Skip to main content

From Pole to Pole

10 min read

This is a story about living with a mood disorder...

Sick Note

Type II Bipolar Disorder took a long time to diagnose, despite a fairly obvious pattern of moods that can be easily traced back to adolescence. Of course, we all have mood fluctuations, but it's the extremity of those moods that qualifies something as a disorder.

I would say that hypomania was the more obvious one of of my pathological moods. Being able to concentrate and work with great intensity, with little sleep & food and a refusal to be diverted from my task, an irritability for distractions, hypersexuality, spending loads of money, risk-taking. Talking seems too slow to express your thoughts... the speed that you're thinking is too fast to explain to anybody else, to put into words. You're just a blur of activity.

It felt like driving with the hand-brake engaged for a lot of my life. I was always waiting for the next slim window of opportunity to work on something that I loved. Whether that was the Design & Technology at school, where there was never enough time to finish what I was working on before the end-of-class bell, or the lego model I was making, before it was mealtime and playtime was over.

Of course, we all have to work within a timetable, and we all have to eat & sleep, but these things always made me feel like I had to rush at everything I did as fast as I possibly could, in the hope that one day, I would complete one of my projects. I also grew incredibly frustrated with the limitations of timetables, mealtimes, bedtimes.

Switching to the world of work, there wasn't actually very much to do. Most people did very little. I ended up searching around for extra things to do.


The computer network at my first full time job ran like an absolute dog. That was because AppleTalk traffic from the office Macs and their printers was polluting the Ethernet traffic from the Sun SparcStations. I managed to talk my friend Lucas into helping me to rewire all the cables one evening.

OCD Cable

I wish I could show you the actual images, but we weren't even supposed to be in the server room. This was a Ministry of Defence prime defence contractor with a high level of security clearance. The two junior programmers aren't supposed to go and fix all the networking problems in the office without any authorisation.

The next morning, everybody was commenting how amazingly well the network was running. Lucas & I obviously couldn't claim any credit, because we had acted without authority, but nobody was going to do a witch-hunt when everybody was so pleased that the most major problem affecting everybody in the office had been solved overnight.

That's pretty much how a person with Bipolar Disorder hides out in a corporation. You bumble along, bored, depressed, coming in late, demotivated... and then you suddenly pull something out of the bag that nobody else would risk their career to do, let alone the lack of sleep and unsociable hours.

Bosses seemed to just accept my erratic working patterns, knowing that when there was something that needed doing with an impossible deadline, that's normally around the time I'd wake up and start hacking something together.

Late Message

It all kind of hung together until I started at a new company in 2008 and the project they were asking me to do was so huge, I didn't know where to begin. I was just entering a depression, which was bad timing. There was also a cultural problem, where their in-house IT staff built everything using Microsoft Excel, and any 'proper' software was built by Oracle consultants or bought off the shelf... but nobody liked those big expensive systems.

My depression got so bad I couldn't even get out of bed or stop crying randomly. I knew I wasn't going to bounce back quickly from that one. After a couple of months I quit that job and started making iPhone games in my back garden. 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. I couldn't go fast enough.

And so began a completely unstructured phase of my life. I would take on a project or interest, completely immerse myself in it for as many hours as I could stay awake, and stay obsessed with that single task until I burnt out. Then I would be depressed, and with no reason to even drag myself out of bed and go and be miserable at work, I would just be depressed all day in bed. I stopped answering my phone. I stopped answering the door. I never opened the curtains.

Being self-employed after 11 or so years of 9 to 5, Monday to Friday structure and routine, is kind of a red rag to a bull, if you have a tendency towards mood instability.

I relished those periods of hypomania. I wrote a series of iPhone games. I built a wooden summer house. I read a huge pile of books on Theoretical Physics and had lengthy email conversations with professors around the world, I wrote a mobile eLearning system and launched it at Learning Technologies conference, I decided that I wanted to be a startup founder and applied for TechStars, I learnt all about Bitcoin, bought Bitcoin miners and started mining in my summer house, I traded Bitcoin for profit, I wrote my own virtual CPU so I could attack algorithms like SHA-256, I started investigating security loopholes in things like internationalised domain names and the Google and Facebook developer platforms.

It's not long before you stray into legal grey areas though, so a lot of my projects have been shelved and I've had to go on raiding missions back to the corporate world, to stay afloat financially. These are normally timed with my hypomania, so a company gets 3 months of incredible productivity, and then a month or two of me being depressed, and then we normally go our separate ways.

My depressions have gotten worse and worse. They seem to last longer, and I've actually started to harm myself more & more. It's strange, when you emerge from a depression and enter a period of hypomania though... you can't remember just how dark those previous days were. There's no rational voice that says "hey! slow down, or else you're going to crash again!". Instead, the voice says "better go as quick as you can, because we know a crash is coming again soon".

Down the Road

So how do we know that depression is the pathological mood at the other pole from my hypomania? Well, I sleep. A lot. Sometimes 16 hours a day. When I'm awake I have very low energy, low motivation. I have no interest in things I'd normally find enjoyable. I don't want to see or speak to anybody. I generally think that everything is pointless, broken, useless, hopeless. Lots of negative memories keep coming into my head, and make me think "I can't believe I said/did that" with extreme regret, embarrassment, shame. I think the world would be better off without me. I start to do pros & cons of living lists, either in my head or written down. I start to think of ways to kill myself, and what affairs I would need to set in order before I committed suicide. This goes on for weeks, months.

I've written before about trying mood stabilisers and antidepressants. The side effects just aren't compatible with good quality of life. You might think that risk to life outweighs quality of life, but it doesn't, especially when you have the waves of hypomania to surf, before crashing onto the rocks of depression.

My body and my mind seems to have decided to adapt itself to this world, to this society, to this environment. We applaud the kid who busts their balls to study for their exams, and can then collapse in a heap during the school holidays. We applaud the employee who pulls the all-nighters and comes in at weekends when work is behind schedule. We applaud the 'overnight success' stories, when an impressive project is unveiled, seemingly created out of thin air, as if by magic. There is no magic. It's just an unsustainable burst of energy, focus, determination, single-mindedness and a touch of madness.

Hospital Note

I'd like to go back to the routine I once had, pre-2009. Only I don't seem to be able to retrace my steps, yet. I know the formula that used to work, and a very dear and trusted friend urges me to take a permanent job, and he's probably right to some extent. However, if it all goes horribly wrong again, I would have earned a fraction of what I would have done in a contract.

I'm hoping I can find my little niché. Somewhere I can deliver more value than keeping a seat warm from Monday to Friday. Somewhere where the bosses are more interested in results than headcount in their empire. Pretentious? Moi?

I don't really care whether you think I should cheer the fuck up or calm the fuck down... my moods seem pretty intent on doing whatever they want to do. I've been fully aware of the calamitous consequences of not keeping my mouth shut at the right time, or not getting out of bed and doing some urgent crap. It doesn't really feel like I'm choosing even if it does look like a choice to you, as an outside observer.

This looks like a load of angst-filled teenaged immature self-centred selfish drivel. It probably is. I call it my life.

I'm probably more self-aware than you give me credit for. If you're thinking "oh my God, can you even hear what you're saying? Can you even hear yourself?" the answer is yes, yes I can. I spend a lot of time cringing and wishing things weren't so, and indeed wondering why I'm like a moth to a flame so often. I can see the train wrecks before they happen. I've plotted my mood and activity data, and the patterns are as clear as day. So what?

I'm sure there are days when you'd really like to be a bird, just soaring on the air currents above the ground, looking down on people & buildings. It doesn't matter how badly you want to be a bird. It doesn't matter how rational it seems, to become a bird and just fly right over that traffic jam that's getting in your way, it's not actually possible. That's a bit like those days when I would really like to feel normal. I can want it, but it's not actually possible. Anybody who tells you that you can stop worrying or be happy just by choosing is full of shit. You have my permission to punch them in their smug mouth.

So, I'd say my experiment with abstinence was a failed one. We need a little alcohol to calm our nerves. We need a little caffeine to perk us up. We know when we need it, and most of us know our limits. We're pretty adept creatures at tweaking our own moods. We probably need a pet for a bit of soothing oxytocin. We probably need a girl/boyfriend for a bit of serotonin and a squirt of dopamine. Other than that, we just need something to keep our minds occupied as a distraction from the inevitability of death and decay. Not God though. God is for crazy people.

Anyway, that's my two cents, on my two poles: Type II Bi-polar Disorder.