Understanding Bipolar Disorder and Knowing the Warning Signs

We took a week-long beach vacation last week to Bethany Beach, a small, family-friendly beach town with easy access to Delmarva’s attractions. Renting a house, shared with close family, the Hubby and I took the week to rest and relax after a some very busy months at work. The kids enjoyed the beaches, Assateague National Park, the Ocean City boardwalk, and Funland rides and games at Rehoboth Beach.

I consider myself a hardworking Mamá, ready to put in the hours at work and at home for my family and kids. Everyone –particularly parents– can benefit from a restful vacation and several nights of good sleep. But, if you have bipolar disorder, a full night of rest, as well other factors, can mean the difference between a stable mood and a manic episode.

Having been diagnosed some twenty years ago with bipolar disorder, it’s taken many years to understand the disorder and how it triggers mood swings. But, honestly, the hardest hurdle has been acknowledging that I had the disorder and convincing my loved ones that it existed. I had believed for the longest time that my ups and downs were character flaws, a personal weakness that could just be dealt with if only I tried and worked harder.  Family and friends, having known me to be a fairly strong, were also convinced, taking my occasional erratic episodes as teen angst and a storm that would eventually pass. Before long, my thoughts were racing out of control, I was becoming more and more belligerent, irritable, and self-destructive. I was a Category-5 and nobody was moving quickly enough to get out of my path.

But once I acknowledged the disorder, extraordinary changes began to happen. I reflected on previous depressive and manic episodes and examined what experiences precipitated it. Consequently, this self-awareness helped me avoid future damaging episodes of mania or depression. Every person has his or her own unique warning signs. By learning more about my disorder, my triggers, and my symptoms, I worked smarter rather than harder.

When I’m down, I exercise: When I am at my most down, I’ve found exercise to be the best way to boost my endorphin levels and lessen the severity of the pain I may be feeling. Exercise, and particularly regular swimming, leaves me feeling euphoric. Have lane mates or a workout buddy to talk to is a major plus.

When I’m feeling frantic, I try to quiet the mind: Exercise may be great for depressive episodes, but I have to be careful when I sense mania a-coming. Exercise can be addictive for an adrenaline junkie or a manic person. For me, it can be hard to stop, take a rest day, because I’ve convinced myself that the only way to feel better is to get the endorphin levels up. So, for me, exercise can really aggravate mania. Therefore, when I am my most up, quiet activities are best. I may avoid parties, crowded places (like gyms), which can be too energizing. Writing, reading and walking help a ton to calm the unquiet mind. Walking with a buddy to talk to is a major plus.

I track my diet: I monitor what I eat, avoiding stimulants–saving coffee for the early morning or before a workout– and limiting sugars. And, if I workout at night, I avoid taking any stimulant. Caffeine can increase irritability and anxiety, as well as affects sleep. Carbohydrates are important fuels for workouts so I don’t limit them. But I do swap out simple sugars in my diet for more complex carbohydrates. I’ve found that too much consumption of simple sugars accentuate my mood swings and make them feel worse. On the same note, I also pretty much never drink. And when I do, I usually limit myself to two glasses of wine. Having a glass of wine with a buddy to talk to is a major plus.

I sleep: Nuff said. A minimum of eight hours (10 hours on weekends is better) a night is necessary. Having a Hubby that let’s you sleep an extra hour or two is a major plus.

This vacation was exactly what this hardworking Mamá needed–plenty of quiet and fun times with the family. Along with becoming smarter about my bipolar disorder, I am also more compassionate. The greatest gift it has brought me is an enhanced sense of empathy, in others and in myself. My disorder can be tough, sometimes really tough, to deal with at times. But, by thinking ahead, having strategies that work, I stay well and am a better Mamá. Life doesn’t always have to feel like a Category-5, but rather the occasional wave or two.

And who doesn’t love a happy Mamá? Having a happy one is a major plus for any family.


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