Finding freedom in a lockdown
Bipolar UK Ambassador April Kelley reflects on life in lockdown as a person with bipolar disorder, and the lessons she’s learnt so far
At the start of lockdown on World Bipolar Day, I wrote a piece on the initial impact it was having on myself and others, as well as some observations. Three months on, I want to do a follow-up piece on what I’ve learnt.
I’m going to use the same disclaimer I used last time: I know there will be a lot of people out there living with bipolar or another illness, who are struggling – I in no way want to belittle that. I hope this can bring you some comfort and joy, reminding you of that spark of genius I so often talk about.
Like before, I’m not going to present you with new facts and statistics which have surfaced due to COVID-19. Statistics won’t do justice to this time in our lives, nor will it reflect our personal stories and journeys. I shall not be part of a statistic – not this time!
In my previous article, I wrote: “We can’t control this so, please, let that go. What we can control is our reaction to this.”
That’s been my mantra throughout what can only be described as a personal mental apocalypse. A constant rollercoaster with no safety bar but an entertaining collection of ‘ride photos’. You know, the ones after you get off and can buy? They’re never flattering, but that doesn’t stop us from buying and putting them in pride of place in our homes (or more likely, posting to Instagram).
I’ve been taking it one day at a time, as I’m sure many of you have been doing too. And I’ll tell you what folks, I have learnt so much about myself and others.
What I've realised during lockdown
If you would be so kind as to indulge me, I’d like to share my illnesses’ reaction to the lockdown. At the start of this, I thought, “Wow, I’m dealing with it fine.” I thought I was more equipped than Joe Blogs when it came to trauma and thought I was compartmentalising. Pretty laughable now. I’m always guilty of this; I never know how unwell I am until the switch occurs, and I’m actually well again.
My body went into survival mode. Adrenalin was soaring through me, wanting to do anything to help others and ignore any chance of me trying to process it. I wasn’t eating or sleeping, and when I did sleep, I was having night terrors. I was passing out, having panic attacks, diving into debilitating lows, I even went through a phase of turning my phone off (people who know me will be gasping right about now). How did I still think I was OK?
My behaviour was ‘odd’. Everyone’s behaviour was ‘odd’ and rightly so, but my reaction to others’ behaviour made mine stranger than usual. And do you know what? I’ve concluded that I don’t care that I was a hot mess to myself or others. More on this later.
One of my biggest realisations during this lockdown is that I am unwell. This isn’t to be read ‘oh woe is me’ nor sound like the start of a profound quote, let’s leave that to Gandhi. I no longer had the ‘busy London life’ as an excuse and had nowhere near as many usual distractions, the good or the bad. I had to sit in it.
I know what you’re thinking, “She’s the ambassador for Bipolar UK, surely she knows she’s unwell?” And my response to that would be, “I know, right?”. But then came along another big realisation, I am extraordinarily good at hiding this illness from both others and myself.
At the start of the year, I wrote a piece about no longer filtering yourself. I stand by it and put into practice as I hope many others did. But what I realised is that I have been filtering within myself. I fear this metaphor is spiralling. Essentially, I’d still second guess myself, so although the end result was unfiltered, it had to go through various hurdles in my mind to reach an unfiltered version suitable for the person in front of me.
Anyway, the point is I’m ill. I have never admitted that to myself. It felt like a failure to do so, and with having a skill so advanced that it would provoke a reaction like, “You wouldn’t know you were bipolar, you hide it so well”. I thought great, that means I’m not being a burden or hard work (I will one day pluck up the courage to discuss the notion of being ‘hard work’ but now is not the time). When you’re so busy trying to convince everyone else in true Ross fashion (I’m fine!) after 15 years you end up convincing yourself. But a pressure cooker can only reach so high a temperature before it burns out, or the food inside it implodes.
Quietly in my room, I took a deep breath and said to myself, “I’m ill”, and tears rolled down my cheeks as an elephant took one of its feet off my chest (#ModernLove).
I came down the next day and told my parents – I then told my therapist and a few friends. Ridiculous now I type it because they all knew I was ill. But even though I take medication every damn day apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know I was ill. I thought if I battled with my behaviour and was a hopeful voice to those living with bipolar disorder, then I wasn’t ‘the ill one’.
Side note: My parents have been phenomenal during this lockdown. I moved back home for the first time in 10 years, and this is the first time they have seen the day-to-day impact of this illness on their daughter. I had nowhere to hide, and it was tough on them initially.
