We’re living in uncertain times. Our lives are hugely altered, we’re existing in isolation, unsure about the future and our collective unease is palatable. It’s a tough process for anyone to navigate, but even more so if you’re dealing with a serious mental illness like Bipolar Disorder.
Enter North Manchester-based actress and Bipolar UK ambassador, Natasha Rea (Coronation Street, Doctors) who has produced a book, Me, Myself and Bipolar Brenda, documenting her experience living with the illness. Bipolar is thought to affect more than a million people in the UK, increases an individual’s risk of suicide by up to 20 times and can take up to nine years to diagnosis. It short, it’s a debilitating disorder.
Not content with penning a book, Rea, 31, who is a single mum to a son, has also launched a campaign alongside charity Bipolar UK urging people to #SpeakOutLikeBrenda, her alter ego. The movement sees recognisable faces such as Catherine Tyldesley, John Bradley, Ralph Ineson, Lisa Riley and Dean Andrews reciting passages from the book to raise awareness of the illness. Sound Lounge, a music production company in London, have just come on board and created a Speak Out Like Brenda mental health awareness playlist. There’s also talk of a charity single.
Me, Myself and Bipolar Brenda is formed using material from Rea’s journal which spans several years. So, what inspired her to put her experience into words?
“I never intended to write a book and I don’t class myself as a writer,” she says. “I went through a traumatic experience in 2018 and I couldn’t leave the house much due to severe anxiety. But as I started putting the journal together, I began to reflect on things. It wasn’t one of those where I sat down and went ‘oh, I’m going to put all my journals into a book’ because I was still going through it. It was for me to be able to have something to look back on when I go to make the same mistakes. It was the best therapy I have ever done because I am not the same girl who started this book.”
“Years ago, I had my palm read at Joshua Brooks,” she adds with a laugh. “And the man said, ‘you’ll write a book one day, you’ and it kept niggling at me.”
In the book’s introduction, Rea says writing “has been my light” and states that the best thing about the process was the ability to look back with a renewed perspective.
“If someone asked me [before the book] what 2018 was like, I would have said horrific and that I lost my confidence. However, when I got the journal out for 2018 and looked at the beginning, it was like ‘oh my god’. I did Coronation Street, I signed with a new agent, I had a disc problem in my back and was told I would never lift [weights] for at least three years but I ended up doing a competition. I learned to swim. If I didn’t have that journal, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now. I would say it was all horrific. That’s why I am encouraging people to journal. Especially during this time where people will say ‘oh, it was horrific, we couldn’t go out of the house’.”
As someone who has experienced crippling anxiety (I have OCD) that left me unable to leave the house, her words are relatable. I’ve felt unnervingly calm.
“It’s because you’ve accepted the anxiety,” says Rea. “I’ve achieved so much during this lockdown and I don’t think I would have managed to get the campaign where it’s at if we weren’t going through this process. We’re locked away but I’m still be able to be creative.
“[There’s a time when] everyone who is ‘normal’ thinks you’re crazy, but when you get a global pandemic all the ‘normal’ people go crazy and all the crazy people are calm. But for people that don’t normally suffer [with anxiety], we can be an arm for them during this period and say ‘Do you know what, you’ll be OK. Go and try and do this. This is what I do when I feel like this.’ And another thing, and I don’t mean this is a nasty way, but I’ve dealt with stigma over the last few years with depression and anxiety. Now, people’s moods will be rapidly changing, and I think we might see more empathy and understanding towards people who suffer with mental illness. A lot of people who don’t [have experience with mental health issues] will experience it at some point during this process.”
She continues: “My concern is for people in their 20s to early 30s because something like this can trigger people into bipolar. People think it’s genetic. It is a chemical unbalance in the brain, but it can be triggered by trauma or an event, so that’s quite worrying. If people start to get these mood swings, like I did, where you have no control over your emotions, it can be very frightening. But this is why I am trying to get as much exposure for this campaign because I want support groups – like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous where you can just drop in – for mental health.”
If I’d had access to such a resource, my own journey with mental health might have been less isolating. Rea is on the wait list for a bipolar support group but was informed that it had reached capacity and they would be back in touch when there was availability. That was 18 months ago. “No disrespect to alcoholism because it’s a serious illness,” she says. “But why can’t we also have these things for mental health?”
We agree that, despite the horrible circumstances, the collective slowing down we’re currently experiencing is necessary. “We needed it. People were getting so mentally sick, but they were masking it. Lockdown is making people go within but it’s uncomfortable to do that.”
Naturally, our conversation turns to treatment. Personally, I think there needs to be a more honest and open conversation about the care we receive, and it certainly shouldn’t always be reliant on pharmaceuticals. While medication can – and does – work for a lot of people and in some cases is essential, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment. They are often prescribed for most mental health issues regardless of circumstance, and other methods of treatment are chronically underfunded. Rea writes in the book that her own experience with the health service was “pretty shabby to say the least”.
“It’s a real tricky one,” she acknowledges. “Because some people really do need it. Personally, I would rather not be on it. I’d rather be obsessed with the gym or yoga but if I do get really poorly in the future, I’ve accepted that I might need to go on medication. But if you are currently on medication, don’t just have that as your one treatment.”
Like me, Rea advocates for a more holistic approach to care including routine, diet and exercise – especially powerlifting, mediation and Kundalini yoga – as well as taking medication when she feels it’s necessary. She also cites acting and journaling as great outlets and credits her personal trainer, who caters her workouts to suit her needs, as helping her to manage her illness. “He’d tweak my diet. He would go and research certain things for me to eat during certain cycles of my mood. It sounds extreme when I say this, but he has saved my life a lot of times.”
More recently, Rea has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) rather than Bipolar Disorder but remains sceptical about immediately accepting the diagnosis. “Every time I went [for a review] I was offered medication,” she reveals. “I was never offered talking therapy or EFT [Emotional Freedom Techniques] or a free gym pass. It was just ‘these are a list of anti-psychotics, go away, have a think about which one you want’. I want to get to a point where we get a slot on TV where we can speak to psychologists, psychotherapists and scientists and instead of having a daytime slot doing makeovers with your hair and all that, we look at what is going on with the brain and these medications. People will watch it if it’s on daytime TV.”
She continues: “We are going to go into a pandemic of mental health after this and we’ll be giving diagnoses out left, right and centre and it worries me. That’s why I want to push this #SpeakOutLikeBrenda campaign because I always say to people, and I say it in the book, do not take the first diagnosis you’ve been given. You go and you get a second opinion. Everyone should be entitled to that.”
In another editor’s hands, Me, Myself and Bipolar Brenda is likely to be better written and stylistically more notable. There are several grammatical errors, miscellaneous spacing and repetition of words which, usually, would take my attention away from the narrative. But would a thoroughly edited version of this book take away from the story and strip away its authenticity? I think so.
Reading Rea’s words is like being privy to a friend’s diary or gorging on a letter from a pal, and there’s something quite special about that. Its realness is necessary. And while social media is awash with mental health awareness campaigns, there’s a huge difference between distributing mindfulness techniques for stressed out folk and sharing the story about the time you “stood in Tesco’s bread aisle and your stomach goes to literal shit as you convince yourself you’re going to die, or just have a heart attack”.
We need to listen to these imperfect, genuine tales of lived experience because that’s the truth about living with a mental illness.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
If you’re struggling, please don’t suffer in silence. Here are some resources that you might find helpful: The Samaritans – call 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (response time for email is 24 hours); Mind; Sane; Mental Health Foundation.
Watch Catherine Tyldesley deliver an emotional monologue from Me, Myself and Brenda as part of the #SpeakOutLikeBrenda campaign.