How to Find Motivation to Clean During a Bipolar Depressive Episode

Are you depressed? Here’s how to find motivation to clean your house, in this post by The Bipolar Parent!

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Neglecting your environment–along with yourself–goes hand in hand with depression. When you’re suffering from overwhelming feelings and low energy, picking up around the house can rank last on your list. Trust me, I’ve been there. When I’m depressed, as I am now, I want to load the dishwasher about as much as I want to put my hand into a box of tarantulas.

But a messy house can prolong and deepen feelings of depression. Overwhelming feelings breed messes, and messes bring overwhelming feelings. The depression-messy house cycle is real, and vicious.

So how do you overcome your paralysis and start cleaning up? Read on for some tips that have helped me conquer my inactivity during my current episode and others.

How to find motivation to clean during a depressive episode - CassandraStout.com

Crank Up the Tunes

Listening to some fast or inspiring music is a psychological trick that encourages you to move more quickly. You may end up dancing your way through your chores. I blast a Pandora Radio station based on bands like Pendulum, an energetic electronic rock band, in headphones to really get going. The Pandora app is free, and there are several other free options, like Spotify and I Heart Radio.

Commit to Nine Minutes

Set a timer for nine minutes to clean. Just nine. Nine minutes is easier to commit to than a longer period. You’re not going to clean your whole house. You’re not even going to get the entire kitchen clean. But nine minutes, even if you’re working slowly, is enough time to:

  • Make your bed.Your bed, even if the mattress is small, takes up a huge percentage of floor space. All you need to do is pull up the sheets and covers. The action takes two minutes, tops, and will instantly elevate the rest of the room.
  • Throw away a bag of trash. Picking up one bag of trash from the floor will improve the room immensely. Throwing away big items, like last night’s pizza boxes and soda bottles, will have the most visible impact.
  • Unload the dishwasher. Unloading the dishwasher will take up to three minutes to complete, or five if you’re working slowly. But once you’ve started to conquer Dish Mountain, the kitchen will look a whole lot better, and you’ll have clean dishes to eat off. If you have an empty dishwasher, load it. If you don’t have a dishwasher at all, wash as many dishes as you can in the time you have left.

Take Breaks

After you’ve completed your nine minutes of cleaning, you can sit down on the couch. The feeling of accomplishment you get might spur you on to more cleaning. That’s great, but take a break first. In the long run, this actually keeps your house cleaner by avoiding bad associations and burn out.

On the other side of bipolar disorder, manic episodes strike. Marathon cleaning can contribute to mania. This kind of marathon cleaning may be great for your house, but it’s terrible for your mental health. Then you’re exhausted. And your brain begins to associate cleaning with illness. Don’t fall into that trap. Take breaks.

Reward Yourself

Rewards aren’t just for potty-training toddlers. You need to reward yourself. Teens and adults can be driven by the pleasure centers of the brain just as effectively. After a morning of cleaning, I often go out to lunch. The association of pleasure with resting after work is a powerful one for me.

Tell Yourself Why You’re Cleaning

Why do the dishes or make your bed? They’re just going to get dirty again, right? If you’re thinking of chores as pointless, you’re looking at them all wrong. Think of cleaning as being kind to yourself.

I know, I know, you don’t want to be kind to yourself when you’re crippled by low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. It’s the box of tarantulas problem again. But think of it this way: would you let your friend live in filth? You deserve a clean house, because you are a worthy human being.

Final Thoughts

Cleaning your house won’t cure your depression. But it can help. Crank up the music, clean for nine minutes, take breaks, reward yourself, and tell yourself why you’re cleaning, and you’ll have a clean house (or cleaner) in no time. And you might even feel better, too.

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How to find motivation to clean during a depressive episode - CassandraStout.com

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Self-Discovery Month: Looking Back on My Diagnosis with Bipolar Disorder

Self-Discovery Month: Looking Back on My Bipolar Diagnosis - CassandraStout.comTrigger warning: This post contains a brief mention of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

May is self-discovery month. One of the most crucial ways to encourage self-discovery is to reflect on what you’ve been through. If you have bipolar disorder, examining the contrast between the pre-diagnosis version of you and the post-diagnosis version of you can be helpful, because looking back on how you got here helps orient you to the future.

The time surrounding my diagnosis was fraught; I suffered a postpartum psychotic manic episode, and committed myself to a mental hospital. I spent a week there, and, unwilling to miss any more of my infant’s first days, I checked out against medical advice. I covered all of this in my upcoming book, Committed.

