My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘acting “normal”’

The Question I Hate the Most

There are many things you shouldn’t say to a bipolar person: Cheer up. Smile. What have you got to worry about? We all have mood swings. Calm down. You’re overreacting. You don’t look depressed.

Each of these remarks contains a hidden assumption, from simple – you can choose your moods; to dismissive – your anxiety is not as severe (or as important) as mine; to possible gaslighting (see https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu).

I’ve gotten all of those and more. Once I revealed my disorder to a coworker and she’d ask me, “How are you?” with a concerned look several times a day, taking my emotional temperature. But the question I hate most is a simple one.

Are you off your meds?

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

First, the underlying message is that, to the speaker, you are acting in a strange, inappropriate, frightening, incomprehensible, or otherwise “off” manner.

The second assumption is that you must be on medication in order to appear “normal” at times.

Third, that since you do not appear “normal” to the speaker, the only explanation is that you must not be medicated at the moment.

Fourth, that the speaker has the right to give you advice on how medicated you need to be in order to appear “normal.”

And, finally, that “meds” are the answer to all your problems. If you want to fit into society you must be on your guard at all times and medicate until you are acceptable to them.

There is a slightly less offensive version of the question: Have you taken your meds today?

This might be marginally acceptable from a loved one, who knows that you take medication for your disorder and also knows that you are sometimes forgetful.

But really. Most psychotropic medications build up in a person’s system over time and leave the body over a long time as well. Missing a single dose is not likely to have an appreciable effect on a person’s moods or actions.

There are some anti-anxiety medications that have short-term effects, and a bipolar person might have forgotten a dose or two.

But unless the speaker is the bipolar person’s caregiver, official or unofficial, it’s still rather parental and demeaning – suggesting that we aren’t competent to handle something as vital as our own medications.

Of course, sometimes it may be necessary to help a loved one remember to take medication, whether that person is bipolar or not. On a vacation, for instance, when one’s normal routine is disrupted, a gentle reminder may not be amiss. When one has just started treatment and the routine is still unfamiliar. Or if the person actually is a child.

You wouldn’t ask an adult with the flu “Have you taken your antibiotics today?” You wouldn’t say to a blind person “Now, don’t go out without your service dog.” Most people, most of the time, are deemed competent to know their needs and take care of those needs themselves.

But bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, being largely “invisible illnesses,” seem to invite meddling. Everyone else knows what’s best for us, from a different drug to herbal medicine to a walk in the park to prayer.

They know a little bit about the disorders, perhaps, largely through television and celebrities. But they don’t know your particular version of the disorder (bipolar 1 or 2, rapid cycling, dysthymia, hypomania, anxiety, etc.)

So if I snap at you, or seem anxious, or don’t want to go out, don’t assume. I have regular “normal” moods too, even when I’m on medication. Sometimes I get annoyed if my husband has lost his cell phone for the third time this month. Sometimes I feel sad if my picnic is rained out. Not every mood is pathological.

So don’t assume you know what’s going on inside my head. Unless I ask for help, refrain from putting in your oar.

And don’t ask me, “Are you off your meds?” It’s an insult, not a question.

Bipolar Me, Looking for Work

I have been very fortunate over the last few years in that I have been able to work and that, combined with my husband’s far-from-large – but steady – paycheck, we have been able to pay the bills. Now that seems to be changing.

After my last big emotional crash, I was unable to work at all, and after my husband’s major burnout, he was not able to work for a while. We ran through our IRAs and ended up in the situation where we are now.

I do writing, editing, and proofreading jobs from my home computer. It is really ideal, in that the projects usually come sporadically, with time in between them, so I seldom require more energy than I have available. I do not have to go out very much, or dress up very often and can work in my comfort zone, in my comfortable study, in my comfy pajamas. In these respects I am lucky or blessed, or however you wish to define it.

But clients have become a little thin on the ground lately. And I am afraid. I fear both a financial crash and an emotional one. The two are not unrelated. Finances and dealing with them were two of the largest triggers that started the major depression-plus-anxiety that swallowed me up for quite a few years.

Now I am feeling the pinch again. I felt it back in August, when my “proactive hypomania” helped me get through (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4). But one can do that only so many times. Or at least I can’t summon the necessary mood at will. (Surprise, surprise.)

I have a writing project now, but it will run out in January. I have another client, but work from them is not as consistent as it used to be. We are already behind on some of our bills, including the mortgage.

So I am looking for more work, and it is scary.

The kind of work I’ve been doing is ideal, even when my symptoms increase. It lets me work around the deficits that bipolar heaps upon me. If I have a project due Monday, I can work during the weekend. If I have insomnia, I can work at night. If I am immobilized, I can usually schedule my deadlines so they don’t all hit at once.

