bipolar parent

How to Support Your Child in School as a Parent with Mental Illness

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.

You may not think of fall as a time of new beginnings, but if you have a child in school, the new school year is certainly that.

Supporting your child at school is difficult enough but throw a mental illness into the mix and that becomes incalculably more difficult. If you suffer from a mental illness and are lost on how to ensure that your child learns the most they can at school, read on for a guide on how to support your child in school as a parent with mental illness.

1. Keep Communication Channels Open

Children with a parent who suffers a mental illness may not understand why their parent acts as they do. Young children especially will come up with narratives to explain why a mom with depression stays in bed all day, often making that problem their fault.

Kids going to school, especially kids who know their parents are different and don’t know why may be ostracized and/or bullied by their peers. So to combat all of these issues, keep communication channels open. Talk to your child about your mental illness, explaining in age-appropriate ways why you act differently from their friends’ parents.

And talking to your kid helps them know what you expect of them, which is important for stable home life.

Click here for a deeper look into how to talk to your children about your mental illness.

2. Set up a Routine – And Stick to It

When my first child was just a baby, my therapist at the time told me that consistency was key to raising him in a healthy manner. As a parent with bipolar disorder, which makes consistency next to impossible, I hated to hear that then and I hate to admit it now, but she was right.

But a consistent pattern is the best way to support your child in school, too. If you are consistently feeding them breakfast, have a predictable morning routine to get out the door, and have a decompressing routine in the afternoon after school, then your kid will be better off than when living a life of chaos.

Click here for a post on how and why to establish a routine.

3. Get to Know the School Staff

You don’t have to join the PTSA but knowing who’s who at your kid’s school is an effective step to supporting them through the system.

Schools have open houses at the beginning of the year to introduce you to the classrooms and teachers. Make every effort to attend these and learn your kid’s teachers’ names and what they look like. Find out what the best way to contact these people is, be it phone calls, emails, texts, or website contact form.

If your child has a problem, be it academically or emotionally, their teachers will be the first to know – and the first people you should contact. They’re the people on the inside, the ones who interact with your baby for at least an hour a day in close observation in a new environment.

Following up with that, also learn who your kids’ counselors are. If your child has a mental health issue at school, they will be sent to the counselor, and you will need to keep in close contact with them to get to the bottom of the issue. They can determine the next steps in treating a problem, be that involving medical professionals or keeping your student home for a spell.

Nipping problems in the bud is easier than letting them develop into behemoth knots that take more time, energy, and mental headspace to untangle. Keep a close eye on your student’s report cards and go to their teachers or counselors if they have an issue.

I would also recommend an extra step: put the school’s office line, counselors’ lines, and tardy/absence reporting line into your contacts on your phone. If your school has an alert system for snow days, sign up to be contacted. Knowing more about your school always helps.

4. Apply for Accommodations if Your Child Needs Them

If your child is having serious academic issues and you and/or their teachers suspect a learning disability or mental health condition like ADHD, they may need an IEP or 504 plan.

An IEP is an Individualized Educational Plan, a program of accommodations or modifications like a new textbook or longer test times developed by a team of experts. They will observe your child and give a report based on their schoolwork and behavior. You will be able to review this report with the team and if necessary, contest it.

Once your child qualifies for special education, the team will come up with a plan in 30 calendar days.

A 504 plan only differs from an IEP from who it serves: IEPs only cover kids in grades K-12 whereas 504 plans can cover collegiate-level students.

Requesting an IEP plan is a lot of work because you must go through official channels with the administrative staff, but don’t be afraid to fight for your kid if they need you in their corner.

5. Help Your Children Do Their Homework

Until schools stop assigning it, homework is essential for your child’s success. Not only is it part of your child’s grade, completing the homework prepares them for their upcoming tests.

Even if you don’t know the subject or don’t speak the school’s language, you can support your kid by setting up a quiet place for them to study, establishing a regular homework time, and checking in on them regularly.

Praise them for their efforts but don’t do their homework for them, as that ultimately won’t help them.

Let’s Recap

Supporting your child in school when you have a mental illness boils down to talking to them, sticking to routines, getting to know the school staff, applying for accommodations if your kid needs them, and helping them with their homework.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it can be a jumping-off point for you as you support your child. Compassion for yourself and your kid as you all make this transition also helps, so try to give yourself and them grace.

I wish you well in your journey!

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3 Tips for Traveling with a Mental Illness

Photo by Marissa Grootes on Unsplash

This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.

It seems everyone and their mother is traveling these days. And that includes those of us with mental illnesses. For those of us living with mental health conditions, especially bipolar disorder, breaking from our usual routine can have disastrous consequences.

You could slip into a depressive episode that takes weeks of care back at home to recover from. Or, the more likely and worse option: if you’re not careful with your meds or sleep, you could go manic.

So how do you travel with a mental illness? Read on for some tried and true tips from my own experience as a woman managing her bipolar disorder while traveling across the country while writing this post.

Prioritize sleep

As you and I both know, good sleep hygiene is essential to managing our bipolar disorder. As a woman with bipolar I, when I get less than five hours of sleep in a night, my brain starts revving up and won’t stop.

Two nights of little sleep and I get irritable and tense, snapping at my family. My mind starts racing and I can barely keep track of my thoughts, making focus difficult to find.

This, my friends, is the beginning of a manic episode for me. If I don’t get my sleep back on track, I start losing control of myself, talking a mile a minute, and expressing bipolar rage. 

Even if you don’t suffer the same consequences from missing a night of sleep, you must agree that sleep is crucial for not going manic, whatever level of manic that you experience. And sleep is necessary to ward off depressive episodes as well if your bipolar disorder trends toward depression.

So don’t do what I did this trip and book your flight for 7:15 am, necessitating a 3:45 am wake-up time. I couldn’t sleep the next night in the hotel and almost went manic, feeling exhausted but wired, but a good night’s rest the night after (last night as of this writing) set me to rights.

Almost. My shoulders are still tense and I am still wired, but the sleep took the edge off the manic episode. I’m carefully ensuring that I sleep well tonight by winding down before bed with a hot bath.

Don’t make my mistake. Prioritize sleep.

Stick to your normal day as much as possible 

Routines are what get my family through the day and make managing my bipolar disorder much, much easier. If you don’t have a series of routines that you go through throughout the day, I highly, highly reccomed you start some.

(For a post on how to start creating and sticking to routines, click here.)

When you’re traveling, sticking to your normal day as much as possible is the easiest way to remember important things like taking your meds on time. 

Back at home, I center my family’s day around our meals. We regularly eat at 9 am, 12 pm, and 5:30 pm. These are the rocks of our day, and everything else we do (morning park trip, afternoon study time, evening house cleaning) revolves around those bedrock times. 

So I try to have my family eat at 9 am, 12 pm, and 5:30 pm when we travel, too. 

