Bipolar is Not Who I Am

Stories of Hope: An Interview with Clare Malcolm 

This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked writer and author Clare Malcolm about her history of mental health challenges and her current treatment. Here’s our interview:

DS: Tell us about when you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues continue to affect you before you sought treatment?

CM: As far back as my childhood I recall feeling different from others, struggling to fit in and experiencing anger and resentment. I suffered with terrible nightmares and regularly experienced fear that something bad would happen to me or my family.

During my teenage years I suffered dreadfully with low self-esteem. Acne, braces and shortsightedness did not make for an attractive version of me and I did not start to develop through puberty until the age of 17.

I was very much a loner, often spending my lunch times in the library as I found socialising and relating to people drained me and left me feeling depleted and exhausted.

My first relationship led to marriage and two children but now I realise that my rush to the altar was most likely mania, as the doubts I had about this relationship were profound. I didn’t buy material for my wedding dress until just three weeks before the big day.

After the birth of my first child I suffered severe post-natal depression. I had a difficult birth and with no support from my then husband, I spiralled into a place of despair that was overwhelming and terrifying. The first night after my daughter was born I paced the halls of the hospital for 7 hours straight only stopping periodically to check and feed my baby. The next morning the new duty nurse told me she’d heard of my antics and mentioned the word mania, but no one followed up.

Three months on from the birth of my daughter and still suffering post-natal depression my then husband moved interstate and I began life as a single mum.

When my oldest daughter turned one, he re-entered our lives and I felt I owed it to her to give him a chance. Soon I was pregnant with daughter number two. I remember visiting my doctor to ask if there was such a thing as prenatal depression, as I was once again being stalked by the black cloud of despair in every aspect of my life.

By the time daughter number 2 turned one, the marriage was over. He moved overseas and once again I found myself a single mother, raising two children, holding down a job and living with depression.

This was all more than 20 years ago and I have been treated for depression on and off my entire adult life. However it wasn’t until three-and-a-half years ago that I identified the regular mania I experienced as an issue as well.

I always assumed my angry outbursts, self-loathing periods, irritable and argumentative states were just my personality or that I was quite simply not a very nice person.

I was blessed at the age of 28 to meet a wonderful human being whom I loved almost immediately and who has been my best friend, partner and love of my life ever since.

DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help?

CM: My eldest daughter from whom I became estranged when she was 13 years old contacted me three-and-a-half years ago. The conversation was threatening and abusive at a time when I was firmly in the public eye as a candidate for election to Parliament.

The distress, devastation and damage wrought of that phone call led me to reach out to a psychiatrist rather than my physician for support. It was then I was first diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar II, although in the very depths of my soul I had known this myself for some time.

With a diagnosis firmly in place I began the dance of the medications, with one step forward, often followed by multiple steps backward.

DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?

CM: A year after my diagnosis I began life as an expat living in Malaysia. I continued to see my doctor in Australia during my visits home and was issued with 6 months worth of medications at a time.

For 2 and a half years I was a zombie sloth, barely functioning throughout each day, managing only the basics of living and sleeping almost every day for 16 hours.

In June of this year I decided I had had enough of this half life in which I was barely existing and took the decision to stop all my medications and reengage with the world and my illness. Having forgotten what it felt like to be unmedicated I convinced myself that the illness on its own could not possibly be as bad as the zombified state I was moving through life in. It was also becoming increasingly difficult to manage my treatment via a doctor who was an 8-hour flight away.

For the first month or two I did okay. We had visitors from home and I kept busy and enjoyed a period of hypomania keeping them entertained and showing them the sights of our new home country. It was in such contrast to the zombified, medicated version of me that I felt an overwhelming sense of being myself again.

By September though the spiral downwards began and I could feel the dark cloud settling around me as I struggled to see any good in my world and my life.

I reached out to a doctor here in Malaysia whose biography stated she specialised in mood disorders. After waiting weeks for my appointment and with my anxiety levels soaring and my depressive state deep diving, I arrived for my appointment, only to be told they had lost my number and had been unable to let me know the doctor had been called away to an emergency. The next available appointment was not for another 3 months.

To say I lost my mind right there in that office and at that moment does not do justice to the response I had to this news and very quickly the receptionist starting calling other doctors to see if anyone could see me.

A new doctor was found. After taking a brief history and account of my medications I had previously been on she advised me that her training did not recognise the rapid cycling version of Bipolar. Instead she re-diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder and started me on medications.

Suddenly I had a whole new diagnosis to come to terms with, to learn about and to understand. I began taking the meds she had prescribed and saw her three more times but things were not going well for me. I was plummeting to depths of despair and disillusion I had not experienced before and suicidal ideation was my ever-present companion.

I even started to craft a plan to bring it all to an end.

At the same time, my second daughter, who still lives in Australia was diagnosed with Lupus. The realisation she might one day need a kidney transplant and that I could be a donor match was the only thing that kept me from moving from ideation to actual suicide.

I ended up booking an emergency flight back to Australia and checked myself into the hospital. That in itself was a frightening experience with most other mentally ill patients attending at the same time as me, each being permanently monitored by security guards and police officers stationed outside their cubicles. There was screaming, shouting, abusive language, and restraints used as I sat in the midst of this place of insanity and feared for my safety and well being.

Having the good fortune of private medical insurance, I instead opted for a private facility and was scheduled for admission the next morning. Unfortunately it became clear that whilst there was a bed available for me there was no treating psychiatrist at that time with capacity to take on my case.

Here I was, two weeks from Christmas, away from my husband and youngest child who were back in Malaysia trying desperately to find a place that could take me, make me safe again and return me to sanity and stability.

With no options available, I again booked the next available flight back to Malaysia and decided I would just have to wait it out until the original psychiatrist I had tried to see was available and keep myself safe and alive until then.

