January 31, 2012

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A man walks into a bar, there’s a bowl of peanuts next to him; just as he’s about to order a drink the peanuts speak to him, ‘Gosh you’re beautiful,’ they say. Bemused by this he walks away and stands by the juke box which, as he arrives, says, ‘Man, you’re ugly.’ Indignant and fully disturbed he goes back to the barman and tells him, ‘the peanuts have just told me that I’m beautiful and the juke box have said I’m ugly. ‘Yes’ the barman says, ‘the peanuts are complimentary and the juke box is out of order’

If you get me going I can talk all night.

If you get me going I can talk all night. I like telling stories. I like grabbing people’s attention and taking them on emotional rollercoasters. I love a good yarn and making people laugh to boot. I was, after all, a teacher for eight years and enjoyed a captive audience.

but one thing I can’t do is tell you how I really feel

I can give you an anecdote about all of the things that have happened in my life and make it mildly amusing but one thing I can’t do is tell you how I really feel: tell you what it feels like to be frightened and alone because sometimes you can’t see what’s around the corner or even outside the bedroom door in the morning.

Christmas was a learning experience. Not everyone knows about my bipolar diagnosis and I intend for it to be that way for the foreseeable future. Some close friends and family only. I have seen what disclosure can do in the workplace and that has made me somewhat distrustful.

I noticed the awkwardness in situations and felt sad that people felt this way

I noticed the awkwardness in situations and felt sad that people felt this way. For example, a close friend of my estranged wife who was aware of my diagnosis, invited me to take my children to her son’s Christmas party at a local soft play centre. When I asked the name of the place there was some discomfort and skirting of the subject until eventually I found out it was called Manic Monsters! I should fit right in, I replied.

Family get-togethers over Christmas were interesting too. I must have been the number one go-to-boy for festive cheer this year - what with a diagnosed mental illness, a broken marriage, a lost job and teetotalism (amazing how people react to a soft drink!)

There were many silences and pauses

There were many silences and pauses and none of the usual “How are yous?” I tried a few jokes but even I got the impression I was trying too hard this year!

But what of it? People don’t know but I do think people care. They just don’t know how to say it.

Think about it. What is the general portrayal of mental illness in the media? The cold and calculating psychopathic killing mind of Hannibal Lector, or the clownish, unpredicatable, childlish ’Howling Mad’ Murdoch of the eighties children’s show the A Team. People don’t know what to expect if they ask you how you feel. Perhaps that I will don a bicorne and prepare for the siege of Toulon?

Some people don’t know what mental illness is and I include myself in that

Some people don’t know what mental illness is and I include myself in that. My parents’ generation struggled as they saw their own fathers returning from war, mentally ravaged from the experience with nowhere to go for help. My own grandfather was sectioned twice and subjected to the horrors of ECT.

He was given no diagnosis and the family and friends would not speak of the episodes. He would complete Mensa challenges, reaching the highest awards to prove his brain was fine. He said to me after receiving his gold award ‘They think I’m stupid, this’ll show them.’

People are uncomfortable with the unknown

Mental illness can seem like that to people. That it is a symptom of a feeble mind. But it is complex and mysterious. No two illnesses are the same. People are uncomfortable with the unknown. And what’s more it is physically invisible so it can cast doubts in peoples’ minds.

What makes it further complicated is that, although I am ashamed of some of my actions during that period, I also achieved some things I am immensely proud of: paintings, poetry and an album of songs recorded. So when I try to marry the two and explain, I sound ambiguous and it seems my apologies to the people I hurt are insincere.

This Christmas I was left looking at the bomb damage caused by my condition and working out how on earth would I start rebuilding. I went to a party. Not always a good idea. I sat at a table with my soft drink next to an old friend of twenty plus years. Yet despite the length of our friendship, our emotional conversations rarely went past football, TV and headlocks.

He noticed I wasn’t drinking and enquired why. I was reluctant to go into the truth

He noticed I wasn’t drinking and enquired why. I was reluctant to go into the truth - I considered telling him I was pregnant. I thought I would get a better response. I bit the bullet and said I was on medication.

‘What for?’ he asked.

I took a deep breath,

‘They’re Quetiapine for…’

‘For your mind’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘how do you know about them?’

‘My mother in law’s bipolar. We’ve helped over the years with her highs and lows. We check for any changes in her moods and make sure she’s safe. Why don’t you come over in the next few days and we’ll chat. Maybe you can meet her. Don’t worry mate, you’ll be alright. Merry Christmas! Now tell me that one about the peanuts again…’


 

Pledge to share your experience of mental health today >>

Or find out how talking tackles discrimination.


 

Share your story

Too many people are made to feel ashamed. By sharing your story, you can help spread knowledge and perspective about mental illness that could change the way people think about it.