By Catriona Travers
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Key Themes: manic depression, bi-polar disorder, female experience, autobiography, hospitalisation
"Like bi-polar disorder, this book tugs at the heart strings and teems with ideas, and builds triumph out of tragedy." - Dr Phil Harrison-Read, Royal Free Hospital, London
An interweaving of events threaded around the common theme of vulnerability to manic depression.
About the Author
Catriona Travers was born and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. She went to school and college there, but unfortunately had to drop out of University due to her first episode of manic depression - for which she was hospitalised. She came to London in 1988, where she took a succession of temping jobs leading to switchboard operator jobs in hotels and hospitals. Her last job was as a supervisor and switchboard operator in a North London hospital. Catriona has always enjoyed writing; poetry in the eighties and a children's book in the nineties. Catriona also enjoys reading, tennis and drama.
“So I’m afraid the doctor thinks you’re a manic depressive.” I looked at the junior doctor bewildered. The Americans call it bi-polar disorder. ‘Hmm’ I replied why couldn’t the consultant tell me that himself? The trainee registrar had just come running out of the presence of the great God himself, all flustered. She then proceeded to explain to me that the treatment of manic depression was Lithium Salts. Yes, a dose of the salts was all I needed.
This was all rather perplexing as I had barely seen the great man himself, perhaps once. I had been three weeks waiting to be seen and by the time I got around to seeing him I was rather perturbed, to say the least and oh, horror of all horrors I told him in no uncertain terms to “Fuck off!” .I ranted at him for a bit. “Don’t forget I’ve been waiting in this hospital for weeks, with not a word or even a sedative to help me sleep and I never saw you once.” He smiled a superior smile, like those in positions of power are wont to do, and disappeared into a rather anonymous looking room to lord it over his minions.
When said junior doctor appeared bearing the good news she looked rather apologetic. “I’m afraid Dr Constable thinks you are exhibiting signs of hypo -manic behaviour, blah, blah, blah. So we’ll try you out on an experimental dose of Lithium.” So that was my first diagnosed day of being a manic depressive. Some life sentence that, don’t you think? Friern bloody Barnet, a bowel of a hospital in the sanity of the metropolis of London.
So what did that entail, - years of going in and out of some anonymous hospital with draughty corridors, cell -like beds (we are talking NHS here) stodgy food, and indifferent nursing staff. Here we digress temporarily as I began my experience in a Dublin hospital, being from Dublin’s fair city as I was. St John of God‘s Hospital, in Stillorgan, in Dublin, to be exact.
And it all began with one terrible all-time low, an abysmal deep depression, a depression from the pits of hell. God, there was no depression worse than it.
I had just completed a year in college and was looking forward to a working holiday in Nice in the South of France with my two sisters. To tide me over till I got to France I got a job in James’s Street Hospital, a nice little earner for a summer job, as hospital jobs tended to be at the time. Everything was well with the world at the time. Blue skies plenty of money at the end of each week, and a happy head and a happy heart. I’d walk up Thomas Street every morning with a spring in my step, up past the James’s Street Guinness brewery. The pungent odour of the brewing process used to hit your nostrils as soon as you turned off Christ Church Cathedral into Thomas Street. It would put you off drinking the black stuff for life.
So in I’d go to work, which was in the hospital staff canteen, which I figured was rather low in the pecking order of the scheme of things. Another girl from her schooldays had got a job as an orderly on the wards, but the staff canteen would do. The canteen was absolutely enormous, it must have sat about two hundred people, but the buzz would keep you going and the day just flew by. All the canteen staff were dressed in bright orange coats which stood out a mile, what with the doctors and nurses uniforms looking a little more sophisticated and classy. Speaking of class, it amused me that while among the other workers I was regarded, along with the other students as “another student’’ almost a snob, they had much more of a disposable income what with rabbit-in on about their video recorders and foreign holidays and the like, and remember this was 1981, when video recorders were not the norm. So there you would be, sitting on your breaks, a mass of orange coats like a giant jar of marmalade, chatting about this and that, and they’d be boasting about their videos and Spanish and Greek holidays They got about a third more wages than students and it used to strike me how different some people’s priorities are. They said they’d never be able to afford to go to college, and yet in a couple of weeks, or one video recorder later they would have the fees for a year!
Sometimes you’d be working as a waitress on the tables, others you’d be out in the kitchen doing the food or dishes under the watchful eye of the supervisor. It was just the grannies and the ‘young ones’ you had to avoid. ’Smile if you got it last night’ which was rather a ridiculous question to be asking a virgin, and constant allusions to sexual matters that usually went over my head.
But the days were glorious. The most fantastic summer weather bursting into the huge canteen, and the food was free to all the ‘orange coats’. A wave of great music blaring on the radio, always on somewhere, and not exactly back-breaking work to earn your pennies. And friends would ring in on the staff canteen phone, so it was never monotonous. Another boon was that I lost packets of weight, constantly on the go all day; and, ahem, following the eating habits of the skinny James’s Street girls. The trick was, get a huge plate of food for lunch or tea, eat half of it, then fling the rest in the bin. Wow, it did wonders for your weight! But of course, that was only as a temporary measure, unlike these models today and rock stars’ chicks and wives and girlfriends who basically eat bugger all.
So the time went happily, except for one little problem. I was supposed to be repeating my third subject in First Arts, having happily sailed through my main subjects. But I decided as France was coming up, and I was enjoying myself so much, I’d repeat the year, and try to get honours in my other two subjects. Ah, the mistakes we make in life! I never finished my degree. I worked in St James’s for two months and then it was off to France.
Nice, on the Cote d’ Azure, how glamorous that sounded to a teenage student! And to actually be working there as well, added to the glamour. It was the first I’d been on a plane since I was a child.
When I arrived in Nice airport, I found my two sisters suitably tanned. They had been there for about two months beforehand. Tired and bedraggled after the early morning starts at the hospital, I went up to the student accommodation I would be staying in. It was a residence for Nice University students. It was comfortable and clean, with a communal TV room and a canteen for the students.
A couple of days later, I went off to find a job in a restaurant. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Ahem, I was working in a most salubrious restaurant, a hamburger joint called ‘Queen-burger’. It was here that I set eyes on a man who was to become one of the biggest rock stars in the universe a couple of years later. I had to work behind the counter and clean the tables outside the restaurant, and, as I was out cleaning one of the tables I noticed the gaze of a bunch of gits, about five or six strong, at a table nearby. I thought nothing of them and went back inside.
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