10/06/2015 07:12 BST | Updated 10/06/2015 07:59 BST

Here's What Having Bipolar Is Really Like

"I've been told I shouldn't have children, as if I'd inevitably screw them up and be a bad mother," Zoë recalls. "It was horrible."

The 27-year-old suffers from bipolar disorder, a mental health condition which affects as many as 1 in 100 people in the UK at some point in their lifetime.

Despite the high numbers, there is a colossal amount of stigma around bipolar, with one Daily Mail article referring to it as "fashionable" and in "vogue".

Zoë, who lives in Oxford, did not want her surname published as she is worried it would affect her chances of employment.

"I'm very wary of talking about bipolar offline, as I worry about people's reactions and pre-conceived ideas about what it means.

"People have said some very hurtful things and I've had people cut ties with me because they couldn't handle the idea of me having bipolar."

She says university was "particularly tough" due to the lack of understanding of how difficult it can be to cope with having bipolar.

"You can't just 'snap out of it'. Some people don't really seem to understand how all-encompassing it can be to live with bipolar and think I should just "get over" it."

So what exactly is bipolar disorder?

There are two common types. Type 1, with bouts of mania and bouts of depression - each may last days, weeks or even months. Type 2 disorder also means you get bouts of mania and bouts of depression, but the mania is milder. It’s sometimes called hypomania and is slightly more common than type 1.

"When it comes to moods swings we all have our ups and downs," explains Dr James Woolley, a consultant at Priory Hospital in Roehampton. But if you have bipolar disorder your mood swings can be extreme and have a detrimental effect on your everyday life.

"Mood swings in bipolar disorder vary a great deal between people; from a one-off single episode, to a pattern which comes and goes throughout life (often at times of stress) though there may be years in between of normal, stable mood."

There is no known cause for bipolar, although research evidence suggests an imbalance of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which carry messages between different parts of the brain.

There may be a genetic link too, although not everyone who has relatives with bipolar disorder has it too.

"Certain experiences can bring on the first symptoms of bipolar disorder or can trigger a relapse if you already have bipolar disorder, such as giving birth or using drugs recreationally," Dr Woolley continues.

"On a day to day basis it can really depend on what mood episode I'm currently experiencing or if I'm between episodes," says Zoë. "When I'm depressed I lack all motivation to do anything, including really basic things like getting out of bed, feeding myself, and getting washed and dressed. Working is impossible.

"During my most recent depressive episode I became deeply suicidal and had to be referred to the crisis team and a day hospital to provide more intensive support, which meant attending the hospital every day to try and keep me safe.

"When I'm in crisis I'm really difficult to be around and it takes its toll on the people closest to me."

Zoë also has hypomanic periods, when she says she is full of energy and hardly sleeps.

"I'm talkative and gregarious, but soon become unable to sit still or stop talking and this makes it difficult for people to follow what I'm saying because I'm going too fast. It feels like my brain has been plugged into the mains and I sort of buzz with electricity and feel euphoric.

"Things can then intensify and I start to think things that other people don't believe, like that I'm on a divine mission.

"Other downsides include spending all my money on things that seem bizarre when I come down and doing really inappropriate things that are mortifying in retrospect."

The main symptoms:

  • Periods or episodes of mania and depression:

A manic episode can feel very positive, enjoyable and even euphoric and you might feel energetic and creative. During this time you might not feel like eating or sleeping and you may talk rapidly. You may also behave irrationally or in a very out of character fashion.


This may be followed by a depressive phase where you may have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness as well as suicidal thoughts.  This is known as bipolar depression. This can make it hard to hold down a job or to attend college regularly. And it can put a big strain on your relationships with family and friends.


  • The depression phase of bipolar is often diagnosed first as clinical depression.

Later, following a manic episode you may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder instead. But in between the mania and the depression, you may have times when you're in a normal, stable mood which can last for weeks, months or even years.

Hypomanic episodes are often paired with periods of creativity, which Zoë says is "sort of true" for her, adding it's "only at the beginning before I become unable to focus on anything for longer than a few minutes because my mind is just skipping from one thing to another".

But, she says the idea bipolar is linked with creative geniuses is "quite damaging" as it glamourises the illness, when in reality, it can be "really, really destructive".

"Coming down from a high can be quite devastating as you realise all the awful things you did and all the carnage that you're left with to clean up."

Zoë has been forced to learn the value of staying level, as she says constantly crashing between extreme moods makes it very difficult to lead a "normal" life.

"Sometimes, between episodes, I'm more what I'd consider the 'real me', not too fast or too slow. Being between episodes hasn't been very common for me, but I'm hoping that the new medication I'm on will help with that.

"That said, it's also sometimes difficult as because I've had such high periods of extreme energy and euphoria "normal" can seem quite monotonous and I miss being high, which makes taking my meds every day difficult and frustrating."

Key tips on living with bipolar disorder:

  • Surround yourself with positive influences – support from trusted friends and family is crucial to maintaining a stable lifestyle and positive environment
  • Keep tabs on when you need to take specific medication- personal responsibility is crucial within the recovery process of bipolar disorder
  • Make healthy decisions, whether that be with the food you eat or the relationships you have. Making rational, healthy decisions will help you to progress and control your mood
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol – substances such as these give a short term high but can make you feel even more depressed and eventually cause greater emotional and mental issues
  • Write a diary of your emotions, feelings and triggers so you can reflect on your mood swings and understand what your triggers are
  • Understand your early warning signs of a relapse such as reduced need for sleep, as simple measures at this stage may be enough to stop it progressing
  • Develop a ‘relapse prevention plan’ and share it with those close to you so that you and they know the things which can be done at the early stages to prevent episodes returning
  • Once you have been diagnosed and are able to progress with treatment, it is crucial to have hope that your condition will improve. Many people with bipolar disorder live normal fulfilling lives with a work and family life just like anyone else. Some people even feel that the bipolar part of them is a positive benefit as long as it can be kept under control. Believing that you are able to recover is a part of the recovery process and helps you cope with mood swings
  • Ask questions about your condition to inform your recovery and decisions regarding treatment. Read all about the types of treatment available so you are able to fully take part in discussions about how you would prefer to manage mood swings
  • Contact an organisation such as Bipolar UK which is a UK charity that provides advice and support to people with bipolar disorder, as well as their friends and family. The organisation also runs a network of self-help groups