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.

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All by myself

I’ve noticed that when I feel “good” I really struggle to write, which is one of the reasons I don’t post weekly on here.  I believe in ‘quality over quantity’ and I’ve never wanted this to be a place where I dump content just for the sake of posting.  That’s not what this blog is about. This blog is a safe place for me to share my thoughts with others who may experience things similar to the way that I do.  It’s also for people who are curious about mental illness and my wonderfully supportive loved ones to get a glimpse into my mind.

I’m writing today because I’m supposed to be in meeting.  I guess, technically I am in a meeting – I dialed in, but I should be there in person.  Why did I dial in? Because it’s a department-wide meeting and seeing a large group of people I don’t know very well made me turn on my heels and head back to the safety of my desk and my big headphones.  Groups of people I don’t know well make me very anxious. Sometimes even groups of people I know make me anxious. Basically, I don’t like big groups. Crowds are fine. I live in New York City so I’m fine being shoved around by people I don’t know.  But put them in a room where I could potentially have to speak to one of them? No way. Abort.

I don’t know why people make me so nervous.  Maybe it’s because I grew up as an only child and spent a lot of my childhood, and adulthood, alone.  I love being by myself and it’s crucial for my mental health. As I sit here, half listening to this meeting, I keep thinking about why groups of people make me so anxious.  Where did this social anxiety come from? Maybe it’s because I’m an introvert and that’s just who I am. I don’t like being around people I don’t know. I don’t like making small talk.  Maybe that makes me anti-social, but whatever it makes me it’s who I am. I used to wish I could be extroverted. I look at people who walk in a room full of people and can talk to anyone and think, ‘how the hell do they do that?’.  But that’s just not who I am. I get really quiet when I’m a group of people I don’t know well. Being around people also makes me really tired – it drains me. Even being in a group of people I love makes me tired. It takes a lot of energy for me to be around people, especially when I don’t know them well and I’m so focused on trying not to be awkward.  Even though I don’t want to admit, I do care what people think of me. I think most of us do.

So here I sit, away from the people at the safety of my desk.  I’m lucky that if my manager asked why I never come to meetings and call in instead, she’d understand.  But I’d be lying if I said I felt completely comfortable with my decision to sit alone. Part of me wants to be ‘part of the team’, but a bigger part of me is fine with being on the outside looking in.  I wish the thought of being in a big room full of people didn’t make my heart race, but I have social anxiety and that’s just part of my deal. I know I’m not the only one, I see the other people who call into the meeting who I know are here.  Maybe they’re too busy to attend, or maybe the feel the same way I do. Maybe I’m not the only one who feels this way. And maybe that’s ok.

 

Some Thoughts

It’s been a while since I’ve written something and I can’t tell if that’s a good or a bad thing.  I tend to write more when things are difficult, and recently things have been going pretty smoothly.  My meds seem to be in order and my mood has been pretty stable. It’s amazing how something that seems so small, like adding an anxiety med, can make such a huge difference.

I often wish I didn’t need medication and I could use natural remedies to treat my bipolar disorder, but I just don’t think that’s in the cards for me.  I completely agree that Americans are overmedicated, but for some of us we need it to survive. When I feel down, I feel completely alone. By down I mean depressed, anxious, and just generally shitty.  It’s a horribly isolating feeling. It feels paralyzing because the world keeps moving around me, yet I feel like I’m stuck in one spot. One sad, lonely spot. And it feels like no one understands. But what I’ve learned from reaching out to the mental health community is that people do understand.  Everyone experiences depression or anxiety differently, but we often face similar battles. Like depression feels like a weight you can’t push off you, or a cloud that follows your relentlessly. Anxiety feels like being trapped in box with water rising around you. It can also feel like a heart attack.

Even though my anxiety has been under control thanks to medication, I still feel it creep in from time to time.  This usually happens when I’m extra tired or haven’t been doing a good job at taking care of myself (eating well, sleeping enough, drinking plenty of water, exercising, etc.).  I notice it when my mind starts to race and I feel my heart start beating faster. If I’m without my medication, I put my hand on my chest and try to slow down my breathing. I do breathing exercises like counting my breaths (inhale for 3, hold for 3, exhale for 3).  But it frustrates me that even though I take medication, I still experience anxiety. I guess nothing is perfect.

