I have spent years struggling to cope with this disorder. It’s a constant learning curve. If I can help one person look at life differently or give them a tip to help them cope then my struggles have not been in vain. The following is my bank of knowledge so far…
The first breakthrough is to accept the diagnosis, educate yourself about what it is. You can’t shake this off, you have to learn to live with it. There is no point in denial or shame. Embrace it. You are unique, you are special. It is well known that bipolar individuals have higher creative abilities, problem solving and reasoning skills, deeper empathy, understanding of emotion and absolute strength. It took me a while to accept it. I tried to fight it, it didn’t achieve anything but wasting time. I wish I’d moved on sooner.
Find yourself a good support network. Family, friends or colleagues who you trust implicitly. Be open and honest about your bipolar. People cannot help you if they don’t know how. Educate them on what to do in certain situations to get the help you require. Where work is concerned there are schemes in place. Bipolar is classed as a disability so you have rights at work. Your employer has to make ‘reasonable adjustments‘ in order to help you in the workplace or they are breaking the law. Many people with this condition struggle to hold down a job or lose their job due to sickness policies and yet we have so much to offer if the correct support is in place!
Become the expert of your own condition. At first I just followed exactly what the psychiatrist said without question. This didn’t help me. Not everyone is the same. Some people are helped by medication, I wasn’t. I was far worse on medication than without. I lost an entire year of my life in a catatonic state. I find counselling therapy, self help courses and mindfulness my most effective tools. Do not be afraid to speak up, try different methods and enquire about what options are available for you until you find what suits you. You have to put the work in though. Fight for yourself, you’re worth the effort!
Living with bipolar is a constant learning curve. Your going to fall, your going to fail. Success in managing this condition is not measured by how many times you fall, it’s how many times you pick yourself back up, move forward and learn from that experience. Practice reflective thinking rather than negative thinking. Do not dwell on the 3 months you just wasted in bed crying. Reflect. Why did this happen? What were the triggers? Could it have been avoided? What could be done differently next time? Quite often you’ll find there was a root cause, a stressor that just tipped you over the edge. A stressor that you now know to avoid next time. Of course, part of this is brain chemistry too so sometimes there really isn’t any rhyme or reason it happens and if that’s the case, accept it. You can’t alter that, move forward.
The crippling insomnia used to be my worst enemy. I would sit and watch the clock tick by all night long panicking, calculating how many hours sleep I’d get if I could fall asleep right at that moment. Worst thing I could have done. Obviously practise good sleep hygiene such as avoiding caffeine, turning off electrical appliances like the TV etc, but if that still doesn’t work, get back up. Use that time effectively. Your up anyway right? May as well get some housework done or studying. Don’t waste the time. Yes your going to be tired the next day, you won’t die, but be safe in the knowledge that it won’t last forever, at some point you’ll drop and you’ll sleep. It does get easier, you adapt and get used to it.
The depressive episodes can be hard to deal with. In particular, dealing with suicidal thoughts, negative thoughts and self harm. I used to cut my arms and legs just to try and get the pain I felt inside out. It did help. But then I felt shameful that I’d been so stupid that I’d done that to myself and so the negative spiralling continued. You can get that same release without cutting. Put an elastic band around your wrist and ping it. It does hurt, but it doesn’t break the skin or leave lasting marks. Once again reflective thinking is paramount when dealing with automatic negative thoughts or suicidal thoughts. Our bipolar brain is a liar. We need to call it out. Write down negative thoughts and then try and find 3 facts that prove it and 3 facts that disprove it. You’ll find more often that there is actually no evidence that the negative thought is true. I find this really helpful when assessing if my paranoid thoughts are real or not as well. Life is precious, once you perk up from the low you realise you’d have regretted killing yourself. Once that act is done though it’s final. The world is better with you in it. Call the helplines if you need to. Give it one last fight every time.
If you are able to recognise triggers or indicators that your mental health is on the way down again it is vital you act quickly. Before your sucked down that never ending hole of depression. That’s when you call the GP, the mental health teams, take time out of your busy schedule for mindfulness or self help. Before it gets too bad. Don’t ever think it’ll be fine, always assume and prepare for the worst. As I say don’t be caught in the rain without your umbrella!
