What it is like living with Bipolar Disorder: Jennyanne – Director of Cocreate Arts & Health CIC

So Jennyanne, please tell us what its like living with Bipolar Disorder?

Well, I’d like to start by telling you that – this is not such a simple question to answer! Bipolar disorder is a complex little beast and its different for everyone. I don’t like to say I have Bipolar Disorder or that I live with a mental illness any more (I did try those things on – not long after receiving my diagnosis in late 2018) but actually I prefer to say that I have a ‘Bipolar Brain’. I can’t really compare it to a life without Bipolar – because I’ve never actually experienced a life without Bipolar…

Each persons unique experience of Bipolar Disorder is made up of a myriad of different factors: genetics, life experiences, socioeconomics, education, upbringing, what therapies and medications they have tried, various traumas they have been through, diet, lifestyle, stressors, worries… its not something that simple to define. People often think there is ‘Bipolar 1, Bipolar 2 and Cyclythomia’ boxes that they can put us in but actually it is far more nuanced and definitely resides upon a spectrum.

Ok – so what is it like living with your particular Bipolar Brain?

HA! Confusing! Terribly terribly confusing! And frustrating and annoying as heck! However it is also beautiful, awe inspiring and at times a true blessing to get to live the life I live and have the memories and experiences I have been fortunate enough to have had.

My depressions are pretty bleak. I have been aware of them since I was a child – as I’ve mentioned elsewhere – I first really contemplated suicide at just ten years old. After that moment – I was definitely changed forever. Even now – while in a positive and highly productive mood – I can recollect the many many instances over the years that were spent bereft and void of all meaning – filled with numbness and nihilism or endless streams of tears. The emotional pain is either so unbearable I am crippled by it or I am completely robbed of all emotion, memories or productive use of my brain.

I struggled for many years – trying to manage my self care, reading self help books, trying desperately to ‘rid’ myself of it, to ‘snap out of it’, to pull myself together, to pretend it wasn’t actually real… Getting the Bipolar diagnosis was actually a huge relief in the end as I learned to accept that this is just a part of me you know – Bipolar Depression is just my cross to bare and I try my best to look on the bright side – without knowing all of that suffering – I highly doubt I’d be the highly empathetic, resilient soul that I am today!

Don’t get me wrong like! When it rears its head again – as it does – it still floors me – but I no longer blame myself for it, I’m much kinder to myself and I accept help and listen to my support network of family and friends and I get through it. Cocreate Arts & Health was actually born due to my Bipolar Brain and the weird ways that it works.

I have been self employed as an artist working mainly in education since finishing my first degree in 2008. I had started working with the Arts & Regeneration team at Leeds City Council – helping them to organise the second ever Leeds Light Night (a far cry from what ‘Light Night Leeds’ is now however! I went this year and was truly heartbroken to see it – grassroots was no where to be seen, it was big, brash and highly commerical – and it cemented in me the idea that Cocreate Arts & Health CIC was a very much needed organisation! Especially now that I live in Bradford as opposed to Leeds. There is more scope here I think for some of that grassroots magic that is definitely coming into play here.

At that time, I had been working as a casual member of staff within the Arts and Regeneration team helping with Light Night and the Gallery 37+ project (this was a city wide project for NEET young people and it really gripped me), anyway – a permanent post was created with me in mind but due to my crippling anxiety – I messed up both the application and the interview.

At the time I was devastated – a job working at the Council straight out of university seemed like a dream come true – and it was organising grass roots artistic events -in that year or the following years Light Night I got to exhibit my own work to over 2000 people in the Carriageworks Theatre, I got to meet tens of local artists, storytellers and musicians and read their applications for small grants. I got to help decide who would get the grants, what events would take place and I got to see dress rehearsals and hear stories told within the town hall clock tower, see wacky installations in the old cells in the basement and I even got to organise a road block for a procession of dancers on stilts – it was truly amazing and mesmerising and so utterly inspiring. At the end of a 16 hour shift me and James Hill – the Senior Arts and Regeneration Officer at the time sat on the Town Hall steps and beamed. ‘We did this!’ he said ‘Me and You, Jennyanne – We just made that happen’. I was high from that moment for at least 3 weeks – I felt so proud, humbled and shook to my core by the power of the arts, culture and the creativity that lives inside of people! I can still go back to that moment now! It was pure Magic. Cataclysmic for me – but in a really good way. I was definitely moved by the power of it all.

However when I didn’t get the job – it made me realise that actually – I desperately knew I wanted to be on the other side of the table. I wanted to be making the work, engaging the people, being the artist instead of the person administering the funding! I kind of did that BUT I had still never ever applied for any funding myself before Cocreate Arts and Health CIC was created!

For you see, I got involved in the other side a little bit more… Do you remember me mentioning the Gallery 37+ Project? Well, working on that project introduced me to what I now think of as ‘socially engaged artists’ – and that’s pretty much what I have spent the last ten years being myself but working within other organisations as a freelancer, I always wanted to make and exhibit my own work but the depressions and anxieties kept creeping in… I was never sure if I was ‘good enough’ as an artist – but this gave me a superhuman strength – I spent my whole career proving to other people that whether you think you are good enough or not doesn’t matter – just have a go, get stuck in, enjoy the process and if you hate what you make – throw it in the bin at the end of the day anyway and savour the memories.

