The Rocky Road to Recovery: Prose and Poetry

by David Gilbert

February 28, 2016


The storm has shaken
Evening cool

Black moths are drawn
To yellow snapdragons.

The war is done
In the blameless house

A Chinese lantern
Sails the treetops


Risky Times

I have written about the darkness elsewhere. This is about the rocky road back to light.

Recovery is a contested term in mental health. I only speak from my own experience. I had six years of 24/7 mental anguish, a mixture of obsessional thinking and chronic anxiety.

Things changed slowly towards the end. I found myself doing more, but still feeling awful. Others noticed that I was not moaning about my pain quite so much; that I was taking part in more conversations; that I read two pages of a book, before giving up, rather than just one or none.

However, my mind refused to notice the steps forward. The obsessional thoughts carried on throughout any activity, thus my activities were not distractions. Then the judgements kicked in: The script went something like: "You may be able to do things, but what's the point if you do not feel better for doing them?". It was only another couple of irrational cognitive steps to despair: "Nothing has changed, nothing will change, why bother?"

I had been suicidal for years, but now I had additional justification! There was a double whammy. Because I was getting better in my psychiatrist's eyes, I was ‘discharged’ from the mental health day unit. I also had little support to get back my social life, find a home, job or further study. A sense of abandonment and vulnerability made it  a risky period - I wonder how many suicides take place during these times?


The Eel

Beneath the ice
An eel slipped through the murk
Mouth bigger than the world.

The man watched and shivered
In the face of what he’d become.
His mind could not respond.

His body had to be coerced
By something other
Or be abandoned.

His legs, heavy and traitorous, began
To bisect dreamless streets.
He still looked down

Caressing the blade
Whispering in his pocket.
His eyes were eventually drawn

By scaffolding and cigarette packets.
By pipework: the earth opening up.
Railway sidings at dawn:

The tenacity of dandelions!
He failed at first to recognise
This emerging appetite.


The Behaviour-Emotion Lag

There is a lag between behaviour and feelings. This is the most important thing I have learned from my recovery experience. The hard human job of cultivating new positive habits is particularly hard for people with mental health problems. The new activity precedes the gratification. The mind clings stubbornly to familiar thinking - no matter how destructive the old thinking is!

This is human. Bad habits provide instant gratification. We live in an adolescent culture – it’s all about kicks. And we are addicted to stimulus and immediate reward. But when you have been profoundly depressed, this human trap is exacerbated.

When your mind is working 'normally', you can often persuade yourself that the change will eventually be worth it. This is a 'choice'. But when it comes to mental health problems, the choice-making apparatus is itself damaged. It is as if you want to up the radiators temperature, but the thermostat is faulty.

In physical health problems, ‘it’ (the condition) and ‘you’ (your mind) can be seen sometimes as separate. There is a relationship between ‘you’ and'it'. You can sometimes adopt a different stance towards your condition (e.g. ‘fighting’ or ‘accepting’). In my experience of significant mental illness, this is almost impossible to do. You cannot find that space in which to ‘frame’ or ‘judge’ the condition. 'You' are 'it' and 'it' is 'you'!

(Please note that the following poem, and one further down called 'Over'. are best viewed on a PC. Smart phones tend to disrupt the line breaks).


The Lake

I couldn’t work out what was happening.
I walked to the end of the rickety pier,
drew a bucket of cold water from the lake
and saw things I had not seen the day before

though the weather seemed much the same:
Silvery fish darted under the surface,
water boatmen skedaddled on its skin,
ripples from a long gone motorboat

lapped the large flat stone at the shore’s edge
and the brown stems of giant lily pads curved
down into the murk. A cormorant flew
low and fast across the bay’s wide mouth

and out of sight, while the deep cells continued
their slow work of invisible rewiring.


Somehow I had the tenacity to carry on. I am still unsure how. Somewhere deep down a rewiring was taking place. I did more, and my body and will seemed to find some newish energy – the ability to move into a new flat, the capacity to go on a new college course (itself the bravest decision of my life). And, at times, I noticed more around me.

And then one Summer, something happened. I started noticing yet more about the world around me. I remember seeing blue sky properly for the first time in years. A threshold had been reached. Over a dramatic couple of days, the neurones in my brain seemed to rewire.

For a while I was in a budha-like state, my mind a blank slate. It must be like being on a drug induced serenity level I suppose (I don’t know). It was a state of bliss that made my friends and psychiatrist nervous – the latter thought I was going manic. I found myself bound up in the workings of the world, one morning even micro-examining a stapler.

NB. Just to explain one reference in the following poem: At the beginning of my breakdown, I had thrown a stone at a horse while out walking with my mum (sorry).



This evening, I am sitting on the floor
at a friends house in Watford.

This morning, I got out of bed at dawn
after a night of still wakefulness
picked up a red stapler
examined its mechanics and peeled apart the carriage
to reveal its innards and dozens of parallel thin n’s
little letters that could unite two worlds
then laughed at what my psychiatrist might say:
You’re turning manic, time for different drugs.
I watched the sun rise over the shop roofs
across the Great North Road while the 263 rumbled past.

This afternoon we walked the fields
and a horse came. I picked up a stone,
felt its smoothness and put it down,
then stroked the horse’s nose.
My mother will not come running this time.
She is far away and ill herself.

Later, in my friend’s garden
I talked over the fence to a little girl next door
and she asked me: what’s beyond the walls of the universe?
I don’t know, I said and thought, perhaps I’ve been there.

I have been trying to read
a book about deforestation
but had to put it down
because my eyes are so soft
they cannot focus.
I will try Adrian Mole.

For now I watch the clock.
The sharks – the circling terrible thoughts
are fading. It is like a radio
full on for so long
is being turned down – the volume dims
with each small shift of the clock’s hands
until there’s a click
and a low far away voice in my head whispers:
It’s over.


I still had battles, I still had a life to rebuild (I had lost almost everything, home, money, career, friends, much of my family), but it was now at least possible. I moved in with my girlfriend, Susan, who I had met as a fellow patient on the ward, and who I later married. Her native country can be bloody cold... 🙂



When I trusted enough
you threw me a lifeline
and we flew to your Finland.

It was dark by two thirty
and on the first night
a blizzard from the steppes

dipped the temperature
to minus twenty one.
Even your countrymen

drove wildly on that ice.
The news was full of it.
An alcoholic fisherman

was found belly up
by the silent morning dock,
swollen fingers stuck

to a frozen cigarette.
I was glad to feel at last
the shock of weather

that had been and gone
six years without me noticing.
‘I glove you’ I joked

into the bone-stripping cold.
Then, breathing the burning air
in thermals, layers and hats,

like a pair of Michelin Men
or throwback to the ward –
two shuffling roly-polys –

we slid blindly to the store
and stumbled back laden
with enough Lapin Kulta,

chocolate and pickled herring
to last a lifetime – a new
big fat lucky lifetime.



If you would like to read more of my poetry, click here


copyright: David Gilbert 2016


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