My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘coping mechanisms’

Ridding Your Life of Toxic People to Save Your Mental Health

It’s hard to cut toxic people from your life, even if the person is a gaslighter or other abuser. There’s always the temptation to give the person one more chance, believe his or her protestations of love or change, or to feel it is up to you to change the situation or the other person.

But sometimes it’s necessary to end the relationship.

A toxic person is like a psychic vampire who sucks all the confidence and energy and spirit from your life. He or she exhausts you emotionally and adds nothing to your life but annoyance, pain, and trouble.

Once or twice I’ve even been that toxic person when I was in the grips of the depressive phase of my bipolar disorder. Several people cut me out of their lives and I can’t say that they were wrong to do so. I gave nothing, only took. I was the psychic vampire. And I deeply regret that, even though my hurtful actions were manifestations of my disorder. It lasted so long, with no apparent signs of letting up, that it simply wasn’t worth it to them to continue to associate with me.

Once or twice I’ve been on the other side of the equation, though. I can think of two times in particular. One was when I got out of the relationship with the person who turned out to be gaslighting me, which I have written about before. I learned something from the experience (though I still maintain that the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid).

What I discovered is that it is better to make the break definitive. If you’re going to cut a toxic person out of your life, do it cleanly. Don’t leave that door open for continued contact. In my case, I felt I owed the person some money and sent him a little every month. An acquaintance called me on this and pointed out that even if I did owe money (which he doubted), it was better just to send a single, final payment and end it there.

So that’s what I did. I scraped together some money, wrote a check, and released myself from the ties that still bound me.

It’s somehow different when the toxic person is a family member, though. I won’t write much about the actual situation because I want to leave the person their privacy. But it was a toxic relationship that sucked time and energy from me and also from another person that I loved. It was concern for this other person that led me eventually to make the break, though I was growing weary of dealing with the person’s dramas, helplessness, vindictiveness, and general mean-spirited relations with me and others in the family.

I haven’t looked back. Some people have judged me harshly for taking that step because the person was, after all, family. Many people believe that family is more important than anything. But I chose my own mental health and refused to keep forgiving the damage done to both me and others. It took a lot of years until I was able to make the break, but I am never tempted to go back on my decision.

It’s easy to say that one should cut toxic people from one’s life, but it’s often a very hard thing to do. You can end up questioning yourself and your own motives. You can be shamed by others outside of the situation. You may regret your decision and wish you could mend the relationship.

My experience has taught me that sometimes that just isn’t possible. If the person is unwilling to or incapable of seeing the harm he or she has done, it’s likely to be a mistake to let the person have another chance to inflict more damage.

I plan on reaching out one more time to a person that I have harmed. But if they don’t respond, I’ll understand. I own that I was toxic and it was perfectly understandable that they cut me loose. I’ll always have regret and shame for the way I was, and I won’t try to insert myself back into their lives. I just want it to end on a less bad note if that makes any sense.

But I note that the toxic people whom I have cut from my life show no such inclination. I have to believe that they still believe they did nothing wrong and that they have not become less toxic. I still must protect myself and my mental health by not letting them back into my life.

And if that includes family, so be it.

When Your Therapist Tells You What to Do

The classic examples of non-directive therapists are Sigmund Freud and his disciples, who legendarily sat at the head of their couches and made comments like, “Hmm,” “Tell me about your dreams,” and “How do you feel about your mother?”

Freudian psychiatry is, thankfully, now out of vogue. But there are still therapists who believe that their job is to listen, not to instruct.

On the other hand, there are more directive therapists who assign homework. This can be anything from “Listen to this podcast on mindfulness” to “Write a letter to your ex telling him/her what you truly feel.” They probably won’t tell you to kick the bum to the curb, but if you decide to do so they’ll help you prepare for it.

But, although I am far from a Freudian and shy away from those who are (not many these days), I prefer non-directive therapists. I am not averse to doing a little homework or having a therapist ask me in a session to vocalize what I would like to tell a person or even to write a list of the coping mechanisms I’ve developed. My preferred dynamic, however, is to give-and-take with the therapist and then go home to contemplate what was said and how I feel about it.

I have had therapists who have given me homework and I can’t say they were wrong to do so. Sometimes writing something down or throwing teacups against the basement wall (or whatever helps you get your anger out) is a good thing.

