Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Taming the Polar Bears - the Game Plan

There is no cure for Bipolar Disorder, it can only be managed and lived with. Which is true of a lot of conditions, I know, so I have nothing special to bitch about, but I wanted to say that just to further understanding of this particular illness.

Taming the Polar Bears - managing bipolar - is basically a three pronged battle as I understand it; finding the right pharmaceutical help, learning various coping mechanisms and trying daily to put them to use, and seeking, asking for and getting both professional help and help from friends and loved ones.

Right now, for me, there's no question that the humorous line "better living through chemistry" is applying to me. My life before and after being diagnosed and put on a regime of Lithium and the anti-psychotic Riseridone is incredibly different. Mostly in good ways, some I'm not to sure of (which I'll get to later). Bipolar disorder, once it gets fully entrenched and then out of control, is nearly impossible to control on one's own "will", that is you cannot do it without drugs. I'll save the technical explanation for another time, but when suffering from bipolar, there is some very weird shit going on in one's brain with one brain chemical amping things up so much it's like the best high and then - POOF! - that chemical being turned off while another one is started, one that plunges you from that wonderful high down into a catatonic depression. There are other states but these are the two classic ends to the 'pole', the "bi" of polar. When these states take over, you are not in charge - they are, and it can be a very wild ride.

So being off that uncontrollable wild ride is one thing that medications have done for me. Now, the ride is not completely over. No, no, no, nothing is that simple. But it is all much more manageable and far smoother.

Second is coping mechanisms. You cannot just take your medications every night or day and expect everything to be better. There's some work involved! And that's where coping mechanisms come in. Some are things we should all be doing. Like learning to better handle stress. Make doable goals. Eat healthier. Get and stay in better shape and so on. Some are just basic healthy living choices. For me on this list, handling stress and making doable goals are the hardest. Stress was a major trigger point for many of my episodes and for whatever reasons I just never learned to handle much stress. "Handling" it for me meant avoiding it (not that it's not a good idea to avoid some kinds of stress). So this is a big one for me to work on and I have a lot to learn. So far I've been trying meditation. I did well for a while then began to falter. I have to get back on it.

Setting doable goals is even harder for me. Indeed, it's likely very hard to most sufferers of bipolar disorder. Most things I've done in life have been a result of a run of mania. Mania means getting Big Ideas and then pouring a bunch of energy into them. Sometimes the ideas are really far out grandiose and just pursuing them leads to a big crash. Other times they're almost doable but depend a lot on the boundless energy and optimism of a manic run to make them work. Once the mania ends, so does the "plan". But sometimes the mania and the Big Idea match up well enough with one's abilities that it's actually doable. And progress in life happens! But through all of this mania and going up and down, one never really learns how to work step by step towards a goal. One never really learns how to set a goal.

So now I find myself without all the "power" that mania used to give me. It's a naked feeling, a feeling that a big part of me has been removed. And I'm feeling quite powerless in how to move forward. So learning how to make little goals and work towards them without that manic power is something totally new to me.

Asking for and getting help from professionals and friends and loved ones. This is another really difficult thing for me. I'm not sure how other bipolar sufferers feel, but I suspect much the same. I'm just guessing, but I'd bet that most people with bipolar are not great team players and are used to doing things on their own - and are stubborn. After you've been ruled by wildly different brain chemicals all your life that's just the way you are. I've made some progress. I found a family doctor. Just that was a big chore for me. Finding psychiatric help has been much more difficult. Psychiatric disorders are far more common than I'd have ever guessed. The whole system is swamped. Psychiatric help is critical I believe and is not something I'm resistant to. Quite the opposite. I desperately want to better understand this disorder and what it's done and is doing to me. But that help will have to wait at this stage. There's just no one available. Aside from that, there are certain forms of therapy that are useful. This is mostly in the form of helping with life skills and coping. So this is something I have to pursue much more aggressively. But while more help is available in this area, finding the right help can still be a challenge.

Finally, friends and loved ones. This I've not done well with either. And I can't explain why. Shame? Embarrassment? I'm fifty-one years old after all. I've been independent and a proud SOB all my life. It's just really hard to ask for help at this stage.

But I also remind myself that this disease, if not treated and handled well, can be fatal. So in asking for help and remembering to do all the other things to help myself, I have to remember that my life depends on it.


  1. You don't have to be bipolar to have trouble asking for help. I don't think any of us like to appear weak.

    Learning to have the good sense to ask for help takes recognizing the ego gets in the way. I sort of figured that out when I was only 5 days away from the start of classes this semester and figured out the only way to be successful was to just accept what others had done before me in classes and build off of what they had done. If I had tried to do the syllabi, etc without their help I would have had a terrible mess.

  2. Echoing Jim's thoughts...

    Dealing (or not) with stress, finding coping mechanisms...setting doable goals - all things that I for one, struggle with on an ongoing basis.

    I try to look at it from the standpoint that I have learned a certain amount up until now...but always am continuing to learn daily. Sometimes that hits home more often than I would prefer.

  3. All kinds of reasons for being stubborn I guess, Jim!

    Hi, Heidi, thanks for reading. Yes, that's true, regardless of where we are, there are always new things to learn.