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Helping People With Bipolar Disorder Lead A Healthy, Balanced And Fulfilled Life – Interview With Catherine Stratta

Catherine Stratta has made it her mission to help those suffering from Bipolar Disorder and their families, to live happy and complete lives. Catherine’s journey with Bipolar Disorder started when she was a teenager, but it took 13 years to receive a proper diagnosis. It has been a long and challenging road for her, but having mastered how to live a fulfilling life she now dedicates her time to helping fellow sufferers and their families. Catherine is an avid speaker on Bipolar Disorder and talks on many Mental First Aid courses, video, podcasts and webinars. Catherine is passionate about raising awareness and effecting change to enable everyone to live a life filled with gratitude, balance and joy.

Executive Contributor Catherine Stratta

Catherine Stratta, The Bipolar Coach

What made you decide to coach people with Bipolar Disorder?

I have lived with Bipolar Disorder for over 50 years and experienced so many challenges before I finally learnt to manage my condition. Bipolar carries a lot of stigma, with very little support or understanding. I wanted to make it easier for those experiencing symptoms, so they don’t have go through the struggles I did. My mission is to raise awareness and help people get the right support, so they live their best lives.

When did your experience of Bipolar Start? 

The mood swings started early when I was 12 years old, they usually start in late teens or early 20s. I was not diagnosed until I was 25.  

Why did your diagnosis take so long?

Typically, individuals experiencing depression often turn to their GP for help and are prescribed antidepressants as a common treatment. However, these can be ineffective or even exacerbate symptoms for those with Bipolar Disorder, potentially inducing hypomania or mania. I was given antidepressants each time I became depressed.

In the UK, the average time to diagnosis is a concerning 9.5 years, and for many, this journey takes even longer, which I think is unacceptable. To address this problem, I help people approach their GP and explain they have mood swings rather than just depression. This helps them get referred to a psychiatrist so they can get a proper diagnosis and the right treatment and move forward with their lives. Unlike some medical conditions, bipolar disorder lacks a definitive test, relying heavily on patient history for diagnosis.

You succeeded in getting a place at Medical School, but then had to leave? 

I was very fortunate to get into Medical School as I wanted to be a Doctor and help people. Unfortunately, while I was there, I had two depressive episodes and was hospitalised for 9 months. I then had to take a psychological test (which I passed) to get back in again! 12 months later I became depressed again, so decided to leave, which was devastating! 

What did you do after leaving medical school? 

It actually worked out really well. I took some time out and saw a Consultant Psychiatrist who said, “I haven’t read all your notes, but I can see that you’ve had a really hard time”. This was the first time I felt any empathy and that my voice had been heard, so when he suggested I take lithium I agreed, as nothing else I tried had worked. After 4 weeks I felt amazing! I thought: “wow this must be what normal people feel like”. The lithium kept my mood stable and provided me with the reassurance I needed.

So, what did you do next? 

I used my medical knowledge to work as a clinical trials project manager and was able to hold down my career for 25 years. 

So, the lithium really worked for you? 

Yes, it did, but fast forward to 2018 and my kidney function deteriorated, so my GP stopped the lithium. As I was entering menopause, I thought I would be ok as hormones can be a factor, but within 2 months I was suicidal, and my weight dropped from 70-53kg. As there was a waiting list to see a psychiatrist, my GP spoke to someone who recommended lamotrigine. I started taking it and I had some severe side effects including chewing the inside of my mouth while eating, tingling sensations and numbness in my fingertips, clumsiness resulting in dropping objects, and the unexpected peeling of my toenails, so I returned to my GP. Luckily, I was able to see a psychiatrist who suggested quetiapine. This helped with sleep as I had chronic insomnia when I was depressed.  

That’s great that you found a drug that helped. 

Yes, it was. There are several drugs that can help, but finding the right one takes time, and it is important not to give up trying to find one that works for you.

How long did it take for you to feel better? 

I slept better immediately, but just after starting this drug in June 2018, my mother received a terminal diagnosis with bowel cancer, was given 6 months to live, and died that December. We were very close, and although I was taking the new drug, I was still quite depressed. Then, in February 2019 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy and reconstruction. I was still depressed, trying to deal with my cancer diagnosis and I hadn’t started grieving for my mother.

How did you manage to cope with all these challenges? 

