Disclaimer: I’m no mental health professional and I’m not advocating any system, cure, treatment or healing method for mood disorders. I just want to share my recent journey. Your questions are very welcome 🙂
In the first place, I’d like to tell you what I found doesn’t work in order to fight depressions of any kind: doing nothing. It’s a health risk not only for the patient, but also for their loved ones. Another thing that doesn’t work and can backfire badly is self-medication with alcohol or illegal drugs.
BeyondBlue has published an excellent resource on what works (and what doesn’t work) for depression, called (surprise, surprise) A Guide to What Works for Depression, by Anthony Jorm, Nick Allen, Amy Morgan and Rosemary Purcell. Luck had it that I read it nine months ago, to keep myself updated on the latest treatment options. I’m very aware that bipolar disorder isn’t like other depressive disorders and there’s a risk that if I have Prozac, I may go to the other extreme. It’s happened before, so that’s why I will always refer to my own personal experience in the event of having to seek treatment.
My ‘maintenance plan’ includes the following:
Good, wholesome eating (including all food groups).
Physical exercise (CXWORKS, Rip60, Aqua Aerobics, RPM, among others).
Meditation using meditation apps such as Simply Being, Mindfulness and others.
I used to do psychotherapy as well, but not now. When I was living in Argentina, I was psychoanalysed for yonks. It did jack shit for bipolar disorder, but it did bring in self-knowledge. ‘Spoiler alert’: it can be costly, but you can find psychoanalysts in my old country who have a bit of a social conscience, and will not break your bank.
Towards the end of July this year, I noticed that my moods were spiralling down, in spite of my healthy life plan. Early morning mental fog was followed by a flat mood which on some days turned into generalised pessimism and a wish to be wiped out of the planet by some external destructive force. Let me explain: I wasn’t conventionally suicidal, but I felt like a phenomenal failure, helpless and depleted. Disrespected at work. My creative flair had gone out of the window. Deep down I felt so hollow that my only hope was to be on the receiving end of a deadly blow.
For days on end I went on with my life, working, doing some household chores, even going to the gym and meditating. I forced myself to smile whenever the occasion so required. But there would be no lasting, meaningful change. My brain worked slowly, slowly, slowly, but catching no monkeys … I know, it’s a bloody bad joke, but indulge me. I even thought of checking in at the Sydney Clinic, where I spent a few weeks in 2010, recovering from another episode of burnout and depression.
In the middle of September I called my psychiatrist, who’s now working in country NSW. I explained my situation on the phone and via email, and I expressed to him that I was prepared to take antidepressants. I’ve been on Tegretol (carbamazepine) for yonks, in order to even out my moods and enhance my attention span—a drug that worked real wonders from day one. On the other hand, antidepressants never worked well, but knowing that there isn’t just one kind of antidepressant medication, I told my psychiatrist that I was prepared to give them ‘a go’ again. This time we agreed that I’d start taking Zoloft (sertraline).
The problem with those bloody things, excuse me, SSRI’s such as Zoloft, is that they tend to make you gain weight …. So it was time to become a bit more mindful with food and to ramp up my fitness routine. Work ended three weeks ago, and ‘hitting the gym and the pool’ was far easier. About two weeks ago I woke up smiling for the first time. My mind is less foggy these days and I’ve recovered some of my energy. I haven’t gone hypomanic either—another one of my fears—and two weeks ago I even sent a job application that took me eight hours to put together.
I don’t think I’m fully out of the woods yet, and a minimal upset may hit me hard and send me back spiralling down. I take life one day at a time, pick my battles as wisely as I can, and make plans for the future. I have also given up smoking—not that I was the biggest ‘chimney’ in town anyway, but I will have foot surgery in late January and the surgeon wants a smoke-free FF Jensen.
Very important: The words ‘integral’ and ‘holistic’ could be interchanged in the heading, but unfortunately the ‘alternative treatment’ quacks have hijacked the word ‘holistic’ and put it in the ‘no-no words list’ for a long time to come. It isn’t my mission in life to ‘rescue’ words from snake oil salesmen, but if you want to call my kind of treatment ‘holistic’ because you like it better, be my guest 🙂 I won’t judge you.
Unsung heroes here: my friends and gym-mates. And my cats 🙂 Thanking each and every one of them would take another blog post and I don’t want to behave unfairly forgetting to mention some people who truly matter, even if they’re not physically close, or simply because I’m having one of those days when names slip off my mind. Again, gratitude fills my heart with joy and my eyes with tears. I’m blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful people!
The late Sakanashi Sensei, my aikido master in Argentina, once said that an ‘open guard’ is neither good nor bad in itself. It depends on the kind of attack you’re facing, the timing, the speed, the energy and a number of other things. This isn’t a post about aikido, though. I’m only using the concept of ‘guard’ for the sake of analogy.
Likewise, in life we may have to face conflicts or situations that require a very closed guard, a semi-open guard, and so on and so forth until you face your adversary fully disarmed and with open arms. That is the way I have taken my bipolar condition on board, with open arms. It was a sad relief to find out at the time, but a relief nonetheless—not something to be resisted, or denied, or used as a ‘badge of honour’. As Professor Kay Jamison wrote in her autobiography An Unquiet Mind: Memoir of Moods and Madness, ‘The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you first must make it beautiful.’ I’ve striven to do precisely that and I can only say that my condition is ‘part of me’, it isn’t the ‘whole me’. And it doesn’t make me ugly, or defective, or stupid, or unemployable, or eccentric.
Speaking of work, in a rather unexpected way, it became a stressful place for me … again! My ‘day job’ turned from a safe place into a clusterfuck of disasters that I won’t go into, except to say that with a drastic reduction of hours came a drastic loss of income, and with a rather drastic and hypercritical supervisor (let’s call her that) came a frosty meeting back in 2012 where my performance that year was systematically trashed. I didn’t lose my job, but the years 2013 and 2014 brought in a fair amount of tension. This is hard enough for anyone to manage, and for someone like myself, who suffers from bipolar disorder, it can trigger mood swings and other health issues.
There were other personal circumstances that I won’t discuss for the moment, but their impact was also considerable. To cut a long story short, I got to July 2014 feeling that my brain had come to a screeching halt. I had a ‘sweet’ first half of the year, what with the publication of my novel and having completed a whole semester of postgraduate studies. I would have never anticipated that the second half of the year would be so ‘bitter’ and that I would find myself staring at burnout and depression in the face.
How did I experience depression this time? As a daily grind, an extra effort to stay on the ball, an insidious exhaustion that would creep upon me at a certain time of the day even if I’d had a good sleep the night before. Thoughts of all the positive events that took place in the first half of the year would leave me cold. I managed to keep myself going simply because that’s what I’m used to doing. I could even laugh at other people’s jokes. My depressions don’t manifest themselves as melancholia. I understand they fit the definition of the so-called atypical depression.
When Jenny Mosher interviewed me in July, I resolutely denied my looming inner shadows and even avoided talking about bipolar disorder altogether during the interview. Don’t get me wrong: many people are aware of my condition, but I find it hard to discuss it in public. I’m even finding this blog post hard to write. I had a very bad experience disclosing my condition at my last full-time graphic design job. It was used against me and I believe it contributed to my termination.
The good news this time is that even though I’ve lived a whole life of ups and downs, they frighten me considerably less now. I know what works and what doesn’t work in the event of a persistent low mood. All my insight and self-awareness allowed me to write a work of fiction. In any case, I did my research to make sure I wasn’t restricting myself to an account of what happened to me using a sockpuppet. I’m not Lena Foch, even though some of her external traits coincide with some of mine (for example, her place of birth and her bipolar condition).
In my next post I’ll expand upon how I was able to overcome this depressive state. I couldn’t possibly say I’m totally off the hook, but my thinking and reasoning are clear again, and I’ve got most of my energy back.
Thanks for reading this post. The next one will soon be coming your way. Cheers, FFJ 🙂