A Letter To All The Bipolar Warriors

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Every so often I take a look at the blogs I have written over the past four years and see which ones people view the most.  Tonight I noticed one of the most popular was “Rebuilding a Bipolar Life.”  It was written almost four years ago.  It had to do with my quest to work on my spiritual self.

Another blog that has been very popular has been “Bipolar Disorder Destroys Life and then what’s next?”  It was written a little over three years ago.  If you’ve been following my blog or Facebook page you probably know I have found my “what’s next.”

After reading the blogs and comments I’m inspired to write a letter to my fellow bipolar warriors about some of the things I’ve learned from reflecting back in time.

Dear Bipolar Warriors,

I’m not sure where you are in the journey of living with bipolar disorder.  You may be newly diagnosed and confused as heck about this illness.  You might still be struggling trying to find the right combinations of medications.  Like me, you may have experienced a significant amount of loss because of bipolar disorder.  Maybe you’re kicking it and have mastered how to live well with bipolar.  Wherever you are on the journey here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Living with a chronic mental illness is challenging.  Okay.  That’s clearly an understatement.  There are challenges with people who are close to you understanding the illness, accepting that sometimes you’re not always going to feel well and giving you a chance to live to your potential when you are well.  There are complications with relationships.  It all gets better over time.

Some days it gets frustrating to have to fill pill boxes (I fill three weeks at a time).  But looking back I can tell you there was a time when I would sit on the edge of my bed, dump the pills in my hand and begrudge having to take them.  I would think, “I’m sick.  Why me?”  Then I would swallow them and go to bed feeling “less than.”  Fast forward over three years, it’s just part of my every day habit.  The pill boxes make it easy.  It’s a habit and I rarely ever forget to take the medications.  That’s what has been keeping me healthy.

But.  It doesn’t mean I have to like the whole process.  I don’t like having to call in the pharmacy for all my meds.  It’s a pain.  Some days I wish I didn’t have to do this, but it’s all part of managing the illness.  Without meds I have no idea where I’d be and I’m not ever going to take that chance to find out.  One could say, “Been there, done that.”  If you’re curious about that journey you can find my book  “Bipolar Disorder, My Biggest Competitor” on Amazon.

I am a strong proponent of finding the right combination of medications.  Besides my own story, I have my mother and sister’s examples and almost all the people who I have met needed medications to deal with this very tricky illness.  But it’s a bear finding the right ones.  Don’t give up.  Keep trying.  If you don’t like the doctor you are seeing, find a new one.  Learn about the medications for bipolar disorder.  Click here to find information on medications.

I can also share with you that recovery is possible and very likely if you have the knowledge, determination and access to care necessary.  But it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.  For those who don’t know, I’m an Olympic athlete and that was pretty darn challenging.  Recovery makes training for the Olympics seem easy.  And let’s not forget recovery does not mean “cured.”  It means different things to different people.  For me, it means I can use my talents and skills and contribute to my community.  It means I live a peaceful existence.  And I mange my illness to the best of my ability.

But.  There are other warriors out there who are in pain.  They’re having a frustrating time with dealing with bipolar.  Medications are causing bad side effects.  I understand.  What I can tell you from experience is don’t give up.

I’m gonna sum it all up and say what has worked for me might not work for you.  But I can tell you that you must have a desire to get well, dedication to find a successful treatment plan, discipline to stick with the treatment plan and the determination to beat this very challenging competitor.

Good luck warriors.  You are not alone.

Amy

Consumed with a Mental Illness Diagnosis

Sometimes dealing with mental illness can be completely overwhelming and all consuming. This happens in bipolar disorder when symptoms break through or there is some kind of relapse causing either a manic or depressive episode and in some cases both at the same time. But in other times when the illness is relatively stable it becomes really important to focus on other things beside your diagnosis.

Recently I had to remind myself that I had more experiences than simply my visits to the psychiatric hospital. During one of my depressive episodes I didn’t even feel good about my Olympic experience. Someone ask me about it and I just kind of shrugged my shoulders like it really didn’t matter anyhow. This is what can happen when we get so bogged down in dealing with recurring symptoms and managing a disease. It takes a toll on the balancing aspect of life and becomes a central focus of our lives.

As I began to remind myself about the good things that I had experienced or the things I considered accomplishments I had to balance those thoughts without allowing myself to get sad because I didn’t feel like the person I used to be. It was like thought dominos falling from one good example to “why did I have to get this illness?” It was a fight that I eventually won and came out on the positive side of things.

But it is really easy to see how people who suffer from mental illness can become so into their own thoughts that it actually makes the conditions worse. When we are to inside ourselves without some kind of external stimulus we begin to believe all the things we tell ourselves. We need to remind ourselves always that we are more than our illness, more than a diagnosis and certainly not a label.

As I took a look back and identified things I was really proud of, I highlighted my Olympic experience as being something that I would always cherish. No amount of mental illness drama was ever going to take away my positive feelings about marching in those opening ceremonies, with all the world watching. For a moment in time I was a part of something much bigger than myself and I had to remind myself that this experience still mattered regardless of how my life had twisted and turned.

I also started looking at other people who I thought were good examples of how to live with adversity. I began to think about one of my old college basketball coaches from the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Instead of drifting into despair she took action and created an organization with a mission to help fund Alzheimer’s disease research. If Pat wasn’t going to give up how could I? My illness was far less severe than Alzheimer’s. “There must be something I can do to make a difference in the world of mental illness,” I thought to myself.

I made myself start focusing on the whole picture of “Amy,” and stopped viewing myself as a broken down version of a picture perfect past. The ruminating began to stop and I started to gain better self-esteem and more confidence. I could tell by the way I walked and the way I talked I was getting better everyday. Essentially I put myself in training to “get outside” my own head.

All these things in combination with reading other people’s stories have really helped me out of a dark abyss. There are few things that are worse than suffering from continual depressive symptoms that are debilitating, but I knew I needed to put myself in a position where I could focus on the things I could control and let go of the things I could not.

I won that battle by insisting my doctor put me on a medication that had some evidence of working in depression. I also advocated for removing a medication that was causing severe side effects. These are the things I could control. And for my part I became focused on understanding the psychological aspects of grieving from mental illness losses. In short, I made a plan and I stuck with it.

Getting better has allowed me to lift up my head and recognize I don’t have to think of myself as “lesser.” Just because I can’t say I work at a big Fortune 500 company anymore I’m not any lesser of a human being. I have those experiences, yes, but even that does not make me any better or worse off than anyone who does not.

The next time you can’t stop thinking about your diagnosis try getting outside your own head and think about “you” the whole person and not just the person with a label. It might make a small difference in your day.