Life With Bipolar

Real life with ABC Sports Broadcaster, Craig Hamilton.

In 2000, while waiting to catch the train to Sydney from his home in Newcastle, NSW, to cover the Olympic Games for the ABC, sports broadcaster Craig Hamilton suffered a psychotic episode, believing he was Jesus Christ and had divine powers. Disturbed and abusive, he had to be restrained by police before being admitted to a psychiatric ward, where he was diagnosed with bipolar mood disorder, a debilitating but treatable mental illness. In the 12 years since, Craig, 49 and married with three children, has learned to manage his illness and has become an ambassador for the Beyond Blue organisation, a motivational speaker and an advocate for mental health issues in general. In these extracts from his honest and often humorous new book, A Better Life, Craig describes a manic episode in Sydney’s Kings Cross in 2010 after broadcasting an NRL game that afternoon.

When you just can’t sleep

4 September 2010, evening: When you don’t recognise the warning signs, you don’t get the help you need. It’s 10.30pm. I have to spend tonight in an inner-city Sydney hotel before catching an 8am flight to Canberra to cover another NRL game. The drive to town has been a blessing: traffic everywhere, all the cars and people and buildings and neon signs of the city like a living organism swaying back and forth, forcing me to focus. I check into my hotel. I am still dog-tired. I want to get to my room, turn out the light and sleep like the dead. I’ve stayed in this hotel so often that I know the staff, but tonight they look like faceless strangers. I still have no interest in human interaction and get my key while barely making a peep. Tick-tock.
I crawl to my room, tiredness crushing me. I’m tempted to sleep on the floor before I even get to the bed. My brain is full of dull nothing, the calm before the psychotic storm.

I do not want to be here. I want to be in Newcastle with Louise and the kids. I want their familiarity. I need their familiarity, some semblance of reassurance that it’s not happening again. Is it happening again? I take my medication, 1000 milligrams of the mood-stabilising drug Epilim. Given how I’ve been feeling, I should fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow, but I’m lying on my back, brain short circuiting — and my eyes fly wide open.

The first flag is raised. I’m staring at the ceiling, ramping up. It’s 12.30am . . . Here comes mania . . . 1.30am . . . Here’s Johnny . . . 2.30am . . . my mind is revving like a V8 engine. I have to get to sleep but it’s become impossible. Now I never want to sleep again. I’ve had bipolar disorder for more than a decade. I know what I need.

Managing stress levels, maintaining regular sleep patterns, taking my medications — they’re all important. But near the top of the list is this: I must sleep all night, every night. If I don’t, there will be trouble. Here comes trouble. My mood has done a complete U-turn. I’m wide awake, more awake than I’ve ever been in my life. I jump out of bed. Epilim is a mood stabiliser for depression or mania, whichever of the twin muggers gets me first. I’ve been waiting and waiting for the drug to kick in, waiting for the antidote to the snake’s poison to take effect, foot tapping, uncontrolled and unwell.

Delusional thoughts start ricocheting off the walls. Hours pass like seconds. In the blink of an eye it’s 3.30am. My pupils are bulging like the kid’s in A Clockwork Orange. I’m wired. I walk to the window and stare down at the streets of the swarming concrete jungle. Psychosis hits. I am no longer Craig Hamilton. I am St Francis of Assisi and I’m on a mission.

After dark

5 September 2010, 3.30am: Let’s face it, suffering is uncomfortable. It takes us to the edge. Sin City throbs with the drunks, the drug addicts, the lovers, the fighters, the hopeless, the depraved — and, soon enough, me. St Francis of Assisi knows suffering when he sees it. I must leave my hotel room and save these mortal souls. I will walk the streets and perform miracles. They. Will. All. Be. Saved.

I have a heightened, almost supernatural, feeling of connectedness to all other human beings. I am invincible, immune to negativity, flying on a higher and more enlightened plane. I will show the beaming light to all those in my path. It is complete sensory overload. The flight of ideas. They’re fleeting yet grandiose.

I am St Francis of Assisi. Of course I am! It is so clear to me, so rational. I must rescue the poor and the homeless. There is no time to waste. I can feel the suffering on the streets, I can smell it. The empathy is extreme. I want to give these people my heart.
I fling open the door of my hotel room, striding down the corridor, sweeping through the foyer like any religious figure worth his robes.

