Songwriting has become my vocation

Text: Emily Maguire

My name is Emily Maguire and I’m a singer-songwriter originally from London. I’ve released five albums on Shaktu Records, the independent record label I set up in 2003 with my Australian partner Christian Dunham. We were living in a shack on a goat farm in the Australian bush at the time and so we financed my first two albums by making and selling goats cheese. Since coming back to the UK in 2007, my songs have had a lot of airplay on UK radio and I’ve toured with major acts including American legend Don McLean.

In 2010, I published a book called ‘Start Over Again’, a very personal account of my experiences of dealing with bipolar disorder. I had done a lot of radio and press interviews by then and never mentioned the fact that I had a mental illness so I agonized over whether to publish it. My manager thought it might end my music career. But when the book was launched on the BBC on World Mental Health Day I was inundated with messages of support. Since then I’ve been able to talk openly about my own experiences. I’ve just finished a 3-month tour of psychiatric hospitals, singing my songs in locked wards across the south-west of England. I’ve discovered that being open isn’t about being brave, it’s about being liberated.

Having a bipolar mind defines my life; it’s not something I can just forget about. I’ve experienced the terror of two psychotic episodes in the past and so I watch myself like a hawk. But I’ve got much more confidence now in my ability both to manage the condition and to make the most of the benefits it brings me. As I’ve found creative fulfillment and a sense of purpose in my life, the illness has become in many ways enabling, not disabling. I regard all this energy in my head as something precious because it inspires my songwriting. Creativity for me is the silver lining to the bipolar cloud.

I’ve developed my own coping strategies and I’m very disciplined so it has got easier over time to deal with life on a rollercoaster. I get up early, I go to bed early, I don’t smoke dope anymore, I exercise, I meditate every day, I take my medication, I don’t hang around stressful people, I go for walks, I practice positive thinking, I laugh at myself, I don’t take too many things for granted. I make the most of the times I’m high to write masses of songs or compose instrumental music. When I’m low and have writer’s block, I go to art galleries to look at paintings and read lots of poetry to fill up my creative reservoir again.

“From being something I started doing to pass the time, songwriting has become my vocation.”

I grew up with no TV at home so playing music and reading books was always a huge part of my life. I learnt to play the cello, piano, flute and recorder from a very young age. I only got a guitar for my 21st birthday because I was ill for a long time with fibromyalgia pain syndrome and needed to do something to distract myself while I was stuck at home. When a friend suggested I should try writing a song it was a revelation, perfectly combining my love of poetry and music. Suddenly the illness became a complete blessing in disguise because I had all this time on my hands to write songs.

I’m a great believer in the power of music to make people feel better. The last time I was sectioned I was allowed to keep my guitar on the acute ward where, aside from singing endless Bob Marley songs with the other patients, I wrote a song called ‘Falling On My Feet’. Four years later, I stood on my own on stage at the Royal Albert Hall and sang it to 4,000 people. Recently I was very moved by the response to a music video for ‘Over The Waterfall’, the most direct song I’ve ever written about my experiences of bipolar disorder. One comment on Youtube said: “Listening to the lyrics brought me to tears. Dealing with this disease is such a lonely thing but hearing this makes me realize that I’m not alone.” And that, for me, makes it all worthwhile.


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A classically-trained multi-instrumentalist with five albums and two books to her name, Emily Maguire is truly “a talent to be reckoned with” (RnR Magazine), her strong, thought-provoking lyrics, supremely expressive vocals and spellbinding live performances winning her fans across the globe.

Living for four years in a shack on a farm in the Australian bush where she made goats cheese to finance her first two albums, Emily returned to the UK in 2007 and toured extensively with some of the world’s great singer-songwriters, including American legend Don McLean. Her third album Believer, released in 2009, received regular airplay on Radio 2 and was widely acclaimed in the music press, Maverick Magazine hailing it “a masterpiece”.

Emily’s much-anticipated fourth album, Bird Inside A Cage, followed in 2013. With its release funded entirely by her fans, Bird Inside A Cage was a bold departure from her previous recordings, while still retaining all the underlying trademarks of her emotive, lyric-rich songs.

As an advocate for mental health, Emily speaks frequently in the media about combating the stigma of mental illness. She has been featured several times on Radio 4 including Woman’s Hour, Loose Ends and Midweek, where she was interviewed by Libby Purves talking about her book Start Over Again, a deeply personal account of her experiences of living with bipolar disorder.

Following an intensive tour of Germany in 2014, while rehearsing for the recording of her instrumental album, Emily developed chronic tendonitis in both arms, forcing her to cancel all her gigs and leaving her unable to play her instruments for 18 months, which triggered a severe depressive episode.

