8 Down, 2 to Go

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything so I thought I would post an update. On Monday I will be 8 months pregnant with my first baby. It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 months already and there’s only 2 months left to go before we meet our little one.

One of the reasons I haven’t written anything is because I’m one of those annoying pregnant women who absolutely loves being pregnant. Sometimes it can be a challenge (oh the heartburn…) but most of the time it’s really great.  One of the greatest things that has come from my pregnancy is how much it has lowered my anxiety. I had to stop taking my anxiety medication when I got pregnant but stayed on the other two I take for bipolar disorder. I was worried that my anxiety would come back full swing without the anxiety meds, but much to my delight it pretty much disappeared.  The only thing I can attribute it to is being pregnant and the chill little guy inside me, as unhelpful as that is.

I haven’t experienced the mood swings you see in the movies which has been surprising to me since I have a mood disorder, so I thought they would be much worse for me.  Maybe it’s my meds, maybe it’s this little guy, or maybe life just decided to give me a break, but whatever it is I’m hoping it lasts into postpartum.

I, along with my doctors, decided I would stay on my bipolar medication throughout my pregnancy and I will continue to stay on them through postpartum, which (hopefully) includes breastfeeding. Any research available (which is scarce) doesn’t point to any complications with the medications I take, which is why I decided to stay on them.  At first I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of taking medication while pregnant because of all the ‘what ifs’, but my mental health needed to be a priority because happy mommy = happy baby.  

I know I’m very lucky to be enjoying pregnancy so much.  Last weekend I went to a prenatal yoga class and some of the women shared how much they’re struggling with pregnancy.  It made me incredibly grateful that the worst things I deal with are heartburn and occasional hip pain. Every pregnancy is different and I know that the next time I may not be so lucky so I’m doing my best to enjoy this special time in my life. 

The only thing that frustrates me is how little information is available for pregnant women who take psych medications. I understand that it’s hard to gather data, but I feel like there’s more that can be done.  I watched a documentary on Amazon about mothers who take psych meds with the hopes that it would shed some light on the subject for me and I could feel better about the medications I take. But pretty much all the women stopped taking their medications so I don’t understand the point of documentary.  Needless to say, it was not helpful. 

I did find an online community of moms with bipolar disorder who were able to share their experiences with pregnancy and breastfeeding on psych meds, so that’s been reassuring. But deciding to stay on my meds was and continues to be a difficult decision due to lack of information. However, based on how smoothly my pregnancy has been going I feel safe thinking I made the right decision.  My only hope is that in the future we have more information about pregnancy and psych meds so women feel comfortable being on medication(s) that keeps them healthy.  As my doctors always remind me, happy mommy = happy baby.

 

World Bipolar Day

This post was originally posted on my company’s Facebook page. Company name has been removed for privacy (even though most of you already know where I work).

Did you know that March 30th is World Bipolar Day?  Bipolar disorder is also known as “manic depression” and is a mental illness that affects about 5.7 million adults in America.  Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels that affect a person’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These shifts in mood and energy levels are more severe than the normal ups and downs that are experienced by everyone.

I am one of the 5.7 million people with bipolar disorder. “Bipolar” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. I often hear people describe someone with ups and downs as bipolar, or that the weather is bipolar when we shift temperatures dramatically.  It’s hurtful when I hear people say things like this because they’re saying “bipolar” with a negative connotation; that being bipolar is a bad thing. And while life would certainly be easier without it, it doesn’t mean that having bipolar disorder ruins your life.  I was diagnosed at age 19 after being diagnosed with depression at 14 and anxiety at 16. Most people would never know I have bipolar disorder because I manage it with medication and therapy. Although it’s always in the back of my mind, it doesn’t prohibit me from living a full life.  I have a wonderful circle of friends, a very happy marriage, and I work here full time at the Company. But things weren’t always so great.

There was a time in my life, around my diagnosis, where I felt very out of control of my life.  I was unable to work or go to school and felt lost and hopeless. But with the support of family and friends as well as determination and strength, I found an amazing psychologist and psychiatrist who helped me get back on track. I was able to go back to college (part time, then full time), and I’ve been consistently employed for the past 7 years.  Even though I have more good days than bad days, I still have my down times. During those times I try to remind myself that it’s ok to feel bad and that this feeling won’t last forever. I practice self-care by spending time alone and reading, taking a long hot shower while belting my favorite showtunes, going to spin class, or sitting on my couch and rewatching my favorite feel-good shows.

