Monthly Archives: July 2016

Exercise: The Bipolar Hack

I think I have come to accept that my obsessive, demanding fitness regime has simply become a way of life. Initially, after having my son, I told myself that I was killing myself just to recover from him. I told myself that I was dial back the effort once I was back to maintaining. Even as I fixated on my shallow pursuit, I think I always knew, deep down, that was not true.

At some recent point, I remembered who I am on multiple levels. I remembered that I do not care about being skinny enough or a certain size; I remembered that it is not really my priority. Instead, I care about sanity. And I remembered that I need this, that obsession, fixation, and self-abuse are at my core. Channeled addiction, directed negative energy.

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I was diagnosed as bipolar when I was 19 years old. By the point I finally sought help and a diagnosis, I was scarcely functional, and my self-mutilation escalated to an alarming degree. What I would later learn were my symptoms emerged when I was 17 yet I can remember hints back into my childhood. I remember feeling so much and never being able to adequately explain or understand it.

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Like most, I railed against my diagnosis, alarmed by the permanence of the idea of being defective or broken. I resisted what it meant, fought what I needed to do, and continued to be a self-destructive mess for a long time. Making peace with what I am, with the way my brain is was probably the hardest point of growth in my life. The idea of who I am, how I identified being defective or undesirable was a difficult pill to swallow.

I tried medication once. And by once, I do not mean one kind of medication; I mean one pill, one time. The experience was horrendous. I was unconscious for over 12 hours, borderline catatonic for the entire next day, then suicidal for two more. I vowed to never attempt medication again, so I had to find an alternative method to deal.

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I did not want to hide in pharmaceuticals, but the chemical component of my disorder is undeniable. I cannot ignore it without it tearing apart my life. I cannot control the structure of my brain. I cannot affect the way my neurotransmitter receptors react to chemicals or the natural levels of serotonin or norepinephrine. However, I learned I can control two things: 1. The chemicals and activities that change my brain chemistry and subsequently moods, and 2. How I react to and process the moods I experience.

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Therapy handled learning how to react and process better. After I got past the resistance to what my diagnosis meant and entailed, sessions could actually be productive. By the end, I learned to suck any fraction of worth from 50 minutes out of a paid hour like a vampire. A reduction in alcohol intake and elimination of detrimental chemicals tamed the peaks of my extremes. Enter exercise as my medication.

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All my self-destructive behaviors included trying to eat and drink myself to death, so when I surfaced from the depths of my depression, I initially started exercising to lose weight. That shift, in itself, was a change from self-destruction to self-care. Instead of trying to kill myself slowly in every way possible, I made one step in the direction of taking care of myself, of deciding my body and my health was worth the investment. Then it was habit and routine to maintain the loss. It took years, but I discovered the mentally therapeutic benefits of fitness when I began dancing and running. When there was a high.

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The high is the key, which is why exercises like dancing and running are more effective for me than walking or weight lifting. I am chasing that wave of euphoric endorphins. Like a true bipolar, I am at home in extremes. Like a true recovered masochist, I always want to push until I hurt myself a little. That high can extract me from depression or level out the waves of my cycles (fun fact: Monster energy drinks also serve the same short term purpose but too much can lead to flirting with psychotic mania). So regular high intensity cardio exercise both helps keep me level and helps level me out when I do cycle.

This realization and practice, nearly a decade of bipolaring in the making, has changed everything for me. I did not have to wean off of medication or forego breastfeeding when I had my babies. I do not have to worry about side effects, the ones I experienced with my one dabbling or others like excessive weight gain associated with psychoactive drugs. I am unshackled. Unchained yet also completely and solely responsible for my own functioning. I’m even off the therapy leash these past few years.

However, this approach is definitely more demanding than popping a pill. Usually, I exercise 8-12 hours per week. Balanced between a full time job, two young children, writing, and a social life with my family stretches me pretty thin (and not in the aesthetic way).

This much self-care requires me to be selfish at times I probably should not be; it makes my relationships inequitable at times. I have to make sure to go run when I should be with my children. My partner has to consider me and make sure I can take care of myself before himself. It is often gravely unfair, but doesn’t my condition need to be considered and attended? Does my neuroatypical brain not require different things than the typical ones around me? Don’t I have to take care of myself to be worth anything to anyone else? These are hard questions to answer, and I do not think the answers are always the same.

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Neuroatypical is a new word to me. So much more comfortable than crazy or broken.

This concept, my way of dealing, has been weighing on my mind with extra heft lately. Recently, additional snippets of family history have been revealed about breakdowns and hospitalizations. The history always just feels like a damning roadmap of my future. But I want to be different.

I already am different. I am living my life out in the open. Part of me hesitated to publish this mental history lesson publicly under my real name, but this is who I am. I am bipolar. And if anyone can benefit from the lessons I have suffered to learn, I am willing to put them out there. I am not hiding or denying, like past generations had to. I have cultivated a support system who are familiar with my challenges and are able to support me through them.

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I am being proactive. If working myself out to the bone is what keeps me sane, I am committing to this fitness lifestyle. It’s a hell of a better reason to do so than just trying to be some kind of skinny.

 

Christina Bergling

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