My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘depression’

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.

 

Would You Try Electroshock?

Photo by Mike T

In the course of dealing with my bipolar disorder, I had a near brush with electroshock. I managed to avoid it, but I did give it serious thought.

Now 60 Minutes has come out with a piece called “Is Shock Therapy Making a Comeback?” You can see the segment here: 60 Minutes.

ECT(electroconvulsive therapy, the modern name for the procedure), which is often done on an outpatient basis, works by inducing a brief seizure in a patient. The seizure, which lasts about a minute, releases multiple neurotransmitters in the brain, all at once. The patient is required to have someone to transport them to and from the appointment. Treatments are typically applied one or two times per week for 6-8 weeks.

In a brief article excerpted from the news show segment, Dr. Charlie Welch, of McLean Psychiatric Hospital, explains how ECT differs from how it was performed in the past: “What’s different first of all is that it’s done under general anesthesia with a muscle relaxant. So when the treatment is done, the patient is sound asleep and completely relaxed.” Call it a kinder, gentler shock treatment.

That was the procedure that my psychiatrist offered me after he had spent a number of years trying me on various medications that either didn’t work, or helped only partially.

My immediate reaction was negative. I recall thinking, “Fuck, NO! Keep away from my brain, you Nazi sadist!” After I calmed down a bit, I did some research.

ECT, my sources said, was a long way from the cruel, stigmatizing procedure portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Internet was little help, though. The opinions and experiences of people who had undergone electroshock ranged from “It was hideous” to “It was a miracle.”

Truthfully, I was appalled by the notion of electrical jolts surging through my brain. My precious brain, which had both sustained me and betrayed me throughout my life.

Then I thought some more. So ECT sometimes causes memory loss. I already had that, thanks to some of my meds. I would be altering my brain with electricity. But hadn’t I been altering it for years with chemicals – medications that no one seemed to know how they worked?

So I went back to my doctor and said I would at least talk to the doctor who would perform the procedure. And I lined up a journalist friend to write about my experiences if her editor approved. (Note: In the 60 Minutes piece, former Massachusetts First Lady Kitty Dukakis gave permission to have her treatment filmed and broadcast.)

My psychiatrist, however, had one more medication that he wanted me to try before we took that next step. And it worked. So much for electroshock.

Now as to that side effect of memory loss – Dr. Sarah Lisanby of the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland has developed a new treatment that seems to avoid that particular consequence.

The procedure is called Magnetic Seizure Therapy (MST) and it uses magnets (duh!) to stimulate more precisely focused seizures than ECT does. These focused seizures seem to avoid the parts of the brain associated with memories. As Dr. Lisanby told the 60 Minutes reporters, “For some people, ECT may still be needed. But if Magnetic Seizure Therapy could be effective without the memory loss who wouldn’t want to try that first?”

Would I try MST if I relapsed into treatment-resistant depression? I would certainly consider it, if it were out of the testing stage by then. And I’d do that before I signed up for ECT. While I have memories I’d prefer to forget, with my luck, those would be the ones left unaffected.

The cynical side of me says that these seizure-causing therapies are becoming more popular because insurance companies like the notion of a short course of 6-8 weeks of treatment instead of years of talk-and-medication. (Although Kitty Dukakis said that she has done ECT for years now and expects to continue into the foreseeable future.)

But I could be wrong. It is possible that some kind of treatment could be short in length but longer-lasting in effectiveness. I’m not ruling it out. At this point I’m not ruling out anything that could aid in my progress and my healing.

 

Drug Therapy: The Short Form

From what I’ve read in Facebook support groups – and noticed from my own experience – the effects of antidepressants don’t always last as long as we might want.

My first psychotropic medication was, as nearly as I can remember, imipramine (Tofranil). At the time I was only diagnosed with unipolar depression, so it seemed like a good choice. Imipramine is what is called a “tricyclic” antidepressant because of its chemical structure. Many people complained of the side effects.

Tricyclics were about all the medical community had to offer until 1987, when Prozac hit the market, followed by its cousins Zoloft and Paxil. All of these were classified as SSRI drugs, ones that selectively acted on the neurochemical serotonin in the brain, rather than a wide variety of brain chemicals as the tricyclics had.

Since then we have listened to Prozac, talked back to Prozac, and been referred to as a Prozac Nation. Prozac has been hailed as a miracle drug, damned as a gateway to violence or suicide, and prescribed in phenomenal amounts.

And Prozac has helped me. After about six weeks on it, when the drug started to kick in, I was on a sailing trip. One of the crew said I was the passenger most at peace with myself that he knew. It was a revelation to me and a new way of thinking of myself.

Prozac changed my life – possibly saved it. And then, not so much. I moved on to other medications.

