When the routine I relied on for years changed suddenly, I found myself with new questions—and opportunities—for how I really wanted to spend my days.
Routines & Bipolar Disorder
Everyone talks about how important routines are when you live with bipolar disorder.
This is because routines often keep us away from unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety about getting all our necessary tasks done in a reasonable time. They can also help ensure consistent, mood-supporting sleep hygiene.
I’ve found that the more complicated life is, the better routines can help.
Routines Complications & Differences
A routine for a young, unmarried, working woman differs considerably from a man with a work-from-home schedule who is raising children alone.
Complications do not necessarily need to be construed as bad in and of themselves; they just need to be handled and incorporated into the routine.
But what if you find yourself in a totally new situation you weren’t prepared for?
That’s where I have found myself recently.
I have finished my MFA in creative writing, a degree I worked on for six years. I worked on it one class at a time—that’s why it took so long.
When I began school six years ago, my oldest child had just started college. My middle one was partway through high school, and my youngest was just beginning to approach her tweens.
Now that I have finished school, my oldest lives in Florida with her husband and new baby boy. My middle one has finished college and we moved her to her first job out of college in another state, and my youngest one can now drive herself to high school in her slick new Ford Escape.
Overnight, it seems, I’ve turned into an almost-empty-nester grandmother!
I was thrown for a loop I didn’t expect.
Diving into New Projects Didn’t Work
After finishing my course work and my thesis defense, I tried to throw myself deeper into doing my part-time news-reporting work. That did not work out.
I had a great deal of trouble interacting with people again on a fully professional basis after the informality of school meetings. I tried pivoting to work on a totally new writing project, only to be afraid of writing into the void again, without feedback and without the support of my classmates and instructors.
What I absolutely did not want was to turn into an unpaid homemaker, setting a cleaning schedule and trying to cultivate my domestic side. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one—even when “nesting” during pregnancy.
I fell into a routine by default—I slept in, checked emails when I got up, and blogged in the morning, then napped in the afternoon, did house chores in the evening, and went to bed early after a long, hot bath. And that may have been what I needed at the time—but I was unhappy with myself.
How could I develop a new routine for myself? First, I had to ask myself some questions.
#1 How Do I Really Want to Spend My Days?
I needed to figure out how I wanted—really wanted—to spend my days. I knew I had gone to school to expand my writing repertoire. I realized that what was keeping me from writing was a lack of direction.
I worked with a professional coach and decided I really wanted to rework my thesis manuscript over again in a way that might give me a chance to publish it.
#2 What Are My Strengths & Weaknesses?
I needed to work with my strengths AND my weaknesses that bipolar brought out.
I knew I worked more creatively in the morning, so that is when I set up to do the business of my day: emails, blogging, edits, small writing projects, and so on.
I would reward myself with treats of some sort for each task accomplished. And I would make sure to stop before I got anxious or burned out.
I knew I was not at my best in the afternoons, so I use that time for social media work, housework, shopping for groceries, laundry, and dinner—all tasks I wanted done as quickly as possible. (And I built in another set of rewards for completing certain tasks.)
Evenings and weekend mornings I try to hold separate for family.
#3 What Rewards Work for Me?
Knowing my own tendencies, I wanted to tease myself into doing what needed to be done.
I now knew that, if I’m left to my own devices, I would sleep and scroll social media all day.
So, I tried to be awake by a certain time to see off my husband and youngest, even if I knew I was going to go back to bed as soon as they left. And that is what I did—for only one hour.
If, in the afternoon, I completed a task, I’d go to my office and scroll social media for a set time.
#4 Am I Open to Big Life Changes?
One important lesson I’ve learned in all of this: Be open to big changes.
Maybe you find you really need to shake up your life: Find a new job. Get a dog or cat. Retire. Find a new hobby. Hire help at work or with house chores.
To get my sense of purpose back, I’m considering going back to work full-time to see if I can hack it. I’m just exploring all the possibilities.
Is It a Routine or a Rut?
Routines are good … until they need changing.
If they’ve turned into ruts or you find your circumstances changed in some drastic way, like mine did, consider reworking your routine.
Don’t set a routine for routine’s sake—make sure it works for the time of your life, your bipolarity, and what you really want out of life.
Julie Whitehead lives and writes from Mississippi. A reporter for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, she writes on topics concerning mental health, mental health education, and mental health advocacy. Julie was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in her midthirties in 2006. She blogs about her experiences and daily life with bipolar at the site Day by Day. She has a bachelor’s degree in communication, with a journalism emphasis, and a master’s degree in English, both from Mississippi State University. In August 2021, she completed her MFA in creative nonfiction from Mississippi University for Women. Julie can be found on Facebook and Twitter.
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