World Bipolar Day, and a coming out of sorts
I posted this on my personal facebook page today, and decided to share it here, as well.
Happy World Bipolar Day, everybody! This is one date I never forget because it's the day before my birthday. I know you're all used to me posting mental health awareness stuff - having worked in the field for twenty years, it's fair to say it's a subject I'm pretty passionate about. I could have posted something generic to mark World Bipolar Day, but after lots (like, months and months) of umming and aahing about this, I decided that it's time to talk about my own experiences.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar II in 2007. As illnesses go, it's pretty rubbish. My brain is unable to regulate my moods by itself, and I rely on a juicy cocktail of medication to quell the mood swings, intrusive (and at times dark and disturbing) thoughts, obsessional and paranoid ideas, sleep disruption, deep depression, irritability, and hypomania.
Some people think Bipolar II is a 'mild' form of Bipolar Disorder; it's not - it's just different, and I've learned that there's no hierarchy in mental illness: if you're living with one, then at times life is going to be very difficult, regardless of which condition it is. I'm also blessed with 'mixed episodes', which are the depressive and hypomanic aspects of Bipolar at the same time, so along with feeling nihilistic and desperately low, I get angry, irritated and self-destructive. It's not pretty, and frequently terrifying.
I've been lucky to have a consistent, caring and sympathetic medical team supporting me over the years. I was 'well managed', as we say in the trade , and able to carry on working as a mental health nurse. I made my own 'reasonable adjustments' by working part-time and committing to a self-care regime that ensured sufficient sleep and regular meals and minimised stresses which made me vulnerable to getting unwell.
Last April I experienced a serious relapse, combined with the onset of crippling anxiety, totally out of the blue.
Typically for me, when I become unwell it can literally happen overnight with no obvious precursor. It's never easy to put these experiences into words, but I felt I had no control over my mind. If you can imagine being strapped into a fairground ghost train and being driven past your worst fears and nightmares (plus a few shockers you hadn't thought of yet) with no escape - well, that's what was going on in my mind.
I had a brief period of recovery, but relapsed again a few months later. Over the past nine months, I've had multiple medication changes- including a rapid detox from one drug so I could switch to another, which made me physically very ill as well. Throughout this time my mood has been horribly unstable; I wake up each morning wondering which wild pony of a mood I've been given to ride today. Will it be the old sluggish one that has no motivation, or will it be the fierce and crazy one that's bucking wildly with energy and ideas, only to burn itself out in a few hours? I wake up, and I really have no idea.
I've just added hormone replacement therapy into the mix, and I'm hoping this will help. Mood disorders in women are significantly affected by the perimenopause, but my psychiatrist says there's very little research in this area, so it's mostly guesswork from a medical point of view.
But I digress (I do that a lot, sometimes my brain just isn't big enough for all the thoughts going on at once). I remain hopeful that this year will be a positive one for me. Whilst I've had to leave my job, I'm hoping to do some voluntary work with Time to Change Wales, the mental health anti-stigma campaign, and I'm working on creating a podcast about women's experiences of living with mental illness, which will be launching in the summer.
If you've read this far: thank you. I've always said it's important to talk about mental health and mental illness and I needed to add my own experiences to this global conversation. Thank you also to Leo, my mum and dad, my son Rowan, my BFF Kerry, and everyone else who's been a source of support to me: I'm incredibly grateful to you all 💜