By Sam Backer
I was 20 when I received my first diagnosis; early onset bipolar disorder. Shortly after my 24th birthday, I was diagnosed with several disorders on the schizophrenia spectrum.
The latter part of my first year of university was when things really started to ‘kick the shit’.
The inside of my head became a tumultuous tempest, raging constantly and battering and bruising my psyche. Anxiety had developed early on that year, the direct result of an obscenely sheltered and naïve kid being thrust into an attractively hedonistic world. Panic attacks became as common as me missing my lectures. Being raised in a very conservative and religious household, I was afflicted with a bad case of male pride and so I suffered in the throes of mental collapse on my own.
Most of you who are reading this may be aware by now that someone who is bipolar suffers from Manic and Depressive phases. In the manic phase, you feel utterly indestructible, like Thanos with all the infinity rings. My mind races a thousand miles an hour with ideas that I’m certain will revolutionise our society, leaving me an indelible mark in humanity’s history. I try catching a handful of these ideas and write them down but the concentration switches to the new change in my life I want to make; “A move, maybe? Definitely should break up with my girlfriend though, I don’t need her, I’m about to change society with these idea in my head!” I would think to myself.
My manic phases are when I perform my best at work and in everything I do. I’m filled with this pure energy of plastic happiness and an intense drive and self-belief. However, this phase is also when I make the most reckless, life-affecting decisions.
The depressive phase is the polar opposite – a dark and gloomy abyss that steals the spark in every nook and cranny of me that still has a will to live.
This was my first encounter with Bipolar Disorder. It happened two years before I was diagnosed and a few months after I had been sent to Wales to live with an Aunt. It was here, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the noise and mental pollution ubiquitous with city living, that I started to retreat into my head and began asking questions I hadn’t asked before.
In effect, I was kidnapped by my Father’s side of the family. I was 3 years old, on my first holiday to Africa, visiting my Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles. My Dad’s family took my Canadian passport and all other documents, changed my name and my date of birth so that my Mother couldn’t find me. I was given to my Aunt who moved with me to Kenya, then eventually to London, England, with a new identity and a ripe, 3-year-old brain that was ready to be shaped to believe whichever version of events they wanted me to. Meanwhile, my Mother was told I was dead, after the last couple hundred times she tried calling and finding me. Before I move on, let’s go back quickly to talk about my Mum and Dad.
My Dad moved to Canada where he met my mum in a Toronto bar. They fell in love, they got married and they had me. The problem was, my Mother was black, Ethiopian to be precise and my father and his side of the family were Arab, or if I’m to be pretentiously precise like them, “Sharifs” and “Sayyeds”, their blood line harking back directly to the Prophet Muhammad. They deemed my Mum’s side of the family less than savoury and they weren’t too wrong; my Mum’s younger brothers were making a name for themselves in the Toronto underworld. However, what they truly disliked was their bloodline being mixed with a black person’s and worse than that, not even (practising) Muslims. I remember snide, under-the-breath comments being thrown my way by a certain aunt growing up, comments like maybe if I didn’t have my mother’s people blood I wouldn’t have done whatever 8 year old mistake I had just made.
After I was born, my Dad’s family made it their mission to break up that marriage and take me away from my Mum and her family. They eventually succeeded, when a plan was hatched, guilt tripping my Dad to at least let his parents see their first Grandchild. Not seeing it for the ruse it was, my Dad acquiesced and we left for Africa. After we arrived, my parents were effectively substituted and I don’t remember it being a dramatic or traumatising experience. I remember being told I’d be living with my Aunt because my Mum couldn’t look after me because she was deemed to be not a good mother. I was told I would still see my Dad and that made things easier because he was, quite honestly, my best friend.
That love I had for my father as a child I still vividly remember, tangibly in my chest. I remember it because it was a feeling I had forgotten, stamped out early on and strategically by my new family. I grew up disliking my Dad at first, a sentiment that eventually festered into a simmering hate.
