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Kayleigh Llewellyn
3rd November 2021 • My Family, Mental Illness, and Me • Bespoken Media
00:00:00 00:48:53

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Multi-award-winning screenwriter Kayleigh Llewellyn based her darkly comic BBC3 drama 'In My Skin' on her own difficult childhood, growing up in Cardiff with an abusive dad and a mum with Bipolar I Disorder.

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Dr Pamela Jenkins: This is My Family, Mental Illness... and Me.

[Intro music]

My name is Pamela Jenkins and I’m a researcher at the Mental Health Foundation. My mum, Irene, lived with a mental illness. There were voices only she could hear and she could quickly switch from feeling very high to very low. No one ever talked about it with me when I was young, even though I knew my mum was often unwell. When I was in my 20s, that’s when a psychiatrist told me that my mum had schizoaffective disorder. Sadly, I lost her quite recently to Covid-19 but even though she’s gone, her mental health will always be a huge part of my life.

In each of these podcasts, I’ll speak to someone else whose parent has or had a mental illness. In the UK, there are at least three million children of parents with mental illness. If you’re one, it’s really important that you know you’re not alone.

My Family, Mental Illness... and Me is a podcast series from the charity Our Time with support from the Mental Health Foundation. Our Time champions and supports children of parents with mental illness and their families. We’ve put links to more information in the show notes.

