Content Note: This post mentions trauma. It does not include specific details.
It’s a little acknowledged truth that sometimes bipolar disorder does not spring from a history of trauma. On my first admission to hospital and every admission since, I have been asked whether trauma smoulders in my past, and keeps the fire of my bipolar disorder burning.
Up until relatively recently parents were still automatically blamed for their children’s mental illnesses, particularly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. And while abusive parenting can be a contributing factor to these illnesses, and parents can pass on a genetic predisposition to a highly heritable mental illness such as bipolar disorder, beyond that, a parent isn’t responsible. As for my upbringing – my parents were not perfect. But they were loving and supportive. They were not a source of trauma.
I searched for years for some of the more common culprits of a trauma history (such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse) hiding in the shadows. I ran a fine-toothed comb through my entire living memory for evidence. For something to explain the existence and severity of my bipolar 1 disorder.
After the second time I got sick, I began to wonder if I was missing something. If I had blocked out something horrible? I spent close to a year working with both my psychologist and psychiatrist to try and unearth a tangible cause for the god awfulness that had descended on me. And I came across a lot of things in this archaeological dig through my psyche.
Among many happy memories. I found sadness, exclusion, some bullying. I found burnout and disappointment. I found ambition and perfectionism. I found drive. I found questionable decisions. I found some experiences that my psychiatrist raised his eyebrows at, but when my psychologist worked through them with me, we found no symptoms of PTSD, no persistent feelings of powerlessness. I found experiences that were difficult and unpleasant and challenging.
But I did not find trauma.
Ironically, the only trauma I have ever experienced came with this illness in the form of psychosis, especially the first episode. Nothing I have experienced before or since that first time comes close to the hell of psychosis.
For me, the sudden onset of this severe psychiatric symptom contributed to its traumatic footprint. One week I was due to give birth to my first baby, with no history of mental illness. The following week I inhabited a terrifying alternate reality that no one else could see, in a psychiatric hospital Special Care Unit, tipping highly medicated breastmilk down the sink, while my husband looked after our new baby at home. For me, the experience of psychosis is the definition of terror and powerlessness.
The trauma of psychosis left its mark. After my second episode I started having panic attacks. I had never had them before. They were linked to the fear of psychosis recurring.
It took a long time to process what happened to me and to learn to live with the ongoing implications of this illness. But I am fortunate it was an acute trauma, not chronic or complex, and not of childhood onset. It didn’t happen at a time when my brain was still developing and more vulnerable to this kind of assault.
I have worked towards having excellent insight, which means I now recognise the precursor symptoms of mania, which can lead to psychosis. The early detection of symptoms and acting on them immediately have meant it’s been six years now since I’ve experienced true symptoms of psychosis. The deep sense of powerlessness has eased. In my case the trauma was a side effect of my bipolar disorder, not a causal factor.
But I sense I am in the minority. Of the people I know who also live with bipolar disorder many carry a history of trauma and/ or complex PTSD with them which, occurred before the emergence of their bipolar disorder.
I do not have the complication of a contributing trauma to re-trigger episodes of illness and to work through. These days, I don’t have a knotted web of psychological issues to untangle before my medication can get to work. I also think letting go of my resentful feelings at being landed with this illness has been somewhat easier because I can’t lay blame or direct my anger at anyone or anything specific for causing this sickness.
And I am grateful for all of that.
If this post has brought up difficult feelings or symptoms for you and you are struggling, please contact your mental health professional. If you are in crisis (and in Australia) please phone LIFELINE on 13 11 14