My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘depression’

At Last, Some Encouraging News

 

 

 

 

 

You know I bitch a lot about the science and research associated with mental health in general and bipolar disorder in particular. It seems like I bitch about nearly everything I read in the press. Here are some examples:

I have been told that I have a weak understanding of science and the scientific process. It’s true that I have no degree in any science, not even the “soft” science of psychology. Yet I persist.

Some of my major objections (if you don’t want to read the above-mentioned posts, which I fully understand) include: that article headlines seldom match the stories they’re attached to; that too many qualifiers like “might” and “may” occur in the stories; that the research is still in the rats-and-mice stage, which is a lo-o-o-o-ng way from human trials or public availability; and that many reports contain yes-it-does/no-it-doesn’t debates.

Most of all, I hate “false hope” headlines that I don’t believe will ever trickle down to the bipolar-person-on-the-street. Certainly not in my lifetime, and maybe never. And if they should become available, the cost will be prohibitive. I can’t believe that many of us will have the wherewithal (meaning both access and money) to avail ourselves of the new solutions. I mean, can you really picture the average bipolar patient getting genetic testing or fMRI? Or insurance paying for it?

Then came the headline “Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder” (https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/luhs-sec112017.php). Published by Eurekalert! (which, despite its name, appears to be an aggregator of science press releases from sources such as universities and labs around the world), the story reports on work done at Loyola University Health System.

For me, the take-away points are these:

“Bipolar disorder often is misdiagnosed as major depression. But while the symptoms of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder are similar to that of major depression, the treatments are different and often challenging for the physician….

“The study found that heart rate variability, as measured by an electrocardiogram, indicated whether subjects had major depression or bipolar disorder….

“Dr. Halaris said further research is needed to confirm the study’s findings and determine their clinical significance.”

And yes, this does feed into my dislike of small studies (under 200 participants) that admit “further research is needed.” But this one, it seems to me, could actually be of some benefit.

Misdiagnosing bipolar disorder as major depressive disorder is a real and perhaps not uncommon thing. I was diagnosed with major depression for decades before a psychiatrist realized I had bipolar disorder. The treatment I got in those decades helped, but the treatments since have helped more.

And I can see a 15-minute, three-lead EKG becoming more available, at least to those of us who still have insurance (a dwindling number, to be sure). In cases like mine, it could save years of incorrect diagnosis and less-than-effective treatment.

Of course, here I am using the hated word “could.” But I take heart from the fact that it is a noninvasive procedure, there are plenty of potential test subjects, the expected resulted is focused on a single, more manageable result – misdiagnosis of one condition – and the test uses a relatively simple, already available technology.

It won’t help me, of course, since I already have my diagnosis, but I think of the people – even people I know – who could benefit from it, and in the not-too-distant future. Would the person who swings from depression to anxiety and doesn’t respond to the usual medications for depression actually have bipolar 2? Would the one who has wide mood swings and a diagnosis of OCD prove to have both, in reality?

Who knows? Not us, at the moment. But in the near future? This time I think there really is hope.

Dear Bipolar Disorder

Dear Bipolar Disorder,

We’ve had a relationship for decades now, though it’s one I never chose. To tell the truth, I can’t even remember when we met. Gradually, you just moved in. So I guess we’re stuck as roommates for the rest of my life. You can’t break your lease and I can’t move out. That being said, there are some things I need to talk to you about. We’ve never been friends. We never will be. I have some issues with you; there are compromises we need to make.

I’ll take my meds faithfully, if you keep working with them. By that I mean no major depressions of longer than a week and no panic attacks while I’m trying to sleep.

I’ll pay for those meds, as long as you back off enough to let me keep working and earning money and paying for insurance. Just leave me enough concentration to do that and to read, and I’ll be satisfied.

I won’t go to Chuck E. Cheese or Cici’s Pizza or shopping at a mall anytime after Thanksgiving, if you will let me go out at other times to other places without getting your figurative undies in a bundle.