Having bipolar disorder changed my life but it by no means ruined it.  It used to be something I hid from the world but now it’s something I’m comfortable sharing, which is why I wrote this post and shared it with all of you.  If you have bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, know that you’re not alone. There are literally millions of people who understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness and many more who offer their love and support.  There’s even a community here at The Company, the mental health employee resource group, with people who provide an understanding and supportive space when you might need it the most. Our motto is “Less stigma, more support” and we stand by that. We’d love to have you join our #mental-health channel or join us at our biweekly get togethers every other Thursday at 4pm.

Keep fighting the good fight.
Kate is a technical writer. She has bipolar type II and isn’t ashamed to say it. When she’s not writing documentation, she writes about mental health on thebrochick.com and Psychology Today.

Breaking the Stigma: Meds

In the past I’ve been pretty adamant about finding alternatives for medication, and I still am to some extent.  Medication is really tricky and it’s difficult to know if it’s right for you, which is why it’s so important to have a good psychiatrist or other medical professional who can prescribe you medication.

I’ve been taking medication for 16 years and yet I still sometimes have a problem with it. There was a five year period where I was off medication completely but that ended three years ago, and I’ve been back on ever since.  I felt some sense of pride that I didn’t need medication, which is really stupid because there’s nothing wrong with taking medication.  But this was 8 years ago and the mental health movement was still far from taking off.  I was so embarrassed of my medication that I used to hide it in vitamin bottles so my roommates wouldn’t know.

Not everyone with a mental illness needs medication, but for those of us who do it can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow (no pun intended) to know that you may very well be on medication for the rest of your life.  For me, it makes me feel like I’m sick and I hate that feeling.  Most of the time I’m ok with the fact that I have a mental illness and I need to take medication to manage it, but sometimes it can be really hard to deal with.  I get this idea that I need pills to be normal and that somehow makes me wrong or broken.  But really that’s not the case.  So many people take medication for so many reasons and I would never judge someone for taking their medication so why should I judge myself?

I currently take two medications, one as a mood stabilizer and one to help with depression.  Recently I added a third to help with anxiety, which for some reason I had been very hesitant to take.  I’ve struggled with anxiety since high school but over the past several months it had become unmanageable.  I found myself having a hard time having conversations with people or reading because I could’t stop my mind from racing.  I had so many irrational fears and found myself performing rituals, similar to OCD, like checking the door lock more and more.  Sometimes the anxiety about locking the door got to bad that I would get to work (which is a 40 minute commute) and turn around and go home to check the door.  I’m sorry to say I did that more than a few times.

Even though anxiety was clearly affecting my life in a very negative way, I was hesitant to talk to my doctor about it.  I would casually mention it but always downplayed it and said it was probably just because of work.  But finally it got to the point where I couldn’t enjoy being with other people because I was too anxious about literally anything that I finally said something to my doctor.  He gave me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication and I am not kidding when I say this – it was LIFE CHANGING. It felt like someone finally silenced the constant chatter of my mind that was incessantly and relentlessly pestering me with things to worry about.  I can’t fully explain how helpful this medication is to me because it’s that amazing.  I feel like I got my life back.

My point is not to push drugs on people, but to say that it’s important to be open to treatment.  There’s no need to suffer is silence.  If you’re taking medication and something isn’t working, tell your doctor.  If you think you might need medication, talk to  your primary care about finding a psychiatrist.  It’s amazing how medication can change your life and there’s no reason to feel ashamed that you need to take a pill (or two) to feel like yourself.  I’m trying to erase “feeling normal” from my vocabulary because what does feeling normal even mean?  I like feeling like me, and being riddled with anxiety is anything but that.  I wish I had said something sooner because anxiety got in the way for lot of things for me over the past several months.  But I’m happy I finally said something and found the help that I needed.  For me, natural remedies don’t work and I need medication. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Do Less

I’m feeling a little bullied by social media lately.  I see so many posts telling me to live my best life! Go out and do something!  Follow your dreams! And I know these are all positive things and the people who post them mean well…but all I want to do is take a nap.

