“I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” — Sylvia Plath

 

By Liana Hall

Inspired by the recent disclosure of his suicide attempt by British actor and director, Stephen Fry, I have chosen to write about the cyclical relationship between mental illness and creativity.

I intentionally use the word ‘cyclical’ because that is how I spend my life; cycling between one state of being and another. I suffer from Bipolar II disorder. Bermuda’s own Catherine Zeta-Jones has been frank about her own diagnosis. To compound this I have been diagnosed as being of the hyper-cycling variety. This means that my cycles of up and down appear very rapidly; more like a racing bike than a cruiser.

I have never delved into the true depths of the suicidal feelings of depression or the lofty elevation of the manic episodes that I experience, but for the purposes of this article I shall try. I live in a dichotomous emotional world. When I am in a depression I struggle with hypersomnia and an immense state of exhaustion. I know when I am sleeping I do not have to face the ache of the world. In that moment before I reach full alertness, I tear with my proverbial claws into the darkness so I can feel no pain in an unconscious world. Alas, it never works and when my eyes open the profound and searing pain I feel in my life returns. As a result of this, I isolate for days, weeks or, in one particularly bad stage when I was 17, months on end.

Bouncing off the walls

Conversely, when I am in a hypomanic state my energy is boundless. I am bouncing off the walls and I’m being only mildly metaphoric. My mood is elevated and I feel excited and elated. My speech is incredibly rapid, reflecting the velocity of my triggering synapses. When I am in a depressive state I allow my surroundings to rot around me. I take no pride in appearances, but when hypomania hits I am fixated on the order of the world around me, whilst simultaneously causing chaos and mayhem through many inebriated nights that I would rather forget (and often have). The beauty of hypomania is that it triggers in me a level of inspiration and a burst of energy for my work, either academic or creative. I have created wondrous expressions of my psyche and written dissertations on a burst of hypomania.  That, combined with my ecstasy for life, means I’d rather not come down from an episode. The descent, however, is inevitable.

 

I haven’t always been this candid about my mental health struggles. However, for the last two years I’ve maintained a blog entitled The Year of Celebration — A Manic-Depressive’s Guide to Celebrating Life…One Day at a Time. It began following a particularly traumatic time in my life. In 2009, my father, Julian, had departed this life and in the months that followed I experienced the many stages of grief, which were compounded when I was injured and left bedridden for two months. The physical and psychological pain I was experiencing was so strong that it could not be relieved by any amount of prescribed narcotics.

Eighteen months later life was beginning to improve. I had finished up a year-long political appointment at the Cabinet Office, my foot had healed sufficiently and I was ready to embark on a life of creativity that had been put on hold. A family member who had experienced the indescribable pain of losing her son declared that we needed to celebrate every occasion in order to give life its meaning back. She declared 2011 “the year of celebration” and we were to find any reason we could to bask in its glow.

Thus, the blog was born. It can be cathartic, terrifying or frustrating all depending on my mood and how much I choose to divulge. Without my depression I never would have started my blog and without that I wouldn’t have found my writing voice. So am I thankful for my disorder? Definitely not and absolutely yes.

 

Before I was a writer, I was an actor. When the movie Bermuda Grace filmed on-island and I was chosen as an extra, watching the filming process intrigued me. I thought I could persuade my mother to send me abroad to a performing arts school, but she consistently refused my request, citing the need for me to finish my formal education. The lesson learned? Mothers know best. As a result I attended some of the top academic institutions in the UK. As much as I believe my educational experiences were the right thing for me in the long run, I was struggling with many issues at the time. Not least of which was the niggling, scraping and torturous feeling that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do; that I was in a world of academia when I was truly an artist.

During my second year of university my father emailed me writing “your mum has told me that you have been expressing anew certain frustrations regarding your law studies and that your desire to pursue sooner rather than later an acting career is weighing heavily on your mind.” That was an understatement. I was tormented. Was it just the artlessness in my life at that time? No. I was struggling with an undiagnosed illness, but in my mind I justified that it was circumstantial; that if I was truly doing what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t feel as I did. It was then, despite being medicated with anti-depressants, that I reached a devastating low.

