Light at the end of the bipolar tunnel

Simon is sharing his experience with the following message: "I am sharing my bipolar diagnosis and recovery story in the hope that it encourages someone who is either newly diagnosed or on the journey back to stability and a happy and healthy life. Above all else this is a message that there is light at the end of the tunnel so above all else... never give up. "

My original diagnosis was made during my stay in the Royal Edinburgh at the end of November 2017 following a manic episode I experienced during a business trip to Miami.

There were a number of major stress triggers that led up to the episode. These included a high stress job in a negative work culture, severe jet-lag, lack of sleep, the loss of a work laptop and work bag (which were stolen out of a taxi) and finally finding myself in the vicinity of a gang fight within a hotel lobby, where an assault rifle was pulled out, although thankfully not used! Because of this I wasn't thinking clearly and behaved in a way that was out of character, with extreme feelings of euphoria and depression in close succession. The colleagues I was with were increasingly concerned about some of my behaviour, so suggested that I go to hospital for a check-up. This resulted in my blood pressure being recorded at over 200, at which point I was moved straight to the Accident and Emergency department. The care I received (thank God for travel insurance) was first class and within a relatively short period of time and some initial medication treatment my blood pressure reduced to a safe level again. I only realised later that they had taken blood samples in case I had a heart attack, stroke or something similar. I was unaware at this point that I had been in a critical condition that could have led to a fatal outcome.

Although taking the medication that had been prescribed helped to manage the physiological symptoms of my episode, I was still experiencing strong psychological symptoms including: racing thoughts, hallucinations, feelings of grandiosity and also some suicidal thoughts. I’ve never felt so scared in all my life, and although this wasn’t the only time I had experienced these thoughts, this was without doubt the strongest I’d had. I have also lived through the pain this causes, following the death of my father who took his own life. 

Getting a diagnosis of bipolar

The decision was taken to fly me home immediately, once I had been signed off by the doctor, at which point I was greeted at the airport by my wife and father-in-law. Although I was back with people that loved and knew me I was scared at the prospect of finding out what was wrong with me. After some initial resistance I was taken to meet the Mental Health Assessment Service (MHAS) team at the Royal Edinburgh, with whom my wife had spoken to in advance of my return home, where I was assessed and eventually admitted. I only realised at a later date that if I had refused I would have likely been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Although I sensed I would be well looked after, the hardest part was being separated from my son, who I always missed when away. I received excellent care during my stay in the secure unit and was given my diagnosis, which despite being a shock, gave me a sense of relief as it helped to make sense of my life experiences up to that point – periods of severe highs and lows which I did not recognise as a medical condition. 

Once released from their care I was visited on a daily basis by the Intensive Home Treatment Team (IHTT) who provided support for my wife, who was my primary carer, and myself as I started the next stage of what’s turned out to be a long journey of recovery. My employer at the time gave me ‘gardening leave’ for the remaining time of my contract as I had handed in  my notice before going on my final business trip to Miami. 

At the time I was on medication which brought me down from my manic episode. However, when the medication had taken its effect I went into a deep and debilitating depression. As the saying goes, ‘what goes up must come down’ and this was certainly true in my case. For me, this manifested itself as not wanting to get out of  bed, a lack of connection in social situations, including with my son, and low motivation to find and hold down a job. At this point it was suggested to me to compose a trigger list of warning signs signaling potential future manic or depressive episodes. This was, to a point, a useful tool, although I think at the time I looked to the absolute extremes of my condition, rather than what it was like to view these once I was in a stable state. I still refer to this list at times as it forms part of my ‘staying well’ plan, although I now have a much greater insight into potential triggers and warning signs. From the time I left the hospital to the present I have had regular meetings at my local clinic that I attend with my wife. It’s been a great help to speak with an expert about the condition and to regularly review and monitor my progress.

