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A Lurid Story of Bi-Polar Illness



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BrainBomb by Mark Fleming
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"A rollercoaster ride through one young man's mind"
5 stars"

‘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.


Description 'BrainBomb' is a novel telling the lurid story of bi-polar illness from the inside. It is related as an ongoing blog, with flashbacks, and deranged fantasies instigated by insomnia. It details the manic highs and terrifying lows of a condition that is much commoner than society would like to think. Most importantly, it is about the light at the end of the tunnel. About the Author In the 70's he loved the Sex Pistols. In the 80's he loved casual sex and binge-drinking. But in 1987 his mind underwent a meltdown. He found himself in a secure psychiatric ward of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. Book Extract "This felt like the ultimate bad acid trip. One moment I was lounging on my bed, gawking at a Siouxsie and the Banshees poster. Next I was screaming my lungs raw while head-butting Siouxsie Sioux. The panic attack was so ferocious it had dissolved my sanity. The depression that had reduced me to a hermit had spiralled out of control. Reality was finally slithering from my grasp. My illness had tapered to this point of extreme delusion. I was hysterical; babbling nonsense. I was convinced I was undergoing a metamorphosis. I imagined my mind was emptying of all rational thought. I dislodged the poster. Instead I turned my attention to the large mirror on the wall, convinced this was a portal to Hell and I was being inexorably sucked in. All semblance of normality or joy, aspirations or happy memories were exposed as being brittle, meaningless nonentities. My feverish internal ramblings were roaring this truth to me: this was what awaited all of us on the other side; this was what the scribes of every religious persuasion had been scratching and scrabbling around for centuries as they had prophesied the nature of Hell. Part of me was still rebelling against the nonsensical nightmare. But an equally warped notion entered my mind: the only way to counter all this was to smash the mirror; to destroy this vortex, to shatter the gateway to oblivion. If the cold-blooded shrieking wasn't bad enough, the sight of me smacking my head into a sheet of plate glass scared the living fucking daylights out of my mother and father who had been watching a Two Ronnies video under the impression I'd gone to bed hours before. Dad desperately tried to keep me pinned to the floor. I squirmed, my face purple with bruising, yelling to be left alone to complete my task, to crack the glass.
Release date NZ
June 25th, 2009
Country of Publication
United Kingdom
black & white illustrations
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