This time, I’m joined by a writer, creator and television producer who has turned her experience of growing up with a mum with bipolar disorder into an award-winning BBC TV show. It’s the series she says she wishes had existed when she was younger.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Hello, my name is Kayleigh Llewellyn. I’m a screenwriter for television. I have a series currently on BBC 3 called In My Skin which is an autobiographical piece about my experiences growing up in Wales with a mum who suffers with bipolar disorder Type 1.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: And thank you very, very much for being here. I really appreciate it and I’m very excited to talk to you. So just to start off with, you’ve already mentioned that your mum has bipolar and so where would you like to start talking about that experience growing up as a child?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Well, it’s sort of vast and varied, isn’t it? A good starting point is probably the basis of what my TV show is built around which is the sense of shame that I had as a teenager and not knowing anyone else living through it. I mean people were living through it, I’m certain. I just didn’t know it, so I felt quite alone with that and felt like it was something that I had to hide.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really common experience, I think, and interesting that you say that there will have been so many more people that were going through it. Maybe we’re more aware of that now but at the time, it was just, I guess, not spoken about. So what’s your earliest memory then of your mum’s mental illness?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: In hindsight, looking back now, I can see that there were things, when I was much smaller, that probably weren’t normal. All my friends have kids now and I know they wouldn’t do these things. For instance, there would be days when she just wouldn’t get out of bed. She could sometimes oscillate between that sort of complete lack of energy where she would just stay in bed and we’d be creeping around or I’d get up in the morning and she’d already have been up for three hours and the house was spotless. She’d planned a day out and was just completely up. But she didn’t have her first full-scale breakdown until I was ten years old. That’s when she was sectioned for the first time. I know now that she was also sectioned before I was born but in my memory, I was ten when that first happened.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Was that explained to you what was happening?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: No, I don’t think so. Back then, I think they said she had manic depression as opposed to bipolar. I was going into the hospital - and again this is touched upon in my TV show, but the hospital where my mum was sectioned just so happened to be a couple of minutes away from my school, so it was really close quarters. When all the kids went out for bike rides on the weekends, we would go to the mental hospital and there would be this feeling – ‘Oh my god, it’s really scary,’ or we’d kind of cycle in and there was a derelict building on the grounds nearby that you could go into and we’d treat it like this exciting place to go and tell ghost stories or say, ‘God, imagine being in there.’ It’s closed down now but it was one of those old Victorian asylum types of buildings. Going back there with my mum actually being inside, I remember really it just blowing my mind with the locked doors and everything else. I don’t think my family knew enough or probably even known enough now still to know how to explain that to a child, so I just went along and knew that she was going to be there for a while.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did any of the doctors or any external people, like social workers, broach it with you or was it left to your imagination?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: God, I’ve never thought about this before. I don’t think anyone did, no. I mean the nurses were perfectly nice but no one said, ‘This is what is happening.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it’s really common and similar for me. My mum had schizoaffective disorder which involves bipolar, so it’s bipolar and schizophrenia... and nothing. Nobody mentioned it when I was young. Did your mum ever talk to you about her illness?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Not really. We talk about it a little bit more now potentially. There is a feeling, although it’s not confirmed, that my mum’s disorder has now evolved into schizoaffective disorder as well. The last time she was sectioned, one of the doctors there mentioned that to me because she was seeing people who weren’t there, effectively, and having conversations with them and various other things that had led them to think that. It’s so hard when you’re from the working class or benefit class even – a poor background in Wales back in the late 90s and early noughties. People don’t talk about this stuff and even to this day, if I say to my mum, ‘You should go to therapy,’ she always says, ‘Why?’ It’s as if there would be nothing for her to talk about. It just is.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it’s just medicated. I think with some mental health problems, there is that inclination towards talking therapies but they’re the lower level depressions and anxieties and I think there’s more talking therapy that goes on there. When it comes to more severe conditions, there’s just that – ‘Well, medicate it,’ and there’s not the same inclination. That’s the same impression that I get is that it’s just not spoken about as much. Would you say all of this had any effect on your mental health when you were a child?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Absolutely. My dad was also abusive, an alcoholic and a drug addict. Already, the strain of being a child in that environment was taking its toll but this added an extra level. This was undiagnosed but I know now, as an adult looking back, that I had developed OCD when I was ten. I was just petrified all of the time that either my mum or my sister was going to die. Every single day, I woke up with fear and went to bed with fear and developed all these little tics that I was doing in my mind to keep them both safe and it was really debilitating. I developed IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) at the same time. I just had a constant stomach ache. So just mentally, that was taking its toll and then when I got a little bit older into my teen years, for quite a long time really, I had this feeling in the back of my mind... I think my dad, who’s passed away now, probably had his own undiagnosed mental health issues and my mum as well and so somewhere in the back of my mind, I always had this feeling and thinking, ‘Well, then it’s going to happen to me too. One day, I’m just going to break and I’ll have my own breakdown.’ It wasn’t until I was in therapy when I was maybe 28 that a therapist said to me, ‘So few people suffering with a genuine mental health condition sit in front of me saying, “I’m worried that I’m losing my mind.” Generally, if you’re in a state where you’ve lost your mind, you don’t think you have. You think everyone else has. So [laughter] the fact that you’re concerned probably means you’re okay.’ [Laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that’s a good thing. Not recognising the illness is a real feature of schizoaffective disorder, certainly. Did your mum recognise that she was ill do you think?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: She’s had so many breakdowns now and there’s always a cycle. At first, very much, no. She was Jesus and queen of the world. As the cycle goes on, she becomes sectioned, she’s medicated and maybe a few weeks in, that’s when she will start to say, ‘I’m not well,’ but it takes a while.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s a scary thing when you’re little; that cycle that you’re talking about. That’s a really difficult thing for a child. How did you feel when those cycles happened?