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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What is Mania Like?

The question of what mania is like is one that may be answered in at least two ways. There is the issue of what it is like for the sufferer, or the maniac to use a rather unpleasant term, and there is what it is like for those who are related to or intimately connected with the sufferer. Incidentally, as a brief aside, maniac is one of those words that is so deeply ingrained in our discourse that it demonstrates how we as a society view afflictions of the mind and those who suffer with them. It is a word that means a sufferer of mania. Nowadays most would concede that it is an exclusively negative term and one which bears the connotations of violent conduct, unpredictable rage and generally deranged and insane behaviour. Words such as imbecile, idiot and moron were all similar clinical terms describing various degrees of mental retardation and all are now unanimously pejorative, just as maniac,mania and manic all are. The word paranoiac is another such term but that does not have the same connotation. Paranoia is not desirable but one would never use it as a broad spectrum insult in the same way, however that would seem to me because paranoia is insular and often leaves no outward markers of its presence and affectation. In short there is a rule regarding illnesses of the brain that are manifestly visible with clear symptoms. If you lose your mind then you lose a whole lot more with it. One’s job, one’s dignity, one’s place in society, even one’s life are all considered acceptable losses. By that I mean that if I were to tell you about someone from whom all of those things had been taken then the moment I suggested that he or she possessed a mental illness or affliction then there would be immediate hand-wringing and shrugging of the shoulders as though such collateral damage were inevitable and ought to be accepted as a part of life. This must change, however that sort of thing is not the subject of this post.

I intend to discuss mania from a first person perspective. It seems rather foolish to me to attempt to portray the travails of those living with a sufferer rather than as the one suffering themselves although there is some overlap. Anyone who was been through a manic episode knows the heartbreak of crawling through the wreckage of their behaviour, attempting to make amends and correct some of the crazy – quite literally – things that they did. Therein lies the first characteristic of mania. It is episodic. It comes and goes and during episodes it can and will vary in its intensity. At the beginning of an episode life is great. Euphoria is prevalent and a person trapped within this phase of an episode is usually inspired, productive, fun, energetic and able to function to a high degree of productivity and usefulness. This is why those with bipolar disorder are often drawn to creative professions. Creativity demands energy of often epic proportions. I know that to most normal people the act of writing, painting or composing may seem cerebral and restful but I can assure you that both my firsthand experience and the testimony of others reveals it to be anything but. The mental drain upon me as a writer during such times is extraordinary and that is why mania helps. Ideas flow plentifully and it almost seems as though one is working to the specifications of a commission from the Gods of Mount Olympus. These phases can be among the most exhilarating times of a person’s life.

But then the worm starts to turn. One starts to become irritable, difficult to work with and be around and extremely unpredictable. Imagine the world’s most annoying morning person over the course of a year and distil that energy into a concentrated burst of energy. This is where perception matters so much. However it may look to others, here is how it looks to me. I am on a roll, bouncing around the room ready to create something so stunning in its creative genius and so remarkable in its manifestation that I need to stay awake for several days. I find suddenly that people are staring at me, their incredulity towards me matched by my incredulity at what they find so incredulous. Can they not see what is going on here? I am on the brink of creating the next great work of fiction and they are staring at me as though I am the crazy one! I become annoyed at them and their stupid, dull minds that are incapable of keeping up with the flow of energy that is pulsing through me wildly and powerfully. I begin to exhibit signs of annoyance and wilful disrespect to those who are not like me and do not have the insight that I have. People cease to spend time with me, thinking it impossible to keep up and at some point I find myself furiously producing either writing, photography or music. I remember an occasion where I produced a whole album of instrumental progressive rock music in a single day. A single day! I remember writing an entire book in a week, some sixty thousand words. I remember once being so desperate to fall asleep at night that I cycled around a hundred and fifty miles in two days. I was simply so needy of normal routine as I felt my mood rising into mania that I tried the only medication that I could think of that was free of charge to wear myself out.

It did not work.

