After the shock of being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder Type 2 and the mental gymnastics of accepting it, I actually felt overwhelmed with relief. Imagine living with symptoms that no one can see, but that you feel acutely. You observe the behavior of others and know you are different, but you don’t know why. You doubt yourself and the reality of your experiences and assume you must just be weak or flawed. However, you never get any answers about why you do the things you do or feel the things you do.
Suddenly, a doctor tells you that what you have has a name. Medical textbooks specifically describe symptoms you assumed to be unique to yourself. You meet other people with stories eerily similar to yours and say, “Me too!”. Best of all, there is medication to help you feel better! There are tools and skills to help you cope with your symptoms. This, my friend, is the world of recovery.
The past two years of my life have been all about recovery. Recovery isn’t like surgery- you don’t go in for the procedure and come out fixed. Recovery is a process of trial and error- an ebb and flow of good days and harder days, learning periods and coasting periods, testing out of new skills and unlearning of bad habits. Recovery is life.
My recovery includes some very basic elements, which my therapist calls the “legs of my chair”. If I take away one of the legs, the chair falls down. When the legs of my chair are strong, I live a full, productive and joyful life.
One of the legs of my chair is medication. Bipolar disorder is like a big spectrum, with suicidal depression on one end, mania on the other and lots of variations in between. Because I have bipolar disorder Type 2 and not Type 1, I never end up in full-blown mania. Thankfully, I’ve also never had suicidal depression. However, my natural range of moods is too wide to be healthy or to allow full functionality. Medication narrows my range of emotions and helps keep my moods stable. I have good days and more difficult days, but I can usually still function during the depressive days. When I can’t, I do my best to slog through, ask for help, and not make it worse with self sabotaging behavior like oversleeping, overeating and thinking bad things about myself.
Another pillar of my recovery is sleep. I go to bed every single night at 10 pm and hopefully sleep until 6 am. I rarely attend evening events, as they usually make it harder to fall asleep on time. My sleep is sometimes interrupted by children, but I do my best to protect it. I also lay down every single afternoon for an hour or so to rest and mentally “re-set” my day. I make an effort to relax, to focus on my breathing and to clear my mind. I always get up better prepared to tackle the rest of the day.
In addition to sleep and medication, keeping my life manageable is by far the biggest aspect of my recovery. This is why I don’t currently work as a lawyer. As the primary caregiver of our children, homemaker and family logistics coordinator, I have plenty to keep me busy. I think long and hard about taking on new responsibilities, and usually discuss them with my therapist. I say no to a lot of invitations I would prefer to accept. Some chores don’t get done. Some hobbies languish. I only make time for the things I really need or want to do and sometimes I don’t even get to those. This is the price of wellness.
Seeing my therapist twice a month is another huge part of my recovery. She is my sounding board, one of the people who holds me accountable, my medical expert and my recovery skills coach. I attend a mental health support group, which has been hugely significant in helping to see my condition as separate from myself. I journal and makes notes about my moods just about every day, which helps me stay mindful. I go to church and make an effort to get outside, where I most strongly feel God’s presence. I nurture the relationships that provide joy and companionship, like my relationship with my husband and a few very good friends.
Learning to control my relationship with food also helps keep my moods stable and positive. I attend Weight Watchers every single week, which helps me stay motivated and inspired to make good food choices and to take care of my body. I try to avoid high-sugar food, which can trigger a food binge and consequently, a depressive episode. Making good food choices and taking care of my body play as big of a role in my recovery as taking medication. It took a long time to figure this out and I still am.
Recovery isn’t about being “cured”. Recovery is about living the healthiest, most joyful, and most productive version of my life. Sometimes I get frustrated at all the things I can’t do because of my condition. However, I’ve also gained wisdom, friendships and strength through learning to deal with it. Every day is a journey in recovery. I am proud of how far I’ve come and am excited to see what the future holds.