Think about what you do every day at home and try to emulate that when you travel. Sticking to your normal day will help you remember crucial things, like the necessity of prioritizing sleep.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

As soon as you find out you’ll be traveling, make a packing list with everything you  think you’ll need to have on hand to stick to your normal day. I have such a list on my phone, and I check the virtual boxes off when I’ve packed each item. 

I highly recommend investing in a good backpack or cross-body bag. As the mother of two children, I carry a ridiculous amount of items with me, which I use regularly throughout the day. Travelling makes my backpack even more necessary.

Things I bring and carry on my person include:

  • Shelf-stable snacks. A blood sugar dip is the quickest way to get everyone hangry, and getting hangry is no way to be on a trip.
  • A first aid kit.
  • Three days of spare meds. These are important to have because you might find yourself in my situation yesterday: visiting family all day past the time when I was supposed to take my meds. If I don’t take my evening meds on time, I can’t sleep, which as we’ve discussed is my #1 priority when traveling. Luckily, I carried spare meds.
  • Water. Dehydration is the worst.
  • Antibacterial wipes.
  • Sunblock.
  • Masks for myself and the kids.
  • Chargers for various electronics and a portable battery.
  • My wallet with my ID, cell phone, and planner.

You absolutely do not have to carry all of these items or any of them, really. Your situation is undoubtedly different than mine as a mother with bipolar disorder. But the more you prepare for your trip ahead of time, the easier it will be to stick to your normal day and prioritize sleep.

Let’s Recap

If you’re traveling, you absolutely cannot suffer a mood episode. Not only will you not be at home where you can better take care of yourself, but you may also end up derailing the plans of your travel companions.

If you have bipolar disorder and you are planning a trip, pmake sure to prioritize sleep, stick to your normal day as much as possible, and prepare, prepare, prepare.

I wish you well in your journey.

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5 Ways to Get Motivated when You’re Suffering from Depression

hoto by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Editor’s Note: Remember how I said I’ll be updating twice a month? Please drop that to once a month, the final Friday. Thank you!

Depression is the pits.

As anyone who’s suffered from a depressive episode knows, motivation for basic activities is a struggle. People living through the worst depressions struggle to get out of bed, to eat, to shower, to get dressed, and any other number of day-to-day requirements.

As I’m currently suffering from a depressive episode, I’d like to outline some ways for you and me to get motivated when you’re dealing with the same. Here are 5 ways to conquer those depression blahs.

1. Challenge the Lies Your Brain Tells You

The biggest lie my brain tells me is, “You can’t handle this.”

And I often find myself taking what my brain says at face value without recognizing that my brain is a liar or challenging the thought.

Once I recognize that my brain is lying and these intrusive thoughts aren’t true, I can go back and recognize what I’ve done in the past that disproves the lie.

And I can challenge my brain, putting it to the test.

Sometimes I really can’t handle my life, but 95% of the time, I can and I have. And if I have handled situations like the ones my brain lies to me about before, I know I can.

When encountering intrusive thoughts, I’ve found the best way to manage them is to let the thought happen, and then acknowledge them with the statement, “Well, that’s a thought.”

Reframing my intrusive thoughts and the lies my brain tells me helps motivate me to manage my expectations and take on the rest of the day.

You’re not worthless. You’re not lazy. You’re struggling. There’s a difference.

And your depressive brain is a liar.

But there’s another good way to challenge your brain, which leads into tip #2.

2. Use Positive Self-Talk

Following tip #1, the best way to challenge those lies is to use positive self-talk.

Talking to yourself is normal, and if you encourage yourself, it can even be healthy.

However, if you lambast yourself, that’s unhealthy. I know how hard it is to tell myself I’m doing great when you’re not, and when I’m depressed, I think I’m not even when I am.

I often get down on myself, telling myself things like, “You’re lazy. No one loves you. You’ll never get through this.”

And those negative affirmations? While not only being patently untrue, they also serve no purpose except to make me feel worse.

So to psych myself up when I’m depressed, I tell myself, “You can do it! You can handle anything–or at least these small things during the day! You’ve conquered depression before!”

This positive self-talk helps motivate me to handle whatever challenge life throws at me, especially depression.

If that doesn’t work, I use tip #3.

3. Reach out to a Friend

My online friends are a huge part of my support system. I am blessed to have them and I recognize how fortunate I am to have people who have suffered depression before and know what it’s like.

So when I need to challenge my brain, the liar, or ask for help, I turn to my online friends for reassurance, which helps motivate me to continue working.

One of those friends helps me with tip #4.

4. Make an Accomplishments List

Another lie my brain tells me, someone who is focused on productivity and unhealthily uses it as a measure of my worth (something I’m working on), is that I haven’t gotten much done.

The problem with my brain is that when facing down a long to-do list, it doesn’t matter how much I accomplish on a daily basis; my brain thinks I made no progress at all and screams at me to get to work, so I can never relax and enjoy the fruits of my labor.

And when I’m depressed, my brain screams louder, telling me I’m lazy and worthless because I can’t get anything done.

This is untrue. I get things done, just not as much as I’d get done without my depression bogging me down.

So like in tip #3, I turn to a specific online friend I have and make a list for her, titling it various things like “Cass’s Accomplishments List” or “What I Got Done Today.”

I outline various activities and accomplishments I’ve done throughout the day, no matter how small, with bullet points. Then my encouraging friend celebrates the little victories with me.

Listing out everything I’ve gotten done over the day helps motivate me to make her proud, and when I look at all I’ve done despite being depressed, even the small things, it makes me proud, too.

Here’s a sample of one of my lists:

What Cass Accomplished Today While Feeling Rotten

  • Brushed my teeth
  • Took morning meds on time
  • Made breakfast for my daughter and me and ate it
  • Got my daughter dressed
  • Made my daughter brush her teeth
  • Brought down my laundry basket
  • Drove to the mall to let my daughter play at the indoor park

And that’s just the morning. Even if you think you’ve spent all your time in bed, there are likely a lot of little things you’ve gotten done throughout the day.

Taking your meds counts as self-care. So does brushing your teeth and taking down your laundry basket.

Try making a list today. It might help motivatwe you.

And if that doesn’t work, try tip #5.

5. Get Dressed

Maybe I should have started with this tip because it’s so foundational. But getting dressed is crucial to my success.

Getting out of bed in the mornings is next to impossible because I need to get dressed to face the day. That’s an obstacle that seems insurmountable at times.

I resist getting dressed because it means my day has started, usually before I’m ready for it. I often lie in bed wide awake for 20-40 minutes after my alarm rings because I don’t want to get dressed. Staying in bed is easier than getting dressed.

But once I do, my brain turns onto work mode. I can’t go back to bed because I’m wearing jeans and shoes.

Getting dressed, especially putting my shoes on, starts off a chain reaction of putting deodorant on, brushing teeth, and taking my meds. They’re habits I’ve formed that putting my shoes on trigger.

