This is the story of a very special friend of mine.
This friend, is someone I met at university, and have grown to become very close with and fond of over the years. When I met her, my first impression of her was that she was a little eccentric, but in a good way. She was fun loving, stunning, hilarious, and to be honest, a little intimidating. Not because she was trying to be, but just because she was so gorgeous, and full of life, welcoming and warm that I felt small compared to her.
She will probably be surprised to read that I felt that way about her, I am not sure if she sees herself clearly, or maybe she feels like that person is a distant memory after the events of the last few years.
Today, I would add another word to the list of adjectives I would use to describe her. The word is strong. And another one – triumphant. And maybe, lastly, I would like to say the word proud. Because I am proud of her, but mostly because I think she should be proud of herself. She has shown immense bravery during a period that has been challenging, scary, confronting and most of all completely foreign to her.
A year ago, my friend Carissa was diagnosed with Bi-Polar Affective Disorder. The reason that we sat down to discuss her journey and struggle with her mental illness is because at times she has felt very alone, and misunderstood, and we hoped that if we could shed some light on her disorder, other people may have more understanding.
One thing I know about Carissa’s life, is that it is not easy. I know that she often feels like she is failing because things haven’t gone the way she expected them to. I have watched her pain and turmoil, witnessed the good and bad phases and I am just so in awe of the fact that she has continued to push forward, grow, learn and succeed in her perserverance despite everything she has been through.
Acceptance and understanding of mental illness is highly publicised at the moment, and there is a push for more openness and honesty around the issue. So Carissa explained to me exactly what the last ten years of her life have been like, from her initial suspicions that she may have some underlying mental illness, to her diagnosis and her ongoing management.
She has grappled with coming to terms with the illness, what that means for her life, how it is possible to maintain friendships and family relationships, and working toward stabilising her life and moving forward in pursuit of her dreams.
I have re-written our discussion here, in full, and with her permission.
Carissa describes herself as someone who loves to have fun, laugh, and enjoy life. She also gets great joy out of her creative pursuits, and has a strong head for business. She has always had a desire to collaborate with like-minded people to create business strategies that are a little different from the mould, and has always visualised her future self as a successful business owner and entrepreneur.
She is intelligent, and witty and when she embarked on a move to the Sunshine Coast for University when she was 17, the future looked very bright.
She is 28 now, and in the past 11 years, Carissa noticed a gradual shift in her moods and her mental state. In the last five years, she has been hospitalised for periods of a week to twelve days on three occasions. Bi-Polar is defined as the recurrent experience of episodes of mood swings, which result in severe changes in mood and behaviour.
These mood swings can span from elevated and irritable mania or ‘highs’ to sad, hopeless and depressed (lows).
The frequency, intensity and length of these episodes, not to mention the recovery period for each (Carissa concedes it takes six months for her to get back into stabilised moods after either of the above) can make living what most would consider a “normal” life impossible.
For Carissa, she has worked out that she has been working through two yearly cycles – every two years she has found herself in a manic phase that once stabilised, has taken her six months of considerable work to come out the other side of.
Each time she has been hospitalised during a high, she has been able to pin point the trigger for a ‘manic episode’. She has little recollection of those periods because as she describes, she has felt like she is not present in her own mind during that time.
She first noticed a change in her mood when she was 17. She moved out of home and enrolled in university at the Sunshine Coast. She found the change in environment somewhat challenging despite being popular amongst the students and those she shared accommodation with. She felt herself becoming depressed and would find it hard to get out of bed, lacked motivation and had little desire to participate in activities or her studies.
She was diagnosed at this time with depression.
She met a boyfriend there, who at the time she felt was absolutely the love of her life. During what was a hard time for her, she describes him as ‘her rock.’ Her stability in a life that had been destabilised. She was heavily emotionally dependant on him. After a couple of years of dating, she was devastated and shocked when he came to her one day and confided in her that he no longer felt he could continue the relationship. He was very upset as she describes it, and she distinctly remembers the moment when he broke down in tears and told her that ‘he felt like he always had to look after her.’
