When I am very depressed — which is not now — my brain feels solid and hard. It’s the surest guide that I have had the Big One, the low that can only be borne by plodding steps and lowered head. Yea, they will write it off as merely bad posture. I will marvel at the adamantine of my cerebellum, the heaviness of my medulla oblongata. I will ponder the sharpness of the rock inside my skull and, when the feeling has toppled away like a raven falling from a cliff towards its nest, I will desire its return because it is only then that I can feel that I have a brain and am, in fact, alive.
Inpatient stays and outpatient programs taught me much. Everyday, I use the tools I was taught to help manage my bipolar 2 disorder. Although there are many, in my opinion, keeping a journal has proven to be one of the most effective tools I was taught to use. However, at first, I wasn’t easily convinced that it was something I could do, and I wasn’t really keen on the idea.
I was in an outpatient program when given my first empty notebook. Those blank pages overwhelmed me! You might find that interesting considering the fact that I love to write short stories and poetry. I have even dabbled a few times with writing lyrics. But this was different. I was being asked to write down my personal thoughts, not words I could hide behind in a land of dark fantasy.
However, I found it was like a muscle. The first time I used it, it hurt and I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing. I felt very clumsy trying to journal. Was my technique and form correct? If looking, was anyone going to laugh at me? Was this really goingto do me any good or was it a useless activity? I couldn’t stand how weak several (hundreds?) of entries felt and seemed. Several times, I wanted to give up.
But like any other muscle, the more I used it, the better I felt and the more ways I figured out how to refine and strengthen it. It has almost become an addiction! I feel an urge to journal daily (sometimes more than once a day) and if I skip, I miss it. I feel light and free after I journal. It helps me to see patterns in my moods. I use it as a reference to go back to when needed.
Have you tried to keep a journal? Here are some tips if you would like to try:
- Don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money on a journal. You can if you want to, but what’s important is what is on the inside, not how it looks on the outside.
- Set a time aside just to journal. It doesn’t have to be long. An entry of a couple of paragraphs is great! And, if you get interrupted in the middle of an entry, shrug it off and start a new one next time.
- Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. Just write!
- Don’t worry about writing neatly.
- If you miss a few or more days, don’t give it up or feel like you have failed. Pick back up as soon as you are able.
My first entries were short. Now, they are longer and you will notice that I have added a few things more than just writing my thoughts. Here is what and how I currently journal:
- First and foremost, with absolutely any thought that pops into my head, I write it down. You may laugh at the times I have written, ‘What should I write now? I can’t think of anything else.’ When I write that, I have learned to recognize that I am usually trying to push negative thoughts out of my head so I don’t have to think about them. It’s always those embarrassing or dark thoughts that are the hardest to admit in written form. I had to train myself to allow any thought I had make it down to my fingers and out of the writing utensil because it was the negative ones that I didn’t want or think I could work through!
- Thoughts I write can be anything. Victories, failures, complaints, fears, humor, self pity, secrets…you name it, I force myself to write it. It can be brutal. It can be irrational. It can be insightful.
- When I write, I make sure to spend time and expand on the topic, trying to see it from every side. If it is a victory, I document how I got there, how it made me feel, and the benefits I noticed. If it is a complaint, I document what validity I feel it has, what a devil’s advocate may think, and what I intend to do to fix it. Get the picture?
- I also write two short term goals to be accomplished in the next 24 hours, as well as one long term goal that I am working on. The next time I journal, I make sure to look at those goals. If I didn’t achieve them or aren’t done with them, I simply write it as a goal again!
- Finally, I journal positive affirmations. If you haven’t tried positive affirmations before, Google it for a definition, how it can help, and suggestions to start you out. For me, I started with a generic list of 5 that I found with Google. I currently have 18 that are very personalized. That list grows, but it never shrinks! Every time I journal, I write my list.
So, what and how do you journal? Your comments could help me to refine my muscle even more to get stronger! If you aren’t keeping a journal now, I hope you try it. Be patient and just do what feels right, but be honest and let those thoughts go!
Glenn Close is a woman who I admire for her dedication to her sister and her resolve to upend stigma. When Jessie Close was 51 years old, Glenn drove her to McLean Hospital in Boston where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Their commercials questioning the labels applied to mentally ill family members and their relatives are known to millions. We have every reason to admire and respect her for her work. But recent research suggests that maybe family members aren’t the best ones to be talking about stigma.
The research has nothing to do with the political issues surrounding mental illness. A pair of researchers looking into the rise of a culture willing to accept same sex marriage outline a successful strategy that we who live with bipolar disorder and other organic brain dysfunctions can employ:
Michael LaCour, a UCLA doctoral candidate in political science, and Donald Green, a Columbia University political science professor, have demonstrated that a single conversation can go a long way toward building lasting support for a controversial social issue. In addition — nearly as surprisingly — the effect tends to spill over to friends and family members.
The key is putting voters in direct contact with individuals who are directly affected by the issue.
I waste time. But not in the same way that I usually do it. I’m always up nights, twittering, reading, working on recent photos. My day ends somewhere between 3 and 4, at which point I go to bed, which alerts the cats to begin their trills of demand for food from my softhearted wife. I use a cocktail of Xanax, Benadryl, Doxepin, melatonin, and my nighttime anti-psychotics and mood-stabilizers to stall my brain into torpor. I sleep well and I sleep deep until about noon or one o’clock in the afternoon, an unconventional hour but one that I can manage thanks to my unemployment and insistence on afternoon appointments.
