Kieran, 35. Bipolar Type 1.
Name, age , occupation: Kieran Cunningham, 35, Teacher slash (small case) writer.
Mood today? Happily blue with strains of lilac.
Wine, coffee or green smoothie? Coffee
3 vices: Cigarettes, scones, coffe
3 virtues: Authenticity, energy, compassion
What’s the best thing anyone has ever said to you? In Nepal a group of Sherpas I got to know called me ‘White Sherpa’.
If you weren’t a teacher, what would you be? A bum, gladly.
What’s in your Headcase?
Bipolar Type 1 disorder
When did you first notice things might not be quite….’right’.
Around the age of 14. It was then that I began to feel very much an interloper on the human experience. Staying calm was problematic and being around people a great effort. It exhausted me (and sometimes still does). I just didn’t get why everyone else was so damn casual about everything, when I wasn’t.
What were the symptoms/what happened?
The ‘manic’ episodes were fairly weak, if lengthy, and for the most part almost enjoyable at the outset - before the jitters, anxiety, hypersensitivity and hyper self-consciousness set in. So I was diagnosed only with depression. During manic episodes, which were predominant, I remember feeling as though I was watching myself but unable to control what I was doing. I had, and still have, feelings of invincibility. When I came down, often weeks later, it was the first of me being able to look back and notice a lot of the things I’d done had been absolutely outrageous and often a bit dangerous.
How did you feel?
As a teenager I wasn’t particularly worried because I dealt with it by removing myself from where it might be noticed, avoiding prying eyes when I thought I was most likely to be ‘found out’. I skipped school a lot and hid in the woods near my house. I started to notice that the kind of intensity I experienced most of the time just wasn’t part of the experience of other people, and so I wanted to spend my time alone, whether through shame or simple disappointment that nobody I knew could share my feelings and way of experiencing the world. I was very emotional and sensitive – unfortunate and not exceptionally cool for a teenager stuck in a remote corner of Fife between clusters of fishing and mining villages.
The intensity came in many forms. In depressive phases it was utter clarity, like the way I was seeing things was the absolute truth of things. Nobody could’ve convinced me otherwise. I remember feeling permanently and irrevocably heartbroken. In manic phases I’d be jittery, unable to sit still, my mind racing. After the first few years, as things deteriorated, I’d feel ready to explode if I stayed too long indoors. I found ways to work off the energy – running, writing, reading working out. Even today I find it hard to get through a day with ‘Normals’ without having done some form of physical exercise and having scribbled out some of the nonsense in my head.
Do you know why it started
Yes, but I don’t think you want to hear about limbic, striatal and fronto-cortical neurotransmitter neuronal circuits and all that. It was/is, I believe, genetic. Situational factors do contribute or ‘trigger’ certain episodes but by and large they’re self-starters and provide their own impetus.
Did you know what it was, or what to do?
I thought of the depression as ‘not me’ and the manic states as simply the way I was. The onset wasn’t too sudden so I suppose it sneaked under the radar until my first severe episode. I wasn’t diagnosed as bipolar until I got to university. I only started getting an idea of what to do following the help of the psychiatrist there.
How long did you wait before telling anyone?
I told my high school girlfriend after a year or two, but kept it from my family and everyone else until two years ago…so about15 years. As my awareness of the onset of episodes grew, I became an expert at hiding it. However, when I finally told my family it was actually a huge relief for them – I guess a lot of things finally made sense.
Who did you talk to?
Nobody, really. I had friends who had depression so I talked about that when it happened, but ‘bipolar’ seemed too ‘out there’ for sharing and I never felt comfortable enough with it to tell anyone.
What help did you get?
Initially I saw the university psychiatrist every few weeks and was given meds but then moved abroad and tried to forget about it, kinda hoping it would just go away. Just writing these words has allowed me to see ‘denial’ was pretty much an ever-present, even when I was medicated and attending therapy.
What happened then?
I didn’t fare too well. I’d maybe hoped that exposure therapy would allow me to live in salutary ignorance of the condition as I ‘got used to it’ and as my coping strategies developed, but it didn’t work out that way. I had a few very colourful manic episodes and equally extreme depressive ones on the back of them. I overdosed on meds while living in Portugal (accidentally – I was self-medicating and upping my dosage as circumstances and mood required until an overdose was inevitable) and ended up in hospital twice.
How are you now?
Objectively, my bipolar is probably fractionally worse than when I was in my twenties, but the eyes with which I look upon myself and the world are better adapted to the often frightful mindsets and cerebral clusterfucks the condition cooks up, so I’m better prepared to deal with it. My coping strategies, if sometimes exhausting, are very helpful – probably lifesaving. The manic episodes still exhaust me and I’ve found myself in hospital at least once a year for the past decade (usually with exhaustion), but I have a far greater awareness of myself and the goings-on in my body and brain so I can regulate/deal with everything a lot better. Bipolar still holds a great sway over my life, but I now feel as though I’m in dialogue with ‘it’, rather than being ordered around.
What was the moment you remember things changed for the better?
I was in the US, hitchhiking and wandering and sleeping rough. I’d run away from a group of friends I’d met (a pattern, by then) and been living with because I knew I couldn’t keep my nuttiness from them any longer and hadn’t quite become so friendly with them that I could reveal all. I was ready to burst with the effort of hiding it. I took off and was alone, hiking in a desert in New Mexico in mid-winter (the type of place I’ve gravitated to), and a blessed thought crept under my guard while I was wishing I could be like the people I’d left behind – normal, without my bipolar. The thought was very simple but has transformed my life and most probably extended it by however long I happen to stick around. I realized that if some miraculous cure appeared that could take my bipolar away I wouldn’t want it. Soon I was (with, of course, the odd exception) coming to see my bipolar as a gift rather than a curse.
Who helped you the most?
Initially my Buddhist teacher. The techniques he gave me and the insights I garnered under his supervision were very transformative. Nowadays my parents are my rocks. They are awesome.
What is the best piece of advice you were given?
Help others, in order to help yourself. There are plenty of other people in worse straits than myself and I’ve found that by helping them however I can, I find a degree of calmness and equanimity I rarely experience at other times. It’s inexplicable, I’m fairly sure, but it works.
What has worked best for you?
Mountaineering, meditation, climbing, running, talking, micro-management of my diet, the company I keep, my time, incoming stimuli and, most importantly, acceptance. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with meds but all-in-all I know without them I might never have had the balance that allows me to manage each of the above. Sun and teetotalism help a lot too.
What would you say to anyone who is suffering similar things, or to yourself in that state?
There’s something that works for you too. Find it. Talk about it. Find others with the same Headcase and share the fuck out of it. It’s cathartic, trust me, and gets you out of your Headcase by allowing for perspective.
What’s the biggest change in mental health you would like to see?
Less stigma, of course, and shorter waiting times for NHS consultations. I think exposure is key. People with and without mental health problems should have some form of education on the subject. I’d have happily passed on a few algebra lessons in school to make way for a bit of rudimentary psychology. We all have brains, after all, but not so many of us x’s and y’s and b’s squared or whatever.
If you could say anything to your mental health issue, what would it be?
“Hi!”, and "Thank you…without you I wouldn’t be ‘me’.”
Headshot photo credit, Mike Sim