Mental health and mental illness is a constant battle for many event professionals and something that is, unfortunately, not discussed enough.
This is me talking openly about mental health, my own mental health, and personal experience of juggling life as a busy event professional, business owner and mom, whilst battling a mental illness.
My hope is that by reading this post you will come away with a different understanding of mental health and that I can in some way break down a few barriers and stigmas associated with it.
I’m writing this on World Mental Health Day, the week prior it was Bipolar Awareness Day, two weeks before that it was the event industry’s inaugural ‘UK Event Wellbeing Week’. It seems like everyone is talking about mental health right now. Brilliant - keep it up!
I would not have imagined that as an industry we would be sitting in forums talking openly about well-being, stress, and mental health. In 2009 when I was finally diagnosed with the mental illness I have suffered with since the age of 16, I would never have imagined that we would be openly discussing mental health and yet amazingly, here we are.
And, here I am writing openly about the mental health condition I have battled for 28 years, and on the biggest platform that exists for event professionals.
Let’s get started before I change my mind!
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My name is Helen Moon, I’ve worked in the events industry for 20 years and I have Bipolar Disorder. It’s funny because six months ago that would have been very difficult for me to write, but now I can talk about it with much more ease and comfort than ever before, and without having to take a big, deep breath in, or lump in my throat.
What I really want to do by writing this article is educate and create awareness on this often very misunderstood mental illness, what having bipolar disorder means to me, what my main symptoms and associated symptoms are, what can trigger my episodes, and what I do these days to keep myself happy and healthy. I say these days as it’s only been in the last four years that I have managed to bring my illness fully under control and medication free, and I am going to write as openly as I can on all of the above.
You’ll notice as well that I have made statements such as “what having bipolar means to me”, “what my main symptoms are”, and “what can trigger my episodes”, this is very important as my experience of bipolar disorder can be very different from others. Symptoms, triggers, and treatments can vary between patients, just as is the case with physical illnesses such as cancer. No two illnesses and treatments are exactly the same.
Help and Support
It could be however, that reading this article, much the same as what happened for me in 2009 and led to me getting the correct diagnosis - you recognize a behavioral sign or symptom that encourages someone to get the help and support needed.
What is Bipolar Disorder?
I’m going to give you the Mental Health Foundation definition which is: “Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder characterized by swings in a person’s mood from high to low – euphoric to depressed.”
The stats are that roughly one in every 100 adults suffer with bipolar disorder and there are currently one million ‘diagnosed’ bipolar sufferers in the UK. I say ‘diagnosed’ as they obviously cannot put a figure on those undiagnosed, and 69% of people with bipolar have reported an initial misdiagnosis, just like I experienced, so there could be more with a current depressive illness that quite possibly are also bipolar sufferers.
Onset and Cause
The majority of people develop the condition between the ages of 15 and 19, and whilst most people will experience manic episodes at least once along with depressive episodes, there are some people who will experience pure depression and no mania, or pure mania and no depression. Confused yet?
The causes are not entirely known either, but what is known is that biological, psychological, and social factors interact with each other and play a role in the onset and progression of the illness.
For me, whether it is genetic we do not really know. Despite there being a history of depression on the paternal side of my family, this may not necessarily be the cause and there is no way to test or confirm this.
Studies have shown that there is a link between brain chemicals and bipolarity, and that the disorder can be triggered by external factors such as stress and social circumstances that can have an impact on the neurotransmitters and chemical messages in the brain.
Many people with bipolar disorder find that they can link their onset to a period of significant stress in their lives such as childbirth, family breakdown, and money problems. Experts believe that bipolar disorder is linked to the experience of severe emotional trauma in early life such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, and grief, loss and neglect can all be contributing factors. My personal experiences of most, but not all, of the above traumas is what I associate the most with my onset.
What Bipolar Means to Me?
My diagnosis back in 2009 was devastating for me. To hear that I had a chronic mental health disorder was in and of itself incredibly traumatic and actually led to a serious episode of depression. However, I have certainly come to terms with my illness now and learned to live with the condition enabling me to lead a very normal and amazing life.
I’ve had Bipolar Disorder since I was 16, my onset was triggered by a series of traumatic incidents that happened in my teens. I won’t go into too much detail as that part is very private and personal to me and my family, but there were four or five ‘external traumas’ that I experienced in close succession over a short period of time which included physical and emotional abuse, grief, loss, and neglect.
I was very young and vulnerable and because of the severity of the trauma I experienced I handled the situation incredibly poorly in the first few years and attempted suicide at the age of 21.
This was back in the late 80s, early 90s and no-one at the time really understood or knew anything about Bipolar Disorder, then referred to as manic depression, and if I’m being honest it’s not really 100% understood even now. We always fear the things that we misunderstand the most.
