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My Survival Guide for the Winter Season With Bipolar Disorder

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Happy 2020! Can you believe another holiday season has come and gone? All the peppermint bark, prime rib and ugly sweaters. Gone. I always resolve I’ll buy Christmas gifts early — like those organized people who shop for gifts throughout the year and have a dedicated closet for said gifts. Amazing.  Another thing I’ve never managed to get around to doing is the drafting of a reminder list with tips to manage the challenges that come at this time of year. Because, like many other people, this is a tough time of the year, mood-wise. From the fall time change until March, it seems my physical and mental energy slows down. It’s like that dream that wakes you in the middle of the night — try as you might to run, it’s as if your feet are weighted down by sticky mud.

• What is Bipolar disorder?

Another analogy that seems appropriate is that I don a thick, grizzly bear coat in preparation for the long hibernation: I store up as much fat as I possibly can and hunker down for the winter. Unlike me however, the bear isn’t inclined to have a tearful conversation about why inertia and darkness have taken over. Instead, you may get pawed by the angry, snarling animal — which, of course, is another possible response in some folks. No, nothing as passionate for me. I just cry and sleep, cry and sleep. And if I manage to get up to the bathroom with matted hair and an unshowered body, I’ll take some fatty food back to bed with me, preferably the chocolate or cold pizza sort.

Though I haven’t made an actual list, I have an overall preventive self-care strategy internalized after years of experience. Of course, you can’t safeguard yourself from every potential trigger, but there are some general ways I can maintain some semblance of balance.

Anyway, back to the reminder list. If you stay home for the holidays, you may fare better at maintaining a structured routine. If you are well enough to travel, there are additional factors to consider. The time of your flight, where you will be staying, if you will have your own car and if you will have adequate time alone.

While I have enjoyed spontaneity, there’s only so much “let’s fly by the seat of our pants and live in the moment” scenarios my easily stimulated and overwhelmed body and brain can manage. I’d never be a good baseball player — curveballs tend to trigger the bipolar seesaw. In any case, while traveling may pose its risks, it is possible to safeguard your well-being.

Perhaps the first thing I would put on a list would be honest communication and boundary setting with family and friends. Many of us who are card-carrying people pleasers struggle with this. Quite honestly, I can say at this stage in my life, the effort to please everyone is exhausting, overwhelming and unnecessary. I’ve always known logically it’s unrealistic and impossible to please everyone. That drive, of course, is often fueled or confused by familial or societal expectations, etc. And if you’re the anxious sort, you are doubly, triply, quadruply stressed out by confrontation — which almost always presents itself in the family gathering setting. That being said, what I have discovered now is loved ones appreciate the frank discussion about my depression and it actually frees them up to discuss their own needs.

So, as the saying goes, “Just say no,” when you need to.

“No, I cannot go ice skating, sledding, to the Miller’s holiday party and caroling in one day.”

“No, I don’t have the attention span to bake Christmas cookies from scratch. Give me the sugar cookie in a roll to slice and I’m good.”

“No, I cannot stay up until midnight watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ‘Home Alone’ or ‘Miracle on 34th Street.’ Possible exceptions are ‘Elf’ or ‘Dicken’s Christmas Carol.’”

“No, it’s probably not in your best interest – or mine — if I come along to the new mega mall 90 minutes away. But please, send me your pics. I’ll be there in spirit. Also, have I mentioned I love shopping on Amazon?”

Another crucial thing you must not, must not, must not forget – that’s correct, it’s your medication. Make sure you have planned for this well ahead of your trip. I’ve been in the unfortunate position of either waiting until the last minute and having to rush a refill or the even more horrific scenario in which I’ve had to contact my doctor while out of state. Not fun. Also, equally important: all the activities and excitement can distract you from taking your meds. A structured routine will help keep you on track with your medication.

This to-do list really sounds Scrooge-ish, doesn’t it? It’s not meant to be. Really, the truth of the matter is, when I’m at my best, I enjoy the warm glow of Christmas lights on the tree as I sit quietly in the middle of the night. I do love seeing my grandchildren play with their new toys or try on their new outfits. I do love my peppermint mochas. I have found when I consciously make a plan, the holidays and the new year seem hopeful and promising. Happy New Year.

Unsplash image by Kate Williams

Originally published: January 17, 2020
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