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I was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While it’s comforting to know there’s a reason for everything that has been going on with me for the past six or so years, I can’t help but feel like there’s now something inherently “wrong” with me. Which I guess just goes to show how much of a stigma there is surrounding mental health issues today. However, I’ve decided to use this new diagnosis as a way to change my life for the better. I’ve started taking medication and I’ve been doing a lot of research on this illness. When I want to learn more about a subject, I won’t stop until I feel like I’m an expert. I’ve read countless books, scholarly articles, blog posts — anything I can get my hands on to help me better understand this disorder and, more importantly, myself.

One thing almost every single piece of literature I’ve read has in common is the views on bipolar disorder and substance abuse. It’s a dangerous combination. Ever since I can remember, I’ve used drugs and alcohol to ease into social situations or as self-medication when I’m feeling really down. You name it, I’ve probably done it. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but think some major change in my life needs to happen for me to truly get a handle on this illness. That’s why I’m deciding right here and now to put my party girl days behind me and stop using substances as a crutch. I need to face my demons head on if there’s any hope for me to lead a relatively happy and healthy life with bipolar disorder. The list of reasons why this is a good idea for me are probably endless, but I’ve come up with a few I can look back on for when things get particularly difficult, which I know they will. Who knows, maybe they might help someone else who, like me, is struggling to get a handle on things.

1. Alcohol and drugs can make mania and depression worse.

For me, it’s the mania. My mood is already unstable enough as it is, and I’ve learned drinking and drugs only further escalate things. I’ve written before about how sometimes I miss being manic because it makes life seem more exciting. I go searching for ways to try and feel that high again, but it just ends up making it that much harder to come down. When I finally do — and oh boy, I do come down — the depression is even more debilitating. Then I’ll end up using when I’m depressed to try and make myself feel better, but it’s always a temporary fix and usually just ends up making me feel worse. Bipolar is cyclical and the substance abuse makes that cycle a vicious one.

2. I have an extremely addictive personality.

Sure, most people can kick back with friends and have a few drinks, but I am not one of them. I think a lot of those with bipolar disorder struggle with this issue. Once I start, I just don’t seem to know when to stop. Throw in the fact I also have borderline personality disorder (you know, that whole “all-or-nothing” mentality) then mix in my impulse control issues and suddenly, what was supposed to be a few drinks with friends has turned into a two-week-long bender. I don’t know when to admit the party’s over and it’s a recipe for disaster that always leaves me mentally, emotionally and (usually) monetarily drained.

3. I’m not supposed to be drinking with the medication I’m taking.

In addition to the research I’ve done on bipolar disorder, I’ve also dug into all the information available on the different prescribed psychiatric drugs I’m currently on. I was only diagnosed in December, so I’m still working with my psychiatrist on finding the right balance of medication for me. It’s been a process of trial and error, as I’ve learned it is for most people. I mean, one girl I’ve talked to said it took years for her to find a combination of meds that worked for her. There’s so many different mood stabilizers, antipsychotics and antidepressants out there and they all have a whole mess of potential side effects. What’s one thing most have in common, though? “Patients should avoid the use of alcohol while taking this drug.” I copy and pasted that straight from Google. That right there should be reason enough for me. I know my medicine won’t be able to help me if I don’t give it the chance to.

I could go on forever about why getting clean is the best decision for me right now. I haven’t even touched on how it affects my personal relationships. That’s a story for another time and place. One thing I am grateful for as a result of this diagnosis is it’s forced me to become more introspective. I’m finally dealing with my problems and I think only good things can come from this. I’m looking forward to leading a healthier life both mentally and now, psychically. I’m also really curious to see if there are other people out there who struggle with bipolar and substance abuse the way I do.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Thinkstock photo via ARTQU.

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To Those Who Know,

Thank you for giving me the courage and strength to show up on the bad days, but also the comfort I can stay home if I need to. Telling you was terrifying. There’s no taking back something like that. But I’m glad I told you so I don’t have to waste energy trying to hide it. I can walk into the office and shut my door, and when you know I’m at my worst, you respect that door. You may not think you’re helping on those days, but you are.

