My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘books’

On Pain and/or Suffering

Recently, when I was reading Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders, I came across this:

Eric Cassell, a physician who writes frequently about the moral dimensions of medicine, argues, in a now classic paper, that pain and suffering are very different. Pain, according to Cassell, is an affliction of the body. Suffering is an affliction of the self. Suffering, writes Cassell, is a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.

Later, when I was reading M Is for Malice, by Sue Grafton, I read this: “Pain was better than anxiety any day of the week and sweat was better than depression.”

The universe seemed to be telling me to focus my attention on pain and/or suffering.

Cassell (as quoted by Sanders), could have been (but probably wasn’t) talking about bipolar disorder when he defined suffering as “a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.” I certainly don’t feel intact or integrated while in the midst of a bipolar episode – either hypomanic or depressive. I suffer. My personhood is certainly threatened and disrupted.

It’s common to hear bipolar described this way: “I suffer from bipolar disorder.” I prefer to say “I live with bipolar disorder,” which I feel is more accurate. It’s always there, but I’m not always suffering. I live with it and it lives with me.

I think Cassell was wrong, though, about pain being a purely bodily sensation. I addressed the concept back in the early days of this blog. with a post called “Depression Hurts” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6Z). In it I claimed that bipolar (or depression specifically) caused physical pain as well as emotional pain. I still maintain that one is as valid as the other and that they are virtually inseparable. The mind and the body not being entirely separate, or separable, you see. You get both for the price of one.

Grafton, on the other hand, through her character Kinsey Millhone, was talking about the physical act of running. We all know by now (or should) that exercise is recommended for those who have bipolar disorder or other mental/emotional conditions. But again, there is this idea that physical discomforts (pain and sweat) are better than emotional distress (anxiety and depression). She seems to be saying that pain is the antidote for suffering.

This can be dangerous territory. As someone who used to self-harm, I can easily see how one might think that pain is preferable to anxiety, or numbness, or dissociation – to suffering, that is. But in such cases, pain is really just another aspect of suffering, expressed in bodily terms. Again, the two are inextricably intertwined.

Personally, I would be delighted to avoid all four sensations – pain, anxiety, sweat, and depression. But I don’t think that’s possible, even with avoiding both exercise and self-harm. Sweat is the easiest to dispense with, thanks to modern toiletries, but there have been plenty of times when my anxiety has caused me to sweat. Think about being summoned to a tax audit, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Pain is unavoidable; no one goes through life without stepping on a nail or some such. Anxiety and depression occur at least occasionally in the neurotypical as well as the mentally disordered.

The human condition itself involves feeling both pain and suffering. Bipolar disorder involves both pain and suffering. Well, what do you know? We’re only human, after all.

Books About Bipolar and Other Fun Topics

I love reading. Always have – except for the period when a major depressive episode stole it from me –https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp. I’m never more than two feet away from a book or, at this point in my life, an ereader. Reading is how I explore the world.

So naturally, in trying to better understand my disorder, I read about it. And because I’m interested in psychology in general, in addition to books about bipolar disorder, I read about other mental illnesses as well.

Let me share some of my reading with you.

For sheer delight as well as profound insights, try Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. Amid the hilarious stories of life in her other-than-typical family are insights into depression and social anxiety, along with a manifesto of defiance – the will to be, well, furiously happy.

The other easily approachable book is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. What started as a humorous blog grew into a book (with quirky illustrations) featuring two chapters in particular, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two,” which are about as good as writing about depression gets. A second book, Solutions and Other Problems, was scheduled but has been postponed indefinitely.

And while we’re on the subject of funny books about mental illness, there’s Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor, an anthology edited by Jessica Azar and Alyson Herzig.

Perhaps the best-known book in the field of bipolar disorder is An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by Kay Redfield Jamison. In it, Jamison deals openly and honestly with bipolar disorder, particularly with mania and psychosis, along the road to becoming a doctor herself. She has also written Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, about the famous modern poet, but I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment.

Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, by Dyane Harwood, is another recent book that I haven’t read yet, either. But I know Harwood’s writing and expect it to be a stand-out, as well as the only book I know of on that particular topic.

Other books on bipolar disorder include Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar by Natasha Tracy.

For books about depression, the definitive work is The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. A thorough examination of depression, including the author’s own, it is practically a reference book on the topic, though much less dry than that makes it sound.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron, is another classic on depression that I really ought to read, but haven’t yet because I’m not that fond of Styron’s writing. (Sophie’s Choice is his best-known work.)

