Help! Bipolar Charity Crisis

Mental health services have never been so desperately needed. More people than ever are contacting Bipolar UK, many suffering episodes triggered by worries about job security, financial difficulties and the increasing number of hoops the government requires those unable to work due to mental health to jump through in order to receive a dwindling disability allowance.

The irony is that the economic downturn which is causing a rise in mental health issues has also put Bipolar UK at risk.

Providing support not only for those with bipolar disorder but for family and friends too, Bipolar UK offers self-help groups for sufferers and carers, a telephone helpline often used by those in serious distress, online communities, mentoring services and a youth support service. These services are vital for bipolar sufferers who are often isolated and afraid to seek help. It’s estimated that between 25% and 50% of those with bipolar will attempt suicide at least once.

Bipolar UK desperately needs funds to keep its valuable resources in place and is currently attempting to raise £100,000. If you can help by donating even a small amount please, please do.

http://www.bipolaruk.org.uk/donate/

Even if you can’t donate you could help me with awesome fundraising ideas…

National Bipolar Awareness Day! New Pills Day!

Today is National Bipolar Awareness Day and to celebrate I’ll be starting yet another round of mood balancing drugs.

For the past nine months I’ve been taking increasing doses of Lithium, the bipolar wonder drug that I believed would, once the right dose was set, stabilise my moods.  I assumed that bipolar sufferers weren’t immediately given Lithium because of the long term effects of the drug – thyroid and kidney problems often requiring additional supporting drugs after several years of Lithium treatment – not to mention the cost to the NHS of regular Lithium level, kidney and thyroid function blood tests.  Whatever the reasons, what I wasn’t aware of were the side effects that I, on reaching only the second highest, ineffectual dose, would experience, tremors and swelling mirroring the symptoms of Lithium toxicity.

A writer and photographer I need steady hands so the tremors quite simply weren’t a worthwhile pay off for the (limited) positive effects of the medication. And right there is what makes the treatment of Bipolar just as awful a thing as the illness itself.

Throughout my treatment, first for Post-Natal Depression then for Major Depressive Disorder then for Bipolar Affective Disorder and Social Anxiety, I have been prescribed a succession of anti-depressants; Citalopram, Duloxetine, Paroxetine, Amitriptyline, Pregabalin, and then later, mood stabilisers; Lamotrigine, Quetiapine, Lithium, I take Diazepam when I feel panicked or anxious.  Some have been taken alone, others in combination with each other.  Sometimes it’s one pill a day, other times it’s four, sometimes they have to be taken in the morning, sometimes last thing at night – the Lithium, for example, has to be taken at the exact same time every evening, the pills are huge; round and dry, sticking to the roof of your mouth if you don’t poke them right down your throat, gagging on a sharp-nailed index finger.


I wonder what the black market value is for this little lot (yes I know you’re supposed to chuck them)

For almost five years I have consumed an endless succession of pills which have made me tired or unable to sleep (often at once), too high or too low, which have made my skin itch or given me acne, swollen my feet, made me confused and forgetful, left me too dopey to drive.  I research every new drug and find that some have high values in prisons – Quetiapine is known as ‘Baby Heroin’ – or that the drugs have their own special ‘syndromes’ (such as the Lithium Tremors I’m currently experiencing) or the skin rotting illnesses of Lamotrigine. I read the pamphlets, which invariably warn me that I could become depressed or suicidal while taking this particular drug, always a reassuring thought for a depressive.

This week I’ll start to taper off my Lithium dosage, breaking the horrid powdery pills in half, while beginning a new round of Lamotrigine, one pill at a time until I’m taking four a day.

Last time I was prescribed Lamotrigine it worked well, until I developed a burning rash, a symptom of one of the handful of deadly side effects Lamotrigine can produce.  I spent the Christmas period in A&E on an antibiotic drip to treat blood poisoning, my in-laws drove a freshly cooked turkey down the M6 from Merseyside so the kids still got a proper dinner.  I’ve since been informed that the infection and the drug weren’t related – it’s a good sign that this could be the one that works, but it doesn’t change the fact that Lamotrigine, with all its side effects, scares me.

When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar I had one major problem: I was tired.  Now I’m aware that all the things I had come to accept as ‘one of those things’ are a problem, now I know that my quality of life could be improved, I want to be successfully treated.  But at the same time I can’t help but feel I was perhaps better off before, when I didn’t have to face the disappointment of another failed treatment, when I didn’t have to wonder if I was ill or if it was another side effect, when I didn’t have to fight the NHS for appointments and when I didn’t have to wait three months to tell my psychiatrist that his latest prescription isn’t working when I knew after three weeks.

