Hannah Touhey

So tell us a little about you?

 I’m twenty-seven and grew up in Cambridge with four younger siblings, the youngest of whom is eleven so there’s quite an age gap between some of us. I had a good childhood and we were always encouraged to be creative, messy and have fun which I think is partly down to having such a young mum. One of my strongest memories of being a kid is dancing before bed, we were each allowed one song to dance to before we went upstairs to bed, totally counterproductive for a sleep routine but one of my best memories.

My parents divorced when I was six but it was managed so well that for years I found it really odd that people would describe their parents’ divorce as a traumatic experience. My mum remarried and had my youngest siblings when I was thirteen, they looked hilarious with their blonde hair and blue eyes which is the opposite of me and my other brothers but I have never considered them as half siblings. I have always been very academic and although I’m not as smart as my brothers I’m a very hard worker and so I went to good schools and a good University which was a big deal for me as I’d had quite a tough time at secondary school.


What do you feel your biggest challenge in life has been?

Being diagnosed with Bipolar disorder in 2012 when I was 22.


 When did you first suspect that something wasn’t right?

I had around a year of very odd behaviour prior to being diagnosed but the first thing I remember is hallucinating a man for about three months solidly. I’d woken up in the middle of the night to pee and seen a man by my window pointing outside, he was silent and he didn’t look panicked but he did look like he was trying to show me something. Obviously I was mildly terrified and went into my ensuite assuming when I came out I’d have woken up properly and shaken off this little half sleep moment I was clearly having but he was still there and then never really left. He was probably in his fifties and had dark shaggy hair and a green gillet, I never thought he was real but I was never fully convinced he was some kind of ghost either. He never felt threatening but he did sometimes pop up at unusual and inconvenient times such as seminars which was kind of distracting. Around the same time I began to feel really out of control and my behaviour and mood was really erratic. I had begun hearing things such as God asking me to cut myself to let out my sin and people talking about me. The emotion I most associate with that time is agitation, I was severely depressed but that manifested as a kind of nervous energy and a desperate need to crawl out of my skin and my body, I felt very trapped inside myself. I now wonder whether my brain somehow created him as a way of accessing better support for the way I was feeling.


What actions did you take?

I spoke with my mum and the University and was given a mental health guidance counsellor who supported me on a day to day basis as well as putting me in touch with local crisis services. I often felt suicidal and as I was at University and in halls my warden was responsible for me and would have to take me to the Hospital a lot who would keep me overnight and then discharge me.

Looking back what do you think would have been most helpful for you at the time?

To have come home from University which wasn’t a viable option because of my younger siblings and my erratic behaviour. I had come home briefly and seen the Crisis team but they had advised my mum to send me back to University and understandably she trusted their professional opinion. Unfortunately, I think trying to manage on my own at University just allowed things to escalate in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had I had someone taking control of my care. When I later moved in with my Aunt and Uncle I had someone to do this and things were put into motion a lot quicker, I think I had lost my motivation to fight for help by then and I needed someone to do that for me. I was also given an initial diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and placed on anti-depressants, when you have bipolar disorder anti-depressants will usually send you manic and so are rarely prescribed, as a result I went high very quickly but It was this dramatic shift in mood that got me my diagnosis so it was a bit of a blessing in disguise!


What gave you the most support?

Those around me; my closest friends now are those that managed to support me even having graduated and moved back home. My tutors were all amazing and the fact they continued to support me in my studies is the only way I managed to graduate; they gave me extra sessions, recorded their classes for me when I couldn’t make it and did everything in their power to get me through. My Aunt, Uncle and cousins were incredible when I was living with them, particularly considering the number of distressing things I said and did and the constant level of support and monitoring I required.


Looking back over this challenging time, what do you think you have learnt about yourself that has been most useful?

 In many ways that person doesn’t feel like me and I feel very detached from her so it’s hard to make that kind of connection but the experience has certainly led to useful things. I now work in mental health and write a blog on living with Bipolar Disorder which has increasingly gained recognition and I find that whole process very empowering and rewarding. Very few things in life are as daunting as that time and I have a vaguely morbid mantra of ‘is this as scary as that time you wanted to kill yourself?’, it sounds crass but knowing I got through that has got me through a lot of things since which have felt overwhelming. I was already an empathetic person but it has solidified my belief that we should be non-judgemental and open minded when it comes to others and that we must always try to consider a person has a context; I gained a lot of weight on psychiatric medication and felt very exposed and embarrassed, people would make flippant remarks about it and I remember thinking ‘you have no idea what I’m dealing with, how dare you’. It’s easy to laugh at peoples’ appearance and we think if they aren’t aware that it’s fine but the attitude behind those words is damaging and that’s why it’s important we always approach people with compassion, the Chaplaincy where I used to work has a mantra of ‘being human together’ which I love.


What advice would you have for others?

To always share how you’re feeling if you can, not carrying that burden on your own and allowing someone to support you can make everything seem much more manageable. To utilise services available to you, mental health support in this country is woefully lacking so if you do get offered or have access to something at least try it out. Be honest about what you need, recently I moved house and found It quite destabilising, I had planned to have coffee with a friend but cancelled because I just needed a day on my own to balance out, it’s easy to feel guilty or berate yourself but it’s actually a sign of strength to recognise your own needs and vocalise them. My favourite is ‘be kind to yourself’, cutting yourself some slack and looking after yourself should be a priority but we often view it as being selfish.


If you could pick a book, piece of music, or film, or all three, that you felt helped get you through that challenge, what would you choose?

In my family we have a strong attachment to ‘Anne of Green Gables’, it’s a film I strongly associate with being cuddled up on the sofa with my mum, in it is a saying ‘tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it’, I definitely clung to that and continue to use it when I’ve had a rough day.