Delusions. How becoming a comedian got me the correct diagnosis for my mental health condition.

Below is a link to a short ten minute interview I did recently with the BBC regarding my new Fringe comedy show. And below that is an excerpt from the same show. It’s all pretty much how about I was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia when I was 24 and how by becoming a comedian, mental health services arrived at the correct diagnosis of me being  Bipolar One. The show runs in Edinburgh from the 4th -29th. You can get more details from the image above. 

BBC interview on mental health.

OUCH.

HOW BECOMING A COMEDIAN GOT ME THE CORRECT DIAGNOSIS FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH CONDITION.

Hello, my name is John and for the past thirteen years I’ve been a professional Stand Up comedian. Also during those years I was a person who was diagnosed with schizophrenia which was then changed to the correct diagnosis of being Bi-Polar One. So there’s a lot get through here. I am aware Bi-Polar comedians are quite common now. I was thinking of getting us all together, forming a jazz band and calling ourselves Mood Swings.

So I’m here to tell a story about how becoming a comedian was actually a big factor in me getting the correct diagnosis and then correct treatment for my disability.
So, the reason I chose to do a show at The Fringe about my experiences came about because one night I found myself doing a show with other comedians about mental health and I came to realise that I’ve had experiences that aren’t that common to many of the things you’ll normally hear about mental health. My condition can induce psychosis and delusions, which is why at age 24 I was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the 90s when I was diagnosed you were either schizophrenic or you were Bi Polar. There wasn’t much in-between. But there’s also a thing called Schizoaffective Disorder and it wasn’t until as recently as 2013 that it was acknowledged this can affect Bi Polar people also. Prior to that change in assessment we are told there was “excessive misdiagnosis”. At least that’s what Wikipedia says and who dares challenge them. I also agree with that. On another note people like me take up less than one percent of the population. This makes me feel kind of special.

You see I never developed many of the symptoms associated with schizophrenia. I never had the most common one which is auditory hallucinations; I never heard voices, which is the most common sign and must be an awful thing to endure. And the voices can say terrible things which can on very rare occasions lead to something bad happening. Like an attack or something. Sometimes people think God is telling them to do things.

This always makes me wonder…why does God never say anything sensible to the mentally ill…like…

“Hello, this is God…maybe it’s time you tidied the house? You’re looking a bit anxious, perhaps you should give your mum a phone…have you ever thought about switching to a cheaper energy supplier?”

But these bad events are rare. We’re more of a danger to ourselves than anyone else. Although I am aware at moments when talking about such stuff I may look a bit like Steve Irwin going, “You know what…Stingrays are really misunderstood.”

I’ve also suffered delusions. Bipolar delusions can often feel like you have special powers or are on a special mission. For us just watching an X – Man movie can sometimes lead to a trip to the doctor.

I was raised in a religious background so that would come to the fore when my health was poor. I would actually think things like Hell was real. Which is bloody terrifying. And when the delusion wore off my sense of relief was palpable. I’d be thinking, “Thank heavens that’s over. And thank the Lord I’m only Church of Scotland. Had I been raised a good catholic boy I might never have snapped out of that!”

Thing is we all have delusions to a certain degree don’t we? I see just now that young Millennials have a bit of an obsession with all things Unicorns. People are putting colour in their hair and glitter in their beard and dressing up for fantasy conventions. Thing is…if I was a young person with no chance of a house, working a zero hours contract, for minimum wage for seventy hours a week…I’d pretend I was a bloody Unicorn as well. That’s what a delusion is. It’s just your brain needing to get away from it all for a bit.

But as I mentioned Bipolar delusions are a bit different in that we can think we have special powers and are on a special mission. Special powers, special mission. Yeah…kind of reminds you of a certain Donald Trump.

And a lot of my new show does bring into question the idea of who’s really deluded. I mean, I’m mad so I’ve got an excuse. But right now it feels like half the planet is deluded. It’s as if the world has been taken over by a bunch of shite James Bond villains. The most powerful man in the world is a Wotsit coloured used car salesman. I think we’re starting to realise that “because it would be a great laugh” was not a good reason to make him president. People say we should respect Trump because he’s a self-made millionaire…Yeah but he started out a billionaire.