By the time I’m fully weaned on to the Lamotrigine and whichever anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drug is chosen to work alongside it, it’ll be five years since I took that first low dose Citalopram.  It’s starting to feel as though the pills do more harm than they do good, I wonder if the stress of never finding the right treatment, the side effects and the knowledge that I’m going to be taking handfuls of pills for the rest of my life is worse than the illness itself.

Mental Illness on Screen: Homeland, Bipolar and ECT

Watching C4 drama Homeland over the last few weeks I’ve been intrigued by – as well as the teeniness of Damian Lewis’s mouth – the portrayal of bipolar disorder which began as an incidental aspect of lead character Carrie’s (Claire Danes) life, later becoming a major plot changer.

wow, that really *is* a tiny mouth

It’s rare to see mental disorders, especially bipolar, represented in a serious manner by TV. Usually we’re a bit of a joke, seen as losers and undesirables, the ones shouting ‘gerbils!’ at the side of a road. So it was refreshing to see Carrie, in early episodes, portrayed as somebody with strengths as well as weaknesses, managing a successful career as well as a personality disorder.

The realism of Carrie’s need to cover up her condition in order to maintain that career especially rang true, and while I’m certainly not a high flying CIA spy or working in any industry requiring one not to be a card carrying nutcase, I have often debated whether or not to confess all (perhaps not all) on an application form and have met people who keep their condition a secret from employers. It’s an interesting debate – should those with mental illnesses be exempt from certain jobs? – though sadly not one that was explored during the course of the series.

During the latter episodes of Homeland, as Carrie’s ascent towards mania continued I felt that the sensitivity was lost somehow. While Danes’s performance was impressive it felt at times that she’d been directed with ‘you’re mad, really mad! MORE crazy eyes!’ to fit in with a script plucked from Wikipedia’s ‘Bipolar’ page.

While I wouldn’t for a moment deny that the symptoms of Carrie’s bipolar – promiscuity, obsessiveness, an inability to look after oneself, risk taking – were true to bipolar life, they were lazy choices that barely scratch the surface of the complexity of the condition. It certainly appeared that Homeland’s scriptwriters had little experience of bipolar and had they took the time to explore further they may have created a more nuanced character and one who was infinitely more likable. It says a lot that for the most part the obsequious wannabe terrorist was a more sympathetic character than the mentally ill woman he was conning.

Even less believable was Carrie’s final scene. I mean, ECT, seriously? I understand that the series is set in the US and doubtless mental health care works differently there, but I find it hard to believe that somebody would walk off the street to be administered a serious, highly controversial treatment that here in the UK is an absolute last resort. Carrie appeared to have requested the ECT but in reality would somebody in a high state of mania have been considered fit to choose? And would her sister, also a health care professional, have allowed her to jump directly from medication to fizzing the fuck out of her brain? Hadn’t she heard of CBT? Perhaps she might have suggested a few lifestyle changes, you know; more sleep, eat right, less shagging of married, high profile ex-hostages?

yep, sign me up for some of that!

What really overshadowed all of these ‘uh?’ moments though was the portrayed administration of the ECT. I know that my horror at this is entirely due to my own morbid fear of being carted off to be electrocuted until I’m a vegetable (but at least a sane vegetable), but did we need a graphic version of ECT on our screens? Was the fact that in real life anti-convulsants are administered prior to ECT, that the treatment is stopped after a only a few seconds to avoid the good old Jack Nicholson convulsions, just too inconvenient when a crazy woman fitting on a bed provided a wonderfully shocking finale?*  While I accept that in terms of realism Homeland’s version of shock therapy was an improvement on films of the past (although it should be remembered that many of those films were made at a time when ECT was a far more torturous procedure), only ever so slightly exaggerated, it felt almost worse to see it taking place so casually, just an addendum to a story.  At least those films – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Snake Pit, Requiem for a Dream – pushed us to question the brutality of such a treatment.

To my mind, what was an opportunity to really explore bipolar in a form that would reach a wide international audience became an exercise in shock tactics, the realities of mental illness buried beneath a lot of fast-talking and crazed expressions, Carrie’s only trump card, the only thing that proved that she wasn’t entirely insane – the truth about Brody – was even snatched away by the writers (alright, they had to do it, I want series two as well) at the last minute. It felt as if Homeland went from offering the first realistic bipolar TV character to dropping a final curtain scrawled with ‘and this is why we can’t trust nuts’.

