Aaron Olsen

@aaron_olsen | contributor
I'm of the opinion that I don't have to be happy to bring joy to others. I have lived with bipolar disorder type II since 2004.
Aaron Olsen

The Depression Project: Mental Health 'Inner Conflicts' Explained

Life during the COVID-19 pandemic is surreal. Public streets are as quiet as they’ve ever been, while grocery lines are packed with shoppers in increments of six feet. So many out-of-the-house activities have been cancelled or moved online. Stuck inside, it may be tempting to try to squeeze more productivity out of all of this new free time. For those of us with a mental illness, it’s not that simple. A graphic made by The Depression Project does an amazing job explaining why. You see, struggling with your mental health can be a series of inner conflicts. You know what you should do, but don’t have the energy to do it. You know reaching out and connecting during this isolating time is important, but you might feel like you don’t deserve to. You know there are certain expectations you need to let go of, but you’re afraid of what your life would look like if you did. The Depression Project calls these things “The Inner-Conflict of Mental Health,” and they’re relevant now more than ever. View this post on Instagram Drop three ???????????? if you can relate . . ????What is an inner conflict you have? . . . . . . . . . . . . . #mentalillness #mentalillnessawareness #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealth #mentalhealthmatters #mentalhealthquotes #mentalhealthsupport #itsokaynottobeokay #depression #depressionawareness #depressionhelp #anxiety #anxietyproblems #anxietysupport #anxietyhelp #anxietyawareness#endthestigma #breakthestigma #stopthestigma #endstigma #ptsd #ptsdawareness #cptsd #bpd #bipolar #realdepressionproject #thedepressionprojectA post shared by The Depression Project (@realdepressionproject) on Mar 14, 2020 at 5:54pm PDT I have a massive list of passion projects. Music to remix, novels to write, books to read and free classes to attend. But even though I have an extra 45 minutes every day with no commute, I can’t seem to get traction on any of them. That’s because being cooped up inside takes its toll. I miss a lot of my regular social gatherings. While I have cracked open several projects, I continually get distracted or sidetracked. It’s easy to lose a sense of the current time or the day of the week. Everything kind of blurs together. It’s like all of my anxieties and depression are getting thick in the air of my apartment, and I can’t open any windows to fan them out. This goes to show that time is not enough by itself. You can have all the time in the world, but without energy, peace of mind or a strong sense of self-worth, your brain will give into those inner conflicts and fill that time with anything it can to curb your doubts and emotional pain. And when it comes to a choice between the easy path and the hard path — cooking microwavable meals and scrolling through memes on social media, versus preparing a three course meal of whole foods and tackling an intellectually challenging project — your brain is apt to choose the easier one. Especially if you’re already tapped from your mental illness on a good day, and you add all of the trauma and emotional collateral damage that accompany an uncertain future in a virus-stricken world. There’s an old saying that knowing is half the battle. But the other half — acting on what you know — is just as hard. So if you’re behind or slacking on the things you know you “should” do, that’s OK. Take a few deep breaths and realize that your worth is not based on your productivity. Let me say it again. What’s good and valuable about you is who you are, and not how many boxes you can tick on an arbitrary checklist. This is an absurd and wild time to be alive. There are a lot of real, scary things in the air right now. The economy is listing and taking on water, we’re all stuck inside all day and there’s a virus that has no current vaccine or cure spreading all over the world. If you’re giving into these inner conflicts, feel unable to perform basic self-care or to use your time efficiently, that’s completely understandable. You’re human, and you’re allowed to be afraid, to sleep more than usual, to spend time on seemingly frivolous things and to mark time instead of maximize your time. Staying alive and sane is priority number one. Your dreams of learning an instrument, getting fit, eating well, learning a language, fixing the house, saving for retirement, graduating, landing that new job or promotion or whatever are not gone. They’re just on hold for the moment. And you’re not obligated to make them go forward when the rest of the world has ground to a halt. This crisis will pass. Social distancing is already starting to work, and in some states, the rates of new infections are coming down. We have a few treatments being studied that could help if they are shown to be effective and safe. We’ll get a vaccine for this, and we’ll be able to contain it. For now, if you make just incremental progress on yourself or are just treading water where you are, that’s enough. The things you “should” be doing with extra time will be here for a while — just know you do deserve to reach out to people, and you can work on fighting these inner conflicts when we all feel a little safer. So sit back, put on a movie or scroll through some memes, and remember that just to be is all you really “need” to do right now. Concerned about coronavirus? Stay informed with these articles: Which Face Masks Prevent Against Coronavirus? How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer 8 Soaps You Can Use to Help Prevent the Spread of Illness How Can You Tell the Difference Between Anxiety and COVID-19 Symptoms? New Study Suggests Digestive Issues Can Be First Sign of COVID-19 You can follow The Depression Project on Instagram here.