I try to network, also at home from my computer, but that lets out job fairs and professional organizations and groups inhabited by people. I should put together a resume and sample packet and then try to figure out whom to send it to. Which is kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. And the impressive kind of packet – slick, personalized, colorful, foil stamped, business-carded, sample-stuffed, stationeried – costs money to prepare, which of course is itself a problem since you have to spend it before you get results, if any.

So I have signed up with a number of sites that provide leads on jobs, and some of them don’t even want me to drive for Uber or move to Massachusetts.

Each time I apply, I ask myself, “Can I really do this job?”

Sometimes the answer is “Probably not, but I’m going to apply anyway.” Those are the 9-to-5 office jobs that would require me to upgrade my wardrobe just the teensiest little bit and try to keep the depressive phases under control if not totally under wraps. I have serious doubts about my ability to be “on” for eight hours a day, five days a week.

The Americans With Disabilities Act says that certain categories of people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” in order to fulfill their job requirements. For someone like me, accommodations might include flextime, doing part of my work at home, time off for doctor appointments, and the like. If I got one of those jobs, I would have to reveal my mental disorder in order to receive accommodations, and I would have to decide whether to speak up about it before or after I got the job. Probably after.

The not-quite-as-frightening jobs are part-time ones, like working the circulation desk at the local library. They have their drawbacks too, including the same ones as full-time jobs, with less pay besides. Would it provide enough income to make a difference? Maybe not. Would I be able to do a part-time job and still squeeze in a little freelance work? I just don’t know. The idea is still daunting, to say the least.

(Another potential solution would be for my husband to get a better-paying job, but he is in the process of changing his meds, so that doesn’t seem likely either, at least for now.)

I know this seems like a better class of problem than many people with bipolar disorder have. Trying to keep up the mortgage payments is better than living under the Third St. bridge, fighting stray dogs for cold french fries. My husband’s job may be low-paying, but at least it’s steady and has a health insurance plan. I am truly grateful for these things.

And I am truly scared nonetheless. And tired. And sliding back down into depression.

When You Think Other People Are Talking About You

You know when you feel sure that other people are talking about you? You notice them whispering, or looking at you, or studiously not looking at you, and you think, what are they saying about me?

Two smiling friends sharing secret in coffee talkPsychologists call those feelings “ideas of reference.” (If you alter your behavior because of the supposed scrutiny, they’re known as “delusions of reference.”) Ideas of reference are often associated with paranoia. However, if you ask clinically depressed or bipolar people, you will find that many of them have them as well.

I know I have. It’s hard not to. You already feel that you’re not really normal (whatever that means) and you’re afraid that it shows. If people can see that you’re not like everyone else, they’re bound to be talking about it. Never mind that your difference is a mental one; you’re sure that everyone can tell just by looking at you that you’re crazy.

In actual fact, the people you think are talking about you usually aren’t – until you go over to them and defensively berate them or accuse them of doing so. Then you can be sure they will be talking about you after you leave.

Except perhaps in junior high school, most people in everyday life do not spend their time discussing how odd the people around them are. (Except for those people who take pictures of others at Walmart and then post them on the internet.) But the average person is too involved in his or her own daily life to give more than a passing glance to a stranger. The people you see whispering behind their hands are most likely developing their own secrets or gossiping about someone you don’t even know.

Even if the people are talking about you, ask yourself – so what? Do their opinions really matter? I know that you want to say yes, they do. But in the larger scheme of things, they don’t. Your life will not change in the slightest if they are saying they don’t like your haircut or that they heard you bite your nails. Malicious gossip and social bullying are separate matters. But again, you don’t really know that these people are saying anything that’s actually harmful.

Perhaps you feel it’s more significant if the people you think are talking about you are family members, coworkers, or friends. They may really be talking about you. The point is, even if they are, you have no idea what they’re saying. Most of the time they speak in low tones so as not to upset you, never realizing that that upsets you more. Tell yourself they could be planning a surprise party or talking about Aunt Edna’s affair with a younger man. Not everything is about you.

Ideas of reference may be a factor in imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are not really successful, competent, or talented, but are just faking it, and that everyone around you can tell. Or perhaps your ideas of reference are like intrusive thoughts – sudden, distressing notions that pop into your head, seemingly without cause or warning. These can be anything at all, from “I wonder if my passport has expired” to “Who would miss me if I died?” to “Those people are talking about me.”

