Learning to live with bipolar
Sharing my bipolar experiences through the lens of the manic month of November
The most unexpected of days
Think about a time in your life when the day started one way and ended with a situation you could not have imagined possible. Maybe there’s a few such instances?
For me, that day was exactly one year ago. The day I officially became known as bipolar — and it came when I least expected it.
Over the last few years I have had regular and long periods of depression, with some good times mixed in between. But, I’d never had any inkling that I might be bipolar.
Tuesday 21 November 2017 started with a phone call to my brother in New Zealand while I was walking to work in the City of London. Despite having some uncertainty at work, I was feeling pretty good and had a bounce in my steps.
That afternoon I ended up at The Priory, a London psychiatric hospital, and I was diagnosed as having a ‘mixed-state’ mental disorder known as bipolar or manic depression as it is sometimes called. It’s something that typically occurs in one’s mid-20s, and I had recently turned 42.
I’d like to say that I was shocked upon learning this but after the crazy day that I’d had and knowing, deep down, that I might have a mental-health problem, the significance of the news more-or-less failed to register. I’m only writing about it now as it’s only recently that I have thought much about it.
Uncanny bipolar coincidences
A week earlier there had been a mental-health seminar at work, where an english man named Jeremy Thomas, told his story as a sufferer of bipolar. Sensing it was an important talk that other colleagues might want to hear about, I wrote about it here.
So here I was, just a week after hearing a detailed story of the extreme behaviours of someone with bipolar, yet being totally unaware of my own bipolar characteristics. Some of my work colleagues though had spotted the clues that something was not right with me.
In another coincidence, the previous November I did a podcast interview with Dan Keeley, a sufferer of bipolar with a remarkable story of survival following an extreme manic episode it Italy. Although there were some similarities in our stories (dates and locations), the thought that I might also be bipolar was not one that came to me as we spoke that wintry evening in London Bridge.
Immediately after that conversation I wrote a blog titled I am starting to believe in miracles, which, as I read it now over two years later, has all the signs of the mania that comes with bipolar. It is nothing more than a random collection of thoughts, loosely cobbled together, and the underlying sense mania I was going through is abundantly clear from words written.
In that blog I said “I am in a good mental place now” and I felt much the same in the days leading up arriving at The Priory last year. In fact, when the psychiatrist asked to rate my happiness on a scale of 1 to 15, I said it was a “12”.
There was no boosting my score to impress him — it was a genuine answer to what I felt was a sensible question. As with November 2016, I felt in a good mental state as life was going well with no hint of depression, yet I was totally oblivious to the mania that I had been suffering from, which my best friend from work described coherently to the psychiatrist.
Learning to live with bipolar
Earlier in the year, I had asked my psychiatrist at The Priory to explain my condition and how it might have affected me in the past — I felt this this would help me to make sense of the past to inform the future. His response was that there was only one thing I needed to do: to read a book called Overcoming Mood Swings.
It was not the sort of help I had hoped for and my time at The Priory did not prepare me at all for life in the knowledge I had a mental condition that felt scary, based on what I knew from the stories of Jeremy and Dan. The literature on bipolar says it can be managed with the aid of medication and psychotherapy, both on which I’m doing.
My bipolar condition is a marker that is now a permanent, something I can’t avoid no matter how much I question the circumstances that led me to The Priory. It’s not a label I particularly like nor have wanted to talk about as it’s something that marks me out as different from friends, colleagues and family.
I think that, subconsciously, I have tried to bury my bipolarity this year as I have sought to ‘get on’ with life much in the same way as I had always done. It was only in September this year, when I was in Sweden one weekend visiting my friend Jacqui, that I came to start thinking about my condition properly.
I talked to her about how I’d been feeling this year and how I did not really understand my condition. Then she said something like “fuck, I didn’t know you were bipolar. If it was me, I would have totally changed my life”.
Her comment made think: “wow, she’s right. I’ve probably had bipolar for quite some time and even now that I know I have it, I’ve tried to carry on living as if nothing had happened”. This realisation shocked me — how could I have been so naive?
Then again, for more-or-less the whole of this year I have been depressed, as the life that I had been seeking to build in the autumn of 2017 crumbled after I was discharged from The Priory, just before Christmas. I’ve had to call on latent mental reserves probably more than any other time in my life.
An indicator of my 2018 mental state is the fact that this is only my second blog of the year — there had been 97 over the previous three years. I guess then it’s not all that surprising that I’ve not felt the urge to ‘self-learn’ my illness.
