Discovering Purpose After Bipolar Disorder – Louise Dwerryhouse

And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.

– Meister Eckhart

In today’s goal-driven world there is often relentless pressure to achieve, but sometimes it’s ok to just be. Especially if you’ve been struggling for years with bipolar disorder and have finally achieved the calm, security and healing power of recovery where the ground feels soft and safe underfoot. This can’t be emphasized enough.

I “lost” ten years in my prime when my bipolar disorder was at its meanest. My recollection of that decade is somewhat blurred; not knowing what I did with my time. My hobbies had fallen away from me like toppling dominos one after another. For an avid lifelong reader, I did not read a book for one full decade. Fiction eluded me because one must follow plot twists and be able to identify characters, requiring a certain level of mindfulness. I would reach page eighty-nine, for example, when Jack enters the room and shoots Jess, and I would wonder who’s Jack? Who’s Jess? And what on earth is the plot for that matter! Jumbled words floating around in my mind; not taking root in my consciousness. Bipolar disorder is sometimes capable of robbing us of those things we love most in life—like my love of books—that reminds me of a swarm of locust stealing everything in sight.

By chance I discovered it was much easier to read nonfiction as there is no story to follow as such, so I embraced it, reading nonfiction exclusively for the next five years until I was able to enjoy both genres again. I’ve discovered over time that sometimes I must make adjustments to my life, like choosing to read nonfiction when I could read none other, in order to lead a richer life; albeit different to what it might have been. It might be worthwhile to give nonfiction a try if you find yourself lacking the concentration required to read.

A good dose of acceptance of our bipolar disorder is certainly advantageous and I believe recovery is not possible without it. There is no set time for recovery. It takes as long as it takes. In my case it took twenty years. Recovery is not straightforward, fast or easy. It isn’t linear, but a road paved with heartache, relapses, false starts and dead ends—along with many small successes along the way that eventually lead to triumph. So, after your lengthy journey when you are living well with bipolar disorder, take pleasure in your life, allowing yourself to bask in your newfound stability without putting any undue pressure on yourself about your future. Give yourself time.

I lead an unexceptional life these days. For years I thought ordinary life was boring compared to the escapades of hypomania/mania, but I discovered after much heartache there is pain and suffering in the elevated states. I have since learned ordinary is good. There is beauty in ordinary. There is contentment in ordinary. And there is peace in ordinary. J. R. R Tolkien said it best, “It’s no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”

These days, I savour routine and derive meaning and calmness from the predictability of my daily activities. I remember the days all too well when predictableness was something that happened to other people; not me. Over the years, I grew weary at having the floor threaten to drop beneath me faster than I could tie my shoelaces and longed for stability. It was next to impossible to plan for the future when I was being knocked about in the present; an unsettling existence never knowing what was on the horizon.

It was a sad day to surface from twenty years of what seemed like near-constant sickness, taking stock of my life, only to find it wanting compared to that of my contemporaries all of whom had advanced in their careers and had successful marriages, not stained by mania. I had no choice but to slowly rebuild my life.

And Then I entered recovery.

And I luxuriated in that bright beam of sunlight quite a few years after two decades of adversity.

Although my period of calm and ordinariness was essential to living well with bipolar disorder, over time it proved not enough. After enjoying stability for years in recovery and living in the here and now—as opposed to always living in the future hoping life would be better—I found I experienced a general sense of malaise, especially after I was no longer gainfully employed. It became uncomfortable being adrift with no destination in sight. At last, I’d found a place where my heart sang and my soul was at peace, but I wasn’t entirely happy. I’d always expected to be ultra-contented once I was living well with bipolar disorder so why wasn’t I?

After much reflection it occurred to me that my life was lacking purpose.

Purpose doesn’t have to be a lofty goal like working toward a PhD. It can also be simple in nature, found in the minutiae of everyday life: going for a run, preparing a nutritious meal from all natural ingredients bought at your local outdoor market, being active as a grandmother or volunteering. And purpose does not have to be existential in nature either, but often dwells in the mundane.

These days I am more open to new experiences that come my way. When you feel ready to explore purpose it is a good idea to set smaller goals to begin with and build on that. And it’s best not to compare your progress with others either as everyone’s journey is unique.

