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On the Level: Bill’s Story

The following is the first chapter of a book I’m working on with Bill Fitzgerald. This book is Bill’s account of the experience of being diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, hosptialised involuntarily and the many years of work and dedication to recovery that have led him to a level of successful life and work that many thought would be impossible for him. The following are his words, edited and added to in places to help him get his story across.

I suffered useless pain for a long, long time. Indulgent and over- romanticized, my pain was useless to me and contagious to those around me. I continued in this way for nearly 20 years, with the thought, “If only they knew. If only they knew what was happening to me… they would find out and fix it!” This thought rolled like film in my head. Unfortunately, rather than being rescued, I fell deeper and deeper down the hole until I spent every day wishing I was dead for a period of months.

Early 1997

 It started after a relationship breakdown. I was 22. 

I had started going out with Alice* during my 2nd year at University College Cork (UCC). I had moved there from my small hometown of Thurles in Tipperary to study for a BSc in Food Technology. She was studying Arts. A friend introduced us. I genuinely couldn’t believe it when she more or less asked me out over lunch in the canteen. That night I gave her a key to my apartment in the students’ residence for her to come back to me after going out with friends. We just hit it off from the start. Our relationship lasted 4 years and covered many ups and downs, including periods of summer separation in other countries and even seeing other people. But, when we finally broke for good, I couldn’t handle it. I was used to getting my own way, I guess, and the thought of the relationship going pear-shaped never really occurred to me.

*some pseudonyms have been used

I still remember every song from that period. Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak my Heart” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” Every time I heard those songs I felt like I was in a video or a movie and people would understand. In my mind they would put two and two together and say, “Bill what’s wrong? Why are you like this?”  and I would explain that I was heartbroken and by magic I would go back to being that person I was beforehand. This never happened. People get tired and sick of depressed people very quickly. It’s just the way it is and, under controlled circumstances, maybe it’s the way it should be.

I didn’t understand mood. Back then, to me, a mood was on\off like a light switch. It was either happy or sad and these usually revolved around going out, being with a girl or some extension of the two. I wasn’t ever ‘happy in myself’ as the saying goes. It would take me more than 20 years from my lowest ebb to really find this feeling. The feeling where you have an average day, make some food , watch some average TV and go to bed reading and studying on a Monday night and are happy. I never had this. I always associated it with boredom. No one told me any different. 

After the breakup, I felt I had nothing underneath. I missed my ex so much and had to live in the same city as her. I had moved there to be with her.  It was all so much… the thinking, the dreaming. My bed became more than a bed to me, it became my playground, my sanctuary, my heaven and I would use it earlier and earlier. From 8pm I would go to bed, to dream, to hide and remember better days. Days when I had everything I wanted and the glimmer of potential would shine out all around me. Days when everything worked out where I had my ex in the bed up by the students’ residence. Where I was able to talk about the future and I didn’t have to face it…

I would wake up at 2am to smoke, then sleep till 5am and smoke again. I was barely eating. Mam said that I would lose the use of my muscles. My parents are great people, particularly in a crisis. They have given me more than I can ever repay. But no one was able to grasp me by the neck and tell me what to do. That’s what I badly needed. I had to struggle through, in different jobs where I didn’t say a word, performed badly and hated every single day. People get sick of you when you’re depressed. I would be silent in the pub for hours. It wasn’t me. I would get down and cry at my baby picture and graduation picture at how much potential I had had and what I should be doing….I thought of suicide often, what my funeral would look like, the look on my family and friends’ faces…..It was all very self-indulgent….it was hopeless. I remember going to play football and getting a lift and thinking how easy it would be to take the steering wheel and drive us all into a wall. To get to a point where I no longer have those thoughts the process would have to be a painful one. Back then, September 1997, it took my Grandmother, Nanny Fitz, to pass away before I realised just how much I needed to change.

It was around the time that Lady Diana had died. When I was at the funeral several of her neighbours remarked how she was like Diana. When one of my Uncles collapsed at the funeral I realised that I was heading the same way. At the time my Uncle Tony had always been seen as vulnerable, yet it was my Uncle Willie (RIP) who collapsed, and something inside just grabbed me and said,  “No more, Billy. Get your act together”.

