“I can take care of myself.” As we enter into day 25 of the 30-Day Sustainable Domesticity Challenge, let’s pause. If you have bipolar disorder, you are sometimes depressed and sometimes (hypo)manic. During depressed times, you might feel like you are unworthy of care. You might not be able to take care of yourself because it feels like two elephants are sitting on your lap and rubbing grease into your hair while you watch infomercials. During (hypo)manic times, you might be so elated, fast-moving, and absorbed in a project that you forget about things like showers, food, and sleep.
Sure you’re a competent, smart, and worthy person with the intelligence and skills needed to take care of yourself. But you also have a mental disorder. Being aware of times when you are more likely to need help is crucial. And when you have an episode, it’s important to ask for and receive help with gratitude, dignity, and acceptance. You didn’t ask for bunk neurotransmitters, just like Johnny down the street didn’t ask to be rear-ended in the supermarket parking lot. So don’t judge yourself when you need help.
And also don’t forget: often you definitely can take care of yourself. You have a mental illness – you’re not weak or stupid or lazy.
I can totally take care of myself
Absolutely. When my treatment is working and my perspective is good and I’m not in the middle of an episode, I am good at taking showers, good at taking out the trash, good at showing up for appointments, good to other people, good at going to bed on time. I can make grocery lists and complete administrative tasks and show up as my best self for my students, friends, and family.
I know how to do the things.
And sometimes, when I have an episode, I even know what to do. I can go outside and rest on a blanket beneath a tree when I’m depressed. I can heat up some leftovers, call a funny friend to chat, listen to some soft music, and nurture myself through depression. If I’m not too, too, too, depressed. Which I sometimes am.
Sometimes all I have the energy to do when I’m depressed is to cancel all my appointments and watch episode after episode of T.V. in my pajamas, eating piles of macaroni and cheese and taking three naps in one day. And that’s PERFECTLY FINE. I know that I am resting. I know that I’m not pushing through when I am sick. I am feeding myself, giving myself a break, and not judging myself for needing some downtime.
And when I’m hypomanic, I know to refrain from releasing my irritability on my family, to forestall myself from deciding to create a homeschool curriculum in Portuguese for special needs children (and I have no experience with Portuguese or special needs children). I go to bed. I reboot. I make sure to take my as-needed medication for hypomanic episodes.
But sometimes I experience a particularly intense episode of hypomania. A new project seizes my interest and shakes me until I hold on and cling and obsess. I feel alive. New ideas fling themselves at me and I make amazing new connections. I build elaborate towers of design thought. I brainstorm. I launch. I start a new business in a day. I work on it for weeks, months. And then I crash.
And during my hypomanic episodes, I need help. Help from my friends and family. And help from a mental health professional.
Depression and (hypo)mania can be manageable most of the time. Sometimes they are so intense that you must absolutely reach out for help, or accept help if it’s kindly and respectfully offered.
Here are some things I can do to take care of myself
- Regularly create routines.
Every so often, I make a routine and follow it. For example, right now, in the morning I am following Maxim 2: Take a shower, take out a bag of waste, and put away my clean dishes. I also feed my guinea pigs, put on fresh clothes, drink coffee, take my medication, and eat breakfast.
I don’t do this spontaneously. I thumb tacked a list on my wall. I refer to it every morning. It’s my routine.
I know that my routine will evolve over time. My needs and priorities will change. I will realize that my routine is overwhelming sometimes and that I need to strip it back.
- Make sure to eat food.
I don’t function when I’m hangry.
- Be transparent about having a mental illness
If my family and friends don’t know that I have a mental illness, they don’t have good data. They can’t choose to help me. They won’t know what to make of my confusing behavior during episodes.
But how can I strike the balance between taking care of myself and asking for help?
Oh, I so hear you. Depression comes with it a guilt spiral. We can call ourselves lazy. Mooches. Drains on society. Unworthy, unhygienic, smelly losers. Oh man.
Of course these things aren’t TRUE, but they can feel true. And that, of course, may spring even MOAR depression on you. Oh, the suck.
You have a responsibility to take care of yourself. You have something to offer the world. The world will miss out on your gifts if you don’t keep yourself in good condition.
So, when you have the spoons, prioritize your self-care like mad. Put on that cliche old oxygen mask. Set boundaries. Respect your energy levels. Treat yourself as you would a toddler: feed yourself, bathe yourself, put yourself down for naps, keep a steady bedtime, and eat vegetables now and then.
