The phrase ‘Self Management’ is thrown around freely by users and Professionals as being key to recovery and relapse prevention. Some people with Bipolar Disorder seem to have it nailed. They have good self management routines that work for them and are vital to their recovery. From what I read in peoples tweets and self reports they just need to odd tweak, redirection, refocus to a particular area or time out to attend to them and keep them going. To me, these are the lucky ones. I know they will have worked hard at it but my circumstances have not permitted it, I am not one of these people.
My Bipolar Disorder is Rapid Cycling. I have frequent episodes of Severe Bipolar Depression across the year interspersed with a week or two of mania either before or after. I have found it extremely hard to set up a robust self management plan. Even after many many years of illness and all the knowledge I have gained with it. In my opinion, setting up self management is easier when you are well. Although you can start with small steps when you are ill and develop further in recovery. The more robust it becomes when well the more you can draw on it when well. My problem has been not being well for long enough to set up a robust routine.
After an episode, I am dealing with residual symptoms, picking up the pieces my illness has left behind and attending to neglected business, admin, cleaning, seeing people, giving extra attention to my daughter and compensating for the impact that my have occurred when ill. I can’t fully immerse myself in a me programme. But I am starting to see how I can do both. How it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to read like the literature you might be given, it doesn’t have to be perfect and a few changes can make a big difference.
I went on a 10 week self management course a couple of years ago. It was full of ideas. It covered every possible aspect of the illness and every possible strategy to deal with it. It covered everything you could do to prevent and deal with Depression and Mania. There was handout after handout. It was good information but it was like a full time job. You could tell it was written by a Psychologist and not by someone who actually suffers the illness. For me self management needs to be realistic. We can do more but we needn’t do everything, most of us can’t do everything and it needn’t be perfect otherwise it becomes stressful in itself, we end up doing nothing and we don’t try. We feel like we have failed. That is my experience anyway.
In this article I would like to explore self management recommendations and share what I have done with them to prompt you to think what you could do with them to make them your own. Are there small changes you could make without having a complete life overhaul when you are too ill to get out of bed or trying to completely change the way you live when people without this debilitating illness find such things difficult let alone people with Bipolar Disorder and the additional challenges we face from day to day.
It is recommended that we follow a ‘healthy diet’. This would be 3 meals a day with a mix of food groups, protein, carbohydrate and your 5 a day of fruit and vegetables.
That’s quite a standard recommendation and my eyes almost glaze over when I read it. It’s also not very realistic for me. When I am depressed I have little appetite and if I do have appetite it is for sugar in the form of sweets and chocolate. Obviously this is unhelpful as it causes such dips and rises in energy, along with the copious amounts of coffee I reach for.
There must be a middle way. I decided since I don’t mind breakfast I would always try to have that. If I am depressed it will be toast smothered in something sweet. If I am motivated I might make muesli with some yohgurt and berries or some Porridge. If I am in between I’ll grab a bowl of standard non sugary cereal like cornflakes, Weetabix or Special K.
Lunch I just can’t seem to do. I spoke to a dietician about this as I am seeing one for IBS. I told her how lunch is usually a piece of cake or chocolate. I’m rarely motivated for lunch. It is too much for me to be thinking about making two meals a day. She wasn’t overly bothered about me skipping lunch. But we did discuss swapping my snacks. I’m now having the Nairns Oat Biscuits they do sweet ones like Chocolate Chip, Graze do good snacks, Sesame snaps. She has encouraged me to think about making eggs on toast for lunch for lunch as it’s easy and I’ve done this a number of times or even in the morning. But she’s not pushing the standard blanket dietary plan or insisting on a standard lunch and this flexibility is helpful as it makes me feel satisfied that I’m doing ok.
I always make sure I have one balanced meal a day that fits the criteria in the evening. Then I make sure I get all the food groups. I’m not always getting my five a day but I’m getting some fruit and vegetables and taking vitamins. I do hope to improve but I’m not stressing on it. It could be worse.
My motto for this article could be:
IMPROVEMENT NOT PERFECTION
And that would apply to many of the things we are talking about. You might be given a recommendation but for the first time I’ve started just doing what I can do not trying to do what’s on the list. In the past looking at the recommendation has often lead me to doing nothing or making no changes at all as it’s just too much.
What recommendations do we see?
30 minutes 3-5 times per week?????
Join the gym?????
Do a Yoga class?????