My marriage was in flux. I alienated people from my church by my wild, unreasonable behavior. I was considered a danger to my infant by those people, and was threatened with a call to the Child Protective Services. I suffered a horrible postpartum depressive episode, during which I was suicidal. I was often suicidal from the age of fifteen, when I likely developed bipolar disorder, to the age of twenty-four, when I was prescribed lithium.

Prior to my diagnosis at twenty-two, ever since I was a teen, I suffered from intense depressive episodes interspersed with hypomania. I spent almost all of my time that wasn’t taken up with school on the internet, chatting with online friends, even at all hours of the night. I didn’t sleep, which worsened my bipolar symptoms–symptoms which I didn’t recognize as being those of mental illness. I was clearly addicted to the internet, an addiction which took many years to break. I worked two to three jobs at a time during the summers because I was running on manic energy and was described by my supervisors being difficult to control. I ate copious amounts of sugar and refined carbohydrates, which worsened my symptoms.

One of the biggest obstacles to adequate treatment for bipolar disorder is stigma–especially self-stigma, where you absorb the inaccurate, negative messages around you about your mental illness. This leads you to limit yourself and limit the impact of therapy and medication, because you may decide not to take steps towards getting treatment.

My self-stigma was difficult to handle; everyday post-diagnosis, I faced the hard decision to take my medication. Every week, I faced the hard decision to drag myself to therapy. But I succeeded at working on myself. When I was first diagnosed, I fought self-stigma by recognizing that I was accepting medication not just for myself, but for the benefit of my newborn son. I realized that I needed to be my best self for him, regardless of what others might say about my needing medication for life. Now, I can proudly say that I am stable, as I haven’t experienced a mood episode for years. The medication and therapy literally saved my life.

The post-diagnosis version of me is much healthier. I am no longer driven by frenetic, difficult-to-control energy, or suffer long-lasting depression. I sleep well, and am able to dedicate myself to my writing and mothering my children. I have advised other mothers about the postpartum period, and advocated against their self-stigma for their mental health. I have a few friends, and I’m looking for more. Because of my medication and years of therapy, I actually have the mental stamina and energy to handle pursuing new friends at a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group. I now have an extremely strong marriage, tested and proven in the fires of mental illness.

You, too, can fight self-stigma. You, too, can succeed in getting treatment like I have. You, too, can minimize the effect that bipolar disorder has on your life. I wish you luck in your journey.

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Self-Discovery Month: Looking Back on My Bipolar Diagnosis - CassandraStout.com

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Celebrate World Bipolar Day by Taking Control of Your Mental Illness

This post appeared on the International Bipolar Foundation website, here.

Are you bipolar? There is a day on the calendar to celebrate your struggles with the disorder.

World Bipolar Day (WBD) is celebrated each year on March 30th, in honor of Vincent Van Gogh’s birthday, as he was posthumously diagnosed as probably having bipolar disorder.

The day–an initiative of the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF), the International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD), and the Asian Network of Bipolar Disorder (ANBD)–means to combat stigma and raise awareness of bipolar disorders.

Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that is marked by abrupt changes in mood, energy, and executive function–the ability to accomplish tasks on a daily basis.

Celebrate World Bipolar Day By Taking Control of Your Mental Illness - CassandraStout.com

Bipolar disorder comes in several forms.

People with bipolar I suffer from manic episodes–periods of increased energy, euphoric mood, and decreased need for sleep–depressive episodes–periods of intense, pervasive sadness–as well as weeks of relative stability. People who suffer from bipolar II deal with even more severe and lengthy depressive episodes and hypomania, a lesser form of mania. There’s also cyclothymia, or bipolar III, where people have lesser forms of depression and hypomania, but cycle more rapidly between the two.

Episodes of bipolar disorder are not the usual ups and downs that everyone goes through. This is a lifelong condition which interferes with day-to-day functioning. The prevalence of bipolar disorder has been estimated to be as high as 5% of people around the world.

There are several causes to bipolar disorder, including genetic components, environmental stresses, childhood trauma, and other factors.

International groups like IBPF, ISBD, and ANBD support global efforts from scientists and advocates to investigate causes of bipolar disorder, methods of diagnosis, coping strategies, and medications to successfully treat the mental illness. World Bipolar Day was created to celebrate these efforts, acknowledge the struggles of people with the disorder, and raise awareness and sensitivity.

