Thank you again Karen Tyrrell for visiting this blog. Karen's answers to my questions got me thinking. That's the great thing about sharing your own experience with other Bipolar Landers: you always learn something useful.
So how would I answer my own questions? I have given below the most honest truthful answers I can.
1) What was the most important thing that helped me recover?
There is no doubt that a strong network of supportive people was key. I would not say that those brave and loving souls helped me 'recover' though. They gave me a reason to stay alive, which is a different thing. Karen battled with Bipolar Disorder 1 - mine is Bipolar 2. I have never been psychotic or manic. I have been hypomanic but mainly I battle daily with a powerful depression that sticks to my bones like molasses. It's the depression side of Bipolar 2 that is so difficult to treat and so challenging to live with. Hypomania is exhausting in the long run but it is very pleasant and nobody thinks of it as a problem until the crash comes. My age also has something to do with it: in my twenties, thirties and forties, I spent much more time in hypomania than I did in depression. In my fifties, following a spectacular crash (and the menopause) the reverse became true. Now in my sixties I spend most of my time in a deep clinical depression. Without a cocktail of mood stabiliser (Carbamazepine) and antidepressant (Citalopram) I find myself fighting suicidal obsession for days on end. In a way, I think my expectation to 'recover' has been unhelpful. Seven years after the crash that saw me be treated with 16 different medications and ECT, I now think it is more helpful for me to strive for a bearable stability and reasonable comfort. It sounds negative but actually it isn't. You know the old prayer: Dear God give me the strength to change that which I can change, the fortitude to accept that which I cannot, and the wisdom to tell one from the other. I have opted for wisdom.
Please don't get from the above that I am in any way poopooing Karen's experience or anyone else's who has Bipolar Disorder 1: absolutely not! I saw my own father be taken away in a straight jacket in the middle of the night and there is NOTHING easy about that! I am just saying that my experience is very different from Karen's (and my father's who interestingly thinks of himself as recovered even though aged 85 he has been taking Carbamazepine and an anti-anxiety medication for 30 years). I guess in some ways mania is easier to treat and control than depression.
2) What part did medication play in my recovery?
Medication is helping me stay alive - not recovered but alive. Some days I barely function (even on medication) - other days like today I function much better. What I mean by 'function' is being able to have a shower, feed myself, take a walk, watch TV and understand what I am watching, preparing meals - in other words having enough energy for my body and my brain to work reasonably well together. I don't know what I would be like without medication and frankly I don't even want to think about it.
3) What part did positive thinking and self-awareness play in my recovery?
Without a positive approach to deep depression I would be dead. I joke that I am able these days to feel happy even when severely depressed - i.e. even when all I can mange is what I call the armchair-to-bed shuffle. Admittedly, I manage to maintain my positive attitude for no more than 10 days in a row. After that I feel despondent, discouraged and disillusioned, that is to say 'depressed' in the way people usually understand it. This year I have been in deep depression for 4 months so far. 2012 has not been a good year to date and I have despaired often. However, there is no reason it could not be a sensational year from now on. My own optimism surprises even me! I must add that knitting is very helpful to me. It gives me enough of a concentration and automation challenge to give me a sense of achievement. I know myself well enough to know that 'achievement' is one of my personal values so I make sure I achieve something every day, however small that thing may be.
Aside from that, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, all are hugely helpful and important to me too. I too keep a note of my fluctuating energy although I have never to date found any particular trigger for, or pattern to, those fluctuations. Nothing seems to 'trigger' my energy fluctuations per se but I know what I must avoid and when - mainly demands on my energy such as putting myself under pressure to achieve too much, or too quickly, AND being around other people even virtually. When my energy is very low I keep it all to myself. Being by nature a gregarious person it has been hard for me to get used to this ...
4) What if there was only one piece of advice I could give other bi-polar sufferers, what would it be?
Apart from the trigger part (as already explained), I go along with Karen's advice 100%. I have developed an individualized stability plan tailored just for me. My plan does not have 'warning signs' because my depression is ever present but it does contain my coping strategies. I have already mentioned knitting. I will add walking in the park, watching DVDs I enjoy (avoiding 'depressing' stories), reading books when I can (I haven't been able to read any books this year yet), writing when I am able (my brain has felt cut off from my hands so far this year although today is a good day as you can tell!), baking, helping someone, exercising, stitching, decluttering, talking to my husband.
The medical texts describe bipolar disorder as producing 'unusual fluctuations in mood and energy'. For me that's like saying Pompeii was a town with a bit of a mud problem! Unusual fluctuations in energy is what I live with - most of the time with my energy so low that I can barely function AND if I push too hard and forced myself through the low energy barrier I suffer a backlash that puts me in bed for days. I have learnt to go with the flow and flow with the go even if some days that is VERY hard for me.
For me accepting is the key. I don't mean giving up - I mean not wasting my precious energy kicking the wind or punching a cloud :)