Those tend to be the standard recommendations and if they work for you great but I’m writing here for the people who don’t get on with these standard recommendations. My recommendation would be whatever you can manage although I do recommend trying to put it into a routine.
I’ve tried many forms of exercise only to be thwarted by an episode, unable to carry on and not returning to it afterwards. I’ve had gym programmes, yoga programmes of various types. I’ve reduced the pressure now and am keeping it simple. Walking. Something I hope I can continue on some level if I am ill and really step up when I am well. I started when I was ill just walking with my daughter to school 10 minutes per day. I also walked for a while with a friend but I found I didn’t like keeping up with her pace, the social pressure or being linked with someone else’s routines. I am now walking someone’s dog. It is amazing. I get to walk for over an hour, it is mindful, the forest is beautiful in the morning, the ground under my feet, and it is pet therapy. I started by putting two slots per week in my diary and was getting so much mental and physical benefit I increased it to four times per week. It is also a great way to notice what is going on with your thoughts and slow them down.
At some point I will add a resistance routine at the gym maybe twice a week at least that is a casual goal. But for now I’m taking things at my own pace and not putting any pressure on myself. I want to establish things, feel happy, feel relaxed.
Ok so I feel obliged to describe textbook self management for sleep routines as mine isn’t very good. I’m fortunate that my sleep isn’t overly bad. When it is I take sleeping pills. Evenings are difficult for me. I’m usually very tired by the time I’ve finished dealing with with my daughter and just getting through the day. I also often feel anxious which I think is something to do with the loss of my husband and being alone at night. So often in the evening I want to go to bed soon after my daughter meaning I haven’t had much wind down time or time to do anything nice at home. I do force myself to read a little in bed which I find is a great way to slow things down. When I turn out the lights if my mind is still going I try to do a mental gratitude list as a distraction and often fall asleep doing it. But in honesty if my thoughts are really too fast or I can’t sleep I will medicate.
Disturbed sleep can have a profound consequence to those with Bipolar Disorder and it is important to have a healthy sleep routine. Self management experts suggest you:
Reduce activity before bed
Read or listen to music or the radio at low volume
Reduce screen time-I did actually put a timer for my phone to go off at 9.30pm
Have a warm bath with herbs (Lavender Rosemary Lemongrass)
Make sure your bed is warm and comfortable
Empty your head of ruminations or plans onto paper
Do not drink Caffeine 3-4 hours before bed instead try a milky drink
Do not eat rich food in the evening
Use images of tranquil places if you can’t sleep
I have tried to list suggestions that I actually agree with that are practical and don’t require too much effort. For me a bath at night would be a lot of effort but I might use a Lavender oil burner as an alternative.
Activity level is probably the key self management tool in Depression and one of the most difficult to implement due to difficulties with motivation, energy, fatigue. But manageing it can have powerful effects. I am familiar myself with thoughts of:
“I should be” followed by
“I don’t want to”
“I can’t be bothered”
“I can’t face it”
“I can’t move”
I also find that staying focused for long enough to initiate activity can be difficult so even if I get close to making a decision to doing something, I get ‘stuck’ where I am, in my thoughts, unable to move and have to start the whole process of self persuasion all over again.
According to the experts, activities in Depression should be balanced around pleasure and achievement. For me, activities should be based around whatever it is you can manage. I find that managing to do some simple activities will automatically bring some pleasure. Achievement brings a sense of pleasure in itself. I tend to think about trying to do ANYTHING I can realistically do.
I was looking at one of my handouts from the self management course and there are two pages of things you could do for self care and pleasure and there is not one of them I could do in a depressive episode. So perhaps we need to be thinking about what is our self management when depressed and how can we step it up when we are well.
For example trying to watch a movie at home for pleasure when depressed and going out to the Cinema when well and trying to maintain. Looking up some art that interests you on the internet when depressed, going to a gallery when well. Washing your hair when ill, going to the hairdressers when well. Speaking to a friend by text or phone when ill, having them over for a cup of tea as you are improving.
So back to self management in episode. There are two approaches I have taken so I will share both. The first is scheduling which I do in half day portions. When I have managed to get up, I will divide the time I have into manageable segments and assign activities to the time segments. Activity is stimulating when you are Depressed and that is what is needed most. It might look like this-
10-10.45 shower dress make bed
11-11.45 wash up and tidy surfaces
11.45-12.45 internet food shop
They may look like incredibly boring, pleasureless tasks, but I’ve found in Depression they can be very rewarding. My environment gets completely chaotic when my mood is low. These are big achievements. I find that once I’ve done one it is easier to move on to the next. It’s getting started that’s the thing. There are always many outstanding things to do as usually I’ve gotten behind on things on my way into a depression so I don’t usually run out of things to do. It is good to add some relaxing pleasure options in too like reading or craft if you do craft whatever your interests are.