Since graduating in 1996 I had spent the previous few months working in food companies. I did not enjoy working night shifts. It was depressing. It made me even more depressed. I was using my reputation to recover. By this I mean it was easier at home in Thurles than in some place I wasn’t known. People knew me as Billy Fitz, it just made it easier and more bearable when I wasn’t that version of myself right now. It allowed me the breathing space to think about it and, in so doing, the space to change. After this I started a strict diet and exercise regime. Unlike most changes, this change happens quickly and is never really picked up on by those who aren’t close to you.

Carlow, September 1997

It was all over the news. The Oakpark plot in Clonmel had been raided and most of the research sugarbeet had been destroyed. An unlikely Six One news headline story. I was due to go for an interview there soon. I had gotten over the great depression, or so it seemed. I did well in the interview but because my results were erratic at best in University, I still needed to be Pat Fitzgerald’s son in order to get work there. Dad had gone to UCD (University College Dublin) on scholarship and also to the University of California in Davis to do a Masters. He was high up in An Foras Taluntais (the Irish Institute for agricultural research), with a reputation as an influential scientist and sugar beet geneticist. He even contributed to EU legislation on sugar beet and also travelled widely in Europe between 1967 and 1968 visiting Sweden, Romania, France and Denmark, among other countries, which at the time wouldn’t have been too common. So his endorsement carried a lot of sway in sugar beet research.

This was 1997. Working in the sugar beet research laboratory at Oakpark was a big deal. There were two university graduates working there, myself and John. John had pull as well. He had worked on the previous 3 campaigns. Campaign? That type of thing meant nothing to me. But in Carlow it was to prove to be  a big deal. It would take me a long while, illness or no illness, to get over my time there, not least for embarrassing my Dad in an arena in which he was highly known and well thought of.

The story of Carlow’s sugar factory began in 1925. The War of Independence was over and Ireland had just been established as the Free State. It was very important at this time to develop successful industries to support the young economy. If the Irish government could create enough jobs for its own people, it would prove that the country could survive as an independent state. It was decided that sugar beet was an ideal crop to grow on an industrial scale. Carlow was selected as the location for the sugar factory because it is situated in a rich tillage area and sugar beet was a crop well suited to the local growing conditions. Additionally the surrounding counties of Kilkenny, Wexford, Laois and Kildare were important agricultural centres. Carlow also had good rail and waterway connections, so its produce could be conveniently transported around the country.

Carlow by 1997 had the last of the sugar factories. Thurles had closed along with Tuam and Mallow. Carlow was effectively the last man standing. The raids which had made the Six-One news were to do with genetically modified sugar beet which had been trialled with Monsanto (within a few years it was clear that this would never take off, but at the time it was a big deal for Oakpark and for Irish Sugar as a whole). But  this story isn’t about sugar beet. 

When I heard that I had the job I was thrilled. It was a good place for the CV and while it wasn’t Dublin, Carlow was a big town. Much more lively than Thurles. As towns went it was decent. It would more than do for a couple of months. They had cool pubs and nightclubs like Tullys, Dinn Ri and the Foundry. I was going to be back in action here surely. Sensitive Bill from the Great Depression was gone. Ego Bill had arrived and that was pretty much how I played it.

I had a lift from Thurles to Carlow for the first few weeks. I found a house soon after. It was handier and made sense. The owner (always a bad sign I would remark on later) who I was living with seemed chilled and appeared to be laidback. 

I started off at work with the rest of the guys. There was myself and John who both had university degrees but more importantly connections to get the work there. The majority of the guys had left school without their Leaving Certificate or had just always worked in the auxiliary services at Oakpark. They were very grateful to have the job. They were very respectful of everything and everyone. This didn’t sit too well with me if I am being honest. I found them a little too earnest for me. A little boring. Early 20s going on 50. The whole atmosphere there was really good, great food, it was a handy number. It’s still one of the nicest atmospheres I have ever worked in dotted amongst the multinationals and the tough environments I would later work in. I had graduated to team lead for weighing the sugar tare. I’ve a big smile on my face thinking of this as the work was located in a semi outdoor shed. It was monotonous as most labs invariably are. I could smoke during the job and generally try to put down the long day to see what was awaiting me at night in Carlow. The bright lights of Carlow beckoned.

My time in the first house lasted a few weeks. In hindsight (I had forgotten details as I never wanted to remember them) someone with a disordered mood, like I had then, will just about annoy the hell out of anyone who doesn’t. I was out on what I considered to be some “trumped up” charge, not locking the window around the back of the house. The housemate in question seemed to be similar to me in personality, or perhaps he was playing the part of a larger than life character. He was outgoing, positive , and worked as a sales rep, travelling all over Leinster. But he just couldn’t keep up with me and my chatting the whole time, and all my ideas on going out. After two weeks with me, he was a different man. He had completely gone into his shell. I guess he was made to feel a way that he didn’t want to feel, even though at the time I hadn’t fully blossomed into the fullness of the mood disorder spiral. It would be a few weeks away when I would taste mania for the first and last time.

