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Part 20: Learning to Cope with Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder

Continuing the Surviving Bipolar Series.
Illustration of young man talking to a therapist
Therapy taught me coping skills. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Anxiety? We don’t need no stinking anxiety. But, yet, here we are with both anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Anxiety is an unfortunate part of living with bipolar disorder. Before I went to the hospital, I had years of experience of coping with my anxiety by using alcohol. My unhealthy coping mechanism was why all the professionals thought I was an alcoholic.

Back in the real world, I longed to get everything under control, but it seemed impossible to beat the stress. I was more anxious than ever, especially when I had to be around groups of people.

Even going places I loved, such as Bible study, was often too hard. To cope, I wanted to drink before I went, if I went at all.

I did well with avoiding alcohol. Family history proved I had reasons to worry about alcoholism, and I didn’t want to risk it.

I figured the best way to get my drinking under control was to avoid alcohol altogether. But the more I focused on dodging liquor, the more I craved it.

I used to joke with friends, “I don’t have a drinking problem. Watch.” Then I’d pour a bottle of beer down my throat and laugh. “See! No problem.”

Yeah, I know, not the most healthy behavior, but I was young and had much to learn.


Surviving Bipolar is a monthly series telling the story of the early days of my journey with bipolar disorder. Read it from the beginning here.


Therapy

I was seeing a therapist, Dr. Burt, once a week, and going to group therapy as often as I could. Both were in Chattanooga and were about an hour’s drive from my house.

Try as I could, I never could get both scheduled on the same day. Most weeks, I had to choose one or the other. I felt Dr. Burt had the most potential, so I usually chose the one-on-one therapy.

Anxiety was also creating problems with driving. The young man who loved to drive now felt an uneasy queasiness at the thought of getting behind the wheel.

I talked to Dr. Hateful about my concerns on my next visit. She recommended I stop going to the group. My comments made her think group therapy wasn’t benefiting me.

Dr. Burt was helping me learn some coping skills. While he wanted to talk about alcohol way too often, he slowly let me dive into the issues that mattered to me.

Autobiography

Dr. Burt wanted me to write my autobiography. He mentioned it in one of my first sessions and then brought it up every time I saw him after. I already had a daily journaling habit, so writing my history should have been easy.

Each time I wrote about my past, I shared it with Dr. Burt in our next session. He was never satisfied.

“Scott,” he said with his dad face on. “All you’re writing is a history of things that happened. It’s all events. You need to dive deeper. Where are your emotions, your fears, your passions? How do you feel about those events?”

Every week, I would try again.

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Are you struggling with both bipolar disorder and anxiety? 

In part 20 of our Surviving Bipolar Series, we dive deep into the strategies and coping mechanisms you need to manage these conditions effectively. 

Learn how to take control of your emotions and live a happier, healthier life.

Don't wait any longer – read now!

#SpeakingBipolar #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
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Memories

One thing I was dealing with was reemerging memories of childhood sexual abuse. It was both something I wanted to deal with and pretend never happened.

My internal conflict was obvious to Dr. Burt, and I could see his frustration when we began discussing it and then I ran off in another direction.

I’m the king of the subject change.

Dr. Burt told me those memories, awful as they were, made up part of my history. Those events affected who I became, so I needed to explore how that made me feel before I could move past it.

Later, at home alone, sitting on my tan corduroy couch, I would hold my journal against my knee and intend to write.

“This time I’ll do,” I said out loud. Then pen met paper, but nothing followed. My attempt usually ended with me throwing my journal across the room.

“Who wants to write about the things that hurt?” I would ask the empty room. “Not me, that’s for sure.”

Then I would flick on the TV or find the cordless phone to call a friend and distract myself. It’s easy to find distractions than to cope with anxiety and bipolar disorder.

Illustration of young man talking to a therapist
Dr. Burt helped me cope with anxiety and bipolar disorder. | Image made with Canva AI.

Anxiety and Bipolar Disorder

With each dip into the past, there were some good memories, but every time I looked deeper, painful memories came with the positive ones.

For example, I wrote in my journal:

“My earliest memory? Hmm. That’s a hard one. I have early memories with certain people. Like I remember spending the day with grandma, walking home with her, and having her by me a Whatchamacallit candy bar (ad) at the store. I remember lots of violence. Chasing my sister with a knife, being thrown through a bedroom window, or being swatted around by my brothers.“

My journal, 1993

Every attempt turned dark just as quickly. I didn’t know it then, but it would be a few more years until I was ready to unpack my baggage. Then, through tears and anger on another therapist’s sofa, I would learn to face each monster.