My mood, in general, has been unusually stable, which for me (someone with a mood disorder) is extraordinary.  As someone with a rapid cycling mood disorder, I’m used to not being able to trust my feelings because I know my mood will just change again.  It’s a weird and awful feeling to feel like you can’t trust yourself because your brain is turning against you. It’s scary and it makes making decisions feel almost impossible, even small meaningless ones.  But I haven’t felt that way in a while, and for that I feel incredibly grateful. And it’s not just medication that does the trick, it takes a lot of work on my end as well. There is no magic pill that makes you feel better all the time.  And even with the work I put in, like exercising and sleeping enough, I still have my lows. They’re just less frequent and less severe.

So generally speaking, things are pretty good.  Will they stay that way forever? No. I’ve been dealing with this long enough to know that the good times don’t last forever, which is why it’s so important to enjoy them.  These are the times when I’ll try to exercise more and be more social, because I know that when I’m not feeling great those are two things I avoid. As my dad always says, some days are rock and others are diamonds.  Enjoy the diamonds while you have them and persevere through the rocks since neither lasts forever.

 

Channeling the Bridal Zen

In exactly two weeks from today, my husband and I will be taking off for our honeymoon and I am so FREAKING EXCITED!!! It’s hard to believe the day is almost hear considering we got married back in September.  We decided to postpone our honeymoon because it would give us something to look forward to after the wedding was over (aka my anxiety would not allow for anymore planning).  And so here we are.  With our upcoming getaway and a few weddings coming up, I’ve been reminiscing about our big day.

As you probably know by now, I have anxiety.  I know, big reveal!  Anyway, it made planning the wedding fairly unpleasant for me.  As much as I wanted to joyfully immerse myself in all the planning like all the women you see in the bridal magazines* (*Pinterest), I found myself curled up in a ball a good part of the time begging to just go to city hall and call it a day.  But when the big day finally came, I was anything buy anxious; I was f*cking zen.  So much so that my bridal party seemed concerned and our photographer asked if I had taken anything to relax (which I did not, but I wouldn’t judge a bride for it).  I was so zen that as a woman heckled me on my way to the alter, I barely noticed.

So how does someone go from nervous wreck to buddhist monk status calm?  You let go.

All the planning was done, there were no more last minute details, no more changes, no more stress.  All I had to do was walk down the aisle with my dad and be with the man I love in front of all the people that I love.  That part wasn’t in the slightest bit stressful.  It was the invitations, the goddamn seating chart, and the millions of other decisions that made me into a ball of stress over one. damn. day.  But when that day finally came, I realized that there was nothing left to do but enjoy it.  I wasn’t going to let my anxiety (or anything else for that matter) get in the way one of the most momentous days of my life.

The morning of my wedding day is such a happy memory.  I actually try to go back to that moment when I’m feeling stressed to remember how calm I was and what that felt like.  I had the advantage (and genius idea) of getting married at a spa, so I spent the morning drinking tea on the deck with my best friends and then sitting in a hot tub with my maid of honor.  One of my mom’s friends saw us and said, “This is what a bride should look like on her wedding day.”  I also covered myself in essential oils from the time I woke up til the time I walked down the aisle.  I’m sure that didn’t hurt.

Because it was such an important day, I was able to let go of any anxiety or stress and really enjoy myself.  It’s something I am truly grateful for because I know it could have gone the complete opposite way.  But that’s also what your bridal party is there for – they keep you sane when you can’t hold it together.  I started wonder why I can’t do that every day, how I could be so calm the day of my wedding and a stressed out mess so much of the time.  I forgot about that sense of calm, the zen, until today when I started getting really excited for our honeymoon, which was then promptly followed horrible anxiety around traveling.  But I’m trying to remember that I’ll be with my husband, the man I love more than anything, on our way to some of the most beautiful places in the world.  So maybe I can summon that calmness when I’m taking my shoes off for the TSA.  I mean, I can try at least.

And in case you were wondering, we’re going to Greece and Croatia with a quick pitstop in Ireland.  Woohoo!

Work Problem No More

I have had a lot of jobs, I’m what some would call a “job hopper”.  My resume is two pages not because of my many accomplishments (queue sarcasm), but because writing all the different companies, addresses, and dates worked there takes up a lot of space.  The longest I’ve ever stayed at a job is less than two years, which to me seems like an eternity. It’s almost become a joke with my friends and family because you never know where I’ll be working the next time you see me.  All joking aside, I kept changing jobs because I wasn’t happy.  I put such a strong emphasis on job satisfaction leading to happiness that I set up myself up to fail.  I couldn’t look past my father’s guidance that jobs are here to pay bills and happiness is found outside of work.  My brain was unable to comprehend that concept and I continued my search for the “perfect job”.

