When I first wrote this piece I published it under a pseudonym. Now I’ve decided to use my real voice as it needs to be heard.
It really does sadden me that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing this information, even in these modern times. I suppose that this suggests that there still exists a stigma. Spoiler alert: from someone with ‘lived experience’ of a bipolar disorder diagnosis, I can confirm that the stigma associated with mental illness is indeed still alive and kicking, yet to be eradicated. I have experienced this for many years, both personally and professionally.
You see, people with bipolar disorder, are people. We live among you. We serve you in shops, we cut your hair, we nurse you. I nurse you. I’m a third-year mental health nursing student and I also am a part-time healthcare assistant. These are my personal experiences.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder aged seventeen years. The diagnosis followed evident periods of absolute elation (mania), alternating between hopelessness and despair (depression). During these periods, I would have numerous symptoms including anxiety, fatigue, restlessness, rapid speech, hallucinations (depending on the particular episode). I was diagnosed and treated by a local NHS-run child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS). I had originally found myself at CAMHS, aged fifteen, after a period of depression in which, after enduring what felt like a never-ending, unbearable phenomenon, I tried to die by suicide, and without intervention I seriously could have completed this. It was a close call, but I survived. And I am SO glad. It took me such a long time to get to ‘this point’ but I am exceptionally happy that I am here, and my heart is full of gratitude for those who helped me. But it was not easy.
Following the crisis, I was seen by CAMHS for a few months, who I think tried relatively hard to engage me, but having never opened up properly to anyone before, ever, I was not keen to do so with them. I was told I had anxiety, but I am unsure if I ever received an official anxiety disorder diagnosis. Anyway, I said cheerio to the CAMHS service and made a note in my head to never return.
It was within a year and a half that I was back. This time, my symptoms were even more intense. I had been doing wild things at school. I was about to write a list of such things, but then thought, nah better not. There is that stigma again, preventing me. Anyway. My teachers were concerned, and they really tried their best. So did the staff at the homeless unit I was living in. I did not disclose very much to them at all – they had just observed my changeable, erratic behaviour. They eventually convinced me to book a GP’s appointment, which I reluctantly consented to. My GP then phoned my year head who must have given a catalogue of funky things I had been up to whilst at school (all very out of character from the person I had been previously). I mean, I did not consent to this sharing of information! However, I am not complaining, because had my year head not have informed my GP, things, potentially, could have become even worse.
Luckily, they did not. They had been bad enough. Once my GP had referred me, I think I only had to wait a few weeks before I was seen by CAMHS again. It was a different set of professionals I saw this time round, and they were exceptionally good nurses and consultant physiatrists. They were very kind, compassionate, and worked even harder to engage me. This time they succeeded.
Following a fairly lengthy assessment process, they told me that I had bipolar disorder. I was surprised, due to a lack of knowledge. My seventeen-year-old self’s understanding of the illness was not good. But it is now. There is no question that I have bipolar disorder. And I am okay with that.
I was commenced on medication immediately. For a while, my symptoms improved. But then I relapsed very shortly after my nineteenth birthday. I was admitted to hospital for the first time during this episode. This was probably, the hardest time of my life. But, again, I came out the other side.
I decided I wanted to use my experience to help others. I had an awareness and understanding of mental health due to my own experiences, and from meeting some incredible people whilst an inpatient. To cut a long story short, I ended up studying mental health nursing. THE best thing I have EVER done. Recovery is possible, there is hope!
My time at university has not been easy. I relapsed a couple of times, on one occasion was admitted back to the ward I was a patient in aged nineteen. Not ideal. But with support, I again pulled through. I am not cured. I am not symptom-free. But I am content, fulfilled, and more resilient, knowledgeable and confident than ever.
I still see a consultant psychiatrist once every three months. I take medicine daily. I attempt to practice what I preach to the people I work with, as a nursing student and healthcare assistant, by always trying to exercise self-care. I have learned that a combination of these interventions keeps me well.
I want to finish (for now) by saying that yes, a stigma does exist, and, alas, there is still a long way to go. This does not mean, however, that we cannot improve in ourselves. I cannot stress this enough. Fifteen-year-old me tried to kill themselves. Sixteen and seventeen-year-old me was experiencing frequent episodes of both mania and depression. Nineteen-year-old me was hospitalised. But current me is about to finish their degree. Yes, there have been setbacks, but I have always overcome them. Contentedness is achievable, recovery is possible, people with bipolar disorder can be nurses. We just need support.
Oh, and an absence of stigma would be helpful. Be kind to each other. We will get there, together.