The Good Doctor No. 2
(feat. The Clown)
When the Black Dog’s psychiatrist walked into the room, I became worried that I was going to have to deliver her baby for her. Susan was as pregnant as I have ever seen anyone that wasn’t in a maternity ward. The doctor had lovely straight brown hair left out, slightly freckled skin and that unmistakable pregnant woman glow, along with a cute smile that made me feel very comfortable. If Susan wasn’t so pregnant, I would have felt more comfortable being attracted to her. She was not at all what I was expecting.
Since leaving Sally’s office I’d done some reading, and by now I was already confident I was bipolar. It explained so much. But I needed to hear it from Susan and the Black Dog Institute. As it turned out, this was an interview as much as anything else.
Susan: Have you ever had periods of clinical depression for over at least two weeks where you were unable to work?
Ryan: Yes. A number of times.
Susan: When was the last time this happened?
Ryan: Right now.
Susan: What do you experience when you are depressed? What does it feel like?
Ryan: It feels like one of those black Dementor characters from Harry Potter has flown in from Azkaban Prison and sucked out my soul. I don’t want to eat, I can’t sleep, but I can’t get out of bed either. I feel hopeless; I can’t concentrate. It’s like the gears in my mind have ground to a halt and all I want to do is hide away and be a sloth, so that’s generally what I do.
Susan: When you are like this, do you ever have suicidal thoughts?
Ryan: Not that I would act on. I have questioned whether this life thing is worth all the effort. But these days I have a kid who needs me, and I have good memories that give me enough hope to believe things will always get better.
Susan: Do you think you have mood cycles? Do you also feel ups as well as these downs?
Ryan: Yes. Absolutely. Sometimes it’s like my world lights up. I love everyone and I can see beauty in everything around me. I imagine, with extreme clarity, plans for things very big and I put plans in place. I start conversations with strangers. I can’t get enough work; I can’t get enough play. I get ravenous for sex and feel connections with every beautiful woman who passes by. Sometimes I will approach them. Everything is doable and I will try to do everything. The world is sublime and mysterious and laced with colour, and it’s all mine.
Susan: Okay then. Using a scale of 1 to 10, I want you to rate the following statements for their truth – 10 being the highest and 1 the lowest.
Susan: When you feel high do you feel more confident and capable?
Ryan: Yes. 15.
Susan: Do you see things in a new and exciting light?
Ryan: Yes. 10.
Susan: Do you feel very creative with lots of ideas and plans.
Ryan: Yes. Off the chart.
Susan: Do you become over-involved in new plans and projects.
Ryan: Yes. That’s off the chart too.
Susan kept the questions rolling in. Every one of them provided their own answers, so they stood alone as revelations in their own right. I never said no. Not even once.
- Become totally confident everything you do will succeed? 10
- Feel that things are vivid and crystal clear? 11
- Spend or wish to spend significant amounts of money? 9
- Find that your thoughts race? 10
- Notice lots of coincidences occurring? 9
- Note that your senses are heightened your emotions intensified? 10
- Work harder being much more motivated? 10
- Feel one with the world and nature? 11
- Feel carefree, not worried about anything? 11
- Believe that things possess a special meaning? 10
- Say quite outrageous things? 10
- Feel “high as a kite” and elated? 10
- Have much-increased interest in sex, both in thought and action? 11
- Feel very impatient with people? 10
- Laugh more and find lots of things funny? 10
- Read special significance into things? 10
- Talk over people? 10
- Have mystical experiences? 11
- Do fairly outrageous things? 11
- Take unnecessary risks? 11
- Sleep less and not feel tired? 10
- Sing? 9 (not in crowds)
- Feel irritated and angry? 10
Questions complete, Susan then took a different tack. She asked me about any recent occasions where I felt high and what happened. Scanning back, I homed in on a single memory that would shape the rest of the diagnosis session. There were many times over my life which I could have chosen but this one was recent and unforgettable. I thought Susan might be interested in the day I decided to become a performance clown.
I actually spent close to a week mentally and physically preparing for the clown incident. Parked at my desk at the Channel 7 Today Tonight office in Brisbane, my mind meandered away from a story I was working on, and inexplicably I became focused on the idea of writing a fictional short story about clowns. No specifics, just a story about clowns. I rarely write fiction, but this very concept followed my entry into hypomania like a Blue Whale with a pilot fish. Or perhaps the fish follows the whale. I still get confused about whether mania causes the behaviour or the behaviour causes the mania. I think it can be both.
