My mental illness Q & A – Mental Health Tag 2017

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1. What is your mental health issue?

I suffer from Bipolar Affective disorder. It first manifested as depression, but I was later diagnosed with Bipolar. As part of Bipolar, I also have psychosis, where I have times when I experience auditory hallucinations. I also suffer with panic attacks and bulimia.

2. Do you have medication and/or therapy?

Currently, I am only receiving medication for Bipolar. I take lamotrigine a mood stabiliser, aripiprazole, an anti psychotic and sertraline, an anti depressant. I am hoping to receive some form of therapy organised through my psychiatrist.

3. What therapy/medication have you tried and has any worked for you?

The combination of medications I listed in the last question are undoubtedly the most effective of all the medications for Bipolar I have been on. The side effects are minimal; they make me extremely tired, but I take them before I got to bed so they help me to sleep. Before this I was on quetiapine, which I can only describe as making me zombified. I was constantly tired and lived in a haze of forgetfulness and had a complete lack of concentration. I was then on respiridone, which initially worked well, but because of a hormonal balance I had to stop taking it.

For panic attacks, I found CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) to be helpful. It helped because the panic attacks I was experiencing at the time were environmental. After stressful periods of time I would have an intense and painful panic attack. It taught me how to change my thinking when I was stressed.

4. How long have you had problems for?

I was first severely depressed when I was fourteen. I became a school refuser, and was referred to a psychologist. I had multiple bouts of mania (which I didn’t realise was mania at the time) during my late teens and twenties. I was finally diagnosed with Bipolar aged twenty seven.

I started experiencing panic attacks when I was twenty, and developed bulimia during my early twenties.

5. Do your family/friends know?

My family and friends are all aware of my mental health problems. I encourage them to talk to me and read my blog if they are unsure or confused about my illness.

6. Does this affect your work and daily living?

In a word, yes. I am currently unable to work a full time job, with my income coming from sporadic freelance writing jobs, selling my artwork on Etsy and DLA (disability living allowance), now known as PIP (personal independence payments). Daily life can be a struggle if I’m in a depressive episode, where I’m unable to do anything, let alone work or socialise with friends. Relationships can become strained when I’m unwell. I’m difficult to be around, because I either shut down completely, or become angry and rude.

7. What makes you feel calm?

Listening to music, especially alternative eighties and nineties songs, as they remind me of happier times. Bubble baths are my absolute calming, safe space to be in. Snuggled up reading a good book, especially an old favourite.

8. What do you do in crisis?

The number one thing is to tell someone I’m in crisis. Being alone during these moments can be unbearable. I need someone to give me a hug and talk to me, even if it is innocuous and dull.  If I’m alone I’ll ring or message my husband or my mum. I try and distract myself from the intense feelings I’m experiencing.; whether that’s listening to music, having a bath, or playing a video game. Sometimes this isn’t enough and I have to ring the local crisis team, or my psychiatrist, who is awesome at organising emergency appointments when I’m in crisis.

9. What advice would you give to others suffering?

My advice is to find support as soon as possible. At appointments sometimes you need to be confident and assertive to be taken seriously and to be given a diagnosis or support you need. I know it’s incredibly difficult to do that when you’re ill, so take someone close to you that understands what you’re going through.

Become an expert on your mental illness. The more you know, the more you will understand and find solutions to combat your mental illness.

10. What makes you smile?

My husband, my family and friends. My hyperactive cat, Matilda. Animals, especially ducks, bears and otters. Nature, hot summer days, music and art.

11. Describe your mental health issue in 5 words –

Debilitating. Bewildering. Complicated. Painful. Terrifying.

12. Insert a picture to make people smile –

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My First Panic Attack

I had my first panic attack when I was 18. It was Christmas time and I was back from Uni. I remember being in bed when I suddenly felt a wave of nausea. The feeling built up gradually, to the point where I was convinced I was about to vomit. I rushed downstairs to the bathroom but nothing happened. My Mum had heard me coming down the stairs and appeared at the doorway to check if I was ok. That was when the pain hit me. A sharp, intense pain penetrated my chest; it felt like I’d been stabbed. I began to pace the house but each step I took the pain resonated from my foot up to my chest. With every action, the pain continued to intensify, as did my desperation. By that point I was crying with fear. I was convinced I was having a heart attack; that I was going to die. My Mum at this point rushed to the phone and rang an ambulance. Unable to control my breathing, I began to hyperventilate. Again this was a new experience and again I was terrified. Anyone who has experienced this knows how difficult to reign back in your breathing pattern is, especially when you don’t understand what is happening to you. I didn’t understand that I needed to calm myself and try to relax and that by doing so would release some of the pain. The ambulance arrived whilst I was sitting on the sofa, hunched over with my hands clamped over my head. The paramedics were incredibly calm and patient with me, especially as it took about 15 minutes for them to convince me to move. I’m a very prideful person and even in the state I was in, I didn’t want to be helped or go to the hospital.
It was my mum who first suggested it might have been a panic attack. In hospital the doctor took an ECG, which came back normal and then ordered an x-ray of my chest, that again, came back as fine. His opinion was I’d pulled a muscle in my chest. My conclusion; he had no idea and was bullshitting.