Staff have bemused looks on their faces. Pointing and grinning, they think I’ve had too many drinks, that I got stuck into the mini bar after the footy. They think I’m pissed as 10 parrots. Now I’m on George Street, in the very heart of Sydney, well past the witching hour. It’s 3.30am.

Nothing good happens after midnight. St Francis of Assisi is wearing a T-shirt — and nothing else. From the waist down, walking along the busiest street in the busiest city in Australia, I am naked.

Naked in Sydney

5 September 2010, early morning: St Francis of Assisi is immune to the pain that would ordinarily be spearing through his system from bare, wounded feet. I’m oblivious to humiliation or embarrassment, above this mortal world. At no stage do I feel my behaviour is unreasonable or irrational. At no time do I react to the catcalling, tut-tutting and wolf-whistling coming my way. I ignore all attempts to intimidate or mock me. I am a higher being. Negativity is non-existent. I am righteous and bold. I stride along George Street filled with the drive of divine purpose — but every time I approach someone, they run for the hills as if I’m a ghoul. I move away from George Street to trawl the back alleys, the homes of the homeless, the desperate and depraved. It’s dark and deserted down here. A man could get himself killed. At no stage do I think it is strange that I have no clothes on.

I feel no fear amid the sadness and seediness, just extreme empathy for the down-and-out. They’re everywhere, the skeletons of this world, the zombies, the living dead — and even they ignore me. Move along, they say, appalled by me. Beggars sleeping under newspapers and cardboard boxes scream at me: Get away! Get away! A decrepit old woman recoils. Whoever approaches her? No one. Except to threaten or abuse her. Why aren’t we all approaching her? Why doesn’t every last one of us want to rescue her? The people who most need help, like that old woman, no one goes near them. We can’t even bear to look at her. Unperturbed, I go back to George Street, the mission still incomplete. I’m dismissed as a drunk even though I’ve never been so sober in my life.

Halfway up George Street, the bitter cold snaps me back to my senses. I am Craig Hamilton and I’ve been walking the main street of Sydney barefoot and naked for two hours. I have to get out of here. Nightmares are made of being exposed in public and I’m living it. Suddenly, my feet are red raw and sore. Every step is like treading on broken glass. I shouldn’t be out here. I’m not really sure why I’m here . . . I walk another hundred metres . . . why am I here? . . . another hundred metres . . . I really shouldn’t be here . . . another hundred metres . . . the pain is killing me. Another hundred metres . . .I have to get back to my hotel now.

In the hotel foyer I ask myself: What in the hell are you doing? I cover myself the best I can, running to the lift, slamming the up button, bolting back along the corridor to my room — and . . . I don’t have a key. Pockets have been in short supply. It’s now
five in the morning.

The pain from my sliced and diced feet is very real. I’m lucid enough to know I’m not well. Back in the lift,
my fellow passengers are on their way to check out (and most likely never come back). You know those awkward moments in lifts when no-one speaks, everyone just staring at the numbers till you reach your floor? This is the awkward lift ride to top them all. In the foyer, I hurry over to reception and ask matter-of-factly: “Can I have another key, please?”

“Of course, sir,” is the reply. “Will there be anything else? Some clothes perhaps?” Standing there, I wonder why the staff just laugh as they hand over the key, rolling their eyes as if I’m a naughty schoolboy.

I have a very clear recollection of this night. Every last step. Mania isn’t like being hypnotised and having the memory of your lunacy vanish at the click of fingers. The reaction of the staff baffles me to this day. Their lack of intervention and concern. Why didn’t anyone try to stop me? Why didn’t anyone ask if I needed help? And how can a man expose himself in public for two hours, in the heart of Sydney, without being arrested?

In this next extract from A Better Life, Craig Hamilton explains how changes to his diet and, most importantly,
a regular long walk, has proved life-enhancing and made a huge difference to his daily wellbeing.

