My Experience Only. YMMV.

Next month, this blog will be three years old, an unruly toddler of a blog with jam on its face and a sticky plush animal grasped in its fist. Except for one dry spell of about a month during the first year, I have posted every week in both this and my general purpose blog, Et Cetera, etc. (janetcobur.wordpress.com).

My husband often tells me that he’s proud that I am doing this and that I have stuck with it so long and faithfully. (He doesn’t often read my posts, but that’s another matter.)

nightblogWriting while bipolar is not always easy, but blogging has taught me a few things about myself.

Blogging is a substitute for going outside and having a social life. While it’s generally true that my disorder has abated over the years, at least from its worst, I am still unable – or perhaps unwilling is more accurate – to go outside for more than a doctor’s appointment, or a brief errand and lunch with my husband. But I am still connected to the outside world through my blog. I have friends, I have conversations, I get feedback. I have special blogging friends like Bradley, Raeyn, and Dyane. (I also live vicariously through Facebook, but that’s another story.)

I need structure, and blogging gives me that. I used to post randomly, whenever I felt like it. Pretty quickly I discovered that Sunday was the day when my blog got the most traffic, so I made that my official blog post day. Working at home as I do, I tend to lose track of where I am in any given week. Is it Tuesday? Thursday? It’s hard to tell. But having a writing schedule clears that up.

On Monday and Tuesday I pre-write – think about articles I’ve read or conversations I’ve had and jot down a few titles or ideas or URLs. On Wednesday I begin writing. My goal is to have a rough-ish draft by the end of Thursday and a nearly finished one on Friday. Friday and Saturday are for tweaking the writing, selecting a visual, and tagging. Then Sunday, I proof and post. (I also tweet a quote from my most recent post on Tuesday and a quote from an earlier post on Wednesday, plus a “coming attractions” post on Friday announcing Sunday’s topic.)

It’s a loose enough schedule that I can build in actual paying work around it.

For me, blogging and other forms of writing are better than journaling. My journaling quickly turned into whining. It was boring, even for me. I need real content to interact with, whether that be my blogs, a memoir, or the mystery novel I’m working on. Writing engages and invigorates my poor broken brain, giving it something to do other than wallow or turn to mush.

Even when I think I can’t write, I can still blog. Back when I was able to work full-time, I wrote and edited for magazines and textbooks. I used to boast that I could write 1000 words on anything. Blogging is more forgiving. I can stop at 500 words if that’s all I have to say. I can pick my own topics instead of writing to order based on someone else’s priorities. And that schedule I mentioned? It’s not an actual deadline, so I don’t have to worry about it whizzing past. When the pressure’s off, I can almost always make my Sunday goal.

Blogging validates me. I have two degrees in English (one from a pretty classy university) and worked in educational publishing for about 20 years. Then my brain broke and it all went away. Now that I’m writing regularly, I feel that in some way I’m using both my education and the skills I’ve built up.

By blogging, I prove to myself that bipolar disorder may have taken away some parts of my life, but it can’t have everything.

Relentless Holiday Cheer

a snowmanFor many of us with bipolar disorder, the holidays are hard to get through. There is stress caused by family, shopping, entertaining, and crowds. Or the celebrations of others can bring loneliness, isolation, immobility, and despair. Above all, there is the relentless, overwhelming, mandatory cheerfulness, and the expectation that we should feel that way.

As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. A bit over a week later is my birthday. Then comes Christmas. And, of course, New Year’s Eve and Day.

Every year these celebrations are a trial and a chore for me. I don’t know how you get through them, but this is what they usually look like for me.

Thanksgiving. We have no family in town, so it is just me and my husband. Actually, this is not bad, because it relieves us of the responsibility for massive cooking, anxiety-filled entertaining, and the always-dicey interactions with family. At most, it means we Skype with my mother-in-law while we all eat, which is taxing enough.

This year we are short on funds, so we’re having spaghetti instead of turkey. (I don’t like to do turkey anyway: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z.) Then we will indulge in our two traditions: the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) and the ceremonial playing of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Then we nap. That’s it.

And what am I thankful for this year? I can’t think of much, except for my husband and cats, and that my pdoc just increased my Abilify. It hasn’t kicked in yet, except to make me sleepy, but, hey, a nap is on the schedule anyway.

Birthday. This is one of the big ones, with a zero at the end. My husband has already given me my presents (a variety of shoes and slippers). I can reliably predict that there will be a day-old baked good from where he works. No singing, no candles. That’s the way I like it. I’ll count the number of greetings I get on Facebook and feel miserable no matter what it is.

(My attitude toward birthdays is colored by the fact that a traumatic childhood event happened at a birthday party, although not my own.)

Christmas. The biggie. We exchange gifts ahead of time, without wrapping them. We go to the Chinese buffet. Dan watches a movie that I can’t stand, like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, or one I can sort of tolerate, like It’s a Wonderful Life. Or one I actually like, like Scrooged.

New Year’s Eve/Day. We used to go to a friend’s house for leftover Christmas cookies and singing “Oh, Danny Boy” on the porch (don’t ask), but she was one of the people who couldn’t put up with my bipolar isolation and tendency not to respond to invitations or to show up if I had. So that’s out now.

Dan’s family has a tradition of shaking their purses or wallets at midnight to ensure prosperity for the new year (it failed spectacularly last year). He’ll be working, so we can’t even kiss at midnight. I drink cheap champagne and go to bed early. We might have pork on New Year’s Day. Or not. But unless we have cole slaw or Dan opens a can of sauerkraut for himself, no cabbage.

If that sounds like a dreary holiday season, well, it is, but it’s all I can handle. I have tried. I really have. In years past I have bought Christmas sweaters and earrings and sent cards and entertained and done Secret Santas at work. I have had dinner with family. (Decorating is largely out, owing to the cats.) I have organized trips to fancy local buffets or restaurants. I have wrapped presents creatively (if sloppily) and even shopped off-line. I have baked spice cake and decorated sugar cookies with my friend Peggy. I have gone to community carol sings.

But no more. In many ways, like my life, my holidays have been pared down to the bare minimum. I approach them with dread and survive them with relief. They do not lift my spirits and nowadays I don’t expect them to.

It’s ironic that, though in many ways I am improving and healing and rebuilding my life, the holidays still defeat me. They are, at least for now, pieces that I can’t reclaim. I don’t think it would be much better if a bout of hypomania hit. I can just see myself buying presents for my far-flung friends, then bottoming out before I could mail them. You can’t time these things, after all.

The best I can wish for myself and for all of you is this:

Survive. Hold tight to whatever happiness you find. And please, please, get through this season any way you can.

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane. The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.)

But what does gaslighting have to do with bipolar disorder? Someone who is in the depressive phase of bipolar – especially one who is undiagnosed – is especially susceptible to gaslighting. The very nature of depression leaves a person wondering, “Am I insane?” To have another person reinforcing that only strengthens the idea.

Back when I was undiagnosed and in the middle of a major depressive episode, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couple’s sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one, and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. For a person in the grips of depression or mania, this will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to to tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that being the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

Getting help for the depression or bipolar disorder is also an important step in escaping the effects of gaslighting. With proper therapy and/or medication, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

Furry Friends and Helpers

I’m sure we’ve all seen memes that say the best therapist has four legs and fur. When I’ve been feeling cranky, I have occasionally written responses to the people who post them. They demean the very hard and real work that psychiatric and psychological professionals do. And after all, what do the memes really say? “Have a mental illness? Just get a dog.”

Still, there are circumstances in which an animal can help a person with a mental or emotional disorder. It’s not as simple as going to the pound and picking out a pup, though. For an animal to assist a psychiatric (or other) patient, there are a number of hoops for the person to jump through.

Most people nowadays are used to the presence – or at least the idea – of service animals such as seeing eye dogs. Less common are Therapy Animals, Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) and Psychiatric Service Animals (PSAs). But they all have parts to play in promoting and maintaining mental health in persons with bipolar and other emotional disorders.

Therapy animals are most often used with geriatric patients and children with emotional disturbances. In some nursing homes and convalescent centers you find programs that bring small animals to interact with the residents. Even farm animals – chickens, lambs, piglets – may spark memories that had been hidden away for years. The animals help residents get in touch with those memories and caregivers get in touch with residents. Libraries sometimes bring calm, well-behaved dogs in so that children can read to them. The soothing presence of a well-trained dog can help a child self-regulate her or his emotions – and get reading practice at the same time.

Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as miniature horses or guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder. Typically, in order for an emotional support animal to be allowed in rental housing, documentation such as a letter is required from a physician or mental health professional stating that the animal’s presence alleviates symptoms of a patient’s psychiatric condition – one that qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Regulations covering comfort or emotional support animals apply mostly to residences and airlines, but not other places where service animals are allowed, such as stores, restaurants, and public buildings. There, health codes trump emotional support.

Some folks confuse Emotional Support Animals with Psychiatric Service Animals. They think that “training” a dog to offer a kiss on command, or jump in their lap, or be hugged is a task qualifying the animal as an official service animal. While these are indeed ways that an animal can calm a person in distress, service animals, including psychiatric service animals, must receive special training that teaches them how to alleviate the symptoms of an ADA-defined disability.

Legitimate tasks for PSDs (psychiatric service dogs) include counterbalance/bracing for a handler dizzy from medication, waking the handler at the sound of an alarm when the handler is heavily medicated and sleeps through alarms, doing room searches or turning on lights for persons with PTSD, blocking persons in dissociative episodes from wandering into danger (i.e., traffic), leading a disoriented handler to a designated person or place, and so on.

In The Possibility Dogs: What I Learned from Second-Chance Rescues About Service, Hope, and Healing, author Susannah Charleson recounts how rescue dogs – the unwanted, unlikely-to-be-adopted dogs that languish in shelters or are destroyed – have been matched with persons who need them.

One of the stories she tells involves training a dog to help a person with OCD. The dog was taught to identify when the handler had returned to the stove three times (to check the burners). Then the dog would interrupt the person, leaning against her leg to distract her. For a person who could approach a door but not go outside, the dog brought a leash to encourage leaving the house for a fun activity.

By the way, forget about cats as service animals. Just try training a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. (I know that cats have been trained to run obstacle courses for agility competitions, but that doesn’t really qualify as a service for an individual with a disability.) If you are able to register your cat as an Emotional Support Animal or get a medical/psychiatric recommendation, you may be able to have your cat live with you in a pet-free community, or have the fee for a pet waived. But that’s about it where cats are concerned.

So, animals can’t be actual therapists, but they can assist in treatment and life skills for people who need help with mental disorders. When I’m less cranky, I keep scrolling past the pet-as-therapist memes and feel grateful that my cats offer me emotional support, whether they’re trained to do so or not.

 

Writing can be therapeutic – and more.

Writing can save your life – or someone else’s.

Every one of us, depressed, manic, or bipolar, has something to say.

I say, “Say it!”

Although I’ve never been one to respond to that ancient exercise in which you express your unspoken thoughts to an empty chair, I am a proponent of expressing your unspoken thoughts. I just think writing is a better way to do it.

Getting your thoughts and feelings down on paper or preserved in pixels is a positive, life-affirming action, even if your thoughts might not be. Giving voice to your inner workings can help you understand yourself and your brain better.

And if you choose to share them, they can help others too.

There are many different kinds of writing you can explore and experiment with until you find the one or ones that are right for you. Here are a few you can try.

Journaling. Many therapists recommend journaling to keep track of your moods and mood swings. You can also keep track of your exercise and sleeping and eating patterns in your journal. These factors may help you pinpoint physical symptoms that accompany your emotional ones. And you can get a read on how your meds affect your symptoms and how troublesome the side effects are.

Unsent letters. I have a separate file in my computer for these, just so I remember not to send them. I write letters not to send when I need to vent at or about a person, but am not sure whether I’m overreacting. I can express my feelings without taking the chance of ruining a friendship or hurting a loved one.

Sent letters. Sometimes, after you’ve let those letters or emails sit for a while, you decide that you do need to send them – or at least parts of them. Letters or emails are often the best way to communicate regarding difficult topics because you can think about what’s important to say, consider the best way to say it, and revise if your thoughts are not coming out the way you want them to. You still might want to wait a day before you send them, though.

IMs and comments. When you read someone’s post or a comment that really resonates with you, don’t hesitate to let that person know. If you don’t understand something in a post, just ask. If you disagree, feel free to do so politely. These are chances to open a dialogue, get more information, or correct misconceptions. They can lead to friendships if you comment regularly, but even a word or two of support or thanks can mean a lot to the writer.

Blogging. I started blogging because my journaling was boring and whiny, and I decided I had more important things to write about. There are basically two kinds of blogging about bipolar disorder. One is to share your experiences – your mood swings, your triggers, your relationships, your healing, your thoughts and meditations. The other is to write about issues related to bipolar disorder – treatments, stigma, social policy, news items, books, or opinions. Of course, you can combine both types of writing in your blog, which is what I try to do.

Blogging is powerful. It lets both professional and untrained writers speak their truth and share their thoughts. A blog about bipolar disorder has a “niche” audience – people interested in the subject themselves or because they have a friend or relative with the disorder. This means that you will likely never rival the Bloggess in numbers of readers, but you can touch the lives of hundreds of people.

Blogging does not have to be difficult. You can post every day or every week, every month, or just when it suits you. You can write informally or in a more academic vein. There are a number of platforms, such as WordPress and Live Journal, that make it easy for you to get started, and to make changes as your blogging needs evolve. You can add illustrations and video clips, and links to news stories or other blog posts. Eventually, you may want to have your own personal web page to host your blog.

Fiction and poetry. If you don’t want to put your own experiences out on the web for anyone to see, you could try transforming them into fiction or poetry, or inventing characters and plots that resemble you not at all. Many magazines and other outlets use short stories and poems, and works that feature bipolar characters and themes are not common. Fiction and poetry can be ways to reach an audience that might otherwise never learn about the reality of bipolar illness and its effects on people and relationships.

Longer works. You could even write a book (which is something I’m trying to do). There are many genres to choose from, including nonfiction, memoirs, and novels. Aside from Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries, there isn’t much fiction featuring bipolar characters that are true-to-life and not stereotyped. These are long-term projects and, truthfully, you (and I) may never finish them or have them published. But just the effort is worthy.

Whatever form of writing you choose, get started! Whether you write for yourself or for a larger audience, you can make a difference. And if you feel the desire, you should definitely try.

Beating Bad Thoughts

I saw a meme today. It said:

“Just do what you can today, okay? It will be enough.”

Instantly my brain said, “No, it won’t.”

My brain, uncooperative at all but the very best times, has a habit of telling me bad things when I’m in a depressive episode: “You’re useless.” “You’re pathetic.” “Everything you do fails.”

For some reason, positive thinking memes and slogans bring out the worst in my brain. If a pass-along or a bumper sticker tells me that tomorrow will be brighter, my brain says, “No, it won’t.” If a meme says, ” I hope the situation you worry about favors you in the end,” it says, “Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.”

Is my brain simply cranky and uncooperative? Well, yes. But these intrusive thoughts reinforce and deepen my depression, chip away at what self-esteem I still have, deny my progress in healing, and make me resent the whole happy, smiley world that apparently everyone but me can see.

Is there anything I can do to make my brain shut up, or at least pipe down with all the negativity?

I’ll tell you what doesn’t work for me: daily affirmations. My brain tells me these are lies and that I shouldn’t believe them. I can’t look into a mirror and repeat five times, “I am a good, worthwhile person” or “I deserve happiness” or “I will overcome my problems.” It’s like the problem of seeing cheery, encouraging memes on the internet, only having to inflict them on myself. If anything, they make me feel worse.

If these sorts of things work for you, fine. I’ve no objection. I won’t make fun of you. I’m truly glad you’ve found something that helps you.

They just don’t work for me.

So what can I do?

I have gleaned two helpful hints from my psychotherapist. Both are visualizations, and both are metaphors. And both involve animals. (They are variations on a technique called “thought stopping,” which is simpler and more direct. But I find visualizations easier to remember and do. I love metaphors.)

The first comes from a mindfulness meditation that Dr. B. asked me to try. I’m not much good at meditation, because of both my intrusive thoughts and my anxiety. Sitting still for that long is difficult, and so is emptying my mind of thoughts to concentrate on my breathing, for example.

The narration that guided the meditation had a solution for this. When your mind wanders and your thoughts drift off to somewhere else, think of them as puppies that wander away when you’re trying to teach them something. Gently corral them and nudge them back in the right direction. You don’t have to panic and shout, “There they go!” and run off after them. You just give them a little push toward where you want them to go. If they wander again, do the same thing. “What about the mortgage payment? Come back, little puppy. Over here.”

