“The beautiful thing about setbacks is they introduce us to our strength.” – Robin Sharma
Developing bipolar and having a sudden decline in mental health in my mid-twenties was a bit like having the wind knocked out of me. Everything was turned upside down when I reached the varying states of mania. But sometimes, creativity, and productivity was on the other side of the bipolar experience. I would touch grief and trauma and sit with it too, not fighting the feelings, but attributing them to having a state of depression. None of this had been problematic for most of my life.
It was 2015. I was 25 years old. I had just ended therapy with my therapist as she deemed me completely stable. She even gave me a hug and welcomed me to stability. There may have been signs my whole life of being bipolar but it wasn’t apparent. I may have needed emotional regulation before this, but I coped with yoga, writing, meditation, my faith, and talking to someone. These activities continued to help me, but they were not enough in the long-term. I had to eventually accept that I need medication and that management of my mental health was a lifelong journey.
I never had such symptoms of paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, and insomnia until my first hospitalization due to psychosis. It started one night when I couldn’t sleep, and I started to enter the psychosis. I thought my life was at risk for no reason. Rationality ran from me while I tried to reason through the mental health crisis. I thought my own mother was after me. I thought the police were working with me. I thought people were wearing wires and “testing” me like I was some sort of spy. I thought I was a human lie detector and then I misread body language.
My bipolar was now considered atypical because of the extreme symptoms experienced during mania, but they said my recovery was very bipolar. And it took a while for the delusions to break.
Hospitalizations for atypical bipolar disorder 1 were isolating and unsettling. This happened to me twice, once in December 2015 and then again in October 2017. In both cases, I not only stayed at a psych ward for a month, but I stayed at a long-term structured residence (LTSR) for five months at a time. After the second time at the LTSR, I was also enrolled in psych rehab for a few months. These experiences were disorienting, to say the least. It was a relief to come back to myself and to my real life which did not happen overnight, but the damage had been done.
I was isolated and alone for so long. What did I have left? I had lost so much time to inpatient facilities and programs. Time was the biggest loss due to my symptoms and experiences with bipolar. And I missed the life I once had, full of networking, event attending, meeting up with friends, and working.
When I did return to life outside hospitals, I learned that I needed to completely rebuild and start over. I was on disability with no ability to save money, no job, and no one in my life who really understood my experiences. I had to recenter myself and rise. I had to rebuild my life.
I rebuilt my life learning a few things:
1. Self-Advocacy Saved Me
I was unable to truly use my voice when in psychosis or ask for what I needed. But what I did do was simply say what I was experiencing. I didn’t know what was going on at first, but I described my symptoms such as insomnia to the doctors at the psych ward. This continued as I came back to myself, when I was put on medication that made me lethargic, gave me weight gain, made me move more slowly, nauseous and the worst, have swallowing issues. I was scared the whole time, but I kept asking for help.
We have to ask for help when we need it.
All I did even when I did not know where I was going or what would happen was say what was wrong. I let go of shame and let my intuition guide me. In the spring of 2019, I found the right psychiatrist and therapist for me. It took years of searching. But that’s the point: If you never give up, you may find the right things. July 2019 is when the swallowing issue started. And that took 8 months and three medications to go through to figure out. I just had to persevere. When I was at the LTSR, they always said “Speak up!” If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here today. We have to ask for help when we need it.
2. Humans Need Humanity
When I was in the inpatient facilities, I was isolated and unable to connect with other patients. They were either emotionally unstable or still having symptoms of psychosis or other mental health symptoms. Some tried to use me, such as for money, or it was completely one-sided. In therapy, I was able to tell them how I felt, but this wasn’t enough to fulfill me. That’s what makes these situations hard, but if you learn to give yourself compassion as you would another, it eases that difficulty. Hold space for someone as you would want them to hold space with you. Have boundaries. Know your limits. Do not just say “yes” to everything while going through a hard time. Rely on yourself for love and knowledge of your worth.
I learned who my true friends were. I strengthened the relationships that remained through my mental health crisis. I let go of the ones that no longer served me. And I learned that humans need humanity. We need check ins. We need positive supports. If you know who your positive supports are, that’s half the battle. Hopefully, you’ll never have to utilize them for intervention, but if you do, you know to rely on those you trust. Connection means everything. It is undervalued sometimes. We have to foster those connections. We have to foster our own humanity. We cannot forget it, lest we forget everything.
3. Containment Exercise
Try the containment exercise meditation: Imagine a container. Think of what it looks like and how it feels in your hands. Give it a name. Then, put negative thoughts and feelings into this container. Lastly, put it somewhere safe. Bury it, store it, or put it in a safe.
