I have Bipolar Disorder Type 1 and my husband has Bipolar Disorder Type 2. We’ve been married for 12 years and call ourselves Mr and Mrs Bipolar, in an affectionate way. But it's not always been an easy way. Not by a long shot.
It is so easy to disassociate, not only from each other, but from ourselves when things 'get too hard'. For me, I need more to live beyond 'just coping'. I want to thrive, rather than just survive. But on the bad days I'll settle with survive!
I am a practical person, yet also a dreamer. I need to know why, and I need to know how. I look forcreative solutions to practical problems. Managing my symptoms, while caring for my family, has resulted in the development of our self-care plan.
I have pockets of 15 minutes throughout the day that are just for me. That might be a shower with lovely smells. It might mean taking time out to read a chapter or to paint a canvas. This allows me to nurture myself in a compassionate way, rather than try and be everything to everyone all at once. My self-care plan must work for me. It has to.
If I don't care for myself, I cannot be fully present for someone else, especially my husband and children.
This may sound easy, but the consequences of self-care can be guilt. And this guilt can be hefty.
As parents we are constantly wondering if we’re doing the right thing: Are we on the right track? Are we dotting all the 'i''s and crossing all the 't''s? Are our children affected by our mental illnesses? If they are, have we picked up on it? We are always trying to ensure we don't give our children a childhood they’ll have to recover from.
But I also understand the feeling of not being cared for. As I already mentioned, both my husband and I have Bipolar Disorder, although I was diagnosed much later than he was. The profound and overwhelming grief that came with my diagnosis was exhausting, unexpected and inconvenient. It wasn’t following the ‘script’ which showed how all 'this' should play out.
Resentment began to creep in and I wanted to shout: WHAT ABOUT ME? Who is looking after me when I am looking after everyone else? Who will nurture me and reassure me that everything will be okay?
This was the critical moment where self-care stepped in. I realised that it's not a bad thing to put self-care first. My internal dialogue, my (at times) unrealistic expectations and my attempts at trying to be everything to everyone demanded a new, unique solution.
This included carefully choosing who became or remained part of our lives. That part was hard because loyalties, relationships and entrenched habits were uprooted, shaken and replanted. We owed it to ourselves to be the best version of ‘us’ we could be, ensuring we were surrounded by folks who were also rolling up their sleeves and supporting us.
Self-care and coping strategies are also about being practical. They need to work with your lifestyle. Because, like many other people, I wear lots of hats – wife, mother, carer, teacher, artist, speaker, writer and so on – I need to realistically understand how the self-care strategies are going to work in our lives.
The following list is what we, as a family, have come up with. It seems to work for us, and maybe it will also work for you.
Ten self-care strategies
- Clear the calendar
Cancel external events when you need to. This includes appointments, casual arrangements and special occasions. It means you’ll have to say ‘no’ people, they can wait. Trust me, your own time is more important.
- Agree to 'just go with it'
Sometimes you have to work with your symptoms. We occasionally allow ourselves 'bed time' when we don't want to get up. But we don't allow the whole day, nor every day for a week. And we make sure we are accountable to ourselves and each other.
- Set a simple meal plan
We pre-prepare meals or plan easy-to-cook meals, so everyone is eating healthy food without too much effort.
- Go with the flow
I was the micromanaging queen, trying to have it all neat and organised while also trying to be flexible allowing time for self-care. This just resulted in guilt. And lots of it. So no, you can’t have it all, all of the time. Sometimes to 'just be' is more than enough.
Speaking as both the person living with bipolar and as a carer, there’s no need to have all the answers, just listen. Sometimes all we need is to be acknowledged. Sometimes we are blessed to get ‘me too’ as a response.
- List your emergency phone numbers
Have the hospital on speed dial or a list of numbers on the fridge, including doctors, psychologists and crisis services such as Lifeline or SANE. We don't always have the answer or the ability to fix things. So call the appropriate medical team when needed.
- Don’t blame yourself
That includes shame and guilt. You are amazing and courageous just being you.
- Acknowledge you are doing the best you can
Trust me, even when you feel like you aren't, you are. It’s that simple.
- Take a moment to breathe
Stop, reset and calm yourself. This can help you reduce the stress, anxiety and guilt you may be experiencing.
- Celebrate the unique gift that you are
Little celebrations are the salve for a weary soul. You are awesome and doing the best you can. Nobody can take this away from you!