Last winter, I was in the midst of a multi-year battle with bipolar disorder and depression. I had tried various medications but had not found one that stabilized me or pulled me out of my episodes. It was clear to me that I had to do something different, and so I set a small goal of making my bed every morning.
Even during the days and weeks when I could barely get myself out of bed, I was able to find the energy and motivation each morning to make my bed. At worst, I would make it and then get back in, unable to function the rest of the day. On my lowest days when I suffered from depression, I felt like I had still accomplished SOMETHING.
Making my bed helped me feel like I was trying. On good days, I’d make my bed and still be able to finish other chores and activities. Plus, I really liked climbing into a made bed every night. It felt like I was a real adult human being, not just a disaster.
Eventually, forcing myself to make my bed evolved into needing to make my bed. It became second nature. An added bonus was that I could look back and see that despite feeling worse than I had in my entire life, I had managed to stick to something. It was a visual reminder of how hard I was fighting my illness.
In April we tried a new medication and it began to work. Seven months later, I’ve had only one small episode. For me, this is a miracle. I had been cycling through episodes nonstop for three years. To be stable, healthy, and happy is everything.
During my early recovery when it wasn’t clear if I’d really found what worked medication-wise, I developed healthy habits and routines to keep myself on track. Making my bed had worked, and I knew that even with the right medication I would still need to make lifestyle changes.
Here’s what I did:
I set a bedtime and a wake up time, and I stuck to the schedule. Even if I couldn’t fall asleep on time, I got up each morning at the same time. It served two purposes; it helped me get enough sleep each night, which is vital with any mental illness, and when I start to vary from it I know to be alert for possible relapse.
In July, while talking to my therapist about planning for an inevitable depressive episode I had, the idea of writing out what made me happy every day came up. There’s actual science behind the idea and I thought I needed to refocus my negative thoughts on positive ones. At that point, I still struggled with negative thought processes and spending even a few minutes each day on what made me happy just made sense.
Much like making my bed helped give me a sense of accomplishment, sticking with my gratitude journal for this long has given me confidence in my ability to adult. Three years of depression and bipolar cycling had destroyed my self confidence. Journaling has been a significant part of recovering that.
I used to love cooking and baking. Bipolar disorder and depression robbed me of the energy and motivation to make anything beyond boxed macaroni and cheese. As I began to recover, I wanted to get back things that my illness has stolen from me. I started small; it didn’t make sense to make homemade cinnamon rolls when I still felt wobbly on my feet. So I started with those Pillsbury canned cinnamon rolls. It wasn’t baking like I used to do, but my family loved them and my house smelled good.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting everyone struggling should start baking and cooking. It worked for me because it was something I loved. Maybe for you it’s playing an instrument, reading, writing, or gardening. Whatever it is that used to feed your soul, start with a teeny, tiny step and start doing it again. Don’t start with a huge bite; a tiny taste will do to help get you started. Months after I started cooking again, I’m finally feeling ready to make those from scratch cinnamon rolls that take hours.
These are small steps that have helped me recover. When I was actively depressed, these small steps helped me feel like I really was fighting and doing my best. Even at our worst, getting up every day is still fighting mental illness. Even if all you do is wake up and move to the couch, give yourself a gold star for that. Because I know sometimes that takes everything you have.
Photo credit: flickr.com
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Category: Mental Health