I was diagnosed with bipolar on the 22 December 2002. I was 31 and had just arrived in Victoria after driving from Bunbury, Western Australia. As a single parent I was already receiving a government pension. I was residing in a caravan park at the time of my diagnosis and had no family or friends in Victoria aside from my soon to be husband.
The day I was diagnosed, my sons and I returned to our caravan and the play station my son had to help his hand-eye co-ordination was stolen. The first drug I was prescribed was Epilim, after taking two of these tablets I felt like I was going to do harm to myself and/or my sons. I rang the doctor straight away and told him I wasn't taking them anymore. I put the rest of the tablets in the bin and tried to give my sons a good Christmas. Strangely enough it was Christmas day when it actually sunk in what the doctor said. Needless to say I felt like a sack of sh*t. Not only with the burglary or the diagnosis, but my best friends were also battling bushfires in Canberra that came within 1 km of their homes. Wanting to be with them and not being able to made me very anxious and extremely forgetful. I should explain that I have known my best friend for 28 years and I have known her husband for 11 years, they are godparents to both my sons and I am godmother to all of their children. Thus I feel as they are family more than friends and desperately wanted to be with them at their time of need, alas finances would not even consider it at the time.
When I was diagnosed with ADHD in 1997-I thought that was pretty bad, but when I was diagnosed with bipolar I spent the next two years denying it. Now that I am trying to accept it I find myself getting very angry and frustrated at the lack of understanding and knowledge in our society. I find myself wanting to make the media and the public understand Mental Illness but I have no idea how. I find myself looking back at my life and I am now able to recognize times in my life when I was either hyper manic or when I was crashing. I know things that I can do to help my friends and family understand my ups and downs but I yearn to be able to have the ability to make non sufferers aware of the dilemmas that myself and other sufferers go through. I also know that I cannot do it on my own, and with all the education and material available I wonder why there is still such a stigma placed on mental illness.
When I tell people that I have bipolar or mental illness, I get comments like “But you seem so normal” or “Really? You look ok to me”. The problem is that Mental Illness cannot be seen. Its sort of like being told as a kid about Santa that you don’t need to see something to believe in it. How appropriate that is to mental illness. I hear quite often about celebrities who have mental illness and I feel for them, it is hard enough for me in a bad time to keep it together in front of my kids, how hard it must be for people in the public eye to keep up appearances and to perform when required.
Some of the things that I can recall that I have done in my life at high and low points are quite amusing to myself and somewhat embarrassing as well. I was quite a drinker when I was only 15 and kept drinking up until I was around 23, don’t get me wrong I still like a drink, but I have 2 or 3 glasses now instead of 2 or 3 bottles. I would drink before school and during school in year 10. I was nightclubbing at the age of 16 and although I had a lot of fun I did some very dangerous things as well. I was well known to drink as much as I could in one night, whether it was cocktails, spirits or beer. I would drink for a bet, dare or fun. I would find myself undressing in nightclubs, fighting and just getting myself into all sorts of trouble. Yet I didn’t see any of that until just recently and I just hung my head and said to myself “My god woman, you are soooo lucky to be alive”. I am sure that people I knew 15 or 20 years ago would be surprised to find out that I am still kicking and haven’t killed myself or been killed. I know I am, because I was certainly on the track to self-destruction. At least now I can recognize that behaviour and though I sometimes have those urges again, I also have the ability to stop myself from succumbing to them.
Another thing I used to do regularly was run away. I started running away from home very young at the age of 11. Anytime I thought I could get out of the house that was it, I was gone. Into my adult life, I still ran away frequently, very frequently. I found myself running away every six months, and at that time I would move house, move city or move interstate. Needless to say that this behaviour has had an effect on my children, as I would uproot them as well when we moved. I often got to the stage where I felt as if everyone would be against me if they saw that I was unable to cope with difficult situations that would arise, so instead of dealing with it I would run.
My last big move was from Bunbury to Melbourne, one day I decided I didn’t like Western Australia anymore so I told my sons we were going back east. When we got half way across the Nullarbor I found myself asking, “What the hell am I doing? I am in the middle of the desert of Australia with 2 young sons”, but I kept going.
