Treading Water

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So here we go again. I’ve been busy writing down ideas and starting a much more substantial piece of writing – but today I felt the need to come back to the blog for the first time in months and unload because words from my mouth are failing me right now.

I haven’t had a dip or real down since the mammoth five month deep depression of last October to March. There was a wee blip in the summer but nothing to worry about. This time I feel like I’m treading water, just keeping my head about the surface and all those feelings of emptiness, loneliness, uselessness and self-loathing are back on the radar.

Getting up in the dark mornings and driving home in the twilight is again an issue – the Seasonal Affective Disorder element of the down is definitely in the mix as the little sunshine there is appears trapped outside while I sit in work. It sneaks round the corner of my classroom by the back of lunchtime so the kids want to draw the blinds to stop it from blinding them. I’d happily be blinded just feel like I’m getting some of the benefits. I could go outside at a lunchtime, but there’s not much time then and I have to grab food too.

I’ve been aware of slipping slowly down over the last week or so but now it’s been turned up to eleven and I just want to disappear. The most frustration thing with this illness is that you can’t really do much to prepare  for it as it just appears uninvited. You begin to lose the capability to think clearly; words fail you and there is a disconnect between what you want to say and the noise that eventually comes out. You try to force humour to stay “up”, but there’s nothing worse than that false bonhomie when you don’t feel like it.

The feeling of helplessness that lives in your mind; the constant self-questioning and doubting everything you say and do; the desperate desire to close your eyes and sleep until it passes; the anger that sits in your stomach and erupts when you least expect it; the grief for the loss of your former self; the wish that everyone else felt as bad as you do to make it more bearable.

Your hands shake, eyes fill and heart sinks as the black dog pads towards you. How long will it sit alongside you for this time around? Will you finally succumb to the darker voices and stay hidden from the world? It’s not a suicidal thought to not want to wake up in the morning – you must have a plan and carry out an action for that to be concerning – it’s more you don’t necessarily want to be around when the black canine companion is.

Becoming more isolated – feeling lonely even in a crowd is the worst part. Being able to “give a shit” becomes harder and that punishes those closest to you each time as you fail to connect as you should with on a daily basis. Some days it can take all your effort to say “Hi” never mind listen to the regular minutiae of everyday life that the world throws at you. Like a grump at Hallowe’en you just want to switch off the lights and hide from the world outside – physically outside and also outside your head-space too.

Would I struggle as much if I lived in a warmer climate? More sun, longer days? Or am I just programmed this way to fluctuate between such diverse moods? So many questions spin around your mind as you try to come to terms with what your brain is throwing at you and the answers are not at arm’s length, they’re not even visible – instead they are lost in a miasma of confusion and illogical thought. Just to lay your hands on something to allow you to clear some of the clutter that exists upstairs would be a relief, but as days march on you are only left with more problems, more questions and ultimately more illness.

Time to think about counselling again? Possibly – really didn’t get much out of it last time but sometimes it’s that you just don’t click with that person, so that may be an option. Medication changes? Well the problem is in the full perspective of your life this is just a blip and perhaps a change in mood after the introduction of another medication would have happened anyway. All I know is I have to wheel out the coping techniques that have worked for me so far. It’s not a perfect system but I am able to get up (eventually) and get to work and largely get everything done I’m supposed to do. That’s really the best I can hope for going forward.

As long as the water levels don’t rise any further I should be able to keep my head about the surface.

JD

The story of my life

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After years of thinking about it I’ve started writing it – my story.

It’s a strange thing to do for someone like me; a nobody, but I’m not going to let it stop me. You may find that I will rarely be blogging because of this but I did want to share a few thoughts on looking back into your own past.

Don’t.

It’s not really a good thing to do if I’m honest as you find going right back in your own timeline a bit…wibbly wobbly timey wimey if I’m honest. You start to remember things you had long since moved on from and dumped into storage but it all comes up from some dark recess in the back of your mind a smell, sound or memory that then triggers thoughts you had long since forgotten.

I wanted to write it because i wanted to take what I’d done with this blog and make it a more comprehensive examination of my mental health across my life. Were there issues and baggage in my past or was my childhood idyllic? Neither is true for anyone regardless how much they protest. Initially I have found that it’s the negatives that have floated to the surface and after four thousand words I’ve only covered up to the age of twelve with hardly a chink of light in there.

