When I was finally diagnosed, to be honest it came as something of a relief, this thing, these feelings had a name, a definition. Doctors knew something about it and there was a known treatment. 12 months before, after I experienced my first depressive and psychotic episode, my sick note bore the words “mental illness” by way of reason for being absent from work. I was given little explanation of what had happened to me and why it might have happened, but dosed with Chlorpromazine (a now somewhat underused antipsychotic) and sent on my way.

This time I had full on messianic mania, which took several weeks as an inpatient to abate. I was put on lithium after some initial tests, to check kidney function and gradually my mood settled and I went back to work part-time (still living on the ward). At that time there was a programme of occupational therapy in the hospital – art and yoga I remember. Skilled therapists teased out my concerns about my diagnosis and reassured me that if I was lucky, my bipolar future might not be that different to my carefree past. In reality the only practical change in my life was the regular blood tests that come with taking Lithium, no great hardship for keeping well, I thought.

Going back to work after a bipolar episode

On returning to work I was a little embarrassed, but my colleagues were wonderful, not prying but listening sympathetically when I chose to reveal details of how I was feeling or what I was thinking. Of course it’s up to you to choose if and whether to tell your employer or colleagues about your diagnosis. The protection of the 2010 Equality Act means that I usually have, although usually only to the HR department and immediate managers. It was only thirty years after diagnosis that I found out there is a classification to bipolar are there different types of bipolar?, bipolar 1 with marked mania and lesser depression and bipolar 2 the opposite, stronger and often longer depressions with milder mania. I have had eight psychoses – seven manic episodes and one depressive, so come under Bipolar 1. 

Mental health stigma

Back in the nineties friends in the main were supportive too, several admitting that a member of their own family also had mental health problems – stories I had never heard before. There was the odd person, who didn’t understand, the one friend who told me I was being self-indulgent, only to experience a mental health moment six months later and call to apologise. I can understand in a way, before it happened to me I’m not sure how tolerant and understanding I was. 

Some three years later, in common with some other bipolar people, I persuaded myself that I was not in fact bipolar as I was living so well. My doctor agreed to my weaning off Lithium and for seven years, supported by a weekly counselling session, I was indeed well. After the counselling had stopped and in October 2001 in the wake of 9/11 I took another trip into the surreal with the resulting month-long stay in a psychiatric ward. Since then I have taken Lithium regularly with no intention to stop. 

Advice in hindsight

If I had to say what I think helps when first diagnosed it’d be:

  • Become your own expert patient – when I was first diagnosed after being discharged from hospital I visited my GP who told me I already knew more about bipolar than he did, as he rarely saw it in his surgery.
  • Read about bipolar, explore articles, read about other people's’ experiences.
  • Connect with others – it’s unlikely you’ll know someone else in your life with bipolar so why not join the Bipolar UK  eCommunity to meet others affected by bipolar, pick their brains and learn from their experiences.
  • Learn about your triggers – what stresses you? Be it seasons, anniversaries or events, monitor sleep patterns – and take action to mitigate these.
  • Consider keeping a mood diary to track these, I use a weekly online system and there are mood tracking apps or a simple paper-based template mood diary.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you have concerns about your mental health – talk to a trusted friend or contact your mental health team.

For support check out the Could it be Bipolar? resources relating to symptoms and getting a diagnosis of bipolar.