Jamie talks about how he copes with bipolar depression over the festive season and beyond…
The festive season is a wonderful time of year – cosy nights, seeing family, and, of course, the presents but as much as these are things to look forward to, there are also potential problems and areas to be mindful of.
Being bipolar, I often struggle to get the balance right, but I have been more successful with this over the last couple of years. Like everything in my life that works for me, I know that I need to go in with a plan. I will try and break down my strategy for how to stay well during the holidays in the hope that it may help you, whatever mental health problems you may face.
COMING OUT OF COVID
Have you ever stopped exercising for a long time and tried to go out jogging? Pushed yourself to go as hard and as fast as you used to, only for one of your knees or both to suffer as a result? You are asking for your brain to do the same when you don’t ease yourself back into being social again. The pandemic has had an impact on all of us and even though things were more normal last year, it was not as ‘full-on’ as this year. We are all finding our footing again with many of us having spent more time on our own.
My advice is to take your time. In my own experience, going from 0-100 always ends up a bit of a mess for me. Life is happening again, people can meet with no restrictions, and nobody is happier about that than me, but I notice that interactions that used to be as smooth as butter for me are not anymore. We will all get where we need to be, but we need to do it at our own pace. Take your time, my friends.
There is a myth that I believed in for a long time that if you went out for a healthy walk in the sunshine during autumn/winter, that you would feel the benefits of vitamin D. That sadly is not the case, because the sun is not strong enough for the body to make vitamin D at this time of year. My mood will inevitably dip during the colder season, so I find taking a vitamin D supplement, combined with a walk, helps to counterbalance these effects.
Who doesn’t love those big tubs of Celebrations at Christmas? I know I do, but because sugar is a stimulant and eating too much of it can cause havoc with your moods, I do limit myself. When I do have a sugary treat, it is just that – a small treat, and I enjoy it. I remember a few years ago, I bought a strawberry flan. It was massive (for four people), and I consumed the whole thing in a short time, all by myself. I felt sick. I was 37 at the time, but I felt like a naughty schoolboy! I never bought that flan again. In fact, when I pass one in the shop, I cannot even look at it.
STAY HYDRATED/MEDICATION ROUTINE
This is a big one. I take lithium – a medication that dehydrates you. Coffee, tea and alcohol are all diuretics, so it is important to keep up your water drinking routine. Medication is another thing that is easy to forget if you are not at home and staying somewhere else. I have been guilty of this in the past so now I make a point to have my medication close to hand. I also put a glass of water beside my bed to remind me to take my meds if I get caught up in the festivities.
When I was younger, I used to try and be like everyone else – I tried to keep up with every festive plan, meet up and drink everything that was poured for me. I can tell you from personal experience that this was a disaster. There was a big part of me that wanted to be like everyone else so badly. Age has given me a bit of perspective and now I know there are things I simply cannot do, that perhaps others can. There are also things I can do that other people cannot. I have learned not to resent the cards I have been dealt in life but to try and fall in love with them. I think everyone who has ever existed at one point, or another has wanted to be someone else. But in truth, you have to get away from such thoughts – you are you. You are unique and wonderful so embrace that!
I am certainly not here to lecture anyone. I do drink, although admittedly much less than I used to. But mental health or no mental health issues, it is important to know what your limits are. If you suffer with any form of anxiety, you will probably know that you will suffer from not only a physical hangover the next day but also an emotional one. Your brain can recover amazingly well after a night of light drinking but if you repeat that each day over the festive season there is a good chance you will suffer. Alcohol only pauses the anxiety – the next day it will come back a little stronger.
I have experienced this first-hand, and I understand my limits better now. It’s not always easy and I am hoping to completely erase alcohol in the near future, but I have been better at reducing my intake of sugar, alcohol and caffeine. If you are going to drink, pace yourself, or if you don’t want to, don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.
SELF CARE AND ENJOYING THE MOMENTS
Whatever Christmas involves for you, try to remember to take a breath and enjoy things at your own pace. Your moods may not match the festive atmosphere around you and that is OK. Try not to over-think it – your mood will synch eventually and there will be things you can enjoy. If you feel it is all becoming too much, take an hour to yourself. This may be met with some confusion by others but eventually this will become the norm. I relish and enjoy a couple of weeks with my family but if I need a little time to myself, I take it. And my family understand.
