Making a Map

I know I have been talking about this a lot lately, but honestly I am a little surprised at how much of a difference creating a sort of road map for my symptoms and episodes has been making for me. It has made the whole gamut easier, from trying new medications (and seeing if I am experiencing a change or not in my symptoms) to knowing when to say no to participating in stressful events (and thereby avoiding aggravating my anxiety).

Sometimes I get stressed out because I like to know myself, but there are times where I have felt like I didn’t know myself at all. Feeling like someone else (just an elusive someone, nobody in particular) has been overwhelming in any number of ways, and it is something that if I think about too hard I wind up feeling ten times more mad than I probably really am.

The trouble is that I knew myself, but I didn’t know the part of myself that was experiencing bipolar episodes. Depression is something that has a long history for me (going back to 13 or 14 years old, if not longer) so it is something I have been fairly familiar with, but the introduction of things like psychosis or full-on mania has been confusing as all hell.

Getting to know this portion of me has been interesting, to say the least, though extremely helpful and not quite as scary as I once had imagined. In any case, I’d recommend it.

I spent about 10 years having episodes, getting caught up in them and confused, and then feeling triumphant and forgetting about them as soon as they passed, so I didn’t spend much time learning about what they were or how they worked. I know there are people out there who have experienced this sort of thing for a long time but haven’t really wanted to turn and look these episodes in the face. That is totally ok, nobody can force you to do anything to learn about it, but from my experience the knowledge really does make things easier.

(Yuck, I feel a little bit like a commercial here!)

Also, there are those of you who are new to bipolar episodes and may have this overwhelming feeling that you don’t quite feel like yourself all the time anymore. Or, maybe you feel like an enhanced, really awesome version of yourself sometimes, but a stranger at other times. I really tried to keep a distance for a while between myself and these other sorts of… episodic occurrences of me, but that meant they were free to cause whatever mayhem they wanted. This might sound a little nutty, but now that I know how these episodes operate, I am able to negotiate with them better and find a common ground.

What has helped me the most with the understanding of bipolar disorder (as I experience it) is creating a map.

The map lets me know what to expect when I have an episode. It can help me notice an episode coming on, or that one is worsening. Basically the map is information about you, the different sorts of symptoms you have when different episodes occur, how long a typical episode is, how frequent, and more. Once you have a good idea of what to expect (which I call a good map) you can step into a place where you have a bit more power over what happens. That might mean predicting an episode before it is fully present, being able to take specific medications or talk to your doctor before an emergency occurs, or avoiding situations that will exacerbate your current state.

I know this sounds simple on one hand, and possibly a little ludicrous on the other, but it has really helped me, -a lot.

You might think this sounds all well and good, but how does one get from point A to point B? Or from somewhere in the middle to point B?

The catch is that this knowledge is not immediate. It takes time, but if you pay attention you probably don’t have to do much more than that, after a while it becomes easy to connect the dots on your own.

One thing that has really helped me is Mood Charting, something I talked at length about during Chart Week a few months ago. If you want more detailed information, doing a search for Chart Week here should give you more than enough.

What helps me in mood charting is that I don’t just track my mood itself, I also track what symptoms I am having, and when. I can reference this information to put together what symptoms happen early on in an episode, and can help me distinguish a low-level mixed episode from a low-level depressed episode (for me it is irritability and energy level that mark the difference).

Now that I know that irritability is an early warning sign of a mixed episode for me, I know not to go out on the town if I’ve been feeling irritable earlier in the day.

Mood charting is also great for understanding how long your episodes last, and how frequently they occur. There are a few people I know who experiencing cycling that they could set a clock by, while others (like me) cycle almost entirely at random. Are you someone who can count on an episode to be two weeks long, for example, or does it fluctuate? Are you stable for a few weeks at a time, or do you go straight from one extreme to the other without stable periods?

Journaling is a great tool for understanding what symptoms are associated with which kinds of episodes as well. I have a hard time re-reading journals, but many people find them very helpful.

It may well be that you don’t know what your symptoms are. Or, you know you feel something but you can’t quite put your finger on it. This is an arena where I really like to journal, because you can describe your symptoms however you like. I like to give mine names (if I don’t know the real name) and I also give the types of episodes I experience names as well, depending on how they make me feel. It might sound curious, but check out any posts involving “crazy girlfriend” for an example.

For a very simple exercise, I like to wake up and try to distinguish how I feel right off the bat. Am I leaping out of bed? Am I begging to go back to sleep? Is this normal for me? How do I feel? It wasn’t until a month or two of doing this that I recognized that my moods in the morning are significantly different than the moods I have in the evening.

As I said before, this isn’t something that one can really learn over night, but practice makes perfect …improvement. Setting up a map with signs for yourself to see what is coming can be very helpful, and can definitely give you an edge when dealing with bipolar episodes.

To me, the best part about learning about my symptoms and episodes is that it has helped me distinguish the emotions I am having as unjustified when I’m experiencing them in an episode. The emotional part of bipolar disorder is what has yanked me around the most, and not knowing when I could trust my emotions and when I couldn’t was extremely frustrating and detrimental. If I can identify a mixed episode before I start being ultra rude to those around me, I’d classify that as a win!

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