The human mind, my mind. I was never fascinated with it. Many other things perhaps. Science fiction, cricket and music, these captured my imagination during my youth. When I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I recall pilot and astrophysicist being high on the list, perhaps on the odd occasion a Jedi Knight. Like many people, I took the mind for granted. It barely registered, and when it did, it was the physical brain, starting with falling off my bike as a child, later morphing into alcohol induced hangovers as I grew older. Never did I think to make the connection between brain and mind, in an effort to explore it on a deeper level, attempting to understand its power, its purpose and ultimately its fallibility.
All that changed in early 2013, when a minor wobble at work brought my whole world crashing down around me like a house of cards. My life felt like it had been torched, the work of a cruel hooded arsonist who crept in with eerie stealth, and with one carefully placed match, left me broken. The culprit was non other than my own mind. To say I never saw it coming would be an understatement of epic proportions. I was prepared to deal with many things in pursuit of a good life. Self-sabotage was not one of them.
My childhood was like any other, peppered with highs, lows, successes and failures, not to mention hormones and spots! Growing up in West Africa was a privilege and gave me many happy memories. I never really had more than a fleeting relationship with India, the country where I was born. With the 90s came the move to England, where I spent my teenage years playing cricket, avoiding bullies, discovering alcohol and dodging schoolwork as best I could without drawing the ire of my parents. A normal childhood. I eventually made it to university after an initial false start, finally entering the world of work in the early 2000s. Married with a child before my 26th birthday gave me a sense of identity and purpose that I embraced, and around the same time an opportunity to work overseas, the first of many over the next 15 years. By the time I entered my third decade, I had a stable family life, a secure well-paid job, great friends, good prospects, living a perfect life in a leafy London suburb. Only, perfect doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion, a trick of the mind. Had I been paying attention, maybe I would have seen that hooded arsonist, lurking in the shadows.
So it was, on that fateful Monday morning, with my mind unable to comprehend the most basic of tasks, that the well-placed match finally caught. What started as nothing more than kindling burn, was by the end of the first week a blazing inferno, devouring everything in its path. Relationships, reputation and respect for myself reduced to nothing more than ash. A trip to the doctor did nothing to ease my fears, revealing further questions that no-one had answers to, least of all me. The diagnosis was work induced stress with the remedy being to take some time off. So, at the grand old age of thirty-two began the most turbulent eighteen months of my life.
Imagine thinking that spots as a teenager were the worst thing to befall anyone. There is something far worse than a pimple on the end of your nose, it’s called self-doubt. And for the next few years it became my greatest enemy, often winning, rarely losing and never vanishing. Every truth I ever held dear, became a battlefield. Who was I? Was I good enough? Was I loved? No, no, no came the voices in my head. Nothing seemed to work. Medication, therapy, clinics, each one as ineffective as the next. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, a winning formula was stumbled upon, more by chance than design.
By the middle of 2014, normal service was resumed. The fire had finally been extinguished, the flames of self-doubt beaten back, and in amongst the charred remnants of my life, green shoots of hope were finally visible. I gradually settled back into a routine, aware that full recovery would take time. I was pleased with where I had got to and convinced myself that all was well. But something didn’t feel right. I could see progress right before my very eyes, but I couldn’t put my finger exactly on what was amiss. Colours were duller than I recalled, sounds more muffled. I was living my new life through some kind of great invisible filter. A poor version of what I had hoped, dreamed and waited patiently for. My doctor gave this filter a name. She called it a mood stabiliser. A drug, albeit a legal one she had prescribed me.
When I focussed hard through the greyness, I also saw something unexpected. Small burning embers of negativity remained. Not everywhere, but enough that it could easily catch given the right spark. And the more I looked, the more I saw and the less I liked. They said I was better, that I was ready to get on with the rest of my life. Caught up in post breakdown exuberance, hoodwinked by the lure of normality, I forgot to read the small print. I asked myself if this is what I had worked so hard for. A monochrome version of life, reliant on medication and doctors, still with the risk of a fiery blaze at any moment.
“This is not what I want!”
For the first time in nearly 3 years I heard my own voice ringing in my ears, clear and in stereo. I knew what I needed to do. Starting with throwing that awful filter away. Yes, it would be uncomfortable for a while, deeply uncomfortable at times, but I needed to trust that my mind would readjust without the mood strangler, sorry stabiliser. I needed to believe in the power of self. I had to learn what self-care really meant. I had to become a lot more self-aware and I needed to practice both, every day for the rest of my life. So began the second most turbulent period of my life, during which I would test both my patience and resolve many times, as well as that of my doctors. Change was never going to be easy, particularly when it is about you. The pursuit of a better life, the health of my mind determined solely through a diet of selfcare, was a far cry from the cocktail of drugs, residential clinics, and seemingly endless therapy sessions I had endured these past years.
Before I headed down that path, I also needed to confront a few home truths and accept some harsh realities. Self-management was not a cure; it was never supposed to be. This was about prevention and learning to manage my unconventional mind with its unique peculiarities. This path would also never end, much like medication, it was a forever commitment, only much harder. I needed to learn everything I could about what it meant to look after the mind, to look after my health. With ferocious voracity and a thirst for knowledge, I began to devour every text, journal, article and blog that I could lay my hands on. This time I wasn’t learning to pass an exam or get a job, I was learning for my life. And finally, I had to accept a degree of initial scepticism from my doctors, any notion that they would be high fiving me and whooping with delight as I unveiled my master plan, was frankly borderline delusional. Which was not a badge I wanted to wear.
This journey was also going to be turbulent. Before I could move forward, I would have to go back. The medical diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I had eventually received was a label, not an explanation, so was entirely unsatisfactory for my purpose. How was it that something so innocuous had brought my world tumbling down? The answers were there, hidden in the depths of my mind, I just had to find them. What was it about my thinking, that drove me toward self-sabotage? I now found myself with a new purpose and mission.
I have been lucky; of this I have no doubt. Not everybody gets to visit their version of hell and return. And even fewer get to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. I’m still working on the second part, but I have hope, optimism and trust in myself that I’ll get there. At least I won’t have to watch the sunset in monochrome.
This book is dedicated with love, compassion and understanding to all those whose sunsets came too early.