What can you do if you have ideas of reference? Resist the urge to ask if the people are really talking about you. That will only make things awkward and worse. Ignore them if you can. (This is not the same as the bad old non-advice about ignoring bullies. You know when a bully targets you. With ideas of reference, you never really know if your fears are true.) Since you didn’t actually hear what the people said, you can realistically assume they were talking about someone or something else entirely. Imagine that one is telling the other that her slip is showing. (Do people still wear slips? I know they don’t wear pantyhose anymore.)

If you feel you must react, use a minimal response such as the good ol’ side-eye, which is sufficiently ambiguous that the person (who may also have ideas of reference) can assume it’s directed at someone else.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is to work with your therapist on issues of self-esteem and self-concept, or to try cognitive behavioral therapy. Some medications may help too. Still, if you feel you can manage it, I think the best idea is to tell yourself “So what?” and move on.

Parts of My Life I Miss the Most

Last month I wrote about how bipolar disorder had cost me – well, not the ability – but the capacity to read (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp). I am intensely thankful that the concentration, focus, and motivation to read have returned as my healing has progressed.

But there are some other things that are missing from my life that I wish desperately that I could get back. Or wish I had never lost in the first place. (Depression is very much with me right now, so forgive me if I dwell in the past with my failures a bit.)

First are friends. I’ve written about this before too (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W), but the subject was brought home to me recently when I received a fuck-off letter from a former friend I was trying to reach out to, in hopes of reestablishing the relationship. One of her main reasons for cutting me off was that every time we went out, she felt it was “her and me and my misery.”

She did acknowledge that at times our friendship had been burdened by her misery too, but evidently that either didn’t count as much, or else mine lasted too long. (If it was too long for her, it was even longer for me.) I am very disappointed that, now that my “black dog” is smaller and on a leash, she found other reasons not to associate with me. To make it more ironic, she has been a therapist and now teaches psychology.

I also miss having a steady paycheck. My last 9-5 office job was over ten years ago, and since then my mental state has not allowed me to get and keep another such position. The security of knowing how much money I would have every month allowed me to plan.

And to travel. I really miss traveling. Admittedly, part of my inability to travel now is determined by my physical health. But my anxiety would make it just that much more difficult. Now I can barely get away for a weekend, and even then I must carefully monitor my moods, limit my activities, track my eating and sleeping, and avoid crowds.

One of my deepest regrets is that when I was undiagnosed and untreated, I couldn’t fulfill my potential. I attended an Ivy League university, but I can’t say I got out of it what I could or should have. I feel now that I skated by, impeded by many depressive spells, lack of focus and concentration, and confusion. I even took a year off to get my head together, but since that didn’t include getting help for my bipolar disorder, its value was questionable.

Lest this seem like nothing but whining (which my depression is telling is what it is), there are also some things that bipolar disorder has taken from me that I don’t miss at all.

Oddly, one of them is a 9-5 office job. While I do miss the steady paycheck, I absolutely don’t miss the things that came with it. Now, doing freelance work, I can fit my work around the things I need to do (like seeing my therapist) and the things I have to do (like slowing down when depression hits). I don’t have to get up at the same time every day and dress appropriately (if at all) and try to fit in and socialize with my co-workers. That was never easy for me and became nearly impossible after my big meltdown.

And, as much as I miss travel, I don’t miss business travel. Again, being “on” all the time, for days at a time, with no time or place to decompress, would be impossible now. Since we usually had to share hotel rooms, there wasn’t even a chance for any alone time, which I need a fair amount of. I could never get the hang of “team eating” either.

Finally, I don’t miss the boyfriend who took an already broken me and broke me worse. (I wrote about him in my post about gaslighting http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm.) My self-esteem was not great before the relationship, but afterward it went into negative numbers. Self-harm, self-medication, self-doubt, and negative self-talk were what I had instead. But Rex didn’t do it alone. He had my bipolar disorder there to reinforce his words and actions. And to not let me see what was happening.

Bipolar disorder is a balancing act, in more ways than one. It takes away good things from our lives. But my therapist reminds me that it also gives an opportunity – as I rebuild my life, I can choose which pieces I want to reclaim and which I want to discard. And the parts I can rebuild are what I should concentrate on.

And I will, once this spell of depression releases me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuffing Your Feelings in a Box

We all know it’s a bad idea to stuff your feelings, especially if you then pile food or alcohol on top of them.

The thing is, sometimes you need to suppress a feeling, for just a little while, in order to get through a difficult situation. When that happens, I put my feelings in a box.Cardboard box with the zipper isolated on white background

Here’s an example. My father was dying, and had only days to live. We all knew it. My mother, who didn’t drive, asked me to take her shopping for something to wear at his funeral. “Do you mind if I don’t wear black?” she asked. “If you don’t mind that I do,” I replied.

