Podcast Interview: The Wellness Project with Des

I had the opportunity to be interviewed by Desiree Argentina on her podcast The Wellness Project with Des and it was a wonderful interview. She asked me:

  • To share my story
  • How old were you when you were diagnosed with depressive disorder and anxiety? And when did you get an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder? (8:33)
  • How did you know something was wrong and what were your earliest memories of something being off or different? (9:04)
  • At what point did your family realize that there was something off and you needed help? (14:40)
  • Did your family know about bipolar disorder? Or did they just recognize that something was off a bit? (16:10)
  • Can you talk a little bit about how your family approached you? Can you explain that? Some family members and loved ones don’t know how to approach it, don’t know what to say, don’t want to offend the person. How can someone go to someone in an empathetic supportive way? (16:55)
  • Can you speak about how bipolar disorder affected your relationships with your family, romantic relationships, relationships with your children? (19:40)
  • Would you mind sharing what techniques helped your relationship with your husband from going to therapy together? (24:30)
  • Can you share what steps you took to heal yourself to get better and could you share your self-care regimen? (27:54)

I was so grateful to have the opportunity to speak with Desiree. She asked fantastic questions and we had a very productive conversation about how to successfully navigate diagnosis, relationships and treatment with bipolar disorder. 

Desiree is a mental health therapist. Her goal with her podcast and social media is to help others transform their lives by providing actionable and practical steps to live a fulfilled life. 

I am excited to share this interview with you!

Podcast Interview: Master Your Mental with Paris Prynkiewicz

I had the opportunity recently to be interviewed by Paris Prynkiewicz on her podcast Master Your Mental. In the interview Paris asked me about:

  • my experience with bipolar disorder (my history and how things turned around for me),
  • what coping with mood cycles used to look like (unhealthy) versus what managing mood cycles proactively looks like now,
  • how and why I started helping moms with bipolar disorder and what my favorite experience so far has been with that, and
  • what is my number one most powerful tool that I use in my self-care.

I loved speaking with Paris about how I have learned to live well with bipolar. It was a really amazing conversation. Paris’s mission with her podcast, social media and book are to offer encouragement and hope to others with bipolar disorder and it was an honor to be on her show. Enjoy!

Bipolar Disorder: Lessons from the Pandemic

I remember when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in the beginning of 2020 and the shutdown started I was relieved at first. I was struggling at the time with managing what felt like overwhelming commitments, so having everything canceled all at once was a huge relief. 

That reprieve was short lived, however, as the previous, predictable stressors were replaced by new, unpredictable ones. I was obsessively watching the news and the case count. I was overwhelmed by the requirements of online schooling and trying to keep my children on task all day long. 

I was dealing with my own fears about what was happening and also carrying the burden of my children’s fear, disappointments and pain as their world was turned upside-down.  To top it off, every time I left the house it felt like traversing a minefield, wondering if today was the day I would contract Covid.

I was also deprived of many of my self-care tools–going to the gym, hanging out with friends and family and going to therapy in person. It didn’t take long to settle back into old, unhealthy coping mechanisms that wore on my mental health and caused me to get severely depressed.

Increasing Mental Illness

The experience I had during the pandemic was not uncommon. There was a surge in the number of people struggling with mental health challenges because of the increase in stressors and decrease in the normal healthy outlets for the stress. 

The pandemic made clear the damaging effect of a serious, prolonged crisis on individual mental health. Numerous studies have been conducted on the impact of the pandemic on mental health with estimates of the increase in rates of depression and anxiety ranging from a 25% increase cited by the World Health Organization1 to a massive six times increase found in a study conducted by Boston College2.

Having bipolar disorder can make you especially sensitive to major stressors. Disruptions to routine and increases in mental or emotional strain can trigger mood cycles that then add to the distress. This means it is essential to learn to be proactive with your bipolar and prepare to handle stressors more effectively. 

Becoming Proactive

Since there is no cure for bipolar disorder, mood cycles will be a reality of life going forward. If you fight your bipolar or ignore it, you will lose. The alternative is to accept that you have bipolar and learn the tools to live well with it. 

You can learn to manage your disorder so that you stay in maintenance mode for longer periods of time and the severity of the mood cycles can lessen. But you will still have cycles and it is essential to learn how to deal with them more effectively. 

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

Accept the reality of your mood cycles by developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP helps you proactively manage your mood cycles in order to lessen the impact of the mood cycle on you and those you love and shorten the duration of the cycle.

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Emergency Response Team – who are the people who are willing and able to offer support and what are the boundaries you set for that assistance?
  • Develop an Early Warning System – What are your triggers and what are the symptoms that indicate you are experiencing a mood cycle?
  • Determine your Auxiliary Power – When you have limited emotional and mental resources during a cycle, what are your priorities?
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System – How do you get yourself back to maintenance mode?