You can celebrate World Bipolar Day by taking care of yourself. But if you have bipolar disorder, how do you cope with the day-to-day challenges the mental illness brings? There are several strategies:

Take Your Medications

Your medications are there to help you. If you don’t take them on a regular basis, you won’t know if they work. Figuring out the right cocktail of antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds–as well as electroconvulsive therapy–requires a lot of patience, as the testing process takes time and a toll on your body.

But there is hope. Bipolar disorder is one of the most manageable and treatable disorders. You can find a correct combination of medications or electroconvulsive therapies to treat you. For a post on how to get a psychiatric evaluation, click here.

Attend Therapy

Talk therapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy, is one of the best ways to learn coping skills to handle the challenges of daily life. An unbiased, sympathetic therapist can help you understand patterns of your behaviors and help you correct said patterns. Attending therapy is essential for daily functioning when you have bipolar disorder.

For a post on how to start seeing a therapist, click here.

Practice Self-care

Self-care is not limited to bubble baths and painting your nails. It’s taking responsibility for your physical and mental well-being. Self-care involves sleeping enough (but not too much), eating a healthy diet, spending time outside and with other people, exercising, and drinking plenty of water.

Practicing these tenants of self-care on a day-to-day basis is crucial for you to feel better. Even if you can’t do all six everyday, try to eat, sleep, and drink enough water. Your energy levels and mood may improve immensely.

Final Thoughts

World Bipolar Day, celebrated every year on March 30th, is a great time to take stock of the strategies you’ve used to cope with your mental illness. If you have bipolar, taking your medication, attending therapy, and practicing self-care will go a long way towards improving your ability to handle your condition.

There is no shame in having bipolar disorder. It just means your brain functions differently. Make the effort to treat your mental illness on World Bipolar Day.

I wish you well in your journey.

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Celebrate World Bipolar Day By Taking Control of Your Mental Illness - CassandraStout.com

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Ring in the New Year By Writing Yourself a Mental Health Vision Statement

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Ring in the New Year by Setting a Mental Health Vision Statement – CassandraStout.com

What do you want to accomplish in the next week? The next month? The next year?

A vision statement is usually reserved for businesses. It’s a purpose-driven overview of what the business owner wants to accomplish with their company. It should leave nothing to interpretation. You want to set this goal and contribute to the end result of the vision statement with little steps you can take during everyday life.

Most vision statements are an overarching goal of the company. For example, Disney’s is “make people happy.” There’s no reason you can’t write a personal, mental-health oriented vision statement. And yours doesn’t have to be nearly as ambitious, and you may want to center it on improving your own station rather than making other people happy, sometimes an impossible feat.

So how do you write a mental-health oriented vision statement to ring in the new year?

Basic Guidelines for Vision Statements

Here are the basic guidelines for vision statements. Keep in mind that you don’t have to follow all of these guidelines, but they’re good starting points.

  1. A vision statement should be short. A vision statement is a brief outline of your goals. It should be one-to-two sentences, max.
  2. A vision statement should be specific. What are you hoping to accomplish with your goal? Try to be as specific as possible. Disney’s vision statement, “make people happy,” is too general and too other-people focused for the vision statement you want to make.
  3. A vision statement should be simple. Everyone who hears or reads your vision statement should be able to understand it. The less complex you make your end goal, the more likely it is that you are to follow it.
  4. A vision statement should be ambitious, but achievable. When setting goals for yourself, you want to challenge yourself to accomplish great things. If you’re suffering from depression, such a challenge seems impossible to complete. That’s okay. You can adjust the level of ambition based on how you’re feeling. Like, “I will take a shower, feed myself, and make my bed everyday for six months.” These lofty goals are challenging for a depressed person, right? But definitely achievable.

Following these guidelines will help you write a compelling vision statement.

Vision Statement Examples

Using the above guidelines, set a goal for yourself which is mental-health oriented. Try to make the vision statement short, simple, specific, and ambitious but achievable.

For example:

  • “I will focus on self-care three days a week for eight weeks, which should improve my mood.”
  • “I will lose 11 pounds in three months by eating a Mediterranean diet, which may help treat my depression.”
  • “I will find a competent therapist and attend therapy as often as I can afford, but preferably once a month, for the next year.”

Try to stay true to yourself, and focus on the types of goals that you can achieve.

Final Thoughts

If you can, do some thinking about what kinds of overarching, mental-health oriented vision statements you want to set for the next six months to a year. Setting yourself an ambitious but achievable goal may encourage you to meet it, and hopefully take care of yourself in the new year.

Happy New Year!

What vision statement do you think you’ll set for yourself this year? Let me know in the comments!

