Fifty-year-old Helen Mary Barr has struggled with bipolar disorder her whole life and has now shared her experience in a book

AS a child, Helen Mary Barr was a handful. She was always on the go, talked non-stop and displayed signs of OCD and depression.

At the age of 12, she saw a psychiatrist for the first time and was given anti-depressants.

However, it wasn't until 2006, when she was approaching 40 years old, that she learned she was actually suffering from bipolar disorder and finally prescribed with the correct mood-stabilising drugs.

Looking back, she said she had displayed for years the classic signs of bipolar disorder. The disorder – formerly known as manic depression – is a mental illness categorised by extreme mood fluctuations. Patients can waver between feeling very low and lethargic (depressed) to being full of energy and overactive (manic).

Life has been "colourful" and "chaotic", says Helen, who has been married four times and has two grown up children.

She said: "It was completely chaotic. I was in and out of hospital before I was diagnosed. The household ran according to my mood swings."

The illness brought her spells of being hugely creative and hardworking. Having left school at 16, she went on to sit her A-Levels at the age of 32, gaining four As and one B. She made it to college and did exceptionally well, winning an award. Looking back, she can see her hard work was fuelled by manic episodes.

The disease can make patients impulsive too. Helen says she has given away her possessions many times and when she has money, she is quick to spend it. She has had bouts of acting spontaneously, moving across the country to start a new life and live with people she didn't know very well.

She warns patients can be vulnerable too. In Helen's case, she was drawn to religious cults. "I felt compelled to do it. I wanted a healing and confessional experience. But somebody vulnerable is like fresh meat to them."

People might understand the fluctuations between mania and depression, but the disease has an even more unfortunate stage, says Helen. "There is a third state that is even worse: the mixed state. This is where you have all the energy of the mania but the thought processes of the depression. You get very agitated, you can't keep still. It was horrendous. The mixed state is very dangerous – that is often when suicide comes in."

Helen tried to kill herself twice, both at times when relationships ended. Another symptom of the disease is paranoia. In the past, Helen has taped over the letterbox at home, fearful that terrorists were out to kill her. On one occasion, she covered her garden with carpet offcuts because she was convinced they would suppress weeds.

Today, she says she just about manages to stay on an even keel – thanks to drugs, her husband and a great mental health support team.

As part of her effort to cope with her condition, she has written a memoir, How My River Runs. It is a warts and all look at the last 50 years of her life and, she says, writing it has been hugely cathartic.

"I've been collecting these stories for years – writing them on napkins or whatever was to hand. I want the bring an awareness of bipolar psychosis – telling people what it is like from the inside out. I hope it helps people understand in a very clear way."

A number of celebrities have been diagnosed as bipolar, including Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta Jones and Sinead O'Connor.

But Helen hopes her story, which doesn't shy away from some of the darkest places the disease can take sufferers, will offer readers an insight into the condition which celebrity interviews cannot hope to match.

"I feel that bipolar disorder is very much misunderstood and I wanted to make it into a clear journey."

It has not been easy to write the book, she says. "I have not held back and there are things in the book my parents didn't even know about. When it was published it felt a bit like running through the streets naked."

Ultimately, Helen hopes the book will go someway towards diluting the stigma attached to mental illness – and help her move on with her life.

"After hitting 50, I wanted to draw a line under it all. A lot of things came up in my therapy sessions and I thought it was time to live without carrying all that stuff."

Today, Helen sees her disease and undulating rather than extreme highs and lows. There are still bad times, when the thoughts in her head become too much and she has to spend time in hospital or adjust her medication. She relies on herself and those close to her to know when she is getting dangerously ill again.

She says she has found cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and mindfulness helpful in dealing with the day to day realities of the illness as well as prescribed drugs, which balance her mood and aid sleep.

The price she pays for being on the medication is a reduction in her creative powers and some of her spark. But, she insists, that is a price worth paying. "You lose that edge, that spark and there is a link between mental illness and creativity. But I have a stable life, and that is what I choose. I can't reverse things because I know how dangerous that could be."

How My River Runs, An Autobiography of Survival, is published by mental health publisher chipmunkapublishing, priced £12.99, available from Amazon and click and collect from Waterstones