Being told you have bipolar disorder doesn’t mean you have been condemned to a life of poverty before landing in a pauper’s grave. It is a diagnosis not an exercise in fortune telling: it does not have to come true.
A diagnosis is given when you tick enough boxes to be able to give a collection of symptoms a name. It does not mean that you have to fulfil the expectation of that illness to justify the diagnosis for other people. For example, mention bipolar disorder or manic depression (the old name for bipolar disorder) and lots of people will associate it with creativity. What they don’t realise is that many people with the illness aren’t the least bit creative. I believe, for those of us who are creative, the mania side gives us that extra bit of daring to push our creativity that little bit further. I am not creative because I have bipolar disorder but I am willing to go the extra mile because of it.
The same goes for money. Bipolar disorder magnifies and distorts our personality traits. It cannot make us do something we are not. Whilst bipolar disorder gives me a “sod the consequences” attitude at times I know while it’s happening that it isn’t right. I can fight the urge: giving in to spending money I haven’t got isn’t an inevitability for me. Having said that, I do not develop full-blown psychosis, I always keep one foot in reality.
The debts that I incurred during my bouts of mania came to less than £3,000. I was a high earner so in comparison to my income I got off very lightly. However it felt to me then, as it does now, a huge amount. I could honestly not envisage a method of clearing my debts.
When I was forced into a very early retirement due to the effects of the bipolar disorder and had to spend the first year on basic benefits. The idea that I could become debt free was nothing more than a fantasy. It was a long year of poverty in mind and spirit as well as wealth and one that I would wish upon nobody else.
When you have debt and need to approach companies to ask them to freeze interest or negotiate payments with them you are told that they won’t begin to negotiate until they see a statement of income and expenditure with the stamp of the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) or a similar agency upon it. The CAB and their kind are only as good as their volunteers. The man who helped me missed things out and somehow managed to get my electricity bills sent to their office. I began to believe that I really was going mad and that the world I inhabited was a Kafkaesque nightmare and there was no chance of waking up sane.
Eventually my debts were frozen although my bank at the time refused to acknowledge that, by offering me credit cards and loans against my explicit instructions, they were in part responsible for the debt and I was told that the debt would never be written off as it was too large a sum. It was a little over £1,500 pounds. Just because a bank claims to be ethical doesn’t mean that it is.
I then had to learn to feed me and three cats on an amount that amounted to little more than the weekly wage that I’d earned 16 years before. One bright spark suggested I rehome the cats but, as some of you will well know, the expense of keeping them fades when you’re alone home for days and they never fail to overwhelm you with love.
To an extent my situation, though not avoidable, could have been softened if I’d known the truth about mania and overspending. It’s something that I’ve actually only learned over the past few years and is something I’d wish I’d known before the great crashing breakdown that flung me into poverty.
A couple of years ago I became very ill and suffered huge problems with my memory. I began to forget to top up my electricity and gas cards meaning that I lost my utilities regularly and the food that was in my fridge and freezer. I recognised quickly that I needed help and I approached a friend, Richard Latteman who is an independent financial adviser. It became quickly evident that I needed to set up Lasting Power of Attorney to protect me when I was too ill to manage. We assessed how much I spent a week on food etc. and the amount horrified me. I put everything into a spreadsheet and seeing how much money I was wasting enabled me to cut back dramatically. We changed all my bills over to direct debit and this immediately began to reap savings. Eventually the point was reached where I could begin to think about saving money. My reason for saving is that I fully expect to be wrongly assessed when it comes to my Work Capability Assessment and need money to fall back on when it happens to see me through the weeks before appeal. It is a ridiculous state of affairs when I have to save money designed to help me in the here and now to safeguard me from the ravages of the future. Being disabled is not easy and it is made much more difficult when there is financial hardship.
Being a natural miser I found it easier than a lot of people to get into the saving money frame of mind but it wasn’t a simple process for me – I had to be guided and better guided through the process.
I discovered that being diagnosed with an illness that predicts problems with money doesn’t mean that I have to fulfil that prediction. It is possible to break the mould and it is well worth trying.
I don’t want to have to live in the poverty that I had to in the past. I wish I had understood sooner that my expectation of my financial state was not necessarily the reality. I wish I had saved for my future at a time when I was able to. I wish I hadn’t been almost encouraged to think that my financial situation was doomed to be problematic. Most of all I wish we didn’t have a government that claims on one hand to want to prevent discrimination and yet on the other hand promotes discrimination by assuming I’m committing fraud because I have an incurable illness. I have paid taxes and national insurance contributions all my working life and I have a right not to live in poverty by people assuming I will automatically fall prey to the presumptive criteria of an illness or by then cruel penalties forced upon me by a government that doesn’t understand the toll of mental illness.
I have the right to control or learn to control my own money and no one has the right to take that away from me be they predictors of doom or those who seem intent on taking away my future.