Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How to Stop Bipolar Disorder from Ruining Your Life

Fourteen years ago, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.  While some days are still a struggle, approximately 90% of the time I feel fine.  Here are my tips to surviving this illness.

1. Don't make big decisions while feeling sick

If you are suffering from depression or mania, don't make a big decision.  That means, don't end a relationship, don't make a big purchase, and don't quit your job.  So that you don't regret anything, you should try to be as normal as possible and tell yourself that you need to think about the decision when you are feeling better. 

Distorted thoughts are commonplace in mood episodes.  Even non-bipolar people make big decisions at the wrong time.   Your moods might push you into making the wrong decision. 

Instead of making that big decision, write about it in your journal, talk to a therapist about it, and sleep on it.  Get the medication and treatment you need, and when you're feeling better, reconsider it then.

2. You are not your illness

Your brain is going to lie to you.   You will have thoughts that you do not want.  These thoughts are not you.  Sometimes it might be hard to tell the difference between the real, normal you and the illness.   Someone very wise wrote something a long time ago that made a lot of sense to me.  They said that the real you is the voice in your head that says things like, "I don't want to be depressed anylonger."  The real you is fighting the illness.   The negative thoughts like "If only I were dead" are the illness.  Don't let the illness win.  

3. Plan for your mood episodes

Bipolar disorder is a cyclic illness.  You won't feel bad all of the time.  But, when you feel bad, you may not be able to do some things.  Figure out what you can't do while sick, and make a plan about those things.  Here, I'll give you some examples
  • Food. When I'm depressed, I don't feel like eating.  I also can't get the energy to cook meals and going grocery shopping is a challenge.   I plan for this by keeping some TV dinners in the freezer and a well stocked pantry so that I don't have to go shopping.  
  • Bills.  When I'm not feeling well, I sometimes forget to pay the bills.  I put them on auto-pay or pay them early when I can.  
  • Work.  I work from home so that if I don't feel good, I can take time off.  I am my own boss.  You may want to consider working for yourself, or finding a job which allows for some flexibility.  Often people with bipolar disorder have super productive hypomanic days.  If you have a job where getting the work done is important (as opposed to just putting in hours), then you can get the work done while feeling well and take off time while feeling sick. 
  • School.  Deadlines and taking tests on schedule can be difficult.  I prefer to take courses online because I can watch the lectures when it's best for me.

4. Get Help

How do you not let the illness win?  You get help.  You don't have to do this yourself.  Why not learn from those who have fought the same fight? 

Medication can be immensely helpful, but it is often a matter of trial and error.  It's normal for the first medication that you try to either not work well enough, or to stop working after awhile. Fortunately, there are lots of options.  It's important to find a doctor that you like and then you can work with them to get the right medication or combo of meds.   

You can also look into supplements that you can buy over-the-counter.  Fortunately, the internet has made that very easy.  Just google your condition and you can find all sorts of things that might help.  The downside is that you don't have a professional to consult for advice.  Plus, a doctor can give you blood tests to rule out conditions.  There is no blood test for bipolar disorder, but some other illnesses like thyroid imbalances can cause mood swings, so a good doctor would probably test for that first.  Also, doctors check for other conditions like liver and kidney problems, diabetes, etc, and will try to prescribe a medication that won't cause any problems.   So, I really recommend seeing a doctor.  It can be either a family doctor or a psychiatrist.

Therapy has also been shown to be very effective, especially when combined with medication.  There are different kinds of therapy, and I prefer Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.  

I've also found books to be very helpful.  A book is a great place to start.  They cost very little, and if you follow the exercises or suggestions, you may be able to get some of the same benefits as therapy.  Here are the ones I recommend:

Definitely my first pick.  This book teaches you how to reduce your symptoms and cope with mood swings.

Not specific to bipolar disorder, but still quite helpful.  It taught me how to recognize distorted thoughts.

I don't consider this book to be the final answer, but it is a good read, and may help you in understanding this often confusing mental illness

Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner
This is written by someone with the illness.  While its intended audience is family members, I found it to be quite insightful.  In particular, it lists some thought patterns that are common to bipolar disorder, and I had the insight "It's not just me!"

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