Still, explaining to my parents that I was out of the house after a few weeks was a difficult one. I played mainly on the owner, he was at fault. I don’t think in hindsight that he was blameless either, but blaming him was just convenient for me at the time. In UCC I had lived with multiple sets of people in various student residences. I was good with new people. Looking back now with the cumulative nature of being depressed for 6 months it had taken its toll. I should have quit Carlow there and then and taken counselling for the issue. It’s a very hard thing to say in 2020, never mind 1997. I wouldn’t have agreed to do it then. Long term goals are often too far down the road to visualise or even feel. What do you do in situations like that? What is the solution?

I moved on within Carlow. Found new digs. A hostel for students. I was to last a few weeks there before being kicked out as well. Another ‘trumped up’ charge about leaving the oven on or something similar, which I didn’t accept at the time. I was out a few times a week. I had the smell of college times again. I no longer waited until Thursday night anymore. It was all about reliving college. I was good at the social things in college. It came easy to me. I’d had the brilliant idea of creating an account with a local taxi company to take me to work each day. It was only a mile to walk it. This was Carlow after all. One night I was getting ready to go out. It was a Thursday night, the biggest night out of the working week. I was getting on well with the hostel inhabitants at the time. It was pretty easy as I paid for beers when we were out. The night in question I booked 5 taxis to take the 23 of us from the hostel into Carlow town. It was my entourage. All in my own head. I must have thought I was quite the lad. It was all ego. One hundred percent ego and mania. I wasn’t a nice person at that time. I was arrogant, full of myself and had more than a few arguments with people at work. People at work who were kind and genuine and whom I just completely annoyed the fuck out of. That’s one thing I was very good at now. Annoying people.

During the end of the following week I developed urticaria (hives) all over my body. It happens when your body is under tremendous stress. I was out and about. Going to the gym every day. I had also asked a distant friend of my brother’s for a loan of 400 pounds. I hadn’t known him. He had recognised me out and we got chatting. With the urticaria I went home to convalesce but would never go back to Carlow. The taxi company would call in its debt when I was in hospital. It was pretty hefty, a few hundred. Everything was lost at that time. That was the worst thing. You can’t take the mood or the memories with you. It’s all forgotten. We only really remember people by how we meet them in that moment. I would be regretting a lot of those moments over the coming months and especially the coming years. They became a story for me to laugh about with no other advantage to them.

October 1997

I had recovered from the urticaria back home in Thurles and had decided to go down to Cork for the weekend. I wasn’t meeting anyone in particular. I just wanted to go there, where I had attended college. Carlow wasn’t great for the craic. I wanted to head out somewhere where I always enjoyed myself. I didn’t know Dublin at all and had no real history of going out there bar a few 21sts and nights out here and there. Cork was where it was at. I got the train from Thurles to Cork that Friday evening and if memory serves me I may have met a friend down Washington Street at first, but after that I was on my own. It didn’t bother me. For a while it had been building to this. I was great craic, people were attracted to how I talked and looked (I was very fit at that point, less than 10% body fat which for me was savage). It all just clicked. I had annoyed the guys at work. If someone was with me all day they wouldn’t last. Tangents, miscellaneous energy coming towards them. It was impossible not to feel smothered by it. Smothered and frustrated. I knew everything. I had an answer for everything. I went out and bar hopped for a while until I met a girl from Douglas. We were having the craic, and then it kind of hit me. I had nowhere to stay…What the fuck was I thinking? A cool calm would echo inside me…“It’s all ok, you’ll be fine.”

Diary entries from as far back as 1991 give an insight into my complicated relationship with self-confidence.

“Must have supreme confidence in myself from now on… supreme”

“I’m always going to have confidence, always.”

The admonition to myself that I must be or that I am “the one and only” starts to recur regularly in the diaries in 1991, interspersed with admissions of insecurity and doubt around self-belief.