I will try to minimize the stress in my life (see above), if you will cut out the physical symptoms when there is stress anyway. You know the ones I’m talking about. Ick. Just ick. I hate cleaning up after you.

And can we talk about spoons? I know you only give me a limited number per day, but it would sure help if I knew what that number was. Is there any way you can be more consistent? If I have to borrow spoons from the next day or force myself to attend to some vital call or lengthy errand despite not having spoons, I promise to spend the next day in bed, just to satisfy you.

Please, if you can, give me some non-anxiety-laden hypomania so that I can go out and enjoy things with my husband and friends. If you agree to this, I will occasionally let you buy things off the Internet, for $20 or less.

And while we’re on the subject of enjoyment, I would appreciate it if you would give me back my libido. So would my husband. I know you don’t take orders from him, but it would be esteemed a favor.

Don’t even talk to me about hurting myself. I won’t listen. No matter how loud you get.

Don’t get between me and my friends. You’ve done that too often already and I just can’t put up with it anymore.

No more screwing with my memories. I’ve already lost enough. You can keep the ones of everything stupid I’ve ever done, but I will not watch when you push play on my internal video playback.

Now that I’ve finally got some self-esteem back, you just keep your claws off it. I need it and you don’t.

No dogs allowed. Especially large Black Dogs.

Oh, and tell your buddy Depression to leave my husband alone.

No love,

Me

 

 

The Other Holiday

I’m not going to write the standard “Surviving the Holidays” post this year. You all probably know what that one says: Self-care, self-care, self-care. Avoid toxic people, and if you can’t, get away from them as soon as possible. Don’t drink. Take your meds. Make sure you’re not alone unless that is what you truly want. And if you don’t know these things, you can read them in dozens, if not hundreds, of places. There’s not a lot I can add to that.

No, I’m going to write about the other holiday – the one we all have. The one that happens to fall – for me – right during the other holidays. The birthday. I wrote earlier this year about birthdays, and parties, and surprise parties in particular (https://wp.me/s4e9Hv-surprise), and I also wrote about the low-grade depression that dogs me this year (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-AC). The two, I suppose you’ve guessed, are not unrelated.

After I experienced a severe trigger at a birthday party while in my teens, I tried to disown my birthday. In my dysfunctional way, I told people that it was on March 1, rather than in December. This was a stupid coping mechanism, not unlike the time prescription Ibuprofen caused me stomach trouble in college and I sat by the door in my classes, hoping that the burping would be less noticeable there. Don’t ask me why. Irrational thinking, I guess. My birthday didn’t go away (the burping didn’t either), my family still baked me cakes, and I still got presents or cards.

Eventually, I reclaimed my actual birthday. As the years went by and my friends scattered and my general holiday depression got more debilitating, I barely celebrated at all. Now it’s pretty minimalist – a meal out with my husband, a non-wrapped present or two, and on with the regular day. Dan tries to make it special, God love him, but my definition of “special” is telling the wait staff not to gather around me and sing. Then Facebook came along and now I have the opportunity to count the number of people who wish me happy birthday. As excitement goes, it’s not much.

I can’t say my lack of enthusiasm for birthdays is limited to myself, either. On Dan’s birthday, we have the same sort of celebration, except with fewer presents. (Dan stashes away little gifts for me all year long and often gives me things he’s bought back in July. I lack the wherewithal, in terms of energy, to do likewise.) Online shopping has made things easier, but Dan brings in the mail, so he usually has an idea what he’s getting, based on the size and return address of the package.

In a way, I suppose it’s more efficient to have my birthday tucked in among the other holidays so that one gray fog can cover them all. I could also be experiencing a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but I’ve never been diagnosed with that, so let’s stick with what I know I’ve got. (I’ve tried using natural sunlight bulbs, but I really couldn’t notice any difference.)

Do I ever get hypomania at the holidays? Rarely. Although there was that one Christmas when I got Dan socks and underwear and wrapped each sock and t-shirt in a separate, different-sized package.

But we were talking about birthdays (or at least I was). Maybe it’s aging, and maybe it’s my bipolar disorder, but I’m content these days just to let birthdays slide by with an emotion that ranges from meh to Bah, Humbug, depending on the year.

