'If You Hear Voices, You're Considered Crazy' - One Reader Shares What It's Like To Live With Bipolar Disorder
As part of our #TimeToTalk series, we will be sharing stories from our readers about their experiences with mental health in an attempt to open a conversation and battle the stigma in Ireland.
In this instalment, Aileen reveals the reality of living with bipolar disorder and her journey to finally finding stability at the age of 30.
"It's midnight. March 2014. I'm sitting on my living room floor with my laptop, obsessively researching a trip that I've been planning.
I haven't slept in over 40 hours.
I worked all day, partied all night, then worked all day again. Instead of exhausted, I feel wired to the moon and full of energy and drive. Suddenly, a voice to my right snaps ‘Stop it!’.
I look up and realise that no one is there. I'm alone in the apartment. Immediately, I know that the voice was in my head, but I heard it loud and clear. This doesn't strike me as strange.
Let's rewind a few months to how I got here. The beginning of 2014 was a phenomenally busy time for me at work. I was putting in eleven hour days, five to six days a week. When I got home each evening, all I could think of was work.
I couldn't sleep and when I did, I dreamed about work. After a while, I broke through a barrier and didn't need sleep anymore. I started existing on four hours a night without feeling overtired.
At the end of this busy period, I had a holiday in Central America booked to help me wind down. I arrived in Guatemala jetlagged and immediately met some people and went to a bar and stayed out all night.
The next day, I sat in the sunshine on the beautiful rooftop terrace of a café, drinking homemade lemonade and looking out over the view of a colourful colonial town set against the backdrop of a towering, smoking volcano.
My mood elevated beyond a happiness I had ever felt before. Colours were vivid and surreal. I felt that I had never been so happy in my life and that no-one in the world had ever been as happy as me.
As I travelled through Guatemala, Belize and Mexico over the following weeks, my elation grew. Every experience - swimming in a pale blue lake, snorkelling with sharks, climbing an ancient ruin, hiking through a jungle and wading across rivers - was a sensory overload that drove me higher and higher. By the time I arrived at Cancun Airport for my flight home, I had decided that I wanted to return to Central America.
I signed up for a course of Spanish classes the day I arrived home (I attended just three of the ten classes). I was determined that I wanted to live in Mexico. I fully believed that I would do it and I told everyone who would listen.
All my time went into planning to make it happen. My behaviour became goal-oriented and at the same time, I found myself chasing thrills and in need of constant stimulation. I couldn't sit still, I needed to be constantly occupied.
I couldn't sleep without either drinking or taking something to knock me out and my thoughts were racing at a million miles per hour. I was full of ideas and each one felt like the most important idea I had ever had!
I became frustrated when others couldn't keep up with me. My decision-making became irrational. I slept with a colleague. I regularly stayed up all night, sometimes partying, sometimes engaged in animated conversation, and sometimes just frantically researching a new idea.
I was witty and fun, sarcastic and quick. I told more jokes.
Then, I did something wildly uncharacteristic of me. I had unprotected sex with someone I hardly knew. Now, I'm all in favour of having sex with whoever you want to have sex with but I've been known to advocate strongly for safe sexual practices and regular STI testing.
While for some people unprotected sex with a relative stranger is just a drunken mistake, it was unheard of for me. (Luckily, I went on to get tested and hadn’t picked anything up.)
At the same time, I was obsessively watching Homeland on Netflix (all of my interests at that time were obsessive). I enjoyed watching the character Carrie Mathison, an intelligent and driven female lead who was made human by her flaws.
Carrie had bipolar disorder and watching her manic spell, her symptoms looked familiar. I was conscious of my history of depression from five years previous, but this wasn't like depression. I was happy, but almost... too happy? I was wired and worn out and couldn't stop moving.
Exhausted and vaguely aware that something was wrong, I cancelled my plans one evening and went to visit a kind and sensible friend. I told her everything that was happening and she pointed out that my behaviour suggested that something must be wrong.
I decided to see a doctor. As drove home from my friend's house that night, my speed inched faster and faster. It was nearly 1am, and the road was all but empty. At 150 km per hour, I felt as if my body was finally moving as fast as my mind and I felt calmer than I had in months. I drove the full length of the M50, and then turned around and went home.
My doctor referred me to a psychiatrist, who quickly gave me the diagnosis I expected. Despite knowing it was coming, I felt stunned and isolated. I scoured the internet for help and resources, but found little of any relevance to me. There was plenty of information and support available for people with depression, but nothing for someone who was too happy and losing their grip on reality.
This has come to be my experience of having bipolar disorder. The stigma that previously surrounded depression and anxiety has begun to be dismantled and sufferers of those conditions are becoming more accepted, which is fantastic, but knowledge of other forms of mental illness remains scarce, especially those featuring psychosis.
It's okay to be depressed but if you hear voices, you're considered crazy. Most people hear ‘mental illness’ and think ‘depression/anxiety’. It's dangerous and stigmatizing to conflate the two and I keep having to tell people “I have a mental health condition, but I don't have depression”.
Luckily for me, finding the right drug to keep me stable without unwanted side effects was relatively easy, barring one hiccup at the beginning when a psychiatrist insisting that one particular drug was essential for me to live a normal life.
I was already feeling that he didn't listen to my needs or take me seriously so I asked my GP for a referral to see someone else.
The next doctor I saw was amazing. She listened to me, believed me, took my lifestyle choices seriously and didn't pathologise me for things that the first doctor had, like my love of solo travel or my sexual orientation.
She worked with me to decide on medication that suited my needs and now, just over a year since I started taking it, I’ve begun to feel my mind straighten out.
The past year has been characterized by some of the first times in my life where I've felt fully stable. At the age of 30, it's quite a thing to feel stable for the first time.
I actively decided not to keep my condition a secret as the stigma surrounding mental illness is self-perpetuating and I decided that it would have less power over my life if it was in the open.
By refusing to keep silent about it, I hope I'm contributing a little to the eventual ending of that stigma and helping others to speak up too. By treating mental health patients as crazy, unstable, unreliable or weird, we alienate and isolate.
By treating them as normal, we can be inclusive, which can only contribute to improved mental health in the long run.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and need something to talk to, there are a range of confidential and anonymous options available. You can find a full list of available options here. To share your story as part of Her.ie's #TimeToTalk campaign, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.