Turning a Tide of Tears - a personal perspective on living with Bi-Polar
Bi-Polar does not define me but it does impact heavily on me as an individual, in my family and in my dealings with everyday life. It’s part of the great family of taboos that come under the heading of ‘Mental Health’ problems. We are not comfortable talking about these issues and often try to keep them hidden as some sort of guilty secret. I want to share with you my own perspective on living with Bi-Polar for the last 30 years or so. I hope you find it interesting and that it might help you to be a little easier in talking about such things or a little more informed when forming your attitude to mental health.
So what is Bi-Polar? I am not a medical person so my definition will lack academic rigour. For me it is the tendency to experience mood swings which are more intense than would be considered normal. At one end of the spectrum we move through mania to hyper-mania while at the other is depression through to deep depression. ‘Normal’ is somewhere in the middle. Bi-Polar is not something you catch – like a cold – it is a condition which is more or less with you at all times. It does not just affect you it affects your family and all who are close to you. It is only by sharing with them in openness that you can begin to manage it effectively. Doing this, I believe, is essential if you are to avoid being overwhelmed by it.
Bi-polar is an intensely personal experience. It manifests itself differently in every individual. I can only talk about my experience with it, but I hope that in doing this others who suffer from the condition can find something that they recognise from their own experience and that it can help them manage their life more effectively. I hope that if you find Mental Health an embarrassment and a challenge that you might find my openness about it helpful in advancing your understanding.
I have a relatively low number of mood swings. It generally starts with a slow swing into mania followed by a rapid swing into depression. I experience normal ups and downs on a regular basis but it is only at times where I have had a period of prolonged and intensive stress that it goes on to develop into mania. Others experience a totally different signature. For some it cycles over a short period, for others a longer one. Some people, bizarrely, experience the highs and lows at the same time. However Bi-Polar hits your life it can be devastating for both the patient and those close to them.
Hyper-mania is a euphoric state. I have only ever experienced it once in my life when I was 23. It ended up with me being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a number of weeks while I was treated with medication. The impact of that episode left after-shocks for me for many years after and I think it is only now some 30 years later that I have finally managed to put it into perspective. I have experienced mania on a few occasions since but fortunately have been able to head off hypermania at the pass. Collectively I call these highs my Icarus moments. It is as though I have flown too close to the sun and my wings have melted causing me to fall back to earth with a crash!
So why – if mania is euphoric – is it not something to be enjoyed and looked forward to? The trouble is despite the fact that you feel great, experience tells you that there is going to be a big low coming. Like cumulus clouds in a clear blue sky – you just know that the storm is not far off. When in this state we are out of control and do some completely outlandish things. My experience of this state was as an observer – apart from but connected to the action – who is totally unable to influence the behaviour being observed. This was deeply disturbing for me. In fact after I had come down from the high all those years ago I resolved never to allow myself to go there again. Even now I can feel the deep disquiet of the out of control high.
In some ways our behaviour when hyper-manic can be highly amusing. I can vividly remember trying to plant my watch in the pavement because I wanted to grow a time tree! Just before I was admitted to hospital I was causing havoc in the surgery where my Dad had taken me to be assessed. I had got it into my head that I was the Mad Hatter and was careering round the surgery with various nurses and doctors chasing after me. I even offered to show the policemen who had arrived to deal with me how to use their two-way radio both ways!
I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and taken in an ambulance to Liff Hospital in Dundee. I was extremely agitated and by the time we arrived at the hospital was terrified at what was happening. Throughout all this I was both out of control while at the same time observing my wild behaviour in total bemusement at being unable to influence or control it. Arriving at the hospital was deeply disturbing as I was forced to undergo the indignity of being stripped naked and compelled to have a bath by several burly phsychiatric nurses. I was struggling so much that one of them punched me very hard on the jaw.
They eventually managed to subdue me and inject a heavy dose of sedatives. I don’t remember anything else until waking up the next morning. By this time I was down from the high with a bump. I gradually took in my new surroundings. I found myself in a locked ward. I started to observe my fellow patients. It gradually dawned on me ‘Bloody Hell! They are all mad! What the Hell am I doing here!’. It was at that point I decided that I would do whatever it took to get out of there just as soon as I could. Some 4 weeks later to my great relief I succeeded.
The immediate medical treatment back then was to treat the hyper-mania as a chemical imbalance in the brain which gives rise to out of control behaviour. It hadn’t changed very much 25 years later when I was last treated for mania. Certainly in my case it proved very effective. I was treated with Lithium then and an anti-psychotic drug called Olanzapine last time. I rapidly came down from the high as the pendulum of my mood swung towards depression. Back then that was pretty much all the treatment I got. No counselling or analysis was offered. Recently I got some more support from the community mental health team and a short spell of CBT, but essentially the approach was the same one, where symptoms are treated by a carefully concocted cocktail of drugs.
The trouble with this approach alone is it only deals with the symptoms of mania or depression without exploring the underlying pathologies which give rise to the condition in the first place. As I said earlier, I am not a medical person and so cannot make generalised statements about this. I can say with certainty, however, that in order to manage Bi-Polar in my life I need to do more than just keep taking the tablets.
