The Bottom of the World: Living with Bipolar in Australia
by Liza Brock
I live at the bottom of the world; a stunning island continent called Australia. Life here has always been very laid back and friendly. “She’ll be right, mate!” The Aussie Mantra.
I was born in the early 70’s and grew up in the fabby 80’s in Sydney. Life back then was very simplistic. Looking back on my childhood, I now realised I had a very privileged, yet sheltered upbringing.
When I was young, I learned quickly that I had to be tough: mentally and physically. My dad was a tough, Vietnam vet who owned a timber mill. You didn’t speak about your problems because, if you did, he felt you were weak. Certain phrases of his echoed in my ears for years:
“What’s your problem?”
“Get over it!”
“What a drama queen!”
Being young, I assumed that everyone felt the same way he did, so I toughened up. I “got over it.” I never spoke about how I was feeling and I didn’t know how to express the feelings I was having. No one had counsellors or therapists back then. You kept it all bottled up inside.
With this mindset, I left home just before my eighteenth birthday and pursued a career as an actress and singer. I was successful early on and thought that my career was set. I was on a constant high. When that contract finished, I recall my first bout of being extremely sad. Going for auditions and not getting the role is demoralising, to say the least. Negative self-talk turned into self-hatred. I started drinking heavily. The relationship I was in became volatile and, six weeks prior to the wedding: I bolted — hopped on a plane and moved to Los Angeles. I now know these irrational decisions I seemed to be constantly making were due to bipolar, but I had no insight into that then. I came home broke and defeated. I remember becoming extremely angry — angry at myself, angry at life and the world.
Throughout my twenties, I was captured in a vicious cycle of what I now know was manic depression. I partied really hard. My friends knew me to be so positive and upbeat, but in reality I was an introvert; sad and broken. I drank to hide my anxiety and nerves.
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I didn’t consider that I may have a mental illness. In my late twenties, after another relationship breakdown, I was distraught; overwhelmingly depressed. I cried every day for months. I couldn’t leave the house, I stopped looking after myself. My legs looked like they were covered in bear fur. I had thoughts of killing myself daily. Driving my car into a tree. Slicing myself open with razor blades, (yes, the ones I should’ve been using to shave my legs). This was when I knew something more serious was wrong. I went to the doctor who took one look at me and put me on an antidepressant. I didn’t tell a soul as I was deeply ashamed and embarrassed… not to mention “weak.”
After starting to feel better, I met the man who would become my husband. I’d met my life partner. My mood shifted and I started feeling great, then wonderful, then amazing. We got married and had our first child. This is when our life changed forever. I got post-natal depression. It was 2004, so the landscape relating to mental illness in Australia had shifted. Depression awareness organisations like Beyond Blue were in the media and people were now openly talking about having depression or anxiety — BUT NOT BIPOLAR: I believe that’s still a scary word here in Australia.
Post-natal depression, though, was widely spoken about so I wasn’t ashamed to say I had it. I went back on medication and gradually I improved to the point where we felt confident enough to have two more children. Twelve months after the birth of my second son, I went into a hyper-elevated and hypomanic state that lasted for around six months. Classic bipolar systems arose.
I became extremely entrepreneurial and founded my own theatrical agency. I look back now and can’t believe how crazy that was. My husband and I moved interstate, we had two kids less than eighteen months of age, we’d left all family and friends behind and, in my hyper state, thought I should start a business. When in this state, I’m irrational and can only see the positives not the potential negatives. It started off fine, then, it became all-consuming. I became obsessed. I started to push my family away. It began with not engaging with them after work, not considering what to cook for dinner, not doing food shopping. The fridge was empty. I barely ate. I drank and I drank to help me relax and relieve the stress I was under. I put my beautiful children in day-care five days a week. This broke my heart.
I’m lucky I have such an understanding husband who supported me and the family throughout this time. He has told me that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. I don’t know, as I’ve lost a lot of my memory around this time.
On a positive note, the business became very successful and is still operating to this day. I’m proud of that accomplishment, although it came at a cost to my family and to my mental health. I came crashing down and fell into a tortuous arduous depression. I literally couldn’t get off the floor for three months. My doctor wanted to check me into a mental hospital. I couldn’t believe she wanted to do that. I was not mentally ill. No way. She at least convinced me to seek a psychologist.
In Australia, we have one of the best and free health care systems. A person’s general practitioner can provide him or her with a free mental health treatment plan. This allows you to go and see a psychologist or psychiatrist for very little to no cost. This way, regardless of your socioeconomic situation, all that is required is a mental health plan from your GP, and you can receive the care you need.
I received many different diagnoses over the years. I thought that no one knew what they were talking about and dismissed it as simply being a tired mother of three and I continued on with life, working my butt off in my business and raising the kids.
