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A poet on Manchester’s spoken word scene, Isabelle Byrne, says performance and community have helped her heal from mental ill health

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Isabelle Byrne knows the power of storytelling. She sees it in action at open mic nights and spoken word events, where she says standing up and sharing experiences with an audience creates a form of human connection that has the power to help and heal.

Byrne has a story of her own to tell. Now 29, the poet, from Stockport, has battled with her mental health since university, and her journey has led her through hospitalisation, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), and into a new world of navigating her way through recovery.

Byrne first sought help as a student.

“I felt like I wasn’t doing very well,” says Byrne. “So I went to the university and said I think I need some counselling. I’ve been to a few unis and they’ve always been amazing. I got free therapy and there wasn’t a huge waiting list, but I ended up going to the GP to get some medication to help, and I think I had about five different antidepressants in one year.”

Byrne says her medication regime made her worse.

“If you have an unstable mood, [the medication] will flip you up and down faster than you do yourself. People who have bipolar [could] be going manic and low at least four times a day. You end up with burnout.”

What followed for Byrne was a period in hospital after feeling as though she had “exhausted all the help” she could get. In 2016 she was given a course of ECT after six weeks in hospital during which she wasn’t responding to any other forms of treatment.

“I wasn’t really getting any better at all,” she says. “I was just so desperate to not feel the way I felt. It was like a physical pain, constantly. I just wanted to get better. My psychiatrist was very old, but he had so much experience of working on wards, and he’d conducted ECT for years and years. That really gave me the comfort that I was in safe hands and that there was no fear from him.”

Byrne accepts that at the time she didn’t tick the box of “catatonic depression” usually required for patients to undergo ECT. “But my psychiatrist said the problem is that anyone that has lived with mental health problems for so long that have been untreated tend to get a different portrayal of what it looks like. It’s covered in coping mechanisms. You’re bright and chatty and literally walking around in armour.”

ECT was first popularised in the 1930s as a treatment for depression. During a session, electrodes are attached to the head and a shock of 70-450 volts is administered to deliver a seizure-like fit.

The theory is that by sending an electric current to the brain, triggering a seizure, you can “reset” the brain’s existing electrical current, relieving the symptoms of some mental health problems.

As Big Issue North has reported in the past, many patients and healthcare experts believe it is a harmful and ineffective procedure.

One patient, Dr Sue Cunliffe, told us last year she had been diagnosed with brain damage as a result of ECT, while another said he had to relearn to brush his teeth after being given ECT and at one point could not recognise his parents.

Clinical psychologist Professor John Reed said patient safety was being “disregarded” because of a lack of regulation and monitoring of ECT, and campaigners called for an independent inquiry into the use of the technique.

“We just want equality, and I don’t care whether [ECT has] helped people,” said Dr Cunliffe. “It’s about time that the harmed people’s stories were listened to and we got rehabilitation and support.”

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) says exactly how ECT works is still not fully understood.

But Byrne’s personal experience was largely positive.

“The only negatives that I have found are with my memory,” says Byrne. “My memory is not very good – my short term memory is atrocious… but it’s a small price to pay for how good the treatment is.”

Byrne is still on medication, a legacy she describes as a “dependence you have with the system that made you”, and her experiences mean she is passionate about changing perceptions about mental health. In her book Pandora’s Ruin she uses poetry to chart her journey through diagnosis, medication, hospitalisation and recovery.

“I always use the example that the only two narratives I came out of hospital with were Harley Quinn and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I mean, they’re both quite cool. But there are kids that are going through very difficult times in mental health hospitals, and to be seen as villains or outcasts is such a dangerous thing for vulnerable people to have.”

Byrne is a regular performer on Manchester’s spoken word scene. She hopes that by sharing her experiences she is helping to break down the stigma attached to mental health and treatment.

“You go to these poetry events, and they are full of people who have had adversity in their lives,” says Byrne. “They’ve had it rough. And they stand up, and they say it how it is.

“I just think these hubs are so important. A lot of people say it’s like AA but in bars.

“Standing up and talking to people sharing your narrative passes the baton. And even if you don’t want to share, at least you feel like you’ve got something, and that we’ve connected.

“The point is the more people we hear from with different stories, the less scary it becomes.”

Pandora’s Ruin by Isabelle Byrne is available to buy from bentkeypublishing.co.uk. * Read our 2021 article on ECT, I Didn’t Recognise Myself Anymore, in the Features section of bigissuenorth.com 

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