The night of the 19th of February 2016 was among the strangest of my life. It had been my birthday two days before and a friend’s around the same time, so we were having a flat party to celebrate. For the most part, the mood was jovial: people were singing, laughing, loving, save for one notable exception. My sitting in the corner, alone, clutching vacantly to the second empty wine bottle was remarked upon by more than one concerned reveller.
This brooding was out of character by most accounts. I’m generally someone who likes a party, who works a room and lifts a mood and is known to kick the arse right out of it more often than not. Not on that night. On that night, my hollow frame sat in isolation; anyone with half a brain could see what was happening. Being honest, this wasn’t the first time I had turned to drink to drown reality, many of us have and do, but it hadn’t been so obvious before and, most of the time, it didn’t feel destructive. My reasons for drinking usually were innocent enough, stress-related, sanity-affirming, and almost entirely recreational. This was none of those things. This was a bewildered, caustic reaction to something life-changing that had happened a few days prior: I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder.
You never know how you might react to something like that. Drinking probably wasn’t the most practical response of course, knowing how much alcohol had contributed to my anxieties and depressions in the past. But it wasn’t my only response either; once the dust settled, I knew that I wanted to write about it. I have been trying desperately hard to do so ever since, to find the words and courage to convey how it feels to live with such a disorder, but apparently having a mood that swings like a 2016/17 exit poll isn’t conducive to pinpointing and communicating complex emotional experiences. I’ve also chickened out on more than one occasion – I don’t like that my Mum and friends and peers and potential employers might have to hear some of this, but maybe it is important that they do.
My hope going into this year was thus that I might capture a snapshot of the lowest low, or the highest high, honestly and brutally, but the disorder itself has made this quite a Gordian task. It is remarkably difficult to write about existential self-hatred when you’re busy hating yourself existentially; it all seems a little pointless. Likewise, writing from the “up” tends to soften the account of the down, which betrays the purpose of writing about it at all. I am writing today, then, from a relatively even keel, to share my experience of living with bipolar as candidly as possible, towards the end of the year in which I promised myself I would. It may at times seem disjointed or matter-of-fact, but know that it is honest, and hopefully my reasons for needing to will become clear by the time it’s finished.
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Bipolar disorder is still quite commonly misunderstood in many ways. Popular portrayals of the condition – such as Lacey Turner’s phenomenal role as Stacey Slater in Eastenders – can emphasise its most frantic and psychotic traits at the expense of other experiences, of which a spectrum exists. My own bipolar, for instance, swings more between bouts of mania and depression than between psychosis and normalcy. Moments such as these today are thus fairly novel, the “even keel” where some semblance of balance exists. In these moments, the tinnitus of mental anguish is a little quieted. This tinnitus is not always high, it is not always low, but it is always constant. Sometimes it’s the dull jackhammering of depression; others it’s the buzz saw of mania. Each of these rings in its own different way.
The latter is actually very welcome. Rather than a psychosis or frantic neuroticism as might be expected, my highs are typified by hypomania, which is a milder, more exultant form of mania. Hypomania is altogether a different beast: if I could inject it I would. Hypomanic episodes have been the driving force behind many of my brightest ideas and proudest achievements; it feels more like hitting light-speed on a superhighway of things and ideas and people than one half of a serious disorder, and boy what a trip it can be. Inevitably it ends with mental burnout, but it is thrilling nonetheless, bringing with it a wonderful sense of purpose and curiosity. In these high times I am bulletproof, fit to take on the universe with gusto, intelligence and boundless compassion – a natural force of goodness and creativity to be reckoned with.
If there were an emoji for invincibility, it would look something like me typing furiously during a hypomanic episode, wearing determination like a halo. The lows, on the other hand, are somewhat less emoji-worthy, can follow the highs quite sharply, and are absolutely never welcome. These can be a bit manic in their own way, too. Lows are not always immediately recognisable as the classic energy crash, more like a change of atmosphere: from superhighway of ideas to a sewer of guilt and odium, wherein every thought and action is then plagued by blackness.
