In August 2019, at the of age 29, I suffered a ‘nervous breakdown’ and subsequently my whole life suddenly started to make sense. I was finally diagnosed as having bipolar type 2. This was in addition to my already severe anxiety and depression that I had been dealing with for years. The psychiatrist reported that he knew within the first 10 minutes of meeting me that my symptoms were caused by bipolar.

Accepting the diagnosis

At first, I’ll be honest, I was absolutely devastated. There was, and I feel there still is, huge stigma around the illness. And as a single parent living alone with my daughter, I was absolutely terrified that they would deem me an unfit mother and take her away from me. After processing the diagnosis, as much as I didn’t want the label, I soon realised that I needed one. Without my label, no one would understand, and the support would not be there. I really feel that this is something that spreads across the realms of all disabilities and mental illnesses. We don’t want to be labelled, but the label is the very thing that is needed to validate us when it comes to support and assistance.

Finding the right medication

Following my diagnosis, I was offered a medication with a common side effect of possible weight gain. As a person who enjoys the gym and takes care of her physique this was a massive no-no for me. As much as it may sound fickle and vain, I am not a massively confident person and I explained that I don’t want to treat one problem which will in turn give me another one that might even leave me feeling worse. It’s worth mentioning here that the gym and exercise has always been such a beneficial activity for me. And even now I go often and can feel the difference if I don’t.

It also became apparent that my undetected bipolar could have actually been adversely affected because of the strong dose of antidepressants that I had been taking. My psychiatrist and I worked out a plan to medicate and manage the way I was feeling and how I was coping. Part of this was trying to pinpoint a change from my usual mental struggles. I had lost my grandmother and the woman who took me in and raised me four years previously to cancer. I now know that this is when it first started to really take hold.

Prioritising my creativity

Now after over two years of trial and error with varying meds and doses, I now know that for me the most effective way of managing my bipolar is by being creative. Even as a child I would always be drawing or making something and even as young as six years old, it says on a piece of my work: ‘When I’m older I want to be an artist… or a hairdresser!’ Even at high school I was very academically bright. I even went to Oxford University as part of the top 10% gifted and talented in the UK… I never lost the desire of: ‘I want to be an artist or a hairdresser.’ Much to my teacher’s disappointments, it’s not surprising to me now at 32 that I immediately went into hairdressing and have stayed in the industry ever since.

Albeit a little cliched, I would definitely say that I am an artist! And a scientist and a therapist! I’m really proud that despite all the struggles, and the unpredictability of my illnesses, I run a small, independent and very successful hair and beauty salon at the heart of the community. I get to spend all day making people feel beautiful, laughing and being creative. It’s like my paintbrushes from childhood got a giant upgrade - colouring is definitely my specialty.  We have been a national finalist in 3 of the biggest competitions. I really enjoy interior design and took much pride in the salon’s renovation from a derelict space to a pretty, calm and welcoming space for customers. Sometimes I can feel very low but can now recognise that two things will never fail to make me feel better - creativity and exercise.

If I haven’t got a creative focus - for example throughout lockdowns when I wasn’t able to work - I then start to struggle. I really miss the escapism and probably control to an extent of creating something and being the master of the results.  I know some people find mindful colouring useful. For me it’s the same with creating beautiful colour work or hairstyles. I do still like to draw, but I think it’s the person that comes with my creative tasks now that makes my job the epicentre of my motivations creatively. 

Speaking openly about my mental health

Now I’m older things continue to make more sense. Recently I had an epiphany: people who visit the salon always tell me that I am like a free therapist… but actually, I realised that because I care about those people so much, I fully understand the power I have to make them feel better. They are unbeknowignly helping me. I have those days where I can’t face the world, I never know when they are coming and how long they will last- which is the nature of the beast…. but because I will not let these people down it forces me to get up and get to work. By the end of the day, I’ve been creative, made people feel great and then don’t have the added pressure of disappointing anyone or the stress of rescheduling.

That said, I am very lucky. It is not a secret that I have mental illnesses. It’s something that’s been widely acknowledged, accepted and supported. I feel free to speak openly about the way I’m feeling or to encourage others to feel like they can speak openly also. People come from far and wide because they also have bipolar and other mental illnesses and it’s a welcome relief to go to a salon that understands. In contrast, we also offer appointments in complete silence and sometimes even with the shutters down if they prefer. It’s interesting that something I thought would potentially tarnish my business actually is having the opposite effect.  I would say that this is my biggest achievement in my career.

Rachel Hill