This post is a great deal more personal than I would normally write and I am not sure how deeply to delve into my personal life and experiences, nor am I comfortable taking about myself, however I promised myself that this blog would be an all in affair so if I come across as indulgent or self absorbed then so be it. I do not mean to do so.
Finding solace can be very important and simultaneously very difficult for the mentally ill. I find a great deal of inner peace and personal contentment in photography and writing, and since this blog already contains my writing I have also included a few photographs too, for my amusement as much as yours. Interestingly, I have also previously found a great deal of personal satisfaction in music, both listening to it and making music of my own, however my needs and tastes have changed somewhat and I find that interesting. People with any form of mental illness often find their childhoods very difficult, particularly the teenage years, due to bullying. Bullies are very effective at targeting weakness and vulnerability and for someone with a mood disorder like mine the effects of this can be magnified hugely owing to the extra degree of weakness and vulnerability that it brings.
Each one of us, whether mentally ill or not, must grow up, often in pain, taking the path of least resistance through the emotional fire, hormonal rage and relentless paranoia attendant to those who are in the unfortunate position of being a teenager. The crushing fear of not being one of the cool kids, the paranoia of not fitting in, the contrasting desire to avoid fitting in and more. Each of us has known what it means to want to be a part of the crowd and yet also apart from the crowd. Yet, despite all of this within all of us is the shy, scared, fragile, curious and beautiful human being that most of us spend a great deal of time and expend a great deal of effort trying to cover up, pretending not to be that person and wanting desperately to have a much simpler life that we seem to think that others have, believe that they possess and exercise effortlessly. I doubt I am the first person and I do not think I will be the last who has spent a lot of time worrying and panicking about the possibility of being unable to ‘measure up’ or that somehow I am not in on the ongoing joke of life. By that I mean that as a youngster I was often so concerned about what others might believe or think of me that I did not take the time I might otherwise have had to get to know myself.
One of the difficulties of mental illness, particularly during the teenage years is that it can very often be indistinguishable from bad behaviour. An undiagnosed bipolar child manifesting typical symptoms can often present simply as a very difficult teenager, and that is compounded by the fact that the mood extremes of this illness can very often magnify the best and worst feelings one experiences during those formative years. Remember that through all of this the child has no frame of reference with which to compare his or her ongoing experiences to what might be considered within a normative range of experience and thus does not understand that what they are experiencing is not normal, nor can they comprehend that others who are mentally normative do not feel this way. Each of us is trapped within our own first person perspective which means that there can be very powerful emotions manifesting and that means that the responses of others to those emotions can be equally powerful and often extremely destructive and violent. Finding peace and discovering a way to deal with all of this is quite possibly one of the most difficult yet most valuable things that a person suffering from mental illness can do. For me it has come in the form of art. As I mentioned earlier, I found it often in music. I play the guitar, drums, bass guitar and any number of keyboards and synthesisers. I have discovered, however, that music has become too easy for me. I have perfect pitch and I can pretty much play anything just by listening to it, save for the most complex music such as progressive music or extremely difficult classical music of the sort that even a virtuoso must take the time to sit down and learn. You would think that such a talent would be something I would be very keen on using more than I do, however the fact that it comes so easily to me means that there is no challenge for me in music. What is a challenge for me is writing and photography.
I have found that writing in particular is something that gives my mind rest, respite and release. That notion of catharsis is very important since all humans need it. Every person with bipolar disorder will be able to tell you what it feels like when mania or hypomania sets in and the euphoria rises. Manic people need little to no sleep, can generate ideas at an alarming rate and they will tell you that it feels great, with ideas and plans forming like shooting stars flying through the mind. It is a fantastic time. I have found a way of managing mania, at least to some degree. That way it is, wherever possible, to channel it into creative pursuits.
