Someone recently asked me what it felt like to be Bipolar. If I'm honest, I was shocked—it felt like a fundamentally basic question that no one had asked me before. Manic Depression, Bipolar, whatever you want to call it—it’s something I live with, but rarely admit to people. I suppose "live" is the operative word in that sentence; I prefer it to suffer, affected, or handicapped. Those words always make me feel like I should be ill with a temperature, or worse. However, in a way I do suffer, am affected, and when I'm in a depressive swing—handicapped.
In answer to the question, I replied that it felt like being lost in a barren midwinter forest at night. It's freezing cold and it's snowing. I know that may sound romantic, but it's not. Stephen Fry may have his black dog, but the one thing I have learnt is that we're all different and being manic-depressive affects us all in different ways. Please understand, readers, this isn't a sympathy piece. I've never looked for sympathy. Manic Depression is as part of me as say, my left foot. I was born with it (ok, so it didn't show up until I was 16), there is no magic cure, and it can only be managed to a point.
I suppose I'm writing this because Mental Health is doing the rounds in the media. It can often feel like the celebrity "Cause-du-Jour." In the UK, one can't fail to notice Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax or Catherine Zeta-Jones championing better understanding of mental health. I want to add the common person's voice to this; yes, understanding what it means to me is the key—one voice amongst others.
You may be asking why I rarely admit to people that I am bipolar. Experience has told me that people rarely want to know about it. The look they get in their eyes ranges from: "Oh my God, he's going to go crazy on me," "Nutter," "Erm, what does that mean?" or the best one: "Well, you don't look ill to me." And therein lies the rub—misunderstanding. We don't look ill, we don't look like raving lunatics, and we don't look depressed or walk around clutching our heads. I frequently ask myself what depressed must look like. Should we walk around with a downturned mouth in a childish version of looking sad? Conversely, I think it's six of one, half a dozen of the other—people don't ask or choose to ignore and we don't tell.
I'm Bipolar 1, meaning I'm one of those people who suffer serious manic episodes and severe depression. Unmedicated, I can have endless months of depression, followed by a couple of months of extreme manic behaviour (and yes, really stupid stuff can go down). I'm medicated to the hilt, I rattle like a maraca. The problem with medicating manic depression is that it's not a cure-all. I can understand why some people choose not to go down the meds route. When I see my Psychiatrist, I'm offered three options—medication that will keep me on the minor manic side, medication that makes me feel nothing, or medication that keeps me on the depressed scale. I don't like the manic side of me, I feel scary, unpredictable, fearless—at times dangerously so. I avoid that feeling at all costs. I spent most of 2014 on the "empty of emotion" medication. Actually, I prefer to call it the zombie meds. No, really, you're incapable of feeling anything. It's an odd feeling: your head is constantly trying to make you feel something, i.e. it's your birthday, you should feel this; this has happened, you should be feeling sad. Nope, nothing. It's horrible. Therefore, my last option is to feel depressed. At least I can feel something. Unfortunately, whereas mania can be contained to certain degree, depression can't. Even on medication, I can veer from mildly depressed to crushing rock-bottom depression within a day.
Please don't think this is a depressing tale. It's not meant to be. I'm eternally hopeful and humour is my coping mechanism. I have to laugh about it, or yes, I would cry.
I try to live by the code of "fake it to make it." I'm adept at hiding my depression most of the time—smiling on through life and appearing upbeat, when in reality all I want to do is curl into a ball and feel lost. I can't change that feeling. That's not to say I can't smile or laugh whilst depressed—funnily enough, that happens quite a lot. However, unlike some people, I can't keep hold of that happy feeling. It's fleeting, blink and you'll miss it—gone.
I think the hardest thing people find hard to grasp is that I don't have anything to be particularly "down" about. My life is ok (if you could see me now, I'm clutching onto the largest piece of wood, and no that's not innuendo). The Lover is wonderful. Occasionally he'll admit he loves me and has given me so many laughter lines I look like the railway map of Great Britain; my family is, well, family and everything else is ticking along as it should do. It's a human predisposition to seek the cause of an illness—there must be something wrong! Smile! It will get better! Pull yourself out of it! You're not ill!
Should I go on? Those are the most frequent things said to me when I explain that I'm manic depressive. Actually, I've started smiling and clapping like one of those old-world wind up monkeys when someone tells me to smile! I don't think it helps that I have resting bitch face. No, really. People always think that something's wrong, I'm unhappy or just plain miserable when I'm not actually thinking about anything. You'd think that the higher powers would have given me a break! But no...
I do find humour in my depression—I'm afraid it's my coping mechanism: the regular comedy telephone calls from the Doctor asking me whether I'm suicidal, shocked looks when I tell a mean depression joke (I don't see why I shouldn't—you should hear my wicked homosexual jokes), or even how I'm probably the least crazy person in the Psychiatrist's waiting room. I don't sit there like the adverts suggest—clutching my head and looking down. I look like a normal person, funnily enough. I can smile, I can laugh. I just have my forest that I retreat to.
I know that no one is normal, just some of us are less normal.
Oh and the forest and I have an entente cordiale. It now leaves me a blanket so I can keep warm.
Now cheer up!