My journey into a world of bipolar disorder

Reading time: 9 min

I don’t remember when I stopped being a happy child. My early childhood memories are as ordinary as those of any other child in a similarly “normal” family at the time. We played games together, went on holidays together, and sat down to family dinners around the table every night.

People called me shy and my family would jokingly refer to me as “moody”, but as an adult I came to realise that this shyness was introversion. There is a distinction. I am not shy to share my knowledge and voice my opinion, but I withdraw from social occasions where small talk is the order of the day and my thoughts are drowned out by noise. I have always lived in my mind, and my “moods” was the only language I had at the time to process and react to the world around me.

It seemed as if one day I was a child without a care in the world and the next day I battled with low self-esteem and social discomfort. This struggle continued until I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 30. Before that, I had experienced depression with two major depressive episodes, which I was later told was typical of the disorder: one in my teens and one in my twenties.

The former was precipitated by sexual molestation; the latter was due to PTSD brought on by the culmination of traumatic events involving the deaths of close family members and, later, a motor vehicle accident. These events had a lasting impact on me and stole my innocence and joy.

The time during my teens was difficult and I felt very misunderstood, although I remember my mother trying to help me by taking me to various doctors – without success. It was only in my twenties that I was actually diagnosed with depression for the first time.

I know I am not alone. Many people have experienced some form of abuse or loss in their lives, and many more severe than me. But knowing this doesn’t change my reality and the years I spent in denial did me more harm than good. My parents had always told me not to bottle things up and they were right, of course. You can only suppress your feelings for so long before they surface in some or other unhealthy form – perhaps as addiction, depression or self-destructive behaviour.

I distinctly recall the time I first experienced mania. I was a teacher at the time, and we were feverishly working on the children’s reports for the end of term. Pressurised by insane deadlines and determined to do what needed to be done just to make it to the holidays – and do it perfectly – I went for days without sleep. I dismissed this as the usual end-of-term demands (every teacher is sleep deprived!) … until it was a week into the holiday and I still wasn’t sleeping. And by this, I mean absolutely no sleep at all.

In fact, I scrubbed walls to remove marks no one else could see and counted the floor tiles over and over again; I removed batteries from clocks because the ticking was too loud; I couldn’t turn on a radio or the television because it was just too much noise; I left all the windows and doors open 24 hours a day because I felt suffocated, and I was much too anxious to pop into the corner shop let alone stroll through a shopping mall or go to the movies with friends. I was exhausted and agitated, speaking rapidly while losing my train of thought at the same time.

A concerned friend convinced me to let her take me to my GP who immediately referred me to a psychiatrist, where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder with mixed episodes. Ironically, it was the medication I’d been taking for depression that had brought on the manic episode. My reaction was one of relief and disbelief. I was relieved to have a reason for my behaviour, but bipolar disorder? This was just another term for manic depression, a form of so-called “madness” we really only saw in movies or read about in books; something people judged in the worst possible way.

As we discussed further testing, and potential medications and therapies, I couldn’t stop worrying about what my family would say. I was raised in a “snap out of it” culture, and I dreaded how my parents would receive this news. It took them time, with my mother appearing to be a bit more receptive than my father at first (I later learned that his uncle might have had it, but in those days his odd behaviour was ascribed to him being “eccentric”). She even attended a session with the psychiatrist with me to get a better understanding of what it meant to be bipolar. It took my father a while longer, but I am touched at how he has learnt to show his concern in his own way and understand my “moods”, giving me the space to just be me.

“I try to speak openly about my experiences to help others understand theirs (and mine) amid a culture that still seeks to shame those without visible disorders or illnesses.”

The last 16 years have been a continuous uphill battle with moments of mental victory and defeat. There were lessons I had to learn the hard way, such as not to forego my medications just because I felt better at the time, and recognising triggers for hypomania (a milder form of mania) and depression – and coming to understand how my moods will fluctuate with the seasons and circumstances, and can turn in the blink of an eye.

I try to speak openly about my experiences to help others understand theirs (and mine) amid a culture that still seeks to shame those without visible disorders or illnesses. This isn’t easy, as people are quick to judge those with mental health issues, even though the latest figures from the World Health Organisation state that one in every three South Africans battle with their mental health; that’s one-third of our population, or over 19 million people! It is easier to put a bandage on a bleeding cut than help treat an invisible wound, right?

Bipolar is also a term people use flippantly when describing any change in mood they find disagreeable without thought of how serious it is, in the same way women are asked if they are “PMSing” when they’re simply feeling less than upbeat.

Your friends and family may think you’re making excuses or being rude when you refuse their invitations, while many others guilt you into believing you’ve let them down when you have an off day. The fact is, though, the highs do balance out the lows when it comes to mood disorders, activity and productivity, provided you stick to your treatment plan and remember, as difficult as it can be on some days, to practise self-care.

Self care written on notepad in pen

I can be stubborn at times, but having bipolar disorder has humbled me to realise that I cannot pursue life with reckless abandon in the way other people might – and that if I do, this may be a trigger for hypomania, a precursor to mania. For me, life has had to be a bit more calculated; I have to plan where I go and how long I will be there; I have to consider the current state I am in – is my mood more elevated or depressed than usual (and what exactly is usual!)? Can I make a quick exit should the need arise, in other words, should my mood change suddenly or I feel too overwhelmed? And can I make choices others may take for granted, such as having a family of my own, when I know I could pass this down genetically?

I also have to make sure I’ve taken my cocktail of medications at all times, while trying to overcome the side effects of forgetfulness and brain fog (and others such as severe migraines, weight gain, muscle aches and constant numbness in my arms and fingers) that come with some of these medications. Did I take them, or didn’t I? How many pills are left before I need a refill? When is my next appointment? I’ve learnt to document these appointments and refill requirements quite well, but one thing I have lost is agility of the mind.

This was high on my list of reasons for making one of most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make – to give up on my passion for teaching. It was not the only one, but it was definitely up there and formed the basis of other reasons. Going from thinking quickly on my feet to having to pause and process had a huge impact on my delivery in the classroom and this was a very bitter pill to swallow. Fortunately, I’ve found a very satisfying profession as an editor (and occasional writer) where I can use and develop my skills, and take those pauses when necessary.

It hasn’t been an easy journey and it’s one I’ve come to begrudgingly accept that will never be over, but I’ve learnt to take it one day at a time and not put pressure on myself to act or be one way or another. I’ve come to accept the highs and lows for what they are and in a moment such as this, when the lows are taking a back seat, I take full advantage of my clarity of mind to do something useful.

Where does this leave me today? The truth is I’m in control most of the time (thanks to constantly monitored treatment) and, surprisingly, I have moments when I’m grateful to have this “affliction”. I believe it has allowed me to be a more compassionate person than I might have otherwise been, and I have huge empathy for those who experience any form of panic and depressive or mood disorders, or even worse forms of mental illnesses.

It has taught me to see the world as a sum of many smaller, quite exceptional parts and I do take those moments to smell the roses quite literally. Most importantly, it gives me pause to appreciate those people in my life who do understand and who support me whether I’m up or down, no questions asked.