Brenda*’s Story

Every experience of mental health difficulties is different; this is one of them. 

*The writer has requested their name be changed for the purposes of posting this story. 

When I first started to experience serious mood swings, I was fourteen years old. When I brought it up to people, they told me I was being a ‘typical teenager’ and ‘just hormonal’. However, it didn’t seem like anybody around me was experiencing the same kind of ups and downs as I was; I didn’t feel like I had a valid problem to seek help for because of what everybody was saying.

I essentially stopped mentioning my mood for fear of people not taking me seriously when I said I was having problems. I felt I could manage my symptoms well enough to function without many people noticing any change in me, so I kept everything to myself and didn’t seek help from friends, family or professionals.

My biggest problems started when I moved schools for sixth form. My symptoms started to really flare up, affecting my work and my relationships with people. I took days off school when I couldn’t even bring myself to get out of bed. I would spend weeks at a time in a negative contemplative state, questioning the futility of everything. Then there would be shorter bursts where I would barely sleep because my mind was racing with thoughts of all I could do and achieve. I would be able to do a week’s worth of work in a day, and felt meaningful connections with everyone I spoke to. Usually these short high states would be immediately followed by mental exhaustion and much longer bouts of the depressive helplessness. This exhaustion and lack of control over my own mental state lead me to self-harm, which I continued to battle after my mood symptoms had reduced.

It was at this point that I decided to seek help; first from my friends and then, on their recommendations, a GP. I didn’t know what was wrong, and my friend told me it sounded a lot like bipolar. There are a lot of misconceptions about this illness, primarily that people with bipolar have multiple personalities (which is actually dissociative identity disorder, not bipolar), and that people with bipolar flip from mood to mood really quickly with no explanation. Having not been educated on mental health, I held these misconceptions to a degree however when I looked up this mysterious illness, it essentially looked like somebody had read my mind and written it into a list. It was quite an emotional experience to realise that I wasn’t ‘just being hormonal’ as everyone had said in the past, but that my problems were valid (note – you do NOT need a diagnosis to tell you your mental health problems are valid, this was just how I felt at the time after being told I was overreacting) and there was something I could do to reduce them. I felt a lot less alone.

I received conflicting messages from a GP and then a counsellor who both recommended seeing the other. These messages left me feeling lost again, and the problems only became worse when, as a minor, I didn’t feel as though my confidentiality was being respected.
When my parents were told by the GP, their immediate reaction was to get me to see a private psychiatrist. Because I was legally a minor when I told them about my self-harm, it was reported to my parents, against my wishes. My trust issues became increasingly prevalent, to the point where I completely shut myself away in a depressive shell. My parents made me continue going to the same psychiatrist, but I felt that I couldn’t tell her anything. I felt the need to tone down everything I was feeling to a level not worth reporting. Unsurprisingly, she diagnosed me with a mild depression, as I didn’t tell her about any of the symptoms that were actually causing me true concern, which included the high as well as the low points. I feel that because my symptoms weren’t fully understood, it’s possible that I was misdiagnosed. I believe that my symptoms are much more in keeping with bipolar disorder type 2, which is characterised by periods of depression and hypomania (a less intense form of mania). Bipolar 1 generally involves longer cycles and full manic episodes.

I also want to emphasise the fact that manic/hypomanic episodes are not just a natural high. People do generally become extremely sociable and productive, but it is also scary. It is easy to forget to do basic things like eating or sleeping because you are too busy coming up with 5 fantastic business ideas or creating a hectic social calendar which you will never actually carry through with. In more severe cases, it can also become a psychotic episode, where you lose touch with reality in some way. This is extremely scary, especially as it’s an alien concept to most people, making seeking help or just reassurance extremely hard. Mania/hypomania is also not a fun place to be, as it is so exhausting and taxing on the mind and body, and it is usually followed by a period of depression, which is obviously not fun. Not to mention that it is near to impossible to control or predict when episodes will happen, leading to a permanent state of helplessness and anxiety.
My experiences with mental illness highlight how important it is that every individual case is examined thoroughly, so that no one feels as though their problems are being overlooked. Furthermore, the bond of trust between a patient and a health professional is paramount –however it’s important to note that confidentiality can be broken if a professional feels that their patient is at risk.
With a lot of work on maintaining stability, and probably a bit of luck in the neurochemistry department, I am happy to say that I have not had an episode of either hypomania or depression for nearly a year. For me this is a huge achievement, and I am constantly working on keeping myself stable. This involves various things, but staying away from alcohol unless I am incredibly stable at the time is definitely one that has been useful (but also very difficult especially since the start of uni), as well as avoiding highly stressful situations where it is possible. I am not saying that everything is well and that I am suddenly better, but I am hoping that now I know my early signs of either type of episode, I can focus on maintaining stability and trying to keep the mood fluctuation to a minimum.

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