February 3, 2010
Here is my story. I sincerely hope it helps others, even one other person, as they wander the Bipolar world ….
I clearly remember the very first time my black dog, to use a Churchillian phrase, made its first appearance. I was twenty, my father had been killed in an industrial accident 18 months earlier and my Mum left England for a six week holiday with her brother in Sydney. The depression just didn’t hit, it crept up on me, accompanied by depression’s insidious bedfellow – anxiety. Within a week, I withdrew into myself, and the feeling of anxiety and depression intensified to the point that I just didn’t want to get out of bed. I was too scared. Frightened of a once exciting world, fearful of another panic attack, lying under the doona [Australian word for a duvet or down quilt] struggling with chaotic, self deprecating thoughts, was a better alternative than showing the world how weak I was. I cried almost incessantly. I was empty inside, and that terrible grip of anxiety was seemingly strangling the last shred of hope from me. All was black and I was very much alone as there was no one that I could tell how I felt, as I genuinely believed that it was my fault for feeling like this, as if something I had done encouraged these feelings that had crippled my once buoyant existence. If hell existed, I was firmly and permanently, so it seemed, stoking the fiery furnaces. Nothing whatsoever was of any interest to me, outside of my own critical and severe self talk, which led me deeper and deeper into hell. I honestly believed I had gone insane.
Up until 18 months earlier my life had been happy. I enjoyed a normal childhood in a loving family in suburban Essex. There was nothing to indicate that a tsunami of gloom, doom and despondency would soon engulf my entire being. My Dad’s tragic death was, and still is today, 35 years later, the most devastating sense of loss that I can imagine. But many people lose loved ones in terrible circumstances, they don’t go mad do they?
It was very soon after that fateful day that my Mum needed to be admitted into a psychiatric ward, as she was ‘on a high.’ I knew very little about mental illness and was scared of the whole subject, linking mental illness with murderous psychopaths or child molesters or some ridiculous idea along those lines. Mum had been diagnosed some years before I was born, as being ‘Manic Depressive’ but her illness was contained by medication and Dad’s strength and his ability to conceal her mood swings from the children. Six months after his death Mum was hospitalised, the second moment of grief in my then relatively short life.
I learned then that the medication Mum was taking (Lithium) was a mood stabiliser and because she had only one kidney, and the medication itself was salt based, she was just under the therapeutic range for the drug, thus still susceptible to mood swings – the highs and lows of Bipolar. Her lows, whilst being terrible for her, were manageable for me, but when she was high, it was a very difficult time. She would spend money she didn’t have, ring her friends at all times, day and night, invite strangers into our home, dress up, wear considerable amounts of make up, and claim to feel ‘on top of the world.’
I therefore had an inkling that maybe, just maybe, how I was feeling was related to some genetic predisposition, but that fact really didn’t help as I wanted to deny I was in anyway like my Mum. In fact, I was scared of being hospitalised as I imagined I would spend my life in some institution as there was no way I could function in the normal world again. In my mind these thoughts isolated me even further. I needed medical help but was too scared to seek it, so I just carried on.
After a week or so I left the house to buy some food. The experience was terrible. I assumed everyone was looking at me because I was mad, and they could tell. I just gritted my teeth and got on with the task of buying food, even though my anxiety would not allow me to focus for longer than about 30 seconds. But I got through it. A week or so later I went back to work, but just before this went to my family GP and complained I couldn’t sleep. He prescribed some sleeping medication which gave me some respite from my mind and that really helped.
To cut a long story short, this depressive episode left me after about 2 months, but some of the anxiety lingered. In my mid twenties I migrated to Australia and suffered a very similar episode, found an excellent GP who referred me to a psychiatrist, but still I refused to accept the possibility of Bipolar. My swing in mood was becoming more regular with short but frenetic manias accompanied by irritability and anxiety, then the flip side weeks of debilitating anxious depression Eventually, 15 years later, I began to take Lithium. Oh how I wish I did this much earlier in my life. It has really assisted in keeping my black dog at bay. I still suffer from anxiety/depression and periods of agitated, irritable mania, but the episodes are now counted in weeks, not months, and I can now manage through these periods.
I believe I suffer from Bipolar 2, as does my sister, as does her daughter. Lithium works for all of us, in terms of mood stabilisation. I lead a full and very active life. Hold down a senior role as a sales director in a large multi national I.T. organisation, have been married for 30 years and use my experiences, feelings etc. to assist others. As I said, I still suffer from my black dog and its accompanying anxiety, and am going through one of those times now. It’s not easy. Short term medication helps me to sleep and/or feel less anxious. I think the biggest thing is that I know this illness is just part of me. I can’t fight or banish it through the power of positive thought. It is just the way I am. Some people suffer from migraines or asthma or athletes foot. I suffer from a depressive anxiety disorder called Bipolar, but I am still not out of the closet with this.
I hope one day, to have the courage to talk openly in my workplace and amongst friends about my illness, its affects, the implications thereof. I am still concerned that society judges people with mental illness, but maybe that’s just my view driven by my fear, a fear of being discovered as someone that has a mental illness. This self imposed prejudice is the next step I need to overcome.
Thanks for reading this and I believe that if my story helps just one person then it will make my journey actually worth it.