This 10-minute long read is about my experiences growing up with depression, how depression and mania shaped my secondary school experience, how my mental health followed me through life, my experience with the NHS and what changed after my diagnosis.
Maybe my experiences will provide insight, perhaps you’ll relate, maybe you’ll read this and thank fuck that you can’t relate.
This is my experience; please don’t compare your situation to mine. Everyone’s different.
I’ll be talking about:
- The early days (Age 7-11)
- Bipolar II manifesting (Age 11-16)
- Life during/after college and NHS (Age 17-22)
- Diagnosis and what’s changed
1. The early days (Age 7-11)
I guess my issues have always been there, lying dormant in the recesses of my mind. I displayed signs of a lonely kid in primary school, maybe out of choice or because nobody wanted to be my mate, I never felt alone though. I think I felt so out of my comfort zone I locked myself in my daydreams and that was that. I remember being described as “shy” a lot of the time in my school reports, but that wasn’t correct. I just didn’t wish to take part in the school experience; I knew I had to go to school, mum would wake me, I’d eat my cereal and watch Scooby Doo before being dropped off at school. I thought I was just a weird kid, well, I was, but after speaking with my psychiatrist, I saw that in retrospect I might have had childhood depression. Things weren’t all doom and gloom though; I had my sister and loving parents. Mum knew there was something wrong with me; she strategically befriended one of the lunchtime supervisors to keep a close eye on me in fear the reason for my behaviour was bullying, it wasn’t. When I think about it, my mum cared a lot, even after all her spy tactics failed she blamed the school and pulled me out in year 2. I was like a deer caught in headlights, all I knew was that maybe I’d be a regular kid in the next school. Long story short, that school didn’t work out for me either, I was pulled out in year 3 and placed in a school closer to home. Things were different at this school, but I chalk that up to being older and naturally spending less time daydreaming. I engaged with other kids, made a couple of friends I thought I’d have for life, I don’t know them anymore, but that’s how life goes.
2. Bipolar II manifesting (Age 11-16)
I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder last year, aged 22. I sought help when I was 17 though, but we’ll get onto that in a bit. If you read the above, you know that I suffered from childhood depression on and off, mostly on, up until the start of year 7, secondary school. I experienced my first manic episode in year 7. Looking back it feels as though someone swapped my brain out in the middle of my sleep for a jumped up pulsating ball of crazy; I remember being incredibly extrovert, bare in mind I am and have always been introvert bar the times I’ve had episodes. I was a very polite kid, studious and reserved in nature. Probably the kid you never really noticed in class. But this new Ryan was the polar opposite, an arrogant, confrontational, fearless and disruptive boy who did some very unkind things to some other kids, things that make me ashamed even now. At first, my parents liked this kid, my behaviour conveyed a happier more going for him kind of kid, and they thought I finally blossomed. They loved it until my behaviour at school became too severe, and my academic performance flatlined the school called my parents in and told them all about their new Ryan, they were pissed and confused. My psychiatrist said more than likely it was this significant life event (starting secondary school, large school and new people) triggered this episode.
Due to moving house in the summer holidays that followed year 7, I had to move schools. I started afresh jumping into year 8. It was this life event that made me plunge back into depression; it was hard. Managed to become manic towards the end of year 8, getting suspended for disruptive behaviour one week and later getting my jaw broken just before the summer holidays nipped that in the bud though. I can honestly say that year 9 was probably the best school year for me; I was mostly balanced, managed to do well academically and get in shape. My social life was healthy too, suffered from the occasional bouts of depression but all in all, it was ok. Year 10 saw my decline, but this time I had learnt how to hide behind a mask, keep up a pretence that I was fine when I was numb inside. The funny thing about depression is that because you’re depressed you let yourself go, you suffer in various areas in life, and because of this, it propels you deeper into depression. The more problems your depression births, the more hands are holding your head down to drown. I was seeing less of the manic episodes of Bipolar and was having to endure more prolonged bouts of depression and mixed states (where you suffer from mania and depression at the same time). Year 11 wasn’t great either I gained A LOT of weight in my depression which made me feel even worse, the depression fed me, and my body image fed the depression, the perfect couple. This lovely couple met me around year 9, and ever since my body image has been disgusting.
Fast-forward to sixth-form, damn, If I could write a definition for an existential crisis, I’d just copy and paste the first year of sixth-form experience. Without making it lengthy, I think it was around this time I came to terms that there was something wrong with me, I knew this wasn’t right. The depression was intense, so loud that one day I just didn’t turn up after the first year January exams. I ghosted from life, I stayed in my room, binged shows, dusted off the treadmill and just ran on it every day until the following September where I’d applied and got accepted into college.
