Official statistics reveal that it takes an average of nine years to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Here, Tia Love, 28, from South London shares her struggle to get to grips with the intense ups and downs of her mind.
What it's like to live with bipolar 1 disorder
While it’s normal for moods to fluctuate – say, from bored to sad to angry to relieved to happy and then back again – mine bounce around like I’m on a rollercoaster that I can’t get off. From an utterly elated and energised say-hi-to-everyone-I-see high, I’ll make a sudden descent into the kind of low you feel when someone you love has died. My down days mirror the scattered nature of grief, too.
Even though I wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was an adult, there were some signs when I was a child. I was always in trouble at school and picking fights. My mum died when I was six, and teachers assumed I was acting out in grief. But really it was a result of my bipolar disorder. Now, I wonder if a middle-class white girl had acted out in class the way I did, whether teachers might have considered what was upsetting her –but they just assumed I was naughty.
I have Jamaican heritage, and in the Caribbean community I grew up in, you’re either sane or you’re crazy. Not wanting to be the latter, I avoided seeing a doctor about my mood swings until I was 18. The GP assumed my hopelessness and extreme low mood were caused by depression and prescribed antidepressants.
But they made me feel numb and detached so I stopped taking them. That year was pretty horrific: after discovering bloodin my urine, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had the abnormal cells on my cervix lasered, before undergoing chemotherapy.
I felt lethargic all the time because of my treatment, and not having any energy made me feel even lower. The therapist I began seeing told me I was clearly overwhelmed – but I knew there was more going on.
My behaviour was erratic; it spiked up and down so much that it couldn’t be explained by depression.
Then I fell pregnant with my son Jayden, now nine, which sent my mood all over the place. I pushed for a mental health assessment before the birth – but doctors said I was likely feeling low due to pregnancy hormones. At the age of 19, when my son was six months old, I was finally diagnosed with bipolar type I. I actually felt relieved. The worst thing had been not being able to identify the problem.
I was prescribed multiple medications, first the mood stabiliser lithium [the main medication used to treat bipolar disorder in the UK] and anticonvulsants– which are used to treat episodes of mania. Some of the medications made me feel drowsy and more depressed, while others gave me migraines.
It took six years to settle on the right one, an antipsychotic called aripiprazole. Soon after my diagnosis, I spoke to my elder brother; it turned out he’d secretly gone through the same process and had also received a bipolar diagnosis. I felt like I wasn’t alone. Yet, on some level, I saw my diagnosis as a failing. It certainly didn’t help that my ex-boyfriend – my son’s father – initially saw bipolar disorder as mental weakness. While I prioritised meeting the evolving needs of my son as a co-parent, working out how to manage my mental health was a case of trial and error.
Previously, I’d thought that taking medication would rid me of the condition – and on the occasions I forgot to take it, I’d find my behaviour becoming more erratic.
But, aged 23, it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t going anywhere and that I really needed to focus on getting to know my own mind – what worked for it, and what didn’t. Through research and support groups, I learned how lifestyle changes could help. I began avoiding junk food to boost my mood, started boxing to get rid of tension and drank camomile tea to settle me at night.
I take my medication twice a day and stick to a routine so I don’t go off track – including going for a daily walk with my son at 6pm to help us both wind-down.
Still, no matter what habits I put in place, sometimes I’ll still have a bad day. That’s why having supportive people around me is so important. If I wake up and don’t feel good, my brother will come and get my son – even if it’s 6am. Strangely, going into lockdown last March was helpful because everything in the world was still. I could stay at home, with my son in the next room, and work on my burgeoning business, selling teeth-whitening products.
Life isn’t easy with bipolar disorder, but it’s been made more manageable by the progress around mental health issues in Black communities over the past few years. My son’s father, who was so dismissive, said to me recently that he's becoming more aware and understanding, having done his own research. It was validating that he could finally see it from my perspective. With this condition, it makes all the difference if people in your world show compassion.
The expert view on bipolar 1 disorder
Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya is a consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at The Soke, where he treats bipolar disorder, among other mental health conditions. Here, he shares expert insight into the condition.
What is bipolar disorder?
It’s a mental health condition in which people experience episodes of depression– characterised by symptoms such as a low mood, poor appetite, lethargy and poor concentration – and manic episodes, in which there is mood elevation, grandiose thinking, disinhibition, pressured (rapid, uninterruptible) speech, irritability andincreased risk-taking behaviour.
There are two types: in bipolar I, the mood elevation occurs over a period of at least seven consecutive days and leads to a severe deterioration in normal day-to-day functioning (eg, reckless behaviour and spending money excessively). In bipolar II, the mood elevation must occur for at least four consecutive days, but the symptoms occur to a lesser degree.
Who is most likely to be diagnosed?
Bipolar disorder affects 1% of the UK population. Studies show that incidence is equal between men and women. However, it’s strongly heritable (eg, if you have a parent or sibling who suffers from it, the risk is raised compared with the general population). Rates are not thought to vary across ethnicity.
What are common barriers to getting help?
The symptoms of bipolar disorder overlapwith some other mental health conditions,including forms of psychosis, such asparanoid schizophrenia. Likewise, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate bipolar disorder from depression, and it can also mimic the effects of psychoa ctivesubstance misuse, some personality disorders and ADHD.
Bipolar disorder is sometimes romanticised in popular culture, with a focus on the creative skills that come to the fore when people are experiencing manic episodes. This tendency makes light of the significant harm that can arise as a result of this often-debilitating condition.
How can people seek help?
If you think you might have bipolar disorder, your first port of call is to make an appointment with your GP, who will assess your symptoms and refer you to
a specialist psychiatrist who can make the diagnosis. Seeking therapy privately? Search for a professional who specialises in helping those with the condition.
For more information and advice about bipolar disorder, visit Bipolar UK bipolaruk.org
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