I think there is a heavy stigma in regard to working out and exercise in helping those cope with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Notice I stated that exercise can help you cope with mental illness, not that it’s a cure all or that you should work out because it will make you feel better. Exercise should not be a substitute to taking medication, seeking therapy, or whatever your coping mechanisms are. You should follow your treatment plan that has been established and works for you by your doctor or therapist. But chances are fairly high that your doctor has mentioned exercise as part of your treatment plan in regard to your mental illness. I know mine has over the years…
I think this sort of stigma and/or detesting working out comes from normies and their ideas on how to cope with mental illness. When I use the term “normie”, it isn’t derogatory or an insult, it is just a term to describe those without mental illness. In my family, there is an even mix of those with and without mental health issues. My sister is a normie. She has various autoimmune diseases and allergies. In order for her to cope and improve her health, she turned into an incense sniffing, organic, non-GMO, gluten, dairy, wheat, and yeast free health… how do I put this nicely? …Health person. For her, it works and she has minimal symptoms from her illnesses and allergies by living this sort of lifestyle and for working out six days a week. She is also a certified personal trainer so the exercise makes sense. But for the longest time, she thought that exercise and better diet would solve for our most, if not all, of my mother and I’s mental health issues.
I gave her the excuse of ignorance. Ignorance is not an insult; it purely means there is a lack of knowledge. Once one becomes well versed in knowing the side effects of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and the repercussions of not taking prescription medication, my sister quickly educated herself how pivotal pharmaceuticals can be in our lives and how we are better for them. But like I will say frequently, medication is not a cure all. Exercise is not a cure all and neither is therapy. There is no cure for these horrendous ailments, but even if there was, I’m not sure I would like being normal.
In the early years of my struggle with mental illness, I was originally diagnosed with clinical depression otherwise known as major depression. I was fourteen and I always had struggled with my weight and was always told I was obese because I am not even five feet tall and at fourteen, I weighed 118 lbs. My doctor who prescribed my first trial of antidepressants suggested I work out and it would “improve my affect on life”. That really pissed me off, so I didn’t do it. All throughout high school, I constantly was walking around town and played Frisbee with my church group every Sunday so I wasn’t sedentary. My senior year of high school I was forced to take a gym class in order to graduate. I chose net sports, which was a bullshit class for the non-athletic. You know what I got stuck with? Competitive weight lifting and athletic conditioning. I tried to get out of it, but with all of my AP classes, I couldn’t maneuver my schedule at all.
At seventeen, I wasn’t on any medication for my depression and I wasn’t in therapy. But I still felt the effects of the depression. The more I worked out, the more my general mood improved throughout the day. I felt more rested when I woke up for school in the mornings and my good mood continued throughout the weekend, even when I wasn’t running two miles a day or bench pressing the bar.
Then in October, I had to have my appendix removed and was out of school for three or four months. I was in an emotionally abusive relationship and was still struggling with an undiagnosed bladder disease that caused similar pain to that of your appendix nearly rupturing. That was most likely the breaking point that I had in my brain to start crying uncontrollably everyday, and have my moods fluctuate like a yo-yo. Due to my more persistent physical medical symptoms, it caused my brain health to take a back seat. Once I broke up with the abusive ex at the end of December of 2015, I got with my long term, on and off again boo, Diego who encouraged me to not only work out, with or without him, but to seek help for my dwindling mental state.
Once I turned eighteen in February of 2016, I went back to school to finish out my senior year. My weight lifting class soon ended once I got back to school, so I got a gym membership at the local YMCA. In my initial five months of running and weight lifting, I lost and kept off 15 lbs, lift double what I could originally, and dead lift more than half my body weight. I think at my best I dead lifted 80 or 90 lbs and for a little 18 year old at five feet tall and 118 lbs, that’s something to be proud of! I was proud, very proud. Working out made me feel accomplished and improved my affect throughout the day and week itself.
Although the exercise helped, it didn’t stop the tears at night. So I went back to my doctor to receive more antidepressants and I went back to my tried and true therapist, Kelley. We soon discovered after three different runs with different antidepressants that they weren’t working because I am bipolar and no singular antidepressant was going to manage my symptoms. I switched doctors and Amy, the new one, was able to concur that I was indeed bipolar and treat me for such. She put me on yet another antidepressant for the major depression, an anti-psychotic for mood stabilization, lithium for the hypo-mania, then a blood pressure medication for the prescription drug induced tremor, and of course birth control.
In the photo that I put at the top of this post was from the summer of 2016. I became almost obsessive about working out and staying active and eating very little to produce more weight loss. It’s funny because I honestly thought I was overweight in that photo. I was nearly anorexic, which I mean no insult to those who have or do struggle with eating disorders. I have always struggled with body dismorphia, especially then at my smallest that I have ever been in my adolescent and young adult life.
That summer, I competed in two different 5K races; 3.1 miles and my fastest race was completed in 39 minutes. It’s not fast by any means, but it was the best I ever ran consistently without stopping. Running (or very slow jogging in my case) has provided me with a freedom of mind, body, soul, and spirit that I haven’t been able to replicate in any other activity.
In August of 2018, I broke my foot and in October of 2019 I had major foot surgery to repair the injury. I just completed physical therapy in early February 2020 and was able to graduate because I walked one mile in twenty minutes. It took every fiber of my being to go from being active and running three miles nearly everyday to no exercise at all. Over that two year gap without exercise, my mood and affect on life has been changed. I have steadily gained fifty pounds since I was 18 and it shows. But by June 2020, I should be able to start running again and I have a tentative goal of running a 5K in one hour by the end of this year. If I can walk a 18.5 minute mile, and keep that pace consistently, I can walk a 5K and be within my goal. But I won’t stop there. I want to run a 5K, or at least run a portion of it.
As you can see from the photos, my body has done a 180, but I want to get back into weight lifting not to look better, but to feel better. As you all walk your journeys, I hope you find your coping mechanism that makes you as happy as working out makes me.
Til Next Time,