Author: Matthew Palmieri
Many years after my initial diagnosis, a simple question popped in my head that would fundamentally change the way I look at my mental illness. I asked, “What would happen if I embraced bipolar instead of constantly looking at it as something I had to deal with?”
It’s not like the immediate aftermath of asking this question led to the kind of breakthroughs that altered the circumstances of my life at the time, but the question did eventually lead to a series of choices in my life that today make me feel a lot better about my condition. My outlook has changed and through this practice, I can live with the diagnosis with more clarity and a brighter, more hopeful outlook on my future.
A simple practice that helps me is to fill in the blank: If it weren’t for bipolar, I wouldn’t have ____.
On the other side of this gratitude practice, I discovered there really are benefits, even if I have to zoom out a bit to notice.
Release of Guilt
When I started to read more about the condition instead of constantly averting my eyes to it, I gained a sense of relief that my condition wasn’t necessarily the result of ultra specific circumstances in my life that no one else could relate to. I wasn’t as much a victim, as someone who had a condition, more common than many think. I came to understand that people who live with bipolar may have slightly different triggers, but ultimately there are a series of symptoms that lead us to the same place, and that can unify a community.
Owning an illness is not easy when you want to look the other way. When you have shame or embarrassment that comes as a result of a manic episode, sometimes the last thing you want to do is dwell on it. However, reading and understanding the illness on a more global level made it a lot easier for me to forgive myself and therefore, release a lot of the guilt I held onto as a result of the triggers that led to my destructive behavior.
Once I would have disturbances in my sleep regularity or had disruption in taking my medication, my bipolar would take over. After doing research on bipolar — something I had ignored for nearly a decade — I came to learn that these were universal triggers of the illness, not a personal deficiency. It’s much easier to regulate and manage bipolar when you come to understand what we all go through.
Although no two people may go through bipolar the same, once I came to terms with the severity of the illness, I started to see myself in the stories of my peers. Talk about relief. This allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the psychosis I experienced during severe manic episodes, which was a huge barrier to my acceptance. In particular, hearing about the disconnection with reality people with bipolar experience made me feel a lot better about where my brain goes when I am having an episode.
In particular, I am thinking of “Loving Someone with Bipolar” by Julie A. Fast, which had a profound impact on me.
Within the bipolar community I have heroes who I look up to for their unrelenting ownership of their illness. No matter how many people they touch, there is still this continuous confrontation they have with their symptoms. This outlook that no matter how successful they are, they always must go back to their triggers in order to live their best lives, was in a lot of ways a lynchpin to my bipolar acceptance. When you embrace the struggles in your life, you can begin to mend your once broken relationship to yourself.
Your Best You
One of the more complicated features of bipolar is the grandiosity associated with the illness. During severe manic episodes, I have a drive to want to accomplish more goal-oriented activities. As a result, I may put forth an almost superhuman effort to achieve certain milestones that have felt out of reach before, especially during depression. This of course can lead to a destructive pattern if you aren’t careful that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but sometimes I look back and can say I appreciate the larger than life perspective this illness gives me.
On a more practical level, optimizing your potential through goal-related activity, while embracing a holistic treatment plan that includes working out, eating healthy, writing, adhering to medication and going to therapy can lead you to accomplish things you may not thought possible, but on a more manageable scale.
You are going to have to pick up the pieces. This is just the way it goes when you experience severe mood shifts that there is ultimately no cure for. Your understanding of the illness may never be one and done, so developing a relationship with the illness can help you take on a more positive outlook on the difficulties you’ve survived. Ask yourself how many times you’ve come back from deep depression, changes in treatment, or stints at the hospital, and as a result, have developed a general sense that you deserve the positives in life after having gone through these things.
The nature of the illness is cyclical. Embracing that, while tracking episodes, can lead to profound growth. If you can survive the onslaught of depression, mania, hypomania, cyclothymia, etc. just imagine what else you can do when you are stable.
You really can do anything if you put your bipolar mind to it.