Susana Buwol was 21 when she had her first psychotic episode. Wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, she spent 10 months in bed ingesting a cocktail of drugs which resulted in significant weight gain and an attempt on her life.
For years after, she rode an emotional rollercoaster. Yet it wasn’t until 20 years had passed and, following another major relapse that a correct diagnosis was made.
“The bipolar type I had [came with] serious episodes of major depression and mania that, when not controlled, can result in psychosis,” says Buwol. “During my second relapse, I woke up one morning, curled at home in a foetal position, presenting in a catatonic state.”
"I wanted to die, and the only thing that stopped me was talking to the photo of my children and promising them that I would do anything to be back and well.”
In her home country of Argentina, Buwol was admitted for treatment at a psychiatric clinic for a period of nine months. During that time she trialled a variety of drugs, as well as electroconvulsive therapy. Four months into her treatment she was diagnosed with bipolar I.
Characterised by pronounced mood swings, sufferers experience both manic (high) periods and depression. Manic periods are associated with risk taking and erratic behaviours, while low periods are linked to severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I actually felt relieved when I was diagnosed, as I could finally put a name to my misery and treat it accordingly,” she says.
“During the first 15 days waiting for the medication to kick in, my depression got deeper and more painful. I wanted to die, and the only thing that stopped me was talking to the photo of my children and promising them that I would do anything to be back and well.”
Buwol also had to overcome other everyday tasks that, previously, she did without hesitation. These included catching a train to Sydney CBD, driving and, some days, just getting out of bed and brushing her teeth. Similarly, learning to be patient and accepting the condition took many years.
However, Buwol is far from alone.
According to Bipolar Australia, 568,000 Australians currently suffer with bipolar. Initial symptoms generally show in young people between 18-22 years of age.
Scientia Professor Phillip Mitchell, is the head of the school of psychiatry at UNSW. He says that bipolar leads to higher rates of unemployment, higher rates of broken relationship and reduced life expectancy due to physical illnesses associated with the disorder.
He says that, despite this, awareness and understanding of the disorder is still limited.
“Depression and schizophrenia are increasingly well understood, but bipolar is not and, in Australia, the press frequently labels bad behaviour by actors and sportsmen as due to bipolar,” says Prof Mitchell.
It’s something that Buwol is all too aware of.
“Depression and schizophrenia are increasingly well understood, but bipolar is not and, in Australia, the press frequently labels bad behaviour by actors and sportsmen as due to bipolar.”
Since her diagnosis, she’s been raising awareness around bipolar, strongly promoting the message that it can be diagnosed, treated and managed. She also wants people to know that it’s not something to be feared.
As the executive director and founder of Bipolar Australia, Buwol intends for this message to resonate with the public on World Bipolar Day 2017 at an event in Sydney’s Martin’s Square.
On March 30, many Australians will gather to ‘blow bubbles’ in recognition of bipolar. Bubbles are being used as a visual representation of a bipolar personality and disorder - the ‘bubbly’ side versus the side that comes crashing down.
The aim of the event is to acknowledge that sufferers are capable of achieving great things in life, and to remind them they’re not alone.
“People with bipolar do not show any injury on their bodies. The injury is internal, and very painful most or all of the time."
It’s also a day for the general public to learn about bipolar from people who live with it, and to appreciate the importance of fighting the stigma associated with it.
“People with bipolar do not show any injury on their bodies. The injury is internal, and very painful most or all of the time,” says Buwol.
“Awareness and education are essential to eradicate the stigma that is stopping people who are suffering from reaching out for help.”