“Major Study Finds Antidepressants Work, But May Have Limitations,” by Brigit Katz, published on The Smithsonian.com, validates my perception.

Her article states, “A meta-analysis [or study of studies] of existing trials suggests that the drugs are mostly effective on a short-term basis for patients suffering from acute depression.” Katz’s article also cites articles in the New York Times and The Lancet that report similar findings.

The Lancet study “analyzed 522 double-blind studies that included 116,477 patients and 21 commonly prescribed antidepressants. The results of the study showed that all 21 of the antidepressants were more effective than placebos in reducing depressive symptoms during the first eight weeks of treatment.”

“The new analysis suggests, however, that the efficacy of the drugs may be limited,” Katz reports. “For one thing, the benefits applied in the short term, and only to patients who are suffering from acute major depression.” [emphasis added]

The Smithsonian.com article and the studies conclude that “while the new study suggests that antidepressants are more effective than a placebo, at least in some cases, media reports claiming [as an article in Newsweek did] that the research shows ‘antidepressants do work, and many more people should take them’ are not entirely accurate.”

(This hearkens back to a pet peeve of mine: that headline writers (who are almost never the authors of the articles) do a poor job of summarizing articles in favor of more definitive or appealing descriptions of the text. https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Br)

At any rate, the meta-analysis bears out my experience. Although I was bipolar 2, my disorder first manifested as major depression. I got relief from Prozac, results that later diminished. Since my proper diagnosis I have found more relief from a combination of an SSRI, an anticonvulsant medication often used for bipolar disorder, and an atypical antipsychotic also useful for bipolar as well as schizophrenia. Even though I do not have seizures or schizophrenia, these medications work for me and have not worn off for several years now.

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? I think it is that, if your medication for bipolar or depression seems to be “wearing off,” your perception may indeed be valid. But that’s no reason to give up on psychotropics altogether. People and their disorders differ in ways we just don’t know. You can ask your doctor to try a different medication or combination of medications that may work better for you.

The benefits of medication for psychiatric disorders do not simply go away just because the effect of one does.

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/major-study-finds-antidepressants-work-may-have-limitations-180968452/#vjLKOqe2JdKEWOe3.99

On Pain and/or Suffering

Recently, when I was reading Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders, I came across this:

Eric Cassell, a physician who writes frequently about the moral dimensions of medicine, argues, in a now classic paper, that pain and suffering are very different. Pain, according to Cassell, is an affliction of the body. Suffering is an affliction of the self. Suffering, writes Cassell, is a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.

Later, when I was reading M Is for Malice, by Sue Grafton, I read this: “Pain was better than anxiety any day of the week and sweat was better than depression.”

The universe seemed to be telling me to focus my attention on pain and/or suffering.

Cassell (as quoted by Sanders), could have been (but probably wasn’t) talking about bipolar disorder when he defined suffering as “a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.” I certainly don’t feel intact or integrated while in the midst of a bipolar episode – either hypomanic or depressive. I suffer. My personhood is certainly threatened and disrupted.

It’s common to hear bipolar described this way: “I suffer from bipolar disorder.” I prefer to say “I live with bipolar disorder,” which I feel is more accurate. It’s always there, but I’m not always suffering. I live with it and it lives with me.

I think Cassell was wrong, though, about pain being a purely bodily sensation. I addressed the concept back in the early days of this blog. with a post called “Depression Hurts” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6Z). In it I claimed that bipolar (or depression specifically) caused physical pain as well as emotional pain. I still maintain that one is as valid as the other and that they are virtually inseparable. The mind and the body not being entirely separate, or separable, you see. You get both for the price of one.

Grafton, on the other hand, through her character Kinsey Millhone, was talking about the physical act of running. We all know by now (or should) that exercise is recommended for those who have bipolar disorder or other mental/emotional conditions. But again, there is this idea that physical discomforts (pain and sweat) are better than emotional distress (anxiety and depression). She seems to be saying that pain is the antidote for suffering.

This can be dangerous territory. As someone who used to self-harm, I can easily see how one might think that pain is preferable to anxiety, or numbness, or dissociation – to suffering, that is. But in such cases, pain is really just another aspect of suffering, expressed in bodily terms. Again, the two are inextricably intertwined.

Personally, I would be delighted to avoid all four sensations – pain, anxiety, sweat, and depression. But I don’t think that’s possible, even with avoiding both exercise and self-harm. Sweat is the easiest to dispense with, thanks to modern toiletries, but there have been plenty of times when my anxiety has caused me to sweat. Think about being summoned to a tax audit, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Pain is unavoidable; no one goes through life without stepping on a nail or some such. Anxiety and depression occur at least occasionally in the neurotypical as well as the mentally disordered.

