“…she must be bipolar!”

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I can’t tell you how often the term, “bipolar” is used derogatorily and used incorrectly in casual conversation. I was in just such a conversation recently. Bipolar was used to describe a women whose behavior was consistently inconsiderate and borderline anti-social. I couldn’t help but wince as the people around me related their respective encounters with this person and their consensus that this person must be suffering from bipolar disorder.

I’ve had negative encounters with this said person and yes, she does exhibit a breathtakingly small amount of social etiquette. But is she suffering from bipolar disorder? Not sure. Nor can anyone be without a clinical diagnosis. But yet it doesn’t stop my colleagues, who are all well-educated and well-informed, from making their judgment. I am not certain if any of them can list the symptoms associated with bipolar disorder. So what makes them so certain about this woman?

I think that mental illness is not at all well understood by the general public. Unlike diabetes or cancer, mental illness often lacks physiological symptoms. The patient’s suffering is all in his/her mind. While it sometimes has physical manifestations such as irrational anger, or the inability to breathe, for the most part the suffering is confined to the walls that are our mind.

I don’t think Hollywood’s portrayal of mental illness does us any favors either. From Analyze This to the Sopranos to Monk. Mental illness is trivialized and stereotyped. The character Monk owes his super detective powers to his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Don Tony Soprano’s black-outs prevent him from carrying out the more violent aspects of his “job.”

So if you ever want to help educate the people around about mental illness or want to learn more about it for yourself here are a few sources that I have found useful:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Mental Health America

National Institute of Mental Health

If you’ve found ways to counter ignorant and stereotyped discussions of mental illness in your circle, feel free to share them here.


3 Steps to Coping with Stress

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Stress is pretty much a guarantee in our lives. It affects us in different ways and how it affects us is dependent on our ability to detect and manage causes of stress. Stress is our reaction to events. Here’s one definition of stress:

Stress is defined as “our reaction to events, environmental or internal, that tax or exceed our adaptive resources.”  Each of us has a certain number of coping resources, and when those coping resources are challenged or exceeded, stress usually results.  Stress reactions consist of both physical and emotional responses.

Sources of stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, social, financial, etc. The specific sources of stress or “stressors” are different for each of us. The reactions to stressors are also unique to each of us. But stress can a more elevated effect for those of us living with bipolar disorder. For me, insufficient or irregular sleep, over-scheduling, setting or agreeing to unrealistic deadlines and irregular meals are all stressors. My personal reaction to these range from anxiety attacks, to feelings of overwhelming hopelessness and depression in which I am physically unable to leave my house to pure, object-breaking rage. All of which are disruptive and counter-productive to quality of life. Here’s what I do to cope:

Step 1: Identify Stressors

What events and situations cause you stress? Are there individuals in your life who cause you to feel negatively about yourself? I recommend recording the situations, events and people who elicit a stress response in you over a 2-week period. Don’t forget to record thoughts that you may have that cause you to “stress out” such as “This must be perfect” or “I have to get it right the first time.”

Step 2: Develop Tactics to Eliminate or Reduce Exposure to Stressors

This part is particularly tricky even for the most determined. Some stressors are relatively easy to eliminate.

Getting on a Sleep Schedule. I’ve developed a routine that ensures I get my 8 hours of sleep every night. I am a living testament that this can be accomplished even among those of us with demanding schedules. I physically go to bed at the same time every night plus or minus 30 minutes.  I do occasionally slip and pull a “late-nighter” every once in a while to meet a client deadline but never more than 3 times a month. I also get out of bed at the same time every morning plus or minus 30 minutes. This routine ensures both a level of predictability and that I get ample rest every night.

Volumes have been written about good sleep hygiene and I’ll be exploring this issue in more details in posts to come.

Getting on a Meal Schedule. This one is a little more difficult to achieve because my days are very unpredictable. While getting on a schedule is still a work in progress, I have found it very helpful to pack my 2 snacks per day, every day so that I am never ravenous when I do eat my main meals. Also, I find that making time and physically sitting down for breakfast helps me be more likely to have lunch and dinner at regular intervals during the day. A helpful tip to eating lunch and dinner at about the same time everyday is actually scheduling it in your calendar and setting it to remind you when it’s time for those meals. Dinner continues to be an issue because I attend numerous after-hours networking events for business. Like I said, this one’s a work in progress. But then again, we’re not trying to be perfect, just good enough to avoid the adverse reactions.

