Finding financial wellbeing when… you have bipolar disorder

by | Sep 2, 2021 | Articles, Debt, Wellbeing

by Katie Davies

I have always struggled with the notion of identity. Living with bipolar, it is so draining to have to maintain a balanced and stable sense of self when my mood can vary so much from one day to the next, it requires hard work and a targeted effort. The person I present to the outside world depends heavily on the state of my mood; the Katie everyone else sees never quite seems to accurately depict the Katie I feel on the inside. I am lucky that over the past few years I have not experienced any ‘serious’ episodes of depression or mania, similar to the ones I dealt with as a student – although there have been some difficult peaks and troughs. I have managed to establish a peaceful relationship with the fact that I am somebody who has an emotional range outside of what might be considered the norm and, although this hugely affects my identity, it doesn’t define who I am. 

Bipolar disorder is predominantly characterised by the experience of mania (highs) and depression (lows). On the whole, it is difficult to recount periods of mania, it is perhaps a little like being drunk; I felt powerful, invincible, and special. Episodes of depression are more difficult to articulate without relying on tired Clichés, being alive during these periods felt physically painful and I slept a lot. Neither of these states had a positive effect on my wallet. During highs, I spent freely without any comprehension of the consequences, during lows I spent because I didn’t care about them, and it was easy to justify by fooling myself that it might make me feel just a little bit better. Looking back, it never did. 

Perhaps the only redeeming factor of my out-of-control spending was that it helped my psychiatrist identify me as someone struggling with bipolar, she would often check in with me whether I had taken out credit and would attempt to hide the concern on her face as I struggled to recount how three hundred pounds had seemingly vanished from my account in the space of a few days. Unfortunately, this is an area where mental health outpatients like me receive little to no support. My psychiatrist was amazing and wonderful and helped me really understand the importance of nutrition, exercise, and therapy with regards to my recovery and preventing future episodes; but when it came to money matters I was on my own. This isn’t her fault, of course, financial wellbeing simply isn’t factored into the medical model we rely on with regards to mental illness. It would be amazing to see a future for all mental health patients where financial wellbeing is treated with the same importance as diet and exercise, as, after all, without money, we are more vulnerable, less able to assist with our own recovery and because we simply need money to survive!

In truth, my troubled relationship with money long predated my bipolar diagnosis. As an infant, I lived in a single-parent household with a mum who was struggling with the fallout of going bankrupt. My mum, as a result of this, is extremely frugal. Even long after she has triumphantly reclaimed control of her finances she is still someone who sneaks snacks into the cinema, buys second-hand clothes, and calls a certain high street cafe ‘costa fortune’ (If she ever finds out how much I have spent on a coffee in London I think she will disown me). My mum was keen for me to get a job at a very early age, which I did and I would, every payday, spend every penny of my wages. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if this was my own form of rebellion or compensation for missing out on Saturdays with my mates, but what I know for sure is it is a bad habit that stuck with me for the best part of a decade.

Attending university seemed to amplify every existing struggle I had ever experienced, but particularly my difficulty managing money. Like many, it was when I found my mental health had hit rock bottom and, whilst going through the process of being treated and diagnosed for bipolar. Eventually, I had no option but to take a year out and struggle to support myself on a part-time wage. The student loan years (I had no financial support during my year out) were the first time in my life that I found myself with big chunks of money in my bank account – I was out of my depth. My grandmother gifted me six hundred pounds, which disappeared well before the first reading week. I was so lucky to receive this support and for a long time mortified by my behaviour, as I know there are so many people out there who are less fortunate than me. Now, anecdotes such as this one, that made me feel deep, visceral shame, motivate me to be more mindful and to squirrel away any unexpected incomings far away from my spend-happy hands. I can’t change the past, I can only choose to forgive myself and move on. 

Perhaps due to the supportive and understanding friendship groups, I have been lucky enough to surround myself with, and the fact that the effects of bipolar on spending are fairly well understood, I have often found people are sympathetic to the difficulties I have had with money. I hope, one day, that this is a sentiment extended to all neurodivergent people as (from where I am standing anyway) difficulties with money appear common across a spectrum of mental health disorders. Despite having a condition that is particularly identifiable by its impact on spending, my experience of struggling to keep on top of money matters at university felt like the rule and not the exception. Of course, the drinking and drug-taking culture that exists in these environments feeds into the vicious cycle of it all; you spend money to get fucked, spend money when you are fucked, and then spend the next day because you feel like crap. It astounds me now that, to me at least, it feels like spending loads of money and getting trashed all the time is so much an accepted part of student life. No wonder it is a breeding ground for mental and financial disarray for so many! I can recall times where I would break down in tears about my predicament only to be met with confused glances – ‘but you’re a student, right, that’s what you’re supposed to do?’

Fast forward to March 2020 and the country found itself in lockdown. I was prepared for the fact I was going to be made redundant from my part-time job so my furlough pay would only last so long, and the income I was anticipating from doing various summer jobs went up in smoke. Student finance just about covered my rent but with redundancy from my part-time job looming, and the usual extra income from working over the summer off the cards, I was pretty anxious about how I would get by financially. It turns out that an extended period of alone time and the complete absence of my usual spending vices was exactly what I needed to confront not only the fall out from four years worth of bipolar-ised spending but with my relationship to money at large. I began listening to various podcasts about money management, I read a few books on the subject, and started following Instagram accounts that promote financial wellbeing. I immersed myself with money positive content and said a little prayer that it all would leak into my psyche somehow. 

I worry I have made that sound insultingly oversimplified – it’s hard and a lifelong journey. I have tried every budget format under the sun to find the right one, said yes to expenses I should have said no to and vice versa, and had to go through a complete overhaul of my own personal values. Here in the UK, we live in a deeply capitalistic environment, we are encouraged to spend almost everywhere we go, anywhere we look! Nobody should beat themselves up for not being able to override this every single time, especially those of us struggling with our mental health. I am persistently anxious that I could destroy everything I have built up over the last year at the drop of one manic episode. I don’t know if I will ever be someone with a mortgage or a stocks and shares ISA but I do know that prevention is better than cure and by manifesting mindful habits and taking each day at a time I am simply doing the best I can. 

About Katie:

Katie is a fine art graduate, keen amateur writer, and trainee librarian passionate about mental health awareness.