Bipolar & minimalism

Piles of notebooks in different jute bags, unruly stacks of paint and our daughter’s artwork on, under and around the dining room table, rotten oranges left in lunchboxes in the laundry.

I’m not lazy. I’m not a grub.

I’m an aspiring minimalist trapped in a bipolar body.

I love the idea of minimalism. It means less stuff to clean or look after or lose. Having a clean, welcoming home that feels relaxing for me and our guests. Owning things that I need, make sense, or bring me joy – it’s a more sustainable, planet-friendly way of being. But it’s a battle. I put the dis-order into bipolar disorder.

Like many ‘isms’ it’s all well and good in theory but demanding in reality. Minimalism is something I really struggle to put into practice. I’m easily distracted. Who knows how many Eftpos cards I’ve lost? The hours I’ve wasted looking for my keys. When I worked in corporate, I was always known for having the messiest desk. And when you’ve got a brilliant idea in your head – or a million brilliant ideas in your head – cleaning and tidying just don’t get a look in.

Turns out, I’m not the only one. Everyday Health describes why people living with bipolar disorder can often have cluttered, messy homes:

“People who experience mania can become too distracted to properly clean up their homes or pick up after themselves. You might begin a household task, only to move on to something else before the chore is completed. You also might find it too hard to concentrate properly when it comes to organising your belongings. Manic feelings can lead to extreme anxiety when faced with having to throw something away.”

When I’m feeling depressed or manic, I gotta shop.

I want to fill that life-sucking vacuum with objects or celebrate how beautiful the world is by accumulating possessions. My catchphrase is, “Let’s go all out!”

Bringing lots of new clothes and shiny objects into our home is a headache. It’s expensive and leads to debt. After the dopamine wears off, it’s a fast-food kind of regret – you feel a bit sick and bloated after. In the past, I’ve gone to great lengths to conceal my purchases in bags that I shove into cupboards around the house. Nothing major – I mean I haven’t bought that racehorse yet – but enough to feel not all that great about myself.

These habits have been building up for as long as I can remember.

I’m not a big fan of parting with my stuff either, especially if it holds sentimental value. I kept my sawn-down-the-middle plaster cast – the itchy home for my broken finger for a few weeks when I was at primary school – for eight years in my wardrobe. Who cares if I was a teenager, and this was all a bit weird – what if one day I want to reminisce about how special I felt when people wrote feel better messages on my white cast in rainbow-spectrum biro in shaky seven-year-old scribble?

More than twenty years later, it took me a long time to gift the baby clothes packed and stacked in plastic boxes in the garage to another family. It took me a long time to feel ready to say goodbye to them. It wasn’t so much the real-world, pragmatic idea of clearing space. It’s the emotional attachment.

To a stranger, it’s an act of kindness; for me, it’s finally severing the hope we’re having another baby.  

When my family immigrated to New Zealand, we only brought what we could pack in suitcases. It made me realise that you don’t miss the material possessions you’ve collected along the way, so much as your friends – the best of friends that distance can try and separate but doesn’t stand a chance. The places – your local pub where you had your first underage RTD and your sixth form common room. And the memories.

That sentiment rings true, except for my book collection, I had a beautiful Roald Dahl anthology which I treasured. Also, Mum and Dad had a sizeable vinyl collection which I would play on my record player in my room – Eurythmics, funk, soul, you name it. I also had a typewriter. Those items brought me joy.

Now as a wife, mum and business owner, the excess in my material world conspires to threaten any semblance of zen. There’s the freshly washed (but never seen an iron) clothes molehill which becomes Mt Everest. There are piles of paper and bills and receipts and to-do lists. There are days when I have energy and I tidy up and declutter; I feel great, but it never really lasts that long.

But I can’t be that bad. I’m not a hoarder (yet). Our home doesn’t look like Francis Bacon’s studio (yet). Thank God my husband is more methodical and tidier than me.

I’m not sure if it’s a problem with cognition and executive functioning on a deeper level. I struggle with packing. It makes me feel super anxious. I end up just throwing everything in the bag. But maybe I can’t blame that one on bipolar.

Now, I do have body image stuff that I’m holding onto, so I want to tread carefully. But another issue I have with minimalism is my body always seems to be changing. And that means buying new clothes. It’s not as easy as following doctors orders: “well, lose the weight again and keep it off”. My food is my mood.

I have an addictive personality and I’d rather eat ALL THE FOOD than drink alcohol. I used to be a big social drinker – but that’s another story. Hangovers and meds are a horrid mix.

Piling on the kgs is also a fun side effect of the meds I’m on. When I’m good, I like being curvy – it’s just the constant ups and downs that seem to complicate any ambition of a ten-item capsule wardrobe. And I still hang onto all my clothes with holes, much to the embarrassment of everyone else.

And it goes beyond material stuff. If I didn’t know better, I’d think mania was in direct rebellion to minimalism. Mania is categorised by excess. Excessive words, excessive emotions, excessive rage, excessive thoughts, excessive energy, excessive appetite, excessive spending, excessive talking, excessive emailing, messaging, sex. Are you exhausted yet?

