A window to the life of a bipolar mummy

I am a mummy to two little people. I also have rapid cycling bipolar disorder. These are not two things that compliment each other well. I cannot count the number of times I have stopped and wondered how much damage my illness causes to my beautiful little people. Hopefully none, hopefully they will learn from it, learn understanding; acceptance; patience; gratitude; how to love; how to be there for others. I hope this is the case, but the voice of doubt, the niggling fear suggests otherwise. This is the hardest thing to live with. To know that seeing me live with bipolar has caused them pain, hurt, upset, fear, anxiety; to think that there may have been times when they could have felt unsafe, doubted my love and commitment to them, blamed themselves, breaks me a little more everyday.

As with everything, there are ups and downs, good days and bad days. But never days where bipolar is not there with me, sitting in my shoulder haunting me as I play with my children, bath my baby, read my eldest little person a bedtime story…

Every day is a battle.

Each and every one.

As with every battle, no two days are the same, not all days end in disaster. Some days there are victories. For me, those victories are the little moments where baby toddles to me and asks for a cuddle, or my eldest little person looks at me and says ‘mumma I love you.’ These are the moments are treasure but there are many more than cause me sadness and pain; moments that make me doubt myself as a mother, moments where I hate myself and feel they would be better off without me.

I take medication every day. Each morning when I wake up, I take these tiny little pills which are supposed to make it all better. They don’t. They help make the extremes less. They don’t mean that I don’t have to fight every day to maintain balance.

For the most part, I enjoy the hypomania stage. The energy it gives me, the love for life and enthusiasm for everything. My little people love it too, at first. They enjoy my energy and enthusiasm. They thrive off my love for life and enjoy the endless hours of carefully constructed play and learning opportunities I provide for them.

Until it becomes too much. Until I become too much. They become overwhelmed and exhausted, then unsettled and finally apprehensive about being near me. On occasions perhaps even slightly afraid of me because by now the hypomania isn’t fun for any of us anymore. I have become obsessive and demanding, everything must be done exactly as and when I need it to be. My expectations become unrealistic, I expect them to react and behave in the ways I anticipate.

Eventually, I become angry that things are not how they should be, that I can’t control everyone and everything around me. I become irrational and snappy for no reason, such as when they have made some minor mistake such as spilling a drink at the dinner table because they won’t sit still or falling and hurting themselves after I have given warnings. And then, at those times when they most need my love and comfort, they get my anger, my irrationality and my coldness.

No sooner had this occurred then I hate myself for it and want more then anything to take it back or undo it. But it is done. Of course, they forgive and forget. I apologise and explain. But it does not change it or fix it or make it ok.

Next comes the fall from hypomania. The need to be alone, the anger that no one understands, the feelings of worthlessness and self hatred. Sometimes go out on my own and walk in the dark. Sometimes I drink too much. Sometimes I hurt myself. I am crying out for help but no one can hear me.

After this, the depression kicks in. I complete day to day tasks but there is no engagement, no enthusiasm, no feeling anymore. I don’t give my little people the attention or love they deserve. I care for them, but I can’t connect with them. Again, I reach out for help but as I cannot bring myself to actually ask for help outright, I am left to fight alone. I message friends and we talk about events and activities in our lives. I may try to arrange to see them as I can’t stand to feel this alone, but I don’t say why. At this stage, all I want us for someone to listen, to hold my hand, to hug me and tell me it will get better. I won’t ask for this so I rarely get it.

It does get better though, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes after what seems like an eternity. Occasionally it gets worse first and I don’t want to carry on anymore. But if does get better.

Then, I can be ok again for a while. Still facing situations which trigger me everyday and could cause an episode, still having to fight everyday to stay ok, but managing it and coping with it. It is during these times where I give my absolute all to my children, trying to be the best parent I can be. Everyday I set my parenting expectations so high, on some of my good days I may meet them, on other days I may fall short. But the one thing that never falls short is how much love I have for my two little people and how I would give my everything them.

I just have to hope and pray that this is enough.

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The constant battle in my brain

My actual, original diagnosis is of rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Yet, when undertaking high intensity CBT, I was told that by the therapist that there is also an element of OCD and generalised anxiety disorder which is exacerbated by this. I felt as if I had gone in for support with one diagnosis and left with several more to add to it. Further research led me to question whether these ‘other things’ are just symptoms of the bipolar or whether they actually are separate diagnoses.

Whatever the answer, they are still symptoms which I have to deal with on a day to day basis. They are always there, sometimes constant, other times reappearing out of the blue. Sometimes sitting quietly in the background, other times, screaming in my face for attention so loudly that everything else fades away.