Sources of help and support

Other sources of advice and support have included the Mental Health Information Station which was helpful in putting me in touch with an expert on employee disclosure. I found this support to be invaluable in building my confidence around disclosure and the stigma that surrounds it. I am an advocate of ‘honesty is the best policy’, although I do understand that this is a tricky subject to navigate following a diagnosis. My Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), who was assigned to me once I was discharged from the IHTT, met with me on a regular basis to check my progress and continue to support my family and I come to terms with the condition. She was invaluable in referring me to other support services including the Edinburgh Bipolar Scotland monthly meeting. I’ve found it a great place to meet others with lived experience, and also some of their carers. It also provided the opportunity to meet one of the other patients who looked out for me during my hospital admission.One of the many bonuses  from the group was finding out how to apply for a National Entitlement Card which gives free travel on buses, trams and coach services nationwide. Given my significant loss in income  due to my recovery I was also advised by my CPN to contact Citizens Advice Bureau Scotland (CAB) to get support in completing a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) application. Through the CAB support I received in completing the application, I was  successful with a daily living needs award. This has been a great help financially and I’m so glad I wasn’t too proud to explore this option, as this was the first time I had sought any kind of benefit.

I initially found it hard to adjust my lifestyle given my diagnosis, but I did significantly reduce my alcohol intake, committed to maintaining regular sleeping patterns and ensured I got regular exercise and a healthy diet. Having made these adjustments now I have definitely seen the benefits, and can’t highlight enough the importance of following the advice of the medical professionals. 

Returning to work after a bipolar episode

When I started to feel ready to get back to work, which was after around 5-6 months following my episode, I used a recruitment consultant to find a new job at a similar level of seniority that I was used to. This turned out to be too soon and I was let go before the end of my probationary period. I decided to tell the HR team, although this wasn’t passed onto my Line Manager. On reflection I think that may have been a mistake. That said, they kindly gave me a month’s salary in advance to help me while I looked for other work. With my confidence at an all- time low, I decided that I needed a job with less responsibility and stress so contacted some Edinburgh-based temp agencies taking the first job available, which turned  out to be working at The City of Edinburgh Council in their contact center. I started as a customer service advisor at the end of August 2018, with the main aim of building my confidence and to start earning some money again. On reflection this has been like hitting the ‘reset’ button on my life as my first job before going to University was within a call center. I was assigned to the council tax team which also turned out to be a stroke of luck as I learned about the Severely Mentally Impaired council tax discount available to people with bipolar who also have a qualifying benefit. I also made the decision early that I would disclose my condition to my Department Manager who was incredibly supportive, as was my Line Manager. They respected my decision to take a significant step back in my career and gave me the space to reset my compass and direction moving forward. As I spent more time in the team, my confidence grew as I picked up the job quickly, and finally the smiles started to return to my face. It was never intended to be a long term plan, which my employer knew, but when some full-time permanent roles became available I went for the interview and was given one of the roles. Soon after this, another internal role became available in another department that would allow me to use more of my previous work experience and be a small promotion in terms of income and responsibility. I have been in the role since May 2019 and am really enjoying being part of the new team.

Given the condition I’ve needed to think carefully about what I do with my career going forward, as though this has always been an important part of the person I am I need to be conscious of potential future triggers. I decided to undertake a career strengths, weaknesses and future desires exercise to look at these in relation to my current skills and previous experience. As part of this process, someone suggested a number of possible career options including retraining as a leadership coach & mentor, which I am now starting an accreditation course to allow me to practice. This has helped give me some clarity about the road ahead as I’ve always enjoyed encouraging and working with a wide range of people. The course will take nine months to complete but following accreditation I will have the option to start my own business.

I continue to meet with my Psychiatrist but I am on what is called 'Fast Track'. This means that I don’t need to see my CPN regularly, although can contact them at any time if needed. All being well over the next two years, I will be released back to the care of my GP. The only form of treatment that has not been made available to me is ‘Talking Therapies’, via the Department of Psychology. This has been due to the long waiting list but this is something that I could pursue privately if I wish. My last appointment with my Psychiatrist was really positive and has meant that I can reduce some of my medication dose which have had some unpleasant side effects. My long term goal is to reduce  these as much as possible but I have followed all of the doctor’s advice which has served me well. I have also learned the importance of diet and general wellbeing, as one of the side effects of some of the medication is an increased appetite resulting in weight gain. As a positive move to address  this I joined the gym at work and also became a member of Slimming  World. I’m also a keen walker so enjoy spending time outdoors, which I’ve recently heard is now being prescribed by doctors to counter depression.

There’s no doubt that without the support of my wife, family, friends, colleagues and medical professionals I wouldn’t be in this position.

I hope my story has encouraged you that there is light at the end of the tunnel whatever  stage of your journey as I am living proof that even with a diagnosis you can have a successful and healthy life if you’re committed to doing all you can to stay on top of it.

Please note that some of the above information is relevant only to those living in Scotland. 

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