Updated: Apr 2
This week's interview is with my friend Mark who I met at one of my first poetry open mic nights around three years ago. Since then Mark and I have had many mental-health-fuelled conversations, and today he's going to talk to us about his life with bipolar disorder, the growing acceptance and understanding around mental health issues, and how far society still has to go.
In his own words:
Hi. My name is Mark. I'm a Dad, poet, and Muay Thai instructor. I'm also a member of Mensa. Oh, and I suffer with Bi-Polar Disorder.
1) Hi Mark, how are you?
Hi Jemima. I'm pretty good thank you.
2) How are you really?
I'm fed up. Fed up of the struggle, fed up of the mood swings and at times just fed up with life.
3) How important do you think it is to raise awareness around mental health issues?
I think it is vital to raise awareness around mental health issues. There are still so many preconceived ideas about mental health issues. So many people still have no clear picture of what it is like to experience mental illness and stigma is still rife in many areas of society. One in four people will at some point in their life experience a mental health issue, a lot of those people still feel ashamed at admitting they are suffering or struggle coming forward.
4) Tell me about your mental health diagnoses?
I first got diagnosed with BiPolar Disorder in 2005, but had always suspected that something wasn't quite right. I had always suffered from what I considered to be depression and episodes of elation/wild behaviour! At other times I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder/Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. I think there are many cases where there are a lot of similarities between these diagnoses. I also believe you can suffer from both. I have been on medication for many years and certain meds are a real life saver for me.
5) Have you always felt comfortable to talk about your diagnoses?
I have always been quite open about discussing my diagnosis, but ran into trouble for not declaring it in a certain workplace. However you think the understanding of mental health is progressing, there is still a great deal of stigma/discrimination alive in the workplace.
6) What is it like to have bipolar disorder?
I could say it is smooth sailing because I have had it for so long, but that would be a lie. It is bloody exhausting. I would just adore a long continued period of absolute stability. It has affected all aspects of my life and relationships. I feel as though I lack emotional sturdyness now, but saying that, I am much better at helping others than helping myself.
7) How did bipolar before seeking help compare to bipolar after seeking help?
Once again, I would like to say everything changed. Yes, medication smoothed me out, but the lack of help and underfunding for mental health front line services is still generally shocking. I have found that when you try and reach out when you recognise a crisis coming, there is very little help on offer. You seem to actually have to get to crisis point before help is offered. Even then, if you are hospitalised, practical help is not very forthcoming and after discharge, help falls away quickly.
8) How long would you say you lived with symptoms before reaching out for help?
I think I lived with symptoms from about the age of 16/18 years old. I had been in and out of therapy for years for depression before getting a diagnosis.
9) Tell me about the lows that come with bipolar disorder for you...
The lows are more controlled now, but in the past I have attempted suicide, taken overdoses, self harmed. More so, the lows are like a crushing weight of emptiness. I don't enjoy anything. I don't want to do anything. I don't want to get out of bed. I hide and shut myself off from the world. I feel ugly and useless. I get paranoid that people can tell something is wrong with me. Sometimes I pass a mirror and am shocked I haven't got two heads!
10) Tell me about the highs...
The highs can be very fun (for me) but not for others. My speech gets faster and faster. My thoughts race. I paint and write, but can get angry. If it continues, I can end up becoming reckless, impulsive, bizarre in behaviour. In my mind I become the funniest person, but there is no off switch. I become a danger to myself.
11) For anyone who has never heard of dissociation, what is it?
When I have been left for two long without help, I can dissociate. I almost become someone else. It is not so much the old fashioned term of split personality disorder, but a protective split because of the horrors you are feeling. I believe mine my have started in childhood as a way to escape abuse.
12) How much of a positive impact does it have when someone simply acknowledges how you're feeling?
It does have a tremendous impact when someone acknowledges how you are feeling and you sense they really understand. Thanks Jem. In the past I have felt dismissed and brushed off.
13) When you share what you're experiencing mental health wise, how do you hope people react?
I hope people react favourably, but I don't hold my breath. There are still many ignorant people out there. Saying that though, on the opposite side of the coin, there are folk you would not expect to react in a positive way, but have come through like diamonds. I reached out to a lot of people in lockdown and was quite amazed at how people started opening up to me. I discovered a support group I didn't know existed.
14) Does experiencing dissociation make it more difficult for you to be present and focus on a conversation with someone?
During dissociation I am unlikely to be having conversation at all. I am totally in my head.
15) Do you more often feel understood or misunderstood?
In the past I have often felt very misunderstood. More recently, I would say in the last few years, I have felt more understood. I would say that this is because gradually it has become more acceptable to talk about Mental Health. I also think that with more high profile people acknowledging their own struggles and things like this interview regarding mental health, we will continue moving in the right direction to full acceptance and understanding.
16) If someone reading this today has recently be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, what would you like to say to them?
If someone has just received a diagnosis I would say take all the help you can get. Talk to fellow sufferers. I know that I may have painted a bleak picture, but you can live a full life. Channel your energies wisely. Reach out, don't sit on your feelings. Realise you are not alone. There are sufferers all around who are leading full and happy lives. You will learn to get through.
17) Do you think there is a stigma around personality disorders?
I do think there is a stigma surrounding personality disorders. I think they are poorly understood by both the public and professionals. From a research perspective, diagnosis of personality disorders can be a little suspect. The criteria to meet the threshold of having a personality disorder is vague. After all, we all have adaptive behaviours and defence mechanisms in place to help us deal with the world. Who is to say my disordered personality is better or worse than yours. Saying that, I do believe that certain trauma can lead to a personality that is very off kilter and needs intervention. I think DBT (Dialectical behavioural therapy) has been shown to help.
18) How important would you say it is for people to educate themselves around mental health issues even if they haven't had any first-hand experience?
I think it is very important for people to educate themselves. The people who believe it will never happen to them and then get hit with a mental health issue, suffer greatly. It is also about educating people on mental wellbeing. Looking after your mental health is as important as looking after your physical and spiritual health. Even diet plays a part in this. The gym has been my therapy for decades.
19) Do you have any coping mechanisms to get you through the difficult days?
I comfort eat! But I do sometimes drink too much. This is definitely not a good idea. For the brief alleviation of symptoms, invariably they will comeback stronger the day after.
Go to the gym. Eat buttery mashed potato. Do not drink beer!
20) How do you feel after our interview today?
I feel good after this interview. It has been good to be able to commit a few of my thoughts to paper. Thank you for taking the time to interview me Jemima. Keep up the great work.
Thank you so much my friend for sharing your experiences with us today. Your honesty goes a very long way to raising understanding and pushing for more acceptance. You're absolutely right when you say that 'people who believe it will never happen to them and then get hit with a mental health issue suffer greatly', I was one of those people. Educating ourselves regardless of how secure and stable we feel is crucial for helping others and being prepared ourselves for something that is, to a large extent, out of our control.
Keep looking after you Mark, you're important, and I look forward to seeing you at 'Licensed to Rhyme' in the future.
If you're struggling with your mental health, please REACH OUT. Go to the 'support' page on this website for contact details. If there is a waiting list for a service you need, put yourself on it! I promise you, you are worth waiting for.
'Licensed to Rhyme' is the brilliant poetry night where Mark and I first met and runs monthly (when there isn't a global pandemic) at Joe Joe Jim's bar in Rednal. Well worth checking out! You can find them on Facebook (Licensed to Rhyme) and Instagram (@licensedtorhyme).