I’m in the midst of going through med withdrawal, which is a side effect of going off a medication (in case you were wondering). So basically I am SUPER tired ALL. THE. TIME.  It’s quite annoying and puts a damper on things like working out, being productive at work, and trying to do normal human things like hold a conversation, shower, or put my clothes not on the floor in a pile.  Even simple things, like taking a dress to the tailor, feel like climbing a mountain. It’s a lot similar to feeling depressed. So maybe I do have a touch of depression, sometimes I can’t tell the difference.

Anyways, during these times I feel like I have a million voices yelling at me to do things because they’ll make me feel better. Go to spin! Make a smoothie! Take a walk! But all I want to do is lay under my weighted blanket and watch reruns of Drag Race. I don’t want to go out and reach for the stars.  I don’t want to ‘express myself’. I want some goddamn peace and quiet. Sometimes I just get really tired of the pressure I feel to feel better. Because the truth is willing it doesn’t always work. I wish that was the case. I do believe in the power of positive thinking but I also believe in the power of taking a mental health day, taking time to not speak or communicate with another human for as long as possible, and taking time to do absolutely nothing and not feel sorry about it.

I feel like social media puts this pressure on us to be constantly doing things.  We have our friends and random “influencers” we get basically bullied into following telling us to do things to make ourselves feel and be better.   But maybe the answer isn’t always an expensive protein powder or meditation, maybe the answer is doing nothing and not feeling ashamed. Maybe it’s ok to log off Instagram, turn off your phone, and be alone with your feelings.  That’s how we heal. When your sprain your ankle, you’re told above all to rest. So what about when you sprain your brain? I think the answer should be the same.

Going through a depression, changing meds, or just feeling like crap is like spraining your brain.  You’re temporarily not at your best and it’s ok to take a rest to recover. There should be no shame in taking a few hours, or better yet a whole day, to sit around and do nothing.  When I give myself that kind of time I can feel myself getting better. I allow myself to write down my thoughts, to cry, to not shower (sorry husband), and to not do anything. Sometimes I don’t even watch TV or listen to music.  I sit in silence. I know it sounds weird and like something a serial killer might do, but it’s actually really nice to just be. You get to see where your thoughts take you, which is usually to the refrigerator, and then you take it from there.  But they key is to not feel ashamed for using this time to rest, for using time to take care of yourself without doing ‘self-care’ rituals. Because sometimes the thought of running a bath, meditating, or even lighting a candle can feel like too much.  Instead, allow yourself to literally do nothing and see where your mind takes you. It can be the palate cleanser your mind needs.

 

Support in a Surprising Place

When you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or any other unpleasant feeling it’s not uncommon to feel alone.  I’m very lucky to have an incredible support system of loved ones and mental health professionals, but one of my favorite support systems came from an unexpected place: work.

During the first few months at my job I changed medications and the process was anything but pleasant.  I felt physically and mentally drained, and was having a hard time keeping it together at work. With the fear of being reprimanded or even fired, I decided to say something to my boss.  Not only was he completely accepting, he had been through a very similar experience himself. I felt more comfortable at work and mentioned that I had a mental illness to a coworker who told me about a mental health group at our company; an online support channel made up of employees.

In this group we share the highs and the lows and speak freely without fear of judgement.  We even started meeting in person in the New York office, which have such a loving, supportive energy.  This groups gives me a feeling that my company supports me and I have a support system within these walls.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what some of my amazing, brave coworkers have to say:

“I took a 4 months of medical leave from work to deal with a debilitating episode of depression. Managing my ongoing transition back to work (along with the continued depression symptoms, and the seemingly endless search for “the right meds” and “the right therapist”) has been difficult. But having a manager who I can be completely honest with during down and unproductive weeks, a team that proactively reaches out to offer their support, and a group of like-minded individuals in a public slack channel (!!) who are open and honest about sharing their own positive and negative experiences has motivated me to continue prioritizing my wellbeing and self-kindness. Without these compassionate work support networks, I imagine that I’d still be on leave, and I feel grateful to work at a company that really does let me “bring my whole self to work.””

“Having an inclusive and safe channel to discuss my mental health at work helps make me more productive. I’m less afraid and anxious to go to work in the morning when I know I have a place I can turn to for support from my peers that understand what I’m going through and can help me navigate my way through the tough times.”

I know most companies don’t have support groups like this, but there are hundreds and thousands of other online support groups out there.  Just having someone say “me too” or “that sounds really hard, I’m sorry to hear that” can have such a positive impact. Do a Google search for the type support your looking for and you will find endless resources.  Remember, there is no need to suffer alone; there are people just like you who will understand.

