How living with bipolar disorder is like a popular party game.
Living successfully with bipolar disorder is a constant balancing act.
It’s essential to keep exercise, eating habits, and sleep routines all in their proper place. The bipolar brain loves to do everything it can to throw off that balance.
Balance is possible. It’s sometimes complicated and requires daily, if not hourly, attention. Below are some of the things I do to remain balanced.
High Stakes Jenga
Have you ever played Jenga? Most people have.
For those that haven’t, Jenga is a game made up of small (and sometimes large) rectangular, wooden bricks. The blocks are stacked neatly in a three-brick wide tower to start the game.
Gameplay then proceeds with each player taking a brick from somewhere below the top row and then safely placing that brick on the top of the tower without knocking it over. The game ends, and the player loses when the tower falls.
Living with bipolar is like playing Jenga, but it is a much higher stake game. Losing balance brings down more than a play tower and sometimes has deadly consequences.
Today, we’ll avoid going down the dark rabbit hole of possible negative consequences. Instead, we’ll highlight the positive ways that I am living successfully with bipolar.
Yes, my tower is still standing, even if a bit wobbly.
The Right Amount of Exercise
Exercise is important for everyone.
There is no question as to the benefits of exercise. The virtues of exercise include weight control, better sleep, and overall health improvement. Blood pressure and heart rates are lower in those who frequently exercise.
Another byproduct of exercise is mental well-being.
People who routinely exercise often report being happier and more content in daily life. Yes, there is no doubt that exercise is good for you.
When you have bipolar, though, an odd new, and very important, variable is added to what should be a simple endeavor.
What does that mean?
Exercise can sometimes be the thing that sends the tower crashing to the ground. When you push yourself to share in physical activity, especially strenuous activity, it can trigger a manic episode.
Manic Comes With a Price
If you are a fan of Once Upon a Time you have heard the tagline, “Magic comes with a price” many times. I’m going to borrow that line because it is perfect for replacing magic with mania.
Mania is great. I’m not going to lie, I loved being manic. There are times I considered stopping my meds for a few days just to experience a few days of mania.
Don’t worry, I never do. I know the importance of daily and consistent medication. But the desire is still there.
I call mania, “Superman Syndrome.”
In the upward swing of a manic episode, there is a sense of euphoria, an anything-is-possible, I-can-do-it-all feeling.
When I was manic, I was full of energy, highly creative and usually the life of the party.
Manic episodes are like Dr. Jekel and Mr. Hyde. The good part I just described, that’s your Dr. Jekel. Mr. Hyde is a very different experience and almost always follows Dr. Jekel.
The dark side of the manic episode includes extreme irritability (like throwing a clock at the wall because it’s ticking too loudly), the need to isolate yourself from friends and family, and unpredictable bursts of anger (there goes another clock!), to name just a few.
The only safe way to keep Mr. Hyde away is to make sure you never see Dr. Jekel. That means stacking your bricks carefully.
Returning to exercise, learning how much activity is right for you has a bit of a learning curve. You’re bound to release Dr. Jekel a few times before you discover your personal limit.
Your limit can also change, or at least it has for me, especially as I have gotten older. But it is possible to keep Dr. Jekel safely hidden away and his cohort with him.
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Sleep is another area where proper balance is needed. Frequently, it’s the hardest area in which to stay balanced.
Let’s start on the obvious side. Not sleeping at all, or not sleeping enough, is an easy-to-spot trigger.
Most of the people I know with bipolar take medicine to help them to sleep. Going without sleep for more than a few days will almost guarantee your Jenga tower will soon be pieces scattered across the floor.
I take Remeron (Mirtazapine), which is effective most nights for making me sleep. Remeron is an antidepressant and is often prescribed to help with insomnia. It tends to give me the munchies (Hello, potato chips!), but the benefits far outweigh a little weight gain.
The nights Remeron doesn’t work, I have Restoril (Temazepam) to take. I hate taking Restoril because it always gives me a headache the next day. At times, it also sets off a depressive episode.
Drugs like Ambien had no effect on me, so my doctor prescribed Restoril. I only take it when I have gone more than two or three nights without any sleep.
Maintaining your sanity, not to mention your balance, requires making sure you are getting enough sleep.
There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used in torture. The brain needs sleep in order to keep functioning.
The flip side, though, the one that seems to be seldom talked about, is the danger of sleeping too much. For me, this symptom is rare and generally only happens during a severe depressive downswing or when I’m dealing with chronic fatigue.
The danger with too much sleep is that it tends to make depression worse. It’s a snowball effect, where the more you sleep, the more you want to sleep. Crash! There goes your tower again.
Sometimes you can force-break this cycle.
I do my best when I get up at the same time every day. Hard as it may be, I push myself out of bed whether I have slept or not.
I also stick to a strict schedule where I won’t let myself go to bed until bedtime, except in those chronic fatigue episodes. This consistency helps me keep my tower standing.
Call Me, Maybe?
I have no science to back up what comes next. This is my experience and the trends I see with my bipolar journey.
Keeping my wooden tower standing requires balance in the area of social interaction. Almost as tough as figuring out the right amount of exercise, I’ve also struggled to find the right amount of time with others.
Finding your safe spot between being a social butterfly and a total recluse may take some time.
Spending time with other people is a basic need. As humans, we were created to be social, to interact with others. When you’re with other people, you have a chance to talk about the things swirling in your head. It also gives me a place to escape from your mental noise for a while.
My biggest trial is finding the right balance of time with others and time alone.
Too many social activities, too much time “on,” and I find myself slipping into mania. On the other hand, too little friend time and I become withdrawn, sullen, and eventually depressed.
I am an introvert, so as a general rule, I need less social time than most.
A friend of mine would tell you she is also an introvert (she’s not by any means), but she has to be surrounded by people. She has moved many people into her home over the years because of her need to be around people.
Introvert, extrovert, hermit, or party animal, find your balance and strive to hold to it. Your tower will be stronger as a result.
A Dull Pencil Is Better Than a Sharp Mind
When you buy Jenga, it comes with clear instructions on how to play the game. Sometimes the instructions will even give you tips on which pieces will be easiest to remove and the best way to stack them for tower stability.
In our lives with bipolar disorder, We were not so lucky.
None of us were born with an instruction manual. (If you were, please send me a copy. I will happily pay shipping costs.) If you are bipolar, there are thousands of books and blogs available to help you. But being bipolar is often a unique experience that varies from person to person.
Is there a solution?
Write your own manual.
First, you know you best. Second, you are the person most concerned with and affected by your stability.
In my journal, I keep up with things like:
- What I eat and when
- When I exercise and what type of activity
- How I interact with others
I also list how I am doing, both mentally and physically. It only takes me a couple of minutes to jot down these notes during the day.
Over time, keeping a health journal has helped me to identify my triggers for bipolar episodes. It has also helped me to see trends and similarities in the days leading up to those better days.
One day at a time, I am learning to keep my tower standing.
My wooden Jenga tower has crashed many times over the years. A few of those crashes left me devastated, and it took time to pick up all the pieces.
More often, each topple taught me life lessons that have helped me to build a stronger tower. Using the manual I have written, tower crashes now happen less often and with less devastation.
Jenga is more than a game you play with friends. It’s the balancing act you do every day to manage your stability. The good news is success is possible. Even if you knock the whole thing over, you can pick up the pieces and start again.
Until next time, keep fighting.