Jo McFarlane tells how discovering an artistic side helped conquer the mental illness that threatened to destroy her
JO McFarlane is wearing a particularly vivid shade of green. Her shirt is green, so is her hat, the chunky round stone in her ring and even the shoes that peek out from beneath her trousers. All fresh, spring-like green, the colour that symbolises hope.
And she’s smiling a warm, happy smile. When she laughs, it’s a with a gutsy, confident bubbly laugh that fills the room and infects others, encouraging them to smile along too.
On the whole, Jo seems a happy soul. One of life’s free spirits, artistic, confident, at ease with herself. She’s intellectually bright, eloquent and unafraid.
But there’s another side to Jo. It’s the side that saw her climb to the top of Salisbury Crags one snowy Hogmanay and cast herself over the edge.
She plummeted down 100 feet, bounced off ragged rocks, slid over snowy ledges and landed with a sickening thump in a pile at the bottom to be found by two startled students who just happened to be in the middle of a snowball fight.
And that side to Jo took her to the Forth Road Bridge one dark night. Alone, blindly driven by her fragile state of mind, she wanted to ease herself over the handrails, kick off from the ledge and allow her body to plunge downwards into the water below.
Luck – perhaps destiny – had other plans. Two passing police officers saw her, spoke gently to her and coaxed her to come with them instead.
There were many other similar, equally disturbing attempts to end her life, countless overdoses in lonely places, nights when she slept rough or deliberately placed herself in the path of danger, inwardly hoping she might not survive.
Perhaps it’s a way of coming to terms with it all, but today Jo can even find humour in the darkness of it. The plunge from Salisbury Crags, for example, which she attempted convinced it would be the end, only to wake, rather annoyed, to find she’d escaped with a shattered ankle. And the time she set about attempting to use a rope to end her life by hanging, only for it to snap.
“Everyone says to me that obviously it wasn’t meant to be. I’m still here,” she smiles brightly.
“It’s my 40th birthday next week and my friends have organised a big party. I’m going to make sure they play I Will Survive at it. Some might think it’s a bit tacky,” she adds with a wry grin, “well I don’t care.”
She knows her wry summary of such harrowing events may make some squirm but if anyone has earned the right to talk frankly of what is often the taboo subjects of mental illness and attempted suicide, it’s Jo.
For more than 20 years she’s battled demons and irrational thoughts – much rooted in childhood traumas – that have made her question her right to live. Sometimes they threatened to swamp her and that they didn’t succeed is, Jo concedes, not for the want of trying.
All of that could have formed the basis for her future too, if not for Jo now discovering an unexpected creative outlet for her emotions in carefully crafted poems which reveal the complex and multi-faceted elements to her nature: from bleak and despairing to fun-loving and bubbly.
Earlier this week Jo, who has published nine books of poetry and written hundreds of works, helped launch the Scotland-wide Mental Health Arts and Film Festival, a month-long cultural feast of film, drama, writing, visual art and dance inspired by, often involving, people whose lives have been touched by mental illness. For Jo, being involved in the arts is now a vital component in helping her stay well. And no-one is more surprised than her that it’s worked out the way it has.
“I used to find it hard to read poetry,” she reveals. “I found it too hard, I thought I was stupid, too thick to ‘get it’. I could write reports and essays, but never anything creative. I never saw myself as a creative person.
“I had a test for dyslexia a few years ago which confirmed I had an unusual form that made it difficult to read. I could write, but reading was a struggle. Suddenly things then started to fall into place.”
She attended groups to help her dyslexia which introduced her to a creative side to her character she didn’t realise existed. “I think I’d always stayed away from that kind of thing because I was frightened of what I might find,” she explains. “Then I found there are huge benefits in art, writing, anything creative, for people with mental health problems,” she says. “It provides a sense of purpose. I learned it was something that was impossible to fail at.”
She developed her writing skills, attending South Bridge Scribblers, an adult education club, and Diggers, a writers group run by the Workers Educational Association.
But while understanding her dyslexia opened the door to discovering her creative side, Jo’s struggle is rooted much deeper, in disturbing childhood trauma that would surface years later.
She recalls being just seven when she was brutally attacked as she walked home along Claremont Park from a friend’s house. Her attacker, a stranger, held a knife held to her throat and sexually abused her.
The trauma left deep mental scars. By the time she was head girl at St Thomas of Aquin’s High School, Jo’s erratic behaviour was giving her teachers concern.
“I started seeing a psychiatrist at the young people’s unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital,” she remembers. “When I went to Edinburgh University to do languages I had a serious breakdown and took an overdose. Then, over the next four or five years, I’d be out of hospital for a few months, then back in. “
She recalls being “quite paranoid at times, quite distressed with a lot of memories coming up”. There were symptoms of bipolar disorder and she’d swing from wild highs to deep depressions, struggling to cope until exam time tipped her over the edge and into a darkness sometimes fuelled by drink which often saw her place herself into desperately dangerous situations.
“I’d sleep out rough, I’d wander the Meadows at night or go up Arthur’s Seat. I wanted something very awful to happen. I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t realise how unwell I was.”
Eventually Jo was diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder, a condition that is similar to bipolar disorder but with psychotic symptoms that could flare at times of stress. While medication and therapy help ease her symptoms, there have been periods when simple, often random, things have tipped her back into her personal darkness.
“It takes over very quickly,” she explains. “I get really overwhelmed, there have been times when I’ve just run away and ended up in different parts of the country in all kinds of scrapes.”
She praises her sisters, Paula McGee, 44, and Lena Cairns, 45, her friends, the “really brilliant” Royal Edinburgh staff and psychiatric nurses, among them her community psychiatric nurse Jenny Neilson who she credits with nurturing her creative streak.
For without their help, she isn’t sure where she might be.
“I know it’s been really distressing for them. There have been times when they probably thought I would not survive. They’ve been to hell and back but stuck by me.”
And, she insists, however dark the past has been, one thing she is sure of: she’s never stopped wanting to live.
“I don’t want people to think I have a death wish,” she adds softly, “I love life and I’m grateful to be alive.”