Since the end of October I have been slouching ever further into my annual winter depression. Since I was diagnosed with rapid cycling Bipolar 1 Disorder in 2010, I have dedicated a great deal of time to trying to understand what that diagnosis actually means for me. I have looked back on my past experiences and mapped out exactly when my worst moods have been, and the consequences those times have had, both on my short term existence, and in the long term, to my life as a whole. I have realised that the key to remaining as healthy as possible is to ANTICIPATE and PREPARE as much as possible. It is not always possible to predict when your mood will shift but it is possible to have things in place, stop gaps if you will, to ensure that if things do go wrong, they can only go wrong to a certain extent.
My aim over the last few years has been to devise strategies that ensure the horrendous actions I have taken in the past while either low or high never happen again.
To that end, I made certain plans beginning in October last year. I had been very hopeful, given how well I had felt through the summer in comparison to previous years, that I might escape winter without another episode. When it became apparent that this was not going to be the case after all, I came up with a plan. There were four steps in this plan, each designed to ensure I minimised the damage caused by my impending gloom.
Step One was to ensure my diet did not slide as it has done during depressed moods in the past. My aim was not to continue losing weight, as I had been doing relatively well over summer, but to simply maintain my weight at the level it was at and prevent myself from regaining the two stone I had managed to lose.
I am afraid to say I have failed miserably in this regard and once again find myself in a New Year, contemplating a new start to my dieting battle, and trying to figure out how to actually make something stick.
Step Two in my plan was to invest in a Light Box. I had intended to do this at the beginning of November so that I would have this supposedly magical light therapy to keep me going throughout the winter and hopefully keep my mood from degenerating. Unfortunately, I failed here too. These light boxes are very expensive, and after considerable research (which I will detail for you in a later post) I determined that I really needed to get the ‘proper’ one, which was twice as expensive as any others, if I expected it to actually work. This was, unfortunately, £100 that I simply did not have to spare, especially with Christmas coming up and my business only just getting off the ground. I asked my mum to get me one as a Christmas present, but give it to me early so that I would have some relief throughout November and December, which in general are my worst times. She refused, it wasn’t ‘fun’ enough for a Christmas present, she wanted to get me something ‘nice’, and most of all she hates not having something to give me ‘on the day’. I cried about this more than I care to admit. Aside from anything else I hate Christmas as a general rule and can never wait for it to be over. But no matter what I said I could not get her to understand that the nicest thing anyone could possibly do for me, was give me something that might have a tangible benefit, something that might actually make the unmitigated hell I was starting to endure even the tiniest bit better.
As it happens, Christmas Day came around and Mum presented me with a lovely little card telling me I could get any Light Box I chose. Once again, I was fighting off tears, one out of relief (Christmas and New Year were NOT pleasant for me) and two because despite my gratitude at the gesture I couldn’t help but think ‘Why didn’t you let me have it early? If it works I wouldn’t have felt so bad all this time’. I was at once overcome with gratitude and very annoyed with her for not understanding.
I have now had my chosen light box up and running for six days. I do not feel that is ample time yet to pass comment on it fully, when I have had it working longer I will give a full report for those of you who are interested. I will say however, that I’m leaning towards believing it works.
The third step in my plan actually turned out to be the hardest, despite my failures elsewhere. Turning triggers into happy memories is not an easy thing to do. Triggers are so called for a reason. Even if you approach them knowing the affect they can have, trying to transform them into something positive, it is very difficult to prevent your body from reacting in a way that is essentially hardwired into you.
Step four has proven to be a success, although it has nearly killed me maintaining it.
Keeping myself busy. By this I did not simply mean making sure I had plenty of work to do, I meant ensuring that my mind was fully occupied every waking second of the day. This is not an easy thing for me to do. Few things fully occupy my brain, and I am well aware that this is a classic bipolar trait and one to which many of you will likely relate. I can’t simply watch television to relax. Unless I’m watching something UTTERLY ENTHRALLING, which really doesn’t happen very often, despite the fact there are many TV shows and films I love, I find I have to be doing something mentally challenging at the same time. I work on my laptop, I write, I draw, I knit ridiculously complex patterns, the list goes on.
For November I sensibly planned to take part in NaNoWriMo and this proved to be a gift from the Gods. At first it was simply an incentive to write at home, but I soon found myself too dispirited and forced myself to go to the Write In sessions in Chester, with real people. I found that not only did I have the distraction I so desperately needed, I also had a growing number of friends.
This is almost unheard of for me. I have many virtual friends, but very few friends in the ‘real world’. Until now.
December on the other hand was very different. With the end of NaNo I found myself struggling. I been going flat out throughout half of October and the whole of November, never pausing for anything relaxing, never stopping long enough to so much as read a book because it wasn’t enough. I had spent six weeks doing nothing but work, work, work, and when I found I was too exhausted to work anymore I was dreaming up other forms of non-work related challenges to keep me going.
I took on extra freelance work, partly to keep myself busy, partly because I needed the money. By mid December I felt as if I were a runner on a treadmill, only it was placed at the very edge of an extremely high cliff. Behind me lay a sheer drop, of hundreds of feet, into a shark infested ocean. I had been running on that treadmill for a very long time at a phenomenal speed. Running was good, it was helping, it was keeping my brain busy, it was what I needed to keep myself from jumping over that cliff, but it was also dangerous; if I slowed down, even a little, that treadmill would fling me backwards and down into the waiting jaws of those sharks just as surely as I would throw myself over if I let the despair get any worse.
I was in an impossible situation. I had no choice but be on that treadmill, for the treadmill in this analogy is my own, strange, bipolar brain. I could no more get off it than I can will myself to stop being bipolar. So I had two choices, I could run, or I could go over the cliff.
I’ve been over that cliff before. It aint pretty. It’s a bitch to climb back up, and there are those damnable sharks snapping at your heels the whole way, dragging you back down again the second you make any progress.
The trick is to never end up at the bottom of the cliff in the first place, and so I had chosen to run.
But fuck me it was exhausting.
I don’t mean slightly tiring, or ‘oh I could really use a nap’. I’m not talking about the feeling you get when you’ve pulled an all-nighter, and you feel hungover even though you weren’t drinking the night before. I’m not even talking about the chronic lethargy that afflicts me when I am severely depressed and simply can’t get out of bed.
In my life before I have never felt that tired.
I would never have believed it was possible to feel that tired.
And sleep of course was no respite. In sleep I dreamed and with my mind in the state it was at the time they were not pleasant. They were vivid, borderline hallucinatory, and they didn’t stop. Every night I endured the horrors. Every day I ran as if my life depended on it, because it did.
Slowly I can feel myself pulling out of it now. Gradually I can feel my mood begin to turn. I hope this is actually the case and not simply wishful thinking. I hope the Light Box is actually helping, and I am not simply experiencing a placebo effect. I hope that soon I can get off the treadmill.
As determined as I am to kick this cycle’s arse, I can’t keep running forever.