Legendary jazz singer Nina Simone had a chronic mental health condition called bipolar disorder. Her enduring persona was of a bombastic yet charismatic storyteller, who would hold an audience in the palm of her hand.
My boyfriend, Max, loves Nina Simone and not just because of her artistry. She was the first celebrity he could identify with.
To some, her stage presence seemed like she was ‘living her best life’, but Max saw the inner conflict. He would later be diagnosed with bipolar, too.
The disorder is hard to diagnose. It’s not completely known why it occurs and not all doctors agree on how to treat it. A layman might understand bipolar as being ‘really moody’ and some doctors still only see it as a set of behaviours to change. Even when a GP is on board the symptoms of bipolar aren’t always apparent.
Bipolar is defined by two states — mania and depression — and each individual with bipolar experiences them at different intervals and for varying lengths of time. Max has bipolar II, which means he had frequent bursts of ‘hypomania’ — characterised by a few days of agitation, goal-setting, an inability to concentrate, heightened energy and short rest periods — followed by weeks-long depressive states, where he felt so despondent he couldn’t function at all.
In those low moments, he had suicidal thoughts. It was during a depressive episode at 13 years old that he was misdiagnosed with depression, which is a common mistake. For the next seven years the anti-depressants only masked half the problem. He was hospitalised on several occasions during this time and as a last resort had electro-convulsive therapy when he was 20.
When a manic episode was observed afterwards, bipolar II was finally diagnosed.
Bipolar II is distinct from bipolar I — though no less traumatic — in that the hypomania doesn’t include psychotic symptoms, like hallucinations. There are other varieties of bipolar, but these two are the most prevalent. Manic episodes are unique to each person: some actually enjoy them, or romanticise what they do for their productivity.
Max remembers having an extroverted nihilism, but it was the irritable come downs he recalls most vividly. He would lash out at friends, start fights and say things he’d regret, and eventually lost several friendships.
Living with undiagnosed bipolar shaped his self worth. There was no stability. He couldn’t study properly so couldn’t build self-esteem from academic achievements and was often ostracised in the classroom by teachers who didn’t know how to deal with such a sensitive student.
This made him feel useless and stupid, which is a default negative state he goes back to even today.
One gay teacher, presuming a closeted gay student, told him “it gets better”, but it didn’t work. His depression wasn’t tied to identity.
What people misunderstand about mental health conditions is that the brain and the mind are separate. Our conscious mind thinks it can think its way out of a mental disorder, but it can’t.
With the correct diagnosis, Max was able to take steps to manage his condition. Now, he takes one mood stabilising pill in the morning, and one at night with another for sleep. Taking three pills a day doesn’t bother him because it was such a relief to get off the rollercoaster that had been his life until then. Sadly, he lost seven important years of development during that time and has felt like he’s been playing catch-up ever since.
The positive spin is that he has found a depth of empathy he might not have had, and something that’s been essential in our relationship: an impulse to solve problems as soon as they arise.
When I asked him what advice he’d give someone with bipolar, he said nothing helps except support from others. His advice is for carers, instead.
Max acknowledges his luck. His nurse mum understood the need to build momentum through trial and error with medications, keeping a solution in sight. His dad made earnest attempts at understanding his condition and was vulnerable enough to read books to him while he was in hospital.
Even when the depression made it seem impossible that anyone would want to touch him, knowing he had two people to hug was a huge comfort. Genuine care and practicality is a necessity for professional carers, but is applicable to family, friends and partners, too. Once support is in place, Max says that there’s nothing wrong in trying medication, in spite of the stigma. And, if possible, try to see a psychiatrist rather than a GP, as they will have a deeper understanding of the possible diagnoses.
Today, Max has completed a Masters degree and works full-time — things he had once written off. But his biggest accomplishment is being the rock in our relationship. As Ms. Simone would say, he’s feelin’ good.
If you or someone you know is feeling anxious, experiencing depression or thinking about self-harm, you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or even chat via their website which is here. If you think it's a bit more of an emergency, you can call Lifeline at 13 11 14, or visit their website here. If you need immediate emergency assistance, please dial 000. International suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org.