I’ve been wanting to write some posts on mental health, so I’m going to start with bipolar disorder. Some of you who read my blog regularly will see some familiar things in here which I have posted before, but I want to have everything put together in one place for the sake of organization and any new readers.
I am not a doctor and my experiences and opinions are not professional. These are just some things I’ve learned for myself along the way. I’d love to credit some sources, but I’ve read many books and articles and everything I write will just be a conglomeration of what I know in my life and what I’ve learned from others that stands true for me. I will not be quoting anyone.
Bipolar disorder, like anything else in life, hits each person differently and on different levels of intensity. Some people suffer and struggle, yet they appear perfectly normal and “together” to the outside world. Others are more visibly troubled. I personally appeared normal to most people. I seem to be good at first impressions. “But you seem just fine.” was something I heard often.
Only when pushed too far was I unable to hide my disorder. It’s hard to open up and let people see how troubled you are, even if they’re your doctors. I received no help from multiple therapists. All I ever got was more medication. I’ve tried about 20 or so different medications. After trying one that made me feel violent and out of control, I decided I would not take any more medications. Don’t get me wrong, though. Medication is a lifesaver for many people. It’s just not right for me.
As most people know, bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain which causes a person to experience extreme highs (manias) and lows (depressions). I was cycling high and low so often that it could switch several times within 12 hours. It’s more typical to be manic for a few days or even weeks and switch to depression for approximately the same period of time.
To be as simple as possible, my brain does not function on a normal level. I have to work a lot harder than most people to control my thoughts and feelings. Think of an ocean with waves and tides of thought and emotion constantly rising and receding. When a wave is rising higher and higher, I’m growing more manic. It usually feels good because it feels like I’m stronger and happier. But then the wave crashes and it’s anything but gentle. Crashing is like being slammed down into a pit of despair and darkness. I get sucked in deeper like the undertow of the ocean pulling you away from the shore, which would be normalcy and stability. I remain there until the next wave of mania.
Medication is supposed to help balance the chemicals in your brain and level the mania and depression. Some people are too sensitive to medications, though. I am one of them.
After trying medications for years, I finally got determined and a bit angry. This is my brain and I should have control, without the assistance of a foreign substance.
The first step to controlling your own dysfunctional brain is understanding it. You have to understand what’s going on in your brain, why you feel and react the way you do, and what your brain requires. A bipolar brain needs more attention than normal. A normal brain and get away with skipping meals, lacking sleep, drinking a lot of alcohol, deviating from routine, and being around stressful or negative people and situations. A bipolar brain cannot.
Some “musts” for a bipolar brain:
- A full 8 hours of sleep- Go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every morning, only varying by one hour at most.
- At least 3 healthy and balanced meals a day- No skipping meals, no unhealthy meals on a regular basis, and no overeating if you’re someone concerned about weight or bothered by being overfull. Overeating isn’t a problem directly linked to bipolar disorder, but the emotional disturbance associated with it if you’re concerned with weight can set off a bipolar episode.
- Exercise regularly- Regular exercise benefits everyone, but it especially helps bipolars to find and keep balance. (*Bipolars isn’t actually a known term, just one that I use.*) I do yoga because it’s calming, meditative, and relatively easy. It’s gentle yet powerful. Yoga is highly recommended for people with bipolar disorder. Meditation is, too, but not many people can or want to meditate.
- Maintain a routine: Establish and maintain a routine that fits nicely into your lifestyle. Going back to bedtime, everything must be done at or around the same time every day. This includes meals, sleep, work, exercise, and even the little things like housework.
- Limited alcohol consumption: Alcohol is a destabilizing chemical in itself. Adding it to an already unstable brain clearly isn’t going to help. After stability is gained, bipolars can consume limited amounts of alcohol. Truth is, bipolars shouldn’t drink at all. Now, I do drink alcohol. I stopped drinking for about 2 years in order to gain stability and learn enough about myself. I know myself now and I know what’s going on in my brain when I drink. I have enough insight and control to be able to manage any instability that may occur from alcohol. I enjoy wine in the evenings, and I get buzzed, but I haven’t actually been drunk in a long time. I don’t feel the need to get drunk.
On routine: Stability in your life equals greater stability in your head. The mail is delivered around the same time every day. The trash is picked up around the same time and on the same day every week. Stores open and close at the same time every day. Stability and regularity are craved by all people in our society, so it makes sense for a bipolar to need that same stability and regularity in their personal lives. By maintaining a routine, you can have the comfort of knowing what’s coming next in your day. If you’re someone who enjoys spontaneity, don’t worry, you will still be able to have some in your life. Routine is imperative to gaining stability, though.
There is a period of time one must go through to gain stability. During this period, one must be strict about everything. Once stability is gained, life relaxes a bit and rules don’t have to be followed quite so stringently.
After my beloved grandfather passed away in 2007, I spent about a week, self-committed, in a mental hospital. The one I stayed at was terrible, although they’re not all bad. A mental hospital is beneficial in that it maintains a strict schedule for all clients, and there is no alcohol or caffeine allowed. I am a huge caffeine addict, but even I have learned the dangers of caffeine and how to limit my intake appropriately. Mental hospitals are also clean, and that’s very important.
