When Covid-19 And Bipolar Recovery Collide With Unexpected Results

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I have spent the last five weeks in a psychiatric hospital for management of a Bipolar 1 Disorder episode.

I am no longer sick. But still fragile. Like an egg without its shell. I always reach a point on the return to wellness where I can get no better in the controlled bubble world of the hospital. A point where staying longer is of no benefit and can even become detrimental.

I ventured back out into the world at the end of last week. A world that hasn’t grown any softer in my absence. It is the same hustling harsh, bruising, breaking place it always has been, but perhaps more so. No one was fighting over toilet paper five weeks ago.

That said, after any admission for a Bipolar episode, jumping back into my life can feel like steel wool on newborn skin in the early days.

No one can tell by looking at me when I leave the hospital that I need rehab and resilience building before I am ok again. For me, on average that takes the same amount of time I was hospitalised for. So, in this case – another five weeks.

People tend to be congratulatory about me being well enough to come home. I don’t want to be a downer. I am grateful to be home. But just because I’m out of hospital it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s over. It can look like it is slinking away not to be seen again for a couple of years. But appearances can be deceiving.

Once, this illness spent a whole year of my life bouncing me in and out of hospital so often, I got dizzy. By the end of that year, in which most months had held a hospital admission for me, it had nearly killed me. So, that’s why I don’t think about exhaling as soon as I am home.

Today is my fourth day at home. I am still acclimatising. But I also recognise something unexpectedly positive borne of the last five weeks.

Being in hospital with Bipolar symptoms has prepared me for the Covid-19 headlines very nicely.

I get a sense from these headlines and the empty toilet paper and pasta aisles in the supermarket that many people are panicking, or at least are very worried by the uncertainty they are being force fed right now.

I am still in the mindset it took to get through my last five weeks. I lived that time (and do every time I go into hospital) in two-day increments. Why? because it is pointless to look or plan any further ahead. Neither I nor my psychiatrist could fortune tell what would happen. Five weeks of observing, tweaking medication or not, and then waiting another two days before assessing again.

To be clear, there is a difference between not taking something seriously, and choosing to engage only in what is in front of you. I take my Bipolar Disorder seriously, especially when it flares. But does that mean it would be helpful to spend my entire admission panicking that this is the time I become a permanent inpatient (they exist)?

Or should I break it into chunks the size of a couple of days and hit repeat, until at some unknown time in the future I am out the other side?

I’ve spent early admissions, years ago, engaging in the first option but have learnt that the way through with the least energy wasted is the second one.

In the same way, I take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously. But you won’t find me panic buying or worrying about whether or when it will end. Breaking this issue down into two-day increments feels helpful to me right now. Every two days (or sooner if the headlines change dramatically) I reassess the basics: Do I and my immediate family have enough food, water, medication and accommodation for the next two days? I am fortunate. So, far the answer has been yes.

Is there any point in trying to predict what might happen next month or even next week, and worrying about it?

None!

Because no one knows where we will be then. You can only act on the information you have at the time.  And if right now your basic needs are met and you are well, don’t buy more and more and more food or toilet paper (unless you are doing it for the vulnerable members of our population).

Breaking the overwhelm of a difficult situation with no known endpoint into smaller portions lessens the strain on our mental health and preserves our energy for more productive tasks.

And if we do it often enough that’s what will get us to the other side of this situation too.

 

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What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

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Interruption To Regular Programming

Update 27.2.2020

 

Update 27.2.2020

focus photography of sea waves
Photo by Emiliano Arano on Pexels.com

And so, we enter week four in hospital.

I emerged from the manic symptoms about a week ago. Pummelled into exhaustion by the high doses of Lithium and antipsychotic medication, and by the manic episode itself. Even in a hospital setting, taking all the right medication, and having good insight into the symptoms, manic episodes accrue a negative energy balance. It means when you eventually recover you are depleted, bone tired.

And this is where it gets tricky:

That exhaustion can mimic rebound depressive symptoms. One improves with rest and dialling back the antipsychotic medication. The other progresses beyond exhaustion to include other insidious signs that envelop you in a black, poisonous mist. Appetite drops off. The words ‘zero fucks left to give’ cast in a concrete block take up residence in your skull. Motivation evaporates and has to be faked until it decides to return in its own sweet time.

For a week now my psychiatrist and I have been watching and waiting. At first, we were both hopeful. We even (stupidly) dared to imagine I could be well enough to discharge by the end of this week. There is a reason we have a policy of never looking more than two to three days ahead when I’m in hospital. It’s because this illness has taught us – there is no point.

My psychiatrist entered my room mid morning today, looked at me back in bed and said

‘This isn’t good. You’re usually out walking.’

I turned towards him.

I don’t like it when his face arranges itself into concern within ten seconds of seeing me. It confirms what I already know. It also reassures me, because it is evidence of how well he knows me.

