By Sarah Owen co-author of 'Bipolar Disorder – The Ultimate Guide'.

Bipolar in the family

When I was 8, my dad had what the doctor called "a nervous breakdown". The gentlest man I have known punched a hole in a wall, bought some out-of-character bright blue shoes and ended up in Germany a few weeks later, convinced he was a member of the secret police. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (or ‘manic depression’ as it was then known).

My sister, aunt (dad’s sister) and son have been diagnosed with the same condition. And it’s a fair bet that my dad’s dad (a grandfather I never met) also had it. Although he wasn’t ever diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness, many stories have filtered down of his dysfunctional choices and excessive drinking.

Somehow, I have, so far, dodged the bipolar bullet. Other than a six-month period of mild postnatal depression in 2001 after having my second son, my mood is stable. With my family tree, that is nothing short of a miracle. I never take it for granted and as I’m approaching the menopause with its potential hormonal upheaval I am keeping a close eye on my mood – especially on the holy trinity of mood protectors: sleep, diet and exercise.

Although I don’t have bipolar, I am a daughter, sister, mother, niece and probably granddaughter of those who do. I have seen people I love stay in bed for days – and then not go to bed for days. I have clutched bags of medicine on the way back from pharmacies praying that this drug, this dose, this combination will work. I have pleaded with and challenged doctors. I have spent hours in psychiatric unit receptions waiting to be let in for a visit. I have drunk gallons of decaffeinated tea in small plastic cups. Once, I squatted behind a bush in a psychiatric unit garden while my sister and her fellow patients secretly smoked roll-ups they had hidden in a plastic bag under a bench. I’m a non-smoker but strongly believe it’s inhumane to force inpatients, sometimes when they’re so unwell they don’t recognise their own mother, to give up suddenly when they’re admitted.

Of course, I acknowledge that none of what I have witnessed or experienced is anywhere close to as challenging or distressing as it would have been if I’d actually lived through it. But I also know that seeing people I love struggle can leave me feeling, at times, helpless, terrified, angry, confused, grief-stricken, exhausted and frustrated. Loving someone with a mental illness can be tough when they’re experiencing symptoms. Not because I ever blame or judge them, but because I love them.

For 40 years, then, bipolar disorder has been a part of my life. I have seen three generations (dad, sister, son) deal with the same diagnosis. Some things still make my heart ache: the lack of funding for research; the long waiting lists for psychological support; the absence of new drugs; the fact that it takes an average of nine years for someone to get a diagnosis; the canyon-size gap between the automatic NHS support someone gets if they’re diagnosed with a physical health condition like diabetes, compared to a mental health one like bipolar.

But equally I can see that other things are improving. While my dad and sister didn’t work post-diagnosis, my son, who was diagnosed relatively quickly, has been lucky enough to get excellent psychological treatment so he’s learnt to manage his mood well enough to study at university. Also, he is open about his diagnosis. Most of his friends are accepting and understanding, far more so than mine and my sister’s, let alone my dad’s and granddad’s. I’m optimistic that he has a meaningful, happy life ahead of him.

That’s not to say stigma and prejudice no longer exist. Far from it. But tolerance is growing. If it were a tree it would be a skinny twig with one of those little fences around it to hold it up and protect it. But I believe, with a bit of careful nurturing, it will keep growing and eventually flourish – maybe in time for my grandchildren or their children...

Throughout these four decades I am sorry to say that I have taken the charity Bipolar UK for granted. Founded 37 years ago, the wording may have changed but essentially the mission is the same: to empower everyone affected by bipolar to live well and fulfil their potential. As a small charity dwarfed in size (but not in effort or passion) by its big sister charities Mind and Rethink, things have been financially tight over the years. But the current crisis it’s facing is, to use the word of the year, unprecedented. Fun runners didn’t take to the streets for the London marathon. Mountain hikers didn’t climb the three peaks. Tin shakers didn’t stand outside supermarkets. And fete organisers didn’t sell raffle tickets. Now more than ever, Bipolar UK needs our support.

Raising funds for Bipolar UK

I have turned to the charity many times over the years. The website is my go-to first stop for trusted information. I have called the peer support helpline. I have been to several of their conferences and events to listen to world leading experts. I would feel bereft if the charity had to close. And I imagine many of the three million people diagnosed with bipolar in the UK – and their families – would feel the same.

Three years ago, my cousin Amanda and I walked 50km in the Peak District to “do our bit” for Bipolar UK. Thanks to our massively generous family and friends we raised £2K between us. We’re planning to do another fundraiser at some point – realistically, though, now it won’t be until 2021.

In the meantime, I know I haven’t walked, climbed, sweated and staggered enough, or indeed at all, to earn the right to ask this, but please, please could you have a rummage under the sofa cushions or at the bottom of your bag and consider donating to this brilliant charity? Even a fiver (or more if you can spare it) would help save a charity that does so much – including helping to reduce stigma, promote understanding, save lives and support families in need. Families like mine.

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Sarah Owen is co-author (alongside her cousin Amanda Saunders) of Bipolar Disorder – The Ultimate Guide which you can also order via Amazon Smile and Bipolar UK will receive a donation from each purchase. 

How to set-up Amazon Smile

  1. Go to Amazon Smile and login with your existing Amazon account or create a new one using your preferred email address.
  2. Once logged in, scroll down and type ‘Bipolar UK Ltd’ in the box to pick your own charitable organisation and click ‘search’.
  3. Click ‘select’ to choose Bipolar UK LTD.
  4. Check the box acknowledging that you must visit each time you shop in order to support Bipolar UK and click ‘Start Shopping’.