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I was so scared and unmoored, particularly because we didn’t have a safe home life at the best of times. My mum was the safety in that house and so when she was taken out of the equation, it felt like there was nowhere to rest. Home wasn’t safe without her and certainly, being in the hospital never felt relaxing in any way. So I was just terrified all the time and just counting down the days and thinking, ‘She’ll be better soon.’ You start to think, ‘Okay, well, she tends to go in for maybe six weeks at a time, so I’m just counting down the six weeks. Once she comes home, maybe it takes a month or so for her to return to herself.’ I think in a selfish way of a child, I wanted her to get back to the place where she did stuff for me. I was always saying, ‘When can my mum drop me to my afterschool club?’ and ‘When is she going to cook my dinner again?’ On the surface, I was saying, ‘I want someone to do those things for me,’ but I know, underneath that, it was – ‘When she’s doing those things again, she’s my mum again. I can think things are normal again.’ So I’d just be counting down the days until she expressed some desire to get up and do stuff [laughter], I suppose.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, that’s hard as well... the sleeping. You’ve spoken a couple of times about the extensive sleeping. That was something that my mum did a lot and at the time, you don’t know anything different. You don’t realise how hard it is and how hard it was. My mum would sleep till 2 or 3 p.m. It is normalised but that’s a really hard thing now to look back on and realise it was a really difficult time and a really difficult experience. You say ‘we’ and so do you have siblings?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, I have a younger sister and I had two older brothers. One of them has passed away now but they were quite a bit older than us, so they had actually left home by the time my mum had her first breakdown. They weren’t really around to help in any way, I suppose.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Did you have any other additional support around you?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, my mum’s mum who was an amazing woman and I think kept us all afloat really throughout that time.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Again, did she ever have any conversations with you about your mum’s mental illness?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: No. She was a wonderful woman and I attribute everything that’s healthy in my life now as being down to the fact that I had her but again, she was a very working-class, old-school Welsh woman. It was just something to be swept under the rug. She would cook meals, clean the house and do the practical things but no conversations beyond that.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: How about friendships and things at school? I know In My Skin talks a lot about this sort of double life that you felt you led. Did you talk to anybody at school about what was happening at home?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: No. My first girlfriend, when I was 17 or 18, was the first person that I formally told. At the time, I thought I did a very good job at hiding it but I’m certain I didn’t. People probably knew a lot more and, just out of kindness, were not commenting on it. There was one occasion when a friend phoned my house phone, as we had back in those days, to talk to me and my dad answered the phone. Being the man he is or was, knowing that I didn’t want to tell anyone and I wanted to keep it a secret, he told this girl. He said, ‘She’s not here. She’s at the mental hospital with her mam.’ That girl is a really wonderful friend actually, who I still know, but I remember the next day, we walked to school and she tried to gently bring it up. She said, ‘Is your mum in hospital?’ My blood ran cold and I said, ‘Why are you asking that?’ She said, ‘Oh, because I called your dad and he said this thing.’ I just quickly said, ‘No, she is in hospital but it’s not a mental hospital. It’s just a normal hospital. She’s ill.’ She just said, ‘Okay,’ and we didn’t speak about it again.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Why did you not want anybody to know why your mum was in a mental health hospital?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Just deep, deep shame I think and probably beginning from all the people around me and my family setting the precedent that this is something we don’t talk about. It wasn’t only that. My dad, as I say, was an abusive alcoholic. We didn’t have any money. Our house was a mess. My dad was in prison when I was born and they had previously been living in quite a rough area of Cardiff. My mum had been really determined to get us a council house in a posher area of Cardiff because she wanted me and my sister to go to a good school. She managed to get us a house there, so we got to grow up in this posher area which was a wonderful thing that she did for us. I knew she was really proud that she’d managed to do that for us but subsequently, it meant that we stood out on the street. Do you know what I mean?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Not that the people there were rich, by any stretch, but they had their nice semi-detached houses, their two cars and their holidays. My dad was a rag-and-bone man and he drove around Cardiff with a truck full of scrap metal and things that he’d stolen and it was just so humiliating [laughter] for me all the time. It wasn’t just the mental health stuff. It was so many different things and I knew about the way he treated my mum and my brothers. He was extremely abusive with my brothers. I knew all of that stuff was not to be shown to other people.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I find that interesting. I mean I can’t relate in terms of your father but it’s interesting to me that the working-class element compounded the situation with the mental illness and the stigma. I grew up in the East End of Glasgow as a young child and we were in a four-in-a-block council house. That was fine and I didn’t know any different and we were very happy. After my dad died and my mum couldn’t look after me on her own, the decision was made that I would stay with my aunt and uncle and I ended up going to a really good school where everybody had very proper accents. So I started off on my first day with the thickest Glaswegian accent in this school with all these kids with really lovely accents [laughter] which was fine but I felt different straightaway. It was this double life that I then led; going to this fancy school and then going home to the East End of Glasgow at the weekends where my mum lived in a four-in-a-block, didn’t drive and smoked. I found that really challenging. Nobody was smoking and so I didn’t want anybody to come over or smell the smoke on my clothes and then she had her mental illness. It was almost like I had to hide her and that life and I had that sense of shame that now translates into shame about having done that. The guilt of having done that... I feel bad now but when you’re a child, these things matter and when nobody is talking about it, you just don’t think anybody could possibly understand and they won’t make fun. You just have to hide it.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: That smell of smoke thing is so visceral to me. Both my parents and both my brothers, when they lived at home, all smoked. So we had four people in a house with all the windows closed. I remember the same thing and going to sleepovers and pulling out my pyjamas and thinking, ‘Mine smell. No one else’s smell,’ and just that deep, deep shame.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Honestly, even now and even though there was that shame, it’s a comforting smell that reminds me of my mum. So if I pass somebody and I can smell that they’re smoking, I get a calmness from it, even though it was a very stressful thing at the time... although, not until I moved out. I didn’t know it was bad until I went to live with my aunt and uncle and stayed elsewhere. I remember a friend coming for a sleepover, so I did invite a friend from the school home with me one weekend, and in the middle of the night, I woke up and she had opened the window. She was sitting at the window breathing because she was not able to breathe well.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Oh god!

