Bipolar Disorder and Routine: Getting In the Swing of Things

Bipolar Disorder and Routine: Getting In the Swing of Things

A diagnosis with a mood disorder like bipolar disorder, with extreme highs and devastating lows, can throw an individual’s natural rhythm off. And if an individual is already struggling with routine, their lives can become so much more hectic and disorganized with each passing episode. If some routine is not set into place, the likelihood of future episodes is almost certain. This is where a positive routine can lead to numerous benefits.

Celebrating Self-Care and the New Year

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My trials and tribulations have proved that I have to be vigilant on a daily basis to maintain my mental wellness. I believe that we all do to some degree. One cannot be healthy without a combination of good mental health and good physical health. Either state is impossible to reach or attain without the other. As with all aspects of daily living, balance becomes a key element in the optimization of health. 

There was little conversation about mental health when I was growing up, and my exposure to mental health related issues was limited. Yes, I would do a brief mental wellness check-in periodically, but I do not recall anyone placing a lot of emphasis on mental wellness and mental health as a child or as an adolescent. It was always just assumed that things were good mentally, at least that’s how I perceive things looking back, and not talking about mental health issues just cemented this truth at the time.

Unless it was happening in your life on a personal level or with a family member, the Not In My Backyard (NIMB) philosophy prevailed. Although advancements have been made over the years regarding mental health and mental wellness, this still remains to be somewhat true in the 21st century. We have an easy time exploring and discussing physical ailments, but difficulties arise whenever the soundness of one’s mind is in question. 

I remember my days as a high school and college basketball player at Pomperaug High School (Southbury, CT) and the University of New England (Biddeford, ME). I mainly focused on my physical health and never really tuned into my mental health until my first manic episode when I was a senior in college. Almost everything that I did to become a better basketball player revolved around my physical being. Running daily, lifting weights at least five times per week, stretching, shooting free-throws, practicing my right/left baby hook and jump shot, practicing dribbling, practicing boxing out, practicing defense, and the list goes on ad infinitum.   

All of this work was done to become physically stronger, faster, a more accurate shooter, and a better defender. But basketball is not just a physical sport; there is also a large mental component to playing the game. I learned that building mental awareness was just as important as building physical strength. Training the mind became just as significant as training the body. For it is the mind that gives one focus and concentration, which are two essential factors leading to success on the court. Without mental toughness a player is incomplete and will not be successful regardless of their physical capabilities.  

I know that I was mentally tough as a high school and college basketball player, for I would not have been able to compete at the collegiate level without it. But mental toughness does not always equate to mental wellness. And this is where I stared mental illness directly in the eyes, for the first time, as a twenty-two-year-old kid. I was in the best physical shape of my life, I had experience with mental awareness, but I became mentally and emotionally unstable. And pulling myself up by the bootstraps just wouldn’t suffice this time around. 

So much emphasis is placed on the physical being in our society, while our mental and emotional well-being is so very often neglected. I’m not implying that the whole world is living with a mental illness because this is just not true, but I am implying that many people take their mental wellness for granted. I know because I did the exact same thing before being diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. 

I have always said from the very beginning that living with bipolar disorder has been a blessing and a curse. The blessings that I have been afforded with have changed my perspective about living life to the fullest forever, and have filled me with an endless well of gratitude. The curse is that I sometimes have to be awake during a hellish nightmare.

My experience with bipolar disorder has been like the phases of the moon or the ebb and flowing tide. Things get a little wobbly from time to time and then they straighten out depending on how proactive I am. Recovery is not a spectator sport; you can’t just sit on the sidelines and expect to get better. Action is needed and more action is needed to stay on the road to recovery. 

The same can be said about self-care in general, whether you are living with a mental illness or not. You can say that you are going to go for a hike in the woods or attend that morning yoga class day after day, but until you lace up your shoes and walk out your front door, not much is going to change. And if you are really feeling anxious and restless, your inaction is not going to lead you any closer to feeling better about yourself or your current situation.

The New Year and the holiday season can be a time of stress and anxiety for so many people, especially if we hold ourselves to rigid standards. But resolutions can be an opportunity to practice good overall self-care, and self-care can be broad and expansive and not just limited to the same old gym routine. Resolutions can also lead one to accountability and can remind us to be mindful and present in the here and now.

I hope that you have a happy and a healthy New Year!!! Much peace and love your way as always :) 

A Time To Give Thanks

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Over the years the holidays have begun to take on a different meaning for me. I have always enjoyed the holiday season, ever since I was a small child, but my perspective about the holiday season is not the same as it once was. In my youth I took each holiday for granted, just as I did my mental health, not intentionally, but more so by naiveté. I could say I didn’t know any better, because this was my truth at the time. But I know better now, and I have four decades of experience to prove it. The last seventeen years have proved many other life lessons to be true as well. I am grateful that I have been taught these lessons, as difficult as they might have been to endure.   

