Thanks for visiting! The up and the down of a bipolar illness

Hi there, my name is Emmie. I'm 17 years old and I live in Sydney, Australia. I have lived all over the world, and as a child I moved around a lot. This made it hard for me to learn and even more difficult for me to make friends. But now I have begun to settle down here.

My love in life is music and I've always wanted to be a singer...I sing with a few bands at school and in choirs, and I hope that some day I'll have a solo career as a vocalist.  Over the years I have found that music is the best therapy I can get, and I have definitely needed therapy. 

You see, I get huge mood swings...part of something called a  bi-polar illness. Because I'm a teenager, most people think I am just moody because of my hormones and they find it hard to accept that my moods are not just part of being 17. Believe me, it is more than that.

Moving around so often made it difficult to make friends, and as a result I was a very quiet, reserved kid most of the time. So it was quite easy for me to slip into depression without anybody noticing. I hated people fussing about me and it was easier to deal with things when I managed to avoid attention. But at some point people began to realise that I wasn't just a very quiet child who suddenly had hysterical outbreaks. They figured out that there was something more serious going on with me.

My teachers began to look closely at me, and tried to work out why I was so miserable. Because my mother was very sick, and because her medical problems certainly caused a lot of hardship in our family, they concluded that my depression was a result of having an ill mother.

I was diagnosed with epilepsy, which explained my hysterical outburst, but it soon became obvious that what  had been  thought to be fits was actually manic hysteria.

Perhaps I should explain a little about a bi-polar illness. It's called bi-polar because it involves both emotional ups and emotional downs...mania and depression.

When I get my 'ups' I get feelings of elation. Ideas come to me really easily during these times, and I become very creative. It's fun to begin with, but it gets very scary pretty soon since I lose my grip on reality. I'm easily angered during my up periods, too, so you can understand why it can be hard to be around me when I'm charging full steam ahead. It can get very exhausting for everyone I'm around, too, including me!

When I get my downs, I become very depressed.  It scares me to be around people during those times. People tell me that I have an "I don't care" attitude when I'm down, so they have a hard time with my symptoms. It takes me longer to think, it's harder for me to concentrate, I become very sad, and frightened,  and  worried. When I'm feeling that way, I am totally incapable of feeling pleasure, and I cry a lot about everything. It's hard to explain what it's like to be so depressed. My mind becomes a void and I have overwhelming feelings of sadness and guilt and anger. They sweep over me in giant waves of emotion. Sometimes it's so bad that I need to be hospitalized until things calm down and my
medication is adjusted.

School can be very hard to deal with.  When I get depressed, I can't concentrate and I fall behind in my school work. Sometimes I just sit in the corridors and cry. I have no energy to do the work, and I am always fighting with my family and teachers.  When I'm manic I get real airy and it's a struggle to sit down and work,  I just want to get up and run around or sing or ANYTHING else!

I passed my school certificate with a lot of work and effort and I'm aiming for the HSC  now...but let me assure you, it is very laborious and a constant struggle!!

When I wake up in the morning I'm often tired because I only sleep for about 2 hours a night. I try and find every excuse not to go to school. My boyfriend calls me every morning to talk me into going to school, so I usually manage to get there with his help. When I'm there my brain isn't interested in studying.  I push myself very hard to get through classes, and quite often I cry my eyes out. It's such a struggle to even write an essay, but I try and do it.

Despite the difficulties, my friends have stayed with me during the up and the down times. They are really great, and when I need to talk they are always there for me.

Luckily I'm taking an effective medication to control the symptoms now and that's making it easier on everyone. I have so much respect for the people around me. I can honestly say that without them, I wouldn't be alive today.

If you know someone with any form of mental illness, don't judge them, or be afraid of them. Loving them is the best medicine they can get. I don't get teased much, just misunderstood. People don't want to be around me most of the time because of my symptoms. They think I am a sulker and  a bad sport, or it seems as if they think I am going to suddenly turn around and stab them.

We have all these drug and AIDS awareness seminars which are great,  but I think it would be really good if schools could educate kids about depression, too, as 1 in 20 people have
some form of this dreadful disease.

I'm doing music and drama for my HSC and both my works are about depression and the response of people to it. That's why I'm writing...I hope to shed a little light on this confusing, frustrating problem.

The treatment and support I do have is making it a lot easier for me to live like a normal teenager. I have counseling at school which is fantastic  and I do yoga to help me keep calm. I also see a team of psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, naturopaths and a nurse who help me work through my problems. They also monitor my medication and try to help me attain a healthy mental state.

When I'm manic, or depressed I find it hard to communicate properly with other people. But often I can draw a lot of inspiration from these times. I have written some of my best songs, and plays whilst depressed. I am lucky because I can express my feeling through performance and through music. And I would encourage anyone else in this situation to do so. In the end you are the only one who knows exactly what is going through your mind, and you can either be afraid of it, or you can use it to your advantage.

Luckily, there are ways to control a bi-polar illness so that I can live fairly normally, but I'll tell you, this is a problem I really would rather not have. I hate taking medication, and I hate being constantly monitored, but it's part of who I am. And part of my journey is to learn to love myself, and my illness. I believe that illnesses are like forks in the road; you just have to learn to pick the right one and things will work out for the best.

Thanks for visiting! Emmah 
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Joan Fleitas, Ed.D., R.N.
Associate Professor of Nursing, Lehman College, CUNY
Bronx, New York 10468

Last updated: November 14, 2004