When she was 35, single mum Kathryn Littlewood descended into madness.
The Sheffield woman had spent years self-medicating her chronic insomnia with alcohol, and was feeling the strain of her job as a child protection officer.
In the summer of 2004, believing she was having a nervous breakdown, Kathryn took some time off work. She wrote letters to MPs telling them how to run the country and became completely obsessed with a man she’d never met. Finally – during the depths of her illness – she flung herself 13 storeys from the top of the old car park on The Moor.
Amazingly, she survived and, years after the bipolar breakdown that almost took her life, Kathryn made the brave decision to put her experiences in print, with her autobiographical tale, A Cultivating Mad Cow.
“Everything in the book is completely true,” Kathryn, of Gleadless, says frankly.
“It gives a graphic, hilarious and sometimes upsetting view of a person’s descent into madness.”
The story of her year at the bottom begins early in 2004, with a visit to her GP regarding her insomnia.
“I was told I was depressed, but I didn’t feel depressed,” she recalls.
“I had an awful lot going on; I was at work protecting other people’s children and feeling like I was neglecting my own child back home. On top of that, the work was horrendous and I would be up writing court reports till 3am. As a single mum, there was no one at home I could talk to about it all.”
After taking time off sick, Kathryn was put in touch with a telephone counsellor called Barry.
Kathryn reveals: “I quickly became obsessed with Barry, which I think was a form of escapism from my own life. I thought he loved me and I believed we were telepathically connected.”
The company Barry worked for soon cottoned on and stopped them communicating, which pushed Kathryn further over the edge.
“They’d taken him away from me and I needed to find him,” she said simply.
“I got in my car and set off for Oxford, where I knew he lived. I somehow ended up onstage in an Evangelical church, shouting ‘I know he loves me!’ The congregation, of course, thought I meant Jesus and my mad ramblings were greeted with cries of ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Praise the Lord.’
“That was about six months into my breakdown and was, I believe, the first time I realised I was sick. I sought help and was put on anti-psychotic medication, which made me terribly depressed. In the weeks that followed, I began fantasising about jumping off buildings. In my darkest moments, I thought about taking my daughter’s life before I killed myself, because I was terrified of leaving her alone.”
In October that year, financial pressures forced Kathryn to return to work.
“I walked into my office that first day and just felt sick,” she explains.
“I knew I couldn’t do the job, I knew I was unsafe, but I didn’t know where to turn and financially I was out of options.
“I went to work for three days, then on the fourth day, I wrote a suicide note and went to the top floor of the old Moor car park. I changed my mind about it a few times and headed to work instead, but as I got closer I knew I couldn’t go in and face that horrendous job again. The last time I went back to the car park, I just stepped off the edge.”
Kathryn hurtled down 85 feet and landed on her feet, smashing every bone in her body.
Her feet were pulverised, her spine was broken in four places and her hip bones exploded out of her body.
“It wasn’t until I came round and saw the paramedic’s face that I realised I’d survived. My body was ruined, but I was alive.”
Kathryn faced a difficult three-month recovery at the Northern General Hospital and, 11 years later, the results of her leap are still clear; she has been left severely disabled.
“My whole body hurts every day,” reveals the 46-year-old, who is currently considering an operation to amputate her painful legs.
But in spite of the physical difficulties she faces, Kathryn seems at peace and, mentally, she’s well again.
“The doctors and surgeons in the hospital put me back together again, in every way, and I finally got the help I needed.
“I really feel that the health service failed me; I had a job, a mortgage and a child and there was no provision for me. I think, because I was a professional myself, they thought I knew what was happening to me, there were a lot of assumptions made that prevented me from getting the right support.
“Who knows how different things would be if I’d got the right treatment at the right time.”
Today Kathryn works for Disability Sheffield as a development worker – a job she loves. She’s also been medication-free for six years.
“I’m a walking example that people don’t need to be put on medications and then written off and left on them for life.
“I’m careful now, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t surround myself with triggers that could send me back to where I was.”
And the book has become a form of therapy in itself. It feature Kathryn’s tale, in her own words, alongside case notes, providing a truly unique, personal and frank look at mental illness.
“The message is that there’s a way back, with the right support.
“It just takes somebody to reach out a hand, and help.”
And so what about Barry, did she ever find him again?
“Well there’s definitely a story there too,” she smiles. “But you’ll have to read the book to find out...”
Cultivating Mad Cow is available on Kindle and Amazon.