Whatever confidence is, this was it, it was confidence and assurance. I knew I could handle anything. I think if I was to look at myself then from the outside I would see the same thing. It was incredible. I had never taken ecstasy or any drugs like that. I had no idea but had seen its use in the mid to late 90s. It was called the drug of love. I had it naturally. The only thing I could compare it to was being given a sheet of answers, the exact answers, before a test. If you have seen Limitless this was it in action. I wasn’t learning to play the piano in an hour or learning Spanish in a day (I wish I could now) but it was the kind of confidence which makes charming the casual person whom you meet in a bar or a club very easy. It was so easy to meet people, not care what they think, and appear cool and grounded. It makes you very attractive. Desperation is gone completely. If someone’s not interested, fine, move on. I was looking fit, I had a good job, it was all going to work. No matter what I would find a way to make it work. This  being hypomanic is so dangerous. You lose grip of reality, a reality that you will always have to go back to. In my case with my tail gripped firmly between my legs.

I had nowhere to stay after walking the girl to a cab. What was I gonna do? I remembered someone called Brendan from UCC and how I had met him previously with Gerry in Spain. It would have been a tenuous link, very tenuous, (tenuous enough to have me shake my head while typing this) but it was something. It was a link and that was enough for me. I had walked from Cork City Centre to Douglas, quite a walk, maybe 5-6 kilometres. I had either flagged down a Garda Car or else been stopped by one. I cannot remember for sure. I said I knew Brendan, he lived in Douglas and one of the Guards would take me to him. He had been off-duty himself that night. Here I was, going to ask someone who I barely knew if I could stay the night. But the way I was…it didn’t matter. I could and would do anything. Any sign of danger I would facilitate it, any sign of opportunity I would take it and maximise it to the best of my ability. I reached the house and I’m sure Brendan got a land when he saw me but I was welcomed in nonetheless. It was a little surreal, having a few beers till 5am. That’s all it was gonna be. I had no plan whatsoever for tomorrow…

The next morning one of Brendan’s colleagues came in, an older Garda, maybe early 30’sHe was looking for guys to play soccer in the Munster Senior League for the Garda team. In the house there were two guys with All Ireland minor medals for Cork, one of whom I had played against for Tipperary only 4 years earlier. I was gung ho, if it had been hurling I would have probably said I’d do it. Like most people who were still new to my life, the Garda was impressed. My confidence was complete. I was now going over at 11am to play for the Garda AUL side against a team from the north side of Cork City. I ‘d had very little sleep. It’s often that I wish I had the same kind of stamina I had then when I was participating in 10K runs over the years. It’s not an age thing. I was just immense. I would have gone through a brick wall and as it proved I would have to in order to survive the north side team we were going to play against that day.

When we arrived at the pitch, there were some handy players on our side, one of the guys for the Gardaí would later win an All Ireland senior title with Kerry. It was the highest standard I would play at, I was good regardless but it was a step or two ahead of the Tipperary Junior League. The pitch was bare, with houses all around it, and long uneven tufts of grass raking its way throughout the paint-lined surface. After 5 minutes it was obvious these guys were looking forward to playing the Gardaí. I took a really heavy tackle from behind after 5 minutes. I told the guy, “do that again and you’re fucking dead.” It’s not something I usually said but on that occasion it felt warranted. Earlier one of the other Gardaí was struck while the ball was 60 yards away. I had been told an assumed name to play under that was the last thing on my mind. I was thinking survival. Before the game was over 2 of their team would see red, both for assaulting their marker, in incidents that would have been considered gross bodily harm if they happened on the street. They were delighted with themselves. So was I. I had 3-4 cigarettes during half time. I was flying, my fitness was seriously good. My conditioning was the best it had ever been. We finished the match winners on a 3-2 scoreline. Everyone was happy. Me, I was supposed to meet this girl later and it so happened the Guards were going drinking in the same Douglas area in Cork. I met her and had some craic with the Gardaí. Thinking about it, I’m now a very private person in terms of who I drink with. I can be outgoing and sociable, but if the situation doesn’t serve me, I’m quickly out of it. 

I cannot describe that weekend other than to say it feels like everyone is your best friend. Anything and everything is possible. I would go out and about over the next 2-3 nights. Get with different girls, go back to their place, and rob them of cds\dvds and go back to the UCC college bar and ask the barman to play them for the day, while I would have a few pints and chat up whatever was around. I won 60 euro one day there for a push up competition. It was pure stupid stuff but it was 20 euro off the three of them.

