By Christopher Ejsmond
Key Themes: poetry, dual diagnosis, schizophrenia and OCD, alcoholism, mental health system
Reflections on Life is a collection of poems which describes the life experiences of the author who has lived with the personal legacy of child abuse, followed by the descent into mental illness (schizophrenia and OCD) and alcoholism. The poems carry a message of hope by exploring the complex mental landscapes of co-morbidity, dual diagnosis, psychosis, childhood, the power of ideas, emotions, thoughts, pain, loss, actions and relationships. The poems invite the reader on a journey through a world where the experience of mental distress has carved a creative channel through the darkness and loneliness of illness and points to a way forward.
The author has experienced mental health problems since early childhood (OCD at five, schizophrenia since his teens). He has experienced stigma and discrimination from family, school and society but has learned to forgive along the way through the medium of poetry. The author has lived with severe and enduring mental illness, suicidal ideation, a plethora of psychotic symptoms, voices and perceptual aberrations, as well as the efforts of a sometimes unhelpful and clumsy mental health system. He has learned from the experience of others and how to put his own suffering and distress into a broader social context.
About the Author
The author was born on 22 October 1964 in London and, with few exceptions, has lived and worked in London all his life. He is the younger of two brothers born to Polish émigré parents who arrived in the UK in the late nineteen forties, after experiencing traumatic childhoods separated from their own parents and witnessing conflict and war in some of the major theatres of the Second World War. The author lives in Ealing, west London which has a vibrant Polish community and is educated to university level. He is currently a postgraduate student at King’s College London.
The author’s childhood was spent in a family home with a number of lodgers which, by any means, was overcrowded. There were many people in his life from early on; each with different, sometimes difficult, personalities which did little to fuse the immediate family unit into a secure base from which a child could thrive.
Soon after starting school, the author began to experience cognitive, behavioural and emotional problems. These went unrecognised for many years, during which the author suffered in silence and fell back on his own resourcefulness in developing coping strategies. The author has had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since about the age of five and this had a devastating impact on home life and school. At first it was an obsession with numbers and letters of the alphabet. There was much confusion and anxiety in the young child’s life. Soon the obsessions multiplied and mutated into more physical aspects of movement (going in and out of doorways, walking up and down pathways and stairs, opening and closing, repeating things aloud) which were accompanied by thoughts and feelings of doom. On many occasions, the stress was so great that the author’s young mind would switch off and become empty of thought and fixed in a void but with the recognition that things had to be put right, sorted out and put back in place.
Chris was sexually abused twice during childhood: once at age seven and again at age twelve. This added to his distress and inability to make adjustments and build secure friendships and relationships as he grew into adulthood.
He was an average student and managed to hide some of the more distressing aspects of his illness. However, by his early teens the author’s OCD deteriorated and some symptoms which, in retrospect, were psychotic began to impinge on his consciousness. This is what Chris calls ‘thought swapping’ (the very real feeling that thoughts were being extracted, inserted or swapped with those of other people) and this has remained with him into adulthood. The complexity of combined thoughts, feelings and images would build one on top of the other and form intricate patterns and emotional associations which had to be neutralised, returned to the originator and ‘un-done’. It was like having an absurd play or a cacophonous orchestra playing in one’s mind. On other occasions when going about ordinary activities such as picking up and moving an object, Chris felt that something of himself was ‘left behind’ in the place where he picked up the object, meaning that he would have to return to the same spot, place it in the same position and reclaim that which had been left behind. It was like living in a perpetual mind trap with no way out and during which he would lose all track of time and space. Another symptom he describes as ‘merging’. This is the experience of losing self-boundaries and merging with inanimate objects in the environment which take on a special, usually sinister, meaning to Chris.
In learning how to cope with all of this, Chris self-harmed and destroyed things around him; his posture would sometimes freeze for lengths of time or maintain rigidity. The sign and symptoms of schizophrenia were evident from very early on.
Chris emerged in his early twenties with no friends and was suffering from a number of delusional thoughts, altered states of consciousness and an inability to hold down a job. He left school at sixteen with one O-level but persevered in the education system, gaining four degrees (one from Magdalene College Cambridge) and a sense of vocation in the helping professions. At the age of thirty-seven he embarked on professional social work training which he succeeded in and worked for about eighteen months as a qualified social worker with older people and in mental health before becoming unwell. His inertest in mental health and well-being has developed consistently since this time and he has recently embarked on postgraduate training at King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry, where he is enjoying his MSc in Mental Health Studies and looking forward to conducting original research.
Whilst studying for his Diploma in Social Work, he became mentally unwell and had severe depression which eventually led him to seek psychiatric help. He saw a number of doctors, CPN’s, Social Workers and other professionals and was given different diagnoses by some of these and, for the first time, was prescribed medication. He got better and started to make new friends and go out with them.
Today, Chris has a positive relationship with his experience of mental distress and frequently refers to it as his ‘gift’ or visiting the ‘other side’. He believes that education and writing, in particular, are great keys to self-help and recovery and wishes to put himself in a position to help others in their suffering through whatever means are available to him.
A LESSON IN LIFE
Many people will tell you that they’re your friend
Till the time comes that you need them and they turn away
Do you really need them and the signals they send?
Like me, they only have two hands to lend
One day the path that you tread will crumble
And all around you will begin to fall apart
The mountain side will be steep
And time will not be on your side to keep
As the moments tick by
You’d better look out for any reason why
You should stay to receive some wisdom
And know that sometimes it’s wiser to watch than to leap
A WALK ALONG THE TRACKS
As I walked along the parallel lines
In a forbidden land beyond the confines
I wanted to be there in ages past
And draw me near to the stationary mast
Human traces are left behind in strange places
Their faces no longer visible to the eye
But their thoughts and actions are still there
Trained to see in the darkness of the wild side
The tracks called me to the other side
Of the bridge
The sun did not shine on this long day
All was bathed in supernatural light
I ventured forth, my life in my hands
Amid the fury and tumultuous plans
Of the sacred railway lands
And their forgotten secrets to be told
I was the chosen one
A pioneer on a distant shore
Where no-one had ever trodden before
And no-one had dared to confront the call of the wild winds that blow down
Of human frailty I know this much
That sometimes it is better to ponder than to touch
And that when others turn their backs
You will find me walking along the railway tracks
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