No, I Can’t “Snap Out of It”
I had an interesting conversation with my roommate. I was asking for support with my Bipolar, needing suggestion of activities I can do when I’m in lower energy states, and people/groups to do them with. He suggested working out. I agreed, being active is very important to me.
In fact I really enjoy it. And it raises my energy significantly. But when I’m in a low energy state, it’s very hard to stick to going to the gym, especially alone. I mentioned that I have various “poles” or “modes” where I need a slightly different types of stimulation. One day I may be pumped to go to the gym. The other I need to play a high energy social game, like volleyball. And other times, I might need to do yoga, or even light stretching. This applies to any activity, be it work, or social. I need variety.
I continued with this clarification. He replied something along the lines of “if you love yourself, you’ll just be able to stick to working out”. I’ve heard this in many variations throughout the years:
Why don’t you just snap out of it?
You just need to work on your willpower.
Just stick to a daily practice.
You just have to commit to it.
You just need to have integrity with yourself.
Stop making excuses.
Every person with depression has heard these “helpful suggestions” hundreds of times. Don’t you think, if it was that easy, they would’ve tried it at some point to “just snap out of it”? Yes, to some extent they’re right, I need to practice discipline, and push my boundaries of comfort. But it’s really not that simple. Willpower alone won’t get me out of a depression.
This is a very difficult concept with someone without depression to understand. Depression, clinical depression, is a totally different state of mind. It’s something that’s very hard to explain if you haven’t experienced it. It’s like explaining being “in love” to someone who never felt it.
Nevertheless, I will try my best. This is because I believe the key to my health, is having my friends and loved ones understand my condition, and how they can effectively support me.
I empathize with “normal” folks. It makes absolutely no sense why someone with Bipolar can’t just “snap out of it”. In fact, even when I’m in a healthy state, it puzzles me why I have so much trouble staying active and following my schedule during depressions. I can’t put myself into that state of mind, imagine what it felt like to be “depressed”. I only have vague memories.
The difference is most stark when I take Ketamine. Ketamine offers a 20 minute “escape” from depression. It clears your mind, removes the anxiety, the need for mild stimulation, and suddenly you just feel calm. Even in those 20 minutes, it stops making sense “why was I depressed?”
Let me explain what happens in depression. The levels of Serotonin and other chemicals that influence my mood, willpower, “energy”, sexual desire, memory, learning, creativity, and just about every other useful function plunge. So in fact, I can’t just “will myself” to do something that was easy just a few days ago. Believe me, I’ve tried, I’ve tried my best, and I failed. And I put a lot of pressure on myself to try.
For most of my adult life, I heard similar “suggestions” to what my friend said in various forms. But I interpreted them as: “you’re a lazy whiner, and your depression is all your fault”. I believed that all I had to do was try “hard enough” and my depression would be cured. And of course, no matter how hard I pushed myself, it failed every time.
This led to very low self esteem, and in fact deepened my depression significantly. I blamed myself for my condition, which made the depressions far far worse. They say in Buddhism that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. Most suffering in our life is created by our judgments and interpretations of what is. By adding all that shame and guilt on top of my already low mood, I significantly increased my suffering.
Eventually, I ran across the right therapists and guides, and understood that I can’t just “force myself” out of a depression. It’s far more complicated than that.
I have found what actually works:
- Finding a Health Environment: surrounding myself with people and communities who are active, social, mindful, and supportive. They intentionally invite me to a variety of activities, and offer suggestions such as “taking a walk with them” or “meditating”, especially when I’m in a low energy state. Having people around me nudge me to do healthy activities, actually join me in them greatly raises my motivation of doing them. I’ll explain why later.
- Using “psychological tricks”: for example getting myself to exercise by integrating it with social activities. I did this in NYC by joining the AcroYoga scene. I would go to the Acro gym 5 minutes from work and hang around there for 5 hours, every day. I was fit, healthy, and happy.
- Planning ahead: This is the crux of the solution. When I’m in a relatively positive state, have some energy, and creativity, I can form healthy habits, set up my life in such a way that when my lower energy states kick in, I have easy choices of how to healthily fill my time. I plan activities like circling or NVC, which maintain a social connection. I sign up for a regular work out class. That kind of stuff. That way, when I am in a low energy state, I don’t have to think, I have my plan. When I’m in a low-medium energy state, I enlist my friends to help me plan, supplement my creativity and energy, and help me come up with a solid, actionable plan of what I can do.
