By Mark J.

“We have been given a challenging illness, and there is no option than to meet those challenges. Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic – not ‘I survived Mosul during an attack‘ heroic but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.” 

These are the words of Carrie Fisher, the late and great actress and bipolar advocate who also suffered from bipolar disorder. I’m always up for a good challenge so I’ve decided to take these words to heart.

My name is Mark and I am currently managing bipolar disorder. I would love to help everyone be healthier and happier but I’ve come to the conclusion that everyone is different and the best place to get started is with yourself. Small current positive changes lead to long term benefits. Patience.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 30 years ago when I graduated from the University of Michigan. It has been a long road full of trials and tribulations. I have been hospitalized 10 times for mania. It is truly amazing that your mind can lead you down the most bizarre trails. Some people I know and have read about have similar experiences when taking LSD. So my brain chemistry was sending me off on a drug-induced haze. The problem is I accepted it as truth.

I could share my manic episode stories with you. However, I choose not to relive those periods of my life. Plus, my mom will be reading this and I don’t want to scare her. Or, for her to think I’m more strange than she already does. Just trust me… manic episodes are not good.

I have not been hospitalized or had a manic episode for eight years. Never giving up is the key ingredient. Sure, some of my bad days are worse than most people’s. And some of my “good’ days can be catastrophic. But, there is always light at the end of the tunnel – tomorrow. There is hope of new friends, new beginnings, and even new medicine. Try to accept change, good or bad, as a growth experience. A chance to learn and arm yourself with more confidence and coping abilities now that you have lived through some harrowing times – and survived them.

I have been derailed many times due to my behavior and actions and I believe partially due to some aspects of today’s mental health care system. I now do my best to stay on track daily.  Exercise and healthy eating really help your mood. There is an acronym that reminds you to check yourself when you are grouchy or ill-at-ease. It is HALT.  H is for hungry. A is for angry.  L is for lonely.  And T is for tired. Try to remember HALT! and adjust yourself accordingly. 

I always try to adjust my thinking. Remember to act not react and give yourself extra time when replying to someone or making an important decision. I try to. Sometimes it is extremely difficult but necessary to get your mind off your concerns. I do this by reading and watching sports (especially baseball and football). Go Tigers!

Try not to take yourself too seriously. It’s not healthy. Comedy, humor and laughter always help your mood. I enjoy YouTube performances by Robin Williams, Jack Nicholson and Jimmy Fallon. Music can be uplifting and moving. Some of my favorite music is by U2, Fleetwood Mac and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.

I try to be a man of action. My current stance on mental health care and stigma is it is improving but not quickly enough. From my last visit and hospitalization I would like to offer up some concrete solutions that could be addressed. In roughly 2009 I had a manic episode. I was kept on a hospital floor for 30 days and was not let outside once. I am a firm believer in ecotherapy. Using outside air and any natural aspects to brighten spirits. I think this would be beneficial to most hospitalized mental patients. Assist them, if possible, outside! 

My fire was stoked recently by a New York Times article about a hospitalized woman who was a writer suffering from a bipolar manic episode. She said when she was in the hospital she was really not treated as her “self;” more as a stereotype of how a mental patient would be taken care of. I remember being in the hospital and, yes, I had bizarre thoughts, but “Mark” was still there and could have been treated with more dignity, kindness, and compassion by the hospital staff.

I hope things have gotten better in the last 10 years. A couple ideas I had were to create a psychiatrist/patient questionnaire. This would be a predetermined survey the patient fills out on a weekly basis. Mainly about goals (hospital stay length) and care process (meds and initiatives to help). Even if the patient was not “all there,” their answers would help empower the patient with hope and give the doctor insight into the current situation at hand. 

The last thing I would suggest is a weekly third party “audit.” This would keep the psychiatrist on track and give the patient trust and better care with his/her doctor. This probably would be done by a family member or a mental health professional. The informal session would provide valuable information for the patient, psychiatrist and the treatment.

Balance is very important to me. I really have to check myself and evaluate good and bad events. Don’t get too high in the highs or low in the lows. I am a spiritual person and spirituality comforts me and helps me grow to feel better and stronger.

“Act always as if the future of the universe depended on what you did, while laughing at yourself for thinking whatever you do makes any difference.” - Buddha