'I went on three dates a week... one month's phone bill came to €527' - Irish man (35) on hidden signs of mental illness
Outgoing and bright in school, Liam Gildea didn’t have any suspicion about his mental health as a teenager. Though acne affected his self-esteem, he was the joker of the class and was voted class comedian in sixth year; he had ambitions to be an accountant, and earned his place on a degree course in Sligo IT. On the face of it, his life resembled the typical teenage lot.
But looking back, now 35 and living with bipolar II disorder, Liam traces his first depressive episode back to the age of 16.
He tells Independent.ie: “Even though I knew deep down that something was wrong as a teenager, I was OK. When I was at home I was very low, but in school I was always the comedian in the class, I had a good sense of humour.”
"I made a lot of good friends in college as well. It was mostly good times; there were no severe episodes of depression. I put a huge amount of effort into my degree and I thought: ‘when I get a job I’ll be happy’.”
However, work wasn’t plain sailing and harsh criticism from a manager in work caused him great personal stress, and he eventually broke down, suffering his first episode of clinical depression.
“The manager had an authoritative approach; she would look at my work and say ‘this is junior cert level, you need to do better’.”
“A friend convinced me to go to the office manager and say that I felt she wasn’t treating me well and ask if they could move me. They did and things got better but then I had serious depression a year after that again.”
Liam was prescribed antidepressants, and for a time these did help. But eventually he noticed a pattern: his low and lethargic periods were always followed by a high energy, overactive period.
“My illness was very subtle – someone who didn’t know me wouldn’t know that I wasn’t well. In 2013, I realised that I was having a lot of highs. Bar one or two years, it was always there - either a hypomanic episode or depression.”
“From 2008 to 2018, every year, there was a period of depression and then a hypomanic episode. You came out of eight months of depression but you were not well, you were at a level that you couldn’t sustain.”
During one hypomanic phase, Liam’s phone bill came to €527 for one month. His thoughts racing, he’d spent 16 hours on end talking to anyone who’d listen. He was prolific at dating too, going on up to three dates a week and often driving for an hour and a half to meet a new girl. He had no need for sleep either.
During a manic phase of bipolar disorder, a person living with the illness can typically feel very happy, and have lots of energy, ambitious plans and ideas. They may spend large amounts of money on things they can't afford and wouldn't normally want. They might have no appetite and no need for sleep, talking quickly and becoming annoyed.
Liam explains: “When I was in the hypomania phase I felt I was invincible. I had no fear of anything. I became very grandiose, something which people think is a character trait but it’s actually a symptom of the illness.”
“You’re in rapid speech, you might be making a two-way phone call but you won’t let the other person speak.”
“When you were in hypomania, you were a magnet and you attracted people because you lived as if you had no care, and I came across as a very confident and maybe cocky individual, and I seemed to be ambitious because I’d have great ideas about things.”
But he added: “It took a long time for me to accept that this feeling of euphoria wasn’t a feeling that people free of the illness experienced. It took me a long time to realise I would end up being left in a pitiful severe depression that would ravage my body in a vicious ruthless manner.”
Mental health stigma in workplaces needs to be addressed, Liam believes. He recalls one ex-manager referring to his bipolar II disorder as a disease.
“Bipolar illness is very misunderstood in society today... I myself had it for 20 years before I came to terms with it. The diagnosis was crucial for me.”
“Depression is rife; it’s in every society - the illness isn’t choosy, it can affect anyone, but most people don’t understand it - you’d have to go through it to understand it.”
He added: "Because we’ve made such a mess of it in Ireland, I think we need a mental health minister... If it wasn’t for psychiatric nurses I’d be dead.”
“We’re moving in the right direction, but we’re probably looking at a ten-year plan. The Jesuits have a saying, ‘give me the child for the first seven years and I’ll show you the man’. I know a teacher and she does mindfulness with her class, focuses on self-esteem, she has a mental health corner in the classroom, and the kids love it. Between the ages of 0 and 7, our minds are like a sponge. Whatever the behaviour is around us, we’ll copy it. And I believe it’s easier to build a strong child than fix a broken adult.”
An avid Mayo gaelic football supporter, Liam says he’ll count his blessings if the team make it to this year’s All-Ireland final because he’ll be there cheering them on, finally at the peak of his health.
Nearly six years on from his diagnosis, the Mayo man has learned that complying with his medication prescription is key to his good health, as are cognitive behavioural therapy, challenging his thoughts, and focusing on his value system.
He enjoys, he says, a simple and content life with his partner and their two dogs. This feeling of contentment isn't something he takes for granted.
“I’ve left my career of 14 years and I’m now trying to get involved in mental health advocacy. Most people in my situation don’t get to tell their story, I’m lucky, I got excellent treatment from my GP and the Claremorris mental health clinic.”
“I feel good, I feel content. I don’t believe in chasing happiness now. There’s always something out there that your brain will convince you that you need. I’m content - I’m not low and I’m not high. I still might have the odd sh***y day - the clutch might go in my car - but it’s taking a while to get used to.”
He added: “I’m happy and I realise I don’t need money to be happier.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.