Warning, this blog may be triggering for some readers.
I was diagnosed with bipolar (or manic depression as it was termed then) at the age of 21. At the time of diagnosis my nephew was in Great Ormond Street dying from a brain tumour, I had withdrawn from all social interactions choosing to sit by his side during the day and working at night so I wouldn’t have to talk to my colleagues (my office was 24 hours). I was fortunate enough to have a perceptive GP who saw this not just as an instance of bereavement but rather the straw that broke the camel’s back. Looking back at the years prior to this I don’t know how I hadn’t been diagnosed previously but hindsight always makes these things painfully obvious.
I started having difficult thoughts at a young age
The first suicidal thought/planning I remember clearly was around the age of 10, the thought was: it would be better to go as a kid because my family wouldn’t be as attached to me as they would if I waited until I grew up. I also remember that that thought was not a surprise; I’m sure it was not the first time and anyone with bipolar will know it doesn’t really go away you just learn to shout louder or distract it so I suspect it’s been with me the whole time.
I’d started to self-harm at 12 or 13, I’d embraced the goth trend because it gave me a means to cover the cuts, copying the style of The Crow film I’d wind black cloth bandages from my hands to my elbows meticulously keeping them covered in front of teachers, friends and family. Some of my friends at the time knew but they were the kind who thought it was cool. Unfortunately for anyone seeking stimulus it becomes an addiction, a habit as difficult to kick as smoking but with a more public record of the damage. I finally kicked the habit by 17 or 18.
Making myself aware of my internal weather system helps me to understand changes
In the years since diagnosis I have finally learned to manage my condition without medication. Making myself incredibly aware of my internal weather system but also becoming more relaxed about its changes as I get to know what they mean and know that (most of the time) I can control them. So here’s what I’ve learned:
Don’t hide from it – get to know your condition from research as well as the behaviours you associate with depression. If you feel something is wrong, admit it. I’ve known people who have spent good portions of their lives in limbo because they can’t face what’s happening but like alcoholism the sooner you admit the problem the sooner you can deal with it.
Don’t hide behind it – Melancholia and mania are the very worst of you but they are still you. Whilst you learn to control your condition you may have limited control over your behaviour but your actions are still your responsibility. If you catch yourself saying ‘I don’t have to do this because I’m depressed or mentally ill’ get someone to give you a swift kick in the backside. Distancing yourself from responsibility is also distancing yourself from reality.
Know yourself – Get to know your triggers. This is probably the hardest part. You need to start paying attention to what triggers mania or melancholia for you and then start grouping them so you can also make assumptions about new experiences. Which do you spend most time in? Or which do you tend towards more? Once you know your triggers you can use them to help balance your mood, generally exercise, achievements and forcing yourself to practice social interaction will get you out of melancholia. Exercise will also help you burn out a mania but you can also bring it down with anything that requires mental focus something that stretches your brain.
Love yourself – forgive yourself for mistakes or ‘bad behaviour’ instead of beating yourself up resolve to do it differently next time and move on. Dwelling unnecessarily on the negative and the past will get you quickly into mood cycles. You have to develop a bit of goldfish memory for this.
For yourself but not by yourself – Each person has to learn their own way to control their condition. We are genetically different so it stands to reason that the impact of this condition is different for each of us but you are not alone. It’s incredibly easy to recognise other people with bipolar when you recognise the behaviours in yourself but it’s very obvious when they are struggling. There is nothing better than recognising your fellow bipolar person and sharing stories with each other.
Use your family and friends! – Help them to understand, explain to them your triggers but also how to help you manage your moods. Often friends and family feel helpless when it comes to mental health not knowing how to deal with it, what’s appropriate to say or not. Giving them a way to help is good for them as well as you. My family are incredible and many of them suffer with me so it’s great to be able to support each other and lament together when the black dog comes to sit on you.
Elliann works in cancer research; she'd love to see mental health research catch up with cancer in her life time, in terms of evidence base to treatment and care but also in terms of moving away from taboo.