My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘childhood depression’

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.

 

Dental Health and Mental Health

I still remember one of my earliest episodes of panic, which happened in a dentist’s waiting room. As I said in the uncomfortable chair, surrounded by Highlights for Children magazines that I had already read, I felt dread moving up my body from my toes. It crept up my legs into my hips and on into my abdomen. I was convinced that when the feeling of terror reached my heart, I would die. I was called into the doctor’s office before that happened.

This is a memory I have shared with only one other person before now. Just thinking about it still brings back a visceral body memory of fear.

It really bothers me that some people think that good teeth are a sign of moral superiority. Some other people, like me, are simply born with bad teeth, or at least weak, cavity-prone little tooth buds embedded in our infantile gums. Brush as diligently as we might, we are never going to have pristine white teeth like the people on TV.

While my dental phobia can possibly be attributed to the general pool of my anxiety triggers, there were also some outside factors that contributed to it.

My parents were never good role models for dental health, as my mother had gotten dentures at age 16 and my father chewed tobacco.

There were also bad experiences with blame-and-shame dentists and hygienists, one of whom scraped a bit of tartar off my teeth, stuck it in my face, and asked, “If I put that on a piece of bread, would you eat it?”

I used to loathe the public school practice of making us chew little purple tablets to see how clean our teeth really were. My teeth were – and still are – considerably crooked, so it was difficult for me to brush in a manner that wouldn’t leave glaring purple spots all over my mouth.

My teeth have only gotten crookeder, since my parents were not able to afford orthodontia for me. When and where they grew up, braces were a luxury for the well-to-do; rural children like they were simply did without. By the time my sister and I came along we lived in the suburbs, but braces had never become a priority for my parents compared, say, to eyeglasses, which were deemed essential.

My last and most recent experience with a dentist was a number of years ago. I don’t remember what prompted me to go, but I did tell the dentist about my phobia and he was very considerate. (I always look for a dentist whose advertising says, “We Cater to Cowards.”)

He did my exam and treatment in the kiddy room with the bright, nonthreatening murals of cowboys and western scenes on the walls. Just the x-rays and routine cleaning proved alarming enough to trigger one of my worst stress reactions – diarrhea. When it came time for the actual procedures the dentist brought in a traveling anesthesiologist so that I could be knocked out rather than conscious and terrified. My husband was there for driving, moral support, and decisions that needed to be made while I was out cold.

I have not been back to the dentist since. However, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I need to. My teeth ache. My fillings have fallen out. One tooth is broken. Because of that, my teeth are moving in directions they were never supposed to. And that makes my dental bridge (acquired at the aforementioned last experience) fit poorly. I look like the stereotypical Willie Nelson fan. (I am a Willie Nelson fan, but I don’t care to reinforce the popular image.)

This week I was trying to convince myself to call a dentist just for a consultation. I still haven’t managed to do that. Just saying the word “dentist” gave me a spasm in my chest. Maybe I’ll be able to make the call during this coming week.

The only person in the world who is a worst dental-phobe than I am is my sister. She too had childhood dental issues. Once she even bit a dentist and he slapped her. Needless to say, that experience did not improve her attitude toward dental care.

She is also ultra sensitive to (or afraid of) pain and quite terrified of needles. Even as an adult, she has been known to scream so loudly and lengthily that she has cleared an entire dentist’s waiting room. (She then sent the dentist a Halloween card that screamed when you opened it.)

Still, I am a grown up. I need to do this. I cannot convincingly tell myself that waiting will improve the situation. I just have to pick a day for my appointment when my husband is available to take me and I have had my prescription for Ativan recently refilled. And some Immodium on hand.

Wish me luck.

 

ETA: I now have an appointment with a dentist for some serious work, and with a traveling anesthesiologist for IV sedation. I tried to get the doc to prescribe roofies, but some guys have no sense of humor…

The Wrong Life

Nothing prepared me for this.

