My personal Health Story
Living with Bipolar Syndrome
from the beginning
Below is my story from the beginning if you wanted to jump to the end and read about how I finally discovered I had bipolar and overcame it click here.
Below is my story from the beginning if you wanted to jump to the end and read about how I finally discovered I had bipolar and overcame it click here
The early years before diagnosis and treatment
From the age of 13 I began having bouts of depression the first six months was very serious depression pushing me to multiple suicide attempts, this would be followed by a couple of years of milder dysthymic depression, then I would have a brief interlude lasting just a few days when the darkness and heaviness would completely go away, then I would plunge back down into months of suicidal depression.
In my teens I started drinking too much alcohol, smoked a lot of cannabis took cocaine, tried heroin, opium and LSD. It's believed the two main neurotransmitters that go out of balance in bipolar disorder are dopamine and glutamate, it's also believed that imbalances in the scene to neurotransmitters involved in driving drug addiction, so drug experimentation and addiction are very common in people with bipolar disorder.
I followed the above cycle throughout my teens and into my early 20s so that by the age of 20 I had attempted suicide more than 20 times, a typical suicide attempt would consist of climbing to the roof of a unguarded the building under construction sitting on the outside of the railings and trying to get the courage to jump, I also tried hanging myself and drowning myself by swimming out into the sea after the do-not-swim warning flags had been put up on the beach.
I used to be ashamed to talk about this taboo subject and kept it very private but I now believe talking openly about suicide and mental illness helps to normalise and breakdown some of the mystery and taboo about mental illness. I believe it’s wrong to think that when a person with mental illness commits suicide they killed themselves, they didn’t it was the illness that killed them; put another way if they didn’t have the mental illness they wouldn’t be attempting suicide. It’s now common understanding that diabetes can directly kill people and shorten their lifespan from health-related complications and we should develop the same understanding for mental illness. The shame and taboo ascribed towards people with mental illness (and their families) that die from suicide is as missed placed as it would be to ascribed shame and taboo to the victim and family of someone that was killed by diabetes or cancer.
It’s hard to imagine today but there was no Internet back then alternative ways to get information about mental health besides which like many people with mental health problems I was ashamed, reclusive and secretive about my feelings and suicidality so despite the potentially life ending severity of my condition it went completely undiagnosed or treated for over a decade, in today’s more informed world it seems strange but at that time I didn’t even know I was mentally ill.
At University in my early 20s my condition became much worse with constant suicidal ideation and more extreme manias. I had one episode when I completely lost touch with what I was doing, when I emerged I found myself walking down a street, three days had gone by and I had no recollection of where I had been or what had been doing, it’s extremely unsettling to think you’re losing your mind so to speak. I never did find out what happened in those three days but everyone around me treated me differently and stared at me like I was strange, I suspect I’d been manically high. My assessment of exactly how people were responding to me was probably not that accurate because I was also suffering from quite intense paranoia and a sort of social anxiety. My moods alternated from being full of confidence, ideas and making plans for my great academic career to feeling worthless.
At 22 I had a shocking enlightening experience, at the start of course on the drugs used to treat psychiatric disorders we’d been asked to read about the classification of psychiatric disorders so we understood what anxiety was, depression, bipolar, schizophrenia et cetera. I was reading this material on a train when suddenly I realised I was one of the people discussed in this book about psychiatric disorders, the almost 10 years of suicidality, depression and agitated mixed states which I thought was anxiety meant I was mentally ill. The shame and stigma associated with mental illness at that time was much worse than it is today, this didn’t feel like a helpful revelation it was shocking and terrifying; I stepped off the train at some random station sat on the bench and pretty much read the whole book.
