My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘childhood depression’

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.

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.

 

Picking Up on Feelings

As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I ought to be.

I began to notice that I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran., I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone – who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned before cocooning was a thing. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio. I got drunk on ginger ale.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized that I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits.

Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. (It was only much later that I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.)

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

Nor did the bad feelings have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be till he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown (which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago), my therapist told me that my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now.

I know it’s a good thing that I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

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.

 

Looking Back – But How Far?

“Look at where you are now compared to where you were when we started. Look how far you’ve come.” This is what my therapist frequently tells me. And she’s right.

When I first came to see her I was a total mess. It is a measure of my progress that I no longer refer to myself as “pathetic.” it has been months – years –since I have used that word to describe myself.

And she is right to point out my progress. Not only am I no longer the despondent, distraught, weeping mess that came to her, I am now a person who has acquired coping skills – at least a few – that I can use in everyday life without much prompting from her.

Silver pocket clock in wooden box isolated on whiteBut when I look back at how far I’ve come, how far back should I look?

Do I look back to my childhood, when there was something wrong with me that I didn’t understand? Do I look back to the everyday traumas that a typical person would have dealt with, if not easily, then at least adequately, that often left me a crumpled figure in the corner weeping copiously and, yes, pathetic.

Since those days, I’ve learned what my disorder is, and have learned to anticipate and deal with some of those everyday traumas.

Do I look back to my teenage years, when I had little clue how to make and keep friends? When I was an outcast for my oddities?

Since then I have rediscovered old friends and made new ones that love and support me, many of whom are just as odd as I am.

Do I look back to my college days, when the bright promise of my intellect was dulled by my inner turmoil, when I missed out on opportunities because I was not capable of reaching out to grasp them?

Since then I have tried to make the most of opportunities that come my way, and to use my talents as best I can.

Do I look back to my first significant other and how that relationship shredded what I had managed to accumulate of self-esteem and confidence?

Since then I have been trying to recover as much as I can of what I lost. And I now have a stable, supportive, long-term relationship.

Do I look back to the days when I first lived independently, teetering on the edge of financial disaster? The days when I could barely function in the world of work and living, when the loss of a job put me deep in the Pit of Despair?

Since then, I have learned to accept help from others and to know that the Pit of Despair is not my permanent home.

Do I reflect on the job that sustained me for many years, until my emotional state became so fragile that I was no longer reliable enough to do it?

Since then I have gotten work that I can do reliably and found a niche for myself in the world of work.

Do I look back to that dreadful time when my brain broke, I became unable to work at all, unable to take care of myself, unable to function in anything like normalcy?

Since then, I have been rebuilding my life – not as good as new, but the best I can.

Admittedly, the distance I’ve come since then has been vast. I can’t take the credit for it, however. Medications, therapy, a support system, a supportive husband, lots of reading about depression and anxiety and feminist issues and bipolar disorder have helped me survive and helped me grow.

Like many people with bipolar disorder I often have the sense that all along I was faking it, that during the periods when I seemed to be functioning best, I was actually pretending. Sometimes I think that’s what I’m doing now.

What’s that they say? Fake it till you make it?

But how do you know when you’ve made it?

I guess it’s when you look back and remember, but no longer viscerally feel, what you went through. I still have unanswered questions, unresolved conflicts, and unanswered puzzles from all those former times.

I no longer think that I will get answers to all of them. I suppose their purpose now is simply to be mile markers, measuring the distance I have come. I can look back if I choose to, or not. I can look back at who and what I was, or as my therapist says, how far I’ve come. But I’m not pathetic anymore.

So this is how far I’ve come. Can I look back without fear? Without despair? Sometimes I can. And that’s not something I’ve always been able to say. It’s progress.

 

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.

 

I Chose Fat Over Misery

I was a skinny kid who grew a lot less skinny.

Do my bipolar meds have something to do with that?

Probably.

Do I care?

No.

I’ve noticed a lot of people with bipolar disorder panicking over the topic of weight gain. “I know I need meds, but I’m afraid of weight gain.” “What meds can I take that don’t cause weight gain?” “I tried X med but I quit because of the weight gain.”

It’s true that mental health and physical health are linked – what affects one may affect the other. And it’s true that medications have side effects, among which may be weight gain.

What I don’t get is why some people are so afraid of weight gain that they would sacrifice their mental health to avoid it.

Actually, I do sort of get it. There are ads everywhere that promote thinness – even to the point of illness – as the ideal for both feminine and masculine. There is a “War on Obesity” and plenty of people who will tell you that your body mass index is the most important number that identifies you. There are fat people jokes and gags that could not be told about any other group, be it race, sex, ethnicity, or religion. Plenty of comedians have made a good living making fun of fat – even their own. On TV, the fat character is never the hero.

Now back to the skinny, scrawny, bony kid I was. Undiagnosed and untreated. Aware that there was something wrong with me, but no idea what.

I had mini-meltdowns and major meltdowns. I had anxious twitches. I burst into tears when certain songs came on the radio – and not necessarily sad ones. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” tore me up. “I Am a Rock” could leave me sobbing. I took walks in the rain till I was soaked to the skin. I would laugh out loud for no reason that anyone else could see.

I was a mess. But a thin one.

It’s relatively recently that doctors and scientists have explored the connection between psychotropic medications and weight gain. Some have speculated that people who are depressed don’t eat much. Then, when their meds kick in and they feel better, their appetites return. In my case, I ate more when depressed and less when anxious. By the end of my undergraduate years, I was drinking banana milkshakes so my parents wouldn’t worry about how thin I was when they saw me at graduation.

Slowly, I got better with therapy and meds. Slowly, I gained weight. At first I didn’t notice. Then I did. I tried prescription diet pills and Lean Cuisine, which worked – for a while. But eventually, as is true of most dieters, I started piling the pounds back on. If one of my psychotropics was to blame, I couldn’t pinpoint which one, what with going on and off so many different ones and the cocktail of several I ended up with.

But as I got better and gained weight, I also started making friends, going on dates, finding lovers, and eventually meeting the man I would marry. Some of them were overweight, too. But that wasn’t what mattered most to them – or to me. Oh, I suppose there were people who were turned off by my well-padded physique. Maybe some of them were marvelous people, and maybe I would have enjoyed their company if they could have seen past the weight.

But the fact is, I now have plenty of close friends who just don’t give a damn about weight. Sometimes one of us will need to lose weight for a specific health reason like diabetes, and the rest of us will offer encouragement. But for the most part, we are who we are and love each other that way.

Given the choice – and I do have the choice – I will take the psychotropics that keep me reasonably stable and happy and productive. And yes, overweight. I remember the misery, the despair and pain, and no matter how I look, I don’t ever want to go back there. Self-esteem, for me at least, is better if it comes from the inside out, not the other way around.

The bottom line?

I’ve been skinny. I’ve been fat. Either way, I’m still me.

 

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: