1. Educate yourself
I cannot stress this (almost) obvious point: read, read, and read some more. A more important point to mention is to read good material. But, I must say that I didn’t always find this to be too important in the beginning.
Let me explain why:
- You’ve just been diagnosed, probably after an episode (we call a period of being unwell, an episode and it includes bouts of mania and depression.
- You’re either in hospital or just got discharged.
- You’ve possibly dropped out of university or lost your fifth job.
- You’ve been wondering for years why your life has taken so many ups and downs.
Mostly you just need some sort of validation that you’re actually suffering from Bipolar Disorder. The internet can provide you with that. So yes, feel free to Google what you’re going through. As much as I’d like to give credit and only name big guys like Psych Central and BP Hope, there are numerous other sites which provide what you need to start on like lists of symptoms and as well as forums where you can read up on challenges faced. Health sites to visit include the above and the International Bipolar Foundation (IBF), WebMD, DBSA and SADAG (South Africa).
Doing research is an important first step as it validates what you are going through. This is important to understand. You need to go through the “Yes, I experience these symptoms” phase. It also helps to take time to process what you are going through- understand what has been and what is to come.
Your medical practitioner is also a great source of information. Tap into this resource as much as possible. Ask for brochures (I did) and study them. Scribble a few notes when in sessions, (and be free to write notes before sessions).
In other words: know your experience.
2. Find virtual friends
So, now that you know what you’re going through, you may want to find some people who share what you experience. There are millions of sufferers so be sure to find comfort in knowing that you do not suffer alone.
In the same breath, it’s imperative to take note that not all sufferers are the same. They are unique, just like you and so it goes without saying that it may take a while for you to find your ‘crew’. You know that posse of friends who know exactly what you’re going through, get all your jokes and you just ‘click.’ You may not all be on the same medication or have the same backgrounds (especially because most of them will be bloggers from all over the world) but will bring you together is this illness.
Your virtual friends will encourage you to write either by commenting on their blogs or forums or encouraging you to write about your own experience. Writing is therapy and you don’t need to be a professional writer to express how you feel.
3. Join a support group
This may be a little more daunting to do. So, take your time with this step if you need to. Going to a support group adds a local context to your illness. You may find that speaking about your life is a bit much to handle, so request that you just listen in for a little while. You may be surprised how easily the urge to speak comes when you hear how you can relate to almost everyone’s stories at the meeting.
Local context will make it easier for you to learn about things like medications, medical practitioners and psychiatric facilities in your area. As a bonus, they’ll be able to relate to other topics besides mental illness, like politics and other things happening in your area perhaps. We don’t only need to relate to mental illness to connect at a support group.
4. Tell (or not) your friends (and family)
This is a big one: to disclose or not. It’s really a personal decision which focuses on who you are as a person and whether you are ready to deal with the consequences of disclosing or not disclosing. There are consequences to both!
People who need to know are your (now) supporters. They are the people who you see on a daily basis and you help support you to function well. These are people like your parents, your partner or a very close friend. They need to be educated on the illness as well, so the brochures you took in the first step would come in handy here.
Their job is to understand your experience and support you making sure you maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes, but is also not limited to, ensuring you take your medication, trying to alleviate stress for you and being able to identify the signs that caution your next episode). These are the people who know, possibly before you are even aware of it, that you are unwell. Steps can then be taken to adjust your medication etc.
Socially, your life may change after your diagnosis. You should be staying away from alcohol and maintaining a good sleep cycle, so social gatherings can be a challenge. This is especially true if maybe you were the ‘life’ of the party. This is where part of the challenge of disclosure comes in.
Do you tell your friends and explain why you cannot drink or stay out too late or not?
Do you just suddenly vanish and deal with their questions later?
Do you worry that people think you’ve suddenly changed?
Do you worry that they won’t understand when you tell them anyway?
Do you worry about them deciding that a friend (or family member) with a mental illness is not something they’re ready for?
Do you worry you would lose them if you tell them?
These are all things that you’d need to think about and decide for yourself. Regardless of these questions, your health and well-being takes priority. This may mean setting boundaries, both for you and for others, regarding your health.
Your health and your supporters come first.
5. Find your(new)self
This part of the guideline can actually happen at any point of the above steps. When your start redefining your boundaries, you're creating a new version of yourself. besides that, you need to redefine who you are separate to the illness. This part of the journey may take the longest and all depends on you. As someone with experience in achieving a lot when manic, it took me years to understand that my accolades were not due to my illness but because of the person I am. I enjoy helping people so that's why all my achievements and awards reflect this part of my character. You may discover parts of your character while writing or interacting with others at a support group. Or just have conversations with your supporters or carers. They see who you are beyond your illness.
If you know who YOU are, you're likely to feel more in control and be better equipped to manage your illness.
The steps above needn't be completed in that order but if you're feeling completely lost; it's definitely worth a try.
There's always help.
There's always hope.