She hadn’t considered that her dependency and change in moods had been impacting him so badly. Utterly heartbroken, she found it very difficult to move forward from this point in her life. She had lost her best friend, her safety net, her love and her rock. She also felt like she had lost her identity as who she was had been very much attached to the relationship in what felt like an unfamiliar environment.
She did her best to move forward and completed her degree. Moving back to Brisbane, she managed to secure a job within a large firm in the industry of education, as an education consultant. It was a high pressure environment, and the constant demand for meeting targets and expectations were wearing her down. Determined to fulfil her dream of success in business she persevered, until one day she broke down in her car both physically and mentally, and found herself being taken to hospital by a friend. She felt at this point that she was just stressed, tired and under pressure.
She recovered quickly and went back to the job. Her friend’s wedding in Hawaii was looming, and she very much wanted to be there. Most of her friends had committed to going, and she booked her tickets and started to plan what would be the holiday of a lifetime. The excitement and emotions began running high, and whilst she doesn’t have much recollection of what happened next, she found herself hospitalised for a week, after experiencing her first manic episode.
She never made it to Hawaii.
There was no diagnosis at this point, although she was prescribed medication and her family were struggling to understand what was happening. Her life seemed to be shrouded in chaos and she made a decision to remove herself from her current environment and try to start afresh.
She moved to Canberra to stay with her sister, and managed to get another job there. Within twelve months, she had found herself in the same position, in the midst of a manic episode, and hospitalised again.
The third and last time, a year ago, doctors informed her that taking everything into consideration, they were satisfied that she had Bi-Polar and an official diagnosis was given. At first she found it difficult to believe that this could be true. She was concerned with whether people would accept her condition. She started to research the disorder and found familiarity in a lot of the symptoms and behaviours that she read about.
Each of the hospitalisations or manic periods were triggered by work stress and friends weddings which enabled her to understand the patterns of emotions, internal and external pressures and expectation that seemed to be the starting point. During each and every one she kept a diary, which upon reflection showed patterns of behaviour and thoughts.
She recalls the trauma of being in hospital each time explaining to me that it is the worst feeling in the world. The first few days she was not really conscious of her surroundings, but once she started to realise where she was, her stomach sank. She attempted and succeeded in escape on one occasion, finding herself walking a great distance in the middle of the night, confused and dazed but not wanting to go back to the psychiatric ward she had been assigned. She finds being in hospital surrounded by other patients with mental illness to be very confronting and intense.
One of the hardest things that Carissa deals with is that she feels a complete lack of control over her behaviour and actions in a manic phase. In her most recent hospitalisation, she found herself walking with one shoe on and a bag of non-essential items to the nearest train station in an attempt to get to a friend’s wedding in Byron Bay. She was confronted by police at her first stop, unsure of whether she had any money or phone, and only a few of her belongings left on her person (the rest had been lost and discarded along the way).
She tells me that her greatest regret, is the friendships she has lost during this ten year journey, because due to incidents of erratic behaviour or aggression, people have conceded her too difficult to be friends with. She understands their reaction, takes ownership for what has happened and wishes she could take things back. In her opinion, sometimes things are just not recoverable.
She is constantly looking at and trying new ways to improve her quality of life and manage her condition.
She is fortunate to have a group of supportive friends, who are understanding of her circumstances and available to catch up, talk, or visit her in hospital where needed. She concedes that not everyone with mental illness has the same support and tragically people take their own lives out of a sense of hopelessness and despair .
Whilst she has dated briefly over the years, she is yet to find another partner that she feels the same connection with that she did when she was at university, however she remains very optimistic that it lies somewhere in her future. She explained to me that given the nature of her disorder, it has completely consumed her life, her energy and her time in the last five years and she has grappled with finding a sense of stability amongst all the chaos. She feels that she is “owned” by her Bi-polar, and she is working on taking back her ownership of her life, and finding a sense of harmony with her illness.