If you have a friend with Bipolar or Depression, please understand that their brain chemistry is very different from yours. They are a totally different person when they are in a different state.
They don’t have access to the same level of creativity, energy, brainpower, strength, and most importantly willpower, as they do on regular days. If you want to support someone with Bipolar, you CAN help them, with the methods I listed above. Help them plan for their low energy states.
It’s not Bipolar, It’s Multipolar
Being Bipolar isn’t binary. It’s not just “laying in bed catatonic” or “climbing trees naked in Golden Gate Park howling at the moon”. There’s actually quite a lot in between. And there are many dimensions to the possible poles, including energy, extroversion, left/right brain leaning, and countless other modifiers. This is quite a difficult concept to explain.
Let me give you an idea of the incredible range of “poles” I may feel, even within the same day:
- Wake up feeling Sleepy. I just wanna hit the snooze button. But whatever, I get up, I get in the shower. I do it quickly and sloppily, leaving half my face unshaved. I don’t have time or energy to enjoy my morning. I skip meditation because I just don’t have the focus.
- I get to working, and feel Productive/Social. I don’t want to code…but I do want to sort through my inbox for 4 hours.
- I finally feel Productive/Coding. The thing is, it’s a very specific “flavor” of coding. I want to work on Backend stuff, APIs, queries. But I only have frontend CSS tasks. Ugh…so I power through.
- After an hour I feel Tired. All my motivation to code is gone. I spend 4 hours on Facebook
- All of a sudden I feel Social! But a very special kind of social — athletic. I want to go out there and do some acro yoga, play catch, some beach volleyball. But it’s COVID, and I don’t have anyone around who can play with me. Of course I don’t want to do anything athletic alone (gym, etc). But at least I try to satisfy that social itch
- I start calling up friends, one after another. I’m talking to them, one after another. But it’s just not scratching the exact social itch I have. I wanna do something active, not talk. So I get…
- Lonely Depressed. Here I become low energy…I want to do something active and social, but I don’t have friends or am not in an environment that can fulfill that desire. This causes low energy, tiredness, and negative feeling. Ultimately I might end the day watching Netflix.
Of course, it’s not just all negative. I may also have a pretty great day:
- I wake up feeling Meditative. I take a long shower, brush my teeth, enjoying the warm water on my skin. I take my time making a beautiful breakfast. Aaah what a nice morning.
- Now I have some energy. I’m in “Productive/Coding/Difficult Problem” mode. That means I’m itching to solve a difficult coding problem. Luckily, my boss has a difficult algorithm that needs to be written for executing a certain type of web scraping. I jump right into it. I’m in Head Down mode. So I just code for 4 hours straight, and commit my masterpiece.
- Now I need some right brain action. And I happen to be feeling “Productive/Creative”. Here I spend 2 hours writing an article on how to have better relationships. Wonderful!
- Now back to coding. I’m kind of tired of Difficult Problems and doing all that thinking for my article. I just wanna veg out, and do some simple CSS. I put on some tunes and crank out 5 pixel perfect screens, working in 25m Pomedoro increments, and taking 5 minute stretching breaks in between.
- OK! Time to have some fun! I am feeling Social and Playful! I go with my partner to a neighboring beach resort, and we dress as dinosaurs and hand out flowers to strangers while singing Disney tunes. Well that was fun!
- Time to go home and do a little Self Growth but still social. I feel like working on our codependency issues. So we do an exercise together, and work on our patterns.
- I actually need some alone time now. But still want to do some Self Growth. So I journal
- And now time to go to bed. I’m feeling Horny, Playful, and Social. So we stream a playful sexy show on our Chaturbate channel.
- And now I feel Sleepy. So I sleep!
Aaaah isn’t it great when my poles line up to activities available?
Normal folks experience this too. Sometimes you feel social, other times you feel playful, other times you just want to read a book. You may have a lot of energy, and would love to go to a party, but you’re not too excited about doing your work.
Bipolar folks experience these same “poles” to the extremes, depending on the day or even the hour. The same confident, playful, active extrovert, can be a shy introvert a few days later, wanting nothing more than to read a book in bed.