This is not the life my upbringing prepared me for. I don’t just mean the special guest speakers we had in home economics class who tried to introduce us to the subtleties of silver, china, and stemware. No, I was also misled by the books I read.

If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies led me astray. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a total fan of Erma Bombeck’s writing style, but the quirky suburban life she loved and lamented was not what I got. Bombeck and Kerr both made light – and fortunes – of portraying the petty foibles and cute misunderstandings of women and their husbands, women and their children, women and their neighbors, women and other women.

Daily disasters with dishwashers, sticky-fingered children, and clueless husbands were an endless source of amazement and amusement for them. They soldiered on, supported by an innate buoyancy, faith in the divinity, and the occasional glass of wine.

My glasses of wine have been more than occasional. My disasters have not been humorous. I do not have children, and the cats are somewhat deficient in making adorable conversation in high-pitched, lisping voices. Sometimes all I can get out of them is “meh,” which is pretty much how I feel too.

As for the trappings of the genteel life, we eat off paper plates more often then not. I did once have a set of Limoges, but only because I was acting as a pawnbroker for a friend who needed ready cash. I fed one of the cats on the Limoges saucer, just to say that I had.

My parents used to say that their house was decorated in early married junk and I have followed in that fine tradition. Most of our furnishings are a demonstration of the maxim: If it’s not from Kmart or Goodwill you won’t find it here.

No one’s life prepares them for clinical depression, hypomania, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illnesses. I’ll wager that even psychologists’ kids don’t have a clue when they escalate from picking scabs to experimenting with lit cigarettes. Maybe their parents don’t either.

Either the mental disorder has been going on so long that you don’t know what it’s like without it, or it comes on so suddenly that you desperately hope that it goes away just as suddenly. Or it comes in a way that you can just convince yourself is no big deal. “I overspend? That’s just because I love shopping, not because I have mania or need to validate myself with expensive things.”

Perhaps people who grow up with a mentally disturbed loved one have a chance of understanding the underlying mechanisms. But with the number of families who don’t discuss the “elephant in the room,” or pass it off as, “Your sister is just high-strung” or say, “Uncle Ted is a little odd. Just ignore him,” not even that exposure may help.

How do young people learn about mental illness? Or even – gasp! – get help for one? If not at home, maybe at school? The National Association of Secondary School Principals cites the U.S. Surgeon General’s report saying that “one in five children and adolescents will face a significant mental health condition during their school years” and that the ratio of school counselors to students is 471:1. Add to that the fact that most school counselors have been shifted away from offering personal and emotional support to offering academics-only services. (http://www.nassp.org/Content.aspx?topic=57948)

Most of us struggle alone. Some never find a proper diagnosis and treatment. We have to be our own resources and our own advocates much of the time, even if our illnesses do not allow us to get out of bed. If we have one family member – or even a close friend – who understands, we are lucky beyond measure.

I wish that I had been even slightly prepared for the life I now lead, instead of the one I was “supposed” to have. No one can predict the future, but why can’t we at least have a bit of mental health education in school? I suppose that’s a lot to ask, when even sexuality education varies from the merely adequate to the appalling, when schools are barely able to stay abreast of the teach-to-the-test curriculum, and when Texas’s governor vetoes a bipartisan bill allocating resources for mental health, based on lobbying by Scientologists.

Do I sound bitter because I didn’t get to live the genteel suburban life? Probably. But there are aspects of that life that likely would have actively impeded my search for mental health. So I’ve had to do it on my own, or nearly so, at least until recently. A lot of us go DIY for mental health.

But a lot of us are accomplishing it. Living the life we have and not some fictitious pie-in-the-sky one. We may not have been prepared for it, but we muddle through anyway – and sometimes even realize that imperfect real life is better than a perfect lie.

What Was I Thinking?

When I was a kid, I had irrational thoughts all the time. I think most kids do. They were harmless – even amusing.

