This is a much less scary title. The original was: Bipolar bare, or, not making heads or tails of it, and frankly I prefer that, but it’s too extreme. This title relates to the more positive part two, and is perhaps wisely a lot less headline grabbing. It’s sad that in order for mental health to be taken seriously, these sorts of scary titles still seem to need to feature in the media and in public consciousness. To be fair, however, a great deal of progress has been made in that respect, and I hope these thoughts make some small contribution.
It’s important to issue a slight trigger warning here. This one’s a little sweary. If you’re offended by bad language (as in rude), or bad language (as in things that aren’t written clearly and can be hard to follow), it’s perhaps best not to read on.
I was worried about being so openly odd on my blog. This was partly dissuaded by the compulsion I felt to publish it after getting some good feedback from friends I shared it with. Mainly though, I put it up because I suspect people often don’t read beyond the first couple of paragraphs, rendering everything below something of an irrelevance anyway.
Caveats over, let’s begin…
For the purposes of clarity and avoiding terrifying anyone actually mad enough to read on: I’m not bipolar, or at least I think I’m not. I asked myself, and I said I was okay, so it must be fine, right?
Seriously, I know what it is, and I’m happily a long way away from that side of the psychological spectrum, but I’m not quite wired normally either. It’s important to understand mental health as a variable experience and a fluid state of mind, rather than an unchanging suitcase of static ‘baggage’ that everyone carries around with them.
This is my first attempt at something extremely difficult. In essence, I’m trying to capture the wildly fluctuating internal dialogue of anxiety, depression and whatever else happens to be going on in my head. A lot of the time, it’s positive, and I’m happy, but sometimes it’s a bit scarier. Sorry to be starting with the darker bits, but it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself in for. Part two is cheerier, I promise.
Before we get into it, I should probably offer some explanation for the title. I previously thought of a comedy sketch where mental health concepts are depicted as cartoon animals. This is important, as concepts, rather than realities, is all they are: see the excellent book “crazy like us” for more on this.
Anyway, those characters include: depression dog (with appropriately sad droopy ears), manic monkey (a wildly excitable gibbon) and schizoid snake (who has two heads and no tail), and, my favourite, bipolar bear.
He’s half white and half brown, as in polar and grizzly, because mental health isn’t black and white, and he’s like Beorn from the Hobbit, neither entirely a man nor completely a bear. The quote below is direct from Tolkien’s work (and straight from my memory, though I do admit to getting the word order wrong and correcting it after the fact):
“He is a skin-changer, that is to say that he changes his skin. Sometimes he is a man and sometimes he is an enormous black bear… you must be careful not to annoy him, or heaven knows what will happen. He can be appalling when he is angry, though he is kind enough if humoured. Still I warn you he gets angry easily.”
The title is bipolar bare because I’m trying to nudge at some of the misconceptions we have about mental health, because it’s a pun on the above character name, and because it’s alliterative, which pleases me. The heads and tails thing will make sense in a moment.
Part One: welcome to our brain
He’s in bold. We flipped a coin, and it came up heads. It was a trick coin through, depicting the Roman god Janus, a famously two-headed deity, but at least he pretended to give me a fair shot. I’m in italics, because underlining is really only for titles and headings, and I was never very good at standing up straight.
“Evening mate, how was the day? Get any phone numbers?”
It’s odd to hear the voice again, after a few days of quiet. I very quickly get used to not having ‘him’ around every corner, and spend many happy hours pretending that I’m in control after all. That’s rubbish of course.
“You know bloody well I didn’t, and why do you think it necessary to come up with some witty opener every time? We both know you’re there, and it’s not like you’re going to catch me off guard. We’re both in the same head, for fuck sake.”
“Speak for yourself old chap, I’m anywhere and everywhere really, you’re stuck here all the time, but I can go wherever. You shouldn’t leave our brain switched on this late you know, it’s not healthy.”
He’s always so smug. Just like the Hobbit’s dragon (Smaug, for the uninitiated) is almost smug, I’m always teetering on the precipice of being an arrogant tosser, but happily I never quite manage it. One of our many differences, that.
