Owning a Business with a Mental Illness

I have always wanted to be self-employed, and I put off taking that step for years because I was so afraid of how having bipolar disorder might affect me as a business owner. Owning a business is a huge responsibility, and honestly, it was probably good that I put it off. I wasn’t stable enough at 18 or 21 or 23 to cope with such a huge change in my life or manage such a large responsibility.

After over a year with no severe episodes and months of dissatisfaction and stress at my old job, I finally quit and opened my own massage therapy office in November 2014.

It affected and was affected by my mental health, for better and for worse.

I had the worst panic attack I’ve had in years when I had to present my business plan to my parents to ask for a start-up loan, even though they’d already agreed to lend me the money. I felt like self-injuring every day for the first month after I opened, even though I was doing well. I woke up some mornings and thought, Oh my God, what did I do? I can’t do this! More panic attacks. A lot of panic attacks.

But good came from all that stress. For one, I learned to handle a huge amount of stress. I don’t think that panicking about things or being tempted to fall back on old coping mechanisms means that I wasn’t handling the stress. The panic attacks subsided and I didn’t self-injure, so I consider that a huge success.

Being a business owner is also teaching me to push myself outside my comfort zone, which I struggle with, but feel is vital to growing as a person.

One of the things that has been a concern for me and for my family is how I will handle running a business when I do have an episode. I’m not naive enough to think that they’re gone forever.

Mania is the one that really threatens how I function professionally. It’s almost impossible to leave the house sometimes when my head is racing and I can’t latch on to any one thought, when I haven’t slept or eaten for days. Before I opened my business, I had a long conversation with my grandmother about how I would handle a manic episode as a business owner.

For one, I wouldn’t schedule too many appointments on the same day. It’s one thing to go into the office for two or three hours while manic, it’s another to work all day long, which was challenging at my old job where I had to be there 8-10 hours a day, regardless of whether I had appointments or not. Calling my doctor right away, or having someone else do it for me, is an absolute must. I also intentionally chose an office space within walking distance of my house. No more 45 minute manic bus rides or overstimulating downtown treks. I can go do what I need to do and then go home.

Sometimes I hate that I have to strategically plan my life about what could happen because of my mental illness. On the flip side, it’s a huge boost to my confidence knowing that I am succeeding at something I’ve wanted for a long time, that I’ve built flexibility into my professional life to help me cope with this illness, and that I’m empowered enough now to recognize potential pitfalls and plan around them.

Even my therapist says she’s seen a huge difference in me since I quit my old job and took on this new role.

I know that not every step of the journey is going to be easy, but I’m proud of myself for being realistic about my illness, and most of all for not letting it hold me back from the things I really want in life.

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A Few Updates

I’m back in blog action! I will be updating this blog soon with some mental health-related posts. However, I am branching into other blogs for other things in the new year. I will be writing about joyful living, goal setting, and building a better me at Joyful Ambitions and about homesteading and earth-based spirituality at Witching the Homestead.

Stay tuned for new posts here! Happy New Year!

Choosing Happiness

I haven’t been blogging much lately. My life has been completely consumed by changing jobs and preparing to open my own business in November. We might be moving again in December. All these changes are positive changes, but they do shift my priorities a lot.

But today, I want to talk about the biggest shift in my experience with mental illness: choosing to be happy.

I never believed that happiness was a choice. In the first ten years after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, “happiness” was an elusive, abstract idea. I didn’t really understand what it was, but I knew it was missing from my life. People would say to me, “Nobody is happy all the time,” and “I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”

I know now that they’re wrong, because I am happy. All the time.

The shift came a few years ago, after a long bout of depression. One day, I said to myself, “I’m not going to be unhappy anymore.” I wish it was as simple as that, but happiness wasn’t a choice for me. It was a change in perspective.

When I started viewing happiness as an overarching feeling in my life, instead of an immediate and tangible fix, and when I shifted my attitude from pessimism and cynicism to awe at and gratitude for the world around me, I became happy. It took a long time, and sometimes I still fall back on feelings of unhappiness, so I regroup, reevaluate how I’m looking at life, and try again.

It doesn’t mean that nothing bad happens to me. It doesn’t mean that I’m chipper and cheerful all the time; my personality still lends itself to worrying and sarcasm. A lot of becoming happy meant accepting imperfection, and even seeing imperfection as a beautiful, natural part of experiencing life.

I am happy about big things: I’m getting married, I’m pursuing my dreams, I’m shifting my career in the direction I want it to go instead of letting my success rest on other people’s shoulders. But I’m also happy because it rains. I’m happy that I have a box of green tea on the shelf. I’m happy when I cook up a big pan of sautéed Portobello mushrooms and when blankets warm my toes in this chilly fall weather, when my fiancé kisses the back of my hand and when we binge-watch Doctor Who on Netflix. It sounds corny, but the shift from letting little things slip past me to stopping and appreciating them, to filling my life with gratitude for all the tiny, lovely things that happen every day, exponentially increased the amount of happiness and satisfaction I feel in my life.