Aaron Olsen

Growing Up With Bipolar Disorder

The day the darkness came was like any other. I had high hopes for the coming school year. Eighth grade band was going to be so fun, I thought, because I could finally play some challenging music. My second year of junior high German looked promising. I had plenty of friends, a doting family and everything I could ever ask for. Then why was I feeling so… low? As the seasons shifted from summer to fall, a growing worry came over me, like the first gray clouds at the edge of a storm. I began to feel distant, tired, even a little sad and hopeless. Gradually my thoughts turned to overt negative judgments about myself. “You’re hideous. You’re incredibly stupid. No one loves you. You deserve to feel pain.” I had no mechanism to resist these thoughts. They became loud in my head, drowning out so much — my joy of music, my social cues, my family bonds. The thoughts became a voice, a single audible source. I call him The Gray Man. I imagined him to have a rough, old, weathered face, skin tanned by the sun, a salt and pepper scruff over the loose skin underneath his chin, gray hair and bony facial features. His hate-filled words simply would not stop. My self-hatred blossomed under his tutelage. I became consumed with anger and despair because of who I was and what I had done. I was 13. The worst thing I had possibly done at the time was probably a few harsh words in an argument or some playground-level insults. But The Gray Man convinced me otherwise. I was so remarkably self-conscious that I withdrew into myself and away from others. I became somewhat of a hermit, only spending time with friends if they forced the issue and keeping to myself at school. I grew detached from my family as well. The thoughts turned into command hallucinations, instructing me to self-harm. I followed those orders but kept any evidence carefully hidden. I was as much ashamed of the damage as I was of myself in general. I wore a light jacket often, even in class and during the warmer months. I also began to experience delusional thinking. I thought people were following me. I once thought a news anchor was speaking directly to me, giving me a code to something I barely remember. I began to believe if I just met a few specific famous people, we would become best friends and they would provide me with riches and fame. There was euphoric mania as well. I often thought about living a full life together with attractive girls I had just met. One time I didn’t sleep for a few days, and I wrote a long, three-piece composition for school band in just a few hours. Complete with parts for all of the instruments, I thought it sounded perfect on the computer program I made it with. But much of it was incoherent and impossible to play. I began to experience serious anxiety around activities I was good at and used to love. I got jitters before taking tests — a formerly excellent skill of mine — and lost the love of reading I had cultivated since I was eight. I even became so overwhelmed with a solo for a Christmas concert I felt physically ill and stayed home. It manifested like a bad cold, but I knew I wasn’t sick. I had lost some perspective; I probably would have performed just fine. After a particularly rough session of self-harm I was interrupted by my parents. That kicked off a whole series of tests, treatments, therapy and eventually medication. I was checked out of school often for these visits, detaching me further from my known world. The medication was rocky to start, but slowly it mitigated so much. The hallucinations, delusions, self-harm, depression and mania faded with them, allowing my later high school years to be much more manageable — almost normal. And the therapy was utterly lovely. I expanded myself many times by learning about how I worked on the inside, how my emotions manifested and how to deal with them. I became stronger, wiser, kinder and yes, just a little bit happy. I don’t know if there is much I would say to my younger self, or much I would change. Perhaps I would counsel him to go easier on himself. When you’re young, you make mistakes. That’s how we learn. I would certainly try my hardest to persuade him from lingering on the subject of his own death. I would teach him how to process his emotions and how to sit in the suicidal stew and come out of it knowing life is better lived, that pain is frequent but a teacher, that goodness awaits. But most of all, that a little love for yourself is not a bad thing. And sure, you’re going to have a bizarre time growing up. Later though, you’ll tell that story, and it will bring you and others grace and perspective, and you’ll see that our story is conquered in the telling of it.

Community Voices

Growing Up a Bit Different

Do you guys remember growing up with a mental illness and how that made you a little bit different I'm reminded of that often but I don't think I necessarily "missed" much or had "less" of a childhood. In fact now that I tell the story I think it's kind of unique. Looking back is always easier than living it though. Cheers to us for making it through. #BipolarDepression #Depression #Anxiety #Schizophrenia #MentalIllness

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Aaron Olsen

'Bipolar Exhaustion' Makes Me Feel Fatigued Like a Zombie

We’ve all been there. Maybe you worked too many hours, and you come home as a zombie version of yourself. Perhaps you played too hard — ran too fast, hiked too long, swam too far. That feeling you get after a marathon, or after pulling an all-nighter, cramming for an exam… That’s pure exhaustion at its finest. For those of us with bipolar disorder or other exhausting mental illnesses, however, there’s a little bit more to it. As someone who has also worked too many hard hours in construction jobs, who has hit a wall at the gym and come home with jelly for muscles, and who also experiences bipolar depression , anhedo nia and bipolar exhaustion, I can say definitively: Bipolar exhaustion is, by far, my least favorite. It can start at any time, with little warning. It can come whether I’ve slept well or not, whether I’ve had enough to eat or not, and whether I’ve taken my medicine or not. It often follows after an emotionally draining experience — a difficult date, an argument, a performance review at work. It’s a slow-acting response, and it takes just as long to leave. It lingers, persistent, like smoke from a burned cake in the oven, or fog on an otherwise sunny day. When it hits, I can feel it slowly creep through my system. I feel tired. I walk slowly. I open assignments on my computer, turn on the TV or start any other small task, and it’s like my limbs are weighted down by an invisible net. I literally cannot function enough to do or enjoy even the most basic of tasks or activities. It becomes difficult to do virtually anything. Sleep is the only escape. And although sleep is often the best coping mechanism for bipolar exhaustion, it isn’t always effective. I’ve had to leave work early or call in sick because I knew I couldn’t drive if I let it go on a few more hours without sleep. I’ve canceled plans with friends or stayed home from family gatherings. But I wish our world had a better way of accommodating this particular challenge. How can I say to my supervisor that I’m staying home because I’m “just tired?” How do I explain that it sucks all of the life out of me, even when there is no apparent cause? Because of my condition, I seek work that is flexible and jobs that hav e generous sick policies. I never know when I’m going to need a three-day weekend just to catch up on sleep. I was once approached by a friend’s mother when I was younger. She had noticed my exhaustion, and asked if my medicine was making me a “zombie,” because some psychiatric pills were making her son “totally out of it.” The more I think on it, the apter the analogy is. But instead of slowly lumbering toward my unsuspecting victims for a taste of their brains, I’m a much less interesting zombie. The shuffle walk? Yeah, I got it. The slow moaning and seemingly purposeless existence? That’s me. The soulless pits in my eyes revealing a complete lack of motivation or ambition? That’s how I feel. It is pervasive, but I’m just glad it’s not too constant. If there’s one nice thing about the mood swings, it’s that change is pretty much a guarantee.

