My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘acting “normal”’

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.

Is Bipolar Disorder an “Invisible Illness”?

Empty Chairs Laid Out For Meeting

Yes and no.

First, a little on the concept of invisible illnesses. These are the sorts of afflictions that are not apparent on first looking at a person – conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, celiac and Crohn’s diseases, diabetes, epilepsy, lupus, Lyme disease, and many others.

Disabled-world.com says, “Many people living with a hidden physical disability or mental challenge are still able to be active in their hobbies, work and be active in sports. On the other hand, some struggle just to get through their day at work and some cannot work at all.”

Most mental disorders are invisible illnesses by that definition. There isn’t a sign around our necks that proclaims “Bipolar,” “Social Anxiety Disorder,” “PTSD,” “Depression,” or even “Schizophrenia.”  The word “Crazy” isn’t tattooed on our foreheads. Our mere appearance doesn’t give away our “secret.”

We have a lot of the same problems that people with other invisible illnesses have. Spoon theory, for example. For bipolar people, simply taking a shower requires so many spoons that we seldom go out. (I count myself among that number.) People who don’t know or understand Spoon Theory often don’t understand why we don’t accept their invitations or cancel at the last minute, or simply don’t show up. You lose a fair number of friends that way.

On the other hand, a mental disorder is not always invisible. People can see us burst into tears for no apparent reason, or go into the bathroom at a party and never come out. They can see our shaking hands, confused looks, and depressed expressions. They can hear our awkward attempts to socialize “appropriately.” They may not know what is wrong, but they can often tell something is.

When we realize this is happening, there are various strategies we try. We can leave the situation – entirely or partially (my go-to is to leave the room on the pretext of needing to make a cup of tea). We can try to brush it off or laugh it off (“Sorry. My nerves are bad today” or “I don’t know why I said that. Must be a brain-fart”). We can try the half-truth/half-joke (“Oops. Guess my meds just haven’t kicked in yet”). We can ignore whatever is happening and hope everyone else does too.

Or we can own it. “I have social anxiety disorder and need to be in a less crowded space than the mall.” “I won’t be able to go to the carnival with you because my PTSD is triggered by loud noises.” “I may come to your party if my bipolar disorder will let me.”

We can also address the subject when there isn’t a situation looming. During a phone conversation or an IM chat, we can let the other person know that we have a mental disorder – an invisible illness. It doesn’t have to be dramatic and dire. Casually may be the best way to handle it. “I know you’re wondering why I didn’t go to the movies with you last week.” “When I saw my doctor yesterday we talked about my physical health and my mental health too.” “You know that character on that show that has PTSD? I have that too, but it’s not exactly like on the show.”

If that sounds risky, you’re right. It can be. There will be people who still don’t get it. People who “don’t believe in” mental illness. People who try to brush it off. People who offer the latest vitamins or super foods or Eastern philosophy as the cure-all.

But you’ll also find people who say, “Oh, my brother-in-law has that too” or “Okay. But I’m still your friend” or “What can I do to help?”

So those are the choices, basically.

Take a chance. Or stay invisible.

Neither choice is right or wrong for everyone. Mental illness is very personal.

You decide.

 

 

Support and Non-Support Groups

My family has never been big on support groups. When my father had multiple myeloma (which killed him after 15 years), he turned down any opportunities he was given to join cancer support groups with names like Make Today Count. He preferred to go it alone. He was stubborn.

So am I.

I have actually been to support groups for mental illness once or twice, but they were never a success or, I guess, just never right for me.

The first one was when I was in college. That one was a bust because I wasn’t really ready to address my problems and because I had the ability to appear “normal” for an hour at a time while sitting cross-legged on the floor. I couldn’t do that now. (The floor-sitting part.)

The second time was after I saw a brochure for a group called High Flyers and Low Landers, which met in the church I was going to at the time. (I don’t think the organization still exists. The church is still there.)

It was a very odd experience. Everyone had a book, many with needlepoint covers. It was their bible, though not the Bible, which I know many people needlepoint covers for, or at least did back then.

The meetings consisted of a little ritual. One person read a passage from the book. Then each person in the circle had to tell an event that happened to them in the past week. The recital had to be in a specific format: what happened, what symptoms the person experienced (dry mouth, racing thoughts – there was a list), how the person would have handled it before reading the book, and how the person did handle it. There was much quoting of the book and certain specific phrases that everyone had to use.

Some of the quotations were helpful, or at least true. (People do things that annoy us, not to annoy us.) But as I recall, those were the only sorts of comments the people in the circle were allowed to make. Not “How did that work out?” or “What did your mother do next?” or “I hate when people get passive-aggressive.”

It was just too weird and formulaic for me, so I never went back. (As I was leaving, I offered someone a mint. Everyone laughed and said, “Dry mouth!”)

Since I don’t seem to do so well in actual support groups, I recently thought I would check out some virtual ones. I’m not going to name the groups I joined or where I found them, because all of them stressed privacy and confidentiality.

What I found was both support and non-support.

Some of the groups were associated with national organizations or publications, and they pretty much stuck to sharing articles about scientific research or political news about mental illness, along with lists of resources, hotlines, and the like.

So far, so good.

Other groups were more like traditional support groups, with members asking questions or relating accounts of what had happened or how they felt. There were administrators who tried to keep the members to more or less stick to the topic and rules of the group (give trigger warnings, no suicide threats, or whatever).

Some of the groups were peaceful. People asked standard questions (Who’s on this med? Should I take something else too?) and received fairly standard answers (Worked for me. Didn’t work for me. Ask your doctor.) People related similar events and how they handled them, or asked for more specifics so they could understand the situation better. People posted assorted uplifting memes and affirmations.

Then there was the other sort. People did not know how to use trigger warnings or simply didn’t bother. Others shared people’s posts without removing identifying information. Some posted truly vulgar jokes that had nothing whatsoever to do with bipolar disorder. Negativity overflowed. Arguments raged. (Some of the topics were “Bipolar is not an excuse for bad behavior” and “Don’t buy into the drug companies’ propaganda by taking meds.”) There was the online equivalent of name-calling and shouting. People reported other people to the admins. People accused people of reporting people to the admins.

The administrators did try to keep a handle on these groups, but couldn’t always, most likely because they were busy with their own lives and issues and difficulties.

It got so bad that I took to lurking instead of participating. Every week or so I would go back to take a peek and check on the drama llamas. Mostly they were still running around spitting. I think I had helpful things to add to the discussions and times when I needed help with feelings, but I just couldn’t trust enough to jump back in. I know other people left these groups for similar reasons, and some were blocked or banned or given warnings about their behavior.

In general, I have this to say about online support groups. You’d do well to sit back and watch their interactions before you try participating on anything but a “Congratulations! You got a job!” level. If the group seems truly helpful – supportive – then dive in. You may be able to give and receive help.

But non-support is exhausting. And I’m too stubborn to put up with it.

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