It’s only been in the last two months, since that trip to Sweden, that I have been able to get any sort of perspective of my illness. That process is only in its infancy with a lot more reading is required in the absence of other professional help and self learning does not come that easily to me — I’m a far more effective learner in a class or group setting.
I recently saw a different psychiatrist and she told me that it was likely that what she called ‘socialisation’ was a big factor in my mental state. By this she meant the importance of the social setting in my daily life, which is something that I have long felt to be the decisive factor in how I feel at any particular time — and the absence of being around my work colleagues is especially troublesome.
What I have been able to deduce is that I think I can ‘be bipolar’ in a single day. Take yesterday as an example.
I woke up in the morning not wanting to get out of bed but when I eventually did and started working on an important task, I was fully focused for six hours. I could easily have carried on for longer, such was the surge of energy that I felt.
I don’t know what it is about November but it seems to be the month where, typically, things have gone awry. Below I have set out some of my experiences to illustrate the circumstances that I now know to have been caused by my bipolar condition.
In many ways I am still haunted by what happened a year ago — not so much for ending up in The Priory, but by the ‘goings on’ leading up to it. It was almost an exact repeat of the previous year, when I ‘moved’ to Portugal.
In July 2017 I had started a three-month contract with my old company and, by mid-September, a permanent contract was on the table. I went to see my best friend at work with the news and gave him a hug — my main self-set task for the year, that of getting a job, was done.
Then, on the last weekend of September, I was paddling on the Thames in the Cotswolds and, while chatting to my friend Theo, I came up with the idea of moving from London to Cheltenham. I’d heard of others that commuted from the West Country to London weekly and thought I could do the same.
By the end of October, I had found a room in a nice house in Cheltenham and in November I bought a car and two paddle boards. I felt like I was all set for this next phase of life and it helped to that my company had an office in Cheltenham, where the local staff were really friendly and were into similar things as me.
In the middle of November, I attended a work conference in South Africa which was a great experience. My task had been to make a film about the event — something that I had wanted to do for a long time and it was a load of fun.
But, when I got back to London, I met with two work colleagues who said they were worried about me. One was my best friend at work and he said that I had been getting angry at work and that he thought I might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — a reference to a blog I had written ten days earlier titled On Suicide following the death of a friend’s partner, in the same manner as my wife had died in 2012.
In that blog I talked about my workplace being my community, ‘a home away from home’ yet, at the end of that day one year ago, my temporary home became The Priory. I did not go back to work again.
Unlike in 2017 where I was working at a place where I believed I could add value to the company in return for my pay, in 2016 I had an awful feeling that I could not justify my existence. It felt morally wrong to be making such a low contribution.
To keep my mind occupied, in October I began a podcast on mental health, which I launched while on a visit to Portugal. I’d gone to Cascais on the recommendation of my friend Carlos and I loved the town immediately.
At that time, I was happy with where I was living in Baron’s Court in London, but I was also drawn to an idea of a group of people at Escape the City to create a community of houses somewhere in London. I liked the idea of being more closely connected with these people each day.
It was soon clear that it was too difficult to achieve in London and so I looked into Cascais as an alternative. Then one day in late October I arrived home deflated after a bad day and I impulsively booked a big house in Cascais for a month starting in late November — with no ‘plan’ for how it would work in place.
I began talking about it one weekend at a camping festival and soon I was building a following on Facebook of people that were keen to join in. This gave me an enormous boost and I managed to get a month off from work to see if I could make my idea for a ‘better living project’ flourish.
Between planning for Portugal and doing the podcast, it was starting to feel frenetic and I decided to take Friday 11 November off work to reflect on where I was at. I went back over some old journals and I read with surprise that I had achieved some goals written down in 2014, without even realising it.
This put me on a big high as I travelled to see my friends Jeremy in Manchester and then Ginny in Paris. But, I was also incredibly tired and was struggling to sleep properly — I was finding energy where perhaps others wouldn’t.
On 24 November I flew to Lisbon after writing a ‘life update’ email for my friends — something I had never done before. There were many ‘e-cheers’ and soon the house in Cascais was full.
The next month was an immensely satisfying experience as 23 people came to live at ‘Escape House’ and I was so sure that I’d picked a start-up business winner, that I extended the contract on the house for a further three months after only a couple of weeks. But, as the new year approached, I realised that the house was soon going to be empty — the stream of interest in the project had dried up.
