A while ago my friend Trish, creator of mentalhealthtalk.info asked me how I manage to cope with Bipolar Disorder, the pressures of university, all while getting excellent grades and reducing my medication.
I thought it was a good question, and said I would answer it on my blog.
That was three weeks ago.
It’s a straightforward question, with a fairly straightforward answer. So why has it taken me so long to do it? Why have I published other, unrelated posts ahead of it, and why have I not even put finger to keyboard and started writing?
The simple answer is that this question makes me uncomfortable.
It’s not that I think it shouldn’t be asked. It’s a great question, with an important answer. If I’m sharing my life with you, then you need to know this.
But this question brings to the surface issues that I tend to ignore. In fact, I’ve been ignoring these facts so well that I was unaware the issue even existed.
When I sat down to write this post I wrote a page worth of ramble before I even hit the topic itself, and I realized, I am trying to confront this, but I am avoiding it, even now.
I am ashamed.
I don’t want to admit that I have limitations.
I don’t want to admit that Bipolar Disorder makes me different.
I don’t want to be any less capable than anyone else.
I cannot keep up with people who don’t have Bipolar Disorder.
But I do have limitations. Bipolar does make me different. And I can’t keep up.
But that doesn’t mean I am not as capable as someone else, it just means that I have to do things differently.
So how do I cope with Bipolar Disorder, get good grades, and reduce my medication?
Step 1) Acknowledge the fact I have limitations by identifying what those limitations are
I know that things preceeded by the words “too much” or “too many” are major triggers for me – too much work, too much stimulation, too much stress, too many deadlines, too much to do, too many responsibilities.
For me, too much is like water to the Wicked Witch of the West. Throw it on me, and I’ll melt to the ground.
Other things that trigger me are preceded by the words “not enough”– not enough sleep, not enough routine, not enough time, not enough exercise.
Knowing my triggers, and what I find challenging has allowed me to figure out how to work around those limitations.
Step 2) Live life within the confines of those limitations
To me, this doesn’t mean listing off a hundred things that I cannot do.
Instead, with the help of my father, I identified what is important to me, what I value, and what I need to do to live a meaningful and fulfilling life that I am satisfied with.
Once I knew what it is I actually valued (which was my career in clinical psychology), then I could look at whether it was realistic, and how to go about making it happen.
Practically, this translates into four things:
I acknowledge I cannot do what others do, and so I study on Limited Full-Time Status. This means I study part-time, and am still eligible for my student loan living costs because the government recognises my ‘disability’.
I acknowledge that I cannot work to support myself, as well as study and manage Bipolar, and so I remain financially (and emotionally) dependent upon my incredibly generous and supportive parents.
I acknowledge the fact I need extra financial assistance, and so have applied for a ‘Disability Allowance.’ This pays for some costs associated with Bipolar Disorder (e.g. Drs appointments, prescriptions, my gym membership).
- I always take my medication
- I exercise regularly
- I eat ridiculously healthy, and never skip meals
- I don’t drink alcohol
- I don’t take drugs
- I manage stress (although I could improve on this…)
- I have good social support
- I spend time outside most days (nature is healing. For me anyway)
- I go to bed and get up at the same time most nights
These behaviours make up the safety net the catches me should I fall. They make it possible for me to pick myself up, to bounce back, to carry on. They prevent major mood episodes from occurring.
Without these behaviours, no amount of financial, emotional or academic assistance could help me do what I do. I need my moods to be mostly stable for me to be successful.
I will admit that it hasn’t been easy. I didn’t always work out or eat salad!
It’s been 3 years and 8 months since my diagnosis. It’s taken me that long to get me where I am, to slow the rapid cycling, to instill new habits and new behaviours, to change my lifestyle, to acknowledge and work within the confines of my limitations. I’m still learning.
After a lifetime of disappointment, failure and berating myself for never reaching my full potential, I am finally doing it.
I have reduced my medication by 125mg. I have been mostly (90%) stable this year, and I have received straight As in all my courses.
Identifying and acknowledging my limitations, and accepting assistance when I need it has allowed me to be happier, healthier, more satisfied, more stable and more successful academically, and interpersonally, than I have ever been in my life.
Identifying and acknowledging what you cannot do, will lead you to discover all of the things that you can do.
It’s important to strive to do what is important to you.
It might not be exactly how you planned it. It may not take the form that you originally wanted. You might even need to reshape your expectations to fit within your limits (I know I did!). It certainly won’t be as easy, and it probably won’t happen as quickly. It will probably be grueling, punishing, painful sometimes. There will be tears, and there will be times you want to give up. It was all of these for me.
But somehow, in some form, in some way: I managed to do what is important to me, and somehow, so can you.