I’m sure once I go back and start redrafting the writing as a whole piece of work I will be able to be more objective, put more humour in it and dial down the Angela’s Ashes elements. As the great Paul O’Grady always said “We were poor, but we were shoplifters”.

You remember people as well. Faces and names who were hidden away too. Anyone who knows me will tell you I can do faces but names are a real issue. I can teach a kid for a year and still get them confused with one of their classmates. You do wonder how the mind works when it comes to memory – it feels like a giant cupboard packed full of things and as you try to pull one object out the rest start dropping on your head one-by-one. Like going in your loft and realising you have a strange twin brother called Eric.

I don’t have a twin brother called Eric in my loft by the way. That’d be ridiculous. He is in my parents’ loft, it’s bigger.

Eric aside, there are so many things that I have floating around my head now and it’s leaving me slightly disoriented as with newly recovered memories squeezing their way into your timeline things don’t look the way you thought they had. Perceptions of situations change and there is the danger of you becoming an amateur psychologist trying to make sense of things that every kids did, but somehow you doing it marks you out as unique or different. The reality is you were just a kid but with hindsight and diagnoses over the years you start to put two and two together and make seventeen.

I hope the experience of writing it will be cathartic and that I’ll have it even if I never do anything with it, but I think it’s fair to say that in my fortieth year I’ve already lived a rather unusual and challenging life.

One day I might share it, then again it might drive me mad rethinking everything I’ve ever done and be the final nail in my already secure insanity coffin.

JD

Clarity

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When you live with a head like mine, you find moments or days of clarity are a rare and treasured thing. In the last week I have felt the most “Normal” as I have in a long time. But then I was due a break after the toughest six months I’ve experienced.

From October until mid February I had been battling with depression – deeper and darker than I’d ever gone through before. Permanently exhausted, empty of optimism and lost to what felt like a parallel world – distanced from my own life. You are aware of your solitude, of your separation from those around you in emotional terms but you don’t have the tools or wherewithal to do anything about it.

You know you are a horrible person to be around. Your lack of patience and decency embarrass you. You want the ground to open up and remove you from the life you are living. I’m lucky that I’ve never stood on the edge of the darkest point of humanity; the idea of dying is not in my mind – sure, you wish you weren’t alive, but there’s a marked difference.

Now looking back on what was a difficult time for me and all those around me, it now seems so far removed from where I am now. I feel stronger, happier and more contented than I have done in a long time. I wonder if that is a result of the prolonged struggle – feeling relief and release from the black dog that refused to let me go for almost half a year.

Right now I feel good about life and with a change to the medication I am determined not to fall back into old habits. Easier said than done because you can’t legislate for the arrival of the down periods. You think that you have a grasp on it, but speaking to my other half it appears that my awareness is always delayed – I only realise I’m in the dark once I arrive there and not necessarily while I am on the journey towards it.

There is always the concern that I am heading for the other extreme and the mania is around the corner. As the late Carrie Fisher called it “Liquid Confidence” that pumps through your veins making you feel invincible, risk averse and dangerous. I don’t think that’s where I am at the moment but you can never be sure.  Those moments where your mouth is disconnected from your filters and brain – away on an adventure of its own.

I do miss those moments. Being on two medications, both of which are ones that push down the mania and limit it, makes it a rarer occurrence. There are always moments where the tongue is quicker than the mind, but I’d like to think I was better at stopping myself these days. The thing I miss is that complete freedom of thought, my mind was able to go off on tangents and have fun and I’m lacking that spark in my life. Perhaps I’m just growing up – can’t be Peter Pan forever.

Robin Williams once said “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” And while I know that I have more than my share of madness, it’s the spark that is absent and I’ve got to force myself to find it more. Surely the spark is not just part of the mental illness – it must exist independently and within me as a person. Maybe it’s time I threw caution to the wind occasionally and embraced the lighter side.

This clarity is great at the moment while I am feeling well, but whether I can find and utilise the spark when the darkness next arrives remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: I cannot survive life without pleasure or fun. It’s time to put enjoyment and light front and centre more often, and remember that no matter how bad things get there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.

