Monday 22 January 2018

'One pill and I went mad': How Sophie White's nervous breakdown started at the Electric Picnic

In her early 20s, Sophie White went through a mental breakdown after taking a pill in a field at a festival. Recovery was hard, with occasional relapses, her most recent being postnatal depression, but, she tells our reporter, without that episode she would never have become a cook or a writer. And, if her first book, 'Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown', a combination of recipes and brilliantly witty, honest memoir, is anything to go by, that would have been a great loss.

Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Sophie White. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Emily Hourican

If Sophie White hadn't suddenly, dramatically, gone "mad", in a field at Electric Picnic on Saturday, September 1, 2007, she would probably have continued on her chosen path of visual art. I have no doubt she would now be making very fine work, but she would not, she believes, be writing or cooking, and that would have been a big loss to all of us who read her column for LIFE, The Domestic, with such enjoyment each week.

Sometimes, I suspect, we read it through our fingers. Because through this column, we have learned things about Sophie I never thought to know about anyone who isn't an intimate friend or blood relation; things about her husband, Seb (Himself), and her mother, Mary (Herself), and her relationship with them; about her feelings for her son, and about herself as a mother. The whole lot is delivered with a light, dry wit and endearing ability to find a sliver of humour, or absurdity, in everything, no matter how black, or how sacred.

Sophie is a natural writer, and a natural sharer. She is honest, hilarious, brave and smart, and now she has written a book - part memoir, part recipe book - in which all these things are more obvious than ever. Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown is a no-holds-barred account of her life; not all of it, of course, but plenty, and with lots of the drama. There's the bit where she goes "mad" and the painful aftermath of that; her upbringing - the only child of loving parents, with a swelteringly close relationship with her mother - teenage years; romance, and, perhaps most movingly, her father's early-onset Alzheimer's and the effect of this.

And, through it all, her love of food. Food to cheer you up, bring you down, get you through, and almost none of it likely to have #eatclean attached to it. When asked about this, Sophie says, "I'm not remotely opposed to the clean-eating thing. I can't really work up the energy to be oppositional about it, to be honest. It's probably a sugar-and-butter-induced lethargy on my part. I definitely find it hard to believe that anybody can live like that and not go on a homicidal rampage every now and again. It's safer for me to continue eating a lot of butter."

So, how is she feeling about publication of the book? "I've been maintaining a state of extreme denial," she says with a laugh. "It's really only hit me now that it's coming out. My expectations for it are so low. As long as it doesn't ruin my life, or the lives of my loved ones, I don't mind at all." This seems typical of Sophie - self-deprecating, self-aware, played for laughs - but having read the book, I'm certain the response will be far more profound than that. We may be better - happily - at talking about mental health, but we still have a long way to go, and this book will bring us further on the journey.

Sophie's breakdown happened nine years ago, when she was 22, and it arrived with a suddenness that will shock anyone reading about it, and terrify the parents of teenagers and young adults. In the book, this is how she describes it: "I had taken a pill about an hour before and was walking through a field when I felt the familiar unbearable lightness of coming up on Ecstasy. Then I felt an unmistakable jolt, like an abrupt jerk in the Earth's orbit . . . I soon realised that I would not be shrugging off this bad trip. It was completely taking hold of me by the time I had managed to make my way back to my tent . . . A bad trip is different for everyone but the gist is this: extreme anguish, profound terror with or without auditory and visual hallucinations".

That night catapulted Sophie into a serious mental breakdown: three months of terrible anxiety, depression, obsessive thought cycles and hallucinatory feelings, including that her arm was possessed by a force external to her, followed by three more very rocky months, and three years of slow, erratic recovery. She was dogged by the fear that she would kill herself, or someone else. She quit work, because she couldn't cope, could barely get to the supermarket most days, moved back in with her parents, and started anti-depressants, which she took for two years, and anti-psychosis drugs. And, much as she makes light of it, only a fool would fail to see the anguish behind the humour.

