It never really held any stigma for me
‘My family and friends have been brilliant over the years’
Jeanne McDonagh (40), a public relations manager from Dublin, knows exactly what the extreme highs and lows feel like as she has been dealing with the condition since she was a teenager:
WHEN I was 15 years old, I was very tired all of the time and although I went for lots of physical examinations and numerous hospital tests, nothing was concluded.
Then in my early 20s, I began displaying different symptoms with destructive highs and lows in terms of mood which would change rapidly from one extreme to another.
I went to a number of doctors to try to find out what was wrong, but nothing was diagnosed until I met my current doctor, Prof Patrick McKeon (founder of Aware), who diagnosed a specific form of bipolar (dysphoric elation) and began treating me for the condition.
Before his diagnosis, I had no idea what was wrong with me, even though I now know that it is very prevalent in both sides of my family. So when he told me I had bipolar disorder, I was actually relieved as I had something tangible to research and was given ways of helping myself to recover.
I was admitted to St Patrick’s Hospital in Dublin where doctors were able to treat the illness, find the correct medication for the chemical imbalance in my brain and teach me how to relax and to cope.
In some ways, this was one of the best periods of my life.
I met some great friends, could talk openly about the illness, could see a noticeable change in my behaviour, outlook and thought process and was finally in a safe environment after years of being very scared.
I was put on a long-term range of mood stabilisers and other medication which I still take daily. Most antidepressants take a while to kick in – mine took about eight weeks to start working and then another few months of tweaking the dosage. Sometimes it takes a long time, so I was very lucky.
The medication varies slightly when the seasons change which is the only blip I notice these days. But I deal with that through exercise, mindfulness, some sun if I can get it and having close friends who look out for me if I get a little too high or low.
The only real side effect of taking medication regularly is that I gain weight easily. This is annoying but I guess it is also a symptom of turning 40. On the plus side, I seem to have developed more of a tolerance to the sun so I tan much easier than I used to. My husband is Sicilian so this is a great bonus as we go there quite a bit and my skin doesn’t burn like it did in the past.
My family has been brilliant over the years – really supportive, getting me all the help I needed. I was also lucky to have some great friends who stood beside me despite my erratic and sometimes hurtful behaviour. I really treasure their understanding, open-mindedness and friendship.
When I got out of hospital and still needed to talk to people who understood the illness, I used the Aware helpline which was also a great support.
But I have a very logical way of problem solving and this opened avenues for me to look into. It never really held any stigma for me as I always found and still do, that “right-thinking” people do not react or hold it against me as I am perfectly able to manage a high-pressure job – press queries, deadlines, event management – and all the other aspects of my work and life without it having an impact.
Also I have always been very open about my condition as I think it is helpful to me and to other people. I was hired more or less straight from St Pat’s by the Bar Council, by my chairman at the time, who knew fully about the illness but was open minded enough to offer me the job anyway with huge support.
This lack of pressure made me even more determined to do well and he is a great friend to this day. At this stage, I think most people have forgotten I have depression, and some will be quite startled to realise I have.
However, depression is really common in Ireland – I have rarely met someone who hasn’t been touched by the disorder in some way. So there is nothing to be ashamed of – indeed some of the world’s greatest leaders, artists and writers suffered from depression. Help is widely available these days and, as with all things, making the first step is the hardest. It can take some time to find the right solution but the benefits are so worthwhile.