When I was first diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder I immediately knew that I did not want to go to counseling. I had developed an aversion to counseling in my youth because the only thing I knew about it, other than portrayals in the media, was that I remember my grandmother frequently saying, “my therapist said this” or “my therapist said that.” I remember thinking that I didn’t ever want to be dependent on someone else to know what to think or how to act. My independent and immature mind decided that counseling was not for me.
For the first few years I would see my psychiatrist regularly for medication evaluation and changes, and then I would buy self-help books, sure that it was just a matter of learning how to exercise more self-control and self-discipline. But no matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t making any progress. I had a fundamental misunderstanding about what counseling was and why it was an important, even essential piece to becoming mentally well.
It Really Is All In Your Head
When you struggle with Bipolar Disorder it distorts the way you see and experience the world. Emotions and thoughts are meant to help us know how to interact with the world. But, when the chemicals that cause emotion are out of balance and “misfiring” you can end up with a very distorted view of your life and your experiences.
You won’t even realize it because that is just how your brain works and it feels normal to you. But over time the instability and unpredictability of the mood cycles, and the external damage you do, especially to relationships, begins to provide mounting evidence that something is actually wrong. It really is all in your head, and you need someone professionally trained to help you to sort out the behavior and thought patterns that are contributing to your mental disorder.
The first, most important step on the path to taking charge of your brain is getting the chemicals in balance. I wrote about my experience with this in the post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work. Once you have found a way to get your brain chemistry balanced, though, you still have work to do.
Someone to Help You Learn to See
I described it to someone once like this: Imagine a person who has been colorblind her entire life finds a treatment that miraculously allows her to see color. Just because she can see blue, pink, orange, etc., doesn’t mean that she automatically knows what those colors are. She needs someone to help teach her brain how to understand the world she is now able to see.
The second essential step on your journey to mental wellness is to work with a mental health therapist or counselor. This person has been trained to help you work through your thought processes and habits to identify unhealthy thought and behavior patterns that need to be changed, healed, or eliminated in order to help you interact with life in a healthy way.
One example from my personal experience illustrates the benefits of counseling in identifying unhealthy thought patterns. When I was growing up I would frequently get depressed, and each time I did I would beat myself up for every little thing I did that I thought I’d done wrong because I believed that those actions were causing my depression. It created a habit in my mind that over the years contributed to increasing the severity of my depression.
Even after I got my brain chemistry balanced, if I found myself getting down, my brain would go into autopilot, identifying all the things I had done wrong recently, which would increase my depression in a downward spiral. Working with a counselor I was able to identify this unhealthy thought pattern and learn how to stop it so that I didn’t experience these self-induced depressive episodes.
Your counselor can also help you to identify and work through trauma that you may have experienced that is impacting your mental wellness. Trauma is defined as “a deeply disturbing or distressing experience.” Trauma impacts your mind, body and soul, and depending on the severity often requires profession intervention to heal from it.
Just as a severely broken bone requires medical intervention, trauma usually requires someone professionally trained to help you identify and heal the damage. Trauma can be severe, but there are also times when seemingly innocuous experiences can be traumatic because of the way we experience them, which is especially applicable to a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder.
Working on Boundaries
Another area I have learned is challenging for those of us who have experienced life through the lens of mental illness is setting and respecting boundaries. This is an important area to work through with a counselor because he or she can help you first to learn what healthy boundaries are and why they are essential to living a healthy, happy life. You will also work to discover why you may struggle with implementing and respecting boundaries. Finally, your counselor will provide support and feedback to you while you make the necessary changes to integrate healthy boundaries into your life.
Be Patient with the Process
These are just a few of the many ways counselors are essential guides on the journey to mental wellness. One of the things that I have learned is that this is a process that takes as long as it takes, don’t be impatient with it. Sorting out the way your brain works can be challenging, but you will identify therapy goals with your counselor so that you can measure progress and have a focus for your therapy.
One of the biggest problems for me once I started going to therapy was that for many years I would only seek counselling when I was in crisis, and never in an effort to work through the brain and behavior patterns and habits I had developed while struggling with a brain that was misbehaving. This was such a mistake and caused tremendous discouragement and frustration for me. When I finally realized how critical it was for me to seek counseling not just for the crises in my life, but to prevent them, I finally saw real, lasting, meaningful change in my mind and my life.
Mental Health Checkups
I will likely never stop going to counseling all together. Just like a diabetic has checkups with their doctor to make sure everything is going well, it is important to have “mental health checkups” regularly with your therapist to make sure you are still moving forward on your journey to optimal mental wellness.
It takes a lot of emotional energy to establish yourself with a therapist you feel comfortable with and the more they get to know you the better they can help you. So once you find a counselor or therapist who is effective and you trust–even when you have reached your therapy goals–it is important to check in once every 3, 6 or 12 months (you decide with your therapist) for your “mental health checkup.”
I am so thankful for the counselors over the years who have helped me learn how to live well with Bipolar Disorder. Counseling is not a crutch, it is a necessary tool that will help you on your journey to learn how to live a healthy, balanced, and productive life with Bipolar Disorder.