For mania, I recommend Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir, by Mark Vonnegut, M.D. The son of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author deals less with his celebrity father, instead focusing on his saving-the-world-style mania during his pursuit of an M.D. degree.

Other books that I can recommend include:

  • My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, a memoir of a boy who was lobotomized for no particular reason other than the fact that his stepmother hated him, and the difficulties he encountered in and out of institutions.
  • Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly, early undercover journalism at its finest. (I wrote about her experiences in one of my earlier posts: https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-hG.)
  •  Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Jeffrey A. Lieberman, a history of the development of the field from the buried memories days to the biological understanding of today.
  • The Man With the Electrified Brain: Adventures in Madness, by Simon Winchester (who also wrote The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary). Despite the title, this is not about electroshock treatment, but rather dissociative states.
  • Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life, by Maria Ross; and My Life Deleted: A Memoir, by Scott Bolzan. These books, about a cerebral accident and amnesia, respectively, don’t speak directly to bipolar disorder, but I found them interesting as accounts of rebuilding one’s life after a significant mental condition.

And for an opposing point of view, if you must, there’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. Once you’ve read the title, you pretty much know how the book’s going to go; I don’t recommend this anti-psychiatry screed.

What books do you recommend? Which have helped you?

Depression, Mania, and Mystery

Writing a book takes a certain amount of mental stability. Also, you have to be a little crazy.

Despite the fact that in the popular imagination, creativity is linked with insanity, having a mental disorder is not all that conducive to productive work, particularly to the sort of sustained, focused writing that a book requires.

Still, bipolar, OCD, schizophrenic, and other writers have managed to write books – and some very good and highly acclaimed ones.

I have taken on that venture myself. I am writing a book.

Now, settle down. I am not (yet) asking you to buy this book. It is still only a book in process. Nothing has been published. Maybe nothing ever will be. Nevertheless, I persist.

Actually, I have two books in the works. One is out of my hands now. It is languishing at a publishing company, where it has languished for a year, waiting for them to determine if their interest in it will lead to actual publication. That book is a memoir of sorts, based on these blog posts. Unless I want to start pimping it to agents and other publishing companies, there is nothing more to do with it right now.

In the meantime, my attention has turned to the other book. It is a mystery, and has nothing to do with bipolar disorder. Except that the writing of it has everything to do with bipolar disorder.

First depression. Depression is great for writing certain types of scenes – deaths and reactions to them, for example, which are good for mysteries. Depression, however, periodically leads to the “this book is shitty” phenomenon, which I understand is not exclusive to depressive writers.

When depression leads me into that trap, I stop writing. Instead, I do “research.” If I am not too depressed to read, I delve into books about the craft of writing – plotting, description, etc. Or I study the works of writers that do things exceedingly well – dialogue, word choice, narrative voice. I highlight examples of good technique. Then, at some point the depression lifts and I try to put what I have learned into my manuscript. Of course this means lots of rewriting and revising, which slows my progress, but, I hope, makes the manuscript better.

Then there’s mania. Or at least hypomania, in my case. It carried me through the first eight chapters of the mystery before the depression hit. If it’s a truism that depression lies (it is and it does), mania is a liar as well. Recently I was tootling along at about 500 words per day, and it occurred to me that, at that pace, I could reasonably expect to have a rough draft by July 4, ready to send to my beta readers.

This was mania talking. Lying, rather. In fact, there was no way I could maintain the pace, meager though it was, of 500 words per day and not a chance in hell that I could meet the self-imposed deadline.

What came next? More depression, of course. More research, this time into how various authors use dialogue tags. And a confusing attempt to improve the pacing by scrambling the order of the chapters.

Until writing mania sets in again, I plug away at scenes I know need to be written, even if I don’t know where they go, and keep my eyes and ears open for both the depressive lies and the manic ones. I have over 45,000 words written and refuse to abandon them now.

So I don’t know all that much about whether bipolar disorder is a help or a hindrance to creativity (I would suspect it is both), but I do know that it is possible to work around it.

Eventually, if I’m lucky and persistent, I’ll ask you to buy my books. Someday.

Bipolar Robbed Me of Reading

I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.

Except when bipolar disorder took it away from me.

