11 Lessons I Learned from 11 Years of Managing Bipolar Disorder

sky is falling
A black-and-white photo of a man standing in front of a storefront, looking up at the sky. Credit to flickr.com user Neil Moralee. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

I have suffered from bipolar disorder I for decades, but I didn’t know that my condition had a name for a long time. It wasn’t until after a psychotic break following the birth of my son 11 years ago that I was diagnosed, and started managing the illness. Thankfully, my bipolar disorder is not the treatment-resistant type, so I have responded well to medication and therapy.

Here are 11 lessons I learned after 11 years of managing bipolar disorder:

Lesson #1: Take my Medication, Everyday

Like almost everyone who takes medication for a chronic illness, I found myself not wanting to take my pills. Could I manage my disorder without them? Do I have to take my meds everyday? The answers to those questions are: no, I can’t, and yes, I do, respectively.

I learned the hard way that I have to take my medication every day. If I don’t, I end up manic, anxious, or depressed, and sometimes all three at once. Mania and depression presenting at once is called a mixed episode, which I have on occasion. They are the most dangerous of all the episodes if left untreated, because I think awful thoughts and have the energy (and lack of impulse control) to act on them. For me, taking my medication daily is the only way to head off these episodes.

Lesson #2: Take my Medication on Time

Taking my meds on time (morning meds in the morning, night meds at night) is something I still struggle with. My psychiatrist recently told me to take a medication I was taking at night in the morning, which I am not at all used to, so I often forget to take them. But I’ve found that if I take the medication which shares a caffeine pathway in my brain at night, then I’ll be up all night, which can lead to manic episodes. It’s a balance I’ve yet to master.

Lesson #3: This Mental Illness is Lifelong

Until the past several months, I hadn’t suffered a depressive or manic episode in six or seven years. I thought, foolishly, that the mental illness had simply–poof!–disappeared. The fact that I can’t just make mental illness go away has been one that I’ve struggled to accept. I can manage my disorder, but it is always with me.

Lesson #4: Make Peace with my Diagnosis

Like many people diagnosed with a mental illness, I struggled at first with my diagnosis. I couldn’t be bipolar, I thought. I wasn’t crazy, like the people surrounding me in the mental hospital I committed myself to. But I was and am mentally ill. Making peace with my diagnosis only came in time, after I had figured out how to manage my condition. Like lesson #3, I had to realize that this mental illness is lifelong, and I needed to deal with it.

Lesson #5: Take my Bipolar Disorder Seriously

If left untreated, my bipolar disorder will wreck my life. Over the years, I have taken my medication consistently and attended therapy religiously. But when I didn’t, my carefully constructed life fell apart–and how. I have since learned that I must take my mental illness seriously. Like a diabetic, one slip up is enough to send me into a spiral of destruction. I can never stop managing bipolar disorder, ever.

Lesson #6: Honesty is the Best Policy

I’ve found that, when it comes to my moods, honesty is the best policy. When my son asks me how I’m feeling, I will tell him that I am anxious, depressed, fine, or feeling “up.” I don’t ask him to manage my emotions, but he is able to adjust his expectations of me accordingly. He is extraordinarily empathetic and mature for his age, and I have no doubts that’s because of how my mental illness has affected him. In other cases, being honest about my bipolar disorder to people other than my immediate family ends up with the same result. For more information on how to disclose your disorder to friends and family, click here.

Lesson #7: Gather a Support System

For many, many years, I was too depressed to gather a strong support system. I had moved away from all my friends and family for my husband’s job, and felt isolated. Making new friends, especially when I had an infant to care for, seemed impossible. It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve reconnected with my family (and been honest with them; see lesson #6), and made new friends who understand mental illness. This support is crucial to my wellbeing. If I had known how much not having  a system in place affected me, I would have pushed myself hard to make friends sooner.

