My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘bullying’

Does Emotional Abuse Cause Bipolar Disorder?

I belong to a fair number of bipolar support groups on Facebook and I often read posts or comments from people who attribute the cause or the severity of their bipolar disorder and/or PTSD to emotional abuse, particularly in childhood and particularly from family members.

I can’t really comment on PTSD since I don’t have it (though one therapist mistakenly diagnosed me with it), but I do have some experience with emotional abuse.

First, let me say that what I experienced was never physical abuse, unless you count deserved childhood spankings, which I know some people do. No sexual abuse, either – no “funny uncles” or neighborhood predators. (There was one older man that all the kids warned one another to stay away from, but I did, so I don’t know if the rumors were true.)

My childhood was pretty idyllic, if you get right down to it. My parents never divorced. We lived in a neat suburb of starter homes with excellent schools, where I got good grades and praise. We frequently visited our extended family in the next state, with plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins, farms and chickens and horses, along with occasional trips to local state and national parks. We went to the nearest local church, which did not emphasize hellfire and brimstone. If there was any mental illness in my family, I never knew about it.

And yet, sometime during that childhood, bipolar disorder began to manifest.

My life, of course, was not perfect. I was smart and loved school, and was very different from my parents, who weren’t big readers and didn’t know what to do with me, especially in the area of developing social skills and guiding my education. I fought with my sister, but not any more than other siblings I knew.

But then there was the bullying at school – the first emotional abuse I can remember. I’ve written about that before. At one point I noted:

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle.

There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind.

And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

It seemed a bit extreme.

I have also read about bullying and its relation to emotional abuse, and written about that:

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

So. Emotional abuse in my childhood, in the form of bullying. Did it cause my bipolar disorder?

Probably not. But it sure didn’t help.

I was already at the least depressed and most likely bipolar by the time all that happened, and was certainly bipolar by the time I encountered undeniable emotional abuse in young adulthood.

But I firmly believe that the roots of my bipolar disorder were located squarely in my brain, between the synapses, due to the lack or overabundance of neurotransmitters or other brain chemicals. That’s the current thinking, and it makes sense to me. (Of course there’s the possibility that in the next decades genes or gut bacteria or some other factor will prove to be involved, but given present science, I’ll stick with the brain chemistry theory.)

I don’t think that the emotional abuse caused my bipolar disorder. But I sure as hell know that it exacerbated the illness, which has made it all the harder for me to make progress in finding peace and healing over the decades.

But I can only speak for myself. Your mileage may vary.

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane. The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.)

But what does gaslighting have to do with bipolar disorder? Someone who is in the depressive phase of bipolar – especially one who is undiagnosed – is especially susceptible to gaslighting. The very nature of depression leaves a person wondering, “Am I insane?” To have another person reinforcing that only strengthens the idea.

Back when I was undiagnosed and in the middle of a major depressive episode, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couple’s sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one, and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. For a person in the grips of depression or mania, this will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to to tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that being the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

Getting help for the depression or bipolar disorder is also an important step in escaping the effects of gaslighting. With proper therapy and/or medication, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

Owning My Bullying

bullying, written on vintage metal texture

I have written many times before this on the subject of bullying – and now I have to admit that I have been a bully too.

Bullying is often seen in stereotypical terms as a larger kid extorting money from a smaller, weaker one, or torturing someone in the locker room with “swirlies” and other indignities. But there are many kinds of bullying. There is physical bullying – the kind most people thing of. There is ostracism or social bullying – the stereotype of which is the clique of mean girls or arrogant jocks. There are racist bullying, ethnic bullying, socioeconomic bullying, ableist bullying, sexual bullying, and just about any other type you can name.

Nowadays, one of the most vicious types of bullying, with the most harmful and longest-lasting effects, is cyberbullying. The tools of connection are being used to separate, exclude, and destroy reputations and even lives.

None of those is the kind of bully I was.

I was an intellectual bully. And since I realized that – only recently – I am ashamed.

I am not ashamed of my intelligence or my educational accomplishments. Those were the products of nature and nurture that I had little control over. It was what I did with those advantages that is shameful.