Generally speaking, a “healthy” person, can apply some willpower, and stick to his general routine. Bipolar folks don’t have this luxury.
How Bipolar Causes Unhappiness
These extreme “poles” aren’t necessarily a problem. It’s really how we act on these poles, and how we set up our environments for these poles, that causes negative effects.
My theory is that most unhappiness comes from an overexertion of a certain pole, or a mismatch between your poles and the activities that you’re doing.
My theory is that most unhappiness comes from an overexertion of a certain pole, or a mismatch between your poles and the activities that you’re doing. I’ve found that my depressive episodes are generally preceded by this mismatch.
Perhaps I have a pole with a lot of productive energy and I throw myself into my work. And I do amazing work — I’ve written some brilliant code in my “pre-manic phases”. The same has happened with relationships. I fall head over heals for someone and invest tons of time and energy into them.
The problem is the other areas of my life aren’t set up for high energy poles. I don’t have a high energy athletic activity, or social activity, or play. So I learn all that energy into one pole (my job or relationship), expecting it to satisfy all my needs. This causes codependency or very unhealthy work habits and ticking off a lot people (ex: trying to be high energy social in a programming job).
In the meantime, all my usual medium energy activities and friends (circling, NVC, improv) fall to wayside. Those activities don’t satisfy me when I’m in high energy poles. I often completely change my environment to try to accommodate for higher energy poles, leaving my friends and communities behind.
What’s the most harmful, is that I tend to overcommit to new and random activities, trying to satisfy those poles. I end up doing those activities even when my body tells me to stop, because I’ve “committed” them.
Because of this wild imbalance, I tend to exhaust my energy very quickly. And then I’m left stranded, without any low energy activities to fall back on. What’s worse, in a low energy state, I’m not very creative, I don’t have much motivation. I’m not that extroverted.
So it becomes very difficult to find activities that fit those poles. When there is a mismatch between the poles I experience and the activities available, it causes a downward spiral of getting into “low energy” poles, where I lose my creativity, planning ability, and willpower. And of course the lower energy my poles, the less choices for activities.
I believe that I can solve this problem by sourcing and planning lists of activities, specific events, and communities, for my various poles while I’m in mid energy poles and enlist the help of my friends. I can come up with a range of healthy activities and communities I can join for every type of pole.
Low Energy Poles
Let’s start simple. My low energy states. There’s usually not all too much going on, yet still there are major differences between these poles. I might have the same amount of energy when I’m “sleepy” and when I’m feeling “self-critical depressed”, but they are wildly different states.
- Sleepy: I just wanna sleep. This is great at night, but not so much in the morning, when I need to get somewhere.
- Needing Rest: The best example is after a yoga class. I lay in shavasana. I don’t want to sleep. I don’t need any stimulation. I just want to lie still and do nothing
- Meditative: This one is great. I’m low energy, but attentive. I can watch my thoughts. I can note my breath, I can scan my body. I can stare at a wall and feel satisfied. I could sit in nature and take in its beauty.
These states are easy to satisfy. For the first two, I just lie down. With the 3rd one, meditation, a whole lot of possibilities open up. But I’m probably not up for running a marathon, or talking to my friends, or solving a programming problem.
- Tired: When I go to sleep though, I might feel that same low energy but not sleepy. I need some minimal stimulation activity, such as listening to a podcast. But I can’t just sleep. And I can’t lie still.
- Depressed: When I say I’m feeling “depressed” it’s very different from the states above. It’s actually a variant of “Tired”. I have low energy, need minimal stimulation, and I am feeling “negative” about it. Not angry, not sad, not anxious. Just plain “shitty” for lack of a better world
- Anxious Depressed: This is a special brand of depressed. Not only do I feel “shitty”, but I feel anxious about the future. It causes a high discomfort where I feel I need to do “something” but don’t know what.
- Lonely Depressed: Here I feel lonely. I feel that I have no friends. Or I do have friends, but they aren’t available to do the things I want to do. Maybe they’ll chat with me on the phone, or meditate with me. But they won’t go on a camping trip with me, or biking, or something active, which is what I want. So I fall into a lonely depression. I’m low energy, I don’t want to do anything…just long for friends or a partner or environment where I can do the specific thing I want to do at that point in life. I’m in that state a lot right now. I’m locked down in house for COVID. I want to explore, and have adventures. But the friends I have access to either can’t do that (remote) or are not interested in doing that (roommates).
