It has taken me a long time to write this post. It is something so deeply personal, but I can’t tell you how good it feels to let it all out. This is my clean slate… my fresh start to 2015. Sometimes the baggage gets too heavy to carry in your mind.
Up until a few years ago, most of my thoughts consisted out of wanting my life to end. There was no real reason – I just didn’t, and sometimes still don’t, want to be here any more. It has taken me years to understand my disorder. I know I will never be cured, but after years of juggling medication, therapy and building a support base I know I can manage it. I am no healthcare professional, I believe there are as many ways people develop to cope (or not cope) as there are people suffering with depression and Bipolar. I am simply telling my story.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness marked by extreme shifts in mood ranging from a manic to a depressive state. Bipolar disorder is also called bipolar disease or manic depression. Symptoms are caused by a defect in the brain’s regulation of mood. The major symptoms are lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy, lack of motivation, sleeping problems (either Insomnia or oversleeping), feelings of hopelessness, a lack of energy and social withdrawal. At other times, high or manic moods can bring confidence, a feeling of invincibility, high energy levels and optimism, as well impulsive reactions and decisions. All of these feelings are usually to the extreme and anything can trigger it. On paper these symptoms can be confusing – not everyone who has sleeping problems or has trouble getting excited about their job has a mental disorder. Everyone feels hopeless from time to time and sometimes things happen that can cause a period of depression (losing your job, death of a loved one, a break-up, etc.) – that’s life… When you are Bipolar or depressed you feel like that for weeks and months on end for no concrete or apparent reason. A state of depression becomes clinical when it is no longer manageable to yourself, or others, or where there is a significant disablement on daily life. Bipolar disorder can have a significant impact on someone’s life, but it’s important to know that people who live with it can lead productive, creative lives.
I grew up in a stable, loving home with a supportive family who gave me the world and more. There was absolutely no reason for me to be depressed or unhappy. As a child I was always a bit different, I never felt like I fitted in and I found it extremely hard to make friends. I felt like an unwelcome tourist in a place called earth, as dramatic as that sounds.
I had a rough start at school. I am not sure why, but my Grade 1 teacher hated me. She targeted me as the child she would use to make an example of. I remember her telling me that I wasn’t as pretty as I thought I was, I remember her making me stand up in class and asking me really hard math questions – when I did not know the answer or could not answer fast enough she would call me names like ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’. To this day I have a massive mental block towards maths. When we were colouring in I got into so much trouble for colouring in different directions and writing my name in the corner of the picture – when I tried to explain that it was the way my mom (an artist) did it I was hit with a ruler over my knuckles and told that I was no artist. All this special attention I was getting made the other kids reluctant to be friends with me and I was teased for being ‘dumb’. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of my school life. It is true what they say, a teacher can make or break you.
A significant event in my life that triggered the first onslaught of depression was when my mom told me that my dad was not my biological father and that my biological father had died in an accident before I was born. It shook me more than I realized, even though it had no reason to. I can honestly say that my stepdad never treated me any different to his own daughters, I never felt like I was loved any less and to me he was and always will be my real dad and hero. The shit hit the fan when I found out that the accident my dad died of was actually suicide, and that his family wanted nothing to do with me or my mom and left her to struggle as a single mother for years before my stepdad came along. I think this was where I noticed that there was something wrong with me.. I had lost faith in humanity. I know my mom did not tell me the whole story to protect me, but I could not help but feel a little bit betrayed. More than ever I felt like I did not belong, I was angry and depressed. I had so many questions about my biological father, but could not bring myself to ask my mom about it for fear of hurting her or bringing up painful memories. I started making up stories, I created a whole new fantasy life for myself… I made up stories of who he was and later on struggled to distinguish between my lies and reality. Soon I wasn’t just lying to myself, I started lying to my friends and parents about little things. The lying and depression did not go unnoticed and I was eventually sent to a psychologist – his feedback to my parents was that I was selfish and manipulative, and other than that there was nothing wrong with me. Thanks Dr. Asshole – A+ for that diagnosis.
I went on to High School and struggled like everyone else to find myself. The difference between me and the other kids were that I was sad or angry most the time for no real reason or completely euphoric or hyper. I picked up a lot of weight which attracted a lovely dose of bullying. Yay me! My depression consumed my every thought, I became an Insomniac and went days- sometimes weeks without sleeping.
I started rebelling – nothing serious, just hanging out with the wrong people and getting into trouble. I even went through a phase of shoplifting, I loved the adrenaline rush – until I got caught. That was a pretty bad day… I broke my mom’s heart and the look on her face took my breath away. That night I drank a handful of painkillers – no one knew, I just ended up sleeping for an entire day, maybe two days… I can’t remember. No-one told me suicide was so damn difficult.