Lesson #8: Manage my Sleep

Staying up all night for a week is what triggered my psychotic break and first real manic episode. I have learned the hard way that sleep is my best friend. When I don’t sleep, I end up firmly in the middle of a manic episode, depressive episode, or mixed episode. Sleep is crucial for anyone with bipolar disorder, but I need more sleep than the average adult (about 9-10 hours a night vs. 7-8). I cannot function without sleep.

Lesson #9: Trust my Mental Health Team

Like many people who suffer from mental illnesses, I have had upwards of seven psychiatrists, and two therapists. They keep moving on me! Building trust in a new treatment team is so difficult, but I have to advocate for myself and learn to trust every time change upsets the apple cart. The lesson that my mental health team is only acting in my best interest has been a difficult one to learn. I now rely on my current psychiatrist and therapist with my life.

Lesson #10: Know my Triggers

Learning common bipolar triggers took time, and effort. I didn’t do a lot of research about bipolar disorder when I was first diagnosed, and what a fool I was. Figuring out that I needed good sleep hygiene (see lesson #8) took a period of trial and error, during which my husband and child suffered as I wasn’t present for them. Learning what triggered my manic or depressive episodes, and how to manage those triggers, was crucial in learning how to manage my disease.

Lesson #11: Therapy is Awesome

Though I was attending therapy for nine months before my diagnosis, learning coping skills in therapy was invaluable. I have attended innumerable sessions with a therapist over the years, and doing so has helped me: be more present as a parent and wife, learn how to manage my bipolar disorder, and figure out how to deal with family situations like a tense Christmas. Therapy is awesome. I highly recommend prioritizing counseling sessions if you can afford them. Many therapists take clients on a sliding scale.

Final Thoughts

Over the years, I have learned several more lessons than just these 11. But these are likely the most important. Many of these lessons are common ones learned by people who suffer from mental illnesses. If you suffer from bipolar disorder and are newly-diagnosed, take heart. Do research on your condition, take your medications, and never stop fighting.

I wish you well in your journey.

Related:

 

Dear Younger Me: You’re Bipolar, and That’s Okay

Dear Younger Me,
If someone were to tell you that by age 33, you would have a diagnosis of bipolar I, you wouldn’t be surprised. You would be surprised, however, at the fact that you have the wherewithal to treat your mental illness, both emotionally and financially.

You wouldn’t be surprised at the soul-sucking depression you feel now. You would be surprised that you haven’t felt this way in years, and that you are a productive, usually happy, stable woman. You’d be shocked at the fact that the meds have worked so well to control your bipolar disorder up until this point, and that adjusting them isn’t a major problem in your life.

You wouldn’t be surprised that you are a writer. After all, you’ve been writing since you were four and knew how to scribble letters, and wrote your debut “novel,” The Fish. You would be surprised that you are a) married to a wonderful man who would die for you, b) have kids, and c) stay home to take care of your kids. You’d be shocked to know you’re an amazing mother, with healthy, compassionate children.

cassandra stout photo
A closeup photo of author, Cassandra Stout, facing left. Protected under a Creative Commons license.

You wouldn’t be surprised to know that you are still attending the same church you grew up in, the church of Christ. You would be surprised at how much closer to God you’ve become. You’d be shocked to recognize how much He has guided your life, and worked out all things for good.

Younger me, you will be happy someday. You’ll escape the narrow-minded bullies of your small town, and establish yourself in a big city 2000 miles away. You’ll survive college–barely. You’ll suffer a postpartum psychotic breakdown, but that won’t stop you. You’ll just write a book about it.

Younger me, you have so much life ahead of you. A good life. Thank you for not giving up. You will face so many challenges and come out on top. Your grit, determination, and prayers will see you through.

Don’t give up. Don’t give up.