JD

 

 

Still Here

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Can you see me? No down here…just where you left me. No change, still stuck here looking up at the sky from this strange place I find myself.

Since we last spoke I’ve just been pushing through and that’s all you can do – the other option is to let it smother you and leave you paralysed with fear of living and moving on. I know it will pass but this has been a long stretch this time, maybe on and off a good two and a half months.

You don’t want to be defined by the diagnosis but how do you get round it? Unlike some conditions which you live with Bipolar and it’s two opposing worlds are your life and all your experiences. Your mood and outlook are tainted, shaped and moulded by the chemical balance in your head that day and trying to “shake it off”, as Ms Swift would advise, is harder than it appears.

This time of year has a lot to answer for anyway as the darkness still hasn’t lifted outside so trying to find the light internally is highly unlikely to be achieved. That’s another consideration in terms of medication because I may well be dropped further due to this interminable lack of light outside the windows – to make a change could be the wrong thing to do.

I’m back to the numb stage again – not really interested or feeling much just now. The only upside is that I’m able to push through the piles of marking at the moment as that part of me is working fine. That can be a tough one as there is only enough energy to teach and anything else becomes impossible. It seems so ridiculous to even write that – that I’m finding it impossible to function as a normal (whatever that is) human being, but it’s true.

Not able to just live – instead you exist, get by, struggle through or any other euphemism you care to use. Getting through the week to leave work on the Friday safe in the knowledge you haven’t imploded in front of a class is an achievement in itself. There’s the odd leakage of brain when your mouth opens and your stomach rumbles, bypassing the brain and leaves you open-mouthed at your own words. Happened today. No damage done but still the fact you can’t be on the same page as yourself is a strange feeling.

The self-hatred is one of the worst elements. Everyone around you starts to dislike you but not as much as yourself. I always joke with the pupils that I don’t have favourite classes or individuals and that I hate everyone equally. Not true, at times I despise myself a lot more. To have an average day for once would be bliss – no internal dramas, no monologue that would make a Ken Loach film look like Billy Wilder, no competition between my brain and my mouth to see who could fuck up more in a day.

I guess it must be possible – others live with this condition and appear to be coping. Or is that how I look to them? Do I seem like I have it “together” or is it obvious I’m struggling? You find putting up the facade up becomes more difficult some days especially when you have to really focus on a task or job. It slips as your multitasking fails you and you snap or say something you really shouldn’t. It can even be a tone of voice – I’m aware that my face and tone both seem to be set to grumpy, but I’m not always. The way I say something can appear to hurt as much as the words.

The next couple of months are going to force me to crank up the energy with various projects on the go – and that will be great because that will give me a focus, something to stop me from navel gazing for a while – but it’s the aftermath of these that worries me. I know there is always a hangover, a comedown and I need to make sure I have something else to take up my time and not let it drop again. Easier said than done, but you’ve got to try.

Time to start climbing out of the hole? Been doing that for the last ten weeks. Just hope that this time I’m going to get a foothold and make progress.

JD

The Case of the Missing Personality

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The hardest thing about taking medications which change your chemical make up is that your personality changes. I’ve gone from a spontaneous, outgoing, ‘life and soul’ figure to a quiet, introverted and impassive human being. Now obviously as you age you do “settle down” but the person I was ten to twelve years ago would not recognise the person I have become. Even worse the person I am now would probably hate the old me. So is there a point where I could meet the two in the middle or is this just my life now?

You do wonder how much is choice and how much is the medication. Have I deliberately (or even subconsciously) retracted into myself to avoid the manic spikes in my personality? I am still capable of saying the wrong thing and being in the state the late Carrie Fisher called “Liquid Confidence”. The manic does mean that my mouth works before my head has time to catch up and it’s exhilarating and joyous and risky and makes you feel like a kid again. It’s still in there but over the last decade it has been pushed down by the tablets and by me in order to try to function properly at work.

