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6 Reminders for the 20-Something With Bipolar Disorder.

As a teenage kid, I couldn’t wait to turn 18. Among other things, I would be able to vote, play the lottery and buy fireworks! However, I seemed to overlook jury duty, more responsibilities… and more of everything. Onward into my 20s, I couldn’t wait for all the additional freedoms to come, like: legally consuming alcohol, renting a car and (maybe) even running for Congress. You never know — aim high friends, aim high.

Being a 20-something is exciting and joyful — truly. However, it can be uninspiring and painful too. Rumor has it (a.k.a. neuroscience) that the prefrontal cortex of the adult brain does not fully develop until at least our mid-twenties — cool right? Answer: yes and no. This region of our brains oversees our executive functioning — basically, it is the rational and logical part of who we are. So, yes — we have room to improve and gain efficiency! Good stuff.

Spoiler alert though: there’s a “but” here. This also means our personalities are not yet whole, impulse control remains problematic and decision-making is still tough. Oh — and how could I forget? This one was huge for me: the onset of most mental illnesses occurs in the late-teens to mid-20s. According to NAMI, the magic number for bipolar disorder is age 25. Unfortunately, I was an early bloomer at 21. As I’m sure you know, being a 20-something is already difficult — with bipolar I, I have learned some things along the way. Here are a few:

1. You don’t have to have it all together.

Regardless of age, most people don’t. Most people won’t. Believe me — this concept of “having it all together” is a myth, an illusion even. Usually, it is just a façade. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Sure, I can see the value in that: survival. There are certain moments where you must do what you must do to push through. I’ve done that. I understand that. However, I also understand this is not healthy. It is not something we can keep up — nor should it be something we try to.

Remember this: it is OK to not be OK. It is OK to fall. It is OK to make mistakes. It. Is. OK. With bipolar disorder, I know there’s more pressure on me to seem put together. When I feel sad, I am terrified that people will think I am slipping into a depressive state. Similarly, when I am more happy than usual, I fear they’ll reason I’m going manic and question whether I’m taking my medications. This is where I take a step back and remind myself that people will have their opinions — many of which are not easily changed. It is what it is — dwelling on it will only hurt me more deeply. Here’s how I combat that: I grant myself some grace. I am human. You are human. We aren’t perfect. Our fallibility and mortality make life even more wholesome. It is an experience. Despite the negatives, I consider this a privilege. We are all learning from ourselves and from each other. We are all constantly moving and doing. It’s OK to stop in moments to just “be.” In “being,” we can recognize and appreciate the beauty of not having it all together.

2. It’s OK if change is overwhelming.

Life is a roller coaster for everyone in their 20s — not just us. There is a tremendous amount of changes that can and do occur within a decade’s time: newfound independence, dating, college, work, marriage, graduation, better jobs, traveling, pet-parenthood, career building, starting a family, moving, more college… everything happens so fast and seemingly all at once. Further — reasonably — everyone is experiencing the associated stronger emotions, reactions and experiences: grief, anxiety, shame, inspiration, determination, shock, love, confusion, boredom, envy, happiness, doubt, delight, uncertainty, creativity, sorrow, boldness, resent, ambition, empowerment… The list could go on forever.

“Adulting” doesn’t come with an instruction manual and it is not an easy transition. Your 20s can be defined as a decade of semi-structured chaos. Hang on friends. The ride does smoothen over time — the slopes won’t be as steep, and the turns won’t be as violent. Hang on.

3. Avoid comparing yourself to what you’re “supposed” to be.

This one is difficult to practice; I don’t deny that. There are so many voices telling us who we “should” be: our parents, politics, the economy, our spouses, the educational system, our children, religion, friends, the media and society at large. They all seem to shout toward us — whereas what we want tends to get muffled down to mere whispers. It is painful to assume an identity that is not your own — excruciating to attempt to cram yourself into the mold. It’s OK to defy who you’re “supposed” to be in light of who you are and who you want to be. There is no standard for success or happiness — it is distinctive. Ignore the “typical” timeline of others — take your time. Go at your own pace. Breathe. Don’t rush — find your path and follow it.

