For me, the holidays usually bring not only traditions and gatherings but also stress and strong triggers. Difficult memories arise as the season changes and the holidays are upon us. In the years since my bipolar diagnosis and sobriety, I’ve learned how to navigate these months and maintain a stable mood.
Holidays & Memories—for Better or Worse
The holiday season isn’t always like it’s depicted in heart-warming TV specials—as those of us living with bipolar likely already know. Sometimes, certain smells or objects will trigger happy memories and a warm, enjoyable sense of nostalgia. Other times, though, our holiday memories might have more of a sting to them.
I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2013, right around the holiday season. Usually, our traditions start off with my birthday—November 14. But that year, my birthday memories were not of parties and family gatherings but instead of spending the last night of my rehab stay in Seattle. I had spent the previous year and a half addicted to opiates.
Undiagnosed Bipolar & Addiction
My opiate addiction began as a coping mechanism to deal with the irrational thoughts I was experiencing at the time. Undiagnosed and completely unmedicated, I was swinging rapidly from mania to depression. That year, I also acted on the suicida1 impulses that often accompany mood episodes.
By then, it was clear to both my family and me that I needed help.
Psychiatrists at the facility gave me various tests, and it was then that I was finally given my first diagnosis: bipolar I disorder.
I was shocked. And, immediately, I felt so ashamed. Ashamed because there was now something unquestionably “wrong” with me. I felt defective. Inadequate. Even unable to be loved.
Christmas Lights, Confusion, and Loss of Hope
I remember driving back to my brother’s home after leaving rehab and seeing the city all lit up and decorated for the upcoming holidays. I was thinking to myself, “How am I going to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas when I’m still adjusting to this news?” I was also still fighting the opiate cravings despite having just left the facility.
But, somehow, I got through it.
The holidays always trigger that dark moment in my life, and the months that preceded it. They always remind me of that dire time in my life, when I felt completely hopeless.
But, with lessons learned since, I can get through it.
My More Peaceful Present
It’s now 2020, a year that has brought unprecedented changes around the world. But even without the ongoing public health crisis, I can say that my life is much different now from how it was back then:
I haven’t touched an opiate in 7 years.
I have a beautiful, blended family, with three young boys and another child on the way.
This is all I’ve ever wanted out of life. I wish I could say things were “perfect,” but, living with bipolar disorder—I know that it’s healthier to think in terms of progress rather than perfection. I may have a neurological brain disorder, but that does not make me defective or in any way incapable of being loved or loving others.
Since my diagnosis, I have learned a lot about living with this brain-based disorder. Here are a few tips I use to deal with the stress of the holidays and some of the ways that I cope with what can be an emotionally trying time of year.
5 Coping Strategies for Managing Holiday Stress & Triggers
#1 Take Your Meds.
I can’t stress that enough: staying medication compliant is imperative. Having long since accepted the reality of my bipolar disorder, I know that I NEED to take my medicine. I have been prescribed an antipsychotic medication and a mood stabilizer. Both, combined, level out my mood, which makes handling stress a lot more bearable.
#2 Surround Yourself with People Who Support You.
When the holidays are often unpleasant or if you’re facing trauma—like we all are in the midst of this global health crisis, I’ve found that it’s less stressful if I’m surrounded only by those who support me and my well-being. For example, that first Christmas after I received my diagnosis, I made sure to spend my holiday with only my immediate family. I wasn’t in a place yet to tell close friends or my extended family about my recent diagnosis and all that preceded it. By keeping my circle small at the time, I was able to fully process my diagnosis and the realities that come with it. Likewise, as we go through this uncertain time, it’s best to spend quality time—whether virtually or in-person if it is safe to do so—with those we love. Coming together and making meaningful connections during trying times benefits everyone, providing support, reassurance, and a sense of stability in an ever-changing world.
#3 Say No to Hosting.
Ours is usually the go-to household when it comes to celebrating the holidays. But, with time and experience, I’ve learned to say no when I need to. Now, I only host a gathering if I am feeling stable and levelheaded. Do yourself a favor and let someone else take the reins this year, if you need to. Especially given the restrictions on social gatherings and the physical-distancing guidelines, celebrating this year’s holidays is going to be not only different but also more complicated and stressful. Even in “normal” years—with all the cooking, cleaning, and influx of people—it can be a lot to handle all at once. Give yourself grace when needed. There’s no shame in saying no, thank you.
#4 Lay Off the Liquor.
Scientific literature shows that more than half of people with bipolar disorder also have some history of substance abuse. I am part of that 60 percent. It’s okay if you are, too. I strongly advise not partaking in the spiced eggnog this year. First, most bipolar meds come with warning labels indicating that the medications should not be taken with alcohol. Also, I know that whenever I drink, I feel “off” the following few days. It’s not worth affecting your mood stability so drastically for just a few cocktails.
#5 Remember, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay.
Maybe you’ve never enjoyed the holidays in your whole life. Maybe you’ve lost someone, and the holidays will never be the same. It’s okay to feel that way. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or whatever other holidays you may or not celebrate, don’t always bring the joyous memories all the carolers sing about. It’s okay to not want to partake at all. Just be sure to monitor your mood and track your symptoms, watching for signs of impending bipolar depression or early symptoms of hypo/mania. Should your red flags start showing up, reach out to your support system, treatment team, and/or crisis services for whatever you need—a listening ear, a medication adjustment, or more.
I’m not a medical professional. I just know what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder and have to navigate extreme triggers during the holidays. I hope that sharing what I’ve learned is helpful to you if you are also struggling with additional stress and/or trauma this season.
Please remember, sometimes, just staying at home for the holidays is the best present you could give yourself. (Especially this year.)
Tiffany Romito is proudly from New Jersey and now resides in beautiful Washington state, outside of Seattle. She holds her master’s degree in special education and has been teaching special education for almost a decade. Tiffany was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 2013, after a long battle with addiction. With the help of her support system, therapy, and medication, Tiffany is now living her dream as a mom of three boys and is currently pregnant with another due early in June. Tiffany lives on a small farm with her pigs and goats. Her life on the “funny farm” and her mental health journey can be found at farmerish.org or on Instagram @tiffanyromito.
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