Love,
Cassandra Stout

Related:

How to Clean Your House with Bipolar Disorder and a Toddler, part II

This is part two of a two-part series.
Part I | Part II

Hello! And welcome to part II of How to Clean Your House with Bipolar Disorder and a Toddler! In part I, I described overall strategies for working through your house with a toddler tagging along. In this part II, I’ll give you a guide to tackle each room. The main strategy is to give your toddler a job, so she is helping you, not distracting you. Let’s get started!

Room-by-Room Cleaning Guide

Cleaning the bathroom is easier than you might think. When I clean my bathroom with my two-year-old, I place her in the bathtub barefoot. I then spray down the walls of the tub with a non-toxic cleaner, hand her a sponge, and let her go to town. She keeps happily entertained, and I’m able to quickly whip my bathroom into shape, including counters, sink, and floor. I must remind her several times to keep squeegeeing while I’m scrubbing the toilet, but the process works for us.

If you’re looking for a non-toxic cleaner, try mixing vinegar and water in a spray bottle at a ratio of 1:1 along with two squirts of dish soap.

spray bottle
Credit to flickr.com user Upupa4me. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

The kitchen is just like the bathroom. Give your child a sponge and a pot to keep them occupied, so you can clean the rest of the kitchen. If you have surfaces within reach that your toddler can clean–like a stainless steel fridge–give them a spray bottle of a non-toxic cleaner and a rag. When doing dishes, pull up a chair to the sink and let your kid get their hands soapy. Or have him sweep with a child-sized broom.

Or… You get the picture. There’s any number of ways to keep a toddler entertained in the kitchen while you get the rest of it clean. You take care of the hard cleaning, and let your kiddo tidy what he can reach.

The living room is more difficult than kitchens or bathrooms, but you can still keep your child working. Keep your child occupied while cleaning the living room by letting them help you pick up her toys. I keep my daughter’s toys in the living room, inside a leather ottoman. Getting her to pick up her toys requires me to stand over her and hand her blocks or puzzle pieces while telling her, “Put it back! Put it back! Yay! Good job!” The process takes effort, and time, and lots of praise.

If you don’t store the toys in the living room, corral your kids’ stuff in baskets to take to their bedrooms, or have him or her put the toys away in the living room in covered bins. If you have ceiling-to-floor windows in the living room, offer your toddler a spray bottle of non-toxic cleaner and a rag, so you can vacuum.

The bedroom is like the living room. There’s not a whole lot you can do to keep a kid entertained while cleaning a bedroom, but the feat isn’t impossible. Engage him in picking up the clothes on the floor, if there are any (there always are at my house). Toddlers are very good at putting clothes into laundry baskets. Go ahead and do a load of laundry if it needs to be done and you have the appliances in the house.

Ask your toddler to help you make the bed. Help your toddler put the books away. And if you own a pet, try to encourage the toddler to keep the animal calm while you’re vacuuming. This way, you can get the bedroom relatively tidy while keeping your child occupied.

The Bottom Line

Two common themes of cleaning the house with a toddler and bipolar disorder are patience and effort. That’s true anytime you tidy any home, but even more so with a child tagging along. But don’t get discouraged! Your babies won’t be babies forever, and you’ll soon be able to delegate chores to them that they can do on their own. Just today, my ten-year-old volunteered to clean the shower, and he did a bang-up job. As your kids grow older and more independent, cleaning the house will be much, much easier.

Good luck!

How to Follow a Mediterranean Diet to Help Manage Bipolar Depression

salm
Credit to flickr.com user Annette Young. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

As several studies have pointed out, eating a healthy diet is crucial for managing bipolar disorder. I recently linked to a study demonstrating that a Mediterranean diet helped alleviate the symptoms of depression. New research shows that following such a diet can even help prevent depression in the first place. If you eat these prescribed foods, then you may be able to alleviate or prevent bipolar depression as well.

In addition, following this diet may lower “bad”  cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart disease, and help reduce the incidence of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and some cancers–including breast cancer, when supplemented with mixed nuts. So why not give the diet a try?

