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October 2021

My name is Matthew and I’m bipolar

My name is Matthew and I have bipolar type 2. That probably only means slightly less to you than it does to me.

I don’t really like labels. They suggest there’s something concrete and tangible about my mental health that can be easily understood. I find my mental health really hard to understand so I can’t see how a label would help you understand me.

Instead, I want to tell you about me and perhaps then you’ll understand that living with mental health is as normal as being anyone else.

Living with bipolar

I live alone with my cat Eric, in a terrace house with yellow walls and lots of books and prints on the walls. I can step out onto a quiet street at the front or read the newspaper in my small garden at the back. I think I start the day like most people, grumpy and hoping I can say in bed a bit longer!

I have to ease my way into the day, and this usually involves several cups of coffee. I have nice cereal days and healthy cereal days, depending on how I’m feeling, then feed the cat, read messages and check the paper. I’ll have a shower and decide what I’m going to do that day.

This is the trickiest part because I’ll always want to go back to bed and give up on the day before it gets going. That way I won’t have to exhaust myself trying to second guess what people think about me, or even what I think about me.

I came to a ‘Eureka’ moment a few months into lockdown. I was fed up of being me and wanted to change – so I shaved my head with a green mohawk.  Only joking, I decided that I needed to believe in me. This was quite hard because for years I’ve believed that being depressed means you can’t do anything or have the life you want.

For many years, I believed that my opinions didn’t count. This meant that I listened to the rubbish other people said about me and lived as if that were true. My psychologist told me that everyone is born equal. It took me a long time to start to believe him. Belief is really important because it shapes the way you think and act.

My social worker and I co-designed a colour ladder that helps make sense of all the thoughts and hopes whirling in my head. I chose colours to represent different concepts so I can pick a starting point e.g. ‘being grounded’ (white) and then work out how I want to get to ‘socially confident’ (purple). I then have a choice; do I believe my life could be better or not? If yes, then I can do something about it.

Moving myself forwards

It doesn’t really matter what I do, it’s about moving forward and taking control. My social worker and I had a long chat about this, and we decided it was like writing over dud code with something more meaningful and powerful. In time I’ll get better at being the new me, the one that doesn’t think he’s worthless but looks to the future with hope and ideas.

Sometimes I stop mid-conversation, convinced that I’m giving off a negative vibe. It throws me and I start reviewing everything I’ve just said in case I’ve offended you.

Suddenly, everything feels like an obstacle and that whatever I do I’m going to be depressed. Perhaps I don’t deserve to be happy… I need to move on before I freeze into a negative feedback loop. I might go for a walk to loosen up. Walking in a local park reminds me of happy memories with my dad before he passed away. The simplicity of nature is weirdly soothing. I don’t have to understand it, it just is.

Being outdoors has really helped during covid. In some ways I have enjoyed lockdown because it has been a great excuse not to go out! I am fortunate to have a friend who likes walking and we go most evenings. It can take me the whole day to feel ok, so this is a good time for me.

The power of self-belief

I did become quite low which showed itself in small ways. I ate a less varied diet as I couldn’t be bothered to cook. I stopped watching the news or reading newspapers because the never-ending covid coverage overwhelmed me. I couldn’t get up because I had nothing to do and felt like a total loser. This paralysed me because how could I meet people who could relate to me?

I want to connect with people but didn’t feel that I knew how. The label of bipolar made it feel impossible, and I conditioned myself to believe that I was unlovable.

My social worker helped by listening to me without judgement. He encouraged me to talk and make sense of what I was feeling and I started seeing myself through his eyes. Strangely, he didn’t think I was a loser but someone with untapped potential. I always thought that social workers helped people sort out benefits. I’m glad that they give you hope as well. I am me and I believe in me. You can believe in me as well if you like, but I don’t need you to.

Matthew’s mental health social worker Guy Blacklock trained with Think Ahead and you may be interested to read a piece from him and people he works with about living with schizophrenia. You can also find out more about our graduate trainee programme here.