Little did I know at that time, but in Melbourne there was a man who was gentle, caring and loving, that I would meet and whom would help me turn my life around and for that I will be eternally grateful to him. He has helped me to confront and accept my illness, he encourages me to write and to embrace my art, he cares for my children when I cant even care for myself and he keeps our house functioning. Occasionally we have disagreements, usually about seeing the doctors, yet he still persists without getting angry with me. He has even sat up through the night when I have had a bad night just to make sure I am comfortable.
What is it like to live with Bipolar?
Some day’s its not so bad, other days it is completely unbearable. For me the hardest thing is for me not to run away, especially when that's all I want to do right now. Don't get me wrong I love my partner and my children, but for the past 22 years when things got hard I ran away. And right now, accepting that I have this disorder is the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with. My partner deserves some sort of an award; he helps me out soooo much that I just can’t thank him enough. I bet you're wondering, "If she's so happy and she's got so much support, why does she want to run away?" Well, unlike the other times when I haven't wanted to return, this time I would, at least I think I would. I just wish some days that I didn't have this disorder, that I didn't go up and down like a seesaw that I was somewhat normal, but then what is normal these days?
Let me try and word it so you understand what I mean. On a really bad day I wake up wishing that I hadn't, then everything I do seems to go wrong, I might spill the milk whilst making my morning coffee and then I get aggravated and I throw the milk back in the fridge and no matter what anyone says to me during that time they will get a very rude, nasty and aggressive response. I also, quite often misunderstand what people say to me and then ask them to repeat themselves. On a daily basis, I'm sure that this aggravates my family, yet they seem to deal with it ok now. I do this only so as I don’t snap at them for something completely different to what they are actually saying. I also lose interest in doing the housework, or my hobbies and I often withdraw from society.
But I have recently been able to talk to my partner about how I get angry and because I don’t want to fight or argue with him I keep it inside myself. In other relationships I would push until I pushed him over the line, not that I would aim to get hit, but just to see how far I could go. The other thing a lot of former partners have done to me is to ask about any previous violence I had been through and then use that information against me in an argument 6 - 9 months after the initial conversation. The funny thing was I would be called a liar because I could not remember what I had said six months ago. For me I could have moved states twice in that time, so my memory is stuffed as well, I do have ADHD as well. And my kids have ADHD so our house sometimes feels like the cha-cha at the carnival, other times it feels like the ghost train not knowing what will attack you next. But I have a great family and wonderful kids and I love them so much and am so proud of them all. (This was written during my last crash on the 10th April 2005)
How long has it taken me to accept that I have been correctly diagnosed?
Honestly, I still don’t think I have, I believe that at this moment in time I have moments when I accept the bipolar and see the positives of it and embrace my creativity and know that I only have to make me happy sometimes. However, there are a lot of times when I still try to analyse every little symptom and the more I try to deny it the more I am proving to myself that the doctor may be right. All in all I now know I have bipolar and I have found a wonderful support group and am starting to accept it and deal with the symptoms much better. When I think about any predominant symptoms the more I learn and accept the further back I can remember. From the age of 11 to as recently as September 2004 I would run away, or try to. I would move house, city, and state at least every six to nine months. And every second move I made was back to Canberra because I would go down and feel unsafe and return to where I felt the safest and most welcome, my best friends’ home in Canberra. They have never judged me, never turned me away and never laughed at me. And I will love them for as long as I live.
I am currently waiting to see a new psychiatrist at this moment in time, but the last time I crashed badly was on the 17th Jan 2005. My partner took me to a new doctor as we had only moved one month earlier. The doctor that I saw was absolutely fantastic and has monitored me closely since then. When I was really bad, our doctor even went to the extent of ringing us to make sure that I was ok. At the moment I am on Tegretol, a mood stabilizer, dexamphetamine for ADHD that I was diagnosed with on the 25th June 1997 and Aropax for depression and also Tamaze for insomnia. I feel as though I rattle when I walk some days, and I loathe taking tablets and have been known to refuse my medication and just stay in bed for 2 or 3 days. Though on the 14th April 2005, I believe I had a huge breakthrough, I was able to talk to my partner about how I get angry and how that makes me depressed because I know if I allow myself to get really angry I can be very abusive and sometimes violent. So my partner is going to help me get some anger management in the near future. This is the first breakthrough I have had whilst being on my medication and I feel a lot better now, a lot calmer and more able to concentrate. I also feel like I can talk to my partner about anything and he will help me to understand what I am going through and what I am putting him and the kids through too.