I’ve heard people describe their depression as a cloud that follows them wherever they go. I can understand this analogy, but often feel more like it’s in me, quite literally, biologically, and inescapably. The best way I can describe it is like ink: an opaque dark matter running through my veins, jet black and evil, rotting every fibre of my being. It tortures me. From artery to artery this blackguardly ink courses, poisoning every one of my organs and limbs and thoughts in its wake. It’s everywhere. I worry that people can sense it, that they know I’m bad, that they can see it oozing out of me like toxic depravity. Nobody can like someone with that evil in them, with that blackness. With that corrosive ink in my veins I am not loveable or good or kind – I am a disgusting force of shit, poisonous, a cancer to anyone unfortunate enough to know me and a stain on humanity at large. I don’t have friends. I am not wanted. Things would be better without me.
These are the thoughts which dominate roughly half of my life, sometimes for weeks or months on end, and make talking honestly to anyone a nightmarish prospect. That’s the kicker: when you’re up you don’t need to talk; when you’re down you don’t feel that you deserve to. Why should anyone help an odious scumbag like me? What’s the point? Even if I wasn’t evil, who wants to hear this crazy shit anyway? This conundrum leads to bottling up bad feelings, which leads invariably to explosion. Explosion is never pretty. Explosion is where mania and depression collide, where the blackness builds in pressure and toxicity to uncontainable extremes, causing you to burst and dousing anyone in the vicinity with ink like dolphins in an oil spill in the process.
I’ve had a few explosions over the years, some more extreme than others. These are typically short and intense, occurring over only a few hours, ranging from volcanic outbursts of sadness to more spectacular meltdowns. My last explosion a few months ago erred harshly towards the latter, and ended with me on the phone to an NHS 24 mental health professional who I’d called initially with the intent of having myself sectioned. This was the culmination of months of torment and anguish and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I thought the blackness might consume me. I wanted to open up a vein in a desperate bid for release, to see if I could bleed the ink out. I was found upset in the kitchen, sobbing by a broken glass.
Out of hope and finally devoid of energy to resist, I spoke for a while with a woman called Sandra, who was remarkably kind and understanding despite my hyperbolic despondency. I wasn’t hospitalised in the end, because I didn’t tell Sandra about the glass or the urge to bleed myself dry. I’m good at glossing over like that once the mist lifts. By the time I’d gotten through to Sandra only a crash site remained, and the worst of the episode had passed. We talked a little, about life and self-care and other things, clearing up the debris as we went.
* * *
Sandra was not the first person I had lied to about the severity of my mental health issues, but I do hope that she might be among the last, which is why I’m writing this article at all. After that night on 18th February I had worked extra hard to avoid showing weakness, often to the detriment of my own wellbeing, pushing myself to entirely unsustainable limits in both academic and social circles in a misguided bid to keep the truth from those around me. This led to a building of pressure, and ultimately to explosion on more occasions than I would like to admit. Although I have tried to do better, to talk more and take more time for self-care, that urge still remains: the urge to lie and pretend that nothing’s wrong.
It is an urge that stems counterintuitively from my own ambitions. Beyond wanting friends and family to be happy, the only goal I’ve ever had in life is to make the world better, to leave it in a fairer state than when I found it. We can all hope to achieve at least that. Yet, I had bought into the stigma that people suffering with mental health issues cannot, that society at large would not allow it. I was convinced that if people knew of my disorder then their perceptions would change: I would be squinted at, swooned over and shunned even. I worried that I might never change the world because I didn’t fit the mould of a stoic, rocksteady, world-changing person. I still worry about this, but I also understand now the imperativeness of challenging that stigma, both within myself and society at large, and the fundamental coherence of doing so for those very ambitions. To change the world, speaking up is essential. We are unlikely to defeat the stigma that imposes silence upon us unless we take the steps necessary to break that silence ourselves.
It is crucial to stress at this final juncture that, for its sounding like a rallying cry, this ambition is my own cross to bear. I understand entirely why so many still choose not to speak up, would never pressure anybody to do so, and hope sincerely that this is reflected here. To those who suffer alone: we see you, we’re with you, and you matter no less in your struggle. For my own aspirations, however, this silence has become untenable, and nor has it ever really been logically or morally consistent. Conversations matter. Conversations change the world. Writing this article then, having this conversation, maybe this can change the world in its own important way. Maybe it can change yours. If it only changes my own, that’s ok too.