Sandra welcomed me with a big smile. She wore a vibrant dress, a mix of bright greens and yellows, and exuded a warm energy that I relaxed into instantly. The interview took place on our farm, Bellhaven Stud, and like a bouquet of flowers, our animals bunched into her arms: dogs and cats together. As I observed her I thought; you would never know this woman is diagnosed with bipolar.
Most people understand bipolar as an extreme mood disorder. According to Stanford School of Medicine, bipolar “typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood and continues throughout life, with 80% of patients experiencing multiple manic episodes” (par.1).
There are two main moods the individual experiences; each have extreme variations. One mood displays hyperactive symptoms which often entail behaviour such as; extreme highs, poor and thoughtless decision making, restlessness, sleeplessness, impulsive sexual urges and business decisions (NIMH, table 1). The second is a severe depression which involves symptoms such as vagueness, memory loss, lack of interest in daily activities, and can often result in suicide (NIMH, table 1).
For Sandra, it is stress that triggers the hyperactive period and as it intensifies, reality blurs. Close friends and family, who are aware of Sandra’s condition, aim to support her through the bipolar episodes. Sadly, support can inadvertently make situations worse because people often treat her as though she is a “mental” person, when she is in fact still very much her own person – merely being challenged mentally. When people witness Sandra’s “out of character” behaviour, they report it to her family immediately, saying things like “she’s sent a strange text about whether I’m concerned about 2012” or acting in ways that they don’t understand. Concerned people quickly try to suppress Sandra’s impulsive behaviour in an attempt to prevent the illness, and consequent misadventure, from escalating. “When people are emotionally involved, it’s natural to interfere in an attempt to help and I understand that,” she says. She admits the oppression placed upon her by others, compels her to “become a little psychotic.” She feels that if people reacted differently to her behaviour, she’d be less inclined to behave so erratically, and feels that her episode would be diffused much faster with less impact overall.
Sandra goes on to tell me that she’s recently lost a friendship due to one of her mood swings and says losing friends is not an uncommon part of the bipolar process. Only recently Sandra experienced an episode; the first in six years. She was in a cafe when her friend intimated that she was a liar and had been behaving in an unacceptable manner over the past week. Sandra prides herself on her ethics including when she is unwell and responded to the accusation by raising her voice, attracting the attention of onlookers. “I didn’t realise how loud I was being,” she says, “I understand that I’d embarrassed her and I feel terrible for that.” You can see the memory upsets her as she stares thoughtfully down at the dog nestled into her lap and pats him. Her sympathy for her friend demonstrates Sandra’s remorse, but self-forgiveness is not apparent; typical behaviour of a person suffering bipolar. “It’s not really “me” acting this way; it’s an aspect of myself when unwell that I can’t control,” she explains. To Sandra, the behaviour at these times is not totally abnormal, and if people took the time and had the strength to sit and talk with her at these times they may better understand.
In fact, Sandra asserts that during any one of her hyper manic or depressive episodes, if you sat her down and asked her what she was feeling she could tell you and could justify, in her own mind, and possibly in others, her behaviour. People in general, fear what they don’t understand but she insists although her behaviour is seen as erratic, she would never do harm to family and friends and ultimately that is understood by most concerned. Other people’s fear unfortunately feeds the problem; their escalating behaviour sees hers escalating also.
Sandra’s general practitioner who has monitored and cared for her for many years now, informed her that after being free of symptoms for over six years, she may well be in the clear. This was very good news for Sandra and gave her great hope for the future. Tragically, individuals who suffer from bipolar can be prone to committing suicide and Sandra has experienced this for herself on more than one occasion.
A study arranged by Stanford School of Medicine suggests up to 15% can result this way (par.1), which is high considering the advanced resources available to people with bipolar. This to me, suggests that the struggle with bipolar is not necessarily the illness itself but the contribution of others and their opinions that makes living so difficult. Sandra admits “I think people can be really harsh with their judgments due to an inability to separate the illness and its consequent behaviours from the person themselves”. And I agree.
Aside from the ups and downs of bipolar, it is the feeling of being alone, the time after the fussing, fighting and hospital stays. Once over and you find yourself needing to somehow start again, this part affects Sandra the most. People treat her as though she is strange/different when trying to reintegrate in to normality; when in fact, she is just like anyone else for the majority of the time. She insists that if people kept calm around her during the phase of her episodes, the issues wouldn’t escalate to such extremes. She says “it is the contribution of other people’s hysteria that amplifies her episodes.”
The down period; severe depression, is often what causes a person with bipolar to lead to self-harm. Sandra says “when you become well, you go through this stage of absolute remorse and guilt.” She often reflects on her behaviour and becomes ashamed of her actions, although she is unable to control them, she still feels responsible. Even good friends struggle to accept her behaviour. “They don’t understand that it’s not me. I mean it is, but it’s not!”. Their lack of forgiveness exacerbates her depression, blocking her ability to forgive herself. Sadly, there’s nothing to be forgiven. Bipolar is not a choice.
Sandra, with the advice of her doctor, has decided to not work; to reduce stress levels that may trigger her bipolar. Even though she is a self-educated woman with a background in law, her illness shapes her life and controls the choices she makes. Initially, Sandra wanted to prove to society that she could be successful, despite having bipolar, but unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. “I wanted to say, yeah, look at me, I have bipolar but I’m doing okay. I have this car, I have this job, I have this unit but really, I had to give all that up. Now, I don’t have a car, I don’t have a job, I live with my mother but it’s important that I keep my stress levels low.” Sandra’s doing what is needed to obtain at least some control over her life. Sandra doesn’t want to succumb to the influence of bipolar, she wants to live and enjoy her life like any other person.
Although Sandra’s episodes are infrequent, the weight of depression, when active, can have severe repercussions. She admits to feeling like “life isn’t worth living because there are people in this world who can’t accept the way [she is].” But, she recognises these are the symptoms of bipolar and does her best not to feed them. She has recently re-joined the gym, makes an effort to get out socially and says “it feels good to be heading in the right direction.” Sandra’s striving towards a better life is evident and she trusts that someday soon, she will control the illness to a point where it no longer controls her.
“I don’t try and hide it,” she says, her inner strength shining through. She reads books, creates awareness amongst people she knows, self-educates by reading information, all in an attempt “to get on top of it quickly,” when the episode threatens to derail not just her mental stability but her whole life. She also helps others understand the illness and intends to promote awareness by creating a website dedicated to bipolar. The website will contain information about bipolar but on a more personal level, where other individuals carrying the burden of the illness can integrate and share stories and experiences amongst likeminded people. She believes that discussing symptoms with other bipolar people might help alleviate loneliness and assist people in coping with the inevitable fallout that episodes provide.
This positive attitude works well for Sandra; it keeps her stress level down, which is important. She does her best to accept that bipolar is a part of who she is and attempts to exist in harmony with the illness. She sees the importance of turning a so called negative in to a positive and as such intends to use her illness as a vehicle from which to help others.
“National Institute of Mental Health.” Bipolar Disorder. 2012. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.
Sandra Johns. Personal Interview. 16 March. 2013.
“Stanford School of Medicine.” Bipolar disorder clinic: What is bipolar disorder? 2013. Web. 22 Aug. 2013.