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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
I didn’t start off having suicidal thoughts. It started with nightmares. Vivid, intense nightmares about dying and I would wake up feeling horrible inside. This went on for years until it progressed to daydreams about dying. I would have random images or scenarios pop into my head of things that could cause my death.
I knew intuitively that my mind was suffering with my bipolar disorder and it was trying to find a way out, but I didn’t realize the full implications of what I was experiencing. I didn't recognize the danger these thoughts posed to my safety.
When this first started I recoiled from the thoughts and images. I felt anxiety and fear when I would have them. But as the years went on and my disorder grew worse I started having thoughts like, “your husband would be so much happier if you were dead and he could find a better wife,” or “your children would be so much better off if they had a better mom who wasn’t sick.”
I didn’t tell anyone about the thoughts I was having because I was so embarrassed and ashamed of them. It made me feel crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know how broken I really was. So, I hid them and suffered alone.
Then in 2008 I had a breakdown. I was hospitalized three times in three different hospitals in two states. During that time I finally gave in to the thoughts that had been plaguing me and made two attempts on my life. I don’t remember much of what happened because during one of my hospitalizations the doctors performed a full course of twelve electroconvulsive therapy treatments and I lost most of my memory from those months.
It took years for my husband to talk to me about what happened because it had been so traumatic for him–he was the one to stop me both times.
When I was finally released from my third hospitalization I had an experience that changed everything. One sunny morning a few weeks later I was watching my children play. My daughter was 4 and my son was 2. I was looking at my daughter and had a very clear thought come into my mind, “if you ever succeed in ending your life it will ruin hers. Your daughter will believe it was her fault and she will spend the rest of her life blaming herself.” I was shocked! I had come to thoroughly believe the lies my mind had told me, that my children would be better off if I was gone.
As soon as I had the thought, I knew it was true, she would believe it was her fault and it would ruin her life. That day I made the commitment that I would survive for my children.
If that was the best I could do, I would do it.
I loved them more than my own life and I would do anything for them.
From that point on I decided that I would not let the thoughts of death or suicide stay in my mind unchallenged. I would ask for help if I was having those thoughts and not let myself feel shame or embarrassment anymore.
This was the first time in over a decade after my diagnosis that I truly, proactively, took responsibility for my mind. I thought I had before. I had diligently gone to psychiatric appointments and tried to take my medication, but I didn’t feel like I had any control over my mind. I felt for years like my bipolar disorder was in the driver’s seat and I was just along for the ride. But I now realized that I couldn’t let my bipolar be in charge anymore: it was trying to kill me and I wasn’t going to let it.
When you have bipolar disorder, it feels like there are so many things working against you. You have a disorder that really is all in your head. When you have those horrible, intrusive thoughts while you are floundering in the dark heaviness of depression, it is so easy to believe they are true because they correlate with what you are feeling.
I didn’t understand that I shouldn’t believe every thought that came into my mind. I didn’t know that it was possible to separate myself from my thoughts and challenge them.
With bipolar disorder it is embarrassing, discouraging, and yes, unfair, to keep making mistakes or poor decisions because of the mood cycles, especially mania, and then have to deal with the consequences for your decisions. Each time you give into impulses that are bad or make decisions based on irrational thoughts it’s humiliating to have to deal with the aftermath. This naturally results in feeling insecure and makes it easy to believe that everyone would be better off without you.
It can also feel like your life is not worth living because you spend so mucheffort just trying to manage your disorder and don’t feel like you have anything to offer beyond that.
The wonderful thing is that:
you can learn to separate yourself from your thoughts, decide which ones to believe and dismiss the bad ones,
you can learn to manage your disorder so that you don’t keep making the same mistakes and poor decisions, and;
you absolutely have so much to offer because you have infinite value and purpose well beyond your disorder.
It is possible to learn to manage your bipolar well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
The first step is to create a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan (ERP). An ERP will help you to take responsibility for your mood cycles so that you lessen the impact on you and your family and shorten the duration of the cycle. One very important piece of your plan will be your Emergency Response Team.
