My name is Nicole and I am a 37-year-old mother, blogger, mental health awareness advocate, and caregiver who also happens to live with bipolar disorder. I am very happy to report that I have been healthy and well for the past three years, with few cycles into mania and depression. Those cycles that have occurred can be traced to certain medications, SAD, historical time of year for me, and even a lightbox. I still have my mood swings, but nothing like the torment that I had experienced for years before I became proactive in my care.
Next to living with the untreated symptoms of my illness, accepting my diagnosis was the hardest thing I have ever done. I followed the classic textbook ways to “manage” my illness on my own by self-medicating, denial, and putting myself in dangerous situations. My symptoms began to escalate and I lost touch with reality.
With the support of my husband and my GP, I voluntarily admitted myself to our local hospital for a stay in the psychiatric unit where I could be supervised and start a medication regime. In the psychiatric unit is where I got my first introduction into therapy. This was conducted in a group setting under the supervision of a certified mental health worker. I also spoke daily to my new psychiatrist but that was definitely not what you would consider a therapy setting.
It was here where my journey of acceptance began, not with the on-call doctors, or even the amazing psychiatric nurses, but with one social worker who really listened. After daily chats with her for about two weeks she recommended a psychologist to me. I was already seeing a psychiatrist for med reviews and to follow my progress, but the social worker explained to me how she thought this particular psychologist would be a good fit for me and that he could be beneficial in helping me accept and acknowledge that there were issues that I needed to deal with.
I had the urge to Google Dr. T. before I met with him. It turned out that he was quite esteemed in his field. He had several books published and taught as a professor of psychology at a very prestigious university. I felt like I was definitely in good hands and lucky to be able to get in with him on such short notice. His practice was booked solid and I don’t know how I ended up there; I’m just thankful that I did.
I was hesitant to meet with Dr. T. as I had no idea what to expect, but walking into his office gave me an instant sense of calm. Nothing was cluttered or out of place, but there was a homey sort of vibe going on. Dr. T. had kind eyes and I felt at ease with him right away. He started the session asking about what I would like to talk about and I had no idea. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind going first. I had previously given permission for him to access my history from my psychiatrist so that we could have a jumping-off point. I really didn’t want to rehash everything from the beginning again. He had obviously studied up on it as he hit on a few things in my charts.
He explained to me that while the psychiatrist and GP had their jobs to do, his was a bit different. He wanted us to work as a team, yet wanted to focus more on a mindfulness approach with me. He would leave the other stuff up to the “professionals,” he joked. So for an hour every week I met with Dr. T., and we talked at great length not only about my illness, but about other issues that I faced that were rooted deep down. We uncovered reasons as to why I sabotaged relationships, yet continued to crave that affection. We touched on things like abandonment issues, and other things that I never once considered but all seemed to make sense. He was very thorough and I felt a great sense of relief after every session.
Each session was devoted to something different, but if I wanted to continue a previous session the following week we could do that. He left those things up to me for the most part and worked his time around making me feel comfortable enough to be an active participant in therapy. He was adamant, though, that I hold myself accountable for my actions. Now that I was aware of some of my unhealthy behaviors that I practiced, I must learn to change those and never use them as an excuse for poor judgment.
He also explained that in a perfect world this would happen, but in the case of bipolar disorder relapse is quite probable. Some people who relapse and hit a manic stage, myself included, tend to hit what is called noncompliance and refuse to take their meds and sometimes stop therapy all together. This was a concern of mine and I voiced this to Dr. T. That’s when we started CBT, or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
In layman’s terms, CBT is a concept that our thoughts about a situation affect how we feel and then behave in that situation. We assign a feeling to a situation (usually a negative untruth) and run with that, creating anxiety and depression. CBT aims to kind of retrain your thinking in situation-based scenarios. It was extremely helpful and six years later, I still find myself using these practices and have taken refresher courses.
Dr. T. spent a lot of time doing breathing exercises with me as well as guided mindfulness meditation. I have to admit, even with the progress that we had been making over a six-month period, these seemed a little hokey to me, until I actually started to do them. I cannot say enough about how much this helped me. Mindfulness, being in the present and accepting emotions while separating them from experience is a huge thing for someone like me who tends to catastrophize things and overthink to the point that I bring on anxiety. The breathing exercise then comes into play to help bring me out of those states. It’s not always successful, but it has made a significant improvement in my life.
Such an improvement that these tools that my psychologist and therapy sessions gave me, has stopped the need for me to take any for of anxiety medication. Some days are still a battle and little things can trigger me. Therapy is what helped me to realize my triggers, reevaluate them, and plan ways to go about my life avoiding as many of them as I can. Therapy also taught me that this is not always possible, so it gave me the tools mentioned above to use when triggers are unavoidable. It works for me, and I’m grateful to be off of anxiety medication.
I honestly believe that my time spent with Dr. T. in therapy not only saved my sanity, but possibly my life. He helped me better understand my illness, encouraged me to talk through things with him, and handed me an entire arsenal of coping tools that I use to this day. Unfortunately for me, Dr. T. was granted an amazing opportunity to teach out of the country and we had to end our sessions, but I still continue my therapy with a new psychologist and a great new psychiatrist. I can’t imagine doing this alone.