My brain orients around donning my clothes because it means my day has started and I’m ready for it, a powerful motivator.

I like to use tip #2 and tell myself, “Get dressed, Cass. You can handle your day.” And once I force myself through the motions of putting on my clothes, even if I’m not feeling it, everything that follows is on autopilot.

If I can conquer getting dressed, the first task of the day, I can handle anything.

And so can you. Try getting dressed today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it signals something in your brain, too.

Let’s Recap

By challenging the lies my brain tells me, using positive self-talk, reaching out to my friends, making accomplishment lists, and getting dressed, I can motivate myself to get things done despite my depression dragging me down by the ankles.

I am not worthless or lazy, I’m just feeling rotten right now, and this, too, shall pass. I can handle my day.

And so can you. You can cope with anything life throws at you.

Try to find some way to motivate yourself. If these tips help you, great! But if they don’t, do some thinking about what will get you up and moving.

If you can’t think of anything, it might be time to let your treatment team know how you’re feeling, or call a warm line, where you can talk with someone who’s been there.

I wish you well in your journey.

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How to Ensure You Never Run out of Meds Again

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Blogger’s Note: I will be updating my blog every two weeks from now on! Thanks for reading!

This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.

Running out of meds is the worst. 

If you’re regularly taking medication and you run out of pills and stop suddenly, this is terrible for your body and your mind. 

If you’re bipolar, you may end up tripping into a mood episode that can devastate you and your family.

But how do you ensure you never run out of meds?

This is the process that works for me, and it might help you, too. I live in the US, take medications that work that I can afford, and have a regular psychiatrist on call that I can also afford. 

If these facts aren’t all true for you, then the basics of the process may work but the entire process may not. 

I’ll discuss some tips on how to afford your meds later, as well as providing a National Institutes of Mental Health link describing several ways to afford a psychiatrist in the US.

How to Prevent Yourself from Running out of Meds

As I’m sure you’re aware, keeping your supply of meds stocked is important for day-to-day functioning.

But how do you ensure you’ll never run out of meds again?

Here’s what I do.

I have an am/pm pillbox that I fill every week on Sunday morning, right after my morning dose. I recommend designating a particular time to fill your pillbox, so you are always aware of what medications you possess at any given time.

I also highly recommend taking your meds at the same times every day. I take mine as soon as I wake up and after dinner at around 6pm but no later than 6:30pm because my antipsychotic helps me sleep, and if I take it too late, I’m wired until midnight.

Now that I’ve been taking my meds at the same times every day for almost a year, the habit is ingrained in me, and I rarely miss my meds. And on the rare occasion that I do miss a morning dose, for example, my pillbox lets me know because the pills are still in the am slot.

Once I have two weeks left of pills, I call my pharmacy and have them order pills for me from my psychiatrist.

My psych doc knows these pills work for me in these doses (and if they ever stop working, I call him to make an adjustment), so he prescribes them in doses of 90 days.

If you can talk to your psychiatrist and ask them to prescribe in three-month levels (assuming you have meds that work), you can have your psychiatrist fax your meds to the pharmacy of your choice and pick them up every three months.

I have my preferred pharmacy’s–at my local grocery store–number saved in my phone. When I call them to order medications, the pharmacy has an automated phone menu that I enter my prescription bottle number (so save that bottle!) in to ask for a refill.

After entering the prescription number in the phone and confirming my own phone number when asked, the menu narrator then tells me when my medications will be ready (usually in a couple of days).

So when I see I have a two-week supply left of my medications from filling my pillbox on Sunday morning, I call my pharmacy. They order a 90-day supply from my psychiatrist, and I have my husband pick the medication up on the next shopping day, typically Mondays.

So my process is almost entirely automated. I would be surprised if your local grocery store didn’t also have an automated phone menu for their pharmacy, so you wouldn’t even have to talk to a pharmacist if you didn’t want to!

But don’t be afraid to talk to your pharmacist. They’re there to help you. They want you to have your meds, not only because that’s good for you, but also that’s how they get paid.

Get to know your local pharmacist if you can. They can help you get the life-saving medications you need on a regular basis.

Back before I got used to this process and I frequently ran out of pills, I was able to call my pharmacist and ask them to expedite my meds so I could pick them up in the same day.

Before I had a three-month supply, I also called my pharmacist to order me a three-week supply when I was going on an out-of-state trip.

I’ve also run out of meds while on a month-long trip and called my psych doc and pharmacy to transfer the “emergency” prescription to a pharmacy across the country, where I was staying.

So learning to rely on your pharmacist, who again, is there to help you, is crucial for your success!

But What if You Can’t Afford Them?

If you can’t afford your medications, ask your doctor. They may have access to free samples of the pills you need or be able to prescribe you a cheaper generic drug.

If you’re an American citizen and you’re uninsured, find out if the pharmaceutical company that manufactures your drug has a patient-assistance program. You may qualify for these programs if your income is 100% of the poverty line, but it’s unlikely that you will if you receive Medicaid benefits.

Ask your pharmacy if they have a discount program if you pay in cash. If you’re over fifty and have a membership with the AARP, you can receive discounts on pills.

As promised, here’s the link to the NAMI’s article of resources if you can’t afford a psychiatrist. This is US-centric, but you can extrapolate the process if you live in another country.

Final Thoughts

This process has taken me a long time and a lot of trial and error to perfect, but the three-month supply works very well for me. After years of never running out of meds, I have found that the process is almost automatic.

If you can automate and make routines for yourself, you will find the management of your condition a lot easier.

I wish you well in your journey.

Editor’s Note – Some states have laws that prevents you from getting prescriptions for psych meds directly from the pharmacy, so you may have to go through your doctor. IBPF is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, so if you have any questions, please speak to your medical professionals.

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How to Stop Shoulding on Yourself

Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

This post was featured on the International Bipolar Foundation website, here.

When you’re depressed, forget about thriving – you’re in survival mode.

Which means you need to be especially gentle with yourself.

If you’re telling yourself that you should get everything done on your impossibly long to-do list today, a trap that a lot of us in capitalistic societies fall into, you’re shoulding on yourself.

Shoulding on yourself is a terrible habit. Saying “I should do this,” or “I should do that,” is just piling guilt on yourself and zapping the motivation to do anything. Believe me, when I’m drowning under a wave of self-imposed shoulds, especially when I’m depressed, I go back to bed.

If you’re shoulding on yourself when you’re depressed, you’re being unkind to yourself when you’re in survival mode. You don’t have the “spoons” to do most of the tasks you think you should and you definitely don’t have the spoons to fret about it.

The Spoon Theory, a concept popularized in a personal essay by the same name by Christine Miserandino, explains the idea of energy in short supply due to chronic illness using “spoons” as units of energy.