My most recent therapist was a combination of the two. She mostly listened while I rambled on about what was happening in my life or what had happened in my past. Then she suggested ways that I could think about the events or pointed out coping mechanisms that I had developed or suggested ways I could put those coping mechanisms to use.

All in all, I felt that our sessions were mostly non-directive. She did suggest that I listen to a podcast on mindfulness, but she never quizzed me on whether I did and only listened when I told her what I got from it. She never told me that I should delve deeper into mindfulness or listen to more podcasts. She left that up to me, if I thought it might be helpful.

I understand that some therapists, particularly those that work in community mental health facilities, are required to file treatment plans and I can see where giving homework can flesh one out more than “talk about feelings.”

Perhaps there is something I’m missing. Perhaps at different stages of therapy, directive psychological interaction is more beneficial. Perhaps my particular problems lend themselves more to non-directive therapy. Perhaps I just have an aversion to being told what to do, especially where it concerns my memories and my feelings.

Of course, everyone has the option not to do the homework. This can be seen as resisting treatment, or disagreeing with the treatment approach, or simply lacking the wherewithal to carry it out. Sometimes it may be more helpful when the therapist sacrifices part of the session to doing the assignment there instead of leaving it to be done at home. In this case, the therapist is being really directive, though of course the client always has the choice not to do the assignment. It’s much harder, though, when the therapist is sitting there waiting for you to make a list of your dreams, your feelings, or your interactions with your mother, or to bash an empty chair with a pool noodle.

What it comes down to, basically, is therapeutic philosophy and therapeutic style. And a client is not bound to pursue whatever style of therapy that is favored. Although it is sometimes difficult to realize, a client has the option to request or to seek a therapist whose therapeutic style matches what the client feels is most helpful.

Remember, your therapist works for you, not the other way around. If you need a more or less directive therapist, it is your right to seek one out. Therapy has been known to stall and a different approach or philosophy may be just what you need.

 

Exhaustion as an Antidote for Panic

Wednesday afternoon my husband called his doctor complaining of chest pain and was instructed to go immediately to the ER. Actually, he had had the chest pain off and on for several days but he A) attributed it to Taco Bell, B) is good at denial, and C) is stubborn.

So off to the ER we went. We were tucked into Bay 22 and after a time, a nurse drew my husband’s blood. While we were waiting for results, we watched The Big Sleep on the room’s TV, possibly not the best choice at that particular time. We were there from 4:30 to 10:00, when they reported that Dan’s cardiac enzymes were a “little high.” I left shortly thereafter and Dan was admitted.

Although in the past ER visits with my parents caused massive anxiety which then caused a variety of physical symptoms, this time I did not panic. I was too exhausted. I even had a little trouble driving home. The streets in our plat seemed the wrong length or something and I wasn’t absolutely sure where to turn. When I got home I fed and watered the cats and then collapsed. Sleeping, not weeping.

The next morning I had to get up and finish a work project, then go to see Dan for a few hours, then back home to more work. Again, an early collapse. Still no panic.

Today (Friday) I am writing this post after finishing the work project and while waiting to hear that Dan’s angiogram is done so that I can go and see him. Again, I am not panicking. Numb, maybe, and tired, but not anxious.

I used to hate not knowing. Waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop was torture. I am given to catastrophizing at the least provocation. But now, when there is an event that lends itself easily to catastrophizing I find I’m not. I have decided to postpone panicking until I truly have something to panic about.

At the moment Dan is fairly comfortable, in a very good hospital with attentive staff and even therapy dogs. There is nothing that I can do except visit him and call him.  I figure that when he calls with the results of the angio and info on whether they gave him a stent, I can panic then if required. Say, if he has to have bypass surgery.

But I’m disinclined to panic until or unless they tell me that’s the case.

And … I just got a phone call from his doctor. Dan had multiple artery blockages and required four stents, but no bypass surgery for now. I’m relieved, of course, but my main feeling is still one of exhaustion. Maybe I’ve been worrying in the back of my brain at a subconscious level and that has added to my exhaustion. Maybe when this is all over I’ll let loose and have a good cry, when he’s back home.

My friends have been sending me and him thoughts and prayers, hugs, light, and even good juju. They have also been reminding me to take care of myself, to remember to eat and sleep and I’ve been doing that at least on some kind of level. A bowl of cereal now, cheese sticks as a bedtime snack, a visit to the Waffle House when I’m too tired to make a meal. And eight hours of sleep a night. I can’t say the sleep has been dreamless or restful. I wake up still exhausted but at least my body is taken care of in a reasonable manner.