Further, what people share on social media is not who they are 95% of the time: everything is filtered and hardly ever real; they post the best of themselves and leave out all the rest. There is minimal authenticity. There is little to no raw, unmodified content. So, why compare yourself to this? It is not fair to you. It can be detrimental. Don’t tie your worth to the perception others may have of you. Self-perception is the end all be all. Inner peace, less comparison and positive self-image are my hopes for you. Love yourself as best as you can.

4. It’s OK to need other people.

Living in America has heavily engrained the machismo idea that “we can pick ourselves up by our bootstraps” into many minds. Sure — yes, this is factual, admirable and possible. However, it is not always necessary; it is not always wise or healthy. Yes, we can do most things on our own — but, that doesn’t make the harder things any easier. It can be miserable to walk this Earth alone — but, you don’t have to! We weren’t meant to do life on our own. We were made for each other. It’s such a precious concept to sit back and take in. Our existences are meant to be shared. So — it’s OK to want support. It’s OK to need it. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to let yourself be cared for.

I can’t tell you how many times my bipolar-afflicted brain decides to label me as a burden, a liability or a hassle. Sometimes, it tells me that I’m not worth it — that my life is not worth it. It makes me feel as if the efforts of my loved ones have been wasted. Of course, this is not true. I am worth it, and their efforts are not in vain. Even when I don’t accept this, the people around me do. They remind me. It’s not selfish to accept the selflessness of the people you cherish most. It’s not. Guilt is unwarranted — don’t allow your brain to lie to you more than it already does. You aren’t taking advantage of them — you are letting them love you. Embrace it. Example: I owe my life to a woman who has become my chosen older sister, she has loved me unconditionally. I am still breathing because of her. She talked me off the ledge and took me in.

I assure you — you are worth it. Please take that to heart.

5. Managing a mental illness can be terrifying, but trust the process.

This one is pretty straightforward:

Progress is not linear — there may be setbacks, sidesteps, tears, sprinting, groaning, bleeding, crawling, unexpected stops and absolutely anything else in between. Yet, progress is still progress — keep faith in that. Additionally, accept the support of family members, friends, clergy, doctors, therapists and employers. You are not alone in this. Your well-being is a priority.

Therapy. Learning new coping skills. Medications. Safety plans. School/work accommodations. Regular health check-ups. Side effects… The struggle is real. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting. I understand too well. You may not like it (as I don’t most times). But, trust it. Good things will come to reward your hard work.

6. Small steps matter.

With bipolar disorder, there are many (seemingly little) accomplishments that deserve much more praise than I’ve given them. The big steps are easy to identify, like: holding a job, getting into college, being there for your kids, graduating from college, sustaining your marriage and/or buying a home. But it’s those small steps that make a tremendous difference day-to-day; the small steps build into the larger ones.

Small wins matter. I got out of bed this morning. I won. Every morning I fight off medication induced fatigue and grogginess, as well as the consistent pressure of depression that would prefer me to stay in bed. I am in a darker depressive episode than I have been in awhile. Despite this, I got up. I still did. Currently, I am sitting at the kitchen table, sipping tea and writing this. I have already won. It may seem little to the vast majority, but this is an everyday miracle. Depression lost this morning — that is something to celebrate.

Not everything is a loud and proud moment. Maintaining hygiene? Cooking? Eating healthily? Taking your meds every day? Attending your therapy sessions? Being honest with those closest to you? Going to the gym? Doing your laundry? Folding that laundry? Drinking enough water? Not calling in sick to work often? Are these wins? Definitely. These. Are. All. Huge. Acknowledge them. I see you. I’m proud of you. Remember this: much of being a 20-something is walking tall with the small. A win is a win. No matter the size — a step forward is a step forward.

There’s nothing left for me to say. Smile and laugh. Live and learn. Cry and sigh. Love and be loved. This is a decade of rapid change and growth for me — it’s scary at times, but I welcome it. I have faith for the future. Congratulations friends. You’re doing it. You’re making it. Enjoy your 20s.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash