Anyone with a mental illness will probably be familiar with the well-meaning but misguided comments from friends, family and colleagues. People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder have to listen to those without the condition saying that they’re ‘a bit OCD’ because they like to keep things neat. However, just because you prefer your socks to be organised by colour and folded at a perpendicular angle, does not mean you have a potentially crippling and terrifying disorder. I’ve had people say to me “I was in a good mood this morning and now I’m really cross, perhaps I’m bipolar!” I’ve tried to politely explain that waking up feeling positive, only for your good mood to be crushed by an unpleasant commute or a stressful day at work, is not the same as bipolar. I understand that these comments come from a good place and that that person is trying to commiserate and make me feel that my mental state is not so unusual. No matter how kind their intentions may be, it usually undermines and minimises the severity of the illness. With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to share what the highs and lows actually feel like, particularly for someone who suspects they might have Bipolar. Of course the condition manifests itself differently for everyone, but my experience might be a useful point of reference.
Let’s start with mania, which actually has the capacity to be quite fun. The consequences of mania, however, are not at all fun. When I’m manic, I’m the life and soul of the party. I’m the first one to get a round in and the last one to go home. I have boundless optimism and I am certain that I am nailing every aspect of my life. I feel indestructible, say yes to everything and strut around like I’m Beyoncé. My thoughts race, my heart pounds and elation flutters in my stomach like butterflies. I’ve made some very poor choices – spending too much money, drinking too much and generally being irresponsible are usual when manic. On occasion, the mania has been so ferocious that even a pounding hangover won’t dampen my enthusiasm. There were days when I would work out at the gym for hours after a big night out. My fellow revellers would be nursing their dicky bellies and sore heads while I would be on the cross-trainer, listening to Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough and sweating gin. At the time, I just assumed that I was some kind of super hero with the stamina to exercise while hungover, but in hindsight it’s clear that the excess energy was just another symptom of my illness. After weeks of being depressed, when the mania came I assumed that I had been cured and I was never going to feel that low again. Mania be more sociable and boisterous than depression, but it’s just another symptom of an illness.
After the high comes the inevitable crushing low. Depression can be difficult to describe because it essentially feels like nothing. Often people confuse sadness with depression, and while being sad whilst depressed is common, depression itself is actually quite separate from sadness. There have been times in my life when sadness and grief have been precipitated by an event that would make anyone sad. The death of my dad, missing out on a dream job or the end of a relationship are all events where sorrow and emotional anguish are normal responses. Depression is simply being unable to care about anything, I would lose interest in the things and people I previously loved and lose faith that anything would ever work out. The world seemed to pass by, indifferent and oblivious, while I was suspended in a suffocating void. It’s near impossible to find the motivation to do anything because everything appears to be pointless; even getting out of bed seems like a waste of effort. I’ve always found the loss of hope to be the most devastating part of depression, the sense that nothing will ever change for no reason other than ‘it just won’t’.
A delightful accompaniment to both depression and mania is anxiety – the feeling that something devastating is about to happen, or is happening. Anxiety is visceral, like a hand gripping the throat permanently on the cusp of strangling you. I would be hyper vigilant at all times, and unable to distinguish an actual threat from a passing bus or my own shadow. Panic attacks sometimes come with anxiety – I had a really awful one in Selfridges, Christmas 2014. I had gone in to buy presents and the deafening noise and jostling crowds were too much. I hurried to the exit but the barrage of shoppers on Oxford Street were like a herd of stampeding buffalo. I hid behind a Christmas tree and tried to catch my breath. A hulking security guard came and asked me if I was ok. I could barely speak, but he seemed to recognise a panic attack when he saw one; maybe they’re a common occurrence in Selfridges. His name was Faisel and he was very kind; I’ll never forget him. Eventually, I edged out from behind the Christmas tree and went home.
This all seems rather dramatic but I’ve explained the extremes of Bipolar. There is a spectrum and the mood variations are not always as violent and all consuming as this. However, it is a serious, potentially fatal condition that can cause real and lasting damage. But it is treatable and with the right care, there is no reason why anyone with Bipolar, Depression or Anxiety can not live a good and productive life. If any of this seems familiar, please confide in someone you trust and see a doctor. It will get better, I promise.