Ice Cream, Smarties and Holidays-A Happy Childhood?
I was born in 1975 and grew up in the calm and beautiful countryside, one of 3 daughters of 2 striking but relatively normal, extremely kind and nurturing parents with no history of abuse or trauma or significant loss. My parents were loving, as were my sisters, all extroverts, bar my middle sisters an introvert-extrovert. My sisters were significantly older than me coming from my Dad’s previous marriage but that mattered not apart from the occasional jealousy about rules. My Dad owned his own pub, it was a busy, fun environment to live in and my parents still had plenty of time for me as they were well staffed. Both my parents are British. Dad from London. Mum adopted, evidently Cyclothymic, on and off antidepressants and very emotional. There is no diagnosed history of Bipolar Disorder as far as I know on my Dad’s side but there are diagnosed Anxiety Disorders, OCD and Autism. My Dad has always been the picture of mental health and held the family together. Particularly ensuring my Mum’s mental and physical well-being. The mental health history on my Mum’s side is not known as she is adopted.
I had a happy childhood marked with good memories, helping my Dad build our house when I was 2. I remember wearing little red welly boots and a cute t shirt and shorts. He had a fire in the yard. We would mix cement. I’m not sure what helping I did but we stopped for cheese and cucumber sandwiches and it was the start of our special relationship. I climbed a ladder onto the roof of the house one time and nobody knew where I was. Dad’s car wouldn’t start on another occasion and we had to hitch a ride home on a main road in the dark. I felt so cocooned in his care. I remember that journey.
I used to read Mr Men books with Mum. We’d buy a new one every Thursday and get a sweet treat. I’d often get Smarties. One day we met Mr Bump. I also loved Worzel Gummidge. I’d make up dances down our long living room to the theme tune with my friend. It was dream to meet Worzel Gummidge and I wrote every week to Jum’ll Fix It. Am quite pleased that never came to fruition. We also baked cakes and ate them with ice cream.
I spent a fair bit of time sitting on the edge of the bar with big, scary, gentle giants of men bringing me gifts. I will never forget the day a regular customer bought me a Sindy Horse I had so badly wanted. As I got older I would say I couldn’t sleep so that I could join the party. I wanted to crash the discos from an early age. I was efficiently serving behind the bar by the time I was 13 if it was necessary or I could push myself forward.
Our existence was plentiful. Christmas and birthday always presented us with big gifts and full stockings. We took a holiday somewhere abroad, hot and beautiful every year. We ate out. We went to concerts. We were together as a family with only the occasional drama between my Mum and my sisters Mum.
I attended good schools, a mixture of State and Private, sometimes it was hard to get a best fit with my behaviour and at other times my parents moved for a new business so my school changed. My Mum especially wanted the very best for me because of what she hadn’t had. I can recall a little stress but I always settled and found good friends. I finally settled in a State Comprehensive for Secondary and was happy there. I was with some children I’d already joined in the last year of Primary so it wasn’t too daunting. I was naturally gifted academically so I didn’t have to do much work which was fortunate as I found it hard to apply myself and had a tendency to be slightly rebellious. I made friends but I made enemies without trying. I had a supreme confidence on the face of it in school which slowly cracked over time. But I think some people didn’t like it. You were supposed to be scared of certain people and I wasn’t. I also had an ease about my being, my communication, my individuality that attracted unwanted attention.
Aswell as making friends with some of the most popular people in my year, the people that everyone wants to be friends with, the ‘cool’ people, I had problems from less popular more aggressive types of children in years much above me. I got into a few little fights. Some were spontaneous and some were planned at a particular time in the field for example. That was a little stressful but I wasn’t going to back out or it would develop into an ongoing bullying. My Dad had always taught me to protect myself, hit anyone who hit me to put and end to it and stop them doing it again. I remember him teaching me a little boxing behind the bar. My parents always backed me up and these incidents gradually faded. Instead, in time I was to become somewhat mocked for my difference as school progressed. I was different in the way I dressed individually and in the way I behaved and it started to show. It wasn’t a big thing, only the odd idiot. But for a soul struggling to breathe, the small things mattered.
Something isn’t right-School Dayz
I can recall extremes of mood from the age of 8. I remember being in a car with my sisters going to the beach. It was a beautiful sunny day and I had been looking forward to going on this day out with my sisters and their ‘older’ friend. But a song came on the radio, “Mooonlight Shadow”, Mike Oldfield. I hadn’t heard it before and it seemed to penetrate my soul with a deep melancholy and my mood dipped. I didn’t enjoy the day at the beach at all, all I could feel was the sadness of the song and my thoughts were inexplicably sad too. That was the first time my mood was triggered.
