Bipolar disorder: ‘I still celebrate walking out the door every day’

When I reveal that I have bipolar disorder, people often say, ‘You don’t look like you have bipolar,’ says Niall Sheehy. Most people think of the classic person who sees God or has psychotic episodes. But this is not everyone’s experience and there are many different types of bipolar.

The 47-year-old IT technician was diagnosed more than a decade ago with bipolar disorder, a mood disorder that affects around 1 in 50 Irish adults and up to 40 million people worldwide.

When Sheehy failed to return home from Scotland for Christmas in 2010, her sister knew something was wrong. He came to Edinburgh, saw the conditions I was living in and demanded I come home, he says.

At that time, he didn’t leave the house except at night, when he knew no one else was around. Isolation was a big part of my story. Edinburgh doesn’t have a river but it does have canals and I was actually starting to walk the canals with [suicidal] ideation

When Sheehy presented to mental health services in Cork, a psychiatrist took his history and eventually confirmed his sisters’ suspicion that he was living with bipolar II disorder, characterized by alternating episodes of hypomania, a milder form of mania and depression.

Sheehy describes her hypomania as an out-of-character elevation of her mood, accompanied by insomnia, agitation, and a heightened awareness of external stimuli, an experience that usually lasts about a week.

There was a day during one of my hypomanic episodes where I thought I was being incredibly creative. “I sat in front of a metal pole in Cork city for hours watching the sun’s shadow and the transition of a building,” he says.

Depressive episodes follow the mania and usually last for weeks or even months – eventually what happens is that I have a moment of clarity at the end of the hypomania. I realize I’ve done something stupid, and that seems to trigger the downward spiral into depression. And then a slow crawl comes out of the hole again.

After receiving his diagnosis, it was another five years before a serious breakdown forced him to change his approach to managing his mood. The turning point came when working on a film production as a freelance videographer, he ended up pushing himself beyond his capabilities.

I guess I lacked the life skills to be able to say, This is too much, so I went on and on until, embarrassingly, I had to have my dad call me and say, It’s not okay, he can’t do it . this

At that time I settled in Tralee and struck a deal with a psychiatric nurse: I would meet them halfway if they met me halfway.

From Sheehys perspective, making this deal with the mental health team marked the beginning of her efforts to take responsibility for her life.

Deliberately shifting his focus from everything that was wrong with the big picture, he began to concentrate on the small pieces that remained under his control. For the 47-year-old computer technician, these small pieces are a series of small agreements he continues to make with himself.

It started with an agreement with myself to stay clean, do laundry, keep my living space tidy, eat well, and keep a steady job. I think it’s amazing how all of this seeps into your life and becomes habitual.

Niall Sheehy from Tralee, County Kerry. Image: Dominick Walsh

Sheehy is clear that there is no magic pill for bipolar disorder, and managing your mood requires constant work. However, these small daily habits give you a sense of structure and stability and serve as physical checkpoints, signaling when you’re entering an episode of depression or hypomania.

Making music serves a similar purpose, allowing you to chart your mood: I know people talk about publishing or keeping a journal, but I’ve never been a writer. I prefer to use music and photography as a kind of visual and audio diary.

I control my mood based on things like what I eat. If I eat well, then I know I am well. But if I’m just getting takeout and isolating myself, I know I’m falling into depression. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling cycle where I isolate myself because I’m very aware of how a the negative mood can affect those around me, but then I end up lost in my own thoughts, she says.

It probably sounds weird, but I still celebrate walking out the door every day. For me, just getting out the door means that no matter what happens, I’ve done it and avoided the spiral of self-loathing.

For Sheehy, working with mental health services, his GP and his counselor have been essential in helping him manage and reduce the duration of his recurring symptoms. Talk therapy and appropriate medication have served as the foundation for her mood management.

I know people who are struggling and are reluctant to even entertain the idea of ​​taking medication, she says. But if your body chemistry is out of alignment, it can be important to get it right before turning to mindfulness or other tools.

She has also benefited from the Awares Living with Bipolar program and its support groups, highlighting the power of being among others who have faced similar challenges.

I’m stubborn, so sometimes I can think, “Don’t tell me what to do,” she admits. But when you talk to someone you can relate to and they give you an example of how they manage to navigate a problem, it’s more relevant than advice you get from someone who doesn’t have the same lived experience.

For someone who tends to isolate themselves during depressive periods, Sheehy says being around others, while uncomfortable at first, brings the unexpected relief of being able to take off the social mask.

He says: Working in a group with the right people allows you to be yourself in a crowd, which is rare.

  • World Bipolar Day is this Saturday. Aware, the mental health charity, will share insights from lived experience, clinical expertise and free educational programs for people with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder or those supporting a loved one under the global theme of #BipolarTogether.

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