I came across a pretty inspiring book the other day. The book, Beating Bipolar, by Blake Levine, was located during my search to help a client who seemed to be stuck processing her bipolar disorder diagnosis. Recalling his own story of his healing journey, Levine provides an impressive account of how he managed to turn his bipolar diagnosis into strength by guiding others with this illness as a professional life coach.
Bipolar disorder is a condition previously termed ‘manic depression’ because the person experiences periods of depression and periods of mania, with periods of normal mood in between. Mania can involve racing thoughts and speech, irritability and little need for sleep that is not just a fleeting experience. Sometimes the person loses touch with reality and has episodes of psychosis involving hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t really there) or delusions (for e.g. the person believing he or she has superpowers). The combination of mania and depression can feel like a dangerous and destructive emotional rollercoaster.
Bipolar disorder, and in fact any mental illness, is described by Levine as a disease of choices. You can choose to take one path or another, and there will be many crossroads along the way. Ultimately, you have to choose whether you will stay stuck inside your own world of pain, or whether you are prepared to work towards emotional stability. This is your choice to make and no one can make it for you. As Levine notes, you cannot pop a pill and declare yourself well. Proper healing is not that simple. True, genuine healing is about being selective of how to live your life and adhering to those values.
In the process of exploring, learning and eventually accepting what it means to have a mental health condition, the book asks an individual to answer 7 truths. They are:
1. Accept or reject your illness. Any doctor or psychologist can give a diagnosis and tell you all about it, but you have to be the one to acknowledge it. And that takes an incredible amount of courage. Not for the sake of accepting a ‘label’ but rather in order to seek the correct treatment. By not being invested enough to take on the meaning of the diagnosis, chances are you will become stuck.
2. Accept or reject the work that comes with bipolar disorder (or your diagnosis). Life with a mental health condition can be so challenging that it appears insurmountable and unfair. It is true that maneuvering through substandard mental health units is devastating (and at times traumatising) for most people. However, being able to overcome the setbacks and learn from them, in order to continue to work towards emotional stability (and avoid inpatient mental health units in the process) creates an inner strength that will be able to see you through the lowest points of your life.
3. Accept or reject that you will most likely need medication. For bipolar, medication to tame the mania and lift the depression (and therefore bring increased emotional stability) can be highly effective. However, only if it is used consistently by sticking to the regime over time. Medication must be maintained even when you start to feel better. Finding the right combination takes time, persistence and patience (and close monitoring by your psychiatrist or treating doctor). Weight gain, a common side effect of medication, can throw extra challenges your way, however until emotional stability is achieved, attaining other goals will be futile.
4. Accept or reject that you’ll need therapy and peer support. Levine writes “We share many trials as bipolar individuals, but isolation may be the most profound among them. Feeling alone is a universal experience for people with any mental illness, particularly this one. Not surprisingly, there are many reasons for it. Perhaps you’re too embarrassed about your mood swings and the past damage linked to your illness that you don’t reach out to others. Or maybe you have too many bottled up feelings stemming from other personal baggage to connect easily. Whatever the driving force, working with a mental health professional will help you sort out your issues and learn to connect with people”.
5. Accept or reject that your family’s participation and role in your life and illness might have to be modified to suit your healing. Emotionally stable people have a support network. We all need one, no exceptions. If you have nourishing, strong bonds with your family members, they will play a crucial role in your healing. However, there could also be some family dynamics causing considerable pain and stress and you will be the one to decide whether you can rely on the people in your current network for the long haul. If there are things getting in the way of your connection with them then you will need to find and create a different type of support system. This need is critical for living life in a connected way.
6. Accept or reject that you have to change aspects of your lifestyle. The reality of the situation is this: your mental health condition and any medications you are on do not mix well with drinking and substance abuse. These both cloud your thinking and impair your decision making. If your moods are not regulated yet, they can be lethal. Even having a drink now and then should be discussed with your doctor. Abstinence or moderation combined with a healthy diet, exercise and plenty of sleep are part of living healthy with a mental health condition.
7. Accept or reject that Bipolar (or your diagnosis) isn’t an end; it’s a beginning. The choice is yours. Levine states that the knee jerk reaction to mental illness is to run, particularly if you feel there is nothing to be gained by fighting. But he states that every time we experience pain, we have a chance to see that our struggles in our lives are put here in order to teach us lessons and help us grow. You are stronger than you think, and as long as you have courage, you will face whatever comes your way. The payoff, according to Levine, is to have a life filled with the affirming 4 H’s:
Whatever your individual journey and constraints, to work towards wellness will allow you to master your illness and your life, and that has to be worth the fight. Staying balanced takes time, patience and unwavering commitment, however hopefully if you are up for the task you too can start the healing journey right now, without wasting another minute, by listening to, exploring and accepting some of these truths. I wish you wellness and great success in your quest for what we are all searching for in life: Hope, Health, Happiness and Healing.
Beating Bipolar by Blake Levine
Beyond Blue www.beyondblue.org.au
By: Alison Lenehan