I know, I know: self-care, self-care, self-care. It’s not just for Christmas anymore.

 

 

Mental Illness: Poverty and Privilege

Mental illness is not just an American problem. In fact, it’s a problem around the world, and perhaps much more acute in other nations, especially those plagued by poverty.

There’s no way to know for sure, but many – perhaps most – of the world’s mentally ill are undiagnosed, untreated, ignored. Because what do you do when you live where there’s no psychiatrist? No therapist. No medication. No help.

Your family may support you, shelter you, or shun you, depending on their financial and emotional resources and those of the community. But for many people, there is simply nothing.

Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2015, is working to change that.

As a recent profile in Discover magazine put it, Patel and others like him have set out to prove “that mental illnesses, like bipolar disease, schizophrenia, and depression are medical issues, not character weaknesses. They take a major toll on the world’s health, and addressing them is a necessity, not a luxury.”

In 2003, Patel wrote a handbook, Where There Is No Psychiatrist: A Mental Health Care Manual, to be used by health workers and volunteers in poverty-stricken communities in Africa and Asia. A new edition, co-written with Charlotte Hanlon, is due out at the end of this month.

Patel, in his first job out of med school, in Harare, Zimbabwe, says he learned that there wasn’t even a word for “depression” in the local language, though it afflicted 25% of people at a local primary care clinic. There was little study of diagnosis and treatment in “underserved areas.”

Later epidemiologists learned to their surprise that mental illnesses were among the top ten causes of disability around the world – more than heart disease, cancer, malaria, and lung disease. Their report was not enough to spur investment in worldwide mental health.

Patel developed the model of lay counselors – local people who know the local culture – guiding people with depression, schizophrenia, and other illnesses through interventions including talk therapy and group counseling. By 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) admitted that every dollar invested in psychological treatment in developing countries paid off fourfold in productivity because of the number of people able to return to work.

One objection voiced about Patel’s model is that the real problem is poverty, not depression or other mental illness. The argument goes that the misery of being poor, not a psychiatric illness, leads to symptoms and that Westerners are exporting their notions of mental health to the rest of the world, backed up by Big Pharma. Patel responds, “Telling people that they’re not depressed, they’re just poor, is saying you can only be depressed if you’re rich … I certainly think there’s been a transformation in the awareness of mental illnesses as genuine causes of human suffering for rich and poor alike.”

Of course the problem of underserved mentally ill people is not exclusive to impoverished nations. There are pockets in American society where the mentally ill live in the midst of privilege, but with the resources of the Third World – the homeless mentally ill, institutionalized elders, the incarcerated, the misdiagnosed, those in rural areas far from mental health resources, the underaged, the people whose families don’t understand, or don’t care, or can’t help, or won’t.

I don’t know whether Patel’s model of community self-help can work for those populations as well as they do internationally. This is not the self-help of the 1970s and 80s, when shelves in bookstores overflowed with volumes promising to cure anything from depression to toxic relationships. It would be shameful if the rich received one standard of care for mental health problems, while the poor had to make do with DIY solutions, or none.

But, really, isn’t that what we’ve got now?

 

The Gray Dog and Me

Nothing is really wrong.

Feeling like I don’t belong.

– The Carpenters “Rainy Days and Mondays”

After quite a long spell of stable feelings (and maybe some productive hypomania – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4), I’ve hit the wall of depression again.

Not full-blown depression, like I’ve had so often in my life. This is technically dysthymia, which is psych-speak for a low-grade depression, sort of like a low-grade fever that makes you tired and headachey and not wanting to get out of bed. To curl up in a blanket and sleep. To take aspirin and forget about everything else.

That’s where I am. I’m not wrestling with the Black Dog (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-5Y). Call it the Gray Dog.

I am finding it very hard to write this, but I am pushing to do it, because at the moment, that’s one of the few positive things that I can point to – that my husband can point to – and remind me that depression lies.

What depression is telling me now is that I haven’t accomplished anything in my life. That I skated through high school and missed wonderful opportunities in college. That my jobs have been a pointless series of minimal value to anyone. That my writing is self-indulgent crap, unoriginal and meaningless.

Depression is telling me that I don’t matter. That I am becoming invisible. And that it’s my own fault, for never going out, for not reaching out. It’s not quite the self-pitying whine of “If I died, no one would come to my funeral.” It’s more like turning into a particularly ineffectual ghost – frightening no one, bringing no message from beyond, just fading and losing substance.

Depression is telling me that the future is bleak. I have a writing assignment now, but in a month it will be over and I’ll be right back where I was – at the edge of panic or worse, despair, or worst, both.

Depression is telling me that I’m a terrible burden and I don’t deserve my husband, who takes care of me when I’m like this.

At the moment I don’t have the ability to believe that all these are lies.

I do know that this won’t last forever. I’ve come far enough in my healing to believe that. And comparatively, it’s not that bad. I am quietly leaking tears, not weeping copiously. My bad thoughts are not as ugly as they could be, have been.

I haven’t given up.

But I almost want to.

It’s the “almost” that makes this the Gray Dog and not the Black Dog. That keeps me taking my meds and waiting for the Gray Dog to depart. That tells me to write this, even though I doubt its usefulness.

Useless sums up how I feel. Old and tired. Detached from society.

As depression goes, I’m really in a not-terribly-bad place. Which doesn’t make it much easier to live through. A little, though. I still have my support system, and I did get out of bed today (after noon), and I’m writing, even as I doubt my ability. But if I’m quoting The Carpenters, I can’t help but feel just a wee bit pathetic.

The Gray Dog is with me. One day soon but not soon enough, it won’t be.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship With Hypomania

Most of my time on the bipolar 2 spectrum has been spent on the depressive side. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to acknowledge my hypomanic side as well.

This has been difficult to do. My psychiatrist told me that my hypomania generally comes out sideways, as anxiety, and I’ve certainly had my share of that. One of the earliest I remember, from my teens, was when I had panic attacks in the cereal aisle at the grocery. I attributed it to the bright, loud colors that bombarded my senses and, if my later reaction to Chuck E. Cheese’s is any indication, that may have been accurate. My doctor at the time, however, thought it was an ordinary panic attack that I just happened to have while in the cereal aisle, and the two became linked in my mind. Of course, this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, so who really knows?

I also used to have the panicky kind of hypomania when my husband was driving the car, particularly on the highway. I still maintain that panic while on the highway is not completely unwarranted (compared, say, with the cereal aisle). It is, after all, a dangerous place.

The first time I can remember having the swooping, soaring type of hypomania was when I worked at a publishing company. A young woman came through and asked me about how to get published. Pressured speech? I babbled, I burbled. I spouted advice. I sprayed out ideas. I rejoiced in my own success while encouraging her in hers. I had no idea if she really had the talent or the drive necessary, but by the time I finished twittering at her, she had caught my spark and resolved to go right home and put my advice into practice. I have no idea, to this day, whether she succeeded. But at least, in that case, my hypomania was inspirational.

I used to say, when I was diagnosed unipolar depressed, that I wished I were bipolar, because then I might get something done. (I will pause here while you all laugh.) But the truth is, hypomania pushes me to take on challenges that I can only sometimes accomplish. Once I agreed to interview an old Chinese lady and write something based on her experiences. After the interview, which was fascinating but overwhelming, I was unable to write. It was one of the few times I took on an assignment I couldn’t finish.

More recently I took on an assignment to write 13 children’s stories of 2500 to 3000 words each, with very specific deadlines. Although I’ve met all the dates so far, I wonder whether hypomania has fooled me again. All I can hope is that this is one of those times when it has pushed me into doing something difficult, but will help me maintain until I get through it.

So, it seems, most of my hypomania is related to work (except for the cereal thing and the driving thing). I occasionally get the urge to spend money, but since we don’t have much money, it’s not too hard to fight that one off. Plus, we don’t have a credit card. We learned that lesson years ago.

What to make of all this? I now know that hypomania is part of my psychological makeup. I now know that I have to watch out for unwarranted spending (enabled by my husband, who has that tendency too). I now know that hypomania can push me into work that may overwhelm me. I now know that it can still come out as anxiety and panic, which can have unwanted effects on my everyday life. For those reasons I hate it.

Hypomania can also push me past what I think I can do to what I learn I actually can do. It can let me feel the buzz, the blast of joy that depression so long denied me. And for that I love it.

Mostly, though, I have to be wary of hypomania. It could dump me in either direction, and I won’t know which it is until it’s already happening.

Surviving College While Bipolar

I had two goes at college, and they were very different from each other, based on the state of my bipolar disorder at the time.

The first time I went to college, for my undergraduate degree, I was undiagnosed and unmedicated – except for self-medication. I was away from home for the first time – that was my first goal when choosing a college, being after a “geographical cure.” I ended up in the Ivy League, a scholarship student and a fish out of water. And profoundly depressed.

I did manage to hit the ground hiking, as the university sponsored backpacking trips led by juniors and seniors for entering students. We used to joke that it was meant to lose a few along the way, but really it was for orientation. Campfire chats about college life and the like.

On that hike through the Adirondacks, I met Caren, Roberta, and Cyndi, who instantly became my best friends and were my support system throughout the five years I spent there.

Yes, five, though only four of them were really at the university. After my first year, I took a year off. My depression had gotten so bad that I was given to sitting on the floor in the hallway, staring at a poster for hours at a time instead of sleeping. During my year away, I worked a dreary but educational job as an evening shift cashier at a restaurant. When I returned, I had a new major and the same old depression.

Oh, I did have fits of hypomania. I joined a sorority during one, though I deactivated later in a depressive downturn. And I went through the ups and downs exacerbated by several failed romances, including one total trainwreck.

The only help I got, aside from the support of my friends, was one brief therapy group at the campus mental health center and a brief stay at the university clinic, because of some suicidal ideation that my friends recognized.

Needless to say, I came out in no better mental shape than I went in, but I did manage to snag a B.A. degree. Now I feel that I missed a lot of opportunities along the way. It was just another occasion when I felt that my lack of mental health got in the way of what could have been a more productive time, as a well as a happier one. When I left college I was still almost as ill-prepared to function as when I went in.

By the next time I gave college a try, I was, if not mentally healthy, at least mentally healthier. And being back in the town I had been so eager to leave, I had a larger support system, now including a therapist, parents, close friends, and a husband. This time I had help.

I was still a mess, but less of one. With my depression lifting, I was able to teach introductory courses and manage my own course load. I remember my first semester teaching as a blaze of hypomania as I adored the subject and thought I was sweeping all the students along with my enthusiasm. Then one of the students gave me a bad review and I plunged again, never to recover that soaring sensation. I plodded through the next three semesters of teaching.

This time I came out with an M.A. and better job prospects. The day after I graduated I was working as a temporary editorial assistant, a job I kept for 17 years, moving up to editor along the way.

What did my experiences with college teach me (aside from modern poetry and how to swallow aspirin without water)?

  1. Making it through college is possible when you’re unmedicated and have minimal support, but I don’t recommend it.
  2.  Even with diagnosis, medication, and support, it’s still not easy. You know how hard it is to get out of bed and take a shower some days? Now think about going to a class on top of that, where your work will be critiqued. Taking a year off was one of the best things I ever did.
  3. Being bipolar isn’t your only identity, though it looms large in your life. I was also a student, a teacher, a friend, a daughter, a wife, a poet, a cashier, and so many other things. I may not have enjoyed them as I should, gotten as much from them as I could, but they were as much a part of me as bipolar was.

I can’t see myself at this point going back to college and getting a Ph.D. Which is not to say I’ve never considered it. But I like to think that, were I to try, this time I would have a better chance of getting through, sanity intact, with something more to show for it than a piece of paper to hang on the wall. This time, I tell myself, I wouldn’t let Bipolar Me take the experience away from Me.

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