Bearded Brute model CJ Barrie opens up about battling depression and bulimia during his teen years and how a bipolar disorder diagnosis finally helped him turn a corner in his life.
We all experience ecstatic highs and deep, dark lows from time to time, but normally we can shrug off them off and move on with our lives. But for some of us, it is not so easy to pull ourselves together and in many cases, those feelings are due to something none of us have any control over in the first place.
Meet CJ Barrie, a 29 year-old musician and singer from Salford, who endured his fair share of dark times during his teens, including depression and bulimia. It was only after a suicide attempt when he was 20, that things finally began to fall into place when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Here, the Bearded Brute model tells GuysLikeU what it was like to live with the condition and reveals how the eventual diagnosis and most recently participating in Mark Lemming’s critically acclaimed Bearded Brutes art project has transformed his life.
CJ, you were diagnosed with bipolar when you were 20. Explain how your bipolar affected you during your teens.
It’s affected me for as long as I can remember, but I just never had the diagnosis or even the understanding of what it was to have bipolar. I think it’s fair to say that most teens go through a lot of personal emotional turmoil, as well as the physical changes you experience I think it’s the mental and emotional chemical changes that are the biggest struggle to deal with – it’s part of growing up and learning who you are. But I did become heavily depressed and anxious, which led to me becoming quite seriously ill. I was bulimic from my third year of High School through to my early 20’s. This was an issue that I secretly went to see my family doctor about (because I was aware of what I was doing to myself and I didn’t like it – but nor could I find a way to stop, as I didn’t know how). I was constantly battling with myself. Living with bulimia AND bipolar is a horrific cocktail. I was riding such stratospheric manic highs, and such lows that I would have literally preferred to be physically buried. I couldn’t cope – and there were no How-To guides for this kind of stuff growing up, because nobody talked about mental health issues or it was seen as a taboo subject.
Were people around you worried about you, bearing in mind they didn’t know what was going on?
Absolutely. My family had no idea why I was so irritable and unpredictable, and my Mum was heartbroken that I was physically shrinking before her eyes. I’m 6ft5 and had always been quite healthy up until that point. I was actually disappearing. I tried to convince everyone that I was just growing up and I’d blame it on my growth-spurt, or that I’d already eaten – any excuse was good enough for me.
Your family must have been beside themselves.
I never wanted to upset my family and I knew I had to try to change. So I took myself off to the family doctor but he didn’t help me at all. I left him in tears after being told: ‘Boys aren’t troubled by Bulimia’. As far as I was concerned that was my last hope and I was basically made to feel I was wasting their time!
When did you begin to realise you were gay? Did it coincide with the onset of bipolar symptoms?
Oh, I always knew I was attracted to the same gender, but again I didn’t know what being gay was and these subjects were always glossed over with embarrassment and nervous laughter in the High School ‘LIFE SKILLS’ classroom. But I do remember being attracted to a classmate back in primary school – which is quite young. Also, I was convinced I was in love with Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid… Because I thought he looked like Rob Lowe, who I was also ‘in love with’. Yeah, I was always gay! I seriously don’t think my Bipolar had anything to do with an identity crisis or conflicts with my sexuality at all. They’re two completely separate things. They’re just two entirely different parts of me that are part of my nature.
Was dealing with your sexuality tough or were you pretty open about it?
I don’t think I ever worried about being gay, I just didn’t know how to live as a gay man in a world; there just weren’t as many openly homosexual (or LGBTQ) role models on TV or in sports or anywhere public to my knowledge when I was growing up, without it being subject to ridicule or shame. I used to think to myself ‘I don’t want to get married to a woman, because that’s not right for me’ – and of course I never had to, but it always seemed socially expected that you grow up, ‘become a man’ and settle down with a nice woman and create a family together. It just wasn’t for me, so it didn’t take me too long before I came out to my family and some friends.
