The following blog posts are written by people with personal experience of bipolar disorder. By talking openly, our bloggers hope to increase understanding around mental health, break stereotypes and take the taboo out of something that – like physical health – affects us all.
I’ve lived with bipolar disorder for fifty years, but recently came to see that this was not my only mental health problem. I always knew I was a bit too much of a child, but the degree to which this affected my behaviour and people’s view of me came as a surprise. I only realized recently, as I talked with my husband, how serious my emotional problems were. People don’t usually tell you such things.
I was too innocent. Too immature. I talked too much. I trusted people I shouldn’t have trusted. My strong attachment to friends ended up stifling them. Today I can see how difficult I had been for people to cope with. Today I can see why some individuals in my church started avoiding me. It hurt to see that happen. At the time I didn’t understand why.
At my church there were significant instances where I felt rejected. One good friend stopped talking to me. Another would no longer meet socially with me, though we had been very close. I was left wondering why – imagining all kinds of horrible reasons. The pain of not knowing was excruciating, even leading to a suicide attempt. If only someone could have told me the truth about myself!
The pastor came to dislike me so much that he started treating me hurtfully. Over the course of a year he had very little kindness for me, instead showing uncalled-for anger. I was belittled and humiliated. Excluded from a group I had my heart set on. When I asked questions, even important ones, they were not answered. All this instilled a sense of worthlessness in me.
I needed boundaries – clearly set out, easily understood. But none were put in place.
I wish I had been told I was getting in the way. It might have hurt for a while, but at least I would then have understood. Like every human being, I need to be told the truth. I need friends who will be honest with me. Not to do so would be condescending – would be treating me as different than others.
But people weren’t honest with me – at least, not in a way I could understand. I kept asking myself “Why is this happening?”, ”What did I do wrong?” The questions did not stop until recently, four years later.
Even though I had a severe mental illness, I had made significant contributions for years, giving support to people living with mental illness. I loved the work and I loved the people. And so it was bewildering to be treated the way I was. I took my Christian faith seriously and was serving God in the best way I could. So why was I being punished?
When I left that work after nine years as leader, the respect I once had was gradually stripped from me. I was excluded from discussions. My opinions were disregarded. The slightest connection I might still have had was taken away. Within one year, my memories of the good I had done dimmed, along with my self-esteem.
I left the church a different person than I was when the mistreatment began. For at least two years after leaving I suffered greatly – traumatic memories flooding my mind, bringing thoughts of suicide. My mental and emotional health were damaged, not likely to return to what they were. My personality changed. I was frequently angry. Many of my relationships – including my marriage – suffered.
For years I had loved this church. It had been my home away from home, my family. But the issue was kept quiet. The mistreatment and the pain it brought were not acknowledged.
Although I suffered deeply for years, few other friends from the church, except for two individuals, called to see how I was doing. No one offered to pray. I felt like an outcast. I felt like I had been blamed.
My life today would be much different if I had only been regarded as the real person I am. People living with mental health issues deserve to be treated as equals. We’re human beings like everyone else. It’s an insult to be looked down on.
My life today is peppered with challenges. I have no control over the frequent fluctuations of mood that come in response to traumatic memories. My risk for suicide is high. Emotionally I’m not always up to going out – whether it’s for a shopping trip or a holiday. My husband’s life has been severely affected. And grief for my many losses will probably always be with me.
What keeps me going is my faith in a God who reminds me that I still have much to give. When coping gets hard, as it often does, I write and do photography, using them to encourage and inspire others with problems like mine.
A strange thing happened with me when I was in school. Now, I call it strange because I was completely unaware of what actually it was. This strange and new thing for me was the beginnings of bipolar disorder, something I had never heard of before.
People call it a disorder and the statement that goes is generally like “XYZ suffers from it” - but now I can firmly say that bipolar community does not suffer from it, rather fights it as a brave soldier.
