When I was diagnosed with Bipolar Not-Otherwise-Specified in January of this year, I wasn't really sure what to expect. I was confused and terrified and ashamed - amongst all of the other crazy emotions I had already been feeling because of this mental illness. What if I never got better? What if I never felt like me again? What if I passed this on to my children? It was a scary time. But here I am almost a year later surviving. No, not just surviving. Actually living. (And by living I mean sitting in my psychiatrist's waiting room next to a man who is talking to himself about meeting his maker... who then told me he was going to poop in my bag.... so... there's that).
A year ago when I hit my rock bottom, I would have doubted that living again would ever be possible. So for those of you out there struggling with a mental illness, or for those of you out there loving someone with a mental illness, I figured I'd share some of the tips and tricks that have allowed me to grow strong again - in addition to some of the methods that have failed miserably.
Let's Talk: The Dos and Don'ts of Surviving a Mental Illness
Didn't Work: Feeling sorry for myself. For the first two days after my diagnosis, I lay in bed in the dark, mourning the loss of my "normal" self. I felt like I had just been given a life sentence of confusion and misery. This was not going to be something that I could "get over" like I did with my postpartum depression. I was going to have to fight this beast for the rest of my life. It felt too big - bigger than me, like it was going to swallow me up and I would drown. After months and months of battling, I felt like just giving into the depression because the idea of fighting this hard for the rest of my life was too exhausting to face.
For two days I threw the pity party of the year - complete with lying in a dark room for hours, ignoring phone calls and emails, and forgetting to shower. By day three, I knew this strategy wasn't the solution and that if I let myself go another day without showering, my husband was going to stop sleeping in the same room as me. I realized that if I was going to live the rest of my life with this diagnosis, I couldn't fight it. I couldn't hate it. Because like it or not, it was me - and by hating it, I was hating myself.
So I took a (long) shower. I brushed my hair. I put on some makeup. And I introduced myself to it.
"Hi bipolar. I'm Stephanie. We should probably get acquainted because it seems you're here to stay". I breathed it in. I accepted it. I welcomed it as something in my life that was going to help me figure out who I was meant to be in the chapter of my life. It was.... freeing. It was by far the first step in getting back to the land of the living.
Worked: Telling loved ones. When I gave birth to my eldest child almost 8 years ago, I was diagnosed with fairly severe postpartum depression. For almost a year I kept this diagnosis close to my chest, ashamed and embarrassed, afraid to be judged by those around me. My husband and I fought the illness together but alone - I had never felt more isolated in my life. I decided that this time around I would take an entirely different approach, sharing this intimate and personal diagnosis with my closest loved ones, and ultimately writing about it on my blog. It was terrifying... each time I shared my secret it felt like I was running through a field naked in front of the world. I lived in fear each day that my peers would view me differently, as someone perhaps less capable. I worried that other mothers wouldn't let their children around me. I worried that people would stop seeing me and instead only see me for my illness.
But the opposite seemed to happen. The more people I told, the more open others were about their own personal experiences with mental illness. They were loving and supportive. Most importantly though, sharing this secret about myself has helped me survive during my low moments; Rather than suffering in silence, I embrace the support. Feeling empowered to say aloud "I need help today" and then seeing the responses of those who have rallied around me has changed my perspective on the world. Friends and family will be there for you. All you need to do is ask.
Didn't Work: Trying certain treatments before I was ready. A short while back, my psychiatrist mentioned the idea of "Mindfulness Based Meditation" as a way to manage my OCD and anxiety. Generally speaking I hold my psychiatrist's opinion right up there with my feelings towards coffee and wine (so pretty much the word of God), so although I was skeptical, I agreed to explore this option. I entered into a weekly program offered to in patients and out patients associated with the hospital, and walked into my first day with an open mind. Just kidding. I walked into my first day thinking that meditation was stupid, and scared to interact with people who were potentially crazier than I was. I was setting myself up for failure to say the least.
The first exercise we performed only served to reinforce my feelings towards this treatment: We were to spend fifteen minutes chewing a single raisin that the doctor handed to each of us. First we had to look at the raisin... How did it feel in between our fingers? Was it squishy? How many ridges did it have? Was it a dark brown raisin or one with a golden hue? What happened to the raisin when we put it up to the light? Next we had to bring the raisin to our lips... How did it smell? How did the ridges feel when we licked the raisin? What happened if we rolled the raisin across our tongue, back and forth? What flavour did the raisin give when we finally allowed ourselves to gently bite into it?
I might have really enjoyed this exercise had I not swallowed my raisin within the first minute and a half of the doctor's routine. Nothing is more awkward than having to fake chew a raisin you weren't supposed to eat for thirteen and a half minutes of your life. I chewed on nothing with great purpose - as though I had a big piece of gum in my mouth. But then I realized that I probably looked like a cow chewing on their own cud. I panicked and thought "How do I normally eat???" I took a moment to scan the room (while dramatically pretending to chew), observing my fellow crazies who were seemingly in deep contemplation over their raisin. I had to stiffle a laugh because the whole maddness of this was hilarious. But then the doctor saw me laughing and I had to act like I was having a coughing fit... which made me forget to chew, which made it obvious to him that I no longer had the raisin in my mouth. So then we both knew the truth about my eaten raisin - which made it that much more awkward when I began pretending to chew with the rest of the group again. It was at this moment I knew that perhaps this type of therapy was not meant for me.... at least not at this point in my life.
Worked. Receiving genetic testing. Over the past year I have experimented with more prescription drugs than I would care to admit - all under a doctor's strict care. Once we finally determined my diagnosis, we moved away from the realm of antidepressants and entered the world of atypical antipsychotics. We tested drug after drug to determine the most effective cocktail, and the side effects that followed were almost worse than the illness itself; Nausea, migraines, significant weight gain, tremors.... it was hell. My doctor was at her wit's end with me as I sat crying in her office appointment after appointment. Several weeks into this, she brought up the idea of something called pharmacogenetic testing. She was aware of a private company that took an individual's bloodwork and matched their genetic makeup with almost every drug available on the market to determine potential side effects. She said it would be a costly endeavor and that it was a relatively new tool within the medical industry, but my husband and I determined we had nothing to lose at this point. I was ready to stand on my head and cluck like a chicken if someone could guarantee me that I had a chance at feeling better.
I underwent testing through a company called OneOme, and waited. The results came in several weeks later and the information we obtained from it was life changing; The organization broke every medication/gene interaction down into three categories: 1. Major Gene-Drug Interaction 2. Moderate Gene-Drug Interaction 3. Minimal Gene-Drug Interaction. It turned out that every medication I had currently been prescribed fell into the Major Gene-Drug Interaction zone, meaning that my genetic makeup would affect the metabolism of the medication and/or I could have an elevated risk of adverse reaction or loss of efficacy. Within days of receiving this information, my psychiatrist switched me to what we're now affectionately calling the "safe" drugs on our list - and almost instantaneously my side effects disappeared. Worth. Every. Penny.
So that's where I'm at today! There are good days and there are bad... but the lows aren't nearly as low and don't last nearly as long. I'm on the right path. I will continue to embrace this new chapter in my life and I will continue to be outspoken about it. And as a favour, I will ask you to do the same: Talk about your mental illness with people you love or talk with someone you love who has a mental illness. The stigma and the fear are still very much present. But let's fight through it together rather than fighting through it alone.