Soon arguments break out as people try and fail to live with the inaccessible speed and pressure at which I operate. I talk so fast and assimilate ideas with a rapidity that, were I able to control it would be a great asset to me. I argue relentlessly in defence of my great ideas and unassailable genius. Do they not see? Can they not comprehend what is about to happen? I record musical ideas and leave them half finished because the next one arrives so fast that I know that I will forget it if I do not produce a recording immediately. I start writing story after story for the same reason, desperate to hold on to the ideas before they fly away as quickly as they arrived.

And then comes the crash. I start to read what I have written and I often think it is genuinely great work, something of which I may be immensely proud . Unfortunately I leave it half completed, often for months on end. The mania has subsided and the energy it brought to me is no more. The mood starts to sink and I head towards the other pole, depression. But that is the subject of another post.

Homogeneity and Mental Illness

Homogenous we are not. This post may seem a little contradictory at the outset. On the one hand it is a plea for the mentally ill to be treated as a group, yet on the other hand it is an admonition for the world not to see us as one big group. Rather odd I know, however it can be resolved. Often one will see a group of teenagers, all dressed a certain way and listening to the same music and so on, typical teenage behaviour and it is not unusual to hear adults say something along the lines of ‘they all want to be seen as individuals but they all look the same’ and those adults genuinely think they are being clever in citing the seemingly rather obvious implied paradox of what Stephen Fry refers to as being a part of the crowd and apart from the crowd. Those adults have dead hearts, unable to remember the angst and yearning for self expression and self determination that is often forged in fire and in great pain. In the same way the mentally ill as a group are much maligned and in need of better treatment in every sense, yet also in dire need of understanding and a sense of appreciation for who and what they are as individuals. It is perfectly possible to address a group of people as a whole without diminishing the individuality and dignity of each member of that group. We are a part of the tribe and each one of us is also apart from the tribe.

It can be very difficult to resolve the apparent contradiction of wishing to stand out from and yet be a part of a crowd. To be both a part of society and apart from it presents an arrangement that seems impossible at first, however it is not as absurd as it first seems. Variation within specific parameters is far from unusual. It is not hard to confer respect upon a whole group without having to worry about the group in terms of its differences. All groups possess individuals who delineate themselves from the apparent normative but that does not diminish their individual humanity, their group solidarity and belonging to the group. I know this because the mentally ill must do this themselves. It is no easier for me to comprehend the experience of a schizophrenic than a person who suffers no mental health problems. In that sense, even though I refer to the mentally ill as a group, there is no group of people craving respect and acceptance as such. The secret to understanding this is to learn to how deal with a member of a particular group as though there were no group at all. In short, I did not choose to be in this group but I am, yet I am also a human being and whilst my illness is an aspect of my makeup it does not define me.

I am indebted to my illness for my belonging to the group, but I owe bipolar disorder nothing for the content of my character, my loves, my hates, my passions and so forth. Ask yourself this: to what is a person with a mental illness indebted which makes them who they are? I guarantee you that the answer is not their illness, for identity is often undermined by illness as it surrenders to it rather than being enhanced by it due to it’s non-existent origin within the illness. In that sense we are simultaneously a part of the crowd whilst also being apart from the crowd. The things that a person possesses within themselves that are peculiarly them, their ‘them-ness’ have very little to do with who they are. The philosopher Martin Heidegger often used a German word, wesen to describe the essence of a thing or a person. To him it did not mean the essence per se, it means the thing that a person continues to be and which maintains him or her as what they are as they travel through time. A person’s wesen is the thing by which you measure their existence over the passing weeks, months and years. In that sense, again, I do not think that my illness is anything to do with my wesen. The things to which I am indebted for my continued existence as what I am go beyond the mere aspects of my illness and my responses to it. My substance is my personality and character, of which my illness is not a part. The substance of a manic depressive is not his or her illness any more than the content of a black/Asian/European/white person’s character is a product of his or her skin colour. In short, we are more that the sum of our parts, mentally ill or not.

