While perusing the internet one evening earlier this summer, I came across an essay about a marriage falling apart. The author attributes the failing to her husband’s mental illness. While the writer used throwaway remarks about his alcohol abuse, philandering, and a host of other red flags, in her eyes it all came down to that single thing: he was bipolar.
The comments were alit in agreement and argument. Some blamed her, some blamed him, some blamed something else entirely. But the general consensus was: “He’s bipolar, so obviously he’s crazy and beyond repair.”
I shut my laptop lid down with a bit of a harrumph, and sulked for the rest of the evening.
I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar 1 (mania), borderline personality disorder (BPD), ADHD, and general anxiety at least three separate times since I was 22. The treatments have ranged from dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) — a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy that helps manage emotional reactions and anxiety — to a wide assortment of medications, yoga, meditation, talking therapy, group therapy, and more.
I’ve been fighting the disease for 20 years now. And I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Most (if not all) of those I know who are bipolar lead productive, full lives. Most have completed college, held long-term jobs, have healthy relationships, and much more. Why? Because they've learned to manage their illness.
It’s not easy, but it can be done. Personally, I have completed three degrees (a bachelor's and two master's), have had long relationships just like most, and I’ve kept my career on track while still battling my bipolarism. I am tenacious to live as close to normalcy as I can.
Of course, it's not always a smooth ride. And not all paths are the same. Getting in tune with the disease and finding the right routes takes time and effort. Here is my personal journey:
1. Share your triggers with your support group.
I began by creating a circle of trusted people who could help me when I crash — because oh boy, do I crash. Crashing, for me, typically means I start to withdrawal into myself, become anti-social, limit my eating, chain smoke, and have long crying jags.
I then gave my circle a list of my triggers. My triggers can be boiled down to, mainly, impulsive actions. That includes pushing people away and spending large amounts of money due to impulse shopping (in the last year, I put myself in $40,000 of credit card debt due to a long manic phase). I also hardly sleep because I must get all of the things done. I start a billion and one projects and my confidence (and megalomania) skyrocket.
When I was younger, I wasn't aware these things were my triggers, but, as I got older, I began to watch for the patterns. Still, I’m not always on top of it as I should be.
With my support group, however, they have a list of my triggers, my medications, and my general practitioner. They are really there for me when I need them the most.
2. Find your favorite methods to self-soothe.
DBT teaches you to self-soothe when things start to get rough. I recommend creating a safe-space in your home for when the mania or depression hits. I like to keep chocolate in the fridge and sleep with my teddy bear. I also sing songs backwards to help with the paranoid thoughts and anxiety. I mediate no matter what.
And I make sure to continue to take my medications on time, and keep in contact with my support group. No matter how much I want to, I do not skip my scheduled therapies and group meetings.
3. Eat well and move your body.
It’s generally accepted that following a healthy diet and exercising help you feel better, even if you’re not mentally ill. And I've found that eating well and getting exercise in — sometimes even as little as five minutes a day — can make a huge difference in my mood. I am allergic to many things (including dairy, almonds, pollen and grass), so I make sure to keep my food and environmental allergies in check. I also meditate 15 minutes a day, try to walk a minimum of 5,000 steps a day and often swim.
At first, I may moan and complain about actually doing these things. But I always feel a sense of accomplishment for having completed these acts — and also for outwitting my disease.