What Is It Like To Be Diagnosed With A Mental Illness?

What Does The Initial Shock Feel Like After Being Diagnosed With A Mental Illness?

When I came away from my first mental health assessment I felt like I was in a bubble. As I walked down the street I could see people going about their business, walking past me, getting on buses, going in and out of shops... and I felt completely invisible. I felt separate from them all. I could see them, but they couldn't see me. I was in a different dimension. It was all very strange. A little bit... "twilight zone".

I once witnessed a suicide. It happened very quickly and very quietly, and I was the only one on the platform who saw it take place. After I had given my witness statement to the police I left the train station, and as I was walking down the street... I felt exactly like I did after my first mental health assessment. 

Reaction to suicide: Did that really just happen? I just witnessed someone jumping to their death. I was the only one who saw it... Did that really just happen? - Pinch yourself Zara to see if you wake up.

Reaction to diagnosis: Did that really just happen? I've just been diagnosed with a mental illness. I'm the only one who knows it... Did that really just happen? - Pinch yourself Zara to see if you wake up.

I didn't wake up, of course. Either time.

It wasn't that I felt upset, or emotional, or that everything had suddenly changed in my world. I think I actually felt more confused by the fact that nothing had changed at all.

I thought there would be... more. More information, more support, more guidance, more emotion. But there was just me. It was the same me that went into the mental health assessment pre-diagnosis that came out. It's just that now I had a post-it note in my pocket with an illustration scribbled on it depicting my mental illness. 

You can read the full story of my diagnosis and how the psychiatrist left me with a post-it note in place of my mental health. Yes, I am still bitter about it.

What Happens After A Diagnosis Of Mental Illness?

Obviously, I can only give you insight by telling you my own experiences, so my answer to this question is entirely subjective. But keep reading if you are interested to know what happened after my diagnosis of a mental illness.

Nothing happened.

I know, short story, right? Well, nothing would have happened if I hadn't got extremely defiant that evening. Let me explain...

During the mental health assessment, which lasted less than an hour, after I had been told what my diagnosis was and it had been briefly described to me, I was offered an antipsychotic. 

I mean, how scary is that? All I heard the psychiatrist say was the word "psycho". 

Psycho... was he referring to me? No, he must be mistaken. Surely I don't need to take the same medication they give to psychopaths. Maybe if I promise not to go on any killing sprees he'll offer me something else?

I exaggerate for the comic impact of course, and I know that antipsychotics have nothing to do with psychopaths - they are prescribed as mood stabilisers for people who suffer from bipolar disorder. My point is that the main problem when you are in that room with the psychiatrist and they have just told you that you are suffering from a mental illness is that your head has basically gone to fuzz. There is just white noise.

It is impossible to really register anything on a sensible level, let alone find the right questions to ask in order to relieve yourself of what I can only describe as "internally freaking out - with a straight face".

I think I managed to pull myself together enough to ask a sensible question - Will there be any side effects? 

He said that I would only need a very low dose as I am not fully bipolar, but that I can expect to feel quite sedated and that some people experience weight gain. 

Again all I heard was - I'm going to be an obese pill-popper with no sex-drive, and psychotic tendencies if I forget to take my meds - Well that's going to make relationships ten times more difficult than they already are!

"You'll also have to remain on the medication for a minimum of 6 months before we can determine if it is working for you." He said. 

Oh hell no!

I asked him, sensibly, what he recommended I do, and he said that he didn't necessarily think that I needed to take the medication, but it was really up to me and what I felt I needed, after weighing up the pros and the cons. 

I said that I wasn't sure. So he said that he would put the prescription with a note into my report letting the GP know that the option was there if I decided I wanted to take it.

And that was it. End of assessment. End of the line.

Why It Is Important To Take Control When It Comes To Your Mental Health

I have to say, it was a shock. I was in shock. I honestly did just think that there would be more to it than that. 

I thought that I'd be given a follow-up appointment with someone nice and friendly who would offer me biscuits as we sat down to discuss support options. I thought there would be some kind of therapy. A list of local support groups. I thought I might even get something that resembled a welcome pack - "Welcome to your new mental illness - here is your itinerary." I mean, where was my lollypop damn it?

So yeah, I got a bit mad. Really quite mad. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning writing and re-writing a 20-page report on all of the reasons why I thought my diagnosis was basically bollocks - cue symptoms of hypomania. 