*information courtesy of several morbid hours a month spent checking out ‘all the things they might do to me’.

Incidentally if you’ve ever experience Electroconvulsive Therapy I’d love to hear your thoughts – did it work?  Who made the decision to administer ECT? If it was you, why?…

It’s Harder To Crack A Prejudice Than An Atom

For a long time I’ve been of the belief that racism and sexism and other such ignorant attitudes were in some sort of cretaceous period and that the dinosaurs that held them were on their way out, claiming all the pensions ready to lay down in the mud and become fossils for future generations to find and be confused by (‘this bone definitely suggests that Mailus Readerum thought all Muslims were terrorists’) while we, the younger generation, forged ahead with our togetherness and understanding, to live in a happy world of rainbows and unicorns.

Well, ok, maybe I’m not that naive but, apparently I’m much more gullible than I thought I was.  I thought that ignorance and prejudice was a once in a blue moon thing and that our generation – the one currently producing world leaders and great thinkers and billions of people with useless degrees – had got over, you know, the being massive twats bit.

Earlier this year, Unilad, a site aimed at young men attending universities (ie: boys with an ounce of brain) put ‘banter’ under the spotlight with its statement ‘85% of rape cases go unreported.  That seems to be fairly good odds.’  It was, shockingly, supported by a stream of braniacs claiming ‘nobody minds a bit of rape banter’.

The whole thing made me somewhat furious and ranty.  But (naive, remember?) I assumed it to be a one off, the product of silly little boys making silly little jokes then skulking away with their limp little peepees between their legs when they were found out and told off.

Then this happened:

Image

I shan’t give too much space to this story as I’ve no doubt you’ve heard more than enough about it already.  But suffice to say I was most definitely like WTF when I saw it.

The more I think about it, the more this ‘banter’ culture is spreading like a particularly virulent VD.  Topman, for example, have come under fire for their wholly inappropriate tshirts bearing slogans such as ‘nice new girlfriend, what breed is she?’  while my own personal nemesis (he doesn’t know about our feud but it most certainly exists) Jeremy Flamin’ Clarkson continues to be paid the big license payer bucks to behave as the Lord and Master of the Banter Crew, chortling his way through jokes about women, suicide and 1.2 litre engines.  It’s infuriating when women, having worked so hard for something approaching equality and now bearing the strain of not only working the same jobs as men but (more often than not) running homes and raising children too, are still belittled by men under the guise of this so-called ‘banter’.

The problem is, perhaps, that we become de-sensitised too easily.  Take for example my favourite topic, good ol’ mental health.  As I’ve mentioned several times before I’ve lost a job because of a lack of understanding of my condition.  My husband has been forced out of his workplace by people using my condition as a stick to beat him with.  It’s fast become something that I just accept.

This morning for example, a fellow blogger Tweeted ‘this weather is bipolar’.  I thought nothing of it, in fact it’s the sort of thing I might well pipe up with myself having become quite used to making lame jokes about my illness to make it easier for myself and other people to deal with (it’s much simpler to make a face and tell someone ‘I’m basically completely insane’ than to be serious and say ‘some days I can’t face my life and I generally assume that you hate me’), I’ve reached the point at which I don’t even see these comments as inappropriate.  But my pal, uber-blogger and one woman crusade, Sian was as fuming as one can be in 140 characters and what she said made sense:

@hoola well you shouldn’t have to get used to it. Just the same as my children shouldn’t have to get used to being called chinky. It’s wrong  

She’s absolutely right of course, all those times that people have said to me ‘oh isn’t everybody bipolar these days?’ (you’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that) or laughed at my inability to do everyday things and my bizarre phobias I shouldn’t have just ignored it, I should have stood up for myself and for the thousands of other people like me who are being treated as the butt of another inappropriate joke.

And..woah there Lesleymy mate’s kids have been called chinky?  This was a new one on me.  And the more I thought about it the more I realised that kind of casual racism still exists. Not just in the older generations but amongst people of my own age and now, as Betty – for the record, a kid who one would never imagine starting a fight or inciting someone’s fury but a gorgeous, friendly and caring girl who my own four year old son is in love with – has experienced amongst folk who’ve not even reached double digits yet.

Betty’s dad, Yan, wrote a post too.  Tears people, actual tears.

