My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘being overwhelmed’

Bipolar Travel Tips

photo by Dan Reily

Last week I blogged about “Running Away From Home” (aka the geographical cure) https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-F9. This week I want to talk about actual travel – for business or pleasure. Travel was one of my greatest joys and one of the things I’ve missed most since bipolar stole so many parts of my life. I am delighted to be able to say that I am beginning to reclaim it.

I know that many people aren’t able to travel at all because of their bipolar disorder, but for those who can, here are some tips to make it easier.

The basic thing to remember while traveling is this: self-care. You may find it hard to do while on the road, but it is essential to keeping yourself functional. Just give yourself permission to do the things you have to do. And find ways to avoid the things that trigger you.

Business Travel

Business travel is the most difficult, and something I’m no longer able to do at all. Oh, I can drive an hour for a half-day training session, but I want to be back in my own house and bed when it’s over with. But the kind I used to do – four to seven days, with coworkers (sometimes in shared hotel rooms), and especially with booth duty – are simply beyond me. There’s no time or space for self-care.

If you must travel on business, however, I recommend bringing along a comfort object (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9) such as a small plush animal, a favorite pillow, or toiletries that have a soothing scent like lavender. Fuzzy slippers may have to do as a comfort object if you have to share a room. It’s also a good idea to bring along portable snacks such as nuts or raisins in your purse or briefcase, as regular meal schedules are often thrown off by meetings and other events.

“Me” time is hard to arrange, but do try. One trick that works for me is to find an unused function space and sit there with a pad of notepaper. Zone out. Then if anyone comes looking for you, claim you were just consolidating your notes.

Visiting Relatives

Avoiding arguments is one of the particular challenges of visiting relatives – particularly in-laws.

On one of the first visits I made to my in-laws’ house, I noticed that they shouted a lot. When that happened, I would go into the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. That’s a strategy I have often used. It’s also a grounding method I can use when things are spinning out of control. When everything around me is chaos, the simple, familiar, soothing action of heating a pan of soup or a teakettle can bring me closer to stability. Whether I really want soup or tea is not the question.

My husband noticed that I kept skipping out to the kitchen and asked why I kept making tea. “Because you’re all shouting at each other,” I replied.

“No, we’re not,” he said.

“Listen to yourselves.”

Just then an argument broke out over where to go to get some sandwiches. “You take the 422 to Souderton, then turn…” “Nah, you follow Cowpath Road then cut over to the 309. That’s shorter.” “But there’s more stoplights!” With each comment, the volume grew. Dan and I went out and got the sandwiches and when we got back, the family members were still arguing about the best way to go. Dan had to admit that I had a point. He just couldn’t hear it until I shifted his perspective.

Another technique you may find helpful when hit with nosy questions from relatives is the “Boring Baroque Response,” described here – https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cY.

Leisure Travel

My friend Robbin says that when you travel, the only things you really need to have in your carry-on are your meds and some clean underwear. Anything else you can buy when you get there if your luggage doesn’t manage to arrive when you do. It’s also good to talk to your pharmacist beforehand and make sure you have enough meds for the scheduled length of the trip. (Do not do what I did and take your entire supply of meds and then leave them at the bed-and-breakfast.)

Once I went to DisneyWorld https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2K. (Okay, twice, but the first time was epic.) Surviving it was an exercise in self-care. The things I learned there are applicable to almost any travel situation.

It helps if you go with a person or people who understand your disorder and your needs. When you’ve exhausted yourself, it’s good to have someone who can think of options – “Of course, we can go back to the hotel now, if you want, or we could sit in this café and have a cold beverage while you rest your feet for a while.”

The point is, you don’t have to go on what a friend calls the Bataan Fun March – you don’t have to ride every ride, see every scenic overlook, visit every church or castle. Give yourself permission to take a nap or read a book or lounge around the pool, if that’s what you need to do. (If you’re on a guided tour and want to skip an event, let the tour guide know, so the head count doesn’t come out wrong after an event or stop.)

Finances tend to prevent the kind of leisure travel I used to do, but at least now if I can ever afford it, I can also survive it.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship With Hypomania

Most of my time on the bipolar 2 spectrum has been spent on the depressive side. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to acknowledge my hypomanic side as well.

