Life is stressful. It’s a constant battle for most people to stay calm, collected, content, and relaxed. Adding mental illness to that concoction makes for an even more stressful situation. While I do not have a mental illness with which I need to cope, I do have a loved one with a mental illness that I must cope with. This person has bipolar disorder, and it is the cause of much worry, stress, and agonizing for me. Sometimes there are no issues, but as with any mental illness, bipolar disorder is unpredictable. Currently, this loved one is in the midst of a very manic episode, and it’s hard to act like everything is normal under the shadow of their sometimes scary mania.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by periods of intense highs (mania) and intense lows (depression). A manic episode is a period of abnormally elevated, expansive, or irritable mood and increased energy. Some traits of mania may include: excessive talking or pressure to talk, an inflated self-esteem or sense of grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, increased distractibility, and involvement in high-risk activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g. unrestrained spending sprees or foolish business investments) (DSM-5, p. 124). My loved one shows all of these signs during their manic phases.
I don’t have any definitive answers. It is a struggle to keep in touch with this person during their manic episodes in a way that keeps my own mental health in check. What I can say is: if someone close to you is dealing with mental illness, you are not alone. Your loved one’s mental illness is not your fault, no matter what anybody says, just like I didn’t do anything to make my loved one bipolar. If you’re dealing with your own mental illness, you aren’t alone either. John’s Hopkins delivers a list of ongoing support groups here and there’s always the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which also has a Howard County chapter, or the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Additionally, Grassroots in Howard County offers 24 hour crisis intervention services.
HCLS has some helpful books that can aid caregivers, friends, family members, and other loved ones, including: When Someone You Love Has a Mental Illness, The Family Intervention Guide to Mental Illness, When Someone You Love is Bipolar, Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder, and You Need Help!: A Step By Step Plan to Convince a Loved One to Get Counseling.
For more concrete advice, NAMI has created a fact sheet on coping tips for siblings and adult children of people with mental illness. Here are some selected points from that fact sheet:
Prioritize your own self care. Exercise, good rest and nutrition, loving relationships, spiritual or religious support, support groups and hobbies are common avenues of self care.
You are not a paid professional caseworker. Your role is to be a sibling, child, relative, or friend, not a parent or caseworker.
It is important to establish boundaries and to set clear limits for you.
It is natural for you to experience a variety of emotions such as grief, guilt, fear, anger, sadness, hurt, confusion and more. You, not the person with the disorder, are responsible for your own feelings.
You are not alone. Sharing your thoughts and feelings in a support group can be helpful, enlightening, and reduce isolation and stress.
To my surprise (and happiness), my loved one made the recent decision to seek professional help and accept medication. I never thought it would happen, but I’m glad to now be able to say from personal experience that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if sometimes it doesn’t seem that way. It will be an ongoing struggle to maintain the progress that has been made, but the fact that it was made in the first place, is a huge step forward. My job now, as it always has been, is to take care of myself and let them know I’m here to provide support when they need it.
The one piece of advice I wish I had taken sooner would be to seek more formal, professional support. My other family members and friends aren’t trained mental health professionals nor do they have experience dealing with someone like my mentally unsettled loved one – but there are people out there who do. I didn’t have to go it alone or spend sleepless nights worrying about what would happen next. Take my word for it, stressing out is no fun! The situation may have been out of my hands, but I had plenty of available options I didn’t take. One thing I did do is write this article, and I hope it can help someone else make educated choices in supporting a loved one dealing with mental illness.
Editor’s Note: It is always our recommendation at Well & Wise that you speak with a medical professional for any of your health needs. If you have a life-threatening emergency, please call 911.
Happiness is all relative. Throughout my life I’ve received amazed comments from many people asking how I stay upbeat and positive while living with a chronic, painful disability. And I’ve got to admit, sometimes, it is hard work! But over the years I’ve realized that it’s just something I decided to do and stuck with it through ups and downs—that is, be happy.
