My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘creativity’

The Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder

When you’re facing bipolar disorder – which is, when you have it, nearly every day – there are some things you can do to lessen its hold on you. But in order to do so, you’ve got to have the right tools. Try to collect as many as possible for best effect.

Shall we take a look at what they are?

The Usual Suspects

  • medication – to tame your symptoms, level your moods, get your brain back in gear, and/or regulate your energy
  • psychiatrist – to prescribe your medications (a primary care physician may also do this)
  • psychotherapist – to discuss with you the issues you haven’t resolved, the problems you still have, and the things the medication can’t do

Self-Care 

The two most important tools you need for self-care are sleep and food. Without either, the body can’t function properly, and if the body doesn’t function, the brain is less likely to function properly either.

Ideally, the food should be nutritious and eaten regularly, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. But you’ve got to give your body something to run on. If there are carrot sticks there, eat them; if there is mac-n-cheese, eat that. If there’s Raisin Bran, well, it’s easy to eat and requires no preparation. Try for at least one substantial meal per day – two is better, if you can manage it.

(Of course, this advice doesn’t count if you have an eating disorder. In that case, see your doctor or psychotherapist or support group.)

Support

Find support where you can – a friend who’s willing to listen, a support group online or in real life. Try for a combination of these and don’t rely on any one of them for too much. Maybe you have a friend you can phone once a week; a support group that meets every two weeks; and an online group or two of people who really understand, with links to helpful articles and blogs. Before you know it, you’ve got a support system, especially if you count your therapist (which I do) or have a supportive family (which I don’t).

Spoon Theory

If you don’t know what this is, see https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/. Basically, Spoon Theory is a way to measure how much energy you have on any given day – and an understandable metaphor for explaining your symptoms to others, and a shorthand for other people who are also up on the theory. It can also help alleviate the guilt of not being able to do all the things you are “supposed” to do in a day. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

Distraction

Let’s face it, it’s all too easy to dwell on your symptoms and how miserable you are. And if you’re at the bottom of the depressive well and your meds haven’t kicked in yet, there may be nothing you can do about it.

But maybe there is. Do you know a person who tells good jokes – or really bad ones? Do you have music you used to play but have forgotten about? Do you know of a TV show that features people whose lives are an even worse train wreck than yours? Do you have a go-to movie that never gets old no matter how many times you see it? (Mine is The Mikado. )

Creativity

If that distraction involves creativity, so much the better. Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. (Some of them are really for adults.) Jenny Lawson draws and also puts together tiny little Ferris wheels. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is, you don’t have to paint masterpieces. Just keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

Comfort

Soft warm, fluffy things and smooth, silky things are soothing. They just are. Cats and dogs come instantly to mind (they also provide distraction). But I also have a collection of teddy bears and other plushies that I sometimes cuddle with. These are “comfort objects,” which is an actual psychological Thing. (I wrote about them once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9.) I even took a plush bunny with me when I went to have a sleep study.

Stubbornness

This may be the most important tool of all. Be stubborn. Take those meds, even if you hate them. Eat that egg, even if you don’t feel like it. Go to that appointment, even if will take all your spoons for the day. Call that friend, even if you don’t think a joke will help. Post on your support group, even if you feel you are alone.

We can’t let bipolar disorder beat us. Not when we’ve got so much to beat it back with.

A Crowd-Hater at a Conference

“I’m gonna kick butt at this writers’ conference!”

I was a wee bit manicky.

“I am a writer and I know it! I’ve had articles published in lots of magazines! I have two blogs and I write in them every week! I can do this!”

It was a conference for humor writers.

“I know I can do this! I’ve written funny things about ratatouille (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-2z) and possums (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-46) and being burgled by Frenchmen (http://wp.me/p4e9wS-1B).”

So, comes the conference…at a time when I’m not the least bit manicky.

Forget what I said about having developed a few social skills (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2M). I was there alone, and confronted with a large group, not small groups or individuals.

And I had paid a lot of money to attend.

Yellow ladybird is marginalizedIt was noisy. It was people-y. It had multiple panels scheduled all day. Every day lunch was an Event with big round tables. Every dinner was an Event with big round tables and important speakers. Everyone there blogged daily or had three blogs, an agent, and/or a book contract.

What to do?

Give myself permission to do what I could do. And skip the other stuff. Ignore the money. Build in breaks. Find quiet spaces. Admit when I’m exhausted and go home. (I lived in the area. If I had stayed in the hotel, that would have been “take naps” and the quiet spaces would have been easier to find. If I had better social skills, I might have made a friend and asked to borrow her hotel room.)

This is how I got through it all. Or most of it, anyway.