"The breakdown is 10 years ago, but it was a part of my life I couldn't touch for years. I couldn't visit it in my head and I couldn't visit it conversationally. It was a slow return from it. I tried not to talk or think about it. When I was in the throes of it, I didn't talk about it to my friends. Very few people knew it was going on when it was happening. My mother and my then-boyfriend, now my husband, and that's it. I had a terror of admitting it; I was trying to pretend that everything was fine, and certainly would be fine tomorrow after a good night's sleep and a cup of camomile tea. Which is total bullshit."

When she did, finally, begin to talk about what had happened, she was relieved to find that "mainly, I was met with recognition". This, in turn, made her feel, "This is a story - it's not a big story, there's no heroic overcoming of things - but I thought, this is a story that needs to be told, for the very fact that it's not unique. We're all battling to be OK, every day. There are so many layers to the discussion of mental health that is happening now - and the drugs angle is not something that's being talked about enough."

The drugs angle . . . This, of course, is the truly terrifying bit - that something so random, that is a rite-of-passage for so many young people, can spark off years of terrible mental strain. Does she have any idea if the breakdown would have happened anyway, or was it entirely drug-induced? "I've had ambiguous answers to that," she says. "One of my counsellors said, 'It may have been something that was in you anyway', but I would have had no inkling that it was in me. And therefore, it could be in everyone. I didn't get a definitive answer. In any case, I think the drugs added this really surreal, heightened, dimension to it. I would have thought there might be gradual onset, but the drugs meant that I woke up in the morning and I was one person, and I woke up the next day and everything was different, and I could never go back."

Does she feel she has ever 'gone back?' "No. You couldn't revert to 'yourself' after something like that. It's like a betrayal, by things you thought you could trust in, your own sanity, really. It's like having a pet bite you," she says. "Time has allowed me to become comfortable again, in myself. To feel that I can rely on myself, but it's a process."

And a process that is liable to setbacks and falterings. "My latest foray into mental instability is pretty recent," she says. "So I'm dubiously optimistic, but I don't think you get done with these things. I think the shades of madness can change over a lifetime, and I've never been dragged back to the same level of abyss as I was in then, during the breakdown. But my most recent awfulness was after having my son" - Rufus, known as 'Roo' (or Yer Man to readers of Sophie's column) is two-and-a-half - "It was bad, but it never quite went there. As in, I was suicidal when I was having the breakdown, and I was never suicidal after having my son. But, I'd say for the first year of Roo's life, I think he had a pretty mental mother. Although I think he's forgiven me."

Part of the 'mentalness', as Sophie describes it, was her refusal to admit to her medical professionals that there was anything wrong. "I didn't tell anyone that I'd had any issues before. You know when they take your history? I said nothing. I think there was a signal there already during my pregnancy. I was in denial - ignore-all-problems mode. I didn't set out to be pregnant, and it was definitely a little premature. We didn't have a plan - but still, you never want to be conceiving a child in a bunk bed in your father-in-law's house . . . that doesn't say 'baby-ready!' We got on board very quickly as best we could, but I never stopped feeling I was on the back foot.

"I definitely wasn't quite right, leading up to the birth. Given my history, I had an increased chance of having some kind of mental issues, and I fulfilled all that, I ticked all those boxes. I was certain that I could never be a 'normal' mother. I had profound anticipatory guilt about what kind of mother my baby would have. Two weeks before he was born, I was avoiding the baby's room and generally showing signs of not coping - unable to sleep, crying, obsessively worrying that someone like me had no business having a child.

"After the baby came, I dove down the hole. And even after experiencing all the benefits of psychiatric medication, of genuinely crediting that with saving my life, I still did not tell any doctors. It was really mad," she acknowledges, "but it's a disconnect. If you don't have any experience of mental illness, you can't get your head around that perspective shift when you're in the throes of it. I understand that it's very frustrating, and hard, for someone on the outside to understand, but you're not in your right mind."

And indeed, she admits that her husband and mother both found her refusal to ask for professional help highly frustrating. No one can read Sophie's The Domestic column without being well aware of the intense, much-mined-for-comedy relationship with Mary, her mother, aka Herself. Mary appears as a character, a kind of Greek Chorus crossed with Greatest Critic. Given how much she features in the book also, what does she think of its imminent arrival?