Meditating When You Have Anxiety

Did you know that meditation can be as effective at treating anxiety as prescription drugs. That’s a real, bonafide fact backed by science.  This means that anxiety doesn’t have to feel like this all consuming, dominating monster that can strike at any moment.  Instead, meditation can be something you have in your wellness arsenal to combat it. While this is great news, the downside is it can feel impossible to meditate when you have anxiety.  But never fear, there are tools you can use to help get your Om on (don’t worry, you don’t actually have to say Om).

Use an app

Try guided meditation to help you focus and calm racing thoughts. Headspace and Stop, Breathe, & Think are just a few of some of the wonderful meditation apps out there.  YouTube also has a large library of guided meditations of various lengths.  Guided meditations can be 3 minutes or an hour based on where you are in your practice.  But don’t feel discouraged if an hour sounds completely insane. Even if you’re only starting with 3 minutes at a time, you’re still building your practice and helping yourself.  

Use a prop

To help get out of your head and into your body, try using a prop like a crystal or mala beads.  Crystals have been used since ancient times. Specific crystals like amethyst, rose quartz, and black tourmaline, to name a few, are known the help with anxiety because of their specific healing properties.  Choose a crystal that resonates with you and hold it in your hand as you meditate.

Mala beads have been used for centuries by buddhist monks during prayer and contain 108 beads.  Monks used each bead to denote a prayer or mantra, which can be used similarly during meditation.  Choose a mantra (a saying with meaning to you), like “I am enough”, and repeat it as you run your fingers along the beads.

Focus on the breath

If your thoughts won’t seem to leave you alone no matter how hard you try, don’t think about trying to meditate or quiet your mind, focus your attention on your breath instead.  Pay attention to the sensation of when you breathe in, and again when you breathe out. Count your breaths as they go in, and again as the go out so that you develop a rhythm of even breathing.  

Keep trying

Don’t get discouraged.  When you’re feeling anxious, you may not always be able to calm yourself with meditation, but that doesn’t mean you should give up.  Meditation, like most things in life, comes with practice. The more you do it, the more natural it feels.

Over time, you’ll start to see a difference in the way your thoughts comes and go.  Instead of feeling out of control, you’ll notice a sense of calm and control you may not have ever thought possible.  The next time you start to feel anxious, or the next you feel really good, give meditation a try. It can’t hurt.

Managing Anxiety at Work

Dealing with anxiety is anything but convenient.  It seems to strike at the most cumbersome times like traveling, family functions, and work.  When anxiety strikes at work it can feel embarrassing and alarming since mental health is still stigmatized and misunderstood, especially in the workplace.  So how do you manage if you’re one of 40 million people in the US struggling with anxiety?  Try some of these tested and trusted remedies:

Listen to soothing music

Turn off the pre-workout playlist you use to keep yourself alert and turn on some calming tunes.  If you’re not sure where to find some, Spotify has many playlists dedicated to calming music, specifically cultivated to calm you down.  YouTube also has a wide variety of calming music to help settle your nerves.

Inhale some zen

Essential oils are great to keep in your bag for when you’re feeling anxious.  If you’re not familiar with them, essential oils are the highly concentrated version of natural oils in plants that have been used throughout history for their medical and therapeutic benefits. Lavender, Frankincense, and Ylang Ylang are just a few known to help with anxiety.  You can order them online or find them in certain health food stores and yoga studios.  When you start to feel anxious, just grab it from your bag, slip into the bathroom, and take a few deep inhales of the oil.

Take a walk

If you’re able to go outside, give yourself 10 minutes (or less if you’re really strapped for time) and take a walk.  Depending where you live, you can stroll up a few blocks or do a couple laps around the building.  The change of scenery and fresh air will help calm your nerves and take away focus from whatever is causing the anxiety, even if you don’t know what the cause is.  If the weather isn’t great, you can also find a department store or drug store and casually stroll the aisles.

Breathe in private

If you don’t feel comfortable doing deep breathing at your desk, go into the bathroom, stairwell, or your car and focus on your breath.  An easy breathing technique is to inhale for a count of three, hold for three, and then exhale for three.  Repeat as many times as necessary but aim for at least five rounds.

Anxiety may be stressful and obnoxious but that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to manage and control it.  Next time you start to feel anxiety take control, stop whatever you’re doing and take just a few moments to try one of these techniques.  Remember, mental health first.