Mental Health Awareness Week: We are the champions of our condition

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As Mental Health Awareness Week comes to an end, with this year’s theme focussing on ‘Surviving or Thriving’, Daniel J. McLaughlin examines the language of mental health, and his own experiences with bipolar disorder.

I will probably spend more time searching for an image to accompany this piece than the actual time it takes to write it.

A picture supposedly represents a thousands words, and a thousand words barely scratches the surface on this subject. The cliche is to use a photograph of a silhouetted man with his head in his hands. In my professional life, as a journalist for Perspecs News (#3sides #shamelessplug), I have resorted to using this image to capture the complex and sensitive topic of mental health. I have never felt entirely happy by relenting and choosing the image, but a fast approaching deadline is a scary enough incentive.

Time to Change advises journalists and publications to use alternative images to depict mental health. The mental health organisation, whose aim is to end mental health discrimination, argues that images used in stories can be “just as damaging as the words or the headlines”. As part of their ‘Get the Picture’ campaign, they offer a few of their own stock photographs. However, I find they are not particularly successful, either. Some involve a model staring enigmatically out of a window, as though they were appearing in a 1990s television series.

Courtesy of Time to Change

Mental health cannot be portrayed in a single picture. If they were offered an infinite canvas, artists with flair and creativity to rival Van Gogh would struggle. Mental health is like a Michael Bay movie: there are too many, and no-one really asked for them in the first place.

Depression is a smorgasbord of bipolar, severe, seasonal affective, post-natal, et al. Bipolar has more spinoffs than CSI: I, II, cyclothymia.

It has been described as many things: Winston Churchill called his depression the “black dog”, while Stephen Fry likens it to the weather.

Perhaps a word cannot encompass the spectrum of mental illness; maybe a punctuation mark is more suitable? Yes, you have just seen it there: the question mark. Or even, my favourite punctuation mark, after discovering its name on QI, the interrobang (?!).

I spend a lot of time thinking about mental health. I am quite open about my condition, and I have put pen to paper (and digit to keyboard) on a number of occasions.

READ: I am depressed…

After finding out that my low moods were not the result of attending a Catholic school or supporting Blackburn Rovers, I was diagnosed with depression – and given happy pills to exorcise the demons. A little while later, when the pills were ineffective, I found that depression came in many flavours; and at the age of 18, my flavour was given a name: bipolar disorder, or manic depression (bipolar being the Starburst to manic’s Opal Fruits). I was later told that my manic depression was cyclothymia, which the Americans call (of course they would) ‘diet bipolar’.

When my condition comes up in conversation – you needn’t worry, my small talk does not consist of “Good evening, my name is Dan and I am a certified nutter” – with lexis aplenty in my arsenal, I struggle to choose the appropriate verb. I do not, even thought it can be particularly unpleasant, feel that I “suffer” from bipolar; nor do I remark that I “have” bipolar, as though it is a possession or an accessory. Instead, I have opted for “I am bipolar/I am a manic depressive”. In the same way I am undoubtedly white (possibly pale blue), right-handed, a Hobbit, and – sobs – have a receding hairline, my manic depression is very much a matter of fact.

By owning my condition, I am admitting to its chronic nature. It is not a fashionable illness for one to “man up” to, contrary to the unwise words (none more so than usual) of Piers Morgan. It is as chronic as diabetes and asthma; and you would not tell someone with low blood sugar to get over it, or a choking asthmatic that “everyone gets out of breath, at times”.

The next point may make you shift uncomfortably in your seat (presuming you are sat down), and will no doubt cause a concerned phone call from a worrying mother: bipolar disorder, and other depressions, can be a terminal illness.

Suicidal thoughts, and tragically actions, are a symptom of the condition. It is a bigger killer than cancer and heart disease for men; it is a silent epidemic that takes so many lives, but its lethality is not respected.

I treat my manic depression the same way the late, great and sorely missed Christopher Hitchens (what on Earth would he think of President Trump?) calmly and maturely observed about his cancer: in all likelihood, it will not be the tumour that will kill him; he died of complications from cancer, rather than the cancer itself.

