This is one of a series of exclusive stories that we are highlighting as part of the Time To Change See The Bigger Picture campaign, led by the mental health charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, which aims to end stigma around talking about mental health. Please note that these articles contain discussion around topics that may be triggering to some readers.
One morning in early January 2016, after a big uni deadline and severe sleep deprivation, I awoke feeling refreshed, inspired, hyper-social and like I was on top of the world.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was experiencing what they call an ‘acute manic episode’ (essentially, it’s a key symptom of bipolar disorder). The condition itself is caused by too much dopamine wreaking havoc in the brain.
I’d never experienced mental health issues before this, and didn’t have a history of it in my family, which is why I was so confused to wake up one day feeling like a truly enlightened individual.
At the peak of my ‘high’ – otherwise known as mania – I truly believed I could be a 21st century version of Jesus Christ himself. I was convinced that I had been awoken to my brain’s true power, and I was now going to change the world for the better.
It was a Saturday when this all began; by the following Wednesday, I had been sectioned. (Sectioning is essentially when a medical professional or person of similar power dictates that you’re no longer to make informed decisions about your own livelihood and could be a risk to yourself or others.)
So how did I act over those five days? Well, not exactly normal. It was like my usual personality was turned up by about 1000 per cent.
I ran around the streets of Newcastle playing my music through a speaker at full volume, spoke far too familiarly to strangers (literally anyone on the street), and I even called up my mum and told her I found the cure for Alzheimer’s. I also tearfully apologised to my brother for stealing the limelight as kids and broke down in front of a friend when we started talking about his dad who had passed recently.
But as quickly as the tears came, I could turn them off. The episode I was experiencing meant that I could control my emotions at a drop of a hat.
Desperately worried about me, my parents came to Newcastle where I was studying to try and calm me down. However, after taking me to a doctor, it was decided the best course of action was for me to be sectioned, until I was finally allowed to be discharged back into my parents’ care for ‘care in the community’.
Eventually, my life became stable again due to really powerful mood suppressors called Olanzapine and the support of a healthcare network and my family and friends. I really can’t stress enough the value of having a supportive family home who gave me unconditional love and reassurance that one day, it would be okay.
I still struggle today with the phrase ‘breakdown’ though, because it implies weakness – for something to break, it must not be as strong as it should be. Because of this, I felt for a long time like my illness was my fault and that I had caused my own condition.
Looking back, I realise that there is no stronger act than overcoming or working through mental health issues.
But I really struggled with what I should and shouldn’t say to people about what happened. I asked my family not to tell anyone about the episode and I pretended (to those who hadn’t seen me during it) that I had instead suffered from glandular fever, as I felt this was something people wouldn’t judge or blame me for.
There was an element of shame to feeling like I was certified ‘crazy’.
On my return to university, after taking a year break, one of my new housemates messaged me, saying that they’d rather not live with someone who had been sectioned. They had found out after the information was spread around my year group.
When I reassured them that I was still on meds and that there was a university counsellor on hand should anything arise, they were happier with me staying. But it felt like this impression of me as being volatile or unstable would follow me wherever I went in life.
The worst thing about getting a message like that is it regresses you straight back to a place of despair and hopelessness.
I’ve faced other instances of stigma whereby I’d meet other new people at uni, through friends or nights out, who would say things like ‘Oh, you’re the crazy one’ or ‘Remind me not to get on the wrong side of you’. At the time you just laugh it off, as it’s the only thing you can do. After all, all I wanted was to fit in and be normal again.
The biggest sense of stigma comes from within. I go through constant self-analysis over what happened, and feel a lot of weakness and shame.
I’m very fortunate to have not relapsed since 2016, and I wholeheartedly believe that’s down to my lovely family and a supportive group of friends. That being said, there are always moments where I worry about it happening again. Even now, if I’m feeling happier than usual, I find myself over-analysing my mood and thinking, ‘Is it OK to be this happy?’
Friends who were close to me during my manic episode still message my family or take me to one side if they think I’m acting too happy or a little more outgoing that usual. Of course, I’m grateful to them for looking out for me, but it’s not great when your friends still think of you as being unwell.
People with mental health issues were never portrayed in a great light whilst I was growing up – it was only after I was diagnosed that I found out that such great minds as Stephen Fry and Jim Carrey had had similar experiences, and yet were still successful and accepted by others. I’m sure none of my friends saw me as ‘crazy’, but I couldn’t help looking at myself through this lens.
In recent years, I’ve become accepting of my experiences, to the point now where I am in fact grateful for them. They’ve made me a far more well-rounded person. It has also taught me to accept me for me (I know, super cheesy, but it’s true!).
How do I tell people about my acute manic episode now? It’s simple – if they ask, I say that I had an acute manic episode, as casually as if it had been glandular fever.
If they’re interested or wish to know more, I’m happy to chat about it. The truth is, it’s a hard thing to talk about, but the more we do, the easier it becomes.
Time To Change
The reality of living with less common mental health problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder remains largely misunderstood. Time to Change is calling on people to see the bigger picture – click here to find out more.
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