I’ve been on a fairly good streak lately. I’m taking my medication every day without missing doses. As a result, there’s been a noticeable absence of mood swings. I feel like I should be marching forward and just handling things in my life as they come, but I’m not. At least not entirely. For the sake of my health, I’m finding that my decision to switch from part-time to full-time was a big mistake. Working full-time with a severe mental illness is proving to be increasingly difficult. I’m finding it harder and harder to cope with day to day living due to exhaustion and just a general feeling of being overwhelmed. And then there’s my birthday coming up. It’s a big one. I turn 40 this week and that has brought with it its own share of anxiety. I can’t even quite figure out where it’s coming from. I’m just sad and anxious for some reason that I can’t put my finger on. I’m hoping that when the day comes, I wake up feeling like celebrating. My husband and I are going out to dinner that night and then I’m going out with my work friends the next night so there’s plenty of chances for my mood to turn. I want to be fun or at least appear to be fun no matter what I’m actually feeling that day.
In the meantime, I am shocked by how many pills it takes to manage my life and keep my head above water – add 4 kids, no family nearby, and the day-to-day pressure gets to be too much. I don’t know where I’m going where this post, but sometimes I just want to yell, “HELP!” from the water and hope somebody throws me a lifeline. So, HELP! Is anyone out there? Words of wisdom? Commiseration? Something.
When we think of discrimination, images such as being turned down for a job or even cruel remarks from an unknowing stranger may come into our minds, but oftentimes discrimination can land much closer to home. Sometimes it is the people closest to us, such as friends or family members, who are the guilty parties. This type of discrimination can be subtle and even be construed as well-meaning, so it’s hard to stand up against it but equally frustrating and painful for those of us who are living with a mental illness.
When I was in my early 30’s, I made the decision to go back to school. It was a very stressful time in my life. My husband was in graduate school, our first child had special needs, we had toddler and I was pregnant with my 3rd. However, I felt that I could successfully complete my degree and applied to school. When I told my family members of my decision, they were less than thrilled. I received numerous comments along the lines of, “Are you sure you can handle this?” or “You have more on your plate than you can handle, why are you doing this to yourself?” or my personal favorite was “I’ll just wait 20 minutes and this will blow over and you’ll be obsessing about something new.” I wondered how my friends and family would have responded had they not known I was living with bipolar disorder. Would they still be concerned? Quite possibly yes, we did have a lot going on in our lives, after all. However, I firmly believe their responses would have been different. Rather than framing me in the light of some delicate artifact that could break apart at any moment, their responses would have been more encouraging or matter of fact with less concerned questioning.
This is the type of discrimination that people don’t see. It’s within the family unit and behind closed doors. These types of responses erode confidence and imply that not only are we not capable of making decisions, we aren’t capable of fulfilling our own life goals. This communication style stops us in our tracks and creates doubt where support should be.
So, the question remains, what is one to do? How do we fight familial discrimination? We can’t ask our family members to be less concerned about our well-being, if we are lucky enough to be surrounded by people who care. The answer is to educate them. Let them know how their behavior and responses affect you. Give them an example of another response that is actually empowering such as, “I’m proud of you for wanting to pursue your goals. What can I do to help you? Let’s think of some supports to have in place for when you start.” The fact is that change begins with us. It’s our job to teach them. We don’t have to be passive victims in acts of discrimination. Give your mental health a voice. You never know how much it could impact you have or how far reaching the message.
