Trauma And Bipolar Disorder: Chicken Or Egg?

Photo by haik ourfal on Unsplash

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

Further reading:

Insight: The Essential Ingredient

My First Time

Misunderstood Mania

Covid Lockdown In A Psychiatric Hospital

I recently encountered Covid  restrictions and a lockdown as an inpatient in a psychiatric hospital. And while the specifics are relevant, my experience was more complex than donning a mask and staying inside. But let’s start with the specifics.

There is the loss of the hospital dining room and its well-stocked salad bar. This normally bright spacious room filled with chatter and choice has closed, gone into mourning. The ability to choose your own food and sit where you liked – a small token of independence – replaced by a tray delivered to your room at 7am, 12 pm, and 5pm with a sharp rap at the door. You get little choice and a small window to eat before the kitchen staff are back to collect your tray.

There is not being able to leave the hospital grounds until discharge. No opportunity to test where you are at with a short visit home. Another small freedom lost, and you become totally reliant on visitors to bring you anything you might need from the outside world. Until restrictions turn to lockdown and the visitors are banned from visiting.

All staff start wearing masks, and the buzz of their anxiety fills the hallways like a swarm of bees. Within a few days patients are told to wear masks anytime they are outside their rooms.

For anyone who has lived on this planet for the last year, none of these restrictions or lockdown conditions will sound unusual. Everyone has lived some version of them.

But my experience of them as a psychiatric hospital inpatient was different to my experience of them when I’ve been well and at home.

Here’s why:

Even with access to an excellent private psychiatric hospital, being an inpatient strips me of autonomy and leaves me feeling as vulnerable as a slug on a busy highway.

The admission process alone – which includes providing a urine sample for drug testing and the thorough inspection of your bags (for any means of self-harm or suicide) by two gloved nurses – is a humiliating experience.

 It screams: ‘You cannot be trusted’ and whispers sharply: ‘We are in charge of you now.’

It’s made worse if the nurses attempt light conversation about the contents of my bag.

‘‘That looks like a good book…’

I don’t have the energy for it, and it makes me feel like a toddler they are trying to distract from something unpleasant.

As a patient in a psychiatric hospital I frequently lose the right to my feelings. For example:

One of my admitting symptoms (usually prodromal to mania) can be intense pathological irritability. It is completely different to feeling irritable in a normal context. And it is not the same as the irritability I feel when I am forced to interact with one of the nurses whose attitude grates on me even when I’m well.

 I try to be polite, but when my tone slides into curt, she cocks her head and says:

‘Your irritability levels are quite high today.’ before self-importantly noting this down as a symptom for the day. And I am powerless, because if I protest that would just be further proof of my mental illness to her.

And then there are the cringeworthy names I am called, mostly by nurses and kitchen staff:

‘Dear, Darling, Love.’

 I am ‘Darling’ to only my mother. ‘Love’ never fails to sound derogatory to me. As for ‘Dear’ – one of my worst and earliest hospital experiences involved being called ‘Dear’:

Fourteen and a half years ago when I was less than a week into my first episode of mental illness, I experienced a severe psychotic episode. I was led into the Special Care Unit (the highest security locked ward) of the psychiatric hospital by two nurses, one gripping each elbow.  On the way there, one of these nurses said:

‘Don’t worry Dear. You won’t remember any of this in the morning.’

The next morning I was so sedated by the (necessary) medication I‘d been given, I may not have looked as though I had any memory of the horrors of psychosis. But I remembered all of it. The proof is in the account of that night in my memoir being published this year.

If I knew where to find the nurse who called me ‘Dear’ (on that occasion), I would give her a copy to show her just how much a patient experiencing florid psychosis can remember.

There are many other factors that contribute to my sense of infantilisation in hospital. But elaborating on them would take me well over my word limit. So I’ll leave it here, for now.

Thankfully this recent admission was short (two and a half weeks) but the combination of the inherent lack of autonomy in being a psychiatric inpatient and the above mentioned  Covid factors hugely amplified my vulnerability.

And I have never felt so powerless.

You may also like to check out:

2020 Ends In Hospital

Visiting Someone In A Psychiatric Hospital?

On Uncertainty

My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System

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Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?

I have.

It came five days into parenthood. I was lying on the floor in my maternity hospital room crying because I was trying to outrun a jaguar chasing me towards a cliff. Things were starting to go very wrong in my brain.

In the following months, when my mind warped and writhed in the grip of psychosis and later catatonic depression, and when what started out as postnatal psychosis turned out to be a first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, I could not imagine things being worse.

But they could have been.

Continue reading “My Sliding Doors Encounter With Our Public Mental Health System”

Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf

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It started on the paper bag that the breakfast toast came in. First, I shook out the crumbs to give me an even writing surface. I had no other paper. I was inside the SCU (Special Care Unit), in a psychiatric hospital in August 2006, emerging from my first psychotic episode. And as the medication slowed my boiling brain, a miniscule part of me, took in my environment and thought:

‘I am one step away from a padded cell. Unbelievable. But while I am here, I will record as much as I can, because not many people experience this.’

So, I made my words tiny to fit as much detail as I could onto the toast bag.

Over a year later I wrote an account of my psychotic episode based on that bag and some diary entries. My supervisor for my Master of Arts in Writing Editing and Publishing read it.

‘This is really good writing. You should consider expanding it into a memoir.’

Continue reading “Accepted: Crumbs To Canary Wharf”

Wedding Breakfast Spoiled

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I had plans for this post to be much softer than the last. No politics or indignation…

I started with excellent intentions. I slept in, made banana pancakes for breakfast, a big plunger of coffee, got the paper, and planned to read about the royal wedding preparations, the politics of which I am not particularly invested in.

So, I opened The Weekend Australian. I never got to the royal wedding preparations on page three.

On the front page the following words tore at my eyeballs:

‘Killer grandfather had acute depression’

Continue reading “Wedding Breakfast Spoiled”

My First Time

Postnatal Mental Illness

I was laden with milk, my arms filled with the incredible warm softness of my five-day old baby. Snuffling, and startling into starfish arms every now and then. Pink velvet skin, translucent enough in places to see the faint network of blood vessels sustaining a life that a week ago had been completely reliant on me. My first entry into a psychiatric hospital was like many people’s first-time admissions. I felt I didn’t belong there.

Continue reading “My First Time”

What Does Someone With A Mental Illness Look Like?

So I wake up one morning in a room with nothing in it but a bed and bars on the window, and I spend the day trying desperately to explain my way out of that room with no success. By the following morning the anti-psychotic medication has started to work and I realise I was wrong. These past days my reality has been completely different to the truth. There are no mirrors, so I can’t see what I look like. But I know I can’t possibly feel like this and still look like me. So, I ask my husband to take a picture of me so that I can see what it looks like to be this sick.

Continue reading “What Does Someone With A Mental Illness Look Like?”