When I was in school, a teacher of mine was sexually inappropriate. I complained about it to my headteacher, but they refused to acknowledge it and I was eventually asked to leave, despite getting good grades.
Luckily, I was able to join another school with a better reputation than my old one. I knew I was fortunate to have that opportunity, but my past kept haunting me. I kept thinking about why I was excluded from my old school for no fault of my own.
I was like a lost child in my new class. My attendance was poor, and I still remember sleepless, painful nights where I would cry.
Somehow I passed that year at school, but it was painful knowing I had gone from being an academically bright child to a low performer. I never required anyone’s sympathy but I definitely craved for empathy. I had become very lonely with no friends and no one to understand me.
One day I suddenly started speaking a lot about spirituality in school in front of my new headteacher. She knew this behavior was unusual for me and called my parents and asked them to take me home. None of us knew what was happening to me at the time, but later on I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1, and experiencing an episode of mania.
My new headteacher was so much more supportive than my old one. She never worried about me being a ‘disgrace’ to her school, and she motivated me and boosted my almost-dead self-esteem, telling me “Tarandeep, I have full faith in your abilities, and I know you will get good marks.” She even said, “The whole school is your home, study wherever you feel like, in the library, in the playground, etc.”
I felt so supported, and she was true to her words; I remember studying in different parts of the school during my illness. In one word, she is an “angel” for me. She is someone whom I respect from the very core of my heart because in my darkest hour of sorrow she proved to be the brightest lamp.
Later, I became a teacher myself – and worked at the same school that originally excluded me. It somehow re-assured me that I was never wrong but what about the series of events that followed and led to bipolar disorder? Well, I take that even in a positive stride.
For the last five years, I’ve visited a school for differently-abled kids. I feel elated in their company and they feel like family. I believe I can somehow relate to their ordeal because I have myself been through one.
If someone is physically challenged, we still empathise with them, but mental illness is something which has great stigma attached to it. People are suffering from it; statistics state that 1 in every 4 people is suffering from some sought of mental illness but it either goes undetected or people refrain from opening up about it.
Last but not least I firmly believe that “disability is not inability” and as Sir Winston Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.”
‘How can I help?’ and ‘What can I do?’ - these two questions have been at numerous times asked by concerned friends, but as I have pondered what response would best suit the occasion, I’ve never truly answered, because simply, I’ve not known the answer.
How do you let others help you when you don’t always know how to help yourself? That very question for me can be taken on an individual level, and a macroscopic level just as much.
It’s a tricky situation, allowing and trusting others to know the ins and outs of the bipolar vortex, from the inside my life can feel chaotic, and yet sometimes, it feels serene and calm, but I know that doesn’t always last, it ebbs and flows. So, when the winds pick up, how can we let others help?
My favourite kind of movies are road movies, Dumb and Dumber stands out beyond many. And what you’ll find with most road movies is there’s an ongoing dynamic between two characters, and that’s just it. Sometimes all I’ve ever needed is company, a friend, a sounding board, a non-judgemental sponge. Someone who isn’t going to fix the issue, but generously offer their kindness and empathy. A friend's ears can sometimes be all that is required.
That’s what works for me, it might not work for you, but the moment I offer the baton to another, the weight from my shoulder's lifts, and the tension in my gut eases. But what if there’s no one around? What if that friend is not available?
It’s all down to you, yuck, what a horrifying thought. WOAH, hold on, is it? Really?
My most severe bipolar experiences have been top-of-the-range swings from mania to depression, and I’m relieved to say that in recent years I have learned techniques which allow me to manage and support my lifestyle in many ways. I have had to apply these techniques mostly when alone, mostly when it's been just me.
Of course, when it wasn’t easy, it really wasn’t easy, but over time, I’ve learned to react less to my feelings. I’ve known that those around can’t always be there, they can’t always just be at the door, or on the end of the phone - they have lives too, and they need to live them. Sometimes having only myself to rely on, has been the best form of help.
