Here’s a message we don’t hear nearly enough: Even though living with mental illness is hard — really hard — many people are successfully managing their conditions and savoring satisfying, healthy lives.
Here’s another message we need to hear more: How they do it.
That’s why we’ve created this new interview series. Every month we’ll talk with people about everything from how they overcome the toughest challenges of their mental illness to how they’ve found treatment to their favorite resources.
In our first interview, Elaina J. Martin, who writes the popular Psych Central blog Being Beautifully Bipolar, shares her story. She reveals how she received her diagnosis along with powerful and inspiring insights into managing bipolar disorder, the importance of honesty, how loved ones can help and much, much more.
Please tell us a bit about your background and when you were first diagnosed.
I’ve dealt with depression for a long time – on and off. In college I sought counseling and was diagnosed with depression and put on an antidepressant in 2000. I was on and off of them depending on whether I had health insurance for the next couple of years.
In 2007, I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and put on some meds for that. Things really got bad in 2008 with the addition of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I began cutting my wrist regularly, on one occasion it was so severe that I should have gotten stitches.
I wasn’t sleeping. Then things got a bit better and for a moment I thought everything was going to be okay and I moved from Oklahoma to California for a new job. A week later I tried to kill myself.
I ended up in Intensive Care, then a psychiatric ward for a few days. My parents flew out and took me back home with them to Oklahoma. It was there, in October of 2008, that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together and we came up with the diagnosis of bipolar 1.
What have been the toughest parts of having bipolar disorder and how have you overcome these challenges?
I have rapid cycling bipolar, which means I oscillate between the extremes of the illness quickly, so one of the toughest things in the beginning was never knowing what to expect. Would I be depressed or irritable or manic?
I never really knew who I was going to wake up to be or how I would feel in the afternoon. But I’ve lived with this illness for a while now, so I take it as it comes. I know that my moods won’t last. Sometimes they last longer than other times, but I always return to “me” again. My motto is “Tomorrow can always be better,” and I believe that.
Stigma is also a hard thing to swallow. I have had some friends distance themselves. I’ve heard people make jokes. I feel like people don’t trust me because they think I am “crazy.” I believe the only way things are going to change is if I do my part to change people’s minds, that is why I write the blog “Being Beautifully Bipolar,” and why I am involved with the International Bipolar Foundation.
What treatments and strategies have helped you the most in managing your illness?
I am well today because of a strong support system, medication, and consistent therapy.
What do you think of psychiatric medications?
I am a strong proponent of psychiatric medications. Currently I am on a mood stabilizer, an atypical antipsychotic, two sedatives, and an antidepressant. That’s 10 pills a day. I’ve been on more. I’ve been on less.
But this is what works for me right now. I know what life was like when I wasn’t medicated and it needn’t be that hard. I know some people think it is a weakness to need psychiatric medications, but I don’t see it that way at all.
I am not ashamed. If I had cancer I wouldn’t feel ashamed for needing chemo. Psychiatric medications can be just as life saving.
What do you think of psychotherapy?
I have a love/hate relationship with psychotherapy. It is so damn hard to go in and talk about all the ugly bits of my life – that’s the part I hate. The part I love is that I have someone I can talk to about anything, someone who is objective and smart and that I trust. The key to psychotherapy is that you have to be honest; hiding things will do you no good.
If you’ve seen a therapist, how did you go about finding the one you’re with today?
My current therapist was referred to me by my psychiatrist. I wasn’t getting good, personal care with my last psychiatrist so I decided to try someone new and set out with a list of doctors my health insurance covered.
When I met him, I could tell he truly cared about my wellness. He set me up with a therapist in his office and we have been seeing each other regularly for six months. But people need to remember that there are TONS of therapists out there, so give a new one a couple of appointments to figure out if you click.
If you don’t – move on. There is someone out there who will “get you” and respond to you in a way that works for you.
What advice do you have for someone about what treatments to try?
I am honest with people. It took over a year and a half to find the right medication cocktail that really helped. I’ve lost count of the number of drugs in all manner of combinations we tried. I have a severe course of bipolar disorder and it takes high doses of meds to affect my mind.
I would advise people to hang in there. There are so many meds out there to try. Find a psychiatrist and therapist who care and pay attention to you.
Inpatient treatment is also something you need to be aware of. So many people view it as a punishment, but it really isn’t. Sometimes it is simply the safest and healthiest environment for you to be during a time of crisis. Think about it this way, you have a team of professionals there to help you and other people there who understand you.
What would you like someone who’s been newly diagnosed to know?
The most important thing to remember when you are newly diagnosed is that you are the same person after your diagnosis as you were before, only now you have a way to understand some things about your mind and to get some help managing your life.
Acceptance of a mental illness takes time – it did for me. Don’t be ashamed of your illness. Don’t feel weak. Don’t feel like you have to hide it in the shadows. It is an illness, not a character flaw.
What’s the best way loved ones can support someone with mental illness?
I am lucky; I have the best support system and that is one of the most important parts of my wellness. The best way loved ones of someone with bipolar disorder can support them is to love them.
Accept that they will have good days and they will have bad days and there will be periods where things will hum along smoothly and you will want to forget about the diagnosis.
Be forgiving of their moods; remember they did not choose to feel the way they will at times.
Educate yourself so you know what to watch for – symptoms of mania, hypomania, psychosis, or depression. Loved ones can often see the climb into mania or fall into depression as soon as it begins and can then help the bipolar person get care.
There are also support groups for caregivers that can be helpful. A great book for loved ones to read is The Bipolar Relationship by Bloch, Golden, & Rosenfeld.
What are your favorite resources on bipolar disorder?
If you’ve been newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder I encourage you to read and research. Learn the terminology like depression, mania, hypomania, psychosis, etc.
There are some great groups and websites out there filled with information: The National Alliance on Mental Illness has local chapters throughout the United States with meetings for consumers (those with a mental illness) as well as caregivers; likewise the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance has info and local support groups; the International Bipolar Foundation offers free webinars and lectures several times every month that can be really helpful.
I’ve read a ton of books on bipolar disorder and my favorite memoirs are Manic by Terri Cheney, Madness by Marya Hornbacher, and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison.
Also, check out some of the great blogs here on Psych Central to read firsthand accounts of living with the illness.
Anything else you’d like readers to know?
Bipolar disorder is an illness that affects 5.7 million American adults. You are not alone. It is not a choice. No one wakes up one day and says, “Gee, I wish I had a severe mood disorder!”
Control what you can, at the end of the day your wellness lies in your own hands. Take your meds. Go to therapy. Keep your appointments with your psychiatrist. Create a support system you can lean on during the tough times. Get some exercise. Spend some time in the sun.
Above all – be honest. No one can help you if they don’t know how you are really doing. A diagnosis of bipolar disorder isn’t the end of the world; it’s simply a new beginning.