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Mental Health: A Conversation that Starts and Ends with Depression

My name is Michelle Ní Chonaill and according to every Wes Anderson wet dream & 500 Days of Summer fan I am a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or to put it in scientific terms, I have type 2 Bipolar.

I often inject some comedy into it by introducing myself as a bipolar, bilingual, bisexual woman. I’m all for comedy; it’s my job, I get paid to do it, but there’s a line: Bipolar is a condition that is often the butt of jokes or stigmatised to talk about “crazy” / “emotional women;” Or in the newest craze it is glorify and sexualised in TV and on Film. However it’s far from a joke, sexual fantasy or a derogatory term for displaying emotion.
I have been diagnosed and medicated for just over a year, but have exhibited symptoms since the age of fourteen.

After many years of being falsely diagnosed as suffering from depression I repeated my final year of Law at UCC in 2012 due to “depression” and self harm. I was finally diagnosed in March 2015 by an excellent, yet highly expensive, psychiatrist, who I see weekly at a cost of €500 per month due to the backlog in the public system. Fortunately I am in a position to cover the costs privately, but unfortunately not everyone is, and although 2% of the population suffer with Bipolar, the psychiatric community believe a further 3% exist either undiagnosed or are falsely categorized as having depression.

Type 2 Bipolar is most common among women and is identified as having periods of light or hyper mania & extreme depression. Most people with type 2 tend to rarely, if ever, experience mania and as a result the disorder their symptoms often appear as if depression to an untrained eye. Colloquially it’s referred to as Manic Depression, a term I despise as it is a poor representation of the disorder. Also I’m a maths junkie, so bipolar reminds me of invariant theory and the late, great King of UCC George Boole.

During a depressive state a type two sufferer is prone to self harm, heavy alcohol abuse, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and comfort eating, as well as the usual symptoms that most sufferers of depression exhibit. During a period of hyper mania one usually begins to expose themselves to risky behaviour, spending money they don’t have, engaging in liberal sexual experiences they would usually feel uncomfortable in, insomnia, rapid speech pattern and radical lifestyle changes, as well as a feeling of elated highs and false happiness.

Whilst experiencing my first episode of hyper mania, I quit my job, attempted several different projects (never seeing them through), became obsessed with diet and fitness leading to a 23kg weight loss in less than 4 months and fell, what I believed to be, madly in love with a man who was abusive.

The problem with undiagnosed type 2 is periods of hyper mania can be mistaken for happiness, and we have become conditioned to recognise patterns of sadness as red flags; I mean who doesn’t want to be happy? As I believed I had depression my hyper mania masqueraded itself as my depression being cured: I was happier, full of life and had completely stopped self harming. The problem was that hyper mania can’t be maintained, and eventually I hit the wall. I ended up a broke, confused and wired, almost high, version of myself.

Thankfully a good friend and diagnosed schizophrenic noticed that my behaviour was detrimental and convinced me to see a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist was shocked that I had made it through several GPs, counsellors and child psychologists over the course of a decade and they had all failed to notice or even suggest that I had the condition. What is a testament to our failing public system is that I am textbook, I exhibit the classic symptoms: raced speech pattern, creativity, slight ADD, irritability, lack of patience, heightened self-confidence and insomnia. If someone with even the basic level of mental health training were to sit in a room with my unmedicated self they should have been able to open ‘Psychiatry for Dummies’ and tick me off as the most classic example of someone with type 2. However, nobody ever noticed.

I put my false diagnosis down to the rise of depression in Ireland, and unfortunately this horrible affliction is so common now it’s the go-to suggestion for most poorly trained members of the mental health profession.

In September 2015 a friend and I, both UCC alumni, started a support group called Long Haul. We meet weekly with students aged 16-25 who are diagnosed with a long term, incurable, psychiatric illness and our attendees for the most part have Bipolar, OCD, Schizophrenia in varying levels and ODD.

From speaking to these people who were in pain, felt misunderstood or treated like pariahs, one thing became abundantly clear:
All felt the conversation on mental health in Ireland starts and ends with depression
Most cited they had difficulty in college getting extensions, exemptions or altered circumstances to accommodate what in all sense is a disability; an OCD sufferer I met asked to move labs because she can’t be in a room where she can’t see the exit, someone with ODD who asked to be transferred to a bigger lecture room as claustrophobia aggravates his condition or a schizophrenic who asked for a week off compulsory lecturers because he was in a bad place.
Monday on ‘Claire Byrne Live’ a panel & audience discussed the deplorable cuts to the mental health budget. I watched it in a room full of mental health sufferers, fingers crossed that at least one person would mention a condition other than depression. Alas, as we have grown accustomed to, they didn’t.I have seen the terrible effects of depression on people I love and will always encourage people to speak up if they need help.
Of course I applaud the men and women who work tirelessly to turn the tide on suicide and help those with depression and anxiety. It’s a great starting point, but it’s been treated as an end point, which has left others in the community feel ostracised by their own kind as well as the rest of society.
Often when I say I feel like the conversation in our country only focuses on depression it’s misinterpreted as an attack on those with the condition, so I ask people to view access to mental health care as access to civil rights: we are a minority in this analogy, we do not want to lessen others’ access or belittle their rights, we just want our small voice to be heard as loudly, because if mainstream media or the opinions of our politicians are anything to go on, it feels as if we are shouting into the void.
The last year of my life has been one of the most difficult but rewarding: from destructive partying that made River Phoenix and Courtney Love look like amateurs, to cashing out my savings, to leaving my job at a successful property firm, to losing friends I hurt and pushed away, I have come out the other side of it a better person.
My life is far from perfect, and I have wavering moments where as a writer (I co-run a pretty successful online atheist newspaper under a pseudonym) I debate not taking my medication to release the creativity associated with my illness, but through talk therapy and extensive reading I’ve learned how to access and harness it without putting myself in danger.But I am in a good place, I have just finished my first script for the BBC, I have begun to write scripts for two successful Youtube channels and I have never been closer to my family. I have a long way to come and yes I still hesitate to tell people I have the condition, especially if I am dating them.
There are issues and incidents that have happened to me or that I partook in during a time of mania or depression that I am not ready to talk about, but every day I get closer, everyday I get stronger and everyday I recognise my illness as part of who I am, but not all of who I am.
I hope that as attitudes towards mental illness improve that the conversation is opened and expanded to encompass more illnesses.Our site is currently under construction but if anyone wants to get in contact with Long Haul, especially if they too have a long term psychiatric illness, please contact us at our temporary address longhaulireland@yahoo.com