It was extremely thorough and well-written, complete with subheadings and bullet-pointed lists... or so I thought as I smugly proofread it for the fifth time admiring my skill - hello grandiosity! I'm surprised I didn't include a contents page. 

I bypassed my surgery and emailed it directly to the psychiatrist via his personal secretary, which I had to google like the crazed stalker patient I am. I was desperate for it to get to him before he wrote up my report and I was discharged back to the GP - completely misdiagnosed - Oh the scandal!

I can't imagine what the poor guy must have thought receiving my epic letter. He was very professional though and basically reinstated that he was standing by his original diagnosis.

When I got my copy of the report I was still very upset. I felt like I was lost on the windy moors, that no-one could hear me, and there was no search party being sent out to rescue me. 

So I had to rescue myself.

Readers, if you are on your own diagnosis/treatment journey - you have to rescue yourselves! Otherwise, it's going to be a long wait, and you're going to get really wet and cold.

Somehow I managed to get a second mental health assessment with a different psychiatrist, and the experience for me was much better. I came out the other end with a kind of treatment plan and the ongoing support of a professional and nurturing psychiatrist who was going to hold my hand through the various stages until we found a treatment that worked for me. 

I felt safe. So safe that I'd honestly have accepted any medication or treatment she suggested - Antipsychotics? Yeah, why not! ECT? Oh, what the hell, let's do it! No, no, I'm kidding. I'm kidding! No meds for psychos, no electric shocks.

I agreed to try an anti-depressant. An SSRI. Alas, it didn't help me so she said she wanted to try one more SSRI before we considered our next options. The next one didn't help either. 

I was given a course of psychotherapy sessions. My therapist and I talked a lot about my sister. Mentioning my "diagnosis" during those sessions felt taboo because I discovered early on that they don't like to put a "label" on things. I found myself feeling resentful and secretly blaming my therapist for the stigma of mental illness in society - if you can't mention your diagnosis to your therapist who can you mention it to? 

But she was delightful, very pretty, and hey it was nice to have someone to chat to every week, I don't have any friends of my own. She also put up with me sporadically bursting into tears and was polite enough not to mention the fact that I never ever took my hat and coat off during sessions. She probably had a heyday with it when writing up her notes though...

Patient X has intimacy issues and uses outdoor wear as armour to shield her vulnerability. Patient X is dissociated from her own identity and fears that this will be exposed if she removes her coat. Patient X has not brushed her hair again today and is wearing "the hat" to disguise her self-neglect and therefore avoid exposing the fact that she suffers from "that which we do not name"... 


How Do You Live With A Mental Illness?

Try to resist the urge to find a high vantage point and shout the above statement out to the whole neighbourhood and you'll be just fine! 

On a serious note, it's hard, I'm not going to lie to you. If you thought life was hard when you were blissfully ignorant about your disorder, there will be no relief for you now that you know. Or maybe that's a bit harsh. There is a certain kind of relief in knowing.

I am glad that I know, for example, because everything about me makes so much more sense now that I can actually see the part my illness has played in my life. It's actually rather fascinating. 

But it will always be frustrating because now I know that my brain needs medication to help keep it in balance. And despite taking the medication, it will never be fully balanced, and I have to deal with unwanted side effects, like getting drunk and having epic hangovers after just one cider with a high-carb evening meal. One cider.

Living with a mental illness can feel lonely, even when you have people who are willing to listen and support you. It can feel like you have your disorder written on your forehead. People's kind gestures will feel patronising. 

You may feel like you will never reach your full potential, and that all of the hope you had before is futile now. You may feel trapped in a web of medications. Every morning or evening when your phone alarm goes off to remind you to take your meds it is a reminder that you're not who you thought you were, and you may never get to be who you want to be.

Half of the time I want to escape. I want to flush pills down the toilet and leave my life and all the people who have known me behind, to go live deep in the middle of a forest somewhere where nobody can find me, and I can just - be - me - whoever that is. I can't tell you how many hours I have spent researching how to live off-grid, or how to build your own secret hobbit house from mud inside of a hill.

You just want to escape your diagnosis. At least that is how it has felt for me. More so in the beginning. I've come a long way though, and I always like to be optimistic, so I will end on a positive note and say that at least I know that I am always going in the right direction now. I know that every meltdown and mood swing just brings me one step closer to knowing myself and my illness better. 

