Laid in a hospital bed with a foreboding sense of unreality is where I found myself four years ago on this particular Thursday in March. I hadn’t yet been taken onto a ward and was in a small side room in A & E. It was surprisingly quiet given that it was a busy casualty department or maybe that was just the effects of the copious amount of medication and alcohol I had ingested as a result of rage and despair brought on by a telephone call I received earlier, which I’ll come to in a moment. Although the medical staff were busy and pretty much left me alone once I was hooked up to numerous monitors, I wasn’t on my own. Julie (my now wife) had dropped everything and rushed to the hospital. She sat with me, eyes filled with concern and compassion – sentiments that were in stark contrast to the feelings of the woman who telephoned me earlier.
Earlier that day I was quietly sitting and doing what I normally did… just watching and thinking. I was an inpatient on a mental health unit and had been for about three months. Some of that time I had spent sectioned but at that moment I was ‘voluntary’, in as much as I could leave the ward for short periods but if I misbehaved I would be back on a section. I was quite ambivalent about it but being voluntary did mean I could walk off the ward and straight into a pub. As with 60% of Bipolar sufferers I had the co-morbid problem of substance abuse; in my case alcohol although it had been cannabis before that. I even worked stoned but without any doubt my alcohol dependency was far more destructive. In the case of cannabis I was trying to slow down my thinking but in the case of alcohol I was trying to obliterate any thought at all; it was too painful to think given that I’d received a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, which is when I actually started drinking. I had lost my job (not drink-related) and the life I thought I would have was gone. The more I thought, the more I hurt, the more I drank and it was cyclical. I should perhaps mention at this point that my past alcoholism and effects is not something I find easy to think or talk about. It was incredibly destructive and I am far from proud of the decisions I made and things I did while inebriated. I’m more than happy to discuss my Bipolar but alcoholism – when it is recognised as such – seems to carry more social stigma… and by stigma I mean judgement. Still, at least in the UK, this is only true when an individual is drinking to an extent that disrupts their life. I know many people who can’t get through a day without a drink and they are from all walks of life but they function. They drink excessively every night and then go to work the next morning; all the time thinking of their next drink. By medical standards they are addicts but would not see themselves as such and the drinking culture in this country backs up their view. It is only when drinking becomes round the clock and is disruptive that people frown upon it whilst misunderstanding that addiction is as much a mental problem as any other mental illness and a lot of the time it goes hand in hand with Bipolar. That said, it is a head, bang, wall scenario as most people seem to enjoy taking the moral high ground which, given that none of us can see round corners, is an incredibly foolhardy and astonishingly arrogant thing to do. All of which brings me nicely back to that telephone call!
I got a shout from the nurses’ station to tell me I had a phone call and went round the corner to the patient’s phone where it was transferred. Before I even had chance to greet the caller I heard my mother say, “I’m just phoning to tell you that me and Sheryl (my sister) will have nothing to do with you while ever you are drinking!” The conversation ran for a short time with me asking if she realised where I was and that I was in here because I was ill and suicidal but half way through a sentence she hung up on me and I didn’t see her for two years! I was livid when she hung up and very nearly smashed the receiver against the wall but I knew that if I did I wouldn’t be allowed out. So, I feigned calmness, got my coat from my room and asked if I could go out for a walk. I was allowed and promptly went home via the off-license and proceeded to take an overdose having decided (again) that there really was no point. When I didn’t return to the mental health unit in a timely fashion the police, then the ambulance were called and I found myself in that room facing the woman who would become my wife. Back on the mental health ward my psychiatrist offered to speak with my mother in order to explain the difficulties of Bipolar and addiction but she refused. After two years I came into contact with my mother again but only for a few months, as I fell ill and she automatically thought I was drinking again… which I wasn’t! She never spoke to me about it, instead raising it with Julie. She had obviously passed judgement and it was a past judgement that she’s never let go of so I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of having her in my life. I fully understand that people caring for someone with a mental illness and addiction also have to look after themselves but to abandon them having sat in judgement on them is to completely misunderstand the situation.
Now, before I’m accused of being too liberal (not that I’d mind particularly) I should point out that a society without any form of judgement would be a disaster of epic proportions. However, I haven’t been talking about individuals who commit wilful acts that destroy the lives of others. We have a criminal justice system for a reason. Obviously though, there is a world of difference between individuals who hurt and destroy wilfully and those whose skewed brain chemistry leads them to occasionally hurt others, but more often than not hurt themselves. There is also a big difference between the judgement of a society and the judgement of a moralistic individual. Also, any individual who bases the morals they expect from others on the basis of their own (often deluded) view of their own morals will – more often than not – come unstuck for the simple reason already mentioned… none of us have crystal balls and we don’t know what will happen to us in the future or, more importantly, how we will react. Of course, people don’t just judge people with a mental illness. When Julie and I got together under unusual circumstances the Church we were a part of moralised and shunned us and have done ever since. Sadly, it wasn’t only the people in the Church who moralised, thus demonstrating incredible arrogance. People judge others solely by their behaviour and never stop to ask why they are behaving a certain way. This is particularly problematic with the erratic behaviour that comes with Bipolar Disorder.
I’m not at all an advocate of the notion that ‘everything happens for a reason’ (it clearly doesn’t) but I do think that reason has massive explanatory power. That said, the reason for a Bipolar sufferer and/or an addict behaving the way they do is because they have Bipolar Disorder and/or an addiction. To label us as morally vacuous because we are ill is ignorant and offensive. Sadly, too many people pass judgement on things and people they have no understanding of. Shortly after I was discharged from hospital a woman asked me what I did for a living and I told her that I’d had to retire because I have Bipolar Disorder; she visibly took a step away from me! We fight our battles as we go along. We recognise that there isn’t a blueprint to life and we do what we can to avoid the demons. We don’t need judgement to be passed on our behaviour; often we can’t control it and when we can it has taken time, effort and input from people who understand. So, if you don’t get it then maybe you’re best off keeping tight-lipped and if you do appreciate what’s happening then please, help us to work through it.