So there you have it. A potentially dire situation happened but I did not panic. Was it postponing the catastrophizing that helped? The exhaustion? I don’t know, but whatever coping mechanism it was, I’m glad it kicked in.

Dan has done so much for me through the years. I’m glad I will have an opportunity to pay him back even if only a fraction as much.

Inspiration and Mental Illness

high angle view of pencils on table

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was manicky this week and it affected my blog writing. I had a post all ready to go this morning, but last night I thought about it and realized it was crap. It meandered, without focus. The ideas were confused. It sucked. So I got up this morning to write something different instead.

Many of you may recognize this aspect of mania or hypomania. You do something that you think is fantastic  while in the grip of mania and when you come down, you can’t see what you ever saw in it. Or you begin an ambitious project that you work on and work on but never can complete.

I was toying with the idea of “inspiration porn” – the sort of post or story or TV show that holds someone up as an ideal, usually because they’ve lost a bunch of weight and gotten themselves into shape, or have an illness or disability and managed to do – whatever – again. Think “The Biggest Loser.” Or amputees who’ve learned to eat with their feet. It’s put out there for entertainment and to make everyone feel good that whoever it is conquered whatever it was. It takes a regular person out of the context of their lives and reduces them to their condition. And the subtext is that if this brave person can become able to do or be whatever again, so can everyone else with the same problem.

It happened to a friend of mine who was at a gym on a treadmill. A woman came up to her and said how inspiring it was to see her working so hard to lose all that weight. “Excuse me?” was my friend’s reaction. She was doing it for herself, not for anyone else, and especially not to inspire some random stranger.

The thing is, there really isn’t any mental health inspiration porn. For one thing, it would make lousy TV. Oh, they’d get advertisers – all those purveyors of psychotropics that clog the airwaves. But who would watch a depressed person finally getting out of bed and taking a shower, unless she had a coach yelling at her?

Inspiration for those of us with mental health problems takes other forms. Celebrities who speak about their struggles with mental illness are one. They are inspiring because they break the taboo about talking about mental illness in public and because they have done so to help other people.

Then there are the superstars of mental health inspiration. Carrie Fisher, Glenn Close, and Jenny Lawson, to name a few. These are people who focus light on the difficulties and struggles of mental illness. Their communications don’t stop with the announcement that they have a condition and encouraging people to get treatment, though those are also good things. But the real inspirations are those who open their lives, take others with them through the journey of symptoms, treatments, relapses, small triumphs, and bigger successes. They speak and keep speaking and keep speaking their message. They don’t make the process sound easy, because it isn’t. And they speak with authenticity and authority because we know they’ve been there.

They do inspire us because they are honest and open, and they clearly care about helping others in the same proverbial boat.

We lost a true inspiration when we lost Mama Carrie. No one will ever really take her place. But you can tell that she was an inspiration by the many people whose life she touched and how they remember her. If someday they make a movie of her life, I hope it features not only her personal struggles, but all that she did for others. Her speaking and continuing to speak despite – or because – of her ongoing struggles.

We can carry on her work by doing the same, by shedding the stigma, by talking to others, even family and friends. Recently a friend “came out” to me that she takes an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety med (the same ones I take). I was proud of her, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. But I was impressed and pleased that she was able and willing to share even that much. She was saying that she was part of our tribe.

As Jenny Lawson reminds us, in this we are alone together. And that’s inspiring. 

Healing From Gaslighting

Apparently, gaslighting has become the new “thing” in pop psych circles. We see article after article warning of the dangers of gaslighting and how to spot a gaslighter. I have written a few such articles myself:

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm)

Gaslighting and Bipolar Disorder (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2)

When Men Aren’t the Gaslighters (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu)

Is it time for another? I think so. Now that more people know about gaslighting, they need to know how to heal after the experience, as they would after any kind of emotional abuse.

Because that’s what gaslighting is – emotional abuse. But it’s a specific kind of emotional abuse. In gaslighting, one person in a relationship (romantic or familial) denies the other’s perception of reality and works to convince the gaslightee that he or she is the crazy one in the relationship. As in other forms of emotional abuse, the gaslighter may try to isolate the victim from friends and relatives, give intermittent reinforcement (insincere apologies) that draw the victim back into the relationship, or denigrate the person with insults.