Help and support can show up in many ways, friends can be amazing. I’ve been grateful so many times to so many incredible friends, but all the same, I’ve been grateful to myself, because I’ve needed to manage the storm alone.
You can’t always be there for someone living with mental illness – but when you can, be that friend who stays the night and watches terrible films past 2am; be that friend who listens fully; be that friend who doesn't become a ghost. You can't fix a storm, but you can be there while it rages, and it will pass.
The diagnosis of bipolar eight years ago was a huge relief because I finally knew what was wrong with me. I was so relieved because I said – ok, so I am not lazy, I’m not erratic, I’m not unfocused. I’m sick.
I got the diagnosis before I got married. My then boyfriend (now husband) was ok with it. But some of the people in his circle were like, “no, no, no, no… you should not get married to her, how you will be able to cope with her condition?”
Bipolar comes across as being this huge thing where people are violent. In Kenya there are all these negative stereotypes. So there was some opposition to us getting married. It was quite difficult for me. But my husband stuck to his guns, he said “I’m doing this, this is the woman I want to marry and we’re getting married”.
The stigma is still very difficult.
I run a small business as a beauty consultant. Sometimes I have to say I am sick without saying what is wrong, because I’m not sure how people will respond. Sometimes they might say, “this woman is crazy”.
I have a client who is a medical doctor - a paediatrician. I disclosed to her that I am sick and she said, “A lot of this is in your head. It’s not a real thing.” When you talk to an educated person who is a medical professional and they still don’t get it, how do you expect a normal person to understand?
Sometimes I talk to people about my condition and they say, “Snap out of it. There must be something wrong with you if you cannot will yourself out of bed.” There’s been quite a bit of that through the years.
For anyone experiencing a mental health problem, I think the first thing is self-acceptance. Accept that yes, this thing is real and I have it. I have to live with it.
Another thing that helps is information. Go online. Find out as much as you can about your condition. Begin to identify for yourself how this thing affects you.
Most important of all, build a support network. I have cut unsupportive people out of my life. What I’ve been left with is a core people who support me. If I need to talk, I know I can call somebody and they’ll say, “ok, let’s talk”.
Mental health is still spoken about really badly in Kenya. We have a Swahili expression, ‘mwenda wazimu’, which means mad man or mad person. There’s so much misunderstanding. There is lots of push-back on the fact people should behave themselves - they should not be sick.
One of the main things that needs to happen in Kenya is a lot of sensitization. With HIV / AIDS we can see a good example of this. Especially in Africa, for the longest time people were dying of AIDS. People used to believe this was caused by witchcraft or bad karma. Or because someone was not following cultural practices or expectations.
Because of the advocacy, today we see there is very little stigma. All the campaigns changed how people think.
We need that kind of sensitization around mental health. So people understand this is a medical illness, not something mysterious.
It is something that is treatable. It is something somebody can live with and manage. It is something you can take medication for - and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I come from a typical Indian family, where in the past, mental health was simply not a topic for discussion. Today, I help connect hundreds of people with therapists and direct them to basic mental health resources. Here’s a slice of my journey:
I’ve lived with mental illness for as long as I can remember. When I was 12 my uncle said, “You know you have a normal laugh and you have an abnormal laugh. Sometimes when you laugh you don’t know how to stop and it’s not funny.” This was jarring, not because it was untrue, but because I had been trying so hard to control my ‘extremes’. Now they were becoming obvious to a third party.
I was 15 by the time I understood something called psychology existed. I had a chapter of abnormal psychology in my textbook. I started flipping through and came across the term bipolar disorder. Something clicked.
I never meant to self-diagnose, but all the symptoms matched what I’d been experiencing for over a decade. I go to my mum and say, “mum - I think I need to see a psychologist. I think I have something called bipolar disorder.”
As much as I love her and she loves me, it was impossible for her to digest the idea of a mental illness. This is not a conversation that was had in any Indian household back then.