Recently, when talking with a friend about someone close to them who is experiencing some symptoms related to anxiety and OCD, I found myself struggling to explain how the OCD symptoms affect every day life. For me, these symptoms are the constant ones which never relent, never let up, never cease. They are as much a part of me as the scar above my knee where I fell off my bike when I was a child or the glasses I have to wear everyday to see. That doesn’t mean I accept them.

They make my life more difficult. Sometimes in a manageable way, other times in an unbearable way. They are incredibly contradictory in their very nature. They thoughts and actions or rituals associated with OCD make me feel in control, safe and secure yet out of control, unsafe and hugely insecure all at the same time. It is a constant battle inside my brain.

Many parts of my day are, at best, mildly affected by these rituals and, at worst, consumed by them. Probably one of the biggest triggers for me and the theme that my rituals are attached to is safety. Perhaps this is due to a need or a desire to feel safe. Perhaps it is unrelated to this.

I regularly check and double check the door is locked if I leave the house, or when going to bed. Even when I know it is and I am in bed all comfortable and snug, I have to check again. I can’t control it. It controls me. Before I am able to even go to bed in the evenings, I am controlled by the need to ensure the house is safe for my partner and my two young daughters. This involves having to check that things such as the kettle, TV, etc are switched off, usually at the plug; checking that the oven and hob is off and all the dials are in the correct position to confirm this is the case and that the windows and doors are all locked.

Some people may read this and think ‘well that sounds sensible, nothing crazy about that’ and they would be correct… to some extent. However, when you have to check, double check, triple check, then go back to repeat the checks again, and sometimes even again, then, on occasions, get someone else to check for you (even though it means admitting you are mad!), it is not sensible anymore.

When you know that you have done it, the task is complete, yet you absolutely cannot prevent yourself from repeating the process- that is torture. When you try to break the cycle but then come the intrusive thoughts and you are so convinced that these thoughts are true, that something terrible will occur as a result of you not repeating the process- that is torture. Even when you don’t believe the thoughts, you know that they are not real, but you still can’t take the risk- that is torture.

Not everyday is like that, some days just checking something or completing the process once is enough. These are the good days.

The bad days, the days when the compulsions are too strong to deny and the intrusive thoughts too scary to ignore, are exhausting. Terrifying. Anger inducing.

To know that that doing the very things you set out to do to in order to make you feel in control, safe and secure have become the very things that make you feel so out of control, unsafe and insecure, is one of the hardest things to cope with on a daily basis.

As I have said, for me, the main thoughts are compulsions are around safety. For others, it can be food, exercise, study, anything at all. In a world where you can be left feeling so little control over anything, finding a way to control even the little things around you, can make it feel better. This is how it all began for me. It helped me feel in control. Now it is in control of me.

The fight between friendship and anxiety

When you are unable to look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.

Alone, afraid, empty, exhausted…

That is how the constant struggle of bipolar and unrelenting anxiety can feel. And, as if these feelings are not enough, they also combine to create another feeling, one which makes them all so much worse. The feeling of being a burden. The feeling that those people around you, who you thought and hoped were your friends, actually wish you would disappear. The feeling that you are worthless and you do not deserve their support, love or care.

As much as I yearn to just drop a friend a text or give them a call and say

 ‘Hey, really struggling right now and need a chat and a hug, are you free?’

There is always something that prevents me doing that. Well several something’s…

Fear

Worthlessness

 Self hatred.

The fear is what hits first. The fear of being judge or criticised. But this quickly passes as I remember that true friends would not behave this way. But then it returns, are my friends true friends? Do they actually see me as a friend? Or am I just some crazy woman who is only ever stressed and depressed? Now this fear build again, but this time it is the fear of rejection. And this fear is much, much worse. At least if I don’t know what they think, how they really feel, it can’t hurt me- I can continue to pretend. But as soon as I ask them directly for help and support they could refuse or make excuses and then I would see things how they really are, how I am really am. 

Alone, unloved and worthless

So what do I do instead? I try to reach out in other ways… text messages about more general things, questions about their day, suggestions to catch up as we have not done so for a while. Sometimes excuses are made about why they cannot catch up or the conversation is quickly killed as they are busy or uninterested. Sometimes they will ask how my day was or what I have been up to. Often this feels like my only chance to reach out, so I panic, fear takes over. I blurt. I blurt without thinking, say things I don’t intend to, muddle it all up. Avoid the real issue. 
Cue more feelings of worthlessness and self hatred
I begin to feel as if I am saying too much, I begin to feel that they are starting to resent me, to wish they had never met me, that I am more trouble than I am worth. And still I do not feel any better. I have still not reached out. Not in the way I needed. I needed a chat, to have someone to listen and not judge, to cry and have someone hug me and tell me my feelings are valid and it will get better. Instead I have people who think I am a burden. People who think I am weak and as a result will not share their struggles with me in case I cannot take it, or because I am too busy with my own problems.
This is not what I want. I want real friendship. I want to be there for my friends and have friends who are there for me. 
And despite this feeling hard and impossible I cannot give up. I cannot give up because if I do I truly will be alone. 

