Article by Madeleine Howell
I didn’t realise I was bipolar for a very long time. My first diagnosis was depression and my medication masked the ‘ups’. It wasn’t until I was put on new medication during my last episode that I was bouncing off the ceiling for no real reason. I was diagnosed with a form of bipolar called cyclothymia, which I hadn’t heard of up until that point.
Everyone’s bipolar is different on a very, very drastic scale, so I can only talk about my own. I’m mostly functional, but I do get into states of depression, and sometimes I have prolonged depression for months. That can be difficult. But I’m sometimes very high. It just switches quickly for me: it’s a cliff edge effect – whereas some people experience the change more gradually.
If more normal, everyday people felt they were able to talk about their mental health, I think that would help. I think it’s helpful for celebrities such as Mariah Carey to talk about it [bipolar]. It gets the conversation started, which we need. At the same time, I find that when I’m going through a tough time, I can’t really relate to celebrities. People with every day jobs struggle with the added pressures of mortgages, families and jobs. Hearing from them puts it into perspective. It’s not just celebrities and rich people who can talk about bipolar: everyone can.
I’m lucky enough to have private medical care, but I know that many people don’t. I can go to hospital when I need to, but the NHS is completely underfunded. It means that when lots of people need that help, they have to wait. And that’s very hard. Unfortunately, people often only seek help when it gets to crisis point, and it can take a long time to come back from that.
When I was in hospital and in a very dark place, I felt like I would never get out of it, and I told myself that if I ever did I would be open about it and talk about it – because not enough people do.
My work are very supportive. They came up with the Green Light To Talk campaign to break down some barriers. It meant that our attitudes to mental health completely changed. It became OK to talk openly. Not everyone wants to broadcast it and that’s fine, but it’s great to be able to approach people you can trust to talk about it.
I do find talking to certain people about my mental health very difficult. It can be a very nerve-racking and unpleasant experience. There’s still stigma around it, and I think it can be more difficult for men to talk about their mental health.
Male colleagues talk to me, because they know I’m not judgemental – but they worry about other people, and what they might think if they admitted they were struggling, and that they needed to ease off their workload or take some time off. They worry about how they would be perceived.
For a while I was very similar, but through practising, I realised that there are loads of compassionate people out there who want you to be OK, and want to help you out as much as they can. It gets easier, but it’s not easy. If someone is opening up, they’re trusting you enough to listen, not necessarily to give advice, just to listen.
Climbing was a massive part of my recovery. On the NHS website there’s an article about how climbing helps people with mild to moderate depression. There’s many psychological studies being conducted in it, and my psychiatrist was very encouraging because I found it difficult to be mindful. I really struggled with mindfulness, but climbing is a form of mindfulness, because you have to be very present in order to climb. It takes away every thought about the past or the future: you’re very focussed on exactly what you’re doing at that time.
There’s a massive community aspect, it’s sociable and it gets you out. A lot of climbers are addicted to that sense of achievement: of achieving something, not because of money or image or whatever, but because it’s just fun. In society we’re so focussed on measurable achievements – we forget about having fun for the sake of having fun. It bogs us down and causes anxiety. That goes for everyone. Some people run – but climbing just seems to work for me.
I‘d say to others with bipolar disorder not to compare their bipolar to anyone else’s, because everyone is different. But don’t think that you’re alone in what you’re experiencing. Don’t think that what you’re experiencing is any less important or serious than anyone else’s. If you’re struggling, then you’re struggling, and everyone deserves help. There is help out there.