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Taking Back Control

Mark Sanderson was determined to become the best chef in the world. However, his obsession with fulfiling his dream became a nightmare when his mental health started to deteriorate. Here, he gives a candid and inspirational account of how he regained control of his life.

Article by Mark Sanderson
taking back control

I always thought I was going to be a chef. I lived and dreamed of becoming a chef from as far back as I can remember. Not once did I think that a mental health problem would put a stop to that dream. That was until 2009. I was working as a chef in Newbury when I started hearing a voice in the kitchen. There was just one to start off with, whom I now call the ‘mad scientist’. It was a middle-aged man’s voice and emanated from the cooking equipment and ingredients; it would talk very fast, giving me ideas on how to create perfect dishes. This encouraged me to work harder in order to keep up with what was being said. It told me I did not need to sleep, that I was invincible, and that I was going to be the best chef in the world. This was okay! I enjoyed what it was telling me and was not sleeping much anyway, as I was constantly creating recipes to become that ‘best chef in the world’.


But then I started hearing a ‘monster’ which had a very deep, scary voice; it told me to harm myself and made threats to hurt my family and others. At first I ignored it, but then started acting on what it told me to do, due to the threats it was making. After a while more and more voices seemed to come along, not in my head, but external voices, and mostly bad voices, telling me to harm myself in all sorts of ways. At this point I thought I could manage them, so I didn’t seek any help. Then I started seeing what I was hearing. They would just pop up and I wouldn't know where they had come from; it was very, very scary as they seemed to tell me to do more dangerous and worrying things every time. Most of the time I could not tell what was real and what was not. I would even see their mouths move, and they would move around if I tried to turn away from them. They told me to harm others, but I only ever harmed myself. I hurt myself badly on several occasions and was admitted to hospital in Reading. I don’t remember a thing about that admission, except for being in A&E the night before and being all over the place. I came out very confused and thought I was better, but that was not the case.

After that I went back to South Africa to be with my family. I was admitted to hospital again and diagnosed with bipolar type 1 and put on medication. I tried various antidepressants (fluoxetine) mood stabilisers (lithium, sodium valproate, lamotrigine) and anti-psychotics (aripripozole, ami sulpride, risperidone, olanzapine, quetiapine, clozapine, clopixol). Eventually I was put on clozapine and had to have blood tests to monitor my physical health. They made me tired and I put on weight at a rapid rate. I also experienced other horrible side effects.

I had several more admissions due to not being able to be left at home alone as I was a risk to myself. Some admissions I can’t really remember but what I do remember is feeling very scared, needy, helpless and that I had no motivation. In the government hospital in South Africa I was bed bound, could not shower and at one stage had no water for three days.

I have also been admitted to hospitals in England and Wales, where, on average I stayed two to three weeks. On a lot of these occasions I was under close observation (24 hour watch with a staff member). Most admissions I went in thinking there was no hope of me ever getting better. I always asked for more medication as my understanding was that it was the only thing that would ‘cure’ me. My main idea of ‘recovery’ when I was admitted was how I was going to be discharged so that I could continue my quest to become the best chef in the world. This went on for five long years.


My diagnosis changed about halfway through all the admissions, when I was finally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. I liked having a diagnosis as I found at least I had an answer when trying to explain to people why I was always getting admitted to hospital.

In 2015 I had my final three admissions (to date) and I started engaging more with psychology and working with occupational therapists. This was slowly starting to shift my focus away from medication and I started looking at other support options. I learnt about ways to ground myself and notice what was going on (mindfulness); once I was grounded I tried all sorts of different things, including working with a trauma specialist. I joined a hearing voices group, which I thought I would never do. I also engaged in ward groups – I really enjoyed the psychological groups at the Campbell Centre.

At the start of 2016 I made the hard decision to stop chefing. It was the best decision I have ever made! I started doing joint work with my psychologist Peter Ord who had supported me in 2015 as an inpatient. I told him how I wanted to give something back to the NHS and all the people who had been involved in caring for me. That’s how I became a volunteer, which turned my life around.

My volunteering involved creating a newsletter for, and produced by, the patients on the ward. I volunteered twice a week for about six months, and during this time my confidence grew a lot; interacting with others really helped me feel like I was living a ''normal life'' again. I then started going in on the odd occasion to do things with the psychologist around co-producing psychosis training.


In July 2016 I went for an interview at the hospital for a paid position – and I got the job! I started on 22 August 2016 and have never looked back. My position is that of a peer support worker, and at the start it wasn’t clearly defined, as it was a new role within the hospital. I started off shadowing all the different teams, helping on the ward and working with the psychology team. In my first year I even won a prize at the Dr Rizgar Amin Excellence Awards 2017 as runner up for Best Innovator Award for the Trust.

Over time my role has developed and changed on many occasions, and I now work in the social and recovery team, developing and co-producing training; co-facilitating groups; doing community follow- ups; supporting the ward when needed with housing and benefits advice and sharing my story at conferences, seminars and various other meetings. My role is constantly developing week to week, which is very good but can get confusing at times. When I first started I was really nervous talking in front of around 12 people. However since then I have presented at many training seminars and conferences in front of far bigger audiences! In fact the favourite part of my role is co-producing psychosis training and at our last training day we had around 60 people. I have also been lucky enough to present at a Trust Board meeting and Divisional Board meeting. I’ve been interviewed on the radio twice and involved in projects that I never thought I would be able to do.

I even have a girlfriend, which I thought would never happen – I couldn’t even support myself let alone even think of having someone else in my life! She encourages me to be the best I can and is there for me whenever I need to discuss things that are bothering me.
I could not have got through any of what has happened without my family, friends and all the staff who worked so hard to support me even though at times it looked like I would never be able to stay out of hospital, let alone keep a job. I feel settled in my role now, it’s the longest I have ever kept a job  – before I struggled to keep a job for more than four weeks. I’ve been here for over 18 months now.

I would never change anything that happened from 2009. Yes it was hard, but it has made me a stronger person. I am now studying GCSE Maths and English and will be going on to do an access course which will hopefully lead me on to university to study occupational therapy. I feel like I have more control over my life and more confidence to handle difficult situations without being so impulsive. I’m not perfect and cannot guarantee that I will never relapse, but for me this is life and life is tough sometimes, but I look forward to any challenges life throws at me and will take them on the best I can.