We’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season right now, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt a little too jolly during this time of year. I’m jubilant, extra outgoing, and full of buzzing excited energy. I adore the spicy smells of mulled cider, glittering string lights and cozy inviting fireplaces. People are friendlier and more generous with sincere sentiment as they wish you a Merry Christmas or Happy Hanukah. The world comes alive with a positive energy that’s infectious. ‘Tis the season, so they say. Everything is brighter and shinier during the holidays, and this overstimulation can be a dangerous thing for someone with bipolar disorder.
It seems like every other day I get an invite to a holiday event of some sort. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I feel lucky to have friends who want to include me in their festivities. The problem is—though the excitement of non-stop celebrating that accompanies the holidays may feel good—it can also wreck my mental stability. Like clockwork, every year starting in October with Halloween, my hypomania ramps up like a car ascending the first hill on a roller coaster. I hear the clicks on the track as I climb higher, and by the time I feel the first rush of wind through my hair, I know I’m headed towards mania. Sure, it can be an exhilarating ride for a little while, but the fun part never lasts. Mania is terrifying, dangerous, and potentially fatal. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to hop on the amusement park ride with glee. Now that I’m older and wiser, I take better care of myself, and I approach the season with cautious optimism. In addition to my normal routine of eating healthy, taking my meds, and getting consistent, solid sleep, I’m also aware of my triggers. Everyone has their own personal provocations, and I’ve found five that can push me over the edge if not managed in measured doses.
I love a good gathering. I’m an extrovert and a type-A personality, so I’m naturally comfortable in groups of people being the center of attention. I can even be the life of the party, but that’s just the problem. Because I have bipolar disorder, any extra social stimulation can carry my mind away before I know it. I just get too invigorated by parties, and they can trigger my hypomania. In the past, I pushed myself to attend everything I was invited to even if I was tired. Now, I only go to events I feel I have the energy for. I used to be one of the last people to leave the party, but now I no longer stay until the fat lady sings.
Alcohol is one of my weaknesses. Whether it’s a nice dry glass of Malbec or an ice-cold microbrew, I enjoy the taste of a good drink. Ask almost anyone with bipolar disorder and they’ll tell you: we have a complicated relationship with alcohol. It’s one of the biggest triggers (next to sleep disruption) of hypo/mania. Because this time of year is so filled with booze, I stay healthy by watching how much I consume. Now, I try to only partake on weekends, and I limit myself to three drinks in one night.
The shopping frenzy that accompanies Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the season as a whole has a powerful grip on our society. I love getting gifts, but I also enjoy picking out the perfect present for someone. Though I do most of my shopping online nowadays (because traffic is one of my triggers too) I still fall victim to holiday buying hysteria. I have to admit, I get a high like it’s Christmas morning (pun intended) when I get packages delivered to my door. My new healthy strategy is twofold: I focus more on homemade gifts like knitted blankets and vegan cookies, and I pick out a few meaningful things for a small group of close loved ones and leave it at that. I also request no gifts from as many people as possible, that way I don’t feel the need to reciprocate when this season comes around again.
This time of year brings with it tons of family and social obligations. I get easily overwhelmed when I feel too many commitments weighing down on me. I used to get anxious and upset when I felt inundated with responsibilities. In the past, I’ve even had physical symptoms caused by this anxiety like stomach pains and migraines. Now, I say “no” when I think my plate may be getting too full.
The lack of structure that comes with being off work during this time of year can easily cause me to stay up too late, sleep all day, and lose track of time. Like most people with bipolar disorder, I’m extra sensitive to changes in my circadian rhythm, as well as having unstructured stretches of time with nothing to do. I find myself getting lost in my mind, ruminating and obsessing over things, and that can spiral out of control. Now, I stay healthy over the holiday break by keeping a regular sleep schedule, getting exercise, and focusing on a creative project like painting or writing.
Until a few years ago, I used to dread New Year’s Day. That was the day I’d crash. For most of my life, the month of January was a fight to stave off the impending doom of depression that came once party was over. Now that I’ve learned what some of my triggers are, I’ve adapted. Because I’ve developed healthy strategies to keep myself stable, I’m confident that I’ll be around to celebrate another holiday season next year.