At war with manic state bipolar
A soul-baring account of an ex-paratrooper’s battle with mental illness
Adam Pearce spent his 21st birthday identifying murdered children in a Bosnian trench and tying brown tags to their toes.
The trench measured eight miles long, 16 feet wide and six feet deep. The children were aged six months to six-years-old.
The former paratrooper, now 46, has been fighting his own personal war with bipolar from the age of 13.
Following the five years he served in the British armed forces, Adam’s condition was exacerbated by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and left undiagnosed until 2014.
It was not until 2011 he sought medical help for the first time.
“I’ve never been good at opening up to people. I don’t know why,” he said.
“Never want people to know too much about me, sort-of-thing.
“Being at a point where I was at absolute rock bottom, emotionally and mentally, I told my GP he had to do something there and then. I thought I was going insane.
“Once I opened my mouth, it all came flooding out in one session.
“I scared myself how much came out.”
What followed was a four-and-a-half-year period during which Adam attended weekly counselling sessions for PTSD, followed by anger management, depression, severe and manic depression, before being formally diagnosed in 2014 with manic state bipolar and rapid cycling.
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With links to genetics, bipolar is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and is characterised by severe mood swings which range from extreme highs, known as mania, to extreme lows, known as depression.
Adam paused and contemplated how to convey his episodes.
“If you imagine your thoughts to be like voices,” he said.
“So you’re in a big room. It’s jam packed like sardines and everyone is screaming something different at you.
“You’re trying to pick out one voice from all that mess and it becomes rather overwhelming when, in reality, you’re on your own.
“You start to think how can I switch off?
“The same applies to your emotions. Imagine every person is wearing a t-shirt. Each one is an emotion and you’re wearing and feeling every one of them all at once.
“Nine times out of ten, you don’t have any reason for feeling them so you question where they come from, and why. But it’s that chemical imbalance in the brain.”
Manic episodes such as Adam’s last at least one week and are severe enough to impair a person’s ability to function.
“It is like being an emotional yoyo,” he added.
“You’re constantly up and down.”
The assessor who confirmed Adam’s diagnosis noticed he had eight mood changes in ten minutes which she identified through the way he reacted to questions, from his facial expressions and in his eyes.
She asked normal questions and he experienced a multitude of different emotions during that time — from boredom to frustration, from anger to regret.
Symptoms include inflated self-esteem, a decreased need for sleep, the feeling of thoughts racing, increased goal-directed activity and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.
An example of when Adam has demonstrated such symptoms was the night he stole a car which he deliberately drove into a wall, one year after leaving the army.
“I felt a mixture of insane happiness and wanting everything to end,” he said.
“In my teens, I’d always go a little bit further, not to hurt anyone else but me.
“Who can climb the highest tree and let go? That was me. Climb a 30ft tree, not be able to get down, think sod it, and let go.
“I carried that through to the army and I did things I don’t think anybody sane would do.”
Adam’s rapid cycling means he experiences four or more manic and depressive episodes per year and they occur in frequent, distinct patterns.
“It’s not a cycle because you do have breaks, but it doesn’t seem like it at times when you keep coming back to the same things over and over again,” he explained.
“Once the thought has taken root, you replay everything which can take days weeks, months or years.”
The lowest point Adam recalled was after he broke his spine in a car crash which prevented him from returning to the army.
He and his friend, a former army medic, were driving to see a friend’s newborn baby in Maidstone, Kent, when another car hit them head-on.
Killed on impact, the body of a 17-year-old drunk driver flew into their car and landed between them, along with the car’s engine. Adam’s friend, left in shock with two cracked ribs, has not driven since.
However, Adam’s reaction was somewhat different.
“At the time, I processed it very quickly and shrugged it off the next day,” he said, “but months later, thoughts and images of it would creep back in.”
Like most people who suffer with bipolar, Adam struggles to identify the cause of his dramatic mood swings, made worse by the traumas he has witnessed.
His best friend committed suicide from guilt harnessed from serving in the armed forces, when he shot at a movement in the road which transpired to be a child running to pick up a toy.
“He killed the kid,” Adam said.
“He came back, acted like nothing was wrong.
“Then his wife came home to find him dead in the garage.”
Adam explained his initial reaction to trauma and death can be very matter of fact, and described himself as a fatalist. Having lost many childhood friends, his initial response is often, ‘thanks for letting me know.’
But his best friend’s suicide was difficult to process, worsened by his bipolar.
Years on, Adam experiences looping feelings of questioning, guilt and hate, as if it occurred yesterday.
But there is a funny side to bipolar which Adam shared too.
“Life’s a pile of sh*t most of the time and you’re bouncing off the walls,” he mused.
“There are times when you can’t help laughing at the most inappropriate of things at the most inappropriate of times. I’ve even laughed at funerals.”
He drew the conversation to a close and concluded: “We’re all driven by emotions, every last one of us on this earth.
“The difference is, some of us have those emotions so intensely that they can’t be controlled or understood.
“It’s a crazy world we live in. Being bipolar, sometimes I think if I can’t make sense of myself, how the hell am I gonna make sense of what’s going on around me?