It is not unusual to hear or see a person with a mental illness have their opinions or feelings dismissed as the illness talking. It is frustrating and downright demeaning to have someone refuse to take me seriously because it is easy to dismiss me because I have bipolar disorder. When you do that you homogenise me. I am compartmentalised and parked in the brain of the person doing it and I will almost certainly never get out of the spot marked ‘nutter’. Humankind would go a long way towards bettering itself if it just realised that when a person is dismissed like that it damages us all. I have previously talked about the remarkable contribution the manic depressives in particular have made in the sphere of human creativity. I do not think that I would like to live in a world where some of our best artists, writers and musicians did not fulfil their potential, instead living lives forever parked in the nutter box.

What is worse is that dismissal leads to lax practice. Can we not just medicate them and shut them up? They should be in a special home right? These are things I have heard routinely. I am willing to bet that you have said them too, no doubt more than once. It has often been expedient to throw the mentally ill outside the city walls, leaving them to wander in the desert alone. We ought not to scapegoat anyone like that, least of all the weak, vulnerable and sick.

You might well ask me: if I am so set on being an individual who is not at all categorised by bipolar disorder, why do I still address the issue as though the existence of a group is so important? Why be a part of the mentally ill crowd too? This question is as susceptible to reason as any and the simple fact of the matter is that the world addresses us as a group, we are seen as a group and we are classified as a group and therefore the world at large is only ever likely to listen to us as a group. For better or worse strength is all too often found in numbers and in a democratic system the individual may be empowered with a voice and a vote, the reality is that an individual has little real power on his or her own. I am convinced that the question of mental illness is one of the great civil rights issues of our time and one need only look back through relatively recent history to see that civil rights questions are always settled by the action of force in numbers. When there are more of ‘us’ than ‘them’ change is effected. The campaign for LGBTQ rights gained strength and brought about change at remarkable speed only when there was a majority and that majority was not comprised of LGBTQ people. They needed the heteronormative majority on their side and the same must happen for the mentally ill. The right of those of all sexual orientations to be taken seriously came about when the generation demonising them had children and those children grew up among gay people who had the courage to come out. The world saw that gay people represent no threat and can do no harm to anyone and as such the prejudice rolled back under the weight of the opinion that discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is simply immoral. There remains work to be done of course, however their can be no doubt that the tide has turned.

We, the mentally ill are a quarter of the population and change for the better will only come about when those not defined by the group become a part of the group. Just like the LGBTQ struggle, the walls between Us and Them must come down, and that is why it is so important for us to be seen as more than our illness. The group will bring about change yet the group must be more than the sum total of its members. We need those without mental illness on our side, for so long as we are viewed as pariahs to be feared and scorned we will not possess a sufficient number to bring about our own emancipation.

I am currently reading the Tripods novels, a series about a post-apocalytpic world dominated by alien machines. The machines ‘cap’ humans at the age of fourteen, meaning that a sort of cybernetic helmet is fitted to people and this keeps humanity subjugated. Occasionally the capping goes wrong and the victim of this becomes a wandering vagrant, indulging in odd behaviour and is generally feared and shunned by others. I and others like me have been capped and the wiring has gone wrong somewhere along the way. With the acceptance of humanity and society we can be a part of the world and culture at large. In many ways we are already a part of society, however this is not recognised by successive governments whose response to mental health problems remains woefully inadequate. I suppose at this point I can only make an impassioned plea:

Accept us as a group, love us as individuals, treat us as people.

The ongoing fear that grips me now that I have ‘come out’ and publicly discussed my illness is something that I would much rather live without. I would give a lot to live without the familial rejection I have experienced and to no longer read articles about the horrors inflicted upon people like me and live in constant fear that I might be next against the wall. I and many like me have stepped into the light. It is up to those of you born normal to do the same, both for us and for the future generations like us.

About Bipolar Disorder and This Blog

Bipolar Disorder

The madness of moods, bipolar disorder.

Why?

