Ruth Durkin: Spotting the Signs That I'm Ill
Ruth Durkin describes the telling signs that she is entering a bipolar episode, and how she struggles to recognise them herself.
The term Bipolar by definition states that two polar opposites exist. I have Bipolar II Disorder which means my low periods are particularly dark and that my mania is called hypomania, in that it doesn’t escalate to the extreme heights of Bipolar I Disorder’s mania.
The pictures I have chosen to use alongside this piece show me when I was hypomanic and when I was depressed. I think it’s obvious which one’s which. I think it is my eyes that give it away. At the time the manic photo was taken, I was going for days without eating, hardly sleeping, going out all the time and I was as high as a kite, without taking any recreational drugs. My eyes were wild and my pupils dilated. I was reckless with people’s feelings and with short-lived relationships. I dressed flamboyantly and was always wearing that pink wig. In the depression photo I was feeling really low. My Dad had died and I was heavily pregnant and I’d been into Boots that day and a girl at a cosmetic counter had given me a ‘makeover’. I took that selfie thinking I looked great after the makeover, but then looking at the photo I decided otherwise.
I lived for many years unmedicated and undiagnosed but I had a slight awareness that I had periods of high productivity where I struggled to relax or calm down and other periods where I was so depressed that I was in a pit of despair and became numb and constantly upset at the same time.
Now I have my diagnosis and the right medication I look back at my younger years and can clearly see the periods where I was at these extremes. I’d love to be able to say that I now recognise the signs and symptoms of a crash or hypomania but most of the time I don’t realise until it’s too late, despite the medication. I can only ever notice the signs, however obvious, with hindsight.
Sign to spot: spending
When I am struggling with feelings of hypomania, impulsive online spending is my drug of choice. The thrill of getting what I want instantly is so satisfying that I am reckless with it. My husband questions the number of parcels arriving and I snap at him, lying that all the unnecessary items have been budgeted for. It usually takes a month or so before he can persuade me that I’m not well and that I need his help. By this time I’ve usually spent £1000 or more. I once spent all of my wages in one day and had none left for my bills and mortgage. If my husband hadn’t bailed me out I would have been in serious trouble. I spent £9000 in just a few months, all on small items that built up very quickly. My husband and I are not rich so these mistakes cost us a fortune and have a significant effect on our lifestyle. I have since cancelled all my credit cards; I consolidated all of the debt into one bank loan. During a recent bout of hypomania I spent another £3000. I do this despite being heavily medicated and sometimes wonder how much I might spend if I wasn’t taking anything.
Signs to spot: oversleeping and binge eating
When I am feeling depressed one thing that indicates this is getting worse is when I sleep all the time. I also find it difficult to get up in the morning because I can’t see the point and also because I need more sleep. If I sit down, I immediately fall asleep. I also start to eat vast quantities of calorific foods that provide me momentary comfort and enjoyment. Sometimes people who have known me ‘hypomanic’ are shocked and cannot comprehend the person they meet when I’ve entered into a depressive phase. The fatter, lethargic, exhausted me can hardly string a sentence together and I feel as though I’m walking in treacle as everything takes so much energy and effort. The person who once spoke at them rapidly about creative and unachievable ideas is now forlorn and introverted. I’ve had people ask me if I’m pregnant when I’ve put on weight due to depression, scared people off who I’d still like to have in my life and made people feel conned or cheated in that I’m no longer the person they thought they had met and made friends with.
I wonder if I will ever be able to identify the early warning signs myself or will it always be my husband and family having to convince me that I’m unwell. I will always protest that I am perfectly fine and feeling great. From years of umpteen attempts at therapy, I am quite self-aware about my effect on others and them on me. But despite this perception I am still blissfully ignorant when the warning lights are flashing brightly at others that I’m heading for trouble.