I woke up, and the bravest thing I’ve ever had to do was continue living when I wanted to die.
Being Bipolar is not a passive activity, it’s exhausting. It’s a pervasive and relentless despair, 24 hours a day, seven days a week… I hated my life, and even though I was a smart kid who did well academically I hated my mind. Despite this, I always studied hard and tried to do well at school. I was a master at hiding my true feelings from the world, plus, I did not know that there was anything wrong with me. I remember thinking that one day I would be free and if I could just get away from this town and its’ people I could start fresh. No one would know me and I could be a different person. I would be new and unbroken. One day I wanted to be successful and happy. In a bid to feel in control I subconsciously set these ridiculous rules for living my life – I could not be in a room with open doors; I could not leave the house without checking twice that every single door, cupboard and drawer was closed; I arrange my cupboard in terms of colour – I also do this with my food; I have to start on the left side of any store and work my way through every single isle – even if I only went to buy two things; I make lists for everything; etc. – if I do not follow these rules I feel a sense of internal chaos. It completely consumes my every thought, I obsess over it and ultimately get angry with the world. Over the years I managed to get rid of some of these rules, but most of them still stick.
I switched schools and in grade 10 or 11 (I can’t remember exactly when) something happened to me that I would probably never be able to talk openly about… This thing started the biggest struggle against depression of my life. I had so much pain inside me that I started hurting myself just to manifest it into something real. I started punching walls, then slamming my fingers in doors, pinching myself, scratching, pulling my hair and eventually cutting myself. I was addicted, it was like a drug – it instantly calmed me. My poor parents, they never deserved any of this and there was no way they could understand it. Later in grade 11, one of my best friends shot herself in the mouth with her grandmother’s 38-special revolver. It was during our exams and it was a day that is etched into my brain for all eternity. We grew up together – she was like a sister to me. I never knew that she was depressed… She was intelligent, absolutely gorgeous and a star athlete.. unlike me she was popular and everyone loved her. She survived, but she would never be the same again.
Soon after this incident I went on medication for depression.. It didn’t really work, but I did not want my parents to worry so I pretended. Eventually being bullied and teased at school because of my size and looks caused me to become bulimic for a brief period and by grade 12 I had lost a lot of weight. I was never anorexic or underweight – I looked healthy. Being skinnier gave me more confidence and I made some friends. I dyed my hair from blonde to black and I started dating someone. For the first time in my life I felt beautiful, I felt good about myself. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was (and always will be) that no matter how good I felt, I was always aware of this black amorphous entity sitting there, waiting, just like spider. Having Bipolar disorder is like being trapped in a web. It’s like being in pain, but it’s different to physical pain because you cannot separate yourself from it – it is like it is in your very being, your core. When I am sad I get depressed, when I am happy I get manic and when I am angry I get furious and destructive. The in between stages are few and far apart.
After finishing grade 12 I moved to Cape Town to study Fashion Design and like most 1st year students I partied up a storm, except it affected me a lot differently than it did everyone else. I stopped sleeping, I didn’t eat properly, I could not stay in a relationship for longer than two weeks and my emotions were all over the place – to be extremely honest… I don’t remember most of it. I knew I had a real problem that was not going to go away by itself the night I tried to commit suicide for the second time in my life. I was alone at my flat, I had some wine and soon started crying for no reason at all. I felt like everything I touched would eventually turn to shit and I didn’t want to feel alone anymore (even though I really had no reason to feel lonely).
I took a knife from the kitchen and slit my wrist… okay, I pretty much hacked it apart. A couple of minutes later it was like I ‘woke up’… I couldn’t believe what I had done and phoned someone to take me to the hospital. About fifty stitches later and I was convinced that I was insane.