I would go to the old Doyle’s bar on Grand Parade, while a Miller promotion was going on. The DJ said “Next person up here will win 20 bottles of Miller.” I was up before the word person came out of his mouth. I would do anything. In this case it started off rather easily. Twenty pushups, after taking off my top and jeans- “grand, no problem” I thought. I was asked my favourite number and proceeded to do 14 pushups. My overactive hypomanic mind was thinking, Jeez this is a piece of piss Billy.  I was then told my prize of 20 bottles of Miller was across the street at the Cineplex cinema. If you are not familiar with Cork, this area is in the centre of town. It’s very open, very busy, with plenty of traffic. To secure my prize I would need to do this wearing only my boxers. I think you would have to be hypomanic to do it, and they definitely saw me coming. I did it, got the booze, made some new friends,  and went to some clubs getting kicked out and annoying bouncers. Hypomania is such a thing that writing this now it feels like a great story. It’s fake, it’s groundless, there is no foundation to it. I’m glad I’m outgoing, but what does it matter if behaviour leads to hospital? I will never forget how it felt. Especially later that evening when I got thrown into a paddy wagon for stripping off naked on Patrick’s Street outside Abrakebabra. In my defence the mood had already been set. 

I mentioned the names of some Guards I knew and they let me off, telling me not to go back down Patrick’s Street that night. So I walked home the back way. When I say home, it’s a figure of speech. I had no real way to go, no home to go to. I called into a friend’s house but he wasn’t there. The girls in the house let me stay on the floor. I repaid them by robbing 10 CDs and a few DVDs the following day. I was hardly a master criminal but then I wasn’t myself either.

I went back to UCC and did it all over again the next day. I stayed out the whole night, hanging out by the Bus Station, which isn’t a great place to hang out. A woman there (who looked clearly mentally ill to me) said “You don’t look well. Are you ok? I think you’re ill.” At the time it meant nothing to me, but I guess in hindsight, she knew there was something wrong. After being up all night I would later call into an old employer on the way home to Thurles. When I worked there I hated it and felt depressed about it. I didn’t have one happy day there. They alerted my parents and my brothers Paud and Ken came to get me. That evening, unbeknownst to me, Mam gave me 2 sleeping tablets. I watched a 10 minute trailer for Romeo and Juliet with Claire Danes and Leonardo Di Caprio and cried my head off, then watched Ferris Bueller and laughed non stop. It’s funny, but probably not that funny. Mam was alarmed by me still being up. I made plans to go to Prague with my brother and friend in the morning, but instead I would go to see a doctor I had never seen before. The game was up. Hypomania would be gone never to return.

“But, I’m going to Prague…”- The First Hospital Admission

I wasn’t sure if the doctor could hear me through my tears. “I’m going to Prague, me and my brother and his friend, it’s all planned, I have my passport and everything.” My words trailed off as he assumed the statutory doctor position. He was in his mid 30s. When you’re 22 as I was, that’s a lifetime away. “No, my friend” he insisted. “You will just rest here for a few days that is all, you will be able to go with your brother and your friend then.” He had it all worked out. Me? I went outside and received some unwanted advice from a patient about fighting his decision and insisting upon all kinds of things of which I had no idea or clue about. 

I couldn’t understand it, I felt the best I had ever felt in my life. I almost had a six pack. I looked great. I was with girls left right and centre only days earlier. And now here I was being what people call “sectioned”. I would be put up here and that was that, there was no point arguing. Only later when I realised that it was entirely down to my own family that I was sitting here arguing the odds with this doctor did I become angry. Being angry and sad was something I had a lot of experience with during that time, alongside the magical highs where I literally felt I could do anything. It was par for the course. In hindsight my moods were all over the place. At the time I had neither the skills nor awareness to realise this. I was in trouble and had no idea what was going to happen beyond that I would be “resting for a few days.”

Earlier that morning I had paid a visit to a GP whom I had never seen before. Mam was worried about me taking off to Cork for a weekend on my own and that I was so erratic and powerfully lucid. Again I never copped anything. We were off to Prague, that’s all I was thinking about. The beer. The women. I had spent 10 days there previously and in my own mind I knew the place backwards. Despite all that I knew I had the tools to enjoy myself there. We had left the GP there and now we were off to Clonmel Hospital, where apparently one of the lads coming was to meet a nurse he was seeing. Looking back now I never questioned it once. I think it was because I felt great and nothing could change that feeling. Nothing. I was to learn in the months ahead just how mortal we really are.

