Woman looking at the ice cream on a spoon

How the 'Spoon Theory' Relates to My Life as Someone With Bipolar Disorder

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In the past week, I have been out of the house more and seen more people than I have in years. It’s almost like having a social life. In the past week, I have also slept more than I usually do in my sloth-like, torpid existence. I think the two are not unrelated.

If you follow the Spoon Theory, then you know each spoon represents an amount of coping you are able to do. Every day you get a certain number of spoons, not the same number every day. You use them to perform everyday tasks that most people think nothing of, things like getting out of bed (a spoon that some days you don’t even have,) taking a shower (1/2 spoon for Janet’s patented “super-fast smelly-bits sink wash-up,”) getting dressed, finding something to eat and fixing that something. (Keep a box of Cheerios by the bed in case you run out of spoons at this point.) All this is without even leaving the house. Some days, that’s all the spoons you have, and when you’ve used up your spoons, that’s it.

Other days, you can manage to do all this and leave the house, go to work, run errands and an assortment of other normal activities. However, for those of us who have mental disorders, such days are few and far between. You hear people with depression talk of not being able to get out of bed, and for the most part, this is caused by a lack of spoons. I am usually notoriously low on spoons. My husband now understands the Spoon Theory, and we use it as common shorthand for, “I’m too tired,” or “That’s all I can handle right now.”

Dan, however, is an over-scheduler. I often have to rein him in by pointing out his proposed slate of activities will not be possible because I, for one, will run out of spoons, and he may too.

The dry run for my recent spurt of socializing began last week. After I went for my final session with Dr R., I managed a trip to the bank, a trip to the place where I could pay my power bill and since it was right next door, a stop at Kmart to buy underwear. It was a good thing that was a hypomanic day, but it floored me for the rest of the day and the next. It started a cycle of bipolar up-and-down oscillations that were clearly related to spoon usage.

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My spate of social endeavors started with a double-header. On Saturday, I had lunch with a friend at a favorite restaurant I almost never get to go to. We talked about politics, social issues and book proposals. Then, I went home and had a little nap.

That evening Dan and I went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz. I know that takes a little explaining. Monkey Bones is the tattoo studio where I got my semicolon tattoo. Zombie Dogz is a local food truck. (Also, it’s fun to say, “We went to Monkey Bones for Zombie Dogz.”)

Notice that in a single day I had to get out of bed and get dressed twice. That’s a lot of spoons. Sunday I was not able to get out of bed at all. Monday did not involve socializing, but it was another hellacious spoon-eater. Dan and I spent the day scrounging for documents and information that the IRS wanted. It was taxing. (See what I did there?)

Tuesday was an extra-special social event (though it did not involve getting dressed and going out or even interacting with other people.) It was Jenny Lawson’s online book launch party. Better known as the Bloggess, Jenny has severe social anxiety. At this stage in my life, I certainly would not be able to dress up, mingle and make polite conversation with both friends and complete strangers. The online party was a genius idea.

I sat at home in my pajamas with some red wine while the Bloggess read chapters from her new book, “Furiously Happy.” (You should get it, by the way. It’s about mental illness, but it’s funny.) As low-key a social situation as that was, it still used up spoons because it was something I had never done before. Making sure I had the right URL, converting Central Standard Time to Eastern Standard Time, not being able to ask questions because I don’t tweet and worrying Dan was getting bored. I did not have a lot a lot of spoons but still some.

The effects were getting cumulative. Again, I was unable to get out of bed the next day. In fact, Dan and I both slept away most of the daylight hours. For him, it’s understandable because he works third shift, but I have no such excuse. My only excuse is that if you borrow from the next day’s spoons or try to keep going without them, you will pay.

Thursday, I was determined, with or without spoons, I was going to meet a friend for coffee. I’ve seen her only once, briefly, in several years. In a way, it was a test of my ability to maintain anything approaching a real social life. I put forth the extra effort because a mutual friend cut her ties with me because I canceled so often on social engagements. I suppose I really have nothing to prove to anyone but myself, but it seems important that I do so. It’s not like coffee with a friend is an ordeal or anything. I just know I’ll be using a spoon for more than stirring my coffee.

I hope I have enough spoons left over to work on my other blog.

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I Hope My Children See My Cape

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We all fight battles. I fight anxiety, depression, bipolar and more. Some days I’m happy and loving and warm. Other days I’m distant, detached and cold.

My children are now old enough to verbalize they notice when mommy is “mean” or “grumpy.” It breaks my heart.

They know mommy wrote a book about how hard life can be sometimes. They know when mommy gets sick, she goes to a different hospital than most other people.