I was what they call a “natural reader” – someone who learns to read without being taught. Someone who just picks it up out of the air. And for me, reading was like breathing. It kept me going, kept me alive. Reading was part and parcel of my identity. I was never without a book within reach. I read while eating, walking down the hall, going to sleep, riding in a car.

Throughout my undiagnosed childhood years, reading was a way for me and my brain to play nicely together. If I was depressed, I could lose myself in escapist fantasy. If I was hypomanic, I could soar on adventures. And during the in-between times, I had access to unlimited worlds – places, people, situations, ideas, conversations – both familiar and strangely new. Reading was my joy and my solace.

For many years, reading was therapeutic. I could not only lose myself and escape the unpleasantness of my disorder for a time, I could learn more about depression and bipolar disorder, compare my experiences with those of others who struggled with mental illness, discover how medicine and law and psychology and sociology could shine a light on my experiences. I could even (God help me!) read self-help books, which were popular at the time, and learn all sorts of theories and techniques that didn’t improve what was wrong with me.

Books and words were my life. I got degrees in English language and literature. I read for work and for fun. I edited magazines, wrote articles and (occasionally) children’s stories, worked on textbooks.

Then my brain broke and reading went away.

I had a major depressive episode, which lasted literally years, and during that time I found it nearly impossible to read.

Why? My old companions, depression and hypomania.

Depression made me dull. I didn’t care about anything and found no happiness even in the books that had always been my refuge. I remember picking up a book that I more than loved and had returned to dozens of times, that had shaped my life in many ways, thinking that the familiar words would touch something still buried inside me. But this time there was no magic. Not even interest. The words were flat and dull, mere ink on the page. Reading – engaging with an author’s ideas, imagining characters, following plots and dialogue, discovering facts – was beyond me.

And hypomania? My version, instead of bringing euphoria, brought anxiety – an overwhelming twitchiness and fear of the unknown, jumping not just at shadows, but at the idea of shadows, things that had never happened. My attention span shrank to nearly nothing. I could barely read a few pages, not even a chapter, and when I was finally able to get back to a book, I was lost, disconnected.

Now that I am recovering from that episode, I am glad to say, I can read again. I read myself to sleep at night once again instead of crying myself to sleep. I devour entire chapters, keep at least two books going at once (one fiction, one nonfiction), delight in revisiting old favorites and seeking out new authors and genres (YA fiction and steampunk) and topics.

Not everything I read is uplifting. At the moment I’m deep in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, a post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopia that is eerily prescient for a book published in 1998. But I can tell when it’s getting too deep and frightening and switch off to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next literary fantasy Lost in a Good Book before the strife and struggle can drag me down.

And I can tell you this: It’s better to be lost in a good book than lost in your own broken brain.

 

A Bipolar Child

I suppose I was a bipolar child. I don’t really know, but I assume I was, because now I’m a bipolar adult.

I think I was more of a depressed child, which actually makes sense, since I have bipolar 2, with depressive episodes far outnumbering hypomanic ones. There were some times, though, when I would laugh loudly and inappropriately in class, triggered by a word that reminded me of something funny I’d read. There were times I’d walk around with a village-idiot grin because of some minor accomplishment like winning a live goldfish at a school fair.

Depressed child with toyBut mostly I remember misery. Tears. Loneliness. Hysterics. Confusion. Isolation. Hurt. Despair.

I’m fairly sure my depression wasn’t reactive, mostly, although parts of it surely were. The bullying, betrayals by friends, not understanding social conventions – all these were things that could easily make a person depressed, regardless of brain biochemistry.

But by and large my life was what would be considered pretty damned idyllic. I had stable, loving parents, a comfortable home in the suburbs with good schools, all the food I wanted, and as many toys as I could play with. I had a sister and a neighborhood full of children my age, but I remember being perpetually lonely. I had a good education, but looking back I realize that my illness prevented me from getting the most from it. There was no sexual or physical abuse or neglect. No one close to me died or suffered major trauma, at least until I was in high school and my parents suffered illnesses. Even then, they did a good job of keeping life as normal as possible. At the time we never felt it was a tragedy. It was just something we got through together.

That just leaves endogenous depression. Or at least the depression half of bipolar disorder. I remember one day walking home from elementary school and thinking, “All these houses look so pretty, but the people in them aren’t all happy.” It was somewhat of a revelation to me.  I had several major meltdowns, which I’ve written about before, and hundreds of smaller depressive episodes (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6J). I had nervous twitches and tics, and was prescribed Valium for them.

