My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘emotional abuse’

Does Emotional Abuse Cause Bipolar Disorder?

I belong to a fair number of bipolar support groups on Facebook and I often read posts or comments from people who attribute the cause or the severity of their bipolar disorder and/or PTSD to emotional abuse, particularly in childhood and particularly from family members.

I can’t really comment on PTSD since I don’t have it (though one therapist mistakenly diagnosed me with it), but I do have some experience with emotional abuse.

First, let me say that what I experienced was never physical abuse, unless you count deserved childhood spankings, which I know some people do. No sexual abuse, either – no “funny uncles” or neighborhood predators. (There was one older man that all the kids warned one another to stay away from, but I did, so I don’t know if the rumors were true.)

My childhood was pretty idyllic, if you get right down to it. My parents never divorced. We lived in a neat suburb of starter homes with excellent schools, where I got good grades and praise. We frequently visited our extended family in the next state, with plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins, farms and chickens and horses, along with occasional trips to local state and national parks. We went to the nearest local church, which did not emphasize hellfire and brimstone. If there was any mental illness in my family, I never knew about it.

And yet, sometime during that childhood, bipolar disorder began to manifest.

My life, of course, was not perfect. I was smart and loved school, and was very different from my parents, who weren’t big readers and didn’t know what to do with me, especially in the area of developing social skills and guiding my education. I fought with my sister, but not any more than other siblings I knew.

But then there was the bullying at school – the first emotional abuse I can remember. I’ve written about that before. At one point I noted:

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle.

There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind.

And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

It seemed a bit extreme.

I have also read about bullying and its relation to emotional abuse, and written about that:

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

So. Emotional abuse in my childhood, in the form of bullying. Did it cause my bipolar disorder?

Probably not. But it sure didn’t help.

I was already at the least depressed and most likely bipolar by the time all that happened, and was certainly bipolar by the time I encountered undeniable emotional abuse in young adulthood.

But I firmly believe that the roots of my bipolar disorder were located squarely in my brain, between the synapses, due to the lack or overabundance of neurotransmitters or other brain chemicals. That’s the current thinking, and it makes sense to me. (Of course there’s the possibility that in the next decades genes or gut bacteria or some other factor will prove to be involved, but given present science, I’ll stick with the brain chemistry theory.)

I don’t think that the emotional abuse caused my bipolar disorder. But I sure as hell know that it exacerbated the illness, which has made it all the harder for me to make progress in finding peace and healing over the decades.

But I can only speak for myself. Your mileage may vary.

The Myth of Closure

For some reason, it’s called “closure.” But for some wounds there is no such thing. And for some of us – those with emotional and mental disorders – there is no way to achieve closure.

Take, for example, the invisible injuries I experienced while living with Rex (a pseudonym), for a year in college. He was a master of intermittent reinforcement, the trap that keeps abused women (and men sometimes) from getting themselves out of the situation to someplace safe. He was never physically abusive, which I have vowed never to put up with (and to this day haven’t), but verbally and emotionally, he was, well, a veritable artist of psychological bullying.

Here are just a few examples.

When he was unhappy with me for some reason, he would sigh and glare. I swear he could sigh and glare even over the telephone. And when I would freeze up and not be able to think of any word that would make things better, he said my silence made him want to kick me.

I slept in the car on the streets of Buffalo if there was a late-night party he wanted to go to. It was out of the way to take me back to where we were staying.

When I was responsible for feeding guests, and botched it, he said I had tarnished his honor.

He took the decision to tell my parents about our relationship out of my hands, ripping apart the face-saving fiction that I was renting a room in his large house. After I left, I even sent him money to pay the supposed rent.

When I asked him to go to couples counseling with me, he said, “Are you sure? The therapist and I could have you declared a danger to yourself and have you put away.” At the session, he tenderly held my hand and asserted that he just wanted to get help for me.

So what does this all have to do with mental health? I certainly wasn’t mentally healthy when I met him, and was a basket case by the time I left. When I was immobilized, I was not embracing his projects with “alacrity.” When I was insomniac, only his cat comforted me. When I was in the Pit of Despair, everything was All My Fault.

So what do people tell you in cases like this?

Look how much you learned from the experience. And I always reply that the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid. All that I want to keep from that time are a few dear friends.

Forgive and forget. I can’t do either. The memories have faded over time and seldom give me flashbacks anymore. (The dreams still come.) As for forgiving? He’s never asked for it and never would. I’m sure he doesn’t think he did anything that needed forgiving. If that makes me a hard-hearted bitch or a bad Christian, so be it.

That emotional abuse happened, and I can’t forget it. It was my first serious relationship and I left chunks of my soul and most of my barely existent self-esteem in that house on the hilltop. I had failed – at the relationship, at meeting my parents’ expectations, at so many things. I felt I was the one who needed forgiveness and spent much of the following years repeating incessantly, “I’m sorry.”

Let go of anger; it will only hurt you. When I first left, I didn’t feel anger toward Rex. I felt a lot of other things, mostly directed at myself. But I didn’t recognize or own my anger until much later, after lots of therapy and the good kind of love. Now that I realize I was (and am) angry, it feels wrong to think of him without feeling that. The things he did were wrong, and it is not irrational of me to still believe that. I earned that anger. It is part of me now. I can lay it aside to the extent that I don’t have revenge fantasies, but that’s about all.

So, closure? Not a chance. Saying as Oscar Wilde did, “Living well is the best revenge”? That’s more like it. Even learning to live well has been an uphill battle. I’m still struggling with the definition.

The wound may scab over, or it may continue to trickle blood at times. Some of it may even form scars. But take my word for it, the wounds are still there. They never really close.

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