I realized that I was in the maintenance phase of my recovery when the drama disappeared and life started slowing down. I would have off days like any regular human being, but I did not know how to cope with them. I was so used to dealing with distress that I felt like I could not give myself permission to sweat the small stuff. I was supposed to be grateful that I was not in crisis mode. But then I realized that some days are just bad days, and those days are just as valid and in need of tender love and care. And that is the definition of mental health maintenance.
It’s been a long journey. This year marks a decade since my bipolar diagnosis. Despite the obstacles that came my way, I managed to build a life I’ve always wanted for myself. Being forced to take medical leave in my first semester college after my hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis, a year later I managed to get into reapply and matriculate at Barnard College. I graduated Summa Cum Laude and was inducted Phi Beta Kappa. Two years later I fell in love, eloped, began a PhD at NYU with funding from the National Science Foundation while, and then had a baby at the start of a global pandemic.
Over the years, I’ve work hard to understand my condition. I’ve pulled myself out from rockbottom more than once. I’ve learn where Nadia ends and the bipolar begins — the difference between my personality when I’m stable and who I become when manic or depressive symptoms take over. I found a balance between no medication and overmedication. As a result, today I am doing the work I love. I share a life with the family I created and chose. I figured out exactly what self-care practices I needed to keep well and I discovered my triggers and warning signs for episodes. After cycling through the various phases of the Transtheoretical Model of Change — pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action — I have finally arrived at maintenance.
Maintenance is harder than managing a crisis. A crisis is temporary. Pain and suffering is concentrated within a discrete period of time whereas the risk of relapse during maintenance can, figuratively speaking, come in the form of death by a thousand cuts. Maintenance requires commitment to constant growth and learning. It requires handling ourselves with care so as not to get discouraged and give up when we slip up. I personally find it hard to forgo my perfectionistic tendencies. I know from being a student, it’s easier to get one A than it is to maintain a 4.0 GPA. In this new phase in my healing journey, I’m teaching myself how to be soft, speak to myself with kind words, be truthful when I am struggling, and cut myself from slack.
After months of not being in therapy, I recently found a new therapist. Given how disillusioned I have become with the therapeutic process, it is a big deal that I felt cautiously optimistic when I came out of my first session. We went through a couple different questionnaires during my intake and the therapist confirmed that I am in a maintenance phase in my mental health journey. As I recover from how much therapy has harmed my in the past, I’m hoping this new therapeutic relationship will make maintenance a little easier. While I am relatively stable, things do come up that trigger me and unearth unprocessed trauma. I’m hoping therapy will also be a space for me to deal with my day-to-day stressors as a PhD student, a mom, a wife, and a provider.
Maintenance is a marriage vow I keep with myself. It requires me to show up even when I don’t feel like putting in the work. But I know the outcome is so worth it.
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