I bought £4,000 worth of cigars and a house in France during manic episodes

What hobby did you take up during lockdown? Baking? Running? Consistently losing Zoom quizzes?

Me? I spent money – excessively and impulsively – on things I didn’t need. Like boxes of very expensive Cuban cigars.

It wasn’t due to boredom, though I’m sure that played a part in it, but because of my life with bipolar. 

Many of us probably know that bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings, but it may come as a surprise to some that it can come with other gifts, like excessive spending.

A dip in self-esteem, or confidence, can see people spend excessive amounts on things that make them feel better. At other times, a mood may soar too high and here is where manic spending can set in. 

For me, with bipolar, the highs can be very high, and the lows are crushing. It’s been this way since my mid twenties.

I’ve always been an ‘out there’ person – I was over the top, and had huge amounts of energy.

As a former lawyer, I’d always loved my job – and it paid well. But there’s no denying that its long, unsociable hours were stressful.

That took its toll on me, my relationships, and often triggered the episodes I had to live through.

Because of the fast pace of my job, I never rested, and was always running around. I was unknowingly in a state of mania that led to me over-spending. At one stage, I had several properties, eight motorcycles and 13 club memberships.

I always say that out of 10, I was a 15. I thought it was just part of my personality – but I was wrong.

Over the years, my behaviour went from being funny to my friends, to worrying. People’s reactions to me started changing.

I could see it in their faces that I was getting ‘a bit much’.

To cope with the anxiety and depression that so many of us with this condition live with, I found myself shopping.

I started buying outlandish pairs of shoes – not just one, but four or five pairs, priced at £300 each. I still have some pairs that I’ve never worn.

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Then, it was hats. I once spent £500 on a hat that’s never been on my head. I bought gifts for everyone, and covered everyone’s rounds at the pub.

Some years ago, I mentioned to my wife that I thought we should buy a holiday home – that was on a Thursday, and five days later I’d bought one in France.

At the time, I thought she was pleased but she later admitted that she was at her wit’s end, feeling as if she had no input in my unpredictable spending.

Back at its unmedicated worst, nothing my wife, or anyone, could say could stop me – and I probably embarrassed them. 

During these shopping sprees I felt in control, focussed – it’s difficult to describe mania, as you are having what feels like an out of body experience, powered up. 

Around 2010, I began to accept that something was wrong, and went to see two different psychiatrists over the course of five years.

I dropped them before getting an official diagnosis. I think I was in denial, if anything. I didn’t want a label, or the stigma of having bipolar. 

I didn’t want family, friends or colleagues treating me differently. 

By 2017, I realised I wasn’t coping and got a formal diagnosis. That was the beginning of some sort of stability.

But, it takes time to get the medication right and in 2019 I ended up spending a few weeks in a psychiatric hospital. It’s still a difficult thing for me to talk about, as it isn’t somewhere any of us expect to be.

Still, it gave me time to recover, and the opportunity to be put on medication that was right for me.

Except, during lockdown, I relapsed – triggered by a combination of my high-pressured job and watching too much pandemic-related news – and I spent £4,000 on Cuban cigars over six months.

It’s not uncommon, either – according to charity Bipolar UK, apparently two in five people living with bipolar say money worries have previously triggered a relapse.

I’d taken a sabbatical from work and intended to go back to my old life, and work, after lockdown – which I did.

But the demands of my role felt too difficult for me – and my tolerance levels for stress just got lower.

I’d always wanted to retire at 65, but I decided to retire earlier this year, aged 57 – after 33 years in the job. It’s early days, but I know it was the right decision.

Looking back, I know that bipolar powered me up. It kept me ticking over, but I was oblivious to its often harmful consequences.

Now that I’m retired and living with less stress, I’m much more conscious about our finances and savings – especially since I have no income.

I know work isn’t right for me at the moment, but I have considered taking another less intense job in the future. 

In the meantime, I will keep a watchful eye on myself, my money, and continue to attend my local in-person support group run by Bipolar UK.

It’s wonderful to sit down with people like me, and talk about what’s going on in my head, or about money troubles with people who understand. 

I’m lucky that I have savings and access to treatment, as well as a supportive family and former employer.

But ultimately, all workplaces need to be more flexible, accessible environments for those with bipolar. 

Sadly, people often don’t want to admit they have bipolar as they’re scared of the stigma that comes with it. They end up being an afterthought. Because of this, they don’t often tell HR about it for fear of being seen as unpredictable.  

Under the Equality Act 2010, bipolar can be defined as a disability if it affects someone’s day-to-day life long-term; and employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments.

These can include time off to cope with medication changes, considering later start times for those who take time to get going, tech help and even adapting desk locations within the office itself (no bright overhead lights, please). 

But in many cases, no reasonable adjustments are made – and I personally know people who have lost their jobs due to a bipolar episode.

Workplaces with strict hours, or inflexible work environments, can cause more stress and anxiety – fuelling this vicious cycle, and leading to excessive spending.

And with the current cost of living crisis, every penny counts now more than ever.

Employers – and indeed, everyone – should be making noise, and creating meaningful, inclusive conversations about days like today: World Bipolar Day.

Allowing colleagues the space to talk, be heard and to work out a schedule that helps manage stress for them. To make them feel welcomed.

In the meantime, any takers for two pairs of ugly shoes and a bucket load of hats?

To access Bipolar UK’s cost of living crisis advice page, visit https://www.bipolaruk.org/cost-of-living

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