Historically, the fall and the spring have been sensitive times of the year for me living with bipolar disorder. For whatever reason, I have had numerous manic episodes in the fall and spring months. I feel this has more to do with the changing of the seasons and the gravitational pull of the universe, than with the holidays that happen to fall during this time of the year, but the holidays have played a role as well.   

I clearly remember my first Thanksgiving away from home. I didn’t have the luxury of visiting a relative in another town, or a family member, or a friend from out of state. The year was 2002, and I had experienced a full-blown manic episode that led me to be hospitalized at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City, for two fun weeks and a bundle of joy. Of course I am just being facetious here and adding a bit of humor, but I can assure you I was not smiling or laughing at the time. I was fairly new to the whole bipolar thing, although this hospitalization had been my eighth in two years. Pretty staggering numbers statistically, if you ask me, but this was just the beginning of my adventures, in and out of, hospitals and institutions around the country. My love of travel, combined with mania, has led me to some peculiar places all over the map. 

Up until this point I had been hospitalized in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, and New York State. Eventually, New York City, with its close proximity to Connecticut, would become my destination of choice when manic. In the past my poor judgment, impulsivity, and uninhibited behavior during a manic episode could not compete with the bright lights of the big city that never sleeps. At a certain point, I crossed a threshold in my early twenties and almost every unplanned trip to NYC, due to the symptoms of mania, resulted in a hospitalization. I won’t disclose the exact number in this essay, but the list is quite long.

Bellevue Hospital is one of the oldest hospitals in the United States, and is also known for having one of the largest, and busiest, psychiatric emergency rooms in the country. Most hospitals have one inpatient psychiatric unit. Bellevue has fourteen units in all, which provide a full range of general and specialized psychiatric treatment services. Unfortunately, this would not be the only time I walked the halls of Bellevue, but the memories from this hospitalization have decorated my shadowed brain. 

I never really cared for the smell of hospitals, and this distaste predates my bipolar disorder. Being hospitalized during a holiday doesn’t make this sensory experience go away. And as much as the hospital staff tried to comfort us patients on the unit during this memorable Thanksgiving, by bringing snacks and desserts in from home, their efforts, although appreciated, could only go so far. The hospital staff on a holiday is just a shell of what it normally would be, as most of the nurses, psychiatrists, and social workers had the day off. A Thanksgiving meal was served for dinner, but the turkey was more or less rubbery and the mashed potatoes came from a box. I am not intending to complain here, as things could have been much worse, but I am trying to paint a picture with some vivid details.

The most difficult part of being hospitalized during Thanksgiving, or on any holiday for that matter, is the longing that one feels for their loved ones. I can still recollect the dreadful knot in my stomach that didn’t disappear until days after my discharge. Looking back on this memory, I am reminded that bipolar disorder can set the stage for thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions that sometimes are out of one’s control. I also know, as a person living in recovery, that these unthinkable circumstances can also be avoided by taking certain measures including following a recovery action plan, changing one’s lifestyle, asking for help, being open and honest, and practicing good overall self-care. 

But even with the best intentions, a breakthrough is still possible. This is the blessing and the curse of living with a mental illness, and my trials and tribulations have proved that I have to be vigilant on a daily basis to maintain my mental wellness. We all do to some degree.  

So as the Thanksgiving season is upon us, and the most festive time of the year is just around the corner, I challenge you to look within and reflect on what you are truly thankful for in your life. Take a minute to really think about this question that gets thrown around so carelessly at times.  I know for sure what I am thankful for, and I try to make Thanksgiving an every day affair. Much peace, love, and an abundance of blessings your way!


The Singer & The Song

 
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Singer/songwriters often have one idea, concept, or experience in mind when they write a song, but the beauty and power of music is that it can mean many different things to   many different people. A single song serves to celebrate our differences, challenge our perceptions, make us feel deeply, and ultimately, unify us through a shared auditory experience. The birth of a song is similar, in some ways, to the birth of a child. There is a combination of nature, nurture, love, mystery, and miracle.   

Songs are born every day and from every facet of life. As a singer/songwriter, I welcome the spontaneity of new song ideas, the evolution of song structure, and the melodies that often materialize out of thin air. I believe that as a songwriter, I am only a vessel, and I can only channel what resonates within my spirit, while aligning with the cosmic universe around me. The power of song and verse comes from somewhere above and beyond my state of consciousness. I honor and welcome this truth. The origins of song vary, as much as, the nuances between songwriters. 

