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.

 

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I am depressed…

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Mental Health Awareness Week begins today, with this year’s theme being “relationships”. Dan McLaughlin joins the open and frank discussion about mental health with his account of facing depression.

I am depressed.

Not by the recent news announced by universities minister Jo Johnson whereby academic institutions will now be able to raise tuition fees from the already staggeringly high and class dividing £9,000-a-year – ridding this lost generation of “thinkers” and replacing them with soulless “customers”.

Nor am I depressed because of the childish penis-measuring contest they call the EU Referendum where one side compares the European Union to Nazi Germany and the other tries to scaremonger the apathetic, to whom they are responsible for creating in the first place.

Or even reflecting on yet another mediocre season for Blackburn Rovers with a departing manager and incompetent owners who are beleaguering my childhood club. We were the Leicester City of the 1990s. We are now the Lib Dems of the 2010s.

I am depressed, because…well, your guess is as good as mine.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (the artist formerly known as manic depression). Bipolarity means that I experience an extreme in moods: manic highs where I think that I am the next step in human evolution, and crippling lows where I wish natural selection will do its job and add me to the list containing dinosaurs, dodos and Katie Hopkins’ common decency.

Since last Wednesday, I have been experiencing the southside of bipolar.

Lethargy, contempt, sheer dislike of human beings (with myself claiming top prize).

Like Marley in A Christmas Carol, I feel like I am burdened with weights and chains – lowering me to a pitiful and cowering stupor. I am in a disgraceful yet loyal compliance to a mood much like the Judeo-Christian Old Testament god: punishing, petty, resentful, sulking like a pubescent teenage boy.  

From Wednesday until this mood lifts, I will not look in a mirror.

I fear that it will reflect a Dorian Gray-esque magnification of my hideous traits.

I am overweight. I have horrible teeth. I am 5′ 6”. The bastardisation of East Lancashire and the occasional Derry has created a mudblood accent, where the creeping stutter and lisp will return as the sequel nobody ordered; a bit like Transformers 2.

A black and white vignette of an old memory plays out from an old, dusty cinema projector in my limbic system.

I am in a classroom at my old high school, aged 14. Two girls, whose names and faces fail me or they have simply been deleted for something much more useful in my storage, gossip and cackle about boys they fancy – as though they are selecting poor souls from a menu, whom they will devour like their spirit animal: the black widow spider.

They scour the classroom, ticking off this checklist of crushes.

“Athletic sports guys with perfect hair and an inferiority complex?”

“Yeah, he’s cute.”

“Boy destined for renowned institutions, such as Strangeways?”

“He’s fit.”

“The Class C**t?”

“Phwoar.”

“What about Danny Mac?”

The tape is trapped in the cogs, playing their hysterical hyena laughs on loop.

And today, they are right to laugh.

As a man who usually takes great pride in his appearance, this begins to decline with the mood. The suits are replaced with baggy t-shirts, the shoes with trainers.

I have even grown a beard.

This lax attitude to aesthetics is not some vain attempt to join the lumberjack clone race they call hipsters; although I do already own a pair of stupid spectacles.

It is simply because I do not care.

The beard is almost a defence mechanism: with more inches on my face, that means people will be more inches further apart.

As Stephen Fry gravely remarked in the documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: it’s not that I want to die, it’s just that I don’t necessarily want to live.

But I can honestly say, with my hand on my heart, that Stephen Fry saved my life, and continues to save it today.

No, he did not heroically save me from drowning or some other form of misadventure.

He made me aware of my illness.

There are many ways I can attempt to combat bipolar disorder.

I could temporarily release endorphins to make me happy through exercise, sex and chocolate (or if I am feeling particularly adventurous, all three at once).

Or I could swallow happy pills prescribed from a general practitioner. I have, admittedly, tried this between the years of 2012 and 2013 and whilst I do not refute it helps others cope, I have developed my own method:

Educate, not medicate.

As one of those charming atheist creatures, I value nothing more than my rationality. What I find utterly frustrating about my decline in mood is that it is so irrational.

Why should I be unhappy? I have a caring family whom support me in whatever endeavour I partake. I am in a job I love, surrounded by people I respect and whose company I enjoy. I have my own place in a city I have grown fond of. I have a Netflix subscription. You selfish, selfish man.

There’s certainly no grievance from my early years: my childhood memories are of that of sunny days, Pear Drops and Blackpool.

I have absolutely no reason to be sad.

But neither does an asthmatic to have breathing problems; or a diabetic to require insulin; or for someone to have a severe reaction against a very specific type of nut.

Depression is illogical, but it’s not selfish – it just is.