I went to go see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed as being Bipolar 1. I had never even heard of Bipolar Disorder before then, but all if a sudden it all made sense. The next year was an endless struggle of finding the right combination of drugs to treat my condition. My life was one big side effect, but it was going well. During all the chaos I started dating the man who is now my husband – how he didn’t run for the hills I will never know. I went through a rough spot in the early days of our relationship and he caught me cutting my leg in the bathroom. He cleaned me up, held me close and told me that if I ever did it again that he would leave and never come back. I never did it again. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to.. I still think about it a lot.. It truly is an addiction. I had to make an effort to get my temper under control in order to stop abusing myself, it was not easy. Cole made an effort to educate himself on my condition and helped me through my episodes with the patience of a saint. It felt amazing to finally be myself… That was the year I got to know myself, I decided from there on that I would not fall victim to my illness and that I was the ruler of my own fate.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
The medication I was on was working, but it completely stifled my creativity – seeing as I was studying Fashion Design and wanting to go into a creative field after college – this did not work for me. It took so much trial and error, ridiculous side effects and emotional and physical strength to get to a point where a combination of drugs were working for me and I just could not imagine going through it all again. I decided the unthinkable and started weaning myself off my medication. Please note, this is not advised and would not work for everyone – so please don’t take this as medical advise. I started noticing a pattern with my mood swings and could tell exactly when an episode was about to start and how bad it was going to be. I trained my brain to redirect my thought process by means of distraction, positive thinking and my own form of meditation. This helped me get through the depressed/anger stages and cut them short, but to this day the hardest part is getting rid of the manic phase. Lucky for me my manic phase never lasts too long and sometimes comes in handy. My pattern is usually one or two days of mania, followed by a couple of days being in the worst mood ever (like PMS), followed by a couple of weeks of depression. It took a very long time, but it worked! I felt in control, it was amazing! Life was good, Cole and I moved in together and got engaged. I was doing well at college, I made some amazing friends and all was going well. Then I got pregnant.
I was scared at first, but Cole’s excitement was infectious. It was going to be okay, I was in my last year of college and we were already engaged anyway, Unfortunately, the pregnancy was far from easy. I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum that lasted all day and all night for the entire duration of my pregnancy. There was very little amniotic fluid around the baby and my gynecologist at the time convinced me that there was no way that I would carry full term and that I would most probably suffer a miscarriage. Subconsciously this resulted in me ‘disconnecting’ myself from my pregnancy and baby to some extent. It was stressful and I was depressed again. The fear of miscarriage carried on up until about six months – waiting for the supposedly inevitable the whole time. My baby ended up being fine, but I struggled to bond with her. (You can read about it here – Bonding And Not Bonding With Your Newborn, And Why It Will Be Okay). I ended up getting postnatal depression and felt like I was back at square one. My doctor put me on medication to manage it and I started the whole process all over again. It was not easy as this time I had no choice when it came to being sleep deprived, I had very little time for myself and had to find some sort of balance. With all of this came the fear that I was going to be a terrible mom… and even worse, that I was going to give this terrible disease to my daughter.
I started working and threw all my energy and willpower into my career. I was really good at my job and got headhunted a couple of times. I struggled to stay at a company for a long time as I lost interest very quickly. I needed to feel challenged at all times otherwise I got bored, and once I got bored I gave up and started looking for the next adventure. This is something I still struggle with, but I am making a conscious effort to be better at this.
It took tremendous personal growth and mental strength, but I once again got myself to a point where I did not need medication. It has been three and a half years since then, I have just had my second baby five weeks ago and even though that black amorphous entity is a constant presence – I control it. I will not let it consume me, I will not let it rule me and I will not let it ruin my life. I have too much to live for, too much to lose. Never have I looked forward to the future as much as I do now. I never though I had anything to look forward to. I am finally living in the present, and I think I have convinced myself that my fate is not sealed. That does not mean that I will never again have a depressive episode – I do believe, though, that I am better prepared for it and as time goes by I find that I am more confident with every passing year.
It is important to remind yourself that having depression or Bipolar disorder does not mean you are weak, flawed, or alone. It just means that you are not well and the episode won’t last forever. Bipolar disorder or depression does not care how old you are, where you are from or how much money you have. These physical illnesses affect more than 22 million people worldwide. If you are worried that you might have Bipolar disorder you can click here or here to take an online screening test, however, it is best to go to a medical professional.
Everyone is different and every story is different, but here are some lessons I have learned in managing my bipolar disorder and living a successful life:
- Embrace and accept the illness.
- Take it seriously – It is sneaky and dangerous if you don’t watch it all of the time.
- You need a great support system – besides the fact that you have someone to talk to, they can also help you recognize when you might be experiencing a depressive or manic episode.
- Be kind to yourself – you cannot be too hard on yourself. “You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
- Having a routine really helps
- Realize that most things other people say are not meant to hurt you
- You are not your illness. You have an individual story to tell. You have a name, a history, a personality. Staying yourself is part of the battle.
I just want to thank everyone who has contributed to the understanding of my disorder. Everyone who has stuck by me and supported me. To my mom, dad, sisters, friends and husband – thank you for still speaking to me. I’m so sorry.