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Climbing mountains: diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 57

Catrin chatted to DPB, who shared insight to his experience of finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II after experiencing mental health problems over 39 years and, following the diagnosis some steps he's taking to support himself.

I have only recently been officially diagnosed as being on the bipolar scale despite knowing the same for around 40 years.

I always knew I was on the bipolar scale, however, I only presented to my doctor when I was down, so was only ever treated for depression.

When I’m low I struggle to communicate so the usual approaches, such as talking therapies, didn’t work for me.

With hindsight, I didn’t have the awareness or education to recognise what I was experiencing to be able to go to the doctor’s when I was well or manic. I’d shrug it off thinking, hoping, it wouldn’t happen again.

I realise now, I have a lifelong condition.

I know there are many blogs about bipolar written by more literal and knowledgeable people than I. Thinking about what I could discuss, I considered the two extremes of the condition.

It seems the symptoms and suggestive causes of depressive episodes are well known to the public, through personal experience or the experience of public figures, but I am not aware of such exposure of the hypomania side.

We all like feeling energised, happy, fit, and ready to take on the world. Why would feeling like that be concerning?

A life of highs and lows

My lows would leave me totally isolated. I would literally barricade myself somewhere I felt safe. It’s meant that I’ve lost two important relationships. I met my ex-wives when I was in a high and that’s how they first knew me.

Looking back, the patterns are recognisable. I meet someone new when I’m hypo.

I’d try to take on any problem they had, I’d look to raise my status so buying a new house and getting a bigger job with more responsibility; the pressure building all the time, with no release.

Actually, I’d try to find a release but even that was affected. I love sport so it would just mean more sport, too much sport. Rather than just cycling, I had to cycle 100 miles. Rather than going for a walk to clear my head, I had to climb a mountain.

I’ve seen a good metaphor that the Bipolar Education Programme Cymru (BEPC) use, which is a bucket with a draining tap at the bottom. Stress flows into the bucket which fills and fills but without the right coping mechanisms the tap won’t open so the bucket overflows and you snap.

My “snapping” would result in a low period where I could hardly communicate and I would spend months picking up the pieces.

It’s so hard on your loved ones. They need the education on the condition as much as the person experiencing it. With my relationships, I’m talking 20 – 30 years ago but my point still stands, and it feels like we’re finally getting somewhere with raising awareness of mental health as a whole.

You still hear people saying “well, that’s just life” and it can be hard to get across just how incapacitating mental illness can be if you haven’t experienced it.

What works for me

If you don’t know, there is a bipolar scale, which can help people describe their moods.

When I am 6+ on the bipolar scale, I display many of the documented symptoms, which includes the generation of many ideas and projects and activity.

To control it, I don’t try and tame or stem the thought generation. What I do now is attempt to allocate the generated items to my system, which is the Whole Life Balance matrix, inspired by Susan Jeffers in her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

I have divided my matrix into what I call segments of the following subjects:

  • Career
  • Contribution (gift)
  • Domestic
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Hobbies
  • Personal development
  • Relationship

I then slot in the plethora of daily ideas and projects into the matrix. They are then classified by size (Small, Medium, Large) and urgency (Low, Medium, High).

This blog would fall primarily into ‘health’, ‘small’, ‘low’ (as I’ve been put under no deadline date).

​Taking part in NCMH’s research or volunteering for Mind would come under Contribution, and anything I do to broaden my mind, like a coaching course I’m currently doing, would come under Personal Development.

“Fairly standard Time Management”, I hear you scream. I agree, but how many of us practice the principles we demonstrate in our professional lives to our personal lives? Few I would suggest.

I have found this creates a degree of order to my overactive idea generator and allows me to ensure I allocate tasks evenly across my whole life balance.

This might sound like a simple tip, but I’ve found having such a system incredibly helpful and I hope it may assist someone, somewhere.

This has been my first time sharing my story in such a way and for me, it fits into my Contributions, giving something back.

As I learn more about bipolar and myself as a result, I hope to help someone else, even one other person, along the way.

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Catrin Hopkins

Catrin is the Communications Manager for NCMH and Cardiff University's Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics

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