Bipolar disorder, also know as manic depression, is a mental illness that falls into the category of a mood disorder. It is lifelong, often debilitating and incurable. I have hidden my illness for decades due to the stigma and abuse that the mentally ill suffer and today I decided that enough is enough. All of the shame, mockery and violent retribution I have suffered has been previously very effective in keeping me and others quiet in the past, however I decided today to throw caution to the wind and to live an honest life and be clear and open about my condition. Naturally, many may assume that blogging about it is rather unnecessary, perhaps even attention seeking. Not a bit of it I say. I believe that unless I have done something for humanity I ought to be ashamed to die, and I wish to die empty and spent as well as old and contented. I have longed desperately for things to change in respect to my illness and I realised today that I must do what I can, and I am a writer by profession so that is what I have decided to do. The timing of my decision is inspired by an episode of the US crime drama, Bones. In the most recent episode I watched there was a moment where a character, having been diagnosed with a rare and particularly lethal cancer faced the choice of undergoing treatment for his illness or not doing so, living the high life until his death instead. His decision towards the end of the episode inspired me and his response to the challenge he faced is the name of this blog: I decided to fight. When faced with the quandary of what to do about the attitudes of my society towards people like me I decided to fight.

Bipolar Disorder

The illness I have affects my moods in ways that can be funny, upsetting, extreme and powerful. It is now referred to as bipolar disorder, however it was formerly referred to as manic depression. Among the many misconceptions about mental illness, the misunderstanding of the term ‘manic depression’ is common. I often hear people nonchalantly declare that they have been ‘manically depressed’. They usually mean that they were particularly unhappy or sad. This reveals a misunderstanding of not only the illness I have, but also of depression itself. Depression is not sadness or an unhappy state of mind. Depression is a crippling, sometimes suicidal emotional state which renders the sufferer immune to happiness. A person in the throes of depression cannot pull themselves together or snap out of it. It is fast becoming a cliche now, however it bears repeating that a person can no more cheer themselves up when depressed than they are able to walk on a broken leg simply because they would prefer to be mobile.

Bipolar disorder has been well summarised by one of its most well known sufferers, Stephen Fry, as being like the weather. The weather arrives bringing with it whatever it brings, and nothing anyone says or does can stop it. If it is freezing then we all endure snow until it warms up. If it rains we each get wet. If it is hot we all feel good and dress in shorts. Emotions and moods are the same. Nothing anyone does will change a depressed mood or, in very extreme scenarios, psychosis. Psychosis is the loss of touch with reality resulting in the inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not. It is rare and extreme but it does happen to sufferers of a range of mental illnesses. In short, those of us with bipolar disorder are at the mercy of it. Without medical intervention it is very difficult to access and influence the part of a person that is malfunctioning.

A person with bipolar disorder will experience two non-normative states of mood. The aforementioned depression is sometimes referred to as The Black Dog and it is dark, self-reflective, albeit with a warped self-image, and it is horrible to endure. Very often the person will stay in bed for days, possibly neglect their personal hygiene and be difficult to talk with. The opposite pole is mania. Mania is great! We are full of energy, positivity and ideas. The difficulty with mania is that it causes people to do things that, to outsiders, seem crazy. Spending recklessly, attempting feats of daring and often endangering themselves. Ideas flow in the mind like shooting stars and the person not only loses sleep but also often loses friends who are simply incapable of keeping up with the manic person. To the maniac it is all perfectly normal and extremely enjoyable, and often it is very productive and great things can be accomplished. It is the tipping point into craziness that is dangerous. In a nutshell, that is bipolar disorder.

Having laid out above the challenges of this illness I am declaring my intention to blog at great length and in great detail about what it feels like to live with it. That is the sole purpose of creating this blog in the first place. If you are a fellow sufferer then I hope this helps in some way. If you are a normal, non-afflicted human being then I hope that you learn something here and the stigma, misconceptions and prejudices that you may have can be laid aside. Bipolar disorder will make me no less loyal a friend, no less fun a companion. I am just different and I am working it all out as I go along, just as you are. Good luck.