A "Rule of Life" for Living with Bipolar

We're coming up on the one year anniversary of my Bipolar II diagnosis. It's been both a challenging and unexpectedly wonderful year. I've had to come to terms with the reality of my illness and learn new ways of living. At long last I know the name of the shadow that has haunted me for most of my adult life. I'm grateful for good doctors, health insurance and a supportive family—all of whom have helped me figure out a healthy way of living. Here are some of the things I've learned in the last year; a sort of "rule of life" for myself. It occurred to me that some of these things may be helpful for others so I decided to share it here with you.

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1. Follow the daily routine like your life/sanity depends on it (because it does).

  • take your medication every single day and do not tamper with dosages or go off the meds without consulting your doctor (just because you're feeling good doesn't mean you're cured)
  • 9 hours of nightly sleep plus one nap per day (sleep is EVERYTHING! without proper sleep, you will experience psychosis and debilitating anxiety)
  • always eat breakfast
  • do not look at your phone first thing in the morning, wait an hour
  • spend time in prayer, meditation and journaling each morning
  • sugar is not your friend
  • limit caffeine to one cup of coffee per day
  • don’t crowd the schedule, leave margins in case you need to take a break or rest
  • light exercise every day
  • go to the beach at least once every two weeks. The sound of the waves and the scent of sea air and the feeling of your feet in the sand stabilizes your brain
  • pace yourself: the slower you go the more likely you are to maintain energy through the day
  • no email, Twitter or the news after 4pm
  • remember that after 4pm your brain is very tired and starts looking for problems to worry about so avoid anything that will overstimulate you or make you upset.
  • it's ok to put on your jammies at 4:30pm and call it a day

2. Keep It Simple

  • Keep a quiet, tidy bedroom (the less things you have in your bedroom, the better). The bedroom is your sanctuary, you must keep it clean and minimalist. No pictures on walls. No clutter.
  • Follow a daily cleaning routine to keep things picked up; clutter and chaos makes your mental health suffer
  • Paint something everyday
  • Just because you want a puppy doesn’t mean you should get one
  • You probably don’t need to buy that thing you think you need to buy
  • Give away clothes that are too small for you and keep a simple wardrobe
  • No loud music. Ever.
  • No bright lights.
  • No hoarding. Minimize as much as possible.
  • The less you have to keep track of, the better for your brain

3. Just because you feel fantastic today doesn't mean you should commit to 15 new projects (or people)

  • This brand new insight you're having feels like it's epic and revolutionary, but that’s probably your mania speaking
  • You're not going to change the world today. Focus on small things. Be mindful of delusions of grandeur.
  • Not every single person you meet needs to be your best friend
  • Talking fast and intensely is a warning sign. Pay attention. Check in with yourself to spot other manic symptoms.
  • Don't spend money when you're manic. Wait until you're stable.
  • When attending social gatherings, limit your stay to three hours (2 hours is better)

4. Actively seek input from trusted sources

  • Listen to trusted voices around you—they are not "out to get you." They love you and want to help.

  • When you are manic or depressed, your perception of reality is skewed. You cannot see how you’re behaving. You need input from outside sources.

  • If Matt says that you are acting strangely, don’t get defensive. Ask for more information.

  • Don’t automatically assume people are mad at you

  • Restrain yourself from building conspiracy theories

  • Follow your psychiatrist's advice and orders

5. Avoid "stinking thinking" i.e. obsessions, paranoia, catastrophizing, trying to "figure everything out"

  • You're probably thinking too much. Please don't task your brain with impossible tasks.
  • Just because you can imagine every possible negative outcome doesn’t mean it’s probable

  • You don’t have to follow a thought just because it’s interesting

  • Stay away from online outrage and people who stoke it; avoid contentious comment threads

  • Notice when you become obsessive about a person, place or thing, ie. you don’t need to know EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW. Obsession triggers your bipolar symptoms.

  • Remember that the people you find deeply fascinating are most likely very bad for your mental health; seek normal, healthy people--avoid addictive personalities, drama queens and especially liars

  • Resist looking at every single issue from every single angle—long, intense conversations trigger your bipolar symptoms

  • Avoid binge watching TV shows. You will begin to feel like you're living inside the show/you will begin acting like one of the characters and your grip on reality will loosen.

  • Same goes for books. Don't let yourself get buried too deeply in a book. You will have trouble coming back to reality.

6. don't seek fame, seek faithfulness

  • You might think you want to be famous but you walked that road already in a small way and it almost killed you

  • Invest in real friendships with just a couple of people

  • Intensity is not intimacy

  • Learn to value faithfulness over the long term rather than grand gestures

  • Accept how people love you instead of always wishing they loved you in different ways

  • Let yourself be bored; life doesn’t need to be exciting everyday in order for it to be meaningful

  • Ordinary days and ordinary routines are the actual joy of life 

  • Keep a gratitude list

7. strong boundaries are essential in all your relationships

  • You can burn through relationships very quickly if you’re not careful

  • Not everyone feels as deeply and intensely as you do and that is ok, let other people be

  • Stop asking for “proofs” of love

  • Living with someone who has bipolar is not easy—show gratitude for the people who stick around especially after one of your meltdown episodes

  • You can smother your friends if you’re too needy; if people stop responding to your texts, don't harass them

  • Diversify your friend circle so that you can get what you need from multiple sources

  • Be mindful of your tendency to crave a deep, very best friend who is there for you 24/7—this is God’s job, not another person's

  • Let people come and go easily out of your life without clinging to them

  • Seasons change and people will need to move out of your life; this is not personal rejection

  • Be of service to others instead of a drain on them; look for ways to be helpful to others; service to others makes you feel better, small volunteer positions are very good for your mental health

8. Avoid unnecessary stress

  • Your stress tolerance is very low and stress affects you profoundly

  •  Stressful situations lead to excess sweating, stomach ache, tension headache which then tip very quickly into bipolar symptoms like hyperalertness, hypervigilance, auditory hallucinations, intrusive thoughts, rapid speech, extreme irritability, panic, paranoia

  • You may think you can “handle it” but you really can’t; it’s ok for you to acknowledge this about yourself. Knowing your limits does not make you less worthy of love or acceptance, it does not mean you aren’t “good enough”

  • Living within your limits is just a simple necessity of your life with bipolar disorder—you can’t do all the things neurotypical people can do and that is ok

9. marijuana is very, very bad for you

  • Don’t believe it when people tell you that marijuana doesn’t interact with your prescribed medications—IT DOES
  •  You are not in control of what marijuana does to your brain
  •  For you, marijuana leads to a psychotic break
  • Marijuana also interferes with the other medications you are on and makes them less effective

10. make peace with the fact that you will need to live differently than neurotypical people

  • You don't get to stay up late, drink frequently, eat a lot of sugar, go to parties or concerts 

  •  Long distance travel is probably out of the picture for you especially if it includes time zone changes

  •  Sleep is EVERYTHING for you, without proper sleep and rest you will spin out in mania or crash into depression or have psychotic episodes

  • You don't have to live anyone else's life. Honor the life you've been given. And you will thrive.