However, I wasn’t improving and my husband and GP convinced me to go and see a psychiatrist. She took one look at me and booked me into hospital. I’d given up by this stage and didn’t care what happened to me. I was staying at a private hospital and realised that this was exactly where I needed to be. Art became my solace. Every day, I would take myself down to the art room and do simple arts and crafts projects, such as colour, paint and make paper butterflies. I made things for my children. I started to get some much-needed sleep. It was here that I received my first diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
I told them they were silly, I most certainly didn’t have that. That was for the really mentally messed up people. Not me. Yes, there was stigma, alive and well; stigma so strong it could even be espoused by a patient wearing a gown in a hospital. Of course, I didn’t really know what bipolar disorder was; I just knew I didn’t like the sound of it. I checked out of hospital and went back to my life.
Exactly a year later, I went into a mixed state with rapid cycling. I would wake up very excited, and then I would be depressed, agitated, angry, excited, burst into tears and aggressive. It went on and on. One evening, I’d just cooked dinner and was feeling fine. I walked into our bedroom and something just snapped. I attempted to take my own life. My biggest regret is that this happened in front of my children. The only way I can reconcile this, is that I wasn’t aware of what I was doing and I was in a hell of a lot of emotional pain. I was rushed by ambulance to hospital where I was in and out of consciousness for three days. I was transferred back to the psychiatric hospital I had been at the year before. Unfortunately, I was still rapid cycling and in a mixed state. I tried to end my life in hospital.
Hospital was the best thing that had happened to me. It was by far the safest place for me to be. If I wasn’t in hospital I would not be alive today. I’m so thankful that I am here today alive and well.
After seemingly being placed on every medication known to the psych world, we found a combination that stabilised me for the time being. I spent every day in the art room and started writing. My words were jumbled and didn’t really make sense to others, but they made sense to me. Through intense therapy, a Pandora’s Box had been opened and everything that had ever upset me or anyone who had wronged me viscously poured out. It was my first time opening up to a therapist. I stayed in hospital for nearly 8 weeks. I lost a lot of my memory throughout those two years of ill health. Still to this day, I’m piecing things together with the help of my husband. I can barely remember my son’s first year of school. It’s devastating.
Growing up, I had swept everything under the carpet, and so did my peers. It’s only now that people may feel open enough to tell you they suffer with depression and are seeking help. People still are shocked when I tell them I live with bipolar. I remember telling a friend I had bipolar. She said, “What’s that?” I told her and mentioned that millions of people all over the world have bipolar disorder, including comic actor Stephen Fry. Most of the time, I need to use celebrities to explain bipolar because not many people have a clue. Her response floored me.
“Oh, really?! He’s so smart. I didn’t think someone as clever as him would have something like that.”
“Um, thanks, love!” I responded. Stigma still exists: brilliant, funny and successful people like Stephen Fry can’t possibly have bipolar — that’s only for dumb, messed up people like me!
Yes. I have bipolar disorder, but I’m not alone. My husband is my rock. He stuck by me throughout the toughest years of our life. We have a better relationship now than ever before and have been married for 14years. He has the patience of a saint and understands that I have an illness. He educated himself about every detail about this illness. Education is the key.
When in hospital, I got angry, really angry at the world for stigmatising mental illness. Part of me was so angry at myself for being so uneducated. I mean, I had stigmatised mental illness: me, the girl with bipolar, in the hospital gown. My own anger and disgust at myself drove me to mental health advocacy. Every patient I met in hospital, and I saw a lot of people come and go, were all human beings who had been through so much in life and, goddamn it, they were still standing and fighting the fight every day.
I never want to put my family through this again.
I’m not willing to pay the price.
My children need their mother.
My husband needs his wife.
I need to be well for myself.
So, we changed our life completely to help with my recovery. We sold our house and downsized our mortgage. We took our children out of private schools and sent them to the local school. I stopped working to remove all work related stress. It’s little things that make big difference. I love to write. I listen to classical music 24/7. I dance Zumba! It’s my Happy Hour! It took four years before I felt joy again. Medication plays a big role in my recovery and day-to-day living. I will always be on my meds as, without them, I can’t function properly and that scares me.
I started my own mental health-related website and started blogging for a mental health online magazine. My husband and I published a workbook on my site to help others with recovery. The book was born out of my own need to find something I could have fun with whilst monitoring my moods, meds and triggers. Art and writing have such a positive impact with recovery. They are great distraction techniques that are fun and that anyone can do.
I’ve also discovered that I don’t wish to be defined by this illness. I don’t wish to always examine, and be reminded of, my past. I am not bipolar. I live with bipolar. I’ve been in recovery now for five years. The first few years were hard. Year by year it gets easier. But you need to put in the work. Eat well, get lots of sleep, do light exercise and try and laugh.
Remember — there is always sunshine after rain.