It’s that time of year again when my family starts to transition from lazy summer days and spontaneous family adventures to set routines and fixed bedtimes. In a couple of short weeks my kids will be heading back to school and while the structure is great for them, it’s most beneficial to me and my mental health. Every year I spend a few weeks easing all of us back into our schedules to lessen the amount of upheaval the home experiences. And while this may seem silly to some, I have learned that it is critical to keeping my balance.
We embrace summer and enjoy every second of it. We have some scheduled trips and get togethers with family and friends, but for the most part we fly by the seat of our pants, and it’s great, but as soon as the calendar flips over to September it’s an entirely different story. Once the back to school shopping is finished and the school supplies are taken care of, the fall programs begin. This one is enrolled in gymnastics, the other one wants to try her hand at music lessons, both are in martial arts, and my job, the one that has allowed me to take most of the summer off, has now kicked in to overdrive. The organization that I volunteer with starts the specific campaign that I devote my time to, and the school starts calling on me to volunteer with them as well. Life gets frenzied very quickly and it doesn’t always jive with bipolar disorder. I have learned by trial and error that in order to keep myself well and healthy I must work in what I like to call organized chaos.
I have a list of my lists, it’s actually kind of ridiculous, but it helps me. The odd thing about my lists is that I never use them because I have this aggravating trigger issue with lists. I write the list to get the thoughts out of my head and onto a piece of paper, if I don’t, it’s like I’m having a circular conversation with myself and it frustrates me. The trigger comes into play when I write a list with A, B & C and for some reason I don’t complete C. I will spend hours obsessing about C and beat myself up for not getting it done. This sets off a chain reaction of agitation and restlessness, which is not good for anyone. I have learned that the list means nothing; the act of writing it out is what helps me.
Research has shown that writing thoughts out can relax your mind. Sometimes we focus on thoughts to remember them, which can be annoying when they become so insistent that they create anxiety; writing them out can help you let them go before they take over. What you do with the piece of paper after is entirely up to you, recycle it, journal it, use it for a coaster, whatever works.
The entire month of September is filled with newsletters and emails from the school, work, and the extracurricular activities that the kids are enrolled in. Even if I didn’t have 1,000 things to do in a day, this would overwhelm me. The school newsletters are the worst ones, they use language that tries to guilt parents into enrolling the kids in whatever it is they’re promoting. Whether it’s an after school reading club, the run club, or the weekly hot lunch program, I read them as, “If you don’t do this for your children, you’re a terrible mother.” I’ve stopped feeling this way because not only is it ridiculous, it’s also overwhelming and killing my bank account. We sit down in the summer and decide on which programs we’re going to continue with and which ones we’re axing. If something new pops up that looks feasible then we discuss it as a family and see if it will work for us.
I’ve gotten very good at saying no and meaning it, this applies to work, volunteer duties and school. It’s okay to say no. You can’t commit to everyone and everything that asks, you’ll spread yourself too thin and end up burned out. Choose something comfortable to commit to that fits into your life and won’t tax you too much.
This is the big one for me, and it includes everything from scheduling Me Time to preparing for when depression will strike. Once that school bell rings the circus starts; there are parents everywhere and the kids are screeching like little monsters, it is jarring. Being aware of this beforehand is helpful, it’s hard to prepare for a situation where every sense you have is instantly heightened in a very uncomfortable manner, but self-talk works for me here. I know I’m about to step into anarchy when I first walk in, and I have found it helpful to keep telling myself that it won’t last. I don’t hang around to chit-chat or catch up, I leave that business until the second week of school, it’s too much for me. Knowing my limits and adhering to them has saved me from relying on anti-anxiety meds to get me through.
Every year like clockwork I cycle into depression in the fall and I have prepared my family for this. There is a drop off spot at the school where I can pull up and the kids can get out the car and get situated in the morning. If I’m cycling or agitated I do not go into the school to pick the kids up, I can’t deal with the noise. There is a little marshy pond with a bench outside of the schoolyard, this is my safe spot and it has worked brilliantly for us.
Our routines work well for our family but the key for me is to leave room for a little leeway, we can’t schedule everything and I don’t want to confine myself or my kids, but structure and routine are great things to have when managing symptoms of mental illness. Recognizing that not everything is going to fit into neat little boxes is also crucial for me, which is why I like the term, organized chaos. I know my triggers and I know what sets them off but now I know how to handle most of them before they get to that point. Life throws us enough unexpected stuff to deal with and preparing for what we can is actually choosing to take some control over our lives and our illnesses.