ASPEN's most recent publishing events:

The Chrysalid Years - and - Nurturing Potential

(Click here to view the first issue of Nurturing Potential, which also contains a review of and article about The Chrysalid Years)

 The Chrysalid Years

by Abigail Freeman

 A life on the knife edge between sanity and madness

 Price 9.99 - 432 pages  

The Chrysalid Years by Abigail Freeman is available on special offer to visitors to this site. 

Orders will be supplied postage and packing free, representing a saving of approximately 20 per cent.  Cheque or money order for 9.99 per copy, should be made out to ASPEN, and sent to  18 Leamington House, 23 Stonegrove, Edgware, Middlesex HA8 7TN together with your return address.

It is described by the author as "A veteran account of manic depression/schizo-affective disorder, from mental breakdown to spiritual breakthrough."  The author's fictionalized version of her own harrowing experiences presents a fascinating interplay between sanity and madness.  "I had intended calling it a survivor account," the author told us, "but recognised that I did more than survive -  I fought hard."

The Chrysalid Years may be read on a number of different levels.

It may be read as simply a good, exciting, disturbing novel, portraying the horror of a mental breakdown.

It may be read as a fictionalised autobiography, describing its central character's descent into a hell on earth, fluctuating between the storms of madness and the sunshine of rehabilitation.

It may be read as an indictment of our mental health system and an enlightened proposal for the way forward, with advice and words of comfort and encouragement to those for whom the symptoms of mental illness are part of their everyday lives.

Or it may be read on all three levels simultaneously.

What is certain is that readers will be both shaken and stirred and will be left with a totally new conception of the condition that is schizo-affective disorder.  After all it takes extraordinary strength to cope with such symptoms as well as all the rest of  life. This is something too few people appreciate since it does not fit into their stereotypical model of psychiatric patients.

Here are both the Foreword and Afterword to this harrowing tale.



To my former psychiatrist

Dear John

Once upon a time I asked you to recommend reading to give me insight into the medical condition for which you were treating me. You came up with a survivor account that indicated the whole situation was totally hopeless. I was touched by your effort to help; the book was brand new and I suspected purchased specially to meet my request. I warned you when I returned it not to hand it on to anyone who was severely depressed.

I had already tried several medical and psychological theories for fit against my experience, and rejected most of them instantly. Concepts that fitted better suggested that my bizarre behaviour was functional, purposeful, useful even in my life. I began to think about what I did when I was psychotic that I didnt do when I was well, and how I could integrate those things into my everyday life so that I didnt have to get psychotic in order to do them.

In my psychotic states it was vitally important to have pen and paper. I wrote constantly. Ive made that part of my everyday life and heres the result - not a survivor account, because I did more than survive. I fought hard, and I fought particularly (but by no means exclusively) with you. Thank you for being there honestly enough to fight back.

So I prefer to call this a veteran account of mental illness, although strictly speaking the period described immediately precedes the time I really came out fighting. I wrote it as a novel, adding, adjusting and fantasising to disguise situations for publication and to add some sort of artistic form. It seems unreasonable now to have done that, given my insistence that psychological theories have to fit my experience just right without cutting anything out to achieve a fit!

My veteran account was written with love, wanting to share with others in desperate situations the joy and hope I had found in despair, to address the lack of understanding and acceptance of extreme states in the mental health services and the wider world, and the stereotyping of those who have to use the services. Such attitudes turn temporary states into chronic conditions which enable the community to shut away behind psychiatric labels social problems too unpleasant to face. Suffering individuals get labeled, become isolated from the wider community, and without loving support distress, which could be temporary, becomes a festering sore.

I see clearly in my own family history the lack of relationship and isolation that stemmed from covering up unacceptable bits of history, because the relationship that was there was based on dishonesty. This was the root cause of my illness - my illness. It was when I stopped trying to hand it over to the experts and take responsibility for it myself that I came out fighting.

