At first, I didn’t know you could go to the doctor because you were unhappy. Then when I did get help for depression, I didn’t know you could also go to the doctor because you were babbling nonsense and spinning in circles.
So I took antidepressants, which made me sleep a lot and put on weight, and the swings between depression and hypomania became more rapid and more pronounced. I said and did embarrassing things when I was high or low, and I didn’t know you could go to the doctor because you were doing embarrassing things.
I held down jobs because there were times when I was really good. There were other times, though, when I was sackably incompetent and cried in my office, and my self-esteem and confidence were badly damaged.
Pregnancy and the postnatal period were traumatic each time, and when my third child was born I was in a mother-and-baby psychiatric unit. I clambered slowly out of the pit and began to function, only to stumble head first into rapid, cycling, mixed episodes. I was prescribed six sessions of Electroconvulsive Therapy, which made things much worse. I wasn’t in control of my behaviour, and my thoughts were irrational. What’s more, the effects of the ECT on my memory meant I couldn’t remember the names of my children or how to find my way to the end of my street.
I can’t tell you about the next few months because I can’t remember. But somehow I found myself in a consultation with a mood specialist who spent an hour asking me what I was like when I wasn’t depressed. I told him about the lack of inhibition, the talking I couldn’t seem to stop and the surges of energy. And I began to learn about Bipolar.
By the time I was offered a place on the Bipolar Education Programme Cymru seven years later, I had tried endless different medications and read a lot of books about Bipolar. In fact I thought I knew everything there was to know and there was no point in going. I thought I was too busy to spend Wednesday afternoons at a self-help group. I went mainly to demonstrate my willingness to make progress, and to avoid being labelled non-compliant. I sat round a table with a small group of people, men and women, young to oldish, and a nurse and a facilitator.
It was good, meeting people and discussing how to tackle the business of being Bipolar. And I gradually realised I was learning stuff. I had a mood swing during the ten weeks of the course and I wasn’t the only one. I was hypomanic by the end, but I had enough reason left to put into practice strategies to avoid this becoming mania or crashing too far down into depression. It’s not simply a list of what to do and what not to do. It’s about regaining control, of having some confidence that you can take action and that not every minor swing will turn into a bigger one. And in the few months since the course, I have (mainly) managed to walk the tightrope without slipping. I’m less heavily medicated and I’m cautiously optimistic that episodes will be less severe and less frequent.
The Bipolar Education Programme Cymru teaches you something about the science behind the problem and addresses specific issues such as pregnancy and postpartum instability, medication and psychological help, but the most important thing is that it shows how embarrassment and secrecy fuel the illness, whilst pragmatism and openness lead to wellbeing.
It seems ridiculous now that I ever thought mental health difficulties were something to hide.