This Bipolar Life: Beyond Bipolar

I’m 44. I’ve known I’ve had bipolar now for 14 years of my life. That’s about one-third of my lifetime has been knowingly spent living with and battling this disease. Now, instead of continuing to fight it (ack – it’s awful!) I’ve decided to embrace it. I’m firmly in the “Who am I?” phase anyway at mid-life so this is just one more log on the fire, yes?

With the help of a new therapist I’m learning how to turn around and realize that I have let and even encouraged bipolar to define me for years. As he said, “You are successfully being treated for bipolar. Worry less.” Now I am ready to (slowly) approach accepting it as just another thing in my life that I need to keep an eye on. Just as if I had diabetes or another chronic disease.

It can get crazy, no doubt. I can buy a new car with zero thought. I can jump out of moving cars just because I can. I can do a lot of things. That doesn’t mean I have to or that I will. Just that I have passing thoughts, like a lot of people. Mine just happen to be weird.

Why? Well we can go into that in another blog post but for now suffice it to say that I’ve learned the following about myself so far: I like working with my hands, I like doing the laundry up to the point of putting it away, I enjoy doing certain crafts, I love spending time with those close to me as my Love Language is far and away “Quality Time”.  I thoroughly enjoy spending time with my family and enjoy travelling to visit them, although I’m not a fan of the good-byes.

I have figured out that I am a mom, a wife, a sister, a friend, a colleague, and more. For the moment I’ve let the “and more” bit just hang on out there as I’ve got enough with all the others in my effort to find out just exactly (or not so much) who I am, what I like, and where I’m going next.

This Bipolar Life: The Success and Failure of Badass Project Management

So have you ever experienced what it’s like to feel elated and despairing at the same time? Wanting to jump for joy and in the next moment sad and crying over nothing big? I have. In bipolar jargon it’s part of what’s called a “mixed state” and for me it can cause me to go around in circles trying to find myself. It’s sort of like PMS on steroids. That’s the closest thing I can associate it with from my experience. Planning is key and although I do it well I have also failed spectacularly. And speaking of experience…

I know whereof I speak. I have had a meltdown at Disneyland. Yes, in the happiest place on earth, my bipolar still took over and I managed to break down and cry at the stress of trying to be perfect. I had it planned to every degree. It was ridiculous. I wanted every activity to go perfectly. Every picture to be perfect. Every memory to be perfect. And some of them were, but there were more than one where my need to feel successful in pulling off “The Perfect Great Vacation” overruled some of the joy and detracted from the experience. At one point I literally sat in a corner and cried while my family wandered off and played for a while because it just became too much for me to manage while simultaneously feeling elated they/we were having this amazing experience. It still saddens me when I know my kids have those moments as part of their memories but I know they’ve long forgiven me.

Since then I’ve learned a few things about going with the flow but I still like dependability and consistency at home (it helps to make up for the lack of it at work sometimes) and am a planning wizard when we go on vacation. Seriously, I can whip out spreadsheets full of supplies and timelines for activities like the badass project manager I am. I now intentionally plan in wiggle room and know in advance that things are going to go differently than planned at times and that doesn’t make them bad, just different, and that’s okay.

Mixed states make it harder for me to regulate and if I’m in one I’ve got techniques I use now to help push back the negative feelings and thoughts that arise. I’ve also learned to question my “high” thoughts to make sure I’m on the right track and not overreaching for a goal that is unrealistic.

In short, I’ve gotten better at being better. And that, my friends, is my entire goal.

This Bipolar Life: Dinner and a movie

Do you ever take things more personally than others might? Has someone ever done something that is perfectly normal, acceptable, perhaps even reasonable and yet you still found it offensive to you in some way? Well bipolar brains experience that a lot. Here’s a very brief tale of how I went through that just last night. Enjoy!

So we were supposed to have movie and dinner last night as a family, minus my wife of course because she’s working two jobs and is gone in the evening, but the kids’ dad came over and we were going to settle in for a nice evening. We had all the kids at home and were going to make a nice meal.

You may be wondering where the bipolar part comes in, it always does, and in this case it’s about teens and their natural propensity to disappear to their rooms for hours on end. At some point in the evening, well past the dinner hour, I called the kids down to talk. They were thrilled at the prospect I’m sure but I felt it was necessary. To be fair, so did their dad. However, we took two very different approaches.

He had ready access to his rational mind and gave very reasonable explanations for why the children should be downstairs while we were having a family night and how they should turn off their screens. Then he spent the rest of the time helping to decipher what I was saying as mine was nearly all focused on the emotional aspect. See, I took it personally. Something my bipolar brain does A LOT. He helped them see that what I was feeling was valid and that it translated into thoughts, which he helped me put into words. He, and others, often help me see that a situation is not about me and help me step back and see it objectively. Once I’m able to do that I find that not only am I calmer but so are the people around me, especially my kids.

So, if a bipolar person in your world takes what you say and twists it try saying something along the lines of, “I think perhaps there’s a misunderstanding…” or, “Actually I perceive it as…”. Try using some ways of helping them reframe the issue without feeling attacked. It’s a hard balance to strike but one that is important when dealing with folks like me.

This Bipolar Life: Fake it ’til You Make It Baby!

Now, there is only so much my brain can do to think my mind into believing things are better than they feel (because, you know I get my own special brand of funky symptoms) but there are three things in my “Fake it ’til you make it” toolkit I thought I’d share for folks who are down in the dumps and maybe need some ideas for getting through it:

Number one, for me at least, is figuring out what I can control and start making changes, however small, toward getting out of the darkness. Controlling what I can, and in my case that starts with my environment. If the window shades are closed, I will get up and open them, even if it’s raining. Something to remind me that there is a world beyond my little four walls. If the house is silent I will put on music. If there is a pet around I’ll try to find it and snuggle. I’ll pick up a few books and keep reading until I find one that offers a positive message (note to self: do not read Nietzsche when trying to be positive). I will force myself to smile.

BTW, Did you know that smiling itself can help you feel happier? It’s true. So yes, if need be I will force a grin. I might look a little odd but hey, I’m 40, mom of four kiddos (imagine keeping your sanity through that) and bipolar, I’ve reached the point where I don’t care how odd I look if it works.

Anyway, number two for me is to make a pros and cons list. However, at the point where I need this list I’m already well aware of the cons and writing them down doesn’t usually help. Most of the time. Anyway, I’ll list out at least three good things that have happened lately. Even if it’s that I managed to make the coffee. Or that I remembered to mail that birthday card that is two weeks two late (a serious problem for me). Sometimes that’s all I’ve got to offer, and that’s okay. Every now and then I’ll write down the cons but only to put them in perspective. Like, is it really all that bad that I forgot to start the roast and now we’re eating breakfast for dinner again? Or that I’ve managed to leave the laundry sitting in the washer for three days out of complete and utter apathy and now I have to run it not once but twice, just to get that smell out? And if it’s really lucky it’ll make it to the dryer and then we’ll celebrate when it actually gets folded and put away – this is a true cause for excitement in my house! Anyway, my point is that perspective is key and although it’s sometimes really hard to find (like hiding in a hidden corner enveloped in fog kind of hard) it’s really worth the effort.

Finally, number three for me is forgiveness. It’s the hardest one. It’s the step where I struggle with self-worth and the reality of my actions (or inaction) and have to hold myself accountable. This is when I have to practice being gentle with myself. Work on being understanding. I try to talk to myself the way I would a good friend going through a similar situation. Reminding myself that even with bipolar disorder I am worthy of forgiveness and I have just as much value as anyone else, exactly I am.

Even if I do sometimes forget the occasional birthday card 😉