I apologize in advance for the length of this piece…
This article is meant to encourage those with mood disorders to find some freedom and control of themselves during mood swings. Remember, the most basic piece of recovery from a mental illness episode is twofold–the correct medication and learning to take control over your thoughts and actions.
So, I felt depressed yesterday to a more than moderate degree and at one point had some suicidal thoughts. This dip was due to seroquel withdrawal (no easy feat–horrible) and ended after my nighttime dose of haldol.
The recurring themes of my depressive episodes go something like this:
-I’m not good enough (too fat, too stupid, not a good mother, not going to make it with my writing, not interesting enough to get my husband’s attention, etc),
-My appearance sucks (hair, eyebrows, face, especially body) and I’m ugly and really fat,
-I’m exhausted and feel like a dirty dishrag who can’t function like everyone else,
-I recognize my husband probably doesn’t hold me in high regard or respect me,
-I’m trapped in this life bc I’m bipolar and can’t be a consistent person who could rely on myself to support myself and my daughter if I had to,
-I’ve made too many mistakes bc I’m bipolar, I’ve ruined my life making bad choices with bad judgment.
All these thoughts plague and torment me when I’m feeling depressed.
Sound familiar? The specifics for each of us are slightly different, but remain in the same in theme and scope for all people who get depressed, bipolar or not.
When I’m manic, I think I can write my novel into Wikipedia, and my entre into the American canon of literature seems within my grasp. I dream at night frequently (when manic) about book tours, radio spots, huge sales and a bigger publisher for the third novel I have begun writing. My worldview is rose-colored where anything seems reachable if I can simply work hard enough.
In either state, it is obvious to me now after having episode after episode that the depressive side and the manic side are predictable, familiar, well-worn two-track paths I’ve been repeating endlessly for at least the twenty years since my diagnosis. They are never a surprise, they always seem “reasonable,” I usually always fall under the spell of my own chemical state, believing my feelings and thoughts are accurate, letting moods and thoughts grab me in their fervent grasp while believing they will never let up.
The point of all of these typical thought and feeling patterns is that because bipolar is a cyclical condition, I used to feel like I was strapped into the roller coaster and at their mercy. These thoughts and feelings are not based on objective reality; they encourage me to throw out even-keeled thought as if it were irrelevant (in the case of mania) or impossible to change (in the case of depression). These patterns in me fit like a favorite glove, or an old overcoat, they are comforting only for their consistency and they leave me reality-less and so less able to cope.
In other words, I’m realizing that I have the worst judgment of anyone I’ve ever met because I’m bipolar, these thoughts/moods come on like I’m in a fashion show modeling one look after another all day long since I’m a rapid-cycler.
Psychology teaches that thoughts lead to feelings, but in my case I don’t really think this is true—I think I have the feelings first because I have a chemical imbalance that causes bad feelings, then I realize I’m feeling the negative feelings and my mind seems to explain these too bad or too good feelings away with evidence from my life, either positive or negative evidence, depending on my mood.
This kind of thinking has led me to quit jobs and relationships, move to different towns, in the past, because I thought I would be happier because I thought the problems were these external things causing me to feel and think I would be stable if only I could pick the right relationship, the right career, the right town. But as Buddha once said, “wherever you go, there you are.”
None of these thoughts are based in reality (except the real fears I have to deal with like my husband attacking me again because I’m in an episode or him again having me involuntarily committed). The rest of these thoughts I grapple with to give me a reason why I feel badly or overly happy–but, there are no real reasons for them–these inappropriate feelings are based on illogical, irrational, chemical imbalances.
Imagine you were wearing a blindfold and then asked to identify different somewhat obscure scents and be right without peeking. Your mind would go through the possibilities until it can put a label on the “smell.” This is the process I used for two decades to identify my mood when I will always be blindfolded by my genetic disability, regardless of whether I label my feelings “correctly” or not–in other words, the strong feelings we have are chemical, not epistemological. This realization could be a great breakthrough if I can just remember not to buy into my naturally unbalanced thinking.
It’s just like being a diabetic—maybe you feel faint suddenly. You would rack your brain—what did I eat or drink too much of or not enough of, do I need an insulin shot to feel better or no sugar/too much sugar when the root cause of the problem is an actual defect in the way your body is made and if you don’t learn to control it, an illness like this can kill you.
It’s the same for those of us with chemical imbalances that require medication and therapy. In fact, the statistic in America is that 30% of bipolar cases prove fatal from suicide.
So, these thoughts seem automatic but they are based on the conditioning I’ve had to my specific life and history and try to make sense of in a reality-based way which will never produce definitive answers because my mind is handicapped. My chemical makeup is fragile and damaged.
So, there is no objective reality to my situation except the medical certainty that I am ultra-sensitive to stimuli and sort of more fragile than others. I finally understand I am in charge of what I experience, and that my experiences can basically go one of two ways: I can choose to allow my ill feelings to guide me or I can focus on strengthening the helpful ones. I know that this actually has positive mood benefits, too, since I’ve been practicing this.
It is better to just refuse to buy into feelings, and the thoughts we think to explain them because they are illusions.
So, maybe there is no real objective reason bipolars have episodes–after all, diabetics don’t go to therapists to learn how to will and think their ways out of their predicaments…
So, I’ve just decided to think of automatic “thoughts” triggered by my chemical imbalance as in terms of “helpful” and “unhelpful” thoughts/feelings.
It’s like getting your leg amputated and still feeling like you still have the leg and its phantom pain. You learn to live with it and don’t feel bad about failing to win the Boston marathon.
I’m seeking a forum or audience to share these insights with in the hopes that sharing my improvements in my admittedly severe impairment can inspire people who actually have milder swings or are always in the “normal” moods.
I believe if I can do this hard work of sifting thoughts/feelings into two baskets, one for the helpful and one for the unhelpful, maybe it will make it easier for me to feel more healthy mentally going forward because I will eventually learn to augment the helpful thoughts and simply ignore the unhelpful ones.
Like so many sages have said throughout time–“don’t overthink it.” In the case of those of us with mood disorders, I think this could be amended to say, “don’t give imbalanced thoughts any weight simply because they are irrational and shouldn’t be acted upon.” They pass faster this way, you can stay more grounded this way, and you can begin a dialogue with yourself by testing out the validity of strong feelings, reprocess them, and hopefully move forward (as I am doing) by increasing helpful thoughts and ignoring unhelpful ones.
Wishing you health and happiness,
Marie K Johnston