My children have been on the psych ward to visit their mom. They’ve witnessed breakdowns and mommy disappearing for days unexpectedly without telling them goodbye.

They know mommy gets sad sometimes and it means she sleeps a lot or doesn’t play with them as much.

But they also know when mommy feels OK, she snuggles and cuddles and sings them to sleep at night.

They know no matter what, mommy is there for every game, concert, conference and doctor appointment.

I hope they know how much I love them. I hope they learn mental illness is something to treat with respect like other illnesses. I hope they never struggle like their mom.

Most of all, I hope when they are old enough to look back on their childhood, they will see their mommy fought so hard to stay alive, to get treatment, to be present for them. I hope they love me and not resent me. I hope they know they mean more to me than they could ever fathom and every day I wake up, I put on my cape and fight like hell for them.

I’m not a superhero at all. But I wear a cape of determination just for them. I hope they see I did everything I could to be the best mom I could be.

I hope they see the real me.

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I Turned My Darkest Bipolar Disorder Episode Into a Music Video

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At 16, my best friend and I started a band. We were two quiet, nerdy, never-been-kissed teenagers who wanted desperately to have an adventure. Though we technically lived in the retirement town of White Rock, British Columbia, we spent most of our time in our own world… a world that from an outsider’s point of view could only be described as “very cute.”

So it only made sense that our band sang songs about liking boys and being nerds, and our logo was a hand drawn cupcake. That band became my persona. I was Sarah from The Oh Wells, and I was cute, cute, very cute. Sure, I’d been having panic attacks and insomnia since I was 4 years old, but even my anxiety came off as endearing.

The year I turned 20, my band competed in a prestigious music competition. The other musicians all saw me as the shy, quirky, adorable one. Nobody knew I had been fighting uncontrollable mood swings and suicidal thoughts for the past year and a half, that my behavior had pushed away my band mates and my best friend, and that I had never felt more alone in my life.

I so badly wanted to be the happy girl baking cupcakes who was on my album cover. She was still a part of me, but the other part of me was crying for help, and I was ignoring her. I tried every natural remedy, therapist, diet, and eastern religion I came across, but that other part of me would never leave me alone for good. She would pop up just when things were getting good and leave me rocking back and forth in my room.

Finally, I stepped away from the band and faced my mental illness. I accepted my diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 2, and I started the horrible trial-and-error of finding the right medication. As each drug failed to control my symptoms or presented even worse side effects, I often felt like giving up. My suicidal thoughts became the loudest thoughts in my head.

One day, I told one of my closest friends how many pills I had taken. She called 911 and I heard police officers at my door. I now know, after a few of these types of incidents, that if a police officer shows up at your door, you should just do what they say. But at this point, I was terrified. They chased me as I tried to run away screaming and took me to emergency.

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Hours later, I shuffled to the bathroom, sedated and numb. As I was washing my hands, I was struck by my reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t recognize the girl looking back at me. She was in a skimpy hospital gown, greasy hair standing almost on end, cheeks raw from crying and lips grey from dehydration. I looked stereotypical, like something out of a movie. I had never looked less cute in my life. Back at my hospital bed, my friend was waiting for me, desperately asking the nurses to bring me a sandwich. It’s important for me to say: I wasn’t cute, but I wasn’t alone either.

I’m 25 now. That wasn’t my last hospital visit, but it was the last time that I was startled by my own darkness. Now I embrace every part of me (or try to). I’ve repaired lost friendships, rekindled relationships torn apart by my unpredictability, and only a month and a half ago I finally found a cocktail of medications that keep me stable and safe. I’ve starting playing music again, and this time I write about the darkest parts of my life and hold nothing back. But the truth is I still have that part of me that loves paper hearts and the sound of the marimba.

I recently created a music video for my new song “Valentine,” a love letter I wrote to those who stood by my side through the ups and downs. In the video, I wanted to compare that cute girl who started a band when she was 16 with the girl I saw in the mirror at the hospital, and I wanted to show everyone that they are both me. I am a musician in her mid-20s who lives with bipolar disorder. Sometimes I feel empty and sometimes I feel full of joy. This music video shows the extreme opposites of my bipolar disorder and the importance of accepting the dark along with the light.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

A version of this article was published on Hey Sigmund.

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Why I Can't Ignore Bipolar Disorder Is Part of My Identity

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I never talk about it. Never really acknowledged it until recently. Maybe I was just in denial or maybe I truly didn’t see the severity of it, but to be honest I’m waving the white flag.

It’s time.

Time to realize I’m not “normal.” Time to see I need to make some changes before this illness takes over and destroys everything good I have ever built. It’s time I came to terms with who I am.

Bipolar.

I am bipolar and I’m sure you hear the word thrown out quite a bit, I know I have. But does anyone truly know what it’s like to be bipolar? Probably not. There is such a stigma behind mental illness we do not discuss it. A “behind the scenes” disability is what I call it. No one knows you’re struggling but you. For the most part, you can’t even admit you’re struggling with it until the damage is done and all you’re left with is the aftermath, the apologies and the guilt of what you’ve done. How can anyone even begin to understand it wasn’t you. I mean it was, but not truly. You wouldn’t say or do those things, would you?

It’s an exhausting existence to say the least, but it’s also amazing. When I’m manic, every breath of air is new, sweet and crisp. Every song speaks to my soul as if made just for me and for this moment alone. Life is great. Life is better than great! I can do anything, be anyone and the constant surge of energy and creativity is as bad as a drug. It lies to you, it causes you to make unrealistic goals and not see the real picture. You are essentially painting a more beautiful and brighter picture over an original.

In 2016, I was manic for the better part of a year. I believed in my mania. An endless, constant high of adrenaline, ideas, lists, goals and selfishness. The mornings filled with the taste of Red Bull and cigarettes, the sound of music and laughter and days filled with ideas coming from every part of my mind. So fast I couldn’t even make them out anymore. I was fast — too fast — 2016 was a blur. The nights were filled with more music, louder and constant. The taste of red bull with cigarettes remained, but with an added ingredient: vodka.

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Partying and self-medicating are a horrible alternative to the disorder but it’s also a temporary remedy that consoles, if only for the moment. Drinking fuels my mania and mania takes over logic. Suddenly my values, ideas and beliefs are no longer important and are negotiable. I awaken the next morning and I’ve hit my low. I’m filled with regret, distaste and embarrassment. No one makes me feel this way though, only I can do that. I allowed it and even pushed it because for the moment I was invincible.

How can I be so many people? A successful accountant, dedicated “workaholic,” loving wife and mother, best friend and daughter. I am those things but I’m also very much bipolar and ignoring this fact will only make it all worse. For myself and those I love, it is imperative I seek help immediately. It’s time to understand who I truly am behind all the titles and labels. It’s time to see my true painting. It may not be as beautiful, wild and exotic as I would like it to be. It may hurt me to face the reality of it all. The things I’ve said to the ones I love, the way I have acted and lashed out, the constant drunken and uncontrolled nights, but most importantly I need to learn to forgive myself. The regret when I come off a manic high is the worst and all of a sudden I am at an all time low.

The sounds are no longer sweet and soft. Food no longer tastes as delectable as I once thought it did. The drinking isn’t for fun anymore, but more to drown out my sorrows. The depression, regret, guilt and sadness become overwhelming and the only feeling you feel is exhaustion. The text messages and phone calls are minimal and the only outside experience I share is when I’m forced to work or face my family. They don’t understand and they take it personally, they all do.

“Why are you sad?”

“Are you OK?”

“Did I do something wrong?”

I can’t say how I feel, not again. It feels like I’m looking for attention or I feel like they’re just going to be annoyed by the same roller coaster I have been on for years. Only now I’m getting worse because no one told me it gets worse with age, with stress, with alcohol. So I say I’m fine and put on a fake smile hoping they will stop asking because deep down it’s irritating me. I’m becoming slowly irritable and everything everyone does annoys me. But it’s not OK to express annoyance. So I continue to hold in all the anger and sadness and irritability, until I snap at the wrong person and say the wrong things I can’t take back no matter what I do. I don’t care because they deserved it, right? It felt good letting it out. Then I see what I did and how the relationship or friendship has been affected by my words and actions and I start to see it’s not right. I’m not OK. Then hits the regrets again and sadness. It’s all downhill until it isn’t anymore.

Until life starts to slowly pace up a bit and I slowly start to feel OK again. I know it’s temporary but for the moment it’s great to not be in a super sad depression and it feels great to not be racing through life like it’s a race. For this moment, I come to terms with who I am and it’s bipolar.

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What I'm Doing to Protect My Mental Health as an Anxiety-Ridden Bipolar Activist

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“My desire to be informed is in conflict with my need to stay sane.”

I’ve seen this as a meme, and it’s funny — but there’s a measure of biting truth in it for me and others with mental illness. Especially those who deal with grandiosity, or feelings and beliefs of “larger than life,” “most awesome at ____” or my fall back, “I’m going to change the world!” Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes not so much.

In word and deed, it is my responsibility to support my fellow humans. In doing so though, it’s imperative I not lose my mind along the way. There is a unique struggle for those dealing with manic thoughts (see above examples) and need to contain their little activist hearts a bit more than usual these days.