The following week at the end of the lecture on psychiatric drugs I ran down and asked the professor do we understand what causes psychiatric problems and doing a haddock you them to which he replied emphatically “oh gosh no, we just stumbled on some drugs that alleviate the symptoms by increasing neurotransmitters in the synapses but we don’t know if neurotransmitter imbalances are the root problem or if they are what causes them”, I asked him if it looks like the research was close to making a breakthrough to which he replied “oh gosh no, having found some profitable drugs that alleviate the symptoms all the research funding goes into just producing the next generation of drugs that alleviate symptoms a bit better with less side-effects, there’s no real research into what actually causes mental health problems”; this was depressing news and as I continued to study the treatments used for mental illness it didn’t get any better. It was clear to me that none of the available treatment offered any real prospect of a permanent lasting cure in my case; two signs that a mental health problem is unlikely to just need a short one off course of treatment are that the problem starts at a young age and all persists for a long time and I already had both of these. I spent the next two weeks buried in the psychiatric medicine section of the library reading case histories to try to work out what my prospects might be. The way it looked at that time was I was facing the prospect of a lifelong of mental illness with probable periods of institutionalisation spent on psychiatric medications which were not particularly effective and often produced undesirable side-effects.
This was a daunting prospect at the age of 22 and I became severely suicidal yet again. My hypo-manias were becoming more extreme, more and more people around me were noticing and commenting that I was strange, weird and too intense; I was terrified that if things got much worse I would be found out stigmatised and possibly forcibly sectioned. So I spent the next few years basically avoiding prolonged contact with anyone in order to hide my condition, dropping out of university and then returning more than once.
I took a year off University with the cover story that I was going to do voluntary work with refugees relevant to my degree but in fact I was both running away from the horror of my prospects and taking some time out to seriously consider whether or not a life lived with mental illness was a life worth living or if I should just end it now.
During my travels I met a councillor/psychotherapist who seeing I was having psychological problems gave me a few rudimentary psychological exercises to try. This introduced me to a whole new world of alternative psychotherapy, and never even learnt the councillors full name but I credit him with saving my life.
My journey from sickness to wellness
Although I’d completed 2 ½ years of university I was too mentally ill to continue and eventually left in my mid 20s. I got a job in social work and used the money to pay for weekly psychotherapy which help me tremendously, I also began training in nutritional therapy. When I would get intense depression I would flood my brain with literally every supplement and herb I could get my hands on that had even the slightest relevance to depression, it was a pretty crude sawn off shotgun approach but it worked, in fact it produced miraculous results. The first time I tried in earnest to treat my condition with natural remedies I was depression free within a couple of weeks and remained depression free for 11 months, at that point in time I haven’t had more than a week free from depression in over 13 years. With the help of the nutritional remedies and psychotherapy I was well enough to engage in a productive work-life, I completed training in several other functional medicine disciplines and built up a successful practice by the end of my 30s.
I was not however mentally well, I would still regularly get hit by sudden attacks of serious depressions, I struggled with constant paranoia, social anxiety, I would have phases where I became socially withdrawn which made maintaining long-term friendships and relationships beyond my grasp. When I was hit by sudden attack of depression I would treated really aggressively with mega-doses of natural remedies, eventually I got really good at it and could switch off an attacker depression within a day, my best ever time was 10 hours. I thought I’d come a long way from the days when I had depressions so painful I wanted to die, I thought perhaps this was the best I was can get and I had things pretty much under control with this strategy until my 40s it stopped working, I get to that later.
In my 30s I only attempted suicidal twice which compared to the previous two decades was a significant improvement and in my opinion only one of those attempts was due to my mental illness, the other was in response to a tragic event in my personal life.
On the other occasion what happened was I foolishly stopped taking all my medicines, for a few weeks I seemed to be okay then I went manic for a day then imploded into a depressed condition walked off into the Welsh countryside climbed over a cliff sat down on a ledge and tried to get the courage to jump; as I’ve said elsewhere bipolar syndrome can be a seriously life-threatening illness. Today I would never come off my medicines, my bipolar is very treatable and when I stay on my treatments my health is actually good but when I come off my treatments my brain can start to go out of balance in as little as five days.
Through my 30s I spent tens of thousands of pounds trying a wide range of alternative therapies looking for more effective and permanent solutions to my mental health problems, people around me often commented that it was a bit strange even crazy how much time energy and money I was spending on all these strange therapies, but they didn’t know that I was fighting life-threatening depressions.