I would go off to rest. I was still aware of myself at this point, and I wasn’t out of control in any way. I had the presence of mind to say to the doctor that I’d be in bed beside guys whom I had been smoking with a half an hour earlier and whom I’d been telling of my trip to Prague. I let out a massive laugh at this. If I had known of what was to come it would have rung very hollow. There would be few laughs during my time in Clonmel. I honestly can barely remember them. They were lost like I was in a jumble and maze of thinking and surviving.

“Jim works in Clonmel… I always knew he would end up there someday”. Tom had finished his best man speech with a flourish. The room erupted. It was brilliant. I was 17 and it was the day of my brothers wedding, in Crawley, just a stone’s throw from London. My eldest brother Jim did indeed work in Clonmel. I had recently completed my Leaving Cert and was preparing for University life in Cork . I was surrounded by my brothers. Tom was back from the US. John was in Manchester. Paud was in Galway. Everyone was together. It was a fantastic day for our family. This was my personal stand by me moment. Clonmel is the principal town of Tipperary ( as I had learned years earlier in Primary School) approximately 25 miles south of Thurles. It is a much wealthier, bigger town with  a lot more serious crime issues as I guess bigger towns are prone to have.

Clonmel town provided me with my first taste of being called a “culchie” when I was 15 years of age. I remember it vividly. We had stopped off for food after playing a game there and thought we were the golden boys, only to be called “muckers”. It was very disarming and it threw me. Indeed, having lived in Dublin for 15 years I never really faced the blasé attitude or vitriol that I experienced that day. To us mentioning Clonmel, as in the hospital, was to bring up the appearance of the bogeyman.
  It didn’t exist. We were all happy out and never paid it much notice or attention. Life was great and exciting. I doubt very much that Jim’s opening line would be included in a best man’s speech today. Awkward silence would replace whoops of laughter. In some ways that is good, mental health has made progress. Limited progress, but the landscape is changing.

I stayed in the ward, before getting my own private room, with people who sadly did not improve. Kids my own age who were constantly readmitted. Guys and girls with wrists and necks bandaged from self harm. I will always remember one particular girl. She was beautiful, really friendly and sound, with both wrists and upper arms bandaged. This girl could easily have been a model. She talked of loneliness, death, and self harm. I could never reach her as I could barely reach myself at that stage. I spent my time walking the corridors in a vain effort to get out and about and lose the weight I had gained. Between the psychotropic drugs and the hospital diet (what genius never told me to monitor eating etc or at least organise a proper nutritionist?) the care and treatment wasn’t joined up. 

It was like everything in there was one big unruly mess. I had gained easily two and a half stone. I now had lost the super fit body I came in. The transformation was unreal. Later, after my release from hospital, people would ask what happened to me when they saw how much weight I had gained. Part of the problem was my drinkin. I didn’t know how to control these thoughts of everything so I drank. It was easier to imagine how I had been. I had always been fit. Sport came very easy to me. I played for Tipperary in rugby, soccer and gaelic football. I had been asked to go play rugby with Rockwell, a rugby school just outside Cashel. I was also asked to play for the better soccer teams in our division. Teams who regularly were in the top teams in Ireland at that time. The idea of me being overweight was anathema to me. What’s easier though? Ignore the problem, or work hard to fix it? Drinking let me ignore it completely and just concentrate on the glory days. Glory days… I was 22 but that’s how this whole process affects you. I needed skills to combat this which I just didn’t have. I needed awareness and confidence and I had no idea where to find them.

So in hospital I paced the corridors. Behind, me (if we were doing a track race he would have been well lapped) was a sensitive skinny auburn haired guy, possibly 2-3 years older than I was. He had been receiving electric shock treatment. He had finished college a few years but there was a realization that this was as good as he was going to get. We became friends and chatted. I met his father one day when he came to see him. I could see the weariness and pain in his fathers’ eyes. However I was doing better.I was getting stronger. The medication was working and I wasn’t going to need ECT. I was continually fighting my psychiatrist for passes home and received a pass home for Xmas. It was great to see everyone, but in hindsight I was still so weak. I tried manfully to do everything that all the lads did. 

I went to the County Bar in Thurles. It was like the scene from Born on the 4th of July when Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) returns home paralysed to see everything his friends are doing and how though only a few months have passed, everything has completely changed. One of my closest friends (Jody) started crying when he saw me. Not exactly the best confidence booster, but I was a million miles away from these guys right now. More so when I was discharged from the hospital. I had to sign on for disability benefit when all wanted to do was get on with things and be like them. I was stuck at home with people wondering why. It was very humbling. I had ended up here through no fault of my own other than a chemical imbalance in my brain. I am very competitive and I can only thank that trait for pushing me forward. If someone tells me I can’t do it, I will do it. There is no other way. Otherwise you’re no use to yourself or those around you.

