My Experience Only. YMMV.

The Therapeutic Hug

People Group Teamwork Holding Logo. 3D Rendering illustration

Big Group Hug

The common wisdom is that a person needs four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. I doubt that this is confirmed by any scientific studies and I doubt that it is true. If it were, there would be millions of people on Earth who would not survive.

I would be one of them. Despite being married to one of the two truly world-class huggers I’ve met in my life, I do not get my four-a-day. And certainly not twelve. Assuming eight hours a day for sleep and eight hours a day for work, that would leave eight hours to work in twelve hugs. That’s one and a half hugs per hour, and I suspect half a hug just won’t do.

In fact, I know it won’t. Scientific research has been done on the 20-second hug. It releases oxytocin, a pleasure and bonding chemical in the brain. Half a hug would need to be 40 seconds long to do the proper amount of good, and young lovers and newlyweds tend to be the only people who give hugs of that duration.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes a hug. For greatest oxytocin effect, I would recommend the full body hug – toe to toe, torso to torso, heads on shoulders, arms tightly squeezing. But you probably can’t give that particular hug when you run into an acquaintance in the supermarket, especially not 20 seconds worth, without blocking the aisles.

Other variations of hugs that may be less effective are the side-by-side one-shoulder squeeze (and the multi-person variant, the Big Group Hug), the manly back-thumping, and the A-frame hug (standing a distance apart and leaning in for a hug from the shoulders up). Then there are the virtual hug, usually written ((hug)), with the number of parens indicating the length/intensity of the hug, and the proxy hug, in which you delegate a person to pass along a hug when you’re not able to be there. None of these seem really conducive to the 20-second, made-for-thriving hug.

But, on some level, we know that hugs are therapeutic. Oxytocin or whatever, they make us feel better. Lots of hugging goes on at support and 12-step groups, and people who go to those daily might indeed make their recommended quota.

I go to private psychotherapy, however. I’ve never hugged my therapist, and am not even sure whether it’s appropriate for therapist and client to hug. It would be awkward to ask, “Can I have a hug?” only to hear, “No. That’s unethical.” But I suppose it depends on the therapist and the client and how each feels about the subject. I know sex is unethical, but hugs may be a gray area. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Of course, there are people who do not like to – or are afraid to – touch other people. Think Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. People who are aware of and skilled in responding to others’ body language may be able to see the little (or, let’s face it, large) cringe when one person sees another moving forward with open arms. If the non-hugger is quick enough, he or she can quickly stick out a hand for a hearty handshake, or the potential hugger will abort the hug and retreat to a friendly tap on the shoulder.

But there are people who will swoop in and envelop you in an unwanted embrace and maybe even air kisses with smacking noises. I suspect these would be more likely to shut down oxytocin entirely, and possibly release adrenaline instead in a fight-or-flight response.

As with sex, the safest route is to ask for consent – “Can I have a hug?” – and take no – “I’d rather not” – for an answer, without taking offense or pressuring – “Aw, c’mon” – and making things even more awkward.

Still, the best advice I can give is to be proactive about hugging. Say, “I need a hug” when you do. Ask “Do you need/want a hug?” when a person you know seems to be in distress.

Avoid hugging strangers, though. That hardly ever helps. At least wait until you’ve been properly introduced.

 

 

Helpless Woman Holding RopeAnymore, I don’t very often have days when I can’t get out of bed, but this week I had one. It doesn’t matter now what caused it, but I am feeling the lingering aftereffects. Today I had no choice but to get out of bed, and I thought as long as I’m up, I might as well blog.

(Actually I can blog in bed too, since my tablet will take dictation, but it’s not optimal.)

I had been headed for bed-bound all week – the slowly creeping whelms; the feeling of being nibbled to death by mice; the recent trauma of two pets’ deaths; a game I couldn’t win, couldn’t break even, and couldn’t get out of. Expected relief came three days too late.

Aside from not eating, not getting out of bed meets many of my needs – quiet, rest, naps, not having to fight off the numbness and care about anything. And yes, there’s some feeling sorry for myself in there too. I won’t try to deny it. Staying in bed is a big messy wad of self-pity, anhedonia, lack of energy, trying to stave off thoughts, and generally not being able to give a shit about anything. It is more than sadness. It is as J.K. Rowling described the Dementors: You feel as if you will never be happy again. In other words, there’s nothing worth getting out of bed for.

