My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘friends’

Surprise!

Surprise parties are fun for everyone, right?

Wrong!

While many people enjoy the surprise element (probably the guests do more than the honoree), even neurotypical people can shy away from the practice. Coming home to a darkened house, only to be greeted by bright lights and loud noise, can be an alarming experience.

For a person with bipolar depression, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, or other mental conditions, it can be a nightmare.

My husband once decided to throw me a small surprise party. We and another couple were cleaning up an old house while a few friends gathered back at home.

One of the people had actively discouraged Dan from having the party. Robert had experienced depression and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and knew how difficult such an event would be for him. He also knew about my depression and some of the incidents associated with birthday parties in my mind.

For instance, when I was a young teen, my “best friend” and I were supervising a party of younger children. During the game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, while I was blindfolded, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all the kids.

It was the occasion of my first major meltdown. For years afterward, I would not even admit to having a birthday, much less let anyone celebrate it.

Robert had experienced similar traumas involving groups of children, humiliation, and abuse. He was not able to cope with surprise parties and thought I might freak out as well.

Fortunately, decades had gone by since my traumatic party experience. I had been diagnosed and properly medicated and counseled about my issues. Dan knew me well enough to realize that I could tolerate a small, low-key surprise party. And so I did.

Still, Robert was right to be concerned.

Common events at surprise parties are triggers for many people. My friend Joanie has panic attacks when there’s lightning. Would flash photography set her off? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be the one who finds out. If the party is held in a restaurant, a person who hates being singled out in a crowd of strangers may have problems. People hiding in one’s home could cause flashbacks of a home invasion. My startle reflex is hypersensitive and could easily be triggered by sudden, unexpected shouts of “Happy birthday!”

Even opening presents in front of others can be difficult if one is weak in social skills, appropriate facial expressions, or spontaneous conversation.

So how do you give a surprise party for someone with certain types of mental illness?

Don’t.

If you think you must, ask the person what kind of party he or she would prefer, and abide by those wishes. You can suggest a surprise party, with the time and place being the surprises, but again, abide by the person’s wishes.

Prepare a small, low-key surprise rather than a party. Give a present a day or two before the actual date. Pack a slice of cake in the person’s lunch. Or take the person out to lunch. (Warn the restaurant personnel not to march around singing and waving balloons, if you mention that it’s a birthday lunch at all.)

Do not have party games, unless they are non-threatening ones such as mad-libs or trivia. Forget ones involving physical contact like Twister or ones that involve sensory deprivation like Blind Man’s Bluff.

You may wish to avoid serving alcohol, especially if the honoree is on anti-anxiety medications. Booze-fueled parties tend to become loud and rowdy.

Make it short. Personally, spending an hour with a group of four or more, even if they are all my friends, is about all I can take. And then I want a lie-down afterward.

Personally, I could live my life happily without ever having another surprise party thrown for me (even though the one Dan threw would have to be called a success). Nor will I be upset if I never get invited to another surprise party. I’ll be too busy worrying what it might be doing to the honoree to enjoy myself.

 

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.

Parts of My Life I Miss the Most

Last month I wrote about how bipolar disorder had cost me – well, not the ability – but the capacity to read (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp). I am intensely thankful that the concentration, focus, and motivation to read have returned as my healing has progressed.

But there are some other things that are missing from my life that I wish desperately that I could get back. Or wish I had never lost in the first place. (Depression is very much with me right now, so forgive me if I dwell in the past with my failures a bit.)

First are friends. I’ve written about this before too (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W), but the subject was brought home to me recently when I received a fuck-off letter from a former friend I was trying to reach out to, in hopes of reestablishing the relationship. One of her main reasons for cutting me off was that every time we went out, she felt it was “her and me and my misery.”

She did acknowledge that at times our friendship had been burdened by her misery too, but evidently that either didn’t count as much, or else mine lasted too long. (If it was too long for her, it was even longer for me.) I am very disappointed that, now that my “black dog” is smaller and on a leash, she found other reasons not to associate with me. To make it more ironic, she has been a therapist and now teaches psychology.

I also miss having a steady paycheck. My last 9-5 office job was over ten years ago, and since then my mental state has not allowed me to get and keep another such position. The security of knowing how much money I would have every month allowed me to plan.

