It's an irony not lost on Michelle that she is using a different name for this article than given name. An intelligent and open woman who prides herself on her honesty and openness, she is frustrated by the need to hide her identity.

"I am scared of being prejudged. If people know I have bipolar before they even meet me, I risk being judged before they get to know me, plus I risk that potential judgement impacting my children and family. I want to own my story and my journey of living with bipolar but I can't, as it isn't just my story, but the story of my children, their father and my wider family as well."

Michelle is speaking out about living with bipolar to raise awareness of the reality of life for her, and the thousands of other New Zealanders living with the illness.

She says while people are becoming more aware of mental wellness issues nowadays, it can still be very lonely to live with.

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"With mental wellness issues can come depression for example, which can be really isolating."

Michelle says she is thankful to all the "brave people" who have shared their stories of mental wellness struggles in the past, as she feels it has helped increase the general understanding and acceptance of mental health over the past decade.

She says when she does tell people she is bipolar, she is always amazed by how understanding they are, but she still worries about people seeing it as being the whole of her, not just part.

"Having bipolar is only a small part of who I am. I don't want everything I ever do to be attributed to me being either manic or being depressed. A lot of the time I am just being me, with a spectrum of emotions and reactions which are perfectly normal and natural."

Michelle, like many people diagnosed with bipolar, didn't know she had it until after her teenage years. It is most commonly diagnosed in people aged between 15 and 40, and Michelle was in her 20s when the diagnosis was made.

The symptoms first appeared when she was pregnant with her first child.

"At first I thought what was happening was a normal part of pregnancy. I felt this incredible urge to clean everything. I had all this energy and didn't seem to need much sleep. The cleaning made me think I was nesting, so I was pleased — I felt I was being a normal mother-to-be really."

A month before her baby was born her lack of sleep, combined with high blood pressure, led her to being admitted the maternity unit of a hospital nearby.

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Soon after she was admitted, the maternity staff recognised this wasn't a pregnancy issue, but a mental wellness one and Michelle was moved to a mental health unit.
Just weeks away from giving birth, Michelle was in what she describes as a "effing terrifying" environment.

She remembers feeling completely trapped by her own body, not understanding what was happening to her mind, while the medications she was being given caused her to struggle to walk, talk or move easily.

With her high blood pressure continuing, her baby's birth was induced.
As she went through the birth, Michelle remembers feeling very calm.
"I was back to normal in a way. I felt centred and calm, I was okay."

Despite this, once her baby was born, Michelle was kept in the mental health unit for a total of three months. Her baby was with her, but in the care of nurses.

"That was very hard and something I still struggle with. I was finally diagnosed as having bipolar while I was in the unit, and with that came some answers, but it was still a long time before I was given control of my life back."

Since then, Michelle has learned how to live with bipolar disorder and now sees it as just part of who she is.

She has two children and is a busy, active mum who enjoys sport and hanging out with her family.

"I can go through really long periods without having what are called manic episodes. But when I do have a manic episode I feel embarrassed afterwards and avoid my friends or colleagues. I don't want to hide part of me from everyone, but I also don't want to be seen as 'that person with bipolar' and be negatively judged as a result."

The worst part, says Michelle, is the depression which comes with it.

"Anyone who suffers from depression will understand how isolating it can be and how hard it is to get through at times. For me, depression is probably the hardest part of my mental wellness journey."

Michelle says being a member of the Stratford Mental Wellness Peer Support Group has been invaluable as she continues to navigate her way through parenting, looking for work and separating from her husband.

"The group gives me a safe place to talk and to vent and helps me feel less isolated. I have people who understand exactly what living with a mental wellness issue can be like, and while everyone's journey is different, the support is incredible.


■ Where to get help:
■ Lifeline: ph 0800 543 354 (available 24/7).
■ Suicide Crisis Helpline: ph 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7).
■ Supporting Families in Mental Illness: 0800 732 825
■ Youth services: ph 06 3555 906.
■ Youthline: ph 0800 376 633.
■ Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7).
■ Whatsup: ph 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm).
■ Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7).
Rainbow Youth: ph 09 376 4155.
■ Tūtaki Youth Inc: 06 928 4517
■ The Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
■ The Women's Centre: 06 758 4957
■ Progress to Health Taranaki: 06 757 5549
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, phone 111