I don’t always complete the list. I don’t always do it in order. But it gets me moving and I get some things done. I can’t do this when I’m so depressed I’m nearly Catatonic but there’s a point in Depression where I can start to push myself. This is a starting point to recovery. A starting point to self management. The building bricks to the next steps of being able to do things outdoors. In the meantime you are functioning at home, getting your home life back together, feeling some accomplishments, moving around, finding some pleasure, gathering strength, suprising yourself in what you can do.
The pleasure and sense of achievement you get from your morning list often gives you some motivation and energy that you can use to do some ‘nice’ things for yourself or with yourself in the afternoon.
These days I don’t always use the schedule. I either just write a list with a few things on it or I just start being active. But on reflection the scheduling is less chaotic and more gets achieved. Things work better if I do use it. There will always be a call to go back to bed. For me anyway. And I don’t deny myself that if I have made some achievements. But I try to put a limit on it. I get a certain amount of things done. I set an alarm and give myself a specific amount of time and then try to get up again. This can be difficult and a bit of a setback but with the fatigue of depression sometimes I don’t really have an alternative.
It’s an overused suggestion but still a good one, that finding a creative activity helps. Anything will do. I’m not skilled at all but I’ve tried various things at home, drawing and painting, sticking sequins into a pattern onto a piece of wood with wood glue. This last episode I found collaging. I went onto a recycling website and got people to send me their old magazines and made collages depicting depression and mania. It was so therapeutic cutting out all the words and images and arranging them how I wanted to.
In terms of contact with other people I don’t have much. I have one person who I text regularly throughout my episode who understands me best. Family aren’t nearby. There isn’t really anyone to come over. I probably would allow a close friend over for a cup of tea. I’d probably find it difficult to go out. But that could be a goal. If I’d managed to shower and dress on the schedule then it would be a possibility. This is an area I would benefit from looking at. Using the small social network I have.
As I do more inside I find gradually my ability to do more outside returns. I’ll gradually start going to the shops, post office, seeing people. So keeping some self management during an episode is clearly important. Activity when well will depend whether you are working, volunteering, what other commitments you have. Balancing activity is of course important to reduce risk of hypomania. I was working until my husband died of Cancer. Since then I have been Volunteering in a school for the Deaf, writing and keeping busy as a Mum and trying to self manage.
I do recommend some sort of work for self-esteem, sense of accomplishment and mastery, a role. Even just a few hours a week. It also provides social interaction if your social contacts are limited. There is something very valuable about giving. There are many exciting volunteer options it can inspire you for your future. I don’t think self management can be all about pleasure, exercise, sleep and getting your diet right. Those things are key. But for me, my life can’t be all about that. Even with all the time in the world I’d never get it perfect so I might as well put some other things in my life too. There will never come a time that you’ve got it all so right that you can add something else. Maybe paid work needs to be at the right time but volunteering for a few hours you need to be well enough to do it but not perfect.
The good thing about volunteering is you can walk away if you become unwell. That is the reason I haven’t taken a permanent job presently. I need a longer remission time to feel confident enough to do that. But the self management is developing and I’m happy with that. Finally I’m away from my all or nothing approach and I’m allowing myself to bring things into action at my own pace. But it’s allowed me to explore new skills like writing. I would never have written a book if I’d been in my permanent job although I do need to get off my backside and find a publisher.
Managing activity in Mania/Hypomania is more challenging in some respects. Everything is going so fast, you are so full of ideas and energy of motivation, getting so many things done, you are faced with the opposite task of trying to slow down and reduce activity. You also need to have spotted it. Not only spotted it but be willing to change it. I think a willingness to change it must come from knowing the consequences of what will happen if you don’t. In NA Narcotics Anonymous they have a phrase, their definition of insanity as being:
“DOING THE SAME THING AGAIN AND AGAIN EXPECTING DIFFERENT RESULTS”
Not managing Mania effectively will nearly always end in disaster. So it is vital to attend to early warning signs and act accordingly. I fully understand the desire to go along with the buzz, to go along with the creativity, the productivity, but the end result is never good. And the symptoms often become unpleasant as the mood elevates in any case. So as soon as you notice your mood elevating is an ideal time to do a costs and benefits evaluation as a sort of reality check. You can keep coming back to this as the desire to override your management strategies comes into play.
