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'Bipolar Lite' is actually very heavy. But comedy can help.

Carol-Anne Croker

By CAROL-ANNE CROKER

I was 33 and pregnant when I finally gained the correct diagnosis of my mental health. I have bipolar mood disorder type two, or ‘Bipolar Lite’ as Stephen Fry satirically describes his illness. But Stephen and I, among many others, know there is absolutely nothing light about this condition.

And it’s never dull. I’ll be honest, when I’m manic it feels really good. My mania is attached to a “bee in my bonnet” – something that needs to be changed, an injustice, an inequality or a wrong that only I can right. Buoyed by a sense of confidence and excitement I tackle these projects, believing I have the power and influence to communicate my vision and get people on board. Basically I think I can change the world. Yep, total fruitcake.

When I’m manic I can’t monitor the consequences of my actions, I speak and act before assessing the likely outcomes. And then the depression side of my illness creeps in – like a fog rolling off the sea. It’s a stealth approach, slowly surrounding me and pulling me down. Everything is grey, lifeless and I can’t see my way out of it. When that depression rolls in, sometimes I feel lucky that I have bipolar because it’s a roller coaster and I know it will end, even if it doesn’t feel like it. I grit my teeth, hang in there and wait for the upswing. I walk, swim at the beach, chase the sun, and do anything I can to produce adrenalin and generate some endorphins to trick my brain into feeling happier.

Some people point to their house or family, their car or their career as signs of their success. But my achievement is more basic than that – it’s being alive. I get through with support and medication. I work on my diet and fitness, I do yoga, psychotherapy and meditation and I have a GP and psychiatrist. I’m privileged to have these resources and without that support I’m gone. My medication keeps me fat (it gives me the metabolic rate of a hibernating bear), but it keeps me alive. I consider myself a survivor and I’m proud of that. That is my biggest success.

Coming out publicly as having bipolar also brings its challenges, believe me. The stigma is so palpable. I’ve had potential partners run away when I tell them I have bipolar. I’ve had bosses find any excuse to keep me on contract rather than permanent employment. And my family don’t really want to know about it.

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Once I was formally diagnosed, I felt a huge sense of relief. I wasn’t a total freak of nature or dangerously deviant. I was a normal person who needed medication and treatment to function less erratically and to live a ‘normal’ life. However, I learned the illness was one to be hidden from friends and family for fear of increased surveillance, like a specimen in a petrie dish.

“By finding humour in our darkest experiences and feelings we are taking away the shadows cast by our own guilt and fear.

These days, I’m comfortable telling people I have bipolar. It helped when Patrick McGorry was named Australian of the Year and Stephen Fry came out publically with bipolar. This, plus increased awareness of mental illness generally, has helped me gain the courage to tell people that I have bipolar. It’s actually quite a good screening process, if I tell someone about it and I don’t get a good response it tells me that they’re not worth having in my life.

I now work to achieve everything I set my mind to, from acting to theatre reviewing and undertaking a PhD. I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a performer. Anything that drew attention to me, good or bad, was better than not being noticed, and it’s that desire for the spotlight that drives me to pursue the creative arts.

I had heard of Canadian comic and counsellor David Granirer, and by chance I found out that he was bringing his comedy school, Stand Up for Mental Health, to Australia. And that’s where my most recent creative exploration of my mental health started. For the last three months I’ve been part of a group of people with mental illness going through David’s comedy school. It’s been an amazing journey; we were strangers at the first class and now we’re family. We’ve formed a deep bond through sharing our experiences of living with mental illnesses. We have spoken to each other about things we have never told our families and friends. Sometimes even things our psychiatrists, psychologists and counsellors know nothing about.

There’s a saying that the line between tragedy and comedy is time. By finding the humour in our darkest experiences and feelings we are taking away the shadows cast by our own guilt and fear. It is empowering and it’s great for my self-esteem and belief in myself. We are people with valuable contributions to make and we are proud to share them with the world to help reduce stigma and advocate for those who live every day in the shadows of mental illness.

Carol-Anne is performing with a group of budding comedians making their stand-up comedy debut at WISE Stand Up for Mental Health, 7pm, Friday 25 October 2013 – Deakin Edge, Fed Square, Melbourne. Canadian comedian David Granirer will headline and MC the show, with a special guest appearance from stand-up comedy veteran Steve Bedwell.

Read more about the show and purchase tickets here.

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