The fact that people younger than me; impressionable teenage boys,  primary school age girls, are casually tossing around racist and sexist terms, that they’re being raised by people who have no more sympathy or understanding of mental illness than your average 40s-born retiree…well, it’s just hugely depressing isn’t it?  I wonder if we’ll ever be at a stage at which the colour of your skin doesn’t matter, the reproductive organs you’re rocking isn’t an issue and depressive illnesses aren’t casually joked about or considered made up excuses for the lazy or bywords for ‘different’.

Somehow the fact that these isms are now dressed up as comedy or hidden behind ‘I’m not racist but…’ lines or cloaked in common sense political statements (I’m sure we’ve all heard rants about the influx of Polish workers, as if we, the British, have more claim to this particular few acres just because we were born on them or we hold a piece of paper that says we’re citizens*) makes them all the more poisonous.

Maybe we need to do more of this. Without the police brutality obvs.

I don’t think I’m the only one who can be called naive.  I think a lot of us have been merrily focusing on ourselves ignoring what’s right there under our noses.  Really, didn’t we all believe we were more open minded than our parents?  Perhaps we ought to be more aware.  Perhaps we should put up more of a fight against prejudice.  Perhaps we’ve all been too busy thinking about ourselves, worrying about getting a great degree, finding a fantastic job, getting on the property ladder, meeting ‘the one’, having a baby.  Perhaps we need to spend more time thinking about what’s important.  Perhaps we should remember what the people before us – Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Kate Fraser – did and continue their work in our own small ways, wherever we can.

Or perhaps I’m just naive in thinking that things will ever change.

*yes, I know it’s more complex than that.

New Years Resolutions For The Sane

I’m not normally one for new year’s resolutions and really, it being mid-way through January, I’ve probably missed the boat a little bit. But tomorrow is the start of our family holiday and the end of Mr H’s stint at his current job, the one which sent us all a little bit over the edge. So it feels like this is the new start and only now am I thinking about resolutions. 
 
I’ve felt as though it’s taken most of 2011 to really accept that I *am* bipolar; that I have this condition and always will, that I need to be on a constant supply of medication and that I can’t rely on my moods. This year I want to be able to continue learning more about what bipolar means, how I can control, embrace and understand it so that I’m able to live as normal a life as possible without constantly thinking about and referring to it as I have done over the past months.
 
First, I intend to continue making regular updates to this blog. I’ve always been useless at diaries but as a writer having an audience, however small, always helps. Plus, who knows, I might even help myself or perhaps somebody else by writing about my experiences.
 
Second, after the bad experiences of the last year, which have brought screaming back a lot of the symptoms of social anxiety, I want to feel comfortable around people again. I’m so lucky to have found some amazing friends lately to add to the great ones I already have, and I want the reliable, patient, lovely friends to have something better than a monosyllabic nervous wreck to share cups of tea with. 
 
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I want my family life not to revolve around bipolar and my anxieties. Mr H and the kids deserve better than a ‘it’s my condition’ line. I know that there are times I can’t help being sleepy or snappy or, y’know, something else that sounds like one of the seven dwarves, but I want to be at a point where I don’t just shrug my shoulders and let it consume me because I have the excuse. Must do something about that. 
 
Just a good ol’ ‘give up smoking’ would be so much easier..
.

Isn’t Mania Fun?

Although there are two ‘types’ of bipolar – bipolar I, marked by delusions and psychosis in the manic phase, and bipolar II, in depressive episodes are punctuated by milder hypomania – it seems that most of us have entirely different experiences within those two spheres.

For me mania, or rather what’s classed as hypomania, didn’t ever seem to be much of a problem.  It’s only recently that I’ve begun to recognise that periods or snappishness and irritability, my rather famous spendy episodes or the times that I get mad obsessed with something are indicative of of mania, rather than being, as I had assumed, judging them to be ‘negative’ as opposed to the ‘positive’ of mania, linked to my depression.

Now you’d think that I’d have known better but ever since diagnosis I’ve wistfully looked forward to a nice little bout of mania.  I’ve busied myself reading wikipedia medical research, imagining myself with this fabulous ‘increased productivity’ dreaming of this ‘decreased need for sleep’ and making grand plans for the day that the Manic Fairy finally visits; Redecorate! Earn a million! Clean the stove! Be the best parent EVER! Save the world…

Imagine my extremely predictable disappointment when I finally got my manic.

