Bipolar disorder is a difficult illness. It affects everything. In addition to affecting your mood, it affects your judgment, concentration, memory, energy and sleep. It affects your relationships. It affects your everyday. It can bring about a deep, sinking despair, or jolt you into a euphoric state where your brain literally can’t compute the consequences of your actions. Some people experience depressive and manic symptoms at the same time—darkness, distorted thoughts and fatigue followed by restlessness, racing thoughts and irritability.
It can feel so overwhelming.
However, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to an unhealthy or unfulfilling life. The key lies in effectively managing your illness, which involves various parts and pieces, such as: finding a support team, which includes a psychiatrist and therapist; consistently taking your medication; getting enough sleep; participating in physical activities; minimizing stress—and getting educated.
You’ll find help with all of these components in the fantastic, comprehensive, insightful, easy-to-read book Two Bipolar Chicks Guide to Survival: Tips for Living with Bipolar Disorder, written by Wendy K. Williamson and Honora Rose. Williamson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder eight weeks before her college graduation when she had her first manic episode. Rose was diagnosed at 35 years old, after the birth of her second child and after suffering for 20 years without any treatment.
In their book, Williamson and Rose share a slew of terrific, practical strategies and suggestions along with their powerful personal stories. It’s a must-read for anyone who has bipolar disorder or has a loved one who does. Below is a selection of tips to help you manage your illness.
Be persistent about finding excellent providers. Williamson went through four psychiatrists before finding her doctor. These included a psychiatrist who ate during their sessions and wore a mink coat because the office was so cold (and so was she); another who examined her nails and read her journals; and a third who said at every session that she was depressed because of her weight.
Finding the right practitioners for you isn’t easy, and it can get expensive. It’s also a vulnerable process to keep sharing your story. You might get so frustrated and exhausted that you want to stop.
The key is to keep trying. Today, Williamson and Rose have amazing psychiatrists. Williamson’s psychiatrist, who she found after asking around, is a “medication wizard and it is money well spent on my mental health.” She doesn’t go monthly and the 15-minute appointments make it affordable. “I figure if I were going to a few doctors and paying their copays each month, it would equal one payment to my psychiatrist every few months.”
In addition to working with a psychiatrist, it’s important to find a therapist who specializes in bipolar disorder. According to Williamson, if you realize you aren’t getting anywhere or you don’t “gel” with them, it’s time to find someone else. Ask around for referrals, and interview potential practitioners about their experience, background and client base.
See your doctor at the earliest sign of symptoms. As soon as you find yourself feeling racy or becoming depressed, make an appointment with your psychiatrist. You might need a medication adjustment—sometimes due to stress or seasonal changes (during the wintertime, it’s common to experience depression, while the spring often triggers mania). In the spring, when Williamson’s manic symptoms start, her doctor increases her nighttime dose of two medications. In the fall, he decreases these same meds, and increases her antidepressant.
When making your appointment, be very specific. Instead of telling the secretary “I need to make an appointment,” Williamson and Rose suggest saying, “I’m crashing hard, what’s your first available appointment? I’ll take anything!”
Get a good pill tray. Medication is the mainstay of bipolar disorder treatment. But it can be hard to remember to take your pills—and to remember if you’ve taken them. Which is why Williamson and Rose stress the importance of having a pill tray. They suggest getting a pill case that locks with the same number of compartments as your dose frequency (along with keeping your pill bottles in one Ziploc, so they’re easily accessible).
To find a good case, the authors recommend the website ForgettingthePill.com. You’ll also find beautiful pillboxes at Schizophrenic.NYC, which are designed by Michelle Hammer, who co-hosts the Psych Central weekly podcast “A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast.”
Set alarms on your phone to remind you when to take your medication, and always carry your pillbox with you. Appointments and meetings run long. Unexpected tasks and errands pop up. There’s also traffic and accidents. And, before you know it, you aren’t home to take your medication.
Prioritize sleep. According to Williamson and Rose, “sleep is the other half of our medication.” It’s that vital. In fact, sometimes, when you experience mood swings, it isn’t an issue with your medication; it’s because of poor sleep. Lack of sleep can trigger everything from mania to anxiety to difficulty concentrating.
The authors suggest trying these tips to wind down before bed: After dinner, turn off some of the lights in your home; put on your comfortable clothes or pajamas early; keep your TV out of the bedroom; try reading yourself to sleep; set a time to go into your bedroom, and stick to it; use a noise machine; and consider blackout curtains. Experiment with different strategies to find what works best for you.
Put on your “bipolar glasses.” Before making any decision—about your job, sleep, relationships or living situation—Williamson and Rose emphasize using your “bipolar glasses.” In other words, think about how something will affect your health. “Before you take the job or jump into the relationship, ask yourself, is this a wise choice? Or, can I handle the stress of this job?” or “Is this relationship a positive or negative influence on my mental illness? Is this job, situation, etc., worthy my mental health?”
Find what inspires you. Find what connects you to yourself. Find what brings you joy. This might be anything from painting to photography, from writing to woodworking. It might be a pastime or something you turn into your prime profession. Rose started out as a stock broker, and now is a writer and editor. Williamson is now a writer, too. They both founded The Red Bank Writer’s Group. In the past, while working at a boring 9 to 5, Williamson took a weekly 2-hour pottery class that she loved. You are more than your illness. Find activities that help you express and connect to the different facets of your personality and identity.
Managing bipolar disorder takes energy and effort, which is why having support, systems and strategies in place is so important. There may be times that you feel incredibly hopeless. This is the nature of the illness. Make sure you’re honest about how you’re feeling with your providers and loved ones.
“I am grateful my suicide attempts failed, and I’m alive,” Williamson writes. “Now I’m living my dreams, working full-time as a writer. Who knew life could be so good when ten years ago all I wanted was out? It’s that light that my family and friends have to remind me of when I can’t see it. It’s there. And it will warm me up again like it has before.”
Find your own light, and surround yourself with people who can remind you when you forget.