Filling Time

The more time I put into exploring my past, the more anxiety I felt. Since I was avoiding alcohol, I did the next best thing. I filled my life with as much activity as I could.

My days revolved around day trips to Nashville, going with friends while they did their grocery shopping, and hanging out with toddlers when everyone else was busy.

It also included inviting people to my house, so I was rarely alone. Some were irritating individuals who I hated spending time with, but it was better than being alone with my memories.

Groups

I found I could manage my anxiety in groups of 3-4 people, but many more than that, and I couldn’t breathe. It felt like all the people were sucking all the air out of the room and there was none left for me.

Often, I had to flee outside or lock myself in a bathroom. Once alone, I flopped around on the ground like a fish out of water until I could contain my shaking and catch my breath.

Another problem with groups is I felt I could hear what everyone was thinking. I’d never heard of empaths other than in Star Trek lore and thought I had a superpower.

Alone with one friend, I used it to be a human lie detector and terrified my friends when I could guess their thoughts. In a group, the flood of emotions washed over me like skyscraper-high ocean waves.

Large groups overwhelmed me with feelings of sadness, happiness, excitement, loneliness, and despair.

Now I know most of those emotions were my own trying to break free, but then I blamed it on being around too many people.

Groups also made it hard for me to focus. My bipolar brain wanted to hear every conversation, so focusing on anything was impossible.

I often drifted away during conversations, or just stood alone like a wallflower as everyone else talked to each other. Isolation is often part of anxiety and bipolar disorder.

At times, I pictured myself as a little green alien standing among humans. I didn’t belong, and no one understood my language.

It’s probably why I’m such a homebody now. I still find it easier to be alone than with a group of friends.

With just a few friends, and especially at my house, I did okay. There was usually one conversation and fewer emotions to examine. So I had lots of friends come over and asked many of them to spend the night.

Every minute filled with chatting or watching movies was less time to think about the stuff in my head.

Illustration of a group of young adults laughing
Friends can help you cope. | Image made by author with Canva AI.

Walking to Fight Anxiety

Dr. Burt helped me create another positive coping technique for dealing with anxiety and bipolar disorder. When feeling overwhelmed, he said I should get outside and walk.

As a kid, I loved walking. During the summers, my sister and I often walked to the nearest gas station, three miles away, to get nickel and dime candy. There were lots of positive memories tied to walking.

So I returned to a healthy habit, one that was good for both my mind and body.

There was a little park about a mile and a half from where I lived, so I would go there when my anxiety felt too heavy. The more anxious I felt, the faster I walked. It helped keep my weight under control while the bipolar meds were packing on pounds.

Walking helped me remember my love of nature. Open spaces, alone in nature, became my sanctuary.

That’s still true now, nearly 30 years later. Even when stuck inside, I’ll pace when stressed. When the anxiety is terrible, I even count my steps.

There’s something about moving that helps you process what you’re thinking. I also do it at work, which probably looks a little silly.

When I’m stuck on a bank account that won’t reconcile or a balance sheet that refuses to balance, I get up and walk.

There’s a long hallway in our office building. It takes 65 steps to walk from one end to the other and back again. Yes, I’ve counted it many times.

As I walk, things in my brain drop into place. The puzzle pieces make more sense.

If walking isn’t already one of your coping methods, try it today.

Tiffany

Things with Tiffany were taking off. It was 1993, years before I would have a cell phone, and long distance calling was expensive. So Tiffany and I started a relationship through letter writing.

My writing sessions became one of my favorite parts of the week. I detailed how my life was going and all the mundane things I was doing, and then waited excitedly for Tiffany’s response.

I’ll tell you more about my relationship with Tiffany in the next part.

Until next time, keep fighting.

Read Part 21:

Pinterest Pin
Are you struggling with both bipolar disorder and anxiety? 

In part 20 of our Surviving Bipolar Series, we dive deep into the strategies and coping mechanisms you need to manage these conditions effectively. 

Learn how to take control of your emotions and live a happier, healthier life.

Don't wait any longer – read now!

#SpeakingBipolar #mentalhealth #mentalillness #bipolardisorder #mentalillnessawareness
Please share on Pinterest. | Graphic created with Canva AI.

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