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Real Voices: Life after a bipolar diagnosis

Sam* was diagnosed bipolar when he was 40, after experiencing symptoms on and off for most of his life. In this week’s Real Voices, he describes the process of being diagnosed, and how he has adjusted to life with the disorder in the years since.

I first began to experience symptoms of bipolar at the age of 16. I had depression and mania at school, which cropped up again when I was 18. I was then fairly stable for some years, but did take antidepressants on occasion. Then when I was 40, I had a psychotic episode. I was under a lot of pressure from work at the time. I ran out into the street and tried to stop traffic, and I was completely out of it. I was taken to hospital, where I remained for a week. I was completely non compos mentis for quite a few days, and the doctors initially thought I was on drugs. There was some debate over whether to diagnose me bipolar or not, as it was the only episode I’d ever had, but my GP ended up adding that I was bipolar to my medical notes.

I was absolutely fine for another 10 years. When I was 50, I had a high-pressure job in a global corporation, which was causing me a lot of stress. During a very busy period at work, I had another psychotic episode where I did exactly the same as before, and walked into the road trying to stop traffic. Again I was hospitalised, and this time they knew I was definitely bipolar. I was in hospital for three weeks. Then came lockdown, and I had severe depression for a couple of years. I had to be admitted to hospital a few times as I was suicidal, and I began to have psychotic episodes again. I’ve been well for the last 18 months, apart from a bout of bad depression that I’m currently experiencing, but I haven’t been in hospital during that time. I’m not working either.

Bipolar is a severe mental illness characterised by extreme changes in mood and energy. Where most people would have periods of feeling a bit down, or days where they’re happier, people with bipolar experience extremes of those emotions. When I’m depressed I’m extremely depressed. This explains why there are such high suicide rates amongst people with this disorder.

In terms of treatment, I am on medication. I take lamotrigine which is a mood stabiliser and then I’m also on Prozac (fluoxetine). Other ways that I ensure that I stay well are avoiding stress and getting plenty of sleep. In addition to help from the GP, I was supported by the community mental health team, who come over after you’re discharged from hospital and make sure you’re taking your medication. I’ve got a therapist through the NHS, and Bipolar UK have been brilliant as well. They have support meetings every month and it’s been really good for me to go along and chat to others with bipolar.

There’s a lot of stigma around bipolar, it’s quite misunderstood. I don’t always tell people that I’m bipolar, because I just feel that they don’t understand what it is. People expect you to have crazy mood swings every five minutes, like I’m going to be sitting there laughing one minute and crying the next.
In terms of changes that I’d like to see, I want GPs generally to have a better knowledge and understanding generally of what bipolar is, so that they could diagnose it more quickly. There also needs to be more funding for healthcare services. I was bumped around between seven or eight different mental hospitals over the course of six months, as there are so few hospital beds that they tend to encourage you to leave at the first moment that you seem okay, before you’re actually ready to go.

If someone reading this has been diagnosed with bipolar, I would really encourage them to reach out to Bipolar UK. Going along to the support groups is so helpful, because a lot of people there have never met anyone else with bipolar. It makes you feel a lot less alone, and provides a safe and non-judgemental place to talk about your experience. When I’ve been suffering from extreme depression, and had times when I’ve literally been unable to get out of bed for weeks, I’ve found it so helpful to talk about at the groups. I really thought I was the only person to go through this, and finding out that so many other people have had the exact same experience made me feel a lot less isolated. Bipolar UK also has an e-community where you can ask questions and chat to others, if you can’t make it along to the groups. I volunteer for Bipolar UK now, as I’m not working. I help them organise events, such as parliamentary events and anniversaries. I also speak to the press and give interviews about my experiences with bipolar.

It’s important to say that you can live well as a person with bipolar, and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel for anyone who lives with this condition.