What Do You Mean I’m Bipolar? I Don’t Think I’m Jesus
In a hurricane of pain, I lost the woman I loved, my gorgeous one-year-old son and my long-standing, successful career as a journalist and current affairs television producer was on the ropes. My mental health was leaning over a precipice. All of this happened in the space of a few months.
I managed my troubles. Woefully.
Instead of playing it smart and running for support and shelter with those I trusted most, I fuelled this ferocious animal with a concoction of booze, drugs and sex charged benders. It seemed to work for a while.
Then it didn’t.
I went from being one of the most productive and successful producers in head office, pumping out five to six minutes of television most days, to a shadowy figure that presented himself only occasionally and delivered lower quality work than a cadet fresh off the college conveyor belt. Cadets could at least be trusted to turn up to work sober and let management know what they were working on.
I became an enigma of the worst possible kind. It was remarkable how fast I fell down the totem pole and crashed head first into the dirt. Looking back, I’m impressed, in an absurd kind of way, by the power of my self-destructive nature.
To cheer me up one of my friends from work had given me a copy of Nirvana’s Unplugged DVD as an antidote to my anxiety and looming depression. I turned it on. The deep acoustic sounds of sad ballads began to move me, and as each song played, I felt myself travel from a state of high anxiety to welcome hope and eventually back to one of hopeless despair. What the music did do was make that despair more attractive. Like this is where I needed to be. This is a walk I’d have to take.
Winter was coming. Figuratively and literally. As the sun shifted away, and I accepted my relationship was dead, the darkness made its move. So did Kurt Cobain delivering an ethereal but heart stopping cover of Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night.
My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me
Tell me where did you sleep last night
In the pines, in the pines
Where the sun don’t ever shine
I would shiver the whole night through
My girl, my girl, where will you go
I’m going where the cold wind blows
Back then I didn’t know her name, but Kurt, channelling Lead Belly, taught me early how to take the hand of darkness in mine and give her somewhere comfortable to sit and rest herself after what surely must have been, an endless walk. She seems to know so many of us, these days.
My woman had never cheated on me, but Kurt’s words were appropriate because I still wasn’t over the end of my relationship and she was now flying solo, and I had no idea where she was laying down at night. But it was only the nature of the music itself, not its subject. My boy was only 18-months-old, but he loved Unplugged too. Louis would stand in front of the pictures and music, hanging on to the TV cabinet with unsteady feet, and watch the exquisite performance from start to finish, and it would always prove to settle him.
But that day he wasn’t there. While I sat on the floor listening, I began to think of Louis and his sweet and stirring smile. Images began to stream in. I imagined the way he walked and how he waddled from side to side when I let him out of the stroller, always trying to charge ahead and lead the way as we moved about the city, jumping on buses and trams and trains and the Sydney monorail.
I felt guilt approach like a green hale sky, remembering the day he stumbled and chipped his front tooth falling down on my weights bench. I remembered the terror in his face as that happened. He was inconsolable. I looked at the empty high chair and saw a mark made from stiff, dried breakfast cereal and went to clean it, but thought better of it. Seems silly now, but I left the stain there because somehow even that helped me to feel closer to him.
Then I thought hard about how I had failed him. How I could not make the one relationship in his life that really mattered work. In that mind space that’s what I came up with. The man who couldn’t keep a relationship together even for the sake of his own young son. From that day forward I carried one of his socks in my back pocket as my little memento and lucky charm. But I didn’t come good. Instead, I threw myself ineffectively at work and I threw myself at friends and I threw myself at bars and restaurants and women to escape the tragedy of dying and damaged unions. Yes, Dear God what have I done?
And then I began to cry. Then I began to weep and then I began to weep uncontrollably and involuntarily. My chest heaved and my face constricted while I wailed and, at this specific point, I felt my heart break and a piece of me, as some say, died. What had I done? It was an awakening that felt useless. The relationship was gone. I had no idea where to move from here.
But I moved.
Something inside me fluttered and shifted. Now I would probably call it hope. All could not be lost. I still see my son a great deal, I still have some semblance of health. Meaning, I wasn’t yet dead. I made a decision at that very point that I needed help. I had tried, and I had failed, and I needed support. Being well is the only right thing I could do for my son. So that’s what I would do. This decision, in and of itself, was a cause of relief but, most importantly, I felt that for the first time in a very long time I had taken some control back. I was just a little bit empowered.