3. Life during/after college and NHS (Age 17-22)
It was this long period before September I had time to sort my body out and think about myself and being the curious person I am, I did a lot of Googling, looking to see if what I was feeling is a shared experience. I concluded that I needed to see my doctor, I was well at this time, but I feared the darkness would come back and fuck me up during my college time, and consequently my future. I made an appointment with my GP, in the lead up to that date I envisioned that the doctor would tell me that yes, what I’m feeling is real and she’d help me out. The day of my appointment came, I felt scared and anxious about it. How would I open up to someone I don’t know? How would I open one when I had never opened up before? Despite these fears, I still went ahead and thought to myself I just need to firm it and get help. I saw my doctor. Unfortunately, she was very dismissive of me and chalked it up to puberty and growing up. Handed me a website link for mindfulness tips and that was that. I was disheartened, but I tried to convince myself that I’m okay now, maybe I’ve finally beat this, college will be starting soon, and I’m going to succeed by force. I did well at college up until December, felt myself sinking again. I got terrible AS grades that summer because the depression had me in a chokehold. I remember breaking down, being rock bottom on the day on one of my Psychology exams, instead of answering the essay question, I merely wrote a letter about my life, similar to this but with far less insight. I wrote to the examiner, poured my heart out, even left my phone number at the end of the letter so that if they had something to say, they could. I know it’s ridiculous but that where I was at mentally during that time. Needless to say, I didn’t receive that message from them. Honestly, I was just happy that I didn’t suffer any repercussions. The summer holidays that followed the end of exam period was when I made another GP appointment, this time she heard me out; promised to get me referred to a mental health nurse for a full assessment and to then go forward from there. I had my assessment; the nurse heard me out, his feedback felt like the holy grail. I thought I had finally been heard, he mentioned things like CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), medication if necessary and support. Everything I wanted to hear, he said I’d receive a letter from the hospital after he conferred with the psychiatrist and determined how I would go forward. I got that letter 5 weeks later, and it said no further action was required and that I could visit a website about mindfulness and to make use of drop-in sessions offered by my college. I think I gave up at this point. Managed to pull off the second year of college, resat my AS exams and took my A2 exams along with it, I got good grades and got a place a university to study Dietetics. My fear of failure made me withdraw my application; I thought what if this shit happens again, I’ll flop with the bonus of debt. Instead, I decided to apply for Higher Apprenticeships in Digital Marketing, and I got a place at a reasonable Digital and IT agency. It wasn’t what I truly wanted to do, but it was safer for me, more comfortable. The time I worked there I did well, professionally. I fine-tuned my skills of deception while working there, when my bouts of depression hit me like a tonne of bricks, I learnt fast that I should always do as much work as possible and shine while I was level to compensate for the times where I struggled with my workload. I mastered the art of doing the bare minimum while making it look like I was productive. I got bored there after a while and decided I wanted to go to University to pursue another career; I got accepted and handed in my resignation before University started. A couple of months before University began I had a long and strong episode of mania; it was like nothing I’d experienced before. Without delving too deep into it as it’s still uncomfortable to talk about, I engaged in a lot of risky behaviours, and I’m thankful to be healthy today.
4. Diagnosis and what’s changed
Fast forward to starting University, everything was going well until December, I hit that low again, and this time I couldn’t hide it. My mum could smell it a mile off me, to her credit she dragged me to the GP while I was in a state and I was referred to a mental health nurse at the same place I visited when I was 17. It took a week or two to get seen to; I wasn’t expecting anything helpful, I had been knocked back so many times that I was just going through the motions for my mum’s sake. I received a letter a couple of weeks after saying I had to see a psychiatrist for further assessment, I went to 3 or 4 lengthy evaluations with two different psychiatrists, and that’s when I found out I had Bipolar II disorder. As sad as it may seem, I was happy with my diagnosis. That got the ball rolling for treatment, and since the beginning of last year I’ve been taking the mood stabiliser Lamictal and will soon be having therapy alongside it.
How have things changed since the diagnosis? If I could speak to pre-treatment Ryan, I’d tell him to be patient with the medication side of things. I expected all my shit to get fixed right away, but that was far from the truth. It took months and months of tweaking my dosage with my psychiatrist to find the sweet spot. I’d be lying to you and myself if I said all my problems had gone away, what I can say is that things are significantly better. Even the fact I now have this diagnosis reassures me that I’m not just bugging out for no reason, it lessens that feeling of “what’s wrong with me”. Over the last few years at times, I contemplated suicide, planned it out and purposely harmed myself in other ways. Since taking medication, I can say that I don’t think about killing myself anymore or intentionally hurting myself. My experience with medication (Lamictal, in particular) hasn’t all be a bunch of roses. For example, I’m someone who has vivid dreams every night, quite often they negative, on Lamictal I found that my dreams are even more vivid and sometimes, quite exhausting. Sometimes my dreams set the mood for the day, and that’s annoying, but I guess it’s something I’m willing to put up with if I mean my lows aren’t so extreme anymore. Yes, I still have lows and anxiety, but they aren’t crippling anymore, and the episodes are shorter than before I started my treatment. Because my mania episodes are far less severe to my depression episodes, my medication is primarily treating my depression. Things may change with me in the future, and my treatment may have to accommodate, only time will tell. When my psychiatrist offered me therapy when he diagnosed me, I stupidly declined as I thought this issue was primarily biological; thus meds would be the cure. While that is mostly true, it would be naive of me to believe that what I experienced hasn’t left deeper issues with me which can’t be fixed by medication. One thing, in particular, would be my body image and self-esteem, while the episodes exacerbated this issue, it’s left a long-lasting effect on me which I need to tackle, I still have a list of unhealthy ways of thinking to unlearn. This is why I recently asked my psychiatrist for therapy dedicated sessions as well, who knows if it’ll work. If there is one message I’m trying to get across is that you’re going to have to try all sorts, one thing for someone might no work on somebody else.
So that’s my bare bones life story in the perspective of my mental health, this post would be too long if I were to go in extreme detail about how I felt, I might cover different aspects of my situation in more detail in future.