The human condition itself involves feeling both pain and suffering. Bipolar disorder involves both pain and suffering. Well, what do you know? We’re only human, after all.

Knitting Away Depression and Anxiety

Photo by Athena, Creative Commons

Last week I dissed a story that I read online about self-care for bipolar disorder, which consisted of praise for sleep, pets, and creativity, things which anyone with bipolar already knows are good for their mental health.

It was pointed out to me by someone who should know that I was wrong to make fun of the researchers, since they were students learning valuable lessons about how to conduct research studies in the first place. Which led me to believe that it was all the reporter’s fault for presenting their results as news.

Anyway, as an apology to researchers and grad students everywhere, I’m now going to praise a research study that would otherwise get a “well, duh” from me.

Huffington Post (UK) shared the good news:

Knitting could save the NHS [National Health Service] vital funds because it leads to a healthier population, reducing depression and anxiety, slowing the onset of dementia and distracting from chronic pain, a new report has found.

The study was primarily focused on the benefits of knitting for the aging, but since depression and anxiety were two of the conditions that it reportedly relieves, I thought it might be relevant to bipolar disorder too. Now someone can do a study to confirm or deny this idea.

The report added that knitting “is a sociable activity that helps overcome isolation and loneliness, too often a feature of old age,” and, I might note, of mental illness.

There are many, many articles that extol the benefits of creative pursuits for those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Although the notion of “basket-weaving” is outmoded and stigmatizing, other creative activities are commonly suggested as part of self-care. (I discussed this in a post called “Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder.”)

Coloring seems to be the most popular recent trend, but drawing, painting, collages, and all sorts of needlework are well thought of too. (I would certainly put crocheting in the same category as knitting.)

But then there’s the other side of bipolar – mania. I don’t know a lot about creativity and mania because I only get hypomania. But I do know that when I’m hypomanic I can get a lot of writing done. (Whether it’s good writing is another question.)

However, if you’ll forgive anecdotal evidence, I once knew a woman who did experience full-blown mania as part of her disorder and was not well controlled on medication. One year at Christmas she decided to make green velvet dresses for all three of her daughters.

As she spoke of her progress over the ensuing weeks, however, it was clear that the project was not going well. She kept rethinking – and redoing – all the sewing. She didn’t like the design, or she didn’t think they’d fit right, or she saw some other flaw. She never finished the dresses.

Other people may have better experiences with mania and creativity, of course. I hope you’ll share with me if you have.

The idea of creativity as a way to be sociable intrigues me. Sewing circles are a time-honored tradition among neurotypical people as well as those with mental disorders. (A friend of mine and her cronies had what they called the “Stitch and Bitch Club.”) Needlepoint, quilting, and indeed all of the fabric arts can be group activities.

For those who aren’t into those kinds of needle-centric activities, there are classes in scrapbooking, drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, or other creative art forms, often available through local adult education programs, museums, or shops that sell arts and crafts supplies. And of course, writers’ groups abound at bookstores and other venues (though presenting one’s own work at such a gathering may be too daunting for some with self-esteem issues).

I should probably get involved with a writer’s group myself. I’ve had to give up needlework because of my eyesight and shaking hands. But I’m all for doing something for my brain. Lord knows, it needs all the help it can get.

 

References:

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/knitting-linked-to-health-benefits-including-reducing-depression-and-slowing-dementia-report-reveals_uk_5aa63cb0e4b07047bec7feee?ncid=tweetlnkukhpmg00000001

knitforpeace.org.uk

“Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder” https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-uT

 

Why I Hate TV Drug Commercials

Just as a general rule, I dislike commercials for any drugs. They impede the doctor/patient relationship. (I’ve often considered saying to my doctor, “I’m supposed to ask you if Latuda, Humira, Prolia, Viberzi, Lunesta, Cialis, Trulia, Trintellix, Keytruda, and Boniva are right for me.”) TV – and to a lesser extent print – ads encourage people to act as unpaid drug reps. And they only advertise expensive drugs until they go generic, which is when they stop being expensive and the drug companies stop making so much money.

(If you want to read more on the issue, go to https://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=106198.)

But there are other things about TV drug ads that make me more than a little cranky. Like where are the ads for drugs to treat bipolar disorder?

Oh, there are ads for drugs to treat bipolar depression, as well as ones for treating non-bipolar depression. You’d think that with approximately 2.8 million people who have bipolar in the U.S. and Canada (http://www.pendulum.org/bpfacts.html), there would be a market for bipolar treatments.

Also, the ads for depression treatments don’t always get it right. A few of them say that depression is more than just sadness, or that it lasts for several weeks at least. One even says that depression is a “tangle” of symptoms, which is certainly true. (Although the tangle is shown graphically in primary red, yellow, and blue, which don’t really say “depression” to me.)

