How to Overcome Setbacks with Bipolar Disorder

Last Updated: 5 Oct 2020

A series of complications on the heels of my diagnosis taught me early on that bipolar can disrupt our plans in ways we don’t anticipate. So, I developed personal guidelines for turning setbacks into comebacks.

guidelines overcoming setbacks bipolar disorder

Underestimating the Impact of Bipolar

Very soon after my diagnosis, I faced painful personal setbacks from bipolar; at the time, I had just started college, and I had expected myself to excel as I always had. I hadn’t yet learned how bipolar can complicate even your best-laid plans.

When I was unloading my gear into my humid dorm room at the beginning of my first year of college, I was optimistic that it would be the best year of my life. Newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder during my senior year of high school, I never really considered how the diagnosis (and all that came with it) would affect my efforts to progress through college and eventually get that diploma. I expected only good things: I would become fast friends with my new roommate, my classes would be fascinating, and I would be engaged in student organizations that reflected all the things I was so passionate about.

It didn’t take long for bipolar to set in. I should have been prepared for the mood swings, anxiety, and insomnia, but it was entirely unexpected. I compared myself to my classmates and the other students in my dorm who were adjusting to college so much better than I was. In the end, my erratic mood swings complicated matters so much that I had to seek immediate treatment and have my medications adjusted on an emergency basis. My mental health providers suggested that I return home and enroll in a college that was closer. I wasn’t so sure about that.

But things became even more unstable, and I found myself leaving college a month into the semester, before the leaves were even changing color and tumbling to the ground.

I hated myself. I hated bipolar. I hated the other students in my dorm who got to stay at school while I packed up my belongings and then boarded a plane back to Arizona with my mom.

I had expected that because I excelled in high school, graduating as the salutatorian of my class, college would be a breeze. The idea of returning home to work at a retail job and not live up to my full potential unnerved me.

That was 18 years ago, and I have since learned that, with bipolar disorder, things don’t always go as expected. Life normally has setbacks, but mood swings and other bipolar symptoms certainly complicate things.

During my undergraduate college days, there were a lot of setbacks. Just when I believed that I was stable and thought that I was keeping up with my classes, depression would set in. I would feel that slow, disconnection with life that makes those low moods feel so insurmountable. Or I might feel like my thoughts were going so fast that I couldn’t even keep up with them anymore: mania.

As I kept withdrawing from classes and then returning to school, I developed some guidelines or “rules” about overcoming setbacks from bipolar disorder:

#1 Create a Comeback Plan

When I had to leave my first college, which was across the country from my childhood home, I needed to readjust my goals.

I enrolled at another college that was closer to home, where I could continue my treatment with my high school psychiatrist, who had been the one to diagnose me in the first place.

It is also important to put some thought into what might have gone wrong in the first place, and how you can make positive changes for the future. I realized that when I went back to college, closer to home, I would have to make a stronger effort to maintain my mental health. This meant that I had to prioritize my medications, sleep, and stress management.

#2 Be Kind to Yourself

Everyone experiences setbacks. And dealing with bipolar disorder can certainly make life more challenging.

I was devastated when I had to leave college one month into my first year, but it wouldn’t help for me to be angry with myself. I needed to take some time to deal with the sting of the setback. With that time, I realized that my life wasn’t over, and I still could re-enroll at another college, closer to home.

I had always been somewhat of a perfectionist, taking all honors and AP classes in high school, so I assumed college would have been easy for me. When I came back home, I felt too embarrassed to contact my friends from high school—who were all immersed in college. But I knew that I was still a very capable student and that, with the right help, I could still accomplish anything I wanted.

#3 Talk to Someone

When you are dealing with a meaningful life complication from bipolar, it helps to go back and assess what exactly went “wrong.” Not to dwell, but to understand the circumstances and stressors so that you can sort out how to prevent something like that from happening again.

When you want to analyze these issues, it helps to discuss them with a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or a therapist.

With their help, you can learn how to cope with your mood swings better, such as keeping a mood chart to decipher behavioral patterns. A therapist can also offer you new coping skills. When I went back to college after my first setback, my psychiatrist helped me to see that it was important that I got eight hours of sleep a night. We also discussed my tendency to take on too many projects when I am manic, which only makes things more stressful in the end. Hearing myself describe where I went wrong the first time around helped me make better choices when I returned to college.

#4 Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

The first thing I did when I came back home was take note of all my friends who were still enrolled at their colleges of choice. While they were writing papers and taking exams, I was working at a demoralizing retail job, believing myself to be a “total loser.” (See tip #2, above!) It got to the point that when I took care of errands near my house, I ran into people from high school so often that I felt increasingly uncomfortable leaving my bedroom.

But my friends didn’t have the same set of circumstances that I did. At least back then, they weren’t coping with a severe illness that impacted their ability to survive in the “real” adult world.

Everybody has problems, and everyone reacts to challenges differently. It was unfair that I compared myself to my friends who did not have a mental illness.

This is much easier said than done, so I try to keep this in mind each time I catch myself judging myself harshly against others who do not share my circumstances.

About the author
Elizabeth Drucker is a writer living in Chicago. She has a BA in sociology from the University of Arizona and a master's degree in educational leadership & policy analysis (ELPA) from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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