Living with Bipolar: Robert's Story
Digital team's blog
Robert was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 19 and spent ten years on medication that kept him depressed but still able to function. After a suicide attempt his medication was changed and he went on a journey to find the right mix of medication over several years – and get an additional diagnosis of social anxiety disorder. On the right medication, he had years of very good health, although after a while the medication just stopped working. He embarked on another search for the ‘right’ medication. He finally found another combination that worked. But he has since realised, after finishing a job that he was finding very distressing and starting a new job he enjoys, that ‘environmental factors’ are more critical than he thought. Having put great store by medication in the past, he’s realised it’s important for good mental wellbeing but not the be-all and end-all. As well as the right working life being key to his recovery, his family has kept him alive during his darker days.
I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for the last 23 years, since the age of 19, but I had experienced worry and anxiety for years before that. Over the years my mood changes got worse and it was when I went traveling to South East Asia in my gap year that I became severely unwell.
I experienced extreme mania for eight or nine days and then horrendous lows for the same amount of time. This rapid cycle is a pattern that has always repeated itself with me throughout my life, with long periods of stability.
When I came back home my parents could see how oddly I was behaving and called the GP to come to the house. I wasn’t brought up with religion but I seemed to be obsessed with God and had all sorts of religious delusions and hallucinations.
I agreed to go to hospital but didn’t know I was going to be detained. I was sectioned for a week and it was a devastating experience for me. I was being detained against my will and I felt extremely betrayed with my parents.
At one point I wanted to escape but there was a huge gust of wind when the door was opened and I thought it was a sign that God wanted me to stay there. When I was in the hospital I was forcibly sedated and shut in a room on my own. It was really traumatic and left me extremely afraid.
After a week I was stable enough to go home but the medication wasn’t right for years. I was able to train as a journalist and hold down a job but at the age of thirty I attempted to take my life.
One thing I noticed when the paramedics took me to hospital was they didn’t treat it as urgent and they didn’t speak a word to me when I was in the ambulance. I thought this was verging on cruel and definitely wouldn’t have happened if it was a physical injury or health problem.
When the new medication I was given started to work for me, it made me realise I had been in a mildly depressed state for ten years. I was angry that I had been kept on medication that made me depressed but when it worked I had a good many years feeling relatively well and stable.
I’d say medication has been vital in my recovery when it has worked well. I have been fortunate with my psychiatrists but I have had to be pushy in order to get the right treatment. My memory has been impaired which is apparent to my wife, kids and work collegues and I wish that wasn’t the case. It’s not related to drugs. Cognitive impairment is sometimes associated with bipolar disorder. I’ve worked in various organisations and some have been a lot better regarding mental health than others. I think I’ve been relatively lucky.
That said I’ve just left a job where I was being performance managed because of problems that had arisen related to memory failures and anxiety at work. It certainly helps when you work in an environment where you can talk openly to colleagues about your mental health. I found it was hugely helpful when I could be open.
One place that I worked at I was open at first but when no one else talked about mental health it made me stop. Years ago, when I worked in a job where mental health wasn’t really discussed, I told my manager my diagnosis and they were visibly shocked but over time they were great.
I would say that disclosure to employers and colleagues about your mental health can be really beneficial in the right environment. Also talking to your family is vitally important. I have a great family life and a really supportive wife and two children.
Unfortunately my state of mental health has had huge repercussions for my family in the past. During difficult periods, I could be lying in bed all weekend which is obviously not good for my children – or I could just be in a foul mood and not talking to anyone which was very damaging for the family atmosphere. I am open with all my wider family. At one point we didn’t discuss my mental health because it was a taboo – that nearly cost me my life.