Thursday, July 30, 2015

Healthy Life, Healthy Mind

Those who know me, know that mental illness and I are intertwined. I've lived with bipolar disorder and general anxiety disorder for a long time. The mental illness is not who I am, but it does influence my personality and history. I would simply not be the person I am today if I had never experienced mental illness. Some influences have been sad and hard to bear, while others have given me wisdom and self knowledge.

Most people who know me would also know that I would love a family. And that mental illness, or, more specifically, the medications used to treat my mental illness, have affected my ability to have children thus far. I have had to realise that some medications use hormones to affect mood changes and stability, and those hormones interfere with fertility.

So, over the last half year I have, with the constant supervision of my mental health professionals, weaned myself off these medications in a bid to prepare myself for motherhood.

Don't get too excited; this is not a post about being pregnant! That joy hasn't happened yet. But, as I realised as I caught up with a friend, I have made enormous strides in being able to control both my mental and physical health recently. 

As I spoke to my friend, she asked me how my health was. I was able to reply confidently (and a little proudly!) that I now take only a minimal dose of a sedative every evening. My anti-psychotic, anti-depressants and mood stabilisers have all gone. And, not only that, but I have been stable and coping well on this minimal dose of medication for over two months. I am actually doing better than when I was fully medicated! 

This has spilt over into my physical health, too. I have more energy, I am sleeping less, but feeling more rested. I have even lost some weight! I am definitely feeling the benefits of living without my medication and their many side-effects. Of course, this makes me feel more confident and happy, and that has a great mental effect. So I feel good, which makes me better physically, which makes me better mentally... and the cycle is reinforced positively. It's great to see.

I'm not going to say things have been easy. I realised a few months into weaning myself off medication, that I was going to have to work really hard at being able to control my mood, now that I was abandoning my crutch of medication. No longer was I going to be able to pop a pill upon feeling down or anxious. And I had a realisation, one that might seem incredibly obvious, but that changed my attitude towards life a lot.

That realisation was that mental health did not just affect physical health, but that a physically healthy life and routine, would affect my mental health. In short, if I lead a physically healthy, balanced lifestyle, I would feel better mentally.

So, I took a long, hard look at my lifestyle, and started making changes. No more sleep-ins! I might want them because I was tired, but I needed a balanced routine, and I wanted to be able to sleep at a decent time in the evening. So, gradually, I started making myself wake up earlier. 

No more quick meals! I needed the best possible nutrition, so Graham and I budgeted more for food shopping so we could get quality food. And I made myself cook a proper meal each night. Even when I didn't want to make the effort, there was the option of quick, healthy food to make at home. So no more excuses, and no more fast food.

No more hanging around every day without doing anything! I realised I needed to schedule things to do every day. I began with one goal per day - even if it was just to do washing. I also gave myself the goal of leaving the house twice during the week to make sure I got my tasks done, and get me active.

No more sitting all day! Now I try to walk every day. The dogs are loving it. I am going to try to up my physical activity slowly. Now I might be walking, but who knows - maybe soon will be swimming, or the gym. In any case, the goal is to keep moving. 

And finally, no more isolation! I needed to get out, contact people, maintain friendships. So I made a goal of seeing friends twice a week. It's working pretty well, and I feel more connected. I am definitely having more fun spending time with friends, rather than staring at a computer screen all day. 

In with all of these physical changes, I have also been working on my mental health by learning strategies and coping mechanisms. I have been seeing my psychologist regularly, I have a psychiatrist and a case worker. I'm signing up for group therapy, and I'm practicing my techniques to combat and control wayward emotions. I have strategies in place for bad situations, and I have plans for all moods. I'm training mentally, like an athlete might train physically.

It's definitely working. I have these goals written down, and I periodically reread them to make sure I'm not falling back into old habits. This stuff might seem absolutely obvious, but to a person who has had trouble motivating herself to even have a shower in the past, much less get dressed and leave the house, these goals are huge. I am trying to let my positive experiences motivate me to maintain momentum, to build on each success by reaching for another goal.

I guess what feels best to me is that I now feel like I have more control over my life and my mental health than ever before. I used to think that giving up medication would leave me at the mercy of my treacherous emotions. But, because I have done the hard work, because I've learnt and pushed and experimented, I actually feel more empowered. This is a great feeling, and I'm going to ride it while it lasts.

This is not an anti medication post. I'm still taking some meds, for a start, and I'm fully prepared for the fact that one day I may need more medication again. And I certainly am not proposing that people should just quit their medication. Please don't do that! What I am saying is that the prospect of being unmedicated has prompted me to find other coping methods. I have had to learn how to live without the pills, and I am happy to find that there are ways you can affect your mood other than chemically. 

In the future, I may well go back to medications. New life experiences, new stresses and the reality of my bipolar cycle may all require more help than I can get through a healthy life and an informed mind. However, I will be better off for knowing more about how to deal with things without medication. I will be able to get better results out of that medication because I will be living well. And, in the meantime, I'm going to proudly say that I am stable because I am working hard at it.