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8 Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder

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When you’re facing bipolar disorder there are some things you can do to lessen its hold on you. But in order to do so, you’ve got to have the right tools. Try to collect as many as possible for best effect. Shall we take a look at what they are?

1. The usual suspects.

Medication helps tame your symptoms, level your moods, get your brain back in gear and/or regulate your energy. A psychiatrist helps prescribe your medications (a primary care physician may also do this). A psychotherapist can discuss with you the issues you haven’t resolved, the problems you still have and the things the medication can’t do.

2. Self-care.

I believe the two most important tools you need for self-care are sleep and food. Without either, the body can’t function properly, and if the body doesn’t function, the brain is less likely to function properly. Ideally, the food should be nutritious and eaten regularly, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. But you’ve got to give your body something to run on.

3. Support.

Find support where you can: a friend who’s willing to listen, a support group online or in real life. Try for a combination of these and don’t rely on any one of them for too much. Maybe you have a friend you can phone once a week. A support group that meets every two weeks. An online group of two of people who really understand, with links to helpful articles and blogs. Before you know it, you’ve got a support system — especially if you count your therapist (which I do) or have a supportive family.

4. Spoon Theory.

Basically, “Spoon Theory” is a way to measure how much energy you have on any given day. It is an understandable metaphor for explaining your symptoms to others and a shorthand for other people who are also up on the theory. It can also help alleviate the guilt of not being able to do all the things you are “supposed” to do in a day. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

5. Distraction.

Let’s face it, it can be all too easy to dwell on symptoms and how miserable you are. And if you’re at the bottom of the depressive well, there may be nothing you can do about it. But maybe there is. Do you know a person who tells good jokes – or really bad ones? Do you have music you used to play but have forgotten about? Do you know of a TV show you like? Do you have a go-to movie that never gets old no matter how many times you see it?

6. Creativity.

If your distraction involves creativity, so much the better. Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is, you don’t have to paint masterpieces. Just keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

7. Comfort.

Soft, warm, fluffy things and smooth, silky things are soothing. They just are. Cats and dogs come instantly to mind, but I also have a collection of teddy bears and other plushies I sometimes cuddle with. These are “comfort objects,” which is an actual psychological thing. I even took a plush bunny with me when I went to have a sleep study.

8. Stubbornness.

This may be the most important tool of all. Be stubborn. Take those meds, even if you hate them. Eat that egg, even if you don’t feel like it. Go to that appointment, even if will take all your spoons for the day. Call that friend, even if you don’t think a joke will help. Post on your support group, even if you feel you are alone.

We can’t let bipolar disorder beat us. Not when we’ve got so much to beat it back with.

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Thinkstock photo via gresei.

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Listening to Your Body When You Live With Bipolar Disorder

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We’ve all been told at some point in our lives that exercise will make us feel better. And while that may be true, it’s not always that easy for those of us who live with a mental illness. Especially those of us with bipolar disorder.

See, with bipolar disorder there is a fine line between mania and depression, and then there’s the gray area in between. Triggers can make exercising and routines difficult to achieve, and here’s why.

In order for me to have the energy to work out, I need caffeine… which just so happens to be my biggest trigger. If I have too much, I’m hypomanic, but eventually take the spiraling plunge to the inevitable crash that follows. It’s like being pumped full of adrenaline to ski down a slippery slope and suddenly losing control! Before you know it, you’re crumpled at the bottom of the hill, but with no energy to climb back up again.

So then I’m faced with a dilemma: do I do something that I know triggers me so I can feel better for a little while and then end the night crying and yelling because I’m so tired and irritated? Or do I skip working out and end the night feeling so tired, and a little less irritated?

In a difficult to explain kind of way, caffeine is my trigger, but exercise is my solution. Because you know, luckily for me, I have been able to learn my body and gauge how I’m going to react to the trigger of caffeine. When you have been struggling with bipolar disorder as long as I have, you tend to learn your body and moods to decipher what will work and what won’t. I can tell when I’m “up” mentally but “down” physically, if I take anything with caffeine I will put myself into overdrive, only to crash later. But if I feel tired mentally and tired physically, I know if I have just a little bit of caffeine, I will be able to get through a workout and not crash after. I also know, if I am “down” mentally and “down” physically, taking anything with caffeine would be a disaster and instead of making me hypomanic I would become more depressed.