So tonight has me pondering a topic that has remained elusive and nearly impossible for me master. That topic is ANGER and how do I/we manage it. I am filled to the brim with Buddhist sayings, mindfulness techniques, and all sorts of metaphorical reasons and methodologies on how to manage it. When I am calm, all these beautiful explanations come freely to my mind and are easily explained to my children. But when I am angry, dear God run for your life. Nothing will pacify the wrath. I transform into Medusa and the only goal I have is to destroy everything in my path. Yes, it’s better when I am on my medication blah blah blah but truthfully, I always struggle with self-control in this area. I either take one of two routes. I am either so stunned that I say nothing at all and pretend that I am not upset or I completely unload like a tempest storm. Let me give you an example:
This evening I was supposed to get my COVID vaccine. I spent all day with 4 kids managing fights, meals, and everything in between. By the time it was 5:30pm, I loaded all of them into the car to make the 40-minute drive to the hospital where I was supposed to meet my husband so he could watch the kids while I went in. The problem was that he got stuck late at work and by the time he left, I received the text that all the vaccines were out and we would have to wait until more were ordered. Now if my husband had been there on time, which was 40 minutes earlier, I would have made it in time to get my shot. However, by the time I got the news my nerves were frayed, I had come to realize how badly I wanted to get the vaccine in the first place, and I was beyond pissed at my husband for miscalculating how long he would have to remain at work. At times, this would not trigger my anger to the extent that it did this evening. But tonight, oh gosh. It was dreadful. I was fuming mad. Completely livid… and no amount of Buddhist sayings or lemon balm calming tea could pacify me. Which leads me to the next bit. Here I am. At a local BAR. Drinking with my computer while typing this blog. Now I suppose I could give myself credit for acknowledging that I needed to step out of the house before I became irrational and blew up at anyone…but surely there must be a better way. Please, please if you have a tried-and-true solution, enlighten me. I am at a loss on this end.
Believe it or not, I do have a point here. The point is this… Does bipolar disorder come into play here or is this strictly a temperament thing? I am no stranger to anger but is it inherited or is it the result of mental illness? Further, do you have a solution/comfort/mantra that helps you? If so, I’d be very interested in hearing what it is. Please help me. As for the moment, the alcohol and time out of the house has helped me but please tell me there’s a better way. I promise I’m listening.
I’ve mentioned recently that I wanted to practice gratitude on a daily basis. I resolved to find one thing every day to be thankful for in order to strengthen my gratitude finding muscles and improve my mental health. For 30 days I planned to pair a lovely picture with a little snippet about what was so great that day. Well, true to form, I lasted 3 entire days before getting irritated and abandoning the whole project. Then I was ashamed of myself for being unable to stick with the program and labeled myself as an ungrateful failure – but this troubled me too. I wouldn’t normally describe myself as an ungrateful person. However, in the face of forced gratitude, I end up feeling worse about myself when the goal is quite the opposite. But I’m willing to bet that I’m not alone in this and that those of us who struggle with mental illness know all too well the negative effects of “toxic positivity” and I’ve got a bone to pick with these folks.
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles fly around the internet over the past year about the power of positivity. Think positive, be grateful, practice yoga and all your mental health troubles will fade away and you’ll be a glowing example of the power of the human mind to overcome any obstacle. Change your diet and you’ll change your brain! Practice deep breathing and you’ll never have anxiety again! Envision your future success and you’ll create your reality! Start a gratitude journal and you’ll transform your unworthy self to worthy! I don’t mean to completely discount the well-intentioned but severely near-sightedness of these claims. But truth be told, these statements make me feel about 2 inches tall. As if I have done nothing to help myself over the past 20 years I’ve been dealing with this illness. I did everything under the sun to help myself before approaching the topic of pharmaceuticals. Medication is what ended up changing my life and I’m truly grateful for it. But that doesn’t mean I take a passive role in my mental health now. I still eat healthy, exercise, meditate, etc. but none of those interventions does a damn thing to slow or stop a manic episode or lift me from a deep depression. Then I read articles with headlines like the ones I mentioned above and they seem to insinuate that if I were doing things correctly, I wouldn’t be sick. It’s not helpful and not what those of us who suffer from mental health disorders really need. Further, it creates more stigma because it insinuates the patient is choosing to suffer from their illness.
