Friday, January 25, 2013

Tools and Tips for Mental Health

After 13 years, I have developed some tools or tricks to help battle my Bipolar Disorder.  Here ya go:

1)  The first thing is called a Mental Toolbox.  This is a collection of things I can do if I feel like I am spinning out of control or falling into a depression.  For me it's things like getting outside, getting exercise, seeing my therapist, talking to a friend, journaling, listening to music, etc.  I just flip through these tools mentally and find one that fits my situation and go with it.  If I get through three or four and nothing works over a few days, then it's definitely time to see my psychiatrist.  It helps me to always know a doctor or nurse at my clinic is available on the phone 24/7.  My mom knows all about my Mental Toolbox and if she is concerned about my mental state she will remind me to try the Toolbox.  It really helps to have some shared language between you and your family.  Bywords that you both are familiar with help to focus on the problem.

2)  It used to be that with the slightest sign of mania I would call my psychiatrist and see if I needed to change my medications.  We've both figured out this is not the best course all the time.  You don't always know the nature of the problem if you don't give it a few days to see what's really going on.  A knee jerk reaction to up the Risperdal or lower the Lamictal may not be what you need.  There can be a lot of external factors that cause a blip on your mental health radar.  I think about whether I've been eating too much or too little, whether I have had to stay up late or wake up in the middle of the night with the kids.  Whether I have been drinking too much.  What time of the menstrual cycle I am in (my excellent psychiatrist specializes in women's mental illness and is well-versed in the effects your cycle can have on your mental state).  Whether it's a full moon (seriously!).  Whether I am having a personal or financial problem.  There are usually things going on outside my brain that are causing a change in how I feel.  It's a good idea to evaluate those triggers before reaching for the pillbox.  I can now recognize what part of Bipolar I am feeling after a day or two.  If it gets better by using something in my Toolbox, then I don't need to adjust my meds.  I've grown comfortable with waiting it out for a few days because each time something scary starts to happen I grow more confident in how I deal with it.  I've become very in tune with my illness and it's symptoms. 

3) A quick coping test for me is this:  I say "Has anything changed in my life since last week when I didn't feel this agitated, phobic, paranoid, or manic?"  I think about whether there have been big changes in my finances, my work, my kids, my interpersonal relationships, my marriage, my in-laws or the like.  If none of those have really changed since last week, I know my anxiety is purely chemical, a pure distortion in my brain, a true chemical imbalance.  This forces me to calm down and think before I make a big (and potentially regrettable) decision in the aforementioned areas.  It also tells me I do need to make a change in my dosages, with my psychiatrist's help.  It's hard to tell sometimes what is normal mood change that anyone would feel and what's bipolar, and asking this question really helps.  Meds really do fix your brain.  And quick. 

4)  My illness is organic and it changes.  As I get stronger so does it, and it finds alternate disguises and new ways to chip away at me.  It helped me when I analogized it to a video game, like old school Zelda or Donkey Kong.  Through great effort and sometimes repeated failure, I would finally figure out how to "beat a level" or beat the enemy in one level of the game.  I would unlock the door to the next level and a new enemy or a new kind or test would await on the next screen.  It gives me a chance to feel proud of beating the first level of the Bipolar game, but guards me against getting complacent in the face of my illness as the next challenge is literally right around the corner.  Mental illness is the dragon that never sleeps.  It started out, when I was hospitalized for three weeks, that I could not make any headway in the game, and seemed to fall back to square one if I ever did.  Now I gain more ground that I lose, and that will be true for all life-long sufferers of this chronic disease. 

The bottom line is that there is lots you can do on your own to fight this thing, but you are never alone.  We can help each other get healthy every single day.  Be brave.  Share your story and you are bound to help someone else who is struggling. 

Happy Friday Bright Lights!


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God, to have these guys in a room together again....