They say to keep your friends close but your enemies closer... and so I'm getting real cosy with my cyclothymic disorder.

Thank You For Reading!

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What To Read Next...

Depression Voice Vs. Hypomania Voice

Cyclothymia And Self Doubt 

A mental illness complicates everything. Who is with me on that? I can't speak for other people, but I suffer from cyclothymic disorder, and let me tell you... it's a bitch! 

I never know whether I am coming or going, succeeding or failing, creating or destroying, living or dying. That last one may sound a bit extreme, but if you suffer from a mood disorder you will know what I mean.

As an example let's talk about when we fall out with people, because let's face it, this happens a lot with us. Depending on where we are on the cyclothymic or bipolar mood scale, we often can't judge what the hell is going on, while it's going on. 

Some of us have the skill of being able in retrospect to see where things went wrong and the role our illness has played in it, but by that time it is often too late, and the damage has been done. 

Since coming to terms with my diagnosis I have wanted to learn as much as possible about how my illness manifests itself in me so that I can recognise my symptoms and have a little bit more control over how much damage and chaos they wreak in my life. I'm not always able to, but when I can it makes a big difference and I feel like I have something to be proud about, as opposed to the shame and self-doubt that result when the monster and gremlins take over. 

Real-Life Symptoms Of Hypomania In Action 

This blog post is actually the result of an altercation I had today with someone close to me. I suspect that I am currently in an elevated mood state, which means that I am experiencing a few symptoms of hypomania, so I thought I'd tell you about it, and show you in real-life what my hypomania voice sounds like.

I have been super-focused on projects all week, I am in full-on research mode, there is a fair amount of irritability, and according to the person with whom I have just fallen out, I am cold and incapable of showing any empathy at the moment. When that was pointed out I luckily caught myself before my normal reactivity would have kicked in and I would have erupted with rage. That would have been a fail.

I honestly feel like I am completely justified in how I feel and how I came across during the dispute, I was logical and I stood by what I felt because I have the right to be heard - that's my hypomania voice sounding off. I basically think, right now, that this other person is a nightmare and I can't be bothered with them as I have far more important things to think about in the all-encompassing important world of "me". 

I will look back at this later when my mood has subsided and probably cringe at how unsupportive I was, but for now, it has prompted this blog post. This is me channeling my mood disorder superpowers for the greater good. You think I'm joking, but it is genuinely my current thought process. In my head, the other person is an emotional fool and I am the rational one, destined for greater things.

I am able to self-reflect upon all of this at the moment, quite shortly after the row occurred, which is something I try to practice as much as possible because I am determined not to let my illness run my life. Despite the hypomania symptoms, self-reflection allows me to question myself. Do I sound arrogant? Am I going to regret posting this later? Is my brilliance real? Who am I really? Do I even care? Nope because I'm "up" right now so let's carry on being awesome, other people's opinions are irrelevant. It's a struggle, the voice of hypomania is pretty loud and I rather prefer the sound of it.

Cyclothymic disorder manifests itself in me as a rapid cycle of moods. The switches from a depressed state to a hypomanic state are very frequent, which leaves me feeling like I never know for sure one moment to the next whether I am judging my feelings or behaviour correctly. This creates a lot of self-doubt and ultimately ruins my self-esteem (unless I am feeling particularly high, in which case I may have too much of it... see what I mean?)

A Snapshot Of My Cyclothymic Mood Cycle 

To put things into perspective for anyone who is reading and doesn't know about these mood swings, or for those of you who know all about them and would like a little validation for what you may also go through... here is a snapshot of my own cyclothymic mood cycle. 

One moment I am experiencing the glorious symptoms of hypomania. Perhaps there is a general sense of euphoria. The world is a bright and wonderful place. I am excited about a new project, ideas are flowing, or I am absorbed in spring cleaning and keeping myself very busy... Basically, everything feels effortless. 

I feel well, perhaps even a little too well? I am feeling awesome, this is where the grandiosity might kick in. There is a touch of arrogance and a feeling of invincibility. I become fixated on certain things, some might say - obsessed. 