This has been difficult to do. My psychiatrist told me that my hypomania generally comes out sideways, as anxiety, and I’ve certainly had my share of that. One of the earliest I remember, from my teens, was when I had panic attacks in the cereal aisle at the grocery. I attributed it to the bright, loud colors that bombarded my senses and, if my later reaction to Chuck E. Cheese’s is any indication, that may have been accurate. My doctor at the time, however, thought it was an ordinary panic attack that I just happened to have while in the cereal aisle, and the two became linked in my mind. Of course, this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, so who really knows?

I also used to have the panicky kind of hypomania when my husband was driving the car, particularly on the highway. I still maintain that panic while on the highway is not completely unwarranted (compared, say, with the cereal aisle). It is, after all, a dangerous place.

The first time I can remember having the swooping, soaring type of hypomania was when I worked at a publishing company. A young woman came through and asked me about how to get published. Pressured speech? I babbled, I burbled. I spouted advice. I sprayed out ideas. I rejoiced in my own success while encouraging her in hers. I had no idea if she really had the talent or the drive necessary, but by the time I finished twittering at her, she had caught my spark and resolved to go right home and put my advice into practice. I have no idea, to this day, whether she succeeded. But at least, in that case, my hypomania was inspirational.

I used to say, when I was diagnosed unipolar depressed, that I wished I were bipolar, because then I might get something done. (I will pause here while you all laugh.) But the truth is, hypomania pushes me to take on challenges that I can only sometimes accomplish. Once I agreed to interview an old Chinese lady and write something based on her experiences. After the interview, which was fascinating but overwhelming, I was unable to write. It was one of the few times I took on an assignment I couldn’t finish.

More recently I took on an assignment to write 13 children’s stories of 2500 to 3000 words each, with very specific deadlines. Although I’ve met all the dates so far, I wonder whether hypomania has fooled me again. All I can hope is that this is one of those times when it has pushed me into doing something difficult, but will help me maintain until I get through it.

So, it seems, most of my hypomania is related to work (except for the cereal thing and the driving thing). I occasionally get the urge to spend money, but since we don’t have much money, it’s not too hard to fight that one off. Plus, we don’t have a credit card. We learned that lesson years ago.

What to make of all this? I now know that hypomania is part of my psychological makeup. I now know that I have to watch out for unwarranted spending (enabled by my husband, who has that tendency too). I now know that hypomania can push me into work that may overwhelm me. I now know that it can still come out as anxiety and panic, which can have unwanted effects on my everyday life. For those reasons I hate it.

Hypomania can also push me past what I think I can do to what I learn I actually can do. It can let me feel the buzz, the blast of joy that depression so long denied me. And for that I love it.

Mostly, though, I have to be wary of hypomania. It could dump me in either direction, and I won’t know which it is until it’s already happening.

From Panic to Manic to Proactive

Hypomania isn’t all bad. Right now I’m facing one of my worst triggers, and instead of retreating into depression, I kicked into hypomania. Then I harnessed as much of it as I could and channeled it to work for me.

Here’s the sitch. My longest and most vicious major depressive episode (which lasted literally several years, even when I was under treatment and on medication) was triggered by, among other things, massive financial problems. (There were other factors involved: health problems, family health problems, family problems, irrational thinking, strained relationships, and bad ol’ neurotransmitters.) I was unable to work. There was plenty of anxiety along with the depression, you can be sure.

So here I am again, almost a decade later, once again in dire financial straits. I’m able to work, but only part-time and telecommuting. Then one of my biggest, most reliable clients cut way, way back. I made the mortgage this month, but next month looks iffy at best.

In the past, this would have resulted in major mental symptoms, and physical ones as well. (Better you shouldn’t ask, but my digestive tract responds to stress in an overwhelming manner. I know, TMI.) I would be immobilized, unresponsive, and spend most of my days on the sofa when I wasn’t in the bathroom. I would abandon the financial problems – and myself – to my husband’s care, for as long as he could keep everything together. Until he burned out too.

During this new version of assorted crises, I seem to have a better handle on things, and I credit hypomania. I am trying to better the situation, though not yet particularly effectively, but steadily.

I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point capabilities.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I pursue these avenues every day. Soon after this post goes up, I have a networking “date” with a former client and a former co-worker.

And in the meantime? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calling my name?

I blog. I work on my novel. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. But the surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helping with a getaway my husband and I planned before the finances went belly-up. (My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S., with or without mental illness.)

And, aside from the getaway, which it’s too late to cancel, we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I don’t know how long my “proactive hypomania” will last, when our financial situation will improve, or whether my energy level will survive after it does. Or, for that matter, whether we’ll end up eating cat food under the Third Street Bridge and fighting stray dogs for cold french fries.

But right now, for now, I’m dealing. And that’s something I couldn’t do before.

Cheerleading or Celebrating?

I was prejudiced. I admit it. When I was in high school, I believed that all cheerleaders fit the stereotype – “buoyant and busty and just plain dumb,” as the singing group Uncle Bonsai put it in “Cheerleaders on Drugs.”

I still don’t really understand cheerleading, especially on the scale of professional sports. But I know some good people who have participated in cheerleading and cheer coaching, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about today. I want to discuss the kind of cheerleaders that offer support to those of us with bipolar disorder.

I suppose traditional-style cheerleaders are supposed to give encouragement before a thing is done. But I prefer ones who cheer after something, no matter how small, is accomplished.

That is to say, I prefer cheerleaders who say, “You did it!” to those who say, “You can do it!” (This is another YMMV post. This is just my own experience. Your mileage may vary.)

Cheerleaders-before-the-event are common in mental health circles. “Smile! You can do it!” “Do volunteer work! Give it a try!” “Get out there and meet new people! You’ll feel better!” “Get some fresh air and exercise! It’s easy!” But the fact is, no, I can’t always do it or give it a try. No, it’s not easy, and I don’t feel better.

It’s good to know that someone believes in you, but to me, cheerleaders set me up for failure. If I can’t manage to smile or exercise or whatever, I have disappointed not just myself, but the person who thought that I could do it, whatever “it” is. Remember the Little Engine That Could? It was thinking, “I think I can,” not “Someone else thinks I can.” What does that someone else really know about how severe my symptoms are today or whether my meds are having their desired effect or how many spoons I have?

I prefer cheerleaders-after-the-fact – those who join me in celebrating victories, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem to others. “Hurray! You paid a bill today!” “Congratulations! You phoned your mother!” “Good job! You took a shower!” “Go you! You put on pants three days this week!”

These are accomplishments – things you actually did, not things that you might or might not do. They’re tiny victories, maybe, and you don’t see memes that encourage you to do them. To neurotypical people, they wouldn’t be accomplishments at all, just normal functions of everyday living. It’s too easy to picture cheerleaders-before-the-fact saying these things half-heartedly or sarcastically. “Oh, great. You fed the dog. Woo-hoo.”

I don’t want cheerleaders so much as celebrators, people who can join me in acknowledging that it is a victory to write my blog post, or even to make notes for it. Or even, some days, to get out of bed.

I don’t expect someone to follow me around all day applauding every little thing I do. But on days when I feel useless and unproductive, like a failure or a slug, I do like having someone remind me that I do make progress, that my struggles have value, that – as a friend of mine said – not fucking things up worse is at least half a win.

I’ll take half a win when I can get it. And a pat on the back whether I smile and get out and make new friends, or simply make it to my doctor’s appointment.

That doesn’t make me a glass-half-full person. It just means I’m grateful that the glass isn’t completely empty.

 

 

Surprise!

Surprise parties are fun for everyone, right?

Wrong!

While many people enjoy the surprise element (probably the guests do more than the honoree), even neurotypical people can shy away from the practice. Coming home to a darkened house, only to be greeted by bright lights and loud noise, can be an alarming experience.

For a person with bipolar depression, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, or other mental conditions, it can be a nightmare.

My husband once decided to throw me a small surprise party. We and another couple were cleaning up an old house while a few friends gathered back at home.

One of the people had actively discouraged Dan from having the party. Robert had experienced depression and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and knew how difficult such an event would be for him. He also knew about my depression and some of the incidents associated with birthday parties in my mind.

For instance, when I was a young teen, my “best friend” and I were supervising a party of younger children. During the game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, while I was blindfolded, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all the kids.

It was the occasion of my first major meltdown. For years afterward, I would not even admit to having a birthday, much less let anyone celebrate it.