If you’re low on spoons, an easy state to be in when you’re depressed and don’t start with many, shoulding on yourself is the last thing you need. Worry about what you should do will just exhaust you.

Don’t think, “I should do this and after that I should do this.”

Think, “I have one task to do. What would be the most effective use of my spoons? How crucial is this spoon usage? Will I be forced to do it later when I may have even fewer spoons?”

If you answer “I can do x because it will be effective,” or “this is very crucial,” and “yes,” then do the task.

The ONE task.

One task at a time. Don’t even worry about the others until that one task is done.

If you’re worried about all the tasks you have to do after the first–take a shower, prepare that quarterly report, clean out the storage unit–you’ll never finish even the first task. You’ll end up paralyzing yourself by how much you should get done.

Instead, prioritize. Think, “What is my most effective/crucial task?”

Many tasks aren’t as crucial as we believe they are. Crucial tasks are things like “feed the five-year-old.” Strip your to-do list down to its very basics, things you need for survival or for your dependents’ survival.

It’s time to choose your most effective/crucial task. And only one. When you’re in survival mode, you only have the spoons to do one or two, and especially one at a time.

You can only do one task at a time well, so choose the one that will get you the most bang for your buck. What is pressing on you the most? What do you want to do the least later?

You can conquer that task. You are smart and capable and able to conquer anything on your to-do list, one at a time.

I wish you well in your journey.

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3 Things My Kids have Taught Me about Mental Health

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Sometimes my kids drive me crazy.

That’s a bit tongue-in-cheek — I have bipolar disorder, and having suffered a postpartum psychotic break, the hormones from giving birth have contributed to a literal going nuts.

My break was absolutely not my child’s fault. Not in the slightest.

But giving birth to and parenting two unique, fascinating individuals while managing my own mental health challenges has giving me a new perspective that I would have not had were I not a parent.

Here are 3 things my kids have taught me about mental health.

1. Oxygen Masks are Crucial

If you’ve ever flown — or raised a child — you’ve heard this axiom before:

Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting other passengers.

Figuratively, it means to make sure you take time to recharge your batteries before diving into help manage other people’s needs, even and especially your children.

This is true. This is so true.

When I do not get enough sleep, I end up spiraling into a manic episode, which is almost always followed by a depressive one.

During the baby days, I needed sleep more than anything else. So I slept with my child, breastfeeding him in the bed in a half-awake state, so I could get back to sleep right away after nighttime feedings.

And I’ve found the same to be true about self-care. If I don’t spend some time each week by myself on my hobbies, I end up crabby, jittery, and much more likely to spiral out with anxiety.

So now, with a 13-year-old and a 5-year-old who both have wildly different needs, I find I must keep myself well-fed, well-hydrated, medicated, sometimes entertained, and sleeping well in order to be the present, compassionate parent they need.

I must put on my own oxygen mask before I help them with theirs.

2. Communication is Also Crucial

I am extremely open to my kids about my moods.

Not all parents can be like that, but I try to tell them, “I’m feeling anxious today,” or “I’m feeling down,” or “I’m extremely stressed.”

I try to emphasize that my feelings (usually) have nothing to do with them and they are absolutely not responsible for my moods nor making me feel better. I’m not the best at that, but I do try.

I wear my heart on my sleeve. If I’m feeling bad, everyone knows it. I have no poker face. So I try to tell my kids what I’m feeling and encourage them to open up about what they’re feeling and why.

If I bottle my feelings, they come out in other ways. My emotions tend to build up in my brain and my thoughts circle around them until I explode.

I snap at the people around me, my loved ones, who do not deserve my bad temper.

So what parenthood has taught me about my mental health is that healthy communication is crucial.

This is true regardless of whom I need to communicate with. Whether it’s my spouse, my treatment team, or an employer, I must tell the people around me when I’m not at my best.

3. Try to Enjoy the Good Days

Parenthood is a blend of ups and downs.

Some days are filled with drudgery, where I drag my feet and end up stressed beyond belief. My kids push my limits and know just what to say to set me off (which is where healthy communication comes into play).

But most days, my kids are hilarious, compassionate, friendly human beings who are a joy to be around.

My children have taught me to enjoy the good days.

When suffering a depressive episode, the good days–and even the good moments–are few and far in between. If I ever want to recover from my mood episodes–which I always do!–then I must treasure the good moments and learn to break the cycle of sadness.

What I’ve learned from my kids is that the bad days won’t last forever.

Into each life some rain must fall, yes, but there’s always some way to turn bad moments into good ones if I’m present.

Let’s Recap

My kids have taught me all sorts of things about my mental health, but these three are the primary lessons:

  1. Oxygen masks are crucial. I must take care of my own needs before I attend to other people’s.
  2. Communication is also crucial. I must communicate when I’m not at my best to the people around me, or I’ll get worse.
  3. Try to enjoy the good days. If I’m present in the moment, I can treasure my days and break the cycle of sadness.

I hope these three lessons will help you as well. If you take a few moments to think about what the people around you have taught you about your own mental health, I’m sure you can come up with many more.

I wish you well in your journey.

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Disclosing Your Mental Illness Masterpost: How, When, and to Whom

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Disclosing your mental illness to other people is a huge decision. You have to consider not only whether your friends/employers will support you after you disclose, but also how and when to do so.

I tend to disclose within the first or second meeting, before I’m even attached to a friend. I am open about my bipolar disorder to almost everyone I meet.

Bipolar disorder is just a label; it’s a part of my life but it isn’t everything, and it explains why I’m sometimes unpredictable. And I have a strong support system, so I have little to lose by disclosing.

For further reading on how I became more comfortable sharing my bipolar diagnosis, click here.

I live in a liberal area of the U.S. and have had various reactions to my admitting that I have bipolar disorder, most of which were positive but some of which were disheartening. There are often three ways that friends and family react:

  1. They are comfortable with your disclosure, nothing changes for the worse, and sometimes they’re better at supporting you.
  2. They are incredibly uncomfortable and take steps to end the relationship with you.
  3. They say that they are comfortable with you telling them this and then proceed to fade slowly from your life.

Obviously the first outcome is the best and most hoped for. While ending relationships are a concern, it’s entirely possible that they wouldn’t have been able to support you anyway, so it’s probably best that they disappear from your life.

When to Disclose Your Mental Illness

Telling someone about your mental illness takes a lot of courage. And you don’t have to tell anyone right away–or at all. Not everyone can live as openly as I do.

If you want to tell someone about your mental illness, tell them when:

  • You are well. You don’t want to wait until a mental health crisis hits to disclose to your friends that you have a mental illness. Disclosing when you’ve got your illness under control will give the people you disclose to time to adjust to the fact that you suffer from a disorder.
  • When you need people to understand. Sometimes, people who suffer from mental illnesses need special accommodations at work or school. Letting friends know the reason behind why you don’t want to hang out with them during a depressive spiral can prevent them from thinking you’ve grown distant. Telling people you have a mental illness is better when it serves a purpose.
  • When you’re ready. Disclosing your mental illness to friends, family, or even an employer is an intensely personal decision. Write down exactly what you want to say, and practice your words, either in front of the mirror or with a licensed professional. Talking to a therapist about your concerns may help put your mind at ease.

