When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder the last thing I wanted was to change my life. I wanted to continue with my fast pace lifestyle and highly stressful career. But over the next several years after that initial diagnosis I had to learn about what kinds of limitations I had and how those limits were going to change my life. What I did not realize was that everyone has limitations no matter who they are or what circumstances they have and realizing this fact helped me to adjust to the limitations I had to incur.
Some of the biggest changes were the following:
1) Give up business travel = Change my career
I could no longer travel 3-4 days per week to different cities because traveling was far too intense and interfered with my sleep schedule. It took me years to realize sleep was and is my biggest indicator for wellness. If I wanted to function well I was going to have to protect my sleep patterns and monitor how much sleep I was getting per night. Traveling for business had to stop and that meant a career change.
2) Understand the Disease = Monitor my moods
I had to learn how to monitor my moods. One of the keys to wellness and recovery is to know when you feel well and know when the illness symptoms are breaking through. It seems like it should be obvious to monitor symptoms, but for me it took years to learn the difference between mania, depression and normal moods. The truth is I strive for the most wellness I can have and one step in doing that is stringing lots of good days together by focusing on the things I can control that makes me feel well and eliminating the things that don’t.
3) Discovering Acceptance = Living in the present
Acceptance is about being okay with exactly how things have worked out. I continually strive for acceptance on a daily basis. Sometimes I find myself resisting “what is” and I may get stuck thinking about what life was like before I had to make changes, so I constantly work at acceptance. I have learned acceptance is not a destination it is a state of being.
Life after a mental illness diagnosis meant I had to make some changes in my career, I had to learn about the illness and understand how it affects me and finally I had to experience the stages of acceptance in order to live peacefully with my own destiny. Now I am ready to take on new challenges in my life. What stage are you in with acceptance?
Ever since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I have lived with different degrees of the illness. Sometimes it has been a debilitating disease rendering me incapable of doing anything on a functional scale and leaving me to pick up the pieces and put my life back together. At times I have had successful treatment and was able to live a relatively “normal” life. Then there were times when I lived in denial not wanting to accept I had a mental illness. Most recently I struggle between feeling good and fighting the depressive episodes which leave me unable to function and steal my days away.
In my experience the most difficult things to deal with are threefold:
1) Continually fighting off depressive episodes
2) Coming to terms with life after a major episode
3) Dealing with medication side effects
It seems there is always something I have to fight for—whether that is sleeping off the medication side effects or fighting to not believe the lies depression tells me—I am always in a battle with this illness.
Years ago had I known everything I know today about bipolar disorder I believe my outcome would have been far better off but this only adds to my present day frustration. I would not have taken the risks of going without treatment because for me no treatment meant the illness would get worse. I would have sought support from friends and family members instead of isolating myself and pushing people away. I guess this is why they say, “hindsight is 20/20.”
At the same time, years ago I would never have blogged about mental illness much less be willing to talk about it. I had so much self-stigma those close relatives like–shame and blame—and I had zero compassion for myself. At least today I have learned to treat myself better. Everyday I express myself I gain a little better understanding and give myself the gift of compassion.
I think a lot can be said for eliminating negative attitudes toward people who have mental illness. There is so much we have to go through on a daily basis—the last thing we need is to have to deal with stigma on top of everything else. But from my personal experience the worst kind of stigma is self-stigma.
One step I am taking is to remind myself everyday I have got to be kind to the woman in the mirror. I have had to learn how to be nice to me because how can I expect others to treat me differently if I don’t treat myself well? As the old adage says, “treat people the way you’d like to be treated,” and for me that means being nice to myself and forgiving myself for having a serious mental illness called bipolar disorder.
Living with a mental illness means so many things to so many people. I believe it is in part about battling the symptoms of bipolar disorder and winning the fight I can win against self-stigma one thought at a time. I know the illness is not going to go away, but I can guarantee self-stigma can be cured.
Every now and then I have a moment or two where I allow myself to feel sorry for me. I go down this pathway where I imagine my life without a mental illness. I think about where I would be in my career and how different my personal relationships would be. I think about all the time I would not have lost due to hospitalizations and the time it took to get well afterward. I even think about where I would be in my socioeconomic position. But most importantly I briefly dream about how life would be if I was just “normal.”