We all know that money doesn’t equal happiness. Neither does health. When I was a child I spent a fair amount of time on a cot in the nurse’s office at school. Every day I had to visit the nurse to take medication, have physical therapy sessions, or because I was unwell. Being sick was my natural state, though I didn’t think of it as sick. Rheumatoid arthritis was my condition and so, as I grew, I learned what I needed to do to manage it.
Students would report to the nurses offices with illnesses or just because they wanted some individualized attention or an escape from class. Here I observed the lesson that complaining doesn’t always equate to those who are the most sick or in great pain. Because while I never complained about my daily joint pain, others could muster complaints with great creativity.
In a similar vein, I managed to stay happy despite my increasing pain and disability. By my teen years I needed a wheelchair because my arthritis limited my walking abilities. Yet I observed others who to me seemed healthy and otherwise well, but never seemed to be happy.
Many people struggle with depression and mood disorders, but sometimes I fear that the average person focuses on the negative aspects of their life versus the ones that make them happy. I think because a lot of every day is a struggle for me, I’ve chosen to focus on being happy and appreciating the little things that make life worthwhile. For me, happiness is a state of being and a practice.
I think it’s possible to work on being happy, to choose happiness. In fact, sometimes at our lowest or in our worst states of health we can finally realize how lucky we are.
So how to get happy in the New Year? Perhaps start by listing all the wonderful parts of your life. Thank yourself and the people that bring you happiness every day.
When you have a bad day, take a moment to recount the good parts and appreciate the positives. It can even be helpful to think about what you gained from that bad day. Is there a lesson you can take away?
Meditation can be helpful for calming and clearing the mind of stresses, which can also help cultivate a practice of happiness.
Here are a few books that can help with thinking about happiness and determining what that means for you:
I would also recommend, Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thich Nhat Hanh.
For me, the decision to be happy came a long time ago. I did not have a choice about having Rheumatoid Arthritis or the aggressive progression of my disease. But I realized that I had a choice about how I approached life and responded to my personal situation. In that moment, I chose to be happy and to live as well as possible.
What does happiness mean to you and how can you embrace it in the new year?
Photo by Alan Cleaver
I wish I could say I’ve lost an incredible amount of weight since my last declaration of change.
I really did try. I purchased healthy cookbooks, pulled my trainers out of the closet to go on hour long walks and cleared my kitchen of anything remotely destructive (i.e. Oreos, caramel chews and tapioca pudding cups). I’d written down my health goals on a bright yellow sheet of paper and posted it on my refrigerator door so that any time I had the urge to graze its contents, my eyes would have to read the following:
“LOSE WEIGHT OR LOSE YOUR LIFE.” Dramatic? Yes. Effective? Eh.
I started planning my meals out according to whatever SELF magazine had in its pages. Egg white omelet and wheat toast for breakfast. Salad with light dressing and lean protein for lunch. Grilled salmon and sautéed veggies with brown rice for dinner. Yes folks, I was well on my way to a fab new me.
It felt good to stock up my refrigerator with fresh produce and organic protein. I loved how pretty the bright green kale, bell peppers and deep orange carrots sat on my refrigerator shelf in an array of colors that said “J is now healthy” to all who opened the doors for a peek.
This was Sunday afternoon, of course.
On Tuesday afternoon and two deadlines later, I’d failed miserably at keeping up with my meal plan and by Thursday morning, I could barely remember what I’d stocked in my refrigerator. I’d ordered takeout every day that week and the candy bar wrappers in my desk drawer proved that I was doing something wrong.
By Saturday, I’d sworn off my new plan completely. If I was going to fail, I was going to fail big and it didn’t feel good when I polished off my Five Guys burger and fries.
I re-evaluated my previous week that following Sunday. It was a new week for me. I needed to try something that would work. No matter what magazines, books, or diet websites told me, no one knew me better than – me.
