Wednesday, 8 July 2009

On Being a Bit Bonkers

Those of you who like to read the small print will have noticed the word “Madness” at the beginning of this blog’s subtitle. There’s a reason for this, which is that I am in fact mad (or, if you prefer: nutty, fruit-loop, or maybe a bit bonkers)!

Of course, in these politically correct days I am not called “mad” (even though there have been times in my life when I would not have been out of place in I Puritani). I am labelled as a person with “mental health problems”. In fact, I suffer from Bipolar Disorder (also called Manic Depression), and, technically speaking, I actually have Bipolar II as well as a side order of Anxiety.

So why, at this relatively early stage of my blog, have I chosen to discuss my illness? I think partly because I am currently emerging from yet another depressive episode, and this is some sort of therapy for me, but mainly because my mental health (or lack of it) plays such a big part in my life. It influences almost every aspect of what I do, from how much exercise I take to what I eat and drink. It governs the sort of work I can do and for how many hours I can do it. It interferes with my finances, my living conditions and my relationships with others. And on one occasion (thankfully only one) it nearly cost me my life.

Before you stop reading, I should like say, however, that my life is not about mental illness. I prefer to define myself as a musician, a mathematician, or something else positive. Although posts may mention it from time to time, I have no wish to make my blog into a “mental illness” blog. However, I find concealing the state of my mind requires much greater effort than “going public” about it. Furthermore, I believe it is important that people, like me, who are willing and able, bring these issues into the open and gradually erode the stigmas associated with mental illness. I should also say that I am eternally grateful to both Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell for their openness about their own conditions – both have helped me greatly!

So, the other thing that has been broken in my life recently has been me. Every so often I get stressed, sometimes for no apparent reason. And sometimes, as happened when the treadmill broke recently (it was really just the last straw), I go over the edge. I cry uncontrollably, I am unable to focus on anything and incapable of making even simple decisions. Work becomes impossible. I feel terribly guilty. Eating normally becomes impossible. My senses go haywire. I shake uncontrollably. My legs HURT. And the world becomes a very frightening place, full of bright lights and loud noises, where even little old ladies with sticks seem to move at the speed of light. It is worse in the mornings. And, as I am now discovering, rather hard to write down in a way that makes any sense.

Maybe it would help to imagine the following: a close relative has just died; you have just run a marathon; you feel horrid drunk and disorientated; you are unable to sleep; you have eaten something that disagrees with you very badly; you have committed a crime; you are wearing a hearing aid with the volume turned up high.

Add all these together and you get something close to how I feel when I’m in the middle of a depressive episode.

Of course, the upside of being bipolar is that I also get manic episodes. These can be enormously exhilarating and fun, and since, technically, my manics are only hypomanics, they’re not usually very damaging. When I am manic I can work extremely hard, see things extremely clearly, and make tremendous plans for a wild, extravagant and fantastic future. I’m not even officially diagnosed as bipolar (although to anyone who knows me, it’s obvious that I am), because it would never occur to me to go to a doctor and say that I’m feeling exceptionally well and productive. Only full-blown dangerous manic episodes generally get as far as a doctor’s surgery, particularly if, like me, you hate “being ill”!

One problem I have with manic episodes is that sometimes other people drive me mad because they go so SLOWLY. Why do they not keep up? Why are they so stupid? (They’re not slow and stupid, of course, I’m just overhyped!). The other, bigger, problem is that I spend money. Money I don’t have. I went through a phase of booking holidays (we visited nearly every country in Europe in about 18 months). I thought nothing of taking a day trip to Geneva just to eat a fondue. I booked us 12 days in Bulgaria on a whim. I tried to learn the language of every country we visited. The list of our travels was huge. The problem – I owed double my annual salary to the credit card companies! Oops!

Then, after a manic, comes the crash. The bills pile up, the euphoria ends, and we’re back to depression again.

So, nearly15 years after I first became ill, how do I manage to hold life together?

Well, first there’s work. I have had two promising careers destroyed by simply being too ill to do them. First, my doctoral research into Mendelssohn’s string quartets, which was tipped to lead into a research fellowship and then an academic career, was brought to a halt by what I now recognize were severe anxiety attacks. Then, several years later a very successful schoolteaching career was chopped off shortly after I became Head of Music in a London comprehensive school as I suffered what is now known as “the big breakdown”. I was incapable of work for nearly a year after that and lived on sick pay, then half pay, then no pay at all. At that point I almost dropped out of life completely. I didn’t wash or dress for weeks and was incapable of leaving my flat. I believe I only survived at that time because of the efforts of family and friends, and because of an excellent psychiatrist and supportive CBT programme.

