I am no stranger to symptoms of mental illness coming at the most untimely of times. In college, I would have to wake up at five in the morning, do two hours of studying, work out, eat breakfast, two more hours of studying, attend three hours of class, more studying, track practice, go to work, and then more studying. That schedule doesn’t leave much space for laying in bed, as depressed as Eeyore. But ya’ know, I have Bipolar and, unfortunately, I get depressed whether it’s convenient or not.
I’ve spent five years learning how to best prepare myself for these inevitable slumps. Am I always successful at staying productive whilst depressed? Hell no, girl. Far from it. But, I am much better at kicking ass during these episodes than I was in high school and the beginning of college. In this post, I will share my top three tips for staying focused on your goals while coping with mental illness episodes.
1.) Get professional help.
This is #1 on the list for a damn good reason. Listen, mental illness is just that — an illness. It’s not laziness. It’s not being over dramatic. It’s not being a bad or selfish person. It’s as serious as any other physical illness. If you got a kidney stone, you would seek treatment, right? Right. So, why wouldn’t you seek treatment for this illness?
Everyone needs a different treatment cocktail. There are many options: individual therapy (CBT, DBT, etc.), psychiatry (AKA medications), group therapy, and even treatment centers. Personally, I need once a week therapy, 0.5 mg of Abilify/day, and 600 mg of Trileptal/day. Sometimes I need more therapy. Sometimes I need to change my medication. But I try to always stay on top of it. Sometimes, I will trick myself into thinking that I don’t need medication because I feel fine. I go off the medicine, things are okay for a few weeks, and then the next thing I know I’m laying in a dark closet, unable to move.
This girl once retorted, “But medication messes with my brain.” I mean, yeah… that’s the whole point.
Also, I recognize that treatment can be very expensive. There are ways to get discounts on medicine and free support groups exist. Even still, it can be costly and I totally get why that would make someone pause about seeking professional help. Then again, what are you without your health?
2.) Tell your social and professional networks what you need.
For the first half of college, I refused to tell anyone that I was feeling depressed. I would stay up until 5 a.m. journaling like a mad man, and then sleep in and miss all of my classes. Repeat hundreds of times. Of course, this severely damaged my GPA. It wasn’t until I returned to college after a two year medical leave that I decided to tell my Dean, my professors, and my friends that I have Bipolar.
Not only did I tell them that I have a mental illness, but I told them what I need from them. This is paramount.
It’s not enough to simply tell someone that you struggle with anxiety, depression, and/or a disorder because most people are not going to understand what that means. My friends were originally very uncomfortable with the news of my diagnosis. “Does that mean that we have to go console Maura for hours when she is down?” Of course not. They, too, have busy and stressful lives. They don’t always have the emotional capital to hear me vent for an hour. I get that. If I want to ramble on and cry for an hour, I go to my therapist.
I told my friends that there are really only two small things that I need from them when I am down: a validating comment (“I’m sorry that you are feeling really sad. That must be really hard.”) and a reminder that the episode will pass. Everything else falls on the professional help that I pay for. This is how I maintain healthy relationships with my friends when I’m in the hole.
As for college faculty and staff, I relied heavily on my Dean. I used my Dean as my advocate for whenever I was going through an episode. If a professor was not being very understanding (though most profs were), he would reach out to them and encourage them to give me an extension. Last Fall, I had to go to the hospital for a week due to a severe manic-depressive episode and my dean was able to haggle a month extension for me on my thesis deadlines. That was a life saver for my grades. It gave me the time to fully recover so that I could produce the good quality work that I know I am capable of.
Now, your employer… to tell or not to tell? That is the (seriously hard) question. I cannot really give too much advice on this. I have almost always told my employers that I have Bipolar because I am an open person, but I completely understand why you wouldn’t tell your employer. I am applying to jobs right now. In all applications, there is a section that asks if you would like to declare a disability. Bipolar is listed as a disability, and I always hesitate to declare it. Legally, the employer isn’t supposed to discriminate but… do they really turn a blind eye to that?
Outside of the obvious risks of telling your employer, there are some pros. I told my last employer that sometimes I need to take ten minute walks when I am feeling symptomatic. Occasionally, I need to take an hour to attend a therapist appointment. Very rarely, I will need days off. I always produce A-quality work, and in order to do that, I need these little breaks sometimes. They were, fortunately, very understanding and accommodating.
3.) Chart your emotions and behaviors.
I learned this from a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) group. Essentially, you make a chart of emotions and behaviors that either help or hurt your mental wellness. Below is an example chart from a few years back. My only emotion to track at the time was sadness. Today, I include “Joy” as one of the emotions. I was also concerned about my productivity, exercise, eating, and writing. I added a notes section so I can understand a little more about that day and it might shed a little meaning behind the scores. I applied yellow highlights for exceptionally positive results, such as have “0” sadness. Whenever my sadness hit the highest score, I highlighted the day in red. These highlights allowed me to see patterns and how they correlate to my activities and behaviors.
Being aware of my day-to-day emotions helps me understand what I can do the next day to improve. For example, seeing constant 5’s for sadness, even when my exercise and eating were on point, helped me realize that I needed to break up with my boyfriend at the time. Once I did that, I suddenly was seeing streaks of yellow highlights !
If anyone is interested in setting up their own wellness and empowerment chart, I would be happy to help you ! Just shoot me an email (located at the bottom of this page).
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In conclusion, even though you can’t help experiencing depression and anxiety, you can prepare yourself to make those bad days go a little more smoothly. These three tips have helped me recover from those inevitable slumps much more quickly. Thus, I could get back to pursuing my ambitions!
Love and Strength,