My Experience Only. YMMV.

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism, though it’s not strictly speaking a mental illness. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older elementary children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need help find it before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

This is a post I published almost exactly a year ago on my other blog, janetcobur.wordpress.com. I thought I would share it here as well, and have more to say about it next week.

The Disability Tapdance

man in brown long sleeved button up shirt standing while using gray laptop computer on brown wooden table beside woman in gray long sleeved shirt sitting

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Once I applied for disability for my bipolar disorder and I was turned down Then I took the process as far as I could with a lawyer and he eventually advised me to give it up too. Here’s my story.

I had gotten to the end of my proverbial rope and we had gotten to the end of our money. For over a year I had been sidelined by unremitting depression. There was nothing I could do and nothing my psychiatrist prescribed or my therapist said had helped. We had been living on my husband’s salary and what was in my 401K from when I had last been able to work.

At last my husband pointed out that we couldn’t hold out much longer. He encouraged me to apply for disability. I knew that there would be lots of hoops to jump through and that there was no guarantee of succeeding. But Dan was willing to go with me to the Federal Building and help me get through it. I certainly wasn’t capable of managing it on my own.

Between the two of us, we had looked up what sorts of documents I would need and had acquired them. I was glad we were able to do this because going back again and again for missing documents would have been a horror. I had my appointment with the intake person and went back home to wait.

There were more forms to come. My psychiatrist had to fill out a long one, of course, or write a letter, I don’t remember which. I had to pay him for his time and trouble in doing that but at that point it was just another step that needed taking.

The big step was the psychological interview where I had to perform my little song and dance and convince someone that I was truly disabled. Fortunately, the appointment was not downtown in the Federal Building but in a relatively nearby office building that I knew how to find. Then the hoop-jumping and tap dancing really began.

They tested my memory. They told convoluted stories and asked me questions about them such as the order in which things happened and why the characters did what they did. They were confusing.

They tested my spatial perception. They had me put together those cubes with triangles on them to match patterns they showed me. I still don’t know what that had to do with bipolar disorder.

Then came factual knowledge. I was good at that one. I admit I guessed when they asked me how big around the equator was. I knew the easy stuff like who wrote Tom Sawyer and such.

By the time they got to the word association test, I was very tired. First they gave a pair of words and asked what they had in common, easy ones like truck and train. Later they gave difficult pairs of words that seemed to have nothing in common, like acceptance and denial, but I was supposed to come up with a commonality anyway.

Finally, an interview. I remember the woman asking me if I knew what the saying, “What goes around, comes around” meant. I replied, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and she looked at me funny.

A seemingly endless time later my claim was denied and I got a lawyer to pursue it. By that time so much time had passed that I was coming out of the depression and was able to work a few hours a week. How much did I get paid per hour? he asked. “Thirty dollars,” I said, explaining that I could only work a very limited number of hours. It didn’t matter. As soon as I said thirty dollars the judge’s head would explode, evidently. Lawyer Joe recommended I drop the claim and I did. At least I was getting some work and some income even without disability.

It seemed that for me to get disability I would have had to be together enough not to need it, but sufficiently disabled that I would. Catch-22, as Joseph Heller said.

 

 

The classic examples of non-directive therapists are Sigmund Freud and his disciples, who legendarily sat at the head of their couches and made comments like, “Hmm,” “Tell me about your dreams,” and “How do you feel about your mother?”

Freudian psychiatry is, thankfully, now out of vogue. But there are still therapists who believe that their job is to listen, not to instruct.

On the other hand, there are more directive therapists who assign homework. This can be anything from “Listen to this podcast on mindfulness” to “Write a letter to your ex telling him/her what you truly feel.” They probably won’t tell you to kick the bum to the curb, but if you decide to do so they’ll help you prepare for it.

But, although I am far from a Freudian and shy away from those who are (not many these days), I prefer non-directive therapists. I am not averse to doing a little homework or having a therapist ask me in a session to vocalize what I would like to tell a person or even to write a list of the coping mechanisms I’ve developed. My preferred dynamic, however, is to give-and-take with the therapist and then go home to contemplate what was said and how I feel about it.

I have had therapists who have given me homework and I can’t say they were wrong to do so. Sometimes writing something down or throwing teacups against the basement wall (or whatever helps you get your anger out) is a good thing.

My most recent therapist was a combination of the two. She mostly listened while I rambled on about what was happening in my life or what had happened in my past. Then she suggested ways that I could think about the events or pointed out coping mechanisms that I had developed or suggested ways I could put those coping mechanisms to use.

