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A Real-Life Example of Living Triumphantly With Bipolar Disorder

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With the recent news that Catherine Zeta-Jones checked into a facility due to mental health problems, there's been a lot of talk in the media about bipolar disorder. Although it's sad to hear about anyone suffering with a mood disorder, the good news out of this is that it's shining a much-needed light on what bipolar is, its symptoms and who it affects (even Hollywood starlets can't always escape the grip of mental health issues).

So, what exactly is bipolar disorder? According to the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario:

Bipolar disorder is in a class of mood disorders that is marked by dramatic changes in mood, energy and behaviour. The key characteristic of people with bipolar disorder is alternating between episodes of mania (extreme elevated mood) and depression (extreme sadness). These episodes can last from hours to months. The mood disturbances are severe enough to affect the person's ability to function. The experience of mania can be very frightening and lead to impulsive behaviour that has serious consequences for the person and the family. A depressive episode makes it difficult or impossible for a person to function in his or her daily life.

To make things a bit more complicated, there are two variations of bipolar: bipolar I and bipolar II. Zeta-Jones suffers from the latter, which can go unnoticed for a period of time since the symptoms are less severe than those of bipolar I. Someone with bipolar II can display behaviours that they wouldn't normally have on a daily basis -- they may be able to function on far less sleep than usual, they may have a very irritable, depressive, or exceptionally joyful disposition for a period of time, and/or they may talk much faster than they typically would. Close friends would likely notice the change in behaviour, but those outside of that circle may not be able to recognize it.

On the other hand, those with bipolar I show behaviours that even those outside of their close network would see as abnormal: out-of-control happiness, delusions or hallucinations, seriously inflated self-esteem, overspending of money (as in, going out during their lunch hour to buy a house they can't afford), interpreting events to be or mean something they do not, among others. Essentially, those with bipolar I have a hard time functioning in their daily lives. What's more, their symptoms are undeniably abnormal.

I wanted to learn more about bipolar I from someone who has first-hand knowledge and understanding of it, so I got in touch with Leslie Bennett, executive coach, mental health awareness advocate and cofounder of Open Spaces Learning. She is an intelligent, open-minded and highly-accomplished businesswoman who has fought the good fight with bipolar I -- and is now thriving. It certainly wasn't an easy ride, but she has lived to tell the tale and is passionate about sharing her story in hopes that it might help someone else.

At the age of 27, Bennett spoke to her doctor about some depressive mood issues she was experiencing, for which the doctor prescribed antidepressants. At that point in time, she was feeling isolated, as she was living in British Columbia while her family was living in Ontario. To make herself feel better, she was self-medicating by smoking marijuana, staying up late and generally not taking good care of herself.

Perhaps partly because her meds were starting to take effect (and she didn't realize this to be the case at the time), she decided that she was starting to feel better and took herself off her antidepressants cold turkey and continued to self-medicate. Things took a turn for the worse not long after this, leading to a manic episode that she can't even recall fully, since the events and timelines are still blurred in her own mind. As she said, "During a manic episode, you see reality differently."

Bennett's behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, and her roommates were really concerned. They called her family to let them know what was going on. So her sister and mother came to visit her in B.C.; they were hoping to bring her back to Toronto to see if they could get her some help. Because of Bennett's manic episode, she had convinced herself that the people coming to visit her were not her family, but clones of them. She was so convinced, she asked a friend to come with her to the restaurant where they were meeting and bring a video camera to tape it. She thought that she could use the tape as evidence that someone had cloned her sister and mother and could take that to the authorities.

Worried and feeling at a loss in terms of what to do or how to handle the situation, Bennett's mother had nowhere to turn but knew that her daughter desperately needed help. An RCMP officer told her that if her daughter ever mentioned anything about harming herself or others, she could have her committed to a mental institution. At one point during their trip, Bennett mentioned that she could "jump out of this window" (at 30 floors above ground), and that's precisely what her mother needed. Bennett was committed to a mental institution for two weeks and was diagnosed with bipolar I. You can read more about her manic episode here.

Bennett eventually moved back to Ontario with her family. Her parents started going to a peer support group, which was immensely helpful for them. Bennett is a big advocate of peer support groups and readily acknowledges the lack of information available for not only those suffering with mental health issues, but also their families. That's why she's happy to share helpful information about her own journey and what helped -- and continues to help -- her live a balanced and stable life. She writes about the importance of getting enough sleep as key in maintaining a mentally stable lifestyle, as well as her focus on some factors that she can control to aid in removing triggers that could affect her balanced state of mind: Food, Sleep, Treatment, Exercise, and Perception (FSTEP).

If you suspect that a family member or close friend is experiencing any mental health problems, or if you're concerned about your own mental stability, remember that there is help out there. There are mental health practitioners who can help you, as well as peer support groups that offer you the freedom and comfort in sharing your stories, especially with others who understand what you're going through. Visit www.lesliebennett.ca for information and helpful resources.

A diagnosis of a mood disorder certainly isn't a death sentence; it can happen to even the most accomplished and seemingly level-headed individuals. Take Bennett's story as an example and a reminder that you're not alone. Take it in stride and remember that you can overcome these obstacles and thrive by living the life that you want to lead.

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