Friday, 28 March 2014


How stigma has made me who I am

Join me.     Let me take you back 16 years .....

It is February 1998 and I am shell-shocked after my first nervous breakdown. I have received my mental illness diagnosis. I am suffering from bipolar disorder.

I emerged from a 4 week hospital stay on the wobbly new-born legs of my brand new identity. Mentally Ill. For life. I had crossed that lovely big fat safe line between “us” - the sane, and “them” - the mad. I was one of "them". The mad ones. And I knew I was for sure. The extreme and fairly public nature of my breakdown would get Hollywood baying for the screen rights. I lost my high flying, well paid job in the West End of London in artist management. Gone, the days of negotiating deals worth thousands of pounds for my clients, gone the days of working in a respected team promoting big stars in the world of film and tv, gone the glamour and elegance of big opening nights and royal film premières. I was only 25.

Blinking in the blinding darkness of depression now, I yo-yoed around on psychiatric medicines. What on earth was wrong with me? I had been FINE. And now? This? I went to my GP in utter confusion wanting help, wanting to talk. I remember sitting down across the table from her. I asked her what had happened to me. I remember her words to this day, they still cut to my soul. I had only just been born and she hammered a nail into the coffin I didn't even know was waiting for me.

Well, you just went mad” she said.

She gave me anti-depressants but they didn't touch the place I descended to next. I do remember banging my head repeatedly against a wall once not long after that because the physical pain soothed the searing agony of confusion in my head. I didn't know I had just met Cinderella's hideous step-sisters. The ignorant, cowardly, unfeeling bullies of stigma.

Those harpies showed their face when I finally tried to pick myself up again. A month or so later, I started looking for work. I decided to try and throw myself back into my old life. After all, I had been FINE. I was offered a job at another major talent agency in the West End. I thought my life was going to be OK, I would have a reason to live again. I was wrong.

The Sunday night before I was due to start work, the man I was to work for rang me up. He started shouting and swearing at me. ( He was known for this, but that doesn't help). He asked me when the f&*k would I have told him about my nervous breakdown and that because I hadn't disclosed it, there was no way I could expect to work for him, there was no job for me, I was not fit to work in his firm. I stood there, shaking, holding the phone like my final lifeline. I could barely get a word in he was shouting so much. I apologised. I said I was sorry. I stammered that I would have told him really soon, it was new to me and I didn't realise I should have told him, but I was going to be fine and I was really good at my job. I tried to sound calm and professional whilst in reality I died slowly, screaming in resistance against that yawning coffin drawing me in. He hung up on me. It was over. The West End world of showbiz is tiny. Word was out. I was finished. I stood there frozen. I felt my world shatter around me. No matter where I turned in the industry I knew, this hideous shame would follow me now. I would be the agent who went mad. Everyone would know.

My next effort, another month or so later, saw me trying to rebuild a social life. I had been hermetically sealed away in depression for months and I thought if I tried to reach out to actual real people, people who had known me before my breakdown I would start to feel like living again. It was July 1998, my birthday. A full 6 months after my breakdown. So, I decided to have a birthday party. I started ringing round and leaving messages. I hoped people would be happy to hear from me, I had been so quiet. I wasn't ready for the first reaction I got.

A friend, who had also been a client of mine, responded with extreme anger. She found out that back when I was in hospital I had contacted another one of my clients, a mutual friend. Not long before my admission, I had managed to negotiate a career changing deal for him in a major TV soap. As a new high profile regular, this would catapult him into fame. He was a great guy, a good actor and a friend and I was proud. Somehow, through the mysterious fog of medication and hovering psychosis, I had managed to use the phone from hospital. I happened to remember his phone number. No idea how. I didn't have any address books with me and staff in hospital limit contact with the outside world to protect you from inappropriate or embarrassing communication before you are well again.

My memory of that phone call is hazy at best, but I remember my intention. I wanted to wish him well. I had been torn away from everything and everyone I knew, lost my job and the reality of my potential future as fallen from grace was already looming. I just wanted to feel one last time that I had achieved something good in the midst of my catastrophic failure as a human. It backfired 6 months later. My birthday invitation incited this woman to anger. She said she couldn't believe that I was just casually trying to invite her to my birthday after hearing nothing from me since my disappearance. She was furious that I had managed to ring the other client at the time of my breakdown and talk to him, but not her. I started stuttering again, trying to explain. I tried to explain how drugged, dazed and confused I was in hospital, I didn't have phone numbers. I even tried to explain the hermetic, reclusive hell of depression afterwards but my voice fell on deaf ears. I am aware that my breakdown and leaving the agency affected the professional lives of other people. Actors relied on me for work. The agency I left had to deal with the fallout and I don't know what happened to all my clients. An actor's life is stressful and unsure and they rely on their agents like a lifeline. I had let people down, and clearly this woman felt justified in turning on me. I was deeply shocked, because before this, she had been a friend. I stopped trying to invite anyone to a birthday party. There was no party at all.

Now, I no longer felt able to seek work in the field I knew. I was certainly becoming more and more afraid of contacting people. I was terrified of coming out of the woodwork hoping old friends might welcome me with open arms.

Eventually though, I did keep trying. I applied for work in other areas of the industry, where I hoped my story wouldn't be known. I had come from a high profile world. So I sort of slunk sideways and finally found work on the television crew of a long running popular TV series. I was right down at the very bottom of the ladder. The lowest paid, and unimportant. I tried to stay anonymous and inconspicuous. I remember pottering past the office of the executive with whom I had once wrangled big money contracts for the stars of the series, feeling grateful never to have met him face to face in my previous incarnation. How mortifying it would be for him to recognise me. Now, I just shuffled in the shadows in yet another identity, hiding from my hideous history.

