The Pandemic of Bipolar Disorder

Imagine an illness that was prevalent in every country and on every continent on the planet. Imagine that it is an illness with outcomes ranging from chronic, long term symptoms, often substance abuse and in the worst case scenarios, death. Imagine that it is a disease which afflicted those about whom society cares very little, and therefore by extension society cares nothing for that illness and the loved ones of its victims.Imagine an illness that is essentially a death sentence upon diagnosis, both a socially and a literal death. We have seen an illness such as this. In the 1980’s HIV/AIDS was precisely that. I am no historian but it seems to me that this epidemic was a key driver in the campaign for the emancipation of those who are members of the LGBTIQ community, and the simple truth is that there freedom was won because when HIV/AIDS began to lay waste to their communities they had no option but to come out swinging. They were being killed by this disease and many governments refused point blank to invest money in researching, treating and (hopefully one day) curing it. To quote Dan Savage, advice columnist and founder of It Gets Better, gay people had to fight because ‘they were fucking dying’. The institutionalised homophobia in the government of my homeland, the UK stink. The repulsive homophobe Margaret Thatcher and her odious Tory government were happy to let homosexuals drop dead in huge numbers. Even now I hear people say that AIDS is a punishment meted out to homosexuals for their lifestyles. It is 2015 for crying out loud.

Today we have a similar situation with my people, the mentally ill. Isolating just the sufferers of Bipolar Disorder estimates suggest that it occurs without discrimination in all populations at a prevalence of approximately 4%. Taken as a share of the poopulation of the earth this amounts to 120000000 people. By any standard you care to measure that is a crisis. If one accounts for all illnesses prevalence is 25% of the population, some 1.75 billion people. In Paris recently Islamist gunmen killed 129 people and as a result NATO has mobilised for war. So what happens for us? As little as possible. For terrorist deaths the military might of the West is brought to bear upon the problem, yet for something that is decimating our communities and way of life, especially the young, the machinery of government scarcely trembles. As is so often the case with politicians I doubt that this will ever change until it happens to one of them. The empathy gap in Westminster is astonishing in scope. When one of their sons or daughters is found having committed suicide maybe then things will change. One thing is for certain and that is that the current strategy of pretending that there is no problem simply cannot continue, although I would wager that it will. the NHS has been gutted for the last six or seven years as efficiency has become the name of the game and each one of these overpaid, over-privileged Eton boys competes to see who can be the most brutal and macho minister. Who pays the price for this ludicrous, criminal egotism? They do not, that is for sure.

Mental illness is a global pandemic and I for one have had enough of being used as expendable political capital by ministers who could not care less about the lives of ordinary people who suffer extraordinary problems. I write to my MP, nothing happens. I write to other politicians and none of them reply. I pluck up the courage to attend assessment and treatment sessions and nothing happens for months (this is not the fault of NHS), during which time I could well have taken matters into my own hands. We disclose our illnesses and we are subjected to vitriol and abuse from those who wish to taunt us online for the crime of being sick. We live openly as mentally ill and we are attacked in the street. We run into the police and they murder us. We tell our families and they ostracise and disown us. Parents throw us out of the family home, and we go to the state for help and are told that we must help ourselves. We go to friends and they tell us that we are making it up for attention. We tell colleagues and we are ostracised and scarlet lettered at work. We inform our bosses and we lose our jobs. We have a bad day and we are advised to ‘keep taking the medication’, or to ‘go quietly when the men in white coats come’. We live undiagnosed and governments use us. We ask for help and they sterilise us. We live through times of warfare and are exterminated. We post online and Facebook experiments on us. We eventually become so desperate and lost that we sometimes kill ourselves and society blames us and says that we are selfish. We did not do this to ourselves and we are not going to go away. Not now, not EVER.

You tell me folks; what are we supposed to do?