All in all, I felt that our sessions were mostly non-directive. She did suggest that I listen to a podcast on mindfulness, but she never quizzed me on whether I did and only listened when I told her what I got from it. She never told me that I should delve deeper into mindfulness or listen to more podcasts. She left that up to me, if I thought it might be helpful.

I understand that some therapists, particularly those that work in community mental health facilities, are required to file treatment plans and I can see where giving homework can flesh one out more than “talk about feelings.”

Perhaps there is something I’m missing. Perhaps at different stages of therapy, directive psychological interaction is more beneficial. Perhaps my particular problems lend themselves more to non-directive therapy. Perhaps I just have an aversion to being told what to do, especially where it concerns my memories and my feelings.

Of course, everyone has the option not to do the homework. This can be seen as resisting treatment, or disagreeing with the treatment approach, or simply lacking the wherewithal to carry it out. Sometimes it may be more helpful when the therapist sacrifices part of the session to doing the assignment there instead of leaving it to be done at home. In this case, the therapist is being really directive, though of course the client always has the choice not to do the assignment. It’s much harder, though, when the therapist is sitting there waiting for you to make a list of your dreams, your feelings, or your interactions with your mother, or to bash an empty chair with a pool noodle.

What it comes down to, basically, is therapeutic philosophy and therapeutic style. And a client is not bound to pursue whatever style of therapy that is favored. Although it is sometimes difficult to realize, a client has the option to request or to seek a therapist whose therapeutic style matches what the client feels is most helpful.

Remember, your therapist works for you, not the other way around. If you need a more or less directive therapist, it is your right to seek one out. Therapy has been known to stall and a different approach or philosophy may be just what you need.

 

Wednesday afternoon my husband called his doctor complaining of chest pain and was instructed to go immediately to the ER. Actually, he had had the chest pain off and on for several days but he A) attributed it to Taco Bell, B) is good at denial, and C) is stubborn.

So off to the ER we went. We were tucked into Bay 22 and after a time, a nurse drew my husband’s blood. While we were waiting for results, we watched The Big Sleep on the room’s TV, possibly not the best choice at that particular time. We were there from 4:30 to 10:00, when they reported that Dan’s cardiac enzymes were a “little high.” I left shortly thereafter and Dan was admitted.

Although in the past ER visits with my parents caused massive anxiety which then caused a variety of physical symptoms, this time I did not panic. I was too exhausted. I even had a little trouble driving home. The streets in our plat seemed the wrong length or something and I wasn’t absolutely sure where to turn. When I got home I fed and watered the cats and then collapsed. Sleeping, not weeping.

The next morning I had to get up and finish a work project, then go to see Dan for a few hours, then back home to more work. Again, an early collapse. Still no panic.

Today (Friday) I am writing this post after finishing the work project and while waiting to hear that Dan’s angiogram is done so that I can go and see him. Again, I am not panicking. Numb, maybe, and tired, but not anxious.

I used to hate not knowing. Waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop was torture. I am given to catastrophizing at the least provocation. But now, when there is an event that lends itself easily to catastrophizing I find I’m not. I have decided to postpone panicking until I truly have something to panic about.

At the moment Dan is fairly comfortable, in a very good hospital with attentive staff and even therapy dogs. There is nothing that I can do except visit him and call him.  I figure that when he calls with the results of the angio and info on whether they gave him a stent, I can panic then if required. Say, if he has to have bypass surgery.

But I’m disinclined to panic until or unless they tell me that’s the case.

And … I just got a phone call from his doctor. Dan had multiple artery blockages and required four stents, but no bypass surgery for now. I’m relieved, of course, but my main feeling is still one of exhaustion. Maybe I’ve been worrying in the back of my brain at a subconscious level and that has added to my exhaustion. Maybe when this is all over I’ll let loose and have a good cry, when he’s back home.

My friends have been sending me and him thoughts and prayers, hugs, light, and even good juju. They have also been reminding me to take care of myself, to remember to eat and sleep and I’ve been doing that at least on some kind of level. A bowl of cereal now, cheese sticks as a bedtime snack, a visit to the Waffle House when I’m too tired to make a meal. And eight hours of sleep a night. I can’t say the sleep has been dreamless or restful. I wake up still exhausted but at least my body is taken care of in a reasonable manner.

So there you have it. A potentially dire situation happened but I did not panic. Was it postponing the catastrophizing that helped? The exhaustion? I don’t know, but whatever coping mechanism it was, I’m glad it kicked in.

Dan has done so much for me through the years. I’m glad I will have an opportunity to pay him back even if only a fraction as much.

high angle view of pencils on table

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I was manicky this week and it affected my blog writing. I had a post all ready to go this morning, but last night I thought about it and realized it was crap. It meandered, without focus. The ideas were confused. It sucked. So I got up this morning to write something different instead.