If you are having thoughts of self-harm or death decide who you will talk to or what you will do when you have those thoughts. This was a really important piece for me. It was important to have someone to talk to when I was having intrusive, negative thoughts because there were times when it was too much for me to manage on my own.
Think of those thoughts like having an intruder in your home that wants to harm you. If that happened you would call for help, you wouldn’t allow that threat to remain unchallenged. Do not allow those thoughts to stay in your mind. Identify them and challenge them. This is something that is especially important to discuss with your therapist. Create a plan ahead of time so that you will know what to do when it happens.
Second, you need to develop a self-care plan that helps you begin to effectively treat your bipolar disorder. There are several important tools that will help.
Proactively seeking treatment with a good therapist
Learning to practice mindfulness meditation–this is an especially important tool for identifying and challenging intrusive thoughts
Additional self-care tools like yoga, exercise and simplifying your life.
If you would like additional guidance on how to effectively manage your bipolar disorder you can join the monthly membership program that guides you through the steps & tools necessary to manage your bipolar disorder well. For more information click here.
Finally, seek support from others who understand what you’re going through. Having bipolar disorder can be very lonely and isolating. It is hard to not feel broken and flawed. Seeking positive, encouraging support from others who are struggling with the same disorder will lighten your load and lift you up. You’ll gain strength to live well while managing your disorder. For moms with bipolar disorder you can join my free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or thoughts of dying, please reach out for help. Life with bipolar disorder can feel hard and overwhelming. Your mind might tell you that everyone would be better off if you weren’t here, BUT THAT IS A LIE! Challenge those thoughts. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM!
You are irreplaceable. You can manage your bipolar disorder well and live a healthy, balanced, productive life.
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:
accept that you have the disorder, and
accept that you are responsible for learning and applying the tools to manage it.
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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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:
Factors that can impact your mood (i.e., places, social interactions, activity level, menstrual cycle, personal care, productivity, appointments, social media, weather, etc.)
Medication and/or supplements
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!
One of my favorite animated children’s films is Inside Out by Disney. It makes you laugh, cry and is a genuinely wonderful movie. But more than that, it is extremely insightful and teaches some powerful lessons, even for adults.
One of the messages of the film is that feelings aren’t good, or bad, they just are. And not only that, they have a purpose. Learning to understand the purpose of the feelings is a powerful thing. Instead of feeling bad that you are experiencing certain feelings, and shaming yourself for those feelings, you can learn to feel your feelings, understand what those feelings are telling you, and then decide what action you should take based on what you are experiencing.
In the film Inside Out, the main character Joy, gives a breakdown of what each feeling’s purpose is: Fear is “good at keeping Riley safe,” Disgust “basically keeps Riley from being poisoned, physically and socially,” Anger “cares very deeply about things being fair,” Joy’s job is to keep Riley happy, and Joy doesn’t understand what Sadness is supposed to do, and keeps trying to prevent Sadness from having any influence on Riley.
As the film goes on it becomes apparent that Sadness has a very important role to play for Riley. When Joy finally understands Sadness’s purpose, she encourages Sadness to play her part. With the help of Sadness, Riley is able to get the help she needs to adjust to the changes and challenges she is facing in her life.
When the brain is functioning in a healthy balanced way, feelings are produced by experiences. For example, in the movie fear is caused by Riley encountering dangerous situations, disgust is caused by encountering unappealing food or social situations, and anger is brought on by perceived unfairness.
What If Your Emotions Are “Misfiring”?
What do you do when your emotions are misfiring because of a chemical imbalance or unhealed trauma? If emotions are occurring because the chemicals in your brain are out of balance and not necessarily because of normal outside stimuli, are they no longer valid or useful? Should you label your emotions as bad, or not listen to them when you are experiencing a mood cycle?
One of the challenges I faced when I was first diagnosed was that I didn’t know how to trust my feelings anymore. For the years that I went undiagnosed I had listened to the feelings that I was having and tried to interpret them according to what I had been taught by others.
When I felt the intense, euphoric exhilaration of mania I believed that all the irrational thoughts that were in my head were not only rational, but inspired. I made sweeping changes because of those thoughts and feelings and I told everyone. It all felt right and real.
