Write your way through it

journal giveaway bipolar mom life

I’ve been writing in journals ever since I was a tween. Back then they were sparkly little diaries with the lock and key protecting all the secrets inside. I’d write about life and love, about boys I thought I’d fallen in love with but who didn’t actually love me back. Or about arguments with my parents or my friends, trying to justify my side of the story.

I turned to journaling whenever the moment struck me, throughout high school and college, and even once I had graduated and started out on my own in the world. My husband and I traveled Europe for a week together after I completed a 2-week study abroad in Antwerp, Belgium, and I still love flipping back through that play-by-play notebook of our trip. I can almost transport myself back by reading those words.

I never realized how many ways the simple habit of putting pen to paper could actually help someone until it helped me.

When mania threatened to ruin my life with two psych hospitalizations in a month’s time, everyone close to me was sent spinning. Psychiatrists, therapists, prescriptions. It was all so new to us.

My husband may have been scared, but he wasn’t afraid to stand by my side through the hurricane of what was now our life. My parents, although heartbroken for the pain and uncertainty I was facing, were committed to helping me get well.

In the midst of doctor’s visits and the flurry of medications I was put on, I felt out of control. Too much was going on. There were all these symptoms and I didn’t know how to describe them. I couldn’t pronounce the meds I was on. My mind felt weird.

A week after my second hospitalization, my dad came up with a brilliant idea. He bought me a plain pocket notebook at CVS, and told me to write down the same three things each day: what meds/doses I took each day, any side effects I was experiencing, and how I was feeling. That way, we could work with my doctor to figure out what was going on in my brain and how to get me well.

I kept those journals for four years straight, barely ever missing a day. Some days I’d only write those things my dad said to write, other days I’d write pages and pages. I used it to track my progress. It helped me to recognize my triggers. I learned a great deal about myself through taking the time to put my thoughts down on paper.

It was the start of my writing my way through my mental illness. Which has led me to where I am today. I haven’t kept a journal since 2010, since that’s when I starting to transition my words online to this blog. But I want to return to it because I recognize how I love looking back at the past, to see how it led to the present.

Being diagnosed with a mental illness can be absolutely terrifying in the beginning. But getting through it doesn’t have to feel impossible. It takes time to get to the bottom of things, to figure out what meds work, to start feeling like your old self again once you do find one that works. Trust me, I know.

Also trust the process.

I saw these little journals in a drugstore this week. They reminded me so much of the small Vera Bradley notebooks I transitioned to after I filled up the one my dad bought for me. I bought two, one for me, and one to give away to one of my readers who could use it.

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3 tips for navigating pregnancy despite a bipolar diagnosis

Navigating Pregnancy Despite Bipolar Diagnosis

3 days before my daughter arrived in 2010.

My blog turns four years old this August. Having come to this little corner of the internet for nearly four years, writing my story of how I’ve navigated pregnancy and beyond despite living with the diagnosis of Bipolar disorder type 1, I tend to get quite a few questions from my readers. The most common ones come from young women who like me, wondered how they would be able to manage their illness and still be able to care for a newborn. A newborn who would grow into a baby with many demands.

I certainly am not perfect, nor am I an obstetrician or psychiatrist. I’m just a regular mom who, after having found out she had bipolar disorder, wasn’t going to let it get in the way of her dreams of having a family. These are my reflections, looking back on my experiences of having my two children (now 6 and 4). This is what happened to me, and how I’d do things differently if I were to have a third child. (We are 99% sure we won’t be having another one, in case you’re wondering.)

Accepting the diagnosis

Bipolar disorder is a challenging, life-long illness. The first year or two of learning to live with the diagnosis can be devastating and all-consuming. When I was first diagnosed, ten years ago at the age of 26, I had to resign from a career that I excelled at in order to focus on getting well. It took an entire year for me to work with my doctors and therapist to find a medicine and figure out a treatment plan that worked for me. I was able to overcome severe depression and crippling anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts thanks to the vigilance and support of my husband and parents. Once I found stability, and was able to maintain it for a year, my thoughts of starting our family began to take root.

Although I was able to taper off my medicine (under the close supervision of my psychiatrist), and I had a normal, healthy pregnancy, we were not prepared for what would happen next. Not only was having our first child an incredible shock to my system (I had an emergency C-section after 17 hours of laboring – no pushing, but since the baby wasn’t tolerating contractions and I wasn’t dilating, my OB made the call for surgery), but nothing can prepare you for how you’ll react to motherhood. On top of all this, I had put an enormous amount of pressure on myself to breastfeed. I thought, from all the pregnancy literature I had been devouring before the baby arrived, that breastfeeding was the only acceptable means of feeding the baby.