As well intentioned as my mum was, she called me a hyper kid, an energetic kid, a creative kid. While this was true, she dismissed the fact I was going through depressive phases, angry phases and weeks of sleeplessness.
That’s how bad stigma is in my country. Full grown adults will refuse to accept the concept of mental health because to them it is a sign of weakness.
I was 20 when I finally got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 22 when I got diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality.
For the longest time in India, people saw mental illness as a sort of punishment from God. Or as some sort of a demonic or spiritual possession. When people were behaving 'strangely', they were taken to religious institutions. Or to a guru to perform a sort of exorcism to cure them of their demons.
Today, at least in urban India, we are speaking about mental health. This has been born out of a long struggle. We’re only going to begin combating the stigma if we start having an honest conversation about it. A large part of the stigma comes from the vocabulary used. Struggling... suffering... disorder... illness…
Media also plays a serious role, with their sensationalised reporting.
Indian languages hardly even have terms to express mental health. There are not terms to express words like depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. My mother tongue is Tamil and I do not know the words that exist to talk about mental illness.
How are you going to explain mental health is not a western concept if you can’t explain to people in their own language?
We need more people talking about their mental health in everyday settings. In offices, in schools, in colleges. If one person can be brave and shameless enough to talk about their mental health, more people will realise this is normal.
In October 2018, I was panelist at the first ever Global Ministerial Mental Health Summit held in London. It was an proud moment, but not devoid of anxiety. I was so inspired by the activists, advocates and the author I had the chance to meet and interact with.
Yet, it wasn’t all rosy. It was interesting to see people who work within the health and mental health space come with their own biases. There is a massive power imbalance between nations and organisations that have the privilege of power and money, and those who do not.
I have started my own mental health project called Okay; Not Okay. I’m doing my bit by making as much noise as I can. I run anti-stigma campaigns and awareness and educational workshops to normalise mental health. I use storytelling, body art, panel discussions and reflective activities to shift attitudes and help people become more informed.
I aim to empower people – through stories, support, awareness and education - to smash stigma and build healthier communities.
We need to start getting real about mental health. If not with others, at least with ourselves.
People are scared of the terms ‘mental health problems’ and ‘mental illness.’ It makes many uncomfortable; turn their heads, look at their shoes, anything. Things are changing, but not soon, or fast enough.
But that’s why we are involved in this social movement isn’t it? To get rid of stigma, just erase it from society… What we are trying to say is that we are all people, and we all have challenges. We all live double lives to an extent – people only ever know what we want them to know… But if we don’t have an environment where people feel comfortable, and want to talk about themselves, and really share; double lives will still be hidden, and some (like mine was) extreme. And struggling in silence will still be like dark matter; a huge invisible part of our universe - one we can’t see and don’t understand.
But we can change this together. Whether like me you struggle with a mental health problem; you live with someone who does; or a friend or family member is living with a mental illness.
I struggled in silence for more than two decades… Well I say in silence. When I went through stages of extremely unstable and what people considered ‘out of character’ behaviour. I treated people like shit… They knew something was wrong, but just put it down to me being me… How would they know better?
But like most people with a mental illness, addiction or any other serious condition, I hit my rock bottom, the darkest of places. But I was lucky, I got a second chance; and started to try and help myself. And that meant talking – not just bullshit small-talk, actually talking… To my parents, friends, and eventually, my therapist (who I’ve been seeing intermittently for the last three years).
I’m not going to wave a magic wand and say it was easy, and it solved everything. It didn’t. In fact, it opened a lot of old wounds. With family and friends feeling guilty about not helping me and that my situation was their fault… But I put out that fire immediately… It was nonsense… Because here’s the thing, we cannot help each other if we don’t even know there is something wrong. Explaining this gave them a much better understanding of my condition and helped us all over the following months and years.