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Scott Weiland, Bipolar Disorder Sufferer, 48 Years Old and Asleep in the Light

Scott Weiland, lead singer of the superb Stone Temple Pilots is dead at the age of just 48. He was a sufferer of bipolar disorder and well known for his struggles with drug addiction. This is a common feature of the lives of sufferers of this illness. Sufferers indulge in the process of self-medication. This is not, as the name might imply, attempting to cure oneself of the illness. Rather it is usually an attempt to mitigate the symptoms. I have done it previously with alcohol. In my case it was often done in the vain attempt to sleep. It is difficult to explain to a ‘normal’ person what it is like to stay awake for four or five days, but I can assure you that the desperate need for sleep after that is all-consuming. The other reason I did it was to dull the pain of severe depression. At this point I would stress to you that I was undiagnosed at this point and I had never heard of bipolar disorder. That is a very strange and difficult position in which to be. To not know that anything is wrong is to believe that one’s experience is what all others go through, meaning that when people would ask me if my doctor knew how I behaved (at times) I simply thought they were joking. It never occurred to me that I was unusual.

If you know somebody who drinks or uses drugs and it concerns you then it may just be the agony of mental illness that they are salving. I have long since gone teetotal, although compared to most my drinking was tame, and now my drug of choice is exercise. It is hard to stay awake after cycling 50-60 miles, pounding the pavement on a jog or swimming lap after lap. It is also good for me, but I look back to the days when I was down in the hole with a slightly tearful eye. How I wish that someone had recognised what I was going through and pulled me out. I had to do it for myself, and I cannot tell you how close I came to taking the ‘easy’ way out instead.

Of course, I cannot be certain what killed Weiland but I find it difficult to believe that his struggles with drugs did not contribute to it. And so another creative flame is extinguished, more than likely because of this illness that society is happy to leave to flourish because we do not do mental health treatment.

Scott Weiland, 48 years old, now asleep in the light.

Scott Weiland

Scott Weiland

The Epidemic of Silence

I can  recall a boy I knew when I was a younger man. He was a joker and always smiled, the nicest teenage boy you ever met. I lost touch with him in my early to mid teens. The next I heard of him was the sad news that he had committed suicide by taking a massive drug overdose. It was the sort of overdose where resuscitation would be pointless. He really wanted to die. No cry for help, no hint and no turning back from the brink. Even now, when recalling his name people talk about how stunned they were, not only by the fact of his death alone, but also because of the notion that such a happy-go-lucky (to use that well-worn cliché) could take his own life with absolutely no warning or indication that anything might be amiss.

If ever there was a time and a desperate need to act upon this sort of thing it is now. According to recent research more than half of parents never talk to their children about stress, anxiety or depression. I cannot tell you how heartbreaking this is, not only for the mere fact itself, but also because I am not in the least bit surprised. The one conversation that I have ever had with an immediate family member regarding this amounted to my confession that I was ill and that person reflexively (almost before I had closed my mouth in fact) screaming at me that I was making it up, and an admonishment telling me to shut up and to ‘not discuss things like that’. This is nothing but a recipe for disaster. It should be no surprise at all for anyone to see that the number one killer of young males is suicide and it must be tackled with great urgency and care. The epidemic of suicide that is killing the strongest of us, the boys, is powered by a dreadful, terrible epidemic of silence. Imagine that; a nation of parents who cannot discuss such matters with their children. How on earth did things ever get this way?

I say this all the time but one day soon it may well be your son on the chopping block, your daughter on the ledge. If you do not have this conversation with them now then you might one day find that you are having a conversation with yourself, asking why you stood by and did nothing whilst your son became a man, or your daughter blossomed. You will, on countless sleepless, endless nights face the hard truth that you could have acted, and you will torture yourself for leaving them in emotional poverty when YOU WERE SO RICH.

A hero of mine, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote in his memoir of a telephone call that came from his mother which he never took. It came minutes before she committed suicide in a pact with her lover. How it must have scarred him to know that he might have talked her down. One can only imagine the shame and guilt he felt, right up to his dying breath about his inaction and casual dismissal of her reaching for him.