It’s hypergraphia for me, the compulsion to write. I carry notebooks and journals wherever I go, and ideas just seem to spring, like tiny cursive angels and demons onto the page. I couldn’t control them if I tried.

Small hypergraphia segue: I want to take you back to a time when I was in crisis, waiting in a doctor’s room. My dad was waiting with me. The doctor had gone for a moment to check on something.

So I started frantically writing my case down on paper. Nothing was wrong with me and I was desperate to communicate that. My dad was looking at me gobsmacked as I wrote at superhuman speed spouting off all the reasons why I wasn’t in fact unwell, that it was in fact the pethidine I had eight weeks earlier, it was in fact everybody else’s fault, it was in fact the medication giving me weird side effects, it was in fact me being pregnant again even though I kept on getting negative tests, it was in fact Donald Trump being in power. I wrote so bloody fast that I was demonstrating just how bad it had got and just how much my mania had taken its hold. For me, mania is categorised by incessant, petulant excess.

So, back to minimalism. The idea of it is so appealing to me. As a lifestyle choice, it represents values I aspire to like sustainability, simplicity, slowing down, drawing life from experiences and not things, and taking what you need not what you think you want. Having a semblance of control over yourself and life.

But it can be so damn hard when you have bipolar.

It’s hard to make a lifestyle choice when a mood sweeps you over. It’s hard to delay gratification when the present seems so sparkling, so urgent, so alive.

Another thing – I become so impulsive.

That’s why I can never get just a few books out of the library I have to get them all. Books on the coffee table. Books by my bed. Books under my desk. Books on my computer. And they all nag at me to be read. Books on minimalism even – I love the irony of that one.

Minimalism is also about saying no. Being picky with the items, experiences and people you welcome into your house and your life.

But yes. Yes. YES. When I’m manic I’m always saying yes.

I watched Jim Carrey’s, Yes Man during a five-month episode – where I chopped and changed from mania to depression – and I acted on the film like it was a self-help documentary. Yes, I’ll run a half marathon – I hated running at the time. But then the inevitable down arrives. I crash. I wish I’d said no. I pull out of the race and so the self-loathing cycle begins. I even went down to the marathon starting line to punish myself. “You should have been doing this,” my horrible inner voice was saying to me. “Call yourself a yes man, you’re such a quitter.”

I think the minimalism aesthetic – the one we see in Instagram – can be geared towards the neurotypical if we’re not careful. And I’m not bagging everyone with bipolar with the same messy brush. This is my experience.

But the truth is – bipolar or not – we can all benefit from reducing life’s clutter.

I get anxious about the clutter and then I get anxious that I’ve lost stuff and then I spend half an hour rifling through trinkets and hair ties and receipts trying to get to the one thing that I need. Sometimes I give up and end up buying a new thing. Ugh. And the cycle continues.

It’s the same with digital clutter. I start getting overwhelmed when I have too many emails in my inbox or too many tabs open.

Yet another tug of war between my experience of bipolar and minimalism is how I can set grand goals when I’m manic and then feel the weight of them when I’m depressed. One way I try and overcome this is by making decluttering a habit. So instead of saying I’m going to have a spotless Marie Kondo house in a month I say I’ll do ten minutes of decluttering a day and see how I go. The goal is then not so much tied to the outcome as my input and my effort.

Another tactic I’ve read is to use something like a hula hoop or a box and say I’m only going to focus on what’s inside the hula hoop or the box. Turns out, once you’ve done a hula hoop you’ll either feel tired and move on (and you’ve still made a dent in the clutter) or you find this is the impetus you need to keep going and you move the hula hoop to another space.

When I’m in an elevated mood, everything feels urgent. Prioritising and being mindful is just a step too far for my unwell brain. In these times, I try not to force decluttering. The clutter will definitely be there tomorrow after a good night’s sleep. It’s not worth the anxiety or the negative self-talk.

Bipolar warrior John Poehler talks about how taking the concept of minimalism – focusing on simplicity and the basics – can actually be a central focus in your treatment plan. In a world where busyness and packed schedules and overflowing inboxes and buying the latest gadget and following the latest fad is just what we do, simplify.

Simplify your treatment plan. You need water, you need food, you need real connection, you need sunlight, you need meaning.

Taken to the extreme, it can make you feel sick when you’re buried in stuff or experiences or even people that don’t add – or can even be detrimental – to your wellbeing.

Like anything that might help you feel better, there’s support. There are people and organisations out there who will help you declutter. Professionals can help you set goals and understand why it’s so easy to buy stuff and difficult to sort and part with your things.


I want to leave you with some parting thoughts on minimalism, meds and moods.

  1. Don’t go all minimalism on your meds and therapy. If they work, keep taking your meds. Keep going to therapy.
  2. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t declutter daily. Your energy will ebb and flow. Try and measure your progress month by month. Or even quarter to quarter. Photos are a great way of doing this. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ those babies.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Striving for minimalism and not meeting your ridiculously high expectations is not another excuse to call yourself lazy, lacking willpower, not enough. Stop that. I’m looking at you, Katie. x