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. It felt a little bit like I had entered a "twilight zone".

I felt something similar many years ago when I 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 "psychotic". 

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 now 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 an extremely thorough and well-written report, 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 the doctor's 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, I'm kidding. I'm kidding! No meds for psychos please, 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. So I was given a course of psychotherapy sessions. 

My new 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"... Voldemort? No, CYCLOTHYMIA! I HAVE CYCLOTHYMIC DISORDER - SPREAD THE WORD!

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.

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!

I really appreciate that you have taken the time to stop by and read my blog post. If you have enjoyed it please do me a favour and pass the link on to someone else you think may enjoy reading it. 

Don't forget that you can subscribe to receive updates of new posts, just email to let me know and I will pop you on my mailing list - mykindofbipolar@gmail.com

What To Read Next...


  1. I think an import factor in recovery is being in contact with people who share your illness. Not only virtual, but in-person (face to face) contact. There’s nothing like having a small group of friends to share your experiences with- especially with those who truly know what it’s like to suffer with cyclothymia. Did you ever consider organizing a support group? That could be very helpful and go a long way towards a successful recovery.

    In my case, I developed a friendship with someone who shares my same condition with Anxiety. It’s made more of an impact on my wellbeing than any of the SSRIs I've taken. When either of us is having a hard time with anxiety (or depression) we often get together and talk about it. Another benefit is having someone that may be able to keep tabs on you— sort of an alarm to catch you before you get into serious “trouble”.

    Hope this helps :)

    1. Hello Dave,

      I have just seen your comment, I must set up notifications so I don't miss them. I've been away from the blog for a little while, absorbed in another project or two... I know, I know, stop spreading yourself thin Zara, consistency is key.

      Thank you for your helpful suggestions. I definitely agree that having people to turn to in real life who suffer from the same thing or something similar can be indispensable, especially when you are still learning about how a disorder affects you, or you are going through a rough patch.

      In the beginning I was vey much involved in deep conversations with my sister who knows me very well and who also suffers from chronic depression and anxiety. I found over time though that our relationship was not as healthy or productive as I thought. Perhaps because we are sisters the relationship became too intense and we relied solely on each other for mental support, which was overwhelming. I often felt like every time we talked on the phone I was obliged to give an update on "how I was feeling", and I did start to feel like I "was" my illness.

      I have also been in an open dialogue with a friend who suffers from anxiety. We were involved on a romantic level at the time and I thought it was important for us both to be able to communicate fully about our struggles so that we could better understand the problems that arose between us. Alas our personalities clashed and our disorders came in between us. I ended up feeling quite exposed and wished I had never mentioned it to him.

      I have another friend who suffers from bipolar 2. We talk about it occasionally, but it is usually short and sweet and I often feel a bit self-indulgent, so I don't stay on the topic for too long.

      It's a fine line isn't it? I think dedicated support groups are certainly a better idea, and having people who are close to you who can look out for symptoms and make you aware of them from time to time would also be useful. I have often thought about organising something to get people together, but I go through stages of being very "out there", and then phases where I want to be completely anonymous, and the pressure or organising a group would be too much, for me at least.

      I am glad to hear that you have found ways to gain support from peers. Isolation is one of the main problems when it comes to mental illness, so it is good that you have people around you that you can turn to when things get tough.

      Take care!

  2. Yes, having a close relative to talk it over with has its downsides.

    It’s probably best to have others to for therapeutic talks - and family for hugs and closeness. You and your sister are aware of each other’s mental challenges, so just focus on being good sisters to each other. :)

    Glad all is well. Looking forward to more blog entries.

    I’m going through a bit of rough week as well.. lots of stressful things are piling up together, so I have to be careful that it doesn’t trigger a serious anxiety problem.

    Take care..

  3. Your blog posts are delightfully funny while giving great insight, Zara. When you described your 'escape plans' I couldn't help saying out loud to my cats, "OMG! She just read my mind!" I've done exactly the same thing down to the same forest-escape place and tiny-home-plans-research for days with no end. (Add a small lake or stream in there!) I really like the idea of journaling to help me cope/organize my thoughts and behaviors so that I can recognize my triggers. I guess I just want to say I'm glad a link on Twitter led me here because I'm still hesitant to discuss my mental health on social media. And I also want to add that you seem to be a well educated charmer who makes me smile as I read your essays! Thank you so much for your blog. I find it helps me put some things into perspective about myself. I'm wanting to learn more about cyclothymia because it feels like maybe that's the kind of bipolar disorder I'm experiencing as well. I don't quite fit #1 or #2. Any reading suggestions or websites you can recommend would be wonderful.

    1. Hello again Theresa :)

      I have just seen this comment. I will set up notifications so I know when a new comment has been posted!

      It's good to know how you discovered my blog. I'm not actually very active on Twitter, I always forget about it. I will have to redirect some of my energy over there.

      I spend a lot of time in Facebook Groups for cyclothymia, bipolar, and also any medications I am on. There are some wonderful insights into other people's experiences, and the great thing is that you can choose whether or not to get involved in conversations or just browse anonymously. Are you engaged with groups? If not, I highly recommend it.

      Although it can be a bit of a rabbit hole. Sometimes I spend hours reading through the feeds. It's worse than getting lost on Pinterest or Instagram!

      I was also very reluctant to discuss my mental illness on social media in the beginning. When I started writing this blog I even made it completely anonymous by creating a new email account and blog account. But I feel much more comfortable now and I include a link to my blog all over the place. I have found that literally nobody I know (who I haven't told directly) has mentioned that they have read my blog or that they know about my diagnosis. But I am always open to talk about it with anyone who asks.

      I'm so chuffed to hear that my writing has made you smile. That's want my hopes for the blog are. I think that when things get really bad, you can either laugh about it, cry about it, or do both. I do both quite often.

      I hope that you continue to read it by subscribing to notifications. I have forgotten or lost the details to many blogs and wished I had subscribed.

      I hope you find out if your diagnosis should include or be switched to cyclothymia. It might help to start keeping a record of your moods so that you can go back and look for patterns. Maybe try one of the mood apps for bipolar if you are not good at designing your own way of tracking them.

      I don't know if I mentioned it before, but The Cyclothymia Workbook by Prentiss Price has been really good for me. It's the only book I have found that specifically looks at cyclothymia. It's full of useful info, and it's also very practical. It taught me how to track my moods and identify triggers etc. There is a link to the book in the sidebar of my blog.

      I've also read a few memoirs and watched a few films, but they are all geared much more towards the bipolar side of things. Although I did watch a short film in a series called "Modern Love" on Amazon Prime. It stars Anne Hathaway, and I related very much to that. It was episode 3 "Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am".

      Well, I better wrap this up, it's so easy to keep writing :)


Have You Subscribed Yet?

I write about a variety of topics, including mental disorders (like bipolar, cyclothymia, depression and anxiety) but also everyday mental health challenges and self-care tips. Subscribe to my mailing list and never miss a post...