Bipolar in the family – a parent’s perspective

To outsiders, Di and David Christy live a settled and content life. The retired couple (David a former police inspector, Di who runs serviced holiday apartments) own a block of holiday flats in the seaside town of Fleetwood, have 3 sons and 9 healthy and happy grandchildren.

But 15 years ago, their world was turned upside down when their son, Richard, began experiencing extreme mental health symptoms at the age of 21. A series of distressing events led to him being sectioned under the Mental Health Act on four separate occasions, once when police were called to restrain their son for his own safety.

Richard, now 34 and in good health for the last 8 years, has been very open about his condition, and uses his experiences to help others. He runs his own monthly bipolar support group in conjunction with Bipolar UK and is an ambassador for us.

Here, Di and David explain how their world was rocked when their youngest son began to display symptoms that were so worrying, they feared for his life.

“Richard was always a very bubbly person and always liked to be kept busy,” says Di. “When he was a child he wasn’t the sort to play quietly on his own – he was lively and inquisitive and wanted constant attention.

“But around the time of his 21 birthday, we noticed that his behaviour was starting to become more erratic. He said he didn’t have time to eat, and he’d come in through the back door, say a few words and then disappear again out of the front. He ignored calls and texts and couldn’t sit still for 2 minutes. I’d had a friend who’d suffered a nervous breakdown and his behaviour seemed quite similar to hers, so I mentioned it to another friend who was a nurse, and she agreed he should see a doctor.

“Matters were taken out of our hands when we got a call from his fiancée at the time, who was hysterical and telling us we had to go and get Richard straight away. We drove straight round to their flat, and he was standing on the window cill wearing nothing but his underpants. He was clearly very agitated and wasn’t making any sense at all.

“We managed to calm him down and convince him to come home, but he insisted on driving his own car. He’s an adult, and at that point we didn’t know the extent of his illness, so I couldn’t stop him. I drove behind him all the way and took his keys off him as soon as we got home.”

To Di and David’s surprise, Richard agreed to visit the doctor, so Di made an appointment with their local GP.

“It was clear to me that Richard’s speech was confused and muddled,” says Di. “So when we got to the GP I just let him speak for himself. After about 10 minutes, the doctor slammed his paper on the desk and said, ‘Enough!’ I was shocked. He looked at me and said, ‘Well, what do you think is the matter with him?’ I said I had no idea, but was it normal to sit on a window cill in your underpants threatening to throw yourself off?

“Eventually he agreed to make an immediate referral to the psychiatrists and we went straight there for an assessment. They said he had schizophrenia, but Richard was having none of it. He insisted he didn’t have schizophrenia, and in the end he was proved right and he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but at the time they had him on all sorts of drugs and he was like a zombie.”

Because Richard refused to accept his diagnosis, he repeatedly stopped taking his medication. The resulting volatility in his behaviour caused a huge amount of distress for his worried parents.

“One thing that sticks in my mind,” says Di, “is when our eldest son had lost his first born son at 3 months. We drove to Wales to bring him and his partner back home, and Richard came with us. He sat in the car with his feet on the dashboard, the window wide open and the radio on full blast. We were all grieving, and he was being so inappropriate. I’ve no idea how we got through it.”

But David and Di were determined to fight for the treatment he deserved, whatever the emotional cost.

“He’d stop taking the medication all the time, but completely deny it. We could tell by his behaviour, though, and there were little giveaway signs we learned to recognise; he’d always be in too much of a hurry to sit down, or eat, but by the time it got to the point it was usually too late. Richard was very good at acting normal, and it would be a battle to get him to the doctor. The cycle kept repeating itself: he’d take his tablets, feel alright, stop taking them and get ill again. It was exhausting.”

Eventually, David took matters into his own hands and, along with Di’s sister, a nurse, went to the doctor to convince him that Richard needed to be admitted to hospital.

“It wasn’t easy though,” says David. “We rang the various mental health authorities and were passed from pillar to post, so we went to our own doctor. We told him about Richard threatening to self-harm and commit suicide, and eventually we convinced him to intervene. But it was only because I’d been a police inspector and Di’s sister was a nurse and we wouldn’t take no for an answer that he took us seriously. At first he didn’t want to know.”

After a short spell as an inpatient at the local psychiatric hospital, Richard was released. 

“He went in twice again, each time because he’d stop taking his medication,” says Di. “The third time, I reported him to the DVLA because he continued to drive when he wasn’t supposed to. The hate in his face… That was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make.”

But it wasn’t long before Richard’s behaviour became even more alarming. 

“He’d gone back to live in the flat he shared with his fiancée, and he was becoming increasingly erratic,” says David. “Then, I got another call to tell me I had to get straight there. He’d dismantled the gas fire, undone the electric sockets, put candles on every window cill and turned his music on full blast ‘to keep the voices out’. I spent six hours in there with him trying to reason with him, but he wasn’t taking any notice.

“In the end, a neighbour called the police. I went down to speak to them, but he came out brandishing a screwdriver so they had to use some sort of spray to overpower him.”

“That day was awful. Absolutely terrible,” says Di, her voice breaking with emotion. “I’d parked around the corner and I was waiting for news. It was summer so I had the window down, and a woman came past with two children, saying, ‘There’s some nutter round the corner.’ I said, ‘That’s my son, he’s not a nutter, he’s not well.’ It was horrible.” 

Richard was admitted to the psychiatric hospital for a fourth time, and it was three days before Di and David were allowed to see him. 

“When I walked in I didn’t even recognise him,” says Di, in tears. “He looked so broken and lost and his face was burnt and swollen where they’d sprayed him. It was heartbreaking. I said at the time, I’m not sure if I can do this again.” 

Richard was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, and kept in hospital for 30 days. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and, with medication and therapy, finally accepted his diagnosis. Eight years later, he’s remained stable and carved out a very happy life for himself. He met and married his wife, Michelle, and the couple have two young children of their own. 

“It’s not plain sailing,” says Di. “There’s been an odd blip, but he’s stayed out of hospital. It’s difficult for us to shake the old familiar feeling though, if he doesn’t reply to a text or return a call. We’re always looking for the symptoms, and waiting. We don’t want to pester, but we can’t help it. It’s always there at the back of your mind; is he just busy, or is it all starting again?” 

“The thing you need to remember is that while all this was going on, Richard was doing brilliantly in his career,” says David. “He was training to be a gas fitter, passing exams, and working all over the country. He’s a well-qualified person and had no problem holding down a job. He was a responsible, well-qualified man. But then he’d be going to the fish market at 4am, or playing his music loud all through the night. It was so erratic, and we didn’t have a minute’s peace. It sounds awful, but the only respite we got was when Richard was an inpatient.” 

Di and David credit Richard’s wife, Michelle, with helping to keep his illness under control. 

“We’d go to the hospital and we’d be the only visitors there, time after time,” says David. “The others had been disowned because their families couldn’t deal with what they’d done, and we just couldn’t understand that mentality. Michelle has always been there for Richard, and obviously we are too and that will never go away. You can’t underestimate the importance of having that support. 

“Michelle knows that if she’s worried, all she has to do is make a phone call and we’ll be there. Between us, we can sort things out.”