Being Bipolar and trying to lead a normal life has a lot to do with honesty. I have to try very hard sometimes to come across as a regular person, but as long as I follow a few simple rules, I find I can accomplish it, and then once I break down some of the barriers of stigma related to mental illness, I can be honest with people about having Bipolar. If people know me and are friends, or they are employers who already know I can do a good job, this is rarely a problem.
The first thing of course before anything else in trying to appear normal is medication. I have to take my meds, every day, on time, full dosage prescribed. If I miss by even a few hours I can tell the difference. I feel lucky right now to be on Prozac because on days when I’m not working, I find that I can take my dose and then go back to sleep and have a really pleasant nap. To me this is almost therapeutic and makes facing the day a lot easier.
The next thing on my list is something people might not understand completely, but it is the fact that I have a physical disability that I honestly feel was brought on by my mental disability. I have a pair of knees that are in really poor shape and I need to take the steps necessary to take care of them. When I was younger, wanting to sweat out all of my psychiatric issues and somehow pay penance for ‘going crazy’, I felt that I could cure my bouts of mania with extreme exercise. I went out and ran, and ran and ran. I used to jog or run up to 50 km per week and in a short amount of time I wore out my knee joints to the point of nearly not being able to walk. Now, I have to make sure I exercise these joints enough to keep them moving but not so much that they become injured again. I also have to buy top of the line shoes, replace them often and use gel insoles in them. Without taking these steps I would be unable to do anything that involves standing or walking.
The next step in the maintenance or hygiene of my mental health is to make sure and get the right amount of sleep. I work a job now that often messes around with my sleep schedule and this can be dangerous. I often go into work in the morning for a 4-6 hour shift, then come back late in the evening for another one. If I don’t get my nap in between these shifts and have to wake myself up with coffee or energy drinks, I run the risk of going manic. This actually happened to me just this morning. I was so tired when my second shift came around that I needed to have two coffees and an energy drink and when I got off work I just couldn’t slow down. I tried sleeping but there was just no way, so I ended up staying up and going to the pool just to relax myself. Luckily I have talked to my Doctor about days like this and he has made available to me a “take as needed” pill that will calm me down when necessary. After returning home from the pool I took one of these and slept nearly all day. Going into a manic state can be a career killer. I find I can make mistakes more easily (and I work with a lot of equipment that needs a careful, strong hand) and that I can sort of ‘zone out’ and talk too much and show other signs of mania that signal to those around me that I have a serious problem, something I definitely don’t want.
My next step in appearing normal with Bipolar Disorder is all about housing. I wish I could recommend my housing set-up to everyone, but sadly there just isn’t enough good housing out there for people like us. I currently live in something that is called a Group Home, but it is an incredibly good situation for anyone with a mental illness. In the ‘group home’ there are 5 outside houses within a two-block radius in a particular neighborhood, and a larger ‘main house’ where meals are taken and medications are doled out. The outside houses are shared and unsupervised and we all take turns cooking meals at the main house. One of the most important things about this situation is that everyone I live with is dealing with a mental health issue. I don’t have to worry about making friends with someone who won’t understand what I’m going through or who will shun me for being mentally ill. This is something that happens a lot among people in ‘the real world’ that I don’t have to worry about here. The next factor that is so great is that the woman who runs the whole place has the belief that she won’t give us any less than what she gives her own family. This means we get recreation activities like movie nights or evenings out playing pool. We get pizza or fried chicken now and then to change up the meal schedule. And we get the sense that we are really cared about. A few years back I was in a ‘group home’ situation where the woman was clearly just out to make money off of me and the other people and had absolutely no training or concern for our well being. That was the worst, and I got out of that situation as soon as I could. On the other side of the fence though, if I were to strike out and get my own private apartment, things would definitely be worse. I would isolate myself just as a symptom of how my brain processes social situations and eventually I would become so lonely and depressed that I would want to be back in the psychiatric hospital.
One more factor that I find really helps me deal with my illness is the fact that I have dealt with my bad habits, or ‘vices’. I started out going through a program that was made available in my mental health clinic that got me off cigarettes. This may not seem like a big deal, but cigarettes were a huge chunk of my monthly budget, and the fallout of health effects from smoking put a damper on my whole life. Even now, almost ten years since quitting, I took a lung functioning test and was told my lungs are on the level of a 70 year-old man’s. That is scary. If I had continued to smoke, by now I would be either dead or on oxygen.
The next vice I dealt with was my problem with alcohol. A number of years back, before I was even on medications, I made the effort to stop drinking, but until I got serious about it and took counselling and attended support groups, it was another monkey on my back. Dealing with that and dealing with some of the underlying issues of why I drank made a huge difference in my life. I even once had a close friend tell me after I gave him some advice that I was the most ‘normal’ person he knew. That felt good.
So, in summation for this little blog entry for today, I would like to say that no matter how severe a mental health issue a person has, with proper treatment, co-operation with your Doctors, and enough sense to care for yourself and care enough for others for them to care about you, it is entirely possible to put your Bipolar in remission. Even though I was once so severe I was put in hospital for 6 whole months, 5 of those being in the lock-down isolation ward, I have been able to build a great life, make many friends, re-unite with friends from before I was sick and get a great job. Sometimes I almost find it hard to believe that I have been in remission with my illness (for the most part) for 12 years. One of the biggest things that I think made a difference on top of the things that I have mentioned, is that I set out to have a purpose for my life. People can make anything their purpose, I personally think having children may be the very best purpose, but mine was that I wanted to somehow reach out to others and help them by showing mental health can be achieved by writing a book about growing up with my illness. I titled the book, “Through The Withering Storm” and made it available as an e-book and a paperback book on amazon.com. The best way to find it is just to do a search either on my name or on the book’s name on amazon.com under the heading ‘books’. I hope many people can read it and find that though Bipolar can often seem like a mountain to climb, some of my words can give you the tools and equipment needed to climb that mountain.
Leif Gregersen, Sept. 12, 2013