A combination of time and experiences can be helpful when it comes not only to managing bipolar disorder, but living a fulfilling life.
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By Karl Shallowhorn
If you have been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder you may be having a number of feelings: fear, anger, sadness or despair, to name but a few. These are all typical responses to what, for most, is a lifelong condition. So, you may be asking yourself, will my life always be impacted by the many symptoms that come with the illness? Or, how will I be able to get my life back? I, too, had this experience when I first became ill.
For me, it took time, patience and hard work to get back on track, however, slowly but surely my life began to turn around. What helped me were such things as finding the proper medication combination (and sticking to the regimen of taking them), psychotherapy, eliminating illicit drugs and alcohol use, developing a regular routine of sleep, exercise and other stress reduction tools.
But as much as anything, I had to learn about what worked best for me. After all, bipolar recovery is very personal. What works for one may not work for another.
My life today is far better than it was when I had my first psychotic manic episode nearly 37 years ago. It’s interesting that the longer I’ve lived with bipolar, the more my symptoms have diminished. Perhaps it has something to do with the change in my brain chemistry or the regular practice of the aforementioned methods.
For instance, in the beginning of my recovery (which really began when I stopped using) I still periodically experienced hypomania that included paranoia and delusional thinking. Over time, however, these symptoms slowly went away. Also, my sleep patterns are pretty consistent. On some occasions, when I’m under a lot of stress, I still have a problem in this area—but it is far better than in years past.
In general, I find my ability to withstand stress is much better. I have encountered countless experiences that have truly tested me in so many different ways. Many of these instances centered around the various jobs I’ve had over the years. I’ve worked in the mental health and addiction fields, which have their own associated challenges. There are issues that arise when working with people who have had difficulty managing life (and not any fault of their own). There’s also the onerous task involved of dealing with government and insurance-based regulations. The latter was actually one of the things that precipitated my departure from being a clinician to working as a mental health advocate and educator.
And then there was the stress of being in the “sandwich generation.” For many years, I was responsible for being a caregiver for my father, who passed away in September 2016 and raising two daughters with my wife. Taking care of my Dad was especially difficult. We lived together and his illness, which involved the progressive loss of sight, made life difficult. There were instances when I literally had no break, no respite. This wasn’t good for my mental health. But this was when my self-care tools were invaluable. If it wasn’t for things like medication, exercise and a good support system, I never would have made it.
In the course of my recovery journey, I have been fortunate that my condition hasn’t worsened. Looking back at this period, I have learned a lot about “what makes me tick.” This is what is commonly known as insight. When I was able to develop insight into my condition, I was able to not only gain a better understanding of how bipolar impacted my life, but I also was able to develop a healthier lifestyle overall.
Nowadays, I’ve learned to take things in stride. For one, I’ve learned that worrying about things does me no good. This is what I consider wasted energy. It has been my experience that by maintaining a positive attitude and taking things one day at a time, I can deal with whatever life throws at me.
As I said, I’ve lived with bipolar for a very long time. But this time has provided me with many valuable lessons. I’ve certainly made mistakes along the way, but I have not given up. And this is what I would encourage you to do. Focus on what you can do today. And don’t get caught up in projecting into the future. All that will serve to do is to keep you caught up in a state of perpetual anxiety. And who needs that?
Like I said, patience, time and hard work today is a great place to start.
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