This exercise helped me because I worry a lot. I worried about being in a psych ward, LTSR, applying for disability, being on disability, my symptoms, medication side effects, and life in general. What people don’t realize about those with mental health diagnosis (or anyone in general) is just because you’re told to rest and recover doesn’t mean that’s what you’re doing. Disability does not mean rest. I was often emotionally and mentally exhausted from trying to figure my pills, doctors, therapists, and overall life out.
I would have had nowhere to go without having the delusions let up. I was afraid of my mom. I was afraid she was just after me. I was afraid to move in with her. I was afraid of being stuck at the group home. And luckily, my fear didn’t come true. But that’s the thing about delusions–they’re heartbreaking. I had to separate myself from what my mind and heart would try to tell me, even then. I had to learn I couldn’t rely on my mind completely, that the noise was rumination and worry; I thought if I let that go, that meant it wouldn’t get solved. I didn’t wake from my delusions right away, but this method taught me to cope with unwelcome thoughts.
When I learned I could put my thoughts and emotions somewhere safe, I was free. I could “take a vacation from my thoughts.” I could live again. I could finally breathe.
4. End Stigma
I felt shame when I was diagnosed. I thought that it invalidated me to have a mental illness. I thought it meant that I was no longer in control of ANYTHING. How could I have a voice when for a long time my mind was delusional? How could anyone trust me if I could not trust myself?
With medication, psychotherapy, meditation, and time, I began to let friends and family in more on what I had been through. I decided to tell them openly I was on disability; I was bipolar. I found that they didn’t have a reaction like I thought they would. They understood. They didn’t judge. There may have been some misconceptions, for example I was asked when I would start working again soon after my relapse. They didn’t realize my rising was slow, but I was still accomplishing things like writing, volunteering, and networking. I wasn’t ready for a job until my medications were straightened out, and that took a long time. As mentioned, I wasn’t just resting either. I kept working on myself. It wasn’t easy for me to be on disability. But I started to say I was bipolar nonchalantly.
“Are you coming from work?” A dentist asked me once to make small talk.
“No. I’m actually on disability.”
“Oh, what kind of disability?” I did not refuse to answer, saying that was personal information, but I certainly could have. Instead, I said truthfully, “Bipolar.”
And that was that. Variations of this conversation happened, some with inappropriate probing into my personal life and some not, in many arenas. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’m in between jobs right now” as the LTSR suggested we do, I said what was true. But there is nothing wrong with doing either. Challenge yourself as far as you can go. Stick with your comfort level. I strayed outside of mine and found authenticity. I started to not only say I had bipolar, I started to talk more about. I started to share my story. I started to use it to help others. I began writing self help and never looked back.
I now am stable, on the right medications, and with the right help, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still worry from time to time how people may perceive me. I recognize that 1) It’s no one’s business truly, and I can share what I like or not and 2) Stigma starts in shame.
I had to end stigma by ending the shame about it. The more comfortable I was with it, the more others would be comfortable with it too. In that way, I would empower anyone to share their struggles because I’ve dealt with my fair share. I let myself be learned from, and I’m okay with that. Self-advocating led me to a place I could be a “Go To” for some others due to my experience with mental health.
I believe we can make meaning out of our lives by self-advocating, knowing humans need humanity, using the containment exercise, and ending stigma. Anyone can have a mental illness. Mental illnesses do not discriminate. And mental health struggles can happen to anyone, with a mental illness and without.
My bipolar taught me to use my voice, to have perseverance, that I need positive supports, not to over-identify with my thoughts and feelings, and that I need to eradicate shame in all its forms.
Life will always have its ups and downs, but managing mental health doesn’t have to be an impossible feat. You are not alone.
Healing can also happen, but it doesn’t happen over night. It took me over 5 years to find my footing. It took months of going through medication trials. It took everything in me. But I know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Everything could change tomorrow. That’s why I keep going, and doing so has paid off.
Life will always have its ups and downs, but managing mental health doesn’t have to be an impossible feat. You are not alone. Own who you are and tell your story. You could help someone else just by being you. You could make a difference right now, as you are today, by being open about your needs and who you are. That’s what I’ve learned, and I am better for it.
About the Author
Sarah Jeanne Browne is writer, speaker, and activist. She is a self-help writer who has also been published on Lifehack, Tiny Buddha, Thrive Global, Elephant Journal, and more. She has led workshops for youth for The Peal Center, Pennsylvania Youth Leadership Network, and The Woodlands Foundation. Sarah utilizes her experiences with bipolar to help foster better understandings of mental health to end stigma. Sarah promotes the art of authenticity, individuality, and how to surrender or let go. She is authoring a new adult fiction novel, self help book, memoir, and children’s book. Her website is www.sarahjeannebrowne.com and you can follow her on Twitter @SarahJBrowne or on Facebook @sarahjsocialjustice.
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