Nine-and-a-half kilometres

Only since my diagnosis have I started looking after myself. Only now do I look after myself properly. My first internal check-up comes as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. Where am I today? How am I travelling? High road? Low road? How am I really feeling? It has to be real: honesty with myself is paramount, otherwise the whole process is a waste of time.
A ludicrous part of pride is that sometimes not only do we steer clear of admitting our distresses to the people whose approval we seek, but we’re just as reluctant to come clean to ourselves. I run through my checklist of questions and answer them honestly. I think a lot of these routines are beneficial to everyone, not just people with mental illnesses. We all need to keep an eye on ourselves. If I’m not running around like a lunatic, or if I’m not dragging my heels and struggling to find the motivation to simply get out of bed and face the day, I know I’m ready to roll.

Diet-wise, I’m imperfect, but I do try. I eat fewer processed foods. Raw natural oatmeal is sprinkled on my cereal every morning.
I’ve slashed my coffee intake. When I first started in the media, I regularly drank five cups a day, two sugars in each. It was enough to blow my head off: a state of being, back then, I found appealing. That was too much caffeine and sugar, too much fake energy. The slump would come in the late afternoon, further proof that highs always lead to lows, ups necessitate downs; the whole lot a balancing act, a non-stop game of give and take, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I’m down to one coffee a day, occasionally two. I enjoy it because I just love a good coffee. I savour the smell and the taste and the gentle kick because I’m not slamming them down non-stop. It’s got to be espresso and it has to be of the highest quality. I’m not interested in the instant stuff. I gave that up a long time ago.

I have no sugar and feel a million bucks for it. I felt terrible without it for the first few weeks and definitely had withdrawal symptoms but I persevered . . . now I don’t even think about having sugar. It’s helped to even out my mood, as I’m no longer veering between an energy hit from the sugar followed by a slump when the effect wears off. I started cutting back by only having half a sugar.

The people at my local cafe, 3 Bean, start making my espresso as soon as I walk through the door. I like that. If I were somewhere else, in Sydney for instance, I’d get these strange looks in the cafes down there: you want half a sugar? You want me to open this sachet and pour in only half? Yes, thanks champ. That’s exactly what I want you to do. They roll their eyes. I couldn’t care less. Ask for half a sugar, you get half a sugar. Now there’s none at all. Quitting caffeine altogether is probably the ideal but I’m not as determined in that regard. I’ll never give up my daily hit. I’m a man with bipolar, not a Buddhist monk.

When it comes to fitness, my routine varies. The problem is that I get very bored, very easily. Swimming laps bores me stupid. I chop and change my routines to keep them fresh. Being at the beach, kicking off my shoes and going barefoot: that raw, earthy feeling of sand beneath my feet and between my toes is tremendously grounding when I’m feeling disconnected.

Everyone needs a special routine and place; one thing they know will make them feel completely free of worry. Mine is a 9.5 kilometre stretch of bliss, a meditation session with exercise — the best of both worlds. Even better: a meditation session without actually going into a meditative state. Louise’s brother, Matthew, introduced me to the 90-minute walk from Newcastle’s Ocean Baths to Merewether Beach and back. This is my sanctuary most Saturday mornings, so therapeutic that I spend the rest of the week looking forward to going back there.

From the baths, I walk up over Strzelecki Hill and down in front of the picture-perfect stretch of coastline that is Bar Beach, The Cliff, Dixon Park and Merewether, four beaches lined up in front of me like a string of diamonds. Strzelecki is a pretty steep climb. The view from the other side is breathtaking and the reward for having conquered it. On a sunny day, the water a luminescent blue, there’s no place on earth I would rather be. I stop at the bubbler, get a drink — even the drink thrills me because it’s all part of the routine.

I can taste how good the water is before I open my mouth. I can taste it on a Tuesday when my mind wanders back. I keep moving with a brain that tends to think about a lot of things at once, veering off in different directions without any instructions to do so. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have all these ideas zapping around in my head but it needs to be put on pause for a while.

The Bathers Way does it for me. Before then, dizzying is the right word to describe the stuff pinging round in there, an indecipherable blur of ideas. Focusing on one can be like looking out the window of a speeding car and trying to photograph a tree. There’s nothing wrong with having big ideas and a creative mind but it needs to
be controlled and organised.

The sensory overload of bipolar can be overwhelming but I know when I need to pull back, take my time, marvel at the natural beauty in the world. When I’m walking along The Bathers Way, I just have to look left and there it is — calm. The overload
is swallowed by the sea. What an incredible effect. What fantastic perspective the ocean provides. It reminds me of the endless parts of the world, all the way out to the horizon and beyond, that don’t revolve around me. Every day is different: the varying sizes of the waves; there might be 30 ships on the horizon or there might be none; the beach might be packed with people or it might be empty. It might be a sunbaked 30-degree day, it could be a bitter nine degrees, but the routine never changes — that’s
the important thing.

