(Believe it or not, this is a new version, with all-new middle bits and updated ending bits. Am having technical trouble with Ulysses, no doubt due to the whole “beta-testing” thing! 😉
MEMOIR: TIME TRAVELLING THROUGH YOUR LIFE
Suppose, just for a moment, for the sake of argument, that you had a time machine. What would you do with it? I’ve often thought about this. I’m a science fiction writer. Before I wrote this book I wrote a stack of science fiction novels, some of which have been published. I write about time travel a lot. And I think about this question a great deal.
I would try and help my younger self. That boy, that young man, was (and often, in middle-age, is still) in a world of strife, confusion and misery. He discovered, the hard way, at age sixteen that he had bipolar disorder. He is still, to this very day, decades later as I write these glowing blue words on my iPad screen, dealing with this problem. If I had a time machine, I would absolutely try to help that kid. Because I remember being him. I remember what his life was like. I remember the fear, the loneliness, and I remember the anger. I did not know what to do with all these feelings. It was as if I were constantly being struck by lightning, but had no means of earthing the current. I was full of teenage poison. I was a boy made of nerve-endings.
Growing up didn’t much help. It was Act II in a play. The sets had been swapped out, and the main character wore a different costume, but he was still made of nerve-endings, and still full of lightning and storms. In this part of his life the fundamental problem was pretending to be normal, while definitely not being normal. The problem was keeping people from finding out the secret. No matter what. It was hard. It wasn’t the sort of thing employers wanted to hear about a potential employee. New friends were sometimes fine with it, but sometimes not. But then this young man full of storms fell in love with a wonderful girl, and he had to tell her his terrible secret. She was, indeed, wonderful. We are approaching our 25th anniversary.
Act III of this show covers the past few years, the “present day”, as the storm-filled boy finds himself middle-aged, his medication no longer working, hugely overweight, lost at sea, the storms now outside as well as inside. He’s in trouble. His doctor decides to bring his medications into the 21st century, and admits him to hospital for what should be only a couple of weeks, but tuns out to be five months of agony and turmoil, an unprecedented ordeal the man has never known, and from which he is still, a year after leaving hospital, recovering. An experience so overwhelming, so mind-altering, that I felt the urge to write about it and my whole life with the stain, the illness, my companion. The limp only I can feel.
The thing about mental illness is it messes with your head. It makes you think weird stuff. It makes you believe things that are not true. And you believe them the way you believe in gravity and your mother’s love. These wrong beliefs wrap you with cobwebs. You’re not even aware of it. It happens slowly. It’s like cataracts forming in your eyes. You never notice them, but then one day you can’t see. Same with the cobwebs coccooning your mind. You never notice it happening, but then one day you find you can’t move. Your whole sense of who you are as a person, frozen, pinned down, unable to act, because you believe terrible things will occur if you do act. You believe you might die, or people (or pets) might die. The cobwebs whisper in your ear, telling you these things. Sometimes they scream. Either way, you can’t do things you want to do, go to things you want to go to, see people you want to see, or even simply leave the house. You know it’s irrational, but you believe it’s life and death.
Finding ways to get past these wrong ideas to the truth is what I’ve been doing. I have found that I am very susceptible to the cobwebs. I get them all the time. Sometimes I can clear them out on my own. But I also have a terrific psychologist, and she has a very good stick.
Writing this book has helped me with the cobwebs.
This book is about exploring my life as if I were a Time Traveller, especially as it has been affected by mental illness, my bipolar disorder and anxiety. What would I see, as a grown-up, middle-aged man, with all my experience with the illness and treatment, that my younger selves don’t see? I know, obviously, that I can’t help them. But I can bear witness. I can listen and report. I can tell you what it was like back when these things were never discussed. Back when being sixteen and bipolar was pretty much the end of the world.
All my life I have done my best to present myself to the world as if I was fine. To conceal my stain. Which is to say, I have been a liar all my life. Always pretending to be something I’m not and was not. And always feeling the strain of the pretence. This book is about that feeling, how it felt, and still feels. How it used to feel, when it was shameful and a secret, and how it feels now, when you can write about it and speak about it.
I imagine myself, middle-aged, married, man in possession a time machine, visiting my teenage self the night I had my first huge terrifying breakdown, the night I feared I die of crying. What might I see, watching from the corner of the room that teenage me, at the white-hot fragmentary centre of the event failed to notice? The smallness, the intimacy. The nurse and my mum, each holding one of my hands as I howled and screamed into the night. Wanting to tell the kid it gets better, but really, remembering back, remembering my own experience, it does get better, but it takes geological ages first. It takes many years, and much, much more pain. No amount of glib, “it gets better” mottos will cut it here. There is only one path ahead for this boy and it’s the hard path.
This book is about what that path was and is like for me.