Some of the hallucinations I have had are quite funny. I will go through and give an example of a situation that surrounds each hallucination.
Smell of onions on my hands:
Each time I have been pregnant I have had the smell of onions on my hands. This occurs about four or five times throughout the pregnancy from about the 3rd or 4th month and the longest it has occurred for it 8 days.
I got to the point in each pregnancy to stop eating onions; I wouldn’t even eat anything with onions in them. Despite doing this, the smell still lingered, at least to me anyway. I would wash my hands with dish washing detergent, disinfectant, even bleach, and yet, after scrubbing them red raw and sometimes drawing blood, I could still smell the onions. I would go up to friends and shove my hands under their noses and ask them if they could smell onions. Despite them always saying no, I could still smell them, and then after a couple of days it would go away. Luckily I only experienced this one while I was pregnant with my kids.
I have a real phobia of vomiting and it really sucks when I am pregnant and I get morning sickness. I have only become aware of this hallucination in the last two months. It only occurs just after my menstrual cycle is finished. When I wake up some mornings as I make my coffee, I start to smell vomit. I start to think that it is on me or my clothes and I become irrational about it washing and rewashing myself and my clothes, this smell will stay with me for up to 3 hours and it is disgusting.
Feeling itchy and scratching:
Never would I be a person to ever admit to self-harm, yet when I think about it, I think maybe I do. When I get manic, and I don’t get there very often, but when I do I get so much energy and so many ideas that it feels as if the energy is some how making my skin crawl. Up until recently when my partner pointed it out to me, I would never have admitted that I do self-harm. When my skin crawls I feel like I have to scratch it yet if someone points it out to me, I become more aware of it. I used to scratch myself until I drew blood, I would blame mosquito bites which sometimes they were but mostly I wouldn’t even know why I was scratching and then I feel the pain when I look at what I did to myself and wonder why myself. Since my partner told me about it four months ago, I have only scratched myself twice.
Being able to conquer the world:
Even though I know this is a hallucination, I really enjoy it. Except that those around me look at me as much to say, “Oh my god, here we go again”. When I started painting my entry for the mental illness awareness art competition, I started to believe that my work would be good enough to win an Archibald prize. When I was accepted onto “Who wants to be a millionaire?” in 2004, I was initially talking about winning the million dollars, let alone getting to the hot seat, which as it turned out, I only got to the top ten, but I will keep trying and one day I will get to the hot seat.
When I am in this world-conquering phase, I believe that I am it and everyone should listen to me and do as I say. My latest plight is to take on the media single handedly, which of course I know now that I can’t, but I can certainly help the cause, I am helping by writing this chapter after all. So even though sometimes I try to take it all on at one time, it gives me a positive road to follow and maybe if I can help one person understand the nastiness, and indiscriminate ways of this illness maybe I can help one person accept and learn about this illness.
Some symptoms I have had for years, yet am only noticing now. Having only started to accept my illness, I am only now becoming aware of symptoms that have been there for a long, long time.
Drinking and clubbing
I am sure that many people have, as young adults, gone out drinking and nightclubbing. Though like everything else, I took it to the extreme. When I was working, I would get home at about 5 pm and start drinking at 5:05 pm. I would go out on the Friday night and crawl home on Monday morning still half drunk and somehow make it to work. Other weekends I would just have an open house where up to 50 friends would float through during the weekend. And we would all drink and do silly things. But when I went clubbing it was nothing for me to pick up a bloke go back to his place, f*ck him, and go back out, pick up again and repeat this over the weekend and if anyone tried to stop me I would downright abuse or fight him or her. Then there were the nights I would go out and strip off at the nightclubs and to me it was because I was hot, somehow I didn’t understand that it wasn’t all right to take your top off on the dance floor and would often be asked to leave.
