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5 Tips for Coming Back from Your Manic Episode

I’d missed two flights that morning. The first one I slept through after having fallen asleep at 4 a.m. The second one I barely missed. My solution was to book a first class ticket for later that day, burning through yet another credit card I didn’t need. By that time I was over $20,000 in credit card debt, heading to Los Angeles to meet a tarot reader I saw in a book I purchased back in New Orleans, days before.

Once we landed in L.A., I disabled airplane mode, only to find my inbox full of messages from people I love telling me to “slow down” or telling me how worried they were about me. For some, it was the reckless, public way I quit my job. For others, it was random Twitter rants, arguments with strangers, or having left behind every single responsibility in Maryland. Later, I’d learn that people thought I was experiencing an early onset middle life crisis. It wasn’t. I was smack dab in the middle of my first manic episode and things were getting worse and worse.

Eventually, I returned home. During a visit with my psychiatrist, it was confirmed that I had bipolar disorder. This news hit me like a dump truck. My response was: “Please don’t tell anyone…they can never know.” I knew my psychiatrist wouldn’t share such confidential information, but paranoia set in and held its grip. For the past three months, while I had been gallivanting across the country (and at one point in Costa Rica), people told me over and over again that they thought I was bipolar. I was incensed whenever I’d hear this. It’s sort of like being in a bar with a friend and telling them you think they have a drinking problem: no one wants to be called an alcoholic. Still, I believe folks were doing the best they could to bring me back down to earth so I’d hurt less people. But, they didn’t need to, the eventual depression took me down so far I prayed for death.

My wife tells me the depression was almost as bad as the mania. I’d spend days in bed, too burdened and too ashamed to move. If it wasn’t for the birth of my daughter, and having a solid support system, I would have not made it through such a dark time.

It’s been two years since mania hit, and I’ve learned so much in the wake of it. I believe part of my life’s purpose now is to share my story so others living with bipolar disorder feel less alone.

Here are five tips I learned along the way that can help you in coming back from your manic episode:

1. Know that you are not your disorder.

I secured a seasonal job at Target in late 2019. I felt hopeful again, because I was working for the first time in what felt like forever. One day, a few people from my former job walked by my cashier lane pointing and laughing at me. Let me tell you, I hadn’t felt hurt like that in a long time. It took a few weeks for me to move past it, but what helped was a therapist that helped me reframe the negative thoughts still swirling after the incident. She and I had been doing work around unlearning shame and she taught me to say, “What I did was bad, but I am not bad.” This helped, even amidst reminders that some people might not ever respect me again, nor see me as a whole person. I encourage you to write that down somewhere so you can see it when you’re going though your own shame spiral — “What you did was bad, but you are not bad.”

2. Take ownership of your actions.

Having had a few friends and loved ones go through Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ve heard a lot about making amends. It’s the process of speaking with someone you’ve hurt and taking responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. When I began apologizing for the damage done while I was manic, I was afraid of the responses I’d receive. What if someone says “I don’t care if you were manic, I still hate you!” But, I didn’t let those fears deter me from reaching out to people, one by one, and saying “I’m sorry for what I did. I take responsibility for the pain I caused.” I told them about my diagnosis but I didn’t use it as a placeholder for honesty. Even when I’m not manic, I can unintentionally cause harm, and even then it’s important to acknowledge the impact of what I did. You wouldn’t accidentally hit someone with a door and say “I’m not sorry because I didn’t mean to hit you.”  My amends process was difficult but I felt empowered. You get to feel worthy again. Take some time to identify two people you’d like to apologize to. Draft an apology message to each of them and don’t send it. Just re-read it and edit it until it’s the most honest and sincere representation of what you did while manic. Own up to what you did, even though you weren’t in control of yourself. This can be a liberating activity on it’s own. If you’re feeling up to it, send the messages to their intended recipient and know you’ve done a brave thing.

3. Take all the time you need.

As someone who loves to create and build, it was hard to hear that I needed to take all the time I could to heal, which meant shutting down all of my projects and not applying to full-time jobs. It was also challenging in the earlier days when my medication pretty much zapped every creative fiber of my being. But, I’m so thankful for medical professionals who encouraged me to slow down and take time to heal. It wasn’t a vacation, and my pride was certainly bruised as I wasn’t able to provide for my family like I had before. But, now that I’m working in a full-time salaried position again, I’m glad I took the time to let my brain and my mind be rejuvenated. If you can, give yourself as much time as possible to minimize stressors in your life like a full-time job, or any responsibilities that keep you up late, or can adversely impact your mood. Your mind needs time to reset, and often, so does the rest of your body.

4. Develop an all-heck-breaks-loose plan.

Part of what’s helping me to mend the relationships in my life, is a promise I made to do everything in my power to manage my disorder. Part of this is having an emergency response plan, should my mind be hijacked once more. I’ve sat down with my family to discuss what we’ll do if I find myself sleepless, who to call should my thoughts start racing, plans for monitoring my mood and safeguards we’d like to put in place. To start, ask yourself some hard questions– will you have access to bank accounts moving forward? What friendships/relationships do you need to leave or set boundaries around because they no longer serve you in the same way? Are you needing nutritional support because of how food impacts your mood? At times, these conversations are difficult to sit through, but what’s scarier is losing everything and everyone we love.

5. Try a support group.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness offered a support group not too far from where we lived in Baltimore. I begrudgingly went to a meeting, and left feeling seen, heard and validated. It was life-giving to hear people share similar trials and tribulations. To know I wasn’t the only person who’d severed relationships, exhibited unsound behavior and who’d been on the brink of death so many times during my episode. If you can, search for a group near you. See if you can identify free and online options for group support.

Now that I’m on the other side of what felt like an impossible thing, I can truly say it can get better for anyone living in the wake of a destructive episode. Let me be clear, it can get better for you. It won’t be all at once. It might feel like it takes forever, but you get to figure this out and make this your process. My hope is that you can get to a place where you’re sharing your own story of healing to someone else. This is how we’ll break the stigma, this is how we’ll remind ourselves — and those around us — that we’re not broken, we’re mighty.

Photo by Ty Williams on Unsplash