A daily purpose helps combat anxiety, especially for people like me who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), because it takes me out of my head forcing me to focus elsewhere other than myself.

For many years I had the same recurring thoughts: If only, if only, if only. If only, I didn’t have the hellish rapid cycling, out-of-control manias, deep depressions or atrocious mixed states; if only, I could lose the forty pounds I gained on certain antipsychotic medications; if only, I could sustain a romantic relationship without drama; and if only, I had the energy to better prepare my children for life. Eventually there came a time when I was able to clear these hurdles and, for the very first time, looked beyond myself for answers. I had achieved a sense of harmony within myself, was practising mindfulness every day and was living a good and worthwhile life in recovery. And even though it gave me great satisfaction to have attained this equilibrium, I wanted more; much more.

It might be surprising to some, but recovery is easy for me to maintain. Weeks and months hurry along when I don’t give bipolar much consideration because it’s not warranted. It causes me no grief. I’m even able to forget that I have bipolar disorder. However, I will always be on the lookout for mood swings until my final breath as bipolar disorder is cyclical in nature and can return at any time even if I have been stable for twelve years. I would be a fool to be inattentive, but I must say my watchfulness is simmering on the back burner these days.

Living well with bipolar disorder is not about 100% stability, as I do experience minor setbacks from time to time, but these less severe mood swings are very easy to recognize in a life of tranquillity and can be extinguished with ease before they materialize into something more sinister. As Carl Sagan said, “Sailors on a becalmed sea, we sense the stirring of a breeze.”

Tis true

I wanted to learn more in my quest for answers. In the 1970’s, I had studied the American psychologist Abraham Maslow who created The Hierarchy of Needs, so I Googled him to refresh my memory. His model of human motivation reveals that higher need is expressed only after lower needs are fulfilled: the basic need for food and water must be met; then security and employment; love and belonging are next; followed by self-esteem, strength and freedom; and finally, self-actualization—the desire to become the most that one can be or the realization of one’s potentialities. I had achieved the lesser goals so set my sights on self-actualization. I wanted to be my best self.

There can be considerable growth after recovery. We don’t have to stop developing just because we have reached our goal of living well with the condition. Human beings are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves by experiencing newly developed life experiences and setting new targets.

I had recognized that I needed purpose in my life but didn’t know how to go about it, so I asked myself what inspired me most? It’s often in our passion that we find our purpose. I realized my passion was writing and had been for a while. I’d been sporadic in my attempts to write not giving it the daily attention and dedication it deserved. So, I decided to make writing my current focus—since my soul seemed to expand with great peace whenever I wrote—and enrolled in a creative writing course at university at age sixty-five.

Pursuing your purpose can take effort, but most worthwhile endeavours require effort. It’s best if goals have meaning for you and excite you because having a passion makes it easier to stick with our targets. These days writing gives my life direction and a sense of aliveness, getting me out of bed in the morning, keeping me up at night—literally. There is always pen and paper on my bedside table as it’s not unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night and scribble down notes and ideas—when our minds are at their most relaxed and our creativity is at its peak—in preparation for a day of writing the following day.

Sometimes we go looking for purpose but other times, if we’re lucky, it comes looking for us, like so many things in life. I never thought that writing my first blog on bipolar disorder would start me on the path toward wanting to become a writer. It found me. I have been asked why I write so much about my experiences of living well with bipolar disorder (and the heartache of not living well with it my in earlier years). It’s a cathartic exercise that affords me great pleasure and comfort, and hopefully offers inspiration to others.

And try to keep in mind it’s not only the destination that counts, but also the small incremental steps along the way that offer sustenance and hope.

To paraphrase E. L. Doctorow, discovering our purpose is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole journey that way.

Louise Dwerryhouse

Louise Dwerryhouse, a retired social worker, who worked in Canada and the UK, is an advocate, and mental health blogger on “lived experience” living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder late in life, over 30 years ago at the age of thirty-five, and has been living well with the disorder for 10+ years. She writes to those alone, frightened and traumatized by volatile mood swings such as she had in her early days post-diagnosis. Louise tries to lead by example, by sharing her journey to recovery, showing it is possible to live well with the disorder. Her dream is to see a society centred on acceptance, inclusion and less stigma in her lifetime.

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