I can hardly believe it’s been 10 years since I received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I wish I could go back and tell my terrified teenage self that though life would sometimes be a roller coaster of ups and downs, a bright future full of hope and joy would await me. It took a while to learn how to navigate this disorder, and the journey was filled with many twists and turns. In these past 10 years, I’ve experienced unimaginable pain, but I’ve also learned how to love myself unconditionally.
As I look back on the past decade, the following lessons have helped me cope and build a beautiful life. Read on for insight into my journey and to see if your unique experiences have taught you anything similar.
1. Make peace with my diagnosis.
I was not able to begin the recovery journey until I fully acknowledged that I was living with a mental illness. As much as I tried, I quickly realized that choosing to ignore the reality of my situation would not make it go away. I had to learn how to be brave enough to accept that this was my life. From there, I was able to begin the hard work to make the best of it.
2. Adopt the “mind, body, spirit” mentality.
It became clear right away that if I didn’t get regular exercise and make healthy food choices, I would only serve to push myself into deeper depression. Now I see exercise as a wonderful stress reliever, and I love the energy I get from nutritious foods. In addition, I have found that I need to spend time nurturing my spirit. Praying, journaling and corporate worship center my mind and calm my soul, giving me the strength to face each day. These are things I have control over, so I make the conscious choice to take advantage of these tools.
3. Trust my mental health team.
At first, I didn’t want to admit I needed such a large mental health team; early on, they were strangers and I didn’t trust them. But as time passed, I saw that these professionals always had my best interests at heart and were there to help me. Their unbiased advice and wealth of knowledge has proven to be invaluable, and now I respect their opinion and rely on their guidance.
4. Know my triggers.
It took me years to be able to recognize what triggers my mania or depression. Now I have a good understanding of what activities or people will initiate an episode, and I make it a priority to steer clear. If these situations are unavoidable, I am extra diligent about monitoring my mood and taking the necessary steps to protect my stability.
5. Minimize idle time.
I have found that the more idle time I have, the more I begin to enter the world of depression or mania. Making a commitment to get out of the house and work, volunteer, exercise and spend time with family and friends is crucial for me. It’s not easy, but now I push myself not to fill my days with TV and Facebook, but with purposeful and meaningful activities that enrich my life.
6. Sleep is my best friend.
Staying up all night is what triggered my first serious manic episode. Since then, I have learned that my stability depends on getting enough sleep. I always make sure I don’t stay out too late and give myself ample time to rest.
7. Don’t dwell on the past.
If I allowed myself to dwell on each hospitalization, each poor decision I made during manic episodes or all the days spent sleeping during the throes of depression, I would lose all hope. I choose to focus on making the most of the present, and I believe in the promise of a bright future. I acknowledge that the past happened, but I don’t let it cloud the happiness of the here and now.
8. Cultivate community.
I couldn’t do this alone. I need people to come alongside me and walk with me on my path towards recovery. Often, it was hard to let people into my broken world, but I’m so grateful I learned how to allow friends and family to encourage, support and love me through the dark times, celebrate with me as I became stable and enjoy this life with me as I move forward.
9. Walk away from destructive relationships.
Above I mentioned how important it has been for me to have people by my side. But there have unfortunately been other individuals along the way who have perpetuated a mentality of stigma and shame. I learned that allowing these people in my life was not healthy and, when possible, to walk away from the relationship or at least limit contact. I now focus and invest only in the relationships that provide love and encouragement.
10. Always look for the joy in life.
Instead of focusing on all bipolar disorder has taken from me, now, to the best of my ability, I look for joy in all areas of my life. There are still dark days, but now I know there are always rays of sunshine to be found. No matter how small, I choose to focus on the blessings I have been given and the things that make me happy. This gives me so much hope and strength.
This list is not all-encompassing, but these main lessons are what have helped shape how I go about living life with a mental illness. The strategies listed here work in harmony to promote my stability and success. I know the next 10 years will present their own set of challenges, and the ways in which I handle bipolar disorder will continue to evolve. But I’m inspired to take these lessons and continue down the road of recovery and personal growth. I encourage you to take time to ponder what your mental illness has taught you. Reflect on the lessons you have learned throughout your journey, and use that knowledge to build your best possible future.
A version of this post originally appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website.
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