In most ways, my life is pretty normal: I work in advertising, I’m pretty fit and active, and love to socialise and travel. I often take on side projects – I’m currently finishing work on my houseboat and training for a marathon. I’ve always felt really lucky that I’ve had the energy – and drive – to do so much, and my 'fuck it' attitude has allowed me to experience quite a lot in the past three decades.
Despite things being pretty fast paced, throughout my life I’ve had troughs where I feel completely knackered – it's like having the light switched off. When this happens, my energy completely goes, and so does my focus, as well as any investment or interest in anything around me. It’s a completely numb feeling: the hardest part is feeling totally disconnected from people. I struggle to understand what people are saying, and the thought of conversation becomes really overwhelming. It often feels as though I am in hibernation mode.
Conversely, when I’m feeling full of energy, it’s almost an immortal feeling. I don’t need to sleep, there’s nothing I can’t do. I’m at my most creative and full of ideas. But I’m unable to pin any of these ideas down. I’m moving so quickly that I don’t appreciate anything I achieve or live through, so it’s as though I’m not experiencing it at all. Over time I accepted these cycles of high and low as ‘just me’.
The cycles became a bit more extreme following the death of my dad four years ago. He was fit and healthy, never smoked, barely drank, lived in the sunshine in Greece, and sailed almost daily. But then he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and died three months later aged 55.
Before this time, I would often experience a fear of death and his passing exacerbated this, leading me to want to experience everything I could at once – almost as if I was afraid time would run out.
My best friend gently pushed me towards talk therapy, but it took me a few years before I could afford it. As we all know, NHS mental health services are incredibly overstretched, and I still didn’t consider myself to be ‘at risk’. I turned to Mind, which was also over-capacity, so I chose to save up some money and try private healthcare.
After asking around, a good friend recommended a therapist who practices as a clinical psychologist. She described him as being open minded, and experienced with alternative therapies. I was pretty keen to avoid anyone who would just ram medication down my gob, so decided that this was the dude for me.
After a few sessions, he introduced the suggestion that I could have a condition called cyclothymia, a mild form of bipolar disorder. I’d never heard of it, and apparently it only affects a tiny percentage of people. It can be genetic, which makes sense, as my family have a history of mental health issues. It can also be triggered by environmental factors and life events. Without diagnosis or treatment, it can develop into bipolar disorder and, rarely, psychosis. Patterns of behaviour can become more extreme, and increasingly difficult to live with.
He asked me to go and read up about the condition, and think about it. The symptoms include but are not limited to:
· Racing thoughts and speech, jumping from one idea to another
· Increased energy, restlessness and activity
· Provocative, intrusive or aggressive behaviour
· Spending sprees
· Persistent sadness
· Fatigue or listlessness
· Excessive sleepiness or inability to sleep
· Loss of self-esteem
· Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and guilt
· Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
· Withdrawal from friends and activities that were once enjoyed
· Persistent thoughts of death
Reading through the symptoms blew my mind, and the fact that who I thought I was (creative, energetic, a bit aggressive), could actually be the symptoms of a condition was a lot to get my head around. I’m not sure whether it’s worthwhile trying to pull the two things apart: what’s part of me, and what’s a part of the cyclothymia?
I now believe that this has also probably influenced so many of my decisions in the past few years, and steered the course of my life. Have I Ieft a job prematurely because I was feeling restless? Or have I missed any opportunities when my self-esteem was particularly low?
I’ve always thought of my bursts of unstoppable energy as one of my most positive traits, and I had to question whether it would be worth trying to manage this condition, knowing that I could lose that part of myself. It’s when I’m at my most creative that I can achieve the most.
Once I’d started to digest this information, we started to discuss treatments. I assumed that because I meditated a few times a week and do yoga that I was actually really in tune with myself, and glad that I was able to ‘switch off’. My therapist challenged this, and asked whether ‘switching off’ is always the right thing to do. When social media is full of smug yoga poses, and fluffy quotes about mindfulness, this actually felt like a revelation. I always felt guilty when I became angry at strangers on the tube, or upset with a friends’ actions.
Instead of trying to wash over feelings of anger or sadness, how about actually experiencing them?
For years, I’d subconsciously worked at severing connections to my emotions, because they slowed me down. I wouldn’t allow myself time to stop and reflect and think, 'Bloody hell, I’m actually really sad,' or even, 'That situation made me angry because of ….'. So, in fact, I now know that I need to let the emotions loose. Which is bloody challenging.
My actions have always about living in the present – spending all my money when I have it, not seeing a job through difficult times, trying to get all of my goals achieved as quickly as possible. After chatting this through, we pinned this down to my fear of death, and the fact that motor neurone disease looms over me constantly. I’ve never been able to imagine being older. I don’t imagine that I will reach retirement age. I spend everything that I can – time, energy, resources – and then I leave myself exhausted.
So as well as connecting to my emotions, and letting them loose, I’m also trying not to focus on only living in the present. I need to gently start looking to the future, and investing in what I might end up with. Sure, I could die young, but what if I don’t? I can level myself out by slowing down, and looking forward. Again, this is pretty contradictory to so much screaming advice that’s given to, 'Live in the moment!', 'Live for today!' That’s actually been a destructive attitude for me.
I’m now starting to bring together the tools to help me to live comfortably with the condition, and I'm thinking about treatments and my next steps for therapy. One thing that I can say is that a diagnosis need not be a scary thing, or something that defines you. My diagnosis has been helpful to me. I don’t think of myself as being crazy, and I’m not worried about the future now. It’s helped me to re-frame how I think of myself, and I’m learning how to be more forgiving of my actions and decisions in the past.