For the next 3 years, I had numerous panic attacks, I couldn’t honestly say how many. I found heat of any kind soothed the pain and calmed me down. I would take a shower, sit on the floor with my back to the radiator in winter. Finally I bought a lavender pillow I could heat up and then place on my back or chest. The attacks would feel like they lasted for hours, and some did. Most attacks would occur in a cluster of two or three over the space of a week. The most frustrating element of the panic attacks was they would nearly always happen in the early hours of the morning. After each bout, I would be utterly exhausted.

I was finally offered CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) when I was 21. Before this, I was fobbed off many, many times by doctors who knew what was wrong with me. They’d say have a relaxing bath, drink some herbal tea before bed…blah, blah, blah. What I really needed was to learn why this was occurring and what I could do about it. The six CBT appointments I had were incredibly helpful. I learnt to accept that this was something that happened to me and that when it did, I could control it. Each time I had an attack, I would say to myself, ‘I know this is a panic attack. I know nothing terrible is going to happen to me. I know it is up to me to control and stop this.’ My counsellor showed me relaxation techniques and how to regulate my breathing so I wouldn’t hyperventilate and help calm my thoughts. My favourite relaxation technique was to tense and then relax my body starting with my toes and moving up to my neck.

Since CBT, the amount and severity of attacks have diminished and now I rarely suffer from them. This year, I have only had one major one. What I’ve realised is the anxiety and panic attacks are intertwined with Bipolar. They are part of the cycle; it often starts off with mania, that then subsides to a point where I feel devoid of energy. The offshoot of this is either a massive panic attack, a deep depression or both. I now look at panic attacks as my body’s way of saying ‘No, I’ve had enough of this nonsense, you’ve been using my reserve battery for too long, so I’m fucking you up for a bit.’ One piece of advice from my time talking to Gp’s that wasn’t entirely useless was having a bath. When I’m stressed or panicky, I’ll run a bath full to the brim with bubbles overflowing. It’s my safe place. Lying back in that warm water soothes me and distracts me from the pain and pressure I’m feeling. I lived in a house with only a shower for three years, but now I have one again I make sure I take a bath every single day to relax.

You can watch my video about panic attacks here

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How much is too much: Alcohol and Bipolar

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I love a good drink. Alcohol plays a major role in how I relax and how I socialise. Over the years, as my moods have changed, so has my relationship with alcohol and my consumption. When I lived alone, I was in a manic state nearly the entire time and I drank often in my flat when no one was around. After it became a problem, I made a promise to myself never to drink alone again. I’ve kept that promise, well as much as I could. I’ve had  some rare slip ups to this rule when I’ve been feeling very depressed. Alcohol was there and I knew it could numb the pain I was in.

Anyway, the point of this post is to explain how alcohols effect on me has changed recently. Take yesterday evening. I was sat at home, after having more than a few drinks the night before, I thought I’d have a quiet night in to myself. I’d been feeling slightly delicate that day, probably because we had started with beer and then graduated on to whiskey. Though feeling a bit rough, it wasn’t a problem; until about five that evening. My heart began to race. It felt like it was going to explode. There was a sharp, shooting pain in my back that radiated into my chest. It felt like the beginning of a panic attack. I sat as relaxed as I could taking deep breaths through my nose and exhaling out my mouth. The pain refused to dissipate. To calm myself, I ran a bath. The bath has become my safe place and the heat soothed the pain I was in.

I knew it was the alcohol that was effecting me because this wasn’t the first time this had happened. Before Christmas, I was drinking heavily. The nearer we got to the festivities, the more often I was having panic attacks. Move forward to Boxing day evening and I was in terrible pain, my heart again racing at a ferocious speed. I had to retreat upstairs to the spare room I was staying in and cry. I sobbed, sitting on the bed, feeling that I could no longer cope with these nearly incessant bouts of panic. The next day, with my husband, we made the connection between the panic attacks and alcohol. Without fail, the day after drinking I would have these attacks and it seemed to be the only explanation.

We decided it would be in my best interests to not drink until my birthday at the end of January. It worked and I didn’t have a attack for the entire month. I saw my psychiatrist during this time and he agreed it was most likely alcohol making me feel this way. I was also severely depressed and he felt the alcohol had contributed. Alcohol, he said, interfered in how the medication I was taking worked.

The depression has lifted now and I’ve decided only to drink on special occasions. Unfortunately this means dealing with the fallout the next day and I need to decide whether having a few drinks is actually worth it.

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