Another thing that seriously aggravated my condition was when I was younger is that I was addicted to smoking cannabis. Lots of it. Regardless of your viewpoint on drugs they are there to alter your judgement. We were the rave generation and we could be a bit reckless. We used to drug drive. Well, my mate Jimmy would drive and I’d roll the entertaining cigarettes. It does affect judgement. I remember once looking up and saying, “Jimmy we’re going to hit a tree…Eventually…There’s a tree Jimmy it’s right in the middle of the road…Oh no…hang on it’s the air freshener.” So don’t drug drive kids. These days I generally feel there’s nothing in life that’s worth achieving that can be improved in any way by a stimulant.

So how did becoming a comedian help change things? Well when I started out in comedy I was without treatment. I had been taken off all meds, there were now questions on my diagnosis, but nobody would come forward and say what they really thought it was. At that point it was really hard to get a diagnosis changed.  So then I started getting up on stages and telling everybody about it. Now what sort of person does that? I’m lucky in that I have a condition that can actually become profitable.

Eventually I started researching Bi-Polar disorder because even though at times delusional I was aware many of my behaviours were beyond average. One day I phoned The Scottish Bi-Polar helpline. As I was telling the woman on the other end of line about myself I happened to mention I did a bit of stand up. The woman says, “Oh I like a bit of comedy do you ever play Glasgow?” I said, yes I was just there a couple of weeks ago. Then she asked, “Hang on do you go under a stage name?” And at that time I did. I used to use the name John Littlejohn. And then the helpline woman said, “I saw you two weeks ago. You are definitely Bi-polar.” Wow. I actually wish other comedians would phone some mental health helplines, “Hello, this is Jack Whitehall I think I might be deluded.” “Nah mate you’re just a tit.”

Also during this period my Bipolar behaviour was impacting on everyone around me.  There’s a thing called hypomania. The term means less than mania. You’re not delusional with hypomania. Some of its affects are positive. You become creative with a lot of productivity and energy. But it can also make you aggressive and short of temper. I was never physically aggressive but my girlfriend at the time could often get verbal stress and aggression from me. “Everything is wrong, the house is a mess, the cats done a poo…And it’s all your fault.”

So I went and got some literature on Bipolar to help her understand why I was being like this. Thing is she came home from work one day and off I went, “Everything is wrong, the house is a mess, the cat’s done a poo…” then I went, “Oh hang on I’m doing it again! Wait there I’ve got a leaflet.” Then I ran off to get the leaflet and gave it to her to read, also apologising on return.

On other nights my hypomania could keep me awake all night. Eventually I decided to visit the local psychiatric hospital and see if they could help in any way. So I turned up on their doorstep at two in the morning…as you do. Eventually a ward manager came to see me. I told them my symptoms and they asked if I could hang on for a bit. After about an hour they came back with another ward manager and a consultant and said, “John we know who you are. We know you do comedy…there is no way you can be suffering paranoid schizophrenia and do the job you do.” I replied, “Exactly, I mean if I was in a permanent state of paranoia I’d just be up there going what’s everybody laughing at?”

Then they said. “You’re definitely Bipolar and it imperative we get this sorted out immediately.” Finally I thought. I’m to get the help I need…and eighteen months later I did.

Yeah that’s how long it took. It turned out to be quite tricky to get a diagnosis changed. At one point I visited the local GP because my condition was acting up, and he didn’t believe I was a comedian. He actually thought I was being delusional again. Thankfully at that point I had my secret weapon. The same girlfriend I mentioned told me to gather up my entire collection of press clipping. I had a whole folder of them. And she escorted me to a meeting with the same GP. So I showed him my reviews (not the bad ones obviously, I’m not totally mad) Then my girlfriend asked if she could speak to the GP alone for five minutes. To this day I’ve no idea what she said to him. But when I went back in the room he’d gone all kind of meek and insisted I was definitely Bipolar and it was imperative we get this sorted out immediately. Two weeks later a consultant changed my diagnosis and I started to receive treatment which eventually made me well again. Although even as the consultant was agreeing to change my diagnosis he actually said to me, “This Bipolar is a very serious condition you know. You’ll be registered as disabled, are you sure you want that?”

