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.
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.
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?,
The Stages of Grief
Reconstruction and Working Through