Would you like to avoid that? Talk to your children. Whisper in their ear before the voice in the dark convinces them that the world is better off without them. No teenager wants to die. They want to cry out to the world and let it know that they have something to give.

The Dignity of the Mentally Ill

Author note: this post dates back to August 6th, 2014. I clicked ‘draft’ and forgot about it. I posted it now because it is important to me.

Dignity is an imprecise word. It refers to a quality that essentially is conferred upon a person by others. One cannot possess dignity. It is given, donated perhaps. At best one can display dignity, however it is usually the case that when a a person is noted for behaving in a dignified manner it is usually in the midst of some sort of trial or difficulty that they are going through. As such we are all reliant upon our fellow humans for dignity.

This week a man was sectioned under the UK Mental Health Act after he was involved in some sort of bomb hoax on a flight which was escorted to land by a fighter jet. I doubt anyone would defend this act and it is clearly something that must be taken seriously, however, what I have found most upsetting about this incident is the rhetoric surrounding the condition of this man and the way he has been portrayed in the media. For one thing this is the first story I have seen in some time which deals with a mentally ill person and of course, it is not a story about the positive lives and contributions to the world made by many people who happen to be mentally ill. This story is, of course, about a nutter on a plane trying to blow it up, or pretending to do so at least. It is yet another scare story. I have previously discussed this sort of press coverage and it is nothing new. What is new is this quote taken from the Guardian

One police source said: “On a sliding scale we think we may be looking at an idiot rather than an international terrorist.”

This comes from the police so it is not to be dismissed as idle chit chat. The questions I want to ask this person are these: given that this man is already deprived of his liberty and will pay a bitter price for his actions taken when we was, in all likelihood, not accountable for his actions, was it really necessary to publicly humiliate him like that? What problem has been solved by saying that? Finally, did the person to whom this comment is attributed do anything other than substantially reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness and the stereotypes that are often so brutal?

Furthermore, I briefly perused Twitter as I am often wont to do and I noticed that, of all people, Al Murray referred to him as follows

I regret posting this as I do not like the lazy brand of Internet journalism that lies in wait for someone to say something silly or offensive and then attacks, but I could not let this slide. I did have a brief and cordial exchange with Murray which you can find in my Twitter feed and I hold no grudge against Murray. I am sure as a famous and successful comedian he has no interest in my little corner of the web here either, just to be clear. The same questions apply, however. What has been accomplished by that tweet, other than the promotion of stigma and the ongoing bullying and oppression of a man whose only crime was to do something over which he could have had no control and cannot be held responsible for in law?

If people are not afforded dignity and respect then they will learn to behave in an undignified and disrespectful fashion. I would like to think that I, complete with my illness, am worth more to the world than the description of ‘a stupid c*nt’. Nobody deserves that when they are subjected to forces beyond their control in this way. I regret however that this is just another loony for people to sneer at, not realising for a moment that at any time in their lives it could be them.

Ken Livingstone and the Social Death Sentence

This week the media is going hell for leather over Ken Livingstone and the fact that he told a reporter who has suffered mental health issues that ‘he needs psychiatric help’. Given the fact that this happened in the same week as the Paris attacks that killed 129 people this is interesting, and naturally I have an opinion on it. Obviously it comes from my experience as a man living with Bipolar Disorder. The most important issue here is that Livingstone can say whatever he likes. This is a free, liberal democracy and, begging your pardon, but I am freaking glad to live in such a place and I will not give this freedom up as long as I breathe. Secondly, I appreciate that someone has propelled into the public eye the issue of how we talk about mental illness. This comes in the same week that Charlie Sheen went public as a HIV positive man and there is no doubt that, whilst there are people who use HIV or AIDS as terms of abuse, that sort of thing has ebbed over the years, and I think that we should welcome that. We must not legislate how people talk but I think that, on balance it is a good thing to consider how one’s words might affect others. I say this as a man with the darkest, most mordant and sardonic gallows humour of anyone I know and I regularly indulge in such taboo humour too. What I like about this is that we are looking hard at why we all intuitively believe that it is insulting to be told that one has mental health problems. In the same way that everyone believes it to be a good thing to have a sense of humour it is second nature to accept that to be mentally ill is bad, funny for those watching and, let’s face it, pretty much a social death sentence.

