World Bipolar Day: Blue devils and mad tornadoes

In my paper presented at the January Burns conference, for the first time, I shared some of my research that points fairly strongly to Robert Burns having been affected by bipolar disorder in his life.

Since today is World Bipolar Day, established to bring awareness and work towards the elimination of stigma associated with the condition, I thought it would be a great chance to write a little more about what bipolar disorder is and how it affected Burns’s life.

I’ve been tweeting snippets through the day (on @bluedevilism) but this fills out the picture.

So…bipolar disorder…what is it? It’s one of the group of conditions known as mood disorders (along with recurrent depression and cyclothymia). It’s characterised by episodes of abnormally lowered mood or abnormally elevated mood. People affected by Type I bipolar will experience depression and mania – severe elevation of mood which can include delusions and hallucinations, and severely impairs daily life; Type II bipolar disorder also has depression but alongside less severe hypomania (this is the type Burns was likely affected by).

Organisations such as Bipolar Scotland are a great source of additional information about both types of bipolar disorder, support for people and their families who are affected by a bipolar diagnosis and details of other organisations who can help. Well worth a look!

So what can we say about Robert Burns and bipolar disorder? Well, eventually, quite a lot. It’s really taken the past 18 months just to sift through all his letters and personal writing, exploring whether there was enough evidence to come to a conclusion about a possible diagnosis. Work is ongoing to add in further evidence that comes from his friends and family, and I’m also now starting to properly explore the impact that Burns’s mental health has on his life.

But even now, at this relatively early stage, it’s clear that both his depressed and elevated moods had an impact on his life and his creativity.

Sometimes we see Burns in particularly dark places. He perfectly captures the despair that is characteristic of his depression when he writes to Agnes McLehose:

“Sick of the world, and all its joy,

My soul in pining sadness mourns:

Dark scene of woe my mind employ

The past and present in their turns.”

(20th January 1788)

But at other times, he proudly declares his brilliance in grandiose language that captures the energy and high spirits of his hypomania:

“By all probability I shall soon be the tenth Worthy, and the eighth Wise Man, of the world.”

(To Gavin Hamilton, 7th December 1786)

Most of the letters written by Burns that still exist were written in the last 10 years of his life, so this is the window of time that I’m focusing on, and within this period there are several episodes of both depressed and elevated mood. Through his letters, it becomes clear that, as well as affecting his day-to-day life in terms of how much work he felt capable of undertaking (if any! There are some depressions which leave him unable to get out of bed), Burns’s moods also affected his creativity.

This is an aspect I’m particularly interested and will be spending some time exploring in more depth. And the starting points will be Burns’s own words.

To his mind, he sees his depression reflected in his poetry:

“I am so harassed with Care and Anxiety…my Muse has degenerated into the veriest prose-wench that ever picked cinders.”

(To Robert Cleghorn, 31st March 1788)

But also realises that at its most severe, it can silence his Muse altogether:

“I have, all this winter, been plagued with low spirits & blue devils, so that I have almost hung my harp on the willow-trees.”

(To James Johnson, February 1794)

In contrast, his hypomania can be a tinder spark, heightening his senses and his creativity, irresistibly driving his to new compositions:

“My passions when once they were lighted up, raged like so many devils, till they got vent in rhyme.”

(To John Moore, 2nd August 1787)

There are tantalising hints that Tam O’Shanter, the poem that Burns himself felt was his finest piece of work, came, at least in part, from just such a raging passion.

But in writing these words to John Moore, Burns also shows us that he had an awareness of the variations of the moods that he experienced. Other letters also show that he had a sense of not being on control of them, that the instability was something that wasn’t always related to whatever else was going on in his life. At one point, he tries to rationalise it as an effect of the moon:

“For me, I am just the same will-o’-wisp being I used to be. – About the first, and fourth quarters of the moon, I generally set in for the trade-winds of wisdom; but about the full, and change, I am the luckless victim of mad tornadoes, which blow me into chaos.-“

(To Richard Brown, 30th December 1787)

As strange as it may sound, he’s perhaps not too far off the mark. There are seasonal connections with phases of bipolar disorder, and initial analysis suggests that this also played a role in Burns’s condition.

Perhaps more interesting is Burns’s perception of the interconnectedness of his moods and his poetic propensity:

“I am, as most people of my trade are, a strange will o’ wisp being;”

(To Agnes McLehose, 28th December 1787)

“I need not recount the fairy pleasures the Muse, to counterbalance this catalogue of evils, bestows on her Votaries.”

(To Helen Craik, 9th August 1790)

For Burns, his moods were both a blessing and a curse. They affected his daily life, for better or worse, and without them, he would not have been the poet he was. His moods were simply part and parcel of who he was, as much an aspect of his character as his religion, his politics or his rural upbringing.

And so it is for those affected by bipolar disorder today. Their condition is only one aspect of who they are; while it shapes them, it does not define them. And it certainly does not exclude them from being valuable contributors to all areas of life.

At the end of the day, to misquote Burns, a man is just a man for a’ that.

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