Then…I wake up. I do this every so often when I’m feeling a little depressed. Constantly managing symptoms that come and go and leave me struggling with what is “normal” and what is a part of my illness. I indulge myself in a fantasy world where there would be no such thing as living with a mental illness. Yes I know it’s not a healthy thing to do, but I think it’s just “normal” to wonder what life would be like without this illness, without bipolar disorder.
Then…perspective comes knocking at my door. I tell myself how lucky I am to have had all the experiences I have been fortunate enough to have. I remember the days when friends would tell me I knew how to live. I would often tell them I did not want to have any regrets if something were to happen to me. Well, that something did happen. It’s called serious mental illness, a.k.a. bipolar disorder type I. Fortunately, controlled well with medication, however, it’s not cured.
I know my life did not end when I got really sick, but it changed and the change causes me to walk down memory lane sometimes. The difference in how I live is like night and day. I remember the days when I could stay up all night working on a project or having a good time not for a moment thinking about how it was going to affect my moods. Not for a moment worrying about “mania” and what would happened if “mania” persisted for more than one night. I pay attention to these things today like my life depends upon it because it does depend upon it.
Then there is the whole idea of recovery. For the most part I live in recovery. I was able to go back to work and resume some social activities. But I wanted things to be like they were before I ever got sick and they just could not. Why? Because I had greater limitations than ever before and many bridges were damaged when I was sick.
It makes me sad to walk down memory lane. It makes me feel worse to ask that question, “what if” mental illness was never a part of my life. But there is a part of me where my emotional button lies and it needs to get pushed every now and then with the reality of how I feel. For the most part, I try to stay positive and look at things within a balanced perspective. Every now and then I do ask that question why me? And usually I come up with the same answer, why not me?
It was as if I had been running this ultra marathon and was down to my last mile; I still couldn’t see the finish line but I knew it was coming. I knew relief was just around the corner and I knew when I crossed that finish line I was going to feel ecstatic. I’m talking about my journey to recovery from bipolar disorder, a long, arduous grueling recovery process where blood, sweat and tears would have surpassed that of my fictitious ultra marathon example.
It was nearly four years ago when I signed up for the Pathways to Recovery: A Strengths Recovery Workshop. I was handed a really nice gigantic self-help workbook and several extra inserts. The book alone has several hundred pages of interactive guides. It is a place to write down real live examples of how one is going to recovery from a mental illness. Everything from writing a vision statement for what your dreams are to identifying short and long-term goals for how you are going to reach that vision.
The problem of course is that writing is one thing and doing is another. The other problem is continually managing an illness while you are trying to recover. I think that’s an oxymoron. Exactly how do you recover while you are still managing symptoms? Doesn’t the word recovery mean, “healed?” Well that’s exactly what it does not mean, because there are no “cures” for mental illness. There are medications and remedies that treat the symptoms but not cure the disease. So the very nature of recovery is geared toward managing the symptoms and getting them to such a point where you can begin to rebuild your life. The hope is that symptoms will not interfere with being able to do other things, but if they do interfere then we have the support systems in place to be able to handle them.
Everyone has her own definition of what “recovery” is. I think of it as being able to reclaim a positive sense of self despite having a mental illness. I look at recovery as a journey where finding healthy outlets become the “norm” and dealing with my mental illness is just part of my day but does not ruin my day. I have always expected to recover and that’s probably a large part of why I have been able too. But it does not mean that I don’t have bad days or difficult days where the medication side effects bother me to the point where sometimes I have to sleep 12 hours a day just to be able to function. It used to bother me but I came to realize that if this is how I need to manage the illness this is what I have to do.
For a long time I did feel shattered because I had a mental illness. But now I feel as if it is just part of who I am and what card I’ve been dealt in life. We don’t get to choose what illness we get and what we don’t get but we do get to choose how we are going to deal with it.
I’m always looking for ways to help myself feel better and today I came across Mental Health America’s ten tools for helping you feel stronger and more hopeful. If you click on the tool it will take you to their webpage where you will be able to get in depth information on each tool.