During my high school years, it was suggested that perhaps I ought to go to the school district’s psychologist. (This was probably during the episodes of inappropriate laughter in class.) My parents, who were not really familiar with mental illness and psychiatry, asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t. I probably should have, although back then – the seventies – it’s fairly unlikely that I would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, of any type. I might have gotten some help for the depression, though. They might have taken me off the Valium.

Like most lonely and misunderstood kids, and perhaps most depressive children, I found my salvation in books. They were friends, distractions, instruction manuals on how to survive, food for my emptiness, a place to lose myself when the world was too much with me. By and large it worked, at least as well as anything could – a self-prescribed and self-regulated form of instinctual bibliotherapy.

These were not books on how to make friends, or ones that promised to teach a child how to cope with emotions. They were for the most part pure escapism. Fantasy and science fiction, mysteries and adventures, literature and bestsellers – a complete mishmash of classics and trash. Those were my doctors, my therapists, my Prozac, my mood stabilizers.

I look back now on myself as a child – mentally disordered, undiagnosed, untreated – and wonder how I survived  as much as I did.

If I were a child these days, would I get the help that I needed then? Would my parents recognize that I was not just odd and unhappy, but mentally ill? Would I have been diagnosed properly? Medicated properly? Counseled properly?

With all that needs to go right and all that can go wrong during the process, it feels like getting help for a bipolar child certainly was – and perhaps still is –pretty much of a crapshoot. I made it through, but I hope it’s easier for a kid like me these days.

 

What Is Sanity?

And who is sane?

Negatives Positives Computer Keys Showing Plus And Minus Alternatives Analysis And Decisions
These are questions you don’t hear much anymore, at least outside of judicial proceedings. Even there, the phrase “guilty but mentally ill” is gaining currency. “Not guilty by reason of insanity” made people think a criminal was getting away with something. And indeed, the “insanity defense” has been misused.

We’re much more comfortable talking about health and illness, concepts we all understand, than about seemingly fixed states like sanity and insanity. They sound so final. At least illness can be treated; health can improve.

Before the deluge of psychiatric labels and the DSM, how to tell if a person was sane or insane was a vital question. The insane were put away – in an asylum if they were poor or kept discreetly out of sight at home if they were wealthy.

But were all the people in asylums insane? And what kind of treatment did they receive? Investigative journalist Nellie Bly determined to find out. Her 1887 exposé Ten Days in a Madhouse was a muckraking revelation.

Bly feigned amnesia and delusional fears, was reported to the police by her landlady, and declared incurably insane.

While she was at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, she experienced cold, hunger, brutality, and no diagnosis or treatment. Several of the other inmates were, like Bly, sane by any modern standard, but poor, friendless and alone. The newspaper she worked for arranged to have Bly released, but the other women remained to be beaten, choked, starved, humiliated, not treated and driven insane if they weren’t already.

Bly’s ordeal and testimony did prompt a grand jury to recommend an increase in funding of $850,000 – quite a large sum in those days – for the Department of Charities and Corrections, which oversaw asylums. (It is ironic to note that the word “asylum” originally meant a place of protection, safety, or shelter.) But it mainly went for better physical conditions – warmer clothes, edible food, more and better-trained nurses – rather than actual diagnosis and treatment of the women’s “insanity.”

The question of who is sane and how you can tell was revisited in 1973 by psychologist David Rosenhan. A professor at Stanford University, he devised a simple experiment. He sent eight volunteers, including both women and men, to psychiatric hospitals. Each person complained of hearing a voice saying three words – and no other symptoms.

All – all – were admitted and diagnosed, most of them as schizophrenic. Afterward, the “pseudopatients”  reported to their doctors and nurses that they no longer heard the voices and were sane. They remained in the psychiatric wards for an average of 19 days, beating Nellie Bly’s experience by nine days. They were required to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.

Rosenhan’s report, “On being sane in insane places,” created quite a stir. Indignant hospital administrators claimed that their staff were actually quite adept at identifying fakes and challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment.

This time hospital personnel were on their guard. They identified over 40 people as being “pseudopatients” who were faking mental illness. Rosenhan, however, had sent no volunteer pseudopatients this time. It was a dismal showing for the psychiatric community.