When I was searching for images to go with this post, I entered “end of rope.” I guess I expected to see cute kittens dangling and inspirational quotes like “Hang on Baby, Friday’s Coming!”

Instead, what I found were endless images of nooses. Nooses by themselves or with people in them. Overturned chairs under nooses. Photos, illustrations, every conceivable image of nooses. According to the visual imagination of illustrators and photographers, “end of one’s rope” means suicide. There were some images of frayed or broken ropes, but the nooses were in the lead by at least four to one. (There were also a few nautical pictures with coiled ropes, but they weren’t statistically significant.)

That’s not what I mean by “end of my rope” – not dangling kittens OR nooses. Staying in bed all day, being unable to function, is a long, long way from suicide. Indeed, I find it a mechanism that staves off thoughts of nooses. Staying in bed admits of the possibility that tomorrow, or maybe the next day, I will have the wherewithal to drag myself out of that bed. Or that something will force me out of the bed and I will have to respond, as it happened today.

Hence the title of this piece. I have not reached the end of my rope – certainly not to find a dangling noose at the end of it. I have not reached the end of my hope, because I believe that some day (I hope soon) I will be out of the bed (at least as far as the sofa, and then who knows?). But when I stay in bed all day, I have reached the end of my cope.

This is not exactly the same as reaching the end of my spoons, because I don’t use up any spoons by lying in bed. And I don’t really know, or perhaps don’t believe, that I will have a new supply the next day.

I expect that some people will beat me up for being so useless as to give up for even a day, to be unable even to try. I know I’m beating myself up over it too. But today I am out of bed, for at least part of the day, and I am writing. That means there’s at least an inch of rope left. An inch of cope.

“I’m gonna kick butt at this writers’ conference!”

I was a wee bit manicky.

“I am a writer and I know it! I’ve had articles published in lots of magazines! I have two blogs and I write in them every week! I can do this!”

It was a conference for humor writers.

“I know I can do this! I’ve written funny things about ratatouille (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and possums (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46) and being burgled by Frenchmen (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B).”

So, comes the conference…at a time when I’m not the least bit manicky.

Forget what I said about having developed a few social skills (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2M). I was there alone, and confronted with a large group, not small groups or individuals.

And I had paid a lot of money to attend.

Yellow ladybird is marginalizedIt was noisy. It was people-y. It had multiple panels scheduled all day. Every day lunch was an Event with big round tables. Every dinner was an Event with big round tables and important speakers. Everyone there blogged daily or had three blogs, an agent, and/or a book contract.

What to do?

Give myself permission to do what I could do. And skip the other stuff. Ignore the money. Build in breaks. Find quiet spaces. Admit when I’m exhausted and go home. (I lived in the area. If I had stayed in the hotel, that would have been “take naps” and the quiet spaces would have been easier to find. If I had better social skills, I might have made a friend and asked to borrow her hotel room.)

This is how I got through it all. Or most of it, anyway.

Do what I could. I combed the program book for Sessions I Must Attend, Sessions I Would Like to Attend, and Sessions I Can Skip. Then I looked for sessions that were offered more than once and decided which offering fit my schedule better. I tried to avoid more than two back-to-back sessions.

Ignore the money. Yeah, I paid quite a chunk of change for this. But it would have been ridiculous for me to calculate how much money each session was worth and try to make back my investment. I had to tell myself that I spent a lump sum and that whatever I got from the conference was worth it.

Build in breaks. The conference had what they called breaks – 15 minutes between sessions when everyone rushed the snack tables, compared schedules, and chattered up a storm. My idea of a break was to sit in the lobby in a comfy chair, stare at the program book so no one interrupted me, and carry snacks with me (boxes of raisins are good).

Find quiet spaces. When I needed something quieter than a hotel or conference center lobby, I searched for unused classrooms. In a hotel, the bar is usually pretty empty during a conference and is a good place to sit and relax with a nice glass of iced tea and maybe even complementary peanuts. Sometimes I was lucky enough to find that if I went to the room I wanted for the next session, it would be empty or contain only a few people. When all else fails, there are always the restroom stalls. (Unless there’s a line.)

Leave when exhausted. On the last full day of the conference I found myself slumped in a chair in the lobby, totally wrung out. There were events scheduled that evening that sounded fun and that I had signed up for while manicky (see above). But I just couldn’t. The events were mostly entertainment rather than educational anyway, and I was not in a headspace where I could absorb entertainment. The fact that there was a flu going around made my disappearance more understandable (even though I wasn’t physically sick).

So did I learn anything at the conference? Did I make new friends? Did I come back revitalized?

Sort of. I learned that the one-on-one “speed dating” with experts was perhaps the most valuable thing I did. I learned that showing up early for a session allowed me the opportunity to meet one of my idols (the speaker) and spend a little time with her and a small group before the session started. I learned that if I sat near the door it was easier to slip out when panic struck.

I even learned a thing or two about writing – how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing, and so forth. I learned that, despite my manicky expectations, I was no better or worse than the other attendees. We all had skills and valuable experiences and we all had things to learn.

Did I make a lot of new writing friends? No. At least not then. The conference had a Facebook page for attendees and I got involved afterward, online, where I am more comfortable than in crowds. I recognized names I had seen on nametags and had conversations with them. I posted some material from my blogs and read what others posted. I commented and read comments. I “followed” some of the instructors. I read books that attendees had recommended.

To tell the truth, I think I got more from the conference after it was over than when it was going on.

Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good – and survivable – learning experience.

Here I am, caught between reactive depression and clinical depression.

If you’ve been reading my last several posts, you know that I’ve been having a rough month. Several months. It’s been a real challenge to my hard-won quasi-stability.

3ff82b43-7ccd-4bde-8219-be5598c73452Last week, my 20+ year old cat, Louise died. The week before that, my husband’s 17+ year old cat died. So now I am trying to deal with those reactive feelings of grief and loss, without losing myself in the eternally waiting Pit of Despair that is clinical depression.

In doing that, I am trying to find things that remain to take comfort in.

I take comfort that my husband was here with me, to help me through.

That Louise had a good, long life spent in our loving care since she was a tiny kitten.

That she died peacefully, at home, in my lap, with me petting her.

That I had a chance to say goodbye to her.

That I know she loved me as much as I loved her.

That her presence and her purr helped calm me and helped me when nothing else could.

That she gave me a constant presence through a third of my life, and all of hers.

We have two cats now – Dushenka and Toby. They are young and healthy, but of course our time with them is not guaranteed. I know that, just by having them and loving them, we are inviting future grief into our lives, along with the joy. That’s just how it is.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on animals, humans, and what we share with each other. I know this is likely to happen again, and soon, for our dog is also aged and nearly ready to go. It’s hard. Is it harder when your brain doesn’t work right and tries to tell you that sorrow doesn’t end?

I don’t know.There’s no scale by which to compare pain, and loss, and despair, and grief. We each go through it the only way we can.

I hope that soon, at least a few of the clouds will part and I can feel something besides sorrow, express something other than pain. Maybe next week’s blog will be about healing, or coping, or sharing strengths.

Those are all things I need to be doing – that we all need to be doing.

Someone remarked this week that a recent post (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-k8) was not about healing. It reflected, the commenter said, all the privileges I have – money (or those who can lend it to me), drugs I can take to help me through a crisis (too many, according to the commenter), a supportive husband. And that’s all true. I have these privileges and more besides – a home, work that I can do without leaving the house, insurance, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Some of these come to me because of circumstances I don’t control, and some I have had to work very hard for, as I have worked hard for the ability to heal, a little bit at a time.

There are still things I cannot do – leave the house more than twice a month or so, shop for groceries, see the dentist without massive panic, stop taking the psychotropic meds that allow me to think, have a healthy sexual relationship. I expect that some of these will get better and others won’t.

But, no matter our symptoms or their severity, we as people with bipolar disorder are all in this together – or as the Bloggess would say, alone together. Maybe I have an easier time of it, but that’s far from saying it’s easy for me.

I still experience grief and sorrow, depression and anxiety, irrationality and immobilization, pain and despair, relief and help, struggle and hard work, love and loneliness.

And always, I look for the comfort that comes when I need it most, or expect it least, or believe I’ll never feel again. We all do.

Work Hacks

Yay me! I just finished a big project (or at least the first phase of it) for which I will be paid actual money!

I am very fortunate/grateful that I am able to do freelance work at home, on my own schedule (mostly), using my education and skills, in my pajamas. Telecommuting is so way cool!

I can’t work an eight-hour day in an office any more (and likely won’t again). I can only concentrate for a max of three hours at a time, and some days not even that. Occasionally, if there’s a tight deadline, I can manage two sessions, or one and a half.Just Get Through It message on a dry erase board encouraging you to stick with your project or challenge during a stressful time in your work or life

Of course motivation is a factor. Deadlines and money are two really good ones. But sometimes I have to force myself – or trick myself – into doing actual work. This was true even when I did work in an office.

