Living with bipolar: how a healthy lifestyle helps me pursue happiness
“Prosperity, dedication, motivation” – this is Laetitia’s mantra. She’s faced over a decade of depression and bipolar disorder, but being intentional about her physical health and mental wellbeing helps her stay balanced. This is her story.
Laetitia was interviewed for the Discover Healthier podcast series. Listen to her compelling story, and be inspired by her remarkable drive to thrive:
“Thoughts of wanting to end my life almost never go away,” says Laetitia du Plessis (30), who has lived with bipolar disorder for the past 10 years. “Anything that makes me feel worthless triggers it. This can be a constant struggle for anyone with a mental health condition. So, I have to manage my thoughts, and watch my routine and lifestyle carefully.”
A quiet build-up of emotional pain
Laetitia’s depression began when she was just 14. Overcome with feelings of disappointing her parents, she tried to end her life, saying, “At the time, I felt I couldn’t be in the world if I hurt people.” She then started boarding school, and constantly hearing ‘hostel girls are fat’ combined with her tender self-image led to her developing anorexia and bulimia.
“No one really spoke about it, and I’m not sure my parents knew how much my physical and mental health deteriorated,” she says. Alone and silent about her struggle, Laetitia kept pleasing everyone with her excellent academic performance and competitive streak on the sports field.
Attempts to start afresh curbed by tragedy
After matric, Laetitia moved to the Netherlands to work. “I thought, this new life gives me an opportunity to start over. Although I was still aware of what I ate, I reached a point where I didn’t care, and gained a lot of weight,” she recalls.
At the time, her choice to go abroad fractured the complex relationship she had with her father. Her desire to please him had always compelled her to work hard, but had also cemented misconceptions she held of herself and how things should be. In 2008, her father died from depression-related suicide, like his own mother before him.
Coming to terms with her diagnosis
To be there for her mother, Laetitia returned to South Africa and started studying. In April 2009, while writing an exam, she recalls blanking out completely and simply sitting there for an hour. “I’ve always excelled academically, so that was a nightmare.”
Once again, overwhelmed by thoughts of failure, she attempted to end her life – but she was saved from overdose and found herself in hospital, where intense therapy started.
Given her family history, Laetitia’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder at the age of 19 has a genetic element. She says, “My father was also hospitalised due to his mental health and ended up leaving before the end of his two-week treatment. It may have been the era in which he was raised or due to other factors, but he didn’t want to admit that he had a problem.”
Exercise improves my mental clarity’
When you have bipolar, she explains, “Your thinking process becomes obscured and repetitive thoughts continue to ramble through your mind. You can also develop obsessive behaviour. For me, this can be about overdoing the time I spend online. Focusing my energy on an exercise plan and making it part of my daily routine helps a lot to steer my thoughts into healthy thinking habits.”
When she was first diagnosed, Laetitia had mixed reactions. “I cried because I felt like I would never be ‘healthy’ and I was scared to take medicine for the rest of my life. One of the side-effects is weight gain, and that added anxiety. But exercise makes me feel healthier. It helps with thoughts about my body image and improves my mental clarity.”
She believes that having smaller goals that you can achieve, is fundamental to developing healthy habits. Laetitia is a keen Vitality member who does CrossFit thrice a week and loves to run with her husband and three dogs. “Being motivated helps me to get up and exercise on days when I’m demotivated to do anything else. Luckily I’m goal driven and absolutely adamant to reach my weekly goals because there is an incentive for doing so. Being rewarded for my efforts is very important to me.”
Taking control through exercise, diet and regular check-ups
“When depression hits, it’s really hard to get out of the hole,” Laetitia says. “One of the most difficult things one has to overcome is the will to start the day. It seems impossible to get out of bed, let alone tackle bigger tasks. That’s why a healthy lifestyle and self-care is key.”
She and her husband follow a vegetarian diet during the week and only have meat over weekends. “I really feel a difference in my mental resilience when I eat organic foods, and my energy levels are better.” Laetitia loves coffee, but says she avoids drinking alcohol because of how it affects her wellbeing.
Her disciplined lifestyle is an important part of her ongoing treatment, which includes regular visits to a psychiatrist who can review her condition and adjust her medicine if necessary.
‘I learnt the value of meditation’
Hiking is another activity that soothes thoughts that trigger Laetitia’s self-judgement. She lights up as she talks about her Spanish pilgrimage, where she and close family walked 280 km of the Camino de Santiago over 12 days.
“Doing something so spiritual opens your mind to your purpose. It’s also where I learnt the value of meditation. Now, when I find my thoughts spiralling out of control, I repeat my mantra – ‘prosperity, dedication, motivation’.
Advocating for mental wellbeing and leading by example
Keeping her mind busy is another way Laetitia avoids overthinking. She completed her second degree, a BCom in financial management, part-time, and sets herself challenging career goals. “I manage my wellbeing with exercise, diet, setting goals that make me happy, meditating and adhering to my prescribed medicine. But there are times when all these factors are just not enough, and my health takes a dip.”
“Last year I was hospitalised for the second time since being diagnosed. I had to take leave from work which was devastating to me. I also had to inform my superiors of my condition which I have never done before for fear of judgement. After two weeks I was back at work and giving my full 120%, but I could feel that some people who knew about my condition treated me differently,” Laetitia used to be more self-conscious, but is increasingly understanding the importance of advocating against stigma in the workplace, and for good mental health.
For now, Laetitia feels her health is well-managed and she can focus on being happy. “I am proud of what I have accomplished while living with depression and bipolar disorder.”
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