I was mostly an outgoing gregarious child, leading the way with friends, an initiator, the slightly annoying sister who has too much to say, full of life, a comedian. My drama teacher said I had a special ‘bubble’ and she hoped I would never lose it.
But in secondary school it started to fade and come less. There were more periods of melancholy, deeper ones. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but there was something. Music seemed to especially trigger me. We went on a ski trip. I was buzzing about the trip, we all were. Then someone lent me a tape for the journey and I ended up listening to it on repeat for the entire 12 hours or more it took to get there. It was “The Smiths”. I couldn’t believe there was someone singing songs about feeling depressed, about how I felt. I felt depressed for the whole trip (and possibly after, I don’t recall) and didn’t really do much skiing or eat or socialise just sat in my room, burning incense, holding each stick and watching it go down and listening to that tape and the theme from “The Lost Boys” which is also powerfully evocative.
My little bubble would still come out sometimes and I would have moments of enthusiasm, social charm, going out raving, or to a bar, a movie, being magnetic even, being ‘myself’ again, getting into trouble for being loud, wearing the wrong uniform, smoking in the toilets, being rude to the teachers, sometimes reckless, skipping school and getting the train to the seaside. Anything but the zombie, I was cycling in between the two basically. But never would I say did I fit the description of “normal”.
My friends didn’t know what to do when I was in my low periods. They walked around with me during breaks but we were a group of three best friends and slowly I started being left out of plans. They liked being with me again when I was up but they didn’t know what to do when I was down. I think part of this is that they would ask me over and over what was wrong and I couldn’t give them a reason, I had nothing concrete I could share. Girls of that age like concrete sharing and problem solving. But I couldn’t give them that. It just was, it was just something that was happening. Even the teachers didn’t intervene except one teacher apparently asked my best friend if I was on Heroin! Hanging out with a zombie probably isn’t that cool or that much fun.
To me this was clearly the onset of my illness. I didn’t know and nobody else knew. I didn’t feel I could share it at home. Being from such a happy family made it difficult to share. My Mum had always said she wanted me to share anything but I just didn’t feel like I could share this. I felt ashamed of it, a failure. I didn’t know until I was older that that is a symptom of the disease.
My behaviour wasn’t normal at home. At home I became somewhat of an actor. When I opened the front door every evening after school, I would communicate as normally as I could as I recall. I would always say nothing was wrong if I was asked. But I was difficult to manage. It would come out as anger and non compliance at home. For a very long time I had a volatile relationship with my Mum. We had physical fights where we would both get very upset. We would both be verbally abusive. It was quite out of control. She had no idea what was going on with me and how much I needed her help and I had no ability to express it.
I had no coping strategies. I became obsessed with the blades in metal pencil sharpeners. I would buy them and take them apart but never did anything with them. It was the dawn of the Rave generation and my peer group were going out experimenting with drugs. I became interested in drugs as an option to get me out of the way I was feeling. I worked part time as a waitress and would get good tips. I used to hide my money in the back of a photo frame to buy drugs. When I got up the nerve to ask someone, to buy me Ecstasy or Speed, which was expensive at the time, it didn’t do much. I think it was fake. There were a lot of people taking advantage of school children.
In the Spring of 1990 I could cope with my existence no more. I would go to school, get though the day, come home and get into bed and listen to music that made me cry on my Walkman. My mood had never been this low. I got together all the analgesics I could find in the bathroom cabinet. Mostly paracetamol and Annadin and some other random pills and swallowed them and then got back into bed. It wasn’t a suicide attempt. It was desperation. Sometime later my sister came in my room. She asked me what was up. I ended up telling her. She is a calm and sensible person and told my parents we were going for a drive. We went to the A and E, I can’t remember what happened at the A n E. I think she must have called my parents as we didn’t go home until the next morning. I was invited for follow up with the Community Mental Health Team after but did not attend. I thought it would be too much for my mother.
Spring became a pattern as it has done for the past 29 years. I always have a severe depressive episode in Spring. The following Spring I had another depressive episode, bought a couple of boxes or Paracetamol and this time I think I panicked and told my mother. An overdose on Paracetamol is one of the worst discomfort wise. What most people don’t realise either is that it will rarely kill you and even it does it’s a very slow painful death as your organs shut down if enough damage is inflicted. The hospital give you enormous amounts of charcoal to drink to pump it out of your system manually and you produce copious amounts of black vomit for hours on end. When we returned from the hospital My Dad was angry. He told me, whilst I felt like death, was emotionally devastated and was carrying a hospital vomiting tray, that I would need to attend my part time job in the restaurant that night. You never let people down. I wasn’t wrong in my assumptions that my parents were going to find a mental illness difficult to understand.