To begin with, I had no idea what the story would be about, I just knew it had to be about clowns. Then the idea escalated. I read pages and pages online about different types of clowns, the history and origin of clowns and their various talents. As I scanned the articles and excerpts, my leg shook furiously under the table, and I ground my teeth while whittling away hours of work time trying to make myself an overnight clown expert. Soon, I told Susan, I wasn’t the least bit interested in writing about clowns, I was only interested in becoming one.
On the way home from work I stopped by a costume shop. I rejected the idea of clown masks as gaudy and fake. Masks looked inauthentic compared to the images I had been looking at online. I was only interested in purist clowning, so I purchased simple but high-quality make-up in many colours and brushes designed for both detail and broad coverage. I settled on Google Images to assist me to come up with an appropriate design. Somehow I convinced my girlfriend at the time to join me. That weekend we bought large stores of vodka and concentrated Red Bull. Then we set about doing each other’s faces, using images generated online as inspiration. My girlfriend was the sad clown, and I emerged as the frightening maniacal clown.
When we were done, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to go for a walk through our local neighbourhood in bustling and artistic West End. My girlfriend refused point blank. There was horror in her eyes and even fear as I pressed on trying to convince her this would be good clean fun and a waste of a great clowning opportunity if we missed it. We’d gone to all this trouble, and we were the real deal. “It’s showtime, Baby!” I screamed to her. “It’s showtime!”, I said again as I cackled in an authentic crazed clown laugh.
I don’t know if it was the make-up or what else, but she was looking at me in a way that she never had. I now realise she was looking at someone she didn’t know and had never met. The same stranger who wanted her to rocket ship way outside her own comfortable atmosphere and hit a parallel universe on the streets as Little Miss Sad Clown, drunk on a theatrical moment, while simultaneously experiencing the frightening realisation of a great divide that had formed in her new relationship.
We were at loggerheads. I believed that we must clown together. The full effect would not be felt by the waiting public unless we were two. I was in full charm, hard sell mode. But the doubt and apprehension remained in her eyes and was perfectly perceptible even in my hypomanic state. So we stayed inside and took some photos of each other. I became drunk, dark clown. I was inwardly and outwardly devastated.
Susan wasn’t. At first, she looked into my eyes. Then she looked down and away. Then she looked back at me. It was jarring because I could see what looked like tears in her eyes. That’s when she lost it. The good doctor broke into a seizure of laughter. This wasn’t normal laughter. She was hysterical. She actually got up out of her chair and left the room. Then she came back in, tears still in her eyes but the laughing had stopped. She sat in her chair and started laughing all over again. Susan couldn’t stop herself. Then she started to apologise as the tears ran down her face. This time she didn’t leave. Instead, she spent a solid minute or so still laughing before finally settling down.
I actually liked that the doctor was finding this so funny. It made me laugh too. It instantaneously and permanently enabled me to see the humour in my condition and realise that it wasn’t some kind of life sentence to pain and suffering. But you also have to remember I had no substantial understanding about this bipolar thing yet, so I had never before considered that my behaviour was so unusual. I knew I was uninhibited, but I didn’t know I could be diagnosed unhinged. This recent turn of events had forced me to start looking at my life through an entirely different lens. What parts of me were and what parts of me weren’t bipolar? Were they even separate?
I was diagnosed and immediately placed on medication – 200 mg of the powerful anti-psychotic, Seroquel, daily. I was actually excited about the diagnosis. In so many ways this all made sense. The powerful swings of mood, irritation, certainty I was meant for something bigger, burnt relationships and terrible inconsistency that had been holding me back, may have an antidote. But I was 36-years-old by now. I still needed time. Time to sort through my life and think about the role bipolar had played. Historically when was I high? Historically, when was I bottoming out? When had I been hypomanic, when had I not, and when had I been flatlining in depression? I knew the real story was there in my tricky, sometimes fudgy, memory. Sooner or later my brain’s cerebral cortex and basal ganglia would come out and play ball. The thought of this was petrifying.
And it didn’t take long.