Q&A Interview Life with Bipolar disorder
Bipolar disorder is a condition which affects your mood, causing you to swing from one extreme to the other. People with bipolar can experience periods of extreme highs, before falling into deep depressions. During these episodes, it can be incredibly difficult to function and to communicate what is being felt. It is believed that around 2.4 million people in the UK alone, suffer with bipolar disorder. To find out more about bipolar and how to access support, check out the NHS website here.
Ellice Stevens is a comedy actress and writer who lives with bipolar, and is the subject of filmmaker Dorothy Allen-Pickard's powerful short documentary 'The Mess'. In this film, Ellice candidly describes her experiences with this difficult disorder - highlighting both the good times and more difficult ones with incredible honesty.
Am I Normal spoke to both Ellice and Dorothy about their decision to make this film, and about why being able to openly discuss bipolar is so important.
Dorothy, your short documentary ‘The Mess’ represents the ups and downs of bipolar. Why did you feel this was an important subject to approach?
I think it’s really important that we keep on talking about mental health issues, whether it’s in conversation with our friends or on screen, and thankfully there’s attention being given to this subject now more than ever. What particularly interested me when making this film was the challenge of trying to find a visual language that explores the specificities of bipolar as something that’s distinct from depression and other mental illnesses. I also think there’s a great potential to use the film medium to explore mental illness, because you can create visual metaphors (e.g. holding your breath underwater) and layer dialogue over music, which helps to create a sense of someone’s mental state.
Do you think that there is enough general awareness surrounding bipolar?
Ellice: Generally speaking, no, although I think there’s more awareness around mental health as a whole, with things like Mental Health Awareness Week. But it feels like people often treat mental health as being synonymous to depression and anxiety and there isn’t a lot being said specifically about bipolar. There are some really great people who use their platform to speak about mental illness, such as Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, and the late Carrie Fisher, but generally I’d say people don’t really know what it is. As someone who suffers with it, you can feel like you’re battling with stigmas that other people think are truths.
Dorothy: As well as the general public, I think medical research has a long way to go in order for doctors and psychiatrists to be even better informed, so they can properly diagnose their patients and give them the right medication.
Ellice: I was first diagnosed with depression and was on anti-depressants for 5 years, then when I started having a really bad year I found out they were actually making it worse. So because of a misdiagnosis I was rapid cycling, moving really quickly from high to low, hallucinating and having panic attacks.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about bipolar?
Ellice: For me the biggest one is that when people think about bipolar they think about rapid cycling as if it is only that. Whereas a lot of people don’t realise that people with bipolar can be ‘normal’ for long periods of time and can definitely have a sense of normality. After we made the film I had people coming up to me saying ‘I never knew you had bipolar, it was never 'obvious’ and it’s like ‘Well of course not, because when I was having my manic days or my low days I wasn’t going to call you up and ask you to go for a coffee!’
Dorothy: I think the idea that people who are ‘mentally unstable’, particularly people with bipolar and schizophrenia, are in some way dangerous, or not to be trusted is really damaging and a big misconception. This idea is propagated in films that depict antagonists as always having either a mental illness or a physical impairment. The reality is that someone with mental health issues is much more likely to inflict harm on themselves than other people.
Ellice: It’s interesting, I’ve realised that the people who think I’m most dangerous tend to be employers, because they question whether I’ll be able to go to work everyday. That makes your mental health even worse because you’re then anxious that you won’t be able to keep a job and pay your rent.
Ellice, did this film allow you to express yourself in a way that you may have otherwise not been able to?
Yes it did. When Dorothy and I first started talking about it, it was in a very specific context of talking about my experience of mental health. As I said, I was diagnosed with depression and was on medication for five years. I felt like I became very good about talking about it and letting people in. I had a language that made me feel like I owned it. So when my diagnosis changed I suddenly felt like I couldn’t talk about it because I didn’t understand it. My mood was fluctuating and for a very long time I was rapid cycling. This project was definitely about Dorothy and I coming together to create a space in which I could find a language and gain ownership over it, and without the film I would never have done that, so yes.
Do you have any personal advice for teens experiencing bipolar?
Ellice: You’re normal! When I first started going to counselling as a teenager the counsellor suggested I might have bipolar, and when I mentioned it to my doctor I was told that it was irresponsible of the counsellor to have mentioned it, because I was probably a teenager having mood swings. So it might feel like you’re constantly up against people who are using your age as a way to make you feel illegitimate in what you’re going through. Try not to listen to that and just try to enjoy the good things. When you’re really low or really high and you feel like you lose control don’t forget that you’re not alone and that other people are going through it too.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Dorothy: We run a company together called Breach Theatre, along with Billy Barrett and we’re working on a multimedia show called The Drill that will be out early next year. I’m also in the early stages of working on a short documentary about football and religion, and also a short fiction with an all drag king cast.
Ellice: Also, we realised after making 'The Mess' that the majority of the time we were laughing and I think for about 5 minutes I was crying and all the crying has made it into the film. So, we’ve decided to do some joke stuff instead and we’re going to film some sketches to show that we do have a sense of humour!
Dorothy: We’re going to do an all-women web series!
Ellice on what 'normal' means to her...
I think the ‘normal’ me is just who I am at my very core. The 'normal' Ellice is the Ellice who has really good friends and likes to joke and finds toilet humour funny and can get out of bed and can really enjoy being alive. When I slip into mania or depression, knowing that I’ll always return to the ‘normal’ me keeps me going, even if sometimes it’s really hard to remember that.
If you would like more help and advice on bipolar, check out the Channel 4 support page