After a while, my life changed again, and I moved to the south of Ireland. I spent ten years living there before returning to the UK. Whispers would come back to me through the grapevine of people's reactions hearing about my bipolar diagnosis. For example, a mother whose children I taught apparently said she would not want me driving them in my car. Then, there were some friends who made uninformed assumptions about me when I went into crisis once before their eyes. They proceeded to write me off as looking for attention and causing drama for the sake of it. Then, I lost a relationship with someone for whom my behaviour when unwell was simply too much to comprehend or be associated with.

Later again, I started going out with a truly wonderful man, and against the odds I felt that my life might come together again. However at least two people felt duty bound to warn him that I was crackers. One actually walked right up to him and said “You do know she's completely mad, don't you ?” Luckily for me, he did know. And he married me anyway. That person actually apologised to him afterwards – but never to me. That hurt.

Back in the UK again, I vowed to keep my illness under wraps a bit more. I decided to take an Irish psychiatrist's advice NOT to disclose my illness because of social stigma. She said I would find life easier. She was wrong. I was stifling myself. Trapping myself in a straight-jacket of my own design. Sixteen years of stigma and pressure, ten horrible life-mutilating hospital admissions, the daily roller-coaster of completely unpredictable extreme mood and energy swings, debilitated by the exhaustion of insomnia, sleeping pill hangovers and daily medication. Who do I tell ? Who do I trust ? Which friends will stay ? Which job will I lose now?

Added to all this, in the past 5 years, my world has been touched by sorrow and traumas unrelated to my diagnosis. In 2008, my beloved father suffered a massive stroke and I watched and waited for him to die slowly over a couple of weeks. In 2012, my mother died suddenly from a burst aneurysm and I rushed for four hours to get to her, but missed her by ten minutes. I sat with her for ages, gathering her close up into my arms. For me, she was the last person on earth who truly knew me. Also, I would love to say that my marriage was plain sailing through all of this, but it wasn't. My private family life was suffering for separate reasons. I remember holding my mum and feeling that now, I was truly alone. There would be no-one to rescue me any more.

Grappling with all this, in 2013 I had another major depressive episode which lasted months. Once again, as I tried to emerge from it and reach out, a close friendship which had helped me through much of this tripped, faltered and fell. For nearly a year I have withdrawn, crippled with a sense of paranoia, second guessing myself at every turn about how I am perceived as a person. During this hibernation however, a mysterious, almost esoteric “caterpillar thing” has happened. Something beyond words. I have changed. I don't really know how or when exactly. It didn't happen overnight, but slowly. Finally, I find I have emerged and decided I will no longer choose who to trust. I will tell everyone, and wait to see who chooses to trust me.

So I found my voice and came out publicly and so far the world has come forward to meet me with open arms. Friends have shared my writing and people approach me privately to share their stories and even ask for my help. Every day now, I wake up and discover that I can breathe. At last.

People are saying how strong and brave I am. I haven't thought of myself in that way often in my life. I have been thinking about how I have found this new strength. I think the answer is this : it is precisely because of the years of opposition and suppressive stigma I have faced that I actually found this courage. I had nothing else. When I was ill, depressed and afraid I certainly had no courage, even though I wanted it. But I have stopped judging myself through the eyes of others. I have stopped editing what I want to say because of people's actions in the past. I have stopped tormenting myself over what I imagine others might be thinking and I speak because I don't want to choke any more. Only I have the power to change my mind, only I have the power to change my world and how I live in it. So I can be the risk taker if I want to, throw my straight-jacket to the wind and let it fall where it may.

The me that once sat quivering in the corner of the locked solitary confinement room, or held down kicking and screaming by four nurses and forcibly sedated with a massive needle .... that petrified young woman never dreamed that anyone would want to hear her one day. But I am speaking, I am telling my story and people want to listen.

Every snarl of stigma has dissolved into air. I will no longer listen. Every whip which has ever thrashed and beaten me with condemnation and every fence which has ever held me in lies burning.

Nothing more than timber on an ever growing pile. I am not the sorry heap of rags underneath it, in unwashed pyjamas and a dirty dressing gown with the belt taken away by the nurses on the ward because “ I pose a risk to myself and other patients”. That isn't me. 

It turns out that I am actually wonderful. I am more fiery than I knew.... and I've started a bonfire party where everyone's invited. It beats any fairytale ball and no-one has to leave at midnight. Stigma is powerless ash at my feet … we have marshmallows in the flames..... sweet with the peaceful joy of solidarity, acceptance, patience, forgiveness and truth.

There's plenty to go round, I promise. Join me.


All artwork by Diana Muller at Diana Muller Fine Art
Pieces featured here in order are entitled  "Frozen" , "Somewhere Else", "Nebula" and finally "Conflagration"

All images used here with her kind permission for which I offer my profound thanks.

Thanks go also to her and her family who have always supported, loved and even sheltered me. A joy to know you all and have you in my life. See also for more of their art.


  1. Great post, Miranda. You say a lot of the things I try to but in a clearer, more eloquent way. But the other day I was wondering my new sense of optimism has come from this year, as nothing material has changed, and I've come to the conclusion that it is my lack of interest in most people's opinion of me. I do find it amusing now when people try to use my 'diagnosis' against me. Fire's me up all the more. Keep up the good work!

    1. I love that and completely agree, the older and wiser I am the less I care about other people's opinion's - so true.... it used to cripple me... but especially after turning 40 last year, I have realised really and truly that life is too short and I'm living it for me, not anyone else. Deighted to hear about your optimism, I hope it grows from strength to strength.

  2. Tears in my eyes as I read your words. Proud to have met you x