She says it is hard not to sink into a depression when you are coming to terms with such a serious diagnosis, and that at times she has wondered if there is something wrong with her, that makes her different from other people. She explained to me that growing up and in adolescence, she was always a bit different and that people described her as “one of a kind” which she now puts down to the fact that she had a mental illness no one knew about.
She also finds it difficult that she has not been able to successfully work for some time, which makes her feel that her life is lacking in purpose but she knows that in time, that will be able to change.
She appreciates the support of her family, who have weathered the storms with her, shared in her confusion and pain, and now, relief, that they have a formal diagnosis which gives them more understanding and clarity of both her as a person, and her behaviour and struggles over the years.
When I asked her where she has found the most peace and solace, she said it was within her art. She is a painter and has found that to be a great form of personal therapy.
He dream would be to open an art studio with a café or florist inside, and to assist other people with her same condition given the opportunity. You can find her collection of art on Instagram under RissocoDesigns, and she finds inspiration from other artists and every day events and objects.
She works with a social worker once a week and has a prescribed psychiatrist who are helping her to actively manage her illness.
She explained to me that her first port of call when she suspected something wasn’t right was Beyond Blue (details found here) and that talking with them initially helped her and gave her hope. More recently she has joined a mental illness fellowship (MIFQ) details here, where she has made some great friends and enjoys doing art classes there weekly.
When asked what her one piece of advice would be for anyone who suspects they may have Bi-Polar or mental illness, or who has been diagnosed and is coming to terms with it is that everyone experiences mental illness differently. She recommends that having a good GP that can monitor your history and advise and look after you is important as she feels that chopping and changing GP’s every time things got challenging set her back. She also now realises that every time she had a bad episode she made the decision to move away which was essentially running away from her problems, and has hindered her progress.
1 in 100 people suffer from her disorder but it doesn’t affect two people in the exact same way in her opinion. She also encourages people to reach out. She feels that for herself, she has found people in society, her friends and her family to be understanding and accepting of her illness, just sometimes a little unsure as to how to approach it.
It has been a steep learning curve for everyone in her life, but she feels that she has a good support system to work with and has hope for a wonderful future.
From an outsiders perspective, I say again that I am really proud of the person that Carissa is and has always been. She is incredibly caring, kind hearted and loving. Watching a friend go through something as debilitating as Bi-Polar, I can say that at times I have felt like I ‘lost my friend’ because things change, and you wonder if you will get back to the point you were at. However, we have had so much fun over the years, and we still do.
When recounting some of the memories of the past years during our interview, I was pleased to see that we both had a sense of humour about some of the more erratic moments. We were able to laugh together, and cry together which I think keeps everything firmly planted in reality.
We don’t always have a choice in the cards we are dealt – this is one of these occasions. I think the fact that Carissa has handled what she was dealt with such a brilliant attitude is testimony to who she is and something that deserves applause.
She still feels unsure as to how people will interpret her condition, and suffers from social anxiety sometimes. She explained to me that during her low periods, going out and socialising is completely off the cards, rather she withdraws into herself and she has endured periods of months at a time where she has been unable to brush her teeth or her hair, or get dressed on her own. She knows that people around her find it difficult to comprehend that she is not capable of such menial tasks especially given that when her mood is stabilised, in contrast she is a very vibrant and capable young woman.
Her strategy for managing her illness is to take things slowly – one day at a time, one foot in front of the other. She still has hopes and dreams, but she tries to stay in the present moment and stay focused on her day to day awareness and health, as getting obsessed with future plans has proven to be a catalyst for manic episodes.
Most of all, she wants people to understand that mental illness affects lots of different people in different ways. You can’t categorise everyone with the same title or make generalisations or assumptions. She believes that more understanding and less judgement is always the best way to approach anyone who may be suffering from a similar disorder.
Details for Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Details for MIFQ -http://www.mifq.org.au/