Bi-Polar affects the lives of those around the patient in equally as profound ways as it does the person with the condition. It is terrifying to witness one who you love behaving in such a bizarre way. It is not because the behaviour is totally out of character rather it is because it is a crazy caricature of the person who you know and love. Dealing with the lows is equally as challenging. Seeing someone close to you lose all sense of self-confidence, self-worth and the zest for life is heart-breaking. You feel impotent, angry and responsible all at the same time. Even when things eventually get back on an even keel you are continually second-guessing any behaviour in your loved one which deviates from the emotional median.
I lost my company the last time I was manic. Twelve people lost their jobs. What had been a successful and promising start-up rapidly descended into a debt-ridden shell as a result of the ridiculous and risky financial decisions that I made. In retrospect it is even more scary because I sounded so plausible at the time. I even succeeded in persuading our regional development agency to part with substantial sums of public money which ended up going straight down the drain of delusion.
For my family we went from a comfortable life, with nice cars and foreign holidays to a mountain of debt and the loss of our savings overnight. At one point we were at risk of losing our home but fortunately managed to defer that disaster - hopefully for some time to come. I imploded in shame collapsing into a deep depression that lasted a long time. The courage and love shown by my wife and daughters was immense and it has helped us get to the other side of that particular dark night. The support we received from our friends and extended family is deeply humbling.
The trouble with just treating the symptoms of mania or depression is that it fails to address the fundamental problems in the patient which give rise to the Bi-Polar in the first place. For myself I had some painful traumas, without going into the gory details, which arrested my personal development in significant ways. As a result while some parts of my consciousness evolved apace, others were frozen like a rabbit in the headlights. Certainly, without trying to make a general point, it is in this dislocation of my development that the pathologies giving rise to Bi-Polar found their roots in me. If I am going to tame this tiger then I have to re-integrate these arrested elements of my personality and that takes a lot more effort than just popping the pills.
There are some aspects of my personality which are highly narcissistic. This gives rise to some bizarre and delusional thoughts and behaviours. There is a tendency to feel that somehow I am special in a way that, unchecked, is not healthy. I attach significance to coincidence and take great sense of purpose from innocent and unconnected events. Religion is a heady ingredient to throw into this mix and the combination of all these factors in my make-up has given rise to a recipe for potential psychological melt-down.
My natural reaction, when well, to the weird and wonderful thoughts has been to force them back down into my unconscious as soon as they arise - throwing them back into the fire like a hot potato. This approach does not help in the long term, however, as the thoughts live on in the unconscious and will re-emerge sooner or later in one guise or another. This adds to the psychological pressures which build up and for me, when combined with external stresses over a period, brings a high risk of mania. In order to deal more effectively with these strange thoughts and internal pressures I have had to unlearn my childish tendency to suppress unwelcome thoughts and feelings and find new ways of dealing with them.
The memory of the hyper-mania and the intense high it brought has been something of a dementor’s kiss to me. The fear of the feelings of euphoria attaches itself to ordinary healthy emotions and has robbed me of the ability over most of my life fully to experience happiness or joy without the spectre of mania lurking.
I have found a way to deal this which seems to have had some success for me. I call it catching butterflies. In my mind when I experience the emergence of unruly or unhealthy thoughts, instead of immediately pushing them away, I allow them to flutter round and to take shape. Very gently I catch them and love them for what they are. They may be something born of ignorance, attachment or aggression, they may be childish narcissism or adult arrogance: suspending or confronting fear I look at them with my minds eye. Whatever their source I try to understand them and then with an inner smile I gently blow on them to allow them to flutter off wherever they may.
Dealing with the inner stresses in this way has proved effective, but it is not a panacea. It takes a lot of practice and is not easy to do particularly when I am tired or frustrated but it has been worth persevering with. However effective this approach is, it is not the full story. Very often the patient is the last to realise that the onset of an episode is occurring. It is important to develop humility and trust those who are close to us to be additional sentries on the watch for mania or depression. Being open to others, allowing them to observe your behaviour and being prepared to listen to them is not easy but it is an essential weapon in my battle with Bi-Polar for a healthy and balanced life. It has given rise to some emotional and uncomfortable exchanges with my wife but difficult though this is, it has definitely helped.
In summary then, it involves more than just taking the tablets to prevent my life from being defined by Bi-Polar. I have been on a voyage of discovery both internally in my mind and externally in my relationships with my wife, family and friends. I have been helped on that journey by the skill and knowledge of the medical professions. It is sometimes terrifying and it is often rewarding. It has contributed to me, my family and my friends growing as human beings. It is a tide of tears which can be turned.
I would like to finish with a more general point. I described in the opening paragraph of this piece Mental Health issues as being a great taboo. In our modern world we are very quick to form opinion and we have the technology to disseminate to a vast audience at the click of a mouse. It is part of the deep dignity of humanity to struggle with adversity and strive to overcome it. We must be careful how we judge others. We often have no idea in coming to our snap judgements of the burdens that others are carrying inside. So let’s make tolerance and generosity our first response lest we add to those burdens in our ignorance.
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