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Living with bipolar disorder: 'I'd get ridiculously excited then crash back down to earth'

Having suffered from bipolar disorder since childhood, Colin Donnelly has endured periods of euphoria and despair and his illness led him to some very dark places. Now, he tells our reporter, he believes no one should suffer in silence


Dubliner Colin Donnelly pictured on Sutton beach. Photo: Frank McGrath

Dubliner Colin Donnelly pictured on Sutton beach. Photo: Frank McGrath

Dubliner Colin Donnelly pictured on Sutton beach. Photo: Frank McGrath

For as long as he can remember, Colin Donnelly has suffered from mood swings. As a child, he was frequently anxious and worried about what the future might hold and these feelings were interspersed with moments of total euphoria and excitement.

His parents thought his behaviour was a little odd, but this was the 1980s and mental health wasn’t really discussed. So the nervous child turned into an introverted teenager and eventually a highly-stressed adult and it wasn’t until a friend of the family suggested he seek help that the Dublin man, now 49, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Thankfully, conditions like bipolar are now better understood, with organisations such as Aware working to ensure that people like Colin do not endure a lifetime of silent suffering.

Indeed, since being diagnosed and receiving the correct treatment, he is enjoying a new lease of life and says no one should have to go through the traumatic years he and, by default, his family suffered.

“Hindsight is a great thing and looking back, I can see that I started to show signs of bipolar disorder when I was as young as 10,” says Colin. “I was always worried about everything and stressing about what I would do when I grew up and where I would live — it was an unusual thing for a child to be thinking about and I remember my mother telling me to stop worrying my life away.

“Things escalated when I hit my teens and although I didn’t know what was wrong, I knew it wasn’t normal to feel down all the time.

“I spent most of my days in my bedroom and didn’t really socialise at all — my older brother is on the autistic spectrum and my younger brother was very outgoing so there wasn’t really anyone for me to relate to.

“So I was very low most of the time but then, by contrast, when something was happening — even something simple like a day out — I would get ridiculously excited and wouldn’t stop talking about it until it was over when I would crash back down to earth again.”

Colin’s parents tried their best to support him, but it wasn’t until he met his future wife, in his early twenties, that things finally began to change for the better.

“Although my mum knew that I wasn’t 100pc she just thought I needed a bit of a lift and got me some multivitamin tablets,” he says. “But of course, this didn’t help so I just muddled on thinking that my mood swings were normal.

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“I started working as an accountant when I was in my twenties and luckily for me, I met my wife, Davnet. This period was great as she is an outgoing and social person and her confidence rubbed off on me and I was stable for a long time. I thought everything was going to be okay and so we got married and not long afterwards had our first child (Cian, now 19) and moved away from Sutton to Blanchardstown.

“This doesn’t sound like very far, but it was the first time I wasn’t living close to friends and family and I found it very hard.”

Along with the lack of familiar faces, Colin had to deal with a bereavement and also found fatherhood very difficult, so it wasn’t long before he sank into despair — and this time it was much deeper than before.

“My father passed away not long after we moved and Ì was away from everyone I knew,” he recalls. “I became seriously depressed and was in a low mood all the time.

“There were bits of escapism here and there like when we were invited to a wedding and I obsessed about it for ages beforehand and became ridiculously excited about it.

“But as before, as soon as it was over, I fell straight back into depression and I also found it very difficult coping with a new baby — I was getting worse.

“That’s when we made the decision to move back to Sutton. However, not long after that we had our second child (Donnacha, 17) things spiralled out of control as I found it so hard to cope. I hated my job and there was a period where I couldn’t deal with anything.

“I walked out of several jobs —literally getting up and walking out — as I couldn’t cope with the stress, even though I knew I would have to go home and tell Davnet that I had no work and we had two small children to care for.

“Then on the flip side I would have brief moments of euphoria where I would do crazy things like take loads of money out of the cash machine and spend it on complete nonsense because I was feeling so positive that day; it was a terrible time for everyone — and I don’t know how my wife put up with it.”

Colin, who now works as a personal trainer, could see no way out of his situation. But when a friend suggested seeking advice from Aware, he refused as didn’t want anyone to know how bad his situation was. However, a particularly bad spell saw him visit his GP for advice and finally after several decades, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“In my late thirties, I got very bad for a while and although I didn’t want to join a support group, I agreed to go to the doctor, who immediately prescribed a drug called Lexapro,” says the father of three (he also has a 12-year-old daughter called Siofra).

“This worked temporarily but I’m not sure if the dose was high enough because I had a very bad relapse, which resulted in me getting caught stealing clothes from a local shop.

“It was probably the lowest point in my life and if it wasn’t for Davnet explaining that I was ill and pleading with them not to press charges, I would probably have been charged with theft. But the shop manager was very considerate and didn’t take it further. However, I knew I had to do something drastic so agreed to go for counselling — but I didn’t feel any improvement from it so finally plucked up the courage to go to an Aware meeting.”

This was a turning point for Colin and he says the realisation that others were suffering from the same thing made him realise that he wasn’t alone.

He started attending meetings and learned some coping mechanisms which helped him to get through the low points in his life. His medication dose was also increased and he began to open up about his condition which, in turn, helped him to manage and his loved-ones to understand and support him.

Brid O’Meara, director of services at Aware, says the debilitating mental health condition can affect thinking, energy, feelings and behaviour and can have a profound impact on every aspect of a person’s life, influencing their relationships, family and work life.

“While symptoms can be severe, it is possible to live a healthy and productive life once the illness is effectively treated,” she says.

“So understanding the disorder is important and can make it easier to manage and minimise its impact, helping people to recognise early warning signs and respond quickly.”

“Having something like bipolar is a bit like being an alcoholic or an addict,” says Colin. “I will always have it, but I just need to manage it and this I have learned to do over the past few years. I used to live in a bubble and thought no one had it as bad as me, so it was a real eye-opener to see that plenty of people are in the same situation and worse.

“This prompted me to talk to my friends and family and also my children about my condition. I told them what it was and explained how I have learned to deal with it and everyone was amazingly supportive, including the kids. I also discovered that my father had the same condition and was institutionalised when he was younger — but in those days no one talked about it.

“And this is why I’m so open about it today — the stigma attached to mental health is definitely lessening but we need to keep the conversation going and reduce it even further. So my advice to anyone who is suffering would be to open up about it — take the first step, go to the GP and also to Aware and realise that you are far from alone.

“There are plenty of us out there but there is help available and most definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.”

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