After 15 years of severe depression and episodes of manic behaviour, Emma Belle, 42, was diagnosed with bipolar at 29. She is now thriving and has used her experience to mentor others.
I first started to struggle in my teenage years. I had no idea that I had bipolar but, from age 15, life felt very chaotic. I thought I was depressed, so I went to the doctor who put me on Prozac, but it gave me racing thoughts and I became really paranoid.
I stopped taking the tablets because I was scared that the medication was making me poorly – the truth was, when you put someone with bipolar on antidepressants, there is a risk it can send them sky high.
The problem was that I only went to the doctor when I was low, never when I was feeling manic. At those times, I was super-productive, didn’t need much sleep, socialised, went to the gym and worked seven days a week, building up my publishing business.
I think that, in society, it's quite acceptable to be like that – in fact it’s almost applauded – so I thought that feeling that way must be ok. Except when I was hypomanic, I became very argumentative. I would fall out with people and make risky decisions, and I existed like this for many years. Everyone around me thought that was just my personality, but I was on the brink of becoming really unwell.
I had a lot of stress in my life from running my business and, when I was 29, three people close to me died in quick succession. I got more and more manic and everything escalated until I completely crashed and had a breakdown. My world just collapsed pretty much overnight.
I’d wake up every day just wanting to be dead. I’d open my eyes in the morning realising I was still alive and literally sob because I hadn't died in my sleep. I couldn't work out how I could keep living every day in this level of emotional pain and thought, 'If the rest of my life is going to be like this, this needs to end.'
I became totally paranoid and deluded. There were painters outside my flat and I was convinced they’d been sent to spy on me.
But I was terrified of taking medication. I thought, 'I'm not doing that because I'll end up going crazy again,' so, for six months, I did everything to avoid it – I tried colour therapy, crystal healing, you name it – but nothing worked. My friend said I should take antidepressants again and it took me six months to accept but, because I was in such a bad place, I went to the doctor and asked for a low dose.
Very quickly, I went completely manic again. I became totally paranoid and deluded. There were painters outside my flat and I was convinced they’d been sent to spy on me. I didn't sleep for two weeks, didn't wash, barely ate, kept the curtains shut and got really aggressive and angry with anyone who came to check on me – I’d tell them to leave because I was too busy to see them.
Getting a diagnosis
My best friend said that I was just in the dark shuffling papers from place to place – when I got better, I checked back and I hadn't sent a single email, but I was convinced I was doing all these things. Goodness knows what I was up to, it’s still not completely clear, but I lost the business that I’d built up.
My friend saw how unwell I was and said to me, "Emma, this isn't depression alone. It's something more, we need to go back to the doctor's." So I went back to the GP where I was asked to track my mood for a number of weeks before I was referred to a psychiatrist.
My best friend said that I was just in the dark shuffling papers from place to place – when I got better, I checked back and I hadn't sent a single email, but I was convinced I was doing all these things.
There, I was assessed properly, diagnosed with bipolar and put on antipsychotics. It took me a long time to get better and the antipsychotics did have some side effects. They made me feel like I had no emotion – but they saved me, making me stable enough that I wasn't wanting to take my own life anymore.
Soon after, I met my now husband Gareth. I’d dated in the past and hadn’t had a very good reaction when I told the person I had bipolar so, when we got together, I was quite apprehensive thinking, 'Gosh, am I going to be met with the same reaction?' I worried that I would never have a successful relationship because what if I was to get that poorly again? How does that affect the other person?
Finding the right treatment
Part of me still worries about that because I can't guarantee I won’t. But Gareth has been very understanding and supportive, and what we can do is lay the foundations so that the right support is in there should I end up in that terrible place again. Everyone who lives with bipolar should have a safety plan in place and the people closest to them need to know what that involves.
I took those antipsychotics for two years and got strong enough to get therapy. I started with general counselling, which helped, and, as I gained more 'tools' to stay well I was able to reduce my antipsychotics and try less sedating medications.
Everyone who lives with bipolar should have a safety plan in place and the people closest to them need to know what that involves.
Over the last 10 years I have had lots of trauma therapy including EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy) which has transformed my thinking and helped me to really move through and reframe a lot of difficult emotions that kept me feeling stuck. I also make sure I don’t burn the candle at both ends, and I limit caffeine and other stimulants.
Gareth and I also spent over two years going through fertility treatment and endured the loss of our daughter Willow in utero in October 2020 – she was diagnosed with Edwards Syndrome and I had to have a TFMR (Termination for Medical Reasons), so I needed to make space for the stress and grief of all of that.
I had to be truthful about what my capacity was and get rid of everything that wasn't absolutely necessary. I reduced my working hours and put boundaries in place to ensure I was preserving the energy I had remaining. Something had to give and I couldn’t let it be me again.
Parenting a newborn
I haven’t been that unwell again since my lowest point and, in November 2022, after eight rounds of fertility treatment, Gareth and I had a healthy baby girl. I’m happy to say that I’ve completely rebuilt my life.
Parenting a newborn whilst living with bipolar, especially after infertility and baby loss, has taken absolutely everything I have. The sleep deprivation (which when living with bipolar is a huge trigger) has been beyond tough. But Gareth shares the parenting and he understands the importance of sleep to me.
I’m happy to say that I’ve completely rebuilt my life. Getting help wherever you can is essential.
Getting help wherever you can is essential. Regular appointments with my psychiatrist and my therapist have helped me so much, and ensuring my medication is reviewed regularly has also helped me to cope. Now our baby is a year old, life feels more manageable again.
Life has been full of heartbreaking challenges since my diagnosis, but with the right tools and support we can get through, we can find a way to live with bipolar and lead a good fulfilling life. I'm now back in full-time work, I’m an ambassador for Bipolar UK, I run a not-for-profit called TFMR Mamas to support others going through this type of baby loss and mentor others one-to-one who live with bipolar. If you had told me 14 years ago, that this would be my life now, I would never have believed you.
Bipolar UK is the only national charity dedicated to supporting people affected by bipolar. Their mission is to empower everyone with bipolar to live well and fulfil their potential. For information about peer support and the ecommunity, go to www.bipolaruk.org.
If you are experiencing suicidal feelings, remember you are not alone and you can contact The Samaritans any time, day or night on 116 123. You can also email the charity on email@example.com.