How I have coped with the effects of my bipolar disorder
I desperately wanted to get better, mostly for my family’s sake, and was willing to go to any length to reclaim my life. I longed to be the husband and father they deserved. Through all the years of struggle, I discovered, and still use, a variety of techniques to help me cope with my mood issues.
I studied literature on recovery and spiritual development. I studied material from Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step groups to gain insights into how to deal with personal struggles, relationships, and marriage.
The Bible is obviously a great place to start for spiritual development. Sure, there were times when I couldn’t get myself to read the Bible, or even pray. But the Bible has been my strongest spiritual support all along. It’s given me hope and guidance, and among other things it’s supplied incredible practical help for my relationship with my wife, Leah.
I searched for supportive people and sought out relationships and friendships. During the first few years after my hospitalization, I experienced frequent episodes of depression and mania. These terrible bouts often caused me to withdraw from people, both friends and acquaintances. For several years, I had to cancel half my appointments due to my ever-changing moods. Sometimes I didn’t answer phone calls for weeks or even months.
One of the findings of the book The Friendless American Male is that the vast majority of all American men do not have a single friend whom they feel comfortable and safe enough to call at 2 a.m. for help.
I’d read The Friendless American Male some years prior to my breakdown, and I was acutely aware of the necessity of men having a few reliable friends. Although I had many so-called friends and co-workers, I knew that in reality I, too, had become a “friendless American male.” In my plight, I knew that I’d never recover alone. I needed others if I was going to get better and stay better.
With this in mind, I forced myself to develop a support system. It was risky and I chanced getting hurtful comments. Yet I forced myself to meet with three or four trusted friends on a weekly basis. I reconnected with an old best friend and talked regularly with him by long distance phone. I met weekly with my psychologist, who became not only a guide, but a dear friend and mentor.
I attended support groups. For many years, I have participated in 12-step groups at least once or twice a week. One was a group of men who had been sexually abused and had all kinds of addiction issues and mental disorders.
Although I’ve never had any kind of alcohol problem, I have attended countless Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step meetings since 1990. I found the sharing of my own struggles as well as listening to those of others to be encouraging and freeing.
At an AA meeting, I simply introduced myself by saying, “I’m Jim. I’m an addict.” This was certainly true as I was a recovering bulimic and am still a food addict. In these meetings, I picked up countless recovery tips for dealing with my bipolar and eating issues. These gatherings provided a degree of anonymity for me, and I felt safe to share without risking criticism, being sermonized to, or gossiped about. Sadly I hadn’t found this kind of rugged, caring honesty in most church communities.
Another support group I was involved with was Comfort Zone, a mental illness support group that a therapist and I started over twenty-five years ago, and which continues to meet to this day.
I took personal responsibility for my actions. The Alcoholics Anonymous’s tenth step toward sobriety says, “[We] continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.” I stopped blaming others, and I learned to accept responsibility for my own harmful attitudes, words, and behaviors.
In the past, when I was in an agitated, fuming, manic mood, I would rationalize my hurtful actions. It was easier to blame somebody or something else than to choose to “own-up” and take charge of making better decisions.
As I learned more about the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous, I started putting its lessons into practice with my struggles, my relationships, and especially with Leah. As I practiced these principles with her, I had to eat a lot of “humble pie.” Whenever I messed up with Leah, I began to promptly admit my wrong. I started saying things like, “Honey, I was in a bad place yesterday. But no matter whether the medication started it, or the stress set me off in a manic or depressive episode, I was still responsible for managing it. And I’m sorry I hurt you.”
Putting this teaching from Alcoholics Anonymous into practice has made a huge difference in our relationship. When I admitted I was wrong, it helped Leah process the hurt I’d caused and helped her begin to forgive me.
To my surprise and gratitude, Leah also quickly began to own up in matters that affected me by promptly admitting her own wrongs.
We discovered that our quick admission of wrongdoing diffused potential buildups of resentments and prevented many misunderstandings and hurt feelings. The simple act of admitting a wrong became a healing, reconciling step that produced countless positives in our relationship.
I learned to identify my triggers for relapses. From my 12-step reading and group meetings, I discovered how to identify what set off my manias and depressions. I found that my triggers were: getting overwhelmed by my workload; toiling too many hours at too fast a pace; having unrealistic expectations of myself or others; being disappointed, criticized, or rejected; and going with too little sleep.
As I discerned my specific causes for relapses, I shared them with Leah so she could alert me when she sensed I was skating on thin ice.
