|Image: Dustin Stockton|
In 2002 I went through an upsetting breakup. Afterward, I decided to put my energy into my work, my education, and my friendships. I wasn't thinking in terms of preventing a relapse of bipolar disorder at all, but I ended up concentrating my efforts into some areas of my life that contributed to my wellness.
Although I had been compliant with my treatment for bipolar disorder for many years, I still had not fully accepted my diagnosis. I secretly hoped that I would grow out of it, or it would just disappear. By 2005, I had earned a Master of Arts in Teaching and had been teaching for almost two years. At that point, it seemed like I had my life under control, so I asked my psychiatrist to make some changes to my medication because of some side effects I was bothered by. In hindsight, I realize that this wasn't the best idea, because the changes increased the likelihood that I would become unstable. That is how psychiatry works though. Everything is done through trial and error, because the brain and its disorders are still poorly understood.
Teaching was my life and my life was becoming more and more unbalanced. I was putting all of my energy into work. The hours I worked, as well as the sedation caused by my medication, made it very difficult for me to exercise, something that has always contributed to my wellness. When I got home at the end of the day, I was exhausted and rarely ate anything more nutritious than a microwave dinner. I spent most nights preparing for my next day at school and then reading until I fell asleep. I spent less and less time with my friends. My students and coworkers brought me joy, and that sustained me for a while, although my life away from school was taking a steady downturn.
In 2006 I found out that I had developed workplace-related asthma because toxic black mold was growing in my classroom. My allergist advised me to transfer to another school because he felt that it was unlikely that my school would clean up the problem anytime soon. I took his advice and transferred to a new school in 2007. My health habits had been slipping while I worked at my old school, but when I entered my new environment, where I didn't know anyone, and was also an unknown, I quickly fell into a deep depression. My classroom was immaculate, and my asthma disappeared, but I was overwhelmed, became unable to work, went through shock therapy, and qualified for Social Security Disability. Everything I had worked for seemed to slip away so quickly. It was the biggest wake-up call I have ever experienced.
Ironically, becoming disabled has enabled me to focus on my wellness. I think my problem with recovery in the past is that I just tried to forge ahead, without properly acknowledging and respecting my disorder. I have bipolar disorder and I can never forget that. I have given up the hope that it will ever disappear and have become vigilant about staying well. I'm blessed to have a boyfriend who respects and encourages my commitment to maintaining my mental health. So few people, without the condition, understand the discipline it takes to live well with bipolar disorder. Things that are no big deal for many people, like staying up all night, or getting drunk, can lead to rapid mood changes, serious depression or mania, and the need for immediate psychiatric intervention, including hospitalization, for people with bipolar disorder.
Twenty three years after my diagnosis, I finally understand all that it takes for me to stay well. I have gone through a great deal of trial and error with medication, therapy, support groups, relationships, work, exercise, diet, complementary therapies, and more. I have seen attitudes toward mental illness change in the years since I was diagnosed, and I think if there were as much acceptance when I was diagnosed as there is now, it wouldn't have taken me as long to reach my current level of recovery. My hope for myself is that I will be able to stay on the path of recovery, and my hope for others is that attitudes toward those with mental illness will continue to improve so that it will be easier for those who need help to get it. I also hope that more research will lead to a better understanding of all mental illnesses and also to better treatments, with fewer side effects, for those who are affected.