By Karl Shallowhorn
One common symptom of bipolar disorder is distractibility. This sense of being unable to focus is something that can be very annoying, if not downright frustrating. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’m at my job and I’m working on one thing, whether it be answering an email or handling a specific task, and then I have a thought that comes totally out of left field. I immediately gravitate to this new thing to do. As a result, I end up bouncing back and forth. I can usually complete my projects, but it takes a considerable amount of focus to do so.
I work out of two different offices, with different workspaces in each. The first is the Mental Health Association of Erie County. Here I share an office with one of my colleagues. We (fortunately) get along very well. Sometimes, however, I have to work hard to stay on task. And this isn’t anything against my office mate. We work on several projects together and being in close proximity helps with this. The times I find challenging are when I’m trying to work on complex tasks. And this is where my character defects come out. It’s almost like I get into a zone and try to block out everything around me. This can make communication difficult, especially when others are asking questions or even trying to simply touch base. It is during these times that those around me can sense that I don’t want to be distracted.
My solution to this is listening to music. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always played music while working. It actually helps me to focus better. It also makes onerous chores easier for me. When I have music, life simply seems to go along much better.
I recall at one fundraising event for the agency I work for, Compeer of Greater Buffalo, I was in charge of setting up a computer-based slide show. I was having trouble getting it started and when one of my co-workers approached me, I was very cold and dismissive with my response to his query if I needed any help. It is during these times, when I’m trying to figure something out (especially technology), it’s as if I have to have absolute focus to get anything done. In other words, LEAVE ME ALONE!
But seriously, living with bipolar disorder, at least for me, simply amplifies the inability to stay on task. I’ve never been tested for Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), however, it is known that one of the symptoms of bipolar disorder is this idea of being easily distracted. For instance, when I have to listen to a lecture, or any type of lengthy discussion, my mind will wander. I do recognize it when it’s happening and it is then when I pull myself back and focus on what is being said. You can ask my wife about when she talks to me, however I don’t know if that is a symptom of bipolar disorder or just being a guy (haha).
The same thing happens when I try to meditate. I know this is also the case for many people, especially those living with bipolar or anxiety. In the past, when I’d try to sit and still my mind, I’d be all over the place. I’ve learned about the concept of mindfulness and how to focus on breathing as well as focusing on the present moment, while not getting fixated on what has happened in the past, nor what could happen in the future. Despite this knowledge, meditation was still challenging for me, until I discovered a nifty app called “Insight Timer.” This free tool (and yes, even no ads) is amazing. It has over 7,200 guided meditations, an awesome meditation timer, and even a social media-type platform where you can join groups and make online friends, people who share a mutual interest in meditation.
The thing I like about Insight Timer is the guided meditation feature. There are any number of different types of mediations: spiritual, sleep, relaxation, music, ambient, and of course, mindfulness-based offerings. These meditations are led by teachers, all of whom are vetted by the site administrators.
So, despite having lived with bipolar for going on 37 years, I still struggle with the act of focusing. But this hasn’t deterred me from finding ways to manage this challenging feature of my illness. As I continue to refine my active ways of dealing with being easily distracted, I’m open to learning whatever I can to stay present and in the moment. And if I’m able to do that, then maybe I’m getting somewhere.