I can get all twisted up in the imagery and words that come across my screen. Obsess on the latest article or terrible thing that’s happening. I can see in my mind’s eye the visuals, real or imagined, of the atrocities taking place. I mostly just try to push them out or imagine flowers or some such bullshit that I learned a dozen plus years ago.

Of course, at the same time as all that goes on, I want to be informed. The problem with that is then I become aware of things. Sometimes really horrific things. Once I’m aware of things I have to do something about them, otherwise I am complicit in the outcome. It’s sort of like the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” books, but for anxiety-ridden bipolar activists.

So, going back to staying informed while maintaining “sanity.” I’m choosing one thing to do. Just one. For me and many others, with and without mental illness, the idea of being silent in the face of the potential for devastating tyranny is unthinkable. However, it doesn’t need to be insurmountable if handled with care.

Just choose one thing. Start from there.

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The 'Hard' Exterior of a Man With Bipolar Disorder

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For many, and for me as a man, pride can get in the way when it comes to opening up about my struggles with mental illness. When you are supposed to be strong, and silent, and successful in the societal sense, you shouldn’t project any kind of weakness.

But fear is also at work too. How much can I say, and how much will I allow myself to ask for? People will surely think I am sick, that I am damaged, that I cannot contribute as a productive and healthy member of society. “He’s bipolar, he’s this, he’s that, he’s not maybe right for us.”

And how do I go about saying it? Of letting it out slowly and honestly, so I am truer to myself? How much support will I allow myself to receive from people, in a true sense, a modest sense?

It has taken a long time to be able to admit to myself, a seemingly well-put together person, that I could possibly be afraid of speaking to people or be afraid my words won’t ring true, that I’m faking it, that I might sound ridiculous, or that, well, you know, I’m acting like I’m confident, but inside I am shy. I’m from a successful family; I couldn’t possibly be insecure or afraid of certain situations that others may quite possibly glide easily through.

It takes incremental steps to forgive myself. Because the shame of living in your own inner darkness, when you are trying to project to the world that you are a well-put together human, is an utterly exhausting exercise.

“He couldn’t possibly be insecure or have low self-confidence. He has a job and a wife, and he did well in college, and, well, he looks OK.”

So, it comes down to being honest with myself. OK, shrink down the demons, put them in a manageable perspective. OK, so I couldn’t get the talk right because I was nervous and shaky and a little inadequate with my feelings today. Well, it was maybe good enough. I showed up and did it at least 50 percent well. And if I have to call in sick, I have to call in sick. And admit to myself that, “Hey, you don’t have it today. Maybe you’ll have it tomorrow. And that’s OK.” It’s OK to be off your game, to admit that, “Well, I just don’t think I can do it today.” And this honesty, this nudging of the pride, has been a step in facing a horrible illness but knowing I did my best with what I had that day.

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Out of shame and pain and difficult moments of depression when you think everything is as bland as bland can be, when your deepest thoughts are broken, when you feel you can’t go on longer, that hope has left you forever, wonderful richness can arise, over time. But, as I go there, I have to use language that complements the real me and doesn’t exaggerate the demons I have. Accept I have issues, be open in a way that doesn’t compromise myself, and in that I mean building things up in my head, often projecting them in an inauthentic way, that don’t reflect the true person I am.

So, being hard on myself is ingrained. It is part of who I am. It helps me in many ways to “succeed” in a conventional sense, but it does not serve. It is not serving the person I am and the person I strive to be. For, I am not a hard person. I am a person who is extremely hard on himself. I was just acting like a confident, stable, successful, strong and silent man because that was the way I thought the world wanted me to present myself. And when the insides are in conflict with your true nature, depression and anger and sadness mount. A man like me has bottled these things up for so long, living in a shroud of fear and insecurity.

But I want to be softer. I am softer now because I have learned how to let out my inner feelings in a more sustainable, cautious and natural way. I am less afraid to reveal my feelings, and to do this you have to trust yourself. Then you can trust others who can provide support and compassion. I use softer language now, tell the hard pride to just go rest for a while, I don’t need you to overwhelm me today. It’s OK to be soft and open and honest, to show weakness, to let down your guard in your way, to do it in a way that works for you — even for a man others might look at and say, “Wow, he’s so strong and confident.” While inside the story is different. And it is OK to tell yourself too. And to tell others in the language of your choosing. “I’m trying my best with what I’ve got. And that is enough. I am enough…”

I will play with you and tussle with you gently, pride and shame, but I will not let you engulf me anymore.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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