But what is a Mediterranean diet? It emphasizes:

  • Eating fruits, vegetables, beans/legumes, nuts, and whole grains as primary food sources
  • Replacing butter with healthier fats such as olive oil
  • Avoiding salt, and using herbs and spices instead
  • Only eating red meat a few times per month, and eating fish and poultry twice a week instead
  • Drinking moderate amounts of red wine (optional)

To follow the diet more fully, aim for seven to ten servings of fruits and veggies per day. Switch to whole-grain bread, cereal, pasta, and rice. Keep cashews, walnuts, and almonds around for snacking, but don’t eat too many, as they’re high in calories. Don’t eat butter; try olive oil and canola oil as a substitute. Eat healthy fats in general. Nosh on water-packed tuna, trout, or salmon once or twice a week, but avoid fried fish.

Don’t eat red meat unless it’s lean; avoid sausage and bacon. Choose low-fat cheese, fat-free yogurt, and skim milk. Avoid sugar. If you drink alcohol, have a glass of wine at dinner, but purple grape juice can be an alternative. For a sample meal plan that breaks down consumption by calories, click here.

There are a couple of downsides to the Mediterranean diet, however. One is the high cost. A personal finance blog, The Simple Dollar, posted a detailed breakdown of the costs of switching from butter to olive oil, and red meat to salmon, as well as other foods. According to the breakdown, salmon is almost twice as expensive as ground beef, so if you have a large family, then you might want to change over to ground turkey instead.

The other downside of the diet is its complexity. Not only is overhauling your regular eating patterns hard, balancing your intake of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates over several different meals is difficult. I know that when I’m depressed, I choose to make one of these twenty-two easy, delicious meals, most of which are carb-heavy. Those are great, but if you’re trying to follow the Mediterranean diet, then that link is not for you.

But don’t let the cost or complexity of the Mediterranean diet throw you. In-season produce, the backbone of the diet, is generally cheaper than meat, be it red or fish or poultry. And switching from butter to olive oil is easy. You don’t have to follow a diet to a T to get some of the benefits.

By following this diet, you may be better able to manage bipolar depression, which can take all the help you can get. The bottom line is, just do what you can. Eat more fruit. Swap ground beef for ground turkey. If eating more vegetables or switching some unhealthy fats for healthier ones is all you can do, that’s still great. You’ve got this.

Book Review: Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life

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Ellen Forney’s book, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life.

Ellen Forney’s self-help book, Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bipolar Life is everything this blog aspires to be. With clean-lined, funny art pieces and truly brilliant advice, Forney’s book is easy to read and will be one of the staples in my repertoire. I highly recommend reading it.

Forney’s primary goal is to encourage and instruct people who suffer from bipolar disorder to obtain and then maintain stability. She clearly loves people, and wants them to succeed. Her best advice comes in the form of an acryonym: SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep, Meds, Eat, Doctor, Meditation*Mindfulness, Exercise, Routine, Tools, and Support. Using this acronym as a basis, Forney explains which doctors are out there and how to pay for one, how to get to sleep and stay asleep, and how to manage your meds. She also offers an entire chapter of coping tools, as well as a chapter on “the danger zone,” where she offers advice about how to recognize your warning signs when sliding into an episode.

smedmerts
Forney’s acronym, SMEDMERTS, which stands for Sleep, Meds, Eat, Doctor, Meditation*Mindfulness, Exercise, Routine, Tools, and Support. Taken by Cassandra Stout and protected under a Creative Commons license.

Forney’s real talent lies in the unassuming artwork. This book is so much more than a list of to-dos. The art makes reading fun, and the information easy to digest. Each picture is clearly crafted to elicit a smile from the reader. The cover (pictured above) features the title in large, bold text, and an overwhelmed smiley face with a tongue sticking out. My toddler delighted in mimicking the emoticon, complete with sound effects.

Overall, I would rate Rock Steady a ten out of ten.