To Those Who Don’t,

Thank you for not prying. It’s an odd thing for me to explain over the phone, so, for the most part, you don’t know because I haven’t wanted to spring it on you. But thank you for noticing I’ve been gone from work and for asking if I’m OK. As silly as it sounds, asking if I’m OK lets me know it’s OK if the answer is, “I’m getting there.” You all seem to understand that just because I’m back doesn’t mean I’m fully healed, and that grace is liberating. Knowing I don’t have to cringe at my phone ringing is a big deal.

I realize there is a chance you are finding out by reading this now. That thought has crossed my mind, and I am prepared for that possibility. That’s the environment you have created. I’m not scared you’ll find out anymore. If you do, you do. If you don’t, you don’t. But I won’t hide, and I thank you for that.

Sincerely and thankfully,

Your co-worker struggling with Bipolar II

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Today is one of those. A cloudy grim dark chilly day here in Ontario. I expected to wake up barely being able to stay out of bed long enough to get the kids off to school. It was the total opposite. I glared at the clouds and loved observing the formations they took on. I admired the beautiful sound of rain upon my window sill. I embraced the thought of leaving the house in my non-hooded jacket to feel each drop of rain hit my face. It was all so beautiful, something I don’t remember experiencing.

I have been learning through cognitive behavioral therapy that our minds tell us a lot of things that aren’t true. It tells us we are worthless, hopeless and deserve to be alone. Those thoughts are not actually true, but for some reason they convince us to choose to believe them.

Imagine telling our brains you are not in control of me. You do not get the choice to make me feel worthless, hopeless and out of control. I choose to not believe you because I am aware and in control of myself.

Identifying today may not be a great day due to the weather is already giving your brain the control. It opens the door for more negative thoughts to occur. By saying today is going to be a “write off” eliminates your possibilities. It may lead to thoughts about sad times, sad movies and sad music. These things seem reachable and achievable because they feed the low moment.

It easier to withdraw from others and live selflessly alone, your brain convinces you these things are OK. I am not saying feeling sadness and loneliness is always within your control, but being aware that you are in a sad state can help you think of a to-do list. A list of things that make you more sad and feel hopeless is helpful. This is better done on a day you are feeling OK. This has helped me immensely.

I have identified that certain songs trigger my tears. Especially those that I listened to while going through a separation.

I have identified certain television shows bring on past insecurities as an alcoholic.

I have identified certain people trigger me into comparing my old life as a wife to being just a girlfriend are causes for feeling worthless

Certain holidays such as Valentine’s Day trigger upset, as this was the day I told my ex-husband I was pregnant.

It’s attainable to write the things down that feed your sadness so that you can avoid letting those triggers bring you to the depths of emotional turmoil

I identified my resources that support me when I am down. I chose to let in few people about my diagnosis of bipolar, but on my darkest days when I realize I have been consumed by all the triggers I wrote down, I reach out to the very few who support me and remind me I am worthy.

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Last month, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Until my body gets used to the medications, I’m considered to be on the “bipolar spectrum,” meaning there is no specification of whether I am bipolar type I or II. Regardless, I am happy to have at least some idea of why I am the way I am.

One of the worst parts of having bipolar is feeling alienated. I feel isolated, left out and alienated on a daily basis. My friends don’t seem to care what happens to me, how I feel or what is going on in my life, despite my numerous efforts to be active in theirs. I am rarely extended an invitation anywhere and I am usually the person who extends the invitations, despite the lack of people who show up. The only time I am checked on is after I tell someone how I feel, and that only lasts for a few days before I am suddenly on the back burner again. Some of you may be thinking, “Why don’t you get better friends?” The problem is not only that it is difficult for me to make friends being unemployed and out of school, but it’s hard to determine what is real and what is a symptom of my bipolar disorder. Are my friends actually leaving me out, or am I overdramatizing the situation?