Overcoming Unrealistic Deadlines and Other Demands. This one’s  a pretty touch nut to crack and I welcome your thoughts. I am pretty much a type A personality and I put a  high level of pressure on myself to perform and deliver. The fact that I’m a consultant that companies hire for expert help and advice doesn’t help matters. The most obvious way to eliminate this stressor is to change careers and pursue something that is less demanding. For some, this option works perfectly. Someone I know who used to be a corporate attorney switched careers and now reports happily  to work 5 days a week as a TSA agent at the airport.

But it doesn’t work for me. I love what I do. And what I do and more importantly, the outcome of my efforts is very much part of my emotional and mental make-up. So, I balance, sometimes  a little more precariously than my therapist would prefer, the demands of my profession and my condition. I have learned to say “no” more often and without feeling bad about myself and letting it affect my self-worth. Saying “no” isn’t easy at times but the consequences of over-promising and 18-hour days are far worse. My new goal in this never-ending quest to manage time is to find creative and palatable ways to say “no.” Would love to hear your favorite techniques if you suffer from this problem.

Step 3: Reinforce Good Habits

It’s hard to change behavior. But I’ve seen people in their 60s make a change when the consequences are dire enough, when there is ample moral and social support and when they recognize the need for change. Once you’ve gone through Steps 1 and 2, Step 3 is all about maintaining what works. Learn to recognize habits that take you off course from your new behaviors so that these have a chance of becoming good habits. Here are some reinforcing behaviors that I’ve developed to help me stay on the right path:

  • I no longer read in bed
  • We no longer have a television on our bedroom
  • I keep a food journal because it forces me to think about meal times
  • I pack my snacks every day
  • I grocery shop every weekend
  • I no longer take on clients who behave unreasonably during the “sales cycle” or initial consultation
  • When estimating the amount of time  I need to complete a task, I make my approximation and add 25% to the number of hours before returning to the client with a project time line
  • I journal about the positive effects of my new habits

These are just my coping behaviors, what are some of yours?

SXSWi 2010 – A View from this Perch

I’ve been in Austin, TX these last few days attending SXW, the ultimate springbreak for geeks that runs from March 12 – 16. This is my first year and there have been moments during these few days where I thought I was going to pass out from the anxiety that only comes with having to interact with hundreds of others in a small enclosed room. I think there were others without any mood disorders who probably felt the same.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, SXSW is a two-week festival featuring interactive, music and film portions. I have chosen to attend the interactive portion to learn about what’s new in the digital and social media world. So far the conference content has been spotty with a broad spectrum of quality in terms of speakers and panelists.   The most challenging aspects of the conference so far has been the relentless pace of the sessions, the long distances that one has to walk to get from one session to the next and the constant crush of people at the conference. The biggest issue, though is the need to attend the obligatory slate of parties that take place every night.

SXSW, as I’m learning is not only about the content, it’s also about meeting people and the need to be at the right place and meet the right people.  This puts many under a tremendous amount of pressure. For me, it’s a strain on my sense of mental balance.

Since sleep is a vital part of keeping myself well, I’ve had to come up with ever creative excuses to leave the party each night early without seeming lame. I can’t help but wonder, “Wouldn’t it be cool if the conference organizers could create a parallel conference with a more forgiving schedule?”

What have your experiences been like at events and conferences? Do you avoid them? Or have you developed coping mechanisms that help you get the best out of the experience?

A Journey Begun with a Bipolar Lens

This blog is all about my journey through life as a person with bipolar disorder. This disorder affects 5.7 million American adults, or about 2.6 percent of the U.S. population. A subset of mood disorders, bipolar disorder or manic-depressive illness can exhibit symptoms that include intense and unusual shifts in mood, energy and activity levels. These shifts can affect the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks and are generally severe. The symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But it is a disease that can be treated and people diagnosed with bipolar disorder can lead productive lives.

While this blog is not meant to be an exhaustive education on the condition, I hope that you will gain a better understanding of the challenges those of us tasked with managing our condition face daily.  And through that understanding, I hope you will develop an appreciation for the disease and hence help to lessen the stigma surrounding it and most other mental illnesses.