The more you utilize your ERP the more effective a tool it becomes in helping you proactively manage your mood cycles. Each time you use your ERP you can evaluate it to see what worked and what you can improve. To get a free guide to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Back-up Supply of Medications or Supplements

The second priority is to prepare a back-up supply of medication or supplements–ideally a month. The pandemic presented some unexpected challenges like supply chain shortages, shipping issues and the shutdown caused many doctor’s offices to cancel or postpone appointments. Running out of medication or supplements that you need to keep your brain and emotions balanced can be dangerous. Discuss with your doctor what you can do to be prepared for a situation like this.

Counseling or Therapy

Third, counseling or therapy. Learn to use therapy proactively rather than waiting until you are in crisis. Therapy is a crucial tool for managing bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is truly “all in your head” and it can affect the way you see the world. Therapy can help you identify, process and heal trauma, unhealthy thought and behavior patterns and unhealthy boundaries. Using therapy proactively will eliminate some triggers and help you manage others more effectively.

Self-care

The next step is developing a healthy and sustainable self-care routine. This includes tools like mindfulness meditation, simple, accessible exercise and yoga. Going through the pandemic revealed some issues with my self-care routine. 

Prior to the pandemic shutdowns I was going to the local recreation center for exercise each day, and my youngest was going to the child watch. When the shutdown occurred I no longer had access to the gym or childcare. I struggled for months because I wasn’t exercising. I finally realized how important it was to have a way to exercise that isn't dependent on anyone or anything else. That was when I started running again and doing simple HIIT and yoga workouts in my living room.

The benefits to the change in my routine have been that I:

  • Save money on gym membership and childcare,
  • Save time traveling to and from the recreation center,
  • Have a simplified self-care routine that is easier to sustain, and
  • Have improved mental health because I am more consistent with my self-care.

Support System

Finally, it’s important to cultivate a support system. One of the big challenges during the pandemic was the feeling of isolation. That coupled with the increase in the use of social media caused many people to become more depressed and anxious. 

It is critical to develop a support network that you can stay connected with, even if it is only virtually. This connection helps you have the mental and emotional support you need to navigate highly stressful situations and experiences. 

Some people to remember in your support system are:

  • professional support (psychiatrist/therapist), 
  • family and friends, and 
  • group therapy or online support groups

During the pandemic I was grateful for my support system. I was able to meet virtually with my therapist. My siblings and I started using Marco Polo and Zoom to chat online with each other. I joined some Facebook groups to find support from the bipolar community, although I discovered that some of the groups were not very helpful. 

I was looking for a community of individuals with bipolar that were trying to live well with it. The negative experiences I had led me to create Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well. It’s important that the groups you join support your goals to live well. This Facebook group is designed to offer support from others who understand what you’re going through and proactive solutions to help you learn to live well with bipolar.

The pandemic was a stressful experience, one that I am not in a hurry to repeat. However, it has helped me to identify ways that I can be more proactive and better manage my bipolar disorder and for that I am grateful. It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Bipolar Disorder: The Journey to Wellness

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. She asked me what I would say to someone about how to live well with bipolar disorder? As I began to answer I realized that my answer would be slightly different depending on where they were on the journey to wellness with bipolar. 

In the first decade after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder I developed the false belief that the ultimate goal with bipolar disorder was to learn how to suffer well with it. I diligently took all the medications that were prescribed to me and went to counseling, but nothing was working. I felt alone and isolated because no one understood what was going on with me, least of all me. I didn’t understand what was happening in my mind and I began to feel hopeless.

I thought I was doing my best, and in some ways I was, but I was suffering, and so were my husband and children. I usually felt out of control with mania or hopelessly depressed. I would go through periods of angry belligerence when I felt it was unfair that I had to suffer this way, so everyone else would have to just learn to deal with it, too.

It can be really difficult to learn how to take responsibility for yourself with bipolar disorder when you don’t understand what that looks like, or how to do it. Having a disorder that is “all in your head” can be challenging to treat because the symptoms of your disorder feel normal to you, even though they are unhealthy and often self-destructive. 

Accepting Your Diagnosis

Accepting responsibility for yourself and being proactive in learning to live well with bipolar disorder require you to first accept that you have bipolar disorder and that there currently is no cure for it. This is not something to become discouraged about. There is no cure for type 1 diabetes and yet people live well with it all the time. They learn the tools necessary to manage their disorder. It is the same for living with bipolar disorder. 

You can learn how to manage your bipolar effectively so that you are able to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. But you have to be willing to:

  1. accept that you have the disorder, and 
  2. accept that you are responsible for learning and applying the tools to manage it.

Mindset Shift

Accepting that you have bipolar disorder and that you have a responsibility for managing it effectively requires a mindset shift.

Process Your Grief

First, you need to allow yourself to grieve. “When you are diagnosed with bipolar disorder you suffer a loss. You lose who you thought you were. You might feel angry, discouraged, alone, hopeless, lost, and all of these feelings are part of the grieving process. It is important to recognize this process and acknowledge the feelings that you are having as valid.”

