Even if you’ve never had a mood disorder, chances are someone you love does: The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that just over 20% of American adults will suffer from it at some point in their lives. But between the stigma of these diseases and the difficulty of accessing care — including insurance issues, high costs, and long wait times — patients like me often feel left behind.
Mental health advice proliferates online from self-proclaimed experts. Consistency is key! Focus on now! Find your independence! None of this helped me when I landed in the hospital last year because of my bipolar disorder.
In the ER I put on the shapeless socks with bumpy rubber treads and sat down in the soft hospital gown, a bandage that itched and pulled at my elbow. The ER doctor was holding his clipboard and looking at me like a goalie looking at the ball.
I was admitted for 10 days, and many months later, I am still learning the things that will not only keep me alive, but will also allow me to grasp stability and happiness – knowledge that often goes against the conventional wisdom of well-being. be.
We hear that the key to health and success manifests in the same way every day. Consistency itself is a virtue in a land of attendance rewards. But I find that consistency is overrated. In other words, I accept having different selves. There’s a version of me who can work a 10-hour day or enjoy a festival – and another whose heart beats with irritation at passing motorbikes, or whose limbs turn to lead before breakfast.
Accepting the changing tides of my own mind became a practice of preparation and self-compassion. I learned to work ahead of deadlines, to cook extra food in case tomorrow was bad, and to teach my loved ones the signs of an impending episode in case I couldn’t communicate when it happened.
I’m also discovering that unlike a lot of mindfulness advice, focusing on the present has its limits. My life is a constant game of strategy, where what I do now affects what I can do next week – the spoon theory of chronic disease applies to mood disorders. I have to function today as well as plan and protect my energy tomorrow.
Habitually living beyond the present can even save lives: one of the worst symptoms of depression is not just overwhelming misery, but the inability to see the past or the future. To step out of this miserable present, even for a moment, is a glorious act of imagination and courage.
This multi-layered sense of time can mesh with the reality of different versions of myself. Before my recent hospitalization, a part of me that knew what was coming was connecting my friends with each other and making copies of my house key for people who needed it. It’s as if one version of me can care for the other through time – whether planning for an unpredictable tomorrow or being kind to past trauma.
I also discovered that contrary to popular notions of “health”, recovery is not measured by independence. An ableist world that despises cooperation and dependency claims that to be healthy and whole, we must function on our own.
Disability advocates have a vital alternative. In the collection of essays Disability visibility edited by Alice Wong, writer AH Reaume, who suffers from a brain injury, describes teaming up with an equally disabled friend to complete his novel. “It’s disabled poetics. It is a handicapped practice,” writes Reaume. “I couldn’t do it alone, but I did it with his help.”
“I bring this up because I don’t want others like me to be ashamed to ask for the care they need.”
I also relied on my colleagues in new ways after my hospitalization, partnering with them to cushion my mistakes and lighten my load – as I do for them when I can. When my loved ones offered me help, from doing the dishes to taking my medicine, I started to say yes. I used to think of this partnership as a tool to achieve healing. Now I’m learning that interdependence is the most enduring recovery of all.
“It’s a kind of love I didn’t know existed before my disability,” writes Reaume. “It’s fierce and patient and tender and rare.”
This is how I feel about finding my own truth about living with bipolar. I bring this up because I don’t want others like me to be ashamed to ask for the care they need. Contrary to most stories about healing, it’s okay to rely on others in new ways.
The need for flexibility, rest, self-compassion and support is not limited to people with mood disorders or other mental illnesses. We all need it – and not in a way that others prescribe, but in a way that works for us. Shedding light on these aspects of the lives of people like me allows everyone to be more honest about their own well-being.
Alaina Johns has been a freelance journalist for 15 years. She is editor-in-chief of Broad Street ReviewPhiladelphia’s home for arts, culture and conversation.