A silver lining emerged as I was lucky enough to receive a referral to a psychologist. She approached managing the condition holistically, emphasising practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and EFT (tapping). Her encouragement to explore various modalities sparked my curiosity, leading me to delve into research. After a year of collaboration, I realised the wealth of knowledge I had amassed could potentially benefit others. This revelation awakened a desire to make a difference, particularly in facilitating quicker diagnoses for those facing similar struggles.

So effectively you lost your first 2 careers due to having Bipolar Disorder? 

Yes, but the knowledge and understanding I gained over my journey uniquely equipped me to be in a position where I can help others directly from my lived experience. Although it took a long time I will be 62 this year, I have gained so much from my life so far, and people relate well to me. I used to think vulnerability was a weakness, but it is actually a strength, and for my toolbox that is very powerful indeed.

What’s next for you? 

Developing online courses to help and educate more people. Most of my work is 121, especially supporting relatives and friends who want to understand the condition and help their loved ones. 

People feel helpless with this condition, but it is really important to develop a strong support network if you have Bipolar Disorder. Having someone to watch over you becomes invaluable, especially since you may not always recognise the onset of mood swings. A trusted person close to you can detect these changes early, enabling timely interventions to prevent significant swings. These interventions may involve altering routines, prioritising sleep patterns, or adjusting medication.

Generally, people with this condition have dysfunctional circadian rhythms governing the sleeping or waking cycles. And too much or too little sleep can often trigger an episode. 

Are there other triggers that cause mood swings? 

Yes, even good stress e.g. getting married can start a mood swing. While individuals may have a predisposition to Bipolar Disorder, it may remain dormant until triggered by a stressful event. Common triggers include significant life transitions such as teenagers leaving home for the first time at 18 or 19, encountering difficulties in finding work, or experiencing relationship challenges. 

What specific tools you use? 

I have a comprehensive toolbox. For instance, Human Design offers valuable insights into individual’s types and the strategies they are best suited to follow. Interestingly, around 70% of people, characterised by sustainable energy, tend to respond well to yes/no questions rather than open-ended inquiries. The remaining 30%, known as non-energy types, benefit from open questions and adequate rest.

In addition, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) proves effective in releasing emotions, while vagal stimulation aids in transitioning individuals from states of fight, flight, or freeze to relaxation. Breathwork techniques are valuable tools for managing anxiety and depression, and specific dietary adjustments can also be beneficial.

Gratitude holds immense significance. Even when experiencing challenges such as an inability to feel positive emotions like love and joy, focusing on gratitude serves as a powerful starting point. It acts as a pattern interrupt, disrupting intrusive negative thoughts and creating a positive outlook.

Is it possible to lead a healthy fulfilled life? 

Yes, but accepting the diagnosis is the first step towards moving forward, and that can be hard for people. It's also important to acknowledge that many individuals with Bipolar Disorder possess remarkable gifts. They often demonstrate exceptional creativity, empathy, and leadership qualities. Their natural charisma has the ability to inspire others, contributing positively to various aspects of life. Recognising the positive attributes of this condition can be enlightening and beneficial in navigating its challenges.

Interesting that your career has gone full circle since your dream of being a Doctor?

Yes, my desire to help people has now been realised! It lights me up to be able to help someone learn what they need to say to their GP to receive the right diagnosis.

Your Human Design tool sounds interesting. Do you offer that to all your clients? 

Yes. My coaching package with 6 sessions includes a human design reading. It helps both me and my clients understand how they are emotionally designed and how they should make decisions. Some need to wait for their emotional wave to decide, often for 24 hours, whilst others are best suited to making decisions in the moment. Those with Bipolar are often quite removed from their natural selves and conditioned by their families and others in their lives.

What is your single most important goal?

To reduce the average time it takes to get a diagnosis from 9.5 years to ideally a couple of years. It’s important that understanding and knowledge is increased, which will then lead to action. Bipolar Disorder is a mental illness that is still stigmatised today. 1 in 50 people have it and it is extremely heritable as 48% of identical twins will both have it, though the genetics is complicated and involves many different genes. Most people will have a 1st degree relative with this condition or a milder sub clinical version such as cyclothymia which causes extreme moods but may not require medication.

I offer a free 30-minute discovery call where I give tips and advice that will help. Please message or contact me via the website.

Read more from Catherine Stratta



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