No amount of research prepares you for mania.  In all of my reading I’d focused on the positive side – I’d feel happy – and ignored the rest.  But once I’d realised that I was in a manic phase (it was my husband’s diplomatic silence in answer to the query ‘am I talking too much?’) all the bad stuff crawled on out of the woodwork and all my vain hopes for an amazing rest from the depression were dashed.

Here’s the thing.  Increased productivity is great if one can be productive one project at a time.  Instead I found myself writing thirty words, getting distracted and doing some online shopping, writing another ten words, then typing an email, going for an aimless walk around the house, another fifty words…I never focused on a single thing for long enough to make use of it.

This wild brain spin made me feel horribly out of control, which was the most unsettling thing about this, my first true hypomanic episode.  I’m lucky in that my episodes are comparatively mild and I’m able to keep myself from growing too grandiose or following through on too many silly plans and ideas, in fact I think the knowledge of my condition has helped me to keep myself on the straight and narrow – I’ve a strong feeling that bipolar could be to blame for an awful lot of my bad choices of the past (it’s as good an excuse as any right?).

The real surprise however was how much mania hurts.  I’ve spoken to many people over the years who, like me, imagined a great ecstasy high and I wish I could go back and put them straight now.

I imagine it’s the tension.  Whatever it is the longer my mania went on the more pain I found myself in – my jaw and teeth were sore and aching from the grinding and clenching, my spine and shoulders were stiff, even my thighs burned from the almost constant shaking of my legs.  Ecstasy high’s about right…but with none of the good bits.

It’s amazing, in a way, that I can still be learning new things about this condition, something that I suppose I’ve had all my life, and it’s sort of scary that I can still be surprised, despite experience and research, by what bipolar can throw at me.  As much as possible I try to treat anything related to my illness as a lesson because, surprisingly enough, there’s usually something to be learnt from it.  In this case: be very bloody careful what you wish for.  And keep a stash of chewing gum just in case.

Government Funds Mental Health in Work Service…But Should It Have To?

An estimated £4.8m is expected to be plowed in to Remploy’s mental health in work support service.

According to this report in HR Magazine  the initiative will seek to introduce work-based counselling and mental health support, provide personalised action plans, introduce the assessment of an individual’s needs and identification of coping strategies and both provide education for employers and help them to identify adjustments that can be made within the workplace or to working practices.

On the face of it this can only be a good thing, right?  It shows the government takes mental health seriously and it assists employers in coping with staff mental health problems.

But the more I think about this the less I welcome it.  I mean, for me it’s a moot point now, I’m a freelancer who only has herself to answer to (ok, clients too but generally I only have lovely clients), but in the past I can’t imagine that this interference in my working life or my employers’ businesses would have helped my case, and boy have I had a case or two.

bipolar bear would like to request a one to one.

My very last employer, not long after I was diagnosed with bipolar and severe post natal depression made me redundant, promoting a junior colleague in to my position after my contract was terminated.  This occurred a day or two after he accused me of paranoia and blamed my mental illness for my not agreeing with him in a workplace discussion.  I successfully sued for disability discrimination and although I was unable to recover the money awarded to me the fact that I was ‘right’ and he was ‘a twat’ did me just fine (though that £7k would be lovely right about now please Mr Karma).

In that situation no amount of education or support from Remploy or the government would have helped me to keep my job or to be able to work with my manager for any longer than I did.  Would an agency bustling in suggesting different ways of working and trying to ‘educate’ my boss on my mental illness have gone down wonderfully with him?  I sincerely doubt it.  And I doubt that it would be welcomed with open arms in most companies, especially right now when they’re all too busy running round like headless chickens trying not to go under in this horrid recession that has seen unemployment hit a seventeen year high.

As for the idea of introducing and adapting working strategies…again, in theory, this is a wonderful idea.  But I have beef and here it is: I don’t want to be treated differently and I sure as hell don’t want to be seen to be treated differently.  You can educate employers all you like but that doesn’t stop the office gossip and the resentment of other employees when somebody is deemed to be receiving ‘special treatment’.

Perhaps this new strategy might work for the shorter term mental health problems of stress or short term depression – though if an employee is hit by one of these two little nuggets of nutty it might suggest their workplace needs to address issues earlier up the line – but for somebody with a long term disorder; clinical depression, bipolar, OCD for example, will a twee attempt at action plans and ‘are you ok dear?’ meetings solve the potential problems faced by an employee with one of these conditions or their employer?  I doubt it.