Many of you may recognize this aspect of mania or hypomania. You do something that you think is fantastic  while in the grip of mania and when you come down, you can’t see what you ever saw in it. Or you begin an ambitious project that you work on and work on but never can complete.

I was toying with the idea of “inspiration porn” – the sort of post or story or TV show that holds someone up as an ideal, usually because they’ve lost a bunch of weight and gotten themselves into shape, or have an illness or disability and managed to do – whatever – again. Think “The Biggest Loser.” Or amputees who’ve learned to eat with their feet. It’s put out there for entertainment and to make everyone feel good that whoever it is conquered whatever it was. It takes a regular person out of the context of their lives and reduces them to their condition. And the subtext is that if this brave person can become able to do or be whatever again, so can everyone else with the same problem.

It happened to a friend of mine who was at a gym on a treadmill. A woman came up to her and said how inspiring it was to see her working so hard to lose all that weight. “Excuse me?” was my friend’s reaction. She was doing it for herself, not for anyone else, and especially not to inspire some random stranger.

The thing is, there really isn’t any mental health inspiration porn. For one thing, it would make lousy TV. Oh, they’d get advertisers – all those purveyors of psychotropics that clog the airwaves. But who would watch a depressed person finally getting out of bed and taking a shower, unless she had a coach yelling at her?

Inspiration for those of us with mental health problems takes other forms. Celebrities who speak about their struggles with mental illness are one. They are inspiring because they break the taboo about talking about mental illness in public and because they have done so to help other people.

Then there are the superstars of mental health inspiration. Carrie Fisher, Glenn Close, and Jenny Lawson, to name a few. These are people who focus light on the difficulties and struggles of mental illness. Their communications don’t stop with the announcement that they have a condition and encouraging people to get treatment, though those are also good things. But the real inspirations are those who open their lives, take others with them through the journey of symptoms, treatments, relapses, small triumphs, and bigger successes. They speak and keep speaking and keep speaking their message. They don’t make the process sound easy, because it isn’t. And they speak with authenticity and authority because we know they’ve been there.

They do inspire us because they are honest and open, and they clearly care about helping others in the same proverbial boat.

We lost a true inspiration when we lost Mama Carrie. No one will ever really take her place. But you can tell that she was an inspiration by the many people whose life she touched and how they remember her. If someday they make a movie of her life, I hope it features not only her personal struggles, but all that she did for others. Her speaking and continuing to speak despite – or because – of her ongoing struggles.

We can carry on her work by doing the same, by shedding the stigma, by talking to others, even family and friends. Recently a friend “came out” to me that she takes an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety med (the same ones I take). I was proud of her, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. But I was impressed and pleased that she was able and willing to share even that much. She was saying that she was part of our tribe.

As Jenny Lawson reminds us, in this we are alone together. And that’s inspiring. 

Three Types of Anxiety

Sometimes I know what I’m anxious about. Can we make the mortgage payment? Did I forget to refill my meds? Is the cat sick and does she need to see a vet? Will I ever be able to finish my novel?

Those are fairly normal anxieties, the sort that everyone has. They keep us up at night.

Then there are irrational anxieties. When did my passport expire? Did my husband leave the keys in the doorknob? Will that fan in the living room catch on fire if we leave it on all night? Will I find out when I start that new job tomorrow that they really hired someone else? (That’s not completely irrational. It happened to me once.)

People with many types of mental illnesses have these. Even some people without mental illnesses have these too. I knew a woman who worried herself awake one night over whether she had given her sons a proper religious education. Many of them – the passport, the keys, the fan – we can get up and check on, if we’re unable to put them aside and sleep.

But there’s another kind of anxiety that I sometimes get and it’s the hardest of all to deal with.

Free-floating anxiety.

PscyhCentral defines free-floating anxiety as “a generalized, debilitating apprehensive mood which, unlike a phobia, is not triggered by any specific object or occurrence.” It is also referred to as “generalized anxiety disorder,” though my doctor just wrote “anxiety disorder” on my chart.

Or in other words, it happens when you don’t really have anything to be anxious about, but you are anyway. Anxiety.org helpfully adds, “GAD usually first presents itself in the years between childhood and middle age.”

One tricky thing about free-floating anxiety is that it can lead you to believe you’re anxious about things you really aren’t. If you have an anxiety attack in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, you might assume that the cereal aisle causes the anxiety and avoid it thereafter. Which would be a shame, because dry cereal is a great food to eat, right out of the box, when you just can’t get out of bed that day.

