My Life – Living with Bipolar Disorder – Growing Up, Pregnancy and Motherhood

My life is amazing… I have no reason to feel the way I do most times, but I do.

I grew up in a stable, loving home with a supportive family who gave me the world and more. There was absolutely no reason for me to be depressed or unhappy. As a child I was always a bit different, I never felt like I fitted in and I found it extremely hard to make friends. I felt like an unwelcome in almost every single situation.

A significant event in my life that triggered the first onslaught of depression was when my mom told me that my dad was not my biological father and that my biological father had died in an accident before I was born. It shook me more than I realized, even though it had no reason to. I can honestly say that my stepdad never treated me any different to his own daughters, I never felt like I was loved any less and to me he was and always will be my real dad and hero. I later found out that my dad’s death was a suicide, and that his family wanted nothing to do with me or my mom and left her to struggle as a single mother for years before my stepdad came along. I think this was where I noticed that there was something wrong with me. I know my mom did not tell me the whole story to protect me, but I could not help but feel a little bit betrayed. More than ever I felt like I did not belong, I was angry and depressed. I had so many questions about my biological father but could not bring myself to ask my mom about it for fear of hurting her or bringing up painful memories. I started making up stories, I created a whole new fantasy life for myself… I made up stories of who he was and later struggled to distinguish between my lies and reality. Soon I wasn’t just lying to myself, I started lying to my friends and parents about little things. The lying and depression did not go unnoticed and I was eventually sent to a psychologist – his feedback to my parents was that I was selfish and manipulative, and other than that there was nothing wrong with me.

I started rebelling – nothing serious, just hanging out with the wrong people and getting into trouble. I even went through a phase of shoplifting, I loved the adrenaline rush – until I got caught. That night I drank a handful of painkillers – no one knew, I just ended up sleeping for an entire day, maybe two days… I can’t remember. No-one told me suicide was so damn difficult.

I woke up, and the bravest thing I’ve ever had to do was continue living when I wanted to die.

Being Bipolar is not a passive activity, it’s exhausting. It’s a pervasive and relentless despair, 24 hours a day, seven days a week… I hated my life, and even though I was a smart kid who did well academically I hated my mind. Despite this, I always studied hard and tried to do well at school. I was a master at hiding my true feelings from the world, plus, I did not know that there was anything wrong with me. I remember thinking that one day I would be free and if I could just get away from this town and its’ people I could start fresh. No one would know me, and I could be a different person. I would be new and unbroken. One day I wanted to be successful and happy. In a bid to feel in control I subconsciously became extremely OCD – I could not be in a room with open doors; I could not leave the house without checking twice that every single door, cupboard and drawer was closed; I arranged my cupboard according to colour – I also do this with my food; I have to start on the left side of any store and work my way through every single isle – even if I only went to buy two things; I make lists for everything; etc. – if I do not follow these rules I feel a sense of internal chaos. I obsess over it and ultimately get angry with the world. Over the years I managed to get rid of some of these traits, but most of them still stick.

I switched schools and in grade 10 or 11, something happened to me that I would probably never be able to talk openly about… This thing started the biggest struggle against depression of my life. I had so much pain inside me that I started hurting myself just to manifest it into something real. I started punching walls, then slamming my fingers in doors, pinching myself, scratching, pulling my hair and eventually cutting myself. I was addicted, it was like a drug – it instantly calmed me. My poor parents, they never deserved any of this and there was no way they could understand it. Later in grade 11, one of my best friends shot herself in the mouth with her grandmother’s 38-special revolver. It was during our exams and it was a day that is etched into my brain for all eternity. We grew up together – she was like a sister to me. I never knew that she was depressed… She was intelligent, gorgeous and a star athlete. Unlike me she was popular, and everyone loved her. She survived, but she would never be the same again.

Soon after this incident I went on medication for depression. It didn’t really work, but I did not want my parents to worry so I pretended. Eventually being bullied and teased at school because of my size and looks caused me to become bulimic for a brief period and by grade 12 I had lost a lot of weight. I was never anorexic or underweight – I looked healthy. Being skinnier gave me more confidence and I made some friends. I dyed my hair from blonde to black and I started dating someone. For the first time in my life I felt beautiful, I felt good about myself. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter was (and always will be) that no matter how good I felt, I was always aware of this black amorphous entity sitting there, waiting, just like spider. Having Bipolar disorder is like being trapped in a web. It’s like being in pain, but it’s different to physical pain because you cannot separate yourself from it – it is like it is in your very being, your core. When I am sad I get depressed, when I am happy I get manic and when I am angry I get furious and destructive. The in between stages are few and far apart.

After finishing grade 12 I moved to Cape Town to study Fashion Design and like most 1st year students I partied up a storm, except it affected me a lot differently than it did everyone else. I stopped sleeping, I didn’t eat properly, I could not stay in a relationship for longer than two weeks and my emotions were all over the place – to be extremely honest… I don’t remember most of it. I knew I had a real problem that was not going to go away by itself the night I tried to seriously commit suicide for the second time in my life. I was alone at my flat, I had some wine and soon started crying for no reason at all. I didn’t want to feel alone anymore (even though I really had no reason to feel lonely).