Although the “perfect” time to disclose depends on your relationship to the person and whether you’re well, honesty is almost always the best policy.

People don’t “need” to know that you’re mentally ill. Disclosing is your decision alone. But it may help explain some of your more erratic behaviors to the people you impact with them, which may help them give you grace when you suffer mood episodes.

When you choose to disclose is up to you. I’ve personally found that letting people know upfront that I have challenges they (usually) don’t is beneficial to both of us.

And if you’re dating someone, it’s always best to disclose that you have mood episodes sooner rather than later. For a more specific post on when to disclose your mental illness to your dates, click here.

Now that you know when to disclose, how do you do it?

4 General Tips on How to Disclose Your Mental Illness

You may have been curious to know how to disclose your mental illness to the people around you. Here are some tips to do just that.

1. Bring Your Disorder up in Casual Conversation

When I disclose my mental illness, I tend to bring it up in casual, low-stakes conversation.

If a potential parent friend asks about my children, I tell them a few facts about them (I have two, these are their names and ages, blah blah blah). Then I sometimes mention that the baby years were especially difficult because the sleep deprivation tended to make me manic, because I have bipolar disorder.

Despite its massive effect on my life, treating the illness as just something I have to deal with on a regular basis helps me.

I try not to trivialize the disorder–which is why I also sometimes bring up my postpartum psychotic break and how serious and painful it was–but I also tend to talk about my disorder as just a part of me.

This strategy normalizes the mental illness and allows you to determine the terms of how others perceive your bipolar disorder. If you treat the illness seriously but with grace, then other people may as well.

2. Describe the Steps You’re Taking to Manage Your Condition

Bipolar disorder is only as shocking as you allow it to be.

If you describe your bipolar disorder as this awful, paralyzing albatross, then both you and the person you’re talking to will form an opinion of you as being ravaged by your disorder and out of control.

Don’t let bipolar disorder rule your life even in the way you talk about it.

Try to describe the steps you’re taking to manage your bipolar disorder. Try to say things like, “I have bipolar disorder, which means I have to take medication and be vigilant about how much sleep I get.”

This lets people know you’re actively working towards stability, a heartening sign. Being friends with someone who’s unmanageable may scare some people away, as they might not be ready for a commitment like being constantly impacted by your wild moods.

Remember, managing bipolar disorder successfully is work no matter how you slice it, so be proud of that work!

3. Demonstrate How Your Bipolar Disorder Gives You Empathy

Even when getting to know my close friends, I would say things like, “Oh, yes, I understand a lack of focus–I have bipolar disorder and that makes focusing difficult.”

Mental health challenges are growing more and more common. A huge percentage of people struggle daily with problems like inability to focus, insomnia, or even mild, high-functioning depression.

Because your bipolar disorder is a series of mental health challenges itself, it has likely given you empathy for people who currently struggle with them. Don’t be afraid to show that empathy and let people know you understand their issues.

This shows them that you will not patronize them for their struggles, which may endear you to them.

4. If You Need it, Ask for Help

If you have a close relationship with someone, don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially from your employer (more on that below). If you believe they will be receptive, suggest ways your audience can support you.

This can involve asking for more breaks or other accommodations at work or school, or simply asking a friend to understand why you can’t hang out as long, especially at night, when you need more sleep.

You can also ask your loved ones to help you find a doctor and follow through with an appointment, if you feel that your friend or family member will understand and be helpful.

Set boundaries here, too: you know yourself best, and you need to explain whether you need advice or just need your audience to listen.

I have often “vented” to my close friends about how my mania makes me feel, especially when I’m in a manic state. I am upfront with my friends and family about whether I’m entering a mood episode, especially mania, and I describe the steps I’m taking to stabilize again.

4. Keep in Mind Your Boundaries on What to Share

You definitely don’t need to share everything. Plan ahead as to what you feel comfortable sharing about your experience. It’s perfectly reasonable to explain that you don’t feel like talking about something in particular.

If you do feel there are good parts to your illness, like things you’ve learned, try to share those. Remember, how others perceive your bipolar disorder is often about how you frame it, and what details you are comfortable sharing will shape how others feel about you.

I rarely have reservations when talking about my bipolar disorder, but there are friends for whom I wouldn’t go into detail about my postpartum psychotic break.

When I asked friends to read my book about the experience in the past, they frequently couldn’t read past the first paragraph because it was too painful for them to think of how much agony I experienced.

Some people can’t handle the nitty gritty of my illness and that’s okay. I still refer to my breakdown in general terms, but I don’t tell certain friends everything about it unless they express interest in reading my book (at which I warn them about how intense it is).

When sharing details about your mental illness, consider not only your comfort levels, but also your friends’, and what opinions you want them to have of you.

Disclosing your mental illness can be a deep and intense process, but it doesn’t have to be. Try bringing up your bipolar disorder in casual conversation, describe the steps you’re taking to manage your condition, demonstrate the empathy the illness has given you, and keep in mind your boundaries and your friends’ comfort levels.

If you’re disclosing to an employer, however, that’s a completely different ballgame. Here’s how to do that:

How to Disclose Your Mental Illness to an Employer

You know how and when to disclose your mental illness, and even if to disclose to family and friends. But what about your employer? Read on to learn how to protect yourself.

When choosing to disclose a mental illness at work, there are several factors to consider. You might face stigma from your coworkers–or worse, your bosses. Those you work with might not understand, or even want to understand, your daily struggle.

However, with disclosure might come special accommodations–like extra breaks–which are part of your civil rights. There are certain protections available to you.

You absolutely deserve those protections. If you’re in the US, don’t be afraid to disclose your condition to your employer so they can treat you fairly under the law.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a protection that you should be familiar with. The ADA is just like it sounds like: a federal law that protects Americans with disabilities at private employers with more than fifteen employees, as well as state and government employers. There are two conditions you must meet for the act to apply:

  1. Your disability impairs your life, essentially making working difficult. This condition applies to difficulties with regulating emotion, concentrating, and other ways your mental illness interferes with your ability to work.
  2. That, while your illness makes working difficult, you can get the work done.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehab Act)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, or Rehab Act, is a federal law very similar to the ADA that applies to schools. Any agency that receives government funding is covered under the Rehab Act.

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a useful law that helps people keep their jobs while taking an extended leave of absence. The FMLA only applies to companies with over fifty employees, and after you have worked for the company for a year minimum. The FMLA lets you take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a sick family member or recover from an illness yourself.

States also have their own protections for Americans with disabilities.

What Accommodations Can I Receive? How?

Under these laws, you can receive special accommodations: working from home, flexible start times, written directions, feedback from your bosses and coworkers, more breaks, and quiet places to take those breaks. These changes to the workplace are intended to be an aid for you so that you can complete your tasks.

But how do you apply for these accommodations? The process isn’t difficult, but the onus is on you to ask. Once you do, your employer is mandated to talk with you.

  • First, contact the human resources (HR) department and ask them what channels you need to go through to apply.
  • Write down your request. Be very specific as to what accommodations you need, and explain to HR how these will help you in the workplace.
  • Talk with your treatment team–therapists and psychiatrists–to see if they can offer any proof that you suffer from a mental illness.
  • Take notes at every conversation you have with your boss. Do not delete any emails that apply to the request.
  • Be reasonable and flexible. Your strongest advocate is you, so be prepared to negotiate.

 Discrimination

What if you’ve been discriminated against because you suffer from a mental illness? There are legal protections available for you:

  • If the employer is a private one covered by the ADA, then you have to reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). File a complaint at the EEOC’s website, www.eeoc.gov.
  • If, however, the employer is a federal agency, like a school or governmental employer, then you must reach out to the Equal Employment Opportunity Office (EEO). File a complaint at the EEOC’s website, federal division.
  • States have protections as well. If you’ve been discriminated against despite these laws, look up your state’s Fair Employment Practice Agency (FEPA).
  • The Department of Labor manages the FMLA. If you’ve been denied your legal right to twelve weeks of unpaid leave, then contact them.

There are several protections available to you should you choose to disclose your mental illness to your employer. Whether or not you should is completely up to you. As we said, you might face stigma from your coworkers or bosses, but if you’ve been discriminated against, you can file complaints. You have a right to accommodations. All you have to do is take that step forward.

Final Thoughts

How and when to disclose your mental illness can be intense, deeply personal decisions. But they don’t have to consume you. Here’s an overview of the masterpost:

When to Disclose:

  • Whenever you’re well.
  • When you need people to understand.
  • When you’re ready.

How to Disclose to Friends:

  • Bring your bipolar disorder up in casual conversation.
  • Describe the steps you’re taking to manage your condition
  • Demonstrate the empathy the illness has given you.
  • Keep in mind your boundaries and your friends’ comfort levels.

How to Disclose to Your Employer to get the Accommodations you Deserve:

  • Contact HR
  • Write down your specific request.
  • Get proof of your mental illness from your treatment team.
  • Take notes at every conversation you have with your boss. Do not delete any emails that apply to the request.
  • Be reasonable and flexible in advocating for yourself.

Only you can decide when, how, and to whom to disclose your mental illness. You may face stigma and discrimination for it. But those true friends who do stick around–and those accommodations you’ll earn from your employer–are worth it, in my opinion.

Best of luck disclosing your mental illness.

I wish you well in your journey.

Related Posts:

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What is Bipolar Disorder? A Crash Course by the Bipolar Parent

Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please:

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Text TALK to 741741
  • Or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources. 

For a post with a list of domestic crisis lines, click here

For a post with a list of international crisis lines, click here.

Bipolar disorder.

With 45 million people worldwide living with this illness and abundant, harmful stereotypes presented in the media, you may have heard of or experienced this illness in your own life.

But what is bipolar disorder, really? What do “mania” and “depression” really mean?

First, we must clinically define bipolar disorder. bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is a mood disorder characterized by swings between depression, grandiose moods called mania, and precious periods of stability.

Over five million people worldwide live with the illness, which often runs in families. The mood disorder affects men and women equally and often appears in early adulthood, though children may also develop the mental illness.

But what does all that gobbledygook mean? How does this affect you, the diagnosed person or the person with a loved one who has a diagnosis?

Here’s a crash course in what bipolar disorder is and what it means from The Bipolar Parent.

What is Mania?

The bipolar sufferer is a creature of extremes, and nowhere is that made more clear than during manic episodes. Often depicted as the default bipolar state in popular culture, mania is a psychiatric state defined by symptoms of:

  • grandiosity
  • euphoric mood
  • insomnia or sleep disturbances
  • massively increased energy
  • irritability
  • rapid and/or pressured speech
  • a flood of ideas
  • delusions
  • an inability to think things through or control impulses
  • increased risk-taking, including extreme spending and dangerous sex.

When I’m manic, I can flip from overjoyed and impervious in one second to angry and snappish in the next. I cannot control my impulses and am totally distractable.

I often speak too quickly and become frustrated with everyone around me, whom I perceive as moving too slow. My friends and family, however, cannot understand me.

Inability to concentrate due to the flood of ideas in my mind means I start projects and then drop them before they’re even half-done (eg: I have document after document of unfinished fanfictions). And I spend loads of money on craft materials, and the purchases are rarely thought through.

I also have an inflated sense of their own mortality; most of the time, it feels good to be a god, so I am easily convinced by my own ego that I don’t need medication or sleep.

It’s difficult to recognize that I’m manic when I’m in the middle of it, because I feel great. I usually have to be told by a concerned friend or family member that I’m spinning out into a mood episode, if the uber-productivity doesn’t tip me off.

A diagnosis of mania is also the primary difference between Bipolar I and Bipolar II: the former requires an extreme manic episode lasting at least one week, possibly with psychotic features such as hallucinations or delusions of godhood. Sufferers of Bipolar II deal with depression and hypomania, a lower form of mania, only.

What is Hypomania?

In Latin, “hypo” means below, so the definition of hypomanic as, “appears less intense than manic” follows logically.

People in a hypomanic episode usually have feelings of euphoria, irritability, increased sexuality, and competitiveness–but less than someone with full-blown mania.

Whereas inability to focus permeates mania, my experience with hypomania has been completely different. Increased focus and feelings of contentment means that I am incredibly productive while hypomanic, and I don’t doubt that this drive and ability applies to other people in such a state as well.

Hypomania is a very pleasurable episode to be in; I have often felt as if I am coasting along in my day, accomplishing anything I set out to do with my super-human energy.

This is part of the reason bipolar people (including me) often grieve for the hypomanic episode while depressed or normal. Similarly, taking my meds is difficult while in this state of ecstasy, because I think I can do whatever I want.

Unfortunately for me and everyone else who has enjoyed a hypomanic episode, any manic episode, no matter how intense, is typically followed by a crash.

What is Depression?

Even the neurotypical layperson, who may have never experienced mental illness, knows what depression is–at least on an intellectual level.

Depression is often described as being miserable, down in the dumps, or–my favorite–trapped in a black, sucking hole of apathy.

According to the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief, depression is one of the normal responses to a traumatic life event.

Clinical or bipolar depression, however, rears its ugly head due to chemical imbalances in the brain, medication, or genes–meaning that it can strike at any time not connected to stress or winter blues.

So what are depression’s signs and symptoms, and how are they treated?

When I’m depressed, I often feel most or all of these:

  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness
  • Poor concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Lack of energy
  • Isolating self
  • Inability to sleep
  • Missed showers, meals
  • Suicidal tendencies

When I want to remember the times I was deep in the midst of a depression episode, all I have to do is look over my old blog entries.

This one in particular hit home:

Over the past year I’ve isolated myself and my five-year-old, confining us both to the house due to both anxiety and depression.

I’ve only just begun to emerge from the fugue, armed with new medications and new coping strategies, as well as an attempt to shuck off old habits.

Due to the advice of a dear friend, I found that doing things makes me want to do more things.

It’s counter-intuitive, but making sure that I do the dishes and pick up the living room every day has worked as the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had.

Staying in bed until I have to pick up my kid from kindergarten is a sure-fire way of destroying the rest of the day.

Getting up and getting dressed is that first, difficult step, but I am better off when it’s done.

– Cassandra Stout

I suffered massive depressive episode for years and years, crippling me emotionally and causing me to miss out on “normal” things for me and my son, like planning birthday parties or making new friends after a move.

For eight years, I lacked a solid community. I rarely took my child out on playdates and as a consequence, he finds making friends difficult.

I did very little around the home, including cleaning the house and showering myself.

Thankfully, I’ve found a combination of medication that worked, attended therapy, and worked on my own self-care. I now have a community of friends that support me, and I am helping to undo the damage that was done to my son.

What is a Mixed Episode?

To make bipolar disorder even worse, what happens if you felt symptoms of depression and symptoms of mania at the same time?

This awful set of feelings is colloquially called a mixed episode or a mixed mood state, and they are common in people with bipolar disorder. Half or more of people with bipolar disorder deal with mixed episodes, and I am one of them.

Mixed episodes are terrible. People suffering a mixed mood state have a high chance to die by suicide because they have the awful, soul-destroying symptoms of depression with the ability to carry out plans.

Medications typically used to treat depression or mania usually don’t work well on mixed episodes.

Bipolar I vs. Bipolar II: What’s the Difference?

To be diagnosed with bipolar I, which I have, requires an intense manic episode with symptoms lasting longer than seven days or severe enough to require immediate hospitalization. Depressive episodes often last two weeks or more.

Both states prevent normal function, and require treatment in order for the individual to fully live their life. It is extremely difficult to reason with the bipolar I sufferer when they’re in the midst of a mood episode.

Four times more common than Bipolar I, bipolar II is characterized by both depression and hypomanic (“below mania”) episodes, but not full-blown mania.  Often productive, persons with Bipolar II are rarely hospitalized.

What Makes Bipolar I so Dangerous?

Bipolar I disorder sufferers experience the most intense manic episodes.

Immediately after giving birth to my first child, I suffered a postpartum psychotic break and an intense manic episode, committing myself to a local mental hospital. I earned a diagnosis of bipolar I.

During my committal, I was literally crazy. I suffered all the symptoms listed above as well as delusions and a hallucination. I was deemed dangerous to my infant and myself.

After stabilizing the manic episode with medication, I suffered a debilitating depressive episode for the next four years. I clawed my way back to stability through pursuing medication that worked and regularly taking it, faithfully attending therapy, and focusing on self-care.

That manic episode changed my entire life. Bipolar I disorder is dangerous because the manic episodes are so powerful, the person behind the mental illness ceases to recognize their own limits.

What is Cyclothymia?

Cyclothymia is a tricky diagnosis with manic symptoms less severe than bipolar I and depressive symptoms less severe than bipolar II.

Impact on productivity varies; some individuals may be hyper-productive with little impairment, whereas others are manic or severely depressed for most of their lives.

Cyclothymic people may have periods of stability, but those last less than eight weeks.

Risk Factors of Bipolar Disorder

There are several risk factors under consideration.

Genetics may play a part, though studies of identical twins have found that one twin may develop the disorder while the other twin does not.

Brain scans show that the structure of the brains of sufferers of bipolar disorder have differently sized portions of the brain compared to healthy people.

Family history seems to contribute as well, as those who have a family history of the disorder tend to develop it more often than those who do not.

Childhood trauma is also a huge factor; one 2016 review in the International Journal of Bipolar Disorder showed that multiple traumas are more frequent in patients with BD than in controls (63 versus 33 %).

Whatever the reasons behind the development of the disorder, over five million people worldwide live with it, and a great deal of people remain untreated.

What about Treatments?

Treatment for bipolar disorder requires a range of psychotherapy and mood stabilizing drugs like lithium and Depakote. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is also used, with mixed results.

Several illnesses are comorbid with bipolar disorder, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or anxiety-related illnesses. These related conditions make it difficult to treat the underlying bipolar disorder, as stimulants used to treat ADHD can sometimes trigger a manic episode.

Drugs are not without their side effects. I gained 45 pounds on mine, and topped out over 200. I’ve also tried medications that knocked me out for weeks. But I persisted until I found a cocktail that worked for me.

Attending therapy also helps the person with bipolar disorder live a fulfilling life. Therapy has no side effects.

Performing self-care is also crucial for anyone to be happy, but doubly so for people with mental illnesses.

With treatment, people with bipolar disorder can lead productive, healthy lives, managing their illness as it comes.

Final Thoughts

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that can devastate families, but it’s also one of the most treatable disorders.

With treatment, I have stabilized after suffering terrible mood episodes, and you can, too. Mania, depression, and mixed episodes can be survived.

What a bipolar diagnosis really means is different for everyone. But what it means to me is that I have an extra layer of work on top of my normal affairs to manage my moods.

I have to make sure I take my meds on time twice a day, monitor my moods so that I’m sure that the meds are working, monitor my actions to make sure they’re not wildly off base and within the range of societal norms, get enough sleep (this is especially important to avoid manic episodes), monitor my spending, avoid alcohol, and so on and so forth.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, but it’s just part and parcel with living with a mental illness. If I don’t put the work in, I become miserable and a danger to myself and others. Thankfully, the work gets easier as you get used to it.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t have to control your life. Whether you have bipolar I, bipolar II, or cyclothymia, you can live stably.

I wish you well on your journey.

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A Letter to Myself to Read When I’m Feeling Low or Suicidal

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please:

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Text TALK to 741741
  • Or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

For a post with a list of domestic crisis lines, click here. For a post with a list of international crisis lines, click here.

Dear Cass,

I know you don’t believe me when I say this, but you’re going to be okay.

You’ve been here before, remember? You’ve lived through the depths of depression and suicidal thoughts, and you’ve even thrived afterwards.

I know you suffered them over that awful period of two-and-a-half years after your kiddo’s birth, and I know you wrote goodbye letters. I know very well that you don’t want to be here again.

But you will be okay. I promise.

