Recovery starts with knowledge. Knowledge involves knowing thyself. Knowing thyself is a lifelong quest that demands taking a rigorous inventory of all and sundry that makes us tick (even when we tick erratically).
Who am I? I could only think, following my diagnosis. What now?
My first effort in knowing thyself involved talking to other bipolar patients, and the easiest place to find them was on the Internet. Very quickly, they informed me that my diagnosis was not the end of the world, and that “normal” was a term that only applied to settings on washing machines and other large appliances.
Months later, I summoned up the courage to attend a support group. Some of the people there were doing well. Others were struggling. All of them were individuals I could have run into in a Starbucks. If there was no such thing as normal, there was no crazy, either. These were people I could talk to, relate to, who just happened to have an illness in common with me. The more I talked and listened, the easier it was for me to accept my illness as something I could live with. I need not be defined by my illness, I learned. Yet my illness was a part of me. .
At the same time, I was acquiring book knowledge. Again, the internet was my first stop, then the library and book stores. Then I delved deeper. The book knowledge equated to a bipolar owner’s manual. The more I read, the less power my illness had over me.
Soon, I discovered that regardless of whether it was patients I was listening to or expert authors I was reading, the same themes kept popping up:
A scientific paper might focus on how depression and anxiety and mania share some of the same biological pathways as the stress response. Meanwhile, patients would discuss ways they managed their stress in order to avoid triggering a mood episode.
The DSM-IV – the diagnostic bible published by the American Psychiatric Association – would list sleep disturbance as a symptom of both depression and mania. The patients talked about how they established strict sleep routines as a key to keeping their mood cycles under control.