I have to wean myself off the junk food, not quit cold turkey to make this work. So for week 1 (my third or fourth) of my new plan, I decided to just replace one thing in my day with a healthier alternative and I chose breakfast. Whatever I ate for the rest of the day didn’t matter. Breakfast just had to be good for my health.
So this past Monday, instead of my usual detour to a famous bagel chain for a sugared-up toasted cinnamon bagel slathered in hazelnut cream cheese, I opted to make my own tasty breakfast at home. I woke up 20 minutes early to make scrambled eggs, topped with salsa, and with whole wheat toast. I included a side of freshly sliced fruit and enjoyed the benefits a full, homemade breakfast.
By lunch, I was so happy with my breakfast, I thought I’d keep up with lunch and chose steamed veggies and lean protein over the usual slice of pizza.
I still had an ice cream sandwich that night, but realized one small choice each day could positively impact my attitude towards eating, even if just for that day.
Can you believe it’s already December? Now, that you’ve made it through Thanksgiving, what’s on your mind? Is your calendar packed with parties, gift giving, decorating, kids’ performances, and other assorted requisite holiday happenings? Well, this may be the perfect time to talk about “holiday mindfulness.” You may be thinking, My mind is already full holiday stuff! What else am I supposed to be mindful of? Good question. The answer is you. With all the stress and pressure to get things done this holiday season you may feel overwhelmed. Perhaps, your emotions are playing that dreadful tug of war game with your sanity. If you feel pulled in every direction and obligated to have a jolly good time in the midst of it, mindfulness may be the remedy you need to abate some of the craziness you may experience this month.
Mindfulness is one of the most intriguing and fascinating subjects I have ever researched. If you’ve never heard of this term before it’s simple; mindfulness is awareness. That’s it. Jon Kabat-Zinn created Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a meditative method which is used and taught nationwide for treating pain, illness, and stress. According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is cultivated by purposefully paying attention, being present in the moment, non-judgmentally.
Unfortunately, it’s so easy to be caught up in negative thought patterns that trigger unhealthy emotional reactions causing overloads of stress and anxiety. Through the systematic cultivation of mindfulness you can become more aware of reality, your thoughts and emotions, and the way you are in relationship to them. Mindfulness, instead of adding to the mess, gives us a chance to breathe in the present and see things in a new perspective.
We have been conditioned to try and solve our problems by doing more with our minds. Thinking about the past and the future does help us to plan and grow, but the only moment we have is the present. Part of the essence of mindfulness is to center ourselves in the present and use our innate inner capacity for awareness to better respond to situations moment by moment. Can you see how this may relate to the holiday season?
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and harnessing the power of being present you may enjoy the following books available through Howard County Library System. You can also try a meditation workshop at the Miller Branch or join a class at Howard County General Hospital.
So, the next time you feel overwhelmed with holiday stress, slow down and check-in with yourself. Get in touch with what is truly most important for your well-being. Disconnect from the hustle and bustle and connect with your emotions and health. Mindfulness may help you make more effective decisions, enjoy the richness that life has to offer, and be able to understand yourself in a (potentially) greater way. I hope you find that you are worth the time despite the haste that the holiday season brings. May your holidays be peaceful and bright!
I’ve been called the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge and a few other choice things. I understand. They are labels thrown out by people that can’t fathom my particular brand of holiday spirit. To them, there is no holiday without shopping and wrapping… without gift exchanges at the workplace, the preschool, the mom’s group, and the basketball team. It’s the season of giving, right?
Absolutely. Many illuminate the longest nights and darkest days of winter with a celebration that involves giving. It is at that point, however where we usually diverge, as I choose the path less traveled and that has made all the difference in my life.
Long before the downturn in the economy prompted conservation, Occupy Wall Street caused us to consider our own personal levels of greed, and recent studies called to mind our staggering level of consumption; our family chose to tune out the unrelenting cacophony of the holiday season and celebrate Christmas “unplugged.”
