Having an invisible illness such as mental health comes with all manner of problems and stigma. I’m very lucky in the sense that I am supported by my family and friends but I often find that thought creeping into my head… ‘they just don’t get it’.
What I mean by that is, even though everyone supports me, looks after me and helps me where they can, they really just don’t understand how intensely bipolar affects my everyday life.
Life is one massive game of chess for me. I have to work out everything a few moves ahead to make sure my mental health will be alright. For example, if someone asks me to join them for a drink on a Friday evening, instead of just saying yes I have to run the possible scenarios in my mind.
E.g If I drink alcohol on Friday night that means the side effects of my tablet will be worse, plus the fact I will get home late. This means that I won’t be able to get up and I will be groggy and feel like hell tomorrow. That means that I have to write off tomorrow and postpone anything I need to do tomorrow until the day after. If the day after is Sunday, am I able to do the tasks I needed to do on Saturday, are the shops open, for example. Saturday night I will also get a bad night’s sleep due to the mess up in meds the night before, so Sunday is a maybe on whether I’ll feel able to do the tasks anyway. If I don’t feel well, I will need to postpone until Monday, but then Monday I’m back to work.
It may sound like a lot of overthinking but in fact it’s almost become second nature to me now. Somebody will ask me to pick them up from the airport at midnight, I will say no because that will postpone my tablet time, which will affect my morning and afternoon and therefore affect the whole of the next day and possible impact the one after that. This is often misconstrued as not wanting to participate in social events or just being plain selfish. While I agree to some degree that is right, I have to be selfish and I’m 100% happy choosing myself as a priority.
When I am in an depressive episode, Christine Miserandino’s ‘Spoon Theory’ definitely applies. There are a limited number of things I can do in any one day and getting others to understand this is difficult. Often I find my internal battery is flashing red because I’ve just got out of bed and managed to get my clothes on. I have to lie back down again and try and conserve energy to get enough to let me get up and walk into the kitchen, never mind actually making breakfast.
To explain to my partner and friends, I tried two methods. The first was for my partner, where I would limit the number of things they could ask me to do in the day to 3. The 3 things could be anything, make a brew, wash the pots, tidy the laundry. The rules were that there was a 24-hour time limit on those tasks and I could choose when I did them. This worked mostly but in some cases I had to reduce the number of tasks to 2 or 1 depending on how bad I felt in the day. I also got my partner to ask me ‘how’s your battery’ before asking me to do something that would take energy. This way I had the chance to say ‘red, yellow or green’, red meaning – no chance, yellow meaning – give me some time and green meaning – yes I can do it.
The second method I used on my friends. When they asked me to do something I would take the time and tell them to play out the scenario for me vocally. That way they realised on their own how one thing impacted the next as I guided them along. It was almost like a role-play game with rules; for example, if I take my medication I need 10 hours before I can function properly again, therefore if I take it later than midnight I won’t make work in the morning. Initially they didn’t really understand, but now I find if they ask me to do something they quickly think about it, realise that I can’t ,then say oh, never mind, you can’t because of your medication, for example.
Living life like a giant chess game is not a bad thing. It takes some getting used to and at first you will make mistakes. Learning to anticipate the next moves is a skill that can be applied to all aspects of your life. In this way, living with Bipolar has made me a better person.