Breaking Bipolar

When I speak to kids about my experience with bipolar disorder, really, I have a series of failures to explain. I tell them how treatment after treatment failed. I talk about drug failures, the failure of the vagus nerve stimulator and the failure of electroconvulsive therapy. I lot of my sentences have the word, “unfortunately,” in them. And after one of my presentations last week, one person asked what I would say to someone who was going through a similar experience. I thought that was a very important question. So here’s what I would say to someone who’s experiencing treatment failure.
I recently finished an 8-week mindfulness meditation course. I went into it not knowing why I was there, other than the fact that my doctor had recommended it. I went in not knowing what the outcome was supposed to be. When we were asked to write goals for the course, mine were blank. I had none. I really just wanted to see if there was any benefit to all this mindfulness meditation stuff. Turns out, I believe that there is benefit in mindfulness meditation. And here’s some of what you might find in a course.
A reader recently contacted me and asked me about psychomotor agitation. Psychomotor agitation is actually a symptom of bipolar hypomania and bipolar mania (and depression) and yet few people know what this means. In fact, according to this study, it is poorly defined and measured even within the medical community. Psychomotor agitation is often translated into “restlessness,” which doesn’t seem overly descriptive to me. So here’s my take on psychomotor agitation: how it feels and what we know about it.
I first started receiving psychiatric treatment when I was 20 years old. At that time, I was pretty separated and not very attached to my parents. Nevertheless, they and their opinions did have an impact on me. And when I told my mother I had bipolar disorder her reaction was akin to not believing me. She was entirely ignorant about mental illness (and to be fair, I had been too) and mental illness treatment. She, naturally, wanted me to treat this problem with herbs and other nonsense. And in spite of the fact that I was detached from this woman, her lack of support affected me. At the time, all my energy was being used to fight bipolar disorder, and now I had to fight her too. It was kicking me while I was down. Way, way down. And while she didn’t see it that way, I can attest to the fact that it sure as heck felt that way. But luckily for me, I was not under her care. Luckily, even though she eventually pressured me into trying out alternative nonsense, I still got the real, medical help I needed. Had I have been younger, this might not have been the case. And unfortunately, some youth are in this position right now. Some youths feel they have a mental illness and are in the charge of their parents’. And some youths have even told their parents that only to be met with a wall of disbelief or told they’re “overly dramatic.” I feel for these youths. They’re in a really tough spot. But there are things youths can do even if a parent doesn’t believe their son or daughter has a mental illness and refuses to support their desire to get help.
A get questions from all sorts of family members and friends of people with mental illnesses and, luckily, many of these people want to help. The trouble is people feel intimidated by a diagnosis of mental illness. They don’t even know where to start to help. This is completely normal. A probable lifetime diagnosis is enough to make anyone feel powerless. But you are not powerless. If you love someone with a mental illness, there are many things you can do to help.
Recently I have been taking a mindfulness meditation course. This is pretty amazing seeing as I’ve always felt my brain was not still enough to meditate – not to mention, I’m pretty sure I don’t believe in all this new age stuff (although, technically, meditation is very, very old age stuff). But I went anyway because mindfulness meditation has been shown to be beneficial for all sorts of mental illnesses (not surprisingly, particularly anxiety) and I try to be open to anything that may help-plus, bonus, no side effects. And one of the things I had heard is that when you meditate you need to not think. Your mind is supposed to go blank. You become absent of thought. But this turns out to be false.
Today I tuned into a webcast on managing bipolar depression. I wasn’t sure what to expect although I was aware the webcast was designed for doctors so I knew the level of discourse would be high. And I must say it was a great hour. Granted, I knew the vast majority of what was being presented but the nuggets of new items here and there definitely made it worthwhile. What’s more is that this view on managing bipolar depression is evidence-based and they present the numbers behind what’s recommended. They make clear which studies are drug company-funded and which are not. It’s the kind of information that I wish every doctor knew. And, if you have bipolar, especially bipolar depression, it’s the kind of information you should know too.
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name; Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I'll no longer be a Capulet. There’s a piece of knowledge stuck in a cranny of my mind. Shakespeare. An important guy who wrote some important works, to be sure, and we all study him, for good reason. But how many of us use Shakespeare in our lives? Not too many, I’d wager. And yet I don’t recall a single class being taught on mental illness. Not one reference to the signs of suicide despite it being the end to Romeo and Juliet, the same play stuck in my mind's crannies. Not one reference to mental illness in my education. And one-in-four people could use that later in their lives.
Two nights ago, I was privileged to attend the National Council’s Awards of Excellence dinner. This is a dinner during which we honor and hear the stories of those who won the awards. I was there because the Bipolar Babe won a Reintegration Award in mentorship, and believe me, no one deserves it more. Being a winner, the Bipolar Babe gets $10,000 for her charity. But what you might notice about these awards is that they are a partnership between the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare (mental and addiction illnesses) and Eli Lilly and Company. Now, The National Council, . . . advocates for policies that ensure that people who are ill can access comprehensive healthcare services. We also offer state-of-the-science education and practice improvement resources so that services are efficient and effective. Whereas Eli Lilly is a drug company designed to make money. But what I learned while I was at the awards is that the Eli Lilly folks had neither horns nor tails.
Bipolar disorder can be a very debilitating illness, to the point where many people have hampered lives because of it. People may find that they can’t have families or jobs because of their disabling bipolar disorder. And there is nothing wrong with these people. These people are just learning to live a different kind of life because life, unfairly, besought them with a severe mental illness. But one of the problems these people often have is finding meaning in life. If you see everyone around you with a job or a family or other things your mental illness stops you from having, how do you handle it? How do you find meaning with a severe case of bipolar disorder?