Part 12: The B-side to my Bipolar

There’s two sides to every record

There’s a side to mental illness that we don’t tend to talk about – not necessarily because it’s stigmatised or taboo, but because it’s just ignored. It’s the less interesting, the less dramatic, and perhaps the more ‘normal’, aspects of living with a mental health diagnosis: the, stable, plain and non-extreme rest-of-my-life. The aspects of life with a diagnosis which aren’t dictated by, in fact devoid of, suffering caused by ill mental health, tend to go unnoticed. The B-side to my bipolar, or simply living my life like pretty much everyone else, is something that I’ve touched upon before. However, it’s not what you see or read about in the media. They’re the less ‘popular’, less well-known tracks of my life with a mental illness.

Tuning in
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A fully functioning Hi-Fi system

As mentioned in a previous post: I don’t feel like I live with a mental illness, rather it lives with me. That being said, my relapses can be disabling and debilitating. They’re incredibly disruptive and dangerous. In the past I’ve been ‘fortunate’ enough to have been sick for only one to two weeks at a time. These episodes have now become few and far between. Some people don’t have that stability or mental buffer, but I believe the majority of us who have to face ill mental health at some point in our lifetime are high-functioning like this.

I work as a doctor in the NHS and know a number of friends and colleagues who live and work with ongoing mental health issues. Like everyone else I get on with my day and, despite the stress, I cope well with the pressures of work. There have been times where I’ve come home exhausted, broken and burnt out. But I’ve healed and recovered and soon returned to doing what I love. Living with bipolar can make healing more difficult, but managing it the way I do means I can, for the most part, function as a ‘normal’ human being.

I like to think that I’m pretty open about my mental health. I do, however, like to maintain some form of anonymity with regards to this blog in particular. There’ve been times where I’ve spoken about my mental health with trusted friends or colleagues unaware of my struggles, but the reaction isn’t from a place of negativity. Rather it’s from a place of shock. “I would have never known you were bipolar had you not told me” tends to be a typical response. Thankfully I’ve never had to face comments such as “Really?! You don’t look like someone who has bipolar” – I do empathise though with those who have had to be on the receiving end of such a remark. Although meant well, it stems from a wider issue that stigmatises mood disorders and psychotic illness.

Not everyday is a battle for me. It’s not everyday I endure suffering. A good majority of my life is in fact devoid of mental health struggles. This is, in part, because I’ve worked tremendously hard on buffering and galvanising my mental health since my first relapse in 2014. I’ve tried different medications over the years and worked through a year of therapy. Over this time I’ve developed a strong mental resilience and learnt how to better deal with my early warning signs. I don’t want to be seen as different or given special treatment just because of a diagnosis.

A peaceful sound
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The tracks of my years

Despite the fact that for the majority of my life I’m mentally stable and euthymic – mania, depression and psychosis tend to make a large dent whenever they’re present. Although they only constitute a fraction of events I live through, they often feel like the A-side to the tracks of my life. The A-side may feature bangers such as ‘No Sleep ‘Til You’re Ill’ and ‘(My Mind Is) Dancing in the Dark’. They’re also mixed in with more solemn tunes, like ‘You will you won’t kill yourself’ and ‘Can’t get these thoughts out of my head’. Despite appearances, these tracks feature only so often in my life, yet always can have a big impact. It’s the kind of music that the media tells you to listen to and the radio has them on repeat. They tend to ignore the deep cuts and album fillers.  

The B-side to my bipolar is the side of the record that I predominantly play and listen to. It consists of tracks such as, ‘Have a Nice Sleep’ and ‘Working 9-5 (Without Anxiety)’. Some classics also include ‘Don’t Worry, Go for a Run’. Lesser known tracks, such as ‘Being Naturally Happy’ and ‘Sadness is a Normal Emotion’, also feature on the B-side. They’re the boring, generic and repetitive tracks but are stable, safe and easy listening. Because the media and radio stations ignore this side, focus is drawn to the more destructive A-side – which paints a distorted picture. It leaves a poor impression of people who live with a mental illness, and above anything, misrepresents them. It’s this kind of distortion of facts that lead to comments such as “You don’t look bipolar” and “How come you’re not manic or depressed?”. As mentioned earlier, this feeds into the overall stigma surrounding mental health.

The B-side consists of the fundamental tracks of a high functioning lifestyle. The more they’re played, the easier it is to get on with and enjoy life. The easier it then becomes to face the challenges life throws at me. Sometimes things become too overwhelming and I lose control, i.e. the record player flips and starts playing more of the A-side tracks. It glitches and the music spirals into what feels like a never ending repeat of destructive songs. It’s only when I’m finally capable of taking back control of the music, through recovery, I can then resume playing the calm and soothing B-side.

Diagnosis ≠ Label

Like all mental health disorders, bipolar affects everyone who has it very differently; no two individuals are the same. I’m grateful for the uniqueness that living with a mental health diagnosis gives me. I would argue that my experiences with psychosis, mania and depression have increased my capacity to ‘think outside the box’ and allow me to take multiple avenues of thought. My experiences of mental illness have also helped me develop a better understanding of body language and communication. My witty sense of humour, albeit not that funny, is something I can attribute in part to my mental health. It’s also helped me be more in tune with my emotions, allowing me to dial into areas of my mind previously uncharted as an adult.

Looking back, I don’t think I’d change any aspects of what I have. Over the years, living through and dealing with ill mental health has helped mould my personality without ever taking full control. With my bipolar I’ve been through a wide spectrum of moods, emotions and thinking patterns. I’ve been close to suicide on a number of occasions, but brought myself round through perseverance. I’ve battled sinister delusions and psychotic thoughts, but fought back and come out of them stronger than ever. I’ve acquired life skills that I wouldn’t normally have gained had I not had a mental illness, and learnt a lot about compassion and empathy.

Despite all of this, I’m eternally thankful that I’m capable of living a high-functioning lifestyle where my mental health rarely affects me. I refuse to let it define and label who I am or dictate what I do. Because I’m not controlled by my mental illness, I do my best to live life to the fullest and strive to live as close to ‘normality’, i.e. as close to the B-side, as humanly possible.

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Published by Jimmy Pete

I work as a qualified doctor in Wales. I also live with Bipolar Affective Disorder. I love rugby, long walks and drinking coffee! I have a very loving and caring group of friends and family that look out for me in times of need. They have allowed me to progress to a point in my life where I am confident enough to talk about my mental health, which I hope in turn, allows others to open up about their issues.

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