As a part of our new series on less discussed mental illnesses, Editor Georgina Hayes shares what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder
“I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself.”
It’s a Saturday night and I’m visiting my parents for the weekend for the first time in a month and a half. My hometown is in Dorset, so a visit to see my family takes weeks of advanced planning because flights aren’t cheap. I was due to fly back to Glasgow tomorrow – something that has been booked for months – but two hours ago I realised that I was too depressed to realistically go anywhere (and back to my own devices).
Over £70 later, I’m extending my stay in Dorset by two nights – something that anyone who knows me well can attest is not something I’d do willingly unless things were Very Bad. But the choice wasn’t my own: just yesterday I was talking animatedly to my family about how great things are going for me at the moment (and they are), but now I feel like walking straight into 80mph traffic.
Bipolar disorder, or manic depression, is an unpredictable, debilitating and expensive illness. Luckily, I suffer from Type 2 – widely considered to be the “less severe” of the two main types of bipolar you can have. I’m much more prone to episodes of extreme depression, and the infamous “mania” is actually called “hypomania” for me.
Growing up, depression was my default mood. I spent most of my teen years feeling repulsed by myself and by the very concept of my own future. I used to genuinely envy my friends whose normal moods were distinguishable from their bad ones, because for me they were the same thing. It’s something I grew so accustomed to that it felt normal. I only realised just how bad I constantly felt, back in the days before I was properly medicated, when a friend asked me when the last time I felt suicidal was, and I told him it had been months. From an early age right up until finding the right doctor, the right diagnosis and the right medication, suicidal ideation was as natural and unavoidable to me as breathing. I lived with it for so long I didn’t even notice at first when the fog cleared.
The bipolar diagnosis came quite a while after the initial major-depressive misdiagnosis, as it does for most people with bipolar Type 2. The “mania” is more muted and the depression often dominates, so the two illnesses are often indistinguishable until the patient reaches their early twenties.
Looking back, the hypomania was always there – I’ve even said in another article that I self-diagnosed as bipolar when I was eleven, only to have my GP basically laugh me out of the room, as if an eleven-year-old identifying with the symptoms of manic depression isn’t concerning. Growing up, I always got fixated on things and was so in my head and my ideas that I could often seem detached from reality. I would get irritable, my thoughts would race and I’d go days on end without proper sleep. I was painfully shy and quiet at school but would sometimes get intense bouts of extreme arrogance and confidence. I could be borderline cruel sometimes to friends that I loved dearly when I felt this way. I felt at times like I wasn’t even in control of my own speech or actions. Still, dulled by the depression and ignored by doctors and therapists, it was never realistically going to be noticed until I derailed myself properly.
The first noticeable hypomanic episode came after a particularly intense depressive one. I was on the highest dose of the antidepressant sertraline (Zoloft) at the time and I felt like I was finally getting my life back again. It was my second year of uni and I’d never been a big drinker before, but all of a sudden I went from a girl that drank a lot only when going out to a girl that drank a lot every day. The spending was another thing – I had never been a big spender until I was, but I didn’t have the self-awareness to notice any kind of drastic change. Luckily, my doctor did.
My first “real” hypomanic episode was intense, and a cliche – I won’t go into the grizzly details, but it’s pretty much everything you’d associate with a bipolar episode. I kept it quite close to my chest, and those I did confide in didn’t really know how to handle it. To summarise it, a friend recently asked me if I had a single clear thought during that entire six-month period, to which I answered that I wasn’t even sure.
My illness is often understandable and sympathetic right up until the point where I actually show symptoms. Of course, my entire life is symptoms personified – my illness doesn’t define me, but it obviously informs a lot of my thoughts and actions. It would be a barefaced lie to say otherwise. I’ve had loved ones drop from my life like flies when things were Very Bad – some of them I blame, some of them I don’t. What I will say, though, is we all need to take better care of our friends. Retweeting about mental health awareness every time a celebrity commits suicide means very little if you don’t also take the time to support a friend in crisis. Being a friend to someone with bipolar often takes work, but I’d urge everyone to show a little compassion – being a friend to a cancer patient also takes work, and someone with manic depression can’t help their illness anymore than someone with stage four leukaemia. The last thing someone with a mental illness needs is their friends abandoning them. The “cut people out as soon as they become toxic” rhetoric currently doing the rounds on social media is all well and good, but it’s a fine line to walk. We have a responsibility to ourselves, but we also have a responsibility to each other – the idea that someone in a mental health crisis would benefit more from talking to a faceless Samaritans caller than to a close friend is ludicrous. So, take it from me: treat your loved ones better, for fuck’s sake.
These days, despite the extending my stay in Dorset mishap, I’m doing better than I ever have been, and that is due in large part to the medication I take (mood stabilisers and antidepressants). An illness like bipolar has to be medicated and closely monitored, and the idea that a serious mental health condition like this can be exercised or therapised away is dangerous and stupid. My meds allow me to lead a (relatively) normal and (relatively) happy life, but that doesn’t mean that the illness isn’t there and that it won’t always be. I’ll have bipolar for life, and a lot of that life as a consequence is going to be spent white-knuckling it so that I don’t stress out my loved ones more than I already do. I hold onto stability now knowing fine well that I’ll lose it again at some point and have to work to claw it back like I’ve done so many times before.
Still, that isn’t to say there aren’t things that help. Being open and unapologetic about my mental health has helped tremendously, because it allows me not only to get the treatment I need, but to be honest with my friends and family. Sitting in and watching Netflix with a bottle of wine helps, and so does spending the entire day in bed when I need to. So does re-reading Harry Potter and going for food and drinks with my friends even when I feel like I just want to die in my bed. This late capitalist hell we live in often cons us into believing that we need to be constantly productive in order to be worthwhile, and mentally ill people often face the brunt of that worthlessness. Fuck that, though – money is a man-made concept, climate change or the general arrogance of mankind will kill us all soon anyway, and if it doesn’t the sun eventually will. With that in mind, just do what you want when you want to, and take that brain day when you need it.
(I’d also recommend watching Silver Linings Playbook if only because it’s a joy to watch and one of the only tasteful mainstream depictions of bipolar I’ve ever seen).
Because she’s the reason I gathered the courage to be open about my mental health in the first place, and because I miss her everyday, I’ll leave you all with Carrie Fisher:
“One of the things that baffles me (and there are quite a few) is how there can be so much lingering stigma with regards to mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder. In my opinion, living with manic depression takes a tremendous amount of balls. At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.” – Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking