Editorial: The seven stages of my bipolar diagnosis

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Credit: Creative Commons

Georgina Hayes
Editor-in-Chief

“I was now, at the age of twenty, fully aware that my life could easily be shrouded by the myriad of misunderstandings that plague bipolar disorder”

When I was eleven years old, I became convinced (after extensive Googling and feelings way too much for someone that hadn’t even hit their teens yet) that I had bipolar disorder. Even typing that now feels ludicrous – how on Earth can an eleven year old even understand bipolar disorder, let alone think they have it?

Of course, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, the doctor I saw brushed aside my concerns and sent me for a blood test to see if I had a hormone imbalance – I didn’t. That was then followed by absolutely no follow up, and I was in no rush to see that doctor again. Before I’d even reached secondary school, I recognised my thoughts and behaviour as concerning, reached out for professional help, and was unceremoniously condescended to and ignored as so many children still are. That was my Step One.

My next attempt to get any kind of professional help whatsoever was in the form of a school counsellor I was referred to after showing up in my school’s year office sobbing and saying that I wanted to die. Still discouraged and embarrassed by my encounter with a doctor three years before, fourteen-year-old me reluctantly gave counselling a go (a decision mostly borne out of wanting to get out of PE class). Step Two was deciding to go to that counsellor’s office once every two weeks for eight weeks.

Step Three was deciding that I’d literally rather eat all of the old, smelly netball bibs in my school’s PE cupboard than ever see that woman again. Unqualified to talk to me about any kind of actual diagnosis, she just wanted me to write my feelings about being bullied on different kinds of wellbeing sheets that she’d obviously printed straight from the top of a Google search list. Now, approaching the age of fifteen, I was absolutely convinced that no medical professional would ever take me seriously and, even if they did, I wouldn’t get the treatment I needed anyway.

Now, it’s important to make clear at this point how I was feeling at the time and what my support system was. My parents are and always have been the most supportive, concerned and unwaveringly loving parents I could possibly ask for – I’m lucky to have them, and I’m well aware that parents/carers so understanding can often be a rarity when it comes to mental health. It was the case then and it is the case now. Still, that didn’t stop my feelings of guilt and shame – they did everything right in raising me, and I knew how much they’d sacrificed for me, so what kind of way was it to repay them by saying, “Hey, just so you know, I’m actively and intensely depressed literally all of the time?”

Trying to find a way to be honest with my parents without making them feel that they’d done something wrong was probably the hardest part of this entire process. It’s important to understand that although teenage me was consistently depressed – that depression was even my default – that didn’t mean that when I laughed it wasn’t genuine, or that I was somehow robbed of some kind of essential happiness. The important distinction, I think, is the default: once these fleeting moments of laughter or happiness or lightness were over, my default went back to actively depressed. Not happy or even just fine, but an active kind of anguish that I couldn’t explain or justify. I observed a kind of lightness in my friends that I desperately wanted but couldn’t understand or relate to. How does a teenager even go about explaining that to parents that you don’t want to worry or upset?

Now that I’m living in Scotland and at university, I’ve got a whole lot of friends and many of them would probably consider me to be an extrovert – that wasn’t, however, the case as we approach my Step Four. I had a close but very small group of friends – of whom I’m still just as close with to this day, despite us being scattered across the UK – and that was that. With regard to everyone else I went to school with, I was actively unpopular and faced extreme and constant bullying. Obviously, this did nothing for my mental health, and having some of the prettiest, most popular girls in my school hurling insults about my appearance or telling me to commit suicide every day only worsened things. My self-esteem was non-existent and I felt, with absolute certainty, that how these people saw me was how everybody in the world would see me for all of time. I should say, though, that my friends and I went through it all together; I couldn’t have asked for a more loyal group, and we had the same amounts and kinds of fun together that all teenagers did. For desperate want of a better and less cringe-worthy descriptor, it was all very Perks of Being A Wallflower.

After the hell that was my GCSE years over, I started sixth form after somehow receiving top grades in my exams and almost all of my bullies dropped like flies from A Levels. Surely, then, my mood would start to improve? Most therapists and doctors would naturally point towards the bullying as the root cause of my moods, but I’d known since I was eleven that that wasn’t the case. It made it a hell of a lot worse, but it certainly wasn’t the cause.

So, Step Four: I was going to go to the doctor again. Five years had now passed, and my mental health was reaching another crisis point. I had to tell my parents that I needed to see a doctor again, and I also had to tell myself. The appointment came around, I sat across from the very same doctor, and had her reluctantly but eventually give me a referral to CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services).

A typically long CAMHS waiting list later (about four months), I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. That diagnosis came with all the usual things any mental health diagnosis does: feelings of shame and embarrassment; feelings of guilt towards my parents; a sense of helplessness that immobilised me for months and, in a strange way, a simultaneous sense of relief. I’d finally been vindicated, but that came at the cost of actually having to acknowledge the illness and navigate how I was going to tell those closest to me.