I was 22 when they first used Largactil to treat me. When you’re young you naturally think you will live forever. It’s just how it is. Like Robert Herricks’ famous opening line  “Gather ye rosebuds as ye may…”, as quoted in Dead Poet’s Society, one of my very favourite films. Largactil changed all that for me. I knew after it that I would die one day that I wasn’t immortal. That might be hard to understand, of course I knew that I wasn’t immortal but after using that I felt the touch of mortality on me like sledgehammer. Largactil’s  nickname is the chemical cosh and it just wiped me out like a tsunami. i could barely speak coherently for a week. I believe its use is no longer encouraged, but I experienced it twice. I also wondered if losing that feeling affected me. I try not to look through rose tinted glasses at what went before, but this first treatment with medication broke me down far worse than any mugging or relationship breakdown. Utter destruction.

“Cheer up to Fuck…..”

I had now been in St Michael’s unit for approximately a few weeks. I had settled into the routine. Early to bed (aided by sleeping tablets, so you never really felt you had slept you just woke up and that was pretty much that), early to rise, shower, breakfast. It’s given me a lifelong hatred of hospitals . Does anyone like them? This place wasn’t up to scratch. My parents had wrestled with the idea of sending me privately to St Patrick’s in Dublin or here. They had decided on Clonmel because it was closer for regular visits and I did get a private room after a month. Here they traveled to see me every day without fail. But with the condition I was in I was vulnerable. After the first few days, pretty much all the good stuff I had been given by friends\family had been stolen. Headphones, chocolate, even a copy of Playboy I’d been given, although at the time there was little I could do with it.

But there was an undercurrent of threat there. A lot of the guys might be in only for a week to rest up or for drink or some other drug related issue in between juvenile detention or prison. These guys were pretty much normal, they were stronger than me or anyone like me because of this. The drugs had broken me down, now I would have to wait while I became stronger. Perception is everything, time was something I didn’t have. I looked weak, and in trouble.

 It wasn’t a fair fight. After Largactil, I could barely speak and a new guy came into the ward. He said he would do this and do that to me when the lights were out. He was a constant threat to me with  verbal abuse and threats, I guess he saw a soft target. He saw me after drugs had broken me, before and after my rebuilding I would have no fear of people like him.

He was acting up every day for the few days he was in, and he seemed fine himself, by which I mean he was strong , and knew what he was doing, unlike 70% of people there. This was where the whole idea of lumping everyone in together in what is loosely called a ‘mental health unit’ did the likes of me no good. I was remembered enough to mention Paud, my bigger brother who could take care of himself, and who really would have scared this guy. I didn’t have to. The next day he was gone and I only saw him about 5 years later in a pub in Thurles one night. I was really tempted to scare him, to make him feel how I had felt in that ward in Clonmel that day but I never did. That wasn’t me. It took a lot to get me angry. Mostly I was angry within myself and that took up enough of my time to distract me from anything else.

The daily grind of the ward continued. Once breakfast was over they had arts classes. These were of no interest to me. I saw them as lazy therapy which involved plaudits and congratulations for mediocre at best or to put it bluntly crap work. Whether that is because I never did art, I don’t know. I can appreciate art enough that I’m happy not to bring any of my own into the world. Don’t get me wrong. I realize its standard for a lot of hospitals to have this. Why not have writing  for therapy ? They had none of these, so I watched TV in a open common room. Daytime TV is bad enough when you’re healthy and well, it was hardly going to help me feel better in the state that I was in. Again, it was an easy and lazy way of containment and making it look as if people were being cared for.

The demographic of this room consisted of mainly middle aged men and women who really would find no respite there. For them the ward had turned into a nursing home. It’s sad to look back on now, but it seems to me that they were failed by the State. They were even worse than forgotten. All the pretences of care and treatment didn’t apply for them. Indeed the Irish Health Service Executive (HSE) made this one of their key disclosures when they closed the unit in 2012. They were worse than zombies, they were ghosts. I saw them and I could never identify with them. I prayed every morning and night to be well. I had my own faith, we had a strong family full of people doing well. With some very strong achievers, I had to get better. I knew I was getting better. I was getting stronger. A week is a long time there when you’re seeing all this carry on in front of your eyes. It can be a lifetime. Corny but true.

