The shift from pathologising terms like mental illness, disorder, nervous breakdown, has been gradual, and we are seeing more reference to mental health and wellbeing, differences, spectrum diversity etc. This has been a long time coming, since from 1-in-4 to 1-in-3 of us will experience a mental health condition or episode in our lives, if not more of us.
What keeps us from giving up?
The very tools of survival that I’ve learned to use to attempt to thrive rather than just die or dive back under the duvet covers actually aid all of us. They’re very basic, and not pharmaceutical, though some are chemical – or at least release the endorphins (endolphins as I like to call them) and oxytocin type chemistry that aids wellbeing.
When speaking at an event in London last weekend, I was asked how, “how do you keep going, how do you remain strong?” The answer, for me at least, is that I’m stubborn! Practically speaking, though, I talk and walk, and when it’s going well, I walk the talk.
Caring Talk Saves Lives
I talk to people, I talk to myself, to my thoughts – giving them voice and an opinion (but no power) at the table in my head, and I talk to my diary. Well, I write, I reflect, I repeat – yes, I realise that circumstances, feelings, moods, anxieties, they come round in repeating circles, and I begin to recognise that I survive, that I’m still here, despite my best efforts to end that.
I also walk, I get outside as often as I can. Although, that’s not often enough as insomnia and mood disorders often keep me in bed half the day. Inertia destroys all my best intentions. Last weekend, though, I managed something rare, to swim twice and walk 5 miles in a day, taking in my environment and the beauty of the world around me. Fresh air and exercise help, if only we can kick the black dog off long enough to get outside.
Being bipolar, my mood can shift drastically and quickly in the same day. I’ve learnt to be kind to myself, and to forgive, be in the moment, and treat or reward myself for getting stuff done that would otherwise pile up and compound my anxiety.
Laughter is good medicine
I’ve also learned to both respect my mental health conditions, and to healthily take the piss out of them – not others, not the suffering, not the issues, but to occasionally make light of them so that they have less of a hold over me.
Speaking of laughter – Stephen Fry has said of suicide:
“There is no ‘why’, it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there were a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life”
He is spot on. Although every story is different, mine nearly ended 5 years ago, but I am happy to be here now.
Seeking help early before one is neither in the mood or position to seek help is important. Sadly, waiting lists are such that it can be a year or more wait for short dose CBT and that is often such a sticking plaster rather than a long-term improvement to wellbeing or coping.
I’m back in therapy for the second time in ten years, and it feels incredibly healthy. It’s not a sign of failure but of active involvement in one’s own health management.
MAD, BAD, GAD, and quite possibly SAD
I seem to collect three-letter-acronym conditions, so that I’ve been diagnosed with multiple Affective and Anxiety Disorders. Their intensity varies and sometimes I’m the boss, sometimes they try to be. Again, a diary helps me see that I do bounce (well hobble) back eventually, and they never, any longer, keep me down permanently.
Again, a diary helps me see that I do bounce (well hobble) back eventually, and they never, any longer – I hope, keep me down permanently.
Today and everyday is bipolar day for 2-3% of the population who have a Mood Affective Disorder including Cyclothymia and Bipolar I & II. A day to recognise the issues, struggles, and occasional joys and spurts of creativity – sometimes manic, experienced by people with bipolar, was created to coincide with Vincent van Gogh’s birthday, 30 March, since he was posthumously believed to have had a bipolar type condition. World Bipolar Day aims to:
Whilst 1-in-100 or 2.6% are commonly cited figures, some studies have shown wide variations, ranging from 2.6 to 20.0 per 100,000 per year, in the incidence of bipolar affective disorder (Lloyd & Jones, 2002). These variations have been e.g., regional, SE London is twice that of Nottingham and Bristol, or by ethnicity, by socio-economic class, by childhood intelligence – especially high verbal IQ, or by hormones and gender – some studies show a much higher incidence in the female population.
“estrogen fluctuations may be an important factor in the etiology of bipolar disorder and it is obvious that more research on this topic is needed to clarify the role of estrogen in women with bipolar disorder…Why is it that rapid cycling occurs more often in women?” – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23510130
It also alleged that among artistic and creative types there is a higher incidence of bipolar mood disorders, that may be genetic. Indeed, as many as 40x the national incidence, among a group of 30 American authors, studied over 15 years:
“43 per cent of them had bipolar disorder compared to only 10 per cent of the control group and 1 per cent of the general population.” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
A further survey of 47 British authors and visual artists from the British Royal Academy found that 38% had been treated for a mood disorder.
“A recent study carried out at Stanford University by Santosa and colleagues found that people with bipolar disorder and creative discipline controls scored significantly more highly than healthy controls on a measure of creativity called the Barron-Welsh Art Scale. In a related study the same authors sought to identify temperamental traits that people with bipolar disorder and creative people have in common. They found that both shared tendencies for mild elation and depression with gradual shifts from one to the other, openness, irritability, and neuroticism (roughly speaking, a combination of anxiety and perfectionism).” – Bipolar Disorder and Creativity
Vincent van Gogh
The famous Dutch post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh suffered quite wild swings in his mental health and many paintings were produced from his asylum room. Van Gogh is thought to have shot himself, after struggling with declining mental health in his mid-30s. He had spent most of the last 18-months of his life in an asylum, but two months later was dead as the result of a presumably, though not proven, self-induced shooting incident or suicide attempt.
Ironically, it was a period when he produced many iconic paintings, some en plein air. His famous image titled ‘The Starry Night’ was a pre-sunrise nocturne as seen from his East-facing asylum window, but finished in the asylum studio, as he was only allowed to draw in his room, not paint. Van Gogh’s beautiful and happier ‘Village Street and Steps in Auvers’ was painted just days after release from the asylum:
Barely weeks later, and days before his death, he was painting several large wheat fields canvases and in a letter to his brother Theo, he wrote:
“I have painted three more large canvases. They are vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness….I’m fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.” – Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 10 July 1890
His late paintings demonstrate an artist at the height of his talent, yet also the depths of his troubles, for whom art and the outdoor landscape was creative catharsis and therapy. What would the art world have witnessed had he lived on?
Bipolar Mood Scale Diary
It is typical for a bipolar diagnosis to take a decade and work through several misdiagnoses en route. I was first diagnosed with Cyclothymia over 4 years ago, but subsequently told it was Mood Affective Disorder and then Bipolar II, along with rapid cycling and mixed mode variations. CBT – Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, helped my management, but so did self-knowledge, awareness, and diarying. I enjoy my hypomanic periods, less so the depressions which I’ve fought for 12 years or so. Finding balance when you only exist at the poles is a tricky act to accomplish and may involve staying in when you feel like going out and going out when you feel like staying in!
Risks, when hypomanic, for me include inappropriate conversation, loss of impulse control, manic spending, flirting, obsessional behaviours, risk seeking. Yet, the benefits when high are hyperactive stamina and energy, stream of consciousness ideas flooding, huge reading and writing output, charismatic and entertaining confidence and loquaciousness.
“I managed to rack up £300k of credit, hardly average! I was, and indeed am, very convincing when hypomanic, it made me a good salesperson, deal-maker, innovator, public speaker but terrible at time and money management.” – May 2013
Having been in a balanced mood state for nearly 3 months now, a rare occurrence, possibly due to recent endocrine changes, I miss the hyper states. I also realise, however, how destructive they could be to life, economics, and relationships, whilst at the same time being a creative buzz. I don’t miss the lethargic, inactive, hopeless depressive episodes at all, although they were a great way of avoid life and its stresses.
The best advice I was given was to monitor my mood on a daily basis, as I was already doing with my insomnia diary and general personal diary. The catharsis of writing and recording also came with the recognition that moods, highs, lows, sleeplessness all came in phases, that changed – they got better, and they got worse. Unlike, when I suffered with depression for 6-8 years as that felt like nothing would ever get better. The Bipolar Mood Scale diary has helped me to hold out for the good days, and to manage my moods better.
Bipolar Mood Scale
Total loss of judgement, exorbitant spending, religious delusions and hallucinations.
Lost touch with reality, incoherent, no sleep, paranoid and vindictive, reckless behaviour.
Inflated self-esteem, rapid thoughts and speech, counter-productive simultaneous tasks.
Very productive, everything to excess (phone calls, writing, smoking, tea), charming and talkative.)
Balanced Mood (Euthymia)
Self-esteem good, optimistic, sociable and articulate, good decisions and get work done.
Mood in balance, no symptoms of depression or mania. Life is going well and the outlook is good.
Slight withdrawal from social situations, concentration less than usual, slight agitation.
Mild to Moderate Depression
Feelings of panic and anxiety, concentration difficult and memory poor, some comfort in routine.
Slow thinking, no appetite, need to be alone, sleep excessive or difficult, everything a struggle.
Feelings of hopelessness and guilt, thoughts of suicide, little movement, impossible to do anything.
Endless suicidal thoughts, no way out, no movement, everything is bleak and it will always be like this.
0-10 Scale of mood from depression to mania
Being or having bipolar – people’s attitudes to which verb to use varies, should not be romanticised. It is both a blessing and a curse, and for some is very hard to live with. I’ve made friends with mine, though it is still unpredictable. I’ve come to appreciate the moment, mindful that it can change, but I take the rough with the smooth now. Hopefully, I can look back on past suicide attempts as distant memories, and seize the creative periods to be productive and expressive, whilst trying to rein it in when it tips into hypomania.
Firstly, I did not know there was a UN resolution for me to be happy today on the International Day of Happiness, nor that there was an International Society of Happiness Professionals! Perhaps their job is to help me pursue it, attaining it is another matter, a goal, not a right. However, in a UN Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 28 June 2012 it decreed:
“Recalling its resolution 65/309 of 19 July 2011, which invites Member States to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of thepursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies, conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, recognizing the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives, recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the well-being of all peoples, decides to proclaim 20 March the International Day of Happiness!” – United Nations
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” – American Declaration of Independence
Revolution to bring about change, overturn a government, to better “effect…safety and happiness” now that’s radical!
The 17th century English philosopher and liberal John Locke, said to have influenced the US Constitution, wrote in his ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding‘ that “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”.
“The pursuit of happiness lies at the core of human endeavors. People around the world aspire to lead happy and fulfilling lives free from fear and want.”
Does pursuing happiness annoyingly aid its very escape, making it elusive rather than an elementary state that can be taught and caught?
Happiness – All in the Mind?
Yes, we would all like lives free from fear and want, but in this world, is that any time soon? Or can we follow the optimists and Abe Lincoln and think ourselves happy, despite outward circumstances:
“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.” – Abraham Lincoln
Will a positive outlook overcome those fears and wants? It certainly won’t feed us, unless we believe in some kind of positive law of attraction that by being happy we will attract to ourselves good things.
Is it as simple as clicking on www.wikihow.com/Be-Happy and following the simple steps for “How to Be Happy”? I certainly wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who has suffered from depression as I have, yet paradoxically, I have also felt an inner happiness even amidst the powerlessness and chemical low of depression. So is happiness about acceptance, contentment – even in poverty, insecurity, and challenges to mental wellbeing?
“in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder…it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal/eternal sunshine in the darkest winter.”
Wealth and/or Happiness?
Studies suggest that a certain minimum level of wealth aids happiness but wears off with future income increments (hedonic adaptation) and lottery wins do not a happy person make. Indeed, with both wealth and poverty comes worry, worry you’ll never have it and worry you might lose it. To have money without worry would be nice. Whether you are rich or poor, being compassionate and generous can make one happier and the poor often give more than the rich, proportionately.
“Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.“, according to psychology professor Norbert Schwarz. Similarly, “differences in reported sleep quality are associated with a very large difference in reported enjoyment during episodes at home.” – Having been both in chronic eviction-worthy debt and suffered for 44 years from insomnia, clearly I was not worried about money at 5 but I was at 45. I’m still an insomniac, but $60k might reduce anxiety further.
Just be Grateful
It is commonly suggested that being grateful can help, it puts things in perspective, and allows you to focus on the positive amidst the doom and gloom, and may lift you and turn your vision outwards and upwards. All happiness and depression can be relative. Relative to another’s better or worse condition. But the words are just words and often of little comfort when told at least you have your health, when your lack of wealth means you are fighting off debt collectors or losing your job or relationship. Indeed, your health may ungratefully quickly follow the loss of other things.
Albert Camus said, “To be happy we must not be too concerned with others”, constant comparison, pressure to conform, following the crowd, keeping up with the Joneses. Being yourself takes less energy and improves your sense of happiness.
“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” – Albert Camus
Can Happiness be Measured in an Index?
Today may be the International Day of Happiness but the reality of that is hugely personal, cannot be dictated from on high, whether by religion or politics – the UK government even attempts to measure a happiness index but there are many ways to measure it. Whilst it cannot, to my mind, be enumerated, feeling and experiencing it, are of immeasurable worth.
Today is the International Day of Happiness and the last day of Winter. As far as I am concerned Spring has been under way for some time with the delightful daffodils and rays of Spring sunshine daily illuminating the view from my window into the woodland beyond.
Solar Eclipse and Spring Equinox
It’s been a rare day that has seen a solar eclipse coincide with the evening of the March equinox. An equi-nox, from the Latin, marks the moments in the year when the length of night is equal to that of daylight. It has long been considered a time of rebirth, fertility, and association with nature’s natural cycles.
Moods like the weather!
I’m not sure if feeling happy today is compulsory or not for the pessimistic glumguts out there. That said, when I was in my darkest depression and suicidal, I, also, ceased being an optimist. Indeed, as someone who suffers from a bipolar disorder – cyclothymia, it is all I can do to stay on top of my mood swings, and near impossible to influence them, just manage them. If anything, my moods are like the weather, sometimes clouding over, or then all of a sudden the sun breaks out, and then it pisses it down! Rapid cycling change.
Think Yourself Happy?
I do believe that, at times, one can think oneself happy – or content, at least, despite the surrounding circumstances. For, whatever may be done to the body, the mind is our last refuge and sometimes the greatest place of anxiety and attack. Yet, if we can calm that, then we may find peace amidst the storm, and internal sunshine in the darkest winter.
Earlier this week, I gave a talk and presentation on torture – not the happiest of subjects, for Amnesty International at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the words of Gandhi that I quoted are still both a challenge and an inspiration:
“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you will never imprison my mind.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Things outside our control – Powerlessness
When we can’t control the weather – as with the disappointing solar eclipse today occluded by clouds, or our finances, someone else’s love, or our government ministers – when democracy seems to have failed us, what is left that we can control? Where can we find comfort or hope, when we feel powerless? Is depression, which can affect 1-in-4 of us, something we can in any way lift ourselves out of?
Depression is not a choice!
I remember, all to well, the well-meaning suggestions “to get out more”, “do some exercise”, “get out of bed”, “get some sunshine in your life” given to me when I was suffering excruciating depressive lows and suicide attempts. The advice was not well received, when one feels the weight of the black dog suffocating your very breath.
Shifting the circumstances and chemicals that affect depression is hard enough when well, nigh on impossible when ill. Yet, I do believe that, to some extent, we can think ourselves well, improve our state of mind and body. But I am not saying that it is easy or guaranteed.
For me, I had to come off anti-depressants to even try it, and that is not something I would medically advise, nor am I in a position to. My path is my path. It unleashed in me, instead, a bipolar rollercoaster, which has become more manageable through daily awareness and diarying, in which I feel both more alive and yet when I have lows, at least more conscious of the possibility and experience of change. Every day feels like a new day, at last, it could go up, it could go down, but at least it could go somewhere!
The Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer, by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has been used by many to help distinguish between things we can change and those outside of our control:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’m a bit stubborn at the accepting of that which I cannot change and like to think in mental messianic terms of being able to do anything. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes I can shift my thinking and mood, or at least my attitude to it.
Happiness as a National Growth Goal
United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has stated that the world:
“needs a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being…Together they define gross global happiness.”
Since the early 1970s, one country – Bhutan, has recognised happiness as a goal over and above national income and actually adopted the goal of Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
Here in the UK, we have a an HPI (Happy Planet Index) score of 47.9 and rank #41 of all the countries surveyed. Our wellbeing score of 7 is actually ranked #19 of 151 countries but we are let down by our poor ecological footprint on the earth.
In a UN General Assembly resolution of 12 July 2012, the following 20 March 2013, and each year since, has been proclaimed The International Day of Happiness. This was in order to draw attention to the relevance of:
“happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” are a well-known objective and unalienable right in the United States Declaration of Independence. Sadly, we are only guaranteed the freedom to pursue happiness, no one can give it to us, they can certainly reduce the factors that make us unhappy – health, wealth, peace, among others, but at the end of the day, happiness can at best come from ourselves.
A Spring boost to the system
As a boost to the chemical enjoyment of something akin to happiness, we can of course enjoy more hugs and the oxytocin they release, and draw some Vitamin D from the increasing daily sunlight. Certainly, I feel an enormous improvement to well-being after some light gardening and having the sun beat down upon my back.
I spent my day, in the end, weeding, cleaning up around the already fast growing rhubarb, discovering some small over-wintered potatoes in the ground, and taking great pride and pleasure in how the warmth has pushed the asparagus above the surface already.
It was also an opportunity to have some fun with a new lens adapter which enables my old 1978 50mm f/1.2 Minolta MD Rokkor-X lens to work on modern digital bodies (effectively a 75mm portrait lens on digital). The old lens is superb, and been described as producing a “complete bokeh creamy-mosh” i.e., a lovely aesthetic softness to the out of focus zone just beyond the shallow depth of field sharpness when the lens is wide open. Boke is a Japanese word meaning blur or haze.
The lens is still worth £300+ because of the aperture brightness, and it would have been a waste not to find a way to reuse it – I used to use it for low light rock photography in black and white 30 years ago. Aperture priority and manual only but hey it feels like old school photography again, just without the expense of film and with all the immediacy of digital results.
Spring Wealth and Happiness in a Daffodil
Daffodils of many varieties are out in my garden and surrounding woodland. They are said to symbolize rebirth, new beginnings, and are pretty much the first Spring flower. Whilst I’ve always seen the humble snowdrop as a winter plant, to me it marks the halfway point of winter and the daffodil (narcissus or jonquil) as denoting the end of winter. In Wales, China, and as gifts, daffodils – in a bunch, are said to be harbingers of wealth and happiness.
Happiness can be simple
Happiness can be found every day, in the simple things, the asparagus and photography, weeding and sunlit warmth, the cats playing in the garden. They may not cure a low mood, or persistent depression, or solve financial stress, or bring about world peace, but in the present moment, they are to be enjoyed for what they are, and may bring a temporary boost – and I’ll take as many successive boosts as I can get!
(An earlier version of this was first published on Bubblews)