Times have changed, of course. Few people are confined in locked wards for life. Diagnosis is, if not yet a science, less of a guessing game, backed up by the DSM and assorted checklists of symptoms. And insurance companies hold the keys to psychiatric units as much as medical personnel do.

Still, the fundamental questions remain. Are neurotics sane and psychotics insane? I have bipolar 2. Am I mentally ill? I would have to say I am, since my condition will require treatment, barring any dramatic scientific advances, for the rest of my life. And my illness does affect my ability to function “normally.” Yet I think that few would consider me insane (unless I were suddenly to start shooting people in a public place, of course).

Speaking freely about mental illness and mental health is, presumably, supposed to make such disorders more understandable, less fearsome, less stigmatized. I suspect, however, that there are those who would rather we remained out of sight – if not locked away in asylums, then restrained in the virtual straitjackets of strong psychotropic medication.

And while group homes and other sorts of assisted living situations are now more available (though not nearly as accessible as the need for them would require), the general public prefers that such facilities, along with halfway houses for addicts and parolees, be constructed “NIMBY” – Not In My Back Yard.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Maybe the conversations surrounding such issues are reducing the stigma of mental illness, or insanity, or whatever you choose to call it, but I’m dubious about the level of success. There’s still a long way to go.

 

Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings

What is a trigger warning?

Let’s start with a more basic question. What is a trigger?

Just as a literal trigger activates a gun, a figurative trigger activates your mental disorder. It’s a stimulus that sets off either a manic or depressive phase, or a bout of PTSD.

Triggers are usually unique to the individual. What sets you off may not affect me at all.

Over the years I’ve learned what my triggers are, and so do most bipolar or PTSD sufferers. Loud noises and large crowds trigger my anxiety, which is why I could never work at a Chuck E. Cheese. My depressive phases don’t often have triggers except for bad dreams about an ex-boyfriend. Most of my depressive episodes just happen without a trigger.

Generally, one avoids triggers, because who needs more manic or depressive phases in addition to those that occur naturally, with no prompting?

A trigger warning is something else. It is a notice that someone puts at the beginning of a piece of writing to warn readers that the subject matter may be intense. Ordinarily, trigger warnings are given for major life events that have caused trauma and may cause flashbacks, severe stress  or other extreme reactions.

Some of the most common trigger warnings are for graphic depictions of rape, suicide, self harm, or physical or sexual abuse. The trigger warning says to a potential reader: If you don’t want to encounter this material, if you think it will make your illness worse, or cause you undue stress, don’t read any further.

Although we call relatively minor stimuli triggers, they usually do not require trigger warnings. If you’re going to write about having a fight with your mother, you probably don’t need to put a trigger warning on it. If your mother hit you in the face with a frying pan and sent you to the ER, you might need to place a trigger warning on your post about it.

Online, the standard form for trigger warnings is first to state, often in all caps, TRIGGER WARNING and state the type of trigger it is – TRIGGER WARNING: SELF-HARM, TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, etc. To be extra sensitive, the writer leaves a number of blank spaces or a few dots before beginning to write the difficult material. This gives the reader the choice of whether to scroll down and read it or not.

Trigger warnings have become controversial, particularly in schools and colleges. Many pieces of literature and even textbooks on history or sociology discuss difficult topics that may be triggering. For example, a novel might feature a rape as a plot point, or a history text might discuss slavery.

Some people believe that a trigger warning will help a prospective reader know whether reading further will provoke a strong reaction. Other people believe that trigger warnings are a way of coddling the weak and letting students avoid challenging material that is necessary for the class.

My own opinion is that a trigger warning is like chicken soup: It won’t hurt and might help. It may mean that a student asks for an alternative reading or assignment, but it also may mean that the student simply wants to be in a safe space – not surrounded by strangers, for example – before reading the material.

People that believe trigger warnings should not be given have usually not experienced the kind of emotional breakdown that can result from unexpectedly confronting a traumatic topic. Very likely they have never even been in the presence of someone who has had such an extreme reaction.

I suppose that ideally, we could all read any material and simply brush it off if we found it troubling. Unfortunately, for those of us with mental disorders such as bipolar illness, PTSD, and anxiety disorders, this is simply not possible. A trigger warning may prevent someone from having a public meltdown and others from having to witness one.

I don’t know why that should be controversial. It seems like simple courtesy to me.

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