When I was asked to write a book about my experiences of living and parenting with bipolar disorder, I had two primary reactions. The first was, as you’d expect, a rush of excitement. I’ve been fortunate enough to write in a number of mediums: short prose, film, music, passive aggressive notes to my children about the state of their room – I’ve covered the gamut. But I’d yet to have a full-length prose work published and that had my ambition since I was a child. I was an eccentric child.
The second, however, was an immediate sense of foreboding. A book would be my first major project for two years, largely because I had experienced a severe breakdown at the end of my previous production, a feature film. This was not surprising to anyone but me. Working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 18 months may demonstrate a work ethic of which to be proud of – but it doesn’t exactly live up to the tenets of self-care.
I imploded, basically. Not only was I pushing myself past limits that would trouble anyone, let alone someone with bipolar disorder, I had been resisting medication for at least a decade, leaning on the old saw that it would inhibit my creativity. And my ability to write and make had become the cornerstone of my identity, the one thing on which I leaned for support when my self-esteem plummeted or depression set in.
Besides, manic energy had been my fuel. The trouble being, of course, that mania provides energy in the same sense that attaching sensitive parts of your body to a car battery provides energy. It’ll give you a jolt, but it’s equally likely to set you on fire.
Having bipolar disorder and doing what I do for a living has allowed me bursts of imagination and the ability to function (after a fashion) without sleep for long periods of time. And I think I’m good at my job. I don’t think that bit is a delusion. I’ve worked hard and I’ve put in my ten thousand hours.
However, it cannot be denied that the strain incumbent in working in the arts – not only facing the task of bringing your product to fruition and then to market, but common, if not constant, rejection – runs counter to the most helpful advice given on how to manage your mental health.
The upshot being that, after two years back on medication, taking it easier on myself and resisting the pull of constant work, I knew that, while the book would fulfil my greatest ambition, it also set off alarm bells of various tenors and volumes.
If I took on the challenge, I would have to write in a disciplined and consistent way, while still maintaining the day job to which I’d returned in hopes of increasing my mental and financial stability. I would have to meet a deadline. I would have to promote a book, finding creative ways to reach readers who were already drowning in invitations to download the next instalment of the epic sagas ‘Dragons and Divas’ and ‘Spaceport Alabama’.
In order to do right by myself, my work and my publisher (who was taking a chance on me), I would have to push myself. I was terrified of pushing myself. I’d finally found a measure of balance within myself that was intrinsically difficult to maintain. It would, on paper, been a mature and sensible decision to demur.
But the thought of doing so rankled. If I turned down the opportunity to do something of which I believed myself to be capable, something that mattered to me, something that might actually serve a purpose and something that might even be a lot of fun, was I not admitting to myself and projecting to others that you may as well give up on your dreams when that diagnosis rolls in?
I want to have ambitions. I want to improve and advance within my chosen field. I want to achieve. I just don’t want to end up back in that place where achievement and psychosis meet. Wherein I become convinced that my project will change the world, or even my world, if I just send one more tweet or make one more call. I don’t want to exhaust myself to the point that I rub out all of the agonising work I’ve done in the last two years to be a more cohesive version of myself.
But, the crux is this: I have bipolar disorder. I am a writer. I took the gig. Having done so, however, it would not be enough to bluff my way through and hope that medication would keep a lid on the worst extremes of my condition.
I began to plan how I would do things differently. It’s a good plan, it works and I stick to it almost every other day.
Here are some of its most salient points
1. I have to take breaks and I have to work smart. I may convince myself that superhuman strength is in my skill set, but I’ve convinced myself of a lot of things in my time, most of which turned out to be either inaccurate or contrary to the laws of physics.
2. I really, truly, deeply cannot afford to worry about negative reactions to the work itself. I have to write to satisfy my own criteria and take constructive feedback only from those that I respect.
3. I need to accept all help offered, but not become despondent about the help that isn’t.
4. Four o’clock in the morning is not a useful time to work.
5. Vodka is not ‘brain juice’.
6. Nicotine is not a mood stabiliser.
7. Whatever happens, happens.
My relationship with bipolar disorder
I believe very strongly that bipolar disorder should not prevent you from achieving your goals. Nor should it limit your ambition. But it cannot be ignored; it cannot be taken for granted.
If you have a twisted ankle, you probably shouldn’t run a marathon tomorrow. But you may be able to in a couple of months – or you may have to favour your weak ankle by shunting your ambitions towards a long, but steady walk.
At times, it’s just a change of focus. When I was younger, ‘best-selling author’, ‘famous actor’ and ‘rock and roll star’ seemed attractive career propositions. But it’s entirely possible that the extreme persistence, not to mention resilience, necessary to achieve such starry heights may not dovetail with my repeated need for quiet reflection and measured energy expenditure, both physical and emotional.
But I can still write, act and play music. My ambition has been refocused on continuing to improve all of those residents of my quiver, a little every day. It feels like a balanced way to look at it. If I’m doing good work, does it matter if I never stride the globe like a colossus?
It’s not a simple as that. As Neil Hannon once sang: ‘A song’s not a song until it’s listened to’. If our ambitions are artistic, we do crave an audience. Reaction and connection are part of our experience. So, I still have ambitions. I still want to reach as many people as possible with what I do. I still want to earn sufficiently from my craft to enable me to spend more time with it and continue to expand its scope.
The difference is that I’ve learned that I cannot and will not sacrifice myself to that ambition. I have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, and those about whom I care. The latter are far more impressed by my survival and the former is learning to be.
For those of us who are surviving bipolar, there are considerations to be taken into account when plotting the path to your goals. But roadblocks are there to be navigated around and not to be treated as a demand to cease travelling altogether.
Each individual with bipolar disorder faces unique challenges and I would never pretend that I can walk in any shoes other than my own. I’m no fan of blisters and I’d be worried I’d scuff them. But I genuinely do not believe that ambition and bipolar disorder are mutually exclusive forces. They can co-exist. They simply need to talk to one another. As do we.
Kenton Hall is a Canadian writer, actor, director and musician.
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