The ten tools are:
- Connect with others
- Stay positive
- Get physically active
- Help others
- Get enough sleep
- Create joy and satisfaction
- Eat well
- Take care of your spirit
- Deal better with hard times
- Get professional help if you need it
I found the ten tools to be a good reminder of some things I already know and some things I need reminded about. Hope you find it helpful.
I want the day to come when it’s completely acceptable to say I live with a mental illness. It’s ok with me that I say I live with bipolar disorder, but what about all the people out there who have preconceived notions about what bipolar disorder is? What about those who think having a mental illness makes me “less than?” What if I lost my job because I said I have a mental illness? What if I was ridiculed for identifying myself with a group that is so entirely discriminated against?
Well it’s just not ok to say you have a mental illness. It’s as if you are putting a Scarlet Letter on your forehead that opens you up to judgment and ridicule and ultimately “what will they think about me.” Or am I being the one who is carrying self-stigma to the party? Is the fact I know stigma exists one of the reasons why it has any power over me in the first place?
I don’t know all the answers to those questions. What I do know is that my confidence and self-esteem have been affected because I have been sick and had to recover. In that recovery process I have chosen to redefine my life into two separate lives—1) before the illness and 2) after the illness. The hard part was coming to terms that my life changed so dramatically after being diagnosed with a psychiatric illness. Even more specifically, my life did indeed change because I became ill and there is no way to sugar coat it.
As I go through the various stages of recovery and acceptance for “what is,” I often look for perspective—ways I can compare my onset of illness and the way perhaps a physical illness might have effected someone I know in a similar fashion. I know of a man who goes to the gym I work out in and he was left partially paralyzed after a stroke. He used to be a fitness buff and still finds the strength to come to the gym several times a week. Even though he is physically disabled I am still amazed by his inner strength. And yet I see the sadness in his eyes as he struggles to ride the bicycle, something that is relatively easy for me to do. His physical struggle is obvious. My mental struggle is something I can most often hide or at least I think I can hide.
What we have in common is the ability to remember what it was like before an illness came into our lives and changed the course of our life. Yet I know comparing life before and after gets to a point where making comparisons are no longer helpful, they are counterproductive comparisons and only hinder recovery. At the same time, it is helpful to be brutally honest about where you are on the road of life. I’ve decided that it was time to reinvent myself by making new dreams and focusing on goals that I can achieve. Basically redefining my life in the present with all my circumstances considered.
So that leads me to where I am…blogging about mental illness. Hoping for a day it becomes socially acceptable to say “I live with a mental illness” and that does not make me any less of a person, if anything I’m a stronger person because of all my experiences. But I’m not going to wait until someone says it’s ok to talk about it, I’m going to talk about it long before the general population agrees with me. The truth is eliminating stigma does start with me and knowing that answers a lot of my questions.
It’s easy to maintain a positive attitude when things are going well. Just like my experience in the sports world when you “win” everything goes smoothly and a positive environment often ensues. Start losing a game or two and heads start to drop, confidence begins to wain and self-esteem starts taking a beating.
Not so much different than becoming ill. The very nature of illness whether mental or physical is that you simply don’t feel well. When you start not being able to do the things you always did confidence begins to disappear.
But why can some people maintain a positive attitude in the midst of personal struggles, illness or setbacks? I think people who have the ability to continually put things in perspective can bounce back from those day to day setbacks caused from illness. I believe choosing a positive attitude becomes just that–an active choice–a decision to see the speck of light in the middle of a dark room.
Having the ability to let go of the past and focus on the present is one of the keys to a positive attitude. Just like athletes who lose games we have to constantly adjust our mindset so we focus on the challenge in front of us and not replay the days behind us.
It’s hard to maintain a positive attitude when you don’t feel well. But a continued focus on all the things that are wrong will only make you feel worse. If you’re focusing on all the things that are wrong you’ll continue to find them. If you start to look for some good you’ll start to find that too.
I try to reset my attitude and if only for a moment I seek out one positive things about my day. If you focus on the positive you’ll see a “can do” approach will help you fight your illness. Athletes who start a game believing they are going to lose will be beat before the game even starts. I try to give myself every advantage by focusing on how I am thinking about it.