“It is also equally important to work through this process, ideally with a mental health counselor, so that you don’t get bogged down and lost in it. It is normal to mourn the loss of who you were, or who you thought you were, but you need to look forward and embrace who you are and who you can become.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief)

Stop Comparing 

Second, you need to not compare yourself and your life to others who don’t have bipolar disorder. “You cannot stop having bipolar disorder, [and]  comparing yourself to who you were in the past, or who you think you should be will prevent you from progressing to wellness and becoming the best version of yourself.” 

“It is especially damaging, when you have bipolar disorder, to compare yourself to others because it creates a stumbling block to becoming well. Your mind is already prone to negative self-talk. Comparing yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder is like pouring gasoline on the fire.” 

“When you are focused on the gap between where you are and who you think others are, it causes discouragement, depression and despair. You begin to define yourself by what you lack and by your bipolar disorder, instead of your unique qualities and gifts that make you special.” (Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!)

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

Third, it is critical to understand what learning to live well with bipolar disorder looks like. I used to think that it was like trying to climb a mountain and when I got to the top I would be better.  

“That analogy is counterproductive at best, and damaging at worst. The idea of climbing a mountain is a linear path, which means that if you get manic or depressed while you are working to learn to live well, you get knocked back down to the bottom. It reminds me of the game Chutes and Ladders where if you are unlucky enough to land on the wrong square you slide backwards on the board, sometimes to the very beginning.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Learning to live well with bipolar disorder follows the same pattern as the addiction recovery cycle. “Understanding the stages of the recovery cycle will help you better understand your disorder and have a healthier outlook on your personal responsibility for self-care. Learning how to apply the recovery cycle to yourself will help you to stop feeling like you have failed when you have manic or depressive episodes and choose to accept more responsibility for yourself and your disorder.” (Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle)

Taking Responsibility

Once you accept your diagnosis and your responsibility to learn to manage it you have taken your first step on the path to wellness. The next step is to develop a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for yourself. This plan helps you accept responsibility for your mood cycles and create a plan to manage them more effectively to minimize the impact on you and your loved ones and shorten the duration of the cycle. To get your free guide to create your Response Plan click here.

You then need to work to learn and apply the tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life. 

Support on Your Journey

Learning and applying the tools necessary to live well with bipolar is a process that requires patient, persistent effort. Make sure you surround yourself with people who will support and encourage you in this journey. 

“While you are working through this process it is so important to have encouraging support. You need professional support–psychiatrist and/or a good therapist. If you are married or in a serious relationship you need the support and encouragement of your partner. And you need support from others who know what you are going through.”

“I started a Facebook Group to provide positive, encouraging support for moms trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder. Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well is a group of women who are ready to take responsibility for themselves and who are willing to do the work to learn how to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. If you are ready and willing, join us!” (Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster)

Where are you on the journey?

Determine where you are on the journey to living well with bipolar disorder. Do you still need to work on your mindset? If so, start with the posts on mindset.

  1. Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!
  2. Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief
  3. Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle

Have you accepted your diagnosis and you are ready to take responsibility and learn to proactively manage your bipolar? Then get your free guide to create your Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

It is possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

Bipolar Disorder: Monitoring Your Mood

When you have bipolar disorder it can feel like your disorder is in the driver’s seat of your mind and you are just along for the ride. It can create a helpless, hopeless feeling when you feel like your mood cycles are happening unpredictably and you don’t have any control over them. That helpless feeling can make you feel like your life is not really yours. You are being “lived” by your disorder. 

Like Diabetes?

Years ago I had a doctor try to help me with accepting and understanding my bipolar disorder by comparing it to type 1 diabetes. It was a helpful analogy because diabetes is a straightforward, clear cut disorder with an easy to understand issue–your body is unable to regulate its blood sugar naturally and so you have to help your body. 

As I have learned more about diabetes from friends who have it I have been amazed at how similar the experience of learning to manage diabetes is to learning to manage bipolar disorder.

Monitoring Blood Sugar

When someone is diagnosed with type 1 diabetes she is informed by her doctor that she has a disorder in her body that makes it impossible for it to naturally regulate its blood sugar. She is instructed that she will need to give her body assistance by monitoring her blood sugar multiple times a day, every day, for the rest of her life. The information she gains from monitoring her blood sugar level will help her know if her body needs insulin or additional sugar to keep her blood sugar within a safe range.

She also learns that she has to be careful about food choices to make sure her body doesn’t get overloaded by too much sugar and cause a serious overcorrection that can be dangerous. She might have a small piece of cake, but remove the frosting, or if she’s at a restaurant and orders lasagna she might take half of the piece of lasagna home to avoid eating too many carbohydrates at once. The doctor can teach her some of the basics of how to make safe food choices, but most of it is learned by experience.

She will learn that there are other factors that can impact her blood sugar level. Stressors can have an impact, in either direction up or down. Sleep, the amount and quality, can impact her blood sugar. A friend of mine once told me that there are over 45 different factors that can affect your blood sugar level. 

Each person is different and it is important for them to learn to proactively identify which factors impact their blood sugar and manage those factors by making choices or setting boundaries that help them proactively care for their disorder more effectively.

