Sunshine. That’s what word comes to mind when I think about our conversation, Elsie. Your beautiful smile, your warmth and your openness. Thank you for sharing your story and for reminding us all that challenging times pass, that we are all on our own journey and that we are part of the journey of others as well, for better or for worse!
I was the youngest of three. My family originally came from the East End of London, but we lived in Essex. Looking back, it was, for all intents and purposes, a fairly normal upbringing. However, because of my mental health problems, because of therapy and various other things, I’ve now unpicked that. In many ways I was a contained sort of child. My dad was never violent, but I think he got beaten a bit when he was a kid. In later years he said would never have hit us; he didn’t have to -he just had to give us the look. I found out from my older brother John, after Dad died, that he used to ignore him for days if he disagreed with him. I suppose since I was about three years old I picked up that you didn’t argue, you didn’t step out of line, nothing. I think I’m now living out a childhood with Chickenshed that I never previously had. I didn’t have that creativity as a child. I can't remember going to parties, didn’t seem to do any activities really other than going to school.
I had a boyfriend from the age of 14 who was also quite controlling, so we didn’t mix with other friends at all. At about 17 or 18, I finally decided that this wasn’t for me. I met Paddy when I was 19 and we were married when I was 21. We decided to do a childcare course, and we ended up working on a new project near Sheffield for very emotionally disturbed children. After a year or so his dad became unwell so we came back to London and stayed with him. It was at that time that I first became pregnant.
My mum died about two months before our daughter was born which was possibly the trigger for my first mental health problem. It was post-baby, hormones all over the place and the diagnosis was manic depression. I probably had a high when she was first born but it wasn’t picked up, and then a depression when she was five months. I went over the top again when she was 18 months and was hospitalised. When I came out I went into the most awful depression. I mean, poor little child, she had a rotten time. She would have a sleep in the afternoon and I literally used to curl up in front of the electric fire and couldn’t move. Other depressions haven’t been as bad, but still pretty bad. The highs are another reality, you are in your own world! I love the highs - you don’t care about anybody or anything. You become a megalomaniac; you are imperious; you know best, you know everything. I was a bit psychotic, seeing things, a different perception of reality. In one episode, I wasn’t Jesus, I was the female Christ. Paddy, the man was a saint the way he stood by me.
Over the course of my life I’ve had six major episodes. There were a few years between my first and second child because I had ECT and medication, even when I came out of hospital. I never thought, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t become pregnant again’, never even gave that a thought, probably because I didn’t really understand much about it myself and nobody told me.
The next depression happened after number two was born, but it was nothing compared to the first one so could live with that sort of thing! My next big high was when our fourth child was a baby, and then again while I was expecting our fifth, and then again after he was born. I don’t know how many we are up to, but I had another one when he was about two., That was an interesting one because it couldn’t really be tied to hormones as the others had been. I was in therapy by that time unpicking a lot of what was going on. I didn’t have a manic-depressive episode for another 10 years. I was 50 then and I haven’t had any since. I can have low periods, but they’re not depressions in the same sense. The children had an interesting ride.
They all went to Chickenshed; it’s been a big part of their life, and mine. I used to see the children on stage and just think ‘Oh gosh, I wish there had been something like that when I was young’. It really was an incredible atmosphere. We go to the Christmas show now to see the grandchildren, and it’s interesting, you feel it’s like coming back to family. It really surprised me when our youngest, even though he stopped coming when he was 14, still sees these people as being really important in his life.
One of the questions I used to ask myself in therapy was, should I have had so many children? Was that irresponsible? I always felt guilty knowing that my manic depression will have affected them. My daughter particularly - she experienced my episodes in her very formative years. Yet in fact, she is the most amazing person. She’s quite something. Who knows what that grew out of? But through my therapy, and as I got older, I came to reconcile within myself that I am part of their journey. That’s it, that’s all I can say about it, I’m part of their journey and they’re either better or worse for it.
After my therapy I started to train as a counsellor but then became involved in what’s called service- user involvement believing that I could give something back. As a result, through the Council, I started my own group, originally just 10 hours a week but the job grew. It was a group advocacy organisation. We collected other people’s views on services and fed them back to mental health professionals. We interviewed staff and trained them and set up support groups. For three years we had the only service-user run, led and managed weekend crisis house. That took a lot of my life, I have to say, a lot of my life. I was still working when I started with Chickenshed, trying to balance work and shows. Of course, though, when the Space Between Us project came up I was in there like a shot. I had already worked with the young people, you see, in previous shows, and they were so lovely to me.
With Chickenshed you sign up, and don’t worry which road you’re going down. Sometimes you’re not always sure if they know which road you’re going to go down either! In terms of the project, I hadn’t expected the introspection for us as a group before we met the young people. It tapped into a part of me that I’m still resolving. It’s about either being put on the spot or wondering if I’m doing the right thing. At one point we were asked to write something and I froze, I couldn’t think, I went blank. But that was okay, I could continue in my own time. That helped me to get over my thing about having to do something straight away. I didn’t have to ‘perform’ and I didn’t have to get it right.
To start with we didn’t see the young people. Within our group we had to get to know each other, share on quite a deep level. We were beginning to trust each other, and we needed that before we met the younger group. When we did meet them, age didn’t seem to be an issue. Alright, I’m not that flexible or versatile and I had to be helped, but there was a feeling that although we were at different stages of our journeys, the younger generation were experiencing the same feelings that we had felt. There was a sense that at baseline there is the human experience, and that remains constant.
For me personally, I was living out something that I had never experienced. It was about doing something fun, meeting up and feeling part of a group, feeling very accepted. This was a group I had always wanted to be a part of. In a very full way I knew that I was unlocking a creative side of me, a side that hadn’t expressed itself until now. Freedom, it's a freedom that comes from inside the spirit rather than the head. You’re out of your head, really. You’re out of your head and into your body.
I don’t think Rachel realised what a pandora's box she was opening with this project. It is amazing - unlocking something very brilliant. I feel privileged and very lucky.
Written by Holly with Elsie
Through this project we hope to tell the stories of many different people and celebrate their perspectives and experiences. If you would like to share your story with us, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by sending us a dm on Instagram @growinghappyuk