I’m medication resistant, meaning that meds don’t fully stabilize my cycling. I’ll never be the person who can say “nobody even knows I am bipolar”. In fact, I have to disclose my bipolar disorder to most of the people I work with, due to how it impacts my working hours.
I’ve tried every atypical antipsychotic approved for use in psychiatric patients in the United States except for clozapine (although that has been on the table) plus two typical antipsychotics, three anticonvulsant mood stabilizers, and many other drugs including benzodiazepines, antidepressants, hypnotics, lithium, and so on. I’ve taken the tour.
Currently, this is my regimen: olanzapine, risperidone, lithium, diazepam, and amphetamine salts. I continue to experience symptoms, even with all of that on board. So how do I live and continue to work? The answer is not one-size-fits-all, but for me there are a few key components.
1. Consistent sleep times
I try to go to sleep at the same time every night, and wake up at the same time every morning. Of course it doesn’t always work out that way, but I try. I also make sure not to schedule any meetings that are too late at night, and not to stay out too far into the evening, as both of these things will keep me awake. Each person’s natural bedtime is different, so I can’t tell you what time is correct for you, but for me it’s usually between 10 PM and 12 AM (a fairly wide window, I know).
2. Structure during the day
It helps me if I am able to maintain some regularity and consistency throughout my days. Since I’m an academic and my work schedule is flexible, this is something I largely have to impose on myself. When I’m really struggling I’ll schedule events in my Google Calendar, even for things I don’t “have” to do — recreational activities, like video games or watching anime. The point is to stay busy, but not too busy. Make sure to build in plenty of breaks. This also helps me get the things on my to-do list for work done efficiently.
3. Take meds religiously
This one doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation, but it’s an important point. Don’t stop taking your meds. At least for me, it always ends in hospitalization, and that’s a huge disruption to my life even though I’m quite used to it by now. Don’t get me wrong — sometimes hospitalization is necessary. However, it’s best to avoid it as much as possible, so that I can stay in contact with my friends and family.
4. Light and darkness
Research has shown that light/dark cycles have a dramatic impact on bipolar moods. I use a light box (or “sun lamp”) for a couple hours daily in the winter. You can buy a clinical strength sun lamp on Amazon (I am not affiliated, and do not gain anything from this) but be aware that the market is flooded with lamps that are not full clinical strength. The recommended protocol for bipolar disorder is to start at noon for 10 minutes, then add 10 minutes every day until you reach 1 hour. This is because the sun lamp does run some risk of triggering mania. At the same time, when you go to sleep (or ideally, when it’s naturally dark outside) there is an equivalent if not more important factor: darkness. Total darkness at night has been shown to dramatically stabilize patients who did not respond to conventional treatments.
5. Mindfulness and psychoeducation
The point of mindfulness in this context is to be able to recognize what mood state you’re in. Likewise, it helps me to be as educated as possible. I read tons of papers, but these are not super accessible to everyone; if you trust your psychiatrist, I recommend asking lots and lots of questions so that you can understand as much as possible. I also compiled a list of some of my favorite bipolar books. The insight into what you’re going through can save your life, even if it doesn’t change what you’re going through.