Embracing balance, I think, is a difficult task for most people. We’re bombarded by messages about living a healthy and balanced lifestyle. We need to eat well, sleep well, and exercise often. We need to find a work-life balance. However, for those of us with a mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, finding balance can take a herculean effort.
The highs and lows of our illness naturally destabilize us. The highs are glorious, colourful, exciting, and adventurous while the lows are debilitating, painful, sad, and disastrous. We want the highs to go on forever and the lows to never show up. So asking us to embrace a balanced lifestyle is akin to asking us to forfeit the natural pull of our biology. Except, it’s something we, as bipolar sufferers, must learn to accept – even if it’s begrudgingly – if we ever intend on being well for an extended period of time.
I don’t know if it’s the bipolar disorder, my brain, personality, or a combination of the three but I need to learn things the hard way. I’m stubborn as hell and I hate having to recognize my own weakness. I know that I have a disease that makes me tip one way or the other, but when it comes time to confront my own limitations it suddenly becomes a tug of war between my ego and doing what’s healthy.
Last week was an excellent example of this. I had a busy week. Or, for the non-working me, what constitutes a busy week. I had two therapy groups to attend, a private therapy session, an interview to prepare for, taping the interview, and I was hosting dinner guests. On top of this was the usual pre-Christmas stress. You may say to yourself:
“Marisa, this isn’t busy. This is an average week for most people. And you don’t even have a 40-hour work-week in there.”
And I know this.
Therein lies my struggle.
It isn’t particularly busy. It isn’t particularly stressful. But it still sent bipolar me spinning almost catastrophically into a hypomanic phase. For most of the week my brain was working at warp speed. My body was filled with excess anxious energy. I tried to write lists to divide each day into a manageable to-do list, but this didn’t stop the racing thoughts that had me thinking that I had to be everywhere and do everything all at once. And it wasn’t until Wednesday, when I arrived in my bipolar group completely worked up, that I told myself that I had to change.
I had to change the way I was behaving or hypomania would be my end result.
Normally, I would keep pushing myself until I sent myself into a full-on tail spin. I would fight my ego and that voice in my head saying: “You’re not even that busy. Normal people can handle this therefore, you can handle this.”
But I’m not normal. And I don’t necessarily mean that in a pejorative sense. I simply mean that I have this disease that makes me different than those without it. My ability to cope with stress is less than someone who doesn’t have bipolar disorder. End of story.
So, I could have let myself spiral into hypomania. I mean, it would have been easy. That week would been filled with anxiety, productivity, and racing thoughts. I might have even enjoyed a rush of exhilaration. But the reality is, I’m also enjoying feeling well. I’m enjoying re-entering into my life. If I let my hypomania come to visit, I would inevitably have to deal with hypomania’s annoying and messy roommate, depression, who always overstays his welcome.
Instead I fought every fibre of my being and decided that I would stop everything on Wednesday. I took an extra 50 mgs of Seroquel (my calm-the-fuck down pills), laid on the sofa, and watched TV. Now, this didn’t stop the voice in my head from telling me that I needed to keep moving, but forcing myself to stop for a few hours allowed me time to recalibrate. It allowed me to tape my interview on Thursday without my words tumbling out in an incomprehensible torrent. It allowed me to take perspective on which tasks actually needed to be accomplished, which I could put off, and which I needed help with. And just like that, my hypomania turned around and went home.
Catching myself early and recognizing what I needed (and actually doing it) was a great triumph. It made me realize how much control I can have over this seemingly uncontrollable illness. And suddenly balance doesn’t seem like such a bad word. Maybe balance can be a good thing.