Living in public with bipolar
So writes Neil Cole of his diagnosis at age 36 with bipolar mood disorder, in his newly published memoir, Stability in Mind. Now a well-regarded playwright and Associate Professor in the Mental Health Research Institute located in the Melbourne Brain Centre, in his earlier life he was a prominent politician and city councillor, as well as activist lawyer.
Written simply – even plainly – it is a sanguine account of Cole’s life from early childhood to the current day.
Stability in Mind is a curious book. You feel the resentment that exists still toward some of his former political “colleagues” and the media (who by outing his mental illness finished his political career) but there’s little evidence of resentment toward the illness that ‘king-hit’ his life. He writes of his weeks spent in psychiatric care at the Melbourne Clinic as a dispassionate observer; of the anorexic girls who most upset him, and the gangland mobster in ‘hiding’ there, with whom he shared the hospital dining room (who was assassinated soon after his discharge.)
“I had no shame then or now about being mentally ill,” he writes in his foreword, “though I would prefer not to be….rather it was a bastard of a thing to have.”
Stability in Mind details a relatively typical Australian boyhood in the sixties, of four brothers living with a domineering father and retiring mother (who later became his great support) in simple circumstances, riding the roller-coaster of extremely average public education, struggling with friendships, enjoying football and being fascinated by all things military and war related.
But by the time he reached puberty, and during the ensuing tumultuous teenage years, things changed for Neil, as he became passionate about social justice and politics, and when he first experienced the strange, intense, racing thoughts, and hyper-arousal, that are typical of bipolar’s high mood - the mania, of manic-depression.
His account is alarming.
“Images and thoughts went through my head so rapidly, with me having no idea where they had come from – they ravaged my brain,” he writes.
He had unusual and frequent sexual thoughts and responses – to things such as violent treatment of slaves or a boy being told off at school – suddenly felt strongly homosexual and then as suddenly not, or felt guilty for being male. Ideas of self-mutilation for gratification, and festishes emerged, and remained with him for many years. He also started to believe he was “someone special”.
“At times I believed myself to be reincarnation of Jesus Christ, or at least that we shared a common bond. As an unbeliever, it was strange to feel that I had a special affinity with him. Sometimes I would retreat into myself to contemplate life as Jesus…”
As a reader, familiar in popular culture with such delusional patterns, it’s impossible not to wonder: where does this come from, why Jesus, why violence and sex? What happened to cause this? Did something terrible happen in his childhood to unhinge him?
But that’s exactly the point; nothing happened. Bipolar happened. Such experiences are symptoms, not results.
Stability in Mind explains an illness, tries to help the reader understand what it’s like to live with depression so bad you are completely exhausted and can barely get out of bed, unable to eat, function, or see the point of even being alive. Or at other times so obsessive you have to clean your car every second day, inside and out, and eventually get rid of it because it’s too much work.
“I hope this memoir will help make it clear that bipolar mood disorder is a state of mind, a condition and illness cause by a problem in the brain. It is an affliction that need not interfere with a productive or even a distinguished life. It has a genetic cause which, from time to time, moves you out of the range of normal functioning, like most illnesses do.”
Neil Cole, Stability in Mind. New Holland, Sydney. 2012. $29.95