Some songwriters are trying to write a #1 hit on the American Top 40 or the Billboard Hot 100 Charts, and every day they sit down to write their hit song. My goal is not necessarily to write a #1 hit on either of these charts, although it would be pretty interesting to do so, if it were to happen. But this is not my primary pursuit in writing and playing music. I write when I am inspired to write, and I do so, because I love the process. I am going to write, whether I write a hit song or not, and I am going to write regardless of any monetary gains I may receive. Writing, playing music, and singing is a way for me to nourish my spirit and cleanse my soul. 

Often times a thought, a melody, a line, and/or a lyric will come to me when I am in the middle of some random act. Walking in the woods, hiking in the mountains, swimming in the ocean, feeling interconnected to those around me, daydreaming, playing with my children, embracing the four seasons of change, and exploring the constellations above, have all yielded songs over the years. 

As a Libra, I have come to know that inspiration can also surface during times of tragedy, death, destruction, decay, and chaos. There is always a starting point for a song, but as with all aspects of living, this process is about the journey and not the destination. Most often there is no end in sight when a beginning is made.

Other times I am practicing a chord progression and a couple of lines come to me, or the exact opposite happens. As a writer, I am not relying on only one formula to write a song. Songs can, and do, evolve in a myriad of ways, but there are variables in the songwriting process that remain a constant. Everyone wants to know if the music of a song is written first or the lyric? I have written songs in both ways, but I often come up with a lyric and a melody in my head first, and then I transpose this melody, or tune if you will, on the guitar. 

I wrote "Infinite Smile" two days before the birth of my daughter. I did not set out to write a song the night that I wrote Infinite Smile, it rather developed spontaneously and in the moment. I was noodling around with a new chord progression thinking about the arrival of my daughter, and that lead me to the line, ‘You don’t know the infinite smile that you are painting on my face’. The rest of the lyrics were written in less than fifteen minutes. I don’t always write songs this quickly, but inspiration can often lead one to swift action.

“Infinite Smile”

You don’t know the infinite smile

That you are painting on my face

You don’t know the minutes and

The hours of your heartbeat

I don’t want to waste

 

And I will watch you blossom

And I will watch you stumble

And cry but I will always love 

You even after we say goodbye

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

 

You don’t know the unending

Warmth of you smile and your

Loving embrace you don’t know

The innocence of your touch and

The delicacy of your grace 

 

And I will watch you blossom

And I will watch you stumble

And cry but I will always love 

You even after we say goodbye

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

 

You don’t know the infinite smile

That you are painting on my face

You don’t know the innocence of your

Touch and the delicacy of your grace 

 

And I will watch you blossom

And I will watch you stumble

And cry but I will always love 

You even after we say goodbye

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

As a songwriter, I can only write about what I know, and everyone has a unique experience that colors the lens that they look through. I am seeking to live an authentic life that is filled with peace and love, but it would be naïve of me to think that this would be possible without the expectancy of pain and suffering along the way. I have found that psychiatric hospitals and institutions are filled with the latter. C’est la vie. Wherever there is darkness, there is light, and it is our choice, which force we choose to align ourselves with. I would rather bask in the sunlight of the spirit, than freeze while harvesting ice and wind.

My parents taught me how to LOVE. They taught me how to love myself, and they taught me how to love others. My parents have been my biggest support, besides my wife, over the years and I would not have made it to this point in my life, and to this point in my recovery, without them. 

My parents’ love and support has never wavered, no matter how much drama or chaos entered into my existence. Their unconditional love and support has always shined through, no matter how dark my life and our world became. My parents were also there, along the way at every major positive event in my life, when light and love beamed from the mountaintops. And I am blessed to write that for all of the "Manic Mondays" I have lived through, I have also had a lifetime of these moments to celebrate as well. 

Now that I am a parent, I am indebted to my parents for teaching me all of the lessons that they have graciously taught me over the years. Beyond molding my belief and value system, they have also taught me how to parent, without realizing it at the time, or in the moment. No parent is perfect, and I am fully aware of this fact as a father of a 2.5 year-old daughter and a 5.5 year-old son, but overall my parents are pretty exceptional human beings in their own right. My deepest and most sincere appreciation is reciprocated back to my parents, with my eternal lovelight for them, always burning bright. 

In mentioning my parents, it is my maternal side of the family that has passed down music through the generations. My cousin Steven told me, not too long ago, that my great-grandparents from Slovakia were united through song, when my great-grandmother Chanda fell in love with my great-grandfather’s singing voice, while he was a member of the church choir in their small village. My cousin Steven is a music teacher, my cousin Daniel was a piano tuner and gave my parents an upright piano when I was a child that is still in their home to this day, and several other relatives on my mother’s side of the family are musicians as well. My mother’s father was also a musician and played guitar, piano, and sang in the church choir until his death in 2012. 

