My roller-coaster life with bipolar: a sufferer speaks
It is thought that 1% of people suffer from bipolar, but it's not often talked about in the media or in day-to-day life. Sometimes known as 'manic depression', it's a severe mental health illness that causes people to have significant mood swings, including manic highs and depressive lows.
Hannah Chamberlain, the founder of Mental Snapp, battles with bipolar. Here, she shares her insights into what life is like for her and many other bipolar sufferers.
Comparing bipolar to a roller coaster is a trope that doesn’t go away.
I remember when I was diagnosed, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office and him explaining to me that I was going to have a life of extremes. He drew a line in the air with his biro, climbing the highest of highs and plunging to the lowest of lows.
Roller coasters, like bipolar, are more than the simple up and down.
The energy of a roller coaster ride makes it feel like the train has a life of its own. Likewise, in mental health, swings and downturns can take on their own momentum. At the bottom of the slope, the train is propelled into climbing by the momentum of the previous descent. When it gets to the top, time seems to slow as the spectator takes in the view from a height. When the train starts to descend, it does so gradually then it picks up speed as it crashes to the bottom curve of the track.
When I first went into hospital, I had never felt depression before.
I left the hospital after three months of gradual descent - and came crashing down. There was no role for me, no justification for my existence. I sat on the bottom of the curve. When you are there, time slows. You are not aware of any change in your level.
It sometimes takes an outside eye to spot your rise from depression.
Telling your story on video can help you see the change in retrospect, even if you cannot see it day to day. That first instance, when I was 21, I slogged through more than six months of depression, documenting some of it. At one point I turned my creative writing book into maths as I worked out long-hand how many more seconds I had to get through in my life if I was going to live to 80.
I know from my documenting that my mood started to lift, even when I was unaware of it.
I wrote a poem about the unbearable monotony of cutting your fingernails, how my fingernails betrayed me because they thought that time had passed when I knew it hadn’t. Looking back it was quite comic, but at the time I couldn’t see that I was over the worst. At the bottom of the curve, energy propels you downwards. It is almost counter to nature to rise, but you do.
When I climb in my mental health, I do so gradually at first.
I hardly notice the rise in my mood; I'm so keen to leave the despair behind. Keeping a record doesn’t only help in the lows, it helps as you are starting to rise, by alerting you. Recovery takes a toll on my body, my mind, my blood pressure and certainly my sleep and appetite. I am running on empty, and if I don’t keep my own record I end up, after a period of hospitalisation, with only my medical notes and my family’s observations as my record of events. To extend the roller coaster metaphor, by documenting you are literally keeping track.
I would like to say I am a better person by being bipolar.
Despite the disadvantages of being bipolar, I wouldn’t be without the exhilaration it has given me in my life, and the sense of empathy it has engendered in me. At the very least, the curves of my journey are what have shaped me. When I am experiencing a high or a low, I try to remember the overall pattern of the ride, and this: whatever it is, it too shall pass, but in the meantime, enjoy the view.
Hannah has turned her experiences and background in filmmaking to into making a free app called Mental Snapp. It helps people to actively manage their mental health using private video diaries, allowing them to see the peaks and troughs in the bigger picture, as opposed to just going through the moments while gripping tight to the bar, so to speak.
For more information on bipolar, visit Bipolar UK, Mind or speak to your GP.