It was actually a DJ called Paula Temple who helped me get the nerve to become self employed and start freelancing! Her and Gemma Povey had created a Music Production company called Future Arts -and they were working with NEET young people in Leeds and invited me along to do some quality assurance for them. I was terrified of being self employed but Paula assured me it was easy enough and I haven’t looked back since. My depressions would have always made it difficult for me to hold down employment – especially since I lived with such bad internalised stigma that I hid them from everyone as much as I possibly could.

“I’m here to inspire” I’d think – I can’t show people what my brain is actually going through right now can I!

After a pretty intense period of self growth, personal transformation and acceptance of the fact I am going to live with a Bipolar Brain for the rest of my life I realised I had to stop putting off my dreams however – and I needed to start applying for funding in order to put on the projects I had often dreamed about, I had to take a chance at giving myself the time and opportunities to create my own artworks and I had to accept that the financial stressors of being a freelancer who suffers with recurrent depression that stops me from going out and actively pursuing new freelance roles while having a mortgage on my own was causing me in my hypomanic periods to over work, over commit and get ill once again – creating a very unhealthy cycle of shifting moods…

I realised that if I was brave enough to start my own community interest company, I’d be able to run fewer workshops but generate substantially more income from them (hopefully!) – and instead of just keeping that all for myself – which I’d have felt really guilty for and unworthy of – I could instead use that extra money to spend less time delivering for other big organisations and more time applying for funding to do the projects that I want to do, working with other artists and creatives and enabling others similar to me, and similar to all of those other artists I worked with all those years ago at the Leeds Light Night to start to pursue their dreams too.

So Cocreate Arts & Health was not created purely for altruistic means?

Nope, not at all – I’m more than happy to admit that I struggle. I struggle with life, I struggle with stress and I struggle with worrying over where my next paycheck is coming from – but I was NOT created to be an ’employed’ person. I’ve never been one. I couldn’t do it. But I can inspire others and I know I’m really good at it. And I can share my story. I used to be so scared of applying for funding – but why? It’s like I keep telling all of the people I’m around at the moment. You buy a lottery ticket don’t you? Well, that money is there for you! you paid for it! You pay for these events and projects to happen – so its time to get over your fears of rejection and unworthiness and get applying to make those dreams come true with the money you are spending on those lottery tickets anyway! Its not just there for the big win! It goes to so many other places! Why cant one of those places be you?

If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again – as my Nannie Annie always used to say!

Ok, so just before we go – I realise that – we have only discussed the depression side of your bipolar brain – you mentioned working too much when hypomanic – could you share a bit about your experiences of mania?

If course! Though – I don’t personally experience mania. Or at least – I don’t think I do anyway. I had wondered if I was Bipolar for many years and had tried to get it diagnosed at an earlier time in my life but was told I just had a penchant for the dramatic and as an artist and a creative – I think they had just written me off as a bit of an eccentric.

My bipolar wasn’t picked up until I was 35 because I have Bipolar 2 – its characterised by hypomania more than full blown mania – so – in a nutshell – I basically get joyful. Really really, drunk on love joyful, happy, moved by everything and giddy as an ant. It’s why I always loved working with children so much – they are the epitome to me of the mood that for me is captured by the word ‘hypomania’ – excitable, giggly, engrossed in a world where magic and wonder are at every turn, music is more beautiful, and life is heaven on earth.

I don’t lose touch with reality – but quite simply – I feel blessed.

I feel as though God or the Universe is keeping an eye out for me and wherever I walk – the sun is beaming its light. I’m truly grateful for the ‘hypomanias’ as they are called – for they are what make the depressions easier to get through. After receiving my diagnosis they did actually start to scare me a little – but that was because I was feeding myself fears and insecurities about stigma and how others would treat me knowing I was experiencing a ‘hypomanic episode’ but now I don’t like to really use that word – I just say its ‘when my brain is working’. I’m highly productive, cheerful, connected AND most importantly now that I can sense when they are coming and I understand Bipolar Disorder and know my brain so much more – I can take care of myself better when they are here, I don’t suffer as much burnout from lighting my candle in 27 different places all at once and I make sure I try my very best to get a bit of sleep!

The stigma surrounding Bipolar Disorder is mainly created through fear. There are many of us living among you – yet because of internalised or familial stigma or fear of being seen as insane or deranged – many people tend to keep their Bipolar diagnosis a secret. When I decided to disclose my own diagnosis I was confident I wouldn’t be treated any differently by my employers or my peers and for the large part I wasn’t – I did however learn to treat myself in an entirely new way – and for that – I will always be grateful.

Jennyanne was interviewed by herself on the 31st October 2019 – and soon she will interview lots of other people who she will be working with too! Watch this space for details!

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