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9 Things I Learned in the Mental Hospital

9 Things I learned in the mental hospital - Cassandrastout.comAfter the birth of my son eleven years ago, I suffered a postpartum psychotic breakdown and committed myself to a mental hospital. I later wrote a book detailing the experience, and how I reacted at the time. I learned many things during my five-day stay, and I’d like to share some of them with you today. Here are 9 things I learned at the psych ward:

  1. Anger is common. The most surprising lesson I learned during my stay at the mental hospital was that anger is shockingly common for patients at first. While there, the doctors seem to be your enemies who want to keep you there. It’s not true. Your doctors want to help you exit the facility successfully. Couple the us vs. them mentality with emotional and mental distress, and it’s not suprising that patients tend to respond with anger. But the heightened emotion tends to dissipate over the length of the stay, as the medication starts working.
  2. Inpatient treatment is a stopgap. A stay in a mental hospital is similar to a stay in the physical hospital for surgery: you don’t fully recover while you’re there. A mental break or depressive episode can’t be solved in a day, no matter how good the meds are.
  3. The patients are human. One of my main mistakes during my stay in the mental hospital in the mental hospital was dismissing the other patients as “crazy.” But the patients in a mental hospital are human, with all of humanity’s weaknesses and strengths. Everyone has a story. Everyone is suffering more than you know. I learned that I shouldn’t dehumanize or dismiss people because they’re suffering from mental illnesses–including myself.
  4. The staff is human, too. Learning that the patients were human was hard, but what was even harder was recognizing that the staff were human, too. At first, I believed the doctors and nurses were out to get me. But the staff are all individuals, and human. Some of them are kind and compassionate, while others are just working a shift. I learned to accept the flaws and foibles of all the nurses and psychiatrists, and that made the stay more bearable.
  5. Boredom reigns supreme. After my anger diminished, I was bored out of my skull. I was manic and depressed–suffering from a mixed episode–and restless. The only distractions available were coloring sheets, an ancient, derelict computer, reading old issues of Reader’s Digest, and (gasp!) talking to the other patients. I was far too revved up to engage in coloring or sloooow web surfing or reading, so I talked the ears off of my roommate.
  6. Even while psychotic, I was aware of how people treated me. Even during my psychotic break, I was able to pick up on other people’s moods. I don’t know if that’s just a “me thing,” or if everyone psychotic is that in tune with others, but I knew when people were mistreating me. Be careful when dealing with psychotic people, and treat them with respect.
  7. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. During my stay in the mental hospital, I grew close to my roommate. Too close. I struggled to separate myself from her, even feeling shocked and betrayed that she would vote for a different presidential candidate than I would. I genuinely believed we shared the same thoughts. Learning boundaries was extremely difficult for me, but everyone benefited.
  8. The nurses draw your blood after every meal. The other patients and I were required to sit in a garish, orange chair after every meal and “donate” blood. The nurses drew our blood thrice daily, and it wasn’t until the middle of my stay that I realized they were checking to see if the medication was up to acceptable levels.
  9. If you commit yourself, the doctors cannot legally hold you.  Missing the first few weeks of my infant’s life was devastating. I was desperate to go home and take care of him. It wasn’t until my fifth day that I learned, through a slip of the tongue from a nurse, that, since I committed myself, I was able to go home anytime. I left against medical advice the day after that–potentially a mistake, as my recovery time from my mixed episode was probably longer than it would have been because I didn’t allow the doctors to do their jobs. Thankfully, God was with me and I did, eventually, recover (see lesson #2).9 Things I learned in the mental hospital - CassandraStout,cin

Final Thoughts

My stay in the mental hospital was literally life-saving. I learned more about myself there in six days than I learned in a year’s worth of therapy prior to that. I learned how to manage myself, other people, and my expectations of those people. I managed my surprising anger. I learned that dehumanizing others is easy and a bad habit to slip into. I learned that mental hospitals sound like scary places, but they’re actually really boring. Above all, I learned that I can handle anything life throws at me.

If you’ve dealt with a stay in a mental hospital, what have you learned?

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The Bipolar Parent’s Saturday Mental Health Check-in: Mother-In-Law Edition

The Bipolar Parent's Saturday Morning Mental Health Check In: Mother-in-Law Edition - Cassandrastout.com

Hello!

How are you? How’s your day going? How’s your week? Do you have any holiday plans? If you have kids or a partner, how are they? Let’s chat!