I have no answers beyond the fact that I will defend Livingstone’s right to say whatever he wants. That is one thing that is more important than anything that might befall a sufferer of psychiatric issues, and in the above linked BBC article I loathe the use of the worst word of this century: ‘offensive’. It might well be offensive. Tough luck, and welcome to the Age of Reason. All I can say is this to each one if us: is it funny to taunt the mentally ill? Is it funny when mental illness strikes? Are the mentally ill so pitiable that the term should be thrown at people as the worst thing they can be?

You tell me folks: is what I am the worst thing you could ever imagine for yourself?

Ageism and Mental Illness

This Sunday, today as I write, I sat down and watched BBC Sunday Morning Live on the television. As is often the case my fury bubbled and rose up as I listened, in particular when one man, David Vance, spouted his obnoxious opinions. To preface this post, I have read a little bit about him and he seems to be nothing other than an ultra right wing blogger and, frankly, a bit a of a twit. In the midst of healthy discussion he tried to stir up a fight which is all his kind ever actually does, and it is certainly how he sustains a living. He is the perfect blogger insomuch as he possesses no creative skill at all so he instead destroys whatever he sees and calls it politics and morality. What concerned me the most was his rant on the notion of mindfulness. The actual question asked concerning this was whether or not mindfulness has become a middle class religion, in my opinion a perfectly ridiculous question and exactly the sort of baiting in which the BBC engages far too often. My concern is not this question per se and I will explain why.

Vance brought up the issue of how much money the NHS spends on teaching mindfulness and how, in his entirely predictable and uninformed opinion, this is a waste of time and money. He even went so far as to give the standard Idiot Signal regarding healthcare which is the following:

Why are we spending so much on this when people cannot get cancer drugs?

He may have varied his words a little but that was his point. As soon as a person says this you can be sure that they are talking nonsense.The opposing argument quoted studies that I confess to taking at face value rather than having read  them (no sources were given) which assert that mindfulness reduces grey matter in the amygdala, instead stimulating growth in other areas of the brain. This is a favourable thing for those suffering from various mental illnesses. This exposes Vance’s argument as the fatuous and specious drivel that it is: ageism. Not only that, it is the typical right wing, macho response to mental health. He essentially asserts that cancer ought to come before mental health treatment. Why? The answer is simple. Cancer kills the old on the whole whereas mental illness, and by extension suicide kills the young on the whole. Our society in the UK is a gerontocracy. The old, the group that put the Tories in power, are bullying the young and Vance is epitomising this with his wild claims concerning cancer. I doubt that he cares a jot about the suffering of cancer patients. In fact I doubt he cares about anyone but himself, but that is a different matter. The issue is that of his sophistry, which is he is using to cover his relentless commitment to bullying the young, and in particular boys. The Tories have defunded and decimated mental health provision, a deliberate and targeted attack on the young. This is powered by the old, Baby Boomers like Vance, and their conviction that the young are living the high life on the taxpayer.

It used to be that the elderly men in power sent our youngest and strongest to war. Now we send them to hell instead. The hell known as untreated mental illness. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in young men and people like Vance know this. His argument concerning cancer has nothing to do with concern for those suffering from it. Rather, it is a cloak covering his contempt for the young. David Vance is an a obnoxious, ageist bully and he is making a name for himself by bullying the helpless and  hopeless.

Finding Solace and Peace

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.