The other technique is for the kind of bad thoughts that I often get: anti-affirmations or negatives that deny any suggestion of peace or happiness or accomplishment. For these, Dr. B passed along an idea that another client had given her. Imagine that your bad thoughts are naughty cats, who jump on the kitchen table or try to go fishing in your aquarium. Then imagine spraying the bad thought (cat) with a bottle of water to make it stop what it’s doing and scram. “I never do anything right. Psssst! Psssst!”

When I’m profoundly depressed, I doubt even these clever dodges will work, though I’m certainly going to try them. But when I’m just starting on the slide down, I predict they’ll be just the thing to trick my brain into submission.

Take that, brain! Psssst! Psssst!

 

 

 

Another Word for Stigma

Stigma concept.Recently I was reading an article online and came across a word I had never encountered before: sanism.

I don’t like it.

Oh, I realize that it’s meant to go along with all the other “isms” – words that point out how the world decides who is worthy of respect, then campaigns for the rights/recognition/understanding of the disrespected. There are lots of “isms,” some familiar by now, and others that just never quite made it.

racism

sexism

nationalism

feminism

elitism

ethnocentrism

ableism

lookism (This one didn’t catch on. It means that pretty people are advantaged.)

colorism (Not quite the same as racism, it refers to the idea that lighter shades of brown skin are preferable to dark ones.)

Not all of these terms are equally adequate. Sexism, for example, refers to the divide between male and female, and implies (though does not call out) heterosexism in particular. It ignores the experience of people with other kinds of gender expression – genderfluid, pansexual, and trans, for example. It probably should be “cis-sexism,” but then everyone would spend an hour explaining that when they tried to use it.

Ableism is another term that has problems. In its basic form, it contrasts the able-bodied against the disabled, or rather points out that the rights and even the humanity of the disabled are discounted. I bet some of you are wincing at the phrase “the disabled.” Times change and terms change. Right now the preferred term is “person with disabilities,” though we have been through other versions – “differently abled,” “physically challenged,” etc.

The general rule in these situations is to call people what they prefer to be called. But how do you know which term that is? Negro, Black, black, non-white, colored person, person of color, and probably a few I’m missing have had their day. And if you use Black, do you also have to use White? Many people do not understand the word Caucasian anymore, and certainly can’t explain why it means the same as white. Nothing you can say will satisfy everyone. Perhaps the best solution is simply to call everyone “Chuck,” or “Emily,” or “Mariko,” or whatever.

So. Back to sanism. My first problem is how to pronounce it. San-ism? Sane-ism? And if the latter, shouldn’t it be spelled saneism? Do we need a hyphen (sane-ism) to keep it from being mistaken for an unfamiliar religion?

But the real problem goes deeper than that. Sanism implies that there are two categories: sane and insane. If you’re not one, you’re the other (and discriminated against, but let’s put that aside for now).

Personally, I have a mental illness (bipolar 2), but I don’t think most people would classify me as insane. And there are many other people with OCD, PTSD, phobias, anxiety disorders, etc., who have difficulties because of them but are by no stretch of the imagination insane. Do we go back to the days when anyone with a neurosis was sane and anyone with a psychosis was insane? Does anyone still divide the world up that way, or has the DSM caught up with reality?

What, then, do we call ourselves? Non-sane? Not-sane? Mentally ill? Mentally challenged? Mentally unhealthy? Neurodivergent? Emotionally disordered? Nothing seems to encompass all of us. Nothing seems to work. But the “ism” suffix implies lining up two groups to make it easier to talk about the differences between them. It doesn’t always work perfectly – racism can be black/white, black/Asian, Hispanic/Anglo, etc. – and you sometimes have to define exactly what you mean.

Admittedly, the sane (able-minded? neurotypical?) have automatic, inherent advantages over whatever-we-decide-to-call-ourselves. Housing, jobs, even service in restaurants are weighted in favor of people with no psychiatric/psychological label or diagnosis.

But wait! We already have a word for that – stigmatized. Sanism sets up the contrast between those who consider themselves “normal” and those that the normal consider “abnormal.” In other words, stigmatized.

We already know that stigma exists surrounding mental illness. We don’t really need the word “sanism” to redefine it. Or to pit us against one another.

We have mental or emotional disorders. We are discriminated against – hated, feared, shunted aside, diminished, discounted, blamed, or avoided – because of that.

That’s stigma.

That’s what we have to fight.

Not “sanism.”

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