Two freely available publications on bipolar disorder are chock full of wellness info for people affected, and both are super for passing along to family members for reading and discussion.
Bipolar Disorder: A Guide to Recovery from the Organization for Bipolar Affective Disorders (OBAD) was written for those who want to better understand essentials of their illness and live with it more effectively. Though there is no cure for bipolar disorders, recovery is possible in the sense of learning to prevent and minimize symptoms, and successfully cope with its effects on mood, career, and social life.
The concept of recovery in severe mental illness recognizes that there will be recurrent episodes, but advocates wellness and mindfulness to keep things manageable overall. It is not the same definition as recovery in the 12 step Alcoholics Anonymous model – which isn’t appropriate for mental illness except in specialized dual diagnosis groups – though they have common roots, and “relapse prevention” is a concept in both. Though relapse prevention is a tag phrase that’s all the rage, I don’t think “relapse” is an accurate or fair word since it implies there is a choice in being ill, unlike falling off the wagon. But, there is a choice to maintain a lifestyle that may minimize the impact of this incurable brain illness by avoiding stress and not aggravating symptoms.
In this recovery model, medication is vital (in AA they tell you to shun psych meds, calling them a “crutch”) but so too are regular sleep, stress management, diet and exercise, and other lifestyle components. Monitoring and being aware of your triggers (no two instances of a bipolar disorder are exactly alike) helps keep a lid on things and in theory prevents recurrences of depression and mania. Among other things, OBAD suggests:
Normal sleep occurs with fatigue and reduced stimulation. If excessive electrical impulses are triggered, disorganization, increased chemical release, and altered brain functioning occurs-resulting in sleeplessness (insomnia). In Bipolar Disorder, loss of sleep can precipitate or exacerbate an episode of hypomania, or more severe mania. Some researchers believe that losing a single night of sleep, for any reason, may be enough to trigger mania. The likelihood of a manic episode could be reduced by following very regular daily routines and involving family members. It is critical to monitor your sleep and ensure that you are receiving adequate sleep every night. For most individuals this means approximately six to eight hours. Recent findings cite 9 to ten hours sleep as optimal.
They also outline various types of psychotherapy used in adjunct treatment for bipolar disorders. They include Integrated Family and Individual Therapy (IFIT) that involves family in monitoring cycles; Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) proven helpful for dealing with depression and anxiety, Family Focused Therapy (FFT) to mend relationships, and psychoeducation. There’s also one type of psychotherapy specifically designed for bipolar disorders: Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy (IPSRT). Though good luck finding a therapist trained in the latter.
The Secret Life of Manic Depression is a similar but slicker and maybe more fun booklet that accompanied a BBC documentary (not online) in association with MDF The Bipolar Foundation. It, too, describes facets of the illness and offers useful tips for recovery. Along with the usual there’s an illustrative collection of stories from people who are living well, including actors Stephen Fry, Carrie Fisher, and those not so famous. It concludes:
At present, there is no known cure for bipolar disorder. The strong likelihood is that the person with a diagnosis will need long-term medication and ongoing support to combat the potentially destructive nature of the condition. But, as the many accounts in this booklet suggest, the frightening and bewildering period in your life when you first confront the symptoms of the disorder – and the forced abandonment of early hopes and ambitions it brings with it – can, over time, give way to new aspirations and lifestyles informed by a greater personal insight. With this insight, and the right professional support, people with a bipolar diagnosis and their partners can and do live well with bipolar disorder.
As the singer and writer Suzy Johnston comments: “I have bipolar disorder … but it doesn’t have me.”