It was my first encounter with a close family death, and I had to get through this awful, wrenching shopping trip. I had to keep my composure so that my mother could keep her composure. I had to steer her away from a flowered dress, which would have been fine for church, to a navy suit and a lighter blue top, which would be suitable for a funeral but not so somber that she couldn’t wear it for anything else. All while my father lay in the hospital, dying painfully of bone cancer.

My feelings were complicated and I absolutely could not afford to feel them at that time. I had to stuff them in a box and close the lid on them until my mother’s needs had been met. Then I could let them out, in a time and place where it was safe to, in the presence of a person I could trust with those feelings.

When such circumstances arise – and they will, in one form or another – I recommend using a box, one in which the feelings will be out of sight for a while. A box is small; only a few feelings will fit in it. If you think the feelings are going to leak out, you can sit on the lid. Then, when it has served its purpose, you can rip the box open (or gently lift the lid) and feel the feelings. Cry. Rage. Grieve. That’s the important part.

You have to experience the grief or fear or even the crushing weight of guilt in order to come through it and heal.

But why put feelings in a box instead of something stronger? Who wants to feel those negative emotions anyway? Aren’t we better off without them? Shouldn’t you just build a wall around them to keep them from breaking out?

We’ve all tried it. It works for a while. But a couple of consequences go with the practice. First, all of your feelings get trapped behind that wall – the good as well as the bad. When you find yourself disconnected from all your feelings, life is a gray blur. In your depression or anxiety or fear or rage, you may not have had many good feelings. But when you build that wall, you cut off even the possibility of having them.

Second, you’re only postponing the pain. The wall will leak sometimes; your unpleasant feelings will come out some way – in your dreams, around your eyes, in sudden spurts, or trickling back into your everyday life. Worse, the wall may shatter – fail altogether, releasing all those feelings in an unstoppable torrent, only stronger and more concentrated from having been confined. They overwhelm both you and anyone in the vicinity. It’s not pretty. And it’s destructive – to you, your mental health, your healing, your employment, your relationships – to every aspect of your life.

If feelings are behind a wall, you may be able to tell yourself they don’t exist. But if you stuff them in a handy box, you can choose the time and place to open it – and yourself – back up.

 

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.

 

I’m Not Brave – I’m Stubborn

Don’t forget! March 30 is World Bipolar Day!

Kopf durch die Wand

One of my friends, who is overweight, recently told me that when she was at the gym on the treadmill, a stranger came over to her and told her she was “an inspiration.”

My friend felt insulted. She was working out for herself and for her health, not to inspire anyone else or to be taken as a symbol of I-don’t-know-what – perseverance? attitude? effort? hope?

I feel sort of the same way when people say that because I am open and public with my bipolar disorder that I am “brave.”

I’m not doing this because I’m brave. I’m doing it because I’m stubborn.

I am who and what I am, and I’m willing to reveal a lot of it because, frankly, I can’t hide it and don’t want to. I’m not average or typical. Not normal, mentally or emotionally.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the concept of “normal.” Desperately wanting to appear normal, but knowing viscerally that I am not. Wondering what it’s like, but knowing that I’ll never know. Wondering what it even means, or what it means that I’m not. I haven’t found answers yet, and at this point I don’t think I’m going to. It’s probably a waste of my time to try.

So, if I’m outside the “norm,” which I am, I may as well admit it. And since writing is what I do, I write about it. I’m not doing this because I’m “brave,” I’m doing this because on some level I have to. I’m stubborn.

I’m stubborn enough these days to have made a sort of peace with the concept of “normal,” even though I still don’t understand it.

I’m stubborn enough to acknowledge my difference and give it its proper name – bipolar disorder.

I’m stubborn enough not to care when I say that and some people flinch or back away.

I’m stubborn enough to reveal things that embarrass me because they are part of me and part of what I’ve lived and lived through.

I’m stubborn enough to get tattoos proclaiming my status as “mentally ill” and using them to open conversations and educate others.

I have not come to embrace my stubbornness easily. I’ve tried to fake “normal” and hide my differences. I’ve gone to my shrink and just referred to “doctor appointments.” I’ve made Prozac jokes even though I was taking it at the time. (For this I am truly sorry, as I later learned that one of those jokes made another person afraid to admit that she took Prozac too.)

I’m not trying to be an “inspiration.” I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone else. I’m doing what I have to do for me. If someone else finds some good in it, that’s fine. But that’s not why I do it.

I am bipolar.

I am a writer.

I am stubborn.

Taken together, you get this blog.

Bipolar Me.

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