Of all the things I’ve read and researched and talked about in terms of coping with mental illness I don’t think I’ve ever quite been prepared for the notion of coping with what comes next. Having poured my full attention (alright, we’ll say about 75%) into how to cope with living with treatment resistant bipolar disorder I’ve found which strategies have been helpful for me (DBT, ongoing therapy, group therapy, limited drugs and herbal remedies) and which haven’t (CBT, psychiatric medications -though my doctor is now trying a new approach which I’ll discuss later on, and the old fashioned I’m-going-to-stuff-all-my-feelings-down-and-ignore-them trick, to name a few).
In the time I have spent with the majority of my focus on mental health related topics (about 5-6 years) I often found myself growing in helpful ways, but then sort of falling behind every time I had a major episode. I would say that in that time I very rarely felt like I was able to get ahead of the curve when it came to my mood swings or anxiety and even when I was able to rebuild my own sense of self and self-worth from the ashes of a major depressive or psychotic funk my treatment resistant symptoms had a habit of pulling the rug out from under me all over again, requiring me to start at square one.
While I don’t like the idea of calling myself self-absorbed or self-involved, living this way (without continuously going full ass-over-tea-kettle) has meant spending a LOT of time crawling my way out of the dark corners of my mind with nothing but a spoon and a flashlight, or untangling myself from the intrusive thoughts that pop up, or needing to ask people to help me by doing things that seem strange to them, to say the least, in order to keep from constantly triggering me. I’m fully aware that this sort of living probably doesn’t look good to those on the outside looking in, and having to spend so much time focusing on my own issues has meant having a hard time with personal relationships (wait, when is your birthday again?) and generally seeming like a distant asshole.
That life, though, that sort of living and coping with the constant need to pay attention to every little detail inside myself in order to keep from being overwhelmed by it, that is honestly where I have built a (we’ll say -though not exactly) comfortable existence for many years. This is the world I know, the world that is 75% me dealing with my own mental health issues and having 25% of my time and energy and interest left over for things like relationships with other people, doing housework, leaving my apartment, having a job, and being creative. Showering. Playing with my dog. Discerning which banana has reached peak ripeness. Important things. If you consider it, 25% of my time isn’t a lot to try and do all of those things and I’ve had to cut out a lot of them, especially since that 25% has encompassed when I’m feeling at my best. In a full blown episode I might have only 5% of my brain available for all of those things, so obviously taking advantage of every resource available to me to try and increase that number has been my main priority.
Alright, so if that is a general approximation of how things have been the past 5 years, what does it look like when the numbers begin to change?
Even without a medication to help stabilize me my doctors and I are beginning to realize that I am more stable when not subject to a constant barrage of new medications to try. My system is simply too sensitive to keep playing medication wheel of fortune on repeat, but given the proper amount of down time to sweat out all those side effects I can function better without them (go figure). It isn’t the difference between being totally stable and in crisis, more like 25%-30% stable or in crisis. I’m not suddenly a rocket scientist or anything, but every little bit helps.
After that important discovery, DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) coming into my life has made a huge impact. Again, not cured or totally stabilized by any means but I’m learning to cope more effectively. Instead of having to crawl through the dark recesses of my mind with a flashlight and a spoon it’s like I’m learning where all of the light switches are. When I’m getting tangled in obsessive or anxious thoughts I’m learning that the less I struggle, the less hold they seem to keep on me (like that plant in Harry Potter, oh, you know the one). With all of the things I am learning, I am definitely making changes in my life that are allowing me to go beyond having that limited 25% external focus.
But here’s the kicker. I’ve found that working on coping with my mental health issues isn’t enough. No, there is actually a subplot here where I am rapidly discovering that having time to focus more on the world around me, and particularly the people in that world, has meant having to learn a whole new set of skills to cope with the clarity that my newfound perception is affording me!
Being in a position to improve my own mental health has made it difficult for me to watch the people in my life who may not be coping with their own situations very well… and I may not have noticed how frequently many of them were struggling until I was able to look away from my own problems enough to see it. In a sense, I’m having to find ways of coping with the realizations and discoveries brought on by my initial coping and it feels like the most bizarre twist life has thrown me in a while (and I’ve had psychotic episodes so that’s really saying something).
Somehow… being more self aware has led to me needing to spend less time being self aware, and all that extra focus I’ve been able to put on the people around me because of it has made me see things I really didn’t notice before. The most maddening part of all of it is discovering that most people aren’t even aware these issues exist, or are quick to deny them, or cope in ways I know are wildly self deprecating and dangerous.
In that way, the coping that has been afforded me through DBT really started out as all hearts and stars (and horseshoes, clovers and blue moons… pots of gold and rainbows, and the red balloons!) but I’ve concluded that with the knowledge I’ve gained I inadvertently stumbled upon a double edged sword. I never asked to be able to use this strange, newfound mental health x-ray vision on others… I only wanted to use it on myself! Damn.
I’m doing the only thing I can do (or at least, what I can do and keep the relationships) and try to practice being nonjudgmental and accepting and all of that exceptionally difficult stuff, but there seems to be a natural shuffle where many aspects of my life (including my different relationships) are currently up for reevaluation because I’m seeing everything in a whole new light. I want a healthy life that will help reinforce the positive strategies I have been learning because without the aid of medication, they’re one of the only tools I’ve really got. At the same time we’re all human and I can respect the fact that no matter where I go or who I meet, the vulnerable flaws of humanity are not escapable.
As always, I’m working to find the balance between these things, even if the ride has been wholly unexpected.