I replied, “Well trust me on the odd occasion I’ve run about telling everyone I’m Jesus, I’ve never really felt I should be allowed to operate heavy machinery.”

I no longer have that girlfriend in these stories any more…Now she’s my wife. I can’t go on too much about how much she means to me because I start to well up. Just trust we are very happy.

Tell you what though…Schizophrenia? I wouldn’t want to catch it again.

 

Metafiction, Kurt Vonnegut and The Turner Prize.

I previously posted a play here (RAW A RESPONSE PLAY) that uses Metafiction a lot in the script. This was a first stab at something like this and I’ve only just realised how much I was being influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and his book Breakfast of Champions. I genuinely thought at the time I was doing it because of my experience as a comic…

Here’s what Wikipedia says about Metafiction.

 “Breakfast of Champions makes heavy use of Metafiction, with Vonnegut appearing as the narrator/creator of the work, explaining why and how he makes this world as it is, changing things when and as he sees fit, and even being surprised by events.”

In no way am I claiming I’m in the same league as Kurt Vonnegut. I’m posting this because I’m surprised how much I’d appropriated his style unconsciously. I haven’t read much of his work and haven’t read Breakfast of Champions in about 15 years, although I feel another reading may be on the cards soon.

Suicide, free will, mental illness, and social and economic cruelty are the main themes of Breakfast of Champions so you’d be surprised to find it’s also one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

In the book is a character called Rabo Karabekian who is an artist who has sold an abstract work called The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Here’s a fictional image of a fictional painting. temptation-of-st-anthony

Although he’s not a main character my favourite part of the book comes when Rabo has to justify the money spent on his work to a group of angry and cynical towns folk. He says…

“I now give you my word of honor,” he went on, “that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

There we go. Now you’re looking at it from a new perspective. Which is what most art is about.

Now here’s one of the new entries for the Turner prize.

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Looking at this you may come to the conclusion that the Turner Prize has reached its natural conclusion and disappeared up its own. But the point is this bit of art is by the artist, Anthea Hamilton, who has enlarged it from a design by Gaetano Pesce for a New York apartment block, to which it would have been a doorway (a back entrance, so to speak) for social housing tenants.

And now you have another perspective. No other great point to make here. And so it goes…

John gets mad. Bi Polar tales 3. Bad behaviours.

Some stories from a new show I’m doing on mental health.

A friend of mine who is recently single asked me one night. “John did you ever have a longer period in your life when you were single? And was it all right.”  I told them yes I had and no it wasn’t that great. It was over a 5 year period when I’d been misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s never a great icebreaker. It reminds me of that daft valentines poem. “Roses are red violets are blue. I’m a schizophrenic and so am I.”

So not schizophrenic but this was a period in my life when I was self medicating with dope a lot which gave me drug induced psychosis. Drug psychosis is a lot more common that you think.  David Bowie had it in the 70s. At one point he was so off it he thought his backing singers were a coven of witches. It would have been some show if for an encore he came running on with a mob insisting we burn them at the stake.

The best Bowie story of that period was the night he thought he’d been ripped of by a cocaine dealer. So he went out looking for him in his car. Eventually he thought he saw the dealers car at a garage. Then he thought the best plan of action would be to start ramming it with his own car. But it wasn’t the coke dealer it was just a young German couple who sat there looking stunned as David Bowie kept ramming them over and over. Scary enough to have someone ram you as you’re sitting having a snog. But then to turn around and realise it’s David Bowie. “Holy Scheisse Helga. Ve ist being attacked by A lad insane.” Eventually Bowie realised his error. Got out, apologised to them, handed them a pile of money then drove of into the night.You don’t get that stuff from ther winner of X-factor. A lot of people say X Factor has destroyed the spirit of rock and roll, but that’s rubbish every time it comes on I’m ready to throw my telly right out the window.

