MONTEGO BAY, St James — Diagnosed with bipolar type 1 disorder at the age of 16, Kingston film-maker Gemmar McFarlane knew that his life would change forever.
However, stating that this diagnosis “was not a death sentence”, McFarlane told the Jamaica Observer that support from loved ones and discipline to follow up on treatment have helped him manage the mental illness he has been living with for 11 years.
Sharing the events leading up to his diagnosis, McFarlane said that he “started exhibiting some strange behaviours” before moving on to sixth form at Ardenne High School.
“The first episode was religious themed so you know you have a… fanatical obsession with religion, thinking that you are on some sort of a mission. It got to a delusional degree, so with me I believed that I was seeing demons and that I was some sort of messiah at one point,” he told the Sunday Observer.
He noted that his parents immediately recognised something was “wrong” due to the extreme changes in his personality and sought solutions.
“They immediately thought of demon possession because of the religious theme which is common worldwide… either you have a messiah complex or you think you have abilities that you do not have,” McFarlane explained.
“At this point everybody was trying to figure out what was going on, so we were trying different things. We were trying to pray and everything under the sun until I eventually ended up at the hospital where a doctor looked at me and said, ‘Let’s try some psychiatric treatment’, which took us on another journey to finding the right medication,” he shared.
Throughout this tumultuous journey towards acceptance and treatment, McFarlane’s family and friends stood behind him encouragingly every step of the way.
“Luckily my family is very supportive, so their mission was, to the best of their knowledge and abilities, to figure out how to not get rid of me, but this was a challenge,” he said.
“They know religion, so they tried the religious route, and then they were educated that it’s a mental thing, so they tried to get me medication and therapy with a psychiatrist. Friends also stepped in,” McFarlane added.
He explained that the strong support that he has received from loved ones during his initial diagnosis is “crucial” for an individual learning that they will now be living with a mental illness.
“I would say I have a good support system, which is crucial for someone with my illness. The worst thing you can do is isolate and the bipolar person is going to want to isolate, which is a very bad thing. You leave someone like that alone with their thoughts and they don’t have any pushback or any sort of contingency then that is when the real problem starts,” McFarlane told the Sunday Observer.
“That is when it escalates and it gets worse. But if you have a support system that knows how to get them help and bring them down, then you are in a much better position and everybody benefits more at that point,” he added.
It was never an easy journey for the 27-year-old. Though he was aware of the lifestyle changes that should come with treating his mental illness, McFarlane made some mistakes along the way which triggered bipolar episodes.
After being attacked by men during a manic episode late at night in 2017, McFarlane decided to take serious steps to treat and control his illness.
“When a bipolar person isolates and they don’t have people around who know the real you, then you have situations where you buck up on people who assumes your personality based on what they see before them. Some young men who saw me acting a little erratic perceived me as a threat and so their recourse was to deal with the violence. I escaped with a broken jaw. It could have been worse, but I managed to run away and found some help in the hospital,” said McFarlane.
“It has been years since I’ve had actual episodes and that is because I found a treatment that works early and I try to follow my treatment. Of course, there were a few years when I was on and off with my treatment and that led up to the last episode. Then I decided to take it seriously. It is a lifetime adjustment, so you make sure to get enough rest, eat, exercise, and manage your stress because that is a huge trigger,” he told the Sunday Observer.
Some lifestyle changes that come with a mental illness diagnosis might discourage individuals from taking treatment, but it was through these adjustments that McFarlane found solace.
“You can’t live the way you lived before. I think that’s the mistake a lot of people make. So you come off an episode and you go into denial that it was just a one-off thing or you get super confident after being on medication for a while and you are like, ‘Well, nothing is happening, I guess I can stop’ and then you have another episode. So you have to discipline yourself and know that you cannot smoke because it is not recommended and you have to drink alcohol in moderation,” said McFarlane.
Acknowledging that he has come a far way since his diagnosis, McFarlane said he does not see bipolar disorder as a deterrent to pursuing his dreams in the film and production industry. He has since worked on countless productions locally and has started his own production company Gemagination Studios.
“I have a more flexible work situation. We do films, commercials, and TV shows. We are currently doing production for a short film that we want to take internationally. I also work as a production manager at a marketing agency and we are doing TV shows like Maggie Food Court. I am doing big things. It is not a death sentence. You can make something of yourself,” said McFarlane.
“After realising it’s something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life, like it currently can’t be cured and episodes will reoccur if no treatment, I sat down and weighed the pros and cons,” he said.
Included in the young film-maker’s pros list are “boundless creativity with no need for drugs to get inspiration, perseverance, steadfastness when it comes to goals and dreams, a spirit of tenacity because I don’t perceive fear and consequence in the same way as everyone”.
“Even physically I have more energy, vitality, and endurance than the average person and I am often able to go without sleep or food without much effort, which can be advantageous if utilised responsibly,” McFarlane added.
As he strives to be more than his diagnosis, McFarlane told the Sunday Observer that a positive outlook has also helped to make his journey easier.
“When I looked at it in [a] more positive light, it felt like I had a superpower with an Achilles heel, not an illness. And after seeing that once I stay on my treatment and medication I’m not only normal but technically enhanced, it became easy to accept. Even blossoming into a source of pride because of all the work I’ve done to truly earn my life and become the person I am today. The things I’m doing and the goals I’m after are extremely difficult to achieve, even for a normal person working in the film industry let alone with an illness. So it’s that much more impressive and fulfilling when I achieve each goal despite being given a much heavier cross to bear,” said McFarlane.