If, heaven forbid, my life is claimed, I will not die from manic depression, but complications from it. That may be suicide; that may be addiction; or it may be from old age; or getting hit by a bus. I am rather hoping that life gets to me before bipolar disorder does.

A final note on suicide (no pun intended, even with my gallows humour): when I and many others plummet to the depths of these dark thoughts, we are not obsessing over whether or not we want to die. Sometimes, we simply do not want to live. In the depths, I look forward to sleep and when I awaken, I greet the morning with a resigned, “Oh, you again.”

By offering a frank account of the ups, downs, and inbetweens of bipolar disorder, I understand that I run the risk of looking as miserable as Morrissey. As a journalist, my news head dictates and we do tend to have Spidey senses for the macabre. The dark experiences are more interesting than the stable Dan, eating Pringles and watching Netflix. As much as I am a narcissist, I do not think for one minute that you will be enthralled by my adventures to the local shop, or by my enjoyment of Paul Jones, Clare Teal and Jools Holland on BBC Radio 2.

And when I am manic, well, I am far too busy thinking that I am the next step of human evolution, kissing all the wrong girls, and singing to myself (and other unfortunate souls) on a motorway bridge.

I agree with the former England cricketer, Andrew Flintoff, that we should not refer to mental health as a “stigma”. While he chose “struggle” to describe it, and as I have previously voiced my opposition to those type of words, there needs to be a word that reflects the sheer bravery and determination of my fellow nutters.

I have been heartened by many of my friends coming out of the mental health closet and openly discussing their illness. It takes a helluva lot of balls to be honest, especially in front of family and friends. Thank you, and KBO (keep buggering on).

We are not strugglers, we are not sufferers – we are champions. No need to burst out into song, I’ve got that covered when Mr Manic calls.

A commonly used statistic often quoted in awareness weeks such as this is: one in four people have a mental health problem. While I appreciate it is there to tell people they are not alone, I feel it takes away the dogginess and individuality of the fighters. We challenge the mundanities of everyday life – the rent, the mortgage, the 9-to-5 – as well as duelling with something that is not at all mundane: our conditions. One in four, of course, fight, but every unique person is special and significant.

Our dearly departed hero, in both the Star Wars movies and the mental health fight, Carrie Fisher wrote in her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking:

“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder.

“In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. Not unlike a tour of Afghanistan (though the bombs and bullets, in this case, come from the inside).

“At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of. They should issue medals along with the steady stream of medication.”

I have just come up with an image for this article: a bruised and battered soldier ready to take on yet another charging army. The soldier has a wry smile. Trying to find a copyright free image of this will be a bit of a bugger, and I possess no artistic talent.

Mental health is a gladiator battle, and whatever we face in the arena – we are the champions.

 

Grief: trying to muzzle the great, black dog

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When I write a blog post, the process usually involves putting pen to paper first, and then using the time to type as a second chance to edit. A bit old-fashioned, a bit cumbersome, but it tends to iron out the mistakes, and helps me avoid repetition.

On this occasion, I have decided against using this method. What you see now is exactly what was jotted down in Playfoots Cafe in Monton on Sunday afternoon. Writing this was cathartic for now, and I feel like I will do myself – and you, the dear reader – a disservice by tampering with the stream of consciousness. There will be errors and repetition. It will not be the most eloquent piece of writing you have ever read – but I can promise you this: it will be honest. The words in front of you will be what was running through my mind, at high speed, at the time.

I try to separate the personal from the professional, and I worry that I am perhaps being too open. In the same way I have always been open about my experiences with bipolar disorder, I should apply that to grief. This is my experience that I had to chronicle; mainly for self-indulgent reasons.

“How are you?”

A seemingly innocuous question. It is the ultimate fallback of small talk. When one has nothing interesting to say, or are perhaps too shy to say it, they reduce themselves to the welfare of others. It is not a loaded question, we do not expect a life story – like the sex life of the average Brit, we expect the response to be short and sweet.

