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Life with Bipolar

30th March 2023 is World Bipolar Day. Our resident psychologist at YU, Maeve O'Boyle, has written a frank account of her experience of living with bipolar, and how she has learnt to manage it.

"I was fourteen years old when I first experienced early symptoms of Bipolar Affective Disorder. I heard a ‘church service’ bellowing through a guitar amp in my bedroom, a preacher echoing prayers of redemption. The amp wasn’t plugged in, and it wasn’t Sunday. Two facts that assure me, and the professionals who look after me, that it was my very first hallucination. Bipolar Disorder runs in families, and it indeed galloped through mine. The female bloodline on my mother’s side is supposedly dotted with diagnoses of ‘manic depressives’, now known as bipolar, of course. It is an awful affliction. It is a gift. It is both.

Although I showed early signs of a significant mental illness at a very young age, I was creative, into music and writing and so therefore those closest to me thought my oddities, my manias, were down to my expressiveness. Until I bought two cars a few weeks apart, jetted off to Europe for over six weeks on a whim, enrolled in a masters course at university that I couldn’t pay for, bought fifty-six business domain names (with ideas of starting businesses for them all), ran up three credit cards, and turned all of the languages of my electronic goods into Swedish because I was convinced after one evening class I was fluent. Suddenly, everyone sat up and began to wonder if there was more to these highs than just artistic license. Still, no one wanted to push the red button. Fear perhaps of the unknown.

It wasn’t until 2016, however, when my father passed from leukaemia, that I eventually received a diagnosis of Bipolar Type 1, or Bipolar Affective Disorder. I was twenty-eight years old and enduring the worst psychosis of my life when I was admitted to two separate psychiatric units. It was a turning point in my own personal journey. It had taken fourteen long years from initial symptoms to full diagnosis, and I had been through the proverbial wars.

I understand that, for some, a diagnosis of any kind can be devastating, but for me it was illuminating and opened up avenues of support that were previously closed off to me. I began to see a psychiatrist who understood the divide between artist and chaos, who saw my whole self and who prescribed medication with the gentlest of hands. I started to take lithium and it almost diminished my manias, resulting in only slight hypo-manias going forth which were managed much better with support from friends and family.

I learned to cope with my depressions too, by talking in therapy and by ‘catching myself’ by mood mapping. When my mood starts to dip, I can reach out for help. I have kept a mood map for almost 2,500 days now and it has without exaggeration saved my life on more than one occasion. It has helped me see what I need to on days when I don’t want to. It very rarely lies, the data.

I have come to realise that bipolar is for life, but it doesn’t have to define my life’s narrative. I live a relatively normal life. I work, I eat, I sleep, I socialise, I educate and am educated just as anyone without this diagnosis is. I know how hard it can be in the whirlwind of an episode, when it feels as though all of the most basic needs hit the wall, but I also know that the only constant thing in life is change, and that means that eventually the episode will pass, and I’ll be in a stable place again to live freely. That’s worth everything."

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