My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘being overwhelmed’

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.

What Is It With Showers Anyway?

Girl is choosing cosmetics in bathroomIt is fairly widely known that people with bipolar disorder and/or depression have trouble taking a daily shower. It’s not that we don’t know what’s involved in taking a shower, or why it would be good for us to do so, it’s simply that showering uses up a tremendous number of spoons.

Here’s what showering looks like according to Andrew Solomon, author of the now-classic The Noonday Demon:

I ran through the individual steps in my mind: You sit up, turn and put your feet on the floor, stand, walk to the bathroom, open the bathroom door, go to the edge of the tub…I divided it into fourteen steps as onerous as the Stations of the Cross.

I performed a similar exercise in one of my blog posts (Brain vs. Brain: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-iF) and here’s my version:

First I have to find a clean towel and a bar of soap, get undressed without seeing myself in the mirror, fiddle with the water temperature, wash and shampoo, dry off, find clean underwear, and that’s not even thinking about drying my hair and figuring out what I can wear! Oh, my God, I’ve used up all my spoons just thinking about it! I should just eat Cocoa Puffs and go back to bed.

Now let me say, first of all, that I don’t really like showers. I grew up taking baths and have never enjoyed the sensation of water spraying in my face. But with my bad back and bad knee, getting up from sitting in a bathtub is nearly impossible these days. (Please don’t ask me why anyone would want to sit in dirty water. Everyone says that when I say I prefer baths. I have a nice long soak, steeping in the clean water like a big teabag, and only then wash up and get right out. Used to, I mean.)

To most people, showering is a single act that requires the expenditure of a single spoon. Take a shower; that’s it. But for those of us with invisible illnesses, each separate step may require its own spoon. Take something as simple as finding a towel, for instance. Go to the linen closet, grab a towel and voilà! Only a fraction of a spoon, if that.

But surely you don’t think I have had the spoons to fold and put away my laundry. It is all there in a jumble on top of the dryer. (Who needs a wrinkle-free towel anyway?) I have to root around to find one, and maybe twice if a cat has thrown up on the first one I pick. (They love sitting on clean laundry.)

If I have to go to a business meeting I force myself to use some of those spoons showering and getting dressed and acting respectable. But I will pay for it later, collapsing after the meeting in need of a mega-nap.

Now here’s a little secret I’ll tell you. Most people believe you gain spoons by going out of the house – walking in the fresh air, meeting friends for lunch, shopping, going for a drive (does anyone do that anymore?). But the fact is that, according to Spoon Theory, you get a certain number of spoons every day when you wake up. You cannot gain, buy, beg, borrow, or steal any more, not even by breathing fresh air. You can only spend them.

Given the mathematics of spoons, I don’t spend a single one that I don’t absolutely have to. Not going out? No shower. Have to go out for a loaf of bread or a drive-through meal? Wash up in the sink. If I need a shower between outings, my husband reminds me and facilitates by, for example, rummaging on the dryer for a clean towel and clean clothes or a clean nightshirt.

I need those spoons for doing my work at home in my smelly pajamas more than I do for the ordeal of showering.

Relentless Holiday Cheer

a snowmanFor many of us with bipolar disorder, the holidays are hard to get through. There is stress caused by family, shopping, entertaining, and crowds. Or the celebrations of others can bring loneliness, isolation, immobility, and despair. Above all, there is the relentless, overwhelming, mandatory cheerfulness, and the expectation that we should feel that way.

As I write this, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. A bit over a week later is my birthday. Then comes Christmas. And, of course, New Year’s Eve and Day.

Every year these celebrations are a trial and a chore for me. I don’t know how you get through them, but this is what they usually look like for me.

Thanksgiving. We have no family in town, so it is just me and my husband. Actually, this is not bad, because it relieves us of the responsibility for massive cooking, anxiety-filled entertaining, and the always-dicey interactions with family. At most, it means we Skype with my mother-in-law while we all eat, which is taxing enough.

This year we are short on funds, so we’re having spaghetti instead of turkey. (I don’t like to do turkey anyway: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z.) Then we will indulge in our two traditions: the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP (“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”) and the ceremonial playing of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.” Then we nap. That’s it.

And what am I thankful for this year? I can’t think of much, except for my husband and cats, and that my pdoc just increased my Abilify. It hasn’t kicked in yet, except to make me sleepy, but, hey, a nap is on the schedule anyway.

Birthday. This is one of the big ones, with a zero at the end. My husband has already given me my presents (a variety of shoes and slippers). I can reliably predict that there will be a day-old baked good from where he works. No singing, no candles. That’s the way I like it. I’ll count the number of greetings I get on Facebook and feel miserable no matter what it is.

(My attitude toward birthdays is colored by the fact that a traumatic childhood event happened at a birthday party, although not my own.)

Christmas. The biggie. We exchange gifts ahead of time, without wrapping them. We go to the Chinese buffet. Dan watches a movie that I can’t stand, like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, or one I can sort of tolerate, like It’s a Wonderful Life. Or one I actually like, like Scrooged.

New Year’s Eve/Day. We used to go to a friend’s house for leftover Christmas cookies and singing “Oh, Danny Boy” on the porch (don’t ask), but she was one of the people who couldn’t put up with my bipolar isolation and tendency not to respond to invitations or to show up if I had. So that’s out now.

Dan’s family has a tradition of shaking their purses or wallets at midnight to ensure prosperity for the new year (it failed spectacularly last year). He’ll be working, so we can’t even kiss at midnight. I drink cheap champagne and go to bed early. We might have pork on New Year’s Day. Or not. But unless we have cole slaw or Dan opens a can of sauerkraut for himself, no cabbage.