Do what I could. I combed the program book for Sessions I Must Attend, Sessions I Would Like to Attend, and Sessions I Can Skip. Then I looked for sessions that were offered more than once and decided which offering fit my schedule better. I tried to avoid more than two back-to-back sessions.

Ignore the money. Yeah, I paid quite a chunk of change for this. But it would have been ridiculous for me to calculate how much money each session was worth and try to make back my investment. I had to tell myself that I spent a lump sum and that whatever I got from the conference was worth it.

Build in breaks. The conference had what they called breaks – 15 minutes between sessions when everyone rushed the snack tables, compared schedules, and chattered up a storm. My idea of a break was to sit in the lobby in a comfy chair, stare at the program book so no one interrupted me, and carry snacks with me (boxes of raisins are good).

Find quiet spaces. When I needed something quieter than a hotel or conference center lobby, I searched for unused classrooms. In a hotel, the bar is usually pretty empty during a conference and is a good place to sit and relax with a nice glass of iced tea and maybe even complementary peanuts. Sometimes I was lucky enough to find that if I went to the room I wanted for the next session, it would be empty or contain only a few people. When all else fails, there are always the restroom stalls. (Unless there’s a line.)

Leave when exhausted. On the last full day of the conference I found myself slumped in a chair in the lobby, totally wrung out. There were events scheduled that evening that sounded fun and that I had signed up for while manicky (see above). But I just couldn’t. The events were mostly entertainment rather than educational anyway, and I was not in a headspace where I could absorb entertainment. The fact that there was a flu going around made my disappearance more understandable (even though I wasn’t physically sick).

So did I learn anything at the conference? Did I make new friends? Did I come back revitalized?

Sort of. I learned that the one-on-one “speed dating” with experts was perhaps the most valuable thing I did. I learned that showing up early for a session allowed me the opportunity to meet one of my idols (the speaker) and spend a little time with her and a small group before the session started. I learned that if I sat near the door it was easier to slip out when panic struck.

I even learned a thing or two about writing – how to write a better query letter, how to improve my blogs, when to consider self-publishing, and so forth. I learned that, despite my manicky expectations, I was no better or worse than the other attendees. We all had skills and valuable experiences and we all had things to learn.

Did I make a lot of new writing friends? No. At least not then. The conference had a Facebook page for attendees and I got involved afterward, online, where I am more comfortable than in crowds. I recognized names I had seen on nametags and had conversations with them. I posted some material from my blogs and read what others posted. I commented and read comments. I “followed” some of the instructors. I read books that attendees had recommended.

To tell the truth, I think I got more from the conference after it was over than when it was going on.

Am I glad I went? Yes. The experience was good for me in more ways than one. Paying attention to my own limits and not trying to live up to artificial expectations made for a good – and survivable – learning experience.

We Are Not Amused

In the last few days the bipolar blogosphere has been in an uproar about a post from OpinionatedMan. In it he said,“I get amused by people who claim to be bi polar.” [sic]
Naturally, some people were upset.

It is hurtful to think that someone is amused by our illness. We do not have it in order to be entertainment for others. We do not expect a mild chuckle or a small, wry grin when we reveal that we have a psychiatric illness. We do not find the symptoms, the therapy, the medication, the limitations – the bipolar life – amusing. Not to ourselves and certainly not for the amusement of others.

It is also offensive that he spoke of people who “claim” to have bipolar disorder. There is some debate about whether he meant “claim” in the sense of “say they have but not necessarily truthfully” or in the sense of “own the reality of and identify with,” and, to be fair, since the post was intended as poetry, it could be both.

Although “bipolar” is popular shorthand for someone who has ordinary mood swings, making free with the term “bipolar” is like comparing someone who’s in a bad mood with someone who is clinically depressed. We wouldn’t claim it (in either sense) if it weren’t so.

That’s enough to be upset about, but I think the rest of the post was troubling as well. OM portrayed himself as “multipolar,” implying that his multipolar life is a source of his depth of feeling and writing prowess.

The author thereby denigrates others who struggle with bipolar disorder yet try to create meaning. Many of us write, blog, draw, sculpt, or otherwise avail ourselves of creative outlets. For OM to think that his supposed extreme affliction makes him more creative, a better wordsmith, a creator of higher art than anyone with ordinary bipolar disorder is insulting.

Saying that his condition is multipolar as opposed to bipolar gets us into a game of “Whose life sucks the most?” (The loser is also the winner.) We are to think that no one has suffered as he does, and that no one is a comparable artist. It’s a version of the humble-brag – I’m worse off than you and I’m also better than you.

Of course the author has the right to believe as he does and to say what he does. I would not have him stop writing. But those of us who felt his words as wounds are entitled to speak up as well. Though he has a much larger platform than most of us, his words are not automatically more powerful than ours.