Community Voices

Exhaustion and Living in Society

Has anyone else ever had difficulty trying to function in society when you're just completely exhausted from your chronic illness or mental health condition I sure wish more employers would be more flexible with those days when you're just too tired to do anything. I will say that I have had great success asking for accommodations in universities I've attended though for a few professors it was like pulling teeth to get extensions on assignments. What are your experiences? #BipolarDisorder #ChronicIllness #exhaustion #MentalHealth

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Aaron Olsen

How Change Helps Me Cope With Bipolar Disorder

There are a lot of strategies out there for managing mental illness and bipolar disorder.  Self-care looks different for everyone and can include everything from daily tasks, like meditating or long baths, to large indulgences, like trips to the amusement park. In over 15 years of managing bipolar disorder, I’ve tried a lot of things. I’ve tried being better to myself through meditation and mindfulness (almost always helpful, except in the midst of a deep depression), exercise (not easy to maintain) and eating better (lots of work, with mixed results for me). I’ve also tried more “gimmicky” solutions like sunlight lamps, fish oil pills and hypnosis, most of which barely moved the needle. But one thing that always boosts my mood for weeks or months at a time is a substantial life change. I have found moving every year and a half to two years does absolute wonders for my mood. Even if its just across town, the process of settling into a new place seems to uproot all of the negativity I’ve gathered. On a smaller scale, rearranging furniture in my living space can make me feel productive and clean, even if the old arrangement was functionally better. This has worked for me in the career department as well. Though I would prefer not to lose jobs because of my bipolar disorder, I have to admit that a change of scenery is always refreshing. There’s something about starting a new job that just fills me with life and vitality. You get to have new coworkers, new bosses and all sorts of potential new career paths now available. If I didn’t have to worry about money at all, I think I would change jobs every year anyway, just to challenge my mind. That’s one of the reasons I love school so much. It’s a new professor, new classmates, new topics and new discoveries every semester. And now there are so many options to take online classes for free or for a steeply discounted rate, it’s almost easy to be enrolled in too many classes! Yes, depression can be burdensome. It can be so easy to give in to anhedonia and submit to a routine of drudgery. Yes, it takes a lot of effort to get going after your world seems to collapse. And yes, it can be easy to get carried away with change if mania is its driving force. But there’s wisdom in that old saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” Change is something precious, something beautiful. It keeps a sense of wonder and possibility alive. When doing battle with that old foe, bipolar disorder, change can be your sharpest ally and your firmest support. And who knows? Maybe you’ll discover something about yourself you never knew before. So as we make our way into the holidays, here’s a toast to change. May the forces of fate bring new experiences to you soon.

Community Voices

What If?

What if you could change one big thing about your life (not including an illness or medical condition)? What would you choose to change, and how? If I could, I would never work for money again. I'd love to be wealthy enough that I could volunteer for meaningful causes, write and create, and spend time with family and friends.

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Community Voices

What are some of your favorite positive changes that have happened in your life?

What are some changes that have brought you out of depression or given meaning to your life What are some things you do to get yourself out of rut #coping #CopingTips #copingskills #change #Positivity

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Rudy Caseres

Questioning If You Still Have Bipolar Disorder After Recovery

Although I’ve experienced bipolar-like highs and lows my entire life, it wasn’t until I was 26 when I received a proper “diagnosis.” It was clearly obvious at the time. It was shortly after a two month manic spree complete with extreme emotions that many would (justifiably) perceive as me being an abrasive, selfish, delusional jerk. That, in turn, nose-dived into one of the worst depressive episodes I have ever suffered through. So it didn’t take much effort to convince my therapist and psychiatrist at the time that I was bipolar. It was embarrassing to admit at first but I eventually grew to embrace it. Bipolar wouldn’t be a disease that would control me and hold me down. Instead it would be a part (but certainly not all) of my identity and I would harness it in a way that it would become the centerpiece of my mental health advocacy. When many would take a magic pill to “cure” them of bipolar, I saw it as an adversity that would only strengthen my character and resilience. But these days I am confused. I am 32 years old, I am happily married, I have an absolutely amazing puppy, I get to travel the country and publicly speak on mental health and the power of storytelling, and I’m surrounded by wonderful and supportive friends. And although I still have my challenges and pain points I honestly can’t complain much right now. Gone is the persistent and treatment-resistant depression that at times would drive me to suicidal ideation. Gone are the manic episodes that would that would bring out the worst qualities in me. And gone is the debilitating anxiety that would keep me in bed, unable to socialize with even my closest friends and even force me into a catatonic state. Yes, elements of those still exist, but I no longer fear being hospitalized or being driven to the brink of suicide. Which leaves me questioning: am I even bipolar anymore? Is the worst behind me forever? And if it is do I even deserve to claim bipolar is part of my identity anymore? Am I fraud? I don’t believe that is something I will be able to answer in the immediate future, but it does help to put it out there publicly. I have no doubt many others feel the same way. And maybe some of them have come to the conclusion that bipolar is no longer a defining part of their lives. And maybe for others the feeling of identity comes and goes and it’s OK to question. So even though I currently feel like a “bipolar fraud” I don’t rush to discredit that feeling. There is a lot to explore in that feeling as well as the feeling of “bipolar proud.” And it is possible that the truth is somewhere in between. In between the highs and the lows.

