Pandemic Mental Health Management When You Have Bipolar Disorder
It’s an understatement to say the past year has taken a deep mental toll on the average person. Whether you are a small business owner struggling to survive, or you lost someone close to you from the coronavirus, the psychological toll this pandemic has taken is almost immeasurable.
The shock of the loss of work, stress of change of routine, uncertainty about our future all compounded by the clickbait-driven media and the poorest leadership from politicians in human history. It was a hard year to be optimistic.
If the average person, with no history of mental illness, is cognitively strained from the financial hardship, isolation and lack of hope just imagine how those of us with mental illness feel.
Living with bipolar, you find ways to regulate your thinking and behavior to help get you through existential dread on a normal basis. Operating like a creaky emotional seesaw is a normal state. This pandemic has turned that internal live chatter up to 11.
In one respect I’m lucky. I’ve been prepared for this lifestyle shift. I have been self-employed for 12 years, and I have worked from home every single day of my life since then. In that way I adapted very quickly to what could be shocking for most. The ability to be self-disciplined is built into being self-employed.
The only big shift for me was the loss of work and the inability to see the people I care about. It has been one of the most trying years of my life in more ways than one. Exacerbated by living alone, I went through all cycles of the human condition during this time. From happiness to sadness, fear, existential dread and everything in between. But because I am chasing a dream, working every day towards that doesn’t change whether the virus ever came to be or not. Like Sisyphus, I am blessed or cursed with something to focus on, depending upon how you look at it.
With the new year here, I’ve been taking inventory of some of the things that helped me through this very trying last year and hope to pass that on to all of you out there who might be struggling.
Like most of us, as soon as the pandemic hit I was struck with existential dread as to what the hell I was going to do for the next six months. Not just if I could find work as a self-employed, work from home freelance director, but how I was going to occupy all my downtime. Being bipolar I am always locked in my head. And I knew the downtime would be a huge strain. The first healthy decision I made in the pandemic was to never let myself have a day where I didn’t accomplish something. Psychologically crossing off a line on a piece of paper can be a powerful thing.
That doesn’t just mean I’m working an eight hour day everyday, or just trying to find work, or thinking up a passion project. It could mean cleaning my apartment or getting groceries. Writing down an idea. It simply means I needed to create new challenges every day for myself. Fill my time with new hobbies or interests or tasks to complete. These things get you out of your head and into the world. Giving yourself something to focus on is the first step. So I started asking myself those hard questions:
What new skill would you like to pick up? What is something you’ve always wanted to do that you’ve never tried?
Are there ways for you to use your skills that already exist to create something new? What is the new way of thinking about the art you’ve already been creating? What sort of introspection can being alone for six months force on you? What possible creative outcomes could come from that?
From there I started to create a list of long-term goals that I wanted to make real for the year.
One was to lose weight. Another was to cut back on alcohol. To learn to cook a different style of food that is not in my comfort zone. To read a new book. Or to finish a passion project within the year.
From those big picture goals, I was able to bullet point a list and create some daily or weekly or monthly goals to help me accomplish that. It gave me something to focus on rain or shine. Feast or famine.
Routine and repetition:
One of the biggest challenges for most of my friends has been the lack of routine. For most people who work a regular job, they get up at the same time every day Monday through Friday. They commute to their office, they sit at their desk. They take orders from their boss. And they have tasks to complete weekly.
Once that goes missing, oftentimes people find it hard to create a structure. You feel like you are floating untethered through the day, made to be more grandiose by the change in environment and routine. I haven’t had much issue with this one being self-employed already. However, I took the structure to another level during the pandemic.
I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t break my routine no matter what. Now for some of you this probably will not work. But for my personality type, it was a way to hold myself accountable. I told myself I was going to run five miles no matter how long it takes, every Monday Wednesday and Friday. And I have done that all year. Remember earlier when I said one of my goals was to lose weight? I’ve lost 15 pounds in the past six months and gained muscle mass from sticking to my schedule. Small consistent incremental changes. This is the importance of making these silly little lists and sticking to them.
The consistency will give you a structure to build your life around. For those of you who are not self-employed and now find yourself stuck at home, basically you have to be your own boss now. So give yourself your own orders. And hold yourself to that same standard your boss would. Maybe even a little bit stricter.
Exercise the body and mind:
So since we are all taking in way less stimulus in person these days, I’ve decided to shore up my reserves by dedicating my mind and my body to challenging tasks. Getting outside of my intellectual and physical comfort zone has always been rewarding for me. Number one, you realize what you were capable of. You then go past that and into new foreign territory. That’s exciting. It’s that Christmas feeling when you were a little kid.
As far as my mind is concerned, how I did this in quarantine was I decided to do a series of lists. I know Nick, again with the freakin lists, we get it. But seriously try this, it’s not a bad idea.
I created a list of every movie I could remember that was unique and interesting to me in some way. It had a few filter points. It could not have been a giant blockbuster. It had to be an independent film or a film older than 2000. And it had to push the medium forward in some way. As a filmmaker I’m obviously also a film lover. But what this did for me was more profound than that. It allowed me to explore my own feelings and emotions through other people’s artwork and open my worldview up. The list incentivized me to watch a lot of different movies, often in categories or genres I might’ve otherwise passed over. It also allowed me to be social. This list I then shared with several friends of mine who would appreciate those films and probably not have not seen or heard of the obscure title selections I curated.
