Coming out of the darkness
What’s it like to live with a mental illness? Gus Ollerenshaw, pictured (whose father, Steve, is the training manager at the Pharmacy Guild of Australia) has bipolar disorder, and wants to increase understanding of the illness and break down barriers…
I have found that for me, bipolar disorder is a vicious circle of trying to control that which you cannot control.
For some time I refused to acknowledge that I had a problem, much less an illness. I kept pushing harder to maintain my belief that I was in control of everything within my grasp. I kept trying harder to exert mind over matter, willing my body to heal itself; and I kept denying that I held unrealistic beliefs and needed help to lead a healthy life.
I kept trying harder and harder to fix the world, because it was the problem and I was the solution. Then I blamed the world because nothing was right, no matter what I did; it was all wrong, and everybody and everything wanted me to fail and live in pain.
I still have great days (manic side) when I have the energy and desire to save the world. I feel like I am on the top of the world and that I can’t do anything wrong, but really they are not such great days. They are just irrational days that I cannot control.
I also still have my bad days (depressed side) when the whole world is out to undo everything I try to do. Now I have more days that are just days... days that bring challenges and rewards, laughter and tears, hope and regret, determination and resignation.
Sometimes I struggle. When I am struggling things are bad and I am not fun to be around. I can’t explain why it happens or why I act the way that I do. I feel that when I am struggling or sick I destroy my life and everything that I have worked hard to get.
I am most of the time these days a normal healthy person. When I am sick I struggle to process what people say and to keep my own thoughts in order. I am easily frustrated because of my confused thinking and irrational thoughts. Sometime these problems make me see things how they are not.
I am sometimes angry or come across as angry because of the frustration. It builds up inside me and comes out as a form of anger.
The struggle with treatment
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 17. I was first hospitalised at 15 for several weeks, after a suicide attempt. This was when I first started to head into what I call the dark period.
I re-entered hospital on a regular basis for the next 3 and a half years. I was unable to finish my high school education because of the amount of time I spent sick in hospital. When I was 15 and 16 I was hospitalized three times in acute and high dependency psychiatric wards for adolescents and put on multiple medications.
When I was 17 I began to be admitted into adult acute, high dependency and intensive care wards. By 18 I had spent significant time in hospital under more than 10 different psychiatrists and an 'un-countable' number of psychiatric nurses. I had also been a patient at six different hospitals during this time.
I felt like I was beginning to get lost in the health care system and that I was never going to get better. These were dark times where I struggled with day-to-day activities. I believe that I became more sick whilst in hospital because I gave up on myself and lost hope.
While in and out of hospital all the time I was prescribed many different medications. Some of the side affects the medication caused were severe weight gain (I put on 46kg) and extreme drowsiness: this made it hard to do things normal people did, and I began to hate myself and the way I looked.
I believe that the only reason I now have my illness under control is because deep down I knew that I had to take hold of my life and take control or nothing was going to get better.
I have not been a patient in hospital for more than 18 months. I live a productive life and am physically fit and mentally healthy. I work a job that I enjoy, pay my bills, have a social life and have moved across to the other side of the world.
I am now back doing what I love, which is skiing big mountains and working in the outdoors 12 months a year.
I still have bad days or weeks where I struggle with some of the problems I had in the past, but I can now recognise the symptoms that I may be becoming sick and have a plan in place to help when these situations come along.
These times are now few and far between. 90% of the time my mental health is now under control and I am living life to the fullest and loving the regular ups and downs that come with it.
The best advice I think I could give someone who is struggling with a mental illness would be to hang in there, because it is manageable, and you do not have to let it consume your life. I know without bipolar being a part of my life I would not be the person I am today.
I hope to de-stigmatise bipolar and possibly change the way that it’s thought of. A lot of people out there are beginning to see that mental illness is all around us, and not something to look down upon.
While there is a greater awareness about mental health conditions, there are also a lot of people out there who look down upon anyone diagnosed with any sort of mental illness. As someone who suffers from bipolar, I know firsthand that this is still very much the case.
I believe that no one should have to be shy or embarrassed to ask for help, and that we should be able to talk about our illness freely and not have it rushed under the carpet and hidden like it’s something to be ashamed about.
It is 2012, and everyone knows that mental illness is around, but I want everyone to know that it should be looked at no differently to someone suffering from bronchitis or any other medical illness.
Spotting my symptoms
These are some key symptoms of Bipolar that I know I struggle with:
We all have our ups and downs, our ‘off’ days and our ‘on’ days, but if you're suffering from bipolar disorder, these peaks and valleys are more severe. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can hurt your job and school performance, damage your relationships, and disrupt your daily life.
Some people think bipolar disorder only affects your mood, but that is a myth. It also affects your energy levels, judgment, memory, concentration, appetite, sleep patterns, sex drive, and self-esteem.
Additionally, bipolar disorder has been linked to anxiety, substance abuse (self medication), and health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, migraines, and high blood pressure.
If you are concerned about someone or yourself, hopefully this can help you to understand a little bit about the illness. Also you should speak to a mental health professional or seek advice from someone who is qualified to help you.
I have seen the dark side and I didn’t like it. I don’t know how or where I found the strength to walk away from the darkness but I did.
Every day I remind myself of what I have, what I want and what I need to do to maintain some level of stasis in my mental health. Life is never going to be absolutely perfect. But it can be really good.
I wish you good mental health, and thank you for taking the time to read my about my journey.
By Gus Ollerenshaw
About bipolar (courtesy of sane.org)
There are 4 types of mood episodes in bipolar disorder: mania, hypomania, depression, and mixed episodes.
Each type of bipolar mood disorder mood episode has a unique set of symptoms.
Common signs and symptoms of mania include:
- feeling unusually ‘high’ and optimistic or extremely irritable;
- holding unrealistic, grandiose beliefs about one’s abilities;
- sleeping very little yet feeling very energetic;
- speaking so rapidly that others cannot keep up;
- having racing thoughts which jump quickly from one idea to the next;
- being highly distractible and unable to concentrate;
- having impaired judgement, impulsiveness;
- acting recklessly, not thinking of consequences; and
- in severe cases, delusions and hallucinations.
Common symptoms of bipolar depression include:
- feeling hopeless, sad or empty;
- an inability to experience pleasure;
- being fatigued, or suffering energy loss;
- experiencing physical and mental sluggishness;
- experiencing appetite or weight changes;
- having sleep problems;
- having concentration and memory problems;
- having feelings of worthlessness or guilt; and
- thoughts of death or suicide.
Common symptoms of bipolar mixed episodes include:
- symptoms of both mania or hypomania and depression.
- Common signs of a mixed episode include depression combined with agitation, irritability, anxiety, insomnia, distractibility and racing thoughts.
- This combination of high energy and low mood makes for a particularly high risk of suicide.
Self help for bipolar:
- Get educated and learn as much as you can about bipolar: the more you know, the better you’ll be at assisting your own recovery.
- Keep stress in check by avoiding high-stress situations, maintaining a healthy work-life balance, and using relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
- Seek support: have people you can turn to for help and encouragement. Try joining a support group or talking to a trusted friend.
- Make healthy choices in sleeping, eating and exercising. Keeping to a regular sleep cycle is particularly important.
- Monitor your moods. Keep track of your symptoms, and watch for signs that your moods are swinging out of control so you can stop the problem before it starts.
- For more information, visit www.sane.org.au.
As well as advocating for mental health support, Gus is now working towards his goal of competing at the Olympics as a skier, and is seeking sponsorship for equipment, travel and training.