So, what is one to do? It’s simple. Disengage. STOP reading all the flowery positivity articles. If it helps you, then by all means please go for it. But if it doesn’t, then don’t go there. Don’t keep reading until the article is finished and all you are left with is a bad taste in your mouth from someone who doesn’t know what it first handedly feels like to have Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, you name it! Don’t fill your cup with anything that doesn’t have an authentic ring for you. If it leaves you feeling worse about yourself, then let it go. You are in charge of what you allow into your psyche. Gratitude may be great and I sure wish I could fill a journal up every month without wanting to pull my hair out. But for now, at this point in my life, I’m okay with it being a distant star.
Allow me to just face it – there are times I miss my manic self. Colors glow brighter, I’m invincible, and there seems to be no consequence to any decision I make. Perhaps that was what conveniently contributed to my consistent forgetfulness when it came time to take my morning dose of medication. I blamed it on simply being too tired in the morning to remember it before work. But then, miraculously enough, I started feeling more energized in the morning. In fact, I began feeling quite fantastic. I sailed through work each day feeling more and more competent in my new job. My relationship with my husband began to improve. I just couldn’t get over how happy and blessed I was to be married to him. My sex-drive soared through the roof and was convinced this “new me” was here to stay. I started calling old friends to make plans to get together and while I was at it, why not apply to grad school… again? My appetite plummeted and I quickly lost 5lbs, which just made me even happier.
This is what a typical hypomanic episode looks like for me. I can still work, there are no signs of psychosis or other more serious manic symptoms such as delusions or wildly impulsive, dangerous behavior. I suppose I should be grateful that things did not escalate too far this time. There was no crash into deep depression afterwards, which is what usually happens if I am fully manic. And yet, I am left with a feeling as though I have been let down. The colors are not as bright, I’m no longer special, and the reality I must go back to feels rather dim. Such is life I suppose.
What was the trigger? My doctor loves this question and it was easy to identify this time. In addition to skipping out on my morning doses, I had to abruptly stop working and assist my son, who had to quarantine due to a close COVID contact, with virtual school. The resulting change in schedule and routine was all it took. I’d like to think of myself as stronger or more resilient but apparently a change in the daily grind is all it takes. I’m still not back to baseline but getting closer. I’m on day 4 of taking my full dose of medicine and next week I’ll have to go back for labs. I’m hoping the restlessness fades away soon. I’m sure it will. But the clincher in all this is, and I’ll be brutally honest here, part of me just wanted to hear angels talk to me again. It didn’t happen. I wonder if they are still there or if I will ever hear them again. But staying out of full-blown mania is a good thing. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.
Thanksgiving had me thinking this year. The fact is that I’m crap at taking note of what I’m thankful for in life. Further, every time I see a happy picture with the cliché #blessed next to it, I want to vomit. I find it highly irritating for some odd reason! To add insult to injury, all the additional posts from therapists about the power of positive thinking and gratitude I also find bothersome and clearly written for people who are already annoyingly optimistic. BUT I am willing to put my prejudices aside and give it a go just to see what all the fuss is about. For the next 30 days, I am going to write one thing I am thankful for each day. I’ll be posting this mainly on my twitter account @_bipolarmomlife but I’ll check in with you all on how my project is going over here. I’m not expecting anything earthshattering but what I do wish is this – to be able to take pause during my day and notice the small, good moments so that I don’t constantly drown in all the bad ones.
Day 1: I’m grateful I got to play with my children in the rain.
Recently (as in yesterday!) I participated in my first panel discussion with This Can Happen Events about mental health in the workplace. The whole experience from start to finish was so exciting and I learned so much from the people I met along the way! However, I am quite a nervous speaker and at the very start of the discussion, I literally felt my entire body shaking from anxiety – even my facial muscles seemed like they were twitching! But as things went on, I settled down and was able to talk and answer questions. Phew! Overall, I’d do it again in a heartbeat and I was so impressed by the quality of the other speakers in the conference, the topics covered, and the overall organization. It was truly an honor to participate!
