It is a great achievement to be in remission when you are suffering from a severe and enduring mental health problem. The road to remission can be arduous and lengthy. When you receive your diagnosis, it is only the start of the journey, though I do accept it is a huge step. You may have spent years working your way through every possible antidepressant only to discover you didn’t have depression; you had something deeper that needed a different type of medication altogether. What I did feel the day I was diagnosed was relief. I wasn’t mad after all (no pun intended) – everything I had experienced over a long period of time had a name and what I was feeling was normal according to my diagnosis of bipolar disorder. That day my psychiatrist handed me something – well actually he passed me something figuratively, not literally – he passed me a badge. A shiny badge that said ‘bipolar’ on it. When the initial relief passed, I came to hate that badge, that title or label, and now, in remission, I will not allow myself to be defined by that badge.
So began an overhaul of my medication after my diagnosis. The antidepressant I was on was reduced and I was given a mood stabiliser called lithium. I had my blood monitored to make sure I was receiving the right dosage, which was a little intrusive at the beginning, but now it is only every three months. I stayed like this for over 12 months. The difficulty here was though my manic phases had gone, I was still prone to long dark periods of time in deep depression and frequent bouts of psychotic behaviour. Oh, and I didn’t sleep for three months. I had my first breakdown and I was given a sedative and antipsychotic medication as well as continuing with the lithium.
Thirteen months later, I had a second breakdown and I demanded a review of my medication. I argued my case that the two new medications should be increased to the next therapeutic level and thus, in time, I got better. Now that my mood stabilised, I moved onto phase two – therapy. Therapy was invaluable and it helped greatly. I am not discussing here what the tsunami of destruction my erratic behaviour prior to me being diagnosed with bipolar was like, or the toll it had. What I want to do though is to show who the greatest help is in your own recovery from a mental health illness. Do you know who it is? It is you. Yes, you. Let me tell you though that even in remission I still have some dark moods, but what I can say is I developed a strategy, so I am being responsible for my own health.
A Roman soldier did not go into battle without a strategy. As primitive as they were, they donned armour that covered 80% of their bodies to protect them in their fight with the enemy. I’m in a fight too and I can’t just get up each day and hope I will get through it. For a start, I have a number diary. As I have bipolar, the numbers are given for highs and lows so instead of 10 being the best you feel and 1 the worst, the formula is instead 0 is the best and the scale slides down to –5 being the most depressed and up to +5 the most manic. So, if you give each day a number, you can monitor how you are feeling and see any patterns that may develop. If you notice your mood has been below 0 and starts to feel like –3 then you need to seek help and advice as soon as possible.
Other strategies I have used include affirmations, exercise, and song of the day. Song of the day is as it says. Get up and think of the first song to come into your head while brushing your teeth and after you have finished brushing sing it at the top of your voice. It works every day and gets you moving positively. Exercise gets the endorphins moving, even if it just a brisk walk or sit-ups and press-ups each day. You don’t have to go to the gym. If you’re exercising regularly, then you will eat healthily and that is another bonus.
Affirmations have been the hardest thing for me to do because I have such low self-esteem. Standing in front of the mirror every day telling yourself that you are awesome, not better than anyone else and no one is better than you, has been rewarding because I am starting to believe it and now I don’t slouch. I have my head high and I look the world in the eye. Each day, I write down something that made me happy that day and put it in a happy jar, even if it is something small like a great sky or sunset, just as long as it made me smile regardless of how I may have been feeling.
A final piece of armour is meditation – it gives you some control over your mind even for short bits of time. If you are on medication, don’t stop it when you feel better. So many people struggle because they don’t want medication or ‘happy pills’. If you had a bad heart that needed medication or was diabetic, well, you would take your physician’s advice. The mind is just another organ, complex I know, but important nevertheless.
Medication has helped me but equally so have the efforts I make each day doing the above. You can lead a life with a severe and enduring mental health problem. You should expect a level of care from your psychiatrist, something I, and others I know, have not always had. Demand it because you need it and are worthy of it. Don’t let that badge (your diagnosis) define you. Put it away; labels are for jars, not people. I once spoke to someone who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and we compared notes – he was on two of the same medications as I was. The medical umbrella we both stand under is very similar and so are the treatments. I don’t think a label or a badge does anyone any good. For me, they should say you are broken and we will fix you. That is more important. There is a drive by some very good psychiatrists who want to treat rather than label.
If anyone suffering from any mental health problem chooses to adopt any of the suggestions in this article, they should only do so once they have spoken to their health professional. Taking control has worked for me, but I respect it might not work for everyone and I wish everyone the best of health and mental continuum.
Mark Lyth was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011 after suffering from depression for ten years off and on. He describes his illness as having a detrimental effect on his life. He now volunteers for an organisation that does wonderful things in his local community. In 2010, Mark gained a degree with the Open University, where for five years his undiagnosed bipolar energy gained him first-class honours in humanities with classical studies. You can connect with him on Twitter @WirralBlogger.
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