It’s when you’re older that they become problems, or even dangers.

My younger self wouldn’t eat rhubarb because I knew that some part of the plant was poisonous and I didn’t want to take a chance. (I still don’t eat rhubarb. Any vegetable that needs that much sugar to make it palatable hardly seems worth it.) I suppose that could be considered an early OCD-type thought, since it was about potentially toxic food.

Another paranoid idea I had was that when someone threw a cigarette out of a car window, it could cause a major fireball explosion if it just happened to land underneath another car that just happened to have a leaking gas tank. I always looked around and braced for disaster when I saw someone fling a death-stick onto the road. It might as well have been dynamite, as far as I was concerned. (And I was very concerned.)

Yet another irrational fear (looking back, my irrational thoughts were almost all fears) was based on the fact that I had no idea how plumbing really worked. I was afraid that if I flushed the toilet right before I brushed my teeth, the waste water somehow flowed past the tap and could end up on my toothbrush.

(Another plumbing-related misconception dealt with sex (though not conception), but we won’t go into that now. Let’s just say that they never covered it in health class back then. For all I know, they still don’t. I had my mother buy me a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask so I could find the answer.)

In my teen years, my irrational thoughts became more delusional, and more related to my by-then-shaky mental health. At some point it was recommended (I think by the high school, though I don’t remember the circumstances) that I should visit a counselor. And they were right. I certainly should have, although in retrospect, child psychiatry in those days was fairly primitive and I most likely wouldn’t have received a correct diagnosis or treatment. I don’t think bipolar type 2 even existed.

I’ll say this for my parents: They consulted me on whether I wanted to go or not, which was not what I would have expected. I declined.

My “reason”? I somehow thought that having such a thing on my permanent record would keep me from getting into a good – or perhaps any – college. (When I started applying, of course, no one even asked.)

And once I was in college and knew that my sanity was truly on shaky ground, my life goal was to graduate, and then work enough quarters (at pretty much anything) until I qualified for Social Security before I was put away. I was convinced that was likely to be my fate. I’m not sure why I thought that having Social Security would have helped.

None of those irrational fears were ever addressed in a timely manner. Except the sex one. Yay, me! for finding some accurate information on that one and Yay, Mom! for facilitating my enlightenment.

If you’ve noticed a trend of increasing irrationality and increasing potential for sabotaging my own life, you’re not wrong.

*** TRIGGER WARNING ***

The rest of this is tough stuff. You know what’s coming, so stop now if you’re not ready to hear about it.

When I had my major meltdown ten or so years ago, I had the worst irrational thought of all. My mother had just died, so my thought processes were pretty scrambled anyway.

Then my husband did something that I thought was unethical and likely illegal as well. Then he said he’d do it again. I managed to talk our way out of the first instance as a simple mistake, but his statement that he might do it again haunted me.

I catastrophized, of course. This time, however, the potential catastrophe loomed large and to me very real. If he did repeat his actions. there would be no possibility of smoothing things over. He would be culpable. And I would be in the position of needing to report it.

Then he would lose his job – at the very least – which was at the time loosely related to the legal system. They wouldn’t be able to overlook it.

I was unable to work at the time, trying to get disability, and we were barely staying afloat. Without his job, we would sink.

So I thought that, if he did it again, and I reported it, and he lost his job, the only thing left for me to do was kill myself.

Like I said, pretty irrational.

I had a plan, though. In fact, I had three or four different plans and I couldn’t decide among them. Indecision is part of what kept me alive.

As it turns out, my husband did not choose to repeat his actions, and I was spared the necessity of choosing among mine.

Soon thereafter, I got help. I never mentioned the suicidal thoughts till they were long gone, so I never even had to fear the dreaded lock-up that I had anticipated all those years before.

I kept one of the intended means of exit for a while, though. Just in case.

It was a major day in my healing when I finally let that go. That irrational thought had been dismissed and conquered.

 

 

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