I remember my Dad saying something like “It’s up to you what you want do to yourself”. Whilst my Mum gave a smothering overreaction and wanted me to talk. I was referred for Psychiatric assessment again and I think it scared my Mum as I recall her saying “You don’t need that do you?”. I kept the letters under my bed for years because I knew what I most needed in the world was to attend. Since I didn’t go, the G.P requested to see me. But my Mum came in with me and the G.P simply said “You’re not depressed are you?” to which I said “No” as I clearly couldn’t talk and we left. So I was left again, unsupported with these growing needs, helpless and with no strategies. I don’t know if things would have been different if I’d given my Mum a chance. I had the impression she wanted me to tell her what was wrong so that she could fix it because she was my Mum and she wanted to know everything that was happening in my life or running through my head. But she couldn’t fix this. I don’t know if she would have realised it or not. I guess I’m just quite a private person even from my family. I just wanted access to the people to fix it without a go between.
Independence-Late teens, Diagnosis, Turbulent Twenties
I muddled on to college to complete my A Levels. In a new friendship group. People I’d judged a little in school and thought were maybe less cool who turned out to be the loveliest crowd. More authentic, more real, more intelligent, more supportive. I was exploring new music now. My previous friendship group had been into rave and dance music. These people were into early 90’s indie and alternative rock. It opened my mind to a whole plethora of new pleasures. We went to gigs. We hung out at people’s houses when the parents were away, starting going to pubs and drinking pints of cider. It was fun. I had my dark moods and my lighter moods and both were accepted. Drugs were present in this group as much as the Ravers group but mostly marijuana. I started smoking quite a bit, even before lessons. It made me paranoid at times but I persisted for the good feeling of escape.
In 1992 we went to Glastonbury and I believe I had a drug induced Psychotic episode. My brain chemistry just wasn’t as resilient as everyone else’s and when everyone else was having good time I was in a horror story. We were sitting around the tent amongst 70, 000 revellers, on our first day. I’d not even explored the site. Someone said we’re going to take some LSD. Sure I said. It started off ok, funny, weird, weird-good but then the visuals turned nasty. Everywhere I went I could see a threat, someone coming for me and everyone’s faces familiar or not had monstrous characteristics. I thought everyone in the huge field was talking about me. I lay in the tent terrified, I could hear them all. Everyone was looking at me when we went out. People were saying things that they weren’t saying. There was nowhere I could hide. I did my best to present the impression that it wasn’t bothering me but the anxiety was extreme. I’ve never felt so vulnerable. I can’t remember all the details. I ended up riding out my horror for most of the weekend at the tent and not seeing many bands. But I didn’t tell any of my friends.
We went again in 1993, this time I took Amphetamines, But I still had a Psychotic episode or possibly a flashback. Similar things began to occur and I was convinced all my friends were plotting against me. I was saying unusual things and getting unusual looks and responses back. I wandered the festival alone and ended up crouched in the back of the Samaritans tent, whispering about my situation in case anyone was following me or might hear. I didn’t feel better when I left them so I went back, packed up all my stuff and got ready to leave. My friends couldn’t understand it and they persuaded me to stay and leave as planned the next day which I did. My mental make up seemed to be more fragile than theirs.
Life resumed at college. I self medicated my moods with alcohol and drugs. I achieved average A Level results which was acceptable for being permanently stoned and not doing much work at all and managed to get onto a good University Degree at a respected location once combined with work I’d done on my year out and my interview and exam so I left home for the City. I had never really been a country girl and was excited about the move. I moved in 1994 and have never moved back.
In my first year I moved into a shared house with a mix of very different, good people. One of whom was a heavy dope smoker. So I continued to self medicate with marijuana and alcohol. I was also in a relationship with my first true love from back home, I’d been chasing him for 2 years and he’d finally acquiesced so although I made some new friends I didn’t overly mix as was alternating weekends at his University and mine. I did meet two special girls both of whom I know today. One is my best friend of 25 years and the other is a good friend who lives halfway round the world. But I popped over to visit her 18 years on and it was like nothing has changed except back then she didn’t smoke dope or drink. Now she does and I don’t!
