Written by Camilla King

Health

Living with bipolar

When her husband Russ had a mental breakdown, Camilla King had no choice but to just keep on going and make things as normal as she could for the kids. She and Russ talk candidly to Standard Issue about what happened.

warning triangle sign at the roadsideQ. What do you do when your husband suffers a devastating mental breakdown, in the kitchen, on a Sunday lunchtime?

A. Why, you put him to bed, head downstairs, whip up a batch of homemade playdough and make pretend birthday cakes with your two small children!

No, really. That’s exactly what I did when, just over 12 months ago, my husband experienced a complete mental disintegration. As anyone with children will tell you, even when life seems to be crumbling around you, clinging to normality, sticking to some kind of routine, feels like the only way to survive.

At the time, the only people I asked for help were the 111 helpline operator and their on-call GP. I was refused. Even though my wonderfully bright, funny, sensitive husband had been reduced to chewing through our bed sheets in terror. Even though I was at home with two young children and couldn’t get him to a hospital. Russ was not in imminent danger of hurting himself or us (only because he couldn’t get out of bed), so was not a ‘priority’ case.

“It was in fact that littlest of human kindnesses (a smile) that saved Russ’s life just as he was about to end it, days before his breakdown.”

Looking back, I wonder why on earth I didn’t ask my friends to help with the kids, why I didn’t confess what was happening to us to anyone other than Russ’s boss. In part I wanted to shield my children from the pain and fear, but it was also down to that very particular embarrassment and shame that continues to surround mental health issues. We felt this was something that should be dealt with quietly, in private. No need to bother anyone with our problems.

broken shell buried in the earthIn the aftermath of Russ’s breakdown it was as if he had suffered a stroke; vital connections in his brain had simply broken, and walking, talking, even lying on the sofa required superhuman effort. The noise and pace of the children were completely impossible, and there was a long period of time where Russ couldn’t even look at them. This was perhaps the hardest part for both of us.

In the weeks following the breakdown, in the breaks between our boxset marathon, we talked about the importance of no longer hiding his illness (some months later Russ was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder). We didn’t want pity; indeed we adopted a suitably black humour to deal with a black situation, but we did want to tell anyone who would listen that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.

It isn’t always easy to know how to help, but it’s essential to get the message out there that the smallest kind word or gesture can make all the difference; it was in fact that littlest of human kindnesses (a smile) that saved Russ’s life just as he was about to end it, days before his breakdown.

We also wanted to prove to people that it is possible to live with mental illness, particularly one so commonly associated with dangerous excesses as bipolar, and manage to have a successful career, a family, a relatively normal life. It was from this belief that the idea for Russ’s blog, Up & Down Runner, was born.

Just a year on from his bipolar diagnosis, I’m worried that Russ is taking on too much, once again. Writing this article seemed like a good opportunity to quiz him about his blog and why running is such an important part of his recovery.

“We didn’t want pity… but we did want to tell anyone who would listen that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of.”

Camilla: Where did the idea for the blog come from?

Russ: My therapist had encouraged me to write my experiences down, and I wanted to turn the breakdown into something positive. I realised that writing a blog would force me to confront my depression. I have a blog post called ‘Overcoming Alan’ which was inspired by a talk given by Niall Breslin discussing how he combatted his depression, which he named ‘Jeffrey’, by doing things to actively piss Jeffrey off (check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z82uTGTMwY8). In ‘Overcoming Alan’, I talk about how I have to confront my depression (‘Alan’ after Norfolk’s most famous son, Alan Partridge), and do things that the old me would never have done.

C: You’ve said that you don’t have a creative bone in your body, but do you think now that the depression was stopping you doing creative things, from being the real you?

R: I’d love to say I was a trapped creative genius, but honestly, before the breakdown I didn’t have anything to write about. I had a happy childhood; great friends and family; I hadn’t experienced loss or any major traumas. This is the first time that I really believe in something. I was let down by our doctors, and by society in general, and the only reason I didn’t die was pure luck.

