Ruth Durkin: Since the Day
Ruth Durkin describes her life with bipolar and the impact that a correct diagnosis had on her treatment and behaviour. She describes, too, how changes in perceptions - her self-perception and others’ perceptions of her - have accompanied the change in the name of her condition. Trigger warning: references to self-injury
I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder in January 2014. There was heavy snow that month and when it snows now I am reminded of the feeling of bleak desperation with a side-order of hysteria that I endured that winter. I eventually found out that I was in a Bipolar mixed state, which is when someone is both manic and depressed at the same time; I would not recommend it.
I had to have an extended period of sickness from work as I adapted to my new treatment and slowly started to catch a glimpse of stability and normality. I felt sick whenever I contemplated returning to work, knowing that people I worked with would now know how ‘mad’ I was.
In the period leading up to this diagnosis my behaviour was bizarre to say the least. My long-suffering husband did his utmost to keep me safe and well. I woke him once in the middle of the night (at the time I had insomnia) to tell him about a play I was going to write around mental health and how it would change the world. I thought all the vegetables in the world were going to go off, so I frenziedly cooked all the veg in the fridge to freeze and preserve it. The whirring of the food processor woke my husband in the middle of the night. I took a large quantity of diazepam in an attempt to calm down which had little effect and left me still climbing the walls (the same dose would have knocked out someone who wasn’t in a manic state.)
I ended up in A&E after self-harming without suicidal intent. I was told that the cuts were ‘superficial’ and sent on my way. My husband asked what was superficial about putting a kitchen knife in your arm. I knew my own symptoms and family history and told the psychiatrist that I thought I had Bipolar. They scoffed at my suggestion and told me it was Borderline Personality Disorder. At this time, I had racked up £9,000 in debt from credit cards due to impulsive spending. When I told a mental health nurse that I’d done this I was given a low dose of olanzapine (a mood stabiliser). I felt the maniacal energy subside a little. Despite this, I wasn’t allowed any more olanzapine if I didn’t have Bipolar, so I was told to just stick with my mirtazapine – an antidepressant, which can intensify Bipolar mood cycles.
Through a friend I found out about a private psychiatrist who went on to diagnose me with Bipolar II during the first half hour of our consultation. He was shocked that this had not been diagnosed earlier. On that day the snow was particularly bad and the bus my husband and I caught to the appointment terminated halfway due to the adverse weather. We got a taxi for part of the remaining journey and then had to walk as the taxi driver would not go any further. I was so desperate to get there and still had a glimmer of hope that this might not last forever. I could see a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel, thanks mostly to my husband’s support and belief in our future.
The past five years have not been without their ups and downs but on the whole I am on a more even keel.
There are five key changes that have happened to me and my life since that icy day that feels like a lifetime ago:
1. I’ve been prescribed the medication I need
Whilst I realise that medication is not the answer for everyone, I can say without being melodramatic that mood stabilisers have saved my life. I sometimes yearn for my hypomanic feelings as my new life on Quetiapine (a mood stabiliser) has diluted my extremes which were at times euphoric. My reality now can sometimes seem boring in comparison. My mania used to make me very creative and productive and sometimes the only way I can work is to deny myself sleep the night before a deadline to get that feeling of adrenaline back.
2. I’ve had a different reaction when I’ve said I have Bipolar to when I’ve told people I have Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
My current diagnosis is Bipolar II disorder with some additional aspects of BPD. I think there is still a long way to go before mental health problems are judged on a par with physical difficulties, but there are improvements being made. However, when I told people I had BPD they were on the whole alarmed and couldn’t understand. Now when I tell people I have Bipolar, I’ve had a lot of people say things like “Well Stephen Fry has Bipolar.” The fact that a national treasure has it too somehow makes it more accessible and less scary. I have found that there are a lot of misconceptions about BPD.
3. I’ve learned to embrace my eccentricities
My dry, dark sense of humour has evolved as a result of 17 years of unexplained mental health problems. Sometimes people take me the wrong way because of a wry comment I make jokingly. I have a deep empathy for others in difficulty because I’ve experienced extreme highs and lows myself which sometimes means random strangers tell me their entire life story. My husband and friends have called me ‘Eeyore’ – just like the Winnie the Pooh character; everyone’s favourite depressive friend.
4. I am what you might call ‘full-figured’
Mood stabilisers cause weight gain and increased appetite. It would not be unfair to say that I have ballooned in size since my diagnosis. People who didn’t know me pre-diagnosis say that I am unrecognisable in photos from the past (charming!) My weight is causing me health problems so I am constantly in a cycle of weight loss and gain which basically means I am maintaining my now heavier weight.
5. I feel there is a big difference between saying “I have Bipolar” instead of “I am Bipolar”
Although my diagnosis explained and made sense of years of mental illness, I still do not think that having Bipolar and/or BPD defines who I am. It is something that I experience but is not a character flaw. I say that I have Bipolar instead of stating I am Bipolar. In January 2014 I did not become Bipolar. I finally had a name, a title, to explain how I felt; it did not give me a new identity.