A life changing illness

Often we see and hear about the moment when someone is diagnosed with a life changing illness. The room spins, the world slows down and your life flashes before your eyes. It is not often however, that we hear about the moment that someone is diagnosed with a mental illness. We don’t acknowledge that mental health is life altering and a diagnosis can be just as painful and just as relieving as getting a diagnosis for a physical illness.

Part of the reason why we don’t talk about diagnosis of mental illness is because so often the diagnosis can be wrong. Unfortunately, to get a mental health diagnosis we have to fight for years to see the right people and to be given the treatment that we need, even then it is extremely common that we get given the wrong diagnosis. Personally, I was diagnosed and treated for depression for four years prior to my bipolar disorder diagnosis.

Part of the reason it took me this long to get an accurate diagnosis is because I thought I had been given my diagnosis, it’s similar to the observer expectancy effect where scientists subconsciously influence the results towards their hypothesis, I knew my diagnosis so I ignored any mood changes outside of my diagnosis. It wasn’t until my mum suggested to me that I should go back to my doctor that I even registered I was experiencing hypomanic episodes; looking back with a new perspective, it gave me so much insight into the decisions and the emotions that I had felt over the previous four years.

My GP was the first person to suggest to me that I may be suffering from bipolar disorder, I was referred to a psychiatrist who confirmed the diagnosis. It took me a long time to process what I had been told, for a month or so I continued on with normal life and pushed it to the back of my mind. And then, everything hit me at once, like a pile of bricks falling on my head. Thoughts were bombarding me and I broke down, I didn’t know how to process the information, or even how to start. I had so many new things to understand and process. Yes, depression and bipolar disorder have many symptoms in common, but it was a whole different concept to face. 

Researching bipolar after diagnosis

I have never been the person to cope with being out of control of a situation, so, as soon as I was given my diagnosis I was scouring the internet for every morsel of information I could find, I wanted to know every single cause, symptom and treatment. I found out the names of the medications commonly prescribed and their side effects, I read the research papers and found out every piece of medical information that I could. I felt that I needed to know every single possibility that could happen so that I would never feel this out of control or overwhelmed again.

Once I had sifted through hours worth of internet research, there were two main things that stuck. The first being that often, genetics can be a cause of bipolar disorder. I have known for years that there can be a genetic element to mental health however, I now had to face the chance that my children were more likely to develop bipolar disorder and therefore have to experience the same symptoms that I am experiencing. Having kids has been part of my future plans for as long as I can remember, so, the idea that this diagnosis could impact on that vision for the future was heart breaking for me and left me with a lot of inner turmoil. I felt like I had to make all of my future decisions right there and then in order to be prepared and ready.

However, the biggest thing that I have had to face is that I am never going to be cured.  When I had a diagnosis of depression I still felt that I had hope, that one day I wouldn’t suffer with depression anymore, one day I wouldn’t have to take my anti-depressants, one day I would be able to cope. With this new diagnosis I had to face the fact that I was going to spend the rest of my life trying to maintain control over my emotions. I may not be symptomatic all of my life but I will have to continue treatment in order to prevent myself from being symptomatic. I think that’s something people don’t consider when they think about mental illness, to a healthy person mental illness is something that a lot of people experience for a brief amount of time, a year or two, like one would experience a cold, unpleasant but not forever. For those of us that suffer with mental illness that are chronic we know that unfortunately this is not our reality, when we are given our diagnosis we are facing a life long battle.

At first, it seems suffocating and hopeless and sometimes it can be. I’m not going to try and sugar coat it, it's tough to know that the battle may not end. I have not always been an optimistic person, if I’m honest its only post diagnosis that I have started to learn the value of optimism. I know that the road ahead of me is not going to be easy, but I also know, I am going to learn so much, I am and am going to become such a strong person, and I may be able to help other people like me.

Bipolar medication

Something else that I had to consider was medication. Although medication is not the only option, it is usually the most common and most effective route. I have been on anti-depressants before, but antipsychotics, mood stabilisers and anticonvulsants are some pretty hardcore medications. I have to consider the different side effects that they may have and how they may impact my life. On the other hand, considering medication also means that I have hope. I may not have to deal with as much unpredictability or mood swings. I may be able to pick myself up and start living again.

As much as I have to face and accept my diagnosis I also need to move on, I cannot let a diagnosis become my identity. I need to work with my team to put a plan in place to help me manage my bipolar disorder, I can’t ignore the fact that I am going to have to work hard and face some really tough challenges, but I also will allow myself to enjoy my life, spend time with my friends and family and be me. That is the only way I will ever be able to move forward.

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Together, we can support the person behind the diagnosis of bipolar.