As I finally began clearing out the cupboard after 20 years of struggling, living in a constant state of fear and unease, I felt lighter. I’d dreaded opening the dark, heavy doors because I knew what was behind it. The cupboard stood much taller than me and was creaking at the joints from the weight of its load, threatening an avalanche if it was opened.
The cupboard existed in my mind and the shelves were piled high with huge, heavy boxes filled with anxiety which had weighed me down and ruled my life and kept me on edge at all times. In between these were other boxes filled with darkness and labeled “depression” which had punctuated the anxiety; almost being a respite in some strange way.
The depression had been in there since I was young. They were the first boxes which appeared and I remember them vividly because the episodes were deep and long. We’re only recently starting to understand and even accept the idea of children experiencing poor mental health but for me it was part of life.
I don’t really remember not experiencing it, even though I knew nothing had ever caused it.
In my early teens the boxes of anxiety appeared which were large and extremely heavy. They caused me to often leave school saying I was unwell, later starting to skip school completely until 6th form when I didn’t step foot on campus for months. It just got worse when I went to college. I was either drowning in anxiety or depression; I didn’t ever feel anything else.
I struggled endlessly through my 20s and finally, by my 30s, it was became too much and I eventually gave in and sought help. I went to the doctors and was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression. The anxiety was wrecking my life, dominating my every thought, decision, moment and limiting my life to the point that it felt like I had little energy for anything else.
But as I finally started medication, it started to ease. By the time I got up to a decent dose, my anxiety had all but vanished. I could take the boxes of anxiety out of the cupboard and now I had all this space in my mind! I could see everything, it felt more organised and less cluttered. I felt relaxed as I marvelled at all of this expanse I had to exist in.
Something didn’t feel right though. I spotted a big box lurking at the back of a shelf behind the depression; this box I’d never seen before, hidden behind the mess. I pulled it from the dark depths, blew off the dust and slowly and tentatively opened the box.
“Bipolar Affective Disorder”. Brilliant.
My antidepressants hadn’t helped my depressive episodes at all, but they’d started to cause hypomanic episodes instead. I was referred by my GP to a specialist and finally diagnosed with bipolar type 2 at 37. It had taken 2 years and lots of untangling symptoms, talking through my history, but we’d got there. I’m actually very grateful. Compared to the average of 9 years for a diagnosis, that was nothing. It explained a lot throughout my life and why the antidepressants alone hadn’t really worked in balancing my moods.
Now I had the headspace due to my medications, the first real periods of stability in a long time, I started to think back. I started to journal and could look at periods in my life with more clarity and started to see things for what they were: symptoms of my underlying bipolar which were being washed around and jumbled up with the anxiety and depression I was suffering from so deeply.
I fall into the largest category (over 60%) of people with bipolar who are initially mis-diagnosed with unipolar depression before finally receiveing the correct diagnoses later on. When there’s co-morbid disorders, it can make things a lot more difficult to unpick. If I’d have sought help sooner, that would have helped too, I’m sure.
During my life I’d experienced paranoia, delusions, intrusive thoughts, alongside the periods of depression and anxiety which I’d just assumed was part of it. I’d even had the odd high period which those around me had said had “freaked them out” because I was in such an unusually good and hyperactive mood, which wasn’t like me. I now finally knew the cause and I could see it for what I was. I had an answer.
I recently read the Bipolar UK 2021 Commission results and over 80% of those who participated had said that receiving a diagnosis gave them an explanation for their experiences. I took part in that survey for the commission and I’m part of this statistic.
I can look back and even find understanding retrospectively. It gives me a sense of peace.
I can’t say my experience of being diagnosed was great; I was given the label but then left to my own devices, pretty much. No signposting to therapy, no support offered, just released back to my GP. I’m having to feel my way through the dark but at least I know what I’m dealing with and by having my co-morbid condition under control, I can dedicate my time and energy to learning.
Just by picking up a book or reading a blog post or talking to someone else with bipolar, I feel the first sense of relating to someone. I read other’s experiences and I see paralells to mine, and there’s strength in that.
The bipolar box is staying in the cupboard, but you know, I’m totally okay with that. I’m slowly accepting that it will always need to be there and be managed, so I’ve left the doors unlocked and let others know about it, so they can support me and see what’s going on in there. I now don’t see the cupboard in my mind as something that glowers and overpowers me, but somewhere I can organise things better. By doing that, it’s lightened the load and I’ve taken control. Diagnosis did this for me.