Eleanor

This post was written by Eleanor as part of my #MentallyWealthy series. Elly has bipolar disorder, and writes about how exercise has helped her cope. You can find Elly on Instagram.

Feeling “hyper” is an exciting feeling, right? Your energy is skyrocketing and your thoughts going 100mph. Experiencing a change in mood and energy levels is completely human. But imagine that instead of those hyper periods lasting for an hour or so, it’s two weeks. And then after that the depression comes. It feels like it will never end. Eventually it does, but then the hypomania comes again.

There are two types of Bipolar Disorder, I’m going to talk about type II and how fitness has been the biggest part of my recovery. I’d like people to see that having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t choose how you want to live with it, that you can pursue your passions and find your sense of self again.

Since I can remember, I have loved being active. I love the challenge of sport and putting my competitive mindset to good use. I started athletics when I was 9, figure skating at 12, and loved to climb mountains. But alongside this kid that was smiley and happy, I also had mood swings and slept very badly.

At the age of 16, I started experiencing severe depression. I didn’t want to tell people what was going on in my head for fear of being seen as anything other than a happy person, thinking I was imposing negativity on others. I also held onto the false belief that people wouldn’t care anyway.

When I got to college I struggled; sleep was constantly a problem, the workload was more intense and as a result I was even more angry with the world for not letting me sleep. I was in and out of hospital whilst getting support from CAMHS and then the Adult Mental Health service. My identity felt like it was gradually eroding away: I couldn’t maintain my studies, social commitments were impossible to keep and what had previously been my passion in sport, I started to resent and then give up. It felt like a joke to hear “it’ll get better” after years of feeling like I was fighting to get out of a black hole that was invisible to everyone else around me. And I was tired of fighting.

Before university, I was diagnosed as Bipolar Type II. After numerous medications, we thankfully found some that worked for me. It isn’t completely certain what causes individuals to have Bipolar Disorder, but genetic and environmental factors can play a large part.

I started athletics again while I was getting used to this new medication. At the time, for me, it was the perfect way to feel physically tired, focus my mind on learning new skills and for the endorphins that followed. I also started surfing, and it truly felt that exercise was another form of medication supplying my brain with the “happy” chemicals I couldn’t produce myself. It was a way of connecting my mental state with my physical body and it made me feel like myself again.

There are times when exercise doesn’t make you feel instantly better, and maybe you lose a little hope. But doing something that will benefit you in both the short and long-term can seriously help to make low moods pass. On the flip side, it is also a productive way to use any extra energy you have.

In hypomania my brain becomes wired in overdrive; I plan out massive unachievable things, my behavior changes and decisions I make can be risky or even dangerous. But when exercise is introduced, my mind is focused on one thing: whether this is running, lifting weights or surfing. It can be a way to work through a multitude of feelings and get your head space back to a safer place, and it was the biggest part of my recovery.

I still have times when I feel incredibly low or have unusually high levels of energy. Acknowledging these feelings is the first step: know that it is okay to feel down, hyper, happy, fatigued and that all of these feelings eventually pass.

Thanks so much to Elly for sending this in!

Lucy

This post was written by Lucy, who got in touch wanting to share her experience with bipolar. It’s so eloquently written, too! This post was written as part of my #MentallyWealthy series, a series of blog post with the aim of sharing what it’s like to live with a mental health condition and how we cope. You can find Lucy on Instagram

 

For me living with bipolar is about thriving and not just surviving, it’s a condition I have but it doesn’t define me.

I suppose I had my ‘epiphany moment’ in early 2010 when I found myself in A&E at midnight in an incredibly distressed state with strong suicidal thoughts. The doctor on call said something incredibly profound to me…”just remember that you are braver than you believe and stronger than you seem”.  Little did I know he was quoting Winnie the Pooh to me until years later, but I credit that doctor with saving my life.

I was subsequently diagnosed with type I Bipolar Disorder, and upon reflection it had probably appeared in my early teens but it took over fifteen years to diagnose.  Once I had the diagnosis, I engrossed myself with learning as much as possible about the condition and how I could tackle it, as I believed it to be something I could “beat”.  I now know differently, I can’t beat a chemical imbalance in my brain and instead I embrace it.

