How do you feel when you are diagnosed with a potentially lethal health condition that maybe lifelong? Devastated? Usually. Shocked? Definitely. Relieved? Yes, if you have struggled for a decade before it and now have a chance for treatment that will help rather than exacerbate it as has happened for years. Except in the case of bipolar disorder the main feeling is confusion. Because it’s etiology is a mystery. It plays out differently in every single sufferer that endures it. Some have one episode in their lives, and never have to seek help again. Some are blighted for life and never have much peace. Some get by without medication, some need to leave the chemist every month with carrier bags full. Some never require hospital treatment. Some are in and out. At the stage of diagnosis, in 2007, I was relieved, a weight lifted off my shoulder, because I had suffered for so long with treatments that only made me worse until I saw my first consultant who turned out to be a godsend and, as I was to later realise, a rarity in the mental health system, someone who deeply cared for the patient. An in truth, I already knew my diagnosis. I did not know the route it would take from there. Sadly, so far I have fallen into all of the latter compartments in terms of etiology.
Bipolar disorder is in essence more of the split personality assumptions that people misuse to describe schizophrenia. Literally it means existing on two extreme poles, mania and depression. “But we all have that” I have heard more times than I can count. And yes we all can flip from happy to sad. But when I am manic, I lose all inhabitations, don’t sleep or eat for days at a time and feel only energised, start thinking you have god like attributions, believe you are destined for greatness, speak to strangers, take risks with said strangers, accrue £30,000 debts because you cannot stop spending, get unplanned tattoos, climb on your consultant’s desk because you are climbing to heaven and walk down the street claiming everyone excluding yourself is Satan. Oh, and the reason they, including the drs call it being ‘high’ when someone is in a manic episode is because you are just that, it is like being on crack permanently minus the crack, minus the comedown and for free. Sounds good? Initially yes. It is the most incredibly euphoric feeling in the world. But it comes at a heavy price. Eventually the cracks show. Lack of sleep, or extreme mania alone cause paranoia, voices and psychosis. And the come down of all come downs.
Now let’s talk about the depression. Most people with bipolar, myself included, spend much of their time in this mood state. Last year I was hospitalised for six months with a crippling depression that would not shift. I believed the devil was punishing me and that I was meant to die. The psychiatrists tried everything. Nothing worked. They desperately went through the textbook. They went through every medication. Nothing. I was dying. Ultimately only my physical heart was beating. I had saved and snuck in 200 pills. In desperation I took them. I had to be rushed by ambulance to resus at a and e. But the pain could go on no longer. So, they pulled the last trick out of the bag. Electro-convulsive-Therapy (ECT), famed through films like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It is much maligned, feared, and now, used only in emergencies. I jumped at the chance. I was not scared of having to go under general anaesthetic with electrodes on my head and having electricity passed through me. I was scared of not having it. It was my last hope. In the end I needed 12 sessions of ect to start to come back to ‘me’ again. Expressions on my flat face slowly began to return. Life started to beat through my veins once again. ECT is an age old and rarely used treatment used only in the most desperate and non respondent of cases. It wipes a lot of memory, and it works. I lived through a time where I knew I was not going to make it. And now, I still pinch myself, or treasure the air I breathe because I don’t know how I am still alive.
But even between episodes. I struggle. Every day is a battle. Even the smallest tasks are mountainous for me. I exists on antipsychotics, two mood stabilisers, and two antidepressants every day. Add to that side effect tablets plus methadone then we are looking at a lot of pills. And they are dangerous. Lithium causes thyroid problems and kidney damage. My antipsychotic was causing a dangerous heart condition that they knew about and left for two years where I could have had a cardiac arrest at any time.
I have been in hospital 8 times in the last 3 years alone. These experiences are soul destroying. Because you do not feel as if you are unwell and in hospital; you feel you are bad and in prison. You are often treated like a criminal. There is often little empathy and compassion. In distress one night, with voices screaming at me to cut my throat I went to the nurses for help and had doors slammed in my face, was screamed at to go to my room, and then told off for not asking them for medication when I had been for help five times. Every time I leave hospital I have to rebuild my life from nothing. And then you get readmitted and everything you have built gets knocked down again. Finding the will to keep going is hard. Admittedly at points I have even said “what’s the point in building up a life”
My illness has lead to many suicide attempts, some nearly fatal. Dozens of times in institutions. A heroin and crack addiction to overcome from which I almost lost my arm and needed four emergency surgeries. I’ve seen young friends die tragically. Too Unnecessary. Too young. Too sad. But I chose to use it well. And these experiences have changed me for the better. Would I have asked for this condition? Never. Would I go back and change them? Maybe not. Because I have learnt we don’t have long. Nothing is guaranteed to us. So I have fought hard with family relationships to make them better, where once they were on thin ice. And I am a kinder, nicer version of myself, and I judge no one. So in a bag full of rubbish I have found some glittering gifts. Gifts I want to keep for a lifetime.