For Mental Health Awareness Month, I reached out to the daughter of a woman who helped me when my daughter Sarah’s bipolar diagnosis gobsmacked me. Renee Unterseher’s calm assurance that things would get better, that I didn’t journey alone as I traveled with my daughter, and her willingness to share her daughter’s story made me braver than I felt.
Kandyce, Renee’s daughter, shares some of her story and what she’s learned about the importance of physical self-care for someone with a bipolar disorder diagnosis.
A Bipolar Diagnosis: My Story
The little I remember from that night were the questions, “Do you think the radio is speaking to you?”
“When you watch a TV show, do you think you are one of the characters?”
There were a lot more questions like this and I knew I couldn’t lie. Tearfully, I answered, “Yes.” Over and over, the answer was yes.
After the questions were through, there was a pause and the psychiatrist said, “You are experiencing mania and psychosis, you have bipolar 1 disorder.”
There it was, my diagnosis: Bipolar disorder. I sobbed. The cocktail of medication the doctor prescribed would have me back to a shaky reality within the week.
Three months earlier, in January of 2010, I had received a Dexamethasone steroid shot in my cervical spine for pain caused by a herniation in my neck at the c4-c5 level. Unbeknownst to me, three percent of patients who receive this type of injection and have a genetic disposition for mental illness will be catapulted into their new reality. For me, the mental illness was bipolar disorder.
Two-thousand ten was a difficult year. For those of you who are knowledgeable about mania and psychosis, you know that a depressive episode always follows.
I slept 16 to 18 hours or more each day/night, my body a magnet to the mattress. Pounds poured on. I craved darkness and food. Days slogged by; I was anchored to the house afraid of my own shadow. I passed the hours by anxiously walking circles around our apartment or caving to the crave of darkness or mindlessly eating and watching sitcoms. Release came when I slipped into sleep and forgot it all had happened. I pondered and began to plan how nice it would be to go to sleep forever.
Physical Self-care Promotes Good Mental Health
So, why am I still here? And how did I manage to get back to a stable place? Let me give you the short list –
- A God who loves me and has provided the things listed below
- A support system
in the form of
- Physical exercise
- Emotional care (i.e. therapy)
- Education about my illness
Above I’ve listed the most prominent things I can think of that saved my life. I am sure there are many more that aren’t coming to the forefront of my mind, but these were crucial.
Nine years later, looking back, I can see that physical self-care has been one of the most important components for my overall health.
Here are some tips, quotes, observations, and ideas for someone who has been diagnosed, or for a person who loves and cares for someone with bipolar disorder:
MENTAL ILLNESS IS NOT A CHOICE, BUT RECOVERY IS – EXERCISE!
If you make the choice to recover (which is my prayer), it is an everyday battle. That battle is made easier with weapons and tools. Physical exercise is one of the best tools in my tool belt.
I don’t think I need to go into detail about how endorphins work. But, did you know when people get regular cardio exercise it can reduce anxiety up to 80% of the time? I think most of us know, exercise is good for not only our body, but for our mind.
Find an exercise that works for you, download a fun playlist, find a workout buddy, listen to your favorite podcast… make it work.We don't choose to have mental health issues, but recovery IS a choice! #4Mind4Body #mentalhealthmonth #bipolar #artist Click To Tweet
IF YOU TELL YOURSELF YOU’RE GOING TO DO IT, JUST DO IT!
Rachel Hollis author of Girl Wash Your Face says, “I know that blowing off a workout, a date, an afternoon to organize your closet, or some previous commitment to yourself doesn’t seem like a big deal—but it is. It’s a really big deal. Our words have power, but our actions shape our lives.”
Did you get that last part? Actions shape our lives. She goes on to say that we wouldn’t be friends with someone that was always flaky and we could never count on to follow through, so why then are we like that with ourselves?
We MUST treat ourselves like we would treat someone we love, follow through with ACTION! As the NIKE slogan says, “JUST DO IT.”
ROUTINE, ROUTINE, ROUTINE
Do the best to establish a healthy routine. Set a go-to-sleep time and a wake-up time. Create rituals around things that soothe you to go to sleep and certain morning time rituals that will wake you (like cardio exercise).
Routine has helped me tremendously. However, I find that it has been the hardest for me to master. It is a continuous struggle. Every day is a new opportunity to start over, don’t get down on yourself, just keep recovering.
WHAT IF I HAVE INJURIES AND SIMPLY CAN’T EXERCISE?
In the rare case that you cannot in any way shape or form get your heart rate up and sweat, I suggest a daily practice of keeping a gratitude list. I went through a really bad lower back episode where I could barely walk. This caused a major disruption in my ability to get cardio exercise.
My solution? Gratitude. This can help brain function and cause shifts in the way we think. Make sure you don’t just make a blanket gratitude like, “my support system.” But rather list a specific person in your support system and something that they do to help you through rough times. Be specific about your gratitude list. It’s not a cure all, but it helps the brain when you simply can’t sweat.
The other tool in my belt that I used when I couldn’t do cardio was hydrotherapy. Hot and cold water treatments. If you don’t have access to a facility with soaking tubs or a sauna room and cooling room, you can simply do this in the shower. This is another way to sweat and activate the brain.
SPEAKING OF SWEAT… RELEASE THOSE TOXINS!
Drink plenty of water to flush the system. Eat foods that are healthy for you and your brain function. If you’re having trouble understanding nutrition, see someone who is knowledgeable on the subject and create a (here’s the word again) ROUTINE!
THIS SOUNDS OVERWHELMING WHERE DO I START?
If you are the one with the diagnosis, I would suggest not trying to do ALL THE THINGS. Remember that action, whether small or grand, is in the end action. One small step in the right direction is choosing to recover. What’s that quote by Martin Luther King Jr? If you can run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl??? Let me look it up!
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”Martin Luther King, Jr.
Final thoughts, don’t let this diagnosis become your identity. When it’s fresh and new it may feel like it is all consuming and it takes all your energy trying to cope and deal. Just choose to recover, please.
Loved ones? Don’t expect too much right out of the gate. Be patient and applaud small steps, small successes, big steps, and big successes. Don’t scold or shame, encourage. Be a cheerleader and find tools and support for yourself as well.
My hope is that you take a minute and meditate on the fact that you are valuable, loved by God, and your story matters. Don’t give up, choose recovery.
Kandyce King grew up in the rural eastern Washington town of College Place. She has always had a passion for art, and both her maternal and paternal grandmothers played a huge role in fostering Kandyce’s intrigue and growth in that field of study. One of her first memories of art was her paternal grandmother teaching her to sketch portraits while sitting in church. Her maternal grandmother took private art lessons alongside her and fostered her love of creating even more.
A flower connoisseur, nature enthusiast, graphic designer, lover of stories, and world traveler she is inspired by it all. She finds peace, balance, and love when making beautiful things, whether it be a painting, mixed media collage, nature design, a poem, a sketch, a flower arrangement, or any other imaginative outlet.
She attended and received her degree in Commercial Art from Walla Walla University in 2007 and later graduated with her Elementary Education degree in 2013.
Today, Kandyce resides with her husband and fur baby in Portland, OR. She creates daily and can’t imagine life without art!
To learn more about Kandyce and view additional art pieces, she invites you to visit her website, kandyceking.com. You can find her on Instagram (where she shares some of her gorgeous artwork) @kandyceking
Resources that have helped me:
The magazine BP HOPE
The Mighty (online community)
National Alliance on Mental Illness (online resource, in-person community)