In addition to being fairly consumed with preparing for the conference, I started a new job and have been working a typical full-time schedule the past month, which is a massive switch for me! However, the job is far less stressful, no 12-hour days, and I get to work with great people. It’s been a great fit!
Seeing as there have been so many changes, I’ve been doing my best to stay on top of taking my medication so that I can be/do my best as things come up. I must say last week was not a good one for me. I missed my morning dose several times and could feel the restlessness and agitation coming creeping in. I’ve been back on track for the past few days now but it was a painful reminder of how important it is for me not to get lazy and miss a dose here and there. It’s a hard pill to swallow sometimes (no pun intended!).
Tomorrow I’ll be doing some prep for Thanksgiving – meaning I’ll be driving to the market to pick up the food! But I’ve at least resolved to make a homemade pumpkin pie! I hope you all have a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving! Hopefully I won’t post any stories about the turkey catching on fire, destroying any pots, or ruining any side dishes as I have in the past!
You’d think I’d be used to my life being defined as a ‘comedy of errors’ by now. All I need to do is say, “I have 4 boys.” and women look at me with sympathetic eyes and a sorrowful expression while David is usually greeted with enthusiastic smiles and a thumbs up from other men. It has been this way for years and in my mind, I’m completely at peace with the chaos, fist fights, and screaming that comes with the territory. Yes, that wonderful place in my mind where nothing bothers me and I am the picture of cool, calm serenity. I handle every shriek, little fist thrown, and tear with a smile on my face. Ok, Ok, Ok! I am nothing even close to that but it’s the effort that counts… although I’m a little short on that too,
Saturday was a beautiful day. I mean completely breathtaking. David and I had the idea to drive to the Lyndon B Johnson Ranch as a fun excursion for the day and because I truly, truly love it there. It’s my happy place and if I could live anywhere in the US, it would be a home built somewhere on that ranch. I excitedly grabbed my camera gear and went to find the boys. As soon as I tell them we were leaving for the day, the reaction was mixed. Most of them met the idea with some mild element of curiosity except for our second son, William. The first question out of Will’s mouth no matter where we are going is, “How long is it going to take to get there?” Anything over 5 minutes is met with a shriek and that he can’t handle getting to the car because his legs don’t work. Considering this place is over an hour away, William put up quite the dramatic fight. On the way, things were less than peaceful. This is nothing new but nonetheless annoying. William and Colin were play/real fighting in the back seat. Sometimes they were laughing (which was fine – but borderline too loud), other times they were screaming and crying (which is not fine and way over the top too loud). After having to lay the law down, we managed to drive to the ranch without much of a hitch, the only problem being I really needed to use the restroom. For whatever reason, we entered from a different spot and found ourselves on a slow-moving driving tour of the ranch. All of this would have been well and good except for the bathroom component. Some cars pulled over to take pictures but we were made to forge ahead until we reached the gift shop where there was a bathroom waiting for me. I exclaimed that we would have to do the driving tour all over again so I could get the pictures I missed but David said we could just walk up the road since the best part was the field with the cows nearby.
Now I will interject that this was not my favorite idea. No, there were not a lot of cars that day but I was sure that this was against the unspoken “rules” and that we were not allowed to walk back on the driving tour. But David insisted this would get some energy out for the kids and that nobody cared. So I decided to make the best of it and take out my camera to change the lens, even though I was grumbling under my breath the entire time. Then, to my dismay, I saw that my camera battery had completely died! I was crushed! All the beautiful pictures I was planning on taking would now have to be taken on my phone and there was nobody else to blame other than myself. I am pleased to say however, that the day was simply too beautiful to be disappointed for long!