Aaron Olsen

What It's Like to Lose a Job Because of Bipolar Disorder

“We need to talk. When can I call you?” Those words — the only words in a work email from my typically verbose supervisor — started a panic within me. I had been absent two or three days a week for the past month, and I had nearly depleted my year’s supply of sick and personal days. My boss knew I had bipolar disorder. I had informed him when I was hired in September, and let him know I was struggling that April. I was so depressed I had been considering checking myself into the hospital, though I had told no one that specific tidbit. I got on the phone with him that afternoon and promised to come in the next day. I woke up, dragged myself out of bed and came into the office, a little disheveled and visibly unhappy. He checked out a company car and we went for a drive. “You really need to figure out how to get this under control,” he said, in an unabashedly patronizing tone. “Are you seeing your doctor? Do you have a therapist? Are you trying to get better?” I was insulted by his line of questioning. The company I worked for dealt with individuals with mental illnesses often. I tried in my work to be fair and kind, even when their symptoms made them difficult to work with. And yet here I was, being interrogated about my health and treated as if I were clueless about my own disorder. I thought as a mental health professional he would know better. Have you ever lost a job or other kind of work because of your illness?#unemployment #ChronicIllness #MentalIllness #BipolarDisorder I answered his questions in the affirmative, weakly. I promised I would not go beyond my personal and sick days and thanked him for accommodating what he could. I was absent the next day. On Friday, he gave me an ultimatum: resign, or be let go. Unfortunately, too many of us with mental illnesses face similar situations every day, some of them amounting to actual discrimination. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that people with mental illnesses are more likely to be unemployed in the United States than those who are not. Older data from the National Institutes of Health show that the employment rate for those with serious mental illness was 54.5% in 2009 and 2010, compared to 75.9% for those with no mental illness. (This employment rate counts all people working and not working in the United States, including retirees and children, where the commonly cited unemployment rate you hear in the news is a measure only of those seeking work.) I decided to resign. The work was grueling. I was constantly drained by the emotional toll of working with clients who were homeless. Whenever a snowstorm rolled in, my anxiety would spike. And even though I was taking my medicine regularly, getting talk therapy and otherwise trying to fight my illness, I was too depressed to function well enough to go to work. I lost my income, and in a few months was forced to move back in with my parents. The day after I resigned I slept nearly the entire day. It was gut-wrenching and terrifying to lose a job because of my health. But at the same time I felt relief. The pressure of a regular schedule lifted and I was able to rest like I hadn’t in months. I’ve had so many different jobs because of my depression. Low-paying jobs in college I simply quit if I was too overwhelmed. I missed out on internships that I was too sick to accept, and other freelance opportunities that I let fall through the cracks. But the most important thing at each of those times was to take care of me, regardless of the financial fallout. I currently work at a job I love, raising funds for a worthy nonprofit. I did end up telling the hiring staff that I had bipolar disorder and that I may need accommodations. Thankfully I’ve been well enough this past year to handle any depression without missing too many work days. I hope one day all workplaces could be this welcoming and warm toward those of us with mental illnesses. Until that day comes, however, know this: if you lose your job because of an illness, that’s OK. At the end of the day, your health is more important than any time clock, company or rude supervisor. Wear your firings and resignations as badges of honor. You’ve been through hell and back, and that’s your proof that you survived and you’re still trying.