bipolar parent

New Year, New Me, New Ways to Manage My Bipolar Disorder

Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

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

I used to look at the new year, especially the month of January, with trepidation.

When I was but a young college student dating my then-boyfriend–and now husband of several years–I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar I because I hadn’t suffered a major manic episode, but I still suffered crushing depressive episodes.

I didn’t notice until several years later that these depressive episodes followed a pattern: I would be up, up, up, cheerful, social, and insanely productive, totally killing it on my tests and in my friend group.

Then I would crash and burn, and spend several weeks if not months not showering, self-isolating, and unwilling to get out of bed for any reason.

This pattern almost always manifested itself around the holidays. Until I started dating my husband, I didn’t celebrate Christmas because my parents didn’t for religious reasons. So when I was encouraged to celebrate the holiday season with my husband’s family in college, I went all out for years.

One of my expressions of frugality is crafting. I bought a ridiculous amount of crafting supplies, exhausting my budget and preventing me from eating food for weeks, and hand-crafted multiple intricate individual gifts for everyone in my husband’s family in a hypomanic frenzy.

Usually starting in November, I painted, cross-stitched, sewed, sculpted, decorated, baked, and crafted Christmas presents that were ultimately unappreciated–and rightfully so. Because I was rushing to complete these gifts and make more, more, more–because more is better, after all, my sick brain told me–their quality was shoddy.

I still recall my father-in-law on Christmas day trying on a too-small felt hat I’d simply hot glued together at midnight the night before without measuring. The hat fell apart shortly afterwards and was relegated to the trash, like most of the poorly-constructed presents.

My manic brain would not allow me to slow down and complete the work right rather than fast, and I had never been taught–or taught myself–to pay attention to detail, a skill I am still learning years later now that I’m healthier.

And after the insanity of the holidays, I always, always crashed.

Coupled with the weak winter sunlight and the hypomanic episodes I’d enjoy from November 1st until December 25th, January was always a miserable month for me. I suffered a depressive episode every year like clockwork for about 15 years, until I learned how to manage my bipolar disorder–and manage it well.

Now, for the first time in over a decade, I look back on this new year with contentment and excitement. I decided to purchase Christmas gifts for my family and give myself ample time to craft some for a few of my friends. I started in October, planned out my purchases and cross-stitching carefully, and made sure not to overwhelm myself with the holiday spirit that is so easy to get caught up in.

I now monitor my sleep, medication levels, and sunlight exposure throughout the year. I have a SAD light for the winter and take vitamin D3, which I need in the cloudy Pacific Northwest, as well as iron pills and a multivitamin. I also take my psychiatric medication faithfully and check in with my therapist when there are problems I cannot solve on my own. I communicate about my moods with my husband and children and socialize with my friends on a weekly if not daily basis.

By taking measures to protect my mental health this past year, I have earned a happy January. After decades of out-of-control moods bending me to their will, I have finally learned how to work with my bipolar disorder diagnosis rather than against it.

For the first time ever, I am happy, healthy, and well-balanced in January. Rather than facing the new year with fear and trembling, I am happy to say that I welcome what challenges I will face–and eventually conquer–including going back to graduate school for my counseling degree.

Bring it on.

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bipolar parent

5 Tips to Make (and Keep!) New Year’s Resolutions with a Mental Illness

Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

Have you ever failed to keep a New Year’s resolution?

You’re not alone. Studies show that 92% of Americans who set resolutions fail at keeping them, and up to 80% fail by February.

But was your mental illness to blame?

For a lot of us, setting resolutions sends a shot of dopamine straight into our brains, but it’s hard to make plans–and keep them!–when you have unpredictable brain chemistry.

As a woman with bipolar who has historically overextended myself during the holidays, I’ve started most new years of my adult life in the midst of major depressive episodes.

As you know full well if you’ve ever had depression, that sucks. It puts a damper on the whole year.

So this year will be different. I’ll not only plan my holidays effectively and with my mental health in mind, I’ll also take steps to thrive with bipolar disorder during the hustle and bustle of December.

But what does that mean for New Year’s resolutions?

Well, I can set good ones and keep them despite my mental illness putting obstacles in my way, and so can you.

Here’s how.

1. When Making Resolutions, Prioritize Your Mental Health

Celebrate the new year by taking charge of your mental health.

Fixing your sleep hygiene, taking your medications daily, seeing a therapist regularly–these are the kinds of resolutions people who struggle with their mental health need to make.

