What it's like to have bipolar, by people who have bipolar

30th Mar 2016
Challenging mental health inequalities
Bipolar disorder

This content mentions suicide or suicidal thoughts, self-harm, personality disorders, substance abuse and addiction (which may include mentions of alcohol or drug use), trauma, anxiety and depression. Please read with care. There are details of where to find help at the bottom of this page.

A blog by Chris O'Sullivan.

My experience with bipolar

I was diagnosed with bipolar in my late teens, in my first year at university. The diagnosis (and not – I hasten to add – the symptoms) have shaped my adult identity and experiences.

People with bipolar experience both episodes of severe depression and episodes of mania – overwhelming joy, excitement or happiness, huge energy, a reduced need for sleep, and reduced inhibitions. The experience of bipolar is uniquely personal. No two people have exactly the same experience.

Bipolar disorder has been associated with genius and with creativity. It is certainly true that several contemporary high achievers and creatives have spoken of their experiences. Throughout history, it is possible to recognise bipolar-type traits in the artistic, political and academic spheres. But what is it actually like?

I was lucky enough to speak to a range of people with bipolar to demonstrate the range of experiences out there and some of the things that help. Read on to learn more about their experiences with bipolar.

What impact has bipolar had on your life?

For me, this is important because my experience is very unusual. I took antidepressants in my last year of school, which, when I arrived at University and took the control of living away from home, helped to induce hypomania.

I was already aware of my mood swings and studying biomedical sciences. I went to the doctor and said I thought I had bipolar, and he agreed. I met a superb psychiatrist via student health. There were a few unusual people in my extended Irish family, and at least two with probable bipolar a working diagnosis was quick.

Mood swings coloured my school and university experiences. I cycled rapidly between deep depression and hypomania. I ate too much and drank too much, partly because of the medication and partly because of anxiety, and became very obese.

I had some embarrassing moments of drunkenness, self-harm, obnoxiousness, and accrued debt. By the time I felt properly back on an even keel seven years later, I had accrued nearly £50,000 of unsecured debt, which had taken a decade to pay back.

I don’t have a house or a postgraduate degree, which I’d have liked and which would help now. But. I had my life.

Thanks to my psychiatrist, brilliant GP, online peer support, and carefully nurtured insight, I avoided the hospital. And because I found a sense of purpose through volunteering.

My parents were unquestioningly supportive financially, emotionally and practically. They resolved to push me through my degree at whatever cost. I am lucky they were able to.

I got involved in the student union movement and student mental health campaigning, which led me to my career. Bipolar shaped me. But never broke me.

Nowadays, all I have left is a ghost of an identity formed from a diagnosis. Sometimes my self-stigma or real stigma inhibits my career. Sometimes casual disclosure leads to awkwardness. But. I am recovered.

I’m constantly probing for where recovery ends and post-mental illness starts. I am so aware of how a-typically bipolar I am and how lucky that makes me. Every time my heart swells with empathy for a fellow traveller in trouble or dead too young, I thank my stars. And commit to continuing the work I do. Other people I spoke to had a range of views.

Cait's ongoing experience and impact of bipolar which started at a young age

“It's shaped my life because I became unwell in my teens, which resulted in me dropping out of school. Becoming unwell at such a critical period in my life shaped my self-image, and I struggle with social anxiety.

“Episodes can be pretty destructive, and it means I find it very difficult to take anything for granted – no matter how well my life is going, I know I can get ill, and it can be wiped out, as it has been many times before. I had children for a long time because I was frightened of getting ill.

“The positive aspects are that when I started blogging about it, I tapped into an entire network of people who had felt the same, who were living with all, and it gave me hope.”

Tanya's experience

“I feel that having bipolar disorder has been both a curse and a blessing. The negatives focus on some of the more harmful actions I have taken as a result of the disorder, such as falling into self-medicating habits which lead to addiction.

“Bipolar has provided some heavy limitations, such as having time off work and needing rest when episodes come along unpredicted and being unable to look after my young daughter when it is in full swing.

“However, in good light, it has also separated my true friends and family from the false ones who did not care for me in the first place. I am very lucky to have a close circle now. Each person I know truly values me and sees the real person that I am through the disorder.”

Anna's experience

“I've had numerous admissions to hospitals and crisis houses, taken overdoses, cut myself, and put myself in very dangerous situations when manic.