And you cannot give up either because friendship is important and worth the fight. 

Keep reaching out until you find someone who will say…

When you are unable to look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark.

Surviving a panic attack: An open letter to those who want to help.

I consider myself to be extremely lucky that despite having to live with this constant, frustrating anxiety as part of my bipolar disorder I have friends who have and continue to be there to support me. Although I have always known this and am reminded of it regularly in the little things like a text message to check how I am doing, or a slightly longer hug hello or goodbye, or a reassuring smile, I am also reminded of it in the bigger things they do to support me too. 
Last night was one of these examples and I want to share it so that if you too have a friend who suffers with anxiety and panic attacks you can use these ideas to support them. However, I have learned that everyone is different and may not respond to the same support.
Before I share the things these friends have done on more than one occasion to support me during a panic attack I want to add a little context as if you have never experienced a panic attack yourself it is hard to imagine what it can feel like. 

A panic attack can come in all shapes and sizes and can vary person to person or situation to situation. They can be the more obvious type including hyperventilating, feeling faint and sweaty or nauseous but they can also take a more hidden form where the person may be distant and withdrawn and unable to engage or interact. Whatever form they take they are just as scary and the person cannot just switch it off.
I have experienced both of the above types as well as time where the two have been mixed. Although I know certain situations can trigger them this does not mean it will always occur in that situation and sometimes they can spring from no where unexpectedly.
Last night I experienced a mix of the two in a situation where I knew I would struggle. I could not prevent it, I could not switch it off or snap out of it, I had to ride it out but the support of friends made that easier to do. So if you wish to support someone in a similar situation here is what they did that worked for me:
1. If you know a situation is likely to be difficult for someone you care about DO NOT try to convince them to avoid it. I WANTED to go out last night, it was important that I went as I wanted to be there for the friend celebrating their new job. If I hadn’t have gone I would have hated myself more. Instead my friends supported me by arranging to pick me up so I didn’t have to arrive on my own.

2. Help them spot triggers. They knew the trigger as well as I did and although they cannot always be prevented even just to know that someone else knows and understands can help.

3. Give them space but not too much. Last night I left the situation as I needed air. I needed a few moment alone to gather my thoughts. They gave me these few minutes then came to check in with me. This was really important for me as I would not have been able to re-enter then situation again alone.

4. Take time. Encourage them to breathe, be with them, hold them tight. Often in the midst of a panic attack I tend to dissociate from where I am. A tight hug helps to ground me and can help get my breathing back into sync.

5. Just be there and reassure them they are safe – DON’T try to rationalise or play it down. It isn’t always rational, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I can stop it. It may start from one single thought and then it spreads until I am literally questioning every single thing, replaying every single situation, imaging the worst about anything that could happen (multiple worst case scenarios), remembering other things (unrelated) that worry me and doing the same with these things AND worrying what people are thinking of me whilst doing all of these things. My friends to not try to make me explain or repeatedly tell me that it won’t happen. 

6. Recognise it but don’t draw attention to it. They can see it coming better than I can but are also very discrete. When I shut off and withdrawn I need time. Last night they kept the conversation going, offering distraction but also let me know they recognised I was struggling. Again I can often need grounding so a tight grip on my hand or firm touch on my arm or leg reminds me they are there and I am not alone. 

7. Don’t judge – this is the one I find most difficult as I constantly judge myself and condemn my own behaviour, seeking to punish it later. Their acceptance lessens this for me because I know there is no need to explain to them as this is often hard when I don’t always know myself. 

8. Last one – know that they are not their illness and don’t give up on them. Keep inviting them out – even if they do decide to knock back some propranolol halfway through the evening after wine resulting in them appearing a drunken mess!
So, there are my top tips based on what my friends have done for me during a panic attack. Having said that, there is.m no rule book and I am truly blessed to have found two such wonderful people who understand and accept and want to be my friend regardless. And although I have been able to describe this in some sort of understandable way here for this support group it saddens me that I will never be able to find the words to explain to them how exactly perfect their support it, how much I completely value it and how much easier it makes the journey.