That’s the thing with mental illness. There’s a balancing act we struggle with all day long. Even when it comes to making decisions that could benefit our health… sometimes it could make our health worse. If you’re anything like me, all you would like to do is be the type of person who can exercise every day, work hard at a job you love without struggling to keep up and be able to balance those things with a productive and exciting home life.

I’m naturally too hard on myself, so I convince myself that if I can’t achieve those things I am not worthy of a happy life. But I also have to remind myself that I can only do my best and I need to accept when I’m struggling, and that it’s OK to take my time with exercising to feel better.

Some days I rock at life and some days I need to skip the gym, lay in bed in my PJ’s and pig out on soul food. It’s called balance, and that’s OK.

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes

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When It Feels Like Everyone's Talking About You

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You know when you feel sure other people are talking about you? You notice them whispering, or looking at you, or studiously not looking at you, and you think, what are they saying about me?

Psychologists call those feelings “ideas of reference.” Ideas of reference are often associated with paranoia. However, if you ask people with clinical depression or people with bipolar disorder, you will find many of them have them as well.

I know I have. It’s hard not to. You already feel that you’re not really “normal” (whatever that means) and you’re afraid that it shows. If people can see you’re not like everyone else, they’re bound to be talking about it. Never mind your difference is a mental one; you’re sure everyone can tell just by looking at you that you’re “crazy.”

In actual fact, the people you think are talking about you usually aren’t — until you go over to them and defensively berate them or accuse them of doing so. Then you can be sure they will be talking about you after you leave.

Except most people in everyday life do not spend their time discussing how odd the people around them are. The average person is too involved in his or her own daily life to give more than a passing glance to a stranger. The people you see whispering behind their hands are most likely developing their own secrets or gossiping about someone you don’t even know.

Even if the people are talking about you, ask yourself — so what? Do their opinions really matter? I know you want to say yes, they do. But in the larger scheme of things, they don’t. Your life will not change in the slightest if they are saying they don’t like your haircut or that they heard you bite your nails. Malicious gossip and social bullying are separate matters. But again, you don’t really know these people are saying anything that’s actually harmful.

Perhaps you feel it’s more significant if the people you think are talking about you are family members, coworkers or friends. They may really be talking about you. The point is, even if they are, you have no idea what they’re saying. Most of the time they speak in low tones so as not to upset you, never realizing that upsets you more. Tell yourself they could be planning a surprise party or talking about Aunt Edna’s affair with a younger man. Remember not everything is about you.

Ideas of reference may be a factor in imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are not really successful, competent or talented, but are just faking it and that everyone around you can tell. Or perhaps your ideas of reference are like intrusive thoughts — sudden, distressing notions that pop into your head, seemingly without cause or warning. These can be anything at all, from, “I wonder if my passport has expired,” to “Who would miss me if I died?” to “Those people are talking about me.”

What can you do if you have ideas of reference? Resist the urge to ask if the people are really talking about you. Ignore them if you can. (This is not the same as the bad old non-advice about ignoring bullies. You know when a bully targets you. With ideas of reference, you never really know if your fears are true.) Since you didn’t actually hear what the people said, you can realistically assume they were talking about someone or something else entirely. Imagine that one is telling the other that her slip is showing. (Do people still wear slips? I know they don’t wear pantyhose anymore.)

If you feel you must react, use a minimal response such as the good ol’ side-eye, which is sufficiently ambiguous that the person (who may also have ideas of reference) can assume it’s directed at someone else. Another suggestion I’ve heard is to work with your therapist on issues of self-esteem and self-concept, or to try cognitive behavioral therapy. Some medications may help, too. Still, if you feel you can manage it, I think the best idea is to tell yourself, “So what?” and move on.

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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure

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A Note to Myself for When I Miss My Mania

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To myself for when I miss my mania,

You’re bipolar. I know it’s been hard to admit to yourself until now but after an official diagnosis, there’s finally a word to describe the chaos you’ve been going through for years.

