Seasonal Bipolar Disorder, Depression and Street Photography . . .

. . . This is without a doubt the most difficult article I’ve ever had to write. Not so much because of the ‘personal’ nature of the subject matter, rather ‘because’ of the debilitating effects of the subject matter itself . . .

. . . It’s been a bit quiet here on the Street Photography Blog of late. Indeed it struck me that I hadn’t posted anything for the whole of October – even September consisted only of ‘bulletins’ regarding interviews and features. Nor for that matter had I taken any pictures. In fact, at no point had any of my cameras been out of the bag for the last 10 weeks or so. Even the ‘Chicken Shed’ darkroom, that warm and cosy outhouse of brick and slate had remained locked and in darkness (much to the relief of the resident spiders).

Sorry, I tell a lie. I did actually go to Manchester with the Leica M6 about 8 weeks ago, with the aim of spending a couple of days shooting on the streets. Sadly, it all took a sudden and upsetting downturn from thereon.

You see, I welcome my short excursions away. Devoted as I am for 90% of the time to the countryside way of life, it’s a pleasant relief and a break to submerge myself in a completely ‘alien’ (to me) culture, that being city life. Even as I stepped off the train at Manchester Piccadilly Station, I was full of enthusiasm.

That was until I raised the camera to my eye to take the first picture. My shutter finger froze, quickly followed by an overwhelming and uncontrollable wave of panic and fear. It was all I could do to stumble to the nearest bench and slump down. I began to cry . . . a lot . . . a face shaking, body shuddering, jaw wobbling ‘man sob’.

How long this lasted I don’t know but it must have been a fantastic spectacle, as eventually a nice old lady came and sat next to me asking if I was OK. Strangely I apologised and told her I thought I was losing my ‘marbles’.

Clearly the photography trip was over and after gathering myself together, I made my way back to the station, grabbed a Costa and took the next train back to the campervan, where I slept for the rest of the day like I’d never slept before. The next day I went home.

Fast forward to today and events are easier to understand. My old lifelong companion Seasonal Bipolar Disorder (AKA Manic Depression) had reared it’s ugly head, and sooner than expected.

Every year around about September time in the UK, the seasons change. The sky turns grey, the sun disappears, the rain and cold arrive and with it, my mind and body develop their own depressing ‘weather system’. It’s something that I and the four million or so others (in the UK) that suffer from it have grown to live with. It becomes part of who you are.

But something was different about this year.

Refreshingly, Britain had been enjoying one of it’s longest, warmest, driest and sunniest summers for many a year. Even at the beginning of October people were walking around in t-shirts, as I had on that September day in Manchester.

The problem was that Seasonal Bipolar Disorder had always been associated with a lack of sunlight. But on this occasion, the sun was in good supply.

Now I realise after some in-depth research, that the problem doesn’t arise so much from the quality of daylight, but rather it’s linked on a genetic level to the very changing of the season itself. Current research believes that sufferers of Seasonal Bipolar Disorder in fact have a particular gene that’s leftover from a human ancestor, such as a dormouse, or a hedgehog – the very type of mammal that hibernates every year.

To be perfectly honest, this makes me feel better. I have fantasized on many occasions about how wonderful it would be to fall asleep at the start of autumn, only to wake again at the beginning of spring.

Obviously this isn’t possible but it also means that whilst my body’s ‘calendar’ is telling me to shutdown for the winter, the imposed requirements of human modernity force me to face the ‘joys’ of remaining awake through this period. What was also apparent in hindsight is that despite the warmer than usual weather, the trees had begun to shed their leaves and birds had begun their migration to warmer climes (lucky b******s). 🙂

One of the downsides of this is depression and it’s associated effects on the mind and in particular, creativity.

Consciously I want nothing more than to travel about, taking photographs, then processing them in the darkroom and writing about my various adventures on the blog. However subconsciously, the area of my brain responsible for all things new and original has a big painted sign across the front door saying “Sorry, Closed For The Winter”.

Hence and as I said at the beginning, writing this article has been a gargantuan effort, requiring absolute concentration, without distraction. I could even go as far as to say, I’ve found it exhausting, preferring instead the far more attractive options of either snoozing, playing guitar, or staring at the four-walls.

Surprisingly and somewhat bewildering though, my guitar playing during this period has actually improved immeasurably, the largest majority of my free time spent noodling into the late hours. Further, I’ve even bought a new guitar (a Gibson Les Paul), to go with the 6 other ‘axes’ I already own – a byproduct of Bipolar Disorder and much to the ‘delight’ of the good lady wife. Still, it makes sense to me. 😀

And that is the flip-side of the Bipolar ‘coin’. When it comes round to spring and summer time, I’ll experience it’s manic side. Then I’ll be a whirling dervish of energy, enthusiasm and brilliant ideas (most of them not so good). I’ll purchase new photography items, struggle to sleep at night and have a general enthusiasm for life in general. Which makes the moment that the hibernation gene kicks in all the more painful and distressing, such is the severity and speed of the change.

So why am I telling you all this and laying my soul bare for all to see? Mainly it’s because Bipolar Disorder and other mental illnesses (yes it’s a mental illness), still carry a huge stigma as far as the general public are concerned. It may surprise a lot of people to know that I and others don’t walk around shuffling and mumbling to ourselves, nor do we spend our spare time clubbing people to death with a sledge hammer.

Of course it wouldn’t be such a problem if Bipolar only effected your creativity. Sadly however and for many people, it can and does cause all manner of personal, social and interrelational difficulties, up to and including suicide. Fortunately for me though, I’m one of the lucky ones who has a good sense of their own emotional state of mind (and an observant and caring partner) and regularly visits their doctor as soon as things ‘don’t feel right’.

And you may be surprised by the list of famous folk who also suffer (or suffered) from Bipolar Disorder – Stephen Fry, Rick Stein, Monty Don, Tony Slattery, Alastair Campbell, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Russell Brand, Adam Ant, Frank Bruno, Kurt Cobain, Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher, Mel Gibson, Paul Gascoigne.

For more on Seasonal Bipolar Disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) visit EveryDayHealth

There, I’ve done it. What a relief. I’ve been wanting to write this article for weeks, yet on each occasion I’ve attempted it, a huge curtain of grey nothingness comes crashing down.

I’m off now to sleep until March . . . possibly.

Addendum : Since writing this article, I discovered this wonderful website, The Broken Light Collective : A group for photographers living with or affected by mental illness; supporting each other one photograph at a time.

Author: Kevin Shelley

Street Photography. eBooks. Blog. Shoots and reviews cameras. Develops film. Writes novelesque articles.

12 thoughts on “Seasonal Bipolar Disorder, Depression and Street Photography . . .”

  1. Thanks for writing this Kevin. It helps me understand a lot of things. I’m glad you have an understanding wife and your guitar to help you through.

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  2. Really appreciate the sharing of your current “indisposition”—–I can only guess at the frustration you must experience!—-(have REALLY missed your postings,but look forward to hearing that you’re “back on track”

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  3. The most inspiring and true thing I’ve read in a long time. Respect admiration and good wishes for a winter short and mild go to yo. You have done many people a great service with this post Thank you

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I’ve put a link to it on my Facebook page as it describes my way of life since the age of twelve. That’s 55 years of this alternate planet. People remark on my creativity; the number of different things I seem to master in the field of arts. They have NO clue to how it all stops with a grey wall as September ends. Up here in Maine, the most northern of the US states other than Alaska, light flees early. I’ve not taken a serious photo since, hmm, last September. For some reason, I’m starting to be able to write again. Not as much as I should. At the moment, I’m contemplating my second nap of the day.
    Thanks for putting this “out” to the photography world.

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    1. Hi Carol-Lynn,

      I must apologise for not replying to your comment sooner – being completely honest, I forgot.

      What you say about the arts struck a chord with me. Writing, photography and music (without wishing to sound pompous and dare I say it) comes easily to me, most of the time. I’m sure Bipolar plays a large part in that and which is why almost all sufferers including myself, would (given a choice) choose not to be without it.

      Conversely, waking up in the morning, working an 8 hour day, keeping down a ‘normal’ job or managing finances ‘sensibly’, have been and are nigh-on impossible.

      As I’m sure you know all to well, ‘it’ is what makes us who and what we are. The key is to try and manage it. If that means lots of naps, then so be it.

      All the best,

      Kevin

      Like

  5. Bravo! It takes a lot of courage to write what you did and I admi you for it. I can’t say I know what you have, and do, go through but I too have had my setbacks and find it hard to keep my head above water, so to speak.
    Last year, I came too close, a hairs breadth close, to having a breakdown. I’d been caring for my dear mum for over two years dealing with the progressive deterioration caused by Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer’s. She died in April this year. Being long term unemployed and being ill means nobody wants to take a chance by giving you a job, so when you said you had dissolved into tears I kind of knew how you were feeling to a degree.
    You write and photograph when and if you feel you can, no need for any apology. Take care.

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    1. Hello there and thank you.

      It can’t have been easy for you to write what you have and it puts my piffling little problems into perspective.

      I can’t begin to imagine how you’ve felt, as of yet I haven’t suffered the loss of a parent. I wish you every success for happiness and the future.

      Be strong,

      Kev

      Like

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