Please join us and help me welcome Kate to The Mindset Effect! She shares her experiences in living with Bipolar Disorder. As always, if Kate’s story triggers your own illness, please either see your mental health professional or call Lifeline on 13 1114 for immediate support.
Living with Bi-Polar is like riding a roller coaster – blindfolded! You never quite know what is coming next and both the ride up and the ride down are equally scary – though for different reasons. On the ride up, well it’s a much better feeling then the ride down, but I just never know when I’ll flip over and start my next descent. Also, out of nowhere every now and again there is a sharp and unexpected turn or the serene hope of a plateau where life just rolls along for a while. The ride down though is always hell. You never know just how low you’ll go or how long you’ll be down there and the sense of being out of control is terrifying some days.
The first time I truly knew something was not right was about 12 years ago now. I was sitting on my back steps, sobbing so hard I could barely breathe and my flatmate sat beside me, put her arm around me and said she could not understand; I’d been so happy just a few moments before. And I realised I had been and I literally could not explain why I was now crying my heart out.
The mood swings are the most well-known symptom and the roller coaster analogy is obvious there. Sometimes, usually in the low times, these mood swings can occur several times a day as I talk myself out of panic attacks, force myself to get out of bed and try desperately to distract myself from negative self-talk by something more fun, such as painting with my small child or walking my dog along the beach. Then, just for a few moments, sometimes an hour, even on the darkest days, I am truly conscious of a sense of peace, self-worth and activity of which I can be proud. This is on the bad days. The days when I will go and have a shower five, six, ten times a day so I can cry without my child hearing me. Days when I can only force myself to eat something because my child is looking at me, waiting for me to eat too, and it tastes like ash in my mouth. Days when I force myself to get out bed and the idea of dressing is so agonising I just put on the dirty clothes from yesterday (and the day before, and the day before that – I have been known to wear the same clothes for about a week before my partner would literally hide them and put something different on the floor where I’d dropped my dirty ones the night before), and pull my hair into a ponytail.
Then we flip to the mania – the “up” side of the roller coaster. On these days I will be up two or three hours before I need to be, living off adrenalin with very little sleep. By the time my child and partner wake I will have scrubbed the kitchen, showered, shaved, changed outfits half a dozen times until I am in just the right colours for the day, done my make-up, blow-dried my hair, made fancy lunches and been through half a dozen cook books to find something “exquisite” for dinner. I will spend all day in bursts of activity, rapidly moving from one to another with the attention span of a gnat. My child and I will paint, make up a show, play with the building blocks, go swimming, play the Wii, bake cookies, paint again, play with other toys, kick a ball around or play on the swings, until the child throws a massive tantrum and I realise I have run the poor mite ragged all day, totally forgotten to let them nap and there has been no actual meal but just snacks as I rush from one thing to another.
Other days I will shop all day, spending money we should be spending on bills and scheming on how to either hide it from my partner or justify why it was “necessary”. I will spend hours making a three-course meal only to throw it out because one part was not quite perfect and start again on a totally different set of recipes. Strangely enough I have come to recognise these as obsessive behaviours. I tell myself a good mother stimulates a child. Or a savvy woman enjoys shopping for bargains. Or a good wife presents her husband with a good meal when he gets home from a hard day at work. I get an idea in my head and just run with it to the absolute extreme.
Over the years I have often found myself in conversation with myself – this little objective part of me that seems to sit just above my head and questions my actions. In the past I have tried to explain, excuse or escape from its questions and other times I have just yelled at it shut-up, there is no reason, it just is.
With the help of some good Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I have learnt to recognise and listen to that little voice – it is usually the voice of reason, alerting me to unreasonable behaviours, depressive or manic. I have learnt some great coping techniques and some ways to challenge and divert my negative self-talk. I have accepted I will be medicated for the rest of my life and I have become far more spiritual in my search for ‘sanity’ or peace with myself.
It has not happened over-night. In fact there have been some pretty awful times in the last 12 years, but these days I am pretty happy in my skin. I have come to accept that mental illness is actually a lot like physical illness – no-one chooses to be sick, and medication really does help. Attitude is a huge factor in coping as well. To deny, denigrate or despise myself is not helpful.
To accept, challenge and celebrate myself is.
These days, when I don’t want to get out of bed or clean my teeth, cause really they’re just going to get dirty again and who cares? I remind myself that I care. I care about me. I engage in some positive self-talk, I set myself small achievable goals and I remind myself that “this too shall pass”. On days when I am up at 4am and have enough energy to run the New York marathon twice, I drop anchor and breathe, I notice five things and consciously slow myself down. Then I pull out a list of projects I’ve been thinking about, pick a couple and use the energy I have in positive ways – after all, this too shall pass.
And really, that’s the message – this too shall pass. Both good and bad are only passing moments and I do the best I can with them and let them go. I am who I am and, strangely enough, I have learnt that is all I have to be.
Kate is a mother who is doing her best to parent her child whilst caring for herself through this illness. She sometimes faces the daily challenges of this rollercoaster ride difficult but usually finds peace by walking along the beach and connecting with the water.