Brian Adams had his first
manic-depressive episode in 1970, when he was a young community education
student in Glasgow, Scotland. He produced his senior thesis in a state of total
elation and self-absorption, and fell into a comparably deep depression
The wild mood swings recurred
regularly in the ensuing years, along with embarrassing behavior, uncontrolled
spending sprees, erratic job performance leading to the loss of his career,
several hospitalizations, and an attempted suicide. Brian’s memoir is in large
part an attempt at self-validation, and an effort to recoup some of his losses
by making sense of them and contributing something to the rest of us.
As the book ends, Brian is
descending into yet another episode of depression. Nevertheless, he has
succeeded in what he set out to do. He has shown us that he is a credible witness,
and he has articulated some important realities about mental illness.
Brian describes how he felt at
various painful moments – as a community development worker attempting to deal
with office politics going from bad to worse, and as a resident of various
National Health Service hospital wards where the workers were often more
interested in amusing themselves than in caring for the patients. His judgments
of these situations are not really skewed either by mania or depression – they
are the judgments by someone who remembers his bad behavior under the influence
of illness, but who has regained perspective during the extended periods of
sanity between mood swings. His message to us is that those suffering from
mental illness are not crazy all of the time.
Brian sees stigma, the byproduct of
the instinctive horror most people have of mental illness, as the source of
much of the insensitive treatment he received as a hospital patient and in his
social life. People’s ordinary laziness or selfishness allows them to give into
their feelings of aversion. Well-meaning people who would have deluged a
“properly ill” patient with flowers and get-well cards forgot about Brian when
he was a psychiatric patient. Hospital administrators found it convenient to
disbelieve his protestations that the wards were untidy or dirty. The members
of his community theatre group used his psychiatric history against him he made
legitimate objections to some of their decisions.
Brian wants us to know that his
feelings of anger, shame, remorse, and loneliness are normal human emotions
with real objects. And that people with bipolar disorder need respect, a social
role, and purposeful activity just as much as anyone else.
Brian accepts the common
understanding of bipolar disorder as a disease – a chemical imbalance with a
genetic basis. But he does not see it as comparable to a physical ailment or an
infection or injury that comes from outside. Because the illness has affected
his personality at its core, he believes it is more accurate to say that he
“is” bi-polar than that he “has” bi-polar disorder.
He tells us that it has taken him
most of his life – from his early twenties to his mid-fifties – to realize that
he is “stuck” with his illness, that it is a part of him, and that it will
probably never be overcome. But he has reached the point of accepting his
situation as “a particular, valid, important form of life.” He believes he has achieved what he has in
life because of, not in spite of his illness. Whether or not he is right, he
certainly exhibits an awesome combination of honesty, compassion, and
determination to continue living in spite of it all.
© 2003 Marion Torchia
Marion Torchia earned a masters degree in applied and
professional ethics from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. She has held
positions in several Washington DC health and behavioral health associations.
She is interested in the moral dimensions of our attitudes towards mental
illness and addiction.