So much baking, so much fuss, so much shopping to nonplus. Cute rhymes aside, surviving the holidays with bipolar disorder is no joke. But dealing with a mental illness doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the season.
Bipolar disorder complicates the holidays for several reasons. December is a month where we’re expected to spend a ton of money, socialize in potentially uncomfortable situations (and do this a lot), and party until all hours of the night, sometimes with alcohol involved.
But with proper planning and vigilance, you can enjoy the holiday season.
Tip #1: Know Your Limits with Alcohol
Yes, I know. Everyone else is drinking, and you want to partake. But you have to know your limits. If you’re on medication for bipolar disorder, be they antidepressants, antipsychotics, or anti-anxiety meds, drinking alcohol is a terrible idea in general. Not only will the meds stop working as well and possibly hurt you, alcohol is a proven trigger for bipolar mood episodes, too.
You are not immune to destabilizing. If you drink and you lose control, you may as well be sending all your hard work to avoid a relapse down the drain.
This is easier said than done, especially for alcoholics or former alcoholics, of which there are a startling high number that includes people with bipolar disorder. But try to find a substitute that you can rely on and stock up at home so you can bring it to parties. Soda works for some people, or tea, or seltzer water.
I know this is hard, and I might lose readers by saying that you have to limit drinks as my first tip. But this is so important because I want you to be happy and healthy, and if you’re looking to survive the holidays with bipolar disorder, know your limits.
Tip #2: Try Not to Obsess Over Gifts
Years ago, before I had my bipolar disorder under control, I would go all out for the holidays. Growing up, my family never celebrated Christmas, so when I married into a family with holiday traditions, I was ecstatic.
One of my manifestations of my hypomania is crafting. I used to sew plushies, paint gifts, make hats, cross-stitch video game characters and QR codes for the people I affectionately call nerds (including myself!), and basically stress myself out, further exacerbating my mania.
I’d spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours on these gifts, and because I was manic and in a hurry to make gifts for everyone, I would rush these projects and they never turned out well. Because of the shoddy quality, these gifts were the least appreciated and almost never taken home from our communal meeting place.
I later realized that I was crafting gifts for me, and not because they would be thoughtful presents for those around me. This was a painful realization to come to, but it had to be done in order for me to stop inflicting these thoughtless gifts on others.
Now I buy my gifts online and have them sent to people’s homes already wrapped. It’s less personal, but sometimes a less personal touch is good. And the gifts are much more appreciated than my rushed, botched projects I made in a manic frenzy.
Don’t be like me. I’m not saying don’t handmake any gifts. You can absolutely choose to make a few, select gifts, be it either via crafting or baking or wherever your skills lie. But do limit yourself to projects you can do well and have the time to do, and give them to people who will appreciate them.
You also have my permission to give gifts that you think aren’t perfect for the recipient, even though you don’t need me saying so. (Sometimes that helps me, when my friends give me “permission” to do self-care.) Putting thought into each gift is a good thing, but try not to obsess too much over which ones you give.
Protect your mental health. Don’t go manic just because you want every gift to be perfect.
Tip #3: Do Practice Self-Care
Self-care isn’t limited to bubble baths and painting your nails, though those can be important ways to destress if they work for you.
Self-care is taking responsibility for your physical and mental health. That’s it. It’s easier said than done, because of a lot of us (myself included) believe we don’t deserve to take time to fill our tanks.
But if we don’t, and we’re running on empty, that’s a surefire recipe for a depressive crash in the new year. I know I’ve suffered many Januarys feeling terrible because I overextended myself during the holidays and didn’t protect myself.
So a brief run-down of self-care during the holidays:
- Prioritize sleep. If you do any of these tips, prioritize sleep. Sleep is crucial for maintaining your stable mood; there’s no better way to send a person with bipolar disorder spinning off into mania than not getting enough sleep. I know very well the awfulness that follows from not getting enough sleep, mostly from staying up working on rushed crafting projects.
- Don’t overextend yourself socially. You do not have to attend every party, especially not huge ones where you may be uncomfortable. I know the extroverts among us (myself included!) love being surrounded by people. We get our energy from talking and enjoying the presence of others. But sometimes, we get too much energy, and end up manic. I often have. The same goes for introverts; don’t wear yourself out with people and have nothing left to give to yourself. Be selective about your time.
- “Eat food. Not too much. And mostly plants.” -Michael Pollan Overeating during the holidays is a terrible idea. We all do it, especially Americans, with our Thanksgiving feasts. But do try to avoid fatty foods; a 2015 study published in The Journal of Psychiatric Research showed that certain fatty foods increased dysfunction in bipolar disorder. And weight gain is a common problem with bipolar disorder, and if you’re on medication it’s even easier to gain weight and harder to take it off. Indulge in one cookie per gathering. You can make a game of which cookie you’ll take!
If you have bipolar disorder, you can still enjoy the holiday season. I know this list seems like a whole lot of “don’t do this, don’t do that.”
But think of it this way: you deserve to be healthy. You deserve to protect yourself and your hard-won stability. You don’t deserve to suffer from a manic spiral or a pit of depression.
Treat yourself in the way you deserve to be treated. Don’t drink to excess (or at all, if you can manage), try not to obsess over gifts, and practice self-care. With these tools in your belt, you can survive and even thrive this holiday season.
I wish you well in your journey.
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