Living with bipolar disorder can feel overwhelming. Maybe you’re tired of the ups and downs of different episodes—the soaring energy, the debilitating fatigue, the racing I-need-to-do-everything-and-I-need-to-do-it-now thoughts, and the dark, decelerated, bleak thoughts.
Maybe you’re exhausted from struggling with an especially stubborn and deep depression, which makes it tough to concentrate on anything, and feels like you’re walking through a river of waist-high molasses in a fog.
Managing bipolar disorder can feel overwhelming, too. What can make it much easier is getting effective treatment. Bipolar disorder is highly treatable—but a lot of people with the illness don’t get professional help.
Author Charita Cole Brown pointed out that “Of the estimated 5.7 million Americans living with the disorder, over 50 percent won’t seek treatment.” She wrote the memoir Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life “to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness in general and bipolar disorder in particular. People need to understand how important it is to seek appropriate treatment.”
“My recovery is no anomaly,” Brown said. “By sharing my story, I want people to understand that mental illness is physical illness, therefore we must seek treatment as we would for diabetes or a broken arm.”
In addition to seeking treatment, there are small things you can do every day. Below, alumni from This Is My Brave share the small and significant ways they manage their bipolar disorder. This Is My Brave is an international nonprofit organization that hosts live events and publishes essays on their website written by people who are living with mental illness and living well.
Checking in. Amy Gamble is a speaker, executive director of NAMI Greater Wheeling, and a former Olympian. Every day and throughout the day, Gamble checks in with how she’s doing: “’Are my thoughts racing a little or do I just have a lot of creativity going right now?’ If I find I’m a little charged up or anxious, maybe even hypomanic, I take extra precautions not to make a lot of decisions.”
Gamble monitors her behavior, too. “I think about what is typical for me when I’m balanced. I am a very deep thinker and don’t typically make impulsive decisions. If I start acting on impulse, I reel myself back in. I don’t always notice a change in my behavior right away, but I monitor with hypervigilance.”
Suzanne Garverich also carves out time to pause and do a “self-inventory.” “I assess quickly how I am doing emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually,” said Garverich, a public health advocate who is passionate about fighting mental health stigma through her work on suicide prevention as well as telling her story. This helps her identify her needs—“before I go too far down the rabbit hole”—and meet them.
For instance, if Garverich determines that she’s feeling emotionally low and having dark thoughts, she figures out what she needs to do to “help me not go deeper into the dark thinking and depressive feelings.” She might call a friend or take a 10 to 15-minute walk. “It could be as simple as walking to the water fountain and drinking some water—just moving a muscle to change a thought. It could also be that I need to do some redirection of my thinking using my CBT and DBT skills…”
Having an effective bedtime routine. “The major thing I do is to make sure I get 8 hours of sleep a night,” Garverich said. “This really helps in keeping me balanced—sleep has a huge effect on my bipolar.”
To help herself get restful sleep, Garverich maintains a routine. Two to 3 hours before her bedtime, she stops doing anything work-related. She usually watches 30 minutes to an hour of TV. Then about an hour before her bedtime, she takes her nighttime medication, and gets into bed to read. Some nights she also takes a shower or bath.
“I also spend time before I go to bed breathing on my back and reviewing my day—seeing what I have done well, what I would like to improve, and if there is anything I need to share with anyone.”
She sets her alarm for the same time every morning. After she wakes up, she meditates in bed for 30 minutes. (More on meditation below.)
Practicing mindfulness and meditation. Gamble, also author of the book Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor: An Olympian’s Journey with Mental Illness, practices meditation, deep breathing, and mindfulness. “Staying in the present moment keeps me from getting down about how my illness has limited me.” (She also reminds herself that “everyone has something they are dealing with.”)
Every day Gamble listens to a playlist of her favorite meditation songs. “I put on my headphones and attempt to quiet my thoughts. I focus on slowing my mind down and paying attention to my breathing.”
Garverich also finds it helpful to practice deep breathing throughout the day, especially if she’s overwhelmed. For instance, at work, she usually takes a break and goes to the bathroom to take deep, slow breaths.
Connecting with others. “For me what is really important to achieve daily, to manage my illness and nourish my well-being, is feeling connected and not alone in my thoughts,” said Susie Burklew, who shared her story at the 2018 This Is My Brave show in Arlington, and co-produced the fall 2018 show. Eight years ago, for the first time, Burklew told her therapist that she thought she had a problem with alcohol. Her therapist suggested Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
“I went to my first meeting that evening and I haven’t had a drink since. For the first time in my life I felt like I wasn’t alone. I connected and was inspired by people who had been through the same struggles and were living a happy life in recovery. I formed a strong network of people in AA and became comfortable opening up about my addiction to alcohol.”
For the past 6 years, Burklew has worked as a behavior specialist and counselor at a government residential rehab that specializes in co-occurring disorders.
Today, reaching out to someone on a regular basis—such as someone from her recovery network—helps her to stay in the moment, instead of getting “caught up in the stress of something that’s happened in the past or the fear of what’s ahead.”
Garverich connects with at least one person in her support system every single day. She might talk to this person over the phone, or they might simply text. Either way, this helps her know she’s not alone—something her illness wants her to feel, she said.
Sivaquoi Laughlin, a writer, blogger, and mental health advocate with bipolar II disorder, makes sure she spends time with her grandson and her dogs every day. “The energy from both provide me with a level of joy that I’m constantly yearning for.”
At the end of the day, Laughlin also sits down with her “16-year-old daughter and [we] discuss our day and name something good/great that happened. Even if it’s been a hard day or we haven’t had time to really connect, I make sure she knows that every day has a highlight.”
Engaging in art projects. “I undertake artistic projects daily. I am no good at it, but I can feel like I can breathe,” said Teresa Boardman, who has treatment-resistant bipolar I disorder with PTSD, OCD, suicidal ideation, and hypersomnia. Her latest project is a birdbath. “It is quite discombobulated that I decided to go with a steampunk theme. Now it is beautiful because I changed how I see it.”
Reducing the to-do list. Every morning, Laughlin lets her dogs out, and immediately makes a cup of tea. Next, she looks at the day ahead and jots down three things she’d like to accomplish. “They could be simple, such as returning a library book or dropping off dry-cleaning to bigger projects like organizing my closet or mowing the lawn. I’ve found that by committing to only three things, it keeps me from being overwhelmed and being triggered by ‘voices’ telling me I can’t do something.”
Boardman makes notes on her bathroom mirror of things she needs to do. For instance, she might list her exercise routine (e.g., 20 minutes of cardio, 20 minutes of yoga), and that she needs to take her morning medication and her evening medication. Boardman noted that she tries to work with her illness and its varying moods. After having over 20 electroconvulsive treatments (ECT), she realized she needed to take a different approach and embrace her illness.
It’s understandable that living with bipolar disorder can feel overwhelming and frustrating. But remember that there are 5.7 million Americans struggling alongside you. Remember that this illness, though difficult, is also highly treatable.
“Don’t give up hope,” Gamble said. “Things will get better, and you can learn how to manage the symptoms. They might not go away completely, but you can learn how it affects you. You can learn how to beat bipolar disorder.”