I really miss the manic me – it definitely helped with the creative side of me and also made me a much more interesting person. I know that there is a lot of research on whether Bipolar or Manic Depression has links to creativity and other benefits, and the results are inconclusive, but I know from my own experience the spark is essential. That dose of mania, the madness that comes with it made me a better teacher, better musician, better person. Yes I could say or do the wrong things and not even realise until it was too late but a big part of me would rather be high than low. And I know from speaking to those around me they feel the same way. Being told by those closest to you that they don’t recognise you is heartbreaking. Honest, but heartbreaking.

SO how do you deal with it? We are looking at how the medications work in combination just now and where we can take the foot off the downward thrust and instead allow me to climb up from the depression dip I’ve not been able to shake for the last couple of months. But there is a strong argument that I should be being more proactive and setting myself targets to get up and do things rather than just sit and wallow in the misery I am used to.

Easier said than done because you use all your energy to get through work and by the end of the day your tank is empty – come the weekend sleep is available and you can enjoy a dozen hours in bed. Sounds like a fair way to work, but it doesn’t take into consideration the fact I’m married with three kids. If I were single and without ties then I could live like that but I’ve a wonderful family that deserves better and I should be fighting to make sure they get the best of me too.

I don’t want to look back and think of the missed opportunities with the family. I don’t want to regret the way I acted around them. I don’t want to push them away. The sadness that I have is that I know all of this, yet during the periods I struggle with the depressive side of the Bipolar I just can’t grasp on to those chances. I need something to help me.

My amazing wife is looking after three kids as well as me and she is now living with a man she doesn’t recognise compared to who I was a decade earlier. We both miss JD.

So what’s the compromise that could help here? Well we can lower the dose of Quetiapine to only act as a sedative and stop using it at a higher dose to even out my moods when I’m already on another tablet doing the same thing. Perhaps looking at returning to therapy – speaking to someone. The first batch I had of four sessions just didn’t seem to work, but giving up on it instead of trying someone else was maybe too hasty.

Or perhaps I just need to force myself to start living again rather than just existing. Easier said than done, but if I don’t try then I will end up trapped in this cycle of sadness. Next year is my fortieth birthday and I’m probably past the halfway point of my time on this spinning rock so the question is perhaps not “Where have I disappeared to?” maybe it should be “Who do I want to be?”.

JD

Removing the Human Suit

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Crossing the threshold you can finally remove the costume that you wear on a daily basis. Not uniform, work clothes or anything physical but instead the persona that exists when you leave the house in the morning.

There are times that the disguise slips and you find yourself exposed – outbursts when frustration just can’t be contained anymore or being caught staring into middle space halfway through a sentence as your brain grasps at words to fill the void. It’s no secret to those around me outside the house that Bipolar is just part of me, but there is a societal expectation to just “get on with things” despite it.

There is a genuine relief when you get home because you can let it drop to a certain degree. There are points where the kids come to tell you something and for a moment you have to remember that they are not the reason you feel terrible – then you have to use up the remaining energy to chat to them and see what they want to chat about.

And Energy is the key. When you are struggling with the black dog’s visit, energy and ability to function is limited so you have to control when you are “on” and when you have to recharge. As a teacher one of the most difficult aspects is you really have to be on all the time as with up to thirty in a class there will always be someone needing your attention or help. Even without the depression the job is a difficult one – the simile of spinning plates was invented for leading in a classroom and at the moment I try to find as much energy that I can but I’m aware of a crashing noise all round me.

The veritable vicious circle is ever-present as you use all your energy to function and then you have nothing left, causing more negative thoughts to flood in as you see yourself as a failure. You don’t see the illness, only the symptoms and anger rises at not being able to tackle things the way you would when well. I have been living with this old brain all my life, but I am only starting to understand how it works. Well, I say that but as my head doesn’t follow a fixed pattern I am often surprised too.

At work I have varying speeds like an old record player. Currently I am at 33rpm – lethargic and not quite up to speed, but when I’m better it turns right up to 78rpm to play catch up with paperwork, marking etc. Normal – if there is such a thing – is 45rpm but there are often points where the record skips or jumps. No matter what speed I am living at you are always aware that a flick of a switch can completely change where you are in life.

So day-to-day life feels like I’m wearing a human suit to disguise myself from the world. Hiding the reality of the inner fight from the world. Why? Because you feel that even though you know you can’t help it, others don’t want to be bothered by it. They don’t need their lives interrupted by someone who is broken – they have their own problems and lives to lead without carrying you as well.

