Thursday, October 29, 2009

Defining Life


I have seen the words "life on life's terms" a lot lately. As I see it, this envelops surrendering a range of some or all of your control over aspects of your life, with the belief that there is an area completely out of reach and beyond control. Of course there are always factors beyond control, but those factors produce the ever present opportunity for choice.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned is being accountable for my feelings and realizing I have control of how they are affected by others. Sometimes I make the choice to feel negatively about myself or another or their actions. At one point in my life I had no control once this happened. I did not have healthy thought processes. I was more concerned with controlling other people and manipulating the situation back into my comfort zone. I was too selfish to realize that I had no right to do this and it took years of emotional discomfort and failure in my communication and relationships, before I realized something had to change and that something needed to be me.

It was not pretty. I had to let go of so much. I had to work so many feelings. I had to apologize to myself first and then others and then let go of the guilt. When damage was done, it was my habit to harbor the guilt, refuse to move forward, and lose sight of the lesson. As I worked on changing me, I started to let go and oh how all of those horrible life choices started to work for me. I became life's student, eager to learn, with a light heart.

I started focusing on my emotional health and let go of all of my labels. The table's started to turn and I became capable of defining my own life... making my own terms. I stopped waiting for anyone to come save me and make it better. How empowering it was to realize my own capabilities. I had allowed so many people to use me and shape me for their own selfish needs, as I was doing to them. What toxic relationships I had.

One of my biggest achievements has been learning to manage my mental illness. I was diagnosed bipolar 8 or 9 years ago. Again dates in the past elude me these days. I spent years in medicated turmoil. Up the dose, add this to help the side effects of that, sleeping pill, a pill to return sex drive, wean yourself off of the one that makes you feel ok.

I decided I was not going to let this illness define me. I spent a lot of time in therapy, classes, groups. I was hospitalized because I could not go on anymore. I started looking more towards tools to help me through various weak points. It is so much more complicated when you are bipolar because the extremes are SO EXTREME. Medications that work during the depressed times seemed to have negative effects on me when I was experiencing mania. Another thing that I struggled with is that I was actually so in love with parts of me in both conditions. When I was manic, some of the grandiose feelings resembled self esteem. I got so many things accomplished. I dreamt big and felt uninhibited and very sexual. When I was depressed I had a great capacity for empathy. I was very emotional and expressive. This is when my writing was at its best.

The problem was that when I was manic, I had poor judgement with money and was promiscuous. When I was depressed I had no self esteem and I was very needy and often felt worthless and suicidal. If I had to work so hard to identify these things so that my medication could be adjusted, why couldn't I work to identify them and find tools to work the problem areas. The medications made me so emotionless that I didn't have the drive to work on anything. I was neither here nor there. Happy nor sad. I just existed, waiting for my next appointment, my next medication check, with vague hope of getting better.

I did something extreme and I quit all of my medicine. This probably wasn't the best idea and it was quickly followed by extreme depression and a an immense struggle with my fighting inner voices, and a bottle of trazadone. Somehow my voices overcame my weakness that night and I slept it off without overdosing on trazadone. I woke up the next day ready to fight for the right to exist harmoniously within my own head.

It was a long long road. I lost both my grandpa and my kids' Dad that year. I was on autopilot for so long. I had no energy to feel much of anything other than sad. I simply went through the motions each day for my children's sake. That is where my first big tool presented itself. As time went on I realized how many big decisions I had put off and that even though I hadn't accomplished much, I was in fact alive. How had I made it through such huge life events without medication?

Life started happening again. Sadness stayed present, but it got in the backseat. I was so scared to start feeling again. I was sure I would start cycling (a term that refers to alternating between periods of hypomania and major depressive disorder). I was known to rapid cycle- meaning I had four or more episodes of both in a year. I asked myself if i should prepare to get medicated again. This is where my tools came in.

I looked back on everything I had learned about signs and symptoms and I started making a plan. I committed to getting to know me. The real me with all of my emotions, all of my feelings, and all of my strengths and weaknesses. Medication free. I addressed the major problems I faced with both depression and mania and promised myself when I started sensing either I would do two things. I would not make any big decisions (relationship, money, life, etc) and I would continue to go through the motions no matter how I felt. This meant simple days filled with only routine. Get up, shower, get kids ready, school, work, clean, eat, sleep. I would not discuss my feelings with people or seek input during these times. I limited physical and emotional stimulation to that of common courtesies and light conversations and internally rewarded myself with praise when I would make it through a day.

As time wore on I became incredibly aware of myself. I could feel both the mania and the depression coming on and it started feeling like a gentle warning instead of an unplanned attack. I started welcoming my "go through the motions days." Even though I would still feel the same things, I started to control the actions of those feelings. As I began to know and trust myself better, I started to reign in some of the power of each cycle. I used the times of mania to express myself in writing. I used the times of depression to be thankful for life's little comforts. The cycles started to become less apparant and less often. The area of normalcy started to invade both cycles and it was taking less and less work to live. Light was invading the darkness.

My bipolar disorder is sacred to me (thus the name of this blog). It saved me from myself, because I chose to define it instead of letting it define me. There is a little part of it that is everything my mother was, only she was defined by her mental illness and she lost her struggle to live because of it. I hold sacred that little part of me that can relate to her.

Amazingly enough this process happened BEFORE my addiction to pain medicine and meth. I think it is what made my recovery so much easier than it is for some people. I didn't use initially to cover up pain in my life. I was actually pretty happy and stable. I used because it just felt euphoric and became physically addicted. I ended up using to cover up the pain that supporting the addiction caused.

I recovered from meth without mental health treatment or medication. Am I saying this is normal? No. I do believe that there has to come a point of discovery in any affliction of the mind or body in which the afflicted must do the emotional work. Of course self medicating is easier, and sometimes clinical medicating can be what a person absolutely needs to allow them the capabilities to do the emotional work. The medication will never do the work for you.

I am just expressing how I have defined my life. How do you define yours?


  1. i love this post, the raw emotions and just the sheer honesty. it is truly a beautiful journey. not easy and sometimes not pretty but truly quite a beautiful journey.
    it is so good to look back on your life and reflect to how much chaos and insanity was my fault, and how much was not my fault. i love knowing i have the power to not allow chaos in to my life today.

  2. You're an exceptional person. Just being able to define yourself and having so much self awareness and determination sets you apart from many people. I am very interested in Bi-polar because my son has just been diagnosed but because he's been high the last year or so I don't know the difference, I don't know "normal" for him. He uses Trazadone to sleep and Nerountin for anxiety but that's it. Anyhow...your question "how do you define yourself?" I can't even answer it. I am not a happy person, I struggle through depression on more days than not and today I just feel like a blob of nothing. Tomorrow I may feel better.

  3. An incredible Journey Shawna and you are the pilot! It is difficult to say something more that you are doing something extraordinary and it is such a positive impact on your life and the kids and all those close to you! You are climbing the mountain without help....

    Big hugs

  4. I love the quote at the beginning of your post. This is another good one "We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by our thoughts about what happens" Epictetus I think 3.000 years ago...what a wisdom...

  5. there is an amazing strength in you. Myself - lived through child abuse, rape, drug addiction, eating disorder, cutting, survived all that and the system that tried to control me - never knew I had strength. I know it now. Stay strong. Sarah

  6. It's a very powerful thing to take control of your life and own your reactions. You have great strength :)