Mindfulness and Bipolar Disorder: Real Mental Illness Awareness

John McManamy Health Guide
  • Today kicks off Mental Illness Awareness Week. To be truthful, I’m no big fan of these campaigns. My friend and fellow blogger here on HealthCentral, MerelyMe, took the words right out of my mouth when she wrote in her post on mental illness awareness:

    People who have a mental illness or mood disorder are not just dealing with it for a single week or month. Many of us have been battling depression or other disorders for years. For those of us who suffer from depression it is like “Tell me something I don’t know.”

    Real awareness is an everyday affair, minute-by-minute, second-by-second. Those who have been following my posts here over the years know where this is going. We are talking about mindfulness, which is essentially the mind watching the mind. According to Jon Kabbat-Zinn in The Mindful Way Through Depression, mindfulness “is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.”

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    When applied to managing bipolar, we are talking about being able to spot our mood episodes as they begin - or even before they begin - while we are still in control of our brains, while we still have choices. Most of the time, the solution is fairly simple - a time-out, a break, some quiet moments, a good night’s sleep.

    For me, mindfulness is my ultimate mood stabilizer. Basically, I am cultivating a state of detached hyper-awareness that over time becomes nearly automatic and unobtrusive, like a software program running in the background. I go into this in a lot more detail in six articles I wrote for BipolarConnect several years ago, which you can find here as part of a collection on recovery

    What I want to talk about today is how I put mindfulness to practice, and I have an excellent example of that from two weeks ago:

    On this particular Saturday, I was up at 4 in the morning. As those of us with bipolar know, 4 in the morning equates to 11 at night. We are not morning people. But I had agreed to bring my didgeridoo to a drum circle that was scheduled to entertain ten thousand participants in San Diego’s annual Heart Walk. We had to be there at six for an event that kicked off at seven.

    The Heart Walk was no problem. I was on my game and had a great time. The crowd enjoyed us. Had I nothing else scheduled in the day, I could have gone straight home and crashed, and woken up in my own good time none the worse for wear. But I had to be somewhere else that afternoon, so the best I could manage was a brief catnap.

    It was to be a major didgeridoo day for me (try saying that real fast five times). I had committed myself to performing in a mental health talent show/fundraiser later that evening, and my presence was required for an afternoon run-though.

    So here was the situation:  End of day, over-stimulated, sleep-deprived, extreme fatigue setting in, mood disorder. Worst of all possible worlds.

    The evening was about to kick off. We were gathered in the front, nibbling on pastries, chit-chatting with people walking through the door. That was when I felt my brain disconnecting from me.

  • I had already planned to chill in a back room till I would go on, but now I realized I needed to cut the social chit-chat and take my chill break early. I politely excused myself and went to lie down. An hour or so later, I managed to drag myself together, but there was a discernible lag between “me” and the rest of me. And here it was - show time.

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    I was part of an ensemble of four, two of whom I had only met a few hours before. We would go on as The Combined NAMI San Diego/Impact Young Adults International Didgeridoo Orchestra. I would be leading the performance. The others would be picking up on my cues.

    The MC introduced us, we ran out to the stage, looking vibrant and energetic. I was the only one who noticed that someone had switched legs on me when I hadn’t been paying attention and that these new legs hadn’t been broken in.

    Careful, careful ...

    I introduced myself and our proud band. I explained to the audience the didgeridoo and the concept of Aboriginal Dreamtime, then asked them to sit back and close their eyes and imagine the vibrations of creation.

    So far, so good. I put the didgeridoo to my lips. I struggled to get my drone going ...

    Ooh boy.

    I caught myself. This is a didgeridoo, I reminded myself. Who is going to notice if I play a wrong note?

    For those who hate suspense, I held everything together and brought the performance to a successful close.

    So let’s recap:

    I had anticipated the worst and prepared for it. Earlier, I had picked up an early warning sign that my brain was beginning to fail. I took corrective action by immediately excusing myself and chilling out. I didn't act weird, I didn't embarrass myself, I didn't flip out.

    Later, on stage, I had the presence of mind to realize it would be counter-productive to fight against my didgeridoo. I didn’t panic, I didn’t over-think the situation. I committed myself to having a good time. Mission accomplished.

    I imagine most of you handle the challenges of daily living in fairly similar ways. You may not call it mindfulness, but now when someone raises the term you can say - yeh, I do that.

    Like I said: Mindfulness - real mental illness awareness.

Published On: October 02, 2011