‘Live fast, breakdown faster’ states the blurb. This is, indeed, the story of one young Scotsman, a Neil Armstrong, and his decent into manic depression. Athough he drinks excessively, indulges in casual sex, and plays in a post-punk band, his lifestyle is hardly ‘sex, drugs, rock n roll degeneracy’. He is a basically a shy bloke, mid-20s, living within a loving family.
This normality underpins everything. Bipolar illness is but one incarnation of the mental ill-health that will strike one in four of us at some point in our lives. Armstrong's own story commences with him being ‘sectioned’ (confined to a secure psychiatric ward), then unfolds in a series of lurid flashbacks. We get a strong sense of the events that contributed to his demise, and we see how it affects his family. The narrative is propelled by flashes of other traumatic events from his formative years – having been 15 when punk rock hit Edinburgh in the 70s, we are treated to vivid descriptions of early Clash gigs and being the victim of ‘punk-bashings’, tragic joyrides, experimentation with drugs. Through all this we gain a sense of the person eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And this is crucial. This is not just about an illness. This is about the people who falls ill.
Although BrainBomb is a novel, it is written like a diary. Events are non-linear, so the narrative zips backwards and forwards, sometimes to events in Armstrong's own youth, other times into imagined parallel existences. He might be ‘going slightly mad’ in his present, but this is juxtaposed with periods of genuine madness: he is beaten up by brownshirt thugs during a Nazi rally; he finds himself hunted by English soldiers after a medieval battle.
Fleming takes us into mental hospital wards populated by teenagers, young mothers, retired civil servants, students, football casuals and Indian train drivers. None of them will ever really know why mental ill-health has singled them out. But their illnesses are no different to anything else that would require medical treatment. As Armstrong states: "I had colleagues who were hoovering as much drink and drugs as myself, indulging in as many one-night stands. That fine line between mental health and ill-health was governed by minute chemical imbalances in the brain, not tallies of pints”.
There is abundant humour and self-deprecation in Fleming's semi-autobiographical story; and much tragedy. It all mirrors the unpredictability of bipolar illness. Without warning, it can twist from elation to despair.
Published by Chipmunka, who specialise in work by people who live with mental health issues, BrainBomb is a hugely entertaining read. There are highs and lows as it does strive towards the ‘light at the tunnel's end’. But it leaves you in no doubt that this tunnel is a very real place for a lot of people.