Useful management strategies can be:
Reducing activity level
Making time for calming activities
Simplify your routine and stick to it
Using the word “STOP” internally if you notice thoughts racing or activity level increasing again and find something else to focus on
Try to eat regularly
Practice listening to the person you are with instead of talking, sit on your hands, look at their face, tell yourself to listen
Don’t make any big decisions without seeking 3rd party advice
If you are excited by a plan or an idea, wait 48 hours before making a decision. Write the idea in a book with advantages and disadvantages
Controlling stimulation through your five senses is also something you can employ. For example:
Sight-You may like to simply sit and close your eyes to reduce stimulation. Sitting and watching a candle can help. Or imagining a peaceful scene.
Smell-I am a great fan of Lavender oil. Recently my mood was elevated and I couldn’t find the burner. I was desperately trying to slow myself down so I simply lay on the sofa and periodically inhaled it from the bottle. You may have your own calming scents.
Taste-Some people find certain drinks calming. I am not one of those people but I know people who really do find relaxing teas and milky drinks another useful addition.
Sound-Music can have a profound effect on mood. When my mood was elevated recently I didn’t realise quite how much the music I was listening to was elevating it further. Relaxing music is good, at a low volume or even apps with relaxing sounds. Some people might like to lay down with ear plugs in to shut out stimulation completely.
Touch-Can be used in a number of ways. Pets are wonderful. If you don’t have a pet then a sensory art material. Not to make something just to squeeze or mould, clay for example. Or even a decent stress ball. Swimming if its done calmly, mindfully focusing on the water. Or a massage as long as you are clear it should be relaxing and calming. Finally that good old failsafe a warm bath. I always find it a predictable suggestion but you can treat yourself to something really sensory from Lush or some other kind of addition that will turn it into a spa like experience. I find if my mood is elevated I have to force myself to stay in and benefit from it. To get the benefit from a Lavender oil bath you need to lay there for 20 minutes.
If none of it works and you have emergency medication, don’t forget to use it.
Watching for triggers
Negative thinking is probably the biggest trigger for depression and the biggest maintaining factor. CBT is really helpful but again in episode most people don’t want to get out a pad of paper and fill out all the columns to analyse a particular thought. If you can use the STOP technique here that I introduced in mania. So you notice yourself ruminating on “She didn’t text back, she doesn’t like me anymore, she thinks I’m a freak”. If you can put a STOP in and just ask yourself “Is there any other possible reason why he didn’t text?” You might then find yourself able to say “Oh yes she has a full time job where he is a manager, he is caring for his sick Mum, he has a football match today, he is taking his son after school”.
It might not be enough, you might still be waiting for that text. You might need to repeat the process the same day. You might need to ask yourself “What is the evidence he likes me?”. Play around with the idea. But putting a STOP in and forcing yourself to reframe can help. At least it works for me. Another thing that works for me to a degree is trying to limit rumination time. I say to a degree as its hard to implement. But set 2 times e.g 11am and 5pm. These are your worry times where you have 10-15 minutes to ruminate. The rest of the time you need to use the STOP technique and say no it’s not time, I’m doing ………whatever your doing now and worry time is later.
Anxiety for me comes in the form of shallow breathing mostly and a feeling of unease and I need to address it more consistently as I tend to push on with it until it triggers depression. Although now I’ve seen that happen I’m being more mindful. The only things I’ve found useful for my anxiety are sitting down, laying down, following my natural breath in these positions, and writing a journal.
Perfectionism-I’m putting this in, not because it’s so much of an issue for me now but it used to be so I guess it’s been part of my journey. Someone mentioned to me that it’s a common trait in people with Bipolar Disorder. I don’t know if this is true but what I am going to say is relevant whether it is or not. It is simply about your best being good enough. My self management is more helpful to my illness now I have accepted that. My ideals for it used to be so high that if I didn’t meet them I felt like I had failed and wasn’t helping myself.
You would think I would have covered this already. The reality is, I’ve done Mindfulness courses, read Mindfulness books, I know how to do Mindfulness. It can be of enormous value as a treatment support in Bipolar Disorder so if you can do it and it suits you, your Physician supports it and you like it that’s wonderful.
