At the age of 32, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder; this was a life defining moment, freedom, something to be celebrated.
People are always predictably surprised when I say those words. How can you celebrate being diagnosed with a mental illness, not least one which has a significantly high suicide rate? And actually, the answer lies therein; I didn't just rock up to the GP with a headache at the age of 32 to be told that I was living with a mental illness, I was ill for a very long time and symptoms can be traced back to my mid-teens. That diagnosis gave meaning to my life, a context to what had gone before, it allowed me to stop despising myself.
There were some warning signs during my last year at school of troubles that lay ahead but most people put that down to an unsettled scenario at home as my parents’ marriage became increasingly fragile. I went to University aged 18 … and my life would never be the same again. At that point, I had a promising future in professional sport, but by the time I was 20, I had walked away from it, consumed with anger and lacking the maturity to deal with my dreams crumbling around me.
What I didn’t know was that I was already suffering with the mental illness, Bipolar Disorder, or Manic Depression as it is commonly known. Using the words of Mind, the leading mental health charity:-
"It is characterized by severe depressive episodes alternating with periods of hypomania. During manic episodes, you can feel excessively high, extremely irritable, sleep very little, demonstrate poor judgment, spend excessively and inappropriately, behave aggressively and misuse alcohol or drugs.
Depressive episodes are epitomized by hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in daily life, guilt, and suicidal tendencies. And this truly was me for over a decade."
The gap between highs and lows were often a split second. There was no inbetween. For close to 15 years, I lived on a roller-coaster, one on which I either loved, or absolutely despised myself. Exactly as the experts describe, I was excessively high and low to the point where even I didn’t know what I’d do next. How those around me were meant to cope, I’ve no idea. I spent irresponsibly, and found myself in thousands of pounds of debt. To compound it, I lost job after job because I felt so low and couldn’t face the world. I was guilty of poor judgement, I binge drank, I was overtly aggressive and angry. In short, I was a ticking time-bomb,
At the height of the illness, I didn't have the mental capacity to make rational decisions; I wasn't even overtly concerned by stigma. I was scared to speak simply out of self-hatred, why would anyone listen to anything I had to say? I hadn't turned around to the world and said I was suffering with manic depression, so why should the world simply assume I was?
Every external sign was that of anti-social, erratic, irresponsible behaviour; without the awareness of mental illness that we have now, that is all I saw and it is all others saw.
Life was most precarious at the entry into mixed state, as I went from mania into depression. I often ‘managed’ this transition with alcohol, so what people saw was someone who binge drunk and could not handle the consequences.
Sadly, those closest to me were often the ones on the receiving end of my violent rage, the same people that I would then crawl back to like a child, racked with guilt, overwhelmed by worthlessness. With each increasingly volatile moment, I died a little. My life was one of running from my own shadow, from creditors, constantly seeking new friends as people understandably walked away.
In hindsight, had I ever seen the list of symptoms described above, I would have taken myself to the doctor straight away and asked for help. Instead, I just thought it was me, that I was a social leper, an untouchable on a one way road to isolation and self-destruction.
In those days, and this was only in the 1990s and the early 2000s, you didn’t talk about Mental Illness. The one time I did at the age of 20, the response was quite simply “what have you got to worry about, you’ve got a nice home and education.”
There's an irony there; I grew up in a nice home and those around may indeed have lived in relatively nice homes, but holding on to a home was becoming increasingly precarious for me.
Over 10 years of living in self-contempt and going from one manic episode to another just couldn’t continue. Implosion was inevitable and so it happened that I found myself spiralling out of control. The first overdose (November 2003) was a call for help, but it never came. I was released from hospital after 48 hours and I just told friends that I’d been away, few were any the wiser. Life went on and, left untreated, the illness continued to destroy me, cutting into every vein, a destructive decaying influence on what was a shell, a human body on the outside, annihilated and obliterated within.
In truth, the second overdose (June 2004) was for no other reason than trying to get a bed for the night. I was too ashamed to ask for help, and found myself wandering the streets without a penny to my name. I had, earlier, in my life already spent two nights sleeping in the salubrious surroundings of Victoria Coach Station and that kind of fear was not something I wanted to experience again. And I did get my bed for a few hours, but again was released to walk away on the road to hell.
I found myself in front of magistrates, humbly holding up my hand and saying how sorry I was. I served 40 hours of Community Service, and was sentenced to an Anger Management programme. It was the lowest moment of my life and the prelude to the third suicide attempt (January 2006), the one I really meant..
Just 48 hours on, doctors at Manchester Royal Infirmary were fighting for my life. I wasn’t fighting, I had no fight left, this time I wanted to die, and quite frankly, I was in no fit mental state to think about the consequences on others. I could no longer bear the pain inside nor the guilt of the hurt I was causing to those I loved. I was later told that had the emergency services been even two minutes later, I would not be here today.
I knew right then that I was in a desperate fight for my life. Just as fighting any other serious and potentially fatal illness, I was a dead man walking if I did not seek help. It was then that I finally said the three words that saved my life:
My recovery was intensely private, as if a line was drawn in the sand and we did not talk of what happened before it. Only a handful of people, if that, knew about my struggles. Even with my life rebuilt, it remained taboo; I was healthy and happy, why would I let others judge me by my past?
By October 2010, I had gone nearly 3 years without a manic or depressive episode and I finally realised that my story, like so many others, was powerful and could really help others. I was listening to someone speak about World Mental Health Day, and I knew the time had come to speak. My life changed permanently, and beyond recognition.
I decided, in that moment, to dedicate my every being to making a difference and reaching out to those in pain. I knew I couldn't change the world alone but if I could make a difference to even a single life, then every day I spent in darkness would have meaning.
Since then, I am truly humbled to have worked with some amazing individuals and charities to raise awareness and challenge perceptions around mental health. During that period, I have seen the landscape around mental health being absolutely transformed; there is still a huge amount of work to be done but the changing attitudes are so visible to the point where I think our biggest challenge is less stigma than the scarcity of resources.
I am privileged to be an ambassador for Mind, the mental health charity, an organisation who played a significant part in helping me to rebuild my life from the debris of January 2006. Without the input of Manchester Mind, I would never have had that diagnosis.
In 2013, I took up running, which did cause a bit of a stir among my friends given that I was standing (just!) at the portly weight of 262 lbs (18 stone 10 lbs!). As I write this at the end of 2016, I have run 13 marathons for the charity and raised £11,031 since the beginning of 2014. However, the biggest beneficiary has been me; my mental and physical health are better than they have ever been, my mindset is of calm focus instead of chaos, and every day I live is a gift instead of torture, one that affords me the opportunity to reach out to others in need and support them.
This journey is just at the beginning. My life has a meaning way beyond mental health, homelessness and running, yet the those three things are intrinsically linked and give that life context, purpose and energy. I am so excited about the road ahead, the physical one on which I shall run, and the figurative one I will walk as I continue to strive to make a real difference.
29 December 2016
Copyright 2016. Rohan Kallicharan. All Rights Reserved.
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