Photo Credit: Kristin Finn
Kristin Finn, 47-year-old mom of two; investment advisor in Grand Rapids, MI; and author of the book, Bipolar and Pregnant
Stopping the Stereotypes
Most people meeting me today would never guess that I have bipolar disorder. They wouldn't have a clue that when I was diagnosed at age 16, my doctor said that I was just inches away from a psychotic break. With medication, therapy and keeping a regular journal, I have managed my bipolar disorder successfully for more than 30 years. It's hard for people to understand being bipolar because of the way the mental illness is portrayed in much of the media. You rarely hear about highly functioning people who have bipolar disorder.
Everyone has ups and downs, but if you have bipolar disorder, the intensity of those feelings is multiplied tenfold. My symptoms today are different than they were when I was a teenager. Back then, when I wrote about my manic symptoms in my journal, I wrote things like, "racing mind, pressure to talk, driving too fast, poor judgment, too much makeup." I would speak my mind with no consideration of how the message was perceived. I was very impulsive, adventurous and promiscuous. Promiscuity and hypersexuality are symptoms of bipolar disorder that a lot of people don't like to talk about because they are ashamed, and because they fear devastating stereotypes. It's not fair to label people based on behaviors their illness causes. Those behaviors are not who they are, and once they get the appropriate treatment, the behaviors stop.
During my depressive episodes, my journal entries were different: "Very low self-esteem, sad, lonely, not worth living at times, no friends, bad dreams." I would stand at the kitchen counter and consume a whole container of ice cream, and then be filled with self-loathing afterwards.
Remembering What Matters
I was only 13 or 14 when I started showing symptoms, and the first social worker I went to didn't know what was wrong with me. It wasn't until I went to a psychiatrist who took a thorough family history that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and given medication. When I was in my mid-20s, my husband and I wanted to start a family. I worked closely with my psychiatrist and other doctors and made the decision to go off medication while I was trying to conceive, as well as during my two pregnancies. That decision may not be right for everyone, but it was the right decision for me. By keeping a journal before I went off of my meds, during my pregnancy and afterwards, I was able to monitor my moods very closely and remind myself of why I made the decisions I did, and ultimately those two pregnancy journals became a significant part of my book.
I know that medication is crucial to my well-being. I also see a therapist. She helps me keep things in perspective. I sometimes write down what she says. For example, one time she told me that during the tough days when I don't feel confident, I should remind myself that "I'm still worthwhile. I'm smart. I am not my feelings. Feelings are temporary. My value and worth are permanent." When I feel depressed or overwhelmed, I can look at this piece of paper and remember that.
Feeling Less Alone
Going to support group meetings sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) also helps. People who don't have bipolar disorder usually don't understand what we go through. I'll be out with friends and someone will ask, "How are you?" and I might say, "Well, I'm feeling depressed." They'll say, "What's wrong? What happened?" It doesn't have to be anything that happened. People don't understand that. In the support group, people either have bipolar disorder or depression, or have someone in their life who is affected. We do a lot of sharing. I can say, "You know, I'm going through this. Does anyone have any suggestions?" and there are so many instances where someone will say, "Gosh, I've gone through that." Or "Hey, that happens to me." I don't feel so alone.
Keeping a journal has helped me over the years to remember things and to understand my condition and identify my triggers. I think it could help anyone. It doesn't have to be super-detailed; just keeping a mood chart can help you work with your psychiatrist to make the most of your appointments and medications.
For help tracking your own moods and medications, log on to the DBSA's Wellness Tracker.