I used my smarts and my vocabulary to squash other students.

It may have started as a defense against the bullying I received – physical and social and whatever else. Intelligence seemed like the only weapon I had, and I wielded it as one. I was taking revenge in the only way I knew how. And that is something I should never have done.

I may not have intended it that way, but every snarky remark, every intellectual put-down, every sesquipedalian word flung back at my bullies carried a message. I was telling them that they were stupid and inferior, and that I was smarter  – better – than they were.

If that’s not bullying, I don’t know what is. And I’m sure it caused damage to egos and self-esteem, as well as perpetuating the cycle of be-bullied-and-bully that leaves countless perpetrators and victims in its wake.

Later in life, as my bipolar disorder deepened, I turned the bullying inward. I made self-deprecating remarks, snarked at myself, even made fun of myself for being overeducated and pedantic. I thought I had to do these thing to myself before someone else did them to me. It was at once a measure of my profoundly low self-esteem and a way to lower it even further.

In essence, I was bullying myself. And I’ve known other people who have done likewise. (For what it’s worth, I’ve since learned that it can be profoundly irritating to listen to a person tear himself or herself down this way.)

Intellectual bullying is a hard habit to break. The words, the ideas, the sarcasm are there for the using. The consequence, of course, is driving people away, sometimes without even realizing it. I have done this and seen it only when looking back at the potential or actual friends lost, the coworkers who thought I was a jerk, the people I’ve hurt.

I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit. Oddly, the Internet helps. It is, as has been noted, true that there are few ways to convey tone of voice in chat or email. There is no sarcasm font. But there are ways to let the recipient know that you do not mean a message literally or unkindly. You can place <snerk> after a remark or a  😛 emoji or a sticker that demonstrates you mean well. I’ve even seen people use <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> around their messages to make them clearer.

But mostly, I try to guard my speech. I have to install a little censor (or sensor) that says, “Ooh! That’s funny! But is it insulting?” before I make a remark.

I’d rather pause for a second and look like a doof than go back to being a bully.

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.

 

The Answer to Bullying

“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences,” says Stephen Luntz in an article, “Study Finds Bullying Affects Mental Health More Than Child Abuse” [http://www.iflscience.com/brain/price-bullying-measured].

Well, duh.

But wait. Look at that title again. “Bullying Affects Mental Health More Than Child Abuse“?

Yes. That’s an accurate headline, not just clickbait.

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

Again, duh. Easier said than done.

And how big is the problem? A CBS News poll reports that most Americans reported being bullied at some point while growing up http://www.cbsnews.com/news/cbs-news-poll-majority-of-americans-were-bullied-as-kids/. Only 41 percent report never being bullied.

“Just” 10 percent said they were bullied “a lot.” That’s still a lot of children who are bullied a lot.

I know I was. And I’m willing to bet that many of you were too.

So what’s to be done?

Well, we know what doesn’t work.

Telling those who are bullied:
“They’re just joking.”
“Learn to take a little teasing.”
“You’re too sensitive.” (my personal favorite)
“Learn to fight back.”
“Get used to it.”
“Just ignore it.”
“What they say doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t let them see that they hurt you.”
“Laugh it off.”
“Handle it yourself.”
“Try to make friends with them.”
“Give them what they want and they’ll leave you alone.”
“Don’t give them what they want and they’ll stop.”
“Stay away from them.”
“Stand up to them.”
“Get your friends together when they’re around.”
“Tell your parents/teacher/principal.”
“Take karate lessons.”
“Avoid the second floor bathroom (or wherever).”
“Grow up.”

(If you have any other favorites, let us all know in the comments!)

Look again at that list. They are pieces of advice to the VICTIMS of bullying on HOW NOT TO BE BULLIED. What’s wrong with this picture?