All of my time and energy is now being put into activities that are distracting me from my normal routine and life. I have forgotten about deadlines, I am researching random things with all of the tabs open on my laptop. I am scrolling eBay and buying things I can't afford because I "need" them for my new projects and business ventures. 

I am staying up until the early hours of the morning completely absorbed in whatever ridiculous things have taken over in my mind. I am not living in the real world anymore, I am on my own planet, and it is all getting a little out of hand.

Suddenly I find that the vibe has changed and things are moving too fast inside of my head. The dark side of hypomania is surfacing. My thoughts are racing, nobody can keep up with me because I'm on fire and they are all incompetent. I become very irritable, reactive, perhaps even explosive? Rage often shows its ugly face and destroys everything in its path. 

And then everything is taken away from me. I crash. Horribly. I am drained of all the surging energy. I have become mentally and physically overwhelmed and my brain slows down until it can't function properly. I can't focus on anything. I am exhausted. 

The voice in my head has changed too. Now it makes me question everything I was so confident about before. It tells me I will fail and that I am worthless. It shows me how useless I am by weighing me down with self-doubt, self-hatred, and despair. 

I can't see into the future anymore, there is nothing there for me. What is the point in life? My body is too heavy. I can't move because it is all just too much now. I find myself in bed, just wanting to escape from myself... until it lifts and starts all over again.

The cycle repeats itself, in a different order, with different levels of intensity at different stages of the cycle, so that I honestly can't predict what I am going to think or feel next. There is no pattern I can chart. 

I have no idea what my baseline feels like because I never stay there long enough to recognise it. I'm either very up, very down, or a little bit up and a little bit down. But level... I don't know what that looks like in me. Maybe I get glimpses of it, but I just can't be sure of who I really am.

Mood Management For Cyclothymia & Bipolar Disorder 

Before my diagnosis, I had no idea what was actually happening and why my life, study, jobs, friendships, and relationships never seemed to work out. I always felt like something was wrong and that life shouldn't feel this hard, but I put it down to my own personality flaws. 

Cyclothymic disorder is considered rare because it often remains hidden underneath the radar. Like me, people struggle for years but never seek help because they blame themselves for hardships and turn to unhealthy coping strategies to manage their moods.

I have always used food and alcohol to help lift me up or relax me. I am prone to binge eating and drinking. Relationships become addictions because I end up relying on the increase of endorphins that I get when I see or spend time with a partner, and in the time in between it's almost like I experience withdrawal and crave more of what made me feel better.  It is not uncommon when I am seeing a guy for me to experience my hypomanic symptoms at the weekends when I am with them and then spend most of the week depressed and unable to function properly. 

If you suffer from a mood disorder or other mental illness you probably have your own coping strategies. You might not even know that you have them! Spending money I can't afford is another one, and calling in sick for work was frequent before I became self-employed.

Accepting my diagnosis and educating myself has been a game-changer though. Understanding my illness and how it works means that I don't have to beat myself up as much as I used to. There is less confusion, and I am able to recognise the people and situations that trigger me and steer clear. 

I try to create structure and routine in my life, and eat healthily and at regular times. I have cut down on alcohol almost completely which has made a big difference. I have also been able to talk to the few people I have in my life about my mental illness to help them understand and support me a little better. 

I even bought a workbook that taught me how to track my moods, and now I am so much more aware of myself. Medication is also currently playing an important role in helping to take the edge off my moods so that I have even more control.

All of the above is great, but it doesn't mean that I don't still struggle. Managing my mood is exhausting. I hate having to track and think about my illness all of the time. Sometimes I wish that I had never found out about cyclothymic disorder because ignorance is bliss as they say. But actually, ignorance wasn't bliss. It wasn't bliss at all. And though my knowledge of my condition isn't bliss either, it's important because it gives me a much better chance at improving the quality of my life.

Thank You For Taking The Time To Visit My Blog 

I really appreciate your support and I'd love to hear about your own thoughts and experiences with your "hypomanic voice" and your "depression voice". Leave a comment and share some of the things the voices in your head tell you. Or share how you have had success in managing your mood, at least some of the time.

I am trying to branch out to social media in order to get the word out about my blog, so if you are on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram I have included my links below. You can leave your own links in the comments below too and I will check them out!

If you have enjoyed reading this post it would be great if you would like to share it. You never know who might get something positive out of reading my blog, or who you might educate about mental illness.

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Thanks again!