“All of those things have been awful, but they don't even begin to compare to how soul-destroying it has been not to have the life I once believed was a given taken by bipolar. As a teenager, I was a high achiever. I was destined for academic and occupational success, but I haven't been able to work since I was 18, and I had to drop out of university because I was too unwell.

“Being unable to have that life has forced me to find other ways to feel productive, valuable, and successful. I volunteer, study part-time with the Open University (I will finally get my degree next year. I started university in 2009!), and earn a small income from blogging.”

What have you learned as a result of your experiences?

Living with bipolar, often for years, teaches you a lot about yourself, mental health services, medication…and sadly, often about stigma, shame and discrimination.

I’d say for me, it was a key driver for learning about me…but also a red herring as I feel I vested too much of my own identity in clinging to the life raft of the diagnosis as an explanation of my life in my early 20s…again though, there is a range of perspectives.

What do you do to keep well?

Keeping well when you have bipolar is an interesting concept. For some, it revolves exclusively around managing moods. For others, it means fitting life around moods.

For me, and others like me who are deep into a recovery that seems to be holding, it’s about keeping an eye and investing in the things that help us all boost our mental health.

For many, if not most people with bipolar, life and keeping well includes taking medication.

Blogger Tanya says:

“The thing I most prioritise with keeping myself well is to be strict in taking my medication. Missing doses or tweaking them without professional help can be devastating.”

Again, I’m going to buck the trend and say I don’t take medication routinely. I took lithium for a decade and then wanted to try tapering off once I knew myself and had done my research. That was eight years ago, and I’ve managed it. I did it carefully, over two years, with support, whilst learning other techniques.

Cait agrees with Tanya.

“For 13 years, I took medication, but I've been trying to cope without it for the past six months. So I have to be super careful, and alas, super boring. I don't drink a lot. I have relatively early nights when I can.”

Bipolar can also be triggered by trauma or other life events, and sometimes part of therapy is addressing underlying concerns to get someone to a point where they can start to see a life worth living.

What single piece of advice would you give a person just diagnosed?

Based on all the insights shared, we’ve come up with the following list…but it’s not exhaustive. Speaking personally, I’d say, “Hold on. It gets better. Different. But better…”

  • Find out about bipolar. Use trusted web resources or library books. Learn about treatments. Research medications. Know your options. Talk to people.
  • I know it's tempting to hinge every experience and feeling you've ever had on the diagnosis, and to an extent, it's a very natural thing to do. However, you're still you. You still have your own feelings and thoughts, language, and perception of your own life. Try not to adopt an illness identity. You are you. Not bipolar. Get to know yourself.
  • Throw yourself into treatment and get well…learn some good strategies for taking care of yourself, but remember there's a person under the diagnosis- there was before you were diagnosed, and there will be after. Bipolar might change you, and that’s OK. Recovery doesn’t mean a cure, but it can mean lots of new opportunities.
  • You and your doctor are equal in your care. In the consultation room, you bring real-life experience, your own personal circumstance (family, work, interests) and knowing what works for you. Your doctor brings years of valuable knowledge, study and experience in treating others. Work together. Respect each other. Ask tough questions and expect tough questions.
  • Reach out to other people with the diagnosis, whether that be through a community support group or via social media. It’s easy to feel isolation shock when you are first diagnosed. I believe that hearing other people’s experiences and connecting with those who are in the same boat can not only help with accepting the illness but also provide a sense of ‘normality’ within the community.
  • Find out about bipolar disorder, join a support group and learn how to live well with peers. You need to work out what works for you. Learning about this and exploring what helps you ideally with people on a similar path can be very empowering.
  • Work with bipolar rather than against it. Pretending it doesn't exist won't make it go away. In fact, it will make it so much more difficult to control.
  • Build a circle of support. Friends, family, professionals, and community resources…all can help.
  • Put safeguards around managing your money when well to protect yourself when too low to motivate and organise yourself or too high to care. I've always found banks and creditors very helpful when I tell them that I have bipolar.

With grateful thanks to all who contributed to this piece, your names have been changed to preserve your identity.

If you are feeling like ending your life or feel unable to keep yourself safe, please call 999 or go to A&E and ask for the contact of the nearest crisis resolution team. These are teams of mental health care professionals who work with people in severe distress. If you feel affected by the content you have read, please see our get help page for support.

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