Of course I’m not thrilled about everything in my life. I’m not fond of the apartment we’re living in, but I’m glad we have a place to live that is spacious and accommodates our animals. I don’t have the time for housework I’d like, but I have the mindset to cut myself some slack because I’m getting a heck of a lot done in other areas of my life.

I have good days and bad days like everyone else, and with a mental illness, sometimes I have long strings of bad days. I’ve taught myself to view happiness as a bigger concept, not based whether or not individual days are good or bad, but whether or not I am satisfied with my life’s direction in general.

Perspective has changed everything.

Work in Progress

I spend a lot of time daydreaming about my perfect life. In my perfect life, I’m saving money, I feel satisfied in my job, we eat home-cooked meals every night, the dogs get long walks twice a day. In my perfect life, I have a healthy work-life balance and time for my hobbies. I don’t have days where I feel burnt out and watch X-Files on my couch all day instead of blogging and planning and cleaning and accomplishing. I am both a domestic goddess and a productive worker. I always have a clear vision of and direction in my life.

But perfection isn’t what my life looks like at all. There isn’t money leftover after the bills are paid, I can’t stand my job, I’m lucky if we cook twice a week, and sometimes a walk means we sprint around the block once before the sun comes up. My work-life balance is okay, but I still feel too tired to pursue hobbies some days, and hey, X-files is pretty good stuff. My house is never as neat as I want  it to be, especially with the dogs shredding stuffed toys all over the carpet all the time. My vision gets cloudy, and I lose direction, meander a bit, and then find it again.

I try to remember how beautifully human imperfection makes me. If my desire as a person with bipolar disorder is to live a “normal” life with healthy emotions, being imperfect, without damaging mood shifts, is about as normal as it gets.

“This is what your twenties are for,” all the sagely adults in my life keep telling me, and then I remember that I’m an adult too, and I was around when they were going through their twenties, when we were in just-okay apartments and our dinner choices at night were ramen or Spaghettios. We did the best we could with what we had, and that’s what I’m doing now. “It doesn’t last forever. Life always throws you curve balls,” they say, “but you won’t always struggle the way you are now.”

I look around at all the things I am doing: working to change my job situation so I can be happier and financially stable, paying the bills, even if it means there’s nothing leftover, learning to control my anxiety, and more importantly, being comfortable with relinquishing control sometimes. “I feel like I’m losing sight of other big things,” I told Big Bee, after I’d been powering through things I need to do to change my work life for four days. “I feel like I’m losing focus on the wedding and shopping for a car.”

“But I’m not,” he said.  “This is what I mean when I say I’ve got your back. We divvy up important things, and that’s okay.”

It’s still hard for me to let go of the feeling that I need to be on top of everything all the time. It’s hard for me to accept that no one is being productive 24 hours a day, so I don’t have to be either. I am growing more comfortable, however, with the fact that life–mine and everyone else’s–is a work in progress.

Photo Friday: Ducks, Again

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Are there ever enough ducks? I spent half an hour in the park, enjoying the sunshine and being followed around by these ducks, who wanted crumbs from my snacks. They’re so funny to watch! I especially like when they’re in the water and dive under and wiggle their fluffy butts at the surface. What animals do you like to watch where you live?

Featured Blog: Maranda Elizabeth

Maranda Elizabeth

I started reading Maranda’s zines (independently published magazines) when I was in high school, and I admire their writing, creativity, and general awesomeness. Maranda has multiple mental and physical diagnoses and writes often about health, coping and self-care, gender identity, friendship and family. While they seem to be taking a break from blogging this summer, I definitely recommend reading the blog archives. Maranda has also published several books and is active in zine fairs in the USA and Canada.

My Day with Pets

I have a lot of animals. At least, that’s what people tell me. The truth is, I’ve always surrounded myself with animals. Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve had to be more careful about the pets that I bring into my life because money has to go to paying rent and buying groceries and all those good adult things. I can’t imagine a life without animals in it though…they really do comfort, entertain, and keep me company. I like the way their little quirks have become a lovely part of my daily routine.

 

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The dogs wake me up between 5:00 and 5:30 every day to go to the bathroom and eat breakfast. I used to hate this because I’m really not a morning person, but I’m starting to love getting up before sunrise and having coffee on the back porch with them. Our pit bull turned two this August. I never considered myself a dog person until I moved in with my fiancé and started spending time with this dog. He is my sweetie, my momma’s boy, my 55 pound lap dog. He has taught me so much about love.

 

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In June, we took in this lab/malamute/maybe Australian shepherd mix. She’s five months old now, and much bigger than in that photo, but she rarely sits still long enough for me to take an updated picture. I love the way she follows me around the house and lays at my feet when we’re outside. When someone walks by the house, especially kids, she gets so excited. Her tail wags so hard that her whole butt wiggles. She has this funny little curly poof of hair on her tail like a Dr. Seuss illustration.

After the dogs are fed, I usually put a movie on for them in the living room. They wrestle a little bit and then nap most of the morning. At that point, I either go to work, or I head upstairs to work on blogging.