I was wrong and I learned the hard way.

Even though I knew that lack of sleep was a trigger for me, I didn’t realize how little I’d be sleeping once the baby arrived, especially due to trying to nurse. I barely slept at all in the hospital since the nurses checked my vitals every hour because of the surgery. Exhausted doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. But I couldn’t take my eyes off our son. We had created a baby. I was in awe of this little person I was holding. It didn’t seem real. Maybe partly because I was headed into the throws of mania even before we left the hospital.

1. Have a plan for once you get the baby home

With our first baby, I did everything and wouldn’t let anyone help. I was trying to succeed at breastfeeding and if someone gave the baby a bottle, he might not go back to nursing. Which meant that I was always the one getting up in the middle of the night to feed and change the baby.

With our second, we had a plan. For the first two weeks, someone would be available to take the middle-of-the-night feedings. My parents stayed with us for a week, so they took turns during the first week home, and then my husband took over during weeks two to four. This allowed me to get a solid stretch of 6-8 hours of sleep a night, critical to my recovery from the birth (a repeat c-section) and to prevent mania from creeping in. I learned to protect my sleep, and because of this, was able to stay mentally healthy once we brought our daughter home.

2. Don’t feel guilty for formula-feeding

I breastfeed our son for the first four weeks of his life, and then ended up in the psych ward for a week because of postpartum psychosis. Having to stop breastfeeding was devastating, but on the way home from the psychiatric ward of the hospital I realized that being healthy for him was more important than anything. If I didn’t have my health, I wouldn’t be able to be present as a mother, no matter how I wanted to feed him.

For our daughter’s arrival, we planned ahead of time that I would not breastfeed. Instead, I got excited about picking out bottles and supplies to formula-feed her, and my postpartum time with her was so much more enjoyable since I didn’t have the extra pressure to make nursing work. I ended up having antenatal psychosis (mania during pregnancy) during the first trimester of my second pregnancy, so I had to take antipsychotics and a mood stabilizer during the pregnancy. Nursing was never an option and I accepted this reality.

3. When a medication works for your condition, weighing the benefits and risks is critical

Having experienced postpartum psychosis after the birth of my first child, we were better prepared, or so we thought, to navigate a second pregnancy successfully. We knew that I needed to protect my sleep, and I planned from the moment we decided we wanted to have another baby that I would formula-feed since I’d be returning to my medicine after the first trimester. Going off my medicine for the first trimester was my mistake.

From my research, I knew there was a risk to the fetus of a heart defect during the first trimester of pregnancy when women took the medication I was taking during pregnancy. So I made a plan with my psychiatrist and the high-risk OB-GYN that I’d taper off the medicine when I found out I was pregnant, and I’d return to it once I cleared the first trimester. Only I hadn’t weighed the benefits of staying on the med against the risk I was taking.

I was closely monitoring things, testing for pregnancy on the earliest day possible following my fertile period. When I finally got a positive test, my excitement over finally being pregnant (we tried for about nine months) took ahold of my body and would not let go. My mind raced with potential baby names as I’d lie awake in bed not able to fall asleep.

Would it be a girl? How would our toddler react when he met his new sibling? What would it be like to be a Mommy to two little ones?

Within a week of very little sleep I was manic and it was quickly leading to psychosis. Having witnessed my manic symptoms before, my husband quickly took action and had me hospitalized. I was five weeks pregnant with our daughter.

When I returned home, medication was required to keep me stable. I went back to the high-risk OB-GYN for a post-hospitalization check-up and was scheduled for regular checkups and monitoring of the baby throughout the pregnancy. Luckily, she was born completely healthy and I had a wonderful postpartum period with no complications. I learned that my risk for psychosis due to the lack of medication in my system was far greater than the risk to my baby in utero.

*****

If you’re considering pregnancy or are currently pregnant, I urge you to work closely with your psychiatrist and OB-GYN to monitor and manage your bipolar symptoms during pregnancy and in the postpartum period. There are great resources available online to help you as you navigate pregnancy: Postpartum Progress, Postpartum Support International, and if you’re in the Washington, DC metro area (Virginia, Maryland and the District), the newly developed DMV-PMH Resource Guide maintains a comprehensive and current regional directory of specialized mental health providers, support groups, advocacy organizations, and other relevant clinical resources pertaining to perinatal mental health.

There are resources available. Please don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can be a mom despite bipolar.