The “perfect job” doesn’t exist.  Well, I guess some people get to wake up and do what they love and feel fulfilled every day, but I think it’s safe to say that most people don’t get that.  Not everyone can turn a passion into profit and use their hobbies and interests to sustain a living.  I get that now.  I left a lot of good companies because my unrealistic expectations weren’t being met, but I also left a few bad ones because my intuition was right.  Now I find myself at a technical writer’s dream job; a major tech company.  I’ve never loved what I do for work but there definitely parts of the job that I enjoy.  These parts were not always obvious to me, but I was able to pick them out when I sat down and really thought about why I’ve stayed in my field.  Even though I don’t love what I do, I’m very lucky that I love where I do it.  I have the privilege of working for a company that treats people like humans and makes a product that millions of people enjoy every day.  Although I don’t love my company every day, sometimes it feels like a massive cluster f*ck, overall I can honestly say I love this company.  This is meaningful to me because I’ve worked places I wished would burn to the ground. But even though I love my company, I’ve had times where I’ve hated my job.

A few months ago I found myself in the uncomfortably familiar place of not feeling any semblance of job satisfaction.  I was bored and felt underutilized and unappreciated.  But after I got over feeling sorry for myself I came to the realization that I was as a massive tech company – no one was monitoring my every move and no one was going to fix my problems for me.  I talked to my manager and before I knew it, work came pouring back in and I was feeling much better about my position. But something interesting happened yesterday.

Yesterday, we had a department-wide meeting where each team gathered together to write down their goals for the quarter and how they would achieve them.  Since I’m not a developer or a product person, I had nothing to contribute. I sat around for three hours trying to figure out what people were talking about and nodded so much that my neck is sore today.  When it came time for the teams to present their findings, I looked around the room and thought, “I am by far the dumbest person in this room, and none of the work I do really matters.” Strangely enough, this didn’t make me feel bad, it made me feel relieved.  

At all my other jobs, and this one for a while, I got really down about not pursuing my passion and that most of the work I did didn’t really matter.  But while I was standing in that room yesterday something clicked; none of that matters. I work for an amazing company that gives me amazing benefits and treats me better than any company I’ve ever worked for.  I work with good, smart people who don’t make me want to bash my h head into a desk.  I don’t need it to me my passion because it allows me the time and resources to pursue mine. I may not be needed or produce valuable work all the time, but when I do it makes me feel really good that I can provide a needed service.  My department doesn’t need me every day, but when they do I’m here and ready to help them. When I step back and look at all that, it looks pretty damn good.

Sometimes we have to reevaluate our expectations and realize that not everything looks the way we planned it, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When you can appreciate what you do have and stop focusing on what you don’t, it makes the things you have seem great.  And if you aren’t able to see the good and need to make the change, give me a call – I’m a master resume writer and have a rolodex of recruiters.

Cry Baby

I don’t know if it’s because I have a mental illness, I take medication, or I’m just a sensitive person, but I cry ALL. THE. TIME.  I cry when I’m sad, depressed, frustrated, happy, sentimental, tired, excited, and every emotion in between. I cry on the subway, walking down the street, in my office, on my couch, on other people’s couches, in my doctor’s offices, and basically anywhere in the world.  And I hate it. I wish I didn’t cry every time I watched a movie (even comedies!), TV show, YouTube video, or commercial with some sense of emotion. I wish I didn’t cry when I read a book on the train, read an emotional article at my desk, or talk to someone about anything that’s close to my heart.

I cry every day, at least a few times, and I wrote this because I know I’m not the only one.

We’ve been programmed to believe that crying is wrong; that it’s a sign of weakness.  I’ve been like this my whole life and I was teased relentlessly as a child, where kids would try to make my cry because it was so easy and then make fun of me.  Because crying was bad; it was wrong.  I always hoped my teariness would go away as I got older, but it seems to have done the opposite.  I have an expressive face that turns beet red every time my eyes start to tear. And if it was a good, long cry my eyes swell up. So basically, there’s no hiding it.  I wanted it to stop because I wanted people to stop giving me dirty looks when they notice.  I wanted to stop being judged for something we all have the ability to do.  But why is crying something that has to be hidden?

My mom always tells me that it’s beautiful.  She says the reason I cry so easily is because I’m so connected to my emotions and I can feel so deeply.  I “wear my heard on my sleeve”, if you will.  She always says that it’s a good thing. I never use to agree because I’ve always thought of it as embarrassing. But lately I’ve tried to look at it from her perspective, and I’ve tried to think of it as beautiful.  