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It was awful. It just stays with me. So I never then had anybody round. That was just the tip of the iceberg because there was the standing in the kitchen talking. My mum would just stand in the kitchen all day and chat to herself. I mean she was being a parent as well but she would talk to herself a lot and it was the permanent nipping in and saying, ‘Remember not to talk to yourself. Don’t let them see you!’ There’s a lack of control there on everybody’s part and so for the child, it’s very tricky. So that’s interesting and I’m assuming you’re not a smoker.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: No, [laughter] I’ve never touched one in my life. All of my friends have smoked at some point or they smoke now or the same with drugs as well when people would start dabbling with drugs. In my head, I’d always think, ‘That’s a luxury you get because you’ve had a safe, calm childhood. These are just fun things you experiment with. I’m so beyond thinking this is fun.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, I completely understand. It’s like a risk aversion. Yeah, I’ve never tried a cigarette or a drug. So do you feel that there are other elements of your personality or your approach to life that have been influenced by your experience? So you’re averse but how else would you describe yourself that you think has been affected by that experience?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I’m a fixer. I often enforce my help on people who sometimes would like a bit of help from their friend and other times, very much haven’t asked for it. If someone has any kind of issue, and it doesn’t even have to be a mental health issue... if they’re just saying, ‘I don’t know if I like my job,’ I can’t let that lie [laughter]. I’ve got to go and think, ‘Well, what are their prospects then? Do they have to stay in that job? They shouldn’t have to stay in a job they don’t like.’ I’ll then send them courses that they might think about signing up for and tell them what job I think they might like. I think I really go out of my way. I’ve had situations before where I’ve had friends who maybe have been in relationships that are slightly abusive, not to the degree that my dad was but there are elements of coercive control. I’ll really throw myself into that and offer help, and financial help and say, ‘You should come and stay with me.’ I’ve lost a few friends in the past because we’ve gotten to a cap where they’re not willing to help themselves, as in they’re choosing to stay in a situation which... this isn’t just me projecting on them. It’s not good. The man has hit them or pushed them, etcetera. Growing up, there were so many occasions when she left my dad and then would always go back. I’ve hit a point with a couple of friends where I’ve had just say, ‘I can’t speak to you anymore,’ because I found it incredibly triggering. There’s a point to which I want to help and then if they choose to stay there, I just say, ‘I wish you well but this is so hard for me to watch you not getting out of this.’ I haven’t done that in a few years, I suppose, as we try and grow and I’ve thought, ‘I should stop enforcing my views on other people.’ Being a fixer is definitely a big one and just generally a desire to feel safe. I have to have a very calm house. Me and my girlfriend never raise our voices at one another. That’s not to say we don’t argue but it’s always conducted in a quiet, calm voice. I couldn’t be in a relationship with someone who shouted at me. You raise your voice and you lose your cool, it’s fine but I couldn’t cope with that.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s understandable. Nobody should have to be shouted at and, like you say, some people are quite comfortable in that sort of dynamic and that’s fine but that’s a completely reasonable expectation from a relationship that you wouldn’t shout at each other. I’m interested to talk to you a wee bit more about this idea of shame and stigma. As you became an older teenager and a young adult, did you carry that stigma with you do you think or that sense of shame as you left school and embarked on your early career life?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, absolutely. It wasn’t until I wrote In My Skin, I think, that I even truly started feeling like it was something I could be open about. I definitely would speak to my friends about it by then. When was that? I was about 30, I think, when I wrote In My Skin. It was only through writing the show that I then realised the amount of people who would either read the script or would come in to work on it and one in every three people, on average, would say, ‘Oh my god, me too. My uncle, my dad, my granddad...’ I’m realising how prevalent it was and I just hadn’t known. So that went a huge way in helping me be more honest about it. I’m chipping away at this but I’ve just had constant imposter syndrome my whole life and thinking, ‘They’re going to find me out. They’re going to find me out.’ Even if things are going well, I think, ‘It’s only because they haven’t seen the real me. I’ve just convinced them I’m better than I am. They’re going to see what I really am soon.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh, that’s not true. You should not have that but I can understand it. Do you think that’s, again, as a result of everything that’s happened and how you grew up?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I think so, yeah. I think if you’re born into that and... not being told but intuiting that you should hide things from being very young and just never feeling safe. Even as a tiny baby, I think I spent quite a lot of time with my grandmother and an aunty when my mum wasn’t well, so I was always just thinking, ‘I don’t have strong roots. Nothing is stable here.’ I think you just carry that through. On the flip side, what I will say is I’m very good in a crisis.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s good.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I’m very good at staying calm. When my friends are freaking out about something, I’ll say, ‘Oh, you think this is bad, do you? I think we can cope. I think this is okay.’ [Laughter]

