Coming from a secure family background, I suppose you’d call it middle class, there was nothing in my childhood to indicate I would become mentally ill. I had two loving parents and two brothers and one sister.
Life was turned upside down when my father died tragically young whilst I was sixteen and preparing for my O levels. My youngest brother, at the age of thirteen, took this very badly, which resulted in him refusing point blank to go to school. After being badly let down by the system, he eventually took his own life at the tender age of twenty-one. This was to leave a deep scar on all of us and it was two years later that I had my first bout of psychosis.
I lived in North Wales where it is very difficult to find work for anyone, but particularly as a non-Welsh speaker. As a result I always had to travel some distance to find work. I chose catering as I had worked as a waiter during summer holidays and because it allowed me to travel.
After commencing a course in hotel management I was offered a job as a waiter in Switzerland in a four-star hotel; I realized I was learning more there, and decided to stay on after the summer season finished. Typical of me, always doing things the hard way! After two years in Switzerland I came home to start as an assistant manager in a small country town hotel. At first, I enjoyed the job and put everything into it. However, as time passed, I became increasingly stressed to the point of not being able to sleep.
My thoughts became rapid and I started to link things that had no connection. I became highly emotional and very nervy; and began to lose my temper which is most unusual for me. Gradually I began to believe there was a conspiracy against me involving the media and that the radio and TV were having a laugh at my expense. Even though I was physically exhausted, my mind was racing so much that I was only able to get a couple of hours sleep per night. I also became very unpopular, something I was not used to being, as I am a gentle and caring soul, but looking back I can understand how others must have perceived me. Eventually, I believed that the SAS were following me and that I was being bugged by someone.
Depressed, broke and jobless, friends I had made in Switzerland offered me a job as head waiter in a 140-seat restaurant 6700 feet up in the Swiss Alps, and I thank them for helping me to put the pieces back together. During my stay there I got my head sorted and applied for a job as a French speaker with a British management company as an industrial catering manager based in Algeria. One week I was at the top of a Swiss mountain and the next in Algeria. The work was hard and the hours long but looking back I enjoyed my time there and learnt a lot.
Having bought a house at home in North Wales, as the contract finished I secured a job as an accommodation manager on a 550-bed oil support barge based in Shetland. Operating amongst people who worked long stints on oil rigs was unlike anything I had experienced before. Eight weeks later, it started happening again. I could not sleep and was highly emotional. The media were having a laugh at my expense, my temper re-emerged and once again, I linked things that were not connected in my mind. I had a sense of déjà vu and one day lost my temper with my boss and hey presto was sacked and returned to North Wales.
I was unable to continue the mortgage payments and had to sell the house I had worked so hard for. This time at least I had made a profit so for once I wasn’t broke. I avoided hospital but it was nonetheless a painful and humiliating experience. Once again it was a friend who offered me a job and I set off for South Wales.
With the profit from the house I set up as a portrait and wedding photographer, continuing an interest I had had since childhood. After three years I secured a job in Dubai as a photographer. Dubai was hot, 40° every day, and I was happy to have landed a job which I enjoyed and was good at. I now understand that good things happening to a bipolar can be as dangerous as bad things. Within a month and displaying all the normal signs, I went psychotic again. But this time I came to believe that I was the next Messiah. I was terrified and eventually had a row with my employers which resulted in my being sacked once again and handed an air ticket home. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for my behaviour. Quite simply, I was mad.
Returning home completely out of control, it was not long before I was sectioned and this time diagnosed with manic depressive psychosis/bipolar 1. After a month in hospital, I returned home. The diagnosis was a double-edged sword. On the one hand it explained in part what had happened to me but on the other it would be written in indelible ink on my medical history. Were I to apply for a job which required a medical questionnaire I would have to disclose it. Once again I was home in North Wales, alone, broke, devastated and this time with a life of benefits ahead of me. I was thirty-four.
One helpful thing, apart from an accurate diagnosis and medication that my psychiatrist gave me, was a pamphlet published by the MDF. My involvement with MDF was to play an important part in my recovery as I was to meet many men and women with the diagnosis and to learn of coping strategies.
I joined the management committee of MDF Wales in Newport in 1998 and became a trustee of the Fellowship in 1999. This I found challenging, worthwhile, interesting, and ultimately being a part of the organization replaced the void that was created by being out of work.
During the three years I served as a trustee of the Fellowship, the MDF received lottery funding for their self-management training programme. This is a two-day intensive experience whereby two trained facilitators, both with the diagnosis, lead twelve people with bipolar through every aspect of the condition. This I would describe as the most helpful two days I had spent since diagnosis.
Bipolar for me is two conditions – depression and mania – and I treat both differently. Mania for me generally is seasonal and can start in springtime. Over the years I have agreed with my psychiatrist that I can tweak the antipsychotics within minimum and maximum levels. My insight tells me when I am going a bit high. This can happen very quickly if there are sufficient triggers, usually for me good luck, a new girlfriend or something positive in my life, which raises my mood, risking hypomania. It is at this point I increase my medication to pre-arranged levels and generally get more sleep for a couple of days.
As there are frequently outside unpredictable factors that are triggers for mania, I do not find that a constant fixed dose of medication is the way for me. I would add that I have good insight into my condition and this is tried and tested, and anyone thinking of changing medication should first agree it in advance with their psychiatrist.
Lows, on the other hand, I have to deal with without antidepressants as previously these have tended to send me high very quickly. Depression generally starts around October/November time as the nights draw in. I have learnt that, whilst in a depressive state, I hang onto the notion that it will lift and liken it to a long dose of flu. When very low I tend to withdraw from all but my close friends and family and wait for it to lift.
Whilst in a state absent of either depression or mania I liken my life to that of a skimming stone on calm water. Whilst on the move between mental health meetings, visiting friends, shopping and going for walks, if I were to stop and be alone, my mood would sink like a stone.
Volunteering in mental health may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but finding an interest to fill time that will benefit others is a great way to work a little on self-esteem. Doing nothing on one’s own on a low income is enough to make anyone depressed regardless of a natural pre-disposition.
I have also long since let go of any desire for material possessions beyond the necessary and this has given me a degree of freedom. Some will talk of retail therapy, but for me it’s about being content with what I’ve got, and not comparing myself to others. This, however, has taken me a few years to develop and I still would like to win the lottery!
Excerpt from ‘The A-Z Guide to Good Mental Health: You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Have Manic Depression’
Jeremy Thomas, 2008