Maybe being a “crier” is a good thing.  Instead of burying our feeling where no one can see them, where no one can really see you, we show them to others.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to show the truth that something is causing us to feel deeply, and we don’t hide it.  I know that when I try to hold tears back it is physically painful, and letting them out feels so freeing and nourishing. It’s a way on honoring how we feel by allowing it to come forward instead of keeping it buried deep inside.

So maybe the criers of the world shouldn’t feel embarrassed, shouldn’t apologize every time their eyes start to fill with tears, and shouldn’t hide their tears because it makes other people uncomfortable.  Maybe we should feel lucky that we’re able to show such a pure, honest side of ourselves that so many people are too afraid to do. And maybe we should invest in waterproof mascara because tears are beautiful, but raccoon eyes are another story.

Fighting Off the Invaders

It makes me really irritated when I find myself in a pissy mood or feeling down because of something another person did.  It makes me even more irritated when this person didn’t do anything directly to me and just their existence is infuriating. Or they did something unintentionally that drove me insane.  It’s such a waste of energy and even though I know this, I can’t seem to get the thoughts about how much I hate this person out of my head.

I really noticed it this morning when I went to grab a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.  The woman in front of me ordered one of the unhealthiest breakfasts I’ve ever heard someone order, and I found myself stewing with rage with every word that came out of her mouth.  But so what?  If this woman wants to be unhealthy and increase her risk for diabetes, that’s her business.  Her actions have literally no affect on my life, and yet here I am still fuming about it.  I’ve started noticing this happen with other people too.  A friend does something dumb and I take it as a personal attack.  A woman on the train won’t let me pass by her to get off the train because she’s trying to take the seat I just got up from, and she’s trying to ruin my life.

Now that I’m no longer in the midst of those situations they all seem like very silly things to get upset about.  But when you’re in the moment if feels almost impossible not to lose it.  So how do you make it stop?

I’m reading this book called Why Buddhism is True, which I highly recommend, and the author talks about a lot about “thought” and the “self”.  One thing that he talks about that I’ve been thinking a lot about is this concept of negative thoughts being invaders in our mind.  So when you’re sitting there, minding your own business, and you start think something like, “Wow, Jessica is so conceited.  All she does is post dumb selfies on Instagram,” that thought is invading your mind.  You know it’s wrong to judge people, even if they ask for it by abusing social media, but the thought just creeps in.  These thoughts aren’t always about other people too, in fact more often it seems that they’re about ourselves.  Like when you catch a glimpse of yourself in a store window and the thought “ugh my thighs are HUGE” comes in, or you think “I’m not nearly as smart as any of these people in this meeting. Why am I even here?” (I think this one a lot).  These are all negative intrusive thoughts that do nothing except make us feel worse.

So how do we make them go away?

The author of Why Buddhism is True believes (from the Buddha’s teachings) that meditation is one of the best ways to put up walls and protect yourself from these intrusive negative thoughts.  He also stresses the concept of mindfulness; the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment.  Mindfulness can be obtained through meditation because meditation is all about focusing the mind.

I started meditating because I wanted more control over my thoughts.  Part of having bipolar disorder, as well as other mental illnesses or just being a New Yorker, is being plagued by racing thoughts.  When most of these thoughts become negative, critical, and judgmental you start to find yourself in a very dark place.  But meditation or practicing mindfulness is like putting the brakes on these thoughts.  So when your mind starts to race and go after someone or yourself in a negative way, think STOP!  But just thinking stop isn’t enough because the mind will just start to wander back to the negativity, so you need to give it something else to focus on.  When you meditate, the breath is usually a good go-to.  Counting breaths, deep breathing, and other breathing techniques are a great way to quiet the mind.  But what about when you’re out in the world?  You can’t just stop and sit cross-legged on the ground.  Instead, the first step is to bring awareness.

One of my yoga teachers wears a bracelet and every time she has a critical or judgmental thought about another or herself, she moves the bracelet to the other wrist.  I started doing this too and it is truly disturbing how many times I have to move this damn bracelet.  I’ve noticed the #1 place the bracelet moves rapidly back and forth is the subway.  But for other people this could be at the gym, at work, or when you’re all alone and you don’t have any distraction from your thoughts.  I highly recommend giving this a try because your thoughts may surprise you.  So each time I start to notice my thoughts go dark, I take three deep breaths to give myself a “reset”, then I focus on something else like reading a book, playing a game on my phone, or anything I can give my full attention to. Pro tip: DON’T go on social media.

Don’t let your negative thoughts overtake you.  We all have them and we can all fall prey to them.  So buy yourself a bracelet (rubber bands work just as well), focus on your breath, and let that negative shit go.  Make the world, and especially your world, a better place by removing one negative thought at a time.