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s a great skill to have and to be that person. I always like to think of myself as quite calm in a crisis. I always have been until I had children...

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Oh, really?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: ... and now I feel like I don’t even recognise myself if something happens. We had a bit of an incident on the way home from school a couple of weeks ago. I’d given my five-year-old chocolate buttons, they’d all melted, he’d put them all into his mouth and they were stuck. There was nobody there other than my other son who was not very helpful [laughter]. I just went into this panic and started trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre which I know, under normal circumstances when I’m not panicking, you never do to a child. You can damage them. So there I am and the whole thing was just... and there was this moment of thinking, ‘I can’t help him. There’s nothing I can do here.’ I don’t know what happened but it all sort of flashed by and then he was fine and it came out somehow. I think that panic and not thinking rationally is a new development that now has happened and I do think that calmness is still there in a crisis. I need to try and hone that again because it’s a very, very good skill to have.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: That’s a particular kind of fear though. Well, I’m not a parent but even just taking care of friends’ kids or nieces and nephews, you just think, ‘Your life is truly in my hands.’ [Laughter] I think, to be fair to you, a lot of people would lose their cool in that situation [laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I was reading the interview that you did in The Guardian. It was interesting that you were saying that with the actor that played your mother in the show, you made the decision not to have her meet your mum. I wondered why that was. Why were you keen for them not to meet?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It was two-fold really. First and foremost, I felt very responsible for my mum’s well-being around the show. I initially wrote the pilot script which was picked up just to be shot as one half hour. That went well and they sent the whole thing to series, so we sort of did it in smaller stages. My mum is very unwell and so medicated and living a half-life really. She’s not the woman she was before and doesn’t really have enough energy to have a conversation even but she hadn’t had a breakdown in ten years at that point. So I think that’s why I thought, ‘This is a time when I can reflect on this now.’ Also, I was thinking, ‘No one will ever make it,’ because up until that point, I’d written loads of scripts and they’d never gone anywhere. I just thought, ‘I’ll just be really honest and nothing will happen.’ Obviously, that is the show that gets picked up but five days after they commissioned the pilot, my mum had a breakdown and went back into hospital. It wound up being the worst year for her mental health that she’s ever had. She was sectioned six times in a year. So I immediately was plunged into this crisis of thinking, ‘I’m exploiting her. I shouldn’t be doing this. This isn’t fair,’ and just really having this crisis of confidence about what I should be doing. I thought my family were all going to be really mad at me and they were going to judge me. I thought they would think I was being selfish. I was going back and forth, and back and forth doing a lot of therapy and then eventually, just coming to this realisation and thinking, ‘This is how I heal myself.’ I love her, and care for her, and want the best for her but there’s also a sort of line where you then say, ‘What do I need for myself?’