The secrecy in my family cut me off from a heritage that I have only recently recognised - the strength of the women in my family. My grandmother divorced in the 1920s. We were told she was a widow - disgraceful to be divorced, so I dont know her story, but my intuition tells me she was in a violent relationship. My other grandmother kept her unmarried daughter - my mother - and her baby in the family in the 1930s when such disgrace was commonly shut away in lunatic asylums. Again, I dont know her story or my mothers. What I see now is a number of strong women standing firm for their personal values against the collective, and suffering for it, protecting themselves and their children as best they could by being silent about their struggles. However that silence served no-one well in the long term. And thats a good enough reason to open out my story to the world.

I want my daughters to recognise that strength in their heritage and in themselves, and to have the confidence to draw on the strength of the community when they hit trouble instead of being isolated, as I felt. And I would want that for my sons too, if I had sons like you have. This is not a womans book, it is a person book written by a woman.

This account was completed in 1996, and it is a snapshot of an earlier period. I find it difficult to recognise myself as I was then, and I believe others will find it difficult to recognise themselves as I saw them then. We are all different people now and look at each other with different eyes. Some have found it too painful to read, some have ploughed painstakingly through it, and some (including my mother) have been unable to put it down. I am drawing on a wide network of support to bring this book out into the world; no-one has suggested that I should not publish it. And it doesnt really matter which bits are true or not quite true or complete fantasy, there is an underlying truth which transcends reality.

Take my delusion that I was a political prisoner as an example - I was incarcerated for two weeks and brought back to the hospital ward at least three times without being detained either under the Criminal Justice Act or the Mental Health Act. So was it really a delusion? What sort of a prisoner was I then? There was no-one to explain what the sectioning I was threatened with actually meant.

Im still a bit miffed about it, you can tell, and Im trying to write with love and not with anger, so Ill stop. But I do wish someone had told me I could sue the hospital for unlawful detention.




That was Aquarias story. And then what happened?

Although sitting down to write was not the end of the illness, it marked the end of the hospitalizations. Aquaria learnt to manage her illness by focusing on herself, getting to know what helped when things were getting difficult and what made things worse. She planned for future illness by drawing up agreements with her family and the professionals responsible for her care. Rather than handing responsibility to her doctor, she took charge herself. That included a long course of therapy from a private practitioner. It is difficult to get such treatment from the NHS, and people who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act (or, as in Aquarias case, detained without sectioning) may find it impossible to build a sufficiently trusting relationship to work with an NHS therapist.

Aquaria was fortunate that her illness was not always apparent to others. It is very difficult to cope not only with a serious illness, but also with a public reaction to it of prejudice, discrimination, ignorance, and fear. As a consequence of such reactions, many people are unable to maintain their place in the community, seeking the company of others like themselves where they can be accepted. Those like Aquaria can avoid such consequences but at a price. In addition to the stresses that have caused their illness, there is the added anxiety of keeping things secret. Are any of your colleagues concealing a mental illness, which may mean they will lose their job?

Relatives too experience the isolating effects of such prejudice; schoolchildren trying to keep a parents illness secret will not receive the same pastoral support from their school as a child whose parent is in hospital with a physical illness. Despite the Governments commitment in the National Service Framework to raising awareness and challenging prejudice, mental health is not yet included in the National Curriculum in the same way as other health or discrimination topics. The schools that teach it do so by choice, and not because they are required to.

What about the Mental Health Act? Although Aquaria was frequently threatened with sectioning, it took her a long time to find out what that meant. It took her even longer to find out how the mental health system was supposed to work, and to make it work for her. The twelve years since her first hospitalisation has seen the development of independent advocacy services working in psychiatric hospitals to provide just this information, and to support patients in accessing their rights. Many patients are still detained in settings where no advocacy service is available.

The proposed reform of the Mental Health Act may well include a right to advocacy. At the same time other legislation (Health and Social Care Bill) requires that hospitals should themselves provide services (Patients Advocacy Liaison Service) which duplicate much of the work of independent advocacy services, cutting down their function to supporting patients in making complaints through the official complaints procedure. The same bill also hijacked the proud term Patients Council to refer to new statutory bodies whose work is very different to that of the user/survivor movements Patients Councils.

So how to navigate these changing waters, where to get advice and support? How to take more control?

Several national organizations have help or advice lines and may hold details of local services, support and self-help groups. Some campaign on mental health issues. Through newsletters, journals, training, conferences, and websites they provide opportunities for those affected by mental illness, their families, friends and carers to communicate and learn from each other.