How I’m Doing

My week has been a good one. My mother-in-law was here, and we all adore her. The toddler especially loves her Grandma. We made cookies on Sunday, and hung out the rest of the week. My family’s holiday plan is to fly across the country in mid-December to visit her where she lives. We’re all looking forward to it!

So please let me know how you’re doing. I do genuinely want to get to know you all.

The Bipolar Parent's Saturday Morning Mental Health Check In: Mother-in-Law Edition - Cassandrastout.com

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How to Manage the Winter Blues/Seasonal Affective Disorder

With winter–the gloomy skies, cold temperatures, and lack of outdoor time–comes depression for many people. The feelings of sadness and dreary drudgery are often called “the winter blues,” or seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include:

  • Feelings of sadness most of the day for an extended period of time
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping too much
  • Anhedonia (losing interest in activities you usually like)
  • Cravings for carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty

Some people suffer from SAD for the entire winter. But can you mitigate or prevent the winter blues? Yes, you can. Read on for cost-effective, doable strategies.

How to Manage the Winter Blues/Seasonal Affective Disorder - CassandraStout.com

Check in with Your Primary Care Physician

Attending a “wellness” visit with your primary care physician is the first step to mitigate the effects of SAD. You want to make sure that you don’t have any other physical causes to your depression, like low thyroid hormones. Get a physical examination and blood work done to ensure you have adequate vitamin D in your bloodstream. Many health insurance companies will cover an annual physical.

Walk Outside for 30 Minutes Every Day, No Exceptions

You need to get outside during the winter. That’s one of the basic tenets of daily self-care (the others are getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking water, socializing with an actual person, and exercise). Make a daily walk mandatory, no exceptions, even if you feel awful and it’s the last thing you want to do. You need sunlight–which is in short supply during the winter–to head off the winter blues. Take a walk during your lunch break.

Uncover your Windows During the Day to Let in Sunlight

If you spread the curtains wide open during the day, you can maximize the sunlight you absorb, and save money on heating bills for the house. Uncover your windows and let that sunlight stream in, and make sure to sit in it.

Purchase a Few Full-Spectrum Bulbs

Full-spectrum lightbulbs mimic the natural light of the sun, so invest in 3-5 bulbs for the lights you use most around the house. Spend some time under these lights every day, and you may feel your mood lifting. Purchase one bulb for your desk lamp, and shine it directly on yourself when you’re working on your computer. After winter is over, change the bulbs out for standard LEDs to maximize the lifespan of all the bulbs.

Eat Plenty of Fruits, Vegetables, and Whole Grains

When it comes to managing depression, both the Mediterranean diet and the whole-foods, plant-based diets can help if followed correctly. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains during the winter, and your mood may lift. Figure out which colorful vegetables you like and have those for dinner every night. Eat fruit for snacks.

Eat Foods with Vitamin D

Your diet is so important to your mood. If you consume foods with vitamin D, like fish, cheese, and eggs, then you may feel better. Your body absorbs natural sources of the vitamin better than supplements. Enjoy scrambled eggs for breakfast. Eat a tuna melt for lunch. Eat salmon for dinner. You’re not absorbing sunlight from outside, so you need as much vitamin D as possible.

Eat Foods with B12

Beef, fish, and fortified milk all have B12, a vitamin essential for managing depression. Low levels of vitamin B12 trigger intense feelings of sadness and anxiety. Fish is especially good to eat during the winter because it has both vitamins D and B12. You don’t have to eat beef, fish, or fortified milk daily, but have a steak with a huge glass of milk once in a while.

If you are vegan or eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, then make sure you’re supplementing both of these vitamins.

Become a Social Butterfly

Socializing with actual people is awful when you’re depressed. I know, I’ve been there. But scheduling social events outside the home will get you out into the world and talking with people, which everyone needs, even the most introverted people. Socialization is especially important during the winter, as you’re tempted to stick your head into the ground like an ostrich. Don’t do that. Find groups on Meetup.com or at church, if you’re religious.

Go to Bed at the Same Time, and Wake up at the Same Time, Too

One of the hardest things for me in the winter is getting up in the morning. When it’s still dark, I want nothing more than to curl up under the covers and sleep. This is dangerous because it leads to oversleeping, which is a symptom of and can contribute to SAD. Set your alarm for the same time every morning, and go to bed at the same time every night. This will train your body to only get the eight to nine hours of sleep you need.

Final Thoughts

Try some or all of  these strategies, but the more you try, the more you’ll be able to prevent or mitigate the effects of seasonal affective disorder. It’s common to feel the winter blues. You’re not alone. Try a mix of things which can help.