And when you don’t have the will to muster, or when you notice that you’re trying to remodel your house in a single day by yourself, stop. Ask for help. Take care of yourself the best you can. Treat your episode as the massive priority it is without embarrassment. You can’t function well unless you do. And you can mitigate the damage an episode causes if you address it early, with compassion, and via means that have a good chance of being effective.
What about when people offer me help and I don’t want it?
Oh, I know right? There is that urge to bootstrap. After all, we know that we’re smart. We’ve survived having a major mental illness. We have achieved remarkable things. We’ve suffered through co-conditions, we’ve developed a ton of life skills, and we have come out with life wisdom galore.
Why should someone else have the temerity, the nerve, the insulting urge to help us? We are FINE.
But another perspective is that they care about us. Or that they’re nervous and need something to do with their hands. Or they were raised to wash the dishes of their hostess. Or that they’ve begun washing the dishes out of habit and they’re comfortable in your home.
You don’t want to hurt their feelings by yelling at them or shoving them away from helping you.
You have a choice. You can choose to accept the help in good faith. Or, you can set a boundary and ask them politely, firmly to stop. It is your kitchen. It is your mental illness. You are an adult.
It’s important to accept help only from the right people
Sometimes people offer help for the wrong reasons. Maybe they want to dominate you and assert their place above you in the social hierarchy. Sometimes they want to control you. Sometimes they want to express their anger and frustration at you by aggressively “helping” by decluttering your garage or buying you “acceptable” clothes or giving you loud “pep talks.”
None of this is okay. Those people are being jerks. They are trying to shame you. They can just go away until they get their attitude adjusted or they move to New Zealand.
Sorry New Zealand. You’re just very far away from where I live.
But if a friend treats you with dignity, is listening well and deeply, and offers help with sensitivity, truly consider accepting their help. You will likely be able to help THEM later. And sometimes accepting help can lead to surprising, fulfilling memories and increase the bond between two people. Receiving help can be a tremendous, healing act of grace. It can help you rebuilt, foster resilience, and become wiser and more loving.
Know the difference between the two types of help. And know when you need help.
Distinguishing among independence, dependence, and interdependence
If you can’t function at all without someone’s continual support, you are dependent on them.
Dependence and independence both have big problems. We’ll address that in a later post.
For now, just know that interdependence – mutually supporting each other – is the goal. Shoot for that when you can.
Just because you let someone help you once does not mean that you have to accept their help in the future. Just because you tell someone your inner most thoughts once does not mean that they have the automatic right to hear your most intimate feelings in the future. Just because you allow someone to wash your dishes doesn’t mean that you have to cave and let them fold your underwear. Even when you accept help, you have the right to set boundaries.
And this is a huge priority.
Help does not equal obligation on your part. Help means that the other person offered help and you accepted. It does not mean that they can elbow in and take charge of your life. They’re not your new mother. They have committed an act of friendship. Thank them sincerely and keep control of yourself. Don’t hand it over.
You deserve a spacious schedule. You deserve time to yourself. You deserve to be able to run errands and choose your job and dress yourself. No one can take that from you. You have a mental illness. You are not deficient in any way.
Receiving help gracefully and with dignity
And when someone helps you, and you accept their help, and they’re being sensitive and thoughtful and meeting you where you are and treating you with dignity – treat them well. Thank them. Tell them what you could really need help with. Let them know when you would like them to start helping you and when you would like them to stop helping you. Try not to spaz out, yell at them, boss them around. But do give them the gift of clear communication and a sense of direction.
Taking care of myself sometimes includes asking for and accepting help
As I said before, you have an obligation to take care of yourself because your gifts are important to our world community. You will do the best you can. And when you fall headlong into a mire of depression-based quicksand, you can call for a rope. When (hypo)mania lifts you above the clouds and threatens to dash you on the rocks, ask for a few folks to hold a blanket beneath you so they can catch you. Maybe they can fly over a helicopter with a handy ladder so you can climb to safety.
Stay safe my friends. Take care of yourselves. And ask for help when you need it.
What’s you’re experience with asking for or accepting help? Did it ever backfire? Was it ever just what you needed? Comment below and share your story.
Here’s your homework
The next time you suspect that help would be… well… helpful, reach out to someone kind and ask for help. See what happens. Assess help for it’s usefulness. And make sure to thank the person who helps you.