Despite the diagnosis, I wasn’t given immediate help: I was chucked on another waiting list, and four months on, I still hadn’t heard a thing. By this point, my mental health had deteriorated considerably and I was struggling to even function on a basic level. On top of a constant and unforgiving depression, I was now also experiencing short but intense periods of behaviour that I wouldn’t even recognise just hours later (years later, I would discover this was hypomania).

Step Five was the worst step and hardest to talk about. After a serious depressive episode that lasted almost a year, destroyed some personal relationships and caused me to lose about two stone in a month and a half, I realised that CAMHS was failing me. I was only given a therapist after being bumped up the list due to a serious mental health crisis, and when I did get that therapist, she forgot each time we met what she was treating me for. So, Step Five was me, yet again, discontinuing treatment that to me felt condescending, degrading and useless.

Step Five lasted until I literally moved across the country and started university. Now an adult (in the legal sense at least), and also at the age that bipolar disorder tends to really show itself, I went to the doctor again. This time, though, it was a doctor 500 miles from home and, to my surprise and immediate relief, she took me seriously and gave me medication that actually helped.

So, Step Six was understanding that there actually are doctors out there that will listen, and that there actually is treatment available to me that will help. It was also broaching the issue of bipolar disorder to my new doctor, after my behaviour started to change again.

If somebody has bipolar disorder type 2 – which is what I have – then it is more often than not initially misdiagnosed as major depressive disorder. It’s an easy mistake to make, because most sufferers experience periods of depression much more consistently and periods of mania are known as hypomania, and generally less severe than a full blown manic episode. Perhaps it was because I’d reached that age where bipolar really starts to show, perhaps it was because I finally had a doctor I trusted, or perhaps it’s because I was suddenly exposed to all kinds of new freedoms; whatever the case, I experienced my first serious (hypo)manic episode.

I won’t go into the details of this episode for more reasons than I can count on two hands, but it’s all very cliché and exactly the kinds of things you’d expect. At points I considered dropping out, at others I considered disappearing for a weekend to the Scottish Highlands and spending all of my money on a lavish hotel (thankfully, I didn’t). Despite having previous suspicions of bipolar, though, I didn’t actually recognise the manic episode for what it was until it ended and I’d come back down to earth to face the consequences of all the stupid, destructive and outright weird things I’d done in the throes of it. Thankfully, my doctor recognised it for me.

And now we come to Step Seven: the diagnosis. A shockingly quick referral and a tediously long further assessment wait later, I finished my second year of uni with confirmation of what I’d suspected ten years before that: I did, in fact, have bipolar disorder (type 2). The news didn’t come as crushingly as it had when I was sixteen and misdiagnosed as a major depressive; it felt freeing and vindicating in many ways. Part of me was half-tempted to send a letter to my doctor from home saying “HA! I TOLD YOU SO!”

Of course, that also came with the encroaching reality of telling my parents, my friends, and the University’s Disability Services. Telling both those closest to you and obscure university officials that you have bipolar disorder isn’t exactly the stuff of dreams, and the reality of carrying bipolar with me for life started to dawn. The stigma surrounding the illness is immense – as Hannah Jane Parkinson pointed out in an incredible Guardian article, while illnesses such as depression and anxiety have become memeified, bipolar disorder is still very much unpalatable. I was now, at the age of twenty, fully aware that my life could easily be shrouded by the myriad of misunderstandings that plague bipolar disorder.

With that in mind, I had two choices that I’d placed before myself: I could keep the illness closely to my chest as I did when I thought I had depression, and suffer all the same regardless, or I could decide to start talking about it and refuse to shut up. I chose the latter, which is why I ensured as Views Editor of The Glasgow Guardian (alongside my partner Laurie) that we made mental health our absolute priority for the section. We’re now doing the same as Editors-in-Chief.

Although to some this article may seem like an inarticulate and useless rambling on the last ten years of varying levels of mental anguish, I’m trying to get at a wider point on this World Mental Health Day. If my experience shows us anything, it’s that there is a serious problem with the current “if you’re suffering, get help” rhetoric – it’s simplistic, lazy, and fundamentally fails to understand that the help most people get access to is nowhere near good enough.

We might be slowly winning the stigma battle, but we’re losing the services war. If an eleven-year-old can sit across from a medical professional and candidly express that she thinks she has bipolar, only for that medical professional to send her off for a blood test with no follow-up, then there’s something seriously wrong with the care we give to children. It took being an adult and moving across the country to get the help I needed, and thankfully it’s actually working – I take my meds like clockwork, I see my doctor regularly, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever felt. I have bipolar disorder, but I’m more stable and happy than I’ve been in a long time – something that could have happened years ago, if I’d have received the care I needed and asked for.

It’s no secret that Carrie Fisher is my idol – Postcards From the Edge is the first thing I read after my diagnosis, and it informed my entire philosophy on having this illness. Yes, I’m batshit crazy (as Carrie herself puts it) and yes, this illness is difficult and it requires unrelenting persistence and bravery that hardly anyone without this illness can fully appreciate. After a decade or so of being ashamed, tight-lipped and scared about my mental heath, I decided not all that long ago that I’m going to be loud, unabashed and unafraid by it. I owe it to Carrie, and I owe it to everyone else that feels like I did a few years ago.