A lot of folk don’t understand what addiction is. So I’ll try to explain it via a story. One night me and a mate did get ripped of and got sold some Ritalin instead of ecstasy. The medication they  use to pacify disruptive children. We knew not long after it definitely wasn’t E. As we were feeling weird.  So what did we do? That’s right take some more. Later in the night we decided to go for some groceries. Well once they managed to get me up off the naughty step. Thing is as we decided this I’d just made myself a cup of tea. So I thought, bugger it I’ll take it with me. When we got to the supermarket at 2 in the morning a security guard stopped me and said, “Oi! Is that alcohol in that cup?” I said, “No mate it’s tea.” He replied, “Tea? Where you going with that.” I said “Where do you think…the biscuit isle.”

I’ve embarrassed myself many times in those day. worse one? I reckon that would be one morning at a friends house after a particularly bonkers night on the Rave. My mate had gone out and his wife had just up and gone into the shower. As soon as she got in there I felt my stomach shifting. It felt like there was about 2 litres of pure liquid diarrhoea rushing through me like mercury. There was no ifs about it any second I was going to explode out of me and complete transform my tie dye jeans. I had no idea what I was going to do…and then I spotted the cat litter tray. There was nothing else for it. If you saw what came out of me it looked like Id been on a diet of cabbage and cough medicine. Not a minute too soon as my mates wife came into the kitchen. I just stood there with the tray and said, “I really think your cat might be quite unwell.”

 

  

 

John Gets Mad. Bi-Polar Tales 2. Introductions and so who’s really mad?

Here’s another part of a new stand up show I’m putting together on mental health…

I was actually really reluctant to do this at first because unlike physical disability mental health still carries a lot of stigma. Mind you we’re getting to a stage now where comedy audiences at least are starting to go, “Oh…another Bi-Polar comedian…that’s original.”

It’s fair to say there are a few of us out there. I was thinking of gathering us all together, forming a jazz band and calling ourselves Mood Swings.

I actually get quite jealous of the physically Disabled. They get an entire Olympics. We get a Stephen Fry documentary every ten years.

When Stephen did that first documentary on Bi-Polar. I watched it and was gobsmacked to see we both had the same psychiatrist. I though, “Well I’ve not had his comedy career, but when it comes to shit mental health I’m up there with the elites.”

I do love the Paralympics and trying to figure out what the fuck is going on at times. One night I tuned in I genuinely thought they were having a three legged race. It turned out to be the blind sprinting. They have a guide running beside them. One guy was actually disqualified because the guide was hauling him along. Mind you he was strapped to Usain Bolt. Poor guy was screaming “Help! I think I’ve be tied to a Cheetah.”

Saying that, those guys don’t get it easy either. Now that the Paralympics is over I’m sure they’ve all been declared fit for work and sent to do time in some Mike Ashley style workhouse.

My Bi-polar is a bit different from Stephen Fry’s. He’s Bi-Polar Two I’m Bi-Polar One. Not that I’m saying here…Hey! My Bi-Polar is better than yours. Mines has gold epaulettes, brass buttons and is here to save the planet. Although being the centre of the world is a common delusion of BP 1. It’s not until the finally get you into a psyche ward that you realise, “The Masons are after me.” is quite a common delusion among the mentally ill. Which initially doesn’t help. “What is this place? They’ve managed to catch you as well? Is this some kind of holding facility for those that know the truth?”

You meet people with other mental illnesses as well. I feel for the schizophrenics. Bi-Polar is quite trendy now but those guys get bad press. Sadly it’s a condition where very rarely AND IT IS VERY RARE something bad happens and someone gets hurt. Saying that if Katie Hopkins is ever to go on QI could we maybe get the Yorkshire Ripper as guest host.

Those guys have auditory hallucinations. They hear voices. That must be absolutely awful. What gets me is the voices seem to tell them to do bad things like kill the neighbours. Why do they never say sensible things like, “Hey, maybe it’s time you tidied the house….Feeling a bit anxious? Perhaps you should give your mum a phone…or hey this is God. Have you ever thought about switching to a cheaper energy supplier.”

But you tell me…Who’s really mad. Those with delusions in a made up world or those with delusions in the real world? That’s right we’re about to make someone like Donald Trump the most powerful man on the planet. He shows all the characteristics of a psychopath and you folks think that’s a vote winner. People were surprised recently when he showed some concern for Hilary Clintons health. Yeah but we never saw that on camera. He issued a statement. I can guarantee there was some fucker putting a gun to his head going, “Just say the fucking words on the paper.”