Having experienced a painful end to my relationship with my first love I was ‘triggered’ (a psychological term I now understand) into a suicidal low. I was 20-years-old and living in the centre of one of the greatest metropolises in the world. However, I felt as though I was lost in the depths of a colossal sinkhole in the middle of London and no one knew how to find me. I certainly didn’t know how to find myself. There had been a series of horrid events and interactions that precipitated the day I chose to overdose on Tylenol. I had also been waiting for a year and a half to see a psychologist on the National Health Service and was so desperately suffering that I saw no way out. I put together all the drugs I could find in the apartment, which I swallowed in rapid succession. After an indeterminate amount of time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to die, so I called for help. My memory of the next few weeks is blurred by my lack of consciousness.

Tylenol may, as an over-the-counter medicine, seem harmless, but in actuality will easily kill you. It rots your liver and mine was shutting down along with my kidneys. My mother revealed to me that she had been told before she boarded the plane from Bermuda that I was dying that night and she likely wouldn’t make it in time. They didn’t consider me eligible for an organ transplant. My mother’s second daughter was going to die in the same hospital in which her first daughter had been born.

Internal panic

This caused in me a level of internal panic that I cannot begin to describe and it was only then that I realised I actually wanted to live. I had been trying to hurtle myself as close to the edge as possible to inspire in me some sort of desperate need to survive that I couldn’t find in the middle of the path of life. In the intensive care unit, falling in and out of consciousness, I began to find peace within the effort required to just remain alive. That month the 7/7 bombings rocked London. They had detonated around my university, whilst I was safe in the confines of the ward. Victims began to pour into the hospital and I was moved out of intensive care. A tragedy other than in my own mind had occurred and I fell by the wayside.

Needless to say, I survived. Without much psychiatric help from the NHS who put me on yet another waiting list and discharged me from the hospital without any follow up. It was then that I gave up on the idea of medication and professional assistance. If it didn’t stop me from attempting suicide, frankly what was the point? Amazingly though, this wasn’t my largest concern. That which bothered me most was how medication would and had affected my
creativity.

I like to think that my creativity gifts are worth the mental illness I’ve suffered for them, but is that true? I can reach planes when I act that I believe I wouldn’t be able to if I hadn’t struggled so much. I can recall in an instant the beauty, wonder and pure euphoria of a manic episode and then almost immediately the devastation of a depressive trough. As a result of this I would avoid medication for the next five years.

 

What I later learned about bipolar disorder is that it accelerates in intensity as you age. Without treatment, it can ruin you. In those five years that I gave up on medication the manic episodes intensified. I convinced myself that in the process of ageing I could learn to manage and, besides, my sorrowful soul was turning in performance after performance. Yet, despite trying to focus on the positive, I fell into another suicidal depression shortly after beginning my blog. I was living in Los Angeles, pursuing my dreams and yet still had ideations of suicide. Instead of acting on them, I reached out and was referred to a forensic psychiatrist who finally diagnosed me appropriately.

Following the correct diagnosis, I began a new, efficient cocktail of drugs. It took some time to adjust, but eventually my emotional range was corrected. I reacted appropriately to situations that should make me sad or happy, but neither triggered me to depression or mania. I could hear criticism without it pushing me to the depths of my existence. I could receive good news without needing to turn that into an endless party. I could think about my dad with less grief, guilt and regret and more love. When I fell in love I was able to experience all the magnificence inherent in that, without fear that its destruction might threaten my life.

My largest fear, that I would lose my ability to create, was entirely unfounded. I became a better actor because I was more readily able to control my emotions. I could still reach those required places in my head and heart, but when that time was over I wasn’t still torturing myself. I realised then that one of the reasons I had so desperately wanted to act was that I wanted to escape the pain of my own life. The depression and anguish propelled my creativity, but I know now that I need not rely on that as the only catalyst for my work.

Writing this article has been frightening, but if you ask me why I have confessed all, it would be the same reason I continue with my blog — because I hope to influence others, whilst maintaining my authenticity and integrity. I believe it is important to be open about your own struggles to reach out to those to whom it would relate and the people in their lives.

There have been many articles and studies showing the link of creativity and mental illness. However, I know plenty of great actors, artists, musicians and writers who have never experienced any mental illness and are of a genuinely sunny disposition. I don’t claim to be better or worse at expressing myself creatively than anyone else. All I can do is produce the best I can with the resources I have. My disorder is part of who I am, but it is not the only thing that defines me. However, I am grateful for it. It has taught me the strength of love, the power of compassion and the beauty in everything. I can only hope for my art to represent the same.

To read Liana Hall’s blog visit www.theyearofcelebration.com