When in the grips of bipolar depression, it’s hard to dredge up feelings of gratitude; but I recently learned some big lessons that have changed my perspective on my life and on my bipolar.
“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” —Meister Eckhart, German philosopher and theologian, ca. 1260–ca. 1328
Gratitude, Shame, & Bipolar Depression
Gratitude is a skill that must be practiced. For me, gratitude can be challenging, especially facing the diagnosis of bipolar and its symptoms. When I am in the depths of bipolar depression, gratitude is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I am more likely to be feeling anger, a sense of injustice, self-pity, or just plain apathy.
And you know what I have found? It is okay. I have become much more compassionate with myself and my feelings about my illness over the course of the last two decades.
Bipolar disorder is a brain-based illness. Detaching from the shame and stigma that often surround bipolar is not only necessary but also very challenging. I have found that adding shame and disgust for myself only intensifies and prolongs my symptoms.
Gratitude & Hard Lessons
So how does gratitude come in? Why is it important?
I have found that practicing gratitude helps correct or adjust my perspective on my life’s “problems.” This past spring, I volunteered, preparing taxes for low-income individuals and families. And I found that my stress and worry over my financial problems paled in comparison to most of the people I worked with. I was almost embarrassed of myself to have had complained so much about my financial worries.
When faced with the hard realities of people who were struggling to pay rent, provide food for their families, and often had no family support available to help, I was suddenly filled with gratitude for my resources, however big or small they may be. I was also beyond grateful for my family, who had supported me when things fell completely apart. I know I will never be homeless or hungry thanks to my wonderful, supportive family. Yes, there are people out there who are better-off financially than me, but I learned what real poverty looks like. That was a meaningful moment for me.
Another perspective change I had recently was when I started working more with people diagnosed with mental illness. The severity and disability I witnessed made it clear that (1) I was not the only one with a mental health disorder and (2) my illness could be much more severe than it is. Again, this was big perspective change and moment of gratitude.
So I have been thinking to myself, Why does it take such extreme examples for me to feel gratitude? How can I practice gratitude more often in my life? What are the benefits I have felt from practicing gratitude?
The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
I have found that gratitude is, in fact, a skill that must be practiced. It does not come easily or automatically. But by practicing gratitude, I have more joy in my life. My problems seem smaller, and I gain a better perspective of my situation and hardships. I have found and been able to focus more on the positives, rather than constantly looking at the negatives. I have been reminded of the good things I experience and have access to. No matter how bad it gets or how far I look back, I have always had good things in my life.
Practicing gratitude also allows me to be more appreciative for what I have and to be able to acknowledge it. I have said “thank you” and “I love you” more often, lately. And I have received much love in return. Saying “I love you” to a family member and hearing it back creates great emotion and joy in my heart.
For me, helping others is one good way to maintain a healthy perspective and keep myself aware of how grateful I can choose to be. My biggest lessons in gratitude have come by helping others in need and less fortunate than myself.
#2 Openly Expressing Love and Thanks
Another way I have practiced gratitude is by expressing my feelings of thanks and appreciation toward others in the moment. Saying “thank you” and “I love you” goes a long way for me, and hopefully for the other person as well. I no longer assume people know my feelings.
#3 Make a List
The final way I have practiced is making a gratitude list. I have done this even when I am in the worst of depression. Making a gratitude list was suggested to me by both my AA sponsor and my therapist.
I was hesitant and maybe even a little bit stubborn, to try this one, but I have found that it does actually help. Maybe just a little when I am severely depressed, but forward progress is moving in the right direction, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
Even a small change in perspective can be just what I need to get me through a particularly tough day. “One day at a time,” right? That’s what I’ve learned.
Growing and Thriving—Together
These ways to practice or show gratitude are not at all exhaustive. I am continually exploring new ways to deepen my practice. I challenge you to do the same. Let’s explore together how the practice of gratitude can change our lives.
Living with bipolar disorder can seem overwhelming and excruciating at times, so let’s explore ways to thrive. I believe those of us with bipolar disorder are stronger and more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Let’s make that the first thing we can be grateful for!
Laura Fisher attended the University of Montana, where she received her BA in biology in 2004 and doctorate of physical therapy in 2007. She lived and worked in Seattle for six years as a physical therapist in a variety of treatment settings. She recently moved back to her hometown of Billings, Montana, where she lives with her two dogs and family nearby. Laura has lived with bipolar I disorder for 19 years. She is currently working as a Peer Support Specialist. Laura also enjoys her work in physical therapy, private caregiving, writing, and dog sitting. Laura hopes to share her own experience with bipolar disorder to provide hope for those struggling with this illness.
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