Bipolar disorder continues to be a misunderstood mental illness. Amy Ní Shionnaigh recounts her experience of Bipolar 2 disorder, and how they found help and started to get well.
“Ah sure, it’ll be grand.”
“What do you mean you won’t have a cup of tea? You surely will, here you go now, that’ll fix you.”
Where else would you see the likes? The likes of what? A society* which tolerates mental illness, has accepted that one in four people will experience a mental health difficulty, but unfortunately seems content to simplify the solution down to chats and cups of tea.
I love a nice cup of tea and certainly lovely company can brighten up any day. I’m a final year student, with a part-time job on UCD campus, some truly lovely people to call my friends, an adorable pet dog, and a love for music, dance, the Gilmore Girls and unusual tea cups. I have a tendency to sing along to the radio, I often start reading books that I rarely finish and I have bipolar II(2) disorder (manic depression). Only one of these facts remains a secret.
Three years ago, or thereabouts, something changed. Still to this day, I can’t put my finger on a cause or trigger; there was no bereavement, heart break or tragedy. Previously I wasn’t just perceived as happy and perhaps quite immature, I was. I was well settled into UCD, I had a great group of friends, and with an abundance of events and energy around campus, I was in my element. Changes to my mental health were quite slow at first. Slight reluctance to attend events I had always enjoyed, desires to spend a little more time in my own company and difficulties concentrating on study and motivating myself to do my very best. I ignored these feelings and forced myself to continue on as ‘normal’. Over the following two years, my self-worth lowered significantly. Day-to-day life was a struggle, and I began to very slowly self-destruct. I still had days of excitement and enjoyment, but they seemed to get further and further apart. Internship applications or J1 visas seemed meaningless, and seeking help didn’t even cross my mind. I couldn’t wait for summer to get away from it all. Deep down I knew something wasn’t right, but I never allowed myself to think about it and convinced myself that I was perfectly normal. That was my biggest fear; god forbid that anyone might realise that something was wrong or abnormal.
It all still feels like a blur of dull pain and emotional exhaustion that has spanned over the last three years. Inflicting various forms of self-harm on my body and mind was no solution. There is a stigma around self-harm in Ireland, and it’s that stigma that has and continues to propel my own feelings of shame and embarrassment. Initially, the self-harm took the form of neglect. I neglected to eat, sleep, look after myself, maintain friendships and avoid dangerous situations. Later, I turned to physical harm and tried to drown out the storm of thoughts in my head by focusing on the physical pain. I still tried to convince myself and everyone around me that there was nothing wrong.
One of my lowest memories is that of sitting in the student centre, with throbbing arms and eyes stinging from lack of sleep and tears. I sat in the same spot, lifeless, all day. To everyone else who was milling around, I was an exhausted student, probably tired of study and exams, but excited for Christmas. Inside, I had very little hope of reaching Christmas and even less desire or energy to try. In January, on the night of my birthday, I had had enough. There was cake and friends and endless good wishes, and I have never hated every second of a day so much. The sadness was inexplicable. Holding myself together until I got home was so difficult that I can’t find any words to describe it. I convinced myself that if I could just make it home to my room, that that would be it.
I am eternally grateful for the person I reached out to that night, and that they were ready to listen and determined to help.
Thankfully in recent years, it has become much easier to talk about mental health. Not easy, but easier. The biggest hurdle for me was finding a way to describe how I was feeling. I can’t stress enough how confusing and terrifying it can be to know that you’re not OK, but no idea how or why, or where to start finding help. If this sounds familiar, please talk to just one person. Talking terrified me, but as soon as I let my guard down, things genuinely started to get that little bit easier.
One of my lowest memories is that of sitting in the student centre, with throbbing arms and eyes stinging from lack of sleep and tears. I sat in the same spot, lifeless, all day. To everyone else who was milling around, I was an exhausted student, probably tired of study and exams, but excited for Christmas. Inside, I had very little hope of reaching Christmas and even less desire or energy to try.
Little things aren’t the magical solution. Being able to talk to a friend, go for a nice walk or cup of tea can certainly help, but they don’t fix all mental health illnesses or disorders. Mental health illnesses and disorders vary to the same degree as physical illnesses and disorders. While you might treat a common cold with plenty of rest and care, you’d be best advised not to treat pneumonia with the same casual care. The spectrum of mental health illness and disorders require proper medical attention from a doctor/counsellor/psychiatrist and individual solutions, often including medication.
We need to take mental health seriously in Irish society. If we continue to belittle and simplify the solutions, we can also belittle the strength of those managing to cope and live with poor mental health. I spent years telling myself that it was my own fault I wasn’t getting any better. I shouldn’t need anyone else’s help, it’s all in my head and I should get over myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Had I broken a leg, I wouldn’t have hobbled around without consulting a doctor or using crutches. I wouldn’t have decided to break my arm too, to distract from the pain of my leg. I wouldn’t have ignored the problem and hoped it went away.
What is commonly known as Bipolar, severe episodes of depression and mania, is known as Bipolar 1. Bipolar 2 is primarily a form of depression and is much less severe than bipolar 1. The symptoms of depression can last for weeks at a time, and it can almost feel like a relief to experience the happy, productive and energetic feelings associated with hypomania. However, productivity is usually disguised in excitement and can be quite spontaneous and irresponsible. Depression and hypomanic episodes are never a 50:50 split, approximately 80:20 respectively. Considering the overwhelming negative thoughts for the 80 per cent of time, it felt quite liberating to lose sight of responsibilities for a while, but potentially disastrous for a grown up with work and financial responsibilities. However, with professional help and medication, I can look forward to a return to a more balanced lifestyle, with less extreme symptoms in either direction. And dare I say it, a little bit of normality.
*A society which for the most part fails to seriously contemplate the serious need for mental health supports and resources, especially public services. Not to completely dismiss the fantastic work done by the small number of organisations and charities in operation who do provide supports.
If you are currently struggling with mental health issues or just want someone to talk to, call UCD Counselling Service on 01 7163133, or enquire at reception at the Student Health Centre.