My photography is strictly an amateur pursuit. I have had a couple of photos published but I do not pursue it vocationally, nor do I expect to either profit or make a living from it, with the exception of doing so in conjunction with writing. Writing is what I really want to do and as a teenager and young man it is the one thing I was terrified of doing due to the crushing fear and paranoia I mentioned earlier in this post. As a result I spent a great deal of time working hard at things for which I have no skill or aptitude whatsoever, all the while being driven along by a family that considered writing, the creative arts and education in general to be utterly worthless as professional pursuits. Odd as it might sound I do not regret this in one sense, precisely because I grew up in that environment. My circumstances gave me little to no choice regarding my own destiny since my family was determined that I would take up a ‘real man’s job’, meaning either the military or similar uniformed service, or manual labour. I have nothing against any of those professions or those who do them, however my ignorance, uselessness and inadequacy regarding them is complete. Manual dexterity, the ability to build or make things, or the desire to serve a country, monarch or ideology, none of these things I possess in any measure whatsoever. Growing up in a blue collar environment where these things were not merely options, they were expected and enforced under the threat and reality of violent reprisal if I did not follow that path, I had no real choice. It is therefore the case that whilst I do still retain the shame and emotional pain of being bullied and forced to do those things for which I have neither the desire nor the aptitude, I cannot feel too much regret since at the time I essentially had no real freedom. A stronger person might have determined to escape as early as possible, however I have learned that it is not my fault that I was subjected to this treatment and thus I must not feel regret over that which I had no ability control.
Having had the desire to write and produce photographic art all but beaten out of me I buried those talents and it took me a long time to unearth them again. What I am glad about is that I did eventually rediscover myself along with those things that I love the most. On a personal level I have found that the relentless bullying, threats, intimidation and violence I suffered at the hands of those who ought to have come through for me in my formative years has actually immunised me against that sort of thing. By that I mean that the challenges and difficulties I face in my pursuit of success as a writer simply do not have very much of an effect upon me. I have seen and heard it all before and, much like Neo emerging from the Matrix, once one sees through the facade of the world that others pull over one’s eyes it becomes impossible to ‘un-see’. In other words, once I saw through those who held power over me through unpleasant and often vicious and violent means it became impossible for me to see them in the way I previously did. I pity these people now.
People like me very often report the difficult challenges and circumstances that we experienced, since we are targets for violent crime to a greater degree than those without mental illness. The circumstances in which we find ourselves are often exacerbated by the fact that the angst of the teenage years magnifies the experience. After all, every one of us as adults can remember the times when we truly believed that nobody understood us, or we remember being utterly convinced that not another single living soul on the planet was either going through what we were or had ever done so. Whilst I would never suggest that creative pursuits ought to replace medication or professional treatment, what I am saying is that to channel oneself into something that takes a great deal of effort, application and work is therapeutic for those suffering from mental illness. It is important to understand also that I am talking about the sort of pursuit or profession that cannot bring success unless a lot of time is spent applying oneself. That is ultimately why music became devalued in that sense to me. I needed to work, and working at music became too easy whereas working at the aforementioned professions I was forced to consider or pursue was soul-destroying. Being forced to do something at which I was utterly useless and seemingly having no other choice was tantamount to forced labour. Of course, I was remunerated for my efforts, so I would not insult those who have actually endured forced labour by saying that it was a true equivalence, however I can tell you that being paid for doing work that was so destructive psychologically was no consolation to me whatsoever. The seemingly bizarre thing about escaping and emerging from this is that I have been massively emboldened by defeating this situation and those whom I consider my tormentors, and yet I think most folk would agree that no person should ever have to face the risk of sacrificing their lives and livelihoods simply to gain a single opportunity to pursue happiness. It is a strange paradox, but that is the way the cards were dealt to me.
The application of my time and effort to writing is not something I consider a chore or hard work, even though hard work is exactly what it is. It is that old cliche, a labour of love. There are days when I wish I had been given an easier run at things but deep down I accept that the struggle makes the man. I truly believe it is valuable to start, fail, return, fail, try again and so on. Many talentless people have built stellar careers on little else. They understand the persistence is worth more than anything else and personally I can attest to being the must stubborn, hard-nosed and infuriatingly bull-headed human being I know. Many people I know try things once and give up due to a single failure. This is why application and creativity are so important. Most normal people would give up when pursuing a career like mine. That is because they are not crazy, but that is the point. You have to be crazy to do it and I have an advantage because mania is just about the closest to madness as any condition of which I am aware.
The best thing that those with mental illness can do in order to earn the right to pursue solace and peace is this: come out in to the open. Much like the Gay Pride movement, we need to stand together publicly and attain a point of critical mass where things change for us. We also need our non-mentally ill friends to be on our side took just like the straight people who advocate for LGBTQ rights. We can express ourselves through whatever brings us solace and we will ultimately find solace and peace through acceptance. The shame will not last and the storm will, as always, give far more than it takes. Something shameful or terrible may come your way, however there comes a time in a person’s life when he or she must stand for something greater than themselves and we must pave the way to a better future for those like us who will come after us.