I took a knife from the kitchen and pretty much hacked my wrist apart. A couple of minutes later it was like I ‘woke up’… I couldn’t believe what I had done and phoned someone to take me to the hospital. About fifty stitches later and I was convinced that I was insane.

I went to go see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed as being Bipolar 1. I had never even heard of Bipolar Disorder before then, but all if a sudden it all made sense. The next year was an endless struggle of finding the right combination of drugs to treat my condition. My life was one big side effect, but it was going well. During all the chaos I started dating the man who is now my husband – how he didn’t run for the hills I will never know. I went through a rough spot in the early days of our relationship and he caught me cutting my leg in the bathroom. He cleaned me up, held me close and told me that if I ever did it again that he would leave and never come back. I never did it again. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to. I still think about it a lot. It truly is an addiction. I had to try to get my temper under control to stop abusing myself, it was not easy. My husband tried to educate himself on my condition and helped me through my episodes with the patience of a saint. It felt amazing to finally be myself… That was the year I got to know myself, I decided from there on that I would not fall victim to my illness and that I was the ruler of my own fate.

The medication I was on was working, but it completely stifled my creativity – seeing as I was studying Fashion Design and wanting to go into a creative field after college – this did not work for me. It took so much trial and error, ridiculous side effects and emotional and physical strength to get to a point where a combination of drugs were working for me and I just could not imagine going through it all again. I decided the unthinkable and started weaning myself off my medication. Please note, this is not advised and would not work for everyone – so please don’t take this as medical advice. I started noticing a pattern with my mood swings and could tell exactly when an episode was about to start and how bad it was going to be. I trained my brain to redirect my thought process by means of distraction, positive thinking and my own form of meditation. This helped me get through the depressed/anger stages and cut them short, but to this day the hardest part is getting rid of the manic phase. Lucky for me my manic phase never lasts too long and sometimes comes in handy. I felt in control, and that was an amazing feeling. Then I got pregnant.

I was scared at first, but my husband’s excitement was infectious. It was going to be okay, I was in my last year of college and we were already engaged anyway, Unfortunately, the pregnancy was far from easy. I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum that lasted all day and all night for the entire duration of my pregnancy. There was very little amniotic fluid around the baby and my gynaecologist at the time convinced me that there was no way that I would carry full term and that I would most probably suffer a miscarriage. Subconsciously this resulted in me ‘disconnecting’ myself from my pregnancy and baby to some extent. It was stressful, and I was depressed again. The fear of miscarriage carried on up until about six months – waiting for the supposedly inevitable the whole time. My baby ended up being fine, but I struggled to bond with her. I ended up getting postnatal depression and felt like I was back at square one. My doctor put me on medication to manage it and I started the whole process all over again. It was not easy as this time I had no choice when it came to the lack of sleep, I had very little time for myself and had to find some sort of balance. With all of this came the fear that I was going to be a terrible mom… and even worse, that I was going to give this terrible disease to my daughter.

I started working and threw all my energy and willpower into my career. I was good at my job and moved up the corporate ladder quickly. I struggled to stay at a company for a long time as I lost interest very quickly. I needed to feel challenged all the time otherwise I got bored, and once I got bored I gave up and started looking for the next adventure. This is something I still struggle with, but I am making a conscious effort to be better at this.

It took a lot of time, and even more dedication – but I focused on my mental health, and my new little family. My daughter and I finally bonded, and she became my entire world. Because of the postnatal depression and medication, I took for it, I can barely remember the first year of her life… and I still feel so guilty about it.

I had my second child three years ago, and this time around I knew what to expect. Although it was a very complicated birth, I managed to keep my depression at bay and got to fully enjoy those first few months of being a mom to a new-born. I am once again managing my condition successfully without medication – but under my doctor’s watchful eye.

I have made really big changes to my life to ensure that I put my mental health first to be a good wife and mother. I own my own social media consultancy, and image consultancy and I managed to make a full-time career of my blog – this all means that I get to be with my kids more and that I can be a lot more flexible with my time. I don’t have to explain to anyone if I need to take a mental health day.

Life is pretty good, but that black amorphous entity is a constant presence. I refuse to let it consume me, I will not let it rule me and I will not let it ruin my life. I have too much to live for, too much to lose. Never have I looked forward to the future as much as I do now. I am finally living in the present, and I think I have convinced myself that my fate is not sealed. That does not mean that I will never again have a depressive episode – I do believe, though, that I am better prepared for it and as time goes by I find that I am more confident with every passing year.

It is so important to remind yourself that having a mental illness does not mean you are weak, flawed, or alone.  We need to start talking about it. We need to break the stigma surrounding mental illness so that others would feel free to talk about it… so that people can stand up and ask for help.