It was easier than I thought it would be. I’d started college at 16 where I studied Musical Theatre and my confidence just blossomed, though I was still battling with my bipolar and bulimia. But I can’t lie: I was nervous about coming out to my family because some of my friends had had some terrible coming out stories. Some were attacked by their families and even kicked out of their family homes. It was really sad to hear that your family could reject you for being so honest.
So who was the first person you spoke to?
The first person I ever came out to was my little sister. She was really into Will Young back then and didn’t care when the news came that he was gay. I remember mentioning that to her when we were chatting and she said ‘yeah, I know and I love him anyway’, which then gave me this sudden confidence to tell her that I was gay too, to which she just responded, ‘Cool!’ and gave me a big hug and then just carried on as normal – because it is completely normal!
Aw that’s sweet!
My family are extremely wonderful and loving people so when I got around to telling them all they were just really happy that I was confident enough to know who I am, and my sexuality is only a small part of that.
How was life at school dealing with you sexuality and dealing with mental health issues.
Life at school was… I didn’t feel I had a life at school because of the bulimia and the depression. I was bullied quite a lot for one reason or another, so I tried to skip school as often as I could, by having more and more convenient trips to the Orthodontist than were legitimate. It feels difficult when no one can see that you’re suffering. It’s even more difficult when you don’t understand why you’re suffering either. High school is a difficult ride for most teens to stomach, and we can all be blissfully ignorant to other people’s personal crises.
So in the lead up to you diagnosis, what were you going through that made you go to see a doctor?
The lead-up to this was quite a dark and traumatic time; not just for me personally, but for my family also. My grandfather died of cancer when I was in college and our whole family just fell to pieces. Losing him caused such an incredible sense of devastation that I don’t think any of us in the family had really felt before. Around that time I also lost a very dear college friend – to cancer again! I had seriously never felt a low as deep and as long as this. These two amazing people, who were so full of life and laughter had vanished so suddenly that I just didn’t know how to cope with that, and I lived with intense ‘guilt’; I lived as a guilty man because they had their lives taken away and I still had my life, that I felt I wasn’t doing very much with. It was incredibly dark and lonely. About five months later, I attempted suicide by an overdose. I immediately regretted it and was rushed to hospital in an ambulance with my dad, who was just looked stunned. So after that I was basically told to see a doctor, so it wasn’t really by personal choice. That’s when I had to discuss things finally and I was diagnosed and put on the course of anti-depressants.
When you were told that you had bipolar, you must have felt such a relief that there was a name for what you were going through?
I suppose it was a nice feeling to be told that it’s actually not my fault and that I’m not just a moody selfish arsehole! It’s very easy for others to make snap judgments about you when they don’t even know the half of it. The thing is I tried every day throughout the depressions to pretend to be a happy positive person and keep everyone else happy, and it can really grind you further down than you’re already feeling naturally. It’s an exhausting act of futility; pretending to be the opposite of how you feel. But I would like to say that I feel I did an incredible attempt at that, so much so that when I eventually ran out of steam completely, people didn’t like the negative and exasperated person I could be once I’d dropped my clever disguise. As I mentioned earlier on about mental health problems going hand-in-hand with each other, I have also had Anxiety disorder. So these strings just kept being added to my bow. It felt like I was being crushed.
That must be tough to constantly feel beaten down.
Having a mental illness is incredibly energy taxing for both the individual and the people that form their support network. It is important to acknowledge a mental illness as you would a physical illness, but it is definitely important to give others the time and patience they will need to adjust so they can become a stronger form of support for you. You can never guarantee who will stick around in your life through your difficult moments, but if you are open and honest about things – that should surely open up the doorway for them so they can evaluate their position in your life and make that decision.
Once you were on medication, did life become easier.
No. I thought at first my problems would be solved and I’d be fixed. That was not the case at all; I was on a rather large daily dosage of Fluoxitine and I began to feel absolutely nothing; increasingly becoming more and more indifferent by the day. I felt like I couldn’t feel! I was a zombie. I don’t really know if anyone else has ever experienced this type of thing on anti-depressants, where you are mentally awake and aware yet completely free of control over your body. That was my personal experience on anti-depressants and that just wasn’t how I wanted to live either.