Deciding to Live Life

Deciding to Live Life Bipolar Mom Life

From: *******************
Subject: Advice/getting my life backMessage Body:

Hi Jenn,

*sorry if this is long. I just wanted to give you the full picture.

I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago, and I’m so glad I found it. Your story is so inspiring, and it gives me hope that one day I will be able to live a full life with this illness.

I was also diagnosed with bipolar I in 2006, along with anxiety disorder and attention deficit disorder. It took a long time of going on and off of meds, dealing with horrible life-threatening side effects, swinging frantically from mania to depression, having panic attacks, wrecking my credit and drowning in debt, etc., until I was able to get ssdi in 2012. I haven’t had a job since.

I was lucky enough to meet a great supportive man, who is now my husband, and we have a 16 month-old daughter. Motherhood has definitely had its challenges, but I’m thankful every single day for my family. Then comes the guilt.

I constantly feel like a burden because I don’t work. My husband and I have discussed the possibility of me going back to work, but each time I think about the stress of commuting, the stress of working (which always throws me into cycling), affording daycare (I would have to make at least $50k/year to make the cost of working worth it), I get so panicked and discouraged.

I feel helpless. I feel hopeless. I feel alone and isolated. I feel worthless. I don’t want to sound self-pitying, but it makes me feel that way. We’re barely making ends meet, but we’re stuck in the middle-class trap of making too much money to qualify for any assistance, but not enough to live comfortably. I don’t know if I should file bankruptcy on my own, or if doing so will negatively impact my husband, but I feel like I need a fresh start financially. I want to make life better for my family, and have a stable quality of life for our daughter. She deserves better. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to stop struggling every day without sacrificing my sanity.

Thanks for reading. I appreciate any advice you can give me.

Sincerely,

Hanging in there

 

Dear Hanging in there,

I’m so glad you found me, and thank you so much for taking the time to write to me.

First off, I want you to know that you can and you will live a full and rewarding life despite this illness. It’s possible; I am living proof. I can tell from your email that you are determined, you are strong, and that you have the fight in you to get well and thrive. How can I tell this? Because you’ve already fought your way through a triple-diagnosis, a myriad of meds and life-threatening side effects, panic attacks (which i know from experience can beat a person to the ground, pinning you down until you cannot breathe), and the roller coaster of our illness which led to debt and you’re still here.

You’re here and you’re reaching out. You are more than your illness and you know this.

Your letter means a great deal to me because I’ve been in your shoes. I want you to know that you’re not alone. I remember having the same exact feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, the despair I can hear within your words – I felt it, too. When we got pregnant with our son (our first child), I had a good corporate job. We bought our first house and everything was great. But then I lost my job due to the economy. I was scared. Who was going to hire me at five months pregnant? I ended up finding a part-time job that paid well enough that we could handle our bills. But after my maternity leave and soon after I had returned to work, I was laid off, again due to the economy. I ended up taking unemployment for over a year while I tried to find something else.

But I found that I really enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom. I ran our household and even though I wasn’t bringing home a paycheck, my contributions to our family were invaluable. So we cut as many of our expenses as we could, and lived frugally. We dipped into our savings account when we needed to. We asked for help from family when we needed to. And we got by.

Then I was hospitalized at 5 weeks pregnant with our daughter. The same fears came flooding back. Will I ever be able to work again? How am I going to recover from this monster of an illness? How am I going to mother TWO kids, let alone one, when I can’t take care of myself? I felt like such a burden to my family.

But here’s how I got through it. I took things one day at a time. I made it through the recovery phase after I got out of the hospital, I made it through the rest of my pregnancy, I gave birth to a healthy baby girl. I learned how to be a mom to a newborn and a toddler. I ended up working part-time but quit because I was scared I was going to miss out on my baby girl’s milestones. But also because I felt I was being called to be a writer even though the pay was next to nothing.

Which led me to where I am right now. Leading a non-profit organization which is changing lives by sharing personal stories of living with mental illness. We’re making a difference through our work which is completely, 100% volunteer. I do not earn a salary. I still do not bring home a paycheck.

But I feel more fulfilled than ever before. I’m content with the fact that every decision I’ve made has led me to today. I’m willing to continue to live on a tight budget to follow my dream of becoming a published author someday, of building my non-profit into a thriving, well-known organization with programs that have a national reach. And hopefully a small salary will follow.

What I try to do when I think about doing something really scary, is imagine it as a new chapter in my life. Our lives are made up of so many chapters: the elementary school years, the middle school and high school years (UGH), the college years, that first job, changing jobs, meeting and falling in love with a partner, having kids, etc. I remember each time I set out to find a new job and the nervous energy that began those particular chapters in my life. I turned my nerves and insecurities into excitement for what could lie ahead.