But they were still shocked, if not entirely surprised; but genuinely relieved I’d finally felt comfortable enough to be honest. And after a very uncomfortable initial stage, things started to get easier… For the first time in more than twenty years I felt like I was letting people get to know me; and wanted people to get to know me.
Work was more challenging… But people had seen I wasn’t right for some time.
And I was sick of just answering the question ‘How are you’ with the answer ‘Not bad’ when I was thinking ‘Well actually I didn’t sleep, couldn’t face looking in the mirror and don’t really want to talk to anyone’.
We don’t need to be that frank, but there is a middle-ground. For all of us…
What I would say is only ask someone ‘How are you?’ if you really mean it, and if you do, that’s awesome. Just be prepared the response might not always be ‘Yeah I’m fine’. After I started talking to people in my office a bit more, over a period of months, some mornings I would actually feel comfortable saying something like ‘My head’s not right, and I’m struggling. But I want to be here to try and keep a routine and not give up’.
Sounds heavy right? Maybe. But what I did previously, which was just sit, slump in my chair and withdraw, must’ve made people around me so uncomfortable, and I hated the thought of that… When I finally started sharing, I was worried about the reaction, we all have been or still are, but I should not have been. People around me were and are so supportive. Mental health problems affect so many people. And what I found is that as I started to open-up, so did other people. The tension began to ebb away, and it felt we were slowly becoming closer. I don’t mix business with pleasure – I’m quite reserved at work… But I like and respect the people I work with, and I believe relationships can only become stronger the more (comfortably) open and honest we can be.
In England, we are reserved, stiff upper lip and all that. The train syndrome – we’ll do anything not to interact with anyone… The last time I used a train the conductor even ended his announcement by saying ‘If you do not wish to be disturbed, please leave your tickets on the table ready for inspection’. I was dumbfounded. To me that’s the absolute polar-opposite of what we should be encouraging…
It’s not just people who struggle with mental illness who have problems, challenges and insecurities. Everyone does, and they’re all equally important. I’m bipolar; and go through phases of varying degrees of wellness. But during those times, I don’t want to be left alone, I don’t want people around me to feel uncomfortable, or feel sorry for me… I’m still trying to function, to live my life, to be productive, and I still want to hear about, and am interested in, what other people are going through, and how they are. It’s at the times we’re feeling low we need the people around us the most. I’m sure so many others must feel the same.
I cannot stress this enough, which is why I’m writing this, and written my book. I wish I had a transatlantic megaphone…. It’s better to say something, just to break the ice, to show people they matter; than say nothing, turn your head, or carry on walking… We’re all inherently tactile and perceptive - we can sense when something is not right, and we can decide to try and make a difference. We all have this unique, amazing and brilliant power within us. Not everyone wants to talk; or finds it easy. But everyone wants to know and feel that someone cares. And we all know how powerful a smile, or a simple kind word or gesture can be, and what a difference it can make to our day, our feelings or frame of mind, our lives... So, let’s make a difference, together…
In my role as a Chief Operating Officer for a charity, I have come across many different views and opinions on mental health issues. These have been both a lovely surprise or struck me silent with shock.
I once sat in a meeting and was told that a volunteer wasn’t able to give their time in the office because “she isn’t reliable or stable enough”. When I asked why, I was casually told; “Oh, she has mental problems, you know what these people are like, they cannot cope.” Now, as I myself have bipolar, I was very surprised to find out that I also shouldn’t be stable or reliable!
I spent half an hour explaining, as politely as I could, that the simple act of this lady offering to volunteer would have taken courage and that she should be encouraged and supported. People looked at me around that table like I was an unexploded bomb about to go off or like I had suddenly declared that I am an alien from Mars come to take over the world. People suddenly avoided eye contact and shifted away like I had something contagious.
One of the I get, that annoys me the most, is when people say that they “would never have guessed you had a problem” and that despite my mental health issues, I have “done well!”…NO, I have done well through hard work and determination, and by working on my issues every single day, thank you very much!
