The Bipolar Lens

My view from the rollercoaster.

The Glories of Being Stuck in a Rut

Why Routine Is So Essential To Mental Health

I've been trapped in my house for a whole week now.  I'd say I'm going slowly insane but when you're bipolar you have to use words like "insane" judiciously.  I live in a little house in a canyon, which is accessible only by a narrow, winding street.  The City is allegedly re-paving the street, which means that no one is allowed to drive on it.  Which means I've been stuck here for seven days, waiting for the project to be completed.  It's municipal molasses.

So for seven days I've been alone with the TV, a couple of books I've been meaning to read, some Netflix DVDs, and my thoughts.  The first day I figured, how great!  I'll catch up on my reading and I'll write.  Three days later, I'd finished the books, watched all the movies, and eaten my way through my provisions.  I hadn't meant to eat so much, but boredom makes even sardines look appealing.

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Enforced isolation isn't good for me.  It's probably not good for anyone, but in my case it's particularly nerve-wracking.  It means I'm living alone in my head.  My head is a very noisy place.  It loves to entertain my fears and worries:  what's going to happen to me tomorrow, next week, ten years from now?  Will I still be alone?  Will I always be bipolar?  Is there no hope, no cure, no respite in sight?  When my head starts chattering away like this, it drowns out even the heavy machinery outside my window.

Usually I manage to silence my thoughts by suffocating them with action.  I go to two different writing groups every week, a support group, a therapy session, and the occasional doctor's visit to tweak my meds.  And almost every day I go out to a local cafe and write for several hours, then come home and edit.

It's extremely ironic that I would have developed such a regular system.  When I was hospitalized for severe depression ten or so years ago, the first group every morning was called "Scheduling."  You were handed a sheet of blank graph paper, and told to fill in what you had planned for that day, the next day, the week.  I abhorred it with a passion, as did many of my fellow patients, and we used to sneak out to the cafeteria for coffee every morning until the nasty class was over.  To me, structure meant the death of serendipity; it was a ball and chain, a lock with no key, and I felt imprisoned enough already by my disease and my surroundings.

But I guess I heard it often enough, from doctors I admired – “Structure is essential to mental health" – that I finally grudgingly succumbed to the notion, to the point where I now have something planned for almost every day.  True, every so often I'll rebel against the regimentation – do I have to get up?  Do I have to go write? – but now that my structure has suddenly been taken from me, I absolutely crave it.  I realize what a lost and aimless wanderer I am without my faithful routine to guide me.

I don't know how many more days I'll be trapped in my house, but I can already hear the ghosts of depression whispering in my ear – so seductive, so alluring.  I refuse to be waylaid.  So this morning I took out a blank piece of paper, sketched a rough graph of hours and activities, and taped it up on my refrigerator.  Seven a.m.:  get up, have coffee, watch Matt Lauer.  Nine a.m.:  return emails.  Eleven a.m.:  research and write, etc.  I know I don't have to adhere to the schedule.  If I want, I can tear it into tiny bits and watch reruns of "The Partridge Family" until I'm thoroughly stupefied.  But already, I feel better.  It's comforting to know that my days are not a total abyss. 

It's a lesson I learned ten years ago, and have to keep re-learning, it seems:  Insanity is so much easier to stave off an hour at a time.

Terri Cheney is the author of Manic: A Memoir and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing Up Bipolar.

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