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Dublin: 7°C Thursday 29 October 2020

'This is an article by someone with bipolar disorder... by someone just like you.'

There are normal people everywhere suffering every day from this disorder. You probably know some. You don’t think so? My friends didn’t think they did, either.

Lorcan Black

BIPOLAR DISORDER or manic-depression – have you ever said it on a public street loud enough for someone else to hear? Try it. Someone will pass a glance. 
I feel vaguely filthy just writing it. As though the act of writing about it in newspapers is being vaguely rebellious (welcome to sarcasm). Except it’s not rebellious and it’s not new, either.

Mental illness is as old as the hills.
 After all, you could argue it’s almost normal. Mental illness – it’s unusual but it’s probably been happening since mankind first drew art on a cave wall and threw an irrational, mania-induced wobbly over being unhappy about the turn out of the squiggle that was clearly meant to be an antelope (I’m sure even then good art just wasn’t appreciated). 
God knows it ought to be normal, it happens often enough. So why are we so uneasy talking about it?

Not everyone with this illness is some kind of angst-ridden trove of fits of despair and bouts of wild elation wandering the halls of hospitals everywhere, or people who the vast majority of the population don’t personally know. 
Reality is the middle way. 
There are normal people everywhere suffering, every day. You probably know some. You don’t think so? Take my friends – they sure didn’t think they did either.

I’m 28 years old. I live and work in London. I never finished university and when people ask why, I say vague things about not wanting to be a journalist. Which is true. 
It’s also true that I have bipolar disorder and, at that point in my life, there was little I could do except keep my head above the proverbial waterline. Saying ‘I decided I didn’t really want to be a journalist…’ sounds an awful lot better than ‘I was trying not to die’, doesn’t it?

I have kept journals since I was eleven. They weren’t fascinating – in fact they were awful – but they were honest. I was 15 years old when I first used the term ‘depressed’ to refer to myself. I battled a long time before using that word on myself: it felt like a verbal act of war.
 That verbal act of war turned out to be nothing next to what I actually physically did to myself at 17.

One night, shortly before my final exams, I left my bedroom and went down to the kitchen. I went to the cooker, took an overdose, turned on the gas on the cooker but, high from pills, realised my foolishness and chickened out.
 I rearranged the garden furniture in the rain for a while (as you do) before my parents came home, found me crying in the kitchen and smelled the gas. I was practically incoherent. 
I asked to admit myself to the hospital the next day.
 I didn’t really want to die, I just didn’t know what else I could do.

It was 2004 and I performed most of my Leaving Cert exams on a locked psychiatric ward. I recall some of it but not very much. Still, even then, at 17, suicidal and medicated to a level that would anaesthetise even Jordan Belfort, I still went through with my exams. Half of them. 
The other half, upon my release, I did in my school gym hall. Amongst three hundred students who knew, though they pretended (most of them) not to, exactly where I had been and why.

It was mortifying but I had done what I’d had to do. And, as several of my teachers who’d visited me – my English, Music and History teachers – told me, I had sought help. 
I was very, very embarrassed but I wasn’t ashamed.
 When I was in my 20s and seeing a new psychiatrist, who happened to see me go from severe depression to hypomania, decided he needed to interview my long-term partner at the time. He did this more than once. He also spoke to my parents. 
 I spent quite a few sessions in this psychiatrist’s office having what I recall to be a very nice time, spinning around on office chairs (which he later, to my own personal remorse, removed) or trying to get into the glassed-off tiny courtyards inside the lobby because I just couldn’t sit still.

I really don’t know how those other psychiatrists missed what seemed to my later doctor like glaringly obvious symptoms. 
The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar II disorder took me off what I had been on (a staggering mixture of drugs which should never have been mixed).
 My medication had been superseded by my brain’s sudden flood of chemicals to the point where not even upping the dose on my mood stabiliser had any effect on my sleep patterns. My brain was wide awake and it was choosing to ignore all tranquilisers. 
I thought I was having the time of my life. He could see I was hypomanic.

I suffer periods of extreme elation and high energy levels that could, unchecked, go on for weeks – that’s hypomania. I require much less sleep, am extremely people-seeking, my impulse control is non-existent. When I am like this I am chatty, loud, funnier than I would ever usually be, my speech is far more uninhibited and I am excited about everything. Relentlessly. Which is not much fun for anyone to have to live with in the long run; even if I am – be assured – having a wonderful time.

Like a lot of people with bipolar disorder, as you grow older the illness can evolve. I suffer more hypomanic episodes and, as of the last six or seven years, have not had one episode of depression. 
After ten years on a lot of different medications, I wanted to try something a little frowned upon: I wanted to stop taking anything at all. 
I hadn’t been depressed in years, I hadn’t been hypomanic either, I watched what I ate, tried to watch what I drank and I kept to a regular sleep routine, I exercised. I was convinced this was helping.
 It was not a universally typical decision for these doctors to make with a patient diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
 Four years on and I still haven’t had another episode. I haven’t been on anti-depressants or mood stabilisers since.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t go away any more than diabetes does but it is manageable, in my instance. As soon as it becomes unmanageable, I need to see a doctor.
 Part of the stigma of mental health in the media is all anyone ever hears are the stories of continued struggle but we can’t all win Oscars or write polemics about what it really, truly feels like to suffer with depression, or, God, even win a posthumous Pulitzer prize for poetry as some kind of vindication (‘Ooh, he’s nuts but he’s talented.’ F*ck that.) Talented to me is holding down a job and getting by happily like (apparently) everyone else.

There are doctors, dentists, receptionists, teachers and, hell, even psychiatrists out there who live with this illness and they manage every single day. None of us are beyond it. 
 Why should we be? We’re only human.
 This is an article by someone with a mental health issue like the one that someone you know has experienced.
 It’s an article by someone like you.

Lorcan Black is a twenty-eight year old writer from Kildare. His poetry has appeared in Boyne Berries, Wordlegs, Breath & Shadow and Eratio, among others. He currently lives in London.

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About the author:

Lorcan Black

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