It’s Not Fair!

Someone with diabetes might feel like it is unfair that they have to be so vigilant in  monitoring and managing their blood sugar all the time. I would agree with them, it isn’t fair. But fair has nothing to do with the reality of their situation. 

A friend of mine who has diabetes also has a son with diabetes. She told me that he hated having diabetes as a boy. He just wanted to be “normal” so once when he went to a scout camp for a week he didn’t monitor his blood sugar and didn’t use insulin. As a result he ended up in the hospital in critical condition.

Fair or not, someone with diabetes has a choice. She can choose to monitor her blood sugar proactively, actively working to keep it balanced so she can live a healthy life. She can also choose to deal reactively with her diabetes, neglecting to monitor and manage her blood sugar and end up being forced to face the consequences of getting sick and ending up in the hospital. She has a choice to make every day.

How to Monitor Your Mood Balance

This comparison helped me understand my disorder better because they are so similar. With bipolar disorder my brain is unable to regulate my moods and emotions in a healthy way and I need to give it help with medication/supplementation, counseling, self-care and managing stressors. 

One challenge I had, however, was how to “monitor” my mood, or check my “chemical balance.” I remember telling my uncle one day back when I was in college that I wish there was a way to analyze my brain chemicals to identify what was out of balance. Unfortunately that technology doesn’t exist yet. 

Over the years I have discovered a way to monitor your mood simply and effectively using a mood tracking app. 

I use the Bearable app. This is not a sponsored post, and I don’t receive any benefit–financial or otherwise–for recommending the app. I recommend it because it is the best mood tracking app I have used. 

Using a mood tracking app helps you to begin to identify your mood cycles, symptoms and triggers so you can “monitor” your mood balance and learn how to treat it effectively. Similar to diabetes, you should track your mood balance multiple times a day, regardless of how you are feeling, so that you are able to create a more accurate picture for yourself, your doctor and your therapist.

With Bearable you are able to track:

  • Mood
  • Symptoms
  • Factors that can impact your mood (i.e., places, social interactions, activity level, menstrual cycle, personal care, productivity, appointments, social media, weather, etc.)
  • Sleep 
  • Energy level
  • Medication and/or supplements
  • Nutrition 
  • Health
  • and more…

You can customize almost anything within each category. That list may look like a lot and seem overwhelming, but it is very easy and quick to input the information by simply tapping the relevant items. It only takes me a few minutes each time I “check my mood.” You can also set up reminders for yourself throughout the day. 

There are a number of benefits to using a mood tracking app consistently to monitor your mood cycles. 

  • Bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms and the more information you can provide to your doctor the more accurately he or she can be in your diagnosis and treatment. 
  • You are able to learn to identify what the symptoms are that indicate you are either entering or in a manic or depressive state. 
  • You can identify triggers that may cause mood cycles. 
  • You can see more clearly how effective your medications are and track any side-effects you might be having–both the frequency and severity. 
  • You can also identify how things like sleep, nutrition and menstrual cycle affect your mood cycles.

Using a mood tracking app you are able to understand your bipolar disorder better–learning to recognize what your manic and depressive episodes are saying. You are also able to provide a gold mine of information to your doctor and therapist so you can proactively seek more effective treatment.

What Do You Choose?

With bipolar disorder you have a choice. You can choose to be reactive and allow yourself to be “lived” by your disorder and face the consequences of becoming more unbalanced, or you can choose to be proactive and use tools like a mood tracking app to “monitor” your mood balance, helping you live a healthier, more balanced, more productive life with your bipolar.

It is possible to live well with bipolar disorder. There is hope and there is help!

If you are a mom with bipolar disorder and you want to learn to live well with it, join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Check out my Better with Bearable Mood Tracking Challenge starting April 12th! Click HERE to register.

Bipolar Disorder: Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Over the past few years there has been an increase in the public discussion of mental health due to the increasing stressors in the world. This is such a positive shift towards awareness of mental health needs and challenges. One important aspect of this conversation is the distinction between mental health and mental illness. These terms are not interchangeable, and understanding the definitions of both and their relationship is important for anyone seeking treatment.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition of mental health: “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”

The CDC definition of mental illness: ‘“conditions that affect a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, or behavior.” These can include but aren’t limited to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.’

Another way to put it is:

Mental illness is to mental health 

what physical illness is to physical health.

Physical Illness

There are different ways that our bodies can become physically ill, some examples are:

  • You can contract a virus or disease that is temporary and can be healed over time, sometimes requiring outside intervention–like contracting the flu or a sinus infection.
  • You can develop a disease that may have some genetic predisposition but was brought on by neglected health–like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
  • You can experience physical trauma that causes damage–like a broken leg.
  • You can be born with or develop a disorder that causes the body to need external assistance–like type one diabetes.

While some illnesses may be the result of negligence or poor personal care, most people acknowledge the value and importance of professional intervention in the care and treatment of these physical ailments. In general physical illness and disorder is not stigmatized and people will seek treatment for their illnesses or injuries.

