Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!

Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken!

There is a famous quote by Theodore Roosevelt, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” When it comes to learning to live well with bipolar disorder, comparison can be the thief of wellness, too. This has become clearer to me over the years as I have worked to learn the keys to living well with this disorder. 

One day I had an epiphany, if a person who became a paraplegic in an accident spent her life comparing herself to an elite runner, she would become depressed, discouraged, and give up. Instead of focusing on what she could do, she would be focused on what she couldn’t do. Was I doing the same thing? Was I comparing myself and my life to people who didn’t have the same mental health challenges I have? Was I dwelling on what I couldn’t do, rather than recognizing what I could?

Cambry Kaylor’s Story

As I thought about this, I decided to look up athletes who had become paralyzed and I came across Cambry Kaylor. She was an equestrian vaulter (acrobat on horseback) and was in a training accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. I listened to her share her story and was struck by how similar her feelings were when she learned of her paralysis to the feelings I had when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. 

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

She said, “I wanted my paralysis to be something I could wake up from” and “I’m not Cambry Kaylor, I’m a crippled version of what I used to be. Who’s gonna want to be my friend or even date me?” She wanted her old life back. She spoke about how hard she tried to learn to walk and how lost she felt when she didn’t feel like she knew who she was anymore. 

I could identify with everything she was sharing. She struggled to accept herself for who she was. When she stopped trying to be who she was before and focused on being the best version of who she is now, she eventually was able to not just survive, but thrive in her new life. She is married now with a beautiful baby boy, she is a registered occupational therapist and teaches equestrian riding lessons. One of the most important pieces to her success was to focus on what she was capable of doing, not what she couldn’t do. 

Something she said that resonated the most with me was her answer to the question, “What if you could go back to that day and change it so that you never got paralyzed, would you do it?” Her response was, “Living with paralysis has taught me so much that I wouldn’t change that day.”  She said that now, when she is faced with challenges, she can look back at where she’s come from and have hope because of what she has overcome and accomplished in her life since her accident.

Comparison with Yourself

For those of us struggling with bipolar disorder there are some powerful lessons in Cambry’s experience. First, dwelling on who you used to be, or who you thought you should become, is counterproductive and harmful. You cannot stop having bipolar disorder any more than Cambry could stop being paralyzed. 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. 

When you are first diagnosed you go through a mourning period. It is similar to suffering a loss, the loss of who you thought you were. There is also the loss of who you thought you should become. Many of us have ideas of what our life should be like. Some of it is our own personal expectations. When we are young we naturally dream of what our life will be like some day. Those expectations are developed through goals, what we see in our family or the families of those around us, or even what we view in the media or are taught in church and school.

You will likely go through the stages of grief (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief). If you get stuck dwelling on who you used to be or who you thought you should become you can get stuck in the grief cycle and it will keep you from moving forward. 

Comparison with Others

Second, comparing yourself to others is equally damaging. Cambry felt like she needed to be able to walk like other people in order to be worthy of friends and relationships. As women and mothers we have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to each other. Social media has made the accessibility of comparison significantly easier. You can sit in the comfort of your own home and scroll through other mothers’ highlight reels, while you validate every negative feeling you have about 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 frustration. You begin to define yourself by what you lack and by your bipolar disorder, instead of the unique qualities and gifts that make you special.

Photo by George Milton from Pexels

Learning to Like Yourself as You Are

Finally, Cambry recognized that she wouldn’t want to go back and change what happened to her because of all that she has accomplished and learned from her accident. You can also come to a point where you are grateful for your bipolar disorder. I know this seems impossible, but it’s true. 

Years ago I was speaking to a friend of my mother who also lived with bipolar disorder. During the conversation while I was crying to her about how hard my life was with this disorder, she told me that one day I would be grateful for it. I was completely incredulous. I told her I didn’t believe that I would ever be grateful for bipolar disorder, how could I? But she insisted that I would. 

Today, I can confidently say that I am grateful for my bipolar, and I wouldn’t change myself or remove my disorder even if I could. 

I have learned so many things–compassion, perseverance, humility, gratitude–and I am not sure I would have learned these things with this depth of understanding without the challenge and blessing of having bipolar disorder. 

Having bipolar disorder can be a gift if you are willing to do the work to learn to manage it effectively. One of the first steps to learning to live well with bipolar is to stop comparing yourself and start appreciating yourself for who you are.