Anyway, here are some of my techniques – work hacks, as I guess they’re now called.

Taking breaks. Now of course, I can take breaks whenever I want, from a quick game of Candy Crush to an actual nap. My brain and body let me know when it’s time. They just crap out.

When I worked at the office, I tried taking crossword puzzle breaks at my desk. But apparently smoking was the only permissible break activity. Hiding in the bathroom didn’t work. People were known to track me down and ask questions anyway. (“Do you mind if I wipe and flush first?” Sarcasm seemed called for.)

When I got twitchy, I walked around the third floor or even more than one floor until I calmed down. The trick is to carry a clipboard or a few manila folders and walk sort of briskly so it looks like you’re going somewhere and doing something. It works best if the office has more than one room.

Pretending to work. I developed this technique at the office, but it can also be used at home. I would say to myself, “I don’t know how to get started. I’ll just write one sentence, so if someone walks by my cube, it looks like I’m working.” It was surprising to find that once the first sentence was on the screen, I knew what the second one should be – or that the first one was horrible and I could revise it, which also looked like work. Once I built some momentum this way, I was rolling. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder now, but the idea is the same – one sentence is the minimum, then see what happens.

Bribery and rewards. These are actually more or less the same. If I do X amount of work, I can check my email or eat a cookie or call a friend. I get to feel virtuous for working and satisfied by the little treat.

Forcing myself. If I’ve got a really tight deadline, I have to apply some internal pressure, especially if it’s one of those I-don’t-think-I-can-get-out-of-bed-days. Everyone in this house likes to eat. (The cats insist on it.) My pay will cover the mortgage, so we won’t be living under the Third St. bridge next month. This is dangerous, because I am a great catastrophizer, but sometimes it’s the only thing that works.

Artificial goals and lying to myself. If I can just do five more pages I can quit for the day. I know I can make it to the end of this section (that would be the lying part).

Stupid work. There are a lot of fairly pointless tasks that must be done anyway, but can be done by rote – adding headers and footers and page numbers, alphabetizing, running spell-check (or typing-check, as I prefer to think of it), that sort of thing. To me, that counts as actual work, and some days it’s all I can manage.

Unfortunately, none of these are effective for housework. No one pays me for that.

 

“Look at where you are now compared to where you were when we started. Look how far you’ve come.” This is what my therapist frequently tells me. And she’s right.

When I first came to see her I was a total mess. It is a measure of my progress that I no longer refer to myself as “pathetic.” it has been months – years –since I have used that word to describe myself.

And she is right to point out my progress. Not only am I no longer the despondent, distraught, weeping mess that came to her, I am now a person who has acquired coping skills – at least a few – that I can use in everyday life without much prompting from her.

Silver pocket clock in wooden box isolated on whiteBut when I look back at how far I’ve come, how far back should I look?

Do I look back to my childhood, when there was something wrong with me that I didn’t understand? Do I look back to the everyday traumas that a typical person would have dealt with, if not easily, then at least adequately, that often left me a crumpled figure in the corner weeping copiously and, yes, pathetic.

Since those days, I’ve learned what my disorder is, and have learned to anticipate and deal with some of those everyday traumas.

Do I look back to my teenage years, when I had little clue how to make and keep friends? When I was an outcast for my oddities?

Since then I have rediscovered old friends and made new ones that love and support me, many of whom are just as odd as I am.

Do I look back to my college days, when the bright promise of my intellect was dulled by my inner turmoil, when I missed out on opportunities because I was not capable of reaching out to grasp them?

Since then I have tried to make the most of opportunities that come my way, and to use my talents as best I can.

Do I look back to my first significant other and how that relationship shredded what I had managed to accumulate of self-esteem and confidence?

Since then I have been trying to recover as much as I can of what I lost. And I now have a stable, supportive, long-term relationship.

Do I look back to the days when I first lived independently, teetering on the edge of financial disaster? The days when I could barely function in the world of work and living, when the loss of a job put me deep in the Pit of Despair?

Since then, I have learned to accept help from others and to know that the Pit of Despair is not my permanent home.

Do I reflect on the job that sustained me for many years, until my emotional state became so fragile that I was no longer reliable enough to do it?

Since then I have gotten work that I can do reliably and found a niche for myself in the world of work.