To me, my condition is often a rollercoaster and one I have learned to, dare I say it, enjoy, which may seem slightly odd when one reads the pessimistic and gloomy views often associated with bipolar.  Yes, I am on daily medication to take away the extremes of the manic and depressive states but I have to say that now I have come to terms with it, I wouldn’t change it for the world.  My manic episodes have led me to travel and live in some incredible countries along the way, and I feel like I have lived. Bipolar can sometimes be a cruel mistress, but also one to embrace.  I feel so much more, and experiences take on a whole new dimension for me.  I can smell the fresh scent of a peony and it lights up my soul; on the flip side I can also put the best fake smile on known to man and hide the pain I feel inside. Would I trade the highs so I wouldn’t have to experience the lows?  Not in a million years.  The lows can be crippling and indeed terrifying, but now I have changed how I think about bipolar, it makes me feel alive as I am actually feeling something.  Often with the depressive state, I used to feel empty, numb and worthless but now I know I can turn a corner and soon it will be ok again.

Developing an early warning strategy to deal with the onset of a high or a low episode was key for me and I was fortunate to take part in the early trial of a monitoring programme (True Colours) run by a team in Oxford. Diet and exercise has been absolutely instrumental for me, even if some days I couldn’t walk further than the garden gate as I couldn’t bear to face the world.  At that time, I lived in a cottage in an incredibly rural spot with no neighbours so I’d have more chance of conversing with a deer than a person, but that’s how debilitating it was.  I have to credit my rather amazing husband with his endless research into the effects of diet and exercise on mental health, as it was something that wasn’t really talked about 8 years ago, it was medication or bust.  He noticed how much better I was if I had a diet consisting of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, a consistent sleeping and waking routine, how I felt after I took our dogs for a long walk across the fields and even when he coaxed me into trail running (I am not a natural athlete, I can assure you). Sometimes I still need that reminder and even a bit of tough love when I’m heading on a downward path and I tell him that I’m struggling – he gives me a hug and then tells me to put my trainers on and that whilst I probably hate him at that precise moment in time, I’ll thank him later.  He’s usually right.

In October last year, I switched to an organic, whole food, plant based diet for a multitude of reasons, but the main focus for me was to see how it affected my mental health and it was incredibly positive.  Caffeine can trigger a manic episode for me, so out went my Diet Coke obsession and my ability to drink a phenomenal amount of tea in a day.  I also ditched alcohol as I noticed that had a negative effect on my mood.  I joined a gym to keep my exercise going through the winter as running round country lanes at 6am in the pitch dark can be slightly lethal, even when lit up like a Christmas tree.  I mix up my routine with HIIT sessions, weight training, yoga and my favourite still has to be going for a run in the great outdoors.  I’m following the ‘One You Couch to 5k’ plan again, and Sarah Millican keeps me going.

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Why did I ask Flora if I could write about bipolar? Well, largely because I finally want to speak out about it – I’m tired of having a condition I felt ashamed of for years and dealing with the social stigma surrounding it can be a minefield for everyone involved and quite frankly, it is exhausting.  I wanted to highlight the fact that it is not all doom and gloom, bipolar can be life changing and not actually for all the wrong reasons.  It has taken me a while to get to this point, but now I can embrace it and actually enjoy it.  Being able to truly understand my condition and thus subsequently manage it, is rather empowering. It has certainly been a journey so far, and it is a life I wouldn’t swap for anything.

Embrace it, nourish yourself, thrive in the experiences life throws at you, seek out adventure in everyday life and don’t just survive as you are worth so much more.

 

I love Lucy’s positive outlook on her condition. I, too, have developed a quasi ‘thankfulness’ for my depressive episodes, because they made me the person I am today, and whilst neither of us would probably wish these ‘disorders’ on others, there’s no reason not to accept and even celebrate the positives they can give us. Thanks so much to Lucy for sharing this with me. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

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