These 9.5 kilometres are freedom and clarity and the kill switch inside my brain when there’s too much going on. I can’t stop it myself, and that’s been important to realise. I need help and happily seek it. It’s neither a weakness nor an admission of defeat. It’s empowering to find assistance in your own little ways. The Bathers Way: at times when I need proof the sun really does come up every morning, I look left and there it is.

Looking at the rolling waves, getting some sun, powering through wind and rain so strong I can barely see, just casting everything aside for a while — nothing beats it. At Merewether there’s a blackboard with the water temperature on it. Thanks to whoever writes it up there every morning. It’s another tidbit that excites me: something else I can rely on, another mark in the road — and it lets me know, especially on bitterly cold winter mornings, what I’m in for when I take the plunge back at the Newcastle baths. In summer, the temperature will be between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius; in winter it might get down to 14 or 15.

Merewether’s blackboard is halfway along The Bathers Way. I turn past the silver foxes in their Speedos and head back towards Strzelecki. Everything at Bar Beach can have changed by the time I return. The wind might have picked up or dropped off, the tide might have shifted a bit, clouds might have gathered or disappeared — it’s a reminder of the impermanence of all that we see, think and feel. Everything shall pass. I get so invigorated. So refreshed and inspired.

Never will I walk The Bathers Way with an iPod blaring in my ears. My phone is off or absent. I don’t want to be taking calls, I don’t want any artificial noise, I just want to find my peace. I find calm in the steadiness of my own footsteps. I have started
to like time spent with myself. It’s a great challenge to keep your own company. It can be frightening but it has to be learned. Without an iPod, or music or phone calls, I’m getting the full experience.

I’ve started plenty of these walks in a restless mood but I’ve never finished in anything other than great spirits. I’m so into it I forget that I’m actually getting exercise in the process. The heart rate is up without it being too much of a hard slog. How good is this? That’s what I’m thinking, and what I want to be thinking as often as possible till the time comes to draw my last breath: how good is this! Back up Strzelecki, another stop at the beloved bubbler, back down the steps, back past King Edward Park, back to the Newcastle Ocean Baths. I’ve got a good core body temperature worked up by now, even in winter.

I grab my swimmers out of the car, get changed as fast as I can and dive straight in, regardless of whether the water is icy or idyllic. I think diving into the water is a metaphor. I know I want to do something, but if I think about it too much, if I dwell on it for too long, I’ll find reasons not to and it won’t happen. The water’s too cold. I don’t want to get a headache. I’ll catch the flu. I just don’t need this. I’d better play it safe and stay up here where it’s warm and risk-free. I’ve found that when I throw myself into the deep end — in the Newcastle Ocean Baths and in life — more often than not, I’m glad that I did.

The cold water jolts me. I’ve never felt so alive. I walk up and down the pool a few times, a bit of a recovery session for the legs. I’m in one big ice bath. I stay in for 10 minutes or so, the cold making my skin crackle and pop with energy. I understand now why surfers become so addicted to the rush of their dawn patrols. The first wash of salt water across my face is extraordinarily cleansing. In winter I climb out of the pool with the wind chill whistling and the temperature skidding to about seven degrees. That’s a maximum of seven. Straight under a hot shower in the change rooms. (Plenty of ocean baths and beaches don’t have hot showers, but Newcastle does.)

There’s no feeling to compare with warm water on cold skin. The raw, edgy vitality it provides. I can feel it from head to toe, endorphins releasing this incredible charge of energy. It’s a purely natural high. There’s no pain, no turmoil. I feel brand new, completely re-energised.

Getting into the car to drive off, I’m already thinking that I can’t wait for next Saturday. The buzz lasts an entire day. I have a coffee and it tastes like the best damn coffee I’ve ever had in my life. A deep breath and the realisation that everything is great.
I’m relaxed, alive, alert, every cobweb blown (and washed) away. Thoughts are clear and concise. I will continue to do this walk whenever possible and find some new ones to experience as well. And I’ll continue to look for other ways to support
my health and wellbeing.

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