Feminists and their allies have begun questioning the advice given to women on HOW NOT TO BE RAPED. Instead, they say, the focus should be on teaching men HOW NOT TO BE RAPISTS.

http://www.ifyouonlynews.com/feminist-issues/10-rape-prevention-tips-that-are-guaranteed-to-work-image/

And apparently, this approach is having some success.

http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2013/01/08/rape-prevention-aimed-at-rapists-does-work/

Of course, bullying is not rape; the analogy breaks down quickly. But both are about power and “the other” – asserting dominance over someone who is different.

In bullying, that difference can be real or merely perceived, and can be literally anything – weight, height, intelligence, socioeconomic level, race, ethnicity, popularity, clothing, sex, gender, hair color, disability, athletic prowess, speech, preference of superhero. The criteria for who is a victim seem completely arbitrary, because they are. The victim is the other, someone who is by definition different.

Is it fair, or even reasonable, to tell victims to alter whatever it is about themselves that makes them different? It can be soul-killing to have to pretend you are not smart, not poor, not gay, not Muslim. It can be impossible to pretend you’re not short, don’t have a disability, are good at sports. And why should victims have to, any more than women should never go out alone at night or never flirt?

We need to start teaching kids HOW NOT TO BE BULLIES, not how not to be bullied.

Some specifics, like this:
“If you think another kid is gay, ignore it.”
“If someone is not as popular as you, so what?”
“if a kid in your class dresses funny, don’t say anything.”
“If it’s not fun for everyone, stop.”

Or this:
“Don’t hit people because you don’t like the way they look.”
“Don’t joke about people who don’t enjoy it.”
“Don’t call people anything but what they want to be called.”
“If someone is unhappy, don’t make it worse.”

Or this:
“If someone is smarter or less smart than you, form a study group.”
“If someone has less money than you, do things that don’t cost money.”
“If someone is always dropping her books, help pick them up.”

I’m not an educator or a child psychologist – just a former smart, scrawny girl with weird hair and poor eyesight. In other words, bully-bait.

Maybe my ideas won’t work. But what we’re doing now sure doesn’t. That poll I mentioned earlier suggests that bullying is actually increasing, despite all the attention the topic is getting. Generalities like “All people deserve your respect” and “Celebrate differences” and “Be-kind-keep-your-hands-to-yourself-no-hazing-no-fighting-no-name-calling” aren’t getting the job done.

Bully culture is well and truly entrenched in our society. To change that, we need to change the culture – if for no other reason, to head off all those mental health problems waiting up ahead for bullied children.

Who’s with me?

The Myth of Closure

For some reason, it’s called “closure.” But for some wounds there is no such thing. And for some of us – those with emotional and mental disorders – there is no way to achieve closure.

Take, for example, the invisible injuries I experienced while living with Rex (a pseudonym), for a year in college. He was a master of intermittent reinforcement, the trap that keeps abused women (and men sometimes) from getting themselves out of the situation to someplace safe. He was never physically abusive, which I have vowed never to put up with (and to this day haven’t), but verbally and emotionally, he was, well, a veritable artist of psychological bullying.

Here are just a few examples.

When he was unhappy with me for some reason, he would sigh and glare. I swear he could sigh and glare even over the telephone. And when I would freeze up and not be able to think of any word that would make things better, he said my silence made him want to kick me.

I slept in the car on the streets of Buffalo if there was a late-night party he wanted to go to. It was out of the way to take me back to where we were staying.

When I was responsible for feeding guests, and botched it, he said I had tarnished his honor.

He took the decision to tell my parents about our relationship out of my hands, ripping apart the face-saving fiction that I was renting a room in his large house. After I left, I even sent him money to pay the supposed rent.

When I asked him to go to couples counseling with me, he said, “Are you sure? The therapist and I could have you declared a danger to yourself and have you put away.” At the session, he tenderly held my hand and asserted that he just wanted to get help for me.

So what does this all have to do with mental health? I certainly wasn’t mentally healthy when I met him, and was a basket case by the time I left. When I was immobilized, I was not embracing his projects with “alacrity.” When I was insomniac, only his cat comforted me. When I was in the Pit of Despair, everything was All My Fault.

So what do people tell you in cases like this?

Look how much you learned from the experience. And I always reply that the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid. All that I want to keep from that time are a few dear friends.