Don’t give up. You have so much to live for. You’re going to go back to school to become a therapist and help people manage their own mental illnesses. You’ve got a great family who loves you. You have a close relationship with God, and you don’t want to hurt Him by hurting yourself.

Let’s go back to your family. Your kids need you to survive and thrive, and so does your husband.

Your children are so young. So very naïve. And they need you to protect them from the world and raise them into wise, compassionate, capable adults. Leaving your husband to parent them alone would be unfair to him.

There’d be a Cass-shaped hole in their lives that they’d never be able to fill. A new wife or a new mom wouldn’t be the same. Your kids and husband would be reminded of you, painfully, every day.

And you love all three of them. Despite the times they frustrate you, you’d give up everything for them–and for many years, you did just that.

But you have other reasons to live than just your family. You haven’t fulfilled your dream of going back to school to become the best therapist you can be yet–and if you have, you’ll have other dreams and goals, I’m sure. You’re a go-getter.

You can set and fulfill dreams and goals when you’re stable. Don’t worry about working towards them now; now is a time for triage. Now is a time to stop the bleeding, and if you’re reading this, you’re undoubtedly bleeding out.

It’s time to take care of you. You’re important to those around you, God, and yourself.

Put aside your to-do list. Practice some self-care. Go take a shower, eat a snack, and drink some water. Call your treatment team and let your husband know you’re suffering if you haven’t.

Do these things right now, and then come back to this letter.

Cass, I want to let you know that you are precious. You are irreplaceable. You are a smart, capable, lovely young woman with a lot of conquered challenges under her belt. And you can conquer this one, too.

It’s just another hurdle. Just one more thing you can handle. Managing a mental illness is work, but it’s well worth it. What’s the alternative to not putting the work in?

You being miserable.

And what happens if you put the work in?

You’ll thrive. You deserve to survive this and thrive again.

And I know you don’t believe it right now, but there are people in your life who love you and want to help you.

Call them. Text them. Email them. Just let them know.

And if you happen to have alienated everyone in your life, visit a crisis center or call a crisis line. Right now. Don’t even finish this letter–get up and get going.

You’ll be okay.

I promise.

Love,

Past Cass

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Top Tips for Keeping Friends Even with a Mental Illness

Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

In my last post, “How to Make Friends During a Pandemic Even with a Mental Illness,” I gave you a few tips on how to do just that.

Briefly summarized, the post encourages you to develop connections online, talk to your neighbors, join a support group, and/or reconnect with old friends. Using these tips, you can make friends even while stuck at home during a pandemic.

But once you’ve made those friends, how do you keep them?

Ah, there’s the rub. Keeping friends after making them is a difficult proposition for anyone, but that’s especially hard for those of us with mental illnesses.

Here are 3 tips to keep the friendships you just made alive.

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

When trying to nurture your friendships, communication is key.

I have personally lost both new and long-standing friendships because I didn’t communicate properly with them.

In the case of the new friendships, usually playdates made at the parks I attended with my young daughter, I’ve neglected to text the parents after boldly asking for their numbers and establishing an initial “here’s my number” text.

My mother always said, “If you want a letter, write a letter,” implying that I should reach out first to establish the relationship. Her advice is solid; I have rarely kept a parent friend without my texting them to set up playdates often.

Neglecting to communicate is the easiest way to lose a friend. And it’s especially important for those of us with mental illnesses, as we need to let them know when we’re suffering a down day or are self-isolating.

Regarding my long-standing friendship, she frequently invited me to parties at her apartment, but because I didn’t want to drive in the downtown section of a massive city, where she lived, I refused invite after invite without telling her the truth.

This was before GPS on phones (I owned a flip phone at the time), and I was terrified of getting lost, like I’d done frequently when going to her apartment, or God forbid, driving the wrong way on a one-way street again.

I made up excuse after excuse without telling her the truth, and eventually, the emailed invites stopped coming. I lost touch with that friend and everyone in our social circle (she was the hub of all our mutual friends), leaving me virtually friendless for a few years.

Communication is key. Don’t do what I did–don’t neglect to tell your friends when you have an issue.

Here’s a rule-of-thumb: for close friends whose friendships you want to maintain, you should text them at least once a week. For casual acquaintances, call them on their birthdays at the very least.

Frequent communication will help you maintain the friendship.

2. Avoid Self-Isolation like the Plague it Is

When we’re depressed, we tend to withdraw from all sorts of social obligations. We’re exhausted and sad, and we think that socializing with friends is too much effort.

Don’t think like this. It’s a trap, one that starts off a vicious cycle and may even worsen your depression.

Just like in tip #1, if you’re open about your mental illness, communicate with your friends that you’re going through a depressive episode and ask for their grace. If you’re currently cloistered, don’t tell them details but let them know you’re struggling with something that makes socializing difficult.

And then actually socialize as much as you can handle. Sometimes that means lunches with friends are shorter, or you limit yourself to talking to your online friends, but don’t neglect to nurture your friendships.

Let your friends know you’re thinking of them via a text, phone call, or whichever way you communicate best. If you isolate yourself, your friends will think you’ve dropped off the face of the earth, and will choose not to “bother” you.

Tell your friends you need them and socialize as much as you can. Social connections are important and can help improve depressive episodes, and if you leave your friends alone, they will leave you alone, as in the example of my long-standing friendship.

3. Resolve Conflicts as Soon as You Can

Even best friends fight, but a conflict can suck the joy out of a friendship faster than air escaping a balloon.

The problem in your relationships are never all one person’s fault. If you’re facing a conflict with your friend, it’s likely you played a part in the problem.

Don’t let your friendships die because you can’t be the bigger person. Apologize for your part in it first, even if you think you were wronged more seriously than they were.

Most of us shy away from conflict. Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), especially those of is with mental illnesses, tend to be sensitive to yelling and criticism, and break down quickly when presented with problems in the friendship.

Don’t avoid conflict. Avoiding the problem only makes it worse. Swallow your reservations and, like in tip #1, communicate with your friends.

And if you can’t figure out what your part in the conflict is, spend some time in self-reflection. Being honest with yourself and your friend will help you keep them.

If you’re managing conflict in your friend group, listen to each side without judging. Getting everyone’s perspective before declaring who’s at fault (usually everyone) is tremendously important.

When conflict breeds most of the time, the participants just want to be heard and believe very strongly that the other people involved aren’t listening to them.

Listen to your friends. Be an impartial judge and resolve conflict quickly. Doing so will not only help you keep your friendship intact, it’ll also teach you skills for maintaining that friendship and other ones in the future.

Final Thoughts

I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer on how to keep friends even with a mental illness.

I’ve lost countless friends because I didn’t follow these steps. Once I realized the problem was me, I chose to nurture my friendships–two of which are extremely rewarding to me.

I’ve communicated effectively, refused to self-isolate, and resolved conflict as soon as I could. With these tools in my arsenal, I’ve made several friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.

I wish you well in your journey.

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