Finally, after the best part of 10 years, I had a name for the battleground of thoughts and rapid mood transitions that were my daily cross to bear – bipolar disorder. Throughout my 20s, I suffered bouts of depression and anxiety, with no one able to identify the cause of my emotions or teach me how to manage them. At this time, both the medical and the cultural attitude towards mental health was unrecognisable compared with what it is today.
CBT was my first experience of therapy and, while I learned a few basic coping techniques, I found it largely unhelpful. I was not able to effectively access the underlying issues that needed to be brought to the surface through this therapy, so my mood transitions remained the same.
Once I was finally diagnosed with bipolar by my local NHS mental health team, the fear, confusion and stigma towards my condition manifested in a long period of isolation. The shame and embarrassment I felt towards my diagnosis kept me gagged. I continued to find myself lost in the system, where I’d have an assessment and then have to wait a year to be referred. I sought out alternative therapies, but I felt worse, not better.
Finally, my GP referred me for 12 psychotherapy sessions, and so began my journey to recovery. Talking therapy allowed me to do just that – talk. I was drowning on the inside and had felt so bottled up because I was isolated in what I had been experiencing. Through my therapist’s support, I was able to return to certain parts of my life where I’d suffered trauma and to recognise that what I’d made ‘normal’ to cope with was, in fact, far from normal. We explored and addressed a common running theme of bullying I’d experienced all the way from primary school to the workplace, and how it affects me now in my daily life and friendships. We would speak on a range of things that were led by my own thoughts and fears. I always left feeling relieved. To speak with someone who listened without judgment and provided the guidance I craved meant that, somewhere along the line, I began to comfortably settle into my mind, filter through my psyche in a more empowered way and accept my diagnosis.
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Two years after that initial course of talking therapy, I came out publicly about living with bipolar disorder. This was a direct effect of implementing what I’d learnt through my sessions, where I’d found that, in hiding my condition, I was in essence preventing the recovery I had pursued for so long. I’d denied myself the pride of recognising the battles that I’d faced and a chance to rewrite the rulebook that made me think I was a terrible person because I have bipolar disorder. When I came out, I felt more empowered than I ever had. The volume of loving and encouraging responses I received revealed to me that I hadn’t given myself an inch of credit for all my contributions to my industry and my community throughout my career, despite secretly battling with my condition. I was becoming the person I was supposed to be.
The voice I gained through therapy also gave me a greater sense of purpose once the pandemic hit. It gave me a path to speak directly to those living with and managing bipolar disorder during such a challenging period. My passion for charity work and bringing more attention around the condition led me to become an ambassador for Bipolar UK – a national charity dedicated to supporting people with the condition and their families and carers. It felt like a match made in heaven because I was able to be who I am, boldly and empathetically.
I live and breathe the view that there is life after diagnosis. Therapy taught me to look at the world differently; that a diagnosis doesn’t have to feel like a dark cloud or negative label. In fact, it can be the opposite – proof of how powerful, strong and fierce you really are. Without therapy, I would not have exited the roundabout and found the road forward to understanding myself, my triggers and my behaviours better. It has been a real honour to build ‘Leah 2.0’. By becoming more open and speaking about my life with bipolar disorder, I realise I am not defined by it but, instead, have learned from it to shape me into the person I am today.
Download the Leah Charles-King interview transcript