Fighting and being nasty
Other nights I would go out just to cause trouble, I wouldn’t drink all that much but I would want to fight and I would not go home unless I had been in at least 2 fights. I am not proud of these moments at all but it has helped me to understand why I went through a lot of domestic violent relationships as well. Believe me sometimes I gave as good as I got, but when my partner at the time started breaking bones, I started to cool off. I have recently recognized some of the feelings of rage that I used to feel and I am going to seek help through anger management.
What can I say; I think I used to have a mattress strapped to my back. As I said earlier I would go out, pick up, get laid and return to the pub so I could pick up again. Then I started running away interstate and on one of these trips I met a train driver and he was very nice and I would tell him all about what I did and everything and quite often he would pick me up drunk and let me sleep it off in the drivers cabin. As we got to know each other we also had an affair. I would not think twice to give him oral sex whilst he was driving the train and occasionally I would have sex with him whilst he was driving, despite the fact that people could see what we were doing, I had no shame. I then developed some sort of a fetish for public transport, I did it on the Manly ferry in Sydney, trains in Sydney, buses and taxis in Canberra, there was no stopping me. Even when I got into relationships I would cause arguments so that I could go on the prowl. And then when it caused friction I would blame the person I was with at the time of making me do it.
I must say though, that since finding out about my disorder and having a wonderful supportive partner, I have stopped doing these dangerous things.
Being obnoxious, arrogant and ignorant
I was told in 1993 that I was the most, obnoxious, arrogant and ignorant person anyone could know. I think that was the first time I really took a good look at myself and how I treated others. And I still believe that if I am off my meds I am the most obnoxious, arrogant and ignorant person I know. I would never think about what I said when I was out, I would cause scenes in public places because I would make claims that everything I said was right, the sky is purple and the grass is blue. I would be in people’s faces all the time telling them how great I was and how inefficient they were, I would interrupt all the time and have no respect for anyone. I am really glad that I am not like that anymore. I was also very loud and would often be told to lower my voice cause I was being heard in the next suburb.
Since accepting my illness, the only ignorance I have experienced is from my own mother. After sending her information on the disorder and trying to explain to her that I had crashed badly in the days before she last called, she told me that I "should be over this bipolar nonsense by now". Yet friends that I have known between 2 and 28 years have said to me to feel free to call them anytime, even if it is only to cry into the phone. And lord knows I have and true to their word, they always listen and never judge me and for that I say THANK YOU!
One thing that I have found that helps is writing and painting, I find that when I am down I can get my feelings out on the computer and though it may make no sense to anyone else, it helps me and that, at times, is all that matters. I do quite a bit of writing. I have been known to write some poetry and of course doing this chapter has also helped immensely. It would be nice if there were more places where the mentally ill could go and use their creativity when they are either up or down, it would also be nice for the government and the media to focus more on the positive side of mental illness instead of always concentrating on the bad.
For example, I was recently informed about an art competition being held during Mental Illness Awareness Week. I have been encouraged by my support worker, doctor, partner and family to enter a painting. After some deliberation I decided that, yes, I would enter the competition, luckily, at this time, I still have time to get it in.
Having only recently accepted my disorder after being in denial for 2 years, I would suggest a support group first. The amount of advice and help I get from going to the support group is invaluable. After joining a support group, if you have issues with going out in public, I know I used to, try joining a day group. I go to one that is only for the mentally ill. Through them I have found that I can do art and show it to others, because they wont laugh at it. They also have units that concentrate on improving life skills and basic skills used in office situations. We also have access to an employment course, which enables us to compile our resumes, write out applications, improve interview technique and they can also assist us if we want to return to do further education. There are also specific men’s and women’s groups where we do yoga, go shopping, go on a cruise, go on camps and they have workers on hand at all times if you just want to chat. You don’t have to be happy to go there, I have been there on many bad days and I have never been made to feel uncomfortable. The thing that I am currently doing myself, is setting realistic goals; if you want to move a mountain, aim to dig 2 feet a day.
Some coping strategies I have in place vary depending on my mood. When I am down or depressed I write or paint and start to feel better. Either that or I go out to the kids totem tennis pole and belt the life out of the ball. When I am happy I often call my friends and chat away for ages.