People with bipolar disorder often hide the disease, afraid of being misunderstood. I want to share a story that might help me, and others, to reveal this part of who we are. Let’s see what you think.
Self-Talk Power: my best friend and worst enemy
I noticed that the snow plow had been through to push back the tops of the high snowbanks. When it passed our house, it pushed an icy snowball that was 4 or 5 feet in diameter off of the top of the snowbank — right to the middle of the entrance to our driveway.
I couldn’t move it, partly because my head had been like a pinball machine all morning: if I moved too quickly or the wrong way, I would trigger the tilt switch, which would make a migraine leap into action.
I considered the possible times to call my husband at work, so he would be ready to clear the driveway when he came home: immediately, before I forgot? But then he might dread it all afternoon. What if I took a chance on remembering to call him as he’s ready to leave for home? But then I might forget, and he’d arrive home ready to relax.
I walked over to see how bad the situation was.The snowball was so round, I wondered if I could roll it. As I lifted one edge of it, pieces fell off, but I was able to push most of it out of the way. I was surprised by how little it weighed. I thought it must have been full of air pockets, like Styrofoam.
See the remainder of the snowball after I had moved it
The snow plow had also pushed several inches of dense snow into the entrance to the driveway. The sun was shining brightly for a little while, but the temperature was too close to zero Fahrenheit for the snow to melt away. The snow would be much easier to move at that moment, compared with waiting for my husband to move it when he got home after a tiring day at work, with the temperature falling, and darkness settling in.
As I got a shovel, I wondered if I could move any snow. I wondered what happened to the migraine, and my tiredness and weakness. As I moved some snow, I was amazed that the full shovel loads were easy to lift and toss over the tops of the tall snow banks. Where did my strength come from? How could I do this after spending the past few months in bed in a depression?
I cleared the entire end of the driveway, one minute at a time, taking a break after each minute: stand still, eyes closed, breathe, tune in, and decide whether to continue. This is what I heard myself saying:
I can do anything, if I just do it. All of these months, I wasted a lot of time lying around, focusing on what I couldn’t do, when I could have just gotten up and done what I could do. What a relief! I finally beat this bipolar thing! I am such a strong person. Anyone else’s body would have atrophied by now. My body is built like a bull. I know how to use body mechanics to do hard work. This feels so good. I used to know that I could do absolutely anything, and here I am, doing it again. I am glad to be the familiar Me again. I love being out in the sun, breathing the fresh air, working my muscles, doing something nice for someone else. I forgot how much control I have over what I can do. I just need to remember to focus on what I can do, and just do it. I have no idea why I ever think I can’t do a certain something. There’s nothing I can’t do. I’ve proven that over and over…
Redirecting the Self-Talk
Finally, I remembered my therapist advising me, many times, to do just a little at a time when energy floods my blood, rather than riding the entire wave of opportunity, and then entirely exhausting myself. Finally, I remembered my psychiatrist looking at me with astonishment as I mentioned being in bed all day for weeks and then very suddenly running up and down flights of stairs and being happily very busy doing many things all at once and keeping track of them all, and he asked me how someone like me, who is intelligent and sensible, could be so unreasonable about overdoing it when I became energized, aka hypomanic.
Finally, I realized that being out of bed for a couple of hours was strenuous enough for me for one day for right now. I saw many things I wanted to do, but forced myself to bed. I wanted to stay up and be busy. Instead, I called my husband to check my judgment. He reminded me that I accomplished a lot that day, and that I needed to rest so I wouldn’t feel like I got hit by a Mack truck. Oh. Yeah. I had forgotten about that Mack truck that shows up and runs me down after a surge of energy in the middle of a depression. After hypomania sweeps me away, I feel as if a brick wall fell on me. So, this time, I set myself to staying in bed, and then a wave of exhaustion overwhelmed me, and I was ready to settle down for the rest of the day.
How might someone as intelligent and sensible as I remember to take it easy when a wave of energy comes along? How does a wave make me so muscular? Sometimes, when I get one of those waves, I remember to ride it carefully, slowly and deliberately, but often I become extremely busy and irritable as I cling to the face of the wave until it crashes on the beach, and leaves me there depleted, as limp as a rag doll, and miserable.
So, I need to rest a lot right now. When I find myself calmly up and around doing things without thinking about it, or when I am continuously aware of my limitations, maybe that’s a taste of “normal”. When I see my ability to do everything that I think of, maybe that should smell fishy. I’m getting better at recognizing the difference.
Bipolar might be like the snow plow that left a large snowball at the end of our driveway. Sometimes, we don’t notice the snowball. Sometimes, we can roll the big obstacle out of the way, and then overcome more obstacles. Sometimes, we continue shoveling away with unlimited energy, until we inadvertently and inevitably step in front of a Mack truck, and it flattens us.
What does your self-talk sound like? How do you recognize its nonsense, and overpower it? When do you find it helpful?