Tilly: My Mental Health Toolbox
I am not bipolar. I have bipolar disorder. My diagnosis and my identity are linked only in so far as experiencing mental illness has contributed to my personal growth.
My perspectives have broadened, my empathy has grown and I have consolidated certain personal attributes such as resilience and confidence. I have also gradually created a toolbox — one that is instrumental to maintaining my mental health.
I wish the process had have been easier and quicker. But, at the end of the day all that matters is I now have it as I move forward with life.
My mental illness at times caused much distress. Since my first episode of illness, a gradual process of receiving professional help, reaching out for support around me, improving my own understanding and self-awareness, and developing a tool kit of self-care and coping strategies has allowed me to evolve from struggle to recovery and ongoing management
I am able to live, enjoy and adventure in spite of having a complex mental illness.
My handle on my condition is strong. I experience warning signs of mania, including restlessness, erratic or racing thoughts, difficulty sleeping and urges to complete unnecessary tasks. Recently I reflected that, although I can identify them (an important step which itself took time to achieve), I was struggling to deal with them in the moment.
I decided to contact a psychologist for guidance around developing coping strategies and ways to approach calming these symptoms better. My GP set up the referral, commending my proactive choice to seek support even though my illness has little current impact on my day-to-day life.
“I have learnt the hard way that reaching out for support early is crucial in staying on top of mental illness. A culture of help-seeking is vital for staying well.”
When I was 17, my condition surfaced for the first time. I experienced depression for several months. Among my negative thoughts was guilt — a feeling that I had no reason to be depressed and it was silly to feel this way. Consequently, I was too ashamed to tell anyone.
I had a friend who noticed I was withdrawn and quiet, which was unlike my positive, bubbly self. She asked me if everything was ok and said they were there if I needed to talk. That showed me that people did want to help. Though I chose not to open up, being approached was comforting.
However, I struggled in silence instead of reaching out for help, and things went from bad to worse. I fell into a period of prolonged mania and this meant my behaviour changed in a way which was, at first, not overtly noticeable to those around me.
Suddenly things rapidly became more acute as I transitioned into a psychotic episode. I had severe emotional distress, exacerbated from experiencing visual hallucinations and my ability to function at school and home derailed. I was taken to the doctor, and subsequently hospital emergency on my GPs directive. From the psychiatric evaluations, I was admitted to hospital to begin my recovery.
My illness had become so bad others needed to intervene. I often wonder what disruption and distress to me, my family and others around me could have been avoided if I had have sought help when I was struggling with depression, or if I had understood the changes in my behaviour as concerning and spoken up.
The exposure to professional help began my road to recovery. Initially, I lacked awareness of my mental health and the necessary tools of to manage my illness.
My mood was returned to a range which enabled me to function at home and socially, and to finish year 12 with a positive prognosis. I was transferred to a community team consisting of a psychiatrist and a counsellor for ongoing care. I started university and enjoyed beginning a new phase of my life.
I was taking medication that was being progressively lowered, but I was struggling to cope with warning signs as my mental illness again reared its head.
I experienced a relapse, but this was a constructive turning point in how I would handle my condition. It represented certainty and I learned of the permanency of my diagnosis. I became motivated to learn about bipolar, my own signs and symptoms and the coping strategies and self-care techniques I could use.
This nuanced understanding of myself, my illness and what tools worked for me have helped me manage my condition and live my life with bipolar having minimal impact.
I still see my psychiatrist routinely, though this is now infrequent, and I seek the support of those around me when I need it.
“I have learnt to say no, to prioritise time to rest my body and mind, to implement a strong sense of routine and scheduling, and to ensure I sleep adequately. I have activities I know help me to relax, energise or burn off steam, and I know when I need to use these to change my current behaviour.”
It took time to establish what methods worked for me. Combining these methods with new thought-based strategies that I am developing with my psychologist has, for now, completed my tool kit for managing my mental illness.
It may be in future that other things arise, and new instruments for coping may be added, or others taken away. I have established professional medical support, a help-seeking culture, medication regime, self-care and behavioural coping strategies which together ensure I stay at my optimal mental health as much as possible.
It was by no means an easy path, but it was an important one, for me and those around me. Now I have created my toolbox, I can take it anywhere, to use as needed to keep my condition in check in order to continue getting on with my life.