- Self-Critical Depressed: Another modifier on depressed. Not only do I feel “shitty”, but I feel shitty about myself. Luckily I haven’t felt this one much the last year. I’ve done significant growth in accepting myself in that category. But for most of my adult life, this was a very common state.
These states…oh boy..that’s where the “boredom” really sets in. I need some kind of stimulation, but I can rarely find something that fits the bill. Partly it’s because my creativity is quite low in these states. So I generally default to easy dopamine fixes — Netflix, Facebook, Porn. Of course I feel pretty shitty doing even those, as they don’t feel this “stimulation” void. This is where I struggle the most.
Medium Energy Poles
Here’s where things start getting complicated. This is where I am most of the time. However there are a slew of modifiers, and submodifiers.
I can feel:
Productive — Creative
Here I want to do something using my right brain. But I probably don’t want to do much left brain stuff (coding, organizing, planning)
- Creative — Writing— Maybe it’s writing about my day in a journal. Maybe it’s a love poem to my partner. Or maybe it’s a technical article on how to be productive. Or a listicle of 500 sex ideas. I’m probably in this mood right now. When I find that right topic, oh boy, the words just flow. I could write for hours and get lost in it.
- Creative — Planning— this is an interesting modifier. Here I start planning my life. I start looking critically at my life, and suddenly I see all the little details. All the problems. All the solutions. I know exactly what to do…just gotta get it down on paper. I can write for hours.
- Creative — Entrepreneurial — this is a special kind of planning mood. Here I’ve got business ideas galore. I’ve got solutions to all kinds of industry problems. I just want to write them all down, or even get straight to coding.
Productive — Coding
Here I have energy to code. I want to code. But there are so many different flavors. If I don’t get the right “flavor” of coding, I shut down and go into a low energy state. This can prove to be difficult in a corporation, where sometimes the “flavor” of coding I want to do is not on the company’s priority list.
- Difficult Problems — I want to code, but I only want to work on difficult problems. Algorithms, maybe a Google Sheets spreadsheet, some high level abstraction
- Refactoring — I just want to rip through the code base, replacing redundant, non-DRY code, with something simple and minimalistic. Maybe I refactor a clunky class based system to a clean functional approach with memoization. Sometimes I go overboard, with 100 file PRs that nobody can reasonably review.
- Bug Zapping — here all I want to do is solve bugs. I could sit with a bug for days in this mode, figuring out “wtf does this not work?!!”. I might be cursing a bunch, but I’m having the time of my life.
- DevOps — here I want to play around with servers, build systems, distributed systems, K8S, CI/CD, webpack. All those little optimizations that make coding more efficient.
- Application Exploration — this isn’t coding per se. But in this mode, I may want to explore how an API or application works. I might want to read documentation, click around, just really take in how the software works. For example, I’m not a fan of WordPress, but occasionally, I’m in the mood to install a plugin for a specific purpose, and just go crazy clicking around all its options, customizing and tweaking
- Backend — I want to write some queries! Hit some APIs. Transform some data. I don’t want to touch a line of CSS or anything that doesn’t produce JSON. I want to work with pure logic.
- CSS — here I just want something simple. I can do CSS in my sleep. And I can just crank out component after component, pixel perfect. Of course, if you force me to do this in any other mode, I will give up in an hour, and my energy will drop.
There are many different “modes” of programming which can be applied to any of the above “flavors”
- Pair Programming — Here I want to code, but I want to do it with someone. I’m in this mode quite a lot.
- Heads Down — here I just wanna put on my headphones, go into a flow and fo
- Pomedoro — I want to work in 25 minute segments. I take a 5 minute break each time, meditate, zoom out, and get clear on what the next 25 minutes should look like. Maybe I
These are just some of my coding “flavors”. It’s quite difficult to find a task to do, even when I’m energetic, that fits my specific flavor at the time. Usually contracting companies have plenty of CSS work, but I may only be in that mode 20% of the time. I need other kinds of stimulation
Poles To Write About
- Productive — Planning
- Productive — Paperwork/Errands
- Productive — Paperwork/Social
- Productive — Manual Labor
- Productive — Income Making
- High Energy
- Low Energy
- All Day
Bunch of People