Life & Culture

A battle with bipolar

Eleanor Segall's bipolar disorder led to her being sectioned and hospitalised. She tells Jenni Frazer about her journey to recovery


So many of us were teased or bullied at school but, thankfully, such unpleasant experiences usually recede into the past where they belong.

Not everyone can recover so quickly. Anti-social behaviour can have a terrible effect on some people, putting their mental health at risk and, in some cases, leading to hospitalisation and long-term treatment.

At 15, Eleanor Segall was so distressed with agitated depression that she had to take six weeks off school — a Jewish school, as it happens — which took its duty of care to its students very seriously and suggested that the teenager should see a child psychiatrist.

There were a variety of factors contributing to Eleanor’s depression, not the least of which was her diagnosis, the following year, of bipolar disorder. Her father suffered from the same condition, which led to manic episodes and panic attacks.

Given that most teenagers live their daily lives at a frenetic pitch, it is painful to think of 16-year-old Eleanor struggling with such an overwhelming mental health burden. But, in a remarkable new book published this month, Bring Me To Light, Eleanor writes in candid detail about her mental health battles, her highs and lows, her experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, her time in The Priory, and her determination to succeed in education, career and social life.

For most of the past year, Eleanor, who married during the summer, has been working on the book — and it is a triumphant vindication of her battle with bipolar disorder that she has written it. “I didn’t keep a diary”, she says, “but I remember most of what happened to me and my parents were really helpful in filling in the bits I couldn’t recall. I had notes and cards from friends and family during my times in hospital, so they helped, too.”

Going back into the past was painful, she admits, “but I will have those memories my whole life.”

Eleanor Segall was brought up in an observant Jewish family in London and, besides attending a Jewish school, underwent the usual social rites of passage for young teens, including going to Israel. This is almost certainly the first book to describe an out-of-control experience of hypomania on an Israel trip.

She writes: “My thoughts began to race and I talked rapidly. I was vulnerable to being exploited by other teenagers.

“I was acting out of character, becoming very flirtatious and inappropriately affectionate to others… the hypomania had sent my libido sky-high.”

And she adds: “I was ashamed of the sexualised side of me the hypomania brought out, and I was made to feel like a slut by some others who didn’t fully understand my behaviour, not knowing I was ill.”

At this point, her bipolar disorder had not yet been diagnosed but there was clearly something seriously wrong. Episodes of hospitalisation and medication followed, but Eleanor also writes with justifiable joy and pride of her achievements, her BA in English literature and drama and her master’s in drama education.

She consulted her family before she began her book, because there were some dark chapters in her life — including being sexually assaulted by a man who knew she was ill.

“This man knew that I couldn’t consent, that I was very ill with my bipolar disorder and my mind wasn’t right,” she writes.

Today, she says, her “very protective mother” warned her of putting things in the public domain; but Eleanor, with considerable courage, was determined to write as honestly as she could.

Mental health problems are “extremely prevalent” in the Jewish community, she believes, particularly in the Strictly Orthodox sector.

But Eleanor, who volunteers for Jami, the mental health service for the Jewish community, believes that things are more open now than when she was growing up — she is now in her early 30s — and she thinks that people’s perceptions are changing — “though there is a great deal more to be done”, she says.

Bring Me To Light is a hugely brave and personal story, but it has a message for the late-teens and young adults at whom it is aimed. Not everyone, says Eleanor, can fulfil the very high career expectations of Jewish families.

“Young Jews are expected to work very hard and that creates great pressure.” But there are, as Eleanor has shown, ways of surviving against the odds.

‘Bring Me To Light’ by Eleanor Segall is published by Trigger Publishing (£9.99)

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