And to travel. I really miss traveling. Admittedly, part of my inability to travel now is determined by my physical health. But my anxiety would make it just that much more difficult. Now I can barely get away for a weekend, and even then I must carefully monitor my moods, limit my activities, track my eating and sleeping, and avoid crowds.

One of my deepest regrets is that when I was undiagnosed and untreated, I couldn’t fulfill my potential. I attended an Ivy League university, but I can’t say I got out of it what I could or should have. I feel now that I skated by, impeded by many depressive spells, lack of focus and concentration, and confusion. I even took a year off to get my head together, but since that didn’t include getting help for my bipolar disorder, its value was questionable.

Lest this seem like nothing but whining (which my depression is telling is what it is), there are also some things that bipolar disorder has taken from me that I don’t miss at all.

Oddly, one of them is a 9-5 office job. While I do miss the steady paycheck, I absolutely don’t miss the things that came with it. Now, doing freelance work, I can fit my work around the things I need to do (like seeing my therapist) and the things I have to do (like slowing down when depression hits). I don’t have to get up at the same time every day and dress appropriately (if at all) and try to fit in and socialize with my co-workers. That was never easy for me and became nearly impossible after my big meltdown.

And, as much as I miss travel, I don’t miss business travel. Again, being “on” all the time, for days at a time, with no time or place to decompress, would be impossible now. Since we usually had to share hotel rooms, there wasn’t even a chance for any alone time, which I need a fair amount of. I could never get the hang of “team eating” either.

Finally, I don’t miss the boyfriend who took an already broken me and broke me worse. (I wrote about him in my post about gaslighting http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm.) My self-esteem was not great before the relationship, but afterward it went into negative numbers. Self-harm, self-medication, self-doubt, and negative self-talk were what I had instead. But Rex didn’t do it alone. He had my bipolar disorder there to reinforce his words and actions. And to not let me see what was happening.

Bipolar disorder is a balancing act, in more ways than one. It takes away good things from our lives. But my therapist reminds me that it also gives an opportunity – as I rebuild my life, I can choose which pieces I want to reclaim and which I want to discard. And the parts I can rebuild are what I should concentrate on.

And I will, once this spell of depression releases me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Therapeutic Hug

People Group Teamwork Holding Logo. 3D Rendering illustration

Big Group Hug

The common wisdom is that a person needs four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth. I doubt that this is confirmed by any scientific studies and I doubt that it is true. If it were, there would be millions of people on Earth who would not survive.

I would be one of them. Despite being married to one of the two truly world-class huggers I’ve met in my life, I do not get my four-a-day. And certainly not twelve. Assuming eight hours a day for sleep and eight hours a day for work, that would leave eight hours to work in twelve hugs. That’s one and a half hugs per hour, and I suspect half a hug just won’t do.

In fact, I know it won’t. Scientific research has been done on the 20-second hug. It releases oxytocin, a pleasure and bonding chemical in the brain. Half a hug would need to be 40 seconds long to do the proper amount of good, and young lovers and newlyweds tend to be the only people who give hugs of that duration.

Then there’s the question of what constitutes a hug. For greatest oxytocin effect, I would recommend the full body hug – toe to toe, torso to torso, heads on shoulders, arms tightly squeezing. But you probably can’t give that particular hug when you run into an acquaintance in the supermarket, especially not 20 seconds worth, without blocking the aisles.

Other variations of hugs that may be less effective are the side-by-side one-shoulder squeeze (and the multi-person variant, the Big Group Hug), the manly back-thumping, and the A-frame hug (standing a distance apart and leaning in for a hug from the shoulders up). Then there are the virtual hug, usually written ((hug)), with the number of parens indicating the length/intensity of the hug, and the proxy hug, in which you delegate a person to pass along a hug when you’re not able to be there. None of these seem really conducive to the 20-second, made-for-thriving hug.

But, on some level, we know that hugs are therapeutic. Oxytocin or whatever, they make us feel better. Lots of hugging goes on at support and 12-step groups, and people who go to those daily might indeed make their recommended quota.

