Bipolar holiday

 
Two deckchairs looking out over the sea

Holidays are supposed to be a time for relaxation, but not for Charlotte Walker, a mother and blogger with bipolar disorder. She values the opportunity to spend time with her children, but fears that a change from her routine may mess up the mental stability she works hard to achieve.

My children live with me only at weekends; our time together is precious. My 15-year-old son and my daughter, who is 13, make the two-hour journey to my home in London after school each Friday and are gone, almost before I know it, by Sunday afternoon.

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Charlotte Walker

I try hard not to let my children know how much I struggle... They're still just kids and I'm still their mum”

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It's not common after a marital split for the dad to be the primary carer, but there's a good reason why I, the mum, am the weekend parent in my children's lives - it's called bipolar disorder.

After agonising whether it was worse to move my children to be with their father more than me, or to risk them being affected by my instability on bad days, I concluded that weekends would work best for us all.

I particularly look forward to bank holiday weekends because I get three days with my kids, not the usual two. Traditionally we set out, armed with cagoules and optimism, for a budget break on the coast.

Being by the sea has always given me a boost, and it's great seeing them drop their electronic devices and jaded teen act in favour of eating fish and chips out of paper or building a fortress in the sand.

Sometimes bipolar can feel a little like living on a beach, permanently, with waves of unbearable emotion and panic washing over me. I'm unable to work or parent effectively for months or even years at a time - then the tide goes out and I feel "normal" for a while, able to function again.

I was symptom-free for eight great years of my children's lives. But in 2011 the tide swept back in and I'm only now just getting my head above water, if you'll excuse me using the holiday metaphor again.

Daily routine

There is no cure for bipolar, but there are ways of managing it.

Once diagnosed, you're bombarded with advice about establishing a routine to help stabilise your moods. Psychiatrists, therapists, self-help books - everyone recommends good "sleep hygiene", regular exercise, structured social activities and, above all, taking your medication daily and on time.

The annoying thing is, the experts are right.

To keep a lid on things, my doctor prescribes a mood stabiliser and an antipsychotic, daily. They ensure I get to sleep and do a great job of slowing my racing mind down - but at a price.

Ice cream cornet being held at the seaside

Take them too early in the evening and I'll struggle to stay awake for dinner. Take them too late, and you might not see me again until lunchtime. And I always need at least 10 solid hours in bed, otherwise I'll find it hard to care about anything beyond getting back under the duvet.

Through trial and error, I've gradually got my daily routine down to a fine art and it's been the key to my stability. "Have you taken your meds, Mum?" is a familiar refrain in my family because they know how important it is to keep on track.

And then something like a bank holiday comes along and, with it, expectations, and an urge to go somewhere that will make the whole family happy.

My current partner and I still take the children somewhere they can mess about in rock pools, though the trips are not as idyllic as holidays past.

Routine change

Sadly, it seems, a change is no longer as good as a rest.

Travel, getting up for hotel breakfasts, or setting out early on day trips can all disrupt my medication and sleep. I have phone reminders set to prompt me to take my antipsychotics at 7.30pm but if I find myself out and about with no drinks on hand, I take them when and where I can, knowing that I'll sleep in for hours after everyone else the next morning.

More about bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder - known in the past as manic depression - is a condition that can cause extreme mood swings. It's thought to affect about one in 100 adults

Royal College of Psychiatrists

Mind: Understanding bipolar

NHS Choices: Bipolar disorder

My lithium has to be taken just before bed and with food, sometimes leading to hectic drives round quiet seaside towns looking for a shop that might still be open, and selling chocolate.

I try very hard not to let my children know how much I struggle. They're pretty clued up about bipolar, but they're still just kids and I'm still their mum. I don't want them to spend their weekend worrying about me, so I try to just go with the family flow.

I slope along on cliff-top walks watching everyone get further and further ahead. I pay for entry to the local museum, but once inside I scan the room, more interested in finding somewhere to sit than in what's in the glass cases. And I plod my way through dunes, wondering if anyone would notice if I burrowed my way into the sand and took a nap.

"Come on, Mum!" my daughter might call over her shoulder.

I've always believed my decision to be the weekend parent was not the act of a monster who doesn't love her children, but a very rational, practical decision that was in the children's best interests - even if other people's reactions have made me wobble a bit sometimes.

And so to this weekend. It's taken me a good few weeks to get back on track after our Easter away in France, but my partner has managed to talk me into a Mayday bank holiday break in Pembrokeshire.

Of course I'll go because I live in hope that I can recapture some of that old family magic. Assuming, of course, I can stay awake.

Charlotte Walker blogs as Purple Persuasion

 

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 413.

    412. 'Although reactive depression can lead to mental illness, it in itself is not a clinical case.'

    That's still not helpful. So we are referring to clinically diagnosed and documented cases of mental illness. Really? One in three?

    I'll talk to the MHF and contacts I know in the field. And if I were still a medical journalist these days, I'd want to speak to your professor too.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 412.

    410. Polyglot

    It was a case control study, so included all NHS patients of all ages, and included the entire bookshelf of clinical mental illnesses. Although reactive depression can lead to mental illness, it in itself is not a clinical case.

    I agree mental illness is very widespread in its manifestations, but in its defense, it is what one would expect for an organ as complex as the brain.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 411.

    @Simon

    "You found me :-)"

    Pls watch you LinkedIn...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 410.

    409. Curious. How many people took part in the study? What age range? And are we including reactive depression associated with, say, loss and bereavement or, at the other end of the scale, episodes of psychosis and acute mania?

    I'm sure you'll agree it's all a bit vague and that makes me uncomfortable.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 409.

    I am studying medicine, and although I cannot share my professor's lecture with you, it does not mean that I cannot claim this statistic as fact, especially since the original source was from the NHS.

    With regards to the second point, I was referring to its prevalence last year; that is 1/3 people alive at the time of the study had suffered mental illness at some point during their life.

 

Comments 5 of 413

 

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