When I crashed into depression I believed all of the negative, self-destructive thoughts that were in my head because they matched the negative, self-destructive feelings I was having. I hid myself from the world and tried to numb my brain by binge-watching television and movies.
I develop irrational thought and behavior patterns based on this cycle and by the time I was diagnosed those patterns seemed normal to me. This continued for years after my diagnosis because even though I was trying to find the right combination of medications to balance my brain and working with a therapist nothing seemed to help and I just felt broken and hopeless.
How do you live a healthy life if you don’t know if you can trust your own mind and feelings? It can make you feel insecure and unsure of yourself. Or you may feel belligerent and angry and decide that you should be able to just live on the rollercoaster because that is the way you were made and everyone else will have to just deal with it (see my post Bipolar Disorder: The Rollercoaster).
One important tool to develop when you are trying to learn to live well with bipolar disorder is to learn how to recognize when feelings are produced by the chemical imbalance. You need to learn to identify the signs that you are manic or depressed and then understand what those mood imbalances are trying to tell you.
The feelings produced by a mood imbalance can serve a purpose. It is like they are speaking a different language and if you learn to interpret them correctly you can then understand how to respond in a way that is healthy, even if your brain isn’t healthy at the time.
How Do You Identify Signs of a Mood Cycle?
In the beginning it may be difficult to distinguish between healthy emotional responses and unhealthy ones, because it all feels normal to you. For this reason it is critical to begin tracking your moods and symptoms. Tracking your mood and symptoms will begin to help you create a more accurate picture of what is happening in your mind and identify when you are experiencing a mood cycle, what the associated symptoms of your mood cycles are and even what may have triggered it.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You could use a journal, a spreadsheet, or an app. My favorite tool is the Bearable app. (I DO NOT receive any benefit or compensation from recommending Bearable, I recommend it because I love it!)
I struggled with using a mood journal because it required me to think and often I couldn’t think clearly enough to put what I was feeling into words. I also struggled with remembering to write things down frequently enough to create an accurate picture. Another issue I struggled with is how to convey what I had written to my doctor and therapist. Weeks and pages of journal entries can be difficult to condense and quantify, and that can make it challenging to see patterns and connections.
The Bearable App is fantastic because it is very user friendly. It allows you to keep track of your mood, different factors that could trigger cycles, medications, sleep, and other helpful information. The app is very easy to use and you can set reminders for yourself to input your information each day. It is very customizable, and it gives you a way to view insights to see trends and connections.
When you discover the symptoms of your mood cycle you can learn to understand what your depression or mania is trying to tell you and you can then respond to it in a healthy way.
Learning How to Respond to a Mood Cycle
Some of the ways you might respond are:
Discussing a medication or supplement change with your doctor or customer support. If the mood cycle is being caused by medication or supplements not doing their job you may need to adjust or change them. Always work with your doctor if you are on medication or customer support if you are taking supplements. DO NOT make these changes on your own as it can be dangerous.
Working with a therapist. A good therapist can help you learn to identify if your emotional responses to things are healthy or unhealthy and how to handle the unhealthy responses in a healthy, balanced way. Your therapist can also help you identify if your mood cycle is triggered by unhealed trauma, unhealthy thought or behavior habits, or unhealthy boundaries.
Learning to practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a very effective tool to help you learn to separate yourself from your thoughts and feelings in a way to look at them more objectively and determine if those thoughts or feelings are healthy or unhealthy. Mindfulness is an important tool to learn if you want to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.
Developing a Mental Health Emergency Response Plan. Your plan will help you learn how to take responsibility for your mood cycles and manage them more effectively–lessening the impact of the cycle on you and your family and shortening the duration of the cycle.
Just like Joy learned that Sadness served an important purpose in Riley’s mind, you can learn to understand what your mania and depression are telling you and learn to respond in a healthy way, even if your mind is unhealthy at the time. Taking responsibility for your mood cycles, instead of giving into them or fighting them will help you progress on your journey to learn how to live well with bipolar disorder.
If you are a mother with bipolar disorder and you are looking for support in your effort to live well with it please join our free Facebook group Bipolar Moms Learning to Live Well.
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.
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.
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 misdiagnosedinitially 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.
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.