The reality for me is that often I didn’t really like it. I had a few experiences of unpleasant imagery and it just wasn’t for me. But I don’t think that was the main reason it didn’t work, it was just the timing and my ability to be disciplined to incorporate something like that into my home life.
For me I am exploring how to find mindfulness in different ways. Walking meditation is an accepted for of mindfulness for example. This I love. On the commons, in the forests. Mindfulness that isn’t of the traditional lying down sort is something I would like to explore further.
But it doesn’t have to have the ‘Mindfulness’ label. Basically any form of relaxation can help with Bipolar Disorder and is worth exploring and you will proabably be more inspirational than I am at getting it into your routine.
It is recommended that you build up from 5 mins 10 mins 15 mins a day etc It is supposed to be a daily practice. But again we are not in the business of setting expectations and failure. See what you can do.
At the end of this article I am attaching a basic sort Mindfulness exercise I do like. You could use this for both polarities and as a STOP exercise for negative ruminations.
On my walks on he common, I find I naturally step into a mindfulness section when I am ready. I become aware of the birds, the trees, the terrain, the sky, the weather. I’m combining this with the use of positive affirmations and it is having excellent results. I complete feeling peaceful and contented.
Protective Factors refer to the things that protect you from becoming unwell or help you to recover more quickly or in some case keep you alive, I am talking about my own case and that is my little girl.
I’m going to write a list of some general protective factors but it might be worth thinking about any that are specific to you that are not on the list.
Taking medication regularly
Contact with family
Contact with friends
Contact with an animal
Regular routines (sleeping, eating)
Being organised/avoiding chaos
Not taking on too much
Taking a regular break/time out/holiday
Keeping a journal
Taking part in regular exercise
Enjoying a regular hobby
Forward planning for celebrations/holidays etc
MOOD RATING SCALE
Getting to know a mood rating scale if you don’t already, can be really helpful both to identify when you are going up or slipping down and also to communicate with Professionals as they should be familiar with them and if they are not you can share. This one from Bipolar UK (see below) is easy to use and you can always make a more personal version with your own specific symptoms. If you use the mood rating scale, you can make timely interventions in terms of increasing your activity level or decreasing it and be mindful of keeping your self-management approaches established.
It is hoped that if you are well you will now be:
Making some improvement to your diet
Introducing some exercise to your week
Be ready to maintain structure when you are Depressed and increase activity when you are well
Be proactive at sensibly managing a hypomanic mood
Be proactive at maintaining good sleep hygiene
Have some simple strategies for dealing with other triggers
Explore using a Mood Rating Scale if you haven’t already
Trying a Mindfulness Meditation
Which is probably a good place to end. So if you came to this article thinking your self management wasn’t very good I suppose there are many different possible outcomes. You may be thinking actually it’s not bad, it’s better than hers in which case good for you. Or maybe you found this article helpful and as I intended feel the subject has been a little demystified. And more importantly you can see with an illness like Bipolar Disorder you don’t have to do it perfectly, any effort will have a positive benefit and is a starting place from which you can develop who knows into an athlete or an expert on diet or outstanding at a particular thing. But to me you need to lay the seeds you are capable of laying at a particular time remembering things go up and things go down. If this has helped one person that is good.
Ideas explored deeply in my upcoming book “Finding My Sorrow-A Memoir Of Extraordinary Love & Journey In Grief & Bipolar Disorder”.
Grief in those with pre-existing Bipolar Disorder is an area which is poorly addressed in terms of literature, understanding and practical support. Grief Counselling for Bipolar Disorder should be provided by someone not only trained in Grief Counselling but also someone who has a good knowledge of the condition. These people are hard to find and often sufferers are referred to standard bereavement services and it is pot luck who they are assigned if they get any help at all.
You will hear in my story how much of a trigger grief became for me. It is widely stated and obvious that “grief is a trigger” with bereavement being such a stressful and traumatic event but the impact of it and medium-long term effects on the illness has not been explored in detail in the mainstream. This prompted my own analysis and I have come up with a theory.
I will be interested to find if this resonates with any other users as they examine their own journeys. I appreciate everyone is different even within their Bipolar Disorder so am sure there will be many stories but I believe my simple proposition makes obvious sense.
If you find, particularly with reference to Bipolar Depression that the ideas make sense to you, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org as I am collecting a list of future interest for sharing thoughts on it with a view to possible workshops on self managing this area. This is simply as an expression of interest or to share your thoughts. It is completely confidential.
