Q. How much does my illness define me?
A. Right now? Quite a darn lot. I’ll point out some things from my daily routine that I do differently that I haven’t done before I got diagnosed with major depression, (then re diagnosed as bipolar disorder) as a comparison against what is my “normal,” sans illness.
Let’s see. I wake up, and the first thing is that I check my mood, and assess how I slept, and from there, I can sort of determine if I can go on with my scheduled activities for the day. Then comes the medication, I take two different ones, Prozac and broken up Abilify before I eat breakfast. The “before” aspect is crucial, because if I stuff it down with food, sometimes some of the medication would come up, leaving a terrible aftertaste for hours. I no longer drink coffee in the morning because of my anxiety. I eat a healthy breakfast that can sustain me until lunch. If I don’t eat enough, at my worst I may get vertigo or other kinds of dizzy spells, which leaves me on the ground unable to go on with my day. But most of the time, when I haven’t eaten well, my energy level plummets- my voice changes, my face becomes jaunty, and finally I physically tend to just shut down, which, again, leaves me resting in my bed.
But assuming that I slept well, and ate well and didn’t forget to take my medication, I can resume with the rest of my day. Because I’ve been in and out of hospitals and clinics for the past year, my physical health is also poor from a sedentary (depressed person’s) lifestyle. I cannot run 15 miles whenever I would like as I used to, let alone 1 mile. If I overdo any physical activity like walking around to go shopping even, my battery drains, and it takes me days to recover from that. I also don’t sleep very well when I over do it during the day.
I’m usually exhausted by the end of day, if my body managed to get on with the daily activities, like my art classes, or running errands. I come home, and eat a healthy dinner, enough so that I don’t wake up in the middle of the night from not eating enough, and it’s time for my evening medication- Lithium. This one, I take after I eat because of nausea that comes when consumed in an empty stomach. Lithium has been my miracle drug for my bipolar disorder and something that has saved me from the depths of suicidality. Because it has been so effective, I do get paranoid about not taking it, because that might just be life and death for me. Partying or going out at night is not an option as I am too tired to do more than one or two activities a day. Also, alcohol is no longer part of the things that I can partake because it interacts with my meds.
Finally, sleep. Sleep is probably the most important thing towards stability that is somewhat under my control, ranking next to taking my medication. While it is impossible to control while I am highly manic, hypomanic or depressed, I can usually induce sleep through vigorous workouts during the day, other activities that tire my mind and body, knitting, feet warmers, baths and very strong aromatherapy (because I have a very poor sense of smell). Sleep has been a very strong predictor of my mood for the next day, so I do a lot in order to get tired- just for the sake of sleeping well that night, almost so that my schedule centers around the quality of my sleep.
With all that said, I know that a lot of Pinterest boards, Instagram posts of inspirational mental health quotes say, “don’t let your illness define you.” But in my case, in this part of recovery, my illness sure does define my lifestyle and limits how I can live. So while it is an empowering message to tell patients to not let it define oneself, it is not tailored to all patients, especially not those who are still in the early stages of recovery. And that’s totally OK not to take this advice, because it is not your fault that you are at that stage of struggle where you are limited in your choices. Maybe farther along the line, when I’m stronger, less vulnerable, and more stable, I will take the advice and apply to my new challenges- to not let bipolar limit my choices. Until then, when I do have the choices, I radically accept that my illness limits me, and in turn, defines me. Hey, you have to work with what you’ve got, right?