Today's interview is with my friend Michael. He and I met through the poetry community a few years ago, and since then our paths have crossed a few more times whilst sharing words on stage, and we've related over our openness with our mental health journeys. Today, Michael is sharing his life with us, talking about his diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder and expressing how panic attacks affect his life.
Content warning: mental health issues. Please be mindful of what you do and do not need to read today.
1) Hi Michael, how are you?
2) How are you really?
Broadly well, but got a pesky panic attack issue that crops up now and again. Sometimes it hurts.
3) Why did you want to share your mental health experiences in this interview today?
Because I’ve been largely open about my mental health for nearly 20 years. I want to help combat stigma and let people feel proud of how far they have come.
4) Do you think it’s important for people to try to understand mental health issues, even if they’ve never experienced them for themselves? And why?
Yes. Then people can sympathise. Everyone’s experience is very individual and therefore very personal. You may not be able, for example, to understand a friend’s psychosis but personal testimonials can go some of the way to reaching out to each other. We have to keep trying.
5) After years of being misdiagnosed, you were diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in the early 2000’s. For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, how would you describe schizoaffective disorder?
A therapist friend said it's when they can’t work out if you are schizophrenic or Bi Polar so they kinda say you have both.
I have highs and lows but because of the schizo element sometimes my mood elevation is unnoticeable and I have no emotional change even when my mind is high.
6) How did you feel when you received your diagnosis?
Proud. Proud that I can have something so life threatening and still get through. I am proud I have been helped by ECT, I’ve got through PICU and still write, create and tour when I can.
7) How does schizoaffective disorder impact your life?
Most of the time it doesn’t, the panic attacks are more of a problem at the moment but then the schizoaffective side is apparently making my panic attacks more like psychotic episodes which is a bugger. A more interesting side of the whole thing is that schizoaffective folk are believed by many to often be very creative. Whether mental illness facilitates creativity has been unproved so far and controversial. I’d like to think it does though, but maybe that’s wishful thinking. Don’t know.
8) Have you found ways of managing schizoaffective disorder that work for you?
Yes. Meds and being clean for over 3 years. Until then I was on a carousel of hospital and home. Now I’ve been out of hospital for coming up to 6 years. My longest period out of severe illness since the first time in 1998. I happen to be pro-meds in my own situation, I can’t advocate for others though. It works for me.
9) If you’re going through a difficult episode, what is the best way someone in your life can support you?
Just being there. Taking the time to chat over coffee or a phone call. Always treat each other with compassion. Even when you don’t agree.
10) When you share your diagnosis with someone, how do you hope they respond?
That they won’t box you in. Most of the time people interact with you the way they do to the first people they knew with mental health issues. Everyone, though, is different.
11) Have you received any support or treatment with regards to your mental health over the years? And, if so, how effective has this been for you?
As well as meds and being off drugs I also get a lot out of CBT, it ain’t perfect but it can help especially with anxiety and depression. Hospital isn’t the devil and exercise is of top priority. For me though, it’s the arts that help the most, my own writing, but also listening to poetry by others etc. It all helps. Finally, maybe give meditation a whirl, it can’t hurt.
12) You also experience panic attacks. How would you describe them?
I can’t. They are flavoured with psychosis so they are all about delusional thinking, how the world seems broken and I’m broken and I’m falling apart.
13) Can you remember how it felt when you had your first panic attack?
I thought it was permanent. That was the most horrendous part. Once I’d fully learnt through experience that they come and, most importantly, go, they had less power.
14) Do you have any techniques to help you to get through a panic attack or to help prevent one from coming on?
I give myself half an hour and then take Diazepam if necessary. Knowing it's there as a last resort helps a lot. Talking if I’m with folk, trying to clean the flat, breathing exercises or slowly taking sips of a drink. There are loads to try. These days, TV seems to work if I just stay very still and watch, other times it hasn't worked at all. It’s weird. Try lots of things and most of all, and most importantly, don’t blame yourself or get disappointed in yourself. Be kind to yourself and the rest will follow.
15) If you’re having a panic attack, what’s the most helpful thing someone else can do for you if they’re with you at the time?
Just chat shit. Honestly that’s the best way. And don’t overreact, it’ll be fine.
16) You’ve experienced self-harm and suicidal issues. Can you remember when each of these became relevant for you?
Self harm at uni when I became ill the first time. Suicidal mainly during one period of depression and anxiety, it was more of a fleeting but frequent symptom of the illness.
17) Have you developed any ways of managing these issues?
I seem to have got past them now. When psychotic, I genuinely feel my death would actually save my family, that’s a tough place to put yourself. There’s just too much in me that wants to live, thankfully that streak in me has kept me here so far.
18) If someone is reading this today and is struggling with their mental health but hasn’t yet reached out for help, what would you like to say to them?
Start small, talk to trusted friends. Chat with your GP. You may not need a huge lot of support, you might just need a sympathetic ear and if you do need more, a chat with your GP will get the ball rolling and talk about how you feel more than what you think.
19) You’re a poet, (and one of the most brilliant I’ve had the pleasure of hearing), if someone wants to hear your work, can they find you on social media or other platforms?
It's all on www.michaelwilsonarts.com.
20) How do you feel after answering all these questions today?
Thank you so much for answering these personal questions today, Michael. It's been extremely insightful and informative listening to your story. I have no doubt this will be supportive and encouraging for other's going through similar situations. I look forward to seeing you at more events sometime in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future.
If you're reading this today and you're struggling with your mental health. please reach out. Like Michael said, start by speaking to someone you trust. See your GP, or you can go to the support page on this website where you'll find a list of crisis resources. Until next time, look after you, you're important!