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How to Manage the Winter Blues/Seasonal Affective Disorder - CassandraStout.com

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The Bipolar Parent’s Saturday Morning Mental Health Check-in: How Are You?

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A picture of a white cup of foamy coffee labeled “Costa.” Credit to flickr.com user eltpics. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Hello!

How are you? How was your Thanksgiving, if you celebrated? What holidays do you celebrate? What have you been struggling with lately? Have you been doing some self-care? What’s on your mind?

I’d like to kick off this Saturday Morning Mental Health Check-in as a permanent feature on The Bipolar Parent. Please let me know how you’re doing. If you’re shy and don’t want to comment in public, then please feel free to email me. I promise that I will answer. I’d like to connect with you all, and I genuinely want to know how you’re doing.

Get to Know Me/My Mental Health Check-in

As for me, I’ve been dealing with some pretty severe depression over the past several months, where I’ve been angry rather than sad, and unmotivated to do even the basic tasks, like cleaning the cat box. I’ve also been more productive than any other time in my life, but everything is terrible: I’ve been forcing myself to take the kids out to playdates and clean the aforementioned cat box (that poor cat). I have seen my psychiatrist–whom I’m fortunate enough to go to–and he doubled the dose of my Wellbutrin. Fingers crossed that this works!

Our family (myself, my husband, and my two kids, 3 and 11) have been go-go-go for weeks. Until my daughter (3) and I both ended up with viral ear infections, we had at least two activities scheduled every day, with some days holding up to four or five activities. Something had to give, and apparently that was our health. We holed up in the house for a week, which was awful; she cried 80% of the time. Thankfully the antibiotics kicked in, and we are back to our regular schedule–just less so. I’ve learned my lesson.

All that being said, not everything is terrible, like I said earlier. My husband has really stepped up, asking me what I need after he comes home from work (I am a stay-at-home parent and writer) and often taking the kids so I can rest. I am grateful for his support, and thank God every day for giving me a loving husband. So I am not alone in this. I also am blessed to have skilled doctors–a therapist and a psychiatrist–who are treating me in their own ways. And my family is healthy and happy again.

So overall, I’d rate my life at an 8.5/10. Not too shabby, considering I’m struggling with depression. It’s hard to look on the bright side when in the belly of the beast, but I am happy to report that life is good.

Thanks for listening, and please, let me know how you’re doing this week, or in general! I do want to get to know you all.

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11 Lessons I Learned from 11 Years of Managing Bipolar Disorder

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A black-and-white photo of a man standing in front of a storefront, looking up at the sky. Credit to flickr.com user Neil Moralee. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

I have suffered from bipolar disorder I for decades, but I didn’t know that my condition had a name for a long time. It wasn’t until after a psychotic break following the birth of my son 11 years ago that I was diagnosed, and started managing the illness. Thankfully, my bipolar disorder is not the treatment-resistant type, so I have responded well to medication and therapy.

Here are 11 lessons I learned after 11 years of managing bipolar disorder:

Lesson #1: Take my Medication, Everyday

Like almost everyone who takes medication for a chronic illness, I found myself not wanting to take my pills. Could I manage my disorder without them? Do I have to take my meds everyday? The answers to those questions are: no, I can’t, and yes, I do, respectively.

I learned the hard way that I have to take my medication every day. If I don’t, I end up manic, anxious, or depressed, and sometimes all three at once. Mania and depression presenting at once is called a mixed episode, which I have on occasion. They are the most dangerous of all the episodes if left untreated, because I think awful thoughts and have the energy (and lack of impulse control) to act on them. For me, taking my medication daily is the only way to head off these episodes.

Lesson #2: Take my Medication on Time

Taking my meds on time (morning meds in the morning, night meds at night) is something I still struggle with. My psychiatrist recently told me to take a medication I was taking at night in the morning, which I am not at all used to, so I often forget to take them. But I’ve found that if I take the medication which shares a caffeine pathway in my brain at night, then I’ll be up all night, which can lead to manic episodes. It’s a balance I’ve yet to master.

Lesson #3: This Mental Illness is Lifelong

Until the past several months, I hadn’t suffered a depressive or manic episode in six or seven years. I thought, foolishly, that the mental illness had simply–poof!–disappeared. The fact that I can’t just make mental illness go away has been one that I’ve struggled to accept. I can manage my disorder, but it is always with me.

Lesson #4: Make Peace with my Diagnosis

Like many people diagnosed with a mental illness, I struggled at first with my diagnosis. I couldn’t be bipolar, I thought. I wasn’t crazy, like the people surrounding me in the mental hospital I committed myself to. But I was and am mentally ill. Making peace with my diagnosis only came in time, after I had figured out how to manage my condition. Like lesson #3, I had to realize that this mental illness is lifelong, and I needed to deal with it.

Lesson #5: Take my Bipolar Disorder Seriously

If left untreated, my bipolar disorder will wreck my life. Over the years, I have taken my medication consistently and attended therapy religiously. But when I didn’t, my carefully constructed life fell apart–and how. I have since learned that I must take my mental illness seriously. Like a diabetic, one slip up is enough to send me into a spiral of destruction. I can never stop managing bipolar disorder, ever.

Lesson #6: Honesty is the Best Policy

I’ve found that, when it comes to my moods, honesty is the best policy. When my son asks me how I’m feeling, I will tell him that I am anxious, depressed, fine, or feeling “up.” I don’t ask him to manage my emotions, but he is able to adjust his expectations of me accordingly. He is extraordinarily empathetic and mature for his age, and I have no doubts that’s because of how my mental illness has affected him. In other cases, being honest about my bipolar disorder to people other than my immediate family ends up with the same result. For more information on how to disclose your disorder to friends and family, click here.

Lesson #7: Gather a Support System

For many, many years, I was too depressed to gather a strong support system. I had moved away from all my friends and family for my husband’s job, and felt isolated. Making new friends, especially when I had an infant to care for, seemed impossible. It’s only been fairly recently that I’ve reconnected with my family (and been honest with them; see lesson #6), and made new friends who understand mental illness. This support is crucial to my wellbeing. If I had known how much not having  a system in place affected me, I would have pushed myself hard to make friends sooner.

Lesson #8: Manage my Sleep

Staying up all night for a week is what triggered my psychotic break and first real manic episode. I have learned the hard way that sleep is my best friend. When I don’t sleep, I end up firmly in the middle of a manic episode, depressive episode, or mixed episode. Sleep is crucial for anyone with bipolar disorder, but I need more sleep than the average adult (about 9-10 hours a night vs. 7-8). I cannot function without sleep.

Lesson #9: Trust my Mental Health Team

Like many people who suffer from mental illnesses, I have had upwards of seven psychiatrists, and two therapists. They keep moving on me! Building trust in a new treatment team is so difficult, but I have to advocate for myself and learn to trust every time change upsets the apple cart. The lesson that my mental health team is only acting in my best interest has been a difficult one to learn. I now rely on my current psychiatrist and therapist with my life.

Lesson #10: Know my Triggers

Learning common bipolar triggers took time, and effort. I didn’t do a lot of research about bipolar disorder when I was first diagnosed, and what a fool I was. Figuring out that I needed good sleep hygiene (see lesson #8) took a period of trial and error, during which my husband and child suffered as I wasn’t present for them. Learning what triggered my manic or depressive episodes, and how to manage those triggers, was crucial in learning how to manage my disease.

Lesson #11: Therapy is Awesome

Though I was attending therapy for nine months before my diagnosis, learning coping skills in therapy was invaluable. I have attended innumerable sessions with a therapist over the years, and doing so has helped me: be more present as a parent and wife, learn how to manage my bipolar disorder, and figure out how to deal with family situations like a tense Christmas. Therapy is awesome. I highly recommend prioritizing counseling sessions if you can afford them. Many therapists take clients on a sliding scale.

Final Thoughts

Over the years, I have learned several more lessons than just these 11. But these are likely the most important. Many of these lessons are common ones learned by people who suffer from mental illnesses. If you suffer from bipolar disorder and are newly-diagnosed, take heart. Do research on your condition, take your medications, and never stop fighting.

I wish you well in your journey.

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How to Support a Friend or Loved One Staying in a Psychiatric Hospital

hospital.jpg
A white man reclining in a hospital bed. Credit to flickr.com user JD Harvill. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes, people just need a little help. There may come a time in your life where a friend or loved one is committed to a mental hospital. When I suffered a postpartum breakdown after the birth of my first child, I committed myself. I was fortunate enough to have the support of a loving, devoted husband, who cared for our newborn and for me while I was struggling with a psychotic manic episode. If you have a friend or loved one spending time in a psychiatric ward, here are some tips on how to best support him or her. If you have a loved one staying in the mental hospital and have other people ready to support him or her but don’t know how, then feel free to print this article out and hand it to them.

