Nicky Chinn a songwriter, record producer and legend in his own right writes about his experience of bipolar disorder. 

Depression at 16

I was sixteen. Of course I'd seen black clouds before. We all have. They are something in the sky. But I had never felt them.  A black cloud to me had always meant a storm is coming but I had never planned for a storm so violent and so intense it was going to turn my whole world upside down and change my life forever. I had found bipolar or it had found me. There's no difference really.

Back in 1961 mental illness was not something that was accepted too readily. It was ‘pull yourself together’ territory. My parents were ashamed which made be ashamed as well.  There’s something about mental illness that can change the entire family dynamic and it certainly did in mine. No one knew what to do with it. No one knew what to say. Whether they should talk about it or not and if they did what reaction would they get? It was quite simple really. If it was darkening your own doorstep you just didn’t talk about it.

Childhood and adolescence

I was at boarding school in Bristol. I'd been at boarding school since the age of six.  It is not something I recommend if you don’t like rejection and abandonment and I've yet to meet anybody who does. Those two imposters were the basis for my emotional and psychological upheaval. My parents were never around so I hardly knew them.  The whole experience of my upbringing left scars I have been trying to heal all my life and with a lot of help from a lot of people to some degree of success.  

When the storm erupted at such a young age I was petrified.  There was this darkness but it was the middle of the day. A total lethargy that weighed me down for no apparent reason everywhere and anywhere I went.  I would suddenly burst into tears but I didn’t know why. And above all the fear. The fear of the unknown.  The depression and the fear telling me it will always be like this. The mood swings. An eternity of highs and lows. The rain and shine. And back then the medication was primitive and ECT (electro convulsive therapy) seemed to be the preferred choice of treatment which was frightening enough in its own right. In 1961 people could hardly spell the word therapy let alone consider it as a method of treatment!

My dog days always start at night. Right in the middle of the night when I'm asleep. They come out of nowhere. I go to bed feeling fine and I wake up depressed and I know immediately it’s the beginning of an episode. The highs come later in the process. My worst nightmare in my worst night. It is as simple and as complicated as that. I can't explain it to myself so how do I explain it to anybody else?

The first time I was ill I had to leave school and I never went back. I knew I felt unwell but it wasn’t until a psychiatrist in London told me I was ill that I really knew this was serious.  I had never considered it could be an illness. I couldn’t comprehend it or make any sense of it.   Manic depression (which was the unfortunate misnomer for it then until it was changed to bipolar in 1980) meant nothing to me.  I was hospitalised very soon after that and  I was convinced I would never get better, never get out of there, Convinced the illness would never go away.  I have discovered since it always goes away although it might take its time to do so.

Bipolar is always in the background

I know my condition will always be there in the background but it does not have to be a prison sentence for life. I do not have to give it the power to rule me forever if I learn how to manage it and manage myself, I’ve been fortunate enough to undergo therapy which taught me that and many other things as well. Therapy was a rocky road for me because I discovered things I did not want to discover. I had to find the courage and the stamina from somewhere in order to survive it. I had to dig deep into my emotional reserves to do that. It was worth it and  I believe it has made me a healthier person and helped me come to terms with a lot of very tricky psychological issues

Strange as it sounds there can be advantages to bipolar disorder. It can be a very creative condition at the slightly higher end of the spectrum.  I’ve experienced the hypo manic and manic stages. I'm a songwriter and when I'm in a full-blown manic state it’s too much. When I'm elevated and euphoric in a hypo manic state it’s just enough to be creatively perfect but there's one problem. If Newton’s law of physics is correct, and it is, then what goes up must come down. and there you have the disadvantage. From being this creative writer so happy with life I plunge to a place so dark I can hardly write my name.

I've often been asked what have you got to be depressed about and I didn’t have a ready answer. It seems if there aren’t any external and obvious reasons then people can’t work  it out. Why should they be able to? With the diagnosis suddenly I had a reason and it felt good to have a name for it even if people didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew what I was talking about. Many years later I discovered I had plenty to be depressed about and it was staring me in the face all the time. I only had t go back to that rejection and abandonment I mentioned earlier. It was so obvious but it took me until I was forty-nine and in therapy to begin work it out! That’s a long time to be in denial!

Acceptance, not understanding

There are a lot of misunderstandings around this condition. One is when somebody says I get depressed some days. They should only know!  But one of the biggest misunderstandings is when someone says to me they understand. The minute I hear that I know they don’t That is unless they’ve lived through it themselves and if they have they always say so. If you do not have lived experience, it’s impossible to understand. The most I've ever asked of my friends and colleagues is acceptance. Accept me for who I am and what I am. This is the package. This is what you get. Take it or leave it. I've found out to my good fortune most people take it. Bipolar disorder has undoubtedly shaped my life for better or for worse. There have some really dark times and some much better ones and looking back there's not a whole lot I would change.