Courage is a marathon. It took me years to accept that I was bipolar and to talk about it: Aparna Piarmal Raje
When did you find out you were bipolar and what were the signs?
Bipolarity first appeared in my life when I was 24, although my family and I were completely unfamiliar with the word at the time. I had just finished a summer internship and was about to start an MBA at Harvard Business School. This excitement combined with some emotional turmoil in my personal life was the “perfect storm” that tipped me into hypomania. I lost sleep, I had delusions of grandeur, my mind raced with ideas. My sister and my mother had to come with me to Boston because I couldn’t travel alone. I enjoyed the high, but they were confused by my behavior, the change in my facial expression and my eyes. When they left, I became depressed for a few months.
This idea of sharing one’s vulnerability is still relatively new in India. What more should be done?
that’s a great question. Because we associate vulnerability with failure, it’s hard to talk about it. But that is part of the human condition; it makes us authentic and real. I received so many messages complimenting me on my courage to speak out about being bipolar. My answer is that courage is a marathon. It took me years to accept that I was bipolar and to start talking about it freely. Three factors helped me find the courage to share and normalize my vulnerability. First, I trusted my friends, family, and most importantly my co-workers with my vulnerability. Second, I found acceptance and safe spaces where I could let my ecosystem know when I was sick. Many homes and workplaces are not accommodating. And finally, I learned to ask for help in areas where I know I’m vulnerable.
You say you have a mental health “problem” rather than a “disorder”…
To me, a disorder suggests permanent dysfunction, while a condition is simply something I live with. In my opinion, I have a disease, but I am not sick all the time. Just like the cycles of the pandemic, periods of extreme mood swings come and go but you have to be vigilant at all times if you want to stay stable!
You talk about befriending your emotions. Tell us about the idea of “bearing witness, detaching, documenting”.
My first therapist suggested that I make friends with emotions, be it joy, anger, or sadness. The idea is neither to repress the feelings nor to be consumed by them, but rather to recognize them, as one would deal with a friend, and to respond to them by acknowledging that “I am not my emotions “. A corollary of this approach is to “bear witness” to emotions, and to detach oneself from them by taking a step back in a neutral way, and not letting oneself be overtaken by them. It is a difficult but effective mindfulness practice, especially when mood swings are severe. Writing also helps to distance oneself from emotions.
Briefly list the seven therapies that you think work.
Medical therapies, such as drug therapy and talk therapy, are the starting point for treatment and healing. Love therapy, which is the role of caregivers, highlights why mental health is a team sport. Allies, such as friends and other community members, provide empathy therapy. Work therapy describes how to find a balance between stressful work and therapeutic work. Self-therapy speaks to the need to have conversations with oneself, especially on the topics of purpose, meaning and dharma. Lifestyle therapy examines the role of sleep, exercise, nutrition, and play, and why mental health is like a garden to tend to every day. And then there is spiritual therapy.
What is the role of spiritual therapy and long-term medication?
Spiritual therapy and medication are essential and play complementary roles. Spiritual therapy gave my immense awareness of myself, my dharma, my purpose, my faith. This led to inner illumination and self-examination. It helps to align “head, heart and hand” and to resolve psychological conflicts that can precipitate a mental and emotional crisis. In a crisis situation, medication is essential to stabilize a patient and ensure a smooth recovery, but also to maintain daily balance.
Any advice for caregivers?
Caregivers are essential, and my book is as much for them as it is for anyone with a mental health problem. The three “Ts” are trust, managing triggers, and therapy. Only trusted caregivers can help a loved one in turbulent times. It is important to establish this trust in times of peace. Caregivers are also uniquely positioned to spot triggers and prevent situations from escalating, even when loved ones may not be willing to listen. And finally, caregivers need therapy or someone to talk to too – there is so much burnout.