The Elephant on Your Head Part 3

“Achieving Your Goal, or The Care and Feeding of Your Elephant:  Part Three of How I Fight My Mood Disorder Every Day “

Two people examining an elephant.It’s pretty hard to live with an elephant, even one that doesn’t sit on your head. They’re really large. They’re moody. Ok, well, they have moods (http://www NULL.pbs NULL.org/wnet/nature/unforgettable/emotions NULL.html). In any case, they’re often inconvenient, impossible to ignore, they leave a mess, and boy can they eat! My mood disorder is on a similar scale, and I admit that I occasionally doubt my ability to manage it and still be able to have some semblance of a life.

It’s a sticky situation: if I don’t manage the disorder, I have no quality of life, but if I do manage my disorder, will it take all of my time and energy? Will I have anything left for my family, friends, pets, or hobbies? The short answer is, “Not at first.”

Having More Good Days Than Bad in A Million Easy Steps

There is no simple path to your goal. You can’t do one, three, or five specific tasks a day and achieve mental health. Mental health, similar to physical health, is a lifestyle. If you, like I did, lived for a long time undiagnosed, un-treated, or non-compliant,  getting healthy will be pretty difficult, feel strange, and take a long time. I found myself relieved at first, because feeling anything but bad was so new and wonderful to me. A relatively short time later, however, I began the old “why me?” pattern. Sure, I felt better, but it was so much work. I was on the way to stabilizing but wasn’t there yet, and I was both impatient and at the same time wondering if it was worth it. I have learned, however, that I need to maintain certain habits in order to keep my hard-won mental health.

I used to consider myself a “night owl.” Especially when I was younger, I seemed to be most alert between the hours of five and nine in the evening. Oddly enough, nowadays I feel the most anxious or irritable during those hours. As hard as it can be, I’ve got to maintain a strict sleep schedule. I have to get enough sleep at night and wake up in the daytime. Most humans are programmed to function best in the daytime (http://www NULL.nasw NULL.org/users/llamberg/larkowl NULL.htm). I have to grudgingly agree with nature. I also try to get a little sunlight in the morning, too. It helps reset my “internal clock” and let the ol’ bod know that it’s daytime and time to be active. I take my elephant for a walk around the block or sit with him on the porch when I have my coffee. Speaking of coffee:

I try to limit my intake of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine. Well, I don’t smoke anymore. But these “big three” are all psychoactive drugs. But don’t take my word for it (http://http://en NULL.wikipedia NULL.org/wiki/Psychoactive_drug). The Wiki knows all, right? That means that booze, smokes, and that cup of joe are going to affect your mood just like your Prozac. Possibly worse, because you don’t have “doses” of the former, unless your bartender measures your booze in that stupid jigger thing. Switch bars. Seriously, though, depending on the severity of your mood disorder, you probably want to cut back on this stuff or eliminate it altogether. Many is the time I’ve found myself sleepless and remembered that I’ve been pounding down the diet sodas, or feeling really bummed out and realized I had one (or two or three) too many glasses of the old Cabernet the other night. Don’t let your elephant get all boozed up or tweaked up on caffeine! In all honesty, I recommend keeping track of everything you put into your body and then adjusting that according to its effect on your mood. I find that a diet high in sugar, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors really makes my elephant grumpy (http://www NULL.asehaqld NULL.org NULL.au/index NULL.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=51:food-mood-and-behaviour&catid=36:food-allergy-and-other-food-disorders&Itemid=80).

Another great habit to get into is getting some exercise. That’s right, you and your elephant need to go for a walk or a bike ride a couple of times a week. Exercise releases endorphins, and those endorphins can help with depression. Vigorous activity can also help those of us with a tendency toward anxiety or mania to burn off some of that nervous energy and be more calm. I find that sometimes thirty minutes of exercise can help me feel like I’ve got more organized thoughts and a better outlook on life in general. Exercise makes your elephant happy!

I also have to have a doctor. All the time. Even if I’m not on meds. I have to do so because I’ve found that if I’m not monitored by a qualified professional even after I’ve stabilized, I tend to ignore the signs of relapse, and therefore, I relapse. Hard. Like an elephant doing a belly flop from the high dive. It ain’t pretty.

Most of this stuff sounds like common sense, but the difference between knowing to do something and actually doing it can be huge. For example, everyone knows fast food is pretty bad for us. Still, if we”re not careful, we can find ourselves making excuses, thinking, “This one time won’t hurt.” Great, if it’s one time, but if I find myself saying that often, eventually I’m eating nothing but cheeseburgers! Only feed your elephant cheeseburgers sometimes, not all the time!

My other excuses for not taking care of my elephant include: “But I can’t.” That one’s just silly. Of course I can! “I don’t have time.” Wait, I don’t have the time to make my own life worth living? I can’t take a few extra minutes to make certain that I get to bed instead of staying up to watch TV? Is Letterman really more important than my health? I don’t have time to cut back on the caffeine if I’m feeling anxious or having trouble sleeping? Sometimes little things like that can mean the difference between feeling a little funky and having a full-blown manic or depressive episode. My episodes almost invariably damage my life, so why wouldn’t I want to do everything I can to prevent or a small, adorable black cat sitting on the arm of a large sofaat least lessen their severity? I mean, we are talking about our lives, here!

I’ve also found it helpful to get my elephant a companion. I currently share my apartment not only with my husband and my metaphorical elephant, but also with the world’s greatest cat! Wednesday Addams has been one of the best additions to my life since I got married, and that’s no exaggeration. For those of us with mood disorders, I highly recommend getting a dog or a cat if it is at all possible. Having another living creature for whom you are responsible helps us change focus from the internal to the external world, much as group therapy does. I have to focus on Wednesday’s physical and emotional needs, and that helps keep me from ruminating and obsessing, two of the “danger zone” negative thought patterns for bipolar people. Also, Wednesday’s unconditional love (which I sometimes suspect has a lot to do with stinky canned food) can be a huge comfort to me. I don’t recommend exotics for this purpose, even though I keep a bird and some hermit crabs, too, because the relationship isn’t really the same. Also, I recommend one dog or one cat. Too many animals to care for, and even a “normal” person will find him- or herself overwhelmed with responsibilities, and that’s no good for mental health.

Your path to mental health may be different from mine. Everyone’s elephant is unique and has different needs. Take some time to asses your elephant’s habits and responses to your day-to-day life, then start with some small changes if necessary. Get your friends, family, and your therapist or psychiatrist to help. You won’t be sorry. For whatever reason, we’ve been chosen to keep our respective elephant hats for the rest of our lives. If we want to achieve a real and lasting mental health, we’ll have to make peace with our elephant and learn to care for him. After all, if you’ve got to spend your life with an elephant, you might as well learn to get along.

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