New research (yes, I know I was going to do statistics) shows us that bipolar disorder is 70% genetic and 30% triggered by trauma. As a family, we always knew the trauma, but we’ve begun to realise where the genetics may have stemmed from, which would never have been explored should this lockdown not have happened.
I was supposed to be in LA for three months. Instead, I’ve spent three months with my parents, and do you know what, I’m glad. I will always cherish this time I’ve had with them.
It’s not me, it’s you
I mentioned earlier that I now don’t care about my ‘odd’ behaviour. For years I’ve looked back cringing and wincing at my life choices, embarrassed to the core (as I so often write), but why? I’m never nasty, cruel, rude or confrontational – my illness doesn’t manifest like that. My heart is forever in the right place (usually on my sleeve), I’d bend over backwards to make anyone smile. So, if someone else’s behaviour changes around me when my own becomes ‘odd’, that’s not on me anymore, that’s on them.
If someone’s behaviour changes towards you, we have to remember that it might not be because of us! Revolutionary, I know, but this forced time at home and overuse of technology has highlighted more than ever that everyone is dealing with their own lives and it’s not a reaction to our quirky behaviour. And if it is down to that? Remember, it’s on them.
I don’t think I can articulate how utterly incredible my friends have been, in whatever capacity our friendships sit in. Friends for years, new friends, work friends, ex-partners, drunk night out friends, even friends of friends. They have been on call throughout. They have been checking in every day, at the end of a call or message, any time of the day. Intuitive enough to know when I’m low and happily enduring all my manic oddness.
And you know the overwhelming thing? All unprompted by me.
“Surely this is what all friends do? Why are you surprised?”
Because when you’re living with an illness like bipolar, you do not think you’re worthy of such kindness. You feel worthless the majority of the time, that’s why you do all you can to make someone else smile. So when someone out of the blue pops up to check in on you or to say they’ve watched Modern Love, read one of my articles, listened to a podcast or saw something they thought might bring me comfort. It can be so tiny, but I can’t tell you how far that can go in helping someone finish the day in a better place than where it might have started.
I ventured back to London recently and got to see some of these incredible souls two metres apart, it was overwhelming, and I started to slide up the hypo-manic scale. When in my London home I could feel myself slipping and wobbling – my right leg began shaking again, paranoia kicked in, loneliness in the flat. I was so desperate to hit the destructive flight mode, but instead, for the first time, I took everything I’ve learnt during this lockdown, all my new tools and pulled myself out of it. I’ve never been able to do that, you know, pulling it back before it’s too far gone. Another elephants foot came off my chest.
This lockdown has also seen many people I’m no longer friends with reach out apologising; that they didn’t know or wish they did more to help at the time, and saying what I’m doing now is amazing. Huge respect to them. At the end of the day, how were they supposed to know, when I didn’t know myself? I’ll always give these people an olive branch. Always.
It reminded me of the people who are not going anywhere, regardless of how hard I try to push them away or hold on to them, or how ‘odd’ I can become. And if they do slide away, then it’s on them – but I hope I don’t hear from them in years to come apologising because it will be too little too late.
“Why, though?” Because they know now, I’ve said it publicly. “I’m ill”. I’m the ambassador of my own illness. I literally can no longer hide. Yes, I’ve always appeared to come across very sure of myself… I’m an actor!
But I’m coming out of lockdown a lot lighter. I’m surfacing from the apocalypse a different person. I just never expected that person to be the April who has spent the last 15 years too scared to poke her head up from under the covers, (this is why we leave the profound quotes to Gandhi, guys).
Is this sustainable? Who knows – probably not. But I’m equipped now more than ever to deal with things. Does it make it any less exhausting or scary? No. Do I still wake up wishing I hadn’t? Yes. But I have a helluva lot to fight for and so do you.
Yes, you might be ill, please accept it. You’re worried you’re ruining friendships? You’re not – they should be lucky to have a friend like you. You’ve made it through a global pandemic! Do not belittle that. We’re in the midst of a mental health crisis, which is double-downed on those who were already living with mental illness.
Finally, your behaviour is only ‘odd’ when the wrong people are around you. Read that again.
All my love,
Since the start of lockdown, I’ve been doing ‘Wednesdays with April’ with Bipolar UK. It’s been so rewarding for me, and I hope for others too. If you fancy a gander, all videos are available to watch via the Bipolar UK Facebook page.