I find my day goes much more smooth if I approach it with a positive attitude. I try to identify one or two things I know I can accomplish that gives me a feeling of satisfaction. Sometime the difference between a good day and a bad day is how you look at it.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) has a campaign called, “You are not alone!” It serves as a reminder for those of us living with a mental illness that there are millions of people in the United States and around the world who live with a mental illness. We are truly not alone.
It does not take away from anyone’s personal journey it only serves as a reminder there are other people out there who know how you feel and who have probably felt very similar if not the same as you do. For me it means that even when I may struggle for one reason or another there is someone out there who has experienced a similar situation.
I recently had lunch with a friend who lives with depression. He said to me, “It doesn’t make me feel any better to know I’m not alone. It doesn’t take away my pain.” I agreed with him that his pain is unique and certainly individual but I also added that other people struggle and this commonality can offer perspective. Sometimes a little perspective is all we need to open up another avenue for our coping skills.
Every person who lives with mental illness will have their own individual paths to walk. Just like any other disease some people will have more severity than others. But at the end of the day, “knowing you are not alone” plays into a fighting spirit where you recognize people are out there waging their own war against mental illness. And for everyone who faces the grief, loss and sorrow for having a mental illness knowing you are in this with others can mean you are walking a similar path.
I find comfort in knowing I’m not the only one who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I know there are people whose lives have been interrupted because they have been hospitalized. My life has been interrupted at times too. I know individuals have to face lots of fear getting back to work or school after being sick, I have had that experience too. I can’t take away pain or fear but perhaps I can offer inspiration in recovery. Because I’ve been there I have a greater understanding and large amount of compassion for others and I know many people who share and offer the same for me.
To walk alone is difficult but to walk beside one another adds strength to the cause. Whenever you feel lonely know you aren’t alone and maybe –if only for a moment–you’ll find greater strength. Sometimes that’s all you need to get through just one more day.
You have to fight to beat mental illness. There’s no other way to put it. Such a charged topic and misunderstood illnesses all the more reason to fight for survival. Several months ago I was talking with my therapist and I made the comment, “I’m taking my life back. I’ve got to fight but I’m gonna win. I will beat bipolar.” Even saying those words gave me a feeling of empowerment. A new vision for how I was going to live.
I realized I’d been giving bipolar disorder so much power over me. The complexities that seem so cut and dry cut deeply into my psyche. The process or map to good health seems so linear and simple.
For example: 1) get a proper diagnosis; 2) work with healthcare providers; 3) get the right combination of medications; 4) recover and 5) live happily ever after. But overlay STIGMA on top of every step and all the steps become even more intense. Add a pound of grief for all the things on life’s path that changes when a mental illness diagnosis drops on your doorstep.
Think about how devastating it is to have every major aspect of your life impacted. For example-your social, vocational, hobbies, financial and anything else you can think of. Now try to get well in the midst of all these life changes that came about because you got sick. In spite of all these obstacles eventually I made up my mind I wasn’t going to let bipolar disorder beat me.
How was I going to win?
1) I stopped feeling guilty for having an illness. For years I held a tremendous amount of guilt for having bipolar disorder. Even thought I knew it wasn’t my fault I still blamed myself for not managing it better. I finally said, “enough is enough. I have a mental illness and it’s not my fault.”
2) I stopped blaming myself for losing friendships. It took a great deal of time but I realized there was nothing I could do to change the past. Although I would have loved to have maintained friendships that I was only one part of the friendship and I happened to get sick, which was not my fault.
3) I started thinking I could help others. I realized there was something I could do to help other people who may be struggling personally or who may have a family member who was struggling with similar things I had experienced. So I dusted off my computer and decided to start blogging in an attempt to shed light on various topics in mental illness that I felt I had some insights about.
It would be easy to give up on life. God knows I’ve struggled enough with this mental illness. But I’ve also had wonderful times and fulfilling moments. It really comes down to what we choose to focus on when we are well enough to have perspective. Since I’m well enough I refuse to let mental illness beat me. And though sometimes it seems difficult maintaining “hope” is one key component to getting well and staying well too. The other key is “resilience” an embodiment of the never give up attitude.
Regardless of the circumstances fight for your life and beat mental illness.