C: You had these feelings going back as long as you can remember, but is there a particular point when you remember the depression starting?

R: Not really: I was always an anxious child. Even as a baby my parents say I used to twist my nappy round my finger until it became red and sore, and I’ve always been introverted and had dark thoughts about things, but I just assumed that everyone must feel like this. Sufferers of depression often become adept at covering it up.

“The reality is that we’re still learning how to deal with bipolar, an uninvited and unruly houseguest.”

What’s particularly tragic to me is that suicide is often talked about as being cowardly, the easy way out. It’s really not – you still fear dying. Living or dying, either option is scary; it’s a brutal choice and you just feel that there is no other option. That was certainly the case for me: I honestly believed that me dying was the best and only option for everyone. I know that’s not true now, most of the time, but there are still times that I feel that you would be better off without me.

Writing the blog is really helping with those feelings, because people are enjoying it, and telling me that it’s helping them. I feel that I can make a difference and if it persuades just one person to get help, then it’s worth it.

C: Up & Down Runner is primarily about raising money and awareness for CALM and Mind, but it’s also about running and how it has helped your recovery.

R: I understand that running isn’t for everyone, but there are so many people who have taken it up and found that it’s changed their lives. That’s definitely been the case for me, and it’s undeniably a good thing – you don’t need to buy all the gadgets, and read the magazines, (although I do, sorry), it’s just putting one foot in front of the other. I’ve never regretted going out for a run. I’ve hated plenty of runs, but I’ve never regretted doing them afterwards.

Legs of a young man runningC: It was after taking on a particularly challenging series of runs in 2013 that you spiralled down into the depressive cycle that led to your breakdown. In my mind, the two are inextricably linked. Had you realised this? Why on earth are you doing it again?

R: I think in 2013 the depression had really taken hold, but I built up that Ultra race and a new job to be the answer to everything. I finished the race, and immediately realised that life was the same, worse in fact. Running itself didn’t cause the breakdown; it just triggered something that was always going to happen. I couldn’t say that I’ve completely recovered, but with therapy and medication, I’ve learnt how to deal with the depression a lot better. This time round I’m taking the training seriously, but not obsessing about it in the same way. In fact, I’m keen to see what my new, more positive brain can do.

***

It’s my instinct to want to put a neat bow on our ‘story’ – a nice happy ending for everyone, but I can’t. The reality is that we’re still learning how to deal with bipolar, an uninvited and unruly houseguest.

A week ago, when Russ was having a particularly bad day I wrote this: “a switch is flipped and it’s as if Russ, the person who I think of as the real Russ; my best friend, has gone. Replaced by someone I hardly know. It’s like looking at him down the wrong end of a telescope, and I’m pretty sure that’s how the world feels to him as well, when the depression strikes. We might have a small dose of normality now, but then out of the blue, often for only the tiniest of reasons, Russ hits another low. It’s the sickening plunge of a roller coaster, with no rush of exhilaration. It’s the tightening of my chest as I wonder what I should say, or how I can make things better. It’s my constant fear that Russ won’t remember me and the boys through the blackness, that the medication isn’t balancing him out enough.”

I just try to remember that Russ has done this once, and he can do it again. I’m incredibly thankful for the support we’ve had, and that the response to the blog is showing us and others that mental health issues are not something to be ashamed of, hidden away. Just like any serious illness, depression can and should be talked about, and people who survive it deserve to be cheered on, because even once recovered, an indelible trace of it will always remain.

Follow Russ’s blog here: http://updownrunner.com and sponsor his fundraising efforts for CALM and Mind here: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=RussellKing2

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Written by Camilla King

Freelancer in the arts. Unwilling expert on Batman, dinosaurs and poo (there are children) and running widow of @UpDownRunner. Lover of music, cake and lady stuff. @millking2301