‘A broken mind is not always obvious’: Former Leigh Park nurse reveals battle with bipolar affective disorder

Stephanie Chaplen (62) from Leigh Park, was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder 10 years ago. Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5752)
Stephanie Chaplen (62) from Leigh Park, was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder 10 years ago. Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5752)
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EVERYONE faces highs and lows in their day-to-day lives, it’s part of what makes us human.

But for one Leigh Park woman her illness caused her to experience extreme mood swings from ‘rock bottom depression to normality and elation.’

Stephanie Chaplen with one of her cats Pickles.Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5777)

Stephanie Chaplen with one of her cats Pickles.Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5777)

Stephanie Chaplen has lived with bipolar affective disorder for more than 45 years and only now feels like she is beginning to get her life back again.

The 62-year-old former nurse attributes her survival to her friends, the medical professionals who have helped her along the way and her two cats – Asher and Pickles.

But it wasn’t an easy road. She said: ‘I have had mental health issues since I was 16 but then it was just classed as depression.

‘There wasn’t the level of understanding that there is now. I wasn’t able to receive the right help. My mood could switch so dramatically.

Stephanie's cat Asher

Stephanie's cat Asher

‘It can make me very angry and verbally abusive, which is not like me at all. It’s like I’m a completely different person. People don’t recognise me.’

Stephanie, who has lived in Leigh Park her whole life, was determined not to let this stop her fulfilling her goal of becoming a nurse. But unfortunately this was out of her control. ‘I started my SEN (state enrolled nurse) training in 1980 and then worked for two years between 1982 and 1984 before they sacked me,’ she said.

‘I had a lot of time off for depression as there was no way of controlling it. They did tell me that if I had more time off they would sack me.

‘That was a real blow. I didn’t work for five or six years afterwards.’

Stephanie's cat Pickles.Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5805)

Stephanie's cat Pickles.Picture: Sarah Standing (080419-5805)

Holding down a job since then has been a problem for Stephanie.

She said: ‘I managed to get into secretarial college where I gained lots of qualifications. But that career was short lived. I worked for a while in a cleaning firm which lasted about six months. I haven’t worked since then. But I am now going to the Job Centre where they’re helping me look at getting back into it.’

Stephanie was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder 10 years ago. And a while later she adopted two kittens to help her cope. ‘At long last I had something to live for and my cats became my soulmates,’ she said.

‘If I was having a rough time my cats still needed me for food, love and shelter and there was nothing I wouldn’t do for them. Even in the depths of my depression I still found energy to feed and be affectionate towards my cats.’

But things took a difficult turn in December 2017. She said: ‘I reckon things were going drastically wrong around Christmas that year and I never fully recovered. No one except my close friends really noticed that I was spiralling downwards into a deep depression. My friends tried several times to raise the alarm with the professionals to no avail. I had even considered getting my cats re-homed because I felt I couldn’t care for them any more.

‘In desperation and fearing for my life, I contacted my GP and she got me the help I so desperately needed. She saved my life that day.’

Although Stephanie found mental health charity Mind when she was in her 20s she believes that available help has improved.

‘Mind was amazing, I was going to groups and met lots of people. It has helped a lot.

‘But I think people are more understanding now. There are so many people with mental health problems it has become second nature. I think there is a lot more for people like myself to get support and work now. They do care for people with mental health issues.’

Now Stephanie surrounds herself with friends and frequents a couple of local cafes, Leigh Cafe and Time Out, to help her feel calm.

‘There would be times when I have been very low I have gone to my local cafe and they have been so good, they include me,’ she said.

‘And even I might not feel like talking they let me be and I just listen to the chatter. Little things like that can really make a difference to someone.’

She is hoping to become an advocate for mental health awareness herself, and is looking to take more courses with Mind to see how she can help others.

Stephanie added: ‘It is true what they say – if you have a broken arm people can see what’s wrong with you and how to help. But if you have a broken mind it’s not always obvious.’

What is bipolar affective disorder?

Bipolar affective disorder (BPAD) is a mental health condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another. It used to be known as manic depression.

People with bipolar disorder have episodes of:

depression – feeling very low and lethargic

mania – feeling very high and overactive

Symptoms of bipolar disorder depend on which mood you’re experiencing. Unlike simple mood swings, each extreme episode of bipolar disorder can last for several weeks (or even longer), and some people may not experience a ‘normal’ mood very often.

You may initially be diagnosed with clinical depression before you have a manic episode (sometimes years later), after which you may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

During an episode of depression, you may have overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, which can potentially lead to thoughts of suicide.

During a manic phase of bipolar disorder, you may:

feel very happy

have lots of energy, ambitious plans and ideas

spend large amounts of money on things you cannot afford and would not normally want

Bipolar disorder is fairly common, and 1 in every 100 people will be diagnosed with it at some point in their life. 

Bipolar disorder can occur at any age, although it often develops between the ages of 15 and 19 and rarely develops after 40.

Men and women from all backgrounds are equally likely to develop bipolar disorder.

The pattern of mood swings in bipolar disorder varies widely. For example, some people only have a couple of bipolar episodes in their lifetime and are stable in between, while others have many episodes.