17/05/2016 12:58 BST | Updated 17/05/2017 06:12 BST

My Journey Through Bipolar to Making Music for Mind

Co-authored by Johanna McWeeney, violinist and writer.

I gently beat my head against the wall. I had spent three days speaking in an Irish accent whilst simultaneously pretending to be Donnie Brasco, the main character in one of my favourite gangster movies.

I was in the acute ward of an NHS psychiatric hospital and my psychosis was telling me two things; that the best way to survive was to make myself as intimidating as possible, and that I was in a film; an untouchable gangster. I was refusing medication and my condition was becoming critical.

In the days leading up to my sectioning, I remember waiting in a taxi outside the hospital. I'd booked the cab to take me to a local radio studio where I was due to be interviewed. The interview fell through because although I had managed to organise the press, the project I was promoting didn't exist. But I was there, with the meter running, shouting at the staff to let me out. You see, when you are bipolar, the line between extreme productivity and 'success', and descending into an episode is a thin one. The lines of reality become blurred.

During this time, my life and musical career were characterised by extreme highs and lows, synonymous with bipolar. I went from performing on stage at a sold-out O2 arena to wrestling with police officers face down in the mud at the edge of a test race-track, having been apprehended both speeding and trespassing, convinced I was being trailed by Middle Eastern military personnel.


This was the incident that prompted my third sectioning. I don't want to go into much more detail about what happened in the hospital or in the lead up to being sectioned. I have two young children and I wouldn't want them to read it. But it was traumatic for me and for those around me. I remember yearning to leave. I remember looking at the car park, the people who could come and go freely, and wishing that I was one of them. I remember wishing that I wasn't me!

Since those days on the ward, things have improved dramatically. My life has been re-built thanks to an amazing support network. I look out for triggers, and close friends and family will look out for warning signs that I might be becoming manic - over-use of social media, too many late nights, trying to act on too many ideas at the same time and not taking any time to slow down. Bipolar, along with alcoholism, is one of the only diseases that tells you that you don't have it, so leading a normal life involves avoiding the denial around my illness. I take the medication that works for me, I don't drink and I try to do the next loving thing for others. I regularly get it wrong, but I try. And helping others with mental health and addiction issues is a massive part of my own recovery.

My journey with bipolar affected and was affected by my music. All the time I was in hospital I played my cello as much as possible, and I really think that saved my life. I'm in a really positive place now, working on a new album, Language of the Heart, with my group the Santiago Quartet. Two and a half years ago I was volunteering in a YMCA kitchen and on benefits. Now I'm looking forward to making an album full of music that I believe in and collaborating with musicians and composers who write from the heart. That is nothing short of a miracle for me!

We're recording a string quartet by the composer Will Todd, and some wonderful Latin American Music by Piazzolla and an arrangement of Eric Clapton's Tears in Heaven with the Argentinean bandoneon virtuoso, César Olguin. We're raising the funds to make the album on Indiegogo, and using the campaign to promote Mind, the mental health charity, who will receive proceeds from sales of the album.

The words of Tears in Heaven particularly resonate with me.

"I must be strong, and carry on."

You don't need to be defeated by or ashamed of having a mental health condition. If people aren't prepared to talk to you about it, find people who will. You are not alone. Be productive. Be creative. Be courageous. You can have a mental illness and a great life.

Please check out our Indiegogo campaign page, watch our video and consider donating to help us complete the album!


Image credit: David Morgan