Sunday 24 September 2017

Doodle Kennelly: Rebel with a cause

As she describes her own recovery from mental illness, Doodle Kennelly makes a plea for more understanding from the rest of us for the often highly intelligent, often rebellious people who suffer mental-health problems

Doodle Kennelly. Photo: David Conachy.
Doodle Kennelly. Photo: David Conachy.

I've not written for this magazine for a few years now. I wrote several autobiographical articles in my 30s, mostly about severe mental illness, anorexia and being addicted to prescription drugs. I've been a patient in St John of God eight times over the last 15 years. I've been on numerous medications, many of which haven't worked or suited my constitution. I, and many of my peers, have gone through a period of rebellion, and, in a way, I still am very much a rebel. For a while, I stopped taking my meds completely. This was something I found extraordinarily difficult; it wasn't just panic attacks, it was not getting out of bed, not washing myself, not leaving the house, depression and agoraphobia.

I lost numerous friends over the years through sheer neglect on my part - ignoring them, not calling over to see them, not answering their phone calls, not messaging them back on Facebook. I was, for a while, angry that they didn't understand that I was tied up in my own blackness. However, I now understand that my depression was too much for them to deal with. My eccentricities and quirkiness were misunderstood, and still are.

I feel that many people who are labelled with mental illnesses are indeed unorthodox, creative, and can contribute more to society than the so-called 'healthy' members of our communities know or realise. Once branded with a psychiatric illness, a soul is left bare and vulnerable to all sorts of external interferences. Nobody takes into account the so-called ill person's intellect. A mental illness by no account takes away from said person's intelligence. In countless cases, people who are diagnosed with a mental illness have higher IQs than those who are, on the face of it, 'stable'. Look at all the great writers, artists, musicians, actors and actresses who are tagged as crazy (awful word).

This is just a small part of the stigma that I am so concerned about and have experienced. Many feel un-helped. Maybe because they aren't in the right catchment area or they don't have insurance, or their local hospital doesn't have a bed for them. John of God is a wonderful hospital, in that takes in people from all over the country, whether or not they have insurance.

There are loads of decent health and social workers in other parts of this country that have our best interests at heart. They are, of course, overworked. I've come across more than a handful of them who personalise each professional relationship with us, the patients (although, in some hospitals, we are not officially called patients. We are called guests, which is strange, because if we want to leave, we are not allowed). But at the same time, and I am not speaking of John of God staff here, I have also met quite a few health workers who adopt the Rhett Butler approach - "Quite frankly my dear, I don't give a damn". They just dole out the meds, or send you to a place you don't want to be, both physically and mentally.

These health workers are the ones, in my view, who should be under review, rather than us mentally ill people. I've been very lucky with my psychiatrists; they've all been phenomenally empathetic and patient when it came to my problems with medications and diagnosis.

My family have also been put through the wringer over the last couple of decades because of various happenings, but things are slowly getting better. In spite of this, we have all grown individually and independently. Autonomy is so important for everyone, but especially for those who are labelled with a mental illness. Locking yourself away in your mind - confining yourself mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually - is so damaging.

Feeling guilty

I did that for so long, I knew it was time for a change when my Great Dane, Brody, died, and our little beagle Lucy went to Kerry. I was bereft. I've been living alone for quite a while now, so for my birthday, I splashed out and spent €100 (€100 is a lot for me) on a husky for company. Her name is Bella. I must confess that I once looked up care-dogs. I now feel guilty, as I am not as in need of care as others, but she has brought me such solace and comfort. I didn't believe it when physicians and psychiatrists told me that a dog would help me in my ongoing struggle with depression, but she has rescued me in a way that no 2,000 words could do justice to.

I've also given up alcohol and cigarettes. I now vape. The very fact that I am writing this means that I am getting better. For years, I avoided writing, and reading; I also never watched the television. My only comfort in hospital was music. I wasn't great when it came to the activities right up until my last stay there, during which I took up exercise. I enjoyed the gym - I loved the boxing. I also ran a lot on the grounds (I peed my pants frequently!)

I still attend John of God as an outpatient; they have made me feel welcome to join their occupational therapy groups. There are also classes informing us about our medications. When I visit the hospital, it's strange seeing familiar faces; faces that are also recovering; faces that are also finding their way towards independence and peace in this world.

I had a holiday last Christmas for the first time in five years. I went over to Massachusetts, where I lived for those crucial few years as a teenager, to see my mother and my stepfather. It is experiences like that holiday that intensify the feeling of wellness for me.

My relationship with my mother used to be a little bit strained, but this year we bonded in a way I never imagined we would. We spent almost every minute together. I confess, I regressed - I called her Mommy; I followed her around the supermarket; we drove all over Massachusetts together; we ate three meals a day together as a family, something I very much miss. I was remiss as a cook for so many years, and I now see how eating around a table together is crucial to relationships. It brought me back to my childhood when my parents and I would eat together.

Now to the painful bit - my dad, Brendan, is in Kerry. I miss him with all my heart. But seeing him as well as he is now makes up for any hurt that I feel. He is frequently celebrated here in Dublin for his poetry and for the beautiful man that he is. I used to drive down to see him, but I haven't had the opportunity of late. I think what I miss most is our meetings on Nassau Street for coffee and little chocolates.

