As part of our Men’s Wellbeing Matters campaign, Chris – one of our male clients who is bipolar – explains how his mental health breakdown over the summer of 2020 forced him to take some distance over his life and rethink his whole identity and choices. He now looks back on this experience with gratitude as it provided him with a way out of a life he wasn’t fulfilled with and gave him the chance to reconnect with his true, genuine self.
“I believe that there are certain moments in everyone’s life that are ‘fixed points’. If I was an astrologer I’d say they were written in the stars. These are moments that can’t be controlled. They’re inevitable, good or bad and they define the people that we are. These can range from winning the lottery, being selected for dream job to serious cases of illness for yourself or a family member.
For me, I had one of these experiences in the summer of 2020. I experienced a mental health breakdown. I’d been struggling for well over a year with feelings of anxiety, agitation and overwhelment. But, despite going to therapy, taking up journaling and learning to meditate I’d not been able to shake it. As such, a crash was on my chart.
Eight months ago, in May I decided to take a few days off work and I hoped that I’d be able to switch off and feel normal again. It wasn’t to be. I’d been burning the candle at both ends for too long – and for the most part felt in a permanent state of ‘alertness’. My brain must have been constantly flooded with stress hormones all day, everyday. The brain just isn’t designed for that – those brain chemicals are supposed to be reserved for when you see a lion heading for you and making you realise you need to run – and help you run faster! The brain was never meant to be hit by those chemicals regularly and constantly as they had been for me. I think stress hormones had been flowing through my brain for so long that something chemically had changed in my head and I was losing control over my mind. It wouldn’t do what I wanted; it wouldn’t switch off; it wouldn’t calm down; it wouldn’t rest. I was finding I was increasingly restless. I wasn’t sleeping well. I couldn’t just ‘snap out’ of it. It wasn’t just all in my head. It wasn’t just a quick switch that can be flicked and all is back to normal.
What I realise now, which wasn’t so clear to me back then was that the feelings and emotions that I’d been experiencing over the past couple of years had changed from normal day-to-day emotions to an illness that needed medical attention. It was at this point, thinking back, that it was clear that this was an illness that had taken hold. The catch in all this was that my brain had me fooled. Part of me thought I was in charge. It thought I was enjoying some rest and that I was now stress and anxiety free. Steadily over a three week period I got less and less rest. In fact, I started to enjoy my new revitalised self in the mornings. For I’ve not been able to get up easily in the morning for years. And now, I was quite happy and able to get up at 6am or earlier. I’d enjoy rising, having breakfast on the patio in the early morning sun and then head out for a bike ride, really making the most of the weather. At this point, I was starting to feel that life was in fact OK. I had time to do what I wanted, and was enjoying the beauty of the natural world. Things that before, I’d been just too busy to notice.
It was at this point that the changes in mood started to happen. I felt a release. I was feeling much happier and satisfied with life. The changes that I’d been working towards for some time seemed more achievable, in fact they were here. For the first two weeks, life was finally good. But then further changes started to happen. I began to experience a mania – a state of elevated energy, mood and behaviour. It was a great feeling. I felt powerful, confident and creative. I was feeling more like ‘me’ than ever before. That was the stand out emotion – I felt at last that I was my authentic self – a person I was enjoying being and wanted to be. I felt like I’d been living a subdued life before. The feeling was incredible. I had a new ‘clarity’ about the world – how things worked and how life fitted together. Things that had happened in the past that were most likely just co-incidental or perhaps even just jokes took on new meaning. There were patterns and everything was significant. It was all important and all had to be remembered. Ideas flowed like never before and was finding solutions to (what I thought) were important problems.
Alas this phase doesn’t last. Left unchecked these periods of mania and ‘incredibleness’ took on a darker side and I entered a psychosis which is when you perceive or interpret reality in a very different way from people around you. At this point I needed a hospital stay to pull me back. It was during this period that I was put on some strong meds and it forced my mind to stop, get some rest and start the healing process. This was the reset button press and following this I felt like a blank canvas and that I had a choice about the person I wanted to be and the life I wanted lead after the experience. This feeling seems to be shared by others that have experienced mental health difficulties and I think is a powerful ‘call to action’ for mental health survivors to lead change and growth in their lives.
When you start searching for your true self, a number of other big questions come up. Like why are we here? What’s it all for? Is it all pointless? If I want happiness, what is it? Sometimes the magnitude of these questions is too much to handle. The world seems to big and too much effort to break in to it and make your way. Many turn to drink or drugs or slip in to a depression. However, these are questions that need to be asked and pondered on at length. In my view wider society and culture doesn’t want you to spend too much time dwelling on these points – they’d rather you were distracted by small stuff and spend your days earning the dime, paying the mortgage and buying more and more stuff, regardless of whether you really need it or not. That’s how tax revenue is collected and big business is funded. But for you, perhaps working a 40+ hour week in a job you may not even like makes this a life sentence. Every day for 35-40 years you’re to get up, go to work to pay the bills.
It seems it’s not uncommon for people of my age (late 30’s) to reach a point in their life where they stop and think – I’m miserable. All this working, to buy stuff I don’t want or need, for what? We’ve all heard of the mid-life crisis, of men deciding it’s time to rediscover their youth and they go and buy a big motorbike or a powerful sports car or something. But, these may not be the answer – it’s just more consumerism. It takes significantly more self-reflection and thought to determine what you really want at this point of your life. Do you like your job? Your kids? Your wife? Your house? What is it you want from life? So many people say they want happiness. That happiness is what life is about. But again what is true happiness and how do you achieve it? Is happiness something that can indeed be achieved? I prefer to think of it as a continual process rather than a destination.
After returning home from hospital, I was keen to learn from my experience, make sense of what had happened to me and use it as an opportunity to build myself back as a stronger individual. I wanted to understand what had led me to breaking point. I identified multiple triggers, some that mapped back to my childhood.
A strong feeling I had at the time was one of not being true to myself up until this point in my life. I felt like I’d been overly influenced by school, parents, university, society and consumerist culture as a whole which had created a division between who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt like a fake, a people pleaser. I now know this to be quite common and has a term, ‘the integrity gap’. The gap between the person you portray and your true authentic self. This for me was something that had created quite some disappointment and anger. How could I let other people influence me in such a way, often driven by fear that forced me to live the smaller life.
I’m grateful that my illness made me ask these questions and also that I took the time to consider my responses to them. It led me to think deeply about who I am and let me envision the life that I wanted to live. There were parts of my life I was less than happy with and that I wanted to change and improve and I’ve returned to good health with an invigorated appetite for life and drive for change.
Looking back now, I’d say that what happened was needed; I’d almost go so far to say that it has done me good. Fundamentally, it provided me with a way out. A way out from the pain I’d been suffering for so long. All the noise has gone. The stress, the disquiet, the anguish. It’s like someone pressed a reset button in my brain and it flushed it all away. I’ve made a great recovery since my difficulties in the summer and to compare my wellbeing now to how I was 9-12 months ago leaves little comparison. It seems a little strange to be grateful to an illness and something that was very painful and traumatic and created great disruption to my life, however I truly feel like a different person that is stronger and all the better for it.”
If you’d like to write a blog, a poem, a song or share your story with us so it can help and/or inspire others, we’d love to hear from you! As part of our Men’s Wellbeing Matters campaign, we’re particularly interested in hearing from men about their mental health journey. If you’ve never written before, don’t let that stop you – we can provide training and support. Contact Connie, Communications Lead, at firstname.lastname@example.org