The one brick wall I bang my head against time and time again is the lack of understanding of my condition among people, even people who know me well or who have their hearts in the right place, who see bipolar as something to be ‘snapped out of’, or who comment “oh, doesn’t everybody have bipolar these days?”.  Until the UK is able to open up communication on mental illness, something which we prefer to keep firmly under our cosy Persian kilim as much as possible, until an employee is able to feel comfortable admitting to their condition and openly discussing it with colleagues AND employers, un-judged, and until mental illness is seen as just as debilitating as a physical disability by everybody, Remploy’s attempts to improve the workplace for the mentally ill are likely to have little more effect than throwing a pebble in the Atlantic.

How Social Networking is Working For Mental Illness

This week certain events have made me realise what a powerful set of tools we, the nutters, have at our disposal in Internet social networks.

First the level of understanding I witnessed on my Twitter feed following the suicide of Wales football manager Gary Speed was truly heartening even if one did feel that a handful of tweets were more out of a morbid desire to be involved or to have said something. Equally impressive was the quick work of mental health charities, many of whom I follow, in tweeting information related to suicide and depression in an attempt to quickly dispell myths surrounding Speed’s death and to, for want of a more appropriate term, ‘cash in’, using his death as a springboard to raise awareness amongst people who perhaps had given little thought to mental illness previously.

The second thing that made me consider the strength of social networking for mental illness was an accusation made by somebody at my partner’s place of work today.

I’ll make the story short as it really isn’t the point of this post.

Around three weeks ago I began experiencing by far the worst manic episode I have had since diagnosis. My GP promptly took me off of my usual anti-depressants to tame the crazy. In the meantime however he struggled to get in contact with my psychiatrist for a new, more effective prescription.

Yesterday on learning that there was still no progress after a week’s hard fall off of my regular drugs I lost it, calling the community mental health team in what I like to call the all-the-words-are-one-long-snotty-word tears to beg for an appointment which, bless the poor lady translating my slurps and nose blows, was immediately granted.

This meant my husband would need to leave work to look after the kids and, to his concerned mind, me. He did exactly that. I went to my appointment. I got my shiny new lithium and the promise of a lifetime of blood tests and thyroid problems.

Today my already stressed husband was pulled up by his workplace for lying. Because I was cheerfully chatting on Facebook and Twitter whilst between appointments and in waiting rooms, the only conclusion drawn from this was that he lied to get out of work or I lied to him about the illness.

Make of that what you will but I mention it as an illustration of just how wonderful a tool something like Twitter can be.

No sooner had I made my 4sq check in at the hospital (I WILL BE MAYOR OF CRAZY TOWN) than a good friend tweeted me; ‘you ok?’. Having reassured her that it was nothing she needed to rush round with my Valium and a cup of cyanide antidote for, we continued making plans to go to the cinema later this week.

I posted some stuff about music and did a Shoe of the Day post on my other blog , probably talked about owls or Leveson…whatever. It helped. It distracted me.

In this way Twitter, and the members of its social networking family, has been instrumental in keeping me sane over the last few months.

You see a large part of my problem is social anxiety, an inability to deal with day to day interactions. So on days when I can’t face talking to the woman on the till in Sainsburys or picking up the phone, even to my best friend, being able to merrily chat to people makes it all the easier to feel normal and connected with the rest of the normal world.

Twitter has even led to new friends – people I’ve got to know well before having to take the plunge and actually have one of my nonsense red-faced conversations with them. Some I’ve still yet to meet but would consider more than mere acquaintances, others I now regularly spend ‘real’ time with including the concerned friend I mentioned above who despite living just metres away became a ‘tweep’ first before flushing me out of my hole.

I’ve also met other people with bipolar through the web, had conversations with representatives of charities such as Mind and Time To Change and generally learnt more about my condition while also being able to treat it with a degree of honesty I’d shy away from in a face to face conversation.

But most important is the sense of purpose and distraction that social networking can give to a person with mental illness. Pre-Twitter what would one do in the middle of the night warding off a panic attack or fighting insomnia? Now the answer is simple – post ‘can’t sleep. Fucking insomnia!’ and receive three replies from people you sort of know all over the world; ‘me too, need…more…sleeping pills’, ‘try getting up for half hour & trying again’, ‘get off your iPhone then you dozy cow!’ etc…

Or even better are those moments when you engage yourself in a conversation about something entirely unrelated. I’ve distracted myself on numerous occasions debating the relative merits of cats and dogs, discussing international bacon festivals and naming the fourteen top moustaches of the twentieth century. All conversations I’m pretty sure busy real life friends and family don’t want to be pulled out of work for but that there’s invariably an American/home worker/abuser of lax office internet policy available for.

