Hi. I am a 37 yr old woman who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder since I was 16. I have had several hospitalisations but thankfully none in the last 9 years. Historically my main problem has been mania more than depression. Most of my hospitalisations have been for mania. In this story I will share with you some information about my illness as well as my life. I believe that the illness is really a small part of who I am.
My illness started with what I believe was a depression at the age of 15. I stopped talking to my friends and became quite withdrawn and my school work began to suffer. I was attending a selective high school, which had its own pressures. I don’t really know what it was that triggered off my illness. At the time counselors said I was just suffering from stress at school and didn’t give me a formal diagnosis or medication.
Early the next year, when I was 16 I had what was diagnosed as my first manic episode. It really all started on a school excursion to the Adelaide music festival, which involved a 24 hr train trip. I was hardly sleeping at all while I was in Adelaide. I was talking non stop. I was over-excited. I started laughing inappropriately at concerts and I spent all the money I had with me.
When I returned home I was still not well and trips to the GP soon lead to trips to a psychiatrist and my first diagnosis. I tried to keep going to school but I found it very hard. I soon became psychotic which led to some very embarrassing things that I did at school and at school music concerts. I then stopped going to school. I was looked after by my grandmother at home while my mother worked. I was started on several medications.
About the middle of that year I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time. It was a private hospital and there were other girls my age, who mostly had eating disorders. I had a fit while I was at the hospital and I was transferred to another hospital for some tests. It was concluded that I didn’t have epilepsy and the fit was medication related. I ended up staying at this hospital for some time, and had treatments including medication and Electroconvulsive treatment (ECT). Later in the year I was transferred to an adolescent unit.
At the adolescent unit I stayed during the week and went home on weekends. It was sort of a good transition from hospital to going back home and back to school. I have read some of my old diaries from around this time and I was really a bit of a mess. However, the adolescent unit did help me recover and get back to school.
I returned to school and repeated year 11 and then did year 12 and my HSC. After my HSC I worked for a year as a sales assistant at a book shop before going to university the following year to study Bachelor of Science (Human Movement Science).
I moved out of home and lived in a University Campus Accommodation for the first year I was studying. I was pretty well during this time. I was taking Lithium to stabilise my mood. I also enjoyed triathlon training and competing.
During my second year of university it was decided by my psychiatrist and myself that I had been well for so long that it was worth a trial off the Lithium. I was pleased as the side effects were I bit hard to handle. I felt it slowed my thinking, and effected my exams and also it caused weight gain, which wasn’t too much of a problem as I was training so much. Anyway, after two or three weeks of being off Lithium I relapsed into what was diagnosed as another manic episode.
Although I was back on medications, I had several relapses after this time, several of them needing hospitalisation. However, none needed as much hospitalisation as I had when I was 16 and 17. So over the years up until I was about 30 I experienced treatment in several public and private hospitals. I had treatment from psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, support groups and GPs while I was out of hospital.
I tried very hard to get on with my life in between episodes. Some times the episodes would last only a couple of weeks and other times it might be 3 months. I did well at University despite my illness. I completed a Bachelor of Science (Human Movement Science) with first class honours. The university was very supportive when I got sick in my honours year and gave me a 6 month extension to make up for the 6 months I was off sick. I represented Australia twice in my age group for triathlon and duathlon.
After, my honours year I started a Masters which I later upgraded to a PhD. I didn’t end up completing this. My bipolar disorder, the medications, and also chronic fatigue syndrome, which I was diagnosed with in my mid twenties all contributed to me changing first to part time study, then missing uni with time off being sick and finally pulling out. There were other, non-medical issues also which greatly influenced my decision to quit after about four years of part-time study.
As I said in my introduction I have been out of hospital now for about 9 years. I still have minor fluctuations in mood and energy and motivation and times when my sleep is affected. I am also affected by anxiety. I take a bucket load of pills: Tegretol (Carbamazepine), Zyprexa (Olanzapine); Zoloft (Sertraline); Norimin-1 28day (without the sugar tablets); Vesicare; and Atacand (candesartan cilexetil). I see a psychiatrist, psychologist and GP for issues to do with my mental health.
I have found I cannot work full time at the moment. Since my mid-twenties I have either been working or studying part time, with some short periods of unemployment. I have worked as a communications officer for a mental health organisation and as a swimming teacher.
Most recently, probably the best thing I have done for my self is to join a Masters Swimming Club. I train three times a week and compete regularly. My times are improving and I have used the carnivals as opportunities to travel. For example, I went to Darwin and Kakadu. I have met a great bunch of people.
I believe I have been relatively lucky to find a combination of medications that seems to keep me relatively stable now. My health professionals also help me greatly. Sometimes I wish there was just one tablet to take to fix everything with no side-effects, and one professional to see, when I needed to. However, I think that is unlikely in the near future.
I have also been lucky to have supportive family and friends, including friends with and without mental illness.