My main issue is my anger. I understand now why I’m such an angry person. I’ve been hurt and abused in the past and now I’m just in fight or flight mode at the slightest thing. I always choose fight. It’s self preservation. Channeling the anger in a better way is something I’m still working on. It’s a constant battle. I’m trying to calmly explain the reasons for my anger without raising volume, kicking off or smashing things up. I am taking time to cool off before I speak, sometimes by walking away from the situation until I can articulate it better. The best thing I’ve ever learnt is that the message your trying to convey is lost the minute you raise the volume or get aggressive. Another tip is to choose your battles. Some things just aren’t worth the energy. It’s exhausting to be angry all the time and your not hurting the other person at all, your only hurting yourself. I have found blogging very useful to get the anger out so I’m not bottling it up until I explode. I also have a punching bag. Rather than smashing holes in my doors I can take all my frustrations out on the bag until I wear myself out. This is much better than the old me who would have actually just hit the person I was mad at. I have worked so hard to get where I am in life and I have nobody to thank for that so imagine throwing that all away because I couldn’t control myself. What a waste. Don’t waste your potential.
Stress is a bad trigger. I’m also figuring out how to be more resilient and cope better with that. Nobody can avoid stress completely, such is the nature of a busy modern life. Recently I have found that distracting myself from the stressor by singing out loud helps. Sometimes I just hum a tune at work if I’m getting a little stressed out and I find it gets me through it. Music is a wonderful healer. Whether it be listening to sad songs in the bath and crying it out, listening to death metal to release anger or listening to happy dance music to perk up your mood, it never fails to help. If I am having a particularly bad day, you know the type, where you literally want to scream. That’s what I do. I scream as hard and loud as I can into a pillow. It gets out that pent up frustration.
I’ve recently learnt about positive affirmations. This is really useful. You basically write down ten positive things that have happened that week. No matter how small. It helps you to process that actually it wasn’t all bad that week at all and I’m finding I’m appreciating things a lot more that previously I would have just not noticed. I’ve also amended it slightly and I now set goals for the week ahead as well. I only set small achievable goals but it gives me something to strive towards and I feel good that I’ve completed them at the end of the week. Obviously there are times life gets in the way and the goals aren’t met. I don’t dwell, I just set more for the week ahead and try again.
All work and no play makes me a very dull sombre girl indeed! Socialising with friends is critical. I often imagine I’m a character from the Sims and just like the game you have to keep your social bar topped up. Meeting with friends or planning trips/days out or even just going for a nice meal out once a week has made such a difference to my bipolar. I used to hide away in the house like a hermit because I was tired or for some other excuse. I now force myself to go out. That’s half the battle. Once I’m out I’m fine and I have a good time it’s the building up to going out. Push past it, it’s so worth it. I don’t have to force myself now I actually look forward to it. It helps me get through hard weeks sometimes if I know I’m seeing my best friend on a Friday.
I haven’t really mentioned much about coping with the highs because let’s face it having boundless energy and feeling amazing doesn’t pose many issues at the time. Everyone loves the mania! The only thing I will say is hide your credit cards, nobody loves that bill that rolls in the month after when you thought it was a good idea to buy hundreds of pounds worth of clothes because you just felt so darn good!
I am the most annoying self centred egotistical bitch you’ve ever met when I’m high. I see that after the event. Remember that it’s not truly you. People who understand and truly love you won’t blame you or hold it against you. I always find a nice apology doesn’t go a miss though. You may not be able to help it at the time, but holding your hands up to any wrongdoing and making amends is something you can control and put right. Don’t let the guilt eat away at you. Once again explaining your manic behaviours before it happens to those your exposed to can often help people understand that you don’t mean a single thing that comes out of your mouth when your high.
I get a super noisy brain when I’m coming back down off a high. I can’t focus on anything at all. I have found the coolest trick ever to help stop this, utilising my passion, science. I submerge my entire face underwater holding my breath for as long as I can until all I can hear is my own heart beating. Similarly, standing in the walk in fridge at work or in the sea until I’ve gone absolutely numb also stops the brain from being so loud. It’s like pushing a reset button. I theorise this works because your brain can’t waste time being noisy and annoying when it detects oxygen levels depleting or the temperature rapidly dropping, it has to focus on survival. It’s genius! It’s a life saver for me!
Finally surround yourself with positive people. There are negative toxic people out there who will have a catastrophic effect on your mental health. Avoid them like the plague. Similarly, if you have bad influences around, get rid. The inability to say ‘No’ and the complete lack of conscience/consequence when manic can be dangerous. This can lead to situations that are potentially life threatening or humiliating such as drug use or promiscuous behaviour. Stay safe.
Well I hope someone out there finds this helpful. I know having bipolar seems like your in the role of Rocky, there’s always another fight, you lose, you draw, sometimes you win. One things for sure though, there’s always a bloody sequel!
‘Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up‘- Rocky Balboa