Battling Bipolar Disorder: 'I would go to bed at 7pm, cry and dream of better days and think about suicide'
Bill Fitzgerald has a sometimes challenging mood disorder. But, he tells Joy Orpen, he is now living a near normal existence, thanks to the complementary therapies he uses in conjunction with conventional medication
Bill Fitzgerald's life was characterised by such devastating extremes, that there were times when he wanted to die. Thankfully, he managed to overcome most of his problems and now he wants to share what he has learned with others.
Bill grew up in Thurles, Co Tipperary, with four "great guys" - his older brothers. He played rugby, soccer and Gaelic football, and being the youngest in the family, was spoiled. But even so, he experienced a good deal of anxiety and suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He did his Leaving Cert with the assistance of anti-anxiety hypnosis tapes and lots of sport.
He now believes the full extent of his problems were being masked by constant physical activity. So much so that when he went to UCC in 1992 to study food science, his world very quickly fell apart. "I had more freedom, less routine and less sport," he explains. "Two months into the course, I was already very low. I was thinking way too much about things." So during the spring break from college, he concentrated on getting fit again, and in creating a new routine. And that did improve matters for a while.
Nonetheless, he again began to endure a life of extremes. On the one hand he was full of bravado and chutzpah. On the other, he could be profoundly depressed. He felt he had no control over these debilitating moods. "I was chasing everything at UCC - drink, girls, whatever. But I also had no core," Bill admits.
Early in 1997, he and his girlfriend of several years broke up, and Bill took it pretty badly. "I would spiral into depression," he says. "I would go to bed at 7pm and cry and dream of better days, and have thoughts about self-harming."
No amount of sport could cure the dreadful lows or the manic highs. He cites one example where he played soccer under an assumed name in a Munster senior league match. A certainty that he could get away with anything was a facet of Bill's manic phases. A few days later, he stripped naked, at midnight in downtown Cork, to get the attention of a pretty girl.
"I was very, very high [manic] on that occasion," he says. The gardai were called and Bill was taken away in a garda car. "I mentioned the names of some senior guards I knew, and they let me go," he admits.
Not long after, a good friend alerted the family about Bill's increasingly erratic behaviour. So his brother, Paud, brought him home. Bill was so manic by then, his mother, Joan, gave him two sleeping pills, but nonetheless he was still awake all night. "He was endlessly walking, endlessly active, and he couldn't sleep," Joan says.
Next day he was admitted to hospital in Co Tipperary, where he was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He spent 10 weeks there and began taking prescribed medication. Following his hospitalisation, Bill was three stone heavier. He was also smoking 100 cigarettes a day; three times more than when he was admitted.
He then joined two of his brothers in England for five months, before starting a job with a top IT company back in Ireland. The work involved nights, which had disastrous consequences. "No one with mood disorders should work night shifts," cautions Bill. "After a few days I began suffering from delusions and hallucinations. I had some idea I was part of a video game."
As a result, Bill spent another 10 weeks in hospital. He says the prescription medication helped lessen his mood swings. In 1999, he did courses in IT and software development. That led to three years working for a Dublin company, before becoming a self-employed IT contractor. For the next decade or so, Bill appeared to be stable and productive. But underneath, things were very shadowy.
"In hindsight, I realise I was just sleepwalking," he says. "I was working, going out, having fun. But I was also feeling really down and having suicidal thoughts, four or five days a month."
Bill, by his own admission, was also needy in relationships. When his last one ended, he finally realised he would have to take responsibility for his own health, if his quality of life was to improve in a really meaningful way.
He felt that leaving things in the hands of professionals wasn't sufficient for him. He had suffered too much pain, too many highs and lows, and he'd hurt too many people. It had to stop. Instead, he wanted mental and emotional stability and the possibility at least of a lasting relationship. So he decided to do whatever it took to achieve that.
He went to Katrina Coogan of Tree of Light Holistic Centre in Kildare for reiki sessions. Dr Andrew O'Flaherty of the Bio Balance Centre in Dublin tested him for signs of vitamin and nutrient imbalances and prescribed appropriate remedies. Bill also had extensive counselling with psychologist Nicole Paulie, who worked with MyMind at that time. Both Nicole and Andrew have chapters in Dublin-based author Maeve Halpin's recent book, How To Be Happy And Healthy.
And of course Bill takes his prescribed medication religiously and only drinks moderately, as alcohol is not beneficial to people with mood disorders. He has also stopped smoking. Like everyone else, Bill has bad days, but now, he says, they are manageable. "The difference is I don't get really low moods anymore," he says.
Certainly he has had to work very hard to get to where he is today, but he knows it has been worthwhile. "I wouldn't be in the position I am now, if I had listened to certain members of the medical profession, who dismiss these therapies out of hand," Bill says. "On the contrary, there are a number of possible therapies, such as reiki, meditation and so on, that might well help people like me improve."
"These last 18 months have been terrific," he says enthusiastically. "I am so grateful for the help and support I have received. Thanks to those people. I am much more centred in myself, and much more balanced, energy-wise."
According to a spokesman for St Patrick's Mental Health Services, bipolar disorder affects about one in 50 Irish adults. It's characterised by extreme changes in mood, thinking and energy levels, lasting several weeks or months. St Patrick's runs a specialist treatment programme for the condition.
For more information, contact St Patrick's University Hospital, tel: (01) 249-3200, or see stpatricks.ie
Tree of Light Holistic Centre, tel: (089) 247-3487, or see treeoflightholistic.com
Bio Balance Centre, tel: (01) 288-1425 or see biobalance.ie
Nicole Paulie, tel: (083) 452-7513
MyMind Centre for Mental Wellbeing www.mymind.org tel: 076 680 10 60
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