I first realised that I am mad as a bag of badgers about thirty years ago, towards the end of my degree in English Literature, at Edinburgh University.
I became increasingly energetic, productive and creative; followed in short order by a period of delusion and psychosis. After a brief, not entirely welcome, post section period in a psychiatric ward; I levelled off and prepared to resume my studies. Then came the crash. A crippling, souldestroying period of suicidal catatonia. And then another hospital stay, during which I was first introduced to the term manic depression (as it was generally termed back then).
Pharmacological interventions are not without their critics, but I speak solely for myself. I was prescribed Lithium, which I have been taking for thirty years, and for me it has been a wonder drug. Broadly speaking I have remained well, had a successful career, two beautiful children; and in fact for much of the intervening years more or less forgot about being bipolar. That is not to say I have not had highs and lows; but generally they have been manageable and required very little medical intervention. Sure, I’ve had crap low periods, and several phases of (rather more exciting) hypomania. I’ve damaged friendships; caused immeasurable anxiety to loved ones; and spent money with abandon, on occasion, too. Hendrix was of course right: manic depression is indeed sometimes a frustrating mess; but he failed to mention the kaleidoscopic joys of hypomania – I have had my share of that too.
When my second child was born, I became interested in genealogy. It was fortunate that two obsessive relatives had already gathered a substantial amount of data about our family tree. Two things immediately struck me. Firstly, that the name Merriman kept cropping up, initially as a surname; and later as the middle name of many male children. This was within the line of my maternal grandmother. I gave my own son the middle name Merriman as a result. The second thing revealed as I delved deeper was that many, particularly male, relatives in my maternal grandfather’s branch of the family appeared to have been (how shall I put this…) eccentric. In short, I came to the conclusion that bipolarity might run in my family.
Politically, I am firmly in the social model of disability camp; and recognise that the notion of a genetic component to madness can be controversial. It is without doubt the case that most distress in terms of ‘mental health’ is a consequence of social and political factors. Nevertheless, ‘merry men’ did keep cropping up in my family research; and who knows, the etymology of ‘merry’ might be a clue – perhaps the first of my ancestors with the name was both merry and mad?
To give one example. I managed to get back many generations to a very minor member of the aristocracy who had a small estate on the Welsh–English border. It is a given that the nobility have rather more latitude to be a bit bonkers that the rest of us, and with impunity; but this guy was a humdinger. There is a significant amount of information about him in the local press at the time, due to his considerable eccentricities. For instance, when he remarried (his first wife had died some years earlier, and was in the mausoleum of the local church) he employed the services of a locally renowned healer, known as the Pythoness of Chester, in an attempt to resurrect his first wife and establish a ménage a trois with his (one assumes) less than ecstatic new bride.
More recently, my uncle Wynn took his own life in his thirties after some disastrously manic business decisions. Rather younger than his three siblings, he was a ‘special surprise’ for his doting parents. An astonishingly attractive person, and the life and soul of every party. He was a bear of a man, and had been a champion weightlifter. He died when I was in my early teens, so most of my memories are from the 1970s. Wynn was extremely stylish according to the fashions of the time. I recall him at a family event looking like an extra from Saturday Night Fever, in a white suit with bell bottoms, patent leather shoes, lots of gold bling, and a bushy moustache that many male porn stars of the time would have killed for. He ran a very successful business, part of which involved driving lorries to outdoor markets, where he would sell large bags of frozen misshaped fish fingers.
On one occasion he dropped in unexpectedly to see my mum (his sister), and while they caught up over a gin and tonic, he gave me and my sister a bin bag of one-pound notes to play with from his market takings. With some delight, we spent the afternoon chucking the cash around the house like confetti. Usually though he turned up not in a van but a sports car: Porsches, Lamborghinis, and others over the years. He also owned a small plane and had a pilot’s licence. On one occasion he took me, my sister and our cousin out for a joy ride in the plane; which included several almost certainly illegal manoeuvres, including flying very low over my Aunt’s house in Grimsby so we could all wave at her out of the window. Shortly after this trip the plane developed a fault and Wynne was obliged to crash land it in a field in Lincolnshire. It was eaten by cows before it could be retrieved for repair.
But my favourite story about Wynn is when he came, unexpectedly, to join a family holiday in Menorca. My mum and her sister had booked a chalet; and me, my sister and cousin had been there for some days. It was not unusual for Wynn to just appear, magically, like the shop keeper in Mr Benn; but on this occasion he faced some challenges. He knew which resort we were in, but had no idea exactly where we were staying (this is well before internet access or mobile phones). So his strategy was to go to every bar and restaurant he could find (probably having a drink in each, we are a boozy family); where he charmed the proprietors, and asked if they had seen “Two fat English ladies with three small bambinos?” He found us within the hour. The photograph (of me on Wynn’s shoulders) is from that holiday, and is deeply cherished.
Wynn had a string of beautiful, glamorous, and intelligent girlfriends. Ultimately he found the most beautiful, glamorous and witty of them all, my Aunty Janet, and promptly married her. They had a son Oliver, who is also my godson (mainly because I was a chorister at the time, and thus the only member of the extended family who had darkened a church door for quite some years). Oliver developed bipolar in adulthood, and has too experienced some of its pleasures and pains. A highly accomplished tennis player and coach, he also undertakes considerable amounts of mental health related advocacy, especially in relation to the prevention of male suicide.
So whether bipolar on not (and I resist labels) there have been very many merry men in my family. A friend once asked me if I could magically wave a wand, and not have bipolar, what would I do? The answer is unequivocal. I would retain my mania, and my depression; because they are part of who I am. I have recently co-edited the third in a trilogy of academic books, each of which was organised around a central metaphor. What my contributors did not know (although some of them guessed – nicknaming me Trickster and Pied Piper), is that in each case the genesis of the central idea was a direct consequence of me being hypomanic: when creativity flows as if after a flood; when there is urgent synchronicity between ideas; and when my beautiful mind is at its most incandescent. Merry indeed.
Joel Petrie has worked in post compulsory education as a lecturer, teacher educator, manager and trade unionist for longer than he cares to admit. He is currently completing an Educational Doctorate at Huddersfield University on leadership in FE. He recently co-edited (with Maire Daley and Kevin Orr) Caliban’s Dance: FE after the Tempest
This is a sample article from Asylum 28.1 [Spring 2021]. Subscribe to Asylum Magazine.