It’s 2007. I have a baby strapped to my front and her dad, Nicos, is beside me in a electric scooter. We’re going to vote in the state elections. Because he has multiple sclerosis and she is, y’know, a baby, this has required some organisation. We’ve timed toilet breaks and nappy changes, injected him with his drugs, and I’ve fed the baby. MS is a cruel disease. It had, by this time, stripped him of his short-term memory, vision, ability to hold down a job and, especially, his energy. The line up for voting outside the Moreland City Council building is long, and Nicos is impatient. The baby is crying and I’m bouncing up and down to soothe her. Various pamphleteers flutter by and try to shove their how-tos in our hands. At some stage, a representative of a radical Left party approaches. We say no thank you and off he stomps in his dusty Blundstones. A minute later he returns, leans over Nicos in his scooter and says, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Our candidate has cerebral palsy. He is disabled, like you. Don’t you have any solidarity?’

‘Fuck you!’ Nicos shouts. ‘I’m not disabled. I’m sick!’

We decide at that point that paying the failure to vote fine seems like money well spent. We quit the line, and Nicos shouts at the d-bag as we wheel away. A symptom of MS is emotional lability, which is the quick change between emotions, now angry, now happy, now sad. For years we thought Nicos was just Greek, but it turned out he had MS, too.

Maybe in part Nicos said he was sick rather than disabled because he believed he was going to get better, though he clearly wasn’t and isn’t. But mainly he said it because he didn’t want to belong to the disability club. He’s not a joiner. He wanted to be understood as himself, and not labelled as a disease. MS is supposed to be a problem of the body rather than the mind or, more specifically, the neurological system rather than the mind. But your brain is part of your neurological system, and your mind is situated in your brain, and your brain is part of your body, so when your body acts in specific, and not always helpful ways, it may seem like you are not always really yourself, but then again, who else could you be?

This problem of self and illness is especially pressing when you have what is politely termed a ‘mood disorder’, as my first boyfriend did. He had a shaved head and a little Charles Manson beard and wore big boots and sometimes spoke in tongues with Charismatic Christians in the car park of the Pancake Parlour in Brisbane. He was a shark fisherman, sometimes, and a poet, of course. He invited me to one of his poetry readings, where he read so fast that eventually some polite soul asked him to slow down.

‘Think faster!’ he shouted at them and then I was in love, though I probably was already. When he was a kid his parents used to make him dance in the pub for beer money. He’d been to twenty schools by the time he joined the Navy at fifteen, where he promptly got put in the brig for misbehaving, solitary confinement with nothing but a Bible, which he learnt by heart, and was fond of quoting to the anarchists that we later hung around with. We abandoned our homes and lived in a tent. He caught fish, I made bread, we read and played scrabble and had filthy sex and a hot chicken and a carton of beer on pension day. He could fix cars and was good at knots, and after we broke up he tied me up and raped me. He disappeared back to Queensland, where we both came from, and after a while his new girlfriend started ringing me up, and asking if he’d treated me badly, too.

A few years later he himself rang me up and told me that he had a brain tumour. I didn’t believe him, because it didn’t sound like something that would be true, and eventually I hung up. He did have a brain tumour, and died shortly after.

Darrell was really very charismatic, and really very bipolar.

It took longer for people to notice that I was bipolar too. Maybe because I am better at managing my symptoms, though it seems wrong to be competitive with the dead.

Bipolar is pretty much what is sounds like: a combination of high, manic states and severe depression. Depression we all probably know the shape of by now. The symptoms of the manic state are less familiar, unless you’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook (insert ironic emoticon here). People are said to have a genetic predisposition to being bipolar, an idea that upset my Mum no end. This predisposition is then triggered by external stimulus, of which a common one is childhood abuse.

The symptoms of bipolar mania include an inability to stop talking, irritability, a great optimism, a huge output of work, severe problems with impulse control and hypersexual – um – proclivities. Does this sound like a disability? Or does it just sound like a lot of people you know? Certainly, there’s a lot of overlap between being bipolar and being a left wing feminist. They both certainly make you prone to outbursts of rage at how every goddam thing is shit. Centrelink calls it a disability, sometimes, in that it can get you a disability support pension card, and freedom from lining up at the Centrelink office. It certainly has, in the past, stopped me working full-time, recognising words, going outside the house or knowing who or where I was. It has made me self-harm and harm other people, too. But. This could just be my personality. I could just be flaky, and a bit of an asshole. Oras, a friend of mine, said, right when I was on the brink of being diagnosed that maybe I just have a lot of feelings.