So now I work part-time in a low-demand office job for which I am embarrassingly overqualified. Luckily my boss and colleagues are brilliant and supportive, the hours are flexible, and so far, I have managed to repair my sickness record and keep the job for nearly 3 years. It was a struggle to get the job – I had about 4 interviews a week for 4 months before I was successful – people do not queue up to employ a mentally disabled person. I was once offered a full-time post, but occupational health wouldn’t clear me to take it up. Furthermore, I am excluded from activities such as Jury Service. In fact, when I was called for service and did some research I found a statistic stating that only 50% of those who had been off work for 6 months or more with mental illness EVER returned to work. I felt quite proud of myself at that point!!

Then there’s money. This is still a problem. When I am manic I spend too much; when I am depressed I am unable to work enough to pay for it! Catch-22! These days I have the Wonderspouse who keeps a close eye on what I am spending and is under instruction to remove credit cards and so on if I start to go mad. However, this is complicated because he does not have credit cards himself – a breakdown before we were married that left him unable to open any post for 6 months destroyed his credit rating and ensures that he uses only cash these days. In fact, he has become something of an expert on the issues surrounding debt and mental health and has become an advisor on the subject; he recently spoke to a committee in the Houses of Parliament about the Final Demand project.

So do I take medication? Not if I can help it. I have taken industrial-strength antidepressants (SSRIs) in the past to help me through depressive episodes. However, these have side effects. Some of the side effects I can live with – I feel sick all the time and I gain 3 stone in weight. Not great, but I can deal with that. What I really hate is the way the drugs make everything go GREY. No black, but no white either. When I am on drugs I listen to Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet and it means nothing to me. When I am on drugs and a close friend dies, I think “So what?” Those sort of side effects I cannot live with. That, to me, is existence, not life.

Instead I take exercise – lots of it. I walk daily, I swim, I go to the gym. I also take fish oils – I’m not sure whether they really do any good, but they’re not expensive and they probably don’t do any harm. I draw on my CBT experience constantly. I use a lightbox in winter to combat SAD. I make myself rest when I don’t necessarily feel like it. I try to limit any stressful commitments I take on (although I’m not always successful). When I am low I try to keep away from things that upset me as much as possible (children is an obvious one; we spent much of our early marriage in and out of fertility clinics struggling, and failing, to have any children). I am careful about my alcohol intake. I remove things from my to-do lists. I study (very successfully) with the Open University, which improves my self-esteem. These days I can even go to concerts again and, when I’m feeling very good, use public transport – both of which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Most of all, however, I have a fabulous husband who looks after me in the middle of the night, making me endless cups of tea and keeping me from any harm I might do to myself with alcohol and pills.

So there you have it. I have blogged on being bonkers! I’m afraid I’ve also broken the 750 word limit for this one. I could have stretched it over 2 posts, but, honestly, it’s not the sort of stuff I like to dwell on too much. I’m now recovering from my current depressive episode, getting out into the world as much as possible in order to rebuild my strength (and trying very hard not to feel guilty about doing so), hoping to get back to work soon, hoping to get my head back into all my various projects, and hoping to be back on an even keel for as long as possible. If you’ve read to the end of this post, award yourself a deep breath and a large cup of tea – you deserve it!


  1. WOW Ann! This is amazing! So honest and insightful. If only everyone were able to be so honest maybe mental health issues would be less of a stigma. (Of course I do appreciate that some people really couldn't be so bold in their discussion of their own situation - part of the very cycle for some)
    All power to you for continued drug free LIFE and not existence! Sarah M x

  2. That is an amazing insight! Thank you for sharing it. It's really nice to read the very positive ending. I really respect your honesty & openess. x

  3. Thanks for posting about 'bipolar' - this level of honesty takes a lot of courage. Because, increasingly, people like you are being open about these problems, the stigma is diminishing with each passing year. With the loss of stigma, and 'spoiled identity', comes greater freedom to manage these potentially disabling conditions, in a way that would once have seemed impossible. Until thirty years ago, people who are now able to live happy and productive lives for considerable periods were institutionalised, and subjected to physical treatments like ECT and lobotomy. Now, the outlook has changed beyond recognition. All power to you, as Sarah said! Larry

  4. Mike Stephenson8 July 2009 at 15:19

    Hello Ann. A great read. Tea cup now empty! Looking forward to reading more from you.