This is my opinion. Others differ. Here’s the link (http://aopinionatedman.com/2015/12/02/journal-entry-4/) so you can read and decide for yourself how you feel about it. He has apologized and claimed he meant no harm, and has been bashed and trolled, which is not my intention. Think of this as literary criticism from a former English teacher. As always, YMMV.

Those Science Fiction Crazies

There has recently been a huge kerfuffle in the science fiction community regarding the Hugo Awards. You don’t really need to know much about it and probably don’t want to. Suffice it to say that two groups had it out over the past and future direction of science fiction and fantasy, and the meaning of the asterisk.

The awards have now been given, but still the blogosphere is full of recriminations, sour grapes, and schadenfreude.

What does this have to do with mental health? Aside from the fact that very smart people can behave like vicious toddlers, it’s interesting to note that the various sides in this dispute did not always, shall we say, acted rationally. You probably guessed that from the asterisks.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Hugo Awards. If you have never been to a science fiction convention, let me tell you about it.

Most of the people there will be very intelligent, obsessive about their particular fields of interest, lacking in social skills to various degrees, and will have a history of being outcast or bullied in their youth.

Does any of that sound familiar?

I’m not a psychologist (nor do I play one on TV), but I can’t help thinking that if you tested everyone at one of these events they would score higher than a random group of people on the autism spectrum. Simply put, the SF community appears to have more than its share of Aspies – and a fair sprinkling of bipolar, depressive, and OCD people.

When their oddities are carried to the extreme – and they often are – SF fandom can devolve into incivility that results in unconscionable threats and exceedingly ugly online behavior.

When you see these kinds of behavior, it is tempting to dismiss science fiction fans as being the caricatures that the media have instilled in us – clueless losers who live in their parents’ basements, show up at jury duty dressed in Star Trek uniforms, and insist that Harry should have ended up with Hermione.

Admittedly, to a certain extent that is true. If you look around at a convention you will almost certainly see a number of people who conform to that stereotype. I myself have a relative who could be Queen of the Get-a-Lifes.

What you may not see is that, despite the cluelessness, rudeness, sometimes elitist or misogynistic behavior, obsessiveness, and disregard for the feelings of others, the science fiction community is actually, at heart, a place where the non-typical person can find a group of like-minded individuals to talk with, obsess with, bond with, and occasionally practice social skills with. It fullfills a very real social and psychological need. Without the science fiction community, whether online or in “meatspace,” many of these people would have little or even no place to have much of a social life at all.

Certainly the stereotype is not true of all members of fandom. Most hold regular jobs in technical, creative, or other fields, have families and close relationships, and negotiate their way through modern society as well or poorly as anyone else. But there are consistencies in their background. Most are incessant readers and have been since childhood. Many have been the targets of cliques in school and the workplace. A number would be described by their neighbors as quiet loners (though this is not to imply that SF fandom harbors more spree killers  than any other group). They have odd senses of humor or in some cases none at all. In a very real sense, sf fandom is for them, as one song would have it, made up of “My Thousand Closest Friends.”

So if you happen to be in a hotel and find the meeting space is overflowing with people dressed as Klingons, robots, and giant furry animals, remember that they are mostly harmless and enjoying a moment of fitting in to a part of society that celebrates and honors their differences and shares their pride in their oddness. Where they can relax and be themselves, without worrying about seeming weird or threatening or being put down, avoided, or scorned. Think of it as a support group with parties, art shows, panel discussions, music, costumes, movies, and chocolate.

A lot of us with mental disorders are glad to know that such places exist. A lot of us wish we could find or make such places, too.

Diagnosis and Dickinson

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them — Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —
Emily Dickinson

I ran across this poem in a book called Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (about which more some other time) and it made me think.

Dickinson was, by all accounts a recluse. She seldom went out and, when visitors came, she sometimes sat behind a screen while she talked to them. She never dared to submit her poems for publication. Less than a dozen were published in her lifetime, and those only because someone else submitted them without her knowledge. Her wealthy, loving family sheltered and nurtured her so that she never had to face the outside world.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof.

I call bullshit. I’m not saying none of those people had assorted mental disorders. My point is that we can’t tell from this distance in time.

In none of these cases, as far as I know, did any of the aforementioned people see a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, psychotherapist, or even a phrenologist. None were diagnosed with any psychiatric condition, and no record of such a diagnosis has come down to us from any reliable source. Some even lived before psychiatry was invented.

People – mental health workers, but also art and literary critics, biographers, and the general public – have looked at these extraordinary people’s lives and work and decided that their behavior and their art look like those of a person who might be bipolar or obsessive-compulsive or psychotic. (They also like to retro-diagnose physical conditions there is no record of or only vague names for. King Tut, Henry VIII, and Napoleon are particularly good theoretical patients.)