(And an excellent argument against the intelligent design theory)

Instead of hopelessly shouting in the wind, I try to check the weather report beforehand. Being aware of bipolar disorder, being aware of the symptoms wins you half the battle. If I know what’s coming, at least I am prepared to tackle it.

To carry on the weather analogy, I cannot prevent the rain from coming – but I can wear a coat or bring an umbrella.

And like the rain, as Mr Fry observes, I know that this depression will, at some point, stop.

Mental Health Awareness Week runs between Monday, May 16 and Sunday, May 22. You can find more information about the campaign here.

 

Photo credit: PDPics.com via Wikimedia Commons

The Psychopath Test: “the right sort of madness”

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I spend fifteen hours a week sat idly on a bus. Having been on this commute since September, I really ought to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers with whom I spend 32 days of my year on public transport.

But, I fear, after four awkward months on this commute, it would seem bizarre engaging in small talk now – especially when the first leg of the bus journey takes place at 6.15am earl-aye in the morning. And I feel like I would be considerably disappointed meeting them in real life, as I have already created nicknames and back stories for my fellow travellers on the bus to purgatory:

There’s creepy old man who once spent his entire journey watching videos of Britney Spears on his phone; ‘paint me like one of the French girls, Jack’, a gentleman who spreads himself across two seats to avoid human contact; and that one girl who always sits directly in front of me, even if I change seats.

So, I’ve decided to be more proactive on #dansbusjourney, instead of bitching about it on social media. In the year of our Lord (Rassilon) 2016, I have set myself a challenge: read a new book every week and cast my critical eye upon it. I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask you, the handsome and beautiful reader, what works I should source from the literary well; and bless you, you responded.

Thankfully there were no suggestions for Mein Kampf, which has sold out upon being made available in Germany again post-WW2.

Last week it was the academically interesting yet problematic The History Manifesto. This week, it’s Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

***

Admittedly, when this suggestion popped up on the Facebook survey from Nadia Fawcett, I was somewhat concerned. Did this person enjoy the book so much that they went out of their way to encourage others to participate in reading pleasure?

Or was this a subtle hint?

Indeed, halfway through reading The Psychopath Test, I did start to question whether I tick all the boxes on Bob Hare’s PCL-R Checklist. Thankfully as Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, remarked to Ronson:

“If you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.”

Phew.

I have always enjoyed Gonzo journalism, where the journalist directly involves himself in the story. From the pioneer Hunter S Thompson to the recent Louis Theroux, Gonzo brings a more human – and I daresay less psychopathic – approach to reporting.

This is where Jon Ronson excels. His charming anxiety and scepticism are evident in his words, but he never lets them get in the way of his interesting interviewees. He allows these eccentric characters – psychopathic or otherwise – room to breathe and gives them a platform to tell their fascinating tales.

Whilst it may have been easy to mock some of the larger than life players (Scientologists, conspiracy theorists, et al), Ronson is non-judgmental in his role and lets the reader form their own opinions; although on occasion, with tongue firmly in cheek.

From the genocidal Toto Constant to the CEO who mercilessly destroyed the American company Sunbeam (and thereby an entire town), Ronson presents an intriguing array of characters.

Throughout, we follow the narrative of Tony, an inmate at Broadmoor, where we find that psychopaths are not a simple case of black and white; supposedly, psychopaths do dream in black and white.

Like Ronson, you get carried away when learning about the simplicity of the Bob Hare test and start to over-diagnose the disorder. In his case, A. A. Gill. In my case, a particularly frightening primary school teacher.

Hare is a frequent contributor throughout the book and although not psychopathic, his insights are invaluable. For a fee. He’s made a lot of money from psychopaths. You do question whether Hare is too unsympathetic, too prejudice against those who are diagnosed through his test: he appears to be more concerned with the identification rather than the cure (sadly, there does not seem to be one).

A chapter which struck a chord was ‘The Right Sort of Madness’: an analysis of how the media responds to mental health. It receives its name from Charlotte Scott, a former guest-booker at one of those daytime, Jeremy Kyle-esque programmes.

Ronson begins to wonder whether journalists have grasped that “sufferers of certain mental disorders make the most electrifying interviewees” and have devised our own Bob Hare test to identify them.

Charlotte confirms this. She recites her experience in developing her own Goldilocks Litmus test: not too mad, not too sane – just the right sort of madness.

As Ronson covers the potential psychopathy of Wall Street, it would have been interesting to see him explore whether it exists on Fleet Street – it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Psychopath Test is an entertaining and fascinating journey through madness, meeting eccentric characters with great tales to tell along the way. Ronson serves as an endearing curator of facts, anecdotes and wit.

He employs the right sort of madness and The Psychopath Test passes with flying colours.

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.

Bipolar (lock screen)

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.

Tragedy and Comedy

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.

Bipolar Dyptych 1 365

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.