2016: Carrying on Where 2015 Left Off

2016 is shaping up to be a terrible year for mental health, those who treat sufferers and sufferers themselves. In the UK funding for services has crashed into the national toilet. Our vicious Tory government could not care less about it. Children are being failed and dealt with as though they are adults (as an ex bipolar child this is especially painful to me). Were I to suffer a breakdown tomorrow I might well have to travel hundreds of miles just to get treatment – oddly enough I pay my taxes like everyone else so I would really love to have an explanation on that. I am not holding my breath, however.

Stephen Fry has made The Not so Secret Life of the Manic Depressive – a follow up film to his two part documentary entitled The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. I recommend the former in earnest to you and the latter I am just sitting down to watch. I like Fry but it is harder for me to see him as someone like me. He has my illness and symptoms but I cannot relate to a man with millions in the bank and who has no limitations on the life he wishes to lead. It is impossible. I admire him from afar but I might as well be on Mars compared to him and the lifestyle he leads. I do not resent him at all, good for him. He has cashed in his winning lottery ticket, but he is privileged and loved. I am neither of those things. I feel privileged simply to be alive. Every day that I get to smell my daughter’s hair, or hug my son is another day I treasure as a man who looked into the suicidal abyss and from which I am fortunate to have returned. Many of us simply do not make it.

In other news, this year I would like to produce a memoir, telling the story of how I arrived where I am. We shall see how that goes…

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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.

Bipolar Disorder and Creativity

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Van Gogh is suspected to have been bipolar.

During the Second World War Adolf Hitler and the NAZIs instituted a programme of mass extermination using eugenics as a starting point, although I think most people would agree that the end game became antisemitism and the genocide of the entire Jewish race and culture. Whilst the Jews undoubtedly suffered the greatest loss as a result of Shoah (the Jewish word for the Holocaust), many people are unaware of the fact that the work of creating a master race through the use of eugenics began by targeting people who were found to be physically and/or medically inferior, often described as ‘feeble minded’, or other similar epithets, and those exhibiting mental illness were in the NAZI’s crosshairs from day one, along with certain other minorities such as homosexuals. Eugenics is a process of forced evolution where those deemed to possess undesirable traits are removed from the gene pool by either forced sterilisation or, more commonly, execution. With the advance of science and so-called ‘designer babies’ and genetic engineering the eugenics movement may once again rear its ugly head under the guise of wishing to produce ‘healthy’ offspring. Incidentally, if anyone reading this wonders why the mentally ill are so scared of revealing themselves and why we often lie about our conditions then do please read up on the history of how we have been treated by politicians and governments. If you begin to comfort yourself with the notion that it was just the NAZIs and it couldn’t happen here then you might also want to read about how the USA, not Germany pioneered the forced, illegal sterilisation and extermination of people with mental illness and also Winston Churchill’s views on eugenics and the segregation and forced sterilisation of the ‘feeble minded’. Mental illness used to be called demon possession and sufferers were often subjected to clerical torture under the euphemistic title of ‘exorcism’. If you care to read the links above then I would ask that you consider for yourself whether or not you think that governments and countries have behaved any better or differently to the religious in regard to the mentally ill. I think not and I also think that for as long as people have exhibited symptoms of mental illness, society has declared open season on us. We have endured state-mandated violence, isolation, public derision and humiliation, torture, medical experimentation and death. It should not surprise anyone to see that the mentally ill are often too terrified to reveal what they are.

Concerning eugenics, I speak to many people today who will, often unaware that they are talking to a person with a mental illness, advocate that the mentally ill be shut away from society, quietly disposed of or be bred out of the gene pool through selective reproduction techniques. Often with the best of intentions they claim that the world will be a better place without mental illness. I am sure they mean well and I don’t necessarily get too upset about the suggestion that I, along with others like me ought to be exterminated. It highlights the truth of the Confucian aphorism: ‘He who speaks does not know, he who knows does not speak’. Often a far too simplistic maxim but in this case it holds true that ignorance shouts the loudest. What is most upsetting about this attitude is not the threat it poses to I and others like me, rather that it is the implicit wish to remove some of the finest accomplishments yet to be achieved by humanity from our collective future. What I am referring to is creativity, and in particular the clear link, at least anecdotally, between mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, and creativity. Anyone who doubts this in the first instance would do well to remember that some of the greatest literature, art and music that humanity has ever produced was conceived when its originators were three sheets to the wind, usually with the aid of alcohol or drugs. Many of our greatest thinkers often had to use such artificial methods to achieve the altered brain states and higher levels of consciousness that we nutters get for free.

The recent fuss kicked up at the suggestion that Robert Burns, arguably Scotland’s favourite son, was afflicted with bipolar disorder is very telling in this respect, with disquiet at the suggestion in some quarters revealing that many people feel that the inference is an insult and thus certain organisations have been accused of covering up Burns’ illness to protect his reputation. Why? Because in the UK as well as much of the rest of the world it is still acceptable to lose one’s soul but not one’s mind. I personally would be surprised if he and many of his contemporaries were not ‘Touched With Fire‘, for Aristotle observed that ‘no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness’. This brings to mind the late Spike Milligan, a man who walked a tightrope between genius and complete mental breakdown. I cannot also pass this concept by without the suggestion that the biting footballer, Luis Suarez, is showing symptoms of this illness too.