The walk to see the cows was typical for our family. Nathan was tormenting William, who was screaming and running away before trying to sneak back and get his revenge, which just kept the same cycle going over and over again. Nothing I seemed to say or do stopped the madness between those two. When we finally arrived at the cows we stood there staring for a while before trying to get a couple of pictures of the boys all together. This was our big mistake. Getting these four to stand in a ditch and stare at a camera proved to be too much for them. William didn’t want to stand next to Nathan, who was scared of the ants. Colin hopped right in the ditch but didn’t want to pose for a picture. Owen can’t stand anywhere for long but he seemed to be faring the best out of the four of them. In the end, this is the best we got.
The rest of the trip was spent going on the trails, climbing on vines, catching lizards, listening to Nathan talk about politics, hearing William scream that he was tired and that his legs couldn’t make it back to the car, Owen screaming at Colin for scaring him, and me dreaming of living on a massive ranch, in the open fields, where nobody cares how loud we are… thank goodness for daydreams.
Anyone who lives with a mental health condition is aware that there are times when you are surfing the highs and lows and also times when the waters are calm and the emotional seas are not so scary. I’m relieved to say that for the first time in quite a while, I am floating on calm water. I’m stable on my medications. We’ve seemed to find a good combination and I’ve been compliant with taking them as scheduled. So now what? Well, if you’ve had a particularly rough time beforehand then the inevitable repair and reconnect process begins. The pieces must be picked up, consequences for past behavior need to be addressed, and the process of rebuilding relationships begins. I’m lucky that I wasn’t at that point this past time around so the transition to stability hasn’t come with an aftermath of cleanup. But it does leave me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. So here’s what I’ve discovered…
First, for the first time in quite a while, I feel like I can address aspects of my life and/or behavior that are better left to be sorted out in therapy. Now that I’m not struggling so hard just to survive, I have the capacity to invite more introspective thinking into my life. What do I want my relationship with my husband to look like? With my children? Parents? I can finally focus on fine-tuning myself. Medication should only be ½ the picture of any sort of recovery. Therapy is really a backbone for helping identify triggers and the dysfunctional thinking that could be creating those triggers in the first place. It can take some time to find a therapist you click with but don’t get discouraged. Keep looking until you find one. I’ve had a few truly great therapists in my life. Each of them had the amazing ability for helping me untangle what was driving my behavior so that I could see it for what it was. The work is hard and not without tears and pain but was always pivotal in shifting my outlook, which in turn changed my thinking and behavior. And if all else fails, they are another set of eyes on you to let you know if you need to check in with your psychiatrist due to mania / depression / anxiety / psychosis.
Second, what isn’t working for me? What is contributing to medication non-compliance, triggers for episodes, self-destructive behavior or general unrest? A lot of time it’s stress – that’s not so hard to name but it’s much harder to figure out what needs to change and how to change it. For example, when financial stress keeps coming up again and again for me, it’s time to look at the budget or work hours, etc. to figure out how to ease some of the tension. It’s rarely that cut and dry but the intention must be there to figure out what’s not working and make a change. Simply wondering with no action is not going to do anything either. Find a way to make goals and take the steps needed to complete them.
Third and most importantly is Grace. Bringing compassion to yourself when setbacks happen. Bringing compassion to others when they aren’t at their best. Having a spirit of calm curiosity about yourself and your problems so that you don’t fall into the trap of self-blame, anger, and shame. Shame and mental health disorders tend to go hand in hand, as most of us know. Embarrassment over our own behavior when we finally come back to ourselves again is a terrible burden. We are forced to pay a high price for mental illness. The loss of relationships, family, jobs, wealth, etc. is all too familiar for us. But if we can start to make room for just a little bit of grace in our lives, I believe things may slowly change. Others will begin to have grace for us too. Shame will slowly wash away leaving compassion in its place.
I owe much of my ability to function in the world to this element – lithium. I can hold a job, take care of my family, and be a functioning member of society. Note to my fellow psych patients – DO NOT “tinker” with your meds. After a two week journey through hell and back I’m slowly coming back. If I could sing 🎤, I’d be on the rooftops I’m so happy about it!