Backpacking and Bipolar II. Taking Manic Depression on tour.
Picture a short, chubby faced, happy little soul with hair bordering on ginger. He’s got a bit of a fat tongue and is quite eager to please adults, with whom he will readily converse. There is an absence of the usual childish shyness and intimidation around the big-folk as well as a certain knowing confidence in his language. This child is loved, protected, indulged and taught well. He’s quite bright, this one. He is all set to lead an impressive life. This is who I was. The reader not the rugby player. I remember the pride when I was sent to a grammar school rather than the local comprehensive high school. I can vividly recall the day things changed. I can pinpoint the crushing, ear-ringing moments when I believe the seed of my illness was planted and the trajectory of my life was irrevocably altered.
I was sat at home next to my dad. He rolled his chair over my trouser leg, pinning me in place as I stood up to leave the room obviously exerting some jovial, male dominance as playful teasing. When I looked at his face though – his eyes were bulging and bloodshot, his face was purple, his lips were blue. I had just enough time to process this before he fell forward and slammed his head into the corner of the room. I screamed for help; I couldn’t lift him out of the corner by myself.
One of my many uncles took my brother and I under an arm each in the morning. His words quivered like taut cables as he told us: “I think you know why we’re all here and what I have to tell you. Your dad’s not coming home, he died last night.”. The house was full of moth-like family, flapping around my mother and baby sister but never settling nearby for long, avoiding eye contact with me.
My brother immediately wept. I can remember the clamor of it being in stark contrast to my own silence. This was all too much to process. This was so REAL an event it seemed surreal. The only thing I felt like I now knew was that I didn’t know ANYTHING about life anymore. The significance of what has just happened radiated out into my world view like an earthquake. I just remember the adrenaline and the unusual feeling that things were never going to feel the same way again. Over the coming months, my mother withdrew into an impenetrable cloud of silent despair and alcoholism. I’ve never begrudged her that. This left my siblings and I to our own devices.
In the History chapter of A.Solomon’s excellent book on depression “The Noonday Demon” he explains that melancholic behaviour (read: depression) and voluntary submission for psychotherapy was seen by the working classes as a middle class self-indulgence and a sign of bourgeois weakness. My experience supports this assertion. My extended family consisted of miners, electricians, bricklayers, engineers and labourers. None of these vocational ecosystems left a man particularly well equipped or prepared to speak about emotions. Grit your teeth, man-up and crack on. – words never said but nonetheless absolutely implicit as maxims for dealing with day to day life. The majority of my extended family were single men.
It is crucially important to also explain that there was never a mention of bereavement counseling. It didn’t exist in our world. So heavily indoctrinated are the people where I was born that this didn’t ever seem unusual or unacceptable until I started work on this article. Where I lived no one knew what to do with grief and therefore it became everyone’s own, private emotional straight jacket. Every man for himself. It felt as though everyone gave up on us and it seemed that the assumption was that we were now a broken and irreparable family. Our lives were, apparently and understandably, ruined. This hard-line, determinist, anti-psychiatric point of view was so strongly held that my dad’s side of the family disowned us, as they couldn’t bare to see us for the pain of being reminded of their dead brother. At the time this led to further confusion, frustration and isolation on my part. I internalised the notion that I had no chance of a ‘normal’ life like everyone else.
I behaved how most angry, hurt, thirteen year old kids would. I was frightfully unoriginal. I discovered alcohol very quickly (love at first taste), I entered into an immediately sexual relationship with an older girl and I developed a nihilistic streak which, when activated, can still leave me exposed to ABSURD levels of danger. Mixing parents’ prescription drugs and painkillers with alcohol to get ‘more f**ked up’ and regularly drinking until passing out before awakening and continuing to drink until blacking out again. I had been in the front row for a presentation showing that working your entire life only to drop dead when it finally starts paying a dividend was ridiculous. I took on the attitude of DARING the world to come for me like it had done my dad. I didn’t care.
Carpe Diem for me was a limitation, not an empowering prompt; Seize ONLY today. The party animal persona suited me and I leapt into the role with reckless abandon. In retrospect I was extremely confused about life and if someone had sat me down and worked through this confusion with me, things might have been completely different. Unfortunately, I was left to guide myself through a paradigm shift and my capacity to do this well was severely lacking. If existential terror is an issue, existential bewilderment was just as bad. What was the purpose in working for a future you won’t have? Is my dad still aware of my behaviour somewhere? What was the point in caring about anything other than the next few days? Why were people worrying about all this irrelevant crap like education, career and future. None of it could protect you from life. The world of futures and plans had stopped making sense to me so I withdrew from it completely.