We have our own deluded type in this country. The Working class Tory. What the fuck is that? You know what that is…remember those missionaries who used to head up the jungle, meet a tribe of cannibals and go Hey we’ve got some new friends and they’ve invited us to dinner. All the time not realising they’re on the fucking menu. That’s what a working class Tory is.

So you tell me. Who’s mad?

 

John Gets Mad. Bi-Polar tales 1. (Don’t be a pain in the arse.)

I’m soon going to do a new show based around experiences of mental illness called John Scott Gets Mad. The things I post here are first ideas of what will be in it.

There’s a fair bit of hippy dippy thinking out there that goes along the lines of, “oh but if you take a medication for your mental health problem you’re not addressing the problem you’re just masking it.”

Look the condition I have is genetic. It requires treatment but is also very treatable. If it rains you put on a coat. It’s the Same idea when taking a treatment. Of course you get whack jobs like Scientologist Tom Cruise who claims all mental health treatments are the work of the Devil. Perhaps Tom if you took a pill you might have a moment of reflection on your double divorces and come to terms with the fact that your gay.

Saying that, having a mental health disability isn’t an excuse for being a pain in the arse. Or so my wife keeps telling me.

I once went on a tour to raise awareness on suicide in the highlands of Scotland. It’s really proportionally high up there. Lots of alcohol and access to shotguns.

The woman who organised the tour works with self harmers. She herself was a self harmer. She was also one of the rudest and more difficult of folks I’ve ever had to deal with. If she wasn’t trying to completely control everything we did she spent the rest of the time trying to convince us we were all self harmers. By the end of two weeks I was wondering why she had to self harm at all. I would have happily offered up a quick punch in the kidneys.

“Oh you bite your nails. That’s a sign of self harm. Oh you smoke. That’s self harm”…OK you got me there…”drink, that’s self harm”…Fuck you the reason I’m drinking is to get through the next week with you. The best one was, “If you were a Goth in the 80s there’s new evidence to suggest that’s self harm.” Are you kidding me? The reason I was a Goth in the 80s was because I liked to sleep with slightly over weight girls in fishnets. How can being a Goth be an illness when you’re in a band called The Cure???

But the biggest pain was the obsession she developed over the size of my luggage. Every day at regular intervals. “That case is TOO BIG. It’s too big for the Highlands. It’s TOO BIG for this tour.”

The reason my case was bigger than the other comics was they were all going home half way through. I was away for a full 12 days.

Eventually one night in a calmer moment everyone got to speaking about their families, partners and children. “Do you have any children John?” She enquired. “Yes I’ve got three.” I replied. “Oh really? That surprises me.”

“Oh..Well I should explain none of them are mine…no they’re all in that big fucking case I’m dragging around the place.”

 

Living successfully with Bi-polar 1.

Living Successfully with Bi-Polar 1.

I wrote this blog several months ago then didn’t publish it. The stigma issues connected to such stuff were still very much to the fore of my concerns. Since then something happened that changed my viewpoint dramatically. I chose to perform a half hour of comedy about my condition for the mental health charity Mind. I told a good 30 minutes worth of very personal anecdotes about my experience. It turned out to be very funny and deeply cathartic. Perhaps the same effect someone may get from an AA meeting. At the end of the show I met several other service users who thanked me for sharing my experiences. I’m now in the process of writing a one hour show to be performed this October about my life with Bi-Polar 1 which is brutally frank and hopefully as funny. Re-reading this article I find it still quite guarded compared to how I talk about the condition now just a few months later. I’ll publish some of the stories when I get them down on this blog. But in the meantime this serves as a bit of a po-faced synopsis of what’s to come. I look forward to getting it out there.       

“In truth I’m never keen to talk about this on a public forum. However, after recently watching Stephen Fry’s documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive AND meeting a young woman recently diagnosed with the condition I felt compelled to publish something. If it helps one person then that’s of use.”