I go to private psychotherapy, however. I’ve never hugged my therapist, and am not even sure whether it’s appropriate for therapist and client to hug. It would be awkward to ask, “Can I have a hug?” only to hear, “No. That’s unethical.” But I suppose it depends on the therapist and the client and how each feels about the subject. I know sex is unethical, but hugs may be a gray area. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Of course, there are people who do not like to – or are afraid to – touch other people. Think Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. People who are aware of and skilled in responding to others’ body language may be able to see the little (or, let’s face it, large) cringe when one person sees another moving forward with open arms. If the non-hugger is quick enough, he or she can quickly stick out a hand for a hearty handshake, or the potential hugger will abort the hug and retreat to a friendly tap on the shoulder.

But there are people who will swoop in and envelop you in an unwanted embrace and maybe even air kisses with smacking noises. I suspect these would be more likely to shut down oxytocin entirely, and possibly release adrenaline instead in a fight-or-flight response.

As with sex, the safest route is to ask for consent – “Can I have a hug?” – and take no – “I’d rather not” – for an answer, without taking offense or pressuring – “Aw, c’mon” – and making things even more awkward.

Still, the best advice I can give is to be proactive about hugging. Say, “I need a hug” when you do. Ask “Do you need/want a hug?” when a person you know seems to be in distress.

Avoid hugging strangers, though. That hardly ever helps. At least wait until you’ve been properly introduced.

 

 

Managing My Anger

Many people need to control their anger by learning not to let it out. They can take anger management courses.

My anger problem is keeping it all in. I never know when it’s safe to let some of it out. And I don’t think they have courses for that.

Why do I need to let my anger out? Wouldn’t I be happier and life be easier if I were pleasant and agreeable all the time?

No. There are reasons I need my anger, and need to express it.A LOADING Illustration with Black Background - Anger

I need to vent. I was at the office once and a coworker had done some crazy thing or other. I went to my boss and spouted off. Wisely, he just tsk-tsked about it and didn’t try to fix anything. He knew that it was just a frustrating situation and I needed to express my feelings.

Stuffing your feelings is unhealthy. It’s especially bad if you push the feelings of anger down and then try to smother them with food or alcohol. A character on Dharma and Greg once said, “If you’re going to bottle up your feelings, you might as well pickle them first.” Taking advice from sitcoms is usually not the best idea.

Swallowed feelings don’t go away. They stay inside you and fester. Sooner or later you may explode and cause real damage – the kind you can’t fix. Better to let off a little anger at times than to save it all for later.

Sometimes, anger is justified. Anger at injustice or when you’ve been wronged is appropriate. If you don’t express it, the injustice or wrongful behavior will simply continue.

Having bipolar disorder makes dealing with my feelings of anger even trickier. I’ve spent too many years not recognizing that I even have anger and that it’s sometimes an appropriate feeling. That leads to being a doormat, which I also have years of experience with.

Dealing with my bipolar issues has meant dealing with anger as well. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

There are people I can vent to. One of them is my therapist; some of my male and female friends provide good outlets too. These are not people I am angry at, at least not at the time I vent. As with my former boss, I just need someone to hear and acknowledge my feelings of anger. I have separate categories – a friend to discuss my husband with, another one for work issues, and so forth – so no one has to listen to too much of my anger spillover.

I need to pick my battles. Living with anyone causes friction, which can lead to anger. Just this week I was mad at my husband. I wanted to shout at him, “If you had done your errands yesterday instead of watching movies, you wouldn’t be jammed up today and laying them off on me!” But really, how would that have helped? Could he go back to yesterday and do the errands himself? Would it have helped to refuse to do the errands and then sulked all day? Was there any real reason I couldn’t help out? Best to let this one go.

I have to measure my words. Perhaps I do this too much, but some amount is necessary. What was helpful this week was to say to my husband (after I had run the errands), “I need to tell you that I’m frustrated that you left all these errands until today and I had to take over some of them. There were other things I needed to be doing today.” (My things could be postponed; his couldn’t.) By that time I had cooled off enough that “frustrated” was more accurate than “angry,” and less likely to trigger a major shouting match. (Also notice the “I” statements that psychologists recommend.)

