Can it really be six months since I wrote that raw post on being diagnosed with bipolar? In one way I feel like a new woman and in another I feel frustrated that nothing at all has changed. Despite having started taking medication back in July, I am currently only on half the recommended dosage and so I am not yet feeling the full, magical, mood stabilising effects that I have been promised. Life therefore, feels a bit stagnant. Of course, me being me, I’ve read and devoured any and every piece of literature or life experience I can get my hands on and so life has become a lot more illuminated in the sense that I am now crushingly self-aware (wonderful) and yet still unable to control the massive mood swings that make up my daily life.
There have been so many questions, emails and messages since I opened up about my diagnosis and I’m sorry to say that I’ve mostly avoided answering them. I hope, if you are one of the people who have sent me a message that you won’t be offended by my silence – the truth is, I simply didn’t know what to say. To answer a question relies on my ability to take a step back, analyse and coherently coerce my emotions and behaviours into a structured syntax of some sort. And I just haven’t been able to.
This evening however, after a long few days feeling rather flat and down in my mood, I do think I might be able to string some sentences together and I’m going to try to answer the most commonly asked questions. So here goes and please bear in mind, this is purely from my point of view:
What does it feel like to live with bipolar disorder?
I live in a rapid cycle of mania and depression, both words I hate because they sound so grim. I guess, thinking about it, “mania” is my most prevalent state and luckily or not, I don’t suffer the depressions as much. But don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a fun place to be or simply about being hyper and happy. Sure, there’s that ‘sweet spot’ I hit before everything goes out of control where I feel productive, extroverted, chatty, creative. I feel great and at the top of my game, utterly unstoppable — but it’s not like that all the time. It spirals out of control pretty quickly. Irritablity, anger and paranoia are common. I’m prone to spend too much money, drive recklessly, put myself in compromising situations. I might act out and I just can’t stop talking. I don’t sleep. I become obsessive, and there have been times where I start to see and hear things. Going from such an extreme high to such an extreme low is quite simply, exhausting and often frightening.
But it’s important for me to say that it doesn’t mean I am feeling this way all of the time. There are periods of normality in-between these episodes and every time I laugh or cry doesn’t have to always be because I have bipolar disorder. I am still me after all.
What I notice increasingly is my difficulty to concentrate and finish something. Example – might start doing the ironing, then I think of a blog post I simply must write, get half way through it and remember I wanted to declutter my wardrobe but then I start watching something on YouTube, before remembering I was supposed to be ironing. It’s just a common part of my day and to deal with it, I have to write really quite basic ‘to-do’ lists both at work and at home in order to get things done. It’s good to be getting to grips with some coping mechanisms now at least.
How did you know you had bipolar disorder?
I don’t think there is a black and white answer to this and yet it’s something I am asked all of the time. With hindsight and knowledge, it’s clear that my past behaviour has been symptomantic and that my moods have been erratic. Honestly though it took a moment of utter desperation in a room with a GP for me to get them to push me through to psychiatric care. It was a place of rock bottom that I didn’t know I could get to. Once there the long and detailed conversations about my life I had with a mental health nurse must have raised enough red flags to get through the hallowed doors into the psychiatrists office.
I presume the reason I am asked this, is because the person asking is worried about themselves or someone close to them. So my advice here is to read the information on the Mind website and ask for help if so. Please note, although I am not a medical professional, the anti-depressant my GP had wrongly been prescribing before I hit this rock bottom, was massively exacerbating my symptoms. Bipolar disorder is not just depression and the medications for depression can make you feel much worse so be clear with your doctor if you think there is more going on.
Is it like that girl on Homeland?
The number of people who have asked me this is actually funny. I guess because it’s one of the few things on TV that actually acknowledges bipolar and it’s obviously very popular etc. But please note that bipolar disorder is completely exaggerated and romanticised in this programme and in the media in general. A manic spell cannot be cured with a pill and a nap. Sadly.
Neither are we all axe-wielding lunatics with uncontrollable violent tendencies. At least I’m not anyway.
What do I say to someone with bipolar disorder?
Just listen and be there for them. Understand that bipolar disorder is something they have, like diabetes or cancer, but that it is not inherently who they are. If it is someone close to you, make an effort to educate yourself in order to understand what it really means.
I personally don’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else. I can tell if you have a question so go ahead and ask it instead of treading on egg shells. You will quickly learn that most people are mature, functioning adults with families, careers and well-lived lives rather than eyeing them as suspicious ticking time-bombs.
What does it make you feel like on the medication?
I suppose because Quetiapine isn’t the sort of medication you can just pick up in Tesco, there is some interest in how it feels to take it. I read a whole host of horror stories about how awful it would make me feel but in truth I’ve barely had any side effects.
To begin with, maybe for 2-4 weeks there was a lot of dizziness and a very drugged up feeling which left me unable to drive or function properly. Over time, I’ve gotten used to it and although there are still days like this, they are now in the minority.
I definitely have noticed weight gain which is a common complaint on these meds and the reason I can now be found at the gym five times a week! Hopefully with exercise and sensible eating, I can nip this in the bud but my mental health needs taking care of more than my waistline at this point.
The most obvious and ongoing side effect is a numbness to my day however. Do you know that feeling when you’ve had a bit too much to drink and you walk from A to B and then wonder how in hell you got there? It’s a bit like that. A slightly detached feeling, as though you are living in a bubble side by side with all the other people in your life. It’s not affecting my life terribly but it is noticeable and something I hope will subside soon.
Other weird side effects include a lack of coordination in my hands at times and a very blocked nose. Random but true. I consider all of these things worth tolerating in exchange for a calmer life. Ironically this numbness and detachment and sometimes slurring of my words caused by the meds is something that is more noticeable to people than my actual illness. Go figure.
Anyway, I think that’s enough for now but if I keep getting more questions (drop them in the comments, email or leave them on social media) then I will be happy to answer them here another time.