In the morning I went to work and booked an appointment to see a doctor. She took one look at me and knew why I was there. By lunchtime, I was on a government-run mental health plan which gave me cheap access to a psychologist.
“Would you prefer to see a male or female psychologist, Ryan?” the doctor asked me.
I thought momentarily.
“I don’t really care. The only thing I want is a guarantee that this psychologist will be smarter than me. Because I am not a dumb man, but I am completely lost,” I said.
“Okay, Ryan. I have just the person. Her name is Sally, and she is very smart. Perhaps smarter than you.” Whatever that means.
“It’s done then.”
It had been a very long time since I’d sought counselling and I had never done so for reasons this dire. I skulked through Sydney’s CBD and up to Sally’s office wearing an old green hoodie over my head and an unkempt beard. Sally was very pleasant in both appearance and demeanour. She had a well-kept blonde bob, assertive yet gentle blue eyes and was always dressed impeccably. Today she was wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows. I’d always wanted one of those.
Sally’s job was primarily to help me recover, but also to help me with the disastrous state of my employment. My job at the television station was terminal, but the conditions of my exit were not yet resolved. I was anxious in the extreme. The best description I have ever heard for anxiety is “butterflies with razor blades for wings”. I won’t try to improve upon that. When Sally started to talk I was instantly at ease with her. She educated me to comprehend and believe that what I was experiencing, in these circumstances, was perfectly understandable. Losing a relationship, a lot of time with my son
and my work/art and having no support network, all at the same time, was a relatively extreme scenario.
Sally was much more than a psychologist. She was my advocate and helped me to deal, not just with myself, but also my workplace, in a way that did not further compromise my mental health. Sally guided me through a series of face-to-face meetings I had to have with a heavyweight from Channel 7 which would ultimately mean walking away from my job. This heavyweight was looking out for the best financial outcome for the network and not necessarily me. I remember rolling up to the office and staring at the escalators and the security guards and thinking “how in God’s name can I go in there?” The anxiety was as crippling as the humiliation that came from the realisation that I, someone who had naively prided themselves on my version of bravery in the fields of journalism and life, could be shit scared of meeting with some desk jockey who was trying to shaft me out of a job I’d earned in spades.
I was the same bloke who had flown in a light plane toward the eye of a cyclone, fronted up to an Indigenous community in the aftermath of a riot, had death threats for exposing conmen and gangsters, gone undercover in an organised crime family and sat with a grieving mother after her estranged husband murdered their two children and then himself. But the human resources guy had me spooked. Depression and anxiety are many things, but they aren’t rational. Sally took responsibility for getting me through this. I kept going back. She was my white rose on a tower of thorns. Over about six weeks, my chats with Sally and the medication started to work. There was a small sliver of light.
Then Sally dropped a bomb.
“Ryan, we’ve been talking and I’ve been listening to you for a while now,” she said.
“Yes, you have.”
“I think you have recently been depressed. But I think you are actually bipolar.”
I offered nothing.
“Have you heard of bipolar? They used to call it manic depression.”
I said: “I don’t know anything about bipolar except that I’ve heard those people think they are Jesus Christ. I don’t think I’m Jesus Christ. Why do you think I have bipolar?”
“No, Ryan. There are different kinds of bipolar. There’s something called bipolar II where you get highly energetic and get very productive and creative for a while, but you lose your inhibitions, take risks, and you can get yourself in a lot of trouble. But there are the other times, like recently, when you can get very depressed. A lot of people who work in journalism and creative fields have it. That’s just the sort of industry where people with bipolar gravitate. That and the sex industry. A lot of people in the sex industry have bipolar.”
“Well, that kinda sounds right. I do get very creative and productive most of the time. I don’t have to sleep and I lose my inhibitions. I have taken risks as a way of life and I certainly get along famously with sex workers and strippers, now that you mention it.
“I also have times when I just don’t feel like I can get out of bed and nothing feels good. But I want to be very clear. I’ve never mistaken myself for Jesus Christ.”
“Yes, I know you don’t think you’re Jesus, Ryan, but I still think you have bipolar. I can’t actually diagnose you because I am not a medical doctor, so I’m going to send you to a place called the Black Dog Institute that has psychiatrists who specialise in this.”
“Okay. I’m up for that.”
“Alright, I’ll make you an appointment.”