  5. How brave of you to blog so honestly about your illness Ann. As someone who recently suffered from mild depression for the first time in my life, I am wondering how you manage to plan ahead - that must be the worst thing, not knowing how you might feel at any give time...Also, do you find that the work you do in the manic episodes is worthwhile when you reflect on it in a more level frame of mind? Are you more creative, thinking of ideas you might never have thought of otherwise?
    I also really agree with being open and honest as far as possible. But then I always did wear my heart on my sleeve, perhaps a little too much. However, the internet is a wonderful tool for bringing skeletons out of the closet, to dance in the streets, which must make them a little less scary!

  6. THANK YOU so much for your comments. I usually leave a day or so after posting before responding to comments, but as there are so many I'm here now. I should add that I've also had 2 e-mails, 3 comments on my facebook wall and several tweets. So thank you ALL!

    I'm so glad that people agree that my open attitude towards my illness is continuing to help remove the stigmas associated with the condition. As Larry says, not very many years ago I would have been subject to all sorts of inappropriate treatments and may well have ended up existing only in an institution. I am SO grateful that I live in a (relatively) tolerant society in the modern world and am ABLE to be open and honest about my illness.

    Tricia - I spent many years not planning things, not booking concerts and not doing things I really should have done because I was too worried that I would have to cancel engagements at the last minute. Time has taught me that I have to plan my life as normally as I can. I book holidays and concert tickets, and I study a course that requires me to submit regular assignments and take exams. I really just "get on with it" and assume that I will feel "normal" at any given point in the future. When a depressive episode strikes I deal with the existing commitments in the best way I can at the time. If that means missing something, then I have to accept that. Sometimes, having something booked can actually help towards my recovery, if I can manage to carry on with it.

    Yes, the work I do in the manic episodes is usually good. I'm lucky because my manics are only really "hypomanics" and therefore I don't spiral completely out of control and have never needed to resort to, for example, Lithium or other mood stabilisers. I am more creative, but it's not so much that I have different ideas, just more of them because my mind goes so much quicker. I don't really count myself as a particularly creative person, but when I am "up" I do understand ideas more quickly and absorb more information.

    The internet is indeed an amazing tool. I have received many comments today about "courage" in posting the above post. Strangely enough, when I am ill, it takes much more courage simply to go into a shop and buy a pint of milk.

    My mind is STILL a mystery to me!!!

  7. Thank you for sharing. I think the mind is a mystery to all of us! All this time I thought this was part and parcel of being a violist... :-)

  8. Ann, this is amazing. Even though you had told me a little about your illness it is, as others have said, very insightful to read about your feelings and experiences.

    You are an inspiration and should wear that label rather than the 'mental health problems' label!

    Thank you for sharing xx

  9. Brilliantly written (hubby better watch out!!) I can relate to so much of that having been through similar. I love the honesty and humour in your writing! I am sorry it has been a down time for you again recently , its so frustrating having to live within the limitations of the illness BUT you are doing brilliantly! Just getting through a day feeling like that is an amazing achievement! x

  10. This is a lovely post, and I find your honesty very refreshing. I've suffered from depression since I was about eleven, and know just how disabling it can be. Like you I try to be open about it, and try to tell people what it's really like whenever I hear anyone suggesting that a depressive should just "pull themselves together"; the more people who write pieces like this the better. Thank you for sending me here from Twitter!

  11. So, I found your blog this last week and can relate to so many things you've shared. It's nice to find another blogger who is open and honest about their sanity, or lack there of.

    Peace, Erin

  12. Thankyou for being so open. it is refreshing to see that you are still managing to do everyday things when you can. I have a mental health diagnosis and it limits how much I think I can do. Am really pleased to hear that you are going to concerts again, it is something I am now aiming to do in the coming year. I have missed my music so much and am going to try to get involved again. Thankyou

  13. A brilliant insight. The more of us who come out and not only declare, but describe what goes on behind the closed doors, the less scary it is for everyone else.
    I'm with you all the way x

  14. A brave and beautiful post. Thank you for sharing, and all the best to you - you deserve it.

  15. Well done Ann. What a brilliant insight. I'm inspired by you. Suzypink