People find different ways to heal themselves and mine has been writing this story. It was about coming to that realisation that I am allowed to need something sometimes. Talking about ways this has affected me growing up, I never feel that I should need something. Even saying the words ‘I need’ feels uncomfortable to me. So it was about reckoning with that and also coming to the conclusion, ‘I think this will help people. It would have helped me. It will help people. It’s for the greater good,’ but still, with all of that in mind, I thought, ‘I can’t put her through this.’ A side note on that is that where we wound up filming the pilot and the mental hospital scenes, my mum was sectioned in that facility while we were filming there and we couldn’t have known that was going to happen.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Wow!

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It is the only hospital in Cardiff where you can film a TV show and she was there and suffering with paranoid delusions, thinking she was going to be on the news, that a camera crew were following her and this crazy storm of things all happening at once that I couldn’t have predicted. To make the best possible TV or tell the best possible story, it’s not always telling things exactly as they happened because life doesn’t happen in a beautiful five-act structure. So I wanted Jo to have the freedom not to just be doing an impression of my mum. Whenever this happens, which just makes the hairs on the back of my arms raise up, even without her having met my mum, there would be times... we use Improv, I should say, in the show and so I will script it but then we’ll also allow the actors freedom to improvise, particularly with Jo. So there would be times when Jo would walk into the room and start performing and it would be like I was looking at my mum. Even without having met her, her tone, the look in her eyes, certain phrases she would pull out that my mum had said to me before and that we’d never discussed, it just felt like, ‘Oh, this is some kind of eerie magic that’s happening here.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That must have been hard. How did that feel? Did it upset you? Did it make you feel good?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: During the first series, I think because I’d spent so long writing the script alone... I’m not a big crier anyway traditionally. Obviously, growing up in my household, there was no time for kids to be crying but I would sometimes cry and I would get this thing where when I was writing the scripts, sometimes I would just start to shake... and that happened again when I was just writing the second series. I always feel like, ‘Why am I shaking?’ My hands would be shaking as I was typing at the keys. I had this realisation recently that this is what happens when your body almost goes into shock or something frightening happens and you shake. I just had this realisation that it was because I was opening this really old trauma as I was writing and I was bringing it out, almost like lancing a boil. I was shaking because I was reliving it but it became this gauge for me, in this way that writers have to be where you become a Dracula of your own trauma. I thought, ‘If I’m shaking, this is good. I’ve tapped into something good because this is real.’ So by the time you get to set, normally, everyone else will be crying and I can usually hold it together because I’ve had that experience. For series two, oh my god... we just finished shooting it last month and some kind of well or some dam had opened and I was crying every day. I was crying at home. I was crying in the car on the way to set. Sometimes I was crying just thinking about what we might be doing. It’s been incredible but in a good way and a life full of tears were finally coming out and it felt like the biggest and most cathartic release.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: That’s brilliant and how about your mum? How is she now? Does she know you’re doing the second series?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: She managed to come to set for one of the episodes in series one which was quite a weird experience really. I think the last time it fully felt like she returned to herself after a breakdown was probably 15 years ago now and ever since then, she’s gotten incrementally further and further away. This is a slight tangent but if people have been through it, they might relate. When she becomes manic and I feel that a breakdown might be coming, there’s this sort of weird, blessed one-week period, maybe, where my mum is back. It’s almost like a ghost has returned from the dead. She’s animated, engaged and takes an interest, asks me questions and wants to know about my life. She can suddenly remember everything and it’s like her brain has been turned back on. It’s just bizarre because there’s a clock ticking over your head and you think, ‘I know something bad is coming but I get one week with you before you’re gone again and then it tips over.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Even though I knew rationally that it wouldn’t stay like that, there’s always that hope in you that this might be it and maybe it will last this time. There’s then that disappointment when it invariably does not end up that way.