My mental health has not been great recently, I’ve alluded to this in previous blog posts but I don’t want to share the details yet because I’m still going through it. Now I’ve stopped drinking, I’ve removed a whole spectrum of troublesome behaviour that could disrupt and delay my recovery. I still have the potential to act out, so I have to be careful that my coping mechanisms don’t become addictive or toxic. Exercise helps, as well as long walks in the park with my son. Weirdly enough, applying my makeup is useful. I suppose it’s a personal gesture that I still care about myself and I want to be seen in the world. It also functions as a defence, like a coat of warpaint to shield myself in my more vulnerable moments. When these photos were taken I was not well, but my mood improved after getting dressed, painting my face and leaving the house.
I’ve resolved to get through this rough patch with as much positivity and strength as I can muster. It occurred to me that there are good things that come with mental illness, despite all the difficulty. I hope this is helpful for anyone who might be struggling at the moment.
- Empathy. When my moods are particularly unstable, I’ll experience extreme joy and despair, sometimes within 24 hours. These emotions are overwhelming and visceral and usually disproportionate to reality. They are real to me in the moment, even if they are symptoms of an illness. As a result, my feelings are always close to the surface and I find it easy to empathise with other people; I might not know what it’s like to walk in their shoes, but I can usually make an informed guess about how they might feel.
- Self-awareness. It’s taken me years to achieve a modicum of self-awareness and I still have a way to go. I cringe when I think of my past behaviour before I was mindful of the turbulent rapid mood-cycling associated with bipolar type 2. Now I understand the situations that trigger me. For example, I know that when I’m depressed I’m easily overwhelmed. I have a tendency to push myself very hard and I’m often working on several projects at once. If I become depressed, I have to accept my limitations and cut right back. There’s no point in trying to force myself to do more because it will prolong the depressive episode. I’ll do my best to be kind to myself and do the minimum amount of work I can get away with, until I recover.
- Therapy. Because of my mental health, I’ve been in therapy since I was 18. I think therapy is always helpful, even for people who are stable and don’t feel that they have emotional or psychiatric issues. In order to live a cognisant, emotionally intelligent life, it’s useful to have an unflinching understanding of one’s formative years and subsequent patterns of behaviour. It is possible to achieve some of this without therapy, but having the support and guidance of a good therapist makes this process more effective and profound. Skimming the surface of life and avoiding its more painful, troublesome realities is fine, and quite understandable in many cases. However, truly knowing oneself and facing the uncomfortable truths of one’s family dynamic promotes insight into other people’s behaviour.
- Creativity. I don’t hold with the romanticised notion of the tortured artist; it perpetuates and legitimatises an unhealthy stereotype that prevents creative people from getting help. I’ve known many artists, actors, musicians, designers, directors and writers who would benefit from some good therapy and, occasionally, appropriately prescribed medication. When we’ve spoken about it they have confessed that they don’t have much faith in therapists and they are worried that medication will prevent them from accessing their emotions and their true creativity. In my experience, the opposite is true; I need to be well in order to work. When bipolar digs its claws into me, trying to write or perform becomes difficult, sometimes impossible. However, I’m driven to create because I’m determined that I will not be beaten by my illness. Creativity is a method of self-care and a way to fight my darkest impulses. If I can make something that is of value to others, as well as to me, then the time I lost to bipolar did not go to waste. My work is in spite of my illness, not because of it.
- Survival. There have been countless times that I’ve felt like I wouldn’t make it through the year, or even through the week. This might sound a bit dramatic, but intermittent thoughts of suicide have tormented me since I was a teenager. I’ve never acted on it and I know I never will. But the fact that I’ve been through the that bleak, empty darkness and come out the other side reminds me that I am resilient. I may be vulnerable but I am also strong. I’m very lucky that I have access to good support, both personally and medically, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But mental illness does not discriminate and the material and emotional privileges of my life do not protect me from the savagery of mania, depression and anxiety. There’s a gritty determination and self-assurance that comes with survival.
If you’re living with any of the things I’ve described, you are not alone, I’m experiencing it right now. This is temporary, even if it feels insurmountable and permanent. You will survive and emerge from this, more resilient, emotionally intelligent and powerful than before.