If that sounds like a dreary holiday season, well, it is, but it’s all I can handle. I have tried. I really have. In years past I have bought Christmas sweaters and earrings and sent cards and entertained and done Secret Santas at work. I have had dinner with family. (Decorating is largely out, owing to the cats.) I have organized trips to fancy local buffets or restaurants. I have wrapped presents creatively (if sloppily) and even shopped off-line. I have baked spice cake and decorated sugar cookies with my friend Peggy. I have gone to community carol sings.

But no more. In many ways, like my life, my holidays have been pared down to the bare minimum. I approach them with dread and survive them with relief. They do not lift my spirits and nowadays I don’t expect them to.

It’s ironic that, though in many ways I am improving and healing and rebuilding my life, the holidays still defeat me. They are, at least for now, pieces that I can’t reclaim. I don’t think it would be much better if a bout of hypomania hit. I can just see myself buying presents for my far-flung friends, then bottoming out before I could mail them. You can’t time these things, after all.

The best I can wish for myself and for all of you is this:

Survive. Hold tight to whatever happiness you find. And please, please, get through this season any way you can.

The 5 Stages of Depression

One of my depression triggers has been well and truly tripped and I am experiencing the long plunge downward. It’s been quite a while since this has happened, but oh, how well I remember it.cracked egg conceptual image for birth

In the classical Five Stages of Grieving, depression is the fourth, right before acceptance. For me, in the Five (or however many) stages of depression, the first stage is (duh) depression. I guess the next four would be immobility, numbness, despair, and Total Meltdown.

Right now I would have to say that I am somewhere between depression and immobility. I got out of bed for a few hours today, and I am writing this. I managed to get a big project done before this bout of depression hit, which was a Good Thing. I also now have a good supply of meds on hand, which is, I think, an Even Better Thing.

The Best Thing is that I have Dan, my husband. He just made sure I got a hot meal and is now giving me space and alone time, which is what I need more than attempts at engagement. And a cat just licked my face, which would be comforting if he hadn’t just been licking his butt.

As Jenny Lawson says, depression lies. Right now it’s telling me I’m useless, helpless, guilty, and ashamed. I hope that at least some of these are lies, though at the moment they’re what my brain is telling me is true. Then add in a large helping of catastrophizing, which at the moment is more likely to happen than not. I can’t see a way out.

Since I’ve been through this process before, I know the things that will help (at least a little) and those that won’t. I’ll try to keep my brain engaged enough to continue writing, and I’ll try to intersperse the doom and gloom with some ideas I made notes on before all this hit. I feel a responsibility to this blog and its readers to keep the thing going as best I can.

Based on my estimate, this episode is likely to last a minimum of two months. Maybe this time I can stop the slide before Total Meltdown. Wish me luck.

Which Way Is Out?

What do you get when you take two people, three doctors, eleven prescriptions, two pharmacies and an insurance company?

No, wait – I’m not finished.

THEN add another person, two banks, a credit card company, a missing check and a disputed charge.

Mix in bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and several months of previous stress.

Anxiety DisorderWhat you get, first of all, is something that rhymes with buster-cluck, and then a dangerous situation: Two people under pressure, neither of whom can function well enough to find any solutions.

There is enormous inertia. You make a few calls, get a few responses. Fine, you think. That’s taken care of. Except days later, it isn’t. There are new overdraft notices, rapidly dwindling supplies of psychotropics, and occasional fits of tears.

So you take another swing at it. More phone calls. More revolving phone trees. More dropped calls. More suggestions that you really need to get someone else to call someone other else to resolve it and here’s a handy 1-800 number that takes you to a department that never heard of you, your problem, or the company you’re dealing with.

Yes, they all agree. It’s important that you don’t run out of your psychotropics. It would sure be nice if there were enough money in the account to pay the premium for the crappy insurance. It’s a mystery why no one has any record of the complaint you asked them to file.

Another day. Another no check. Another no drug delivery. By now we’re getting into mixed states: immobilizing depression and nail-biting, catastrophizing anxiety.

You look for possible work-arounds. Maybe the local pharmacy can sell you enough pills to tide you over. But, oopsie! Your bank balance just went from -$53 to -$82. And the insurance won’t pay for drugs at the local pharmacy any more – only through mail order. Which brings us back to D’oh!

This is not hypothetical. This is happening.

What do we do now?

Well, we split up the tasks. I work on the drugs and insurance end, while my husband works on the banking problem. We both hover over the mailbox, waiting for the check.

We take turns. Both of us having a meltdown at the same time is not pretty. I’ve seen it. Trust me on this.

We do all we can do and then stop. For the moment anyway. When the pitch of my voice starts rising to dog whistle range and I start sniffling and tearing up, I know I’m just moments away from becoming incoherent, which may demonstrate the need for the psychotropics, but is not actually any help in getting them.

We try to take care of ourselves. Dan can sleep (I can’t), so he does. He buys my comfort foods (fried rice, mashed potatoes). I decide that this may not be the best time to be reading a new, fast-paced zombie apocalypse thriller and switch to a familiar old standby character study with no crises worse than deciding when to have a child (not a small thing, but on the scale of introspection to pulse-pounding, pretty low).

There’s never a good time for these cosmic pile-ups to happen, but now is unusually bad. The last few months have brought assorted financial and medical troubles (the two being related, of course), plus the death of three elderly pets within a couple of weeks of each other. Dan is dealing with the fact that the house he grew up in is up for sale. I haven’t been getting as much work as usual. Soon, I will have to look into expanding my client base.

After I get the drugs. And after they start to work. Whenever that is.

Sorry I don’t have anything encouraging or amusing or informative to share this week. That’s just the way it is sometimes. And now is one of those times.

 

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