Do I look back to that dreadful time when my brain broke, I became unable to work at all, unable to take care of myself, unable to function in anything like normalcy?

Since then, I have been rebuilding my life – not as good as new, but the best I can.

Admittedly, the distance I’ve come since then has been vast. I can’t take the credit for it, however. Medications, therapy, a support system, a supportive husband, lots of reading about depression and anxiety and feminist issues and bipolar disorder have helped me survive and helped me grow.

Like many people with bipolar disorder I often have the sense that all along I was faking it, that during the periods when I seemed to be functioning best, I was actually pretending. Sometimes I think that’s what I’m doing now.

What’s that they say? Fake it till you make it?

But how do you know when you’ve made it?

I guess it’s when you look back and remember, but no longer viscerally feel, what you went through. I still have unanswered questions, unresolved conflicts, and unanswered puzzles from all those former times.

I no longer think that I will get answers to all of them. I suppose their purpose now is simply to be mile markers, measuring the distance I have come. I can look back if I choose to, or not. I can look back at who and what I was, or as my therapist says, how far I’ve come. But I’m not pathetic anymore.

So this is how far I’ve come. Can I look back without fear? Without despair? Sometimes I can. And that’s not something I’ve always been able to say. It’s progress.

 

Struggles and Tears

In the past week I have had to deal with:

  • My husband being out of town
  • Said husband driving home for 10 hours with faulty brakes
  • My insurance company going belly-up
  • My meds running out before new insurance could be implemented
  • My cat going missing
  • My check being late, so I could not pay mortgage, pay new insurance, pay for meds, pay power bill
  • Being immobilized and unable to leave the house

Out of all of those, which do you think came nearest to breaking my brain, causing me to catastrophize and dissolve into prolonged fits of weeping?

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Woodcut by Peggy McCarty. Used by permission.

If you guessed the missing cat, you’re right. One day she trotted out the deck door while I was feeding the dog, a thing she had never done before. I scooped her up and put her back inside, and resolved to close the door further in the future. Louise is 20 and rather thin, so it’s easy to misjudge what she can squeeze through.

When my husband got back (safely), he took over feeding the dog. Then the next day, Louise didn’t show up for her morning breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. She usually has a hearty appetite and meows quite loudly if a meal is late.

Naturally, I thought she had gotten outside again and was lost. We searched through the house, calling her name, and went around outside the house doing likewise. My husband thought she might be feeling poorly and holed up somewhere, most likely in the basement, which is also the garage and not easy to search because of all the clutter.

I thought she must have gotten out and succumbed to some fate out in the woods – a dog or other animal, the rain, hunger, illness and debilitation.

I was convinced she was gone for good. And I had thought I still had more time with her, despite her advanced age (20+). I was inconsolable. My precious cat, gone. No knowing what had happened to her. No chance to say goodbye. No way to comfort her in her last hours on earth.

Dan told me that everything would be all right, but I didn’t believe him.

Then, the next day, she showed up at mealtime, bellowing that she wanted food NOW! Dan had been right. She had hidden somewhere in the house and came out when she was ready to.  I had my darling Louise back, for however long she still has.

Then, after the long holiday weekend, the check came and I paid the bills and set up the new insurance and got my meds and went out to lunch with Dan and everything was all right.

Just a little while ago, I wrote about how having a cat saved my sanity (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-jS) and how they can be good for people with mental disorders. I even said that losing a pet could teach us something about the grieving process.

But when my own cat disappeared, all that philosophizing went out the window (or the deck door). Louise was gone and I was bereft. Nothing anyone could say could make it better. And the situation was complicated by the fact that both one of our other cats and our dog are also ancient. I know I will go through their loss, and likely soon.

Will I hold up any better?

I really don’t know. The other cat and the dog are my husband’s, bonded to him the way Louise is bonded to me. Likely his grief will be greater than mine. Or maybe when they pass they will remind me of how close I came to losing Louise. Maybe I’ll be able to support him in his loss, or maybe my brain will break again. Maybe it will happen when I am more stable, with fewer disasters and near-disasters clustering around my head.

That’s the thing with pets. You never know how long you have with them. You never know whether you’ll be relatively stable when you have to face their loss.

But I know I won’t give them up. The loneliness of not having them is even worse than the pain of their going.

ETA: Dan’s ancient cat Garcia passed away peacefully at home this morning (Saturday). We were both with him at the end.

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