Thinking of bipolar as an illness is also peculiar because you could conceive of some of the symptoms as talent, which would certainly not be the case for a straightforwardly disabling disease like MS. To think of bipolar like this is to take up the politics of the capital ‘D’ Deaf, who do not consider deafness a ‘disability’ to be fixed, but rather a culture with its own language, behaviours and norms, that are different, rather than inferior. After all, bipolar people make great writers and comedians, at well beyond coincidental levels. So it could be quite reasonable to think of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as outsider art. It’s just really, really good outsider art, and our culture is happy to claim it. His ability to make connections, his hilariousness, his obsessive and anxious eye, these, perhaps, were symptoms. Virginia Woolf’s shimmering imagery and dreadful vagueness: symptoms. Carrie Fisher’s quick wit and hilarious over-sharing: symptoms. Hemingway’s stupid sense of purpose and douchebag machismo: symptoms. Beautiful, beautiful symptoms.

Not all bipolar people are great writers, or very funny. But the problem with bipolar is you feel like you are, even if you’re not. And then you eventually stop being manic and realise that you’re not as good as you imagined. And then you are humiliated. And then, sometimes, you end up dead at your own hand.

Sexual charisma – there’s another bipolar talent. But that’s only good if you’re hot, which I was when I was younger. Not beautiful, but sexy. Boys, men, they thought I was special, when probably I was just a bit mental. Culturally speaking, everyone loves a hot mess. Carrie Matheson on Homeland is the pin up girl for this type, attractively suffering, and so very intense, and erratically slutty. It sounds like I’m making fun of the show, or being down on being slutty. But I’m not. It’s just that I’m well aware of the trope that Carrie embodies – the fucked-up girl who accidentally sleeps with a range of people who then don’t want much to do with her, and then ends up crying on their doorstop. A whole lot of crazy is excused if you’re hot enough.

I think I’ve only recently been diagnosed as bipolar because my hotness is fading as my messiness increases. There’s no pay-off for my crazy anymore and without a decent dose of Lamotrogine every day I’d be the lady crying on the street, and people would avoid me rather than buy me beer and invite me back to their place, like they used to. But I could just be paranoid. That’s a symptom too.

Grandiosity is another symptom of bipolar. You feel great: important, you’ve a thousand ideas and you have the confidence to get stuff done. The problem with bipolar grandiosity is that it goes away, leaving you feeling pretty embarrassed about that ponzi scheme you just set up, or that fantasy novel you just finished, or that threesome you just had. And medication takes that feeling away, quickly and effectively. It left me, in particular, feeling very middle-aged. Which I am – it just didn’t occur to me earlier, because of the grandiosity.

I think most of the people on reality TV are bipolar.

I think most poets are bipolar.

The other talent that bipolar gives you is seeing how things connect. I think being bipolar helps you be a cultural studies academic, though I don’t know if I can sell that idea to the university. You can see things: the way there are underlying structures in society, the way that patterns form, that things high and low, east and west, are connected. Maybe some days you get a bit paranoid, and then you know a few hundred things all at once.

Modern life is rubbish and one of its rubbishes is that only great people are allowed to be crazy, in fact expected to be, and then we all act surprised when they die early, often by their own hand. It’s as if all of our grandiosity is outsourced to them, and we’re only allowed to feel it when we stand close by them, in the virtual or the stalker realm. Without mania the world would be a far less charismatic place, but in an ordinary person, mania is a symptom, as is the belief that you are not an ordinary person.

But for the most of us, it is important to be ordinary, and I’m not being snide or narky about that, necessarily. So I take my medication, and I should do that, because this is the world I live in right now, because despite my grandiose dreams about founding an anarcho-feminist locavore paradise, I am stuck here. It’s not so bad. On the other hand, it’s so bad. This is the world where God speaking to you is a symptom. Having too much sex is a symptom. And writing this essay was a symptom: did you like my symptom? My symptom: your personality. I can’t always tell the difference. But that’s probably a symptom, too.

Miss Smith

Miss Smith works, writes, and is a little bit crazy in Melbourne.

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  1. This is a beautiful article. I have AADD and I always feel uncomfortable saying I have a disability when I compare myself those who have ‘real’ disabilities, although it greatly effects my social and work life. It’s strange that all these conditions can end up rated.

  2. you are great, miss smith. i kinda cried inside reading this. you know, i used to be (in the less-high-functioning-days of my own diagnosis-in-flux) envious of those who had a more *interesting* diagnosis than me! i mean, a more interesting symptomatology. the monotonous nothing of an ordinary depression i thought, might have been alleviated, or levitated, by a bit of interesting mania now and again! but it seems wrong to compete with the afflicted! love your prolific word(miss)smithing. Vx

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