Whatever its faults – and it has ever so many – I think that social networking has probably saved a life or two. It’s undoubtedly saved my sanity more than once. Not only that but without Twitter where would I find an captive audience for the tale of running out of shower gel and using my son’s Ben 10 Foaming Alien Slime to wash with?

Exactly.

Do our children need anti-psychotics

An investigation by Channel 4 news has revealed that as many as 15,000 British under 18s were prescribed anti-psychotic medication last year.

In fact C4’s statistics are taken only from GP surgeries with no official data from specialists and hospitals. In my experience GPs are reluctant to prescribe this level of drug, referring patients to a psychiatrist instead. With that in mind the true figures could be so much higher.

I could regurgitate C4’s piece, which points out that the results of this research come in the wake of the governments crackdown in ‘chemically coshing’ of the elderly, other vulnerable groups, including young people and the often coshed sufferers of depression (er, should we not be cracking down on this practice for everybody? Just a thought…), but you could just go and read that yourself – the link’s up top there.

Instead I’m going to tell you about my own experiences of anti-psychotics, GPs and prescriptions.

I’ve been prescribed a host of different medications, on and off label, over the years including a wide range of anti-depressants for mood and for pain, sleeping pills and anti-psychotics. Yes, I’m a hypochondriac.

I’ve recently stopped taking a drug called Quetiapine, an anti-psychotic, after negative experiences. To give you an idea of the effects of this drug, Quetiapine is often found floating about in prisons, sold as ‘baby heroin’. While for my diagnosis of bipolar this was a perfectly reasonable prescription, if my child was prescribed the same I’d have a few questions.

The Quetiapine had such a sedative effect I could easily sleep for days at a time, at one point during the summer holidays waking at 3pm only for my five year old daughter to tell me ‘I tried to wake you up. It’s ok though, I’ve been cleaning the house.’ My attention would often drift to the point that I’d find myself snapping back to life twenty miles down the A14 or, less dangerously but with monetary consequences, staring unfocused at my computer screen for half an hour, fingers poised but unmoving.

And this was at the lowest starter dose, 25mg. My psychiatrist told me that he had some patients on 800mg. I recall particularly his description of the difficulty of finding a dosage to suit his patients: ‘I have one fifty year old man, a big ex-builder, who functions well on the 25mg dose. Another of my patients has to take 800mg, she’s probably five foot and very slim.’

Last year I spent my Christmas in A&E hooked up to a drip with a suspected reaction to another drug, Lamotrigine, an anti-convulsant often used in the treatment of bipolar and schizophrenia. The allergic reaction is a common one and absolutely deadly.

While for me these drugs weren’t a good fit, for millions they really do work, I don’t dispute for a moment that the responsible prescription of anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and anti-convulsants is a very important thing that improves the lives of many. For myself the treatment of my anxiety through the use of similar drugs has made a marked improvement on my quality of life.

However these aren’t aspirin, they’re hard core, mood altering bastards which can easily send you even crazier, damage your health very seriously or make you suicidal. Their usage in the treatment of ADHD is off-label (by which I mean officially unproven) and one of the dangers lies in ceasing a dosage too quickly – would you trust even the most sensible 16 year old to take a pill at the same time every day? I wouldn’t.

I wonder how many parents, baffled by healthcare jargon and at the end of their tether in the face of an ADHD child has simply accepted a prescription for anti-psychotics? After all, the doc knows what he’s doing and the kid’s finally calming down and going to bed at night. I’ve certainly had days with my perfectly healthy children when I’d have done anything to shut them up.

Not all people have the ability or wherewithal to google their new drug, as I – a web-savvy type with years of experience in the industry – and my husband – an IT professional – do with every new prescription. In fact I wonder if everybody even reads the leaflet in the box.

I’ll tell you what worries me most about this news though, and about the fact that the government isn’t appearing concerned about the chemical coshing of patients outside of the elderly. It’s this:

At the age of 18, having just started uni and found myself struggling I went to the local GP in Cardiff. I walked in and was asked what the problem was.

“I think I need anti-depressants.”
“Right. Have you felt like this for long?”
“Since I started university.” (this was the november of my first year)

Without further question or hesitation I was prescribed Citalopram.

I wonder if I took one of kids to that same GP now and told him ‘I think he has ADHD,’ things would be any different.