As a Clark, it is my paternal side of the family that has passed down writing through the generations. According to the, Dictionary of American Family Names (Oxford University Press, 2013): 

Clark is an English language surname derived from the Latin clericus meaning scribe, secretary, or a scholar originally a member of a minor religious order. The word clerc denoted a member of a religious order, from Old English cler(e)c ‘priest’, reinforced by Old French clerc. Clark evolved from clerk. In medieval Christian Europe, clergy in minor orders were permitted to marry and so found families; thus the surname could become established. In the Middle Ages it was virtually only members of religious orders who learned to read and write, so that the term clerk came to denote any literate man. 

This notion may be somewhat of a wild goose chase, but somewhere along the way, one of my relatives began writing and here I sit this evening continuing in that tradition.  


Final thoughts/considerations: Are you a singer-songwriter or an artist? How do you gain or seek inspiration? Or, as a listener of music, what has been a song, album or artist who has been most meaningful to you and why? Leave your comments below!


Manic Monday

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September of 2000 is a month and a year that I will always remember. It was the first time in my life that my train derailed and went off of the tracks. As a 22-year-old kid, the world was my oyster. I was a scholar athlete entering my senior year of college at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, and my ship had sailed smoothly for most of my life. If someone had told me that I was to soon have a psychotic break, I would have told them that they may have some sort of a mental illness. Yet, there I was on the brink of insanity. I could no longer deny my fate nor could my family, my friends, nor my peers. My bipolar disorder had been lying dormant for over two decades and was on the verge of taking me down a long and winding road, that I could have never dreamed of in my waking or sleeping hours. My new existence had become a harsh reality seemingly overnight. 

I had no pre-existing symptoms of any kind of mental illness before my first manic break and no one in my immediate family had a history of mental illness. Although bipolar disorder can surface at any point in life, the onset of bipolar disorder is commonly between the ages of 18-22 years of age for males, and slightly older for females. Mania can be triggered by a myriad of life events including, but not limited to, a significant loss, death of a loved one, termination from a job, marriage, divorce, birth of a child, an unexpected transition, and numerous other life situations. The common theme between these triggers is a major life change. The trigger for my first manic episode was initiating a break-up with my high school / college girlfriend of seven years. I could have never imagined what was to soon follow this emotional and challenging experience.

Ten days later, I was admitted into an inpatient psychiatric unit at Tufts Medical Center, in Boston, Massachusetts. I had entered an intricate and delicate web of delusion and deceit that I could not comprehend nor understand at the time. Up until this moment in my life I was an all-American boy who had excelled in athletics, did well in school, had a wide circle of friends, and came from a loving and stable home environment. This idyllic world would be tested as far as the eye could see.

During the week and a half leading up to my first inpatient hospitalization, I did not sleep for more than one to two hours per night, and despite my lack of sleep, my energy levels were through the roof. I became hyperverbal with each passing minute. My speech was pressured. My thoughts were tangential. My behavior to those who knew me well was more than bizarre. I had skipped numerous academic classes to frolic along the Maine coastline, which was a rarity for me due to my major, at least the skipping classes part. When I was participating in class, I would ramble on about the unrelated and the trivial. Several of my classmates had insisted that I tell them what psychedelics I had taken over the summer. But sadly, there were no psychedelics involved in this long strange trip.

Everything around me did, however, become more vibrant and lively, from the conversations I engaged in, to the colors in the sky. I remember feeling incredibly buzzed, with no intoxicants in my system, and I was on a spiritual high that I had never experienced before. I no longer felt sad or depressed about the break-up and had entered an extreme state of euphoria. I was in the middle of my first full-blown manic episode and had no inkling, whatsoever, about this fact. I couldn't see a cloud on the horizon, and although my peers knew something was going on with me, neither could they. My own personal mental health awareness was limited and so was theirs.

The day before I was hospitalized, I disappeared from campus and made the impulsive decision to drive to the Fleet Center in Boston to see the The Other Ones (remaining members of the Grateful Dead) and Ziggy Marley. I found out that The Other Ones were playing in Boston that afternoon and didn't think twice about getting in my car and driving south unbeknownst to any of my housemates or friends. I had no intentions of going to this show beforehand. I barely had enough money in my wallet to buy a ticket, let alone pay for gas to get me to the city. I didn't tell a soul that I was leaving campus, which was very uncharacteristic of me. 