Once recovered, she released her hauntingly beautiful fifth album A Bit Of Blue in 2017. Financed again by her fans, the album received rave reviews in the music press. Emily also published a new book, Notes From The North Pole, a collection of poetry, prose and lyrics.

Songs from A Bit Of Blue have been played on BBC Radio across the UK with the uplifting single For Free played on Radio 2.  Together with her partner and bass player Christian Dunham, Emily has been touring arts centres across the UK with a stunning new show, delighted to be singing her songs again and entrancing audiences wherever she goes.

She is passionate about songwriting, saying in a recent interview that “music to me is all about uplifting, comforting and inspiring people”.  In 2017, she was interviewed by Coronation Street actress Cherylee Houston for a Radio 4 programme called The Agony and the Ecstasy, talking about chronic pain, creativity and her bipolar condition.  She was also interviewed by Clare Balding for Radio 2, talking about her music, mental health and Buddhist faith.

Emily is now working on her instrumental album and looking forward to her next UK tour starting in February 2018. She is a patron of the mental health charity Restore.

‘I’d Rather Be’ from my latest album ‘A Bit Of Blue’, written after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder:

‘Over The Waterfall’ from my album ‘Bird Inside A Cage’, the most direct song I’ve ever written about being bipolar:

More info – including videos, songs, tour schedule etc – can be found at www.emilymaguire.com

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TEDx by Sharon Sutton

TEDx Speech by Sharon SUTTON.
Durham Marriott Hotel Royal County.
Saturday 11th March 2017.

So, what do you do when you get a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder?

When I got mine in 2013, along with my prescription for a box of mood stabilisers in tow, I didn’t know what to do. Whether to tell anyone or what was to lie ahead for me. But what I did want to know was what it meant and what I was going to do about it. For about a month I kept relatively quiet about my Psychiatrists recent conclusion, however, eventually it appeared to be no secret.

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For anybody that is unaware of what bipolar disorder is, it was formerly known as manic depression and it can affect your moods by swinging from being in a depressive to an elevated state. It’s common and can affect 1 in every 100 adults. Many people like myself are usually diagnosed when depressed.

Bipolar disorder results in just over a 9-year reduction in expected life span and as many as one in five patients with bipolar disorder succeeds in taking their own life. Although bipolar disorder is equally common in men and women. Research indicates that approximately three times as many women as men experience rapid cycling. Bipolar disorder affects nearly 6 million American adults or about 2.6% of the U.S. population age 18 and over every year.

Side effects can include a range of symptoms from having difficulty in concentrating and remembering things, difficulty sleeping, hallucinating, self-doubt, lacking energy, to being irritable, easily distracted, talking quickly, being overjoyed, hyperactive and having racing thoughts. Mania is an extreme elevated state which can include extremely risky behaviour but I myself have never experienced it.

I have experienced hypomania though. In some of my depressive states I haven’t left the house for weeks except for school runs. I’ve cut off the outside world and barely looked after myself. On the other hand, I ‘ve jumped up and down on the bed randomly in the middle of the night being full of adrenalin along with my bedroom window wide open whilst singing loudly to the birds. All while not caring who is listening or who I may potentially annoy.

So, you’re probably wondering how all this came about?

Well, I think that my mental health problems began when I was approximately 16. I had never known much middle ground in my life. But what I knew, as did others, was that I was different. By now I was told that I stood out from most people and I liked it. I never once wanted to blend in. Unfortunately, a year before I moved out, so I will have been about 15 years old, I spent mixing with the wrong crowd of people by getting into trouble and I was up to nothing but pure mayhem. I’m ashamed to admit that I think I became a dreg of society within that space of time.

At just 16 years old I moved out of the family home and spent 9 years in an abusive relationship with a psychopath. I was bullied, spat on, conditioned, spoken to like I was worthless, controlled and stalked. Mentally, financially, sexually and physically I was abused and so this was the beginning of a downward spiral in my mental health. I sometimes had knives held to my throat and at one point I even had a fractured left hand and bruises on my body. It wasn’t easy to walk away from the life that I had and it was easier to put up and shut up.

Whilst I was in this relationship, age 19 by now, I took on a Fish and Chip shop for 6 years with help from family members to buy it. Not one of my best ideas, but most definitely a learning curve I must admit. I had a love hate relationship with my business. I say this because it was what put food on my daughter’s plate and what I wanted at the time, so that I could have more stability in my life. On the bright side, my shop was listed as one of the top 50 in the UK and the only one north of Whitby to get the Sea Fish Industry Authority Award; it was ranked alongside a celebrity chef’s fish and chip shop and mentioned in numerous national newspapers and magazines. Radio interviews followed as did photographer’s randomly turning up at my shop to get their share of photos of myself with the award. To say it was rather surreal was an understatement. It’s on my wall in my house right now and I am proud of that achievement. Nevertheless, the roller coaster of my life continued.