I was told that my paternal grandfather and his dad had also died young. My dad was forty two years old when he died. I became superstitiously convinced that we were paying a debt for some crime a distant ancestor had committed. This is my first evidence of what I would consider now to be psychosis. I didn’t believe in karma. I didn’t believe in gods or devils or fate. I did however take on the automatic assumption that my belief in this particular instance was absolutely true. I didn’t question it for another thirteen years. It affected my relationships (particularly with alcohol) and every other facet of my chaotic life. When other’s were talking about “the rest of your life” – what that meant to me in very literal terms was, at best, twenty six years of belligerent alcohol abuse and just scraping by.
Thus begins what I see now as evidence of my illness. I got away with the most extreme behaviour imaginable at both ends of the emotional spectrum. Why? “Oh his dad died, leave him alone, he’s bound to act up a bit”. I remember being depressed and silently weepy and talking to the ghost of my dad at the rugby field where he used to spend time with my brother rather than me. I remember partying HARD with the much older friends I made outside of school. I remember disliking beer and cider, so I took to drinking pints of spirits and occasionally mixers. My liver took a beating and I developed a mighty tolerance for hard alcohol abuse. My weapon of choice was red Aftershock, an aniseed flavoured spirit and I would arrive to parties with a bottle to myself of the 40% libation. Truancy went hand in hand with my drink-till-destruction lifestyle. When I did attend school I felt like a heretic to the faith of education. Sat in the sex-education assemblies and careers lessons I can remember thinking : “You don’t live in the same world as me.”. In stark contrast to this I would regularly feel crippling guilt for behaving in a way that my dad would not have approved of. I felt ashamed that I was wasting the education which he had worked himself to death to provide me with. My mental self-talk became an internal war waged by armies of incongruent thoughts. Cognitive dissonance and the stress it results in became day to day facts of life. My self worth plummeted. Half of my family didn’t want to know me, I spent friends like matches and I had no prospects. A lot of my teachers had understandably abandoned me in favor of students who wanted to learn.
I was also in love. The flames of first love burn the brightest, people say. I became convinced to a moral-certainty that my girlfriend and I would be together until we died. Being in love was the sweet nectar of life and I drank deeply. Waking up next to her I was often moved to tears as I watched her sleep. I remember moments of singularly powerful elation resulting from the fact that I had found this wonderful, soft creature and that she loved me. In these moments of euphoria, nothing else in life really mattered. Her happiness quickly became one of my life’s chief priorities and a most useful shortcut to feelings of joy. I might have been on a self destructive path but I had beautiful company and when I was with my girlfriend, very little of the misery of the rest of my life could penetrate deeply. When someone heard me grandiosely say that I needed nothing other than the love of my partner, it was written off as puppy love. We were together for thirteen years.
I did the bare minimum at school to avoid getting kicked out. “What would your dad think?!” was the stick that proved just as ineffective as the carrot of ‘future’, ‘career’ and ‘wealth’. I was lucky in that I rarely slept more than four hours, if at all, and that I could summon essays like a magician pulls rabbits from a hat. When I did school work, I did it all last-minute and I was very highly functioning for a teenager wracked by alcohol abuse. Wednesdays were ‘games’ days and rather than go to the field to run around and get muddy, I went to a pub called “The York Street” and spent my E.M.A (Educational maintenance allowance) on booze, usually alone.
No one knows what to do with a grieving teenager. No one knows what to do with a teenager, full stop, I suppose. I’m sure in years to come it will be absurd that my brother and I weren’t forced into bereavement counseling but at the time it just didn’t occur to anyone, least of all me. I had grown my hair long, started listening to more and more extreme music and wearing more and more outlandish clothing and adornments. “He’s one of those devil-worshipping moshers. They’re all egomaniacs who need to show off and behave wildly. It’s a phase – it will pass.”
I was the nail that stuck up tallest at school, and so they tried to hammer me. Attempts to discipline me only meant that I resisted harder and I became known as a ‘rebel’. These labels and stereotypes meant all the while – no one ever suggested that I be examined for any kind of mental illness. I was the teenager, the headbanger, the boozehound, the party animal and the bereaved. This cocktail of associations meant that depression was understandable as was fury. A disdain for authority was completely understandable given that I had had all authority figures removed for half a year after my dad had died. Everything fell into place to give my Bipolarity a clear run and permanent camouflage.