Even post-suicide attempt, during the subsequent period when I was in the hospital and referred to mental health services, my bipolar disorder continued to go undiagnosed for another 15 years, and during that time I struggled with what I thought were just bouts of severe depression. I could never understand why sometimes I had strange erratic behavior, was always slightly out of touch with those in my social circle, or why my moods would switch all the time from being overly enthusiastic about things to then suddenly having no interest at all, and at times a fiery temper.
In 2008 leading into 2009, I experienced what is called ‘rapid cycling’ between the worst and most damaging episodes of mania and depression that I can remember. There were two contributing factors to this in both my professional and personal life at the time.
At work, I was Business Development Manager for a large conference venue in central London. I was under extreme pressure as the only proactive sales member with a huge responsibility to bring in sales following a major refurbishment. Working long hours with little sleep, it was a period where the venue as a brand sponsored almost every award ceremony and industry event going to increase their presence, and that meant we were visible and attending every event. There was very little opportunity to do anything outside of work to recuperate and relax as I was also travelling around the UK on client appointments, with regular visits to Europe and the US on sales missions.
In my personal life, I’d just gotten married! Should be a very positive and happy event right? It’s actually one of the most stressful life events you will experience, and shortly after my wedding a very close family member also came back into my life after an 18-year period of estrangement.
Challenging as this period actually was, what made it even more so was my second experience of suicidal thoughts, followed by three visits to the hospital.
2009 however, was also the year that I finally got my diagnosis and we were able to start treating my illness properly, so as bad as things were at the time it was also a breakthrough for me and I was on the road to recovery after this point.
After recognizing some behavioral patterns on a TV soap opera that were similar to mine, I spoke to my doctor and was referred to a consultant psychiatrist. Bipolar disorder was confirmed and it was from then on that I finally received the medical assistance and support that I had so desperately needed.
It was a life transformation for me. I was able to start reconnecting with myself and who I was as a person and adult, remembering that I was a teenager when I first became ill. I now understood all the things that I had not been able to figure out about myself over the years, and was able to start planning for the future.
One of the most important things I have learned to do is not allow my illness to define who I am as a person and an individual. When first diagnosed I would tell people “I’m bipolar” as if they needed an explanation. I have since changed that to “I have bipolar”, why, because I don’t really need to explain anything to anyone.
What Are My Symptoms?
These days I suffer more with hypomania and it’s very rare for me to experience depressive episodes. I probably have one mild depressive episode a year but it’s never severe and can come and go without it really bothering or affecting my life in any disruptive way.
Thankfully, I have never suffered with psychosis or experienced a psychotic episode although my mania before diagnosis had been severe enough at times for me to have severely damaged relationships and put myself in dangerous situations, and at considerable risk of harm.
When I was thankfully diagnosed I was given the right medication to treat the mania, Olanzapine, an antipsychotic drug, and was taken off my antidepressants as we found that treating the mania almost stopped the depressive episodes altogether.
When my illness was missed for those 20 years I was continually prescribed antidepressants. It’s not wise to give ‘uppers’ to someone who experiences the highs of bipolar because the results can be catastrophic - as we found out on many an occasion and it can actually lead to further bouts of depression. What goes up must come down!
The main biological, psychological, and behavioral symptoms for me include: frustration (what would mildly irritate someone without bipolar could at times really frustrate me and could send me into a flying rage), anxiety and panic attacks (in a pressured situation I can be sent into a crippling panic attack if I don’t feel in control), migraines, extreme tiredness, thinking faster, talking faster (thoughts jumping from one subject to the next), easily distracted (conversation becomes difficult as sometimes my brain will simply just switch off), social anxiety and finding small talk difficult (can make me appear rude or awkward to others), memory loss, and finally not sleeping!
In more severe times it has been known for me to get into difficulties that I would have normally avoided, such as spending money I do not have resulting in financial difficulties, self-medicating with alcohol and using this as a crutch with devastating consequences. When I have been severely depressed, I’ve withdrawn from my social life, and shut out my close circle of family and friends.
My condition now (thankfully) is managed and under control.I still suffer from episodes from time to time but not as many and in a much milder form than previously, and so much so that I can manage them easily without the need for medication or drugs.
What Can Trigger My Episodes?
Sleep, or lack of can be a major trigger for an episode. Not great as an event professional but also as a new parent it is very unlikely that I will ever get eight hours sleep ever again, so I have to absolutely ensure that I get some good quality Z’s in, however limited in number they may be.
Work pressure – I have always been an enthusiastic, eager to please, yes person, and hard-working, but this can also result in me taking on too much or putting too much pressure on myself. The best thing I have done for my self-care of late is learning to say no!