Twenty four hours later, I was dragged from the streets of Boston by a team of paramedics after standing in the middle of the road, in the heart of the city, and breaking my guitar into an impressive array of splinters on the asphalt.  If that wasn't enough, I crossed my heart and proceeded to lay down in the middle of the road, in front of oncoming traffic. I was ready to surrender but I had no idea what I was surrendering to. Minutes later, I was rolled into the emergency room at Tufts Medical Center and later admitted into their inpatient psychiatric unit. I remember waking up the next morning clear as day, as the white starch from that hospital bed is now encapsulated in my DNA.

A nurse walked into my room and closed the door behind her. She had asked me if I wanted to see my family and I had replied, "of course." The worry on their faces was hard to overlook, but I could tell that they were relieved to see me and I welcomed their warm embrace. Considering my state of affairs, things were pretty bleak all around. I can assure you that no one was jumping for joy, although my family members were happy to see me alive. It wouldn't take long for me to realize that my life was amidst a season of change.  This short story could have ended much differently, and things could have been much worse. Little did I know that I would be opening a voluminous text with many maniacal and depressing sequels. This truth was far beyond my comprehension at the time. 

My 10-day hospitalization passed me by like fast moving clouds overhead. I had nothing to compare it to, so my stay was somewhat pleasant, as far as hospital stays go. Once I had stabilized, I was even granted a day pass to meander about the city with my sister. As my discharge approached, I had a discussion with the psychiatrist and psychiatric nurse from my treatment team. They had informed me that I could, if I so desired, take the semester off from college. Although I could barely fathom what I had just experienced, I knew deep down inside that if I took a semester off after going through what I just went through, there would be a good chance of not graduating in the spring. I rebelled against the very thought of not returning to school immediately. After all, I was just entering my senior year and I was looking forward to the upcoming basketball season after being elected co-captain. I may have been lost at sea, but I did not lose my internal compass. I compromised and decided to take a week off from classes and then head back to campus. This proved to be a wise decision, but it did not make my lot any easier.

When I returned back to campus, I felt like an alien. I had transformed from a well- known student athlete into the guy who lost his marbles. I had become the pink elephant in the room or, at least, that's how I felt. I met with the school psychologist once, and vowed never to return to his office again, after he hinted that I had had an existential crisis. My friends had some background information about my disappearance, and several had even made the trip down to Boston to visit me in the hospital, but most of my peers were relying on the grapevine for answers, which lead them to scratch their heads. If things didn't add up for me, they definitely were more confusing for those around me back at school. I knew that I had gone up, way up, and I could identify as having a unipolar experience. But my life story, at that moment, did not equate to bipolar disorder, or manic depression for that matter, as I had first come to know it. Up until then, I had never been depressed a day in my life, but depression would be looming on the horizon for me.

Although I was in above-average physical condition at the time I, like many, never realized how much I took my mental wellness for granted. Before my first hospitalization, I had never met a single person, that I was aware of, who was living with bipolar disorder, and I had very little working knowledge about this mental health condition. Despite my naivety, from the very beginning of my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, I had made a conscious decision to play the hand that I was dealt. Giving up was not an option for me! Even though I had no idea what bipolar disorder was, I knew deep down inside that I had just experienced a profound and life changing event. My mind had been, literally and figuratively, blown away.

Once the dust had settled and the fog had cleared, there was one positive resource in my life that had remained a constant, besides the love and support of my family and close friends. Music had become my saving grace, as nothing else really made much sense to me. It was there while every other aspect of my being laid in pieces on the ground. Music has shaped and impacted my ongoing recovery in a multitude of ways and has helped to carry me through the twists and turns of living with a mental illness. I have come to know, rely on, and cherish the amazing healing power of music. Music has been much more than a collection of notes and sounds for me - it has become an alternative form of medicine for my mind. 

I am not breaking my anonymity about living with a mental illness to say "look at me", or "I have found a magic pill", or "I am cured." I have learned from my personal and professional experience that recovery from a severe and persistent mental illness is a process, and although relapse is not a prerequisite for recovery, it is a part of my story in many ways, shapes, and forms. I do not want the world to SEE me, as MUCH as, I want to be HEARD. In doing so, I hope to encourage others to raise their own voice, as those living with mental illness who broke their silence, encouraged me to do. As we carry on the dialogue about living with mental illness, we can continue to eradicate the stigma, stereotypes, discrimination, and oppression attached to, and associated with, mental illness. This stigma has plagued many of us for decades. I look forward to joining the brave mental health advocate pioneers who have come before me and welcome you to Sing Above the Stigma. Much peace, love, compassion, acceptance, and understanding your way!