In the second year I decided I wanted to live alone. My mood symptoms became more apparent then. I was drinking less and had stopped smoking dope. I was once again having periods of being quite ‘up’ and periods of being very unmotivated and inexplicably sad. With no clear triggers. It just happened. I couldn’t make sense of it. I would lay in my room feeling depressed searching my past for reasons. I thought you had to have a reason. I couldn’t find anything to lament over yet I was frustratingly melancholy.
In the third year, I moved in with my boyfriend. We had a gorgeous little ground floor flat with a pretty garden. The lows were becoming more disabling now. I would lay on the bed for 2 weeks at a time. Detached sometimes releasing waves of sadness with music. But mostly I would just lie still, deadened, skip college, not eat, not cook, not do anything. Classic depression. Then suddenly it would shift. I would bounce back up feeling full of excitement. Start tidying the house, regardless of what time it was. Go into the early hours. Make a nice meal for my neglected partner in the middle of the night. I remember one time finding this blue metallic shiny paper as I used to work with kids and being fascinated with it. Holding it, waving it, squishing it saying “Look, look at this, isn’t it amazing”. Speech getting fast. Becoming wired. Hypomanic.
It was starting to interfere with my Uni work now, becoming more debilitating and clearer to me that I needed to see someone. I went to my GP who took the history and referred straight to the CMHT for Psychiatric assessment.
I got my Psychiatric diagnosis in 1996, it was Bipolar Disorder Type 2 with rapid cycling. I was put on an anti epileptic medication. He was reluctant to put me on Lithium as I was so young. This seemed to work, not perfectly but with significant improvements, reduction of symptom severity and improved functioning.
In June 1998 I graduated with a 2:1 and a 1st for my dissertation. In September 1998 I got offered 3 jobs as a Speech and Language Pathologist and took the one that was most well paid. The Occupational Health form asked “Do you have any Psychiatric Disorder” I ticked “No” “Do you take any medication?” I ticked “No”. Then I stopped taking my medication in order to be compliant and honest.
I started work and seemed to be ok for a while, stopping the medication didn’t cause me any overt problems and I performed my job with enthusiasm and charm and set about my duties in a capable manner, making a good first impression. But in the Spring of 1999, it hit me. Like a truck. The onslaught of a depressive episode. So much so that I was put on an anti-depressant for the first time by the G.P. It made me sick, it made me agitated and it made me want to self harm.
I was referred back to the CMHT and the Psychiatrist reinstated the mood stabiliser with limited but some success but with the presence of an anti-depressant now my cycles become more frequent.
The next 3 years are the turbulent bit, to say the very least. I moved out of the flat with my boyfriend of 5 years as whilst I loved him I finally realised he would never stop drinking so I found a spacious ground floor flat of my own with a long garden densely populated with grass and bushes and a little pond at the end to which I later added the company of two rescue cats.
The medication regime didn’t suit me, it didn’t contain my moods and my mood rapid cycled more than ever most likely a result of the addition of anti-depressants. I hadn’t been offered any therapy to learn any coping skills and the intense emotions were sometimes too much to deal with. One day I smashed a big mirror with my fist. I remember being disappointed to sustain only a small cut to my finger. I was hoping for something bigger to give me more of a release of my feelings.
One evening there was a frog in my kitchen. I panicked a ran over to the pub over the road announcing the situation and requesting help. Two men came back with me and dealt with the frog. I became friends with them subsequently. It was probably the worst friendship I could have made. One of them was a Cocaine dealer. I’d done Cocaine once recently at a party and I’d loved it. If you are feeling hypomanic and sociable it enhances and extends your buzz. If you are depressed, it can pick you up a bit. Either way if you love talking you can extend your talking all through the night. It is a Bipolar dream. On coke everything you talk about feels really important. When you are manic everything you talk about feels really important. But on coke it is a little bit more controlled. Thoughts are clearer. There is more focus.
I started using coke quite frequently to supplement my poor medication regime and just because I loved it. I also vaguely started dating a guy more for his bedroom athletics and startlingly large appendage than anything else. He liked to smoke dope so I would alternate with that and Cocaine depending on whose company I was in. I was also drinking quite a lot. My brain chemistry was a mess. I was having frequent episodes. My anti-depressant was being changed but they kept changing to different SSRI-s failing to see that SSRI-s didn’t agree with me. There was a very significant low point where I took a significant overdose and was admitted to a general hospital to clear it and recover. Following this I had my first Psychiatric admission. Here I was introduced for the first time to ideas of self care, self management and self love. When I came out of the hospital the bedroom athletics guy was exercising with my good friend and neighbour upstairs. Apparently they were worried about me and this was their only way of coping. This still amuses me to this day. They hadn’t even called whilst I’d been gone.
