Lessons learned from living with mental illness as the seasons change.
As I write this, spring is in full swing here in Southeast Tennessee. Irises, roses, and rhododendrons are sprouting up through the leaves I still haven’t cleared from my lawn. Spring is my favorite time of year.
At the same time, a darkness is gathering. Spring triggers mania followed by the deepest of depression. I hate spring.
When you have bipolar disorder, nothing is ever simple. Everything is full of contradictions. Spring is no different.
As much as I love watching the world return to life again, I know the darkness coming. I even wrote the following poem about it.
Like with other mental illnesses, the changing of seasons can affect bipolar disorder. It could be a great season or a terrible one.
Historically, spring is always the worst one for me.
It usually starts well. I feel renewed life in my bones, just like the flowers and trees sprouting around me. I watch as my energy increases, and sleep decreases. It’s the start of mania, and the best part of it.
That happy, positive feeling doesn’t last long. Before long, the lack of sleep will turn mania into irritability, anger, and finally bipolar rage. I’ll struggle to maintain stability.
What will follow is even worse. You can never have mania without the reciprocating depression.
Bipolar depression is devastating. It will leave me unable to function, confined to home, often in bed. I’ll believe I have no worth in this world. No words will convince me otherwise.
The darkness will take everything, but there is hope.
It’s not all bad news. Bipolar has been part of my life for over 25 years, so I know a few things about how to keep it in check.
For one, I know I’m on the right combination of medications. They keep me stable and functioning most of the year. If I take them faithfully, they will get me through the dark days.
Unfortunately, no medication will completely cure bipolar disorder. Even the best combination will occasionally allow periods of mania and depression to sneak in. Spring is the time of year I fight the hardest.
To make things easier, there are three things I do to make sure I will survive spring.
1. Warn others in advance
I’m blessed with a loving support system. My family and close friends know I have bipolar disorder.
I make sure they know spring can be a bad time of year. I’ll warn them with what to expect, and what warning signs to watch for.
It’s important to tell your loved ones about what could happen while you’re in a better frame of mind. When mania sets in, I’ll stop thinking reasonably. When the depression hits, I won’t be able to think at all.
That makes it vital my family knows what danger signals to look for and when I need to get help. Give your loved ones notice, and they’ll be better able to help you when you need it most.
2. Prepare for the bad times
Bipolar disorder can throw you into mania or depression without warning. However, if you discover a certain season is typically harder than others, there are things you can do to prepare.
One thing that really helps me is to keep a journal. I make sure I write the things I am grateful for and my positive qualities. These things may not change my mood when I’m in a depressive state, but they should give me enough strength to hold on.
Writing in my journal reminds me each cycle ends. Mania and depression don’t last forever. There can be lots of good days between the two extremes.
In addition, I don’t put a lot of demands on myself in the spring. I make tentative social plans and let people know I might have to cancel last minute. I save up PTO so I can take time off from work and reduce the time I spend volunteering.
It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality, but you can put some things in place to make your bad season easier to endure. Look at your life and see what things you can plan out.
3. Remind yourself what’s true
Here again, journaling is invaluable. By making sure I write during the good days, I have meaningful words in my handwriting to show me the worst days don’t last forever.
On the darkest days, I won’t touch the journal. To keep positive messages before me, I put notes up around the house. There are sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, front of the refrigerator, and sometimes on the jug of juice. Each of them have simple phrases such as “Tough times don’t last” or “This too will pass.”
Reminding myself that life is worth living keeps me going.
I will not pretend I don’t have days where I take those notes and rip them up or throw them across the room. The bad days are devastating. Overall, those little reminders help keep my mind from going too deep into the darkness.
Decide what you can do to remind yourself of what’s true. If you don’t like to write, record videos or audio files. Have messages on hand to comfort you later.
Know your season
Are you living with a mental illness? Then take the time to make sure you know your seasons. If you haven’t already noticed one season is harder for you, ask those closest to you.
My family noticed how bad spring was long before I realized it. In hindsight, I should have recognized most of my major purchases — and nearly all the ill-advised ones — occurred in the spring.
Look at your history and see if there are patterns. Do you frequently make poor choices a certain time of year? Take note of that.
Changing seasons can disrupt your mental health, but there are things you can do. Keep these items in mind.
- Warn others in advance
- Prepare for the bad times
- Remind yourself what’s true
Knowing which season will be the worst for you, allow yourself some latitude. Don’t beat yourself up for the days that you can’t get dressed or leave the house. Allow yourself to cry and binge-watch all 10 seasons of Friends on Netflix. It’s hard not to feel a little better after spending time with Phoebe.
Most importantly, remind yourself that just like the seasons change, your bad season will end. There are better days on the horizon, so hold on.
Until next time… Keep fighting.
This post first appeared on Medium on March 8, 2020.