Cleanliness and order in our lives helps to calm the chaos in our minds. We don’t need chaos and clutter in our external spaces when we have so much already in our minds. Even a normal and stable person will become stressed and upset if things are out of place, disorganized and cluttered in their home, car or work place. Living in a clean and neat place helps prevent and overcome depressive episodes. It is extremely difficult to pull out of a depression when you wake up in the morning to a messy, cluttered and disorganized home.
When I’m feeling manic, I take several steps to calm my mind. My thoughts race and my emotions heighten. I step away from people and choose one thing to focus on. If I’m at work, I force myself to focus on the task at hand. Cleaning helps me focus, which is why I got a job as a housekeeper at a hotel. The repetition of it is good for me. Puzzles also help me focus. If I can step away from everything and do Sudoku, that helps me a lot. Heightened emotions are a little more difficult to manage. The fact that mania is often enjoyable makes it even more difficult to manage. Who wouldn’t want to be happy and feel good?
Unfortunately a manic episode is over stimulating and causes hypersensitivity. It commonly indicates a crash afterward, similar to the high and crash of a drug. Eliminating mania does not mean that you will be unhappy. It just means that you will no longer crash after happiness. Bipolars sometimes fear happiness because they’ve learned to expect misery soon after. This causes a racing mix of fear, excitement, happiness and dread in the midst of a manic episode. When I feel this way, I talk myself down. I allow happiness in my life, but only realistic happiness. I don’t allow my emotions to skyrocket for no reason.
Talking myself down means that I ask myself if what I’m feeling is realistic for what’s happening in the moment. This works for both happiness and misery. Bipolar episodes are not realistic. They are heightened and out of control. I take deep breaths and calm myself by focusing on one thing. Over-excitement can be just as bad as depression. With depression you have to pick yourself up and with mania you have to bring yourself down.
When anyone is depressed, they don’t feel like doing anything. Forcing yourself to do things is exactly what must be done, though. It’s not easy, that’s why I say forcing. Depression exhausts you and every little thing becomes a huge effort. Getting out of bed, showering, eating, taking care of pets or children, going to work, etc. This is especially where cleanliness, organization and routine are important. When you force yourself out of bed to take a shower, your clothes are right there in your closet or dresser, not scattered among dirty ones in random places. Your car keys are right where they’re supposed to be, so you don’t have to search for them. When everything is already a huge effort because you’re depressed, clutter and disorganization make it worse by causing you to have to exert even more effort unnecessarily.
Exercise, fresh air and sunlight help with depression, too. In mania you are overstimulated and you should remove yourself from intense people and situations, go out less and do less. In depression you are under-stimulated and you should go out more and do more.
Having a support system of people who care about you and understand what you’re dealing with is very important. Not everyone has people like that, though. If you do, you can form a support system by talking to them and letting them know what you will need from them when you are struggling. They are like your safety net. They’ll catch you as you fall, pick you up when you’re down, help calm and focus you when you’re feeling too intense.
I didn’t have people who could do that for me, and I know not everyone does, but there are other facets you can turn to. The internet can provide so much. If you need to talk to someone, there are sites such as Psych Central with forums where you can discuss what’s going on in your life. There are online support groups and information for real life meetings. Utilize Google! You can find what you need, even if it’s just an article.
Writing is cathartic. You can write privately in a journal, or publicly online in a blog. Getting your feelings out is very helpful. Don’t keep things bottled up inside. The only thing about writing online is that you have to be careful about the information you share and also the comments people may make. You have to be strong enough not to let anyone upset you. Make sure the site you choose allows you to delete or moderate comments. I personally love WordPress, and I haven’t yet received a negative comment.
A support system for bipolars is much like a sponsor for alcoholics. You turn to your support system when you feel like you’re losing control. That’s why they must be people who understand what you’re dealing with. They should be able to empathize and help you find your own strength. They’re not supposed to allow you to indulge in your issues. They may push you more than you want, but that’s often what you need. They should push when you need pushing and hold you back when you need to be reigned in. They should also be strong enough to always stand by your side and never leave you, no matter how hard it gets.
Getting frustrated with a bipolar is completely useless and damaging. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is not easily controlled. Bipolars need to stay away from negative people who can bring then down or lose patience with them.
Positivity is so important. Listen to positive music, write down positive things after venting about the negative in your life, and surround yourself with positive people. Negative energy can be felt in a room, emitting off of someone in a foul mood. That energy can affect a bipolar very easily. Positive people will share their energy and help you to see the good and the beauty in life.
In conclusion, the most important aspects of managing bipolar disorder (with or without medication) are proper sleep, proper diet, exercising, maintaining a routine, limiting alcohol consumption, and having a good support system to fall back on when need be.
If people show interest, I may post some more about the methods of managing manic and depressive episodes. It can be tricky, but I am now a fully functioning, un-medicated bipolar living a very happy and fulfilling life. I have issues and I struggle once in a while, but I know myself and I know how to manage my issues as they arise.