Not Quite the Great Train Robber

I went to boarding school at the age of ten because my father was a Major in the Royal Artillery and kept getting new postings. As my education would have inevitably suffered, it was decided to pack me off and give me stability. After learning to cope with homesickness, I settled into a new life and began to enjoy lessons and sport. Doing quite well on both fronts, I was approached at sixteen by a large public school and assessed for a full-fees scholarship. This I was awarded and moved from my Dorset private school, in 1990, to a grand establishment in Worcestershire.

I was a good lad, polite and enthusiastic. I had a few bad habits, enjoying the occasional cigarette and beverage. I was pursuing an army career but upon completing my A-levels I became naively seduced by the chimera of Bohemia and I went up to Newcastle University, intrigued by what an unfettered undergraduate life would entail. I had a traditional upbringing, deferential to custom and parental authority but university opened my eyes to challenging ideas and practices. In hindsight, I failed to adjust to the responsibilities of self-sufficiency and coped poorly with the new-found freedom. My path through those undergraduate years was strewn with mistakes and reckless behaviour. By the middle of the third year, I had developed a penchant for excessive partying and avoidance of academic work. I even gave up football to concentrate on wild dance-parties. This is the story of how I ended up in a psychiatric hospital, having gone missing six weeks before finals…

By the start of my second year, I began to seriously lose concentration. I attempted a project for an American Government module, testing the thesis that ‘The CIA is the greatest threat to US democracy’. I had neglected to attend any seminars and lost insight into formal academic expectation. My tutor sneered at the shoddy waffle I presented and consigned the thirty per cent effort to a filing cabinet.

Not only disenchanted with studying, I also proved unable to manage my grants and loans. By March 1994 I desperately needed money, so I responded to a newspaper advert to become an outdoor activity instructor. I was trained on the Isle of Wight and, having returned to Tyneside to resolve personal matters, moved to North Wales. I left the university six weeks before the end of term without having passed any second-year coursework, depressingly in debt. Instructing quad-bikes, command-tasks and ball-sports, I spent four months in the sun and grew fit and happy. I was away from the academic grind as I perceived it and was thrilled to be putting smiles onto faces.

Summers end, as did that one. Little did I know that by the October of the following year I would have been admitted into psychiatric hospital three times, diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis, been through some of the horrors of side-effects and reduced to a functionless zombie-like state, tormented by skewed ‘Why did I do that?’ memories of passing months that saw me change from a relatively carefree student on lager, with some academic expectations, to a fully-fledged mental patient on lithium.

May 1995 saw me taken into custody by the police in Doncaster, having been reported as a missing person. I was returned to the care of my family and shortly admitted into hospital. The police were involved that day because I had given British Rail personnel cause to throw me off a number of trains that I’d jumped in order to get back to Newcastle. I’d spent two days wandering disconsolately around the capital, swinging from vast heights to unplumbed depths. I had vacated my lodgings up north, friends and tutors having witnessed dramatic changes in my moods and behaviours, on a mission to prove myself as a miracle-worker to entirely fictitious powers resident in London. I did not realize at the time that I was unwell, that sleeping rough on the streets of London is not normal and that roaming up and down the Embankment, considering suicide, is a sign of mental illness.

A most startling manifestation of my unbalanced mind came two hours before the police found me. So intent was I on returning to Tyneside, I reacted huffily upon being discharged from an Intercity train in Peterborough. Dressed in outlandish garb and with no money with which to pay my fare, the conductor had no choice. Blind fool – he couldn’t see my destiny. Determined to ascend from whence I’d come, I noticed an empty, two-carriage Sprinter standing idle on a far-flung platform, facing roughly in the right direction and shimmering slightly. Crossing the footbridge and entering the empty driver’s compartment was easy. Inside, upon the dashboard, perched an instruction manual. I quickly flicked through its pages and began to pull all the levers and press the buttons. I thought that if I could get it started, I would be able to personally steer it to my chosen destination. Unfortunately, the ten minutes I spent as a wannabe engine driver proved fruitless. Although I tried with all my might to steal that train, it proved beyond my untutored skill to achieve such a technical feat and, having located the horn and pressed it a few times, I realized my inspired scheme wasn’t going to happen. What is staggering to consider is that during all that time, absolutely no one noticed and my dangerous intentions went unchecked. Imagine the news that night if I had succeeded in starting the train and got it moving! Anyway, frustrated, I retreated from the cab and sat down in the passenger carriage. Within half an hour passengers took their seats and I eventually endured a short return journey up the line, to Spalding. Upon arriving back at Peterborough and being unceremoniously dumped, I jumped the train that took me to Doncaster and into the arms of the law. I was admitted into hospital the next day because my family could not account for my continuing bizarre behaviour and they understandably supported the GP’s referral.

In the weeks following admission I performed a number of further acts which form much of the detail of my experiences of being manically psychotic: I disappeared off the ward only to be captured by police forty miles away; I inappropriately propositioned inappropriate females; I set off fire-alarms in the middle of the night, forcing geriatric patients to attend headcounts outside. I threw an empty wine glass the length of a long corridor, at the wall, evaded questions whilst being interviewed by senior medical staff, and often took all my clothes off and ate daisies.

There are many similar anecdotes lying around the insides of my head. Once, I disappeared from the ward, only to be found 400 metres away at a mini-roundabout on a nearby main road. I was lying in the middle of it, on my side, with my head resting in my left hand. I knew that the juggernauts couldn’t kill me. Massive artic lorries veered around me as I lay there, invincibly. A nurse arrived and beckoned me to join her and walk ‘home’.

I sat my university finals in a psychiatric acute unit. Failing, in such a total sense, was a painful experience in itself for someone who’d always been middle of the road, sporty and successful. Mania was followed by numbing depressions, as I struggled to come to terms with my actions, the on-going symptoms of illness, my failed student career and my new identity as a manic depressive. It didn’t feel like I could get better and I spent many months as an agonized and lost soul. Learning to understand and control the condition requires medical care and tutelage; thankfully, these services are available and are improving all the time. Learning to function in the real world, without being held hostage to symptoms or the side effects of medication, is taking a long time. Sometimes I take backward steps but, in more recent years, maturity and experience have enabled me to work effectively towards mood stability and I’ve accepted the need for medication, within the context of meaningful self-management. Living the life of a full-on manic depressive has been a trial but a few years ago I managed to graduate in politics and philosophy. How I will cope in years to come remains to be seen, but for the first time since being diagnosed, I am correct in believing that I’m finally on the right track.


Excerpt from ‘The A-Z Guide to Good Mental Health: You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Have Manic Depression’
Jeremy Thomas, 2008