My bipolar disorder survival kit
Marina blogs about how she keeps well with a good mix of sleep, medication and moderation.
I’m reasonably open with my friends, family and colleagues about having bipolar disorder. I’m not ashamed of it, and in some ways it’s one of the best things about me - so I kind of understand what Kanye was trying to say when he said his bipolar disorder was his superpower.
Learning how to live with bipolar disorder has meant that now I’m highly skilled at self-management.
I’m not a famous musician, but having bipolar disorder is a part of why I’m so creative, imaginative, and optimistic. I’m calm in a crisis and I’m very in tune with what I need. Learning how to live with bipolar disorder has also meant that now I’m highly skilled at self-management, and have very well developed personal insight and self-awareness. These qualities are my survival arsenal – they are fundamental in keeping me well.
The flip side of the coin, is that I can get a bit frustrated sometimes; to stay well, my life has to be somewhat routine. I’ve never been a huge fan of routines and self-discipline; but regular bedtimes, timing my medication properly, saying no to social events and other triggers for mood episodes, and managing other people’s expectations of what I can do and be for them…. That sometimes can be really hard. I often feel like I’m not living my true potential, being a diva, or a let-down. But I’ve learned that this is a price worth paying for staying well, and that the people who care about me understand.
So what keeps me well?
I often talk about the Jenga tower. At the bottom of my Jenga tower are the most important things – without these things I’d become unwell within days. They are:
It’s the biggest influencer on wellness for most people with bipolar disorder that I’ve ever met. We need regular, good quality, consistent sleep. That means saying ‘Sorry, can’t! to social events that disrupt my sleep schedule, or if I really want to go, planning meticulously around them. When I go away with groups of friends, I have to have my own bedroom, I have to leave the party early, I need longer in the mornings to come round. It’s a pain – and I feel under pressure to explain myself a lot, but It’s worth it to stay well.
I take an antidepressant and an antipsychotic. I was lucky that the first antidepressant I tried was so effective, and doesn’t give me any unpleasant side-effects – some people have to give a few a go to find the right anti-depressant. In the beginning, and when I had to increase my dose, It gave me a dry mouth and very unsatisfying yawns! (Never increase your dose without discussing It with your doctor first.) But after a few days, that went away.
The antipsychotic helps ensure my sleep schedule is consistent – it makes me tired at an appropriate time, and it keeps me asleep through the night. The longer term side-effects that haven’t worn off, are that I’m quite dopey in the mornings; and I can get a bit irritable in the mid-afternoon, when I’m furthest from my last dose. The antipsychotic softens me – I’d be sharper and more animated without it, but I’d be at a much higher risk of spiralling high. It keeps me stable, lurking in the middle-ground, functional but not exceptional. But it’s worth it to stay well.
3. Moderation and balance.
If I notice early warning signs I’m not well, I have to slam the brakes on everything
Doing too much, or going to extremes, in any aspect of my life, is a recipe for a mood episode. Things like what music I’m listening to, how much time I spend on different activities or hobbies, who I’m spending time with or what I’m spending money on all need careful monitoring. I’m a sponge – I’ll soak up and emulate whatever I’m exposing myself to. And if I notice early warning signs I’m not well, I have to slam the brakes on everything, pull out of all my commitments, and spend some time being very boring (but not bored) living a very low-stimulation life for a few days. But it’s worth it to stay well.
If the base of my Jenga tower is stable, I’m more likely to stay well. That means I’ll have more capacity to add on more layers and build my tower nice and high. My career (which I love, and forms a big chunk of my identity), my family and friends, playing piano, swimming, singing in my choir, poetry, learning languages, DIY, and (most recently) dating –are all things that bring me joy and add vital colour and texture into my life. But they all tumble down, if I don’t take care of the basics. So taking care of the basics is worth it – it gives me access to the rest of my life.
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