On my days off, I let this little guy out for playtime:

 

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No, he’s not biting hard in that picture, but some ferrets do play bite when they get excited. He lost his companion this summer, so I’ve made a point to spend a lot of one-on-one time with him lately. After he’s all played out, I feed him his breakfast. He eats a raw diet, which keeps him healthy with a shiny coat and less of that musky ferret smell. Since he’s young, he’s still pretty hyper sometimes, although he’s calmer than some ferrets I’ve had. He does like a good snuggle once he’s all played out.

Throughout the day, I take breaks to play tug with the dogs or take them for a walk. I also hang out with the cats:

 

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They’re brother and sister from the same litter. My best friend has their brother, who was the runt and is now a huge, black panther of a kitty. The top photo is of the female, who is now huge and presides over the house as the Ninja Princess and keeps all the other animals in line. The male is more timid, my Wuss Puss who cries when the other animals start to annoy him. He likes to be carried around in my arms and is fond of snuggling up with Big Bee while he’s playing video games.

Big Bee gets home from work in the evening and one of us feeds the dogs again. When we go to bed at night, the dogs come with us. The pit bull sleeps under the covers with me, usually next to my legs, although occasionally cuddled up against my belly. The other dog pulls all our dirty clothes into a pile and nests in them. I’m not totally sure what the cats get up to while we’re in bed, but sometimes I hear them rampaging up and down the stairs, which sounds like a herd of elephants running through my house.

There’s one other family member, who doesn’t necessarily need care every day since she only eats once a week, but is fun to watch in her enclosure throughout the day. This is my carpet python:

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She was a rescue that someone dropped off at a pet shop I used to work in. She’s the third snake I’ve had since I was 11. I have always been fascinated by the primal power of snakes, especially large constrictors.

My pets are a grounding force that give routine and companionship to my day. They are truly a part of my family.

Alternative Therapies for Mental Wellness and Relaxation

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More and more people are using alternative therapies to complement Western medicine for all sorts of health issues. Do alternative therapies have any benefits for people with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues? As someone who works in holistic health as a massage therapist, I think they do.

I can’t say much about managing bipolar disorder using only eastern medicine or alternative therapies. My experiences and successes are limited to using alternative therapies alongside traditional psychiatry, talk therapy, and Western medicine. I don’t recommend starting any kind of alternative health regimen without consulting your psychiatrist, especially when it comes to supplements or herbs that may interact with psych meds, and I don’t condone stopping medications without guidance from a doctor, as I know firsthand that it can have dangerous physical and mental consequences.

In conjunction with psychiatric  care, these are some alternative therapies that have helped me.

Let’s start with massage. I know massage best because I’ve done it for so long. Emotional release–crying, laughter, etc.–is well documented in bodywork; there is definitely a relationship between the stress we carry in our muscles and our emotional state. There are not a lot of conclusive studies about massage and mental health, but the idea of using massage as a supportive treatment for mental illness is gaining attention. The American Massage Therapy Association magazine has written a few articles about massage and depression in the last year. There are even psychologists who are performing or having a massage therapist perform massage on their clients during talk therapy sessions, with noticeable results in the amount of emotional breakthroughs their clients are having. While our knowledge of massage’s effects on emotional well-being is still limited at this time, we do know that the relaxing effects of massage can ease anxiety, emotional tension, and depression.

Acupuncture works on the basis, core to Chinese medicine, that everything in our body, our emotional and physical well-being, is connected. The energy and health of our body can be thrown out of whack by imbalance in one area or the other. Under that premise, anger from a situation in our life can affect us physically, while a bout of illness can make us depressed or anxious. Acupuncture promotes healing and balance in all areas of the body. Acupuncture has been more widely studied than massage in regards to its affect on mental health, especially with depression. Studies show that it can be as affective as antidepressants, and it’s also helpful in relieving side effects from psychiatric medications. This study examines the effects of antidepressants, counseling, and acupuncture. My own experience with acupuncture surprised me because it is so relaxing and not at all painful like I expected. I usually fall asleep during sessions, and I do notice that my moods are more stable in the weeks following a treatment. Acupuncture has also helped relieve some of the physical ailments, such as headaches and gastrointestinal issues, that have a profound effect on my moods.

Supplements and herbs should only be taken with the approval of a medical professional. All mine were recommended by a doctor or my acupuncturist. I have had success relieving anxiety with supplements, and, like acupuncture, they have helped with physical problems that affect my emotional state. I take mine in conjunction with my psychiatric medications, and have also been able to have some relief from side effects through dietary supplements.

Reiki is a style of energy healing that originated in Japan and works by increasing and directing ki or the life force energy in our bodies and cleansing areas of the body where negative emotions and energy have collected and become stagnant. It promotes relaxation, healing, and happiness. During a reiki session, a trained practitioner lays hands near or on a client in various positions to transfer, direct, and increase our natural energy, with the belief that increasing our ki and clearing restrictions in our energy allows us to be more balanced, physically and mentally. Reiki classes are becoming more popular and available to the public, and it’s pretty easy to learn. I had a basic class in reiki in massage therapy school, and being able to perform reiki on myself was extremely helpful during my first hospitalization, when I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. You can learn more about reiki here.
Have you tried any alternative therapies to help bipolar disorder or another mental health diagnosis?