I had my first episode of Bi-Polar symptoms around the age of 24. I’d not long split from a long term relationship and was self-medicating and smoking a lot of cannabis. At the time it kicked in I was at collage one day when in I became delusional and paranoid. I was convinced criminals were out to get me and that people were conspiring against me. This is all very common symptoms of Bi-Polar.

At the time a lot was being written about direct links between schizophrenia and cannabis and I feel this really contributed to a misdiagnosis. I spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. I was then for the next 6 years treated for schizophrenia which in the end turned out to be very detrimental to my health. I can’t really recall the various treatments I was given but I lost those six years. I felt as if I was in some kind of bubble, detached from people and the world.

As time moved on I began to read up on schizophrenia and Bi Polar disorder and began to realise I wasn’t showing any signs of schizophrenia but was showing all the signs of a Bi-Polar disorder. Eventually one day I phoned a Bi Polar helpline and something really quite unbelievable happened. For anybody that follows my blog you’ll know I’m a professional comedian. It’s how I earn my living. So I rang this helpline and got talking to a woman on the line. I told her about myself when she interjected and asked, “You say you’re a comedian. Were you on in Glasgow this weekend.” I replied that yes I was. The woman then told me, “John I saw you this weekend and spoke to you. You are in my opinion 100% Bi Polar and its very important we get this diagnosis changed and get you the correct treatment.”

It then took almost a year of arguing with consultants etc to get the right treatment and diagnosis. It turned out that once a “professional” gives you a label it can take a hell of a lot of battling to get that opinion turned over.

Eventually I started getting more appropriate treatment and immediately began to feel better and enjoyed a couple of years of relatively “normal” life. But it never truly went away. It just receded for a bit.

Still now feeling better things began to improve in my life. I met and fell in love with the woman who is now my wife. I began to get on the bottom rungs of a career in the comedy industry. I’d stopped self-medicating with cannabis. (I haven’t touched the stuff in about 13 years)

The condition wasn’t quite done with me yet. About 3 years into my relationship I began to suffer some terrible stress at work and eventually another really big episode kicked in. I experienced full blown elations and delusions and frightening paranoia. Then my delusions turned more to a notion that my soul was destined for Hell. Those were terrifying delusions. Just stop and think for a minute what it would be like to believe that a place like Hell was actually real.

My health went up and down over the next few years and from the years 2006-2008 I entered my absolute worse period. Delusions were happening on an almost weekly basis. I was crippled by the condition and finding all kinds of social stimulus almost impossible. I was terrified I was going to burn out and the condition would be the end of me. I’d read once that only around 15% of people with Bi Polar 1 actually manage to function in the real world. Somehow in amongst this I managed to keep working. It was the hardest struggle of my life.

In desperation I one day again handed myself in to psychiatric services and it was decided a new treatment should be tried. That’s when I went onto Seroquel. It pretty much saved my life, my relationship and my sanity. I responded to it fast. I remember 6 weeks in turning up at my consultants office and asking, “What is this? The delusions are gone. The crippling depression is gone too. I remember this feeling. This is what it is to feel normal.”

I’ve been very well for 6 years now. I have a life I’m very happy with. I’ve worked as a professional comedian and writer for 13 years now. I’ve been with my partner for almost 16 years. I’m off to do a degree in Script writing this year at university. Trust me the condition isn’t gone, but the point I’m here to make is it is VERY treatable. So if you’re out there experiencing a bad day with it today remember there is a tomorrow.

Years ago the notion was put to me that geneticists are now heading towards the gene that causes the condition and may be able to eradicate it. If I could live over again would I have my own Bi Polar taken out of my life? I had to think long and hard about that and eventually concluded no. If it wasn’t for the condition, despite the entire struggle, I wouldn’t be who I am and living the life I do today.

For all the detriment this condition causes I believe there are some great plus signs. One being that Bi Polar people experience everything just that wee bit more acutely/intensely than others. From listening to music, watching a film, enjoying other people or looking at the patterns the rain makes on a window. We have an intense appreciation of the good things…and yes the bad.

Focus on the good. Some things this condition gives us are gifts. And always remember it is treatable. Maybe not today but definitely tomorrow.