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Obviously, it tips over before a breakdown happens and she’s not well and then she gets pumped full of drugs again. That’s not to say I’m anti-drugs because I’m not. She needs them to be well. I suppose I can’t even call it a regret because you can’t control these things but just I wish, if she’d had her first big breakdown when I was a grown-up with money and means who knew what to do, that I could have got her such a different kind of help but now we’re so, so far. It’s 25 years down the line and she’s so medicated and that’s all she knows. She’s not interested in therapy. It almost feels like the best thing I can do is just be a calm presence as opposed to trying to force her into help she doesn’t want. But I do still believe that that woman who comes back for a week, she’s still in there and we’re just numbing her into a place where she’s so sedated all the time. It’s just sad really.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, it is. It’s so sad and that aspect that you talked about where each time it happens, she doesn’t come back to the same extent and that’s happened over time, how much of that is really down to the illness? This is a question I always had. How much of it is the illness itself progressing and how much of it is just the effects of so much medication?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It’s hard to draw the line between it, isn’t it?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s really hard and it is sad knowing that they’re still in there. I just completely relate to what you’re saying. My mum never completely went away. She still had a wee sparkle in her eye but you don’t get that same person back.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It’s like they’re sort of hidden and they’re on the seabed with all the ocean above them. It’s like she’s muted from life in a way. It’s so hard, isn’t it? I’m saying this but I’m not someone who would advocate no medication for bipolar because she absolutely needs it... but it feels like there needs to be a whole new way forward where we combine different kinds of medication and always with therapy. My mum has never been offered talk therapy ever. That just is insane to me. She’s such a traumatised woman. It’s not like she was fully well and suddenly, this disorder struck her out of nowhere. She was abused as a child. She was in an abusive relationship for 20 years before her first breakdown. She’s been through extreme trauma since then. A few years ago, we had six family members die in one year which were her ex-husband, her mother, her father, her eldest son, her only grandson and her daughter-in-law. They all died in one year and, again, still no therapy for her. She’s a broken woman and she needs more than medication. We all do. Everyone would benefit from therapy.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: It’s true and those subject areas are stigmatised so the trauma, the abuse and the mental illness are sort of incremental. There’s a stigma around this area here and we won’t talk about that. It goes up a level and somebody’s got a mental illness, so we won’t talk about that and we won’t talk about what’s causing it. It then just perpetuates the cycle of not talking which just makes things build and build and actually, I think you’re right that a combination would be nice to see... sort of novel approaches to this because it seems that, for a very long time, there’s been one way forward. How can we change it a little bit to make the treatment a bit more nuanced maybe?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: A few years ago – I can’t think of her name now – I saw an amazing psychologist talking and what she said was so simple to think of it this way. She said rather than calling them mental illness, which almost sounds like something you were born with, that’s your lot and the best you can do is try and manage it, what we actually should be calling them are trauma responses. She said that in nearly every case, and it might not necessarily be bipolar but depression, alcoholism or suicidal thoughts, they are all different methods of our bodies finding a way to say, ‘I’m not coping. This thing has hurt me. Something has hurt me, I’m not coping and I need help.’ She said that when you reframe them as trauma responses, it takes the onus off – ‘Oh, you were just born with it. Bad luck!’ Instead, it causes us to think about what has happened to them because nearly always something has happened and when you call it a trauma response instead of ‘I was just born with this,’ there’s some hope wrapped up in that. Just by changing a few words, it almost enforces empathy because if you see a mentally ill person on the street, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, weird. Walk away from them. They’re weird.’ Instead of that, if call them trauma responses, it makes you think about the story before. What happened to them? Why are they like that? What are they reacting to? Instead of just saying, ‘Oh, they were born weird. Don’t talk about them.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. It’s that assumption that people were born that way. Again, this is a subject that’s come up in other discussions and it’s then that worry that the offspring, as a child, will then automatically have a mental illness because your parent did and that’s just not necessarily the case. Now that you’re an adult, how is your mental health and well-being would you say?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I’m moving through phases, I think. I’ve done many years of therapy. My sister makes fun of me because every time she talks about any problem or any of her friends have got a problem, I’m thrusting a card for a therapist over [laughter].