On Creativity

Creativity is one of the most beautiful, inspirational and yet frustrating, draining and infuriating gifts to have. Believe me, I know. When the creative juices are flowing the feeling is simply electrifying, with ideas flowing out of a person like a freshwater fountain. When the ideas dry up then the crash comes and life can be vey difficult indeed. However, can you imagine a world without Burns and his work? What about history missing the art of Edvard Munch, painter of The Scream? Or, for those in the UK, where would we be without Stephen Fry?

I recently completed the final draft of my first book. I didn’t write the whole book, only a section. Aside from minor corrections it was done in one day and needed no editing. I cannot tell you how proud I was to have finally been published and also how joyful it was to write like that. Contrast that with my efforts to complete a second book, which has taken several years because of the mood difficulties I have. It was agony, yet I still had to do it. I do not write because I have to or want to. I write because I cannot do anything else. I am a decent photographer and I can make music too, but what I am in my essence is a writer. I always have been, even when I did not do it. That goes a long way towards explaining why I have proved to be so utterly useless at any other profession, and I assure you that I have tried many. The curse of creativity is that it cannot be turned on or off, it simply comes and goes as it pleases, and this frustrates both me and those who rely on me. I can promise you that many people have tried and failed to mould me into a normal human being who goes to work from nine to five and who has a regular, normal, everyday life. I worked as hard as I could at it but in the end they got angry, frustrated and often abusive and/or violent. Eventually I gave up, but not before having been written off as disruptive, awkward, stupid or worse. Nine to five is not for me and I have long since stopped forcing myself to endure the misery of trying. I can already hear some of the readers of this post proclaiming that I am using my illness as an excuse to be bone idle, or that I am not ill at all in fact, rather I am just lazy. Let me assure that for a long time I did little else other than wish I could be an everyday businessperson. I would be very well paid, reasonably well thought of and respected and life would be relatively easy. I certainly have the necessary intelligence and qualifications. All that said, however, I am afraid that I simply cannot do that sort of thing and any charge of laziness or excuse making is easily deflected with the fact that I have chosen a far more difficult career instead. Should any of my readers doubt me in this respect then I would challenge you to go away, write a book and try to get it published. It took me nigh on ten years to accomplish that and I am still a considerable way away from being able to live off book royalties. If you think I gave up on middle class comfort for that then I would have a rethink of your attitude towards me if I were you.

In the Media

Portrayals of characters with mental illness are becoming popular in film and television, no doubt because Hollywood is where those with bipolar disorder can to go succeed, provided it is not severe and they can manage it and work in a stressful environment which is not easy at all. Claire Danes portrays a bipolar US law enforcement and anti-terrorism officer in the drama Homeland and the superb and yet criminally underrated Perception stars Eric McCormack (of Will & Grace fame) as an academic with schizophrenia. McCormack’s performance I admire in particular because he has now played a gay man despite being straight and a schizophrenic man despite, as far as I know, not being mentally ill. Danes’ performance came to a magnificent zenith in a scene where her character, as a result of not taking medication experienced a manic episode. It was as though she had read my mail, although I will say that I do not think it went crazy enough. True mania can be bewildering and terrifying to watch. Danes was on the right track with how she acted but in my experience mania becomes far more intense than the degree to which she displayed it. Whether or not this is because a ‘normal’ person cannot understand it from the inside out or that she and the producers were concerned that they may be accused of overdoing it I do not know. I can easily imagine a scenario where a real manic episode can look completely absurd to the point where one might suspect it was being staged. It can be that bad.

The point here is that mental illness is slowly trickling into our discourse. I dream of a day when it is no longer a subject that is spoken about in hushed tones and something feared rather than treated, and the reason I do is that we have contributed to some of the great achievements of humanity. The suggestion that we ought to be bred out of the gene pool is outrageous not just for the bloody minded perfectionism it implies, but more because in doing so we will rob ourselves of our brightest and best as well as impoverishing our way of life and culture. We will take away from our descendants the opportunity to experience great art.

One fascinating study showed that children either with or at a high risk of having bipolar disorder shows that they tend to dislike shapes that are simple and/or highly symmetrical. That in a nutshell sums up why people like me are so important. We are frustrating, annoying and often subject people to experiences ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, but to advocate getting rid of us is the wish for order, simplicity and symmetry. Not an equal society, rather a hegemonic one. A society where discrimination is impossible because there is no difference. Who really wants that? Coffee without the cream, drinks served with no cocktails or spirits. In a grey world it is the splash of colour that is often the most noticeable, most offensive and most challenging to deal with, however if you think that world with the mentally ill is hard to live in, try for a moment to conceive of a world without us. I think that would be a terrible place.