Voices of courage: Andrew Strathern shares his bipolar disorder story of survival, resilience & hope
Updated: Jul 22
Today marks the first day of a new series of posts that I am including on the 'Dying to Stay Alive' site, written by other warriors and survivors of mental illness.
I've always wanted this blog to be a place of interaction, and a platform for others to share their experiences as a way of adding some diversity to the discussion and spreading some much needed hope.
The following post is written by a fellow bipolar warrior called Andrew Strathern who has had a similar nightmare journey as I have, and is one of the patients I have supported through treatment.
This is his story of hope and resilience
A condensed Story of Living with Bipolar Disorder
I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23, back in 2004. Typically, my diagnosis came 7 years after an initial diagnosis of depression when I was still at school. I have to say those early years (some of the most important years for anyone) were the hardest of all of them.
I was prescribed various anti-depressants that, with hindsight, were creating a constant yo-yo effect in my brain and behaviour. They were increasing irritability in a young, distraught man’s mind and far from taking my depression away they just exacerbated my problems further. I had been suicidal a couple of times in those years but became more intent with a concrete plan at the age of 20 when I was at college.
Suicidal ideation and occasional planning of suicide would plague me at times in the future, although the intervention of anti-psychotics sometimes reduced this, but not always.
My diagnosis was not a big relief and eye-opener as it is for some people. At that age I was totally ignorant to the name bipolar or manic depression. I was in denial. I believed my entire mind state (which I didn’t even admit to myself or anyone else) was depression as a result of my childhood upbringing.
I now accept that having bipolar and living with its consequences was, and is, my true nemesis. I was a typical male in as far as I struggled at that time to talk and admit I had a mental illness. But as I will explain, having bipolar no longer has to feel like a nemesis or even an Achilles heel to your character, health or life. My mental health has now improved and it’s not because of some new anti-psychotic, my treatment and recovery are very similar to Tom’s.
After over 20 years of living in a largely miserable, at times irritable, mostly moderate to severe depressive state and also having endured some severe mixed states, I can finally say that I’m on the road to recovery.
A new treatment for bipolar disorder
I have, since November 2019, started HDL (High dose Levothyroxine) alongside rTMS (Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) under the excellent help and supervision of Dr Andy Zamar at The London Psychiatry Centre.
People have asked me how I found Dr Zamar, and to say through the Internet would be true, but also there lies another story.
‘Researching new bipolar treatment’ is the same answer I give to when people have asked me what my interests are in life. Sport has remained a huge interest, but since my 20’s my main interest was how I could get out of this bipolar hell! I used the Internet constantly, (rightly or wrongly) so much, in my attempt to find answers and ways out of the misery of living with bipolar. Thankfully, I’m no longer trawling the internet for answers and new treatments as I will explain later.
I went in to the new treatment with Dr Zamar with trepidation and a little cynicism if I am honest. I had tried all the meds available at that time and most of them had brought about many severe side effects as well as not treating the main bipolar symptoms which for me have been depression, anxiety, and mixed state.
In my mind Harley Street was either somewhere that was at the pinnacle of pioneering health treatment or somewhere I could end up spending a lot of money with little reward. However, with seeing my results, reading case studies, and speaking to Tom, I can assure you this is no gimmick. It may be expensive, and it should be on the NHS; but it does work. My moderate to severe depressive mood state, anxiety and occasional mixed states have disappeared now that I have reached 800 mcg Levothyroxine.
Not out of the woods yet – my biggest battle with an antipsychotic
My treatment is not finished despite these excellent results.
My greatest nemesis today is not having bipolar, but the withdrawal effects of a long-term drug I was put on many years ago.
I have mainly been on Olanzapine and currently Aripiprazole, which is the drug I want to come off and in time I may be able to, but only via a very slow reduction.
Why do I want to come off it? Because antipsychotics have increased my weight by 3.5 stone and if I was to stay on this one or another for the rest of my life, I risk falling in to the category of bipolar patients who die from Cardiac issues. I am sad to say the NHS class me as obese and close to clinically obese and it is all the result of this one drug.
Other side effects of antipsychotics are far and wide according to the individual. Personally, alongside severe weight gain I have also experienced: severe drowsiness, severe grogginess in the morning, lethargy, sexual dysfunction, increased irritability, and mania. There are also reports finally being leaked that, antipsychotics also cause impairment of the brain.
Withdrawal effects have been a colossal nightmare. But my body is so accustomed to antipsychotics that the body and brain struggles once you take it out of the system. Withdrawal effects have included: severe depression, anxiety, paranoia, voices and inner chatter in my head, irritability, racing thoughts and agitation to name a few. The last sentence is my description of a mixed state – the worst I could ever feel and leads generally to suicidal ideation.
My view on the current system
There are too many people suffering, not enough proper reliable treatment strategies that work long-term and far too many bipolar sufferers on a lengthy list of meds that don’t work and can cause more harm than good.
I know this from experience not just a vague opinion. Largely Bipolar patients are given a mood stabiliser alongside sometimes more than one antidepressant and an antipsychotic too for example. The focus on using antidepressants here should be made with extreme caution as they create issues like the yo-yo effect leading to mania and seem to be used consistently among bipolar patients.
I know this because I was on two before I started treatment at Dr Zamar’s Centre. I also know this because people in my bipolar group are on antidepressants too. These, like all psychotropic drugs, are very hard to come off and have vicious withdrawal symptoms. Psychiatrists don’t seem to want to try patients on just a mood stabiliser and they are unversed on how to limit withdrawal effects.
I also know I don’t need to be on them because thyroid (HDL) treatment has dramatically reduced my depression and anxiety proving that there is a genetic mutation linked with bipolar and that this treatment works. I watched the dosage increase and my mood in turn improved and stabilised.
What I want to see happen in the future
I would like Dr Zamar’s treatment to go global and be used as the main treatment for bipolar disorder on the NHS. That’s a big ask but we have a big problem not only with mental health but with mental illness.
With 1 in 5 people suffering from bipolar committing suicide and after reading mine and Tom’s stories, you can see why we must act now.
We’re told reading a book, going for a walk, walking a dog, getting exercise and talking with friends and family is good for you, but we need a medical treatment package that delivers. The NHS knows about thyroid treatment because it’s in the Maudsley guidelines so why apart from cost are they so afraid of using it?
Obviously, HDL is not something to be used for all mental health cases and I can only talk about bipolar symptoms and treatments. However, in my experience opening-up about your illness and learning from other sufferers is a good starting place for us all.
I do think I needed to do this earlier, but in those early years I was typical, as explained before, being a man and living with a severe mental illness didn’t sit well in my stomach. However severe the mental illness we need to be reasonably comfortable in seeking help. Waiting till someone is suicidal is not good enough and that’s where the system needs to change as well.
Men and Women are not comfortable talking about mental illness. We seem to be slowly talking about mental health, but that is a vague subject which can apply to everyone and not those with actual mental illness.
I would love to see the day when men especially, talk about their mental illness as simply as a physical illness, but we’ve got a long way to go in society before we see that day.
I hope this short story gives some light, hope and understanding to all those suffering out there.
A huge thank you to Andrew for taking the time to write such a powerful and honest account of his journey through such a difficult and prolonged illness. I wish him all the best for a happy, healthy and productive future without bipolar disorder!
I will be including some more courageous and informative mental illness survival stories in the coming weeks, starting with 'bipolar warriors' of course!
Please keep spreading the word about this site, and if you have any points for discussion then do please let me know!
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,