“And where have your travels taken you recently then?” (I have to humour him, we both know where this is going eventually. I ignore the time comment, he always pretends he’s got nothing to do with it, and that always pisses me off)
“Had a nice walk down memory lane. It’s very interesting, but you really should keep it tidy. There’s too much clutter, no wonder you get lost so often. We’ll need a tourist office and a guidebook soon. Not that we could afford it.”
Always the comedian, I muttered to myself (after thinking of yet another new title*). We could afford it, but the logistics of setting up a tourist office in your own mind, boggles the… well, boggles the brain I suppose.
“You don’t seem to have any trouble getting around, and it’s not like we’re ever going to let anyone else in, is it?”
“Come on Adam, don’t be such a spoilsport.” He returns. “Maybe someone will be interested enough to hang around, and besides, can’t you remember that Dumbledore quote: “to the well organised mind, death is but the next great adventure”? You need to get your house in order, and I’m not talking about writing a will.”
Here we go then, back where we both know we’re going to end up every night, with or without a side of depression. Happily without in this case. Sometimes depression is even a main dish, but I only tend to have it for that part of the meal if they’re out of sea bass and that delicious mushroom risotto. The restaurant at the end of our universe, I find myself thinking, wittily. What a shame no one else was there to hear it.
“Don’t be a git, you know I can hear your thoughts too, right?” He breaks my concentration with calculated precision, after giving me just enough of a respite to think he might have wandered off again.
“I suppose it’s too much to ask for you to have anything nice to say, isn’t it?” I retort, though as we’ve established, at this point the actual dialogue is mostly for effect.
“Do you see the thoughts or hear them?”
I suppose I’m thinking aloud here, but in something a lot more like a petulant mutter or an impudent whisper than the sort of calm and measured voice one should probably use when talking to oneself.
“Both. Anyway, even by your dire standards, that restaurant bit wasn’t that funny. More Douglas Bader than Douglas Adams.”
“Douglas Bader?” I replied, incredulous. “The World War Two Flying Ace? Where the hell did that come from?”
“No, you must have misheard me. Douglas Badder. As in, not as good as Douglas Adams. But also because our brain is light on alternative famous Douglases, and the Bayern Munich winger is a bit too left-field. Or maybe he plays on the right… never mind, where were we?”
“Jesus, and people say I’m hard to follow”
“You are, but not for me. On the other hand, I know exactly what you’re going to say, so it’s maybe not a fair game.”
“How about now? … Purple monkey dishwasher!” I offer abruptly, hoping to take him by surprise.
“Bad luck, try again matey.” Comes the infuriatingly sanguine response.
“Expecto patronum!” (That’s bold and italics, because we both said it at the same time. Try to keep up.)
A few moments of silence. Neither of us move. Well, our body doesn’t move, we’re always running around. Never a moment’s peace in this brain.
“So, one more day closer to death then?”
Bad news. He’d cut to the chase,
“Yes. It is. What do you want me to say? You’ll die too, you prick!” I shout, losing my temper. Our temper? Even I’m confused at this point.
“Now now, it’s getting late, try and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early. Maybe I won’t, who knows. You might die in your sleep.”
“Night night. If you get bored, try and write some things down, or draw some pictures.” I offer, forty minutes after we got back home. Whatever else this is, it was at least in real time.
This is just a photo of me entering coordinates in the ship’s log six years ago. The relevance is that a lot of these conversations take place in the literal and imaginary dark. That, and I wanted some sort of picture.
*That title was “Neurotourism, new frontiers of the mind, or, take a trip on me”, and deals with the idea of being able to experience someone else’s consciousness from the inside, as it were.
It’s a weirdly conceptual approach to the point I made at the start, and very sci-fi’ but there is a vague starting point in reality here. Read more, you know you want to. Here’s a snippet from the article:
“UC Berkeley scientists have developed a system to capture visual activity in human brains and reconstruct it as digital video clips. Eventually, this process will allow you to record and reconstruct your own dreams on a computer screen.”
I would apologise for the digression, but as a good friend recently (rightly!) asked me to stop needlessly apologising, and as we’re still in my head here, I won’t. For the purposes of these pieces, I’ll try and throw excessive digressions in a pile at the end, like this, rather than taking a huge meandering wander away from my point and getting absolutely lost.