Charlie Ogilvie received a bipolar disorder diagnosis at the age of 25. It took her two years to do anything about it. Hear her journey from discovery to acceptance to starting the rest of her life with more balance than she’d ever experienced. The more we share our stories, the more we invite others to be kind to their past, their present and their future selves.
The intimidating wall of butter collapsed. Hundreds of tubs of 'Kerry Gold', 'Organic Valley', 'Utterly Butterly', 'Lurpack'. And on. And on. All of them fell to the floor. Messily. In plasticky, colourful piles with round edges, lids, and greasy paper covers exposed. Almost. But three remained. Butter one. Butter two. And butter three. Unbranded plain packaging. Uncomplicated. I chose butter two. It was not the most expensive. Nor the cheapest. Not the best. Nor the worst. It was not the most anything or the least anything. The choice was easy. And it felt like the choice was mine. One. Two. And three. Two, for me, would do.
The day came. It raced forward faster than a thousand tiny horses turned into waves breaking into the shore by the Seven Sisters cliffs. So fast, I didn't feel it coming. And then I had to choose. Would I stay in London? Or would I leave? On Saturday I chose to stay. Why would I not? But on Sunday, so many more of those tiny horses turned into waves breaking into the shore showed me, I had no choice. The death rate was rising. The city was not safe. So it was easy. It was out of my hands.
I packed a few items of clothing in my backpack. Some unhelpfully large, peach pink paper-bag trousers that didn't fit, though I wished they did. A black ribbed top my friend leant me after my recent break-up when I couldn't go home that night. My mustard yellow, fresh scarf, homemade while sitting on another Zoom call in my basement room - trying to do something as my world changed beyond return outside the window where I saw nothing but the odd pigeon or seagull. And also, some make-up because you never know. But mainly, I collected all of my plants in unwieldy cardboard boxes to transfer them to my dad's van. Within a few hours, he'd broken my most prized plant pot from Jessie, an old housemate and best friend of a best friend. Like the pot, I cracked and crumbled on the floor. Unlike the pot, I had to continue regardless. My hospital home was no more for the unforeseeable future, and my magnolia blossom romance had its sunshine and water supply promptly cut off.
My new boat life, with just one or two butters to choose from on shelves that often lay empty, was not constrained by matters of time. I was freed from its limits. I was alone. Something I had so adamantly avoided for much of my childhood and my whole adult life. And I went with it. I floated on the canal. Always moving but going nowhere. Grounded by my connection with the land where I was moored.
My surroundings impacted my mood, and I felt myself becoming more euphoric as the dark winter turned into a spring bursting with life. Swans' eggs hatching into signets, which in turn would swim up and down the canal past my window as they grew. Heavy rain pelting like pebbles and then small rocks on the roof. Outside the windows, I saw droplets ripple spreading themselves in concentric circles that disrupted others nearby. Then, a sweltering summer of bike rides and balmy evenings, swimming in the sliver-slicked ripples of the waxing gibbous moon. And time.
So much time. Time as I had never experienced. And it was almost all mine. I cooked lots, ate more, and drank Gin and Tonic on the roof of my neighbour’s boat while dreaming of a life spent in nature. Between sun-drenched days working on the back deck of the boat, surrounded by bird song and with lunchtime swims in the river, I’d dance and walk, write and knit. I would pay attention to the pace of my breath as I cycled as fast as I could, just to feel thrill in a time where there was none.
I flitted between intense excitement and happiness, flying from one grand idea to the next — occasionally with some success — and with the sense that gravity need not apply to me. And, other times the opposite. I felt withdrawn, unengaged, unmotivated, tearful and hopeless. Waxing and waning, like the gibbous moon - but less beautiful and with no silver lining - between these states with no predictability in a way that fitted in with how I had lived my life to that point.
After reading a variety of very black and white and very dark black and very bright white diary entries, I remembered an experience from two years prior, which came into sharp focus. Perhaps so sharp it could have drawn blood accidentally.