To be fair looking back those comments were not completely off the mark for I now realise that quite a lot of the time I was manically high and engaging in healing therapies in a manic, obsessive and driven way, it may be ironic but it was the psychological qualities of hypo-mania that led me to work out how to overcome the condition and the mental wellness I now have. I’ve actually had several exchanges of opinions (arguments) with addiction counsellors about whether or not you can productively use and even accentuate an aspect of mental illness to help overcome that very illness as I did, I’ve known several people who were formerly drug and alcohol addicts improve their health not by resolving their addictive personality but by using it transferring and focusing it on to their health and healthy living, some of them became absolute health freaks you know wheatgrass enemas and 2 ½ hours of yoga before dawn! Then gradually over time from this healthier platform they could engage in more productive addiction counselling.
In my late 20s I learned how to do kundalini and Tantric yoga meditations that can induce an endorphin/opioid high and found that when I used these it would switch off the desire my brain had to use drugs to get high and medicate away my depressions, even though I wasn’t using drugs my brain still craved them at that time. [add classes]
It’s easy to be cynical of alternative therapies in this supposedly scientific enlightened age, but when you’re the one living with a painful and life-threatening illness it can change your openness to trying alternative solutions.
Firstly did a lot of psychotherapy techniques that use the body to release psychological trauma including biodynamic psychotherapy, Reichian massage, postural integration, rebirthing and primal scream therapy. I actually think there’s some solid scientific rationale behind why these therapies work, elsewhere I discuss how over-activity in the body’s HPA stress pathway is one of the key physiological findings in people with bipolar syndrome and how it can result in loss of function in key parts of the brain that control mood, although I didn’t understand this at the time these psychological stress/trauma releasing therapies are effective way to produce over-activity in the HPA axis; I made great progress in my health with these therapies. If you’ve never tried anything like this you could be very surprised at how powerful it can be to get in touch with hidden emotional conflicts and cathart them, I highly recommend this type of therapy.
I did things like shamanic healing, although this type of therapy like many others I tried is shrouded in a lot of mystical beliefs that I no longer believe in I did find it immensely useful, these therapies can enable you to access significantly altered states of consciousness which can heal psychological conflicts and give one a sense of peace and inner purpose. To me whether or not these therapies work by tapping into spiritual healing forces or produce their effects entirely by altering our psychology and rewiring the brain is less important to know than whether or not they can be effective and helpful; for me they were helpful.
I tried acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, homeopathy polarity therapy and had my chakras rebalanced with healers hands, with crystals even electrified crystals! The theory behind these therapies is that we have an inner vitality or life force and these therapies rebalance this which in turn re-establishes health; although many of these therapies would feel relaxing and rebalancing at the time they had absolutely no useful long term effects on my mental health condition. Just to be clear I’m not saying these therapies don’t work at all for some types of physical health problems, I consistently saw acupuncture and herbal medicine in particular helping people the psych iatric disorders.
On a side note I’d picked up malaria in India and had recurrent malaria every few weeks on a very regular schedule for several years until I took a constitutional homeopathic remedy; the idea behind a constitutional homeopathic remedy is that it stimulates your individual inner vitality to the extent that it will push out and cure all illness. The day after I took the remedy I had an enormous (un-scheduled) malarial attack and then never saw the malaria again my life. It’s highly unlikely that was just a coincidence so it was either amazing real medicine or an amazing placebo effect, if a placebo produced effect is capable of kicking recurrent malaria out of my system we should be developing techniques to reliably reproduce this healing effect, could we for example hypnotise people and initiate this amazing self-healing capability. Taking a purely practical view what matters to me is not how the scientific world views a particular therapy but whether or not I can use that therapy to make myself better.
In addition to the malaria I had intestinal/liver parasites and irritable bowel syndrome from my travels and conventional medicine was unable to offer me any help with these problems however herbal and dietary therapy permanently cured me.
I did lots of naturopathic detoxifying diets, detoxifying heavy metals, juicing, coffee enemas, fasting, even fasting on my own urine; I did yoga retreats and went on wheat, dairy, salt and sugar free diets. I got two great things out of all this work: firstly when I changed my diet to stabilise my blood sugar I noticed a tremendous improved stability in my mental health, secondly detoxifying, fasting and eating well will have eliminated inflammation in my brain and created a healthy environment in which the remedies I used to rebalance my neurotransmitters could work more effectively.