Mental Illness

Unfortunately the same is not always true for mental illnesses. Our society has made great progress towards acknowledgement and acceptance of mental illness, but there are still stigmas that cause people to resist diagnosis and treatment. The result is unnecessary suffering.

Mental illnesses, according to the CDC website, are among the most common health conditions in the United States.

  • More than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.
  • 1 in 5 Americans will experience a mental illness in a given year.
  • 1 in 5 children, either currently or at some point during their life, have had a seriously debilitating mental illness.
  • 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.

Mental illness has a broad range of causes and diagnoses, just like physical illness. 

  • Some people can have a temporary illness brought on by environmental factors or as a companion with physical illness. 
  • Some may neglect their mental health and suffer a breakdown or the onset of chronic issues like anxiety or depression.
  • Others may experience severe trauma that causes emotional or mental damage resulting in mental illness.
  • Some people are born with a genetic predisposition to developing a mental illness.

Years ago I was struggling with accepting my diagnosis and need for treatment. My psychiatrist at the time asked me if I would feel the same if I had been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I said no, of course not. Diabetes is a real, very serious disorder that if not treated could result in serious illness and even death. The doctor then told me that a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was no different. 

He said that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance in my brain that, if not treated, will continue to get worse and cause me to get more ill, and possibly even die. He told me that with proper treatment, however, I can live a healthy, balanced life, just like someone with diabetes who treats their disorder regularly.

This comparison shifted my thinking about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and helped me to focus on treatment and learning the tools necessary to live well with bipolar. To learn more about accepting your diagnosis see Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief.

Over the years I have discovered that there are many tools that are necessary to properly treat my bipolar disorder. As I have learned each new piece it has helped me to live a healthier, more balanced and more productive life.

Medication and Supplementation

This one is the most obvious, but also one of the most difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that there is not an exact science to identify which medication or combination of medications will be right for each person. I used to say that my doctor was playing “guess and check” with my meds to try and find the right ones. 

For me, finding medications that worked never happened. I really wanted to get well, and I tried everything my doctors prescribed. But I  struggled with terrible side-effects and was often not able to tolerate a therapeutic dose of the medication. 

Thankfully after over a decade of struggling and searching my doctor and I found a nonprofit that had developed a supplement specifically for people with bipolar disorder. After my doctor reviewed the studies that had been done on the supplements he worked with me to transition me to them and they worked! 

A few months after I transitioned to the supplements I woke up one morning and felt like I was truly awake for the first time in over a decade. To learn more about my experience with medication and supplements see my post Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work.

The struggle to find the right combination of medication and/or supplements can feel discouraging at times, but most people with bipolar disorder need something to balance out the chemicals in their brains. Thankfully there are any number of options to help doctors in the process of discovering what each patient needs to get balanced. Additionally there are a growing number of practitioners that are discovering the benefits of micronutrients in the treatment of bipolar disorder.

Counseling and Therapy

This is another tool that may seem obvious but many people, like myself, resist going to counseling. For me, it was the result of stigmas and a misunderstanding of what counseling was. Growing up I had heard a relative frequently say, “my therapist said this” or “my therapist said that” and I remember thinking “I will never let someone else tell me what to think.” Unfortunately the result was that when I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder I said I was willing to take medication, but I refused to go to counseling. 

Over the years, however, I discovered that counseling is an essential tool to help someone with bipolar disorder learn how to live well. When you have bipolar disorder you frequently see the world through a distorted lens and can develop unhealthy thought and behavior patterns, unhealthy boundaries and may have unhealed trauma. All of these can continue to cause mood cycles, even after the medication or supplements are correct. To learn more about counseling see my post Bipolar Disorder: Counseling is Essential.

Mental Health Emergency Response Plan

An especially valuable tool for proactively managing your bipolar disorder is a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This plan helps you take responsibility for managing your mood cycles more effectively, rather than reactively just suffering through them. 

In this plan you:

  • Identify your Emergency Response Team
  • Develop an Early Warning System
  • Determine your Auxiliary Power
  • Learn how to Reboot Your System

Developing this plan helps you proactively care for your mood cycles in a way that lessens their impact on you and your family and shortens the duration of the cycle. To get a free guide to creating your own Mental Health Emergency Response Plan click here.

Self-care Routine

Developing a self-care routine that you do daily to keep your brain and body healthy and balanced is also essential. Some important tools in your self-care tool box are:

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Exercise

To learn more about self-care see my post Bipolar Disorder: Self-care.

You Have a Choice

Years ago I had a friend whose father developed type 2 diabetes. His doctors gave him strict instructions about how he needed to care for himself in order to keep himself healthy. He was told he could live a long, healthy life if he was willing to follow the care instructions given to him by his doctor. Unfortunately he didn’t listen. He liked the habits he had that were against the doctor's orders and he lost his legs, his eyesight, and ultimately his life.

Bipolar disorder is a treatable mental illness. It isn’t necessary to suffer indefinitely, being at the mercy of your mood cycles and doing damage to your life and relationships. It is not easy, but it is absolutely possible to live a healthy, balanced, productive life if you are willing to do the work necessary to learn each of the tools. There is hope and there is help!

