Bipolar and routine: Cerys’ story
Ahead of Youth Mental Health Day on Thursday, Cerys shares her experiences of struggling with bipolar while studying at university and how maintaining a routine has helped her.
Wake up, coffee, read the news app. Shower, take the kids to school, clean the house.
These are some of the little things that can become a routine. A routine is a sequence of actions regularly followed, whether this be the order in which you clean your house, the tasks you tick off before you go to work or the daily 30-minute loop you walk with your dog.
To most people, a routine is followed because it makes their life easier or because they have certain things that have to be completed in order to fulfil their daily objectives. Sometimes people are unaware that they are even following a routine, for example, making their coffee the same way each morning or washing their body in a certain order in the shower.
However, for people with chronic mental illness or those with neurodivergence, routine can be a lifeline.
In 2018, I found myself being given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder whilst I attended university only a few hours away from home.
Whilst not a necessarily unexpected diagnosis, I began to analyse my thoughts and actions in ways I never had before. I started keeping a mood diary – something which I tried to commit myself to filling in every single day in order to better understand my fluctuations in mood. I started to think about the things that make me happy and the things that bring me comfort even when I am suffering at the hands of turbulent mood changes.
One thing that really stuck out to me was the fact that I felt so overwhelmed, confused, stressed and pressured in a way I never had when I was at school or at home.
I found myself struggling to wake up at the same time every day, not exercising as much as I did as an early teen, crying over when I was going to find time to go to the supermarket amongst lectures, seminars and course deadlines. I found the pressure of studying at Durham too much, a constant sense of imposter syndrome looming over me as I doubted my academic abilities.
I started to consider what I had at home and school that I hadn’t managed to bring to university.
It wasn’t my childhood teddy or favourite brand of teabags but instead the strict routine I followed whilst in compulsory childhood education.
University doesn’t necessarily favour those with severe mental health problems. With constant deadlines and forever feeling like you are behind on reading, students can easily become overwhelmed if they struggle with self-management and organisation skills. I found myself disorganised, panicked and behind on study for the first time in my life, mainly because I couldn’t find routine amongst my mood rapid-cycling.
In the summer before my final year of university, the penny finally dropped and I realised that I couldn’t approach university life the same way my peers did.
I was on a high dosage of quetiapine, of which the biggest side effect is feeling sedate or tired. My housemates could go out and not return until the early hours whilst also making their 9am seminar the next morning, but I simply couldn’t sustain this.
This was therefore my starting point: take my medication at exactly 8:40pm every night, be in bed by 9pm, make my seminar the next morning. I didn’t always make it but at minimum, the intention was there.
This was the start of my routine – the things that keep me stable, less anxious, and fulfilled even when my moods were unexpected and turbulent.
I work on the basis that if I try my best to mitigate stress, maintaining a healthy routine of activities, my mood swings will feel less overwhelming and I will hopefully feel more in control. I even made the conscious decision last year to leave paid employment to focus on improving my mental health – something which I have also built into my routine through writing thought pieces like the one you are reading.
Now, after a few years of crafting my own personal routine, I am starting to feel more in control of my life.
I stick to my bedtime, wake up at the same time, and walk the dog at virtually the same time each day. I leave allocated time slots in the morning and afternoon for ‘activities of choice’, whether that be crocheting, writing short stories, playing my guitar or going to the shop to stock up on household products.
Many people with bipolar use routine as a grounding; as something that brings stability in a life filled with turbulence, emotional upheaval and constant triggers.
I recently moved back in with my parents for a few weeks whilst my house was renovated, something which hugely impacted my routine. I suddenly found myself overwhelmed, scared, directionless and even confused because I don’t have my usual routine.
Whilst I can sleep and wake at the same time, navigating routine in a busy household with several pets and a lack of my usual activities resulted in a slight depressive episode and severe anxiety. I saw myself questioning my mental stability simply because I didn’t have my routine to keep me occupied.
Whilst it is not necessarily healthy to have anxiety around a lack of routine, my personal experience of bipolar is that maintaining a routine is my best self-management tactic.
There is even a therapy developed around this entire principle called ‘Interpersonal and Social Rhythm Therapy’ with evidence suggesting that depressive and manic symptoms can be significantly reduced through maintaining even the smallest routine, such as consistently taking your medication at the same time.
At 23-years-old, structure and routine remain the one thing that allows me to appropriately navigate the complexities of my mental illness, the same way it did when I was a child.
By planning my day, often down to the finest detail, I have given myself some stability in order to begin the real groundwork for my mental health recovery.
My bipolar will never be gone, but instead of resenting that fact, I work with it day in day out to be the best version of me that I can be, even if that means being tucked up in bed by 9pm.
If you’re struggling, we’re here for you – Youth in Mind is a partnership of mental and emotional wellbeing organisations supporting children, young people, and their families from age 5 to age 25. See our page to learn more about the services available.
Posted on: 21st September 2022