There was a motley crew of characters that I spoke to up at the smoking area at the very top of the hall. I entered the hospital smoking a lot , perhaps 30-40 a day. Leaving it I had graduated to smoking a 100 John Player old style tips a day. It was my greatest achievement while in there. I met Joe , Larry and I can’t remember the other guy’s name, only that it surely wasn’t Moe. We would go and smoke all day. Joe was an abrasive farmer in his late 60s from West Tipperary. He was in for alcohol dependency. He had a no nonsense style about him which I liked and he knew my Dad “Big Pat” as he called him. He was funny. It took me a good few years to find my center to know who I was. This guy had that he knew who he was completely but he also liked to drink. He liked to drink a lot. The bulbous whiskey nose was a dead giveaway but so also was the colour of his skin, a hue between flesh tone and yellow.

He was only in for a few weeks. He caught me one day smoking on my own down at the usual spot. I was down and feeling very depressed. Looking back now I can see why. In its own right it’s a deeply melancholic place with no interaction, no positivity, no therapy of any kind. He picked up on this. He moved in towards me and shuffled in to give me a shoulder. “Cheer up to fuck will you” he said. I was shocked , I was so deep in my own thoughts it took a few seconds to sink in. A big smile creased upon my lips and brow and both of us swapped John Players and started laughing, bringing for one solitary moment bright light into the section of the ward. I told my parents and family and that line became well used in our household years after it happened that day in Clonmel. It was used over Christmas 2014. In the early years I didn’t like it ,but now I think it’s good the way dark humour is used in Ireland. It’s easier to use than to really explore the who, the what, the reason why. That line will always live on with me.

“It’s the same as  a broken leg…”- First Hospital Release

I heard this from the staff psychiatrist in St Michaels at Clonmel within a few weeks of my departure to go home. I was thrilled. I was always at her to let me out , that I was fine. I felt fine. I wanted this to be an aberration, something that I could dream away. Something that never happened. I don’t believe mental illness is the same as a broken leg. It affects your whole body and how people perceive you. Years later I would cry for no reason, and think crappy terrible thoughts about myself. A broken leg is not the same as that.

I believe it’s a lazy explanation. There is probably no malice in it. When I heard it at first though, it did give me reassurance. It was a Trojan horse in hindsight. A vehicle designed to give me false confidence and tell me that everything would be ok.

The mental health charity Aware reports that 45,000 people in Ireland have a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. Men and women are equally affected, and approximately one third of people with bipolar disorder in Ireland do not work. Period. Between 25-60% of people with bipolar will make an attempt on their own life. It was only on my own and a few years later that I looked into the statistics. My brother Tom sent literature and books from the States which I used to devour. I loved the way they looked at it. They often described most people with bipolar as being very smart, talented and charming. I used to wallow in that until I realised all of that was no good to me. It was make-believe. If I couldn’t use it to get better, what use was it to me? No point in saying “Johnny is a smart kid , but he can’t work or is in between residential care and his parents at the age of 35”. I wanted everything my friends had, everything my brothers had. It was only last year that I realised I had it. It wasn’t material , it was nothing to do with that. I had the same feeling they had. I didn’t get the massive mood slumps. I was normal, whatever normal is. I was that and it felt pretty darn amazing.

Chapter 2

Paddys Day 1998….

It was pretty much nondescript. Days blended into days… I had been out of hospital for a few months now. I was in the Monks pub with the guys. It was Paddy’s Day, but nothing was really happening. I wasn’t experiencing the attention from girls that I was used to. It was Thurles on a Tuesday night, so I guess pickings of any kind were slim. It’s so awkward sometimes seeing someone from your past. Someone who you’re embarrassed to see. That evening I saw Brendan, the Brendan I had asked for months before in Cork, where he was a Guard, in my hypomanic state. He was a sound guy. He asked how I was. I nursed my Bulmers and wished I could escape, or at the very least be the person whom we were both connected to in our own different way. It was only 6 months previously but it was a lifetime away from where I was now. Where I was now related to sleeping in, dreaming of times when I was happy with my ex girlfriend. Lingering after my ex… It was a cycle I would only break in my 39th year as I would delve into my past and family history, to find out much more about myself and start to love myself for the first time.

You can let us know what you think of Bill’s Story so far by commenting here, or you can contact me on We will continue with Bill’s Story with further chapters and are currently seeking a publisher for this.


Author: Trish Frazer

Psychologist, lecturer

One thought on “On the Level: Bill’s Story”

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