When I was ten years old, my grandad bought me a plush Garfield for Christmas. I remember how much I loved it then and I still do now. It is sitting next to me as I write this. That is Christmas for me – it is the little things, nothing extravagant. Nothing is trivial. When times are hard, I give Garfield a wee squeeze. Childish as it is, that is the truth! And I am not ashamed of it. Life can be difficult: luck, health, money… everything can be up in the air. But what makes Christmas so magical is that we are all together, enjoying each other’s company and showing appreciation for the ones we love.
A couple of years ago, I stood at the window and watched the snow falling. I really took it in, and it made me feel happy and grateful. It is easy for me to get manic and carried away with buying presents, but if that results in me being stressed and worried about money on the big day, I have almost spoiled it for myself. A personalised gift for a loved one can be more special, more meaningful, and much less expensive.
It isn’t really Christmas that is magical, it’s life. As hard as it is at times, there are so many opportunities to show people you care. I think if you can keep just 10% of the wonder you felt as a child at Christmas, you are winning at life.
THE NEW YEAR
The New Year is a strange one for me. It almost feels a bit exhausting to think about after all the activity around the Christmas season. It is however full of potential problems but also potential opportunities. It’s a time when many of us reflect on the past year. Maybe you are not where you want to be in life or maybe the year you have had has been disappointing? If you are inclined to think along those lines, you are not alone. This time last year, I was more lost than I ever have been. I was very emotional, and everything felt impossible. But things are looking up for me, as impossible as it seemed at the time. You can do it – you can make next year better. I have no doubt about that!
Reflecting on a disappointing year can be emotional, but the promise of next year and all you can do to make changes is another golden opportunity. I always imagine a huge arrow in my mind when I am feeling down and picture it pointing forward. So long as I keep driving myself forward, good things seem to happen.
I have made such a big deal in my mind about New Year in the past and even went out when I had the flu. However, those days, I am incredibly happy to say, are long gone. You can see how anyone battling mental problems could struggle with New Year’s Eve. First comes Christmas, a very busy time with family and friends, and now, a mere week later, a huge night full of expectation. Now, again, I am certainly not here to lecture anyone, but I would rather wake up fresh on New Year’s Day and play a few fun games with some great people – that will do me nicely! It all comes down to what you want to do, not what others want you to do.
A few years ago, I overindulged throughout Christmas and New Year. I convinced myself I was the same as everyone else even though I knew, in the back of my mind, that I couldn’t keep up. But I ignored that inner voice. It was a disaster, and even if nobody else thought it was a big deal, it was to me. I don’t want friends and family to see me crying around the festive season. I know now I was asking too much of myself and I have never done that again. Your mind has an amazing ability to tell you when to slow down so don’t fight against it. I am so aware that just one extra drink can make me an emotional wreck. If you feel the same, please go easy on yourself. It really isn’t worth the two weeks or so of feeling bad about yourself after the fact.
NEW YEAR / NEW ME
Ah, we have all seen these cynical people who post that headline on social media as if the mere suggestion is ridiculous. And as much as I am not one to criticise anyone’s opinion, I find it a little strange that some people don’t see the opportunity that New Year presents. Take, for instance, a healthy new diet, or a plan to quit smoking. When would you usually do that? Monday? So, the first day or a week can be a good time for a change but the very first day of a whole new year is somehow laughable? Not for me. I see it as a great opportunity.
A New Year’s resolution is a fleeting promise to yourself and can easily be forgotten when work and life gets in the way. Suddenly, you are a quarter of the year in, and you promise yourself you will get back to said resolution next year. I am not trying to sound smug here – I can assure you; I did this every year for about 15 years! So, a few years ago, I bought a blackboard and wrote my resolutions on it. It stared me in the face every time I went into the kitchen. I didn’t get it all done straight away, but with that small list, staring me in the face every single day, it had a much bigger impact and helped me stay on track. Whatever your resolutions are (if you decide to make some) keep them realistic and achievable. Otherwise, we set ourselves up to fail.
I hope this festive season you catch some snow between your fingers, embrace your family and have a wonderful time.
Hidden Strength thanks Jamie for speaking his truth and sharing his inspirational story with us. We wish him a happy and healthy future, as well as the continued inner strength to manage his mental health and wellbeing. If you, or someone you know, is affected by depression, you can get more support here.