This time last year I was standing in my driveway, wildly drunk, shouting at the police officers who were about to haul me off to a psych ward. I'd been drinking all day, capping it off by sending text messages threatening to kill my brother and mother (both of whom I love dearly).
If it wasn't for my partner's nerves of steel, our supportive friends and family and some clever doctors, I reckon I'd be spending this World Bipolar Day six feet under. My partner talked the cops out of taking me away that night, but it wasn't long before I was confined to a mental health unit. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me.
2019 had been a hard year. I was falling apart, spending most days locked in a dark room playing video games and drinking beer. By the time I was admitted to hospital I was about as close to dead as you'd want to be.
I don't remember much about the following several weeks of diagnosis and treatment, but a year later the change is so profound that I am only just beginning to understand the fundamentals of my new persona.
My condition is called ultra rapid cycling bipolar II. It is defined by very fast mood swings that oscillate between hypomania and depression. Some people might talk about having a bad day or a bad week. Until now, my moods have always been measured in 15-minute chunks. Once the medication stabilised my mood, it became clear just how severe my condition had been.
All of a sudden, the rollercoaster ride has stopped and I now have control over my emotions and feelings. With the benefit of this newfound clarity, I am astounded at the level of mental carnage I previously considered normal.
For most of my life, emotions and feelings have been severely amplified, often spiralling out of control into mania or depression. Fierce anger, sadness and giddy excitement have dragged me through the years with very little rational input and many a dire consequence.
I came to see this as a personality flaw. Always the emotional one, always the one who couldn't keep it together.
"Why don't you just chill out?"
"No need to be so aggro."
"Drink more water and go for a walk."
But positive thinking couldn't harness the moods that were brawling in my skull like feral animals. For over a decade, I drank around 150 standard drinks a week in an effort to modulate my mood.
It wasn't a great approach.
Aside from all the other health risks, alcohol abuse interacts terribly with bipolar. Rather than making me sleepy and slurring, alcohol was like an amphetamine demon pouring petrol on a manic blaze.
I had come to accept that alcohol was going to kill me. I couldn't stop drinking. It was the only thing that dulled the mood swings, and I was done trying everything else. It wasn't even the feeling of being drunk that I craved. The blankness of the hangover was the only way I could find to deaden the moods. The end was truly nigh when a keen-eyed GP spotted the signs of bipolar II and referred me to Professor Gordon Parker for diagnosis and ongoing treatment.
The nuances of mental health are complex. Expert diagnosis and treatment is the only way to regain control.
Professor Parker is the founder of the Black Dog Institute and an expert on bipolar II disorder (he literally wrote the book on it, unambiguously entitled Bipolar II Disorder).
Professor Parker told me that the data around bipolar II is under reported because many people with the disease kill themselves before reaching a diagnosis.
To the untrained eye, the symptoms of the disease closely resemble general anxiety and depression, often clouded by the chaos of substance abuse. One of the biggest mistakes I made was thinking that I could diagnose myself.
We've all sat around with friends and family, casually diagnosing ourselves and others as though we know what we're talking about.
"He might be on the spectrum."
"She's just depressed."
"I think he is schizophrenic or something."
This kind of attitude is dangerous because the nuances of mental health are complex. Expert diagnosis and treatment is the only way to regain control.
The defining first step to recovery was opening up about how I was feeling. Even with all the initiatives and discussion around mental health, there is a lot of stigma and it was very hard to admit that I was in trouble.
I told a friend that things were not going well for me. She made an appointment with a GP and drove me there. Afterwards, she sat with me in the car while I cried. Thanks for that, Clare.
Despite all the positives of my recovery, I feel an ocean of guilt about my history of mental disease.
Writing this article has felt like a shameful confession and the feeling of disgrace is taking longer to heal than the effects of the illness itself. Maybe overcoming that sense of failure is not entirely possible, but I reckon the key is to sidestep it for long enough to get some help.
If you are in trouble, take the leap and tell someone you trust. If you don't have that person in your life right now, book an appointment with a GP and tell them what is going on.
I feel sad when I think back to that version of me, raging at the cops in the driveway, scaring the people I love, thrashing about in pain and confusion. It was very lonely and very scary.
I'm so thankful for the people in my life who held on and didn't let me go.
- Lifeline Australia: 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
- Matt Dooley is a writer and journalist.