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Candid Madison describes living with bipolar

You are not alone: at least 2 per cent of the population are thought to have bipolar disorder (Photograph supplied)

In Madison Smith’s early twenties, her emotions swept from one extreme to another.

When she was depressed, she would spend hours locked in her room with the lights turned off.

When she wasn’t depressed, she was on top of the world, jumping from one erratic activity to another.

“Looking back, I don’t know how I ever survived my early twenties,” said the 29-year-old.

Once, on an emotional high, she decided she could fly.

“I tried to jump off a fifth-floor balcony,” said Ms Smith, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “I got stopped by some of my work colleagues.”

She spent three days at the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute. When she returned to work, she was fired.

She spent six years being treated for depression, before doctors realised she had bipolar disorder (or manic depression).

The diagnosis came as a relief.

“When I was diagnosed, it was good because at least I knew what was going on,” she said. “I was able to read up a bit on it.”

Finding the right medication was tough.

“One of the first ones I was on, I thought it was brilliant,” she said. “I’d been having trouble sleeping because my mind was racing so much.

“It knocked me out for 12 or 13 hours. I would fall asleep in mid-conversation.”

On the third day, she awoke almost paralysed. “It looked like I was having a stroke,” she said. “My voice was slurred and I couldn’t speak or stand. It turned out, I was highly allergic to the medication. Had I kept taking it, something bad would have happened.”

Other medications would work for a time, and then become less effective.

Now, finally, she’s on something that works for her. She’s now working again and taking courses in accounting and compliance.

“My goal is to have a stable life as much as possible,” she said. “I want to find a career that helps me to achieve, but is also quite flexible and doesn’t stress me out.”

She thinks she probably started having mental health issues as young as 11 years old.

“I didn’t quite know what was wrong because no one in my family had it or talked about it,” she said. “I just kept quiet because I thought I was going crazy.

“I felt an overwhelming sense of doom and depression. I thought it would be much better if I wasn’t in the world.

“Other times, I felt like I could do pretty much anything and I was on top of the world. I would sign up for all these different things I probably couldn’t do. In my mind, I thought I could do anything.”

Some of her impulses were dark. Other impulses were even darker.

“I can remember standing on the Causeway and thinking I should jump,” she said. “Then I decided not to because it probably wasn’t high enough to kill me.”

Today, she sometimes questions who she really is.

“Sometimes I don’t quite know who I am as a person, after age 11,” she said. “I am not sure what is me and what is the bipolar disorder. When I am on a high and motivated, I can get quite a bit done.”

On the other hand, the disorder has led her to try so many different things, she has a pretty clear picture what she likes and doesn’t like.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have tried things like gymnastics without it,” she said.

Now she tries to think carefully through every decision.

She keeps an extra bank account for emergencies, knowing that one day she might be out of a job again.

She finds comfort in planning.

“When I was sick, I had my life planned down to death,” she said. “I’m not even kidding. I gave myself 25 years after retirement before I’d kick the bucket.

“Now, I try to be a bit more relaxed about things. But, I am still writing my lists because it helps me to calm down.”

Her mother has been a great support system for her.

“She researches bipolar disorder for me,” said Ms Smith. “One thing I want my family to do is stop asking if I’m okay. Sometimes I’m going to feel happy and sometimes I’ll feel sad, like anyone else. It doesn’t mean I’m off my medication.”

Despite the family support, she sometimes feels a bit lonely. She doesn’t know anyone else with it.

“I’d like to talk to other people who understand,” she said.

She has teamed up with Cathy Sousa, of Benedict Associates, to form a support group for people with depression and bipolar disorder.

Ms Sousa runs a Facebook page Understanding Mental Illness Bermuda.

“One of the things that fights stigma is information,” said the counsellor. “I thought, let me try and see if I can get some information out there.

“We have had about 1,000 likes on the page.”

When Ms Smith contacted her, she had already been considering starting a support group.

“Madison said, ‘I would really like to do something like this’,” said Ms Sousa. “I said I would really like to support you in that. So, here we are.”

Ms Smith has a message for others struggling silently: ‘Don’t give up’.

“I struggled with the wrong diagnosis for six or seven years,” she said. “It’s quite difficult when nothing is getting better. Keep fighting and seeing different doctors. You know your body and you know if you’re not getting better. Keep looking for help. Don’t give up. Hang in there!”

The first meeting will be next Tuesday (January 31) from 6pm to 7.30pm at Somersfield Academy in Devonshire. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Grant Farquhar will discuss what a mood disorder is. For more information call 707-1336 or 295-2070.

<p>What is bipolar disorder?</p>

Bipolar disorder or manic depression is a mood disorder thought to be present in at least 2 per cent of any given population.

It causes serious shifts in mood, energy, thinking, and behaviour — from the highs of mania on one extreme, to the lows of depression on the other. More than just a fleeting good or bad mood, the cycles of bipolar disorder last for days, weeks, or months. And, unlike ordinary mood swings, the mood changes of bipolar disorder are so intense that they interfere with your ability to function.

Bipolar disorder also affects energy level, judgment, memory, concentration, appetite, sleep patterns, sex drive, and self-esteem. Additionally, bipolar disorder has been linked to anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and high blood pressure.

For more information see www.helpguide.org/articles/bipolar-disorder/bipolar-disorder-signs-and-symptoms.htm or www.dbsalliance.org. Also see Cathy Sousa’s Facebook page Understanding Mental Illness Bermuda.