"She's a very generous person. She wouldn't try and deny me, or my experience. She asked me to change one word, none of the things you might expect - she didn't ask me to tone down the drugs, or 'Must you talk about your vagina?' But that's a big part of her. She's a no-bullshit person. I'm sure it was a mental leap - 'Everyone's going to know that my daughter was a fuck-up' - but she's made that leap, and she made it on her own. She's a really generous person."

All of this is especially pertinent, given that Sophie is expecting her second baby shortly after the book is published, somewhat to her surprise. "I never, ever thought I'd have another baby. When Roo was a week or so old, I wrote myself a letter and sealed it in an envelope, which bore the line, 'only to be opened in the event of considering a second child'." The letter reminded her of all the reasons why it would be "irresponsible" to have a second, and for a while, she didn't need to read it.

"I genuinely couldn't picture wanting another one, but it sneaks up on you." Her decision was a measured one. "I gave it due consideration. I didn't leap blindly. Seb wanted what I wanted, but I think I knew he would like more children, and I really didn't want Roo to be an only child. Because I was an only child, and I really, really hated it. I always wanted a house full of people when I was a kid, so I decided to do it. And Roo needs somebody on his team. I really wanted siblings as a kid, and that feeling has really only got stronger as I've got older, especially now, when I'm running out of immediate family members at a terrible rate. I wish I had a sibling, if only to divvy up the drudgery of going to visit my dad in the home."

And for this pregnancy, she has been far more open with the health professionals. "The whole of Holles Street knows," she laughs. "There is so much potential for postnatal depression, but I did tell them this time, in a bid to be a better mental person; to 'just be better at being crazy!'"

And so, this time, she hopes, will be different. "I think that one of the biggest differences is that, every time you come through anything hard in life, you learn that you can do it. And I feel that I am going to have a tangible example of coming through this time. When Roo and I were introduced, in Holles Street, two-and-a-half years ago, I thought: 'Who is that? And what is that?' He looked like a skinned rabbit. I felt no connection. I felt we were getting off on the wrong foot.

"I thought, 'Am I never going to love him?' All I felt was just so sorry for him. I didn't fall in love in the delivery room. Subsequently, I've met many people who didn't fall in love in the delivery room, and we're all madly in love with our kids now. So if I meet Bug - that's what we're calling this one - in October and think, 'Who are you?' I feel like I have this brilliant reminder that I'll get there. I want to eat Roo, I love him so much. So I'm optimistic."

After her breakdown, Sophie left Ireland for nearly six years - "I look back and think, 'You were running away'. But I ran away to good things. And the breakdown completely changed the course of my life. There's no way I would have got into cooking and become a cook otherwise. I'd always been into food, but eating it, not cooking it. I'd just finished a degree in art, and I thought I might do a master's. Then, after the breakdown, I needed to be doing something real, practical, in the moment. Art is quite cerebral, you're exploring boundaries, and the art I made was quite blurring-of-the-self kind of art. I wanted to be in the moment, to have no potential for any spiralling. I needed rules - 'Do this and then this, add that . . .'

Writing, too, can be traced back to that time. "I never did any writing until after I came back from New Zealand. As the child of writers, I had for so long been adamant, 'I'm not going to be a writer'. But it had always been this thing in my life. I'd never envisaged how I would pick the breakdown apart and deal with it, but I think I did know that I would, in some way. The column was something I pitched when I came back from France; I'd been cooking there, I started cooking here, and I saw the possibility to write. Writing The Domestic for four years gave me a way to write about my life that fits me. So the book came about, and evolved quite naturally from that."

And yet, this changed aspect of her life brings with it the only expression of regret I hear from Sophie - that her father, Kevin Linehan, isn't able to read the book, or indeed know anything about Sophie the writer. "He was a writer, too; he wrote a lot in his career. He ended up being head of entertainment in RTE, but in his early days he wrote comedy sketches and songs, both for radio and TV. I have a big regret that he never knew me in this side of my life, that he never read anything I wrote."