And make sure not to set resolutions that interfere with your health. If there’s a resolution that forces me to sacrifice sleep, encouraging me to sleep less than 8 hours a night, that is not one I’ll even entertain.

My resolutions in this area are twofold:

  1. Monitor myself better for signs of depression and mania, and
  2. Seek help at the very first signs of a bipolar mood episode.

I have a treatment team waiting in the wings ready for me to call on them. If you don’t, getting one in place would be a great resolution. For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here. For a post on how to get a psychiatric evaluation, click here.

2. Know Thyself

Not everyone knows what challenges them most, but a lot of us have a gut instinct as to what those issues are.

Before you make a resolution to hit the gym everyday that you’ll balk at when it comes time to put your nose to the grindstone, sit down and figure out why you balk.

Do you not like the gym because you’re overwhelmed by all the options? Ask one of the employees to recommend a class to you.

Do you not like the gym because you have to get up early? Try a walk after dinner instead. You can even take the kids!

Do you not like the gym because of social anxiety? Try practicing meditation and go to a therapist to conquer that problem first.

And so on.

Know what challenges you the most and work around those issues. Starting with something that makes you more comfortable and that you feel you can tackle first will give you confidence to handle the next step.

My plan in making resolutions is to list the barriers that will get in the way of me fulfilling those resolutions. Be they internal, like social anxiety, or external, like my need for childcare, I will list them out and figure out ways around or through the obstacles.

My resolution for this area is to sit down and identify trouble spots when it comes to treating myself right. To prevent myself from sinking into a depressive episode this January, I need to figure out where I’m struggling.

My resolution in this area is to start keeping a daily gratitude journal. If I can find out what I’m grateful for on a daily basis, I can hopefully also identify where my challenges are.

3. Break Resolutions Down into Steps

When I’m depressed, most of the time I’m completely overwhelmed.

I am usually unable to see past the seemingly-insurmountable mountain of dishes, and I simply cannot think my way past that into “do one dish at a time.”

On the flip side, my past resolutions have been monsters. “Lose weight.” “Be fit.” “Eat healthy.”

But “eat healthy and lose weight” are too big of resolutions for me, especially when I’m depressed. They’re not specific, measurable, or time-sensitive. “Eat one salad a day” is much, much easier.

Rather than “eat healthy and lose weight,” my resolution in this area is to eat salads or vegetables for lunches every day.

For a more extensive post on how to break things down into bite-sized pieces when you have depression, click here.

4. Start When You Feel You Can

You don’t have to start on January 1st just because you’ve made a New Year’s resolution.

For example, if you’re not ready to conquer your social anxiety–if you don’t buy into the process of learning how to do a goal and then doing it–then you’re not going to.

To stick to a resolution, you need to have the mindset that you can keep this, and you need to be ready to start making progress to goal.

If you need to wait until summer for your head and your heart to be in the right places, then wait until summer.

My resolution in this area is to start a gratitude journal as soon as I’m ready to do so.

5. Know That Quitting Isn’t Bad

If you make an impulse buy when your resolution is to spend less money, don’t be filled with self-loathing. Just recognize that you’ve made a mistake and move on.

And if you do make a mistake, take some time to reevaluate whether this resolution is worth keeping at that point in your life. Sometimes things we try fail because they no longer make sense to do.

There’s no shame in quitting something that no longer works for us, even when the action used to be objectively good. That’s true of everything in our lives: from our resolutions to social media to our jobs and even our relationships.

And just because you’ve put time/energy/money/work/resources into something that used to be objectively good doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing the same thing that doesn’t work now.

Keeping on the same path that doesn’t work now just because you’ve been walking it for a while is called the ‘sunk cost fallacy,’ and a lot of people get tripped up by this way of thinking.

Don’t fall into that trap. If a resolution used to work but isn’t working for you anymore, examine why that is and figure out if it’s still worth striving for.

My resolution for this area is to give myself grace when I mess up and try again on the things that are truly important and working for me at that point in my life.

Let’s Recap

With these tips and specific, measurable goals, you can stick to your New Year’s resolutions.

First, when setting resolutions, prioritize your mental health. Next, know what challenges you’ll be facing and work around them. After that, break resolutions down into steps. Start when you feel you can. And make sure to recognize that quitting isn’t bad.

Give yourself grace this year, and strive to make positive, wholesome changes in your life.

You can do this.

I wish you well in your journey.

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