There is a genuine sense of being a burden to those around you. While things usually even themselves out, the damage is done when you are at your worst and trying to make up for it is not as straight forward when people have been hurt or they have been left to pick up the slack you have left behind.

We all wear masks and disguises to make us into different people in different situations. But my one is wearing thin and you can see through threadbare parts and I am running out of places to hide.

JD

The Pursuit of Happiness

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I don’t know if it’s the medication, the condition or the fact that I’m getting old but I don’t remember being a very happy person. I’ve always been cynical and sarcastic and angry, but happy? I struggle to think of moments of pure happiness. Apparently I used to be a happier person, but I get the feeling if I met that person now I’d take an instant dislike to them.

How did I get to the point where I managed to be a funsponge; draining every ounce of pleasure I, or anyone around me, can take from anything. I sit in judgement like a real life Cowell or Revel Horwood looking for the errors, misery, mistakes and problems in life.

But then I thought about it a bit longer and I’m realising that my memory is not great full stop. Looking back I struggle to see very much in terms of memories that I’ve held on to – there are snapshots of moments but they are all on pause, waiting for the click to resume and I can’t make them work. While there are some things that stand out in my mind – all clear from cancer, wedding, birth of children – there doesn’t seem to be very much saved up in the memory banks.

I’m no psychologist – as I’m sure is abundantly clear – but I wonder if the lack of ability to recall happy memories means I struggle to recreate or renew the emotion again today. You fight the darkness within through sheer willpower and of course medication, but the obvious cure to misery would be happiness and yet it’s beyond my reach. I see others enjoying themselves and start to feel more unhappy because I can only switch it on in small doses. You become a player in the story of your life.

Scene: INT 8.30am – Walking through school corridor

John walks along towards his class and passes colleagues and pupils on his way as he makes eye contact and smiles. These are hollow gestures but he knows if he doesn’t he will be called out as a cyborg. 

And that’s just it – I switch on the showbiz smile and get through things rather than enjoy them. And it’s with everything – not just work, but social situations and bumping into friends and going out – there’s an empty space where pleasure should live and it’s missing. It can also work with other emotions where you know the situation dictates a certain response and you comply to fit in.

What I really want to do a lot of the time is just walk away and be on my own. There’s no pretence, no forcing conversations or societal niceties, and that’s a horrible thing to want or to be but that’s who I am at the moment. How the fuck did I get to the point where the very things that make us human – emotions, empathy and pleasure – are missing in action? When did they check out? And has it always been this way and I’ve just noticed recently?

In truth you only want the simple things in life: to be with those you love, be able to provide for them and to have your health. The worst thing about the Bipolar life is that you don’t actually get these things guaranteed. You push away the ones you love – often unintentionally and through the behaviour associated with the condition. To provide means work, which entails routine (which can actually help and forces you to get out of bed) and effort. This can be so difficult when you are fighting an internal battle with yourself to stop yourself walking out the door shouting obscenities. Work can be the hardest thing to deal with as the expectations are there upon you and some days you just can’t do it. Finally, health – well no need to an explanation on that front.

It is these three simple things that we all crave yet my own brain is impacting on them all. This along with the apparent loss of any history to your personal experiences makes you feel like you are alone in the world; lost, confused and trying to fight your way back to whoever you once were and could be again. The problem is that I doubt I’ll ever be off the tablets and Bipolar is something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. The sad fact is that this illness is worse than the cancer I had twelve years ago now – at least it was easy to cut out and monitor leaving me free of it. Mental Health conditions such as mine are life sentences – they won’t necessarily kill you, but they’ll reduce your life expectancy and trap you in a cerebral prison that makes Colditz look like a kindergym.

I don’t know how I can get back my memories or find the ability to be happy again. I know that music is one form of escape and performing does help, but it’s short-term and I’d like something that allowed me to even have a glimpse of “happy” me again – if such a thing existed. Sadly I think that this is my lot; my course is plotted and if the last decade is anything to go by things will only deteriorate further. Maybe I just have to ensure that others find their happiness if I can’t find my own. I could try to do it vicariously through those around me but even that’s tough when you live with a negative mindset.

JD