Larissa D’Andrea, 40, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 10 years ago. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition that causes extreme shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). There are various forms of bipolar disorder, but generally, the condition involves a pattern of manic episodes and depressive episodes interspersed with symptom-free intervals. People can also experience hypomanic episodes, a milder version of mania.
Managing bipolar disorder is a lifelong journey that usually includes some combination of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes, such as following a consistent routine. For many people with bipolar disorder, the coronavirus pandemic has required them to find new coping mechanisms, routines, and support. While extremely difficult to navigate, the pandemic may have also helped some people, like D’Andrea, learn how to better manage their bipolar disorder.
Over the past year D’Andrea experienced anxiety, depression, and high levels of stress while trying to start a new business. After feeling depressed in a way she hadn’t for nearly two decades, D’Andrea reached out to her network for support and to get the appropriate treatment. Here’s D’Andrea’s story about what she learned about managing her bipolar disorder during the pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenging time for me, but it’s also been transformational in many ways. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 30 and relied on a combination of medication and therapy for treatment. Prior to the pandemic, I hadn’t been on medication for bipolar disorder for four years. At 36, I slowly stopped taking my medication over the course of six months under my psychiatrist’s supervision, while continuing with therapy. At the time I wanted to have a child, and my medication could potentially cause complications.
I was very nervous about coming off my medication since I was stable and happy, but I wanted to have a child without any potential risks from the medication. After giving birth I stayed off that medication for another year while breastfeeding but started taking an antidepressant. By the time the year was over, I thought I was managing okay. Looking back, I was struggling and not truly managing my bipolar disorder effectively.
I was surviving, but I wasn’t happy. I got so used to just surviving that I forgot what it feels like to be happy or find real enjoyment. This doesn’t mean I had a rain cloud over my head for four years. I found joy in things in life that made others happy—seeing my toddler excited, friends having some success, or my partner enjoying his job. But I never felt true joy for myself.
Like many others during the pandemic, I was anxious and worried about the unknown. I have a very close-knit family and am lucky that my three-year-old’s grandparents are closely involved in helping me with childcare. But at the same time, I was worried about aging family members with heart conditions, including my mother and my soon-to-be 95-year-old grandmother.
Adding to that uncertainty, I was working unusually long hours in a high-stress role that involves supplying ventilator products to governments around the world. I also took on a new global team last June, and working remotely meant drastically fewer interactions with other people.
Beyond the long workdays, I was simultaneously trying to finish my master of studies in law degree and found remote learning to be really hard. I was also trying to start a new social impact production company, and it was disappointing to have to step back until we could safely film.
My breakthrough came when I recognized that I had thoughts about harming myself—and that terrified me. I’m privileged in having access to mental health care and a support system that many people may not have. I reached out to my partner, my therapist, my human resources department, and my boss to develop a plan. I also spoke with my doctor about increasing the antidepressant medication I was on and decided to see a psychiatrist to determine if there was a better medication for me.
From there, I put a number of changes into action. I took a month off from work over Christmas, I went back on my bipolar medication, and I started seeing my therapist multiple times each week. I’ve made some changes at work too, including working with an executive coach as a way to build resilience in the workplace for myself and for others.
The extreme stress I experienced during the pandemic forced me to recognize that I was not really managing anything. I treated myself poorly and had chosen not to go back on the proper medication because of stigma—thinking, well, maybe my diagnosis was wrong. The diagnosis wasn’t wrong, and I know I feel my best when I am on the right medication, in therapy, and focusing on stress management.
During the pandemic I also realized for the first time that my life shouldn’t revolve around work. I’ve learned that getting ahead and getting that next title means nothing if it impedes your functioning in other parts of your life. I learned to develop a leadership style at work that creates a better environment for everyone.
As a result, I’ve become very vocal at work about mental health and the importance of giving people more time off to truly disconnect. This year has been traumatic in different ways for many people, and that cannot be underestimated. The stigma tied to mental health combined with the lack of affordable care creates an environment where people may really struggle.
These days I make sure to create space and schedule breaks in my calendar. I’m very intentional about how I approach each week and think about how I will manage meetings that may be particularly tough. For example, I consider the potential stressors or triggers I might encounter during the week, and I think about the tools I will use to manage my own response so I can be in a resourceful mindset rather than a reactive one. This allows me to be prepared and manage situations in a way that doesn’t negatively impact my mental health. I spend a few minutes at the end of each week reflecting on how that went and if I can identify areas where my stress spiked and what I can do differently.
I’m also being more intentional about building in more time away from work. I’m creating space for people on my team to do the same and trying to set a better example as a leader. I turn off my work and personal emails on Friday afternoons so I don’t even see new ones pop up. I try to head out of town with my child and family as many weekends as I can to hike and be in nature (and physically away from my desk and home).
I’ve also been working on fun, creative things, like building my social impact filmmaking business. It brings me so much joy to spend time finding ways to leverage art in activism to bring about positive social changes.
I’ve learned that with the appropriate treatment—which for me is a combination of medication, therapy, an adequate and transparent support system, and understanding my triggers and stressors—I am able to create an environment that allows me to thrive.
I still have a lot of work to do to be a voice for important issues and to support others that haven’t experienced the same privilege I have, but this year has been transformational for me in many ways.
I want people to know there is support out there, including great mental health organizations like The Mental Health Coalition, Mental Health America, and the Loveland Foundation, that advocate for better access to care. Sometimes it can be helpful to connect with people who can relate and understand, and who can point you in the direction of help and support, even if it isn’t available in your immediate circle.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.