As that famous Silver Screen philosopher Forrest Gump once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.”
And so the story goes for those of us ‘Touched with Fire’—to salute my fellow bipolarities, movie-maker Paul Dalio and writer/activist Kay Redfield Jamison.
For bipolar—the modern term for manic-depression—is as unpredictable a life experience as any could be.
Especially for myself. A now 48-year-old Brit living in Canada, who graduated to full bipolar status nearly six years ago.
Aged 42 and having seemingly recovered from a breakdown/major depressive episode 10 months earlier, I went into mania.
Which felt amazing at the time. I thought I’d healed myself and felt euphoric on a daily basis. The sights and sounds and smells and colours of life were brilliant, in every sense. I had energy to burn and rarely needed sleep.
Speaking at a mile a minute I told anyone that I’d metaphorically flipped open my head, vacuumed out all the negativity and trauma of the past, and discovered the elixir of life.
Until my behaviour became increasingly erratic.
I gave away a laptop and mobile phone to random strangers, had multiple dalliances with the police and attempted a ‘Run to Florida’ barefoot.
And did I mention I thought I was the Second Coming?
The culmination of mania resulted in a naked midnight run through downtown London, Ontario, screaming to the world “Listen to me!” Bemused taxi drivers cowered behind their cabs during the incident.
This was mania for me, which I was blissfully unaware of. Until a 10-week stint in two London psych wards brought me down and made me aware.
I initially refused to take any medication, so remained manic. I was fearless, physically super-strong—it took five people to hold me down and sedate me. I spent my days concocting ways to entertain and make my fellow patients laugh.
I was like Patch Adams on speed.
But, of course, none of this was sustainable and I eventually realized that I wasn’t going to get out of hospital unless I took the medication.
Life, of course, has never been the same since.
I was on medication for a while, as I recovered and shared a group home with another person with a mental illness.
My London, Ontario family (aunt, uncle and cousins) were incredible, while my superstar parents and siblings ultimately helped me reset and recharge back in England.
I eventually returned to Canada—back west to Vancouver, before relocating to Victoria for a fresh start in September 2017.
With only about $8K to my name I bought a converted Dodge Grand Caravan and largely slept in that for 12 months. Now med-free, I got back into running, made new friends and was stable for about a year.
Until the mania returned.
This time the ‘highs’ were more escapades with the police, an ‘incident’ in Starbucks and crashing my van having sped around Greater Victoria like an F1 racing driver.
Three stays at Royal Jubilee followed, plus more medication and thankfully a route back to reality via some excellent healthcare, my own apartment and the unconditional but still remarkable help and support of my family and friends.
The recovery road is hard and the drugs caused me to gain 30+ lbs in weight. I was also seriously sapped in energy and motivation as I came out of the mania, yet felt numbed, low in vitality and veered into depression.
But somewhere inside me I knew I just had to keep myself alive. Even if that meant surviving on pizza and granola bars and zoning out on YouTube.
And gradually I started to see some progress.
I started working part-time and writing articles for the James Bay Beacon. I was also weaned off the medication safely with medical guidance and, inspired by friends, got back into running.
Now, running six days a week, I’ve dropped 30+ lbs, regained my fit/strong body and reignited my mojo for life. For me, it’s the best ‘medicine’ but medication helped me for a time when I needed it.
Are there still challenges? Of course. I still grapple with depression and struggle to make sense of being single and childless at 48. And there’s still the deep-rooted fear that the mania could return.
But I’m focused on ‘solutions’ and the management strategies working for me.
Science (highlighted by John J. Ratey’s 2008 book Spark) tells me that the running is literally regenerating my brain, growing new neural pathways and reversing the shrinkage that bouts of depression can cause.
Working from home (a three-second commute) and controlling my schedule also eliminates most of the soul-sapping stresses often prevalent in a regular 9-5 job, while I surround myself with good people and keep my mind sharp and active.
Then there’s the ‘silent assassin’ of stigma that surrounds mental illness and all those afflicted. While your family and true friends will stick by you, some will fade into the background, never replying to messages or seemingly ignoring you.
Do they now think you’re ‘damaged goods’ and don’t want to touch you with the proverbial barge pole?
All-too-often it’s lazy ignorance and a simple lack of education. With Google at our fingertips, we can learn about bipolar in 10 minutes, while it takes 10 seconds to send a quick text or email.
We’re still the same people underneath. With the same good nature, humour and talents at our disposal.
Life’s an education—and never more so than when you’re forced to do the tango with a mental illness.
But human beings have remarkable resilience and powers of recovery.
And the potential to run like Forrest Gump.
*Note that this is John’s unique story and your experience may be different. Please consult your doctor before making any adjustments to medication.