As someone who’s struggled with multiple illnesses, including undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder for most of his life, Edward Cowdrey is no stranger to the debilitating effect physical health can have on mental wellbeing.
In and out of school during his childhood, he spent most of grade nine in bed, and had whooping cough for four months at fourteen.
“Both me and my older sisters were sick all the time,” he says. “We had abnormal blood results, and all of us had cases of anaphylaxis, where we just stopped breathing for no apparent reason. But no one really put a name on what was wrong.”
Missing months of school at a time meant Eddy struggled to make and maintain friendships.
“Trying to catch up academically was hard enough,” he says. “But by that stage I was depressed, and an awkward teenager. You kind of just drop off the map when you’re not at school.”
In 2003, Eminem and 8 Mile sent the popularity of rap music by white musicians sky-rocketing. The hip hop scene in New Zealand followed suit. And Eddy discovered an unexpected talent for the quick thinking and linguistic skill required to “freestyle.”
“I had two close friends with whom I spent a lot of time rapping,” he recalls. “I entered the school talent show, which was about as cringe-worthy as you can imagine. But after that, I was actually accepted by and connected with people who had never given me the time of day.”
“So I guess early on, rap music became that something I felt a social connection over. It was a way that a group of friends, or strangers, could connect and share their creative experience.”
Early on, rap music became that something I felt a social connection over.
Eddy’s health eventually meant he quit attending school altogether, and studied at home via correspondence.
“My education became primarily self driven and self taught. I was able to get through a lot of work quickly, and I learned how to teach myself the skills I needed, which came in handy later when I was learning to program.”
It also meant he could devote time to writing and listening to rap music.
“As I got older and my tastes in music grew, the meaning of the music did too. Early on I liked rap mainly for the same reason a 12 year old kid likes anything; because it made me feel cool.”
“As I discovered artists who really opened up my understanding of the music, like MF Doom, Aesop Rock, and Atmosphere, who I still have as major inspirations, rap became more about the creative outlet as well as being a genre of music I just genuinely enjoy. And there’s always a part of me that associates rap and hip hop with that feeling of connection and belonging.”
When he moved out of home at sixteen, Eddy’s mental health took a turn for the worse. He struggled to eat and take care of himself. After a cursory examination, a psychiatrist prescribed him prozac. Bipolar Disorder was never discussed.
“People with Bipolar aren’t supposed to be given antidepressants,” says Eddy. “The risk is they boost the mania and so you start acting with less and less caution, while still being really depressed.”
For Eddy, the spiral came to a crashing halt when he landed on the wrong side of the law at seventeen. With the support of his girlfriend, he pulled himself out of the nosedive and started studying programming online. Before a year was up, he was employed as an IT Manager. He also started pushing for answers about his mental health, and finally got the Bipolar diagnosis.
“I felt a mixture of fear and relief,” he says. “Relief because I had a name for what was happening to me, but fear because I had seen what being bipolar had meant for several family members. The diagnosis was late, but looking back I’m grateful that it was still early enough that I was able to get a grasp on a lot of things before I formed unhealthy habits. I started learning to coexist with Bipolar.”
In 2011, Eddy graduated with a diploma in Software and Web Development. He married his partner, had a daughter, and bought a house. The future looked bright.
But late last year, the sickness that had plagued Eddy through his childhood returned with a vengeance.
It began with pain in his back. His right shoulder began to hurt and weaken. His hips and knees ached. His hands and feet felt they were on fire. Extreme fatigue finally bound him to bed, and back into deep depression.
Again, the doctors were stumped. What was causing such a widespread reaction? Why was it happening now?
The answer, when it finally came, was just as bizarre as the symptoms. Eddy had Mycoplasma Pneumoniae – a bacterial infection that had triggered a severe auto-immune response and was wreaking havoc throughout his body.
“I was given a twelve-week course of antibiotics,” he says. “But nothing changed. I was taking more and more painkillers. I think I lost about a month to just being on morphine. I have no memories of that time, other than everything hurt.”
He was referred to a rheumatologist for the inflammation in his joints, then a podiatrist for his aching feet, then a musculoskeletal specialist for the pain everywhere else. The list went on.
The rheumatologist was the first to mention inflammatory arthritis. He prescribed steroids and an immune system suppressant.
Three months on, Eddy is still struggling to come to grips with all the symptoms and side effects.
“My life has changed quite drastically, in many ways,” he says. “Before I got sick I would work from the moment I woke up at nine, until three or four in the morning most nights. My focus was, and still is, on making progress in my life and career, and that meant putting in a lot of hours to get there.
Now I have to manage the limited resources of energy, health, and comfort, so rather than looking at my day as “how much can I get done in the hours left to me?” it becomes a balancing act, where I need to manage what I have to get done each day with my ability to not be in insurmountable pain as a result.
The biggest and hardest change has been accepting my limitations in terms of “being there.” Sometimes I just straight up can’t be the partner or father I want to be.”
The change has also effected his mental health. The reduced physical capacity, and the long list of medications, put Eddy’s control of his Bipolar Disorder to the test.
“Being bipolar means that pretty much every pain killer has some effect on my stability,” he says. “I’ve been lucky in that for the most part it hasn’t sent me off the deep end, but it does mean I have to be constantly vigilant about the state of my mental and physical health for fear of setting off an episode while trying to manage my pain.”
In a more real sense, being sick is depressing, being unable to do the things you want to do…
“In a more real sense, being sick is depressing, being unable to do the things you want to do, and in my case, many of the things I had learned to do to manage my mental health, have meant that I’ve had to learn new coping techniques and come to grips with the fact that some days you just can’t escape pain.”
One of those coping techniques sent him full circle back to his old love: writing rap music. Writing is something he can manage even on days when the pain and fatigue, and it provides a creative outlet for what he calls “chaos.”
“When I write, it starts as a chaotic free-fall of words, which eventually becomes something of meaning. I’ve found that writing lyrics has always been a way to help me process things, sometimes I don’t even realize that something is weighing on me until I’m halfway through a song and I realize what I’ve actually been writing about.”
He’s hesitant to commit to a future where he can rely on being healthy.
“Like anyone with a chronic condition, I guess I hope for a full recovery, or at least some kind of cyborg replacement body,” he says. “Barring that, I want to at least be at a point where I can manage and fully understand what’s going on with me. That’s how I can control it.”