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On the nature of being

Life is hard – or maybe it’s just that being human we naturally make it harder. Reflecting back over a particularly difficult year, I should feel blessed to have gained valuable insight into this, my lifelong condition. But blessed in what context? Perhaps, like someone who’s discovered the lifeboats on a sinking ship and now has the means to save his own life. The waters are cold and treacherous, but the alternative isn’t too inviting either.

So what is it that ails me? I suppose it’s the psychological equivalent of a fairground ride, a rollercoaster from one extreme of thinking to another. The symptoms are spectacular. Spend more, sleep less. Initiate solo flights to the Moon and beyond, with yourself as a kind of manic Captain Kirk, boldly going where no man has gone before. The downside is unrelentingly grim. You can’t get out of bed for days on end, and your every waking moment is unbearable.

Although better publicised these days, the label still carries a stigma, an unspoken inference that the sufferer has a ‘mental illness’ and might break out in symptoms at any moment. It might be more helpful to refer to it as a condition, one which can be managed and even utilised to fashion a richer and more productive life – within reason, of course.

The world is full of well-meaning folk, who presume to tell you how you should live. Some of the advice is good, and some of it forgettable. What they seem to have overlooked is, why we’re like we are and what drives us. Thousands of years of evolution has moulded human nature into its current state and there isn’t much we can do to change it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make the odd improvement here and there.

I have to be careful what I do. My wilfully addictive nature would have me taking more of everything until there’s nothing’s left but the shell. Self-discipline is crucial to maintaining any semblance of normality, but even this can be tested by the thoughts and impulses that bedevil me. To attain a state of relative calm, I have to keep myself constantly in check.

The mind is a powerful tool. Without much prompting it can cause havoc. For those of us with mental health issues the consequences can be devastating. We are fragile creatures somehow gifted with incredible powers of recovery, but there’s a limit to how much you can go through without a knock-on effect.

I’ve always loved music, and in my most elevated state I can be moved to tears at a particular song, or feel a deep connection to the universe. The reverse is true of the depressed phase. Here, there’s a deadening of the senses, an inability to relate to anything, however profound or beautiful it may be.

After months of labouring beneath a black cloud, starved of company and all the little things conducive to being alive, there’s the urge to break out and celebrate. But the manic depressive knows more than anyone the dangers involved: a summer of energetic highs followed by a long and grim winter. There’s a need to look after your health and watch what you’re doing, lest you relapse and end up back in the same place.

I’m often inspired by the writers and artists whose lives were blighted by this condition, but sadly many of them met tragic ends. The battle to navigate these turbulent waters exacts a high price. Modern medicine offers a lifeline but it isn’t a cure-all. On top of the pills, we now have meditation and CBT to help control the destructive urges. But can they really make a significant difference?

Perhaps, at some point in the future, science will eradicate illness altogether. Until then, we have to make do with what we’ve got. The first thing to re-examine in the quest for balance are the labels we affix so willingly to ourselves and others. Try seeing yourself as a human being first and foremost. A label can be helpful from a medical standpoint, identifying your condition and making treatment available, but it can also be self-defeating, defining who you are.

I sometimes see myself solely in terms of my condition, as if all other characteristics have been worn away. But I’m also human, with hopes, dreams and aspirations just like everyone else. It doesn’t help me to dwell too long on the unfortunate circumstances of my birth, but instead to celebrate my strengths, and to acknowledge perhaps the most miraculous thing of all. After everything I’ve been through, I’m still here, still breathing.

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