If three syllables seems somewhat overt, you can opt for the simple “Alright?”. Amusingly, this phrase drew the ire of a cast member during Kevin Spacey’s Richard III world tour – in the documentary about the Anglo-American production – who deemed it almost aggressive. “What do you mean if I am alright? Is there something not to be alright about?!”

Not the only enquiry to cause confusion among our international guests. During my time as a student, I befriended many visitors to Great Britain (and Greatest Lancashire). The kind-hearted offer of “want owt from shop?” was met with creased foreheads and startled looks; lacking from linguistic textbooks or tutorage of professors with Mid-Atlantic and received pronunciation accents.

Our colonial cousins’ confusion is only matched with our perplexity towards their niceties. Upon entering a store in the US, I have been accosted with “Hello, sir! How are you? Have a nice day!” I found from my experiences across the water that you must never, ever respond to this vacuous crap and ask how they are in return. Resembling a rabbit in headlights, they do not know the appropriate; it was a statement, not a question.

The Englishman is a selfish, inward race, only caring about their own needs. The American, whom I have grown to adore irrespective of their electoral choices, is outward facing, far too willing to please. The Englishman is very rarely willing to call anyone “sir”, because it highlights their inferiority. The American, thankfully, is not as tedious or petty in maintaining a complex class system, and therefore offer the vocative address in abundance.

I am digressing, of course.

This is because I am not willing to answer the original question.

I could reply with the typically Lancastrian “not too bad, ta”; our pessimism not allowing us to admit to anything being good – if it is, we can only use the phrase “alreight”.

But I am not a liar. From the age of 18, I decided never to lie; which has, no doubt, ended relationships and friendships prematurely.

In truth, I am not okay. I am not okay, whatsoever.

My dear Nan, the living embodiment of selflessness, loyalty and love, has died. My inspiration, my best friend, my joie de vivre has been taken away from me, aged 85. I am heartbroken, devastated, angry, aggressive, depressed and forlorn – and undoubtedly, selfish.

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Grief is a selfish process. I will never see her again. am in so much pain. Though I equip lexis, pretentiously, in my arsenal, I cannot arm myself with any to describe this suffocating and debilitating experience that – that pronoun again – have to endure. Not once have I considered Nan will not see her family, Nan will not spend another day on Earth – or more importantly, Nan is now free of pain.

In times of deep sadness, in the absolute worst of times, I have found that it shows people at their best. Shrouded in darkness, I am grateful that I have not been totally eclipsed in blackness. There have been flickers of light from the immeasurable kindness of family, friends and even strangers. When wars are declared, and people flee from the terror, there are always those running in its direction willing to offer aid and generosity.

I have to confess, I do not usually know how to react when people send their ‘thoughts and prayers’. When a crises hits, a much too regular occurrence, Twitter feeds are filled with pointless hashtags #PrayForX. This wills on inaction, an armchair thought instead of an on-the-feet response. If positive thinking worked, I would have a six-pack, be a millionaire, and be married to Jenna-Louise Coleman. This armchair positive thinking is what fuels the so-called happiness industry, which can be dangerous with its false promises of the universe looking after you. If you do not reap the rewards you lust for, you do not have enough faith. Sickening.

I deplore those who slavishly bleat “but everything happens for a reason”. What a lazy line of thinking, taking absolutely no responsibility for your actions. If everything is predetermined, I would hate to meet this omnipotent petulant child. The working class have religion whilst the middle class have spirituality. The impoverished and less affluent need to believe in a higher power that looks over them because they are truly alone; the self-important, and I daresay delusional, middle class need to believe they are the centre of the universe and everything revolves around their humdrum, dull and insignificant little lives. And don’t get me started with karma (again, slothful redistribution of blame) or those patronising, smug Facebook memes with their so-called inspirational messages; although the person who posts them has achieved bugger all and wastes away to insignificance.

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

Courtesy of DJBenz on Imgur (http://imgur.com/gallery/MlQR4)

I am being rude. I am lashing out. I am not sorry.

There is no guide how to grieve properly, no etiquette to respect the dead. We are not willing to address our own mortality, therefore we do not plan the necessary decorum.

