Bipolar can make you act like a huge arsehole. It can be really hard for people around you to keep up. I know that I am exhausting to be around. I’ve lost many friendships because I am just too high maintenance; too much hard work; just generally too much. I don’t begrudge people for this. I understand. But it doesn’t make it hurt any less.
I was diagnosed with bipolar a few years back. I was seeing a psychologist for ongoing mood disturbances and when he went overseas for a conference, I decided to go on antidepressants for an extra bit of help while he was away. I had an extreme reaction to the antidepressants and had my first major manic episode. I was staying up all night and making stupid decisions, but I felt unstoppable.
At the same time, I was being quite aggressive and paranoid. I kept thinking of creative, fast-paced ways I could end my life. My mind moved at a million miles an hour and I found it equally scary and exhilarating. I went back to see my GP, asking ‘What is wrong with this medication? What did it do to me?’
She put me on mood stabiliser medication and referred me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with bipolar disorder. We both actually started laughing during the assessment because I was just saying ‘yes’ to every question.
It was quite remarkable I had missed being diagnosed before. It turns out I only talked to my psychologist about being depressed, and not the other end of the scale. I didn’t realise it was a problem; I just thought that was who I was.
I am a psychology student, so I was well aware of mental illness and about bipolar before I was diagnosed. I guess I had just never thought about how it applied to me.
When my GP first suggested it might be something more complicated than depression I thought, ‘Oh, I probably have bipolar.’ Up until then I had never reflected on my own mental health and the context of what I learned at university. It just didn’t feel real to me.
When I was diagnosed, I had two major reactions. Immediately there was a sense of relief. Diagnosis was like the missing piece of the puzzle. But there was also a sense of sadness, like a feeling of grief for who I ‘used’ to be. There was a lot of self-stigmatisation going on.
As I started getting treatment and feeling better about my diagnosis, I questioned my sense of identity. I had been symptomatic for many years before I was diagnosed. What parts of my behaviour in the past, good or bad, were me or were the bipolar? For instance, I had always thought of myself as having a bad temper. But once I began taking mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics I realised I didn’t have a temper at all. I had bipolar disorder. And that is still I something I struggle with to this day, figuring out where I end and bipolar begins.
My parents struggled a lot. My mum refused to accept my diagnosis for a while. My dad was quite dismissive, saying things like, ‘Everyone has bipolar; everyone has up and downs.’ This really tore me apart for a long time, not having my parents on board. Especially when diagnosis had been such a positive, transformative experience for me. Luckily, my family eventually came around and Dad even attended group psychoeducation with me.
I’ve been with my partner both pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. My diagnosis lead to a real shift in the dynamic of the relationship. Prior to my diagnosis, my partner would often be confused by my tendency to say one thing and do the next.
One week, I would be adoring and loving and the next I would be irritable and aggressive. It made it hard for him to keep up.
I think he often beat himself up, believing that it was his fault that my moods were fluctuating. I remember him saying that he didn’t recognise the girl he had fallen in love with. When I was diagnosed, it gave our relationship a fresh start. Apart from a few rough patches, our relationship is stronger than ever.
This may sound odd, but one of the moments I have been proudest of my partner was when he threatened to leave me. My moods had been constantly fluctuating for over six months and I had been treating him terribly as a result. I told him that if he left me I would kill myself. I was experiencing a dysphoric mania and I meant it. He turned to me and said, ‘I don’t want that to happen but I cannot stay and be treated like this. I won’t.’
That was a huge reality check. I knew he loved me more than anything, and yet he was willing to leave and risk losing me. That’s how much my mental illness was having a negative impact on him.
I started taking my treatment a lot more seriously after that. I was more compliant with my medication and therapy, because I knew what had to lose. I feel more in control than I ever have. And I owe it all to him showing me how much he valued himself and his own happiness.
For the most part, I am stable now. Simple strategies have made all the difference. One of the greatest pieces of advice I was given was to put in place a routine. Get up the same time each morning. Go to bed the same time each night. Have a whole host of things you do everyday that make you feel good. For me, this includes making sure I practice self-care everyday: shower, brush my teeth, wash my face, exercise, write in my diary.
I mark all of these things off in a mood tracker app because I know when my mood starts slipping, they are some of the first things to go. Routine is the enemy of bipolar.
I am also on a cocktail of life-saving medications. I owe so much of who I am today to finding the right medication. I would never have made it this far without medication. That’s why getting a diagnosis was such a blessing because I was able to be put on the best medication for me.
Jess is a participant in Young Faces of Mental Illness, a collaboration with SANE and batyr supporting young adults to share their stories. The project is supported by The Future Generation Global Investment Company.