After a terrifying bout of what you now know was mania, you’ve finally realized there’s something wrong. Now you’ve slipped into depression and you’re missing that euphoric high. You miss the days when you had all the energy in the world, as you lay in bed unable to get up the energy to do anything. I’m here to tell you that your mind is playing tricks on you and not everything was as great as it seems.

You can romanticize being a free spirit all you want, but deep down you know better. Even though you tell tales of your spontaneous world travels to others, you know that feeling like you’re on top of the world — that everything is beautiful and thinking, “How could you ever be sad?” — one moment, only to be crying on the floor of a hostel the next isn’t healthy.

You can romanticize dramatic relationships all you want, but deep down you know better. You think you had torrid love affairs, the stuff of poems. However, you know sleeping with random men you just met because you were feeling every emotion too deeply for words isn’t healthy. Your poor judgment, combined with your erratic, seemingly “quirky” behavior, may have been attractive to some. However, it also led to a series of self-destructive behaviors that caused you to lose a good friend and have to pay for an abortion. That’s anything but healthy.

You can romanticize not needing sleep all you want, but deep down you know better. You thought you were the cool party girl, but recklessly spending over $1,500 in less than a week on drugs and alcohol is anything but cool. Plus, during these all-nighters, you couldn’t stop your thoughts from racing and had only anxiety-inducing panic attacks to greet you in the morning. You might’ve thought you were being productive and creative like the “crazy artist” trope you identify with, but in reality, all you had were “amazing” ideas combined with a mind so scattered you were unable to accomplish anything. That wasn’t creativity.

These feelings of euphoria may seem amazing at the time, but you know they have devastating effects on your wallet, on your body, on your overall mental state. It’s like you’re borrowing happiness from your future self. Being manic means the crippling depression is just around the corner. Stability may seem boring and routine may get stale, but it’s what you need more than anything right now.

Going into a manic state isn’t the way to get over your depression. I know taking medication and going to therapy seem like lost causes, but they can only help you. Happiness may seem like an impossibility right now but being manic won’t fix that. You don’t miss your mania; you miss feeling alive. One day this fog will lift and you’ll feel alive once more — this time, without leaving a path of destruction in your wake.

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15 Self-Portraits That Show the Stages of My Mental Illness

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I paint self-portraits when I am battling my mental illness. Some are realistic, like on my good days. Most of the portraits depict aspects of my illness. I recently went through my portraits and found pictures of the stages of my mental illness. So here is my version of bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), dissociation and psychotic episodes.

Brokenness

I have painted many faces like this one — all lines and abstract shapes, some in color, some black and white. I paint these faces when I feel only emotion and am unable to speak. I feel broken and hurt. Sometimes it’s not safe to speak or show my self. I paint these faces to show the pain I feel inside.

Brokenness portrait

Depression

I don’t often paint while depressed. I feel weak and have so little energy. Creativity doesn’t flow. But in this painting, I am rising from a long battle with depression and anxiety. My mental illness is behind me and in front of me. But I still stand and look ahead to the future.

fighting through depression portrait

This is another painting created as I was coming out of depression. I felt lost. Everything was the same shade. I wanted to feel something. I used sand in the paint to give it a gritty texture. The paint felt real and powerful as I laid it on the canvas with thick strokes. I was lost in the background, but I was still there. I kept my voice.

rising from depression portrait

Anxiety

My anxiety was thick within me. I was angry. I wanted to carve into the canvas, to destroy it in order to express the overwhelming anxiety and frustration I felt. I painted in red. I was angry with how the painting ended, but it felt real and complete somehow, so I left it and moved on to another canvas.

anxiety anger portrait

Mania

When I am manic I have a million ideas at the same time and my mind is spinning frantically as the emotions chase after. I created this collage in a frantic, feverish state of mind, dancing around my apartment and flipping between anger and euphoria. Finally, after eight hours, it was finished and I collapsed with exhaustion.