A person has “passed away”, we have “lost” our Nan (in the supermarket?!), she is “on the other side”. Our sugar-coating becomes a bizarre variation of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch: he is an ex-parrot, he has ceased to be.

Death is a violent act. Not necessarily the cause of the demise, but to the mourners. We are suddenly bereft of a mother, an auntie, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has been suddenly removed from our lives without consultation. Our constant, our rock, has vanished.

I wanted to ring my Nan the other day, as I often did throughout the week. The conversation was always the same, but it was always comforting. Not even being able to say hello broke my heart in two, as I tried to contain my anguish whilst travelling on the bus. I was not successful.

And so, we rely on our memories. I remember Nan on Christmas Day, beaming with joy at the family opening their gifts. And then, she was gone.

She was not well over Christmas, a fact made clear when I returned home for the holidays. One of the most beautiful pieces of television ever created – and one of the rare things to make me cry (alongside the film Pride) – Royle Family’s Queen of Sheba was broadcast on BBC. This episode mirrored everything we were going through, and reduced me to a hopeless mess. On Christmas Eve, the family watched Nativity 2 on DVD. Admittedly not one of the finest films ever made, but as the twins were born and the sparring brothers (also twins) reunited, my mother and I sobbed uncontrollably (both of us twins, but sadly my brother Anthony not making it past birth), exhausted at what we were facing.

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Throughout this festive period, I have been an exposed nerve, with even a faint breeze of wind causing sorrow and pain.

I got to say goodbye to Nan, and as she closed her eyes for the last time, she was surrounded by her family. As she let go, my body reacted in shock. In a complete incomprehension on how to deal with the enormity of grief, I simply stopped functioning. If my father was not behind me, I would have crumpled to the floor. Every eon of me wanted to scream. Inside, I was on fire, Outside, I was cold. Something guttural needed to shriek in despair, but when reaching my vocal chords, it whimpered through a cracked voice. I could not function, I did not want to function.

Grief is not just one emotion, it is a multitude, all attacking you for different positions. My head pounds, my very insides twist and twist and twist. I am at my most primal. I have been reduced to a wounded animal.

And like most wounded animals, I lash out. I am not an angry person: grumpy, yes; passionate, indeed. The red mist, however, I do not tend to experience. This alien emotion has crept up on me.

I am, undoubtedly, a coward. When given a choice of fight or flight, I have already booked an all-inclusive package holiday to Majorca. I will drink a lovely Sangria at the Blue Bar, Palma Nova situated just on the beach front. As the news hit, much to my shame I explored the possibilities of escapes to Europe; the key word being “escapes”.

Instead, I am feeling terribly tense and hyped up. I have not slept properly. One night, after giving up, I went downstairs to the kitchen table to write my Nan’s eulogy for her funeral. This was 1.30am. I did not return to bed until three hours later.

I am a lover, not a fighter. Okay, a lover is being too generous. But right now, if Conor McGregor offered a chance for a spur, I don’t think I would turn him down. Much like my schooldays, I would be beaten to a pulp; unlikely my schooldays, I would most likely attempt to fight back.

Grief is selfish, and grief is irrational.

This antagonistic behaviour is further exasperated by my current aesthetics. I did not leave the house for a week after my Nan’s death. I was unshaven, with unruly hair, and appalling baggy clothes. To those who know me, I am a man who prides himself on his appearance; and for a week, I let myself go. After she lost her husband Albert, Queen Victoria wore black. Although interpreted as a sign of respect, I understand her logic: it is the equivalent of telling people to fuck off. Even with my pitiful attempt at facial hair, it meant, at least, I was separated from humanity even with just a few millimetres.

And then, I remember.

Every time I visited my Nan, even after one day of not shaving, she would inspect my face checking for stubble and say, “Ew, tufty”. My brother Ciaran with a full beard would never get this treatment – in fact, she rather liked his beard – but if I was not clean-shaven, there would always be a comment.

