Coping with the side effects of bipolar is often a matter of trial and error. What works one day, sometimes doesn’t work the next. That’s why I’m always on the lookout for ways to get through the day that can connect me with the world while also easing some of the more difficult symptoms of my condition. Some days, yoga and meditation work, but other days it ends up feeling more like a burden. Many of the coping mechanisms I have tried often feel like that. That’s why I am such a big fan of practicing gratitude and curiosity.
Gratitude is the practice of finding things in your life to be thankful for. At first it can often feel like you’re faking it, as if you’re going through a routine laundry list, but after a while you start to realize how many things you actually have in your life that without you would greatly miss. Whenever the effects of depression or mania start to take over, I go through my life and think about what I can be thankful for, regardless of my illness. Even if it feels disingenuous at the beginning, I usually start with the obvious, “I’m grateful for my family, I’m grateful for my friends, I’m grateful for the compassion that people have shown me,” but then I realize that it can go far beyond that and my gratitude gets more abstract: “I’m grateful that I have a bed to sleep in, I’m grateful I live in an era when medication is easily accessible, I’m grateful I have clean access to water and food.” What you often find is that you have an endless well of things that you’re lucky to have in your life, even if your life feels difficult at that moment.
The great thing about this practice is that even if you don’t fully believe what you are saying at first, over time you start to engage your world with slightly new lenses. All of a sudden that traffic jam isn’t causing me as much stress because I can be grateful I have a car, air conditioning and the ability to transport myself from one place to another. I’ll keep going until I find something I am curious about. Thinking, “I’m grateful for the strangers that I will never know who paved this road years ago, allowing me to reap its benefits without lifting a finger,” is something that engages my curiosity. All of a sudden it’s not about Me vs. My illness, it’s me being a part of a much larger world. It’s like slowly taking my life and breaking it into bite size pieces and concentrating on chewing each one and saying, “I’m thankful for this piece” before moving on to the next. It slows down my world and breaks apart the root of my anxiety. With this practice, at worst, I waste five minutes of my day looking for things to be grateful for, and at best I have a slightly new perspective that makes the pain a little more bearable.
Curiosity is a similar practice that helps ease the overwhelming weight that can sometimes be felt with bipolar. Usually I start with being open and curious about my emotions and try to ask “Why is this happening?” without fearing the answer. It can feel like a relief to be able to try to engage with the truth about my condition regardless of where it leads. I have a lot of fear and anxiety because of my bipolar, but choosing curiosity over fear helps process some of the hardest emotions of this illness. Curiosity doesn’t judge or ask if something is good or bad, it just engages it. It’s a type of life therapy that you get to facilitate yourself. My favorite part about coming from a place of curiosity is when I can get entirely out of my head and start to notice things about the world around me that I normally wouldn’t take the time to see. Often times, this practice reveals a hidden beauty and order to the world that’s easy to overlook when you’re caught up in the worst parts of this condition.
Looking back, I can be extremely grateful that I had these tools during my manic episode, especially the ability to be curious about what was happening to me. I kept asking myself the famous improv phrase, “Yes; and?” Yes, I am in the psychiatric ward, and now what? What do I do with that information? How can I choose to be kind to myself and others in this moment? Because feelings of guilt and shame sometimes overwhelm me, one question I try to ask myself is, “Does this fact make me unworthy of love and affection?” Truthfully, often times the answer is vague and uncomfortable but I still try to engage that uncomfortableness with curiosity and the best of my nobility. I found that by living through the questions themselves, and not fearing them, I was more forgiving in my answers. With curiosity instead of judgment at the wheel, I was more capable of tackling some of the harder emotions of this disease.
The most important aspect of gratitude and curiosity that I have found is its relationship to humility. There are times I feel like a victim of my illness, but then I am reminded that everyone encounters challenges and bipolar is just one of my challenges. No one gets out of life without feeling pain, and no one gets out of being human. Part of seeing the world through this shared view of humanity and universal pain makes it a little more manageable. By choosing to be grateful for the strangers that paved the road I drive on, I am humbled into realizing I cannot do it all by myself. By allowing my curiosity to engage the world instead of my judgment, I can take time to notice that even at my worst, I am part of a much larger world. It allows me to forgive myself and love myself and move forward despite past pain. It doesn’t always work perfectly and its results aren’t always immediate, but living a life of gratitude and curiosity allows me to slow my world down and embrace it, regardless of my illness.