bipolar mania portrait
This painting followed the other. I became even more frenzied. I painted thickly on the canvas, mixing the paint with gritty sand, not patient enough to blend colors. The colors weren’t right and I kept getting angrier, but I couldn’t stop. I painted a dark face and then covered it with parts of comic books. The strong intensity of the comic heroines felt right. They felt powerful and intense, like my manic self. I kept switching between loving and hating the collage, wanting to destroy it and then frame it. I kept pacing around the room. Finally I decided it was done. It had been hours of art-making with no breaks for food or rest. I was exhausted and finally rested, trying to get something to eat.

mania 2 portrait

Inner demons

I feel something self-destructive inside of me. I feel forces inside me that want to destroy me. When I look at them too closely I get frightened. I painted this while feeling intense anger and anxiety. I didn’t like looking at this face. So I quickly painted over it.

anger portrait

The face I wear

I painted this blank, safe face on top of the last face, to hide the inner turmoil I felt. I can make my face blank and be peaceful and no one will know my inner struggles. This face is safe, but she feels empty since she is hiding so much inside.

mask portrait

My two selves

This depicts my inner and outer self. My outer self on the right, is polite and refined. She is nice and knows what to do to get along in life. My inner self has tumult and chaos, the raging storms of bipolar disorder, the emotions and anxiety, all of the swirling thoughts that fill my head. Yet the inner self feels very alive and interesting. The outer self is kind of boring.

face divided

Psychotic episodes

Sometimes I hear voices. Some are good and some bad. This painting/collage shows me distressed by all the voices I hear, looking to the sky for some peace.

psychotic episode

Flashback

Sometimes things trigger memories and I become a former self. Suddenly I am 14 again or 20 or eight. I see myself in the small box of the memory. Like the self depicted here. She doesn’t look much like me but that’s OK.

flashback portrait
Dissociation

Sometimes when I am under a lot of stress, I disappear into the sky. I lose myself somewhere. Several times I have woken up in a city with no memory of the drive there. Sometimes I feel as if I leave my body and I am floating in the sky, watching myself below. Sometimes my life doesn’t seem real. It’s freeing but terrifying at the same time. Thankfully I always come back home in the end. This painting shows me dissolving into the sky.  But I’m not lost.

dissociation portrait
When I am under extreme stress, my mind splits into parts. Suddenly I am two selves or three or five. Sometimes I speak from other selves. Under extreme stress, my mind splits and doesn’t work right. I painted this during a time when I felt very split into different selves. I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I thought painting a self-portrait would help me come back to myself. But when I drew the face it didn’t look like me. I painted over the face. I recognized myself in the blank face. I was happy to see this blank face, it was me in that moment and I felt like I knew myself again.

faceless portrait

Confident

I don’t have red hair in real life. Red doesn’t work on me. But to me red is the color of confidence. I painted this after I had finally conquered some mental battles. I saw beauty in myself again and was hopeful. I was starting to like myself again. The colors in the background represent the complications of my life with mental illness. I am strong enough to stand in front of them and have my own voice.

confident portrait

Love

My husband is a photographer and he took this photo of me. When I look at it I remember how loved I am. All the paintings show my brokenness due to my mental illness, but I look at this photo and I see beauty in myself and the love of my husband. I believe everything will work out in the end.

love photo

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How Bipolar Disorder Affects My Role as an Activist

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America is going through a major crisis right now. The political and social climate couldn’t be more tense. And yet for me, it feels as though I’m living in a bubble. I can see and hear everything that’s going on in the real world and witness the events unfold, but I can’t get involved and put in work as I would like. I’m watching from a distance, unable to connect with anyone or anything.

I want to be on the front lines, making my voice heard and speaking up for justice. Instead I’m confined to my home, relegated to social media as my only means of resistance. My mental and physical health are just not up to par these days. I’ve been pretty sick for a while now, actually. I always hear having bipolar disorder makes you less able to handle stressful situations and at the same time stress exacerbates the symptoms of the disorder. It’s a trap I long to escape.

In my mind, I know this storm will pass and I will feel up to joining marches and attending rallies. But deep down I can’t help but feel a sense of shame and regret my illness is taking so much out of me. Some days I’m able to put my best foot forward and be grateful for the outlets I do have. And at other times, I give in to the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. All in all, I know the best thing I can do is accept myself for where I am and what I’m able to do at the moment. And look forward to the days when I will feel whole again.

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