I was sitting in this leather chair in this unfamiliar room. It was straight out of an old movie. Gorgeous, colourful Persian rugs. African sculptures. And an emerald green desk lamp just about lighting the space, with a little chord hanging down to turn it off and on again — just like I had in my university library.
There was also this thin, neat pile of paper with immaculate and unusually small handwriting on the top layer. As I answered the psychiatrist’s questions, he started a blank page. The notes began again, this time with my story. By the end of the hour, he hadn’t quite filled the white space, but he had decided that I had bipolar.
At that point, I was 25, just turned. Despite my family history of the disorder and having displayed symptoms for much of my life, this was the first time anyone had even suggested it. Everything I had experienced before then pointed to the fact that this man — in his dimly lit central London office during one of the darkest winters of my life, was right.
I picked up my prescription, accepting what felt like both an encouraging and sympathetic smile from the pharmacist, walked a flat half-an-hour home through the chilly night, and put the medication in a second-hand chest of drawers I had rescued from a skip. And continued as if nothing had happened. I took no action. I lived my life as I had before, with all of the unpredictability and the ups and downs that had always punctuated it.
What I was experiencing, and had been for a long time, was not an attitude problem. And I was ready to find and accept help for it, even if I had to fight for it.
As expected, I was passed from person to person. I had to share my history again and again until it no longer felt like anything much. But by July, I was in another chair, with another psychiatrist, in another clinic. There were no Persian rugs this time. No African statues. No emerald green desk lamp with a little chord to turn it on. It was summer outside and I’d had the time I needed to process what I couldn’t ignore anymore. I was ready to hear what he had to say.
I left the building, fitting, more willingly this time, into a new box.
It took me until November to agree to take medication — the same kind that had been prescribed to me almost three years prior. I committed to trying it for three months, during which time — as I had feared — I lost my self-confidence, my sense of creativity and identity, my voice and my hope. In the past, during periods of depression, I had always relied on there being an ‘up’ on the horizon. But I didn’t know anymore.
This depression was like a vacuum. I wasn’t working. It was winter again. We were under tight Covid restrictions. I lay in bed while it felt like the rest of my peers set up businesses and moved forward with their lives. But, for me, the only distinction between day and night was the slight glint of sky and seagulls. I didn’t know how long I would keep waiting for the days and nights- the grey to black and to grey again, to pass, until the ‘up’ might come. This medication was not working for me.
When it comes to medication, everyone reacts differently. What I was first prescribed made me worse. But despite that, I was willing to try something else as I didn’t want to return to how I’d been living before.
I started a new job in April, not having had a full-time job in almost a year and a half. That same day I started my new medication, hoping that it would work out as this time — if it didn’t — the consequences would be much worse.
On my first day, almost the first thing my manager said to me was — ‘I see you have this thing called bipolar. I don’t know what it is, so please tell me. What do you need?’ This was the best thing she could have asked. It’s one of the best things anyone can ask. What one person needs for what might be considered the same issue can be substantially different — so it’s the simplest way to find out. When I’ve been unwell, there’s been an understanding and care around it. And when I’ve been particularly energetic, there is a recognition that I won’t be able to continue at that pace from then on.
There is never just one pill that makes everything better. Since then, I’ve put a lot of effort into being more intentional about how I spend my time, who with, what I eat and that I rest. Just recognising that I needed help and going out and finding it — despite its challenges — has changed my life immeasurably.
I didn’t want to believe it when I was first told I had bipolar. But now I’m glad I do. It will never be who I am. But it does shape the way I experience the world — for better and for worse. Feeling balanced - or rather, more balanced - after years of the opposite is something I never imagined possible. Sometimes, I grieve the years that would have been so different had I had the support I do now. But mostly, I’m just grateful to be here today — living a life I never quite believed I could. With the cord that turns the light off and on again, more firmly within my reach.