by Jan McCarthy
It has been suggested, by certain neuroscientists and psychologists I consider to be the Enlightened Ones, that neuro-atypicality is nature’s attempt to coax humanity into an evolutionary advance. I often wonder what different path human history might have taken if the neuro-atypicals had been calling the shots. Mozart for President, Virginia Woolf as Minister for the Environment, Ernest Hemingway in charge of Education …
By evolutionary advance, I don’t mean one that makes us more physically fit or more attractive. That kind of advance will always lead us more astray. No – I’m talking about an advance that makes us wiser, and better adapted to the kind of life nature would prefer us to lead. Not plundering the planet and engaging in continual warfare of one kind or another, but living humbly with our eyes on the forests, oceans and stars.
Those with the power to say “You can be like this but you can’t be like that” have made every attempt to stamp out this advance. We are forced to wear the badges they pin on us: insane, defective, subnormal, non-compliant – and in the case of women, hysterical. You can add to the list yourself. They have medicated and controlled, persecuted and abused us in every possible way.
Those who, at first, are drawn to our ‘differentness’ often abandon us or throw us out because the excitement wears off. We witness the demise of our relationships time and again, frustrated that every self-management strategy we have tried has failed. The fact is we were made this way. We can’t change. It’s better we part company if they can’t hack it. Only those who delight in us as we are, stay. They see our strengths and aren’t repulsed by our weaknesses. Those who stay are beyond precious.
I’m still standing. I have around me a small collection of loving people. My life has shrunk to a decent fit. I’ve learnt to work with the performance fluctuations of my brain. I’m one of the lucky ones.
I’m in my early sixties now. To those who expect a silver-haired granny to have quietly got on with raising kids, baking bread and growing lavender, my life story reads like a catalogue of disasters. I don’t see it that way. What I see when I look in the mirror is a survivor, like the hero of Andy Weir’s novel: The Martian. Someone who has developed incredible coping strategies. Someone who, in spite of having a ‘fizzy brain’, has made something of herself. I’m still making something of myself, even though osteoarthritis has added its doubly whammy, and there are days when I can’t remember how to make a cup of tea.
I don’t put up with abuse anymore. Over a decade ago, diagnosed at fifty after I went into bipolar shut-down mode in a public place and came at last to the attention of the mental health service, I spent months rehearsing, with my psychotherapist, ‘appropriate’ rejoinders to those inept and sometimes cruel things people say. Here are some classics I have been on the receiving end of:
“Oh well, we all have mental health problems.”
“You should get outside in the fresh air more. Join a group. Get more active.”
“Think positive! You have so much to be grateful for.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff. You look fine to me.”
“I’m having a manic day myself. Prosecco and chocolate cake?”
The rejoinders in my toolkit used to be gentle ones. Educational ones. Placating ones. Above all, act normal and don’t put people off. Then you’ll be all alone and miserable, and you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself …
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Well, you see this garden. I did all that with my husband.”
“Yes, positive thinking. That will make it all go away.”
“Haha! Wouldn’t it be funny if bipolar people had purple horns and scaly skin so you could tell by looking!”
“Well, mania isn’t really like that, but that’s ok. You weren’t to know. Actually, I don’t drink and I’m trying to lose weight, but thanks all the same.”
Now I mostly tell people that they should bloody well have learnt by now, given the amount of information that’s freely available. “You’re fortunate,” I say, “that I’m peace-loving and hate violence of any kind. There’s no excuse.”
There are others who, once they hear the word bipolar, look as though they’re about to soil their underwear. They can’t get away quick enough. They probably think I have an axe hidden behind my back, or that I’ll creep into their bedroom at night to strangle them. I don’t hold it against them. I don’t have the time or the energy to deal with them. They’ve allowed themselves to be stupefied by the opiate of the masses: television. They’ve watched too many crime dramas in which the ‘perp’ is bipolar, and they’ve taken fiction for fact. Not much I can do about that, because with these people I hit another wall I’ve found almost impossible to climb over: not being believed.
As soon as someone finds out you have a mental health condition, you lose credibility. Everything you say has to be passed through a fine sieve, because you’re either lying or don’t know what you’re talking about. This is the only aspect of being bipolar that still has the power to make me angry. My face clouds over, the colour rises to my face, and I am robbed of speech. I have to go out and look at trees when this happens.
Trees are perfection. When I die, I’m going to be buried in one of those linen sacks and have my descendants plant a tree over me, so I can be upcycled: a walnut for knobbliness, an ash for shade, or a damson for the birds. In the meantime, I have my writing: my ability to pour all that’s best in me into something creative and of lasting value. The fun website I Write Like tells me, at various times, that I write like J.D. Salinger, Daphne du Maurier and David Foster Wallace. Try to pin me down, you won’t succeed. I’m a chameleon. It’s the way I’ve survived. But from now on, when I’m not creating my pieces of word engineering, I’m staying green. Leaf green, like the beech tree I can see if I turn my head a fraction to the right. Who wants to live in a red world where anger rules? Not me.