Robert had experienced similar traumas involving groups of children, humiliation, and abuse. He was not able to cope with surprise parties and thought I might freak out as well.

Fortunately, decades had gone by since my traumatic party experience. I had been diagnosed and properly medicated and counseled about my issues. Dan knew me well enough to realize that I could tolerate a small, low-key surprise party. And so I did.

Still, Robert was right to be concerned.

Common events at surprise parties are triggers for many people. My friend Joanie has panic attacks when there’s lightning. Would flash photography set her off? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be the one who finds out. If the party is held in a restaurant, a person who hates being singled out in a crowd of strangers may have problems. People hiding in one’s home could cause flashbacks of a home invasion. My startle reflex is hypersensitive and could easily be triggered by sudden, unexpected shouts of “Happy birthday!”

Even opening presents in front of others can be difficult if one is weak in social skills, appropriate facial expressions, or spontaneous conversation.

So how do you give a surprise party for someone with certain types of mental illness?

Don’t.

If you think you must, ask the person what kind of party he or she would prefer, and abide by those wishes. You can suggest a surprise party, with the time and place being the surprises, but again, abide by the person’s wishes.

Prepare a small, low-key surprise rather than a party. Give a present a day or two before the actual date. Pack a slice of cake in the person’s lunch. Or take the person out to lunch. (Warn the restaurant personnel not to march around singing and waving balloons, if you mention that it’s a birthday lunch at all.)

Do not have party games, unless they are non-threatening ones such as mad-libs or trivia. Forget ones involving physical contact like Twister or ones that involve sensory deprivation like Blind Man’s Bluff.

You may wish to avoid serving alcohol, especially if the honoree is on anti-anxiety medications. Booze-fueled parties tend to become loud and rowdy.

Make it short. Personally, spending an hour with a group of four or more, even if they are all my friends, is about all I can take. And then I want a lie-down afterward.

Personally, I could live my life happily without ever having another surprise party thrown for me (even though the one Dan threw would have to be called a success). Nor will I be upset if I never get invited to another surprise party. I’ll be too busy worrying what it might be doing to the honoree to enjoy myself.

 

The Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder

When you’re facing bipolar disorder – which is, when you have it, nearly every day – there are some things you can do to lessen its hold on you. But in order to do so, you’ve got to have the right tools. Try to collect as many as possible for best effect.

Shall we take a look at what they are?

The Usual Suspects

  • medication – to tame your symptoms, level your moods, get your brain back in gear, and/or regulate your energy
  • psychiatrist – to prescribe your medications (a primary care physician may also do this)
  • psychotherapist – to discuss with you the issues you haven’t resolved, the problems you still have, and the things the medication can’t do

Self-Care 

The two most important tools you need for self-care are sleep and food. Without either, the body can’t function properly, and if the body doesn’t function, the brain is less likely to function properly either.

Ideally, the food should be nutritious and eaten regularly, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. But you’ve got to give your body something to run on. If there are carrot sticks there, eat them; if there is mac-n-cheese, eat that. If there’s Raisin Bran, well, it’s easy to eat and requires no preparation. Try for at least one substantial meal per day – two is better, if you can manage it.

(Of course, this advice doesn’t count if you have an eating disorder. In that case, see your doctor or psychotherapist or support group.)

Support

Find support where you can – a friend who’s willing to listen, a support group online or in real life. Try for a combination of these and don’t rely on any one of them for too much. Maybe you have a friend you can phone once a week; a support group that meets every two weeks; and an online group or two of people who really understand, with links to helpful articles and blogs. Before you know it, you’ve got a support system, especially if you count your therapist (which I do) or have a supportive family (which I don’t).

Spoon Theory

If you don’t know what this is, see https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/. Basically, Spoon Theory is a way to measure how much energy you have on any given day – and an understandable metaphor for explaining your symptoms to others, and a shorthand for other people who are also up on the theory. It can also help alleviate the guilt of not being able to do all the things you are “supposed” to do in a day. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

Distraction

Let’s face it, it’s all too easy to dwell on your symptoms and how miserable you are. And if you’re at the bottom of the depressive well and your meds haven’t kicked in yet, there may be nothing you can do about it.