With all the dietary therapy, psychotherapy, yoga and meditation work I had done I had unwittingly reduced the level of inflammation in my brain and made it more amenable to treatment with natural therapies. I remember when I first started to trying to rebalance neurotransmitters in my patients and how it didn’t work on them the same way had worked on me. I quickly realised the problem was I wasn’t sufficiently focusing on getting my patients to improve the fundamental health of their brains with anti-inflammatory diets, detoxifying and brain training to reprogram over-activity in the HPA axis; as soon as I corrected this oversight I observed a significant level of success. Of course is not always that easy for everybody with a mental health problem to engage in things like healthy eating and so I am constantly endeavouring to discover new ways of making the things easier to do however for people that can manage to engage in these things rewards can be tremendous.
Of all the treatments I tried only two had any significant effects on my mental health and they are adjusting my brain chemistry with nutrition and natural remedies and adjusting my psychology with psychotherapy.
By my late 30s I thought I was doing pretty well and my mental health problems ceased to be the primary focus in life but things are not as I thought they were, what I didn’t know was that I was in a very long phase of hypo-mania. Monday to Friday I was full of energy and enthusiasm for my now successful practice, I saw clients nine sometimes ten hours a day, then lay around my home sleeping most of the weekend and had a mini bout of depression on Sundays. I thought it was okay to be tired at the weekend after working such a busy week but I was actually in an unhealthy weekly manic-depressive cycle; numerous work colleagues would tell me I was too intense and obsessive about my work but I thought I was just passionate and fascinated about medicine and the healing process, which I am and that’s not a problem but prolonged hypo-mania is unsustainable.
I continued like this for about seven years then the manic phases became more extreme and socially disruptive and the speed with which my brain could be hijacked by a hypo-manic state became very rapid, I could literally go from either being normal or depressed to a hyper-energetic excessively intense condition within a couple of hours or even less, also the condition became increasingly rapid-cycling with typically six manic-depressive cycles a year. I was also struggling with the desire for anything exiting and addictive including drugs and sex.
The manic phases would only last for a few hours or a day but the aftermath would be two weeks of wrestling with depression before re-establishing a balanced state of mental health. For a few years pretty much every time I socialised in a group it would trigger a hypo-mania so for several years it simply wasn’t worth me enjoying a few hours socialising in a group to then spend the next two weeks wrestling with depression. For a few years I learned I could prevent this problem simply by taking a few anti-mania remedies whenever I socialised as a preventative and used to keep some anti-mania remedies in every bag and jacket pocket I owned so that I always had access; thankfully today however I’m now so stable that this no longer happens.
Over the next few years this phase gave way and slowly began to decline into a different type of depression I hadn’t seen before. Gradually I lost all feelings of pleasure, interest and enthusiasm in every sphere of my life, socially I no longer enjoyed meeting with friends, I found going to the cinema and TV boring something and always previously enjoyed, I lost my interest in reading, good food, overseas vacations and exercise, I lost my libido and going to work something always loved became a horrible arduous chore.
I felt numb and empty which was nothing like the intensely painful depression I’d had in the past, moreover it did not respond to the antidepressant treatments I’d come to rely on. With previous depressions I’d been highly driven to find a cure but with this depression I lacked the motivation to do anything even look for an effective treatment.
This lasted five years and by the end it stripped away everything, my social life, my work life and everything else; I could only work six or seven hours a week, the rest of the time I slept, watched TV and lived off peanut butter and a few vegetable soups. I thought I’d had a good go at overcoming my mental illness but in the end I failed and there was little point in living another three or four decades in this condition and for the first time in 15 years I became suicidal again.
I got out of this depression when
Eventually I discovered I needed to treat my dopamine levels rather than my serotonin levels, this discovery not only quickly lifted me out of this depression but it also revealed that the true nature of my mental health problem was bipolar not unipolar depression. I’ve discussed that part of my story already see here.