Thinking Outside the Pill Box in Bipolar Treatment
I think I’ve found a pretty successful way to treat my bipolar II disorder. It’s unconventional, to say the least, and I’m not saying it will necessarily work for everyone else with BPD. But I do think it’s huge in terms of thinking outside the box for treating mental illness.
I think the best way to explain it is to demonstrate the difference between where I was with traditional treatments, and where I am after some significant and unconventional lifestyle changes.
Life With Traditional Treatments
In December 2014 I was completely devoid of hope. I had battled depression for the better part of 12 years (and learned along the way that it was a result of Bipolar II Disorder). I was constantly thinking of different methods of suicide. Not wanting to forever ruin Christmas time for my children was the main thing that kept me from acting on those plans. Instead I would cut myself to try to cope with the internal pain and torment. A few times I decided to end my life anyway, but my husband always intervened before I swallowed enough pills or hurt myself significantly.
I ended up in the hospital in January 2015 with a deep cut on my abdomen and an absolute conviction that I would eventually take my life. It was only a matter of how long I would force my family to endure the trauma I brought into their lives, as I saw it. Have you heard the song, “Burning House“, by Cam? It haunted me from the first time I heard it. I felt that I was that burning house. Inevitably, I would go up in smoke, taking those closest to me along with me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone like that, but I couldn’t convince them to abandon me and I didn’t see any other alternative for my future.
That was me after over a decade of traditional treatments including: (after an initial denial), different types of individual and group counseling, nearly a dozen different medications of all combinations and dosages, electroconvulsive therapy, multiple hospitalizations, diet and exercise changes, holding fast to religious faith and practices, abandoning that same religious faith and practices, picking it all back up again, daily affirmation routines, positive thinking plans, self-help books, etc.
Things would periodically improve, but they always turned bad again. And it was getting worse and worse. Which was why I knew this would be a terminal illness for me. I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that sooner had to be better than later.
A New Theory
But in the hospital in January 2015, I met with a new doctor. He dug deeper into my history than anyone ever had. He hypothesized that since my symptoms had begun when my social habits took a dramatic change shortly before I was married perhaps a return to similar social habits was what I needed.
I have always loved people. My mom says that I was chatty even at 3 months of age. With my marriage however, I became fairly isolated. My husband and I loved each other, but we both worked and were full-time students. Our social lives became non-existent. Which led to the depression and treatments I listed above.
Back to January 2015: Having a new theory to work on gave me a little bit of hope. As a wife and mother of four young children, how could I go about increasing my social life? Long story short, my husband and I both felt it best that I go back to school to pursue a degree as a physical therapist assistant, so I enrolled at a local community college and began taking prerequisites in order to apply to the program the following year.
This was an incredibly scary step since I was still in a pretty bad place mentally, commitment was something my bipolar disorder had taught me to avoid at all costs, and my perfectionism amplified the stress of being a student by about 1,0784,822,619 times. I felt immense amounts of guilt over not being more fulfilled as a mother. I was irritable. My anxiety reached all new highs. I was positive I would fail all of my classes. I didn’t see how I could possibly survive this.
However, for both of the semesters of prerequisite classes, I had one stressful online class and one traditional class in which I made friends. During each of these classes, I discovered people who chose to be around me and seemed to genuinely enjoy being in my presence. For the past several years I had been convinced that everyone in my life was only in it out of guilt. My new classmates had no obligation to me, however. And knowing that their interactions with me were voluntary opened up the possibility that perhaps I am likable and worth loving. The positive interactions during these class times got me through week to week.
I didn’t take any classes from January to August of last year, as I finished the application process and waited for the program to begin in the fall. My mood (and my hope) started to drop again. This past summer brought several unexpected and painful challenges unrelated to school. Fortunately, I was offered a job at the clinic where I was receiving physical therapy. This job was similar to school: it brought massive amounts of stress and anxiety, but was also very rewarding through interacting with patients and coworkers and finding that they were somehow (this is still difficult for me to believe or understand) happy to be around me.
A Magic Switch
I was accepted into my program and began classes in August. The challenges of the summer had brought me to a very low point and again, I couldn’t see how this could possibly be the answer for me. I thought about dropping out nearly every single day. But I enjoyed learning and being around my classmates, so I kept showing up.
About a month and a half in, I had a horrible weekend. School stress was piling on, my children were struggling, I was still coping with aftermath from the summer drama, etc. I was again plagued with thoughts and plans of suicide and I even cut myself again after nearly a year and a half of being self-harm free. I went back to school that Monday in a terrible state. Normally, I am at least somewhat rejuvenated by being around other people. When things are this bad however, it is physically painful to be among humans and attempt to even remotely hold myself together.
Even though I had been struggling since school began, I had been fairly upbeat and engaged with my learning and my classmates. They were quick to notice the change in my demeanor and many showed concern. I did my best to dispel their concerns and act okay, but I didn’t succeed. Finally, a day or two later, I shared with some of them the details of my illness and the resulting dips in my mood.
My classmates responded with kindness, acceptance, and friendship. I have verbally shared details of my illness with friends before, but I always had the luxury of withdrawing to the safety of my private space when things were visibly bad. In this way I felt I was protecting myself and my friends because no one ever saw my illness. But now I realized I couldn’t spend 8 or more hours a day with these people for the next 16 months and pretend to be fine during the times that it hurt.
That moment was sort of like a magical switch in my brain. My depression stuck around for another week or two, but the physical pain left within hours of confiding in my classmates. I didn’t suddenly become happier. Rather, it gradually became easier for me to choose to be happier.
I love being around my classmates. I’m fortunate to be in a cohort with 17 kind people and I like them all. How many people get to spend the majority of their day surrounded by friends? I’m lifted by the positive energy they bring into my life.
The photo at the top of this post is me with most of my classmates. It’s perfect because in it they are actually lifting me up. That was not planned. In fact, at the time the photo was taken, I wasn’t even sure who it was that was lifting me. But I trust them, so I wasn’t concerned by this. I can’t think of a better image to portray the influence of these kind people in my life.
I still have rough days and I still have crazy anxiety. I still question nearly every day why my classmates seem to like me and enjoy being around me. Many days, on my drive home, I have what I call “mini bipolar bursts” where the anxiety, depression, and irritability threaten to take over. And I still have massive amounts of guilt over not being 100% happy with the beautiful family I have with my amazing husband.
BUT—my mood is the most stable it has been in years. I have far more rational thoughts than irrational. My irritability has dropped significantly. I finally feel like “myself” again after years of feeling like a stranger inside my own skin. I feel like I have good friends and that I am a good friend. I’ve rediscovered my love for people in general and I am finally finding fulfillment during the times I am with my children.
I used to hurt while I was with my children. I knew that I “should” feel happy to have them and to be with them. However, when I watched them I felt like there was a thick pane of glass between me and them. It hurt so badly. Now, I feel like I’m finally on the inside with them. I get to soak in the joy that radiates from them and between us. When I get home after one of my “mini bipolar bursts”, being around them calms me down again. Being around them makes it easier for me choose to be happier.
I just experienced my first Christmas not clouded by depression since 2002. It wasn’t a perfect day, but I was happy. And that was enough.
So, I’m not proposing that a dramatic lifestyle change will cure bipolar. Life is still hard and sometimes scary. But I’m beginning to think maybe I’m not like that burning house. I’m finally daring to hope that I might actually grow to be an old lady who can find happiness. That is something I never thought possible. And that too, is enough.