Often going undiagnosed for years, people with bipolar experience a rollercoaster of emotions which has a huge impact on their lives and their family and friends.
There is still a lot of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding the condition and Geraldine is passionate about the positive effect talking about mental health can have.
Geraldine was 32 and working as a primary school teacher when she started experiencing mood swings, going from feeling highly energized to lows of depression where she couldn’t get out of bed. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to give up her beloved teaching career, and struggled to control her condition while dealing with family life.
It’s only in recent years that Geraldine, now 49, feels she has control of her condition and has a positive role in the community again, thanks to volunteering with TIDAL in Toombridge.
The group have recently received £177,950 from Big Lottery Fund’s People and Communities programme to develop a community enterprise.
Local people will be involved in running the enterprise which will improve health and well-being, bring people together, and revitalise the community.
As a younger woman Geraldine had been a confident person, with a talent for sports. But as she juggled her busy work and family life in her early thirties, it became clear that something was wrong.
Geraldine, said: “I couldn’t see it at the time, but in hindsight it all started after my fourth child was born. I started to get highly energized, almost hyper and I felt like I could succeed at anything which meant my ideas became too big, too quick.
“I would get frustrated with people who weren’t as productive as me, say things out of character and have intense mood swings. But at this stage I didn’t know anything was wrong, I felt normal. Without medication, support or any understanding it just got worse. There were days when I’d be in bed with the curtains closed and I wouldn’t answer the door.
“The highs and lows went on for a couple of years before I was diagnosed.”
When Geraldine eventually received the devastating news that she was bipolar, she plunged into deeper depression and had to give up work.
“It was 17 years ago and I still get emotional thinking about leaving my teaching career. I loved my job — I just loved being able to teach children and I took a lot of pride in it, so it was a real disappointment for me to leave it.
“But I have five beautiful children and when I left teaching I dedicated the next few years of my life to my kids, who were all under 11 years old.
“At the time it was very difficult. I didn’t really understand what was happening to me and I didn’t have very good coping mechanisms. I couldn’t do things as well as I used to – even making simple decisions like what to buy in the supermarket for dinner became a huge task.”
Geraldine’s husband Kevin and children Anne (16), Paul, (22), Caoimhe (24), Ciaran (26) and MaryKate (27) are all very supportive of her.
“My husband Kevin has been a great support, I couldn’t have got through it without him and he provided stability for me and the kids.
“They are all doing very well in their lives, I’m extremely proud of them and they are proud of me.”
But despite family support, Geraldine had been used to being busy working, and still felt something was missing. She taught herself to craft wood and started gardening. Two years ago she got involved with TIDAL where she helped out in the office and now volunteers in the garden and crafting area. The experience is helping to improve her mental health and allowing her to use her teaching skills again.
Geraldine explained: “I’m 49 now and this is the first time my bipolar has been easing.
“My mood will still go up and down and my bad days can last for months but I don’t go as deeply into my depression as I used to.
“Being committed to TIDAL has stopped me from going into my usual pattern of isolating myself.
“Now when I’m depressed I will push myself to get out of the house and I come to the TIDAL garden – I can still have my own space and not talk to anyone if I don’t feel like it - but the important thing is that I’m out of the house and I’ve got people around me if I need them, and I’m doing something productive.
“If other people can experience this at TIDAL too, then we are changing lives.”
The new project funded by Big Lottery Fund will allow TIDAL to expand their support to local people with the community enterprise, and Geraldine will be involved as a volunteer.
Waterways Ireland and Lough Neagh Partnership, supported by Heritage Lottery Fund, have also provided funding to renovate the disused Lockkeepers cottage and Quay area which will be used for the Big Lottery funded community enterprise facility.
Una Johnston, Company Secretary for TIDAL said: “I believe this project will be life changing for the people in the area. One of the things I’m excited about is local people being able to grow their own food, make it into a meal in our new kitchens, and sell it in our café – and they will be learning every step of the way and making new friends.
“We have a big catchment area here so we have a lot of people who can benefit and be educated and improve their health and well-being.”
The People and Communities programme offers grants of between £30,000 and £500,000 for two to five year projects. More information can be found online at biglotteryfund.org.uk/global-content/programmes/northern-ireland/people-and-communities.