I have tilted towards depression, in the opposite direction to where I was headed when I was admitted.

This means we change our treatment plan in the opposite direction. We will cut back the Lithium and we will increase one of the two antidepressants I take. We will give it two or three days.

UNLESS…

My mood begins to shift back up before then, in which case I will inform the nurses and they will page my psychiatrist for further instructions. We don’t want to risk another ascent into mania. I’m not reaching for a YoYo or rollercoaster metaphor here, because they both imply the possibility of fun, which this decidedly is not!

The other switch over is the behavioural management of active Bipolar symptoms. For me it means telling myself to do the opposite to what my body wants me to do. So during a manic episode I should seek out quiet environments, be on my own, try not to overexercise. During a depressive episode it means kicking myself out of bed, engaging with others, and above all else exercise, exercise, and then exercise some more.

What a mind fuck.

While I continue to wait out my life in two to three day increments, I don’t feel inclined toward gratitude. But that’s largely depressive symptoms talking. So, I will do the opposite and stubbornly find something to be grateful for. Here we go:

I am grateful that at their current level my depressive symptoms are much easier to manage and tolerate than my manic symptoms were. The intense manic irritability has disappeared, and my concentration and short-term memory have mostly returned…for now.

 

You may also like to check out:

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What a mental illness can teach you about your mental health

 

 

My Father’s Heart Broke

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Showing me the world – Riad, Saudi Arabia 1975

I spent the first days of this week on the windblown roof of a sky scraper. It was so tall that the air felt thin, and my stomach was in free fall. The sky scraper was my heart. Most of the time my brain rules my heart. It translates emotion into logic, even in moments when emotion is appropriate. Seven days ago, I heard these words pertaining to my father:

‘Massive heart attack, nearly died in ambulance, going in for emergency triple bypass surgery now.’

Continue reading “My Father’s Heart Broke”

Progress

This lemon coconut cake is a marker. It is incredibly easy to make. You melt the butter and mix it with all the rest of the ingredients and bake it. The icing is also simple enough for a young child to make. And yet, four or five weeks ago – making this cake would have been impossible for me. I would have struggled to concentrate for long enough to read this beginner’s recipe. I’d have gone to the pantry or the fridge unable to remember what I was there to get – not just once, but again and again and again. I would have forgotten to add at least one of the ingredients, or to turn the oven on. And if I’d persisted with the process of trying to make this cake, I would have grown unbelievably frustrated with myself. If I had no experience with the signs that comprise my Bipolar 1 Disorder, I would have beaten myself to a pulp over my inability to perform a simple task. A task I could normally perform while on the phone, and with my eyes almost closed.

Continue reading “Progress”

The Rebuild

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Imagine your life is a board game. Part of how well you do is down to skill, part is down to luck.  Through sheer bad luck you land on a square that says: Mental illness – severe enough to need hospitalisation. You must exit the game immediately and sit out for an unknown length of time.

So, as of right now you have to stop work, and no you can’t give your boss any idea when you will be back. You have to move out of home and stop looking after your children, and no you can’t tell them when you will be home again. If you have a partner, any jobs you have been doing to run the household or look after the children will be handed to them. Too bad if they already have a full-time job. Everything in your life stops. For everyone else the game continues. Continue reading “The Rebuild”

Piloting A Jumbo Jet

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The manic symptoms have almost all subsided, probably due to pushing the Lithium dose up. And so far, no signs of Lithium toxicity. I am now waking up every 3-4 hours for more medication instead of every 1-2, which is a huge relief.

So where does that leave me? Fixed? All better? If only it were that simple.

In the first instance it leaves me absolutely exhausted. The energy credit card the manic symptoms racked up with insomnia, over-exercising, not being able to sit still or shut up, and thoughts firing for 23 hours a day, is demanding payment.

Continue reading “Piloting A Jumbo Jet”

Flying Into The Sun

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Manic exercising on an hour’s sleep

I didn’t have to wait long at all after I last posted for further symptoms to develop. Manic symptoms. Neurological symptoms. Some might argue with the ‘neurological’ description for a mental illness. But when you develop the short-term memory of an advanced stage Alzheimer’s patient, the attention span of a toddler, and irritability so pathological it hurts (feels like you’ve been coated in oil, rolled in sand, rubbed down with a towel, and then someone sprays lemon juice all over you.) virtually overnight, it feels neurological.

Continue reading “Flying Into The Sun”

Forced Free Diving

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The best way to beat a phobia of blood tests: Have lots of them.

I am in hospital, waiting for this monster to decide. Which way will it go? Mania and worse, or depression and worse. Yes, it gets worse than both of those. Mania can tip into psychosis. Depression can turn catatonic. At least it can for me. We are nowhere near either…yet. But it can happen within hours. I’ve learnt from bitter, repeated experience… and if it does, this will be the last you’ll hear from me for a while.

But right now, I am just caught in deep, deep water.

Continue reading “Forced Free Diving”