One of my greatest fears this time of year is misbehaving in public. Don’t get me wrong; I love to socialize. I love to dress up and go out with my husband, mingle, and have a good time. But after all this time (a little over 12 years) on Lithium, going to therapy, and trying to live a very de-polarized life, I still dread parties . . . especially parties full of people I haven’t seen in a while. I’ve noticed that people take a picture of a person, a snapshot per se. They file it away, and every time they see you, they pull out that snapshot and use it for reference.

I am always worried about the dreaded snapshot many have chosen to carry of the monumental failures of my manic days. That usually happens because someone else has had too much to drink, and I am always surprised who steps forward as my random accuser. As if we can all go around the cocktail party and name each other’s sins? Funny how you can’t do that to the sane, but the diagnosed? Crazy is always appropriate, somehow. And if I retaliate or get too drunk to cope with the red letter just rebranded to my forehead? I’m just living out the crazy and proving them right.

I’ve had some really bad snapshot moments, most of them early on, after I was diagnosed. I ran through Parkland in my pajamas one morning after a party at my brother’s college house. Yup. I have gotten way too drunk at a family wedding and actually knocked over a cocktail table (I feel you wincing). I have screamed and yelled and sworn at people during family parties. I think I even threw rocks one time.

Those memories nauseate me, and I wince at how badly I have behaved in some snapshots. They are always followed by a deep depressive episode in which Jack has often had to take time off work to take care of me. I realize how many people have taken a snapshot at me in those situations, labeling it “Bipolar Taylor,” and will forever refer to it when they run into me socially.

But, I am learning. I have realized after my last major public meltdown that there is a pattern to my behavior, a cause. I realized that many times when I feel pressure or obligation to attend an event, regardless of how I feel or how stable I am mood-wise, I attend out of obligation. If I am pushed to the limit, tired, or just plain overstimulated by too many social activities being butted up against each other, I tend to feel more vulnerable and more agitated than I would otherwise. To cope, I drink, and drink. And that is when I always misbehave: when I’m stretched to the limit (and drunk).

The worst part of a bad snapshot is that it feeds anxiety at the next social event. I am worried that someone is going to pull out that last spectacle of misbehavior and dig me with it. A vicious cycle ensues, one in which I am always defeating myself.

But, I don’t want my entire life of good choices and measured living to be boiled down to a few snapshots of bad behavior. I want my snapshots to reflect the decisions I make everyday to live well. So, I have taken a new approach to socializing in hopes to change the snapshots people might be taking of me.

1. I limit my social activities in the scope of days, weekends, and holiday seasons. My husband and I decide very carefully how we spend each weekend and every holiday. We make sure that there is adequate down time (every Sunday for starters), and we make sure that we are not over-scheduling any particular day. I don’t know why, but running from one event to another is stressful for me. When I get stressed, I tend to misbehave. So, we avoid more than one social activity a weekend. We have little caveats built into our system, like no plans are ever to be made for the day after Christmas. (Mama is exhausted, see Surviving Stillbirth.) None. Na-dah.

2. I further limit social activities if there are added stressors in our lives. This summer when we were waiting for Sam to have open-heart surgery, we were scarce. Why? Because I was on edge already, and it took a lot of energy to be around people whose every single breath, in and out, was not consumed by whether their child would survive past surgery. I needed my energy for making it through each day, not trying to avoid losing it on some unsuspecting playground mom.
Certain months are harder for me: October and February/March, due to primary family member losses we are still grieving. The week of Caleb‘s birthday? We are always, always alone and usually on some kind of a trip. I’m not going to set myself up for failure when I am at my weakest.

3. I stopped feeling bad for failing to attend a party, even if I have to cancel at the last minute. I finally realized that my absence was much less harmful than my presence at a party when I am not grounded enough to attend. People will hardly ever remember who actually attended an event five years from now, but they will remember forever my crazy drunken behavior. Funny how that works.

4. I got really clear about my priorities (maybe this should be #1). Family time is not just a priority, it has become a way to define my life. If the activities the day before my neices’ or nephew’s birthday party will leave me so exhausted that I will not be fully present at my number one priority of the weekend, I reevaluate. (You would too, if you knew them! They are divine, heaven-sent, and perfect.) Maybe I will clear or limit the activities for the day before. If I want to be present and not exhausted, on edge, over-worked, strung out for Christmas, I limit the schedule the days before and after.

5. Finally, I plan ahead, plan ahead, plan ahead. Little things like boxes of birthday cards, making freezer meals, and having a present stashed ahead of time can make all the difference in me being able to take a nap before a big family party or not. That nap can make or break my snapshot!

As we are heading into the full swing of holidaying, know that you have the power to redefine your own snapshot. You don’t have to run around playing the crazy relative forever. You and I can get so good at taking care of ourselves that we continually set ourselves up for great snapshots of health and wellness.

To a sane Christmas!