Dr Pamela Jenkins: [Laughter] Fixing!

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I think about ten of my friends are all seeing a therapist that I’ve seen. I’ll say, ‘She’s amazing. She’s amazing. You’ve got to go!’ So that was really helpful and that therapist did a great thing where she said, ‘Do you know what? You’re in a good place. You’ve had a really hard life. Why don’t you just pop off for a year and just be calm and just enjoy your life?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I will do that.’ So I’ve been doing that for a while. I’m about to go back though and try somatic therapy. Have you heard of that?

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Is that something to do with sleeping?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It’s less about talk therapy and that’s not to say I’m not a proponent for talk therapy. I am and that’s been wonderful but it’s about working more with your body and where, in your body, you feel certain reactions to different situations. It’s almost like a physical sort of therapy. I’ve done a lot of talk therapy. I’ve also done EMDR but I think, being a writer and also just the life I’ve led, I’ve become very good at completely closing off my body and just intellectualising which has served me until this point. I’m also aware that it’s not healthy and I think I’m at a point where I’m thinking, ‘Let’s unlock the body. Let’s give the brain a rest and figure out what’s going on.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh, that’s interesting. So what does that entail then? How do you unlock?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: These things are stored in our muscles in our body and now it’s time to let that out. I think you do some sort of shouting, screaming and jumping around a bit. All these things make my toes curl at the suggestion that I’m going to have to do that [laughter] but I think that’s a sign that I should do it.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, I’m intrigued. You’ll have to get back to us on that one.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I’ll let you know.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Maybe that will evolve as being a key component of future treatment for different mental health conditions. You never know. There’s one thing I wanted to ask you. It sort of relates to what you said before around shame. Could you just tell me a wee bit more about that juncture for you between the love for your mum and how you were experiencing her mental illness as a child and how it made you feel?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: I can sort of remember the shifting moment when I went from feeling like my mum was the most incredible person on Earth, which I don’t not think anymore... particularly when I was young, she did so much to try and protect us from the house we were in and I just felt so adored by her. It makes up for a lot just having someone say that to you – ‘I love you more than anything in the world,’ and I really felt it and knew it... yeah, and just feeling that she was the person who would kiss things better. I remember the shifting moment where I realised that actually, I was going to have to be the parent. As I was growing, and maturing, and learning about the world that, when I was too young, the shifting point happened where I – overtaking her is the wrong word because that’s just like saying I became more intelligent than her. It’s not about intelligence. I don’t know but I just realised that I was going to have to be the boss, and I was 12, and that she wasn’t going to make what I deemed to be sensible choices for me, or my sister, or for herself. I remember just suddenly feeling like, ‘Oh no, I’m the mum. I’ve got to take that mantle up.’

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Yeah, you were a carer then at that point and that’s a really huge amount of responsibility for a child. It would be really nice to see support put in place for children in similar situations because it’s just not there and it’s the emotional support as well as the tangible support with people there on the ground. It’s about being able to talk about it because that’s a weighty childhood, even with all the love that it sounds like you and your mum had for one another – have still – but as a child, coping with that responsibility is very difficult.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: It takes its toll. It’s the what ifs.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: The what ifs! Oh my word! We could have a whole other episode about the what ifs. Do you dream a lot about the what ifs and did you when you were young?

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Yeah, definitely. I try not to do it as much now because I think really it’s just a way of punishing myself. At a certain point, you have to say, ‘I did all I could and all I knew to do. I was a child.’ But what if... what if we’d gotten her therapy? What if I’d had the means to get her a doctor? The NHS are fantastic but they’re obviously so stretched so thinly. Those what ifs I think about a lot. Where would she be now? She’s only 65. She might still be working. But it isn’t the way it went down.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: I know. I know. Maybe one day it will be different.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: For other people, I hope so.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: My mum made this fantastic meatloaf when I was young and last year, I tried to get her to tell me the recipe and she wasn’t even aware that she’d really made meatloaf before. So I have all these questions now and not just about meatloaf but about all kinds of things about the past. Oh, I never asked. I wondered and then just never asked.

Well, Kayleigh, thank you so so much for being here to talk to me today. It’s just been a joy to hear your story and I cannot wait for the second series.

Kayleigh Llewellyn: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. It’s been a complete pleasure and thank you for making this podcast. I hope it’s going to help a lot of people.

Dr Pamela Jenkins: Oh, thank you.

[Outro music]

Oh, goodness, it was so great to share stories and memories with screenwriter Kayleigh Llewellyn. Do check out Kayleigh’s series In My Skin on BBC 3 if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely brilliant and I do believe there’s a second series coming very soon.

ct your GP, the Samaritans on:

Thank you so much for being with us today. Subscribe to our feed so you get future episodes automatically downloaded and if you know someone who’d benefit from hearing these stories we’re sharing, please let them know we’re here. That’s really important. We really want people to know that they’re not alone. This is a Bespoken Media production with music and sound design by Joel Cox. See you next time.

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