If I am manic, I forget to take the meds until a later hour and do not feel their slowing until after Lynn has gone to work at nine. I lay in bed, staring at the pockets inside the sheets, groping for rest. Mania purposes me to a different set of activities, First, reading is impossible. My eyes fly over the words, ignoring the middles of sentences and barely noticing the presence of paragraphs. I have missed whole scenes and whole characters when I am in this state. For this reason, as my condition advanced in the late twentieth century, I read less and less. Volumes I wanted to peruse stood on my shelf for years, unopened and stinking of dust. There was no accomplishment during this time except as resulted from my strange habit of digesting dictionaries.
I know it sounds cliche because we have all heard it before, “Why don’t you write about it? It’ll help” Yet, few of us really take that advice and implement it. Most of us take it as psychiatric mumbo jumbo, and continue with our pain alone for fear of burdening our close friends and relatives, those we have left anyway.
I was one of those non-believers in the power of writing and it took me a good nine years after being formally diagnosed to take finger to keyboard and just type. I started with a Twitter. Yes, I took to social media with my angst because if I was gonna share with the world, I was doing it loud and clear and on the internet. And lo and behold, I found a whole community of people like me, fellow sufferers and survivors of mental wellness. I could not have been more surprised at feeling a sense of camaraderie on the internet of all places. I was so overwhelmed that I started crying after one of my Tweets got retweeted, a personal Tweet I must say.
Maybe it sounds lame to you, but after that first reTweet, I was hooked on writing. I quickly found venues to express my thoughts and opinions, and somehow for some odd reason, people were listening to me. And not only listening, but commiserating, it was as if I had come home, finally.
Now, whenever I feel any slight anxiety, mania, depression, whatever, I take to writing. I love it. Everything about it. And I love and appreciate the people that have given me the chance to use my voice for good.
Recovery from bipolar disorder is almost like a religion or an ethical system. Certain devotions must be part of our lives if we are to recover our balance.
- I shall hold myself accountable for all works of my body and my mind including those which I wreak when I am in episode.
It is important, I feel, not to separate the illness from ourselves. We did the things that happened while we were in episode. There was no second soul seizing control of our bodies. Our mind is a stream that flows continuously, sometimes over rough ground, sometimes in placid stretches, and sometimes over cliffs. We own all these states of our being.
- I shall never use my illness as an excuse.
Our episodes explain what we did. The difference between an explanation and an excuse is this: An explanation asks only for forgiveness. An excuse entitles us to both trust and forgiveness. We do not deserve the former until we have earned it.
I envy those who have options. I’m of course talking about anti depressants, SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), TCAs (tri-cyclic antidepressants), the works. There’s a small group of those with bipolar disorder who have an adverse reaction to antidepressants, in my case suicidal thoughts. I went through prozac, celexa, lexapro, anafranil, (partly also to try and treat my OCD), and every single one of them resulted in me pacing in bizarre places outside in the middle of the night (and I’m talking 4-5am) with racing thoughts about how no one in my life loved me, or ever really did love me, amongst other thoughts. This of course led to suicidal thoughts, but thankfully I never acted on those thoughts. This was a large part of my diagnosis with bipolar, amongst my actions mentioned in my previous post.
I found myself in this unique situation for me. Everything I had read or heard said, “Give it time, it will get worse before it gets better.” And I believed it, to an extreme point, until finally taking the initiative to call my doctor about it. That being said, I believe the statement to be true. Starting a new medication, we experience side effects, it’s unavoidable. Most side effects take place immediately, whereas the beneficial side to many medications can take upwards to a month to take effect.
But what frame of reference do you have, when you’re already struggling with mood swings, that a medication isn’t making you just slightly worse off than you were. All you really have is blind faith.
Now, I 100% avoid any and all antidepressants. I’ve tried those within their own class such as wellbutrin and had little success, so I simply explain to my doctor that it simply isn’t an option. I’m lucky to have found a cocktail that works for me so far, but it would be nice to have that extra ingredient to add to the mix.
For those reading who are living with bipolar, how about yourselves? Have you had any similar experiences? I’d love to hear your input in the comments.
The thing I don’t like about being angry is that it isn’t the me that I want to be. It’s a nuclear fireball, a complete eradication of the rest of my personality. For a few seconds, everything that I love becomes less than a memory. The witnesses to my explosion see a six foot six inch tall brute with a beard screaming at the top of his lungs and waving his arms about. Wouldn’t you be scared? Wouldn’t you keep that memory in your head purely for reasons of defense?
These scenes came more frequently when I was soaring in and out of manias and mixed states. It isn’t hard to see that my anger could be tied to my suicidal inclinations. Because I could not and would not destroy the objects of my ire, I turned that impulse towards myself. One time too many it brought me to a place where I was studying the veins on my wrist. Beyond the eradication of myself that was caused by my disease, lay the prospect of self-annihilation as punishment or revenge.
Maybe now you can understand my reaction that came while I was planting vinegar weed at the Native Seed Farm. I had done something stupid — I had mentioned my involvement in the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in a passing comment. Most people let it drop, but this one woman wanted to know more. What were the people like? Was I ever scared? And then the most stigmatizing thing someone can say about someone who takes his meds faithfully: don’t the meds erase your personality?