In 2015, I was living with my soul mate, a happy somewhat insular life with our beautiful then 6 year old daughter. I was working 16 hours as a Speech & Language Therapist and after a somewhat yo yo pattern of sickness, had achieved some stability and was in work regularly and working hard.
In 2015, after prolonged pains in his bones and back, my husband received a Cancer diagnosis with months to live. Within 10 weeks he had a Basilar Artery stroke as a treatment complication, went into a coma. After a week we were told he would never wake up and the life support was withdrawn. I became a lone parent Widow.
My initial response, was typical, survival instincts, organising, getting things done, attending to my daughter. Shortly after this the Grief came. I attended counselling for 12 sessions and felt things were resolved. Then I almost felt cured and left with a sense of elation and gratitude. I carried this gratitude for the next couple of years, rarely revisiting grief. Making trips round the world, Barbados, New York, Florida. Paul would have wanted us to be doing this I would say. Everyone I met I had a gratitude speech ready about my life with Paul. I started taking my daughter to festivals and gigs. Let’s live for today, let’s enjoy now. We barely had a moment to breathe I was always booking something. I never felt any bitterness or anger only thanks for what we had.
But there was also the reality of my illness. These euphoric jaunts were punctuated with frequent crippling depressions. I’ve never had obvious triggers so initially I just accepted them as part of my rapid cycling. Finally I had to see that the frequency had increased and despite optimum medication intervention they were continuing to arise. Grief was a trigger, grief was triggering episodes. But what Grief? Where was it?
This was answered when my husband’s Mum died. I had an excessive response and was dissolved into a state of grief that wasn’t moving after the funeral and beyond. It was classic delayed grief. I returned to Grief Counselling. It was my gift that the counsellor was a trained Psychologist with good knowledge on Bipolar Disorder as well as an excellent grief therapist. I saw him for 4 months and whilst I was doing this my theory on Grief and Bipolar Disorder emerged.
I believe Bipolar Disorder itself delays grief. Due to the emotional extremes we experience there is little space for grieving to take place. This would be especially true for someone who rapid cycles or suffers repeated episodes across the year. There is a clear and distinct difference between Grief and Depression. When we are in a state of Depression we are out of touch with Grief. It is not accessible due to numbness and disconnection from feelings. When our mood is elevated we are so concerned with euphoric, happy or creative goal driven distractions, it is also nigh impossible to access Grief. We may only see glimpses of Grief in either of these states and then it disappears. Or more likely may not notice the presence of Grief at all but it is likely that it is there.
Then in the periods of remission I am usually slightly above normal mood and full of gratitude to be back to health, recovering, catching up etc, there is not room for Grief there either. So when do people with Bipolar Disorder go through a Grief process? Particularly those who have Rapid Cycling. We need to find a way to over ride the mood symptoms so we can grieve properly. Find simple techniques to observe and process the Grief despite the mood symptoms so we can move on and avoid being stuck in a never ending cycle of hidden Grief triggered episodes. In my case I have done that whilst writing my book with live examples during illness. It is an ongoing process but now I have the simple strategy underway I believe I can reduce the number of Grief triggered episodes as I am working through my grief. It is not sitting under the illness anymore. I have brought it into the present.
The bare bones of the strategy is simply coming to the awareness. Not just intellectually but on a practical, psychological and physiological level. Grief needs space. You need to train yourself despite manic symptoms, despite depressive symptoms, to notice where grief is trying to break through. For example that sense of unease in your stomach like something is wrong. I find I experience anxiety which if I stop and employ certain strategies like stopping and sitting and checking in with myself and trying to identify the source, if it is Grief related which it usually is, I may start crying and become aware of my thoughts around my loss. Whereas the typical response I might normally have is to keep moving.
When feeling depressed just forcing a 5 minute check in many of the days on a week as I can manage, writing at the top of the page “How am I” can have a profound effect at connecting me with my feelings. The other thing with Depression is the tendency to curl up and roll over and ignore any discomfort of feeling. Just focusing on it for 5 minutes can help to connect with reality and see if there is a grief component. The Manic response is to be constantly moving onto something, something that needs doing and something more interesting. But again it is possible to ground and find your Grief by making some space.
Simple things to try:
Activity 1 When anxious/when depressed/when manic/just because! Making a focused time. Sit and do nothing but be present. Stay exactly where you are for 5 minutes, see what comes. It’s very simple. It’s all about making space. I would bet it will be tears. We have a lot of unspent tears and need to allow them to come out in the spaces we will make for them in order to override the effects of Bipolar on grief and allow that grief to be released.
