Let’s start with the positives. I am well. I am pretty much entirely free of bipolar symptoms, so I guess I am in “symptomatic remission”. I’ve yet to attain the dizzy heights of “functional remission” – I’m working more than I’ve done in a while, on amazing, meaningful projects like qualitative research into women’s medication choices in pregnancy and delivery of Mental Health First Aid, and I’m beginning to be paid more often for my speaking and writing. But I’m a long way away from being able to work full time the way that I used to, and to be honest I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to do that again. I get ridiculously tired even after a single full day of work and for every day worked, I need at least another day to recuperate. But I am well.
Yet I’m so nervous. Despite three continuous months of wellness I can’t relax, I’m scared to enjoy remission. Because, you see, I did not “overcome” the episode. I haven’t “beaten” mental illness. I haven’t “managed” my way to wellness, whether by my own actions or via any intervention by the NHS. Remission has not occurred because of anything I or anyone else did. It was simply time, time for the tide to turn and the four-year episode to come to an end.
This is scary, because it means that no matter how many drugs I take or how many self-management plans I draw up, my bipolar is not “under control”. If anything, it remains in control of me. It may be dormant at the moment, but I can no more control it than a seismologist can control the movement of tectonic plates. Bipolar has gifted me spontaneous remission, so spontaneous that it literally happened in a heartbeat. I know some people won’t believe that’s possible, it’s the truth; one minute I was weighed down by depression, a depression that was generating very detailed and specific suicide plans. Then next – it was gone and I was free.
But if bipolar can be generous, it can just as easily turn on me again. Twice in my life I have had the opposite experience, that of depression descending impossibly suddenly before sticking around for months. My first ever depression happened in exactly this way. Aged only 12, I was jogging around a temporary athletics track marked out on the school playing fields when a hideous something came suddenly upon me. It was like a bird swooping down, vicious claws extended, and it changed my life forever. I did not understand what was happening, what was wrong with me, but later I pieced things together from a book in the school library and found a name for the heavy sadness I now had to carry around.
At 25 I had a unrecognised, undiagnosed hypomanic episode after the birth of my second child. A couple of weeks into the abnormal energy and excessive elation it vanished, once again in the space of a second or two, plunging me into an awful period of my life in which I struggled hugely to care for my own children. Another episode happened 18 months later when hypomania segued first into depression then into a mixed mood, culminating in a suicide attempt. Having done its very worst, bipolar then checked out again for no discernable reason, leaving me in peace for an astonishing eight years.
Sure, there have been episodes where hypomania or depression has come on gently, gradually, episodes where if I’d known then what I know now I could perhaps have intervened, at least in the very early stages. But there is no way to take remedial action for a change that happens in a heartbeat. There is no time to prepare, to get your plan together, your resources in place. I know I should be trying to live in the moment, take each day as it comes but I’m finding that really hard. The knowledge that bipolar giveth and bipolar taketh away is hanging heavily over me, giving my happiness an edge of anxiety. I am well, but I am not in control.