Charlotte Frorath tells us her experience of bipolar mood disorder, and shares some tips for people living with bipolar disorder.
Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder
If you type “how long does it take to diagnose bipolar?” into an internet search engine, you can find average timescales varying between three and a half years to 13 and a half years. Sometimes it takes a bit longer and a lot more ‘stuff’ happens before getting there.
Some of these times are qualified with “from first presentation”, or the first time you go to your GP or a healthcare professional about your symptoms. While this may seem strange, it does make sense because, if your changes in mood are at level that is effectively flying below the radar, either in terms of frequency or severity, then the chances are that you will not be at ‘first presentation’ stage for quite a while. Put simply, whilst you might go to your GP because you feel very depressed it is highly unlikely that you will go because you are feeling absolutely amazing, full of energy, full of ideas and generally living the dream!
When I got my diagnosis of Bipolar II Mood Disorder, I was 38 and had been unknowingly living with bipolar disorder for at least 28 years. So, after a long period of being very unwell, it was a huge relief to be able to start to understand what I had been experiencing for all those years and to start mapping out what my recovery journey might look like.
My first appointment with a psychiatrist came at age 36 and a half, following a series of life events, which I usually describe as being like the film Four Weddings and a Funeral but without the laughs.
Unfortunately, despite the relief of being able to talk to a psychiatrist and explore the way ahead, the green grass of recovery always seemed to be over the fence in the next field; I knew it was there, but I just couldn’t seem to reach it. I struggled on, resisting offers of inpatient care, feeling I really should be able to manage this by myself, until I became so mentally and physically exhausted that I simply couldn’t cope with everyday life anymore. I was admitted to St Patrick’s University Hospital as a voluntary inpatient, aged 37 and a half.
Being in hospital was definitely beneficial for me. I felt safe, accepted, and cared for, which is really important because, when you are very unwell, life at home or work can seem very hostile and unforgiving. I was able to return to work on a phased hours basis and continued my outpatient appointments so that, when I started to become unwell again, we were able to explore other possibilities as to what might be going on.
A diagnosis of Bipolar II Mood Disorder meant that we could look at what medication and therapeutic interventions could help stabilise my mood and, although this took a while, we got there! Stabilising my mood enabled me to learn more about my diagnosis and have a good look at what my recovery journey might be like with rather more optimism and confidence than I had had before.
Managing my symptoms involves having a structure around me that supports my health, such as getting good quality sleep; keeping in touch with people; having a balanced diet; not overdoing caffeine; getting outside for walks with my dog or doing other exercise; not taking on too much; taking a step back from things if I feel that the balance of my mood is not where I feel it should be; and not being afraid to tell those close to me if I am feeling unwell.
Tips for people affected by bipolar disorder
Tips for people affected by bipolar disorder
If you think that you or someone you are close to may have symptoms that could be related to a mood disorder or have recently been diagnosed as having a mood disorder, there are some things that might make it easier for you to navigate the days ahead.
Seek out as much high-quality information as you can. A book that I would recommend trying is Bipolar Disorder for Dummies. While it is written with a focus on the American healthcare system, it is very comprehensive and accessible to read. It is is possible to get an online preview of the book which will give you a guide to content so that you can make a decision as to whether you feel it would be of help to you and you can access the Dummies Cheat Sheet for Bipolar Disorder on the Dummies website as well. Of course, there are many other books and resources out there, but this is a good one to start off with.
Early intervention and continuity of care are really important at all stages of any healthcare journey, and bipolar disorder is no exception.
Being diagnosed with bipolar is a “big thing” to happen to you or someone you are close to. Coming to terms with it and what it means can be very distressing and difficult.
Although it sounds counter-intuitive, having a diagnosis can open many more doors than you might first think possible. Examples of this would be:
- access to medications, interventions, treatments and therapies that are appropriate to your needs and reflect your goals, aspirations or values
- access to supports and reasonable adjustments in education or the workplace
- access to social welfare supports and certain protections under equality and disability legislation.
Having a diagnosis can also help you put your experiences of bipolar in the context of understanding why things may or may not have happened in your life.
Talking about your own bipolar experience or talking to others about theirs can be very hard, so it helps to try to establish what works best for you when discussing it and see if you can map out a way to communicate as effectively as possible.
There are many support and information groups and community-based organisations out there so it’s worth having a look at them to see what might work for you. Some of these include Aware, Bipolar Caregivers, the Health Service Executive and Shine.
Understanding my bipolar disorder
Understanding my bipolar disorder
It’s been 20 years since my Bipolar II Mood Disorder diagnosis. We have travelled a long road together and have got to know each other very well, although coming to terms with relapses, without losing all hope of feeling better, was difficult in the first few years.
I have also come to understand that I am not bipolar. It is not my identity; it is something I have experienced and will experience especially when “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” (the “life stuff”) are flying everywhere, but it is an element of my life.
I also know that recovery is an ongoing, positive part of my life’s journey.
I understand that if people are worried about me, it is because they care about me, that they want to support me, and that I am not a ‘burden’ to them: I am an important part of their life too.(Here's a photo of Miffy, my constant companion and recovery team leader!).
If I am unwell, it is important to talk to those close to me about how I am feeling and listen to their concerns if they express them. We might not always agree with each other, but becoming isolated or cut off from connections with people or things that support or sustain me just makes life harder than it need be.
I have also come to understand that recovery is not a competitive sport; neither is it a ‘complete cure’. What matters most is to do what works best for me and is in tune with my aspirations, values, and goals, rather than stand in the shadows of someone else’s and feel inadequate.
You may wonder why I mentioned average times for the diagnosis of Bipolar Mood Disorder and my age at various stages of my discovery and recovery journey. It is simply this: bipolar can significantly impair periods of your life, education, relationships and employment when you are unwell.
The earlier that you can get to talk to someone about what is going on with you means the earlier that a diagnosis is possible and you can start to navigate your recovery journey, living your life with the support of your family and friends, rather than struggling along by yourself.
Our understanding of Bipolar Mood Disorder is continually expanding and deepening (the Dummies book is on its third edition since 2005 with a fourth due to be published in June 2023) and there is so much to be hopeful about in terms of developing treatments, interventions, therapies and supports that can form part our recovery toolbox. We are not standing still, and the road ahead is open.
Charlotte Frorath has lived experience of mental health difficulties and loves shining a spotlight on mental health. Charlotte has spoken openly in the past about her own experience with mental health difficulties, and is a passionate advocate for raising awareness and educating young people about mental health, especially students who participate on the Walk in My Shoes Transition Year (TY) Programme. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own.
Charlotte also spoke more about her experience in a live talk held to mark World Mental Health Day and the launch of WIMS Live.Watch the talk here
This blog was shared as part of our WIMS Live campaign. You can find out more about bipolar disorder, or see more videos and stories of lived experience from people living with other mental health difficulties below.
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