Posted by: hypomanic | February 21, 2015

20 years living, surviving and thriving with a mental illness

Weeks before a nervous breakdown

Me working late in my students digs in Harrow February 1995.

This week was the 20th Anniversary of a major nervous breakdown I suffered in 1995. Twenty years ago on the 19th February I dropped out of my final year at University in London and was carried 250 miles north into a South Lakeland psychiatric ward and put on a 28 day detainment order, under section 3 of The Mental Health Act. I was suffering from full-blown psychosis after experiencing a stress induced hypomanic episode.

What on earth happened? Well, to cut a long story short, I hadn’t been to sleep for nearly six days straight after using pro plus, amphetamines and copious amounts of coffee so I could write the best ever dissertation, so as to get a grade A honours degree, that would lead to a better career after graduation, which inevitably commands a better salary, leading to a better life in the future for me and my imagined family.

So I had a plan, but I also had a reckless young mind. I didn’t look after me, so nobody else looked out for me either. The spiral into psychosis wasn’t noticed by anyone around me because I was spending more and more of my time reclusively alone on my computer in the bedroom of my student digs in Harrow. I was caught in a perfect storm of circumstances that almost killed me and would certainly change the rest of my life forever.

What do I mean by that? Well, after a year out I returned to complete the remaining semester of my degree, I graduated with the grade I always wanted but only months later in October 1996, once again I lost my mind and ended up in hospital. This time though, the psychiatrist diagnosed me with what was called Manic Depression back then but has since been rebranded to Bipolar. The rest of my life was changed forever from that moment, I was only 24.

And now, twenty years later I’ve learned what it feels like living with it. By controlling my illness I’ve managed to experience the joy of marriage and fatherhood, I have been blessed with two healthy children and I’ve nurtured a career in the creative industries at a senior level, which I am also grateful for. But more than anything this week, I’m celebrating my own acceptance of myself. I’ve endured enough years living in stealth-mode behind the second greatest taboo after death. I wanna speak about it. If feel I owe it to the greater cause or nothing will change for the bipolar community. It’s time to talk. #TimeToTalk

I’ve been hiding my diagnosis in the day-to-day over the years. Why hide? Well, at only 24, when someone gives you the label of Manic Depression it is a huge cross to bear, especially during the social climate of the mid 1990’s. Not to mention that a young graduate has enough debilitating insecurities even before a diagnosis of mental illness is indelibly attached to them. At least I knew. Some poor people go through years of pain and destruction without ever getting the signpost.

Back then, within weeks I realised that now I was different, but not good different – unfashionably different. People drop you like a hat when they find out. There’s a conspiracy of silence from people you consider to be friends, girlfriends leave you and bosses fire you. At the time I felt like I was being run out of South Lakeland, that I had to go back to London and become anonymous within the masses.

That meant I had to survive somehow both personally and professionally avoiding the prejudice of stigma blocking my progress and therefore my personal development. My strategy since then was that you have to survive in plain sight like a Bipolar Zebra, black or white – never grey – but always in camouflage. Don’t be an extrovert, you’ll attract attention and scrutiny. Go to the library, be a book worm and read psychology, neuroscience and mindfulness with a verve as to finding out what actually happened to me in 1995. Why me? Why the fuck me? Was it something I said or did? Did I do something wrong? Did I deserve it?

I know from 20 years of research that acceptance as a manic depressive is an incredible journey for a lot of people who want to blend in and be unremarkable. Bipolar affects 1 in 100 people, so there’s a few of us around. We get together in fellowships and create bonds, the insights exchanged make each other stronger.

Am I cured? No, madness is like gravity, all it takes is a little push. However, I’ve learned you are not responsible for your illness but you are responsible for your recovery. You’ve got to get on with your life. I once went 9 years free without an episode. But it was only a window. My current window is 6 years and counting. Could it happen again? There’s a big difference between seeing a psychiatrist and a psychiatrist wanting to see you. Prevention is always better than cure in my experience. Bipolar can’t be cured.

So what is bipolar? For me, bipolar is like experiencing a good football or rugby match in a packed stadium of passionate fans. Think about it. Your emotions and your mood are affected by something you have little control over, especially if you are not on the pitch. Are you being yourself during the twisting and turning of those 80 or 90 minutes? Bipolar is not about Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde, or extremes, or movie depictions.

What caused it? The most important behavioural experience we have is sleep. At University I treated sleep with the upmost disrespect. That it was a waste of my time. Mental illness and sleep are not simply associated but they are physically linked within the brain. Sleep disruption precedes certain types of mental illnesses, including bipolar. Because I didn’t take my sleep seriously in 1995 I’ve then had to live with the consequences of my actions.

It’s widely known that people really only start to live after they’ve faced death. The majority of the last 20 years have been a beautiful and enlightening transformation into someone I would never have had the chance to become had I not had that first nervous breakdown. On the surface, a nervous breakdown implies you are weak, when in fact you are stronger for having gone through it.

The most difficult and painful lesson of all is that I’ve learned to live with something many cannot bear to be close to. They despise it and they can’t see me directly behind it. That is their target and I am caught in the crossfire. They don’t hate me. They can’t see me. They only see ‘it’. It is my bedfellow and it’s in my heart, I cannot remember what it was like before, I only know how it feels now. That’s why I try not to hide so much, to stand up and say something. For the sake of those who still feel they need to stay in the shadow.

I wash my thoughts in light. I am accountable for what I think, say and do. We can’t always blame. Be gracious, patient and grateful. Thank you for the time you just donated reading this. It means a lot to me. If you want to find out more visit www.hypomanic.co.uk.

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