Paranoia, spending sprees and lots of guinea pigs: The daily stresses of bipolar disorder

Mood swings: Kerry Hudson

Mood swings: Kerry Hudson

There were guinea pigs everywhere, scurrying around my front room. Thirteen of them in total. Not to mention the ten rabbits. There was a pet shop at the end of my road and I simply couldn’t stop myself from buying one every time I walked past. I felt as if I had to rescue them from their hot glass boxes – and eventually my tiny flat was filled with little furry animals. Describing it now, I can understand how bizarre this scenario sounds, but at the time it all made perfect sense.

That’s because I suffer from bipolar disorder, and the whole pet-buying obsession was something I went through while in the grip of the illness six years ago.

A lot has been written about bipolar, once known as manic depression, in recent years. Celebrities including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kerry Katona are said to suffer from it – you could be forgiven for thinking it was almost chic.

But hundreds of thousands of non-famous Britons suffer too. It is a condition that affects moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. There are periods of mania where you feel incredible, filled with so much energy you barely need to eat or sleep, and are bursting with creative ideas – followed by haunting depression.

These episodes can last for weeks or months. And although bipolar can be managed successfully with drug and psychological therapies, 15 per cent of sufferers – about 2,000 people a year – kill themselves.

Campaigners say only about half of sufferers are actually diagnosed and, on average, this can take eight years from first seeing a doctor.

I’m a classic example, having been in and out of clinics with my strange mood and behaviour problems since I was a child. As early as infant school, teachers used to make me stand and face the wall for incessant crying.

Throughout junior and secondary school, I had severe mood swings and was often in detention and grounded at home. Then I tried to starve myself to death and, at 16, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for the first time.

They told me that I was depressed, but I felt the opposite: excited. I set up an aerobics club on the ward. It was a big hospital and I discovered corridors in the basement where I ran every day until I was weak.

The most common treatment prescribed by doctors for straightforward depression is antidepressants. But these aredangerous for patients with bipolar disorder as they can trigger a manic episode.

After three months with no improvement, I was discharged. When I got home, my family weren’t prepared. I was still behaving erratically and it didn’t work out. Social services were already involved, and we decided it was best if I went to live in a semi-independent care home.

While I was in the sixth form and at university, I was on and off antidepressants – no GP throughout this time mentioned bipolar disorder. It’s a hard condition to detect because doctors see you only when you’re depressed. After all, why go to your GP complaining of feeling that you’re the most important person in the world, as you think of yourself during manic ‘up’ swings

The most common treatment prescribed by doctors for straightforward depression is antidepressants. But these are dangerous for patients with bipolar disorder as they can trigger a manic episode. And that’s exactly what was happening to me each time.

My mind would race – thoughts, fears, paranoias, questions, obsessions, internal conversations, grandiose fantasies. It’s exhausting and dangerous having multiple thought patterns at once. Preoccupied in my own world, I’ve walked in front of moving cars.

And I often went missing, popping out for some bread and milk and coming back three days later oblivious to the fears and frustration I had caused people.

After university, I chose jobs that were shift-based. I started early and worked long hours and was the first to opt for overtime, often doing double or triple shifts. This pleased my bosses but eventually I would crash, so exhausted that just getting out of bed felt like doing a marathon.

Famous sufferer: Catherine Zeta-Jones is said to have bipolar Famous sufferer: Kerry Katona is said to have bipolar

Famous sufferers: Both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Kerry Katona are said to have bipolar disorder

I had intrusive thoughts and negative fantasies. For example, I would have recurrent fears about animals being badly hurt and they were so realistic that I couldn’t open an oven or fridge door for fear of animals appearing out of nowhere and getting trapped inside. Or I would have strong impulsive urges to cut my eyeballs with paper, so reading was out of the question.

These thoughts went on all day, every day for weeks, and were so bad that they made me suicidal.

Ironically, I went on to carve out a career in the comedy industry. I wrote jokes for well-known stand-up comics and sketch material for TV and radio. My mania was great for fuelling creativity and churning out material, and when I was manic I was at my most witty.

I remember once a producer called me to say the material I had sent was hilarious but I didn’t recall sending anything. I had written it during a manic phase and simply had no memory of it.

I started to rely on store cards, credit cards and loans to get by financially. I kept receiving applications through the post and I couldn’t say no, which meant I got deeper and deeper into debt. Luckily, I’ve never been into designer labels, but I blew a lot of money on tat from second-hand shops. My flat looked like one big car-boot sale and many goods never made it out of the bag.

I recently came across a survey in whichpeople said they would be more willing to date an ex-convict than someone with a mental illness.

Relationships have been tricky. Before I was diagnosed, when I had no understanding of my mood swings, mania, and paranoia, I simply believed I was a bad girlfriend. Meeting a new or potential partner, my behaviour on the first date was usually very different from subsequent ones.

Men would often find me very entertaining – talking a lot, making them laugh, doing crazy things, knocking back drinks and making wild suggestions – so they got the impression I had no hang-ups. Usually by the third date I’d be either tearful and clingy, or lifeless and dull. They would be disappointed, and that was that.

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Mangeable: Kerry as a child. She keeps a diary of her illness

He is, however, often the target of my frustrations, purely because I trust him more than anyone else. He has learned not to take my negativity too personally but this took time. I can only imagine how frustrating, confusing and draining it must be on the receiving end of my mood swings.

I now take lithium, a mood stabiliser, and anti-psychotics, neither of which cure bipolar, but both help balance my moods. I was dubious about lithium, associating it with Fifties labs and lobotomies, but there is a good reason it’s still in use: it works. I am now able to detect the warning signs of an manic episode – inability to cope with tiny things, finding simple decisions difficult, irrational questioning, insomnia, obsessing about animals .  .  .

Self-care is crucial. We all know exercise bumps up serotonin and I’m no fitness freak but I love cycling along the canal. It’s amazing the effect fresh air has on my moods.

And being a writer, I find keeping a mood diary useful. Most importantly, I have to remember to take my medicines, as missing just one dose can make a difference to my state of mind. I also record my goings-on in my blog, a sometimes satirical yet honest account of living with my condition, which I plan to turn into a book.

There are many people in my life I’ve never told about my illness. But it can be managed, and I hope one day people with the disorder will be seen as we are: just a different version of normal.