Forgive and forget. I can’t do either. The memories have faded over time and seldom give me flashbacks anymore. (The dreams still come.) As for forgiving? He’s never asked for it and never would. I’m sure he doesn’t think he did anything that needed forgiving. If that makes me a hard-hearted bitch or a bad Christian, so be it.

That emotional abuse happened, and I can’t forget it. It was my first serious relationship and I left chunks of my soul and most of my barely existent self-esteem in that house on the hilltop. I had failed – at the relationship, at meeting my parents’ expectations, at so many things. I felt I was the one who needed forgiveness and spent much of the following years repeating incessantly, “I’m sorry.”

Let go of anger; it will only hurt you. When I first left, I didn’t feel anger toward Rex. I felt a lot of other things, mostly directed at myself. But I didn’t recognize or own my anger until much later, after lots of therapy and the good kind of love. Now that I realize I was (and am) angry, it feels wrong to think of him without feeling that. The things he did were wrong, and it is not irrational of me to still believe that. I earned that anger. It is part of me now. I can lay it aside to the extent that I don’t have revenge fantasies, but that’s about all.

So, closure? Not a chance. Saying as Oscar Wilde did, “Living well is the best revenge”? That’s more like it. Even learning to live well has been an uphill battle. I’m still struggling with the definition.

The wound may scab over, or it may continue to trickle blood at times. Some of it may even form scars. But take my word for it, the wounds are still there. They never really close.

Surviving High School (and Reunions)

I’ve only ever gone to one of my high school reunions – the 25th. Now the 40th is nearly here.

I was terrified then. This time is not as bad. I don’t have the energy or the attention span to get all worked up about it. Will I go? Probably not. It’s like the Tower of Terror at DisneyWorld – I did it once and I’m glad I did, but I have no desire to do it again.

My difficulties with the reunion even made the local paper. I went to a high school friend, Mary, for advice. She was quite helpful. She also, with my permission, wrote about my panic in her newspaper column.

Here’s what I told her: “Over the last quarter century I’ve confronted and dealt with a number of pieces of my past and tried to make my peace with them. High school, however, is not one of those things. I’m afraid I’ll have flashbacks.”

Mary did note that “Janet had more reason than most to be apprehensive. While I had been actively ignored, she had been, at times, actively picked on – one of those kids too brainy, too head-in-the-clouds, to comprehend how to navigate the social firmament.”

Pretty close. Except that I wouldn’t have called it “actively picked on.” High school was merely another part of the continuum of bullying and harassment that I experienced from childhood on. In high school no one threw literal rocks at me, but by then they didn’t have to. I was conditioned to cringe.

The head-in-the-clouds part was also not entirely accurate. As I walked through the halls between classes, my head was down and my nose was in a book. I was trying to perfect my “invisible” act and practice that advice that the bullied always get – “just ignore them.”

And I wouldn’t call the social milieu in high school “the firmament.” Just sayin’.

I did go to the reunion, though. I got my hair done for the event and told my stylist to make me look “successful and sane.” She replied, “Oh, no, here comes the wish list.” “At least I didn’t ask for young and thin,” I pointed out.

I went, taking along my husband and telling him not to leave my side. I’m sure the husband came as a surprise to most people there, proof that I had at least managed to navigate that particular social firmament. And if my hairstyle did proclaim some degree of sanity, that was likely a surprise as well.

I survived. My big insight: “Not everyone hated me.” I should have known that already, since I had friends like Mary and a few others I’m still in touch with. But old fears die hard.

Mary was much more philosophical: “In adolescence our images are refracted through so many distorted lights – the way we see ourselves, the way everyone else sees us, the way we fancy everyone else sees us. What mattered was that we could all talk face to face, as adults, as equals, as friends.”

She may have been right, though “Not everyone hated me” was, in its way, a major alteration in my outlook and pretty much as far as I’d gotten by then in my continuing struggle to come to grips with my life.

Things have changed a lot since then and so have I. Now I realize I have nothing to prove, and no need to try.

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