Why the tendency to ascribe mental disorders to famous people? I can see two reasons, beyond the thrill of solving a mystery and feeling clever.

The first is the old saying about there being a thin line between madness and genius. These historical figures were geniuses, so they must have been mad. Or as we say now, suffering from mental disorders.

The other is the need for role models and inspiration. If Van Gogh could become one of the most famous artists ever (though not successful in his own lifetime), you too may rise above – even use – your disorder to accomplish greatness.

It’s possible, I guess, but it’s not likely. Certainly those with mental disorders can aspire to and achieve rich, full lives, satisfying relationships and jobs and artistic pursuits. These are the ordinary accomplishments of ordinary people, both with and without mental illness, and it’s a small miracle that people can achieve any one or more of these. Not everyone does – again with or without mental troubles or psychiatric diagnoses.

And for me, at least, it’s enough.

Can the spark of imaginative genius strike a person with a mental disorder? Of course. Can that person succeed and achieve lasting fame? Maybe, though the odds aren’t good. Is a person saying, “Look, I can be Van Gogh!” likely to fall short? Almost certainly. Can that failure to achieve greatness make a person feel worse about himself or herself instead of better? You tell me.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, and nothing that says a person with a psychiatric diagnosis can’t do just that. It’s a good idea for anyone. (As one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s characters says, “Aim high. You may still miss the target but at least you won’t shoot your foot off.”)

But pinning your hopes on a similarity with a non-psychiatric, perhaps non-existent, diagnosis of a genius may not be the best way to get there.

Better to look in these geniuses’ work for insights that can help you understand your own condition or pull you through tough times. Here’s another of Emily Dickinson’s poems that has always spoken to me about the experience of a depressive crisis and its aftermath.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —

This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —

Was Emily herself depressed? We’ll never really know. And as long as we have her poems, I don’t really care.

The Creative Bipolar Brain

Sun or shade
feel or know
safe or strayed
stall or flow

Thought or whim
drought or rain
sink or swim
heart or brain

Stop or start
bound or free
light or dark
bipolar me

I have a lot of friends who are creative – writers, musicians, singers, woodworkers, knitters, and other craftspeople. I also have a lot of friends who have assorted mental or emotional disorders – depression, bipolar, PTSD, OCD, autism spectrum disorders, and probably many more that I don’t know about. In many cases, the two categories overlap.

Common wisdom holds that there is a link between creativity and madness. Look at Van Gogh, for example. People have spent years debating what specific disorder he may have had, but nearly everyone agrees that he had something. The question is, would he have been the great artist without the mental or emotional disorder? Or, perhaps, would he have been an even greater artist if his brain functioned in a more typical matter? Science so far has given us no answers.

Many creative people realize that their everyday functioning is impaired, but they are reluctant to seek treatment for it. They fear that tampering with their brain or thought processes will somehow inhibit their creativity – make them less than they were in some fundamental way. When you start tampering with brain chemistry, who knows what will happen?

It’s a valid concern.

Throughout my life, my brain has been all that I have, or nearly so. My intelligence and creativity were the things I was most proud of. How could I risk losing those simply because I was eternally miserable? The question seems absurd now.

Eventually I decided that I had plenty of brain cells to spare, and that if taking Prozac took away a few of them or lessened their ability, I could live with that. (Just in case, I took up pursuits that are supposed to strengthen the brain – math puzzles in addition to word puzzles, music in addition to writing. Not everything I tried was a success, but I hope they stretch my brain muscles.)

My experience with that first psychotropic med convinced me that Better Living Through Chemistry is not just a chemical company’s slogan. It turns out that – surprise, surprise – thinking more clearly and feeling more well-adjusted actually empower one’s creativity. My output changed from poems full of young adult angst to creative nonfiction, personal essays, and the occasional short story. I now make my living doing freelance writing and editing – an unstructured process that I couldn’t have made a go of before having my mood disorder treated. The ability to concentrate – to focus – is what enables me to sustain a creative effort.

So to all those people out there who wonder if they are sabotaging themselves and their creative impulses by seeking treatment, I say go for it! You have nothing to lose but your immobility. You have everything to gain – the ability to create, to express yourself and do it clearly, and the possibility to create something truly wonderful.

Sylvia Plath was a poetic genius. But she could have given so much more of her talent and vision to the world if she had not killed herself. Perhaps her poetry, had she been treated for her mood disorder, would not have been as searing and powerful. The point is, we will never know. Would she have become more ordinary, or more extraordinary? Dying young obviates the answer.

I believe – for me – that psychological treatment, appropriate medication, and more stable moods have expanded my creative process. And I try to prove it every week when I post in this and my other blog. Whether I succeed is for you to determine.

Have I lost a step? Maybe. But two forward and one back beats the hell out of one forward and two back.

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