Life pressure – events and external traumas in my personal life and stressful situations were the cause of my onset back then. It is crucial then that my exposure to stressful life events is as limited as possible as it will almost certainly result in a new episode being triggered.
More recently I had a 40% increased risk when I was carrying my daughter - who is now 18 months old, of experiencing a psychotic episode or postpartum psychosis from the trauma of pregnancy and giving birth. By this time I had already stopped taking my medication and the risk was greater, so as a precaution I was placed under the care of a specialist consultant and mental health midwifery team.
What this also meant is that I got to hear my baby’s heart beat more regularly during these check ups, every two weeks in fact, and subsequently kept me incredibly calm and relaxed throughout my pregnancy and had a really positive effect on me.
Generally not taking care of myself by way of exercise, diet, and taking time to rest and recuperate can also trigger an episode. Stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol can also be a major trigger and I now avoid these completely and am a teetotal event professional (yes - we do exist!).
What Do I Do These Days to Keep Myself Happy, Healthy, and Safe?
The biggest change I saw in my condition was approximately four years ago when I realized it was probably not such a great idea for me to drink alcohol so decided to abstain. This also coincided with my decision to switch to decaf tea and coffee and to give up smoking in an attempt to try and cut out as many stimulants from my lifestyle as I could.
The result just from cutting these, in terms of me being able to manage my condition, have been immense, and in general I feel healthier, have more ‘good’ energy, and feel much more relaxed and calmer than before when I would at times have a slightly nervous and shaky demeanor about me.
I have a mantra that I use which is:
lifestyle + life choices = coping skills -> Wellbeing
Not only am I an event professional, I’m also a new working mom. It’s so important to me to have a very close, open and loving relationship with my daughter and create an environment for her where she feels safe and supported like any mother would for their child.
Bipolar medication can make this extremely difficult as antipsychotic drugs are not known for making you open and inviting and if anything, almost certainly the opposite. Antipsychotics are sedatives so based on the strength of your prescription will depend on how this affects you personally. It also makes it very difficult to maintain that essential quality of an event professional - being a people person, when you are ‘sedated’.
Through self-management, watching what I eat and drink, and avoiding stimulants I can manage my bipolarity without the need for medication to control my highs.
I also ensure I have balance in my life, and I prioritize on a weekly basis what I need to do and if there is anything I need to step back from. I then plan my week around this and allow myself the flexibility to be able to make further changes. My health and well-being and the ability to be able to take care of my daughter will always come first for me, no question.
I exercise regularly now. It’s rare that I can get to the gym these days, but I have a Fitbit and there are two amazing apps - Fitstar and Fitstar Yoga that adjust exercises based on the data from my device. This also allows me the opportunity to do a daily 15-minute workout or yoga session when I can at home or wherever I may be. My Fitbit is also essential for me to keep track of my sleep!
I also love running and try and complete my weekly Parkrun! Free to join and great for my competitive nature since it’s timed, I also love the community feel of a Parkrun. It’s great to be part of a like-minded group of runners all working off the pressures of the week in the best way possible. It’s also a great way to start the weekend.
Relaxation and Meditation
Other things I do include relaxation exercises and meditation. Although I’ll admit I am quite new to mindfulness techniques, so far it is working wonders for my state of mind particularly if there is anything worrying or making me anxious, and I keep a daily thankful diary listing my top achievements of the day.
Self-management and self-care for me is all about finding things that work for you, so the above may not work for others and also things can also change over time. I’m very self-aware now and those people who are close and know me very well are becoming better at being able to recognize the signs and symptoms that could indicate a relapse. My support network plays a major part in my personal care plan.
All in all, despite what can be at times a crippling illness and most would describe as a disability, and despite the traumas and difficulties I have experienced through my life, I have managed to maintain and carve a very successful career for myself in our industry. Most people who have met me would have absolutely no idea of any of the above, and I am proof that it is possible to suffer from what is considered to be an extremely serious mental illness and have a happy, healthy, and successful life not only as a business woman and influencer in my field but also as a wife and mother.
My aspiration for the future is that my daughter’s experiences are very different from my own. Not only do I hope that she never develops the illness herself but also that she can talk openly with her friends and peers about mental health, well-being, and her mom’s mental illness without the fear of prejudice or bullying in return.
And finally, if you are reading this and any of the above hits home for yourself or anyone you know and help has not yet been sought, then I can only urge you to seek the help and assistance needed, whether that be talking to a close friend and confidant, or visiting a medical professional.
Let’s break down the stigma associated with mental health and start talking openly in the same way we do about physical health conditions. Whether a disease of the brain or a disease of the body, there should be no distinction.
If the legacy of my transparency is that it gives one person the confidence boost they need to reach out and get help and support then I’ll sleep well as a result, and we all know now how much I need my sleep!