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I have learnt a great deal about presentation from my Nan. She might not leave the house, but she would always look impeccable. You might never know what guests to expect – one year, my Nan was visited by the carnival queen desperate for the loo during the parade. She dressed for the occasion each and every day.

So, I have left the house. Gillette rejoices at their prodigal son and my barber is happy for the custom. The unmistakable pain is still ever so present, haunting me like the great, black dog of depression.

But I will not be hounded without a fight. Returning to a routine thanks to a simple, silly memory, I have found a muzzle.

It’s still here, this unfathomable bottomless grief and by gosh it hurts, but I need to train the great, black dog. Small steps. Let’s start with “give us a paw”.

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It’s Time to Talk about Manic Depression

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It is rather easy to book an appointment with your GP. You just ring them up, and ask the receptionist to book you in between the old lady with her ‘ailment of the day’ and the kid addicted to Calpol. It is rather easy to attend this appointment with the doctor. You simply hail a cab, drive, walk or catch the bus. Entering the consulting room requires little energy and physical complications.

But sitting down and admitting to this relative stranger that you are “feeling a bit sad”. Well, that proves to be a bit difficult.

When I was 18, I was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a form of bipolar disorder. In layman’s terms, it is Diet Manic Depression. A sugar free version of the ups and downs, if you will. But what did this mean? Have I finally been classed as insane? Are they going to give me one of those jackets that make me hug myself?

Naturally, I did my research. This involved watching the delightful Stephen Fry front a documentary called The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive and spending most of my days on some sort of Wikipedia treasure hunt. I found out that I was certainly not alone on my journey.

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There were other ‘sufferers’ out there. Although, I hasten to add that I dislike using the term ‘sufferer’. I believe that without cyclothymia, I simply would not be Dan McLaughlin; I would not have my creativity, my passion, and my imagination. To deem this as suffering is inaccurate. Yes, I experience the crippling lows resulting in my human hating moods. During these times, I think I am an utter cunt (I never use that horrible word unless I am having a down day) but I understand that I am intelligent, and without cyclothymia, I would be the shell of Dan.

I could use this blog to chronicle the ups and down and in-betweens of bipolar, but not today. Today, I am coming out as a manic-depressive: I am a certified nutter, and bloody proud of it! Since it is a day to recognise the condition, I ought to tell you how I was diagnosed.

After four years of not quite knowing what was wrong of me, I was pushed by an ex-girlfriend to whom I am eternally indebted for giving me a kick up the arse. She had noticed the extravagant moods where I was at 200mph whilst the world was at 30mph. She cottoned on to the deepest depression, where I would hide away from anyone human. After an episode where I punched my best friend in the face, to which he responded with a hug (seriously, the best antidote to violence), I had to face it: I was not well.

To diagnose the common cold, one looks for the symptoms, which could include a fever and earache. Or for bronchitis, the lack of voice pretty much gives it away. But the bipolar symptoms are pretty crafty buggers. Sitting opposite the doctor, it is somewhat embarrassing to admit you feel a bit sad or you have ups and downs to an extreme.

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To tackle bipolar, you have to understand it. It is almost an intellectual battle with your psyche. The first step to this understanding is diagnosis; this raises awareness.

Admittedly, this is not my most sophisticated piece of writing but I hope it is reassuring. To my fellow brave bipolarites, you are not alone. It is bloody difficult, I ain’t gonna lie. But we are clever buggers, and we can persevere and give the Vs to the low moods. If you feel you are in immediate danger or providing danger, get help as soon as possible. There is nothing cowardly admitting to one’s illnesses. Yes, there is a stigma but there always will be. People don’t read enough, and they never will.

Just remember: when it rains, it pours. But the rain will go away. The rain never stays, and you know there is sunshine at the end of this. You can hinder the rain by umbrellas, and it will cease. You just have to wait.

With love,

DJM.

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Photo Credits:

‘Bipolar’ courtesy of Brett Jordan via Flickr.

‘Tragedy and Comedy’ courtesy of Tim Green via Flickr.

‘Photo of man looking sad and happy’ courtesy of Capra Royale via Wikimedia Commons.