If you are a mom with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your journey to live well join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Bipolar Disorder: An Alternative to Medication

This is Part 2 in a 2 Part Series. To read Part 1 See Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work

Before you read further I need to make two things VERY clear. 

First, I am not a mental health professional. Everything I am sharing is based on my personal experience and I encourage you to do your own research, as I did, to find what is right for you. Some people respond well to medication and the side-effects are manageable. If that is the case, wonderful, the first piece of your puzzle is solved!

Second, if you do decide to try the supplements that I use, I strongly encourage you to do so under the care of a mental health professional–your psychiatrist, or a licensed psychologist. DO NOT EVER go off of psychotropic medications cold turkey or on your own. They are very dangerous and can have severe, sometimes life threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

I DO NOT RECEIVE ANY COMPENSATION FOR RECOMMENDING THIS SUPPLEMENT. I RECOMMEND IT BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN SUCH A BLESSING IN MY LIFE.

If you are feeling that you may cause harm to yourself or someone else, please seek immediate professional assistance.

Image by Dan Evans from Pixabay

Pregnancy and Postpartum on Medication

Pregnancy brought an entirely new set of issues. Most of the mediations I took over the years were dangerous for pregnancy, so in order to safely navigate pregnancy I had to go off of all meds except one very low dose of an antidepressant. I had a plan set up with my psychiatrist and my obstetrician when my husband and I decided to try conceiving to make sure I was safe. Both of my pregnancies during this time followed the same trajectory. Each time I got severely depressed at the beginning of the pregnancy, in fact that was how I discovered I was pregnant each time. I was so depressed that I decided it was unwise to try this, and I was asked to take a pregnancy test before going back on my medications. Each time I was pregnant.

The first trimester I was depressed and very morning sick, but as soon as I began the second trimester I felt better physically and emotionally. The rest of the pregnancy was wonderful. I used to joke that the hormones of the second and third trimesters made my chemical imbalance disappear. The only real issue I had during my pregnancies was anxiety–excessive worry and nightmares–but even this wasn’t really too bad. 

The real problems occurred about three months after I gave birth. The first three months postpartum were like a happy little bubble, and then the world came crashing down on me. Both times I began to rapid cycle, from depression to hypomania and back, and I had to stop breastfeeding immediately and go back on all my medications. Then the nightmare really began. 

Each time I developed postpartum hyperthyroidism. My thyroid went into overdrive, I lost most of my hair, I lost an excessive amount of weight very quickly–I was eating a ton of food, but I was always hungry and I was 25 pounds underweight. I looked anorexic and some people thought I had developed an eating disorder. The worst symptom was that I was dizzy all the time and even passed out occasionally. I was afraid to drive or carry my baby because of it. 

The postpartum hyperthyroidism corrected itself both times, but the second time was significantly worse and I was warned not to have any more children or I would destroy my thyroid.

Hospitalizations

In 2008, after ten years of treatment, I had two small children and I was clinically depressed and suicidal. This was the beginning of the hospitalizations. The first hospitalization covered a period of 6 weeks and included a full-course–12 treatments–of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), which wiped out my memory of that time. I also experienced my first psychotic episode, which changed my diagnosis to Bipolar I. 

The treating psychiatrist at that hospital didn’t believe me when I told her that I didn’t react well to lithium and insisted that I go on it. I became suicidal as a result and ended up with a second hospitalization. My primary psychiatrist notated my file with lithium as an allergy after that. After I was released from the hospital for a second time my mood swings were so severe that my husband didn’t know what to do anymore. I had serious personality changes, intense anger and hypersexuality, and I attempted suicide, resulting in another hospitalization at a third facility. 

When I was finally released from that facility I felt like my life had no value. I had actively sought treatment, done everything my doctors told me to do, and nothing worked. I felt like my life was going to just be about surviving. I felt sorry for my husband and children. I had no hope anymore that things would ever get any better, but I didn’t want to put my husband and children through a suicide, so I felt completely lost and helpless, and so did my doctor. 

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Treating the Cause–Finding the Supplements that Saved My Life

In early 2010 I was introduced to the first of two supplements that would change my life. My mother called me to tell me about a friend of hers whose husband had bipolar and had started taking a supplement that helped him lessen his mood swings. I was dubious because I had tried some natural supplements before that didn’t do anything for me. But, I didn’t feel like I had much to lose at this point and my doctor agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to try, so I started taking it. 

Over the following couple of months I started to feel overmedicated with my mood stabilizer and my doctor slowly titrated me off of it. I was cautiously optimistic. The most dramatic change for me was the cessation of the migraines that had started after I had ECT. I was so excited, but I stayed on my antidepressants because I didn’t feel safe going off of them. 