Activity 2 for daily practice 5 minutes journal time “How am I?” check in with yourself. As little or as much as you want to write. But make that check in.
These are not rocket science. But actually when you are in a state of Bipolar illness do you need rocket science? These simple strategies work and have facilitated my Grief process enormously. These are the main two strategies I am using. When you are in an episode of illness you might not be able to do a whole mindfulness activity but you can just sit and notice for 5 minutes. You might not be able to do free journaling but you can answer the question “How am I?”. These are all the things that I have needed to do. Cultivate some discipline around these very simple things.
You might be surprised at the things it triggers and be prepared that sometimes it may be an intense emotional experience. But at the end of it you will feel better and you will have found some of your sorrow and processed it. I used to like writing about it afterwards but I like writing and I was writing the book to share. But if you think that would help do that. Look after yourself, wrap up in a blanket. Sleep. Sometimes a sugary tea will be enough. When I first started with these techniques I had some strong reactions. These days I may only spill a few tears for 5 minutes and move on.
I have processed a lot of my Grief now. It will always be with me but that is ok, you can’t keep hold of all the happy memories without being aware of the loss.
The effects of Parental Bipolar Disorder is not extensively covered. Most articles understandably are about managing the condition and ‘doing for’ the sufferer. But many sufferers out there have children and it is easy for their needs to go unnoticed especially given as they are often silent about them and do not express that they have any. Every family has different experiences with children with different personalities but many of the core issues are the same even if they manifest differently in the child. I am going to share my personal experience and some of the things we have learned with the help of a therapist in the hope that they might be useful to someone else.
6 weeks after my daughter was born I had a depressive episode and went into a mother and baby unit for a few weeks to change my medication at speed but it was quick and did not seem to have an effect despite my initial worries. My husband came every day and the nurses facilitate as much normal interaction with your baby as possible. When she 18 months, bigger and more aware, I was in a mixed state and needed a residential treatment for 3 months, I was overwrought with worry about attachment but also very unwell. But my husband brought her to see me everyday and I was reassured by professionals that as long as the child had one strong attachment there shouldn’t be a problem. Obviously this has implications for those with young children who are single parents.
The professionals were right though we picked up the pieces and carried on as normal and had no problems in our relationship at all. There were no further admissions in the years that followed and during times when I was very ill at home my husband stepped in and she appeared to find this security enough to compensate for the fact that I was ill and out of action.
The problems appeared after my husband died. Piglet (that is her code name as she likes the character from Winnie the Poo), has found it much harder to cope with my illness since I have become a lone parent. She has lost her support system, her Dad who would take over as the pillar of strength and security when Mummy was ill. Now she is effectively home alone with it as so many children are. It started about 18 months ago. I was rapid cycling quite fast. She appeared to be coping as she has on all subsequent episodes. But as I came out of the episode the problems started. She had a genuine fall and fractured her leg. But following this there were two questionable hand fractures.
The Consultant said it was unlikely the hands were fractured at all. They had looked like it on the emergency room x ray but in the Orthopaedics follow up 10 days later there was nothing. He said the amount of pain she was reporting was excessive. Too high compared to what the xray showed and was anything going on at home as he felt it was Psychosomatic. Some time after this she started vomiting her food and becoming randomly more labile in mood. She also didn’t want to leave me, becoming distressed if she had to and was declining sleepovers which she previously loved.
I found her an excellent counsellor thinking it was delayed grief. But as we went through the process the counsellor reported that she felt a more present issue than the Grief was Piglet dealing with my Bipolar episodes. She has never been very good at talking about her feelings and obviously with this she didn’t want to upset me. Her emotions were coming out physically and in behaviour. Interestingly she waited until I had recovered so she knew I could take her anger.
She attended counselling for a year and we did some really useful sessions all together looking at the illness, talking about it, learning about it and acknowledging it, as well as finding useful strategies for Piglet. It really made me think too. We get so absorbed when we are in an episode and no matter how much we love our children sometimes even meeting their basic needs is hard let alone considering what their emotional needs are resulting from what is happening to us. If they don’t show signs it is easy to think they are ok.