Now, when we speak on the phone, we play little rhyming games, just like we did when I was a little girl. It has been an immense upheaval to not have my father in Dublin, but all life changes - no joke about the peeing my pants - are difficult enough for anyone in the full of their health, but when a woman or a man or a child is distressed by mental illness, it's all the harder to deal with. And it may bring on certain strange actions or behaviours.

I went through a phase of spreading petroleum jelly all over the house to try and protect myself from being scarred. By what, I don't know.

I have never been a good housekeeper, but my OCD went a little out of control when it came to the petroleum jelly. When people became concerned about what I was doing, I wiped it off.

I still wear a lot of Palmer's oil on my face, but I've been doing that for years. I'm crap at applying make-up - I wear too much moisturiser.

I am also a pack rat. I carry around huge amounts of vaping oils - I also carry all my meds and make-up, my computer, etc with me. Everyone asks me why I carry so much around with me; no pun intended, but it drives me around the bend - again, that's inappropriate. If I want to carry around a load of my possessions around with me, I will, without feeling the need to defend it.

I wrote long ago that I have to drink large amounts of water every day or I get bladder infections. People wonder why I do this - they think it is part of the mental illness. I dispute this.

I also used to become obsessed with various famous people - this has stopped happening, I don't know why. I feel more grounded. Growing up with a father who was famous and also kind, led me to believe that all people who were famous might be like him. As I've grown older, I realise this is not the case - it does not matter whether a person is famous or unknown to the public. Human beings are kind or unkind depending on their spirits. Learning this was a huge step in my recovery.

Isolation steered me to a phase of going to my local pub every day. I was drinking pints of cider, but I was also attempting to write a memoir. One night, I fell over in the kitchen after being there, and I broke my reading glasses - well, that was that. I quit drinking. I'm now an avid tea drinker. I love berry tea. I've given up sugar, apart from the indulgence of Jaffa cakes.

Everything in my life has changed. In short, it has gone full circle. I was born in the Rotunda and grew up in Sandymount, but moved to the States with my mother when I was 16. When I first moved back here, age 19, I was tormented with loneliness; again, my father was my whole world. Dad introduced me to some wonderful friends who busked on Grafton Street.

I lived on Talbot Street. Part of my own self-devised recovery plan from the blackness of being labelled with a mental illness is to visit all the places I grew up in and knew as a child, teenager and young adult. I attend the same GP my family went to when I was a child; he is probably the best GP in Dublin. I mention him because he is in Sandymount, where I grew up, and I often drive by our old house in St Alban's Park and cry a little - it's a healthy purging of grief.

I am not one to give advice, but were I to offer any, I'd highly recommend people take a leap towards exploring their lives - past and present.

I don't know if psychiatrists would agree with this, but it has worked for me, even though it has brought on a few tears.

I was also scared of the internet for many years, frightened by social networks. A number of incidents scared me off, but in the last few months I've returned to Facebook and Twitter. Again, years ago, I was an addict when it came to social media, but they don't have the same hold over me any more. The only thing I might be slightly dependent on these days - actually I'm going to say evenings, instead - is Netflix. That may also be escapism.

The madwoman's attic

Everyone, but especially people like me, needs hobbies, particularly if they are not working at a regular day job. I hope to take up gardening again. I need to exercise more, as it staves off depression. The one problem is that my treadmill is in the attic here at home and the attic is where I locked myself away for so long. I'm apprehensive about becoming a recluse again upstairs. I used to call it the 'madwoman's attic'. A good friend told me never to call it that. One of my goals is to get it - the treadmill - moved downstairs to the living room.

I know I start every sentence with 'I' but all my writing is autobiographical, and, to be honest, I don't know any other way to write. I never went to college, apart from a year in the Gaiety School of Acting, which I enjoyed very much even though I was shockingly anorexic while I was there. Acting was my first love as a child - other than wanting to become a guard! But I was too self-conscious about my body to continue down that career line.

My dad has always said I've yet to be corrupted by education. Were I to use a smiley face, it would be here! Confession - I use smiley faces on Facebook; I never did before. (Speaking of confessions, there's a pergola in my back garden - it's pink, and I've always called it the confession booth).

I'm single at the moment. I've been divorced for many years. I don't know how I feel about marriage anymore. It may be part of the rebellion of being diagnosed with a mental illness, but I very much enjoy what I'm doing at this very moment: writing. It might be difficult to incorporate a partner into my life right now. They would have to be incredibly liberal and patient (not to mention devastatingly handsome).

I'm not going to mention my age, except to say I'm ancient, but I recently pierced my face a few times to add to my many tattoos and hippie wardrobe. Conforming does not sit well with me. Behaving inappropriately in various public situations is something I've always done, and I think that went a long way towards my diagnosis.

To sum up this article, being told you are mentally ill does not mean it is the end of the world, or your life. Suicide is never the answer. The answers are both within you and all around you.

All you, we, and I have to do is try. Reach out. The only word and feeling that really matters is love. Love.

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