I would visit my Dad in Africa every summer holiday and spend four weeks there with him. Those four weeks were an awkward attempt at catching up on 11 months of news and stories. I didn’t like talking to my Dad and I didn’t like spending time with him. The truth was I looked down on him.
My dear Grandmother, who I looked up to blindly, eyes wide open, would tell me how unfit my Dad was as a person and a father. She would tell me he was a liar, not a family man, not a god-fearing person and that he used to be a ‘pothead’. Because of this, she’d say my Dad was mentally unfit and delusional. I had no reason to doubt any of this. Why else would I not be living with my parents?
So, when I would visit my Dad and he would tell me crazy tales of a life in Canada I used to have; a mother who is looking for me and a family who is manipulating me not to see the truth, I would dismiss those stories as ludicrous. Not once did I ever entertain the possibility of them being true.
I was happy; I had everything I could ever need. I knew I was adopted but from the way I was told and the way I saw it, I was glad this family took me in and gave me what I had. My Dad was definitely the man they said he was and I was happy he wasn’t raising me.
So thus began the annual charade where I would visit my Dad, he would tell me these stories and they would go in one ear and out the other.
Wales provided the perfect combination of factors that allowed me to question the events of my life. I had just been shipped away like a malfunctioning tool because I hadn’t received as many A*s as so and so’s child. My grades weren’t a reflection of my parent’s time, effort, health and money they invested in me, I was told.
I was used to being bounced from house to house, Aunt to Uncle, Grandmother to friend, whenever my parents got too tired of me. This move brought on a whole new feeling of loneliness I had never experienced; the realisation that I was actually nobody’s child, nobody’s actual responsibility, just a floating kid, a favour being done for an unfit father. In that moment and from that moment on, I felt like I am and had always been a burden and I was in fact, alone. I was living in a huge house, filled with a vibrant family but I felt empty to the core.
I wanted to speak to my Dad. He was the only thing that my subconscious and gut felt comfort at the thought of but I couldn’t. I wasn’t allowed to use the phone to call him and didn’t have one of my own. Wales was literally a 2 year prison sentence. I was secluded from everyone so I could be constantly reminded of how much of a disappointment I was.
Psychological punishment was a preferred method of discipline in my family; there were times I was not allowed to eat for whole weekends, and when I did eat it would be a meagre sandwich and juice. There were times when psychological discipline wasn’t enough and the belt and cable wire and I became well acquainted.
On top of that, I was involved in a dumb incident at school where I was almost expelled, resulting in me being completely ostracised by the family I was living with in Wales. I wasn’t allowed to interact with any of the kids. I would have separate meal times and I was moved to the room down the end of the hall. They didn’t want my influence rubbing off on any of their kids, which I understood but the measures were still a bit harsh in my opinion.
All I had left at this point was myself. My thoughts had become a solace of retreat and at times my own voice would be distinctly audible, keeping me company. I wasn’t scared and it didn’t concern me because I knew it was my own voice, although with a slightly different accent. I wasn’t thinking “oh shit I’m hearing voices,” because at this point I couldn’t tell the difference. This would happen on the worst of nights, when I really felt the seclusion and the loneliness.
Putting Pen to Paper
I turned to writing to keep me occupied, composing hundreds of poems over the two years living there. Those poems became a precious part of me, providing a portal into my psyche and inner thoughts and I would carry them everywhere I went.
Writing brought me back from almost tipping into the belly of complete depression. It gave me happiness to balance the sadness but it still outweighed the positive moments in my life most of the time. I didn’t have many hyper-mania or even just simple manic phases during my time in Wales, they were mainly depressive.
Those two years came to a slow end and the summer holidays brought with it a reunion with my London family and a family holiday to Africa. I had just completed my A-Levels and I was on a high; feeling positive that I was going to get into my first-choice university and I was going on holiday with the entire family. They seemed happy with me too and that made me happy. Little did I know that this holiday was a cover for a full family meeting with me at the epicentre of it.
