This interview with Karen Senior was previously published in Your Voice Magazine, Winter 2012.
A colleague said recently that I ‘had danced on both sides of the fence’. Until the last few years I’ve had fleeting personal contact with mental health services. Although I have worked in social and health care for many years and will explain more about this later.
The first time I remember feeling mentally unwell was in my early 20s. I was living at home with my mum and stepdad Roger. I woke up feeling agitated. I couldn’t sit down, my mind was going really fast and I hadn't slept for days. They took me to the GP. He said, ‘I think she’s either pregnant or on drugs.’ My step dad asked for something to help me sleep and my parents took me home.
My second episode of mental distress was when I was at nursing college. I was living away from home with my first partner. I was wandering around the streets in the dark, feeling safe only in corners, believing I had scars on my face and that my hair was white. I was referred to mental health services by the GP. It’s quite unbelievable when I look back as I was told to go away over Christmas. When I eventually got to see someone nothing much happened. From what I know about the system now I think I just got lost.
The next time I became unwell was after I left my first partner. It had been an abusive relationship and I came out of it having really bad nightmares. My GP referred me to mental health services and I was signposted to a Women’s Centre. I was telling the professionals things that just weren’t picked up. I don’t blame them because I probably hid a lot as well.
I have always had good support around me. My mum and Roger were especially strong. That very first episode when the GP took no notice, Roger said we’re going to sort this through. My family continued to support me when I was in distress, they would just make it okay again. I don’t know what they thought it was. They just learnt to cope and how best to support me.
My best friend Tracie is amazing too, she too just accepts me and gives me a place to be. She was the first person to pick up things weren’t right during my second episode. She came to my house after a distressed phone call and stayed with me as my mood spiralled out of control.
Tracie also knows that a cup of tea is one of the best kinds of medicine for me!
After the second episode I remember saying I’ll never be like this again. I learnt to be aware when the motor was starting to run in my chest, or I was beginning to feel down. I learnt what to do with those feelings. I didn’t know that it wasn’t the way that everybody else felt. If I look back some of the things I did weren’t safe or healthy. For example I would walk on my own in the night and drink a lot.
Five years ago my stepdad died. During the year before he died I was very out of control in one way but very in control in another. I was caring for my step dad and getting lots done. I moved my mum and Roger out of our family home and within 12 hours I had my mum and dad in a new house and nearly every box unpacked!
I was also very alive around that time, very ‘up there’. Although I would also dip completely at other times. I would drive to the seaside in the middle of the night. When Roger died I lost one of my strongest supports. I called him one of my tent pegs. After he died I had a few very bad times. I was living on my own, which helped because I could be by myself and get hold of my emotions. I used the Samaritans a lot. When I was flying through the sky or feeling down, I knew I could phone them and it was confidential. They even welcomed me into their offices at night on one occasion when they were worried about me. I can’t thank them enough.
A few years went by and my moods were up and down. I crashed through 3 jobs in 6 months and eventually started working for myself. This worked for me as I could take time off when I needed to. I stumbled along until a few things happened in my life all at once.
I became unwell again. I went to see my new GP and said this can’t happen again, I was truly exhausted. For the first time someone sat and listened. I was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with Bipolar 1. It had taken 17 years for me to get a diagnosis, which is not unusual for people with bipolar. I can’t thank Dr Gibbons enough. If I could clone him as a GP for people who suffer with mental distress I would. He supported me then and is still doing to this day.
I have also found two new very strong tent pegs. My new partner Martin, he is someone else who just accepts and loves me.
Then there's my little dog Ollie. I rescued him the week before my diagnosis. He is bright and full of energy, Martin calls him my anti-depressant. I think he’s right as I find it really hard to be sad when he’s bounding around!
My diagnosis was a positive thing for me in some ways but not in others.
It gave me a framework to think ‘oh my goodness, that’s what it was’.
I choose to be medicated and I believe it has to be a choice. I work with a peer support group in Stockport and they helped me understand what medication can and can’t do for you. They gave me real information with which to make my choice. I think only people who have taken medication can truly tell you what it feels like.
That’s a couple of years ago now, and since then I’ve simplified things while I take a look at my life. I’m very lucky that I’ve got people around me who can support me while I do this.
But people do look at you differently when you have a diagnosis. I remember thinking I’ll be open about it from the beginning. I told a professional who I had known before my diagnosis in a work capacity and they said ‘don’t take them drugs that make your hair fall out’.
I don’t blame people who choose not to be open.
It has affected my relationships as there are times that I just can’t be with some people; but as the saying goes when things are tough you really find out who your friends are!
Sadly I feel very lucky that I wasn’t diagnosed earlier. I know my life wouldn’t look the way it does. Three months after my first episode I was on a plane to America to work on a summer camp and had the most fantastic summer of my life. I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I have had because I would have experienced the stigma that’s attached to mental illness and a family who would have been frightened for me. I also may have doubted my own abilities. I often ask the question, would I have been given some of the job roles I have? Especially as I’ve worked at senior levels, deep in my heart I don’t think so.
I have worked in health and social care since my mid twenties as I mentioned earlier. I initially supported people with learning disabilities and managed and developed new supports and services for them.
In recent years I have led work around self directed support, especially in mental health. I have especially been involved in working closely with people and families to plan what good support would look like for them. I think part of the reason I just got on with things in my personal life was that I always thought there were people much worse off than myself while at work.
Recently I have worked for SUST (Sheffield User and Survivor Trainers) with Sheffield Hallam University to create scenarios for prospective student nurses.
I wanted to get involved in nurse training as it still feels very clinical, very medical.
We don’t teach professionals how important it is to have good conversations and relationships with people. The scenarios we came up with will be used for interviews so we get the right people coming into nursing. They’re to pick out those people who will say things about hope and recovery and not just pathologise people saying they’ve got x, y, and z.
I also work with All Together Positive, a 100% user led organisation in Stockport. I got to know the directors when I was part of the self directed support pilot in Stockport. They co-manage a new and innovative service that I helped to design called The Prevention and Personalisation Service. This service offers peer supports for people who don’t fit the criteria for mental health services but have an element of mental distress and those who are being discharged. They also run innovative peer support planning and brokerage services.
I am a fellow of The Centre for Welfare Reform and am proud to work with the other fellows supporting their work around social and health care system reform.
Part time I also work in a farm shop. A couple of days a week doing something different is good for me.
Not looking back and saying ‘what if’ or blaming anyone. I’d be a very different person if I did. Also surviving in the way I have. If I look back now at the beast that I was up against, I slayed it didn’t I? Without really knowing what it was.
People who’ve shared their own stories. I’ve read books by Terri Cheney (Manic), Andy Behrman (Electroboy), and Maggie Reese (Runaway Mind). Reading their books made me feel like it wasn’t just me that’s been through it. When I read these books it was at times like reading a handbook to my own life. I admire these people as they as they have been brave enough to tell it all and tell it as it was.
I’m not sure about the tendency to ‘romanticise’ bipolar in todays world. Bi-Polar can provide creativity, energy and enthusiasm which I know has enriched my life, but mental illness is hard to live with for people. Look at Van Gogh, we think he had bipolar and he cut his ear off!
The publisher is The Centre for Welfare Reform.
Karen and Being Bi-Polar © Karen Senior 2013.
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