When I left I was motivated for change. My mood stabiliser and anti-depressant had been changed. But after time the efficacy expired and I continued to rapid cycle with severe depressions and significant hypomania. I also started to go through periods of denial around the illness. I would say to myself “What if I’m not really Bipolar at all?” I would get confused about it and wonder whether I would be better off medication so I would stop taking it. Over these years I indulged in excessive spending, more cocaine use, self harm-for the most part superficial, bulimic activity, some regrettable encounters with men, significant arguments and confrontational behaviour leading to friendship loss and bankruptcy. My life was out of control. I left my job as was mutually agreeable since I was mostly off sick.
In 2003 I had a 3 month admission that changed everything. I had already started counselling. I got a medication regime that seemed to be more suitable for me. I got a perspective on all the things I was doing to damage myself and damage my chances of recovery or stability. In fact all the things that I was doing that were working against the medication. I quit Cocaine and all other drugs. Someone remarked to me that if I continued to self harm I would get an additional diagnosis of a Personality Disorder so I quit that overnight, it was only minor anyway, its usually a compulsion I can control. Similarly with the bulimic behaviour, although that took a bit longer it seemed that was just a phase too. I finally took responsibility. I realised how badly I needed to refocus on my part in all of this, what I could do to get well, how out of control my life had become. I accepted the illness and I accepted that I needed to live a certain way to manage it. There would be things I needed to do and things that I absolutely couldn’t do if I wanted to be well.
Transformative Thirties, Cataclysmic Forties
I was well for around 3 years (all bar residual or mild symptoms that were managed) during which time I started a new job with less hours. I had a short significant episode and admission in 2006 changing medications with a view to trying to get pregnant and was well for a further 18 months.
I met my soul mate and we travelled to many far away places and I saw many parts of the world that I’d dreamed of seeing in the manner I’d dreamed of seeing them. With a back pack, on buses, in shacks etc. We were together for 11 years. He was special. He liked more music and film than anyone I’ve ever met, he learned to cook and even took good care of his feet which is important to me! He was a good lover and a good friend and the King of Dad’s to our daughter. He helped me establish stability and self reliance further and I learned a lot from him about taking responsibility for my mental health. He was clever. He was different. He was wild.
Pregnancy (2008) was catastrophic for my Bipolar Disorder but I was gifted with my lifetime dream, a little girl, a baby of my own with the man I loved. We were complete. But the rapid cycling returned and I suffered severe episodes primarily depression during and after pregnancy continuing until my baby was 2 years. This continued with 4 significant Springtime episodes in 4 years (2009-20012). It was exhausting, somewhat soul destroying and left me feeling hopeless. I went through many different medication options and combinations and nothing seemed to be quite right.
Ultimately I was referred to a Specialist at Professorial level (2013) to look at my medication regime, see what new treatments may benefit and see if there was something a more highly trained eye or brain and with access to more meds, could achieve. This has had mixed success. Initially there was some improvement with the first Professor. Then my husband died suddenly of Cancer (2014) and this sent things haywire. I’ve never been particular triggered by anything at all. My episodes just tend to ‘happen’ always in Spring, the worst one. And then rapid cycling as my mood takes itself the rest of the year.
But I’ve learned that grief has been a trigger. Since my husband died my mood has been more unstable than ever despite clean living. I have multiple episodes of depression a year, he died 4 years ago. I had to give up my job but I was struggling anyway with Bipolar related cognitive issues which made a post of high responsibility challenging. I have a very complex medication regime which is regularly reviewed and tweaked by the highly skilled Professor I have been with for 5 years and as I process my grief I hope I will return to some more stability. But it has made me more mindful to be observant for other triggers however small.
What has been transformative about my thirties and my forties is the development of inner strength. Of self sufficiency. I no longer lay on the bed waiting to be rescued because I know no one is going to come. I still may lay on the bed unable to move because I am too ill and I still may wish someone would come to help but I know that ultimately, in reality, it’s likely any moves forward will be coming from me. If we have food tonight it will be because I managed to do it, if the environment gets to be improved it will be because I did it. If we get out for a walk it will be because I found the strength. I may lay there so desperate for someone to take over because I feel I can’t do it. But I know no one is coming. When I can do I will. When I can’t I can’t. But I will always try. Because I am all we have. Oftentimes I won’t make it and she will lay on the sofa watching Stranger Things but I will persevere and everyday is a new opportunity to try again. I am the only one who can make a difference to myself and I am the only one who can make a difference to my daughter.