It’s not everyday that a colleague drops the ‘b’ bomb – revealing that they have bipolar disorder. In fact, in the fourteen years since I started work… it’s never happened – until earlier this month.
As many of you know, I have the enormous privilege of working at a charity helping people living in poverty. Earlier this year, a talented young man joined our team. Fresh out of University, he quickly gained a reputation for showing extraordinary initiative and producing high quality work.
One morning, chatting casually over a coffee with him and another colleague (who I know has struggled with depression) – I told them about this blog, and my passion for de-stigmatising mental illness.
Then, out of the blue, my young workmate quietly said “I have Bipolar too”.
Stunned, I made some lame comment and eventually the conversation gradually drifted to another topic. Driving home that night I decided I would take him out for a coffee the next day and chat about what he’d said – even offer some support if he needed it.
But the next day a bunch of meetings got in the way. And then one day turned into two and now, a month later, I still haven’t taken him out for that coffee. Now, bringing it up seems awkward. I was thinking about it today – and wondering what I would have said if I had taken him out for that coffee. So here it is… five things I wish I’d said to my workmate when I had the chance:
1. Life as you know it is over
This is different from saying that your life is over. You can still go on to live life to the full. I have. But life as you know it is over. You have a serious illness and you need to take it seriously. You need to take care of yourself. If you do, you may no longer experience the euphoria of mania but you’ll also no longer go through debilitating depression. Life may seem a little more boring. But you’ll be able to hold down a job and your loved ones will be spared the drama that is life with someone yet to be diagnosed as having bipolar.
2. Get a good psychiatrist and listen to them
The key here is to listen to them. My psychiatrist says the hardest part of her job is trying to convince people that a) they have bipolar disorder and b) to stay on their medication. It’s easy to take your medication when you’re in the depths of depression. It’s much harder to stay on it when life seems rosy – and you start to doubt you actually have a mental illness. I had a nurse friend once comment to me that ‘you seem fine to me… maybe you shouldn’t be taking so much medication’. I told her that she should have seen me when I was in the high dependency ward of the local hospital’s psychiatric ward. The truth is that my daily does of medication is what enables me to live a full, happy life.
3. Learn what your triggers are, and avoid them
I’ve learnt the hard way that stress and lack of sleep are a bad combination for me. A bad dose of insomnia can quickly turn into a manic episode and – within days – psychosis. Now, I never go without sleep. For the rare night when my Seroquel isn’t enough to bring on sleep, I don’t let the clock tick past 1am without taking some other measure – like a sleeping tablet. I always let my husband know that I’m having trouble sleeping and that I’m taking something or it. That way, he can be on alert to make sure my symptoms aren’t getting out of control.
Stress is a little more difficult to keep in check. By nature, I’m the type of person who likes to keep busy. I’ve noticed at work that you’re the same. It’s hard to say “no” when there are so many great things to get involve in, events to attend and friends and family to catch up with. But one of the best things you can do for yourself is give yourself time to unwind, rest and relax. For me, this means hardly ever scheduling things at night, after dinner. Find out what level of stress you can handle and put boundaries around your “down time”. It’s worth it.
4. Don’t hide your condition from those that matter
It’s embarrassing to tell people that you have bipolar disorder. I spent hours deliberating if I should declare my condition on my human resources form for my new job. And I certainly pick and choose who I tell about my condition. That said, you owe it to yourself and your partner to tell at least a handful of close friends and family about your condition. In the event you become unwell, you need people who love and care for you to be able to recognise the symptoms and get you help. It’s not enough to just rely on your partner.. if you’re seriously unwell they may be in denial or not able to convince you to get help. Get a support network around you.
5. Develop an action plan – and stick to it
One of the best things I did almost six years ago, was to write a Bipolar Action Plan. This outlines your condition, contact details for your GP and Psychiatrist, preferred hospitals and those you want to avoid, what your triggers are and what medication you are on now and what has worked in the past. I’ve personalised mine with details of what types of things that make my episodes worse or what seems to help. Because I have little children, I have included instructions for who I want looking after them and a list of people who can provide other support like meals. You don’t have kids yet, but you might like to include notes on what you want told to your manager at work or friends. You may feel like this isn’t necessary. But for me, having this down in writing somehow lessened my anxiety and gave me a sense of control over what would happen in the event I became unwell.
So there you have it! Five things I would have told my workmate if I had invited him for coffee. Now that they’re down on paper (or at least on my screen), they really don’t look that daunting. Maybe this week I’ll finally get the guts to share them in person.