Most, however, treat depression simplistically, with hidden depression represented by a smiley face mask hiding a frowny face mask. (The colors in that ad are muted during the “before” scenes and more vibrant during the “after” scenes, which is an old advertising trick.)

The ads also make it look like the most important thing about depression is not spending time with your family or not enjoying it if you do. While that certainly is one symptom of depression, it is by-and-large irrelevant to people like me, who don’t have 2.1 school-age children to take on picnics. And it’s pretty much a guilt trip for people who do.

Then there’s how the people in the ads are represented. Oh, they almost always show one POC and one slightly older person (frolicking with the grandkids). But all of them are attractive. All of them are models. Are we supposed to identify with them? Or just expect to look like them when our depression lifts?

I wouldn’t be so annoyed by this issue if it weren’t that ads for other kinds of drugs – those for psoriasis and diabetes, for example – have actual people with the disorder in them. Testimonials from those who’ve been there, as it were. Even real-life cancer patients are now featured in ads for treatment centers.

What’s up with that, I wonder? Surely they don’t imagine that only pretty people get depression or bipolar. It can’t be that they can’t find any well-spoken, real-life people who can relate their own experiences. I for one would feel more reassured if I heard about a treatment from someone who’s lived with the disorder instead of from someone selected at a casting call. Are we all homely and illiterate? (I meet the qualification for literacy, at any rate.)

Instead of trying to convince us what medications our doctors might prescribe us, the airtime would be better spent on ads that educated the public on depression and bipolar disorder. But those would be PSAs, of course, appear only at 3:00 a.m., and not make anyone any money.

Update: I have finally seen an ad for a drug to treat bipolar 1 mania. Everything else I wrote here remains the same.

 

Books About Bipolar and Other Fun Topics

I love reading. Always have – except for the period when a major depressive episode stole it from me –https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp. I’m never more than two feet away from a book or, at this point in my life, an ereader. Reading is how I explore the world.

So naturally, in trying to better understand my disorder, I read about it. And because I’m interested in psychology in general, in addition to books about bipolar disorder, I read about other mental illnesses as well.

Let me share some of my reading with you.

For sheer delight as well as profound insights, try Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. Amid the hilarious stories of life in her other-than-typical family are insights into depression and social anxiety, along with a manifesto of defiance – the will to be, well, furiously happy.

The other easily approachable book is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. What started as a humorous blog grew into a book (with quirky illustrations) featuring two chapters in particular, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two,” which are about as good as writing about depression gets. A second book, Solutions and Other Problems, was scheduled but has been postponed indefinitely.

And while we’re on the subject of funny books about mental illness, there’s Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor, an anthology edited by Jessica Azar and Alyson Herzig.

Perhaps the best-known book in the field of bipolar disorder is An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by Kay Redfield Jamison. In it, Jamison deals openly and honestly with bipolar disorder, particularly with mania and psychosis, along the road to becoming a doctor herself. She has also written Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, about the famous modern poet, but I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment.

Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, by Dyane Harwood, is another recent book that I haven’t read yet, either. But I know Harwood’s writing and expect it to be a stand-out, as well as the only book I know of on that particular topic.

Other books on bipolar disorder include Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar by Natasha Tracy.

For books about depression, the definitive work is The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. A thorough examination of depression, including the author’s own, it is practically a reference book on the topic, though much less dry than that makes it sound.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron, is another classic on depression that I really ought to read, but haven’t yet because I’m not that fond of Styron’s writing. (Sophie’s Choice is his best-known work.)

For mania, I recommend Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir, by Mark Vonnegut, M.D. The son of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author deals less with his celebrity father, instead focusing on his saving-the-world-style mania during his pursuit of an M.D. degree.

Other books that I can recommend include:

  • My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, a memoir of a boy who was lobotomized for no particular reason other than the fact that his stepmother hated him, and the difficulties he encountered in and out of institutions.
  • Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly, early undercover journalism at its finest. (I wrote about her experiences in one of my earlier posts: https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-hG.)
  •  Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Jeffrey A. Lieberman, a history of the development of the field from the buried memories days to the biological understanding of today.
  • The Man With the Electrified Brain: Adventures in Madness, by Simon Winchester (who also wrote The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary). Despite the title, this is not about electroshock treatment, but rather dissociative states.
  • Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life, by Maria Ross; and My Life Deleted: A Memoir, by Scott Bolzan. These books, about a cerebral accident and amnesia, respectively, don’t speak directly to bipolar disorder, but I found them interesting as accounts of rebuilding one’s life after a significant mental condition.

And for an opposing point of view, if you must, there’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. Once you’ve read the title, you pretty much know how the book’s going to go; I don’t recommend this anti-psychiatry screed.

What books do you recommend? Which have helped you?

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