A few months later a good friend of mine told me about a supplement called EMPowerPlus that was produced by a nonprofit company called True Hope. This company was dedicated to helping people with chemical imbalances to live healthy, mentally balanced lives through supplementation aimed at balancing out vitamin and mineral deficiencies common in many people with chemical imbalances in the brain. What was more, they had research to back it up that I was able to provide to my doctor. They had 35 clinical trials at different universities across the United States and Canada, and an 80% success rate with helping people manage their illness with few if any symptoms.  

After I provided the literature about EMPowerPlus to my doctor he was happy to help me transition off of my medications onto this new supplement. He was as desperate to find a solution as I was. Over the next few months, with the help of my doctor and True Hope’s nutritional support staff, I carefully titrated off of my medication and onto the supplement. It felt like a miracle. As my mind began to clear and heal I started to “wake up” and I felt normal for the first time in my adult life. I still had a lot of work to do–counseling, exercise, meditation and yoga–but taking the supplements put me firmly on the path and made mental wellness possible. 

Pregnancy and Postpartum on the Supplements

One amazing benefit to taking the EMPowerPlus was the healthy experience with my third pregnancy. Because it is a natural vitamin and mineral supplement it was not only safe for pregnancy but highly beneficial. I experienced no symptoms of depression during the pregnancy, and most exciting I had no health issues postpartum. My thyroid has worked perfectly over the past 10 years, and I had no recurrence of the postpartum hyperthyroidism. In fact I had to work hard, like most women, to lose the ample “baby weight” that I gained during the pregnancy. 

EMPowerPlus is Unique, not Just Another Vitamin Supplement

One important lesson I learned over the past decade is that EMPowerPlus is not a “normal” vitamin and mineral supplement. It won’t hurt someone to take it for general health purposes, but it is specifically designed for people who suffer from mood disorders like bipolar, depression and ADHD. Other vitamin and mineral supplements will not do the same thing, as I discovered for myself one year when I tried to switch to a different supplement I thought would work the same. I found myself cycling between mood swings about five months after I started the other supplement, and I finally recognized the mistake and switched back a few months later.

True Hope’s founders developed the supplement based on common vitamin and mineral deficiencies found in many people that suffer from these mood disorders. Over the years the formula has been refined to meet the specific nutritional needs necessary to help people with bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD to have more balance in their mood and mind. They have also continued to do research and discovered additional supplements that help to further refine and personalize the treatment for each individual.

Over the past ten years, with the help of the True Hope nutritional support staff, I have been able to tweak the supplementation, figuring out the appropriate dosage, healing my digestive system so that it could appropriately absorb the nutrients, and adding in a few additional nutrients that my body was deficient in so that I could experience optimal mental health. With these supplements–together with my work with counseling, exercise, meditation and yoga–I am learning to live a beautiful, productive and hope-filled life. 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

This is the First Step on Your Journey to Mental Wellness

Again, I am not advocating that someone go off of their medications on their own, especially not cold turkey–that is dangerous and can be life-threatening.

I transitioned off of my medications and onto the supplements under the care of my psychiatrist. True Hope can provide your doctor with the documentation on the clinical trials that will help him or her to see the efficacy of this treatment option.

These supplements may not be right for everyone, but they were right for me. If you are struggling finding a medication(s) that work for you and you feel hopeless, I encourage you to investigate EMPowerPlus with your psychiatrist to see if it might be right for you. 

The path to mental wellness is begun by first giving your brain the help it needs to function well–either through medication or supplementation. Then you will truly be capable of  taking responsibility for your life and working towards real mental wellness.

Bipolar Disorder: When Medication Doesn’t Work

Before you read further I need to make two things VERY clear. 

First, I am not a mental health professional. Everything I am sharing is based on my personal experience. I encourage you to do your own research, as I did, to find what is right for you. Some people respond well to medication and the side-effects are manageable. If that is the case, wonderful, the first piece of your puzzle is solved!

Second, if you do decide to try the supplements that I use, I strongly encourage you to do so under the care of a mental health professional–your psychiatrist, or a licensed psychologist. DO NOT EVER go off of psychotropic medications cold turkey or on your own. They are very dangerous and can have severe, sometimes life threatening withdrawal symptoms. 

If you are feeling that you may cause harm to yourself or someone else, please seek immediate professional assistance.

Photo by David Garrison from Pexels

When the chemicals are out of balance

Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “Just snap out of it, it’s all in your head”? While the quip is meant to dismiss what is happening in the brain as something within your control, there is a lot of truth in the second part of that statement. It really is all in your head.

Your brain controls everything, it tells you how to feel, act, etc. and when your chemicals are out of balance you can have overwhelming emotions and intrusive thoughts that either have no outside cause, or are excessive and out of proportion responses to outside stimuli. It causes confusion, anxiety, stress and insecurity when you don’t feel like you can trust your own mind.

Chemical imbalances are like diabetes

One doctor that I had helped me to understand what was happening in my brain the best when he told me that my bipolar disorder was like having diabetes

In diabetes a person’s body is not producing insulin, the hormone responsible for regulating glucose in the blood. When this occurs it causes all kinds of problems in a person’s body, from fatigue and irritability, to loss of sight, limbs and even life. It is not the person’s fault that they have this condition, they have no control over whether their body produces insulin or not. But they can live a healthy, productive life if they learn how to monitor their blood sugar, give their body insulin shots when needed, manage their diet, lifestyle, etc. Without the outside intervention of insulin, however, any hope of a normal, healthy life is non-existent. 

