How Creativity Helps One Crafter Manage Her Bipolar Disorder
Heather Tobin is a creative soul whose energy is contagious. Over the years, she has used multiple media, from radio talk shows to colorful felt soaps, to manage symptoms of her bipolar disorder, brighten the worlds of others, and communicate a message of hope. Today she is an antiques auctioneer and crafter living in Kingston, New Hampshire, with her husband and four cats.
Tobin spoke with HealthCentral about her bipolar diagnosis, which treatments have worked best for her, the role of crafts in her recovery, and how she and her husband navigate through the rough patches of a bipolar marriage.
HealthCentral (HC): How did your life change as a result of your diagnosis?
Heather Tobin: I was first diagnosed properly with bipolar 2 at age 27, after being misdiagnosed for much of my life before that with major unipolar depressive disorder. I was not as forthcoming to psychiatrists and counselors about my hypomanic episodes. I only sought help when I was severely depressed.
Getting the right diagnosis raised my awareness of just how destructive and devastating the hypomania, as well as the depression, had been. The diagnosis was an “Aha” moment. It made sense! Before, I was so at the mercy of the highs and lows. The diagnosis was a helpful point of reference that I could now work from and seek the right treatments.
HC: You’ve tried everything, from transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), several medications, etc. Which treatment has worked best? What do you do today to manage your symptoms?
Tobin: Yes, I have tried everything - from TMS to ECT, dozens, and I mean dozens, of medications, the list goes on. For me, TMS coupled with a mood stabilizer has worked the best. ECT works well, too, but the anesthesia side effects have been too much for me. I’m also super sensitive and allergic to a lot of medications, both psychiatric and those prescribed for physical ailments.
It’s been tricky. I always tell people not to give up, it can take a while to tweak their treatment. I have an incredible counselor I see weekly. We use dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills as well as cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).
I also find abstaining from processed sugar critical to treating this illness and a healthy diet, in general, plus regular exercise and proper sleep. Stress is a massive trigger with my bipolar symptoms, so mindfulness techniques and relaxing are crucial.
HC: I know you design jewelry and make felted soaps. How have they helped you keep your sanity? Do you think that being bipolar gives you a sensitivity and creativity that lends itself to crafts?
Tobin: I design jewelry and make felted soaps literally for my sanity! It sounds funny, but it is completely true. Creating these things causes me to become mindful and enter a state of flow and focus. It is a state of pure joy, making things: the scent of the lavender soap I handcraft from scratch, the soft wool I use to make colorful felted designs. With jewelry design, I relish digging my hands into jars filled with gorgeous, smooth glass Venetian beads and semiprecious stones. Jewelry design is a real tactile delight, just like the felted soap-making.
I absolutely think that being bipolar gives me a sensitivity that lends itself to crafts. It’s the healthy upside of the disease. I feel perhaps with bipolar, I have a magnified sense of color, sensation, and design. I feel very deeply, and it comes through with my crafts. I also have a wacky, whimsical sense of humor and am an avid animal lover. There is such happiness in creating with my felted soaps images of all sorts of creatures. I feel like a kid again when I’m working on my little creations. It’s so much fun!
HC: You’ve written about your marriage before. What are some strategies that you and your husband use to make it through the tough times?
Tobin: My husband is a saint for putting up with me, especially during the hypomanic or depressive episodes. I am admittedly no picnic to be around when the symptoms of my bipolar illness surface, with ample fits of hypomanic agitation to the morose, semi-catatonic despair that comes with the depression.
Though no marriage is perfect, after 17 years together, he knows me very well. Communication is key during those tough times. So is giving each other space when it’s needed, and ample hugs when closeness is needed. It’s a balancing act. It’s also important that we both take utmost care of ourselves as individuals in order that we are at our optimum as a couple.
During especially tough times, there is nothing we love more than a beautiful walk in nature to destress and enjoying the beauty of the outdoors together. Simple thinks like this get us through. It’s those little acts of kindness and appreciation that make all of the difference.
HC: What advice would you have for the person newly diagnosed with bipolar disorder?
Tobin: As a newly diagnosed person with bipolar, know it is absolutely natural to feel afraid, overwhelmed, etc.! Creating a support system will help immensely. The support will come from not only your med docs and counselors, but peers who live with bipolar, your family, and friends. Do not be ashamed! You are not alone!
Also, it can take time to sort out exactly what treatments work best for you, be it medications, different types of therapy, or various techniques to help you balance your life. Ask for help when you need it! Reach out! Explore the myriad of resources available to you. Know that you are precious! You can find real gifts even in a diagnosis. If I can, you can, too!