Nearly fifteen years ago, on Christmas morning, my husband and I applied the proverbial brakes. Surrounded by a sea of torn wrapping paper, empty boxes and mountains of new non-essential things to put away, we realized that which we had taken months to create, had taken only ten minutes to undo. We had succumbed to commercial interests and become conspicuous consumers. We had filled the landfills with more than our share of stuff. We were stressed and snappish. We had lost sight of our own faith-based reason for the season. And, most heartbreaking- we had lost our most precious gift- time with our children. There was no way to reclaim those dozens of hours lost each year to the commercial clamor of shopping and wrapping of holidays past, but we could rewrite the future.
We resolved to change. Out of respect for the sensibilities of young children, who could understand the theory, but not so much the practice, we eased into our new tradition. We limited the gifts to three presents per child for the first year, but the next year, we were all in- we graduated to Christmas- Unplugged.
Holiday display at the National Botanic Garden
We concentrate on what we do, and not on the things we don’t do. We bake cookies. We see the the lights in Hampden or visit the holiday train and monument displays at the United States Botanic Garden. We visit the International Crèche display at the Washington DC Temple. We support the local arts and go into Baltimore to see Tuba Christmas (200 of Maryland’s finest tubas and euphoniums in concert). We try to catch a show- last year it was Monty Python’s Spamalot at the Kennedy Center. We participate in workshops, like the annual Sock Monkey Saturday at the American Visionary Art Museum (memorable for the hopeless looks we received from the men in the family as they tried to stitch their creations together.) We go ice skating outside
and take long walks along the Patapsco and Middle Patuxent rivers. We play games like Bananagrams or Cathedral or Apples to Apples. We watch football games together.
Together as a family we celebrate old traditions and create new ones, we carve out time to spend together and in the process, we create lasting memories. Our family has grown and evolved, but the Christmas Unplugged spirit remains a steady reminder that the spirit of the holidays is within us.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone!
More holiday unplugged resources:
Mary Catherine Cochran
“We live in a very tense society. We are pulled apart… and we all need to learn how to pull ourselves together…. I think that at least part of the answer lies in solitude.”- Helen Hayes
A daunting task I seem to find myself faced with more often than should be allowed is simply finding time for “me.” When I’m not at one job, I’m at the other. When I’m not at either job, I’m trying to spend time with friends and family. Don’t get me wrong, I love spending my free time making dinner with my friends or visiting a museum. However, this constant activity and plan-making leaves little to no time for ME and I am a strong believer in solitude.
Taking time for yourself allows you to think without distractions. I often feel as if my thoughts are coming and going so rapidly that even a road runner couldn’t catch them. When I’m alone, I can give those thoughts their much deserved attention and write them down.
Being alone also allows me to practice guitar, create something, clean my room, read a book, watch a movie, or just relax. When I don’t make time for myself, there are consequences: I become overly tired, moody, and less motivated. I feel anxious, like I’ve forgotten something very important. And what I’ve forgotten is making time for myself.
The Mindfulness Solution has simple steps to help you make time for yourself and balance it all.
It’s especially important to tell those around you when you need time to yourself. When I feel pressured (or obligated) to spend my “me time” with other people, I remind them (and myself) that I need that time to myself in order to remain balanced, happy, and healthy. Solitude is important. The Mindfulness Solution provides insight and simple ways you can take time for yourself throughout your day to help you work through your problems or help you reconnect with how you’re doing daily. When I take time for those moments of solitude, I find that I’m able to work through problems that would otherwise keep me stuck. Being able to think deeply encourages creativity and problem solving.
Tying into my last post, alone time offers many opportunities for us to grow like facing fears of attending movies or eating out alone. These experiences can be quite rewarding and comforting. I’ve purposefully attended concerts, shmoozed at events, and dined alone only to discover how enjoyable it all was. I’m even more determined to make the time to do that more often.
Spending time alone provides you with an opportunity to relax, think and reflect, discover, and reconnect to yourself. Grounding yourself daily, taking time for solitude is essential to a healthy lifestyle. I invite everyone reading this to seek solitude. You deserve it!