My doctor told me that living with bipolar is similar to living with diabetes. There is a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects the function of the moods, thoughts, emotions, etc. If we could figure out how to balance the chemicals in my brain I would have a chance at living a healthy, productive life. This analogy really helped me to understand my disorder in concrete terms. It is hard when it is “all in your head” to know if it is real. Here was a doctor telling me the chaos in my head wasn’t my fault and that there was a way to manage it. So I persevered in my quest to find the right medication combination.

Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay

My Life Before Diagnosis

Although I had exhibited symptoms of bipolar for years starting in early adolescence (I have clear memories of suicidal thoughts in junior high) I didn’t start to experience the full effects of the illness until age 20, which was brought on by severe trauma from my first marriage. I still wouldn’t be diagnosed until four years later, one month before I graduated from college. 

The first people to recognize that there was something wrong with me were my aunt and uncle. I lived with them off and on over a four year period in college and I worked for my uncle my junior year. The time they spent with me helped them to see the patterns–the dramatic mood swings, the hypomania and severe depression–and they could see that it was increasing in severity. They called my parents to let them know they suspected a chemical imbalance

My parents knew something was wrong, but they didn’t know what it was. They wouldn’t hear from me for weeks, and then when they did I had a new life plan all mapped out–I was going to Russia to study Russian and I would then become a diplomat, or I was going to get my PhD in math and become a math professor, or I was going to China, to learn Chinese and study foreign policy. Each time I was so sure THIS was the right path and I was often so convincing that they believed me. 

My senior year was the worst. I would be depressed for weeks at a time, not attending classes, watching television or sleeping, and then I would get manic and stay up for days, writing papers, taking tests, and ace my classes–I was even on the dean's list. 

I knew something was wrong, but I felt embarrassed because I thought I was making excuses for myself. I was sure that I could fix it if I just had more self discipline. I remember the day I called my parents crying and told them I knew something was wrong with me and I needed help. It was so hard to do, but I felt like I was drowning and if I didn’t get help I was going to die. 

Initial Diagnosis and Treatment

My aunt went with me to my intake appointment with the psychiatrist. I was severely depressed at the time and she had to supply a lot of the answers to the doctor. Unfortunately because these illnesses are diagnosed based on symptoms I was misdiagnosed initially with depression and anxiety disorders, given a prescription for an antidepressant and sent home. 

By the time I had titrated up to the full dose of the medication and it had built up in my system enough to cause the mania I had moved home to my parents’ house in a different state. I found a new practitioner who, after her intake with me in my manic state, changed my diagnosis to Bipolar II and put me on Lithium. 

I remember shortly after I started the Lithium I was taking the bus to work and as I sat on the bus I felt like I could feel each of the billions of neurons in my brain disconnecting and I was sure I was going crazy. I called my mom from work crying because I felt insane. I was having a bad reaction to the Lithium and was advised to discontinue it immediately. 

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Playing Guess and Check with Medication

I didn’t tolerate medication very well, for the first three years being on my initial antidepressant I was exhausted constantly. No matter how much sleep I got I was always tired, and I could fall asleep anywhere, and sometimes did.

When my doctor finally changed my medication the withdrawal symptoms were scary. I was so dizzy for a couple weeks that I often couldn’t stand and I even passed out on the sidewalk of a busy city street walking home one day. I was terrified.  

I struggled trying to find a mood-stabilizer that would work. I didn’t tolerate any of them in a therapeutic dosage, so my doctors were constantly fiddling with combinations, add a little here, remove a little there. And the side effects were intolerable

The most common issue was excessive fatigue, but often I would feel dull or dead inside, some gave me stomach problems and digestive issues, and the worst ones caused my heart to race and my anxiety to go through the roof. I was always stressed when I would have to go have liver function tests. I knew that in my effort to keep from being crazy I was destroying my liver–robbing Peter to pay Paul as the saying goes. In the end nothing really worked. I continued to cycle, and the cycles were getting worse along with my symptoms.

Over a decade I worked diligently with my doctors to try and find something to help. I believed that like the doctor said, this was like diabetes. I just needed to find a way to balance the chemicals in my brain. However, unlike diabetes, the cause of the imbalance was a mystery. Medication wasn’t actually treating the root cause of the problem, but treating the symptoms, and then adding additional medications to deal with the side effects.. 

Working with psychotropic medications is like playing guess and check with your brain, the doctors tried one cocktail after another. At one point I was on 7 different medications, and I felt like a zombie–mindless, dull and dead inside–nothing really worked. I continued to cycle and my illness got worse. I was starting to feel hopeless.

This is Part 1 in a 2 Part Series. To read Part 2 See Bipolar Disorder: An Alternative to Medication