I picked up ways to protect myself from unnecessarily harsh criticisms. This meant avoiding specific people, leaving an event when things grew too toxic, or even avoiding certain gatherings in the first place.
As a leader, it was fairly common to receive a few critical remarks at social gatherings, parties, or church events. Sometimes church people can be hurtful without knowing it. Or, in some instances, they can be deliberately vicious. Often, when I felt uncomfortable with others’ comments, I’d get away from an activity, isolating myself by taking a drive or going to a movie, lest I say something that might lead to serious consequences.
I learned how and when to detach. Like most couples, Leah and I had our share of friction in our relationship. This included things like bringing up past hurts the other had caused, using ill-chosen words, or disagreements on issues such as: expectations of each other, finances, parenting, sex, social obligations, and other flash points.
Until I learned techniques to detach from Leah in healthy ways, I stumbled along as best I could. I tried to protect both myself and her from overreacting to an issue. I realized that if I didn’t act quickly and do something proactive, my emotions might spin out of control and end with abusive damages to her.
Sometimes, when trying to avoid an argument with Leah, I’d detach from her by giving her the silent treatment, sometimes to punish her, other times simply to protect myself from her words. Of course, I didn’t want to admit to myself how cruel my silences were, but I knew how much they hurt her and I worked hard to stop.
Eventually, I learned healthier ways to detach from Leah. I’d say something like, “I’m really upset right now, and I don’t want to talk about it because I’m afraid I’ll say something I might later regret. I need to cool down and rethink this. Let’s discuss this matter tomorrow,” or, “I need some time and space to think about this, so I’m going for a drive. Please don’t take my absence as a silent treatment.”
To disengage, sometimes I’d say to myself, “That’s her problem this time. It’s not about me. She’s dealing with her own issue. Even if I caused her upset, I can’t do anything about it other than to apologize.”
If I was upset about something or somebody other than Leah, I’d tell her, “I’m in a bad mood right now. I need to get away so I can calm down and mentally evaluate what’s going on to see how I can better deal with it. My withdrawal has nothing to do with you. I’m just trying to take care of myself.”
I learned the therapeutic value of writing. When upset, I’d frequently write about my raw emotions and what I thought caused them. I visited different 24-hour restaurants and wrote on napkins and paper placemats about whatever recent altercation I was having with Leah or someone else. Surprisingly, this simple exercise helped me process my emotions, giving me more objectivity and added perspective on my distresses.
I used the Serenity Prayer to cope. The complete prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, is used by most 12-step group members:
God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference; living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that you will make all things right if I surrender to your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next. Amen.
Yet, as helpful as this prayer was in reassuring me, there were also times when I just couldn’t pray it because I was too sulky or depressed.
For instance, once in a while Leah would say or do something that really rubbed me the wrong way. She may have listened to my sharing in a rushed, impatient manner and been ultra-quick to give advice, which I would take as being a judgmental “sermon.” Or maybe she’d side with the person who was upsetting me.
My knee-jerk reaction would be to snap at Leah, criticizing her actions. But when I prayed the full Serenity Prayer and applied its concepts to my relationship with her, I was able to accept Leah as she was: a person just trying to cope with our tough situation. This freed me to stop my attempts at changing or fixing her. Invoking the Serenity Prayer shifted my attention so I could focus on changing my own negative attitudes and destructive responses.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they call it “letting go and letting God.” As I tried to apply that slogan to my own situation, I would turn Leah and our dispute over to God and say to him, “I blew it, please help me pick up the pieces. I’ll trust you to guide me as I work on this strain in Leah’s and my relationship.”
I learned to forgive myself and Leah. Ruth Bell Graham says that “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” Both Leah and I agree. I’ve had to forgive myself for my own mess-ups. And I also had to forgive Leah when she’d hurt me by her angry words of frustration, or when she made time with me a low priority in her relationships.
Reading the Bible and other inspirational literature such as Dr. Lewis Smedes’s book Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve helped me understand what forgiveness is and is not, as well as healthy ways to begin forgiving. I discovered that if I didn’t forgive Leah and others for some of the hurtful things they’d said or done, I’d become a prisoner to my past—always rehearsing the litany of wrongs done to me, always thinking of ways to get even.
His words offered solid guidance and freed me to allow for my failures at forgiving—pardoning one day then resenting on the next. I learned that forgiving is a process, and no one gets it right all the time.
Smedes’s book awakened me to the damage that could come to me and my relationship with Leah if I didn’t at least want to start forgiving.