PsyWeb.com notes that “GAD is generally treated by combining psychotherapy and prescribed medication. Drugs that effectively treat free-floating anxiety are benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and buspirone. The patient is prescribed a certain medication based on potential side effects and treatment effectiveness.” But sometimes even that isn’t enough.

I used to get anxiety attacks in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep anyway. My whole body would tense up and my skin felt like there were electric wires running through it. I started breathing hard or even panting, gasping to get enough air. That kind of anxiety can leave you exhausted but without sleep, sometimes for the next day as well. It’s like having an anxiety hangover.

If my husband was home when an anxiety attack struck (he works third shift now) he knew enough to, first, ask me what I was panicky about, and if I didn’t know, then to wrap me in a hug, coach me to breathe slowly and deeply, and stroke my hair until I relaxed enough to fall asleep.

When my husband wasn’t there, I would just have to hug my pillow and tough it out. Try to remember the breathing.  Pet a cat.

Nowadays I don’t have the nighttime anxiety attacks. My psychiatrist has prescribed a sleeping aid and an antianxiety med to be taken at bedtime. If I do have middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks, he has allowed me an extra antianxiety pill to take, which usually does the trick.

Personally, I prefer my husband’s nonmedical approach.

Healing From Gaslighting

Apparently, gaslighting has become the new “thing” in pop psych circles. We see article after article warning of the dangers of gaslighting and how to spot a gaslighter. I have written a few such articles myself:

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm)

Gaslighting and Bipolar Disorder (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2)

When Men Aren’t the Gaslighters (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu)

Is it time for another? I think so. Now that more people know about gaslighting, they need to know how to heal after the experience, as they would after any kind of emotional abuse.

Because that’s what gaslighting is – emotional abuse. But it’s a specific kind of emotional abuse. In gaslighting, one person in a relationship (romantic or familial) denies the other’s perception of reality and works to convince the gaslightee that he or she is the crazy one in the relationship. As in other forms of emotional abuse, the gaslighter may try to isolate the victim from friends and relatives, give intermittent reinforcement (insincere apologies) that draw the victim back into the relationship, or denigrate the person with insults.

But the heart of gaslighting is that denial of the other person’s reality. The abuser says, in effect: You can’t trust your own feelings. My view of the world is accurate and yours isn’t. You’re crazy. (Of course, the gaslighter may also use the familiar techniques of emotional abuse as well: isolation, insults, projection, and belittling.) But gaslighting is unique because the perpetrator distorts a person’s world view, sense of self-worth, and belief in him- or herself.

Healing from gaslighting is not easy, but it can be done. Here is some advice from me, a person who was a victim of gaslighting but is now healing.

Get as far away from the gaslighter as you can. Yes, this may mean cutting off contact with a family member, if that’s who is doing the gaslighting. It may mean leaving town. It does mean making a sincere and lasting emotional break.

Do not maintain contact with the gaslighter. You may think that once you have broken free from the gaslighter, he or she can do no further harm. This is just an invitation to more emotional battering.

Name the abuse. Say to yourself – and possibly to a trusted person – this was gaslighting. I was emotionally abused and tricked into thinking I was crazy. My worldview was denied and my thoughts and emotions were said to be invalid.

Feel the feelings. It may be some time before you can admit to or even experience the emotions that gaslighting brings. Your first reaction may be relief (at least I’m out of that!), but there may be years of anger, frustration, fear, and rage lurking behind that. It may take work to surface those feelings and feel them and recognize that they are valid.

Get some help. This can be a therapist who specializes in treating victims of emotional abuse or it can be a supportive friend, family member, or religious counselor. It should be someone who can listen nonjudgmentally, validate your perceptions of reality, and sympathize with your situation.

Do not try to get revenge. This is just another way of reconnecting with your gaslighter. It gives the person another opportunity to “prove” that you are crazy.

Develop new relationships. It may seem like there is no one in your world who will understand and be supportive. For a while, you may not be able to trust enough to have another close friend or lover. You may have a lot of healing to do first. But remember that gaslighters are in the minority; most people don’t do that to people they profess to care about.

Give it time. It may take years to fully get over the experience. (I know it did for me.) Maybe don’t go directly into a rebound relationship. You need time and space to work through your feelings and rebuild your perception of reality.

Just know that gaslighting doesn’t have to be a way of life. It can end when you gather the strength to break away from it. You can heal and take back what you know to be true – that you are a person who is worthy of love. That your perceptions and feelings are valid. That you don’t have to live by someone else’s view of what is real. That you are not crazy.

 

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