Tips to Help You Stop Comparing and Start Liking Yourself

It takes time and effort to learn how to:

  • not compare yourself to who you were or thought you should be,
  • not compare yourself to others who don’t have bipolar disorder, and
  • learn to love and appreciate who you are with bipolar disorder.

First, I have gone long periods of time without looking at social media–removing it from my phone and even closing my accounts at one point. When I am depressed I am especially vulnerable. 

Just like someone who is immune-compromised needs to keep herself protected from germs that would make her sick and weaken her body’s defenses, when you are emotionally vulnerable you need to steer clear of social media that attacks your emotional defenses and can compromise your “emotional immune system.” You may need to limit or even eliminate social media consumption while you are working to learn how to live well with bipolar.

Second, work with your counselor or therapist (see post about counseling) to learn how to identify unhealthy expectations that limit your progress and cause you to feel discouraged and depressed.

Third, learn to identify and focus on your strengths, characteristics and talents that make you uniquely valuable. You can do this through work with your therapist, speaking with trusted loved ones or friends or journaling to identify areas of strength or interest that you. 

Fourth, find positive, encouraging support from others who have bipolar disorder. Not all bipolar support is positive. There are many people who are struggling with having bipolar and focus on the negative aspects of their disorder. Seek support from those who are working to accept their disorder and learn to live well with it. One positive option is Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.

Finally, practice mindfulness meditation (see post on mindfulness) that will help you to be aware of negative thought patterns that keep you focused on comparison and the gaps that comparison creates. As you identify the negative thought patterns you can work with your therapist to replace them with alternative thoughts that are positive.

It is possible to live a healthy, balanced and productive life with bipolar disorder. One very important key to making progress on the path to wellness is learning how to not compare yourself with anyone else.

Ready to Start?

If you are ready to take responsibility for yourself, to learn to accept and love yourself as you are and work towards living well with bipolar disorder, I invite you to start with my free download

It is a guide to developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan for when your emotional power goes out. In the guide I will take you through the Four Steps of formulating a response plan for mental health emergencies so that you are prepared when they hit. It will help you take more responsibility for yourself, minimize the impact on those you love and help you learn how to reboot your system to get your emotional power back online.

There is hope and help. Are you ready to start?,

Step 2

The Stages of Grief

Reconstruction and Working Through

Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief

Bipolar Disorder: The Stages of Grief

What do you remember from the day you were diagnosed? What were the thoughts and feelings that went through your mind? How many times have you questioned your diagnosis? How many times have you felt angry or resentful of your disorder? Have you had times when you just gave up?

I had a realization one day as I was thinking about all of these things. 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.

The Stages of Grief

Shock and Denial

When you are first diagnosed there are a number of different emotions that you experience. You are experiencing a fundamental shift in your life and it can be jarring. 

When I was first diagnosed I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. First, I felt relieved that there was finally an answer to the dramatic mood swings and the irrational thoughts and behaviors. Then I felt like I had been told I was broken, fundamentally flawed and defective. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was experiencing a loss–the loss of who I thought I was–and it was a shock. 

Over the years I have had many times when I was in serious denial about my diagnosis. I would go through brief periods, usually at the beginning of mania, or when a medication would offer some temporary relief, when I would start to feel good. I was clear minded and productive, and I would think, “There is nothing wrong with me, I’m not broken. I don’t have Bipolar Disorder.” 

Denial is a very common challenge with those diagnosed with Bipolar because you don’t want to believe that the “old you” is no more, and that this new version is someone you don’t like. 

Anger and Bargaining

When the inevitable followed and I crashed, I would often feel intense anger. Anger is a very common feeling when you are struggling with Bipolar Disorder. I had so many times when I felt angry that I had to work so hard to be “normal” and that it wasn't fair that everyone else had it so much easier. 

I felt rebellious about what I struggled with, and I would decide that if this was the way I was, then everyone else was just going to have to suffer too, because it was just too hard to keep trying. 

I also remember begging God to take away this disorder. I would read in the Bible about the woman with an issue of blood who touched the hem of the Savior and was healed. I thought, “Why can’t God heal me? I have faith, why can’t he make me whole?” I spent a lot of time dwelling on this, and it usually made me either angry or more depressed.

Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

Depression

Obviously someone with Bipolar Disorder will struggle with depression. However, this type of depression is not caused by the disorder itself, but is caused by the discouragement and hopelessness you feel because of the disorder. 

I thought for many years that if I tried hard enough I could fix myself. So every time I would cycle and end up making irrational choices and ultimately crash into depression I would feel like there was no point to trying. My depression was magnified by my hopelessness in what I felt was a pointless effort to try to live well. 

I also felt very alone in my struggle. Even the people who loved me and tried to help made me feel lonely, because they didn’t understand what I was going through. Often their attempts to help would make me feel worse because I viewed myself as broken and their help seemed to confirm that for me. 

The Turn Upward

This is when you finally start to really accept that the “old you” is gone, but that doesn’t mean that the “new you” is broken or flawed. It is just a different you. I wrote a post Bipolar Disorder: You are not broken! where I discuss why comparing yourself to who you used to be can prevent you from moving forward. When you get to this stage of the grieving process, the turn upward, you are starting to recognize that there might be hope for a positive future with your new self. 

Reconstruction and Working Through

This is the stage where you really begin to accept responsibility for yourself. You recognize that living a positive, productive life is possible, but you are going to have to work for it. You are willing to work with your counselor, develop tools and make changes in your life so that you can become the best version of yourself.

Acceptance and Hope

There were two stages of acceptance for me. The first was when I resigned myself to this “new me” that I thought was just going to spend my life surviving. I had spent ten years actively trying to treat my disorder, and it just got progressively worse. I finally just decided that this was my life, and I would simply just have to survive it. It was a resigned acceptance.

The second stage of acceptance was when I finally started to find the tools and resources that helped me to finally make some progress in learning how to live well with my disorder (see my post on Medication). I was able to not just accept my new self, but embrace my new self. I finally had hope for a fulfilling, productive life with Bipolar Disorder. 

I have also learned to be grateful for my Bipolar Disorder. I have learned so much over the years since my diagnosis that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise. I love my life now. I am grateful for the challenges that I have been through with my disorder because I have so much more confidence in myself and my ability to persevere and triumph over challenges. 

Moving Past Grief

Understanding the stages of grief and learning that it is normal for you to go through these stages as you mourn the loss of your “old self” can be helpful on your journey to wellness. However, you don’t want to allow grief to take over your life and get mired down in the mourning process. 

If you are ready to take responsibility for yourself, to learn to accept and love yourself as you are and work towards living well with Bipolar Disorder, I invite you to start with my free guide to developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan  for when your emotional power goes out. In the guide I will take you through the Four Steps of formulating a response plan for mental health emergencies so that you are prepared when they hit. It will help you take more responsibility for yourself, minimize the impact on those you love and help you learn how to reboot your system to get your emotional power back online.

There is hope and help. Are you ready to start?

Step 3

The recovery cycle

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

Bipolar Disorder: The Recovery Cycle

Once when I was struggling with a depressive episode I went to a counseling appointment and told my counselor how discouraged I was. I felt so frustrated that I was depressed, it felt like failure to me. It seemed like I had climbed a mountain, learning how to live well, and now I was all the way back down at the bottom. I was frustrated and angry because in my mind I thought I had to start all over again.

My counselor responded to me with one of the most profound insights that I had been given into the treatment of my disorder. She said that treating bipolar disorder follows the same pattern as the addiction recovery cycle. She showed me a diagram of the addiction recovery cycle and explained that becoming depressed isn't failure, it is just a shift in where I was in the cycle. 

It is important to understand that these stages do not necessarily always occur in this order, and sometimes you can be in more than one stage at a time, and even regress to a previous stage. But understanding the stages and the basic progression is important to learning how to view your bipolar disorder in a healthy way. 

Understanding the stages of the recovery cycle will help you better understand your disorder and have a healthier outlook on your personal responsibility for selfcare. 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.

Stages in the Recovery Cycle

Precontemplation

In this stage you don’t recognize or acknowledge that you have a problem. This can occur before diagnosis, but often continues after diagnosis, too. Prior to my diagnosis I had a feeling for a few years that there was something wrong, but I didn’t really know what it was. I spent a lot of time feeling like my mood swings were my fault, a lack of self-discipline. 