Whilst on holiday, I received the news that I had got into the University of Sheffield to read Law and Spanish Law., news that was met positively in the family. It was also their cue to call the meeting and I soon learned the topic was what was to become of me now that I had finished College, the point to which they had apparently agreed with my dad they would take me in for.
I was presented the choice of going to university and continue honouring the hard work that was being invested into me or go back into my dad’s care and find my birth mum, a choice my dad had strongly championed. Evidently, I chose to go to Sheffield and find my mum after my degree.
My first year at Sheffield was a drug-fuelled journey of self-discovery without the shackles of my family’s opinions and omnipotent presence. There was never a sense of privacy at home. There were times whilst in college in Wales my parents would have people report back to them if I left on lunch and who I was seen with or have a couple class-mates report back to my aunt what I was doing on my breaks and lunches and with who.
Then I would be interrogated on these, my aunt claiming she saw me in a dream; because she was so pious, God was on her side and I was naïve enough to believe it. Until I moved out, that is and could see from a different perspective. Despite that, those same feeling of being watched never left me and I would, at times, swear I could see someone standing and watching me in the corner of the Law school library or after a night out driving by in a taxi. The paranoia developed into full-fledged delusions and I would extrapolate scenarios of people being out to get me simply from seeing the same person twice in the same building or friends asking me out to do normal things.
I must add, though, it probably didn’t help that I was smoking copious amounts of strong marijuana. This, I found, was the only thing helping me cope with the newly found extreme social anxiety. The weed, aside, my semi-frequent psychedelic sojourns with LSD, 2-PCB and ketamine also probably all had supporting roles in the production of my insanity but I digress.
I began actively looking for my mum on the internet and through my dad. Eventually, my dad got in touch with my mums’ sister in Canada and from there I found out where my mum was. I didn’t wait long before catching a flight to Ottawa, Canada to finally be reunited with my birth mum.
I met my mum and was presented with the result of the mental anguish she was subjected to as a result of me being taken away from her and being lied to about my death. I met an addict, coming out of prison after a seven year bid for being the driver in a fatal drink driving accident. My mother was not the glamourous image I had painted in my head but nonetheless she was my mother so I attempted to acquaint myself with her.
It was at this point that I found out about my different identity, different date of birth – a whole other family that physically looked like me. I was elated but at the same time I felt utterly confused. I had been lied to my whole life and manipulated. I was shown a certain perspective of a larger story and I wasn’t even who I thought I was. The months that followed these revelations fertilised the onset of a personality disorder in the depths of an identity crisis.
My thinking voice developed a completely different voice of its own; different in tonality, accent and mannerisms, until eventually it became a loud and audible whisper that to this day, still comforts me.
I’ve adopted it as part of my everyday life and it’s that voice, I’ve come to realise, that I write with. While that voice was growing in tangibility, another was bubbling in the pits of my mind and it was causing me distress. It was not a benevolent voice and it was borne from the pain, confusion and humiliation I had recently been party to. It wanted to hurt, see pain in others to alleviate my own and it was at this point that I realised the seriousness of my condition.
I sought professional help and although it is perpetual inner battle, each day I’m learning how to identify the tools to help me curb what’s in my head and lead a fulfilling life. Writing and composing my poetry and music opened the windows and blinds in my psyche and from time to time, we can see the sunshine.
Now, although I’m not where I aspire to get to, I’m comfortable and doing my part as a functioning member of society, something I wouldn’t have thought possible with my pre-conceived notion of mental health and the stigmas surrounding it.
I now work in the banking industry for one of the top banks in Canada and recently have been acknowledged and awarded as one of the top revenue earners and performers of the past year.
I know for a fact I have my two and half month manic phase to thank for that, so I will always embrace the kinks in psychological makeup and the voices that come with them.
You can follow Sam on Instagram @Kthetrip