But the heart of gaslighting is that denial of the other person’s reality. The abuser says, in effect: You can’t trust your own feelings. My view of the world is accurate and yours isn’t. You’re crazy. (Of course, the gaslighter may also use the familiar techniques of emotional abuse as well: isolation, insults, projection, and belittling.) But gaslighting is unique because the perpetrator distorts a person’s world view, sense of self-worth, and belief in him- or herself.

Healing from gaslighting is not easy, but it can be done. Here is some advice from me, a person who was a victim of gaslighting but is now healing.

Get as far away from the gaslighter as you can. Yes, this may mean cutting off contact with a family member, if that’s who is doing the gaslighting. It may mean leaving town. It does mean making a sincere and lasting emotional break.

Do not maintain contact with the gaslighter. You may think that once you have broken free from the gaslighter, he or she can do no further harm. This is just an invitation to more emotional battering.

Name the abuse. Say to yourself – and possibly to a trusted person – this was gaslighting. I was emotionally abused and tricked into thinking I was crazy. My worldview was denied and my thoughts and emotions were said to be invalid.

Feel the feelings. It may be some time before you can admit to or even experience the emotions that gaslighting brings. Your first reaction may be relief (at least I’m out of that!), but there may be years of anger, frustration, fear, and rage lurking behind that. It may take work to surface those feelings and feel them and recognize that they are valid.

Get some help. This can be a therapist who specializes in treating victims of emotional abuse or it can be a supportive friend, family member, or religious counselor. It should be someone who can listen nonjudgmentally, validate your perceptions of reality, and sympathize with your situation.

Do not try to get revenge. This is just another way of reconnecting with your gaslighter. It gives the person another opportunity to “prove” that you are crazy.

Develop new relationships. It may seem like there is no one in your world who will understand and be supportive. For a while, you may not be able to trust enough to have another close friend or lover. You may have a lot of healing to do first. But remember that gaslighters are in the minority; most people don’t do that to people they profess to care about.

Give it time. It may take years to fully get over the experience. (I know it did for me.) Maybe don’t go directly into a rebound relationship. You need time and space to work through your feelings and rebuild your perception of reality.

Just know that gaslighting doesn’t have to be a way of life. It can end when you gather the strength to break away from it. You can heal and take back what you know to be true – that you are a person who is worthy of love. That your perceptions and feelings are valid. That you don’t have to live by someone else’s view of what is real. That you are not crazy.

 

Realistic Self-Care

woman in white long sleeved shirt holding white ceramic mug

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I hate articles about self-care for mental illness such as the one I saw recently that said:

…[W]ays I practice self-care include swimming and Pilates, getting regular massages, spending time with friends and family, since staying connected is an essential part of emotional health at every age, watching TV, and seeing movies. I also love going for walks, especially near Santa Monica beach, and reading or listening to books.

If I could do all those things, I wouldn’t need self-care! When I’m depressed or anxious, I cannot make myself swim or exercise, or even get out of bed and shower at times, which lets out going to the movies and spending time with friends, too. I can maybe read a book or listen to a podcast if I’m not too twitchy and if my attention span and concentration will cooperate. And I can sit on the sofa and watch TV, but that feels like uselessness, not self-care.

Plus, guess what? A lot of those activities cost money.  Massages, movies, exercise classes (for which you need exercise clothes), and swimming (for which you need a swimsuit) would all require “shopping therapy,” which I loathe IRL and can’t afford online.

I personally would love a massage, but that’s not self-care for everyone. As Emily Roberts points out in “Self-Care for Mental Health: Find Ways That Work for You”:

The myth of a massage as an essential self-care activity – or anything that makes you more anxious – isn’t helpful for your mental health. I didn’t listen to my body the first time I booked a massage and guess what? It was so triggering to my body I couldn’t even finish it….I started to cry and couldn’t compose myself 10 minutes into the appointment. I was embarrassed and confused. I thought, “This stuff works for all the people in the magazines. What is wrong with me?”

I decided that booking an extra appointment with my therapist and having a date with my best friend was more helpful as self-care for my mental health than pushing myself to practice self-care in the way the media was telling me to.

One person’s mani-pedi can be another’s nightmare. I much prefer small ideas for self-care rather than big expeditions or splurges. For me, comfort food is one form of self-care. It has to be something I can make easily, though, like frozen mashed potatoes, mac-n-cheese, or French bread pizzas. (The microwave is my friend.)