I was about 7 months pregnant at the time with my eldest daughter and my life literally changed overnight.

After my ex tried to unsuccessfully take mine and my daughter’s life in a car crash, I felt like I had to finally take matters into my own hands. However, I found myself being too scared to move on in my life. So, I drove in front of a lorry head on instead. I clearly didn’t know what I was thinking at the time. Luck was obviously on his and my side that day. The only thing that stopped me from driving into the lorry was the driver flashing his headlights and at that moment I swerved my car to miss it.

I was alive but sick of my life. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted my pain to end. It was more of a cry for help. I felt exhausted in every way and I wanted to leave the world behind as I thought it was my only way out. From the outside looking in it would have appeared that I had everything. A family, a business, a house and a car. This was maybe the case, but behind closed doors it was a different story. A house it was, but a home it was not. My then partner never did find out about my suicide attempt and so my life went on everyday like Groundhog Day.

After some time, I finally dared to move on. I sold the business and moved house with just me and my eldest daughter. I spoke to the Police about my violent past and unfortunately with my case being historic by then and the fact that I had little proof of what I had experienced they couldn’t really help me. I wanted to help others not to go through what I had, so I started work as a Police volunteer in Domestic Violence, Adult Vulnerability and Child Abuse Investigation. I sometimes spoke to victims, signposted people for help and I typed hundreds of transcripts of Police interviews ready for court. I loved what I did.

I met someone else, moved house again, had another child and eventually started married life. I was in the relationship for about 4 years before we parted ways. My complicated personal life continued. Disastrous toxic relationships followed, but at the same time without what has happened in my life, I wouldn’t be here and where I am today. It’s now 2017, roughly ten years since I was at my lowest point in my life, now I’m stood telling you my story, pleased that I failed at my suicide attempt.

In just over 3 years what have I done with that diagnosis then?

Well, to aid myself to getting on the path to a better life I decided to teach myself what it was all about and the rest is basically history. From then I set up a Facebook page called Me, Bipolar & I to help people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Depression and Bipolar Disorder, of which I have experience all. Today that page has over 12 thousand followers worldwide, is recognised by The International Bipolar Foundation in the USA, and is looked at by Police forces, Psychiatrists and all sorts of different people.

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From there I’ve looked for things that I can do and be part of. I’ve been involved in TV & scientific research, co – delivered Bipolar Disorder classes in Recovery College & University, helped raise awareness by speaking to support providers, met celebrities and spoken about mine and their experiences to them, contributed to clinical assessments, educated myself, done interviews, worked in a mental health hospital & community mental health team, become a member of different mental health charities, joined a drop in group as a volunteer, met with staff in local businesses to try and educate them, had my thoughts put in front of parliament members and even won the former Deputy Prime Minister’s Mental Health Hero Award in 2015, out of 900 nominations there were approximately 40 UK winners of which I was 1 of 3 in the North East of England to get it. The award is on my wall at home along with my Fish and Chip shop award.

I try to be an advocate by speaking out, blogging and campaigning by breaking the silence, and if more people, like myself, spoke out about mental illness there would be a lot less stigma and discrimination within society. I speak for the silent, but together we can be stronger in numbers. You know, when we learn how to work together versus against each other, things might start getting better.

So, after years of being on different medications I have been totally free of them for over 8 months now and I find that weight lifting and boxing benefit me too. I help my new partner and he helps me as we both have experience of mental health problems.

I don’t let Bipolar Disorder get in my way with what I want to achieve. It’s not an excuse but an explanation of my behaviour, and just sometimes, having bipolar disorder means waking up not knowing whether Tigger or Eeyore maybe making my decisions for me!

It doesn’t rule my world nor define me, but it fuels my passion and inspires me. To be honest, without Bipolar Disorder I don’t think that I would be as mentally strong as I am today. I find it a curse at times, but more definitely a blessing, and from it I now have a passion and a purpose.

“If there is one thing that you could take away from this speech, then please remember to try to see the person and not the diagnosis.”

Change your fears, change your boundaries, change your limits and thus.
Choose your hobby as your job.
To go somewhere even if you have no idea where the road will take you.
Choose to be excited about your next idea whatever it may be.
To move out of your comfort zone.
Choose health and to look after yourself.
To help people even when you don’t want to help yourself.
Choose to be the person that you would want to know.
To smile at the person who isn’t smiling back at you.
Choose to be different and to stand out.
Not to be consumed by everything.
Choose your thoughts not to be controlled by society.
Not to be told what to do.
Choose not to let trivial things get to you.
To be inspired by whatever may inspire you and to laugh when it’s totally inconvenient to do so.
Choose to be the person that everyone wants to genuinely know.
To love the life, you live.
Choose experiences over possessions.
To never give up.

CHOOSE LIFE!