Sometimes the story feels too big, like I’d need a huge book in which to tell it. Sometimes it feels like the story was too long ago to start telling it now, like perhaps it never really happened. Most of the time the story just feels too hard to tell, because it doesn’t really work as a story. There’s no convenient beginning, middle and end, just a big mish mash of memories and emotions. I’d like to tell you every detail of everything that happened, so you could really understand what happened.
For a long time I held on to those details, as if I’d eventually be called to a psychiatric day of reckoning where I could lay it all out and be exonerated of any wrongdoing. But those details would need that huge book and perhaps it is too long ago now after all. So I’ll write a different story.
This one is still about me, but it’s not so much about the things that happened to me. I could tell you about the sorrows of ‘depression’ and the bleak despair that leads to contemplating ending it all. But if you’re a human being, you’ll probably already know something of this. I could tell you about the soaring heights of ‘mania’ and the enthralling sense of wonder and connection to all things. But if you’re reading this book you probably already know that stuff and if you don’t, you’d never believe me. I could also tell you about how people get treated when these experiences become overwhelming, ‘nuthouse’ tales of psychiatric wards, forced treatment and seclusion. But if you don’t already know about this, you probably don’t want to.
The story I want to tell you is about how to be mad and love it. Because I am and I do.
I guess the first thing to say is that I am mad.
The doctors call it bipolar affective disorder, Type 1 if we’re being specific. My parents’ generation are still more comfortable with ‘manic depression’, though most people these days would simply call it bipolar. I prefer mad. For a start it’s more accurate. Bipolar and the like are basically variations on ‘illness and disorder’ and I don’t see my experiences that way. It makes me think I’m supposed to have ‘athlete’s foot of the mind’ or some such nonsense. I also claim a little more ownership and pride in my experiences than a sickness would allow. It’s rare, but perhaps not completely unheard of, to hear a person proudly assert that ‘toe fungus made me the person I am today!’ Besides which I don’t just celebrate my madness because it’s given me chances to ‘overcome adversity’ or more nauseatingly ‘grow as a person’ – I celebrate the essence of it, the stuff of it, the it-ness of it. Again, I’ve yet to meet someone that connected with a parasitic fungal infection.
So I’m mad. And I love it.
It’s still a strange thing to say. I live in the same world as you, the one that tells us over and over that madness is a ‘bad thing’. We learn it in the school yard, chanting those familiar names – nutter, schizo, psycho. The names become more meaningful as we get older, used to describe adolescent differences and then with an edge of fear – fear for those we should avoid and fear for what we might become. What’s there to love in all of this? I’ll tell you . . .
The love comes from acceptance, inclusion and celebration.
These are the things I want to share in my story. It’s not a recipe, as you’ll have other ingredients and ways of cooking them. But it is what has kept me well fed these past few years.
Acceptance – you’re probably thinking ‘ah yes, if only other people would accept me for who I am’. That would be nice, but I wouldn’t hold your breath. And I’m not talking about acceptance in a feel-good Oprah kind of way, though again it can’t hurt. I’m talking about accepting what’s going on in your life, in a Clint Eastwood kind of way, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Like many people the hardest thing I had to accept was the diagnosis. I still like to challenge the language of labels, but the experiences they describe are relatively similar, and I still remember how difficult the idea of ‘depression’ was for me.
|What a suicidal person looks like.|
My mum had made an appointment with the GP and I’d barely got the words ‘I don’t feel like I can cope anymore’ out of my mouth before he’d written the script and told me to take one a day. On the walk home I clenched the paper bag in my hand and made a pact with myself. If it’s Prozac, I’ll kill myself. Prozac meant depression, and depression meant failure and I couldn’t bear the idea that I’d failed. As I walked I tore the bag and cautiously pulled the box out revealing the sticky label. I tentatively looked down and saw the letters – F . . . l . . . u . . . o . . . I hadn’t known such joy for weeks! It was as if bright rays of sunshine suddenly poured from the sky as the birds sang a gleeful tune. I literally felt lighter, my feet no longer dragging along the street. I didn’t actually start skipping but I could have. I beamed from ear to ear – it wasn’t Prozac! I felt like stopping strangers in the street and telling them – ‘it’s not Prozac; I’m going to be ok; it’s not Prozac!’ With great relief I began opening the box to take my first fluo-thingy whatever-it-was not-Prozac pill. As I pulled out the foil blister pack my heart sank – the clouds reappeared, the birds disappeared and my feet resumed trudging along. It was Prozac. I’d seen the generic chemical name of ‘fluoxetine’ on the chemists’ box, but the brand name was ‘Prozac’.
That day I hit rock bottom but rather than give up completely I decided I’d delay my final plans until I’d finished those pills. Not because I thought they would work, but because I decided I would try anything, even failed-person’s happy pills, if it meant there was a chance things would get better for me. I accepted the way my life was right at that moment, no longer literally and metaphorically hiding my head under the duvet pretending it wasn’t going on. For most mad people we’re talking about a lifetime experience, or if you prefer your language dressed in a white lab coat with a stethoscope round the collar, a chronic condition. What has been before is likely to be again and if or when it happens, accept it. You don’t have to like it, but don’t ignore it. It is a part of who you are, like the colour of your eyes or your happiest memory.
And so to inclusion. Again, you’re probably thinking ‘surely now he’s going to start talking about other people and getting them to change their discriminatory ways and let me part of the world just as I am’. Yep, that’d be nice, and if you can wait another 50 years or so it might just happen. Until then I’m looking at inclusion from a conformity perspective, at what it takes from us to be included. One of the greatest struggles I faced was coming to terms with the psychiatric system and receiving forced treatment, known as being ‘sectioned’.
|Mental Health Awareness Week - Oct 2014|
It wasn’t the first psychiatric ward I’d been on. I’d originally been ‘sectioned’ in another city where I’d ‘come to the attention of the authorities’, which is a polite way of saying I’d been arrested for being mad. After a few days and a brief period when I absconded to the holiday town of Blackpool, I was moved to the city I lived in and took up residency on the ward. I knew I was in for a long haul because I got a private room rather than a bunk in the dormitory.
I was on a twenty-eight day section, which gave the hospital twenty-eight days to ‘assess and treat’ me. Following the success of my trip to Blackpool I scheduled a series ‘psychiatric holidays’ to fill the four weeks, after which I believed I would be released. Scotland was nice, as was Wales. What wasn’t nice was finding out on the 27th day that I could be sectioned again, but this time it would have to be ninety days. I lost it. My frustration and distress was rewarded with an injection of god-knows-what as I lay pinned to the floor. I came round about two days later, and shared a cigarette with a man named John who’d been in psychiatric institutions since he was nineteen. He was sixty-seven when I met him. He took a drag from his roll-up and almost whispered in his smoky exhalation his advice to me – ‘Play the game son, play the game’.
It took me another fifty or so of those ninety days, and plenty more ‘psychiatric travels’, to really heed that advice. When I did it was with all the cynicism that it deserved. If I wanted to get off that ward I had to give the doctors and nurses what they wanted. I had to conform, or at least appear to conform. So I did – I behaved myself, took my medicine and acted as normally as I could, until they had no reason to keep me. They and I both knew that I had not substantially changed who I was; I had simply modified my behaviour to meet their expectations. Some would say this alone shows I was less mad than I had been, and that may well be true. But the lesson I took from it was that to get what you want, you have to fit in with the system and those who control it.
Or at least appear to fit in.
I’ve found this to be true across all systems – the closer you can get fitting in (or looking like you do) the more likely you are to get the benefits that system has to offer. You want benefits? Play the social welfare game. You want a job or a career? Play the employment game. You want a home? Play the housing game. You want personal development or spiritual growth? Play the life game. None of these games are fair and they can be even less fair for mad people to either accept or play but these are the games we’ve got. While we are busy trying to change the rules and create a more even playing field, we must also play them as best we can if we want to be in it to win it.
|Celebrating MadPride Madjestically|
The final part of loving madness is its celebration.
I guess this is the hardest part of selling the ‘mad and loving it’ message. Most people can learn to accept their situation for what it is and take action when they feel it is needed. It may be pills, therapy, reaching out to a friend or reaching deep inside to some inner strength. I’ve used them all and more, and no doubt will do again.
Most people can take look at the world, give a hefty shrug and say ‘Yep, it’s not right, but what you gonna do?’ and find a way to exist, to find a place. As mad people we know the alternative that denial and resistance brings. I know people who make that choice now, and I can’t say I envy them. They may claim to be ‘truer’ to who they are, more ‘authentically’ mad, and that may be so. But I’m happy with my diluted madness, avoiding the sharp extremities of my ups and downs and a life on the fringes of society but only if I can celebrate my madness.
If you are mad, you’ll know what I mean. I’ve given a couple of snippets of my mad experiences in this story, neither of them pleasant. These were chosen to illustrate that at its most trying times, madness has a way forward. Hope in the darkest hour, clarity amidst the chaos. But beyond the stereotypical tale of a plucky psychiatric patient overcoming adversity, there is much to celebrate for being mad. I’ve found the journey itself remarkable, I’ve done and been more than I could ever have imagined and met the most beautiful and bizarre people along the way. The ways in which I’ve been able to think and feel have revealed to me a breadth and depth to my character and humanity that I may not have otherwise encountered.
Often people think I’m only talking about the heightened states of ‘mania’ when I start waxing lyrical on the upside of madness. It’s hard to deny, as human experiences go, mania has its fair share of positives. For me though, madness is a total experience. The low times that are called ‘depression’ taught me much about myself, showing me what was truly important, literally life-saving and giving me a sense of how far I could go within my own resiliency. I also learnt a lot about human relationships, about the giving and receiving of compassion and the unfathomable reasons for the intertwining of people’s lives. The high times also taught me about myself, showing me again what was important, those things that I find life-affirming and how far I could go within my own creative imaginings. I also learnt equally about human relationships, about the things that inspire and excite people, what draws them towards me and what pushes them further away.
Over the years these experiences have come to be bedded down within me – I no longer see them as remarkable or unusual, because for me they no longer are. I don’t see them as separate from who I am because they saturate the whole of me. I choose to embrace this saturation, to celebrate the person it has helped forge and the people it has brought into my life. And I encourage others to celebrate it too. Write a song or a story; express it paint or dance; find the humour in it all; and share with others the richness of madness. Or simply find a moment now and again to feel some joy at being mad. It’s not always pleasant; it’s not always easy. I’ve yet to meet a person whose life is. But it is who you are, and if you love yourself, then love your madness and celebrate them both.
So this was the story I could find in myself right now. It’s not the huge book that tells the story that starts ‘once upon a time’, and in many ways I’m glad. It tells you about a couple of things that happened and, hopefully, more about being mad and loving it. And the key message? Be true to yourself; play the game, and celebrate that your madness.
Or if you must, your ‘athlete’s foot of the mind’.
[This article first appeared in "Caught Between Sunshine and Shadows" compiled by Georgie Tutt]