Of course, these comforts require a little planning when I’m not overwhelmed to the point that I need self-care to restore me. I must think ahead, during those times when I’m able to go to the store, to bring home the foods that are easy to make yet soothing.

Another self-care technique I came across is definitely more my speed. Caiti Gearsbeck, in “Make Your Own Mental Health Self Care Kit” offers a simple, DIY alternative. She recommends filling a shoebox or other box with soothing things that appeal to all five senses, plus a few activities. Here are a few of her examples:

Sight: photos, cards, and letters

Smell: essential oils or candles

Taste: chocolate or tea

Sound: meditation CD or an mp3 player with a playlist

Touch: soft cloth or stuffed animal, stress ball or fidget cube

Activities: coloring books and pencils, a journal, a favorite movie

She adds: Whatever works for you!

For me, that box would contain photos, Irish Spring soap, oolong tea, an mp3 player, a stuffed animal (I have lots to choose from), and a CD of The Mikado. I’d need a cat in the box, too. But given the nature of cats, there would probably be one in there anyway, whether I wanted it or not. All of that is stuff I have around the house, unless I’m out of Irish Spring or oolong. Add a quiet room like the bedroom or my study and I’m all set. At least until I can afford a massage.

 

References

https://blogs.psychcentral.com/millennial/2017/10/make-your-own-mental-health-self-care-kit/

https://www.jwi.org/articles/mental-health-and-self-care

https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/buildingselfesteem/2018/5/self-care-for-mental-health-find-ways-that-work-for-you

Reaching Out and Reaching In

A lot has been said in recent days about reaching out when you’re in trouble psychologically. And that’s always a good idea. Reach out to your friends, your family, your therapist, your psychiatrist, your church or synagogue or temple.

hands people friends communication

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com  

Unfortunately, not everyone has those resources. And sometimes when you reach out to them, they do not reach back to you or even respond in hurtful ways.

Sometimes – many times – you’re just not able to reach out. That’s true of me, anyway. When major depression hits me like a truck, I get immobilized. Uncommunicative. Isolated. I usually have the wherewithal to get to my therapist, if my husband drives me, but not much more.

My family and friends can tell when I’m in trouble. And they do reach out, even when I don’t reach back.

My mother always knew when I hit a particularly bad spot because she could recognize it in my voice – it lacked animation, even if I was talking about something I loved. Not that I talked much or felt much. Depression can damp down all your feelings sometimes. You don’t cry, you don’t feel sad. You feel nothing. And it shows to someone who knows how to look and listen.

This is called “flat affect” by psychiatrists. The person’s face, voice, mannerisms do not reflect emotions, sometimes not even anxiety or despair. And sometimes people adopt a flat affect so as not to betray their inner turmoil. (It can still leak out around the eyes, even to relative strangers. And I don’t mean crying.)

My husband knows I’m depressed when I turn monosyllabic. Ordinarily, I enjoy talking to my husband about anything and nothing – things we’ve read or heard, what’s happening at work (his, mostly), funny things the cats did, and so forth. But when I stop responding and communicating, or respond only with “yeah,” “nah,” and “meh” sorts of answers, or don’t laugh or at least groan at his jokes, he knows I’m headed downward.

I stop communicating other ways, too. I don’t post on Facebook or only pass along the occasional pass-along. I skip commenting on posts regarding things I usually care about. I spend hours alone reading, if my sometimes-dubious powers of concentration let me. Or I sleep, and nap, then sleep some more. I certainly don’t leave the house or even make plans to go out. I don’t call friends. I isolate. I don’t reach out, like the memes say I’m supposed to.

I am fortunate to have friends that do reach out to me. John would lend me books, talk about them with me, and listen if I needed to vent. Peggy would call and invite me to visit, even when she knew I wasn’t leaving the house. Pete sometimes IM’s every day just to check in and JB assures me that when he IM’s and I don’t feel like chatting that’s still okay. Robbin calls me and tells me all about her life even when I can’t talk about mine, then says, “Let me know when you surface.” If she doesn’t hear from me for awhile, she calls again and reminds me that I can call her too. (She can also “read” my voice and knows when there’s some topic I’m avoiding.) My husband offers a hug or kisses me on the head. My mother prayed for me. I am fortunate indeed to have had people like these around me when I really need them.

Reaching out to others is good. So is reaching in to the suffering. Best is a combination of both. But that takes work and not everyone is able to do it.

If you can reach out, reach out.

If you can reach in, reach in.

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet in the middle, where hope lives.

 

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