I also listened to lots of albums. Front to back. Some of which I had already heard, some of which I had never heard. I wanted to explore new music this way and open up my worldview. I then took this list idea in this direction as well. I made a list of what I believe to be perfect records.
The point is, it provided me with something to focus on. Time that I could be stuck inside, locked into my own head about how messed up the world is, was actually used to make my life better.
The same thing goes for your body. I feel like sometimes the best antidepressant in the world is just to get out into nature and sweat. During a global pandemic, it’s one of the safest things you could do. Go for a hike by yourself. Get outside away from people and move your body. It not only opens up your mind and ignites that explorer gene in all of us, it allows your mind to wander. It also lets you know the world is still out there.
Exhausting the body heals the mind. And I am a huge advocate for doing this when I’m depressed. To release those endorphins. And hopefully come up with some really good obscure movies or albums for your list.
I’ve written about Aristotle’s Catharsis before on the Mighty; it’s the purgation of negative emotion through a connection to art. When I watched all those movies and listened to all those albums I had never seen or heard before, a change happened in me. Oftentimes we get locked into patterns, and we just listen to what we are used to. Or watch what is comfortable to us.
As a creative person I get great fulfillment from being exposed to new ideas. Even ones outside of my own medium. I’d say actually especially ones outside of my own medium. Since we are all locked inside, forced to look inside ourselves, what better way to explore foreign territory then exposing yourself to new forms of art that could bring up new feelings? Or at the very least, just help you escape for a bit. This could be done in the making of art or in the appreciation of art.
Read a new book in a new genre. Watch a heralded movie in a genre you would normally avoid. Listen to a podcast from someone you disagree with. Walk a different path on your way home. Cook with an ingredient you have never used before.
Create new creative:
I feel most alive when I’m creating something. I’ve heard from several friends in the beginning of the pandemic who said they had a complete lack of creativity and motivation. I am one of those people who doesn’t believe that creativity is some ethereal and elusive muse that rewards the most creative. I believe it’s a muscle you have to exercise. Part of the previous point of exposing yourself to new art is to help you broaden your idea of what is possible creatively.
When the world puts giant limitations on you like this pandemic, you could look at it as throwing up your hands and saying: “well what can I do.” Or you can look at it like a prompt on an essay. Use the circumstance and restriction to promote and breed new creative ideas. Use the downtime and introspection to your advantage.
I was lucky to have two comedian friends who live together want to make some Covid comedy sketches in the beginning of the pandemic. That is what sparked this idea for me. Let’s just start creating things during this weird time we live in. How can I do that and be safe? How can I create things on my own that don’t involve other folks? How can this limitation open up new ways of executing creative?
I want to keep my muscle conditioned. I don’t want it to atrophy during a year where the work is not as readily available. It’s my responsibility to make my own art. And continue to challenge myself outside of my comfort zone. And in doing that you discover new ideas. New executions. New approaches. New tools in an ever-growing batman utility belt. It is only a positive experience.
Several years ago I started keeping a journal. Writing down my thoughts and sketching a picture once a month. I stick to this and it’s not for anybody else but me. It allows me to look deep inside and address some of the feelings that are not on the surface. It allows me a non-confrontational self evaluation. No one will see it but me, so there is no pressure.
That’s a solid metaphor for the pandemic. All of this newfound alone time in my apartment has most definitely forced me to go inward. A bit of self-examination is healthy, but with the abundance of alone time that examination turns in the scrutiny very quickly. It’s one thing to take inventory, it’s another thing to take an audit.
The only silver lining of this whole thing for me has been all of this existential dread circling around our uncertain world is forcing each and everyone of us to ask ourselves important questions. I say we take advantage of that.
Do you love your job? Do you spend enough time with your family? Am I working too much? Could my diet be better? How are my coping skills? What am I doing to make myself happy? Am I happy? How can I make myself better?
We are living in a time of great change, and that means we have to change as well. Acknowledging some of the things in your life holding you back is the first step to meaningful growth.
This has become quite the cliché in recent years. Everything seems to be categorized as self-care. My philosophy on this has always been it’s different for every single person, and different for that person at different times in their life.
I do not like the narrative around self-care that presents itself almost like a dog treat. I believe this has to be something a little bit more meaningful than a quick fix of a dopamine rush of chocolate as a reward for enduring a bad day.
For me lately self-care has been disconnecting from social media. All of the constant barrage of news headlines designed to grab your attention and create anxiety and fear has been weighing on me over the past four years, but especially during this already stressful time. I’ve heard people say that social media is the fast food of your mental health diet. I couldn’t agree more.
Although a necessary evil, for me I’ve taken really intentional steps to disconnect and still remain connected. Every time I have done this, I’ve gotten great benefit from it. My anxiety has gone down substantially. My focus goes up. My productivity goes up. My quality-of-life goes up. I set clear boundaries as to when I interact online and text message or email etc. So what does that look like for you?
It’s going to be different for everybody. Ask yourself what is causing some of the biggest stressors in your life and take steps towards consistent actions that move you away from that, or at the very least balance out the stress. That to me is what self-care is. Being self-aware about what is affecting your life and taking steps to right those wrongs. Whether acutely, with a bubble bath and candles, or chronically with small consistent behavior changes, you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. In this time of uncertainty, the only thing in the world you can control is you.
Getty image by nadia_bormotova