Paul Bowman says that talking openly about his bipolar disorder is like a second coming out.
At 48, it’s something that he’s only begun to do recently, which is a long time to keep a secret when you’ve been taking medication since your tenth birthday.
Paul was a late arrival into his family, with his mother aged 40 and his father 45 when he was born in Detroit, Michigan in the United States.
The generation gap made it difficult for him to relate to his parents, so he was closest to his brother. His brother was killed in Vietnam in 1973, aged 18.
“My parents were professional people, they both worked, so there wasn’t a lot of time for me,” he says. “It sounds kind of strange but the day of my brother’s funeral I was put into a private school, so I literally got back from the funeral, there was a car waiting on the driveway and I was sent away.”
He wasn’t coping very well with his brother’s death, and was given medication. There were monthly appointments with a psychiatrist, but he doesn’t remember there being a great deal of discussion about it.
“You can’t really talk to a ten year old. If they said it would take away the hurt from losing my brother then I guess I would take it,” he remembers. “I didn’t ever want to cause any problems with people, so I didn’t really fight back or say ‘well what is this’ or anything like that, I just took it. My mother was hooked on diazepam and all that type of stuff in the sixties.”
Being a concentration camp survivor, Paul’s mother had trauma of her own to deal with. She was a firm believer in medication as a solution, the complete opposite to his father who was very anti-psychiatry.
At the age of fourteen he moved with his father to the Middle East. After several years of being on a series of strong medications, including MDMA, he went cold turkey with nothing.
“My father wouldn’t have anything to do with it, he didn’t believe in anything like that – not that he even knew what he was doing, to him he thought it was going to help by getting off of everything.”
For two months Paul experienced crippling withdrawal symptoms, thrown into the depths of depression and paranoia. Thankfully, the experience of being in a new place with a completely different culture acted as a counterweight to this.
“I think that actually helped me. It was fascinating because I’d never been in any Arab cultures. I actually made a couple of friends over there which was something I’d never really had in school too much.”
He returned to America for his last year of high school, by which time his feelings for other men had started to emerge and trouble him. He went back to live with his mother, who sent him back to a psychiatrist where lithium was prescribed.
Although he still takes lithium today, it wasn’t a silver bullet solution. Throughout his college years in the early 1980s, he found it difficult to concentrate.
“I just couldn’t sleep. I don’t shut down, I kind of keep going. I decided I’d go back and try some other drugs. They put me on this one called Prothiaden, which was just awful. It had so many side-effects that I actually went off of it.”
Like many of us, Paul ended up taking his treatment into his own hands.
“I was actually failing university classes because I was drinking so much,” he remembers. “I never finished. I couldn’t afford it. I lost my grant so I couldn’t actually finish my degree, which was architecture.”
One of the major stresses in his life, living an openly gay life, got easier when he moved to Australia 21 years ago. He met a man and moved to Brisbane, and although the relationship only lasted a year, there was enough about the country that encouraged him to stay.
“It was the freedom. I wasn’t around all those people that I couldn’t be myself to. It was empowering and wonderful…I’d never go back to the States. People don’t believe this when I tell them, but gay people are more tolerated here than they are in Detroit. I didn’t have the Bible-bashers and all that type of stuff to deal with.”
The fact that Paul found Brisbane to be a paragon of tolerance when it was hardly Australia’s most enlightened city at the time (or even now) gives you an idea of what life was like for him at home.
He now lives in Ballarat, Victoria, and despite losing his job as an industrial plumber recently, he says that he feels better able to cope with life than ever. Had this happened to him ten years ago, things wouldn’t have been so easy.
“I had a lot of anger back then. I’m definitely more in control now than I’ve ever been, I really do believe that.
The best thing about life now is “that I’m grown up. Even though I’ve got all this drama right now happening, I feel that I’m on top of it, something will come and I don’t have to be negative and lay in bed until three o’clock in the afternoon.
“I’ve got the ability to kind of know when I’m going wrong, through cognitive therapy, how to actually get my mind out of the racing, and I’m working a lot on that and a few other exercises – yoga, of all things!
I met Paul at Southern Hibearnation in Melbourne this year, and was surprised to find that he’d only been using a computer for four months. Going online and discovering other men’s stories about their experience of mental illness was an eye-opener, and hastened his second “coming out”.
“I realised that bipolar is nothing to be ashamed of, which I pretty much have been all my life. One of the reasons that I came out to people is that I needed support from friends, and now I have people that understand why sometimes I’m a bit off the wall, or a bit moody. They don’t hold it against me anymore.
“Someone told me once that if you’re a diabetic you take insulin, if you’re depressed you take medication, so what’s the difference. That’s probably the most powerful statement that anyone could ever give me, because then I backed off my defences.”