Euphoria, depression and living your life

Living

MOTIVATED After speaking publicly about his experience with bipolar disorder, Liam Gildea felt that there was an appetite among the public to know more. Pic: Michael McLaughlin


Ballyhaunis man’s new book is an honest reflection on the highs and lows of bipolar disorder

Oisín McGovern

AN estimated 45,000 people in Ireland live with bipolar disorder. Yet, it’s a mental illness that’s poorly understood and often misrepresented in popular culture.
Ballyhaunis man Liam Gildea attempts to address this in his new book, ‘High Life, Low Life: Living with Bipolar Disorder’ – a semi-autobiographical account of his own experience with bipolar disorder.
Speaking to The Mayo News at his workplace in Castlebar, the 38-year-old speaks frankly about his illness.
Over the course of ten years, what was first mistaken for teenage moodiness eventually morphed into months-long bouts of depression, culminating in a suicide attempt in 2009.
At the other end of the spectrum, his manic behaviour manifested in compulsive bouts of gambling, online dating and an assault on a Garda.
“I hid it really well. I was probably putting on a mask for the depressive episodes,” Liam admits.

Mania and melancholy
“My family noticed that I was becoming very difficult at times,” He explains. “Part of the mania is that you start rowing with people, which wouldn’t usually really be my personality, and getting passive aggressive.”
The suicide attempt in 2009 prompted him to confide in a cousin that all was not well. He then sought help from his GP, who initially treated him for depression.
However, it was not until 2013 that he was officially diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, an illness that causes prolonged periods of both depression and energetic euphoria.
This so-called ‘hypomania’ can result in uncontrollable rambling known as rapid speech, as well as causing the person to become aggressive and argumentative.
Potentially lasting for weeks or even months, sufferers experience a constant state of high energy and can subsist on just two or three hours of sleep a night.
Often mistaken for arrogance or cockiness, Liam believes this particular aspect of the illness is lesser understood, and perhaps therefore more difficult for friends and family to deal with.
He says that depression is, on the other hand, a more relatable emotion which will visit most people during difficult periods in their lives.
“If you talk to families of people that have bipolar, it’s harder to deal with somebody that’s high, because they can create carnage,” he says.
“If you’re depressed, you’re kind of not leaving the house that much, so you’re easier to manage.”
Over the years, symptoms of his hypomania were dismissed as simply being part of who he was.
“When we were going for nights out in Galway the lads became aware that, now and again, I was a bit of loose cannon. But it was more or less: ‘Ah he’s daft as a brush that fella’, or ‘He’s good craic”, or ‘It’s just the way he is’.”

‘I have a great life’
DESPITE what he has been through, Liam is not keen to dwell on the past.
Engaged to be married and currently working as a Living Well facilitator with the HSE, Liam now lives comfortably with his illness through regular medication and a healthy lifestyle.
“People always see mental illness from a negative point of view, but there’s been a lot of positives for me as well,” says Liam, who is an ambassador for mental-health organisation Aware.
“It’s allowed me to change career, do media stuff, radio and newspaper interviews, stuff that I wouldn’t have been able to do when I was really sick.
“It’s opened the opportunity of writing a book, it’s allowed me to be more empathic with people, so I can appreciate when people are going through suffering.”
“I have a great life,” he adds. “I find sometimes the radio interviews want to focus on the negatives. It is tough when you’re not being treated, but when you come to terms with and just get over the stigma of it, it just becomes a normal illness.
“If you have diabetes, you take your insulin. For me, I take my medication three times a day. I don’t skip it. I can’t say I’ve had a bad day in 1,000 days.”

‘There’s a book in you’
THE conversation then turns to the book, and why he decided to write it. It has taken two years to write but has been 20 years in the making, he reveals.
After speaking publicly about his experience with bipolar disorder, he felt that there was an appetite among the public to know more.
“The lads were always laughing saying, ‘There’s a book in you’. The more I thought about it the more I thought: ‘I have 20 years’ experience. How can I use it to help other people?’,” he says.
“I’m always getting messages from LinkedIn and Facebook from a lot of different people that have siblings that are bipolar. Families find it really hard and don’t know what to do with someone that has bipolar. People have found it’s been a great help.”
Unique in its subject matter, High Life Low Life is also unique in its structure.
Not written in chronological order, a third of the book deals with depressive episodes while another third deals with manic episodes. The short, terse and occasionally funny chapters are also interspersed with factual information about the illness.
Liam chose this structure to reflect the chaotic and extreme experience of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
It is this marriage of fact and anecdote that he believes makes the book accessible to readers. “What I’m hearing from people, by the end of the book they have a better understanding of bipolar,” he says.
“A third of the book is theoretical, but I think most people would be able to get to grips with what the condition is by reading the story.”
Tackling the stigma
While his book has had considerable success since launching last month, Liam insists that more needs to be done to remove the stigma around the condition.
He also believes the true number of people living with some form of bipolar disorder exceeds the official estimate of 45,000.
Indeed, Liam’s own diagnosis was met with surprise from many of his former schoolmates when he first spoke publicly.
“They said ‘Jesus, I never would’ve thought you were depressed’, but I had grown to hide it,” he says.
“In an overall sense I just wanted to get the idea into people’s head that someone with bipolar isn’t running around with the men with the white coats.”
Far from men with white coats, people with bipolar disorder are living among us every day.
But as Liam’s story shows, seeking help and getting the correct treatment can allow them to live a life that is happy, orderly and fulfilled.

‘High Life, Low Life: Living with Bipolar Disorder’, by Liam Gildea, is available now online and from all good book stores.