Eventually – school came to an end. I hadn’t applied to any colleges or universities, nor had I looked for a job. I had pissed away my education in fine style, passed all of the exams I bothered to turn up for and got half decent results. A fatherly teacher, who I still revere to this day, applied on my behalf to an art college nearby and got me a place. In the absence of any better ideas, I was off to art college where I would have my first years of blatantly obvious mood cycling.
I had been shown the basics of draftsmanship but I quickly learned at art college that I was one of the only ones. Throughout my college life I alternated between lofty heights of arrogance, believing that I and a few close friends were the future of British Landscape drawing and painting – and plumbing the depths of deepest, darkest depression when I would become convinced that everything I had done was terrible and that I was wasting time and money. I felt like I was indulging the fantasy that I could ever exist in the sphere of art and design. My swinging behaviour left me bereft of friends from college. I still had the party-animal persona but my wildly changeable moods and arrogant denouncements of everyone else’s work meant that when I dropped out there were very few mourning my absence. Feelings of intense isolation only grew stronger throughout college.
The OBVIOUSLY bipolar behaviour I have described here is only obvious in retrospect. In Yorkshire mental illness was a distant, far-off malady that didn’t impinge on the lives of we ‘normal’ people. The normal people with one parent, who had indulged in alcohol abuse, violent sexuality and a complete absence of interest in the consequences of our rapidly cycling behaviour. Those kinds of ‘normal’ people. I had been through a tragedy, I liked extreme music, I had long hair and rode a motorcycle, I was happy in my greasy jeans, jackboots and leather jacket in all weathers. I was the party animal who could pack away enough spirits to drown most people. My behaviour was underwritten into a kind of respectability by the pock-marked, lunar surface of my life that everyone else saw. Everything unusual about me could be taken as evidence of previous collisions and catastrophes. Everything I did fit the model and therefore didn’t suggest any imbalance or psychosis. My own lack of self-awareness is what I now see as having been the largest obstacle between me and the help I so clearly and desperately needed. Without a moment of self consciousness I allowed the social construct of ‘Just an extreme sort of guy’ become a determining factor in my behaviour, as well as an excuse for it.
In a fit of depression I dropped out of college and spent two or three months in my bedroom, eating what I was brought, watching TV shows on my computer and trying to sleep. I was convinced (probably correctly) that there was no future for me in the arts and that I ran the risk of making my girlfriend poor as well as myself for a pipe-dream. I felt guilty and obligated to drop out. Again – my ‘sadness’ was pretty understandable for a ‘normal’ person who had committed educational suicide by dropping out of college. I was now also a ‘Drop out’, a loser. I had every reason to be depressed.
I had no obvious talents or paths open to me and had to come face to face with my lack of options. I worked for a joiner, cash-in-hand, gutting a flat in which two chain-smoking alcoholics had died one after the other in their bed. I remember steaming the woodchip ceiling to scrape them bare and black, sticky cigarette tar drooped onto my face and into my eyes. This was not an adequate cure for depression. Next I worked at a carwash with two or three young men who had so little going on between their ears that I remember ranking them beneath the sponges for conversation, again – cash in hand for very little financial remuneration or job satisfaction. I lasted one day at the carwash and felt an even bigger failure for not being able to keep up to this, the most simple of applications for a human being.
What I remember feeling most of all at this time was a lack of power and room for self-determination. I lived at my mother’s house still, I was in my early twenties and while friends were beginning to graduate from university and get their first jobs, or other friends had been in work since they were sixteen – I knew very little that was relevant to the world of work or life past my alcohol fueled teenage years. Life still felt like a rigged game to me. The general, day to day stuff of life seemed utterly impossible. ‘Just’ getting a job or ‘just’ deciding on a direction to take your life were, for me, impossibilities. I was mystified as to how everyone else did it all just as they were mystified as to why a bright lad could exhibit such comprehensive failure at the simple act of moving on in life. I marveled at and envied the seemingly automatic process by which other people moved from one phase of life to another. My derisive internal voices very kindly informed me it is because I was not cut out for life. That it was better that my dad wasn’t around to see his weakling eldest unable to cope with life.
Things were about to change. A new job, motorcycling, a mountain of secret debt, mania and a misscarriage. This will be in the second part of this feature.