*I’d be really interested to hear from anybody with children on mood stabilizers or to hear about other people’s experience of lazy prescriptions so do feel free to post here or message me on http://www.twitter.com/hoola

A Good Friend is Cheaper Than Therapy

I originally posted this on http://hoola-la.posterous.com  …

I read something this morning: ‘Bipolar people tend to say sorry a lot’.

It’s very true, I tend to apologise often, usually for things that are out of my control or weren’t my fault in the first place. I’m learning that not everything is my fault – it’s something that all bipolar people, or those with any depressive illness could do with learning but it just isn’t that easy when that frayed electrical connection in your brain is telling you that you just can’t get it right.

Being in a relationship, any kind of relationship, with a bipolar person is difficult, but I’ve been lucky enough to hang on to some amazing amigos; incredibly strong people who have stuck by me from way before my diagnosis, when there was no medical reason for my being a poor excuse for a friend. Those people know who they are and they continue to provide the most incredible support. I only hope that I’m now as good to them as they continue to be to me. I think I am – bipolar folk are kinda keen sometimes.

On the other hand I have made endless fleeting friendships, ones which fizzle out as quickly as they begin. The way these friendships end is hard, really hard. I can’t speak for others in my situation but I think I tend to shed more friends, more quickly than your average non-crazy. See, for most folk picking up the phone to say hi is an easy thing, as is walking in to a pub full of enthusiasm, sitting down and starting a conversation with somebody you know and love. Not so for somebody in a depressive cycle – talking to somebody you care about is harder than talking to a stranger – what they think matters, and you, well, in those moments you’re not good enough.

And a manic cycle? Those are the most misunderstood. Those times when I’m grumpy and snappish or the times that I’m making inappropriate comments and offending you? That’s all part of the mania. That’s the bit that’s hardest for the friends, the bit when the person you know isn’t the person you know, or when the person you thought you knew arrogantly thinks they know you too well, know that you’re judging them, talking about them behind their back, that something you’ve said meant far more than it did.

Mania. It all goes a bit Cyd

These are the times I lose friends, during those manic cycles. And I’m what they call Rapid Cycling, so it happens a lot.

Good friends though, the ones worth hanging on to like the life rafts, perhaps don’t even realise they are are the ones who ride the storm with you. Some read about bipolar, or they ask questions – they try to understand and it makes them more forgiving. Others will step back and let you ride it out yourself, they’re the ones that you know are there waiting in the wings to make things better, who know you well enough to know when your actions, your behaviour, is not ‘you’.

That’s not to say that bipolar is an excuse for being kind of a bitch. It really isn’t. I’ll still say sorry when I’m wrong, of course I will. And my bipolar doesn’t excuse every bad decision, mean comment or just plain horrid thing that I might do. But at the same time I’m not going to apologise for you, the friend who only wants to be a friend when the weather’s fair (is this weather analogy getting too much? I think it probably is).

I’ve noticed that those of us with depressive disorders tend to attract a certain type of person, for whom the term schadenfreude was obviously coined. Those are the worst ‘friends’ for a bipolar person to have, the ones for whom your problems make theirs seem less so. They’re the difficult ones though, the ones you convince yourself are the good, because they’re there during the bad times, sympathising and tutting in agreement, reporting back to other friends about your bad state of mind (perhaps with a glimmer of pride at being the one able to do so). You know what I’m getting at here…

Please understand that I’m not pointing the finger, I describe these people, these non-friends, without anybody in particular in mind. I’m well aware of the old ‘point one finger and three point back at you’ adage.

The friends I’ve lost I do feel sad for, I miss some of them terribly – indeed a few recent losses have been particularly hard, having the increased self-awareness that comes with diagnosis and still not understanding the way in which one can be dropped quite cruelly with no explanation (in this regard losing friendships is so much harder than being dumped don’t you think? At least the end of a relationship proper demands a certain degree of closure). However, the pain left behind by the lost friends is tempered by the knowledge that they weren’t good enough; that they didn’t take the time to understand, didn’t have the capacity to forgive or didn’t have the patience to press pause while I cycled in the wrong direction. It was them, it wasn’t me, that was ultimately not enough of a friend.

If you’re somebody I know, reading this now, you deserve a medal, possibly several. If you’re a stranger and you have a friend with bipolar (I can’t think why else you might be here) my only advice is to remember that while times are often bad, the good times are better because, in our own little way, those of us with bipolar are always trying, one way or another, to say we’re sorry.