To determine the answer to this question, there are a few things I can do. Firstly, I need to stop keeping score. I find myself often going back in my texts and seeing who was the first to message who. How many times did I get called by Person A today? How many times has Person B responded within a few minutes vs. a few hours/days? Doing things like this only leads me down a path my disorder has created. One of the best things I’ve done for myself recently is delete my texts at the end of each day. This way, I can’t go back and check on these silly little details.

I feel alienated for several reasons and social media only makes that 100 times worse. It helps me to avoid checking up on your friends’ social media profiles. I noticed I started taking mental notes of my friends’ activities. Person A went to the movies with a mutual friend, but when I invited them to a movie they turned me down and said they didn’t feel well. In reality, that person most likely didn’t feel well or wasn’t in the mood for a movie. That’s not a crime. However, my bipolar disorder tells me that person is making excuses to avoid hanging out with me because they dislike me, think I’m too sick or am boring. No matter what that person’s excuse is, my brain makes me believe they dislike me. Instead of keeping mental notes about my friends’ days, I decided to avoid social media. I unfollowed many of my close friends on Facebook and Instagram so I can avoid those dangerous thoughts.

What about in real life? How can I avoid real life triggers for these feelings? This one’s not as simple, and I’m still trying to figure out this portion of my thought life. One way I’ve started to succeed in this is to stop overanalyzing situations no one else is analyzing. For example, when I go to the bar with friends, I start to notice who is the center of the conversation, what body language and facial expressions are made toward certain people versus myself and who is surrounded by the most people. This is another way of keeping score that I have rationalized into being simply “fascinated with human behavior.” In reality, this analyzing causes me to feel inferior when, in fact, I am equal to my peers. Once I learn how to stop this behavior, I will be more capable of maintaining relationships without feeling second best.

Bipolar disorder is a sneaky disorder, tricking me into believing things that are much more simple than I perceive them. I struggle with my relationships daily, and it’s hard not to feel second best. Thankfully, I am on a daily medication to assist me, but I have to control my own behavior as well. One day, I will be able to feel equal to my peers and have a healthy relationship. Until then, I am learning about myself all over again.

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With bipolar disorder, every day my brain is in recovery. If you thought I was referring to depression, you’d only be half right. See, my brain doesn’t only have to recover from depression, it has to recover from hypomania, too. No matter which state of mind I was in the day (or days) before, my brain wakes up in recovery mode, and it’s exhausting.

Some days I feel like I can’t catch up, and when I do, I wonder if it’s another bout of hypomania or if it’s a stable day. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

If you have a chronic illness — mental or physical — your body is basically fighting itself all day every day, and we all have to recover in our own ways.

At 27 years of age, I have to pick and choose my battles. Whether it’s a decision regarding fun or a decision of importance, I have to choose which one I’ll have the energy to struggle with, and just as importantly, which ones I can recover from when needed. Most people my age can run circles around me, go out with friends, work and have extracurricular activities…but not me.

Even at such a young age, I have to choose if having a night out with friends will be worth the struggle to recuperate in the days ahead. Deciding can be tiring itself, and being the people pleaser that I am, I usually choose to go out anyway.

Likewise, my husband and I have opposite schedules, so I rarely get to see him. On some nights, I have to choose whether or not to stay up a little later to spend time with him. I have to think about if it will leave me exhausted and emotional the following day and if I’ll have the chance to catch back up.

As a wife, a mother, a friend and an employee, I have to choose which exhausting tasks I can conquer and recover from, while others don’t have to even think about it.

Luckily for me, I have a wonderful support system. I have an amazing husband who picks up my slack without being disgruntled. I have a sweet little girl who only wants mommy to feel better and tries to take care of me when she can. I have employers who know of my illness and know when I request to leave early, I really need it, because I rarely make that request. I also have a select few friends I can trust and vent to who will listen without judgment. I am lucky to have the support system I do when I need help on my recovery days and I hope you do too.

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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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