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Living with bipolar disorder

Lucy Mumbi moods can quickly swing from being extremely happy to feeling depressed. The condition was diagnosed in 2016 and she was put on medication

Evelyn Makena @evemake_g

Tormented. That’s how Lucy Mumbi describes what she felt for close to a decade. With her eyes glistening with tears and her voice faltering, the 22-year-old woman recounts her tumultuous journey living with bipolar disorder. 

A firstborn in a family of three, Mumbi was brought up by a single mother.  She remembers having a pretty ordinary childhood until things took a turn when she was in Form Two in 2010. Her mother, who worked at the US embassy at the time, lost her job. “It was a difficult time for us, at some point my mother battled with depression,” she says. Around the same time, Mumbi started experiencing feelings of crippling sadness. The sadness would persist for days.  Mumbi, who was initially a social girl, started detesting social interactions instead preferring to be on her own.

Her deteriorating mental health went undetected until she joined university in 2013. “In high school, I would be home for only two weeks, so it was difficult for my mother to notice any change in behaviour. Since I was commuting from home to campus every day, it was not lost to my mother that I was always sad, barely slept or ate,” she says. Mumbi found herself relying on alcohol to cope with the unexplained sadness. What began as moodiness later spiralled into bouts of violence and irrational behaviour. 

“At times I completely lost control. I would pick fights with strangers and violently punch walls for flimsy reasons. It’s only after going to the hospital after the violent episodes and seeing pieces of glass stuck in my flesh that the seriousness of my actions would sink in,” says Mumbi.  She would also run away from home for weeks just to be alone. Worried about her behaviour, her mother took her to hospital in 2016 where she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar depression and put on medication. Her mother had lost a sister who had a similar condition to suicide in 2002, thus she understood the enormity of the illness if it went untreated.

According to Dr John Gatere, a psychiatrist at Mathari Hospital, bipolar disorder is a mental illness in which mood fluctuates between extreme excitement and sadness.

“Bipolar means two poles representing two extremely different moods. The emotional high is referred to as mania while the depth is depression,” explains Gatere. Though the actual cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, interplay of several factors such as genetics and stressors is believed to trigger the lifelong condition.

Mumbi’s journey of recovery has not been easy. Failure to adhere to her medications caused her to experience more severe symptoms.

“I harboured suicidal thoughts and sunk deeper into drug abuse to cope with the condition. On numerous occasions I was admitted in psychiatric wards before checking into rehab in November 2017 when the illness became worse,” she says. It’s been five months since she left rehab in February this year.

By adhering to her medication, Mumbi has been able to keep the condition under control and live her life normally. The treatment options for bipolar disorder range from medication and psychotherapy. “Bipolar is treated with mood stabilisers. When patients are in the manic phase you give them antipsychotics to bring mood down and depression is treated with antidepressants. Psychotherapy involves talking to a therapist to find out the triggers and ways to avoid them,” explains Gatere. 

The cost implications of treating bipolar disorder are extremely high. In Mumbi’s case, she takes a combination of drugs totalling to eight pills per day. The drugs cost close to Sh20,000 per month. She also has to contend with hospital admissions when the condition gets out of control. “Each admission in a psychiatric ward costs us close to Sh200,000.   Despite having a medical cover, insurance companies are reluctant to cover costs related to mental illness. The burden is weighing heavily on the family,” says Mumbi. Socially, she has lost friends due to her extreme mood swings and lagged behind in her studies due to constant hospital admissions. 

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