The chapter about her father is perhaps the most moving in a book not short on honest and heartfelt moments. Kevin was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in his 50s. Two years ago, after a psychotic episode in which he turned on his wife, "the woman he had been devoted to since he was 16 years old", Kevin was committed to a psychiatric ward. In the book, Sophie writes, "It feels like a terrible betrayal to not remember what a brilliant man he was, and even more of a betrayal to write these words here about what he became after the illness took over. But I am writing them, because he deserves what he suffered to be known. To downplay it and pretend that what happened to him is anything less than catastrophic would be doing him and everyone like him a disservice."

That chapter, she says now, "felt like a betrayal of him. It still does". Why? "Everything else in the book is an experience that I fully own, it's mine. With Kev, I'd left him out of my column, out of respect. But after living for much of my adult life with his diagnosis, I feel like I barely knew him as an adult. I started to feel that I'm sick of the narrative around dementia and Alzheimer's, that it is in some way benign, that they fade gently away, because that is so far from what we experienced.

"He deserves for people to know that the reality is a lot more violent than you'd expect. That it's brutal, a real snuffing out of somebody's spirit." And ultimately, "he was a very creative person, quick and generous, too, in the way my mother is. If he could read the chapter about himself, I think he wouldn't ask me not to do it. After writing the chapter, I began to think, 'No, there are plenty of people for whom the reality isn't gentle. There's got to be a whole other section, like us, who have witnessed [what we have]'. We all have to frame these experiences, it's what we do to get through them, but all the people who say, 'Oh, his spirit is intact . . .' I just felt really sick of that."

The night of the psychotic episode took Sophie by surprise. "We were really good at not talking about it [the illness]. We were just going along, dealing with each new layer of the illness as it was happening, but never seeing the big picture of decline that was happening. I never googled it; it's shocking to me now that I could live for so many years, knowing that this was coming, and not look at it, but I didn't. After he was committed, I did, and saw that psychosis is actually linked to early-onset Alzheimer's. Even if we had known that, it would have been quite helpful, because then my mum wouldn't have been in a situation where she was alone with him, and my baby son. That night could have been a tabloid headline, so easily. He was so strong, so fit, he completely overpowered her."

Unprepared as she and her mother were, they had no plan, no process, for dealing with the altered reality, and so Kevin first spent time on a psychiatric ward because, in a piece of painfully surreal bureaucracy, he was too young for the dementia ward. These days, he is settled "in a good residential home", where Sophie visits every week. "People ask, 'Does he recognise you?' He doesn't even recognise that he's sitting in a chair. He's not in the room. It's very, very hard. There seems to be no end to it, either. He's young, he's very strong, he could live there for decades.

"All this has got me fired up about assisted suicide. Thousands of us are staring this down every day, but it's that really Irish thing of 'I don't want to look at that problem . . . ' Like the abortion thing - 'Let's make this another country's problem and shove it out of sight'. It's terrible. There's no bit of humanity or compassion about it. This idea of protecting life at all costs - what kind of life is it? It's cruel." It is, undoubtedly, cruel; a tragedy, unfolding relentlessly every day. "And it's something I've thought a lot about," Sophie continues. "Some types of Alzheimer's are thought to be genetically linked, so it's always in my head, 'This could be coming.' And I am absolutely going to put provision in place for myself."

That's Sophie: tough-talking, straight-thinking, taking life on the chin. Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown will make you laugh at things you never thought could be funny, often while fostering that cheering sense of 'ok, so it's not just me . . . ' It will also make you think, give you suggestions for delicious things to eat, and inspire a sigh of relief that some people are prepared to tell their own truth, so that we can tell ours.

'Recipes For A Nervous Breakdown (And How To Cook Yourself Sane (ish!)' by Sophie White will be published by Gill Books on Friday, September 16, priced at €24.99

Read Sophie's account of her nervous breakdown and its aftermath in an exclusive extract from the book: 'Poof and you're mad'

'Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown' is out on Friday but available to pre-order from Gill here

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