But maybe there is. Do you know a person who tells good jokes – or really bad ones? Do you have music you used to play but have forgotten about? Do you know of a TV show that features people whose lives are an even worse train wreck than yours? Do you have a go-to movie that never gets old no matter how many times you see it? (Mine is The Mikado. )

Creativity

If that distraction involves creativity, so much the better. Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. (Some of them are really for adults.) Jenny Lawson draws and also puts together tiny little Ferris wheels. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is, you don’t have to paint masterpieces. Just keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

Comfort

Soft warm, fluffy things and smooth, silky things are soothing. They just are. Cats and dogs come instantly to mind (they also provide distraction). But I also have a collection of teddy bears and other plushies that I sometimes cuddle with. These are “comfort objects,” which is an actual psychological Thing. (I wrote about them once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9.) I even took a plush bunny with me when I went to have a sleep study.

Stubbornness

This may be the most important tool of all. Be stubborn. Take those meds, even if you hate them. Eat that egg, even if you don’t feel like it. Go to that appointment, even if will take all your spoons for the day. Call that friend, even if you don’t think a joke will help. Post on your support group, even if you feel you are alone.

We can’t let bipolar disorder beat us. Not when we’ve got so much to beat it back with.

Self-Care for Overwhelming Days

It’s been said that time is nature’s way of keeping one damn thing after another from being every damn thing all at once … However, every now and then the damn things gang up on you.

– me, “The Overwhelming Problem,” http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-hy

It’s also been said, by Canadian astronaut and all-around awesome guy Chris Hadfield, that he managed to stay alive in space by always asking himself, “What’s the next thing that might kill me?” If, for example, the most immediate danger were running out of oxygen, the next thing to do would be to check your tank and hoses.

I find that attitude soothing in a way, and helpful in getting through one of those every-damn-thing days. It’s not traditional positive thinking, but it does help you set your priorities.

Today and yesterday and the day before have been examples of every-damn-thing days. I’ve gotten through by asking myself, “What’s the next thing I absolutely have to do?”

It starts when I wake up and can involve the simplest of decisions: Do I take my meds first or do I pee first? Pee first. Pee first is almost always the correct answer and is one of the Mystic Rules of Self-Care.

Do I get dressed or do I eat something? I don’t absolutely have to get dressed yet, because I’m not going out anywhere yet, so eat something. Eat something is almost always the correct answer and is another of the Mystic Rules of Self-Care.

This can get me through the entire day. What is the next thing I absolutely have to do? Get dressed. What is the next thing? Go to the bank and get money. What is the next thing? Pay the power bill. Those are absolutes if I want to have a functioning computer. And I do. Very much.

Next comes a real decision: K-Mart is right next door to where I pay the power bill. Do I stop in and get the loaf of bread I need and maybe some underwear, or do I eat first? I eat first. (See above Mystic Rules.) By the time I finish my banh mi (if I’m out and dressed and in motion, I may as well make the most of it), it’s pouring rain. Do I absolutely have to go back to K-Mart, walk through a wet parking lot, and get that loaf of bread? I do not. I go home. One errand (two if you count the bank, and I do) is a major accomplishment for me.

After I get home, there is no “next thing I absolutely have to do,” so I switch to “What is the next thing I could do?” Say there are three choices: take a nap, watch TV, do some work. Obviously, the work is out. I am spoonless by now. I decide to watch TV until closer to bedtime, then go to bed.

If there is work that absolutely has to be turned in the next day, I get up early and do it when I have a fresh supply of spoons. (After peeing first and taking my meds.)

There is also an element of creative procrastination to this. (See http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ct.) It’s like sorting your tasks into three piles: absolutely, would be nice, and meh. Not that I’m recommending writing them down. That’s not flexible enough. Throughout the day, an event can wander down the progression. “Buy loaf of bread” started out as Category 2, but the rain pushed it into Category 3. I ate the other half of my banh mi for dinner and bought bread the next day. And if I hadn’t had the banh mi, I still had a jar of peanut butter as a back-up plan. Eating it straight out of the jar is pretty depressive, but you do what you have to do when your spoons run out and you still need self-care. (Have I just discovered another Mystic Rule?)

Of course, I’m describing a moderately-functioning day. There are other days when the categories shut down after peeing and meds.

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