I am not depressed. Nor am I manic. I wouldn’t say I’m completely in a good place, but I’m strong enough to fight against both. Over the last five decades I’ve dealt with many different levels of this illness and through therapy, research, self awareness, and brutal honesty with myself I’ve learned many things to avoid or at least minimize the more drastic moods. Obviously I’m not always successful, and sometimes all I can do is acknowledge that it’s out of control and seek outside help. But I have learned to recognize the onset of symptoms and have often been able to manage them before they completely take over.
Depression is powerful, but it’s also easier for me to address. It can progress slowly or descend in a moment, but it usually takes a while to develop into a debilitating state. My depressions are not sad ones. While sometimes there are periods of melancholy, more often I experience what has been called ‘agitated depressions’. My stress levels are high, and I have negative and obsessive thinking. There is always an underlying anger; at myself, at the disease, at the circumstances, or just life in general. So my challenge is to focus on stress relief and positive thinking to minimize the effects.
I carry my stress in my shoulders and neck. Sometimes it feels like the tops of my shoulders are almost touching my ears they are so contracted. I use several different techniques to release the stress back down to a more manageable level. Walking is one, letting my arms hang straight down and reaching for the ground as they swing through each step. The faster I walk, the more I can release and feel more energized in general. Sure, it’s difficult to motivate myself, but I find that if I can just force myself to start, it doesn’t take long to get into it.
Self relaxation is something that I’ve learned too. I’ll lie down and focus on breathing and awareness of the pressure in my muscles. In through the nose and out through the mouth, forcing my shoulders to relax with each exhalation. Not only does it help me relax, focusing so intently on my body doesn’t leave a lot of room for the negative thinking.
There’s always a song playing in my head. As my mood sinks what I hear is either slow and sad, or one that has very bad memories associated. Journey’s “Faithfully” for example brings up images of failed relationships and feeling of betrayal for me. So I’ll pick a song out of my music collection that is benign as possible and play it over and over, as loud as I can until it takes the place of what is bringing me down.
Obsessive thinking is also a prominent feature of my depressions. I’ll get a negative thought repeating over and over in my head, taking over my thinking and raising my anxiety. I won’t say that I ‘go to my happy place’; that imagery has never worked for me. But I will try to find something positive to focus on to break the cycle. I love ‘toys’. So I’ll pick something like a new computer or camera and research it on the internet to learn as much as I can about it and pick out the one I’d get if I could. Sure, it’s another kind of obsession, but a positive one. The trick is not to think about the fact that I can’t really afford what I want, but think about ways I could figure out a way. I also have to avoid saying ‘screw it’ and give in to the temptation and creating a financial hardship in the future.
There’s frequently a conversation taking place in my thinking. I’ll imagine talking with my therapist or with someone I’m upset with, anticipating what they’ll say and rehearsing my responses. This one can be difficult for me to overcome. What I try to do is shape my responses to something positive and constructive. Instead of ‘telling’ my therapist about how bad things are, I tell her about is how I’m trying to overcome whatever struggle I’m dealing with. I’ll put myself in a situation where I have to be positive; giving a presentation at work or how I would talk to someone I just met. I would never present myself as a loser or failure to anyone, and think about what I’ve achieved and what my good qualities are, even if I don’t believe it at the time.
I avoid activities that I know will bring me down. I’ve come to loath Facebook. Seeing others live happy lives or watching people I’ve cared about in the past move on is terribly destructive. I know I will obsess over this, and if I allow it I will sit for hours, constantly refreshing to see the latest posts. I have learned to avoid it like the plague, no matter how strong the temptation.
I try to visit with friends and family. I especially seek out those who either don’t know of my illness or I know that they can’t possibly understand how bad I feel. I hate letting others see my weaknesses, so I’ll put on the ‘happy face’ and present myself as though there’s nothing wrong. Sure, this is a hard one, in particular once I’ve already sunk down to the depths of despair. But if I’m in the early stages of depression it can go a long way to keeping it at bay.
I love working in the yard. Not only does it provide physical activity, but I really love seeing the results. Even something as simple as mowing the grass; there’s nothing better for me than a freshly mowed yard. When I was living in my apartment I was fortunate enough to have a friend that would let me help out with their yard. It doesn’t have to be my own to appreciate the beauty of natures creation. Now that I’ve moved into a house I’m looking forward to keeping up my own lawn, planting flowers, pruning bushes, and generally keeping things neat. Working in the yard almost always lifts my mood.
Adhering to my treatment plan is paramount. I’m taking medications that physically change the brain chemistry that produces the extreme highs and lows. Bipolar disorder is a physical disease and needs to be treated as such. No matter how bad I feel I have to make sure that I continue to take the medications. I also need to communicate with my Doctor when they aren’t effective, and work with him to adjust and change the regimen accordingly. Therapy is also something I depend on. I’ve come to trust my therapist explicitly, and learned the more brutally honest I am with her, the better I feel afterwards. We don’t do ‘show and tell’. The “This is what happened this week and this is how it made me feel” approach. I use my time to define what is really going on and work on solutions. Sessions can be exhausting, but I almost always come out of one with some kind of plan, or some new realization about myself that I can explore. Whining and lying to my therapist is a waste of both of our time, and squander any chance of feeling better.
Writing has become one of my most powerful tools. Not only about subjects meant for others, but sometimes I just put pen to paper and let my thoughts flow. It helps me organize my thinking and exposes ways I’ve become self-destructive. This is especially true with what I write here. I don’t like presenting a problem without some kind of solution. I can focus on something other than the thoughts that are dragging me down. I have a lot of time on my hands and it can be difficult to not become overwhelmed. And writing takes time and helps to fill the long hours. I like helping others and share lessons learned and observations about myself in the hopes that someone will find something good for themselves. Maybe it’s a bit egotistical, but I like seeing the ‘hits’; how many people have read what I have to say. And the comments I receive are always supportive and uplifting. The more people I reach and hearing what they have to say can be very validating. Therefore I write as often as possible. Sometimes it’s difficult coming up with a subject or finding the best way to express myself, but so far anyway, it seems like there’s always something that needs to be said. Tell your friends, and suggestions are always welcome.
Yes, I’m fighting the good fight. Anyone who has followed my musings knows that I’m not always successful. But life is ongoing, and every day is an opportunity to apply what I’ve learned. It may not work this time, but next time it will. As long as I keep fighting.
Next: The struggle with the beast called mania.