People react differently to treatment.
You can never be cured of a mental illness, but you have to learn how to manage it healthily. It’s like papering over a crack in the wall; the crack is still there but you’ve just covered it up – so you’re going to have to approach it sooner or later. So why not deal with the issue whilst you’re faced with it? That’s exactly what I’ve done. It’s taken me a hell of a long time, but I feel like I’ve reached a point now where I can take a step back, look at it and appreciate it. Medication is a temporary fix in the long-term. I guess it’s about learning to trust yourself enough and actually appreciating yourself. Also discussing this with people; whether that’s your friends, family, therapist, doctor or help group – just talk with somebody. I can’t award myself for coping on my own, because I haven’t done that – I have the most amazing support around me.
You were invited to pose for the amazing Bearded Brutes – how did you get involved and how did it make you feel?
I cannot begin to explain just how personally special this Bearded Brutes Petrouchka picture is and the friendships I’ve made from taking part in such an incredibly colourful and vibrant project. As I’ve said my personal life has been for about 15 years and more recently the past two years were especially challenging for me. I felt all my life and all my ‘colour’ had almost completely drained from out of me. Now I feel I’m ALIVE. Towards the end of October last year something just changed within me, where I said a very positive, empowered ‘NO!’ to all that negativity I’d been dealing with and all the deep, dark depression. No more for now, thank you. I don’t want it because it’s not who I actually am!! I don’t want THAT to define ME. I’m me! It’s just another thing that is in my genetic makeup. Around that time I was asked to create some music (a sound bite really) for a YouTube channel, and met the talented man behind the show: Mark Leeming who asked me if I’d be interested in being part of a new project he was working on. I was totally flattered and almost felt like doing my usual thing of respectfully declining and letting another fun opportunity slip away from me.
Yes, always grab hold of opportunities with both hands!
He told me that he wasn’t looking for a ‘typical’ model; that he wanted alternative models for a collection of art photos he was trying out. I asked Mark what I should bring or wear, and he simply said ‘anything that you feel fabulous in’. I sent over an old picture of me wearing an orange chenille Kimono. I went over to Preston for the weekend and stayed with my new chum, drank copious amounts of Gin & Tonic and spent four hours in makeup, just having a laugh dancing about in my Kimono, beard caked in red glitter! I’d never felt more ‘fabulous’. I had an amazing time creating the image with Mark and I’m over the moon with how it turned out. Sometimes when you feel you have lost all your colour and vibrancy, and you feel like you’re hidden away or lost in a dark place, you never know how or when you’re going to bounce back from it. Just know that you CAN! And when you do you will be fabulous. More colourful than you ever thought possible. Not solely because I’m wearing a glitter beard and Kimono, but our colour and confidence/ ‘fabulousness’ (whatever you want to call it) comes from within. I just happen to have a rather stunning portrait, which reflects this. Whenever I look at this picture, I just see ME and I love it.
That’s absolutely amazing. Have people got in touch with you after seeing your pics?
YES! I’ve had people contact me to tell me how much they love the Bearded Brutes (and also how much they love Petrouchka). I’ve recently received some incredible messages from people I’ve never met from different parts of the planet, whom may be having a difficult time with a confidence issue or a struggle with their gender identity. They’ve actually said that all the positivity surrounding this Bearded Brutes collection has allowed them to realise that there is acceptance and an appreciation for diversity. It’s helping other people feel good about being different, or beautiful when they feel quite alien usually. That’s quite amazing, isn’t it? What started as a bit of fun with glitter and gin really has grown to mean so much more. The Bearded Brutes are making a positive impact on other people’s lives! I couldn’t be prouder, not just to be involved, but how proud I am of Mark as a creative person and as a gay man. He’s inspired me to be more creative as an artist myself and to pursue more opportunities – whatever they may be.
Check out Mark Leeming’s Bearded Brutes collection at Kosmonaut in Manchester on March 17. http://beardedbrutes.com
Read another inspirational Bearded Brute’s story here: