Goth and Bipolar in America: A Journey in Full Color
By: Catherine Lee Cunningham
In the early 70’s, I was born to some pretty young parents. I was a serious child and I went on to be a moody teen. But then, who wasn’t ? I never thought anything was wrong with me in my teens. It was totally normal for any 15 year old in the 1980’s to listen to Depeche Mode alone by candlelight and cry, right? That’s where the story really begins. Despite it all, I had good grades. I gravitated toward the kids who wore black and listened to New Wave music. Back in the 80’s though, I had never heard the word Goth. Instead, the kids at my school called us Wavers.
It was fun. I was a little too quiet and a bit lonely but I did okay. Then I hit college and I just downward -spiraled. It was now the 90’s and my previously awesome grades plummeted. Soon I found connection and self-expression in the now-called Goth scene. It was unique and strange and I adored it.
In high school I never drank, did drugs, or had sex. I was a good girl, as they say. In college, rules no longer applied. I lived in the dorms and I relished my new lack of supervision. As my grades fell, I partied and went clubbing at the Goth clubs more and more. I experimented with everything: alcohol, a few drugs, sex. I was moody and destructive. There was a distinct series of highs and lows. Amazing, colorful exuberant, passionate periods and deep, dark despairs. I had no idea what was going on. My parents had enough and I was soon sent to a psychiatrist.
After a lot of questionnaires and talking about my life and my moods, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was around 20. The early 20’s are quite often the age when bipolar disorder rears it’s sometimes ugly head. I say sometimes because being bipolar is not always terrible. Hypomania can be filled with joy, ecstasy, and it opens the floodgates of creativity. It is a slippery slope though. Amazing highs can quickly become destructive with overspending from the bank account, promiscuous behavior, and uncontrollable irritability. Any mood can flip on a dime. The other side of bipolar disorder is depression, hence the old-world name for bipolar disorder: manic-depression.
Depressions can be mild or they can be Dark Night of the Soul terrifying. I remember in ’94 I was in the midst of one of these deep, dark depressions. I was laying down on the couch in my studio apartment in Capitol Hill in Denver. I was 21, a college student, and I was a mess. On the TV, a news alert came on saying that Kurt Cobain of Nirvana had killed himself. I started crying, not only because I was a Nirvana fan but because, in my state of despair, my heart and soul reached out for his heart and soul. I felt his pain, I knew his pain. I swore to myself I would never go so far as to kill myself. I have kept that promise to myself. I have never even tried to kill myself, though in wild rages, I’ve made the threat. I’m ashamed of that. I have had some serious darkness in the years since then, but I always wanted to live. I just wanted the pain to go away, because, all in all, I do love life.
From about age 18-38, my absolute joy was the Goth scene. It was the playground for my moods, my indulgences, my impulses, and my creativity. I will always love Goth, be Goth, and like Goth things. It is a vibrant, unique scene with endless interesting people. Or at least it was the last time I went to a Goth club in about 2011. For me, with bipolar disorder, the Goth scene was a vibrant, creative, dangerous landscape for me. I was able to express myself, dance, socialize, and listen to great, soul-shaking music. I felt beautiful, sexy, and full of life then.
For someone like me, the Goth scene was living on the edge. I got very serious into drinking, promiscuity, and it led to many terrible consequences. But I kept going. I kept partying. Clubs, concerts, after parties…I did it all. I saw so many amazing bands: Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Legendary Pink Dots, Bauhaus, Skinny Puppy, Ministry, and my absolute life-defining show: front row center with David Bowie in the 90’s. I lived, oh man, I lived. Bipolar disorder made me seek epic experiences.
I also suffered. A LOT. My moods were sparked by such an intense scene. I went seeking passion and high moments as my personality and mood dictated. I got my heart broken countless times as my mental illness caused me to be an obsessed, crazy girl over any man that struck my fancy. I thought it was them, but actually it was both of us. First, I just chose all the wrong men. Second, I proceeded to obsess over them and chase them away. Bipolar disorder filled every corner of my world. There was nothing it didn’t touch.
As an artist I produced abstract paintings with colors springing off of pure, black backgrounds. It was a pretty poetic expression of bipolar, black and bursts of color, but I didn’t know it then. During my depressions I wrote dark poetry. I do believe bipolar disorder made me the person and the artist I am. I am proud of every painting I did and every poem I wrote.
So, what happened, you ask, to make me ditch the Goth scene in 2011? Nothing the Goth scene did, though I was aging and looking for something more. The truth is, I fell in love. Finally! Maybe for the first time. I met Jason on Facebook of all places, and in 2011, he came with a 2 year old in tow. There was normal “in love” obsessiveness at the beginning but overall, I have never had any negative obsession with him. I have been VERY bipolar around him though. Everyone else left, he stayed. I’m laying here writing this on my laptop beside our now 10 year old daughter. He. Stayed.
The Goth scene no longer meant as much to me as this new thing did. He didn’t make me leave the Goth scene, I just no longer wanted to stay. I preferred movies and board games and endless love at home. I just shifted into a new version of me. A wife, a mama, an artist, a woman managing the shifting moods with 4 awesome pills and a whole lot of love.
It hasn’t been all perfect. When you’re dealing with a mental illness, there is no such thing as perfect. Recently I was off my meds and put myself and everyone through hell until I got through it. It started with insurance issues and not knowing how to get help or pay for things. I spent 8 months experiencing deep depressions and irritable, maddening manias. It was no fun for anyone. I’ve never been in so much mental pain.
Recently, I’ve gotten back on my meds and I’m feeling amazing. Our life together as a family keeps getting better and better. I’ll tell you a little secret: bipolar people don’t like to take their meds. It’s a phenomenon. We don’t like to be controlled by pills. We think our meds dampen who we are. We think our meds ruin the creativity that comes with mania. It’s a thing. Maybe there’s some truth in it. But you know what? I no longer care. I can still paint and write poems, but the truth is, I would rather feel stable and balanced, even if it keeps me from painting the next Mona Lisa. I owe it to myself and my family to take my meds.
Most bipolar people who are dangerous or overly destructive are not getting the help that they need, whether from an imperfect healthcare system, lack of medication, or not having a solid support system. Overall, bipolar people are not monsters or psychos. We are simply people with a chemical imbalance in our brains that sometimes causes us to feel too deeply. We are your friends, your brothers, your sisters, your mothers and fathers. Despite all the crazy stuff you see in the news or in movies, most bipolar people are taking their meds and living regular lives just like you.
Please, bipolar people out there…take your meds. If you’re not on meds, please seek the help that you need. You don’t have to suffer. Don’t forget that you are not the only one who suffers from your bipolar disorder. Your partner suffers, your parents, your children. It’s not ALL about you. Take care of yourself. Take care of those who love you.
We all have a responsibility to help the mentally ill among us. Support and love are as strong elixirs for the mentally ill as pharmaceuticals. We just want to be loved and accepted. We want to live full, happy, balanced lives. It’s not always within reach, especially by ourselves, but with your help, your understanding, we can do this.