The “DON’Ts” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in a Mental Hospital

  1. Don’t show up unannounced. Make sure you call ahead of time before visiting your friend or loved one in a mental hospitlal. I am sure he or she would love visitors, but being hospitalized is exhausting, and sometimes your friend might not be up for a long visit, or even one at all that day. Also be sure to check when visiting hours actually are.
  2. Don’t be afraid. Mental hospitals may seem like scary places, and it might feel natural to be afraid while you’re there. Patients talk to themselves, are in pain, and are sometimes unpredictable. But your fear contributes to stigma. These patients are normal people who are struggling with mental and/or physical illnesses. The nurses can manage the patients, who are unlikely to be violent. Conquer your fear and don’t worry about visiting your loved one.
  3. Don’t act like you’re going to catch mental illnesses. When I was committed, a fellow patient introduced me to her family. They were very reluctant to shake hands with me, and leaned back from me, presumably so I wouldn’t breathe on them. Their behavior, where they acted as if I were contagious, was insulting and demeaning. You cannot catch crazy. Do not even act as if people in pain are contagious.
  4. Don’t pity the patients. Sympathy is good, empathy is even better, but pity is terrible for anyone suffering from a mental illness. Pity contributes to feelings of low self-worth and depression, and just feels bad. Try to empathize with your friend or loved one stuck in the hospital, but don’t pity or blame him or her for being there.
  5. Don’t abandon your friend as soon as the hospital stay is over. After the hospital stay has concluded, check in with your friend and see if there’s anything he or she needs, be it a cup of coffee or help cleaning the house. Just like a physical illness, mental illnesses take a long time to recover from, especially when a hospital stay is required. Your friend will need you more than ever when they leave the hospital. Continue being a good friend and supporting him or her.

The “DOs” of Visiting a Friend or Loved One in the Mental Hospital

  1. Do visit. One of the best ways to support a friend or loved one who is staying in a psych ward is to show up and be there for them. If you can leave your judgments at the door and offer a compassionate listening ear, you can help buoy him or her and even aid in his or her recovery. Visit as often as you can and the hospital allows.
  2. Do bring something to do or talk about. One of the surprising aspects of the hospital is how boring a stay can be. Patients have very little to do other than color and read old copies of Reader’s Digest, or whatever the hospital has on hand from prior donations. A person staying in the mental ward may face crushing boredom; do your best to alleviate that.
  3. Do write and call. If you can’t visit, dropping your loved one a note or calling him or her up will be very much appreciated. Knowing that people on the outside haven’t forgotten him or her is extremely helpful to a person staying in the psychiatric hospital.
  4. Do offer your loved ones the same respect you give them when they are well. The best way my husband was able to support me was to treat me as if I were the same person he’d always known, and play with me as if I weren’t in a hospital setting. Treat your loved ones with respect; even when psychotic, I was able to tell when other people were mistreating me.
  5. Do acknowledge your loved one’s pain. Validation is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal to relate to your loved one. Rather than responding with something like, “You’ll get over it,” or even “Hang in there,” to their depression, acknowledge that he or she is hurting. Even saying, “That sounds really difficult,” will put your loved one at ease.
  6. Do advocate for your friend or loved one. Ask the person you’re visiting whether they think their treatment team is treating them properly, and keep your eyes open for any problems. The likelihood of your loved one being abused is low, but he or she still might not be able or willing to speak up for himself or herself, even for something as simple as asking for an extra blanket or a clean set of sheets. Keep in mind that your loved one may not be the most reliable narrator; anger at the nurses is common in a mental ward, especially at the beginning of one’s stay, so your loved one might take the chance to rail against their “tormentors.” But don’t hesitate to bring up your loved one’s concerns with the nurses. If the mistreatment is real, you will need to advocate for your loved one and ensure he or she gets proper care.
  7. Do establish boundaries. If you are overwhelmed by your loved one’s negativity, change the subject. Try not to cut the visit short unless he or she becomes too agitated to speak or becomes violent, as some patients might think you’re abandoning them. But healthy boundaries are important when visiting a friend in the mental ward. Take care of yourself and make sure to do something relaxing for yourself as soon as the visit concludes.

Final Thoughts

There are several dos and don’ts when supporting a friend or loved one staying in a mental hospital. Having gone through the experience of committing myself, I can strongly suggest that you visit as often as you can and the patient allows, as that will aid in his or her recovery. The feeling of being forgotten while staying in a psych ward is very real, and is crippling. Try to be in tune with your friend’s needs, and don’t abandon them after the hospital stay is over.

I wish you well.

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