Yvonne’s experience of bipolar disorder

When I was asked by the lovely folk of Aware to write something for their website, I thought it could be useful to explain the feelings I have during an episode. Perhaps reading about what it actually feels like will shed some light for family and friends on their loved ones behaviour, and maybe be a comfort to anyone suffering right now.

I was diagnosed at 21 on returning home from a holiday in the States with college friends. Due to lots of stress factors over the previous year, being in the midst of a long-term (very unhealthy) relationship breakup, little sleep in the previous months and zero sleep for a period of about 4 days before and during the flight to America, when I got there I was very ‘high’. I was ‘sick’, but I felt AMAZING. I still wasn’t sleeping and the girls were very confused by my behaviour. I didn’t want to sleep because I felt so good. I was just so happy to be away with friends and making a fresh start being ‘single’.

I felt on top of the world, and more than that, I felt euphoric. I was eating less, losing weight and constantly on the go. I started to journal about things really early in the morning when the girls were still asleep and decided there and then I was going to become a writer destined for amazing things, and that I would gain fame and fortune doing so. With these euphoric feelings, anything is possible! After about a week and some more journaling I began to realise that what I was experiencing was a manic episode. I already knew I suffered from depression but had never felt such elation before. My late uncle had suffered with ‘Manic Depression’ as they called it then, and I began to be able to relate my behaviour to his, and I just knew I was bipolar. While I felt euphoric, that anything was possible, and now almost powerful because I had cracked the code to life, to my friends and worried parents at home, I was overactive, over-talkative, overly friendly with random people on the street, not sleeping but having a huge amount of energy and just acting strangely. A big thank you to those wonderful friends for bearing with me during that time!

The holiday finished up in Las Vegas, and on my last day, believing that I could help eradicate homelessness, I spent the day buying food and drinks for some homeless men. I spent all of my money on them and sat with them chatting. One of them wore a Guinness T-shirt and had a daughter in college who he hadn’t spoken to in a long time. I had a new mission – reunite the two of them! So in the coming weeks, I went about researching the daughter and contacting her college in the hope that these strangers to me would be happily reunited. That never happened, but when very manic, you really believe in your power and your ability to fix things and help people. I almost feel invincible. There were a lot of other incidents that happened while away that were very uncharacteristic of my usual behaviour, and some that still embarrass me to this day.

It’s been 15 years since I came home and was diagnosed through our public system. It’s been a very eventful fifteen years with quite a few episodes, some worse than others and three hospital admissions. Every time I feel a high coming on I say ‘Ok – this time I will manage this as best I can, I’ll stay as level as possible and I won’t go low’, but the low always comes, sometimes worse than others.

It’s really tough when you feel amazing to acknowledge you are ‘sick’ and need to implement some changes – be that changing up your medication, reducing workload, changing your routine. I often recognise a high and start to make changes but it can all happen so quickly and all of a sudden you’re a level 9 out of 10 on the highness scale. For me, I feel incredible. I don’t want to sleep, I want to help everyone because of this feeling of elite power, I am overactive, taking on too much work, befriending everyone I can and telling them my whole life story, seeing signs in everyday things that the universe is telling you, talking to you. I see everything in vibrant colour and boldless. I have such strong emotional awareness of myself and others, I almost feel like I can read minds. My mind goes a million miles an hour and my creativity soars – I can think in metaphors and feel I have a solution to every problem.

On my last admission to hospital, once I was on the ward I started trying to organise a concert with all the patients, going around asking everyone their favourite songs and making sure a keyboard was brought to my ward from another area of the hospital so I could get going on this big concert. They wouldn’t allow me off the ward so I started running around the corridors a hundred miles an hour to burn off some energy. I was writing poetry, doing art, listening to loads of music. It all had so much meaning. When I’m high, I just can’t stop going, going, going. Generally, the period before getting professional help can be tough for the person suffering and anyone close to the person. They’re feeling so great yet their loved ones are worried and trying to talk to them, and suggesting they need help. I really hate hearing this when I’m high and thus I can go on the defensive and say things I don’t mean, causing rifts in relationships which can be messy and upsetting for those involved. This especially can be really difficult to manage when you come back to level and have to deal with everything that has happened while you were high.

For me, there is such a major contrast between the high and low and generally a low will come on a few months after reaching level ground after a high. The difference is scary. All of a sudden I can’t think straight, I can’t make decisions, I see everything in black and white, I feel helpless and lose all self esteem. I have no creativity and feel so low I find it hard to get out of bed. Absolutely everything is pointless. I feel like a complete burden on my family, who have just had to deal with a manic episode – now this. The guilt is so extreme and the pain of actually just being alive is excruciating. This is made worse by knowing how privileged I am to have everything I should need and want in life. Why can’t I appreciate everything I have? Why can’t I feel excitement for anything? What is wrong with me?  I just want to hide away in a box where nobody can find me. I feel like I am just existing, not living, and I am no use to anyone. This is the toughest part of bipolar and something I would not wish on anyone.

I am now 36. I work as a photographer and I am a lone parent to a seven year old girl. I am doing well in terms of my mental health. I’ve been hospitalised twice in the last three years in Highfield, with thanks to my family who ensured I was admitted. The care in Highfield has been amazing and my psychiatrist and I have been tweaking my medication over these few years to find the best fit for me. She knows me very well and that really helps when treating a patient. It’s not as simple as handing over some medication and hoping for the best. Always after a high, it’s natural not to feel great when you reach level ground, but this time I haven’t experienced a bad low after (yet, fingers crossed). I have also connected with Aware who give amazing courses and support which I am so grateful for.

I want to highlight to anyone who has been recently diagnosed that through the years since my own diagnosis I have had really long periods of wellness and great happiness. Bipolar is certainly not a life sentence and with the right support and treatment you can have a wonderful life. I have huge gratitude to my family for their endless support and I feel so lucky to be finally connected with the right professionals. Life is a beautiful thing and can still be beautiful for those with our condition. Let’s own it!

This blog is by Yvonne Keane.

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