Inspiring Spalding woman urges fellow bipolar sufferers to consider voluntary work for good causes
A Spalding woman battling bipolar disorder is living life with renewed optimism thanks to becoming a charity shop volunteer.
Lisa Thomas (49) hopes her story will inspire others who have mental health problems and perhaps encourage them to consider volunteering as a way of boosting their wellbeing.
Lisa was a healthy, bright and bubbly young woman until her life fell apart within a fortnight of surgery on an Achilles tendon.
She says a possible link between bipolar disorder - formerly known as manic depression - and anaesthetic drugs has never been confirmed by any medical professional she’s seen.
But it was suggested to her by a homeopath, an alternative health practitioner, and it fits with Lisa’s own view of her life changing so dramatically after that operation in 1990.
“All of a sudden I started to doubt my relationship,” said Lisa. “I wasn’t married then. I lived with Charles. I used to doubt whether I loved him, whether I wanted to be in the house because it wasn’t safe. It used to be terrible. It was just literally overnight that I started to get all of these thoughts.”
She would go through “rituals”, repeatedly packing her suitcase, and be plagued by “really negative thoughts”.
Bipolar disorder is characterised by profound lows and highs, but Lisa only experiences the lows.
She said: “It used to be terrible and I had really negative thoughts, deep negative thoughts, thoughts about harming myself, thoughts about suicide when it was really bad.”
Her symptoms weren’t recognised by her then doctor, who put her troubles down to "girlfriend/boyfriend problems", and for more than a year Lisa spent £100 week with a private counsellor in Peterborough.
“The counsellor said I could control these thoughts and I was stupid,” said Lisa. “Because the doctor hadn’t realised there was a problem I thought that’s all there was to get me better.”
Those counselling sessions virtually swallowed up Lisa's wages from Boots The Chemist in Spalding and left her no better and no nearer the help she so desperately needed.
The “stupid” label heartlessly dished out by the counsellor couldn’t have been further from the truth for Lisa or anyone else who is bipolar.
Many of the great and the good have been diagnosed as bipolar, including Winston Churchill, who openly referred to the depression he suffered as his “black dog”.
Actor, comedian and author Stephen Fry, the long-time host of TV’s QI, is a sufferer and made a documentary about the condition.
Other famous people who are bipolar include Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Bipolar UK says one to two per cent of the population experience a lifetime prevalence of bipolar and recent research suggests as many as five per cent are on the bipolar spectrum.
Lisa says her life turned around for the better when a different GP realised there was a genuine health problem and referred her to a psychiatrist at the former Johnson Hospital in Spalding.
Lisa said: “He put me on lithium and anti-depressants as well. It took about a year to balance me and get me better, and that was the turning point.”
Charles, who became Lisa’s husband, and her mum, Margaret Smethurst, have been towers of strength “just by listening” and being there.
Lisa said: “Charles is really, really good - without him and my mum I would not have got through it.
“Mum would often say to me ‘I don’t now how to help you’.
“She often says she wishes she could have the depression herself - instead of me - because she finds it so bad watching me when I am really low.
“As long as someone is listening to me that’s half the battle.”
For the past few years, Lisa has organised fundraising craft fairs for Sue Ryder’s Thorpe Hall Hospice at Peterborough and also started fundraising for Spalding Hospice Foundation.
She says: “I like my crafts, I like my sewing, I try to get stuck in to making something.”
Lisa's next charity craft fair at Spalding’s Broad Street Methodist Church, in aid of Thorpe Hall, runs from 10am-3pm on Saturday, November 17.
“I feel you have always got to have a goal,” said Lisa. “You have got to have something to work towards.”
Lisa says her illness meant she had to leave her job at Boots in 1998, although she has since been a voluntary manager at the St Barnabas Hospice shop when it was in Spalding’s New Road.
She left St Barnabas through ill health but about a year ago determined Lisa tried voluntary work once more, this time with the Sue Ryder shop in Francis Street, Spalding.
She says: “I am the lead volunteer so when the manager and assistant manager are not available I take charge of the shop.
“Going to Sue Ryder has really helped,” said Lisa. “They are a really good team to work with."
Lisa enjoys her three shifts a week and suggests anyone living with bipolar disorder should give volunteering a try.
She said: “There must be other people who are suffering, and are, perhaps, on their own and haven’t got the support that I have.
"When you are volunteering in a charity shop you are meeting people and you are doing good at the same time.
"There's lots of organisations that need help - even if you just start off one morning a week, or one day and then increase, you find as you get involved your energy comes back a little bit."
Lisa says her medications make her feel tired and lethargic but her illness has worsened when she's tried to cut down on her tablets.
She said: "I have come to the conclusion that I can't mess about - I have just got to take them."
Doctors said, as Lisa was on lithium, that she would never be able to have a baby.
"That's one of my big regrets," says Lisa.
But little ones have played a large part in Lisa's life because she and Charles have 11 Godchildren between them.
And the couple also lead pretty busy lives.
Lisa says: "Charles and I have got a caravan so we go caravanning quite a lot and my husband is a Freemason so we have got a hectic social life."
Looking to the future, Lisa is certain she will carry on at Sue Ryder and with her fundraising.
And a degree could be on the horizon. Lisa says: "I have looked into doing an OU (Open University) course - I feel now that I want to tax my brain."