anti-depressant. The combination, known in the trade as “poly-pharmacy”, immediately made me want to kill myself.
I had never thought about taking my own life before. Now, I was off the rails, my judgement gone. I called my publisher, Iain Dale, of all people, telling him I was suicidal. (To his enormous credit, he said I must ring again, day or night, if I ever had such thoughts again.)
With the psychiatrist apparently at a loss, I was checked into the private hospital to which the doctor was linked, at a huge cost to my family. (I was overdrawn.) The place did nothing for me. The staff were rude; the psychiatrist was impatient and dismissive. The food was quite good. That was it.
Eventually, I went to my mother’s house and, neglecting food and company, over a period of months began slowly to crack up.
After a sleepless few days in November that year, I started to hallucinate. My mind raced as I “realised” that my mother and sister were plotting to poison and kill me. I went on the run.
I walked across London and, hiding behind a wheelie bin in Brixton, contemplated how to pre-empt the “murder” with suicide. In a post-modern feature of this breakdown, I used my phone to tweet to my (then) 8000 followers my theory that my family were plotting my death, warning them to examine the autopsy results after I’d gone.
I was bombarded with texts and calls. Friends, family, and work acquaintances begged me to emerge and allow myself to be picked up. But it was me against the world. Convinced I was being bugged as well as followed, I wouldn’t speak to anyone on my phone for more than a few seconds.
Desperate, I eventually agreed to stay at the house of a trusted friend, but soon “realised” he was in on the conspiracy, too. I left his house while he was asleep. Now the (real) police were calling me.
I roamed the streets, hiding in the shadows, at one point ending up on Hampstead Heath and trying to overdose in a ditch on a few sedatives I had on me.
By now, my family were in despair, but managed to get hold of Alastair Campbell, who had himself experienced a psychotic breakdown as a journalist in the 1980s. He called repeatedly, and assured me gently that I was not seeing what I thought I was seeing: a kind of SWAT-team with ear-pieces closing in on me.
I “knew” he was wrong, but trusted him on some level. Eventually, under his guidance, I arrived at the home of my father. When I saw him in the street, I had a fleeting moment of clarity. But it was too late for any sort of recovery. I was duly interviewed by doctors, sectioned, and placed in a locked ward.
I would be in and out of crowded inner-city hospitals until summer 2015. It was during this time, in a completely delusional state, that I made the overdose attempt.
YES, the mental hospitals were at times hell, a word I don’t use lightly. But that was not because of the conditions: it’s a rickety old system, but it works. Instead, the hell was a result of the tricks being played by my mind. The brain is an amazing and mysterious miracle, but, as I discovered, it can also be a source of terror. I still shudder with fright at the kind of thoughts I had when in hospital.
At first, I wouldn’t leave my room, hunched in terror at what I saw as fake doctors and nurses, fake patients, and a fake hospital forcing on me poisonous drugs, which I hid under my tongue and spat out before eventually being injected.
With indescribable patience, the nurses — Jenny, Emily, Martin, Rob, Rosie, and others — eventually coaxed me out of my room, gradually introducing me to other people and places around the grounds. As the fog lifted, the beauty of what went on in the hospital became clear.
Over time, the recovery was crystalised by doctors, especially the sheer selflessness of one in particular, Marta Di Forti, who stuck with me throughout, and with whom I am still in touch.
MEDICS I trust are now convinced that I won’t relapse again. I felt progressively better over the past few years, and finally returned to full-time work.
Since August 2018, I’ve had the privilege of working for Christian Aid, and the hope and new life it has brought have been beyond my imagination, both personally, but also globally, as I’ve glimpsed a better world in which the lives of the most vulnerable — especially in the global South — can be improved by our work.
Last year, I also had the privilege of travelling to Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank to witness the work that our partners are doing to help refugees in some of the harshest conditions anywhere, and to forge co-existence and peace.
I had been to the Holy Land perhaps 20 times before, largely on pilgrimage, but this was a trip like no other. Before that, I visited Washington, DC, for the first time, and watched as Christian Aid’s chief executive, Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, spoke truth to power at the World Bank, on behalf of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Oh, and I had a happy reunion there with my co-author, one time sparring partner and old friend, Mehdi Hasan.
We are indeed, all connected. Back home, my manager, Chine McDonald, a BBC Thought for The Day contributor, whom I first met on a 2008 flight to Auschwitz with Rowan Williams, when we were both journalists, has been amazing at every turn. And Lord Williams himself is Christian Aid’s chair.
These are tough times for the charity, as it faces necessary but sad cuts that go deep, exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis. But I know that I have been in the right place, and working with its wonderful, optimistic staff these past two years has been like being reborn.
Elsewhere, I have closer relationships with my friends, whom I sadly don’t have space to name here and thank adequately for their support. I’m grateful still to have a faith that’s a bit more grounded. God works in the night as well as during the day.
I HOPE now that my story convinces a few that severe mental illness can happen to anyone, and strike out of a clear blue sky. But I also wish that people who suffer from mental illness can maintain hope. With luck, they will be held by caring individuals through their ordeal.
In the end, there is and probably always will be a deficiency of financial resources for patients. But what is not lacking is perpetual goodness, among staff, friends, and above all — for the lucky ones at least — family, the last port of call for so many, and the final place where a person can rest his head.
It is, after all, through people that God works. That’s where he is, and that’s where he always will be.
James Macintyre is Senior Journalist, News and Policy, for Christian Aid.