I kept my composure through out the flight, but when I stepped outside that airport waiting for a car, the tears of torment, fear and despair flowed long and hard for the entire hour it took me to get home.

As it often does though, the Universe works in mysterious ways and that night on my Facebook feed came an advertisement for a place just a 5 minute walk away.

The next morning I walked in and I asked when the next appointment was. It turned out a psychiatrist, highly qualified and extremely well regarded was available to see me the next day.

My healing process had begun. Hope was starting to find its way from underneath the mire of self loathing, hatred, and bitterness.

DS: How are things going for you now? What challenges are you still facing? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?

CM: I have been seeing my new psychiatrist for 4 weeks now and I have moved from the deepest of the pits of despair and desperation to once again being a functioning human being with a sense of hope for my future.

I am now taking a new regime of medications that don’t leave me sleepy during the day, although early to bed each night is still my reality.

I was also referred to a psychologist who I am seeing weekly. Through her insights, wisdom and care, she has allowed me to explore the deepest, darkest parts of my being in a safe and supported environment.

She allows me to feel the freedom to speak my truth, share my thoughts and work through my reactions and responses to the various triggers in my life.

She shares with me books that I am enjoying reading and that are opening me up to new thought patterns and processes I had never before encountered.

I am living again, enjoying my family again, and feeling hopeful for the future again in spite of my illness which I know will be with me all my days

DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?

CM: Find a psychiatrist and psychologist you feel comfortable with rather than just whichever one is available. Don’t be afraid to change your medical team if you are not comfortable and become anxious and uptight before you have to meet with them.

Breathe deeply, and often.

Be still when you can and focus on that exact period of time and know that even for that brief moment you are okay, safe and secure.

Move when you can, knowing that even just one step is symbolic and signifies progress.

Allow yourself to feel what you feel on any given day. Don’t berate yourself for it. It is about chemicals in your brain not about who you are as a person.

Own your illness. Don’t hide as I did for three and a half years out of fear of retribution and rebuke. Be open and honest about your illness in the same way you would if you were given a cancer diagnosis.

I posted this on my Facebook feed on New Years Day, having come to the difficult decision that it was time to share my battle with the world:

It is highly likely that this is the most challenging post I have ever written as it goes to the core & essence of who I am, what I am, how I am.

It places me at risk of stigma, rejection & judgement.

It is with genuine fear in both heart & mind that I write this.

But I am inspired by the approaching New Year for its promise of renewal & healing & so the time has come to open myself up & reveal my deepest, darkest secret.

Here goes…

I have Bipolar. The rapid cycling version II variety.

I was diagnosed three & a half years ago although I’d long knowing in my heart long before that that this was a significant feature of who I am.

Until today only a very small number of people have been told of my illness. They have fallen into two categories. Those who care & support me & those for whom it is too awkward & uncomfortable a topic for discussion.

I am trying to prepare myself for the array of reactions & responses I’ll get to this post.

I have braced myself for judgement, criticism & humiliation but I’m now firmly of the belief that the good that will come of this revelation will far outweigh the pitfalls.

I am looking forward to sharing my formerly anonymous blog posts with the wider world & finally being able to own my experiences & my writing about this fundamental part of who I am.

I am hopeful that my disclosure might also help others struggling in silence & hidden behind closed doors deal with the challenges of an illness that is still so dogged by stigma & misinformation.

I have recently secured the services of a new holistic medical team here in Malaysia who are doing wonders in helping me rebuild & restore the strong & brave parts of me.

I have been blessed with loving parents who are always but a phone call or plane trip away & who readily pick up the pieces of me & place them back together to make me whole again.

I am the luckiest girl in the world to be married to a man who’s loyalty is beyond question & who lets me cry & rage & sleep & hurt without judgement or question & who’s embrace always reminds me that no matter how bad I feel at any given moment I will be okay again.

I have my beautiful Elise who’s dedication & devotion constantly restores my faith & confidence in who I am as her mother, despite my illness.

My youngest Alannah, only recently told of my diagnosis, has handled it with a dignity & maturity beyond her years & who looks out for me & seems to instinctively know when I need reassurance or quiet time.

This illness has been completely kicking my ass in recent months as trigger after trigger sent me spiraling into the depths of despair.

Yet with the love & support that is always within reach I have once again come out the other end of the dark chasm that sometimes swallows me whole.

Carrie Fisher, a fellow Bipolar sufferer, says in her book Wishful Drinking “we are only as sick as our secrets.”

So with a New Year looming I have now unburdened myself of my secret as a means to facilitate my healing and am eternally hopeful this will bring me great relief & provide you with some insight into who I am.

Bipolar is not your fault, it is not that you deserve this and it is not who you are, it is only what you have and with the right support, the love of family and friends you can win over and over again every time it turns up to beat your ass.

About Clare

I am a 46 year old mother of three daughters, married to a wonderful, loyal and dedicated man named Paul. I am a writer, blogger, speechwriter for Members of Parliament in Australia and a published Author of a book called A Fractured Life: How Determination Overcame Trauma, about one woman’s fight back from a serious car accident. I live as an expat in Malaysia with my husband and my youngest daughter and volunteer at the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) as a writer and on special projects. I also work as a Project Manager on an International Recruitment Program on a contract basis bringing workers from across the world to Australia to work in the mining sector. I have Rapid Cycling Bipolar II. It is part of me, but does not define me and at present it no longer controls me. Long may it last. You can find me on my two blogs (bipolardayz.wordpress.com and clarelmalcolm.wordpress.com), Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

Thanks so much to Clare for her inspiring story of hope!

Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Finally, if you enjoyed this post, please share it with a friend. Thanks!

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