I was despondent and did not know what to do, while also making the fatal error of resigning from work in London without another job to go to. I’d gone from a experience where I felt I was contributing to people’s lives to being depressed, almost over night.
This was a month that fills me with dread to write about it. I was living alone in my flat in West Hampstead four months after returning to London from a year out in Asia — I was unemployed and was barely able to get out of bed most of the time.
The search for work had been far harder than I had anticipated and after making little progress in July and August, in September I had joined a canoeing and camping trip on the Mississippi River before heading to New Zealand for a joint 40th birthday with my school friends. I was feeling good and on my return to London I went to a camping festival that promoted living a different life, when all I wanted was a job to keep me occupied.
The loneliness I felt over November and then into December left me in a state of desperation. I’d returned to London from Asia seeking stability and I’d not achieved it.
I could write about the other Novembers, my experiences in those months in Indonesia in 2013 and 2014 and in London in 2011 and 2012 but I am not sure it would add much to what I have already described. Suffice to say they were more down than up — more at the depressive end of bipolar than the over-happy mania.
What does this all mean?
What the events of 2015 to 2017 show though is clear ‘evidence’ of my mental disease, which I am only able to see reflecting back on what actually happened. And, of course, neither me nor anyone close to me was able to see what was happening at the time and no one was aware of the condition from which I was suffering.
As I re-read what I have written above, my main thought about November 2016 and 2017 is ‘aren’t these events that pretty normal things to do?’. It’s a troubling thought to think that I can’t differentiate easily situations that might be fine for some people, but not for me.
I still can’t see exactly what I was doing last year that caused my colleagues concern (and how it was manic) as I genuinely felt ‘well’ and excited about the future. I can though recognise that I did suffer a quite extreme mood swing just before I went into The Priory, much as I did on the day when I booked the house in Portugal the year before.
The bottom line I guess is that I least now have some awareness of my condition and what I have described above is a lot of ‘data’ that shows how it affects me. The challenge now, it seems, is to remain aware of how I am feeling and, especially, to try to keep the mania ‘in check’ — so as to avoid the depression that inevitably follows.
In my experience, the depression lasts for a much longer period than the mania, and I’m less sure how to deal with it. It’s certainly not getting easier with time — the more frequently depression occurs, the more deflating it feels.
For a very long time, I held the belief that, as humans, our path in life was something we could control or predict — if we took certain actions, there would be every chance of obtaining the outcome we sought. And until 2012, life had more-or-less worked that way for me.
That was until my wife’s suicide, an event that would not only change my path in life but also fundamentally change me as a person — something I was totally ill-equipped for. In the six years that have passed since that horrific event, I have never really recovered my self confidence or any form of ‘inner essence’, at least not one that I am comfortable with.
What has happened though is the development of a new belief — that we don’t have any control of our lives, the universe is too unpredictable for that to be possible. In fact, we don’t even have the ability to influence what will happen on a particular day, which could be something as simple as a shop being closed when we had expected to be open, as was the case for me this morning.
So in many ways, I feel that I am left with only one option — to have faith that I can make the right decision when one is needed and to try to avoid making wrong decisions. And this seems to come down to be as conscious as possible each day, to reflect on how I have felt each day and, literally, to not think further ahead than what is in front of me right now.
After thought — what if there was a ‘stop’ button?
While penning this blog, I re-watched Stephen Fry’s The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive — a documentary that he filmed to better understand his bipolarity. He interviews a series of people that suffer from bipolar, many of whom are celebrities from creative industries, and asks each one whether if there was a button to stop their bipolarity, would they push it?
Surprisingly, in all but one instance, they all say “no” — they seem to need their mania to be successful in their careers or to make them feel happy. I would definitely push the stop button.
“It is a pity that we could not make your version of the film. You remind us a lot of our youngest son who is constantly thinking out of the box — we enjoy and appreciate that!”
This quote is from the film-makers that I was working with over the weekend before entering The Priory while I was in South Africa — ‘on set’ you might say. They had also said to me that they were amazed at how quickly I could ‘think on my feet’ and make the direction of the film up ‘on the fly’.
While some of my actions appeared to them to be positive attributes, they also distorted very negative aspects of my character at that time, which I was incapable of detecting but some of my work colleagues could see quite clearly. That worries me a lot.
However, it is not the main reason. Simply put, I don’t think anyone deserves to suffer from depression in their lives — it’s a terrible experience and if there was a magical button to make it disappear from my life, I’d gladly reach for it right now.