If we don’t take risks in life, we’re not fully living. Learning to push our fears aside, trusting the little voice inside that is reminding us all that we have to offer the world, however hard this may be, we owe it to ourselves to stretch and grow.

I know these two things to be true:

1 – Our future is uncertain, for life twists and bends and takes us to places we never imagined we’d experience.

2 – We can write down our dreams and decide to go after them with our whole hearts, or we can sit back and watch our life pass us by.

Follow your intuition the same way I followed the tug I felt to keep sharing my story through writing. If you do, I think you’ll come to a place of peace with whichever road you decide to pursue. The good news is, we can always change direction as we navigate this thing called life. That’s something my dad taught me: Life is one big series of decisions.

Sending you big hugs of support as you tackle this decision. And every decision that follows.

You’ve got this.

Jenn

Healthy Eating for a Healthy Brain

Healthy Eating Healthy Brain Bipolar Mom Life

This is the second post of a 12-week series on How I Learned to Manage My Bipolar Illness by Cultivating a Healthy Lifestyle.

My eating habits are not perfect, nor do I believe in the “perfect” diet. But the way I eat today is drastically different than the way I used to eat when I first got sick with bipolar illness and I think a lot of it has to do with diet. What we feed our bodies fuels our existence and if we’re sustaining ourselves on frozen Lean Cuisine meals (my typical lunch when I was working as a recruiter in DC before I got sick) and snacks that come in 100-calorie packs plus a diet soda every day, it’s no wonder our health takes a nosedive.

Finding a Balance

I think moderation is the key. Two years ago I jumped on the juicing bandwagon and then went to a strict vegetarian diet. I felt good, but I wasn’t monitoring my Vitamin D and protein intake and started developing hair loss and fatigue. So I switched to a flexitarian diet and that works for me. I eat vegetarian mainly, but occasionally eat fish or meat. Snacks for me include nuts and fruits like apples, grapes or tangerines. I also love KIND bars when we travel.

I stopped drinking milk because of food documentaries like Food Inc., Forks over Knives, Fresh, and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead which reveal the sad truths about America’s dairy industry. (If you haven’t watched them yet, I highly recommend them all, and most are available on Netflix.) Instead I drink Almond milk, although I do eat cheese. When we eat meat, I try to make sure it’s organic, grass fed and local if possible.

Since this summer, we’ve been transitioning to a mainly gluten-free diet. It started out as a way to help our son with his digestion issues, but I’ve begun to feel the benefits of it and believe it does contribute to a more healthful approach to eating.

I’m not saying a diet like mine is the only answer to staying mentally healthy, but I do believe that diet plays a big part in the overall puzzle of how we manage our mental health.

Curbing my Sugar Addiction

Like most Americans, I have a feisty sweet tooth. I used to crave candy and cookies, but have found that since eliminating as much processed foods and wheat as I can from my diet, the cravings have died down. When I grocery shop, I use the “shop the perimeter” tip of avoiding the aisles in the center of the store since that’s where most of the processed foods are located. Instead of packaged cookies like Oreos or Chips Ahoy, I bake Paleo chocolate chip cookies occasionally with my kids who don’t even notice the difference. We also mix up a batch of energy balls once a week – Pinterest has a gazillion recipes and is my favorite place to find a recipe based on the ingredients I have in my pantry.

I’ve also found that books like Brain Grain by David Perlmutter, MD, open my eyes to what food does to our brains and how easy it is to make adjustments to the food choices we make in order to regain wellness. It’s time we educate ourselves on the power of whole foods instead of processed foods and water instead of soft drinks or juice.

Cutting Back on Caffeine

I am a 2-cup-in-the-morning gal when it comes to coffee. I occasionally enjoy an afternoon cuppa but not after 2pm, so it doesn’t interfere with sleep. If I have more than 2-3 cups of coffee a day it tends to make me feel jittery and I end up regretting it.

Instead, I switch to caffeine-free tea, which I’ve been loving in these winter months. And ever since I started using essential oils, my water is no longer boring. I add a drop of Lemon, Lime, Grapefruit or Tangerine and I have a refreshing, natural hydrating beverage which I feel good about drinking.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a soda or a beer or a glass of wine occasionally, because I do. It’s knowing that I feel better when I pay attention to the hydration my body needs which makes the difference.

 

Do you feel like changes in your diet have an impact on your mental health? I’d love to hear your thoughts!