Everything went back to normal until I had a very severe episode this Autumn. I was virtually catatonic for the entire first month when Piglet was returning everyday from her first month at secondary school. A time when you really do need your Mum and your routine, she had none of that. I continued to be ill for a further month. Piglet appeared to be fine. Coping with her new challenging travel arrangements, being in a bigger school with many many more children, new children, new teachers, more homework. As soon as I was somewhat recovered from the episode it started, the vomiting, her being moody, exhausted, not wanting to get up in the morning. It took me a while to realise what had happened. This was the transition from me recovering to being well and all my mothers instincts kicking back in.
I just looked at her one day and couldn’t believe how fragile she looked. It was this post episode stress thing again. I named it. She denied it. I pushed a little and said “Look of course its been stressful, you’ve had all this on and your coming home to a Mum with Bipolar Disorder who is not well and not giving you all the support you need”. I put everything I had into re-establishing a routine, dinner at 5.30pm, bed at 8.30pm, asked the school to give her a break from week day homework and just giving her my full 100% attention. I offered her to return to counselling which she declined. But she really responded to those normal things that I just can’t put in place when I’m ill. She fends for herself a lot when I’m ill as I think a lot of children of Bipolar parents do. We just manage, somehow get by. But these are little beings with big needs and it has to come out somewhere somehow.
I feel lucky that we have come to the point where we can talk about it. Children with Bipolar parents tend to want to protect the parent. Initially they may feel they did something wrong. Even once they are past that stage they don’t want to make it worse. They want to protect you. They notice the parents fragility and that is why they hold in their own feelings until the parent is strong again and then it just comes out. My daughter has spent a lot of time denying that my illness has any effect on her whatsoever or that I am difficult to be around in any way. I don’t think she wanted to upset me.
I am still having to reassert “It’s normal to find it stressful to live with someone with Bipolar Disorder”. “Coming home everyday from school and finding me exactly where you left me cannot be nice”. We are slowly starting to laugh about things and this time she gladly accepted my post episode nurturing and did not deny my assertions that she was suffering from stress and exhaustion. I think she even used the phrase “I’m feeling better now” by which of course she inadvertently acknowledged that something was wrong.
I’ve just had a significant manic episode and she appears not to have found that difficult at all. I always think that’s easier for her as I can be super functional and if not super extravagent and superfun but I am mindful that it is still a big change and may be somewhat unsettling. It is something I want to explore. It stands to reason it will be effecting her I’m just not sure how.
I’m not sure how much I can change ‘in episode’. But I do want to look at her support systems and have them more robustly established. We did a little bit of work on this on therapy and used some during the depressive episode but it was still a little ad hoc. I’d like to think I can try and find the energy to keep her evening routine a bit better during episode. But that is easy to say now and harder to do when I can’t get out of bed. Some of the things below are things we have done that have been useful that might be food for thought. You will need to adjust for age.
Strategies for supporting children of Bipolar parents
Brainstorm “What does Depression look like?” “What does Mania look like?” Try and get the child to find words that go with each polarity. What is Mummy like when she is well? Get the child to find 3 positive words to describe Mummy? Mum find 3 positive words to describe the child.
Self Care Take a piece of paper each and spend time writing down and drawing images to show the things that make you feel good, things you like to do etc.
Who can you call? Agree together 3 people the child can call if they are worried about your behaviour or want to chat to someone when you are ill. Get them to store these numbers in their phone if they have one. Ideally the child will choose and you will agree but if you are really not happy you could say “Can you think of anyone else?”. Emphasise to the child that it is really ok if they need to call these people when you are ill either because they are worried about your behaviour or simply because they want someone to talk to.
It is also a good idea to tell the child that Bipolar disorder is an illness like any other illness. It is not a secret and they can talk to whoever they want to talk to about it as wherever they can find some support is a good thing. Some children might even need to know that you can’t die from it, they can be secretly harbouring this as a worry but be afraid to ask. Ultimately we all have to find our own way to parenting the best we can whilst suffering this disabling condition. But the key thing in my opinion is communication. Communication takes the fear away. Communication breaks some of the power of the illness down and gives you and your child the feeling like you are back in charge. And finally of course Communication is the key to any good relationship. Despite everything we go through, I am proud to say I have the most amazing relationship with Piglet. I’m far from perfect when I’m ill but I make up for it when I’m well, we have the best of times, she has the best of experiences. We adore each other and I don’t think she’d want anyone else. She has said she thinks I’m brave and she is proud of me the way I battle this illness. I just want to ensure that her needs continue to be met and the impact on her is reduced. This will be vital in maintaining her mental health and reducing her risk factors for inheritance.