Hi. My name is Greg. I have bipolar 2. That’s not a bad thing, or an embarrassing thing, or even a thing at all. It’s as relevant to my life as my being Irish, or standing over 190cm tall, or having black hair, or legs…it just is…and that’s fine! Some people get embarrassed for me when I mention it, but, as most of my friends will tell you, being bipolar isn’t even in the top 20 embarrassing things in my life; I’m a Carlton fan. That’s a lot worse!
I’m writing this here for anyone to read because I believe that through the sharing of my story and others like it, we can break the stigma around mental health, encourage others who are suffering to act, and for nothing else, just to let people know there are others out there who know what it’s like, and so your condition shouldn’t make you feel isolated.
So what’s the story?
I always knew I was a weird kid; highly emotional and very irrational at times; prone to outlandish behaviour and impulsive acts. Back in the 70s and early 80s, this was brushed aside as middle-child syndrome, and was to be ignored. Jumping forward to my teens in the late 80s, and I’m now living in America when my mom died, and a year after, we move back to Ireland where I had a lot of trouble re-adjusting. I also had to deal with some fairly significant high school bullying. Highly traumatic as you can imagine, and here’s when the bi-polar really starts to raise its head. I started having suicidal thoughts and became rather isolated and friendless. I noticed that I started to say and do things around my peer group that I knew was wrong, but I couldn’t really help myself; lying, saying outrageous things for shock value, walking over parked cars etc. However, after a couple of years, it seemed to have passed, and I moved on, and everyone just thought it was a phase.
Jumping to the next trauma and I got dumped…yup…that cliché! I didn’t survive this one so easily. In my work, I had to travel around the country, but found myself pulling over to the side of the road and crying for half an hour, or just staring into the distance because I was frozen with confusion and doubt. Socially, I withdrew again, but more dramatically now; leaving nights out early to walk along the coast. There was an island near where we lived and it was well-known as a suicide/accident spot. It was close enough to swim to, but the rip and undertow meant you had to be a very good swimmer to make it, and many did not. And I was not a good swimmer. So I knew if I swam, I wouldn’t make it. Night after night I would walk down there, getting closer and closer to the water. Sometimes, I’d take my shoes off and dip my feet in to ‘test the temperature’. I didn’t want to attempt suicide, but I did want to swim to the island. As a casual musician, I used to write songs and my roommate found a song I had written…but it wasn’t really a song. So I hadn’t written a note for a suicide I wasn’t attempting…but anyway…he went to my dad with ‘the song’ and my dad came to me.
I knew I would be ok then. It was my friend going to my dad. Maybe somebody did care about me. Maybe I wasn’t alone. Maybe I was ‘just sad’. So my dad and I decided I’d see a counsellor, and can you believe, I remember nothing from those visits, apart from the fact that I didn’t really like the guy. I have zero recollection of his thoughts, ideas, or suggestions. Nothing. And, in fact, it didn’t matter because a few months later, I quit my sales job, did a 3-week training course, and moved to Italy. Yup! Totally fine. Nothing to see here. Perfectly normal behaviour. Nothing at all bi-polar-y about that. Unfortunately, we still hadn’t twigged what was going on, and nobody in the family or satellite relationships knew enough about mental health to pick it up. I was just back to weird Greg. Weird, but happy at least.
Another jump, and now I’m 30 and have moved to Australia with the most wonderful woman in the world. There are some bad days before we leave, and more every now and then for a few years after, but it’s all put down to stress from the move. But there’s nothing significant or obvious. Unfortunately, there’s more turbulence ahead. The kids are born (awesome) but they don’t sleep well (less awesome). If you have kids, you know how sleep deprivation can affect you. And topped with a retrenchment process in the workplace, I started to spiral badly again.
Again, the rash decisions come out, anger now, confusion, and panic. I also find myself veering from states of euphoria (like irresistible urges to hug trees) to despondency; I’m lethargic and unable to get off the couch. It all comes to a head when I am verbally abusive to my boss during a mediation process. I find out during one of the meetings that she stayed in her office and cried as she had been so afraid of me. I break down. I’m done! A horrible dribbly mess who realises things aren’t right and doesn’t know how to fix it. After that meeting, I find my boss and apologise (always man-up when you mess-up)…and quit! Another wonderful bi-polar move there. Two kids and a wife in uni and I decide to quit with no job lined up! But things start to change from here.
I know there’s something wrong so I start to see a counsellor again. But, as opposed to the first guy, I really like her. She’s safe and I’m comfortable and I spend a lot of time crying. She diagnoses clinical depression and starts to work out some coping strategies with me and starts to talk about medication, which I am strongly against at that time. I swap roles with my wife and start working less, spending more time at home with the kids and figuring out what the hell is going on. Feeling more even-keeled and balanced, I stop seeing the counsellor (now that I wasn’t working in the city, she was too far away) but things are really good so we’re ok with the decision.Finally, a few years ago, I was watching some show on ‘Mental Health Week’ on the ABC when I realised that I should talk to somebody about what had happened, and do it when I was feeling well. So I did. And the new, and current, counsellor and I worked through some things, did a lot of talking, even the more painful stuff and that’s when we realised that I was bipolar 2.
It was one of the best days of my life. It doesn’t excuse anything, but it explains it. The diagnosis gives me power. Knowing what it is gives me something to battle against. The diagnosis allows me to apologise in advance, but more importantly, apologise to those I have failed. Like I said, it doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but allows me to explain the ‘why’ and say sorry (I can’t make all the people accept the apology though – that’s up to them).
I’ve had a second lease on life since then. I still have bad days, but now we have a plan when things run out of control. And a wider part of that plan is reaching out through a beyondblue speaker role, through blueVoices, through setting up a local dads group, and getting more people to help those they love, because as cliché as it sounds, the more of us doing it, the better we all are.
I’ve surrounded myself with a strong group of people who I know, and who I trust when I speak about these things, and who are not afraid to talk to me about too, about my condition, and sometimes theirs. There are usually a few phone calls or texts if I happen to leave the pub early (which nowadays is usually just due to being old and tired).
I’m learning to talk more about what is going on in my mind so that others (particularly my still awesome wife) can help me.
I’m learning to listen to advice better. Men generally don’t listen so well. We like to solve the problem too quickly and so we might miss some good advice. My wife and my friends have good advice, and I have developed a bit more patience with hearing them and their ideas out more as it might help me more than my own half-baked solutions. Not always mind you, but I’m trying.
I’m learning to be honest with myself. I’m bipolar 2 and some days are better than others. I will probably struggle every now and then for the rest of my life. I might need to go onto medication someday. But I’m good with all of that.
I’m learning that I’m allowed to be angry and happy without it being a part of my condition. Emotions are normal and some extremes are permitted in everyday life, within reason of course. If I start shouting at someone because they ate all the Weet-bix, that would probably be bi-polar-y.
I’m learning to forgive myself. And when I am well, I accept myself. And I plan to, for a long time to come.