My experience living with Bipolar Affective Disorder

Joseph talks about his experience with bipolar and how his support system has really helped

Written by Joseph Burke


Bipolar Affective Disorder presented itself to me when I was 15. I presented with bursts of energy and with that I couldn’t sleep for days. I was full of anger and paranoia. Eventually I believed the Gardaí and FBI was hunting me down. I couldn’t sleep and could only rest with weapons planted everywhere. Eventually I was getting signs from god and talking to dead people. This was a really horrible time and I can now reflect back that these were symptoms of bipolar disorder. Things would get better but at the time, I really did believe there was no going back.

Eventually I was admitted to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) inpatient unit where I stayed for six weeks. It was a weird time and I could talk for hours about being there. The main thing that helped me was that I found other people suffering from the same illness and I began to realise I wasn’t alone. This quote will always be associated with my time there “It may be stormy now, but it never rains forever.”

Deciding to complete my Junior Cert

I was admitted to the CAMHS inpatient unit in 2015, my Junior Cert year. The doctors in CAMHS and my principal made it clear that there was no need to cause extra stress for myself by doing my Junior Cert. But when I made my decision to complete my exams, the principal gave me all the support he could provide. My parents were very supportive and it didn’t bother them what I did as long as I was happy.

I was motivated not to fall behind my peers and complete the Junior Cert cycle. It was very challenging, but I wouldn’t take no for an answer and it really was a major step in my recovery. I got out of the CAMHS unit in April and had my exams that June. I imagine I would have gone down a different road if I listened to this advice. If I didn’t complete my exams I imagine I would have repeated or dropped out and this would have kept me behind my peers and be bad for my mental health. The only thing keeping me happy the last couple of years was that I was working towards my dream to study social care. For me, not doing the Junior Cert would have been a barrier to all of this.

Having a support network

One of the main things that has helped my recovery has been the development of my support network. My poor family have seen it all and they shaped me and helped me through it all. Friends have really supported me a hundred percent. A few have struggled with my symptoms at times but they have stuck around and I started to find quality friends.

Youth work was basically my home for a couple of years and really helped rebuild me. My local community has been very supportive. They see past my illness and accept, support me for who I am. For example, I am very open with my illness and they don’t discriminate against me because of it and I often spend a lot of my time chatting and messing with the neighbours which is great for my head. The support network is one of the most important elements of the recovery. I am grateful for all the support available and it reminds me that it’s important to be proactive with your recovery. You can be given all the help in the world but you have to make an effort and try to help yourself.

Last March was my last major episode, where I had a hypo-manic episode and my medications were not working. I recognised this so I took upon myself to present to A+E where I clearly gave my information to reception and asked to see a psychiatrist. I passed through triage and was seen within an hour. I was given the appropriate care in A&E which helped me manage during the exams I was taking at the time. On another occasion I had an incident where I forgot my tablets on a training course. My youth worker collected my medication herself which allowed me to stay in the course. To me this is a real example of how important a supportive and understanding network is.

Other factors that help

Medication, professional help and exercise are some factors that have helped me. My opinion of medications has changed over time from seeing it as a burden, to an essential tool for managing my illness, just like someone with Asthma needs an inhaler to manage their illness.

Lately my nurse has been trying to empower me to be more independent with managing my condition and it has been going very well. I have definitely started to advocate for myself with the services I use. The main thing that has helped is me being open. It has been a kind of coping mechanism and I haven’t been afraid to embrace myself. Taking my inspiration for Demi Lavato’s song ‘This is me.’ The lyrics ‘So afraid to tell the world, what I had to say, but I have this dream… This is real, this is me, I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, gonna let the light, shine on me… no more hiding who I want to be. This is me. Do you know what’s it like to feel so in the dark?’ have always helped me. 

Basically you can trace the development of this character through the song. She is someone who has low confidence but who develops into a true role model and I could apply it to my own life.

Moving forward

Five years on from my initial diagnosis, I’m in 2nd year of my dream course doing what I love. My mood swings are less frequent and have started to stabilize. The illness is still present but a lot more manageable. I hope this has given you some idea of bipolar disorder. Mental illness presents us with challenges and in a way burns the bridge down to cross the river, but it is possible to find a way around it.

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