After diagnosis there were many times when I went through periods where I questioned my diagnosis. Often at the beginning of a manic phase I would start to feel happy and productive and I would think things like, “maybe it really was all in my head, I don’t have bipolar disorder and I don’t need medication. I’m fine.”

In this stage you may also feel angry that you struggle with bipolar disorder and feel like you shouldn’t have to work so hard to feel well, so you aren’t going to try at all. You may feel hopeless, like there is nothing you can do about it anyway, so why try. You might feel like you should be able to take care of things on your own, you don’t need anyone’s help, you can take care of yourself. Or you may like the feeling of mania, and not want to lose that exhilaration, rush, creativity, etc. that you get when you are manic.

Contemplation

In this stage you recognize and acknowledge that you have a disorder that needs treatment. It is just the beginning of the process, though, you know you need assistance but may not be fully committed to the journey yet. This could last for a while because it can feel scary to seek a diagnosis or to admit that you need help. There is also fear that there may not be any relief for you. Because of negative stigmas associated with bipolar disorder, it takes a lot of courage to reach out for support.

Preparation

In this stage you are committed to changing and you are ready to get help. This looks like making an appointment with a doctor or a mental health counselor, or reading a book on mindfulness meditation. Each time you recognize the need for a new tool or step you enter this stage.

Action

This stage is when you take action, when you apply what you learned in the preparation stage. This is when you start to see and experience change. This stage can be challenging when you first enter it, because you are trying something new. It is really important to have support from others who will encourage you and cheer you on as you choose each day to keep trying.

Maintenance

You enter this stage when you have established habits and patterns that help you live a healthy, balanced, and productive life. One of the challenges I experienced in this stage the first few times I entered it was anticipating the next manic or depressive episode. I was so used to the cycle that steady consistency sometimes caused me to feel anxious. 

This is one of the reasons that it was so helpful to me to learn about this recovery cycle. I learned to stop dreading potential interruptions, and instead viewed it as an opportunity to learn and grow. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, but with consistent, persistent effort you can get to a point where you go long periods of time, sometimes years, without any serious episodes of mania or depression. 

Relapse

This is just what it sounds like. It is a recurrence of the mania or depression that throws off the new routine. Your response to this will determine where you land in the recovery cycle. The more you learn about your disorder, the more you recognize that it is a disorder and not moral or personal failing that causes you to relapse, the sooner you can work your way through the stages of recovery back to maintenance. 

I have also found that the more times I make it to the maintenance stage the more faith I have in myself that I can get there again. I know the way back, and so I can pick myself up, dust myself off and keep moving forward. I never enter precontemplation anymore.

Personal Responsibility

One of the other things that learning about this recovery cycle has taught me is that I am responsible for myself and for treating my disorder. I acknowledge that I have bipolar disorder, and I accept that I will have it for the rest of my life. If I do not acknowledge and accept that, I risk hurting myself and those I love the most–my husband and children. 

Understanding this recovery cycle has helped me to view my disorder in a healthy way. Relapse is not failure, it is just a shift of where I am in the cycle. This understanding has been a significant step on my journey to living a healthy, balanced and productive life. 

The Path to Wellness is Not Linear

The analogy that I used earlier of climbing a mountain to represent my path to wellness is really not accurate. In fact, 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. 

One of the greatest benefits of discovering the recovery cycle is understanding the nature of bipolar disorder better–in a more realistic and productive way. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, just like there is no cure for type 1 diabetes. It is a medical disorder in the body that you can learn to manage so that it minimizes the impact on your life. But it will never go away completely. The goal is to learn to proactively manage your disorder within the Preparation-Action-Maintenance-Relapse stages of the cycle. 

As you learn and practice using the resources and tools necessary to live a healthy, balanced, productive life, your transitions through the stages will be easier and the skills you develop will improve. As you implement the tools and gain experience with those skills you will gain confidence in yourself and your ability to recover when you experience a manic or depressive episode. You can also learn to spend greater periods of time in the maintenance stage of the cycle. 

If you are ready to begin your journey to mental and emotional wellness, I invite you to sign up for my free guide to creating a personal Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. This is a fantastic resource to help you manage your relapses in a way that will minimize the impact on you and those you love. It will also help you develop a plan to move out of relapse and back into wellness. There is hope and there is help. I hope you will join me on this journey to living well with bipolar disorder.