From Peer to Peer is a new column by Bill W. Bill brings his life experience to print in a series of articles dealing with the many aspects of recovery. In a series of personal reflections, interviews and round table discussions, he will share with the reader, from peer to peer, some effective and helpful insights into the world of recovery.
Hi everybody… I’m Bill W. Not the Bill W., of course, but a Bill W. I introduce myself like this in AA meetings sometimes because it usually gets a little laugh, and I like to make people laugh. I think that’s partly because I’ve had so much sadness in my life that the laughter helps me keep that sadness in the past. You see, I’ve been living with bipolar disorder (with psychotic features!) for some 36 years now. On top of that, I’ve got a dual diagnosis going on that adds the alcoholic/addict stuff. That’s about all I’ll say along those lines because I’m sure you can fill in the blanks with the struggles I’ve had.
What I’d really like to write about is the mental health maintenance program I follow that has turned my life into a relatively happy one. I have come through a life of regular, hellish psychotic episodes, broken relationships, rocky employment history, fear, guilt and despair, to a life of mended family relationships, a steady job, a little house of my own, a wife and cat who love me, friends who trust me and much more.
I believe I may have something to say that could be helpful to others struggling with mental health issues. Why? Because I’ve been working at my recovery for a long time, I practically have a PhD in street smarts by now and most in my community circle consider me somewhat of a success story. Granted, I’m a slow learner, a work in progress and have my setbacks, but hopefully some of the things I do to “keep my train on the tracks” will resonate with others. I strongly believe that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. So consider this, take what you can use and leave the rest.
When people ask me what I do to stay mentally fit, my short answer is that it is more than just taking my psychotropic medications. It’s a big package deal with lots of different things in the box. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying the importance of taking my meds. On the contrary, it is one of the most important things I do. What I am saying is I need to combine them with a variety of other things. I’ll list these, with observations, in no particular order.
KEEP THE STRESS LEVEL DOWN – Any mental health worker will tell you that stress is the number one culprit for causing relapses. That has certainly been the case in my life, and I need to manage it or the results could be terrible. I’ve learned to say no to activities that push my stress level up too high, even if they are something I really want to do. From self-help classes and books, I’ve developed a good tool kit to manage stress I can’t avoid.
GET BALANCED SLEEP – The first thing I notice when I’m having trouble with my mental health is that I’m not sleeping well. So I pay particular attention to getting a good night’s sleep. I try to go to bed and get up at regular times. I don’t go two nights in a row without my full eight hours. I’ve invested in a comfortable bed. I follow the expert advice that works for me: don’t exercise before bedtime, avoid caffeinated products later in the day and don’t drink too many fluids that wake you up in the middle of the night for a bathroom break. When I can’t sleep, I lay still and just rest.
EXERCISE – I find when I exercise, my life goes a lot better. After exercise, I get a feeling of overall wellness; I sleep better; it helps chase the blues away; and my anxiety level decreases. I’m older now with the associated aches, pains and fat cells; so I have a relatively easy routine. Walking, biking, stretching and such do it for me. I’ve found I don’t have to strain myself too much to get the benefits.
EAT A HEALTHY DIET – It’s not rocket science! I am what I eat. My body tells me that more fruits, veggies, whole grains and lots of water; and less sugar, salt and fat are good for both mind and body.
MAINTAIN REGULAR CONTACT WITH MENTAL HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS – I feel more secure and less vulnerable knowing I’ve developed a strong alliance with my psychiatrist and associated case workers through our one-on-one meetings and time spent in talk therapy groups. Over the years, we have developed a trust level that allows me to freely disclose my situation. Because of this, the last time I was slipping into a relapse, I had a strong safety net of professionals who knew me well and could help me quickly and effectively. Knowing that I have this team in my corner gives me confidence that I can continue to overcome the problems that plagued me for years.
NURTURE RELATIONS WITH A GROUP OF SUPPORTIVE PEOPLE – I was told many years ago by a wise old woman to keep the friends you have and continue to make new ones. I took this suggestion to heart, and it has served me well. My circle of support includes others in recovery, family, co-workers, Twelve Step and mental health group folks, neighbors and church members. It takes work to keep all these relationships going, but for me it is well worth the effort. There is always someone to talk with or a partner for a fun outing. The ones with whom I’ve felt comfortable enough sharing my history help me to monitor my symptoms and check in with me to make sure I’m doing okay. If my truck is broken down I can always get a lift. These little things mean a lot.
DEVELOP SOME MEANINGFUL ACTIVITIES – I find it easier to get up in the morning and face the day if I have some things to do that are special to me. It can, but doesn’t have to be, anything on a grand scale. Doing a good job at work, spending some quality time with my wife, performing volunteer work, listening to a friend in need or writing an article for In Recovery Magazine does it for me.
PAY ATTENTION TO STAYING PHYSICALLY HEALTHY – There was a time when I found myself slipping into depression. I was sleeping a lot, I felt lonely and the activities I normally enjoyed didn’t interest me. After talking about this with my psychologist, she advised me to get a check-up to determine if this difficulty had anything to do with my physical health. Sure enough, I had developed diabetes, and the symptoms related to it were affecting my mental state. I learned my lesson from this experience. The mental and physical are closely related and both need to be nurtured.
CONTINUE TO BUILD A STRONG RELATIONSHIP WITH A HIGHER POWER –I know it is not for everyone, but it sure helps me to know there is always Something there for love, companionship, guidance, comfort and to take the burden off of my shoulders. Sometimes, when I am feeling despair, a simple prayer to the Higher Power is all it takes to get me through the dark times. Bill, we’d like to change this to Higher Power, what do you thing?
So there it is…Bill W.’s basic guidelines for his mental health maintenance program. Tried and true, it was developed over 36 years of living life with bipolar disorder. I hope there is a thing or two in this article you can use to help you cope with whatever your circumstances may be.