I am never ashamed of having bipolar and will not be apologetic about it. I know many intelligent, dedicated and hardworking people who have mental health issues and are fantastic at their jobs and have responsible roles. And I am proud of every single one of them.
When you have bipolar, you often have self-doubt and feel worthless - to have the courage to get out there and try your best takes a lot of inner strength. Sometimes it takes all of your energy just to go into work in the morning and get through the day - but you do it because you are determined to.
Anyone with a mental health issue has good days and bad days, copes well or struggles, but that doesn’t mean to say we aren’t responsible, or reliable, or able to do a very good job. So, let’s all support one another out there in the workplace. Every tiny bit of understanding makes a huge difference and breaks down the stigma around mental health at work.
Many people believe having bipolar means simply dealing with alternating very high and very low moods, but there is so much more to it. During a manic phase, the person can experience delusional hallucinations, which can be terrifying. During a depressive phase, the person may become very forgetful or indecisive. It isn’t as simple as “today I’m happy, tomorrow I’m sad”. It can be life-threatening. So please, the next time you crack a “bipolar joke” – bear this in mind.
I’ve always been an emotional person who feels things strongly. As a teenager and up to my university years, I was quite low with periods of anxiety and insomnia, and some high peaks in between, but I never felt that I had any severe problems.
In my final year at university, mania hit like nothing had hit me before. I did not see it coming. Imagine yourself getting drunk, but without any alcohol. You feel lighter, talk more easily and you feel more daring than usual. As it progresses, your judgment begins to cloud. You overestimate yourself. Strangers are suddenly friends. Reality begins shifting – you start perceiving things you didn’t perceive before. In my case, I had a million thoughts and ideas rushing in, which I felt I needed to express. I painted 10 paintings in a row and wrote 60 pages on a creative project. Put on bright colours and felt like everything I did was divine. I thought everybody else was stupid because they didn’t understand my ‘genius insights’. I became psychotic. I posted a lot of weird and embarrassing things on social media and texted people inappropriate or random messages. I wasn’t aware what I was doing during that episode – I had lost my rationality and sense of inhibition. By the time my family noticed I was not being my usual self (I was living abroad), I had already lost connection with my body. I barely slept or ate. I shifted between feeling extremely scared to aggressive, overly sexual or outgoing, and believed I was totally fine. I stopped looking after my body, believing that I could not die. I eventually ended up in hospital to be treated.
Needless to say, “coming down” from mania was very tough and confusing. I needed to realise what had happened and apologise for the things I did not recall saying or doing. It took months to get back to how I used to be. I had lost trust in myself and felt ashamed.
What followed a few months after was what I would call “life in a plastic cage”. Depression slowly snuck into my mind and sucked the life out of me. I felt insecure, worthless, silent and numb. A burden to everybody around me. I would go to the supermarket and stare at the shelves for ages, unable to decide. I would forget my keys or get lost on the road. I couldn't’t concentrate properly. The topic of suicide was on my mind a lot. I was not able to cry. I was completely numb, isolated within myself, even around my closest loved ones. I could not feel anymore. It was my birthday and for the first time in my life, I did not care. I could not feel joy or gratitude. All I wanted was to sleep and not wake up again – to stop existing. It was a dark and scary place to be in.
These two episodes happened within one year. My close friends and family stuck with me through the episodes. When I felt like a burden, they told me I was loved no matter what. They would hang out with me without judging me for not contributing anything emotionally. My university allowed me to resit the classes I had failed. This non-judgemental support was very powerful. With the help of treatment, I have been able to carry on with my life fully functioning and independently, which I am tremendously grateful for. Of course, I also lost a few “friends” who judged me for my behaviour. It was hurtful at times, but I realise now I am better off without them. I will no longer shame myself for something that was not my fault. I know who I can truly count on, and I know that my close circle will be informed on how to react in case of a future episode.