If I am angry and I do express it, it’s survivable. My husband and I have gotten through some very bad spells when both of us have been extremely angry. Some of them have required couples therapy, while others have been solved through time and negotiation. Other parts of my life have not turned out as well. I had to cut ties with a toxic relative for whom I had an unhealthy level of anger, with no hope of either of us changing.But I survived – and was the better for it, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes that’s necessary, for either your own or the other person’s mental health and safety.

It helps to have a good emotional vocabulary. Seriously. I don’t have to jump straight to anger when something upsets me. Maybe I really am just frustrated. Or disturbed. Or annoyed. Inconvenienced. Irritated. Miffed. Insulted. Disappointed. Cranky. Those feelings are easy to mistake for anger. It may be better for me to step back and ask, “Do I really feel angry?”

It helps to have a repertoire of behaviors. Not all anger has to be dealt with the same way. I could lash out and say something hurtful. But I could also walk away until I calm down, or have a good cry. I could say, “I’m too angry to discuss this now.” I could release my anger in a physical activity (actually, my husband is much more likely to do this). I could write a “never-send” letter (or a “to-be-sent” one).

But the first step to all of these is recognizing that I do indeed feel anger, and have a right to own my anger and express it. Anger may be harmful, but denying it is harmful too.

Out of the House – At Last

Brandywine Falls

Brandywine Falls

If everything goes according to plan (which we all know it never does), this post will be publishing itself while I am at or on my way to this scenic location, Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga National Park.

I was attracted to this particular location when I read on the Internet that, in addition to access via a 1.75-mile hiking trail, the falls could also be reached using a wooden boardwalk from a nearby parking lot.

This easy access appeals to me because I have balance problems and sometimes use a cane, as well as because I seldom leave the house and have difficulty walking any distance. My husband encourages me to get out and walk, reminding me that exercise is good for depressive episodes, but just getting out of the house for doctors’ appointments and a few errands leaves me with no spoons for recreational walking. It’s a pretty dreary life, though there is a nice window in my study, through which I can see shrubs and trees, the occasional hummingbird or squirrel, or that stupid bird that sometimes flies straight into the glass and bonks itself silly.

There were actually tears in my eyes when I mentioned the expedition to Dan.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Would you drive a long way with me to do something that requires very little time to do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“See this waterfall,” I said, pointing at the screen. I explained about the parking lot and the boardwalk.

“How far is it?”

“Near Cleveland. About three hours. Each way.”

It sounded ridiculous even as I said it. A six-hour drive to walk a very short distance and look at a waterfall.

“We could stop along the way to get something to eat. Or we could pack a picnic. You could bring your camera and take nature photos.”

I needn’t have worked so hard to make it sound attractive. Getting out of the house to go see something scenic and outdoors is something my husband has been longing for us to share.

Naturally, as soon as we agreed to go, my brain went into overdrive, doing my usual job of trying to anticipate everything. We would need to GoogleMap directions, of course. We would need some kind of waterproof bag with cold packs and bottles of water. Bandanas to moisten and wipe our sweaty brows (the temperature will likely be in the 80s and I don’t do well in heat). Bug spray. My cane and maybe a walking stick for him. At times like this, I tend to plan the Normandy Invasion.

This is a ridiculous idea/plan. After the last month and a half I’ve had, it’s a wonder that I’m not just crouched in a corner going beeble-beeble-beeble. But if it works, we may make the same drive in a few weeks to go to a horticultural center and canopy walk, if only so I can make the old, bad joke (You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think) and we can meet up with some Cleveland-area friends we haven’t seen in far too long.

So. Getting out. Exercise. Nature. Relaxation. Fresh air. No computer access. Potential socializing. I don’t know whether these things will have any actual positive effects, but I like to think that my therapist will be proud of me.

Never mind that there are plenty of places nearer – even locally – to walk short distances and see nature. Never mind that my therapist often recommends that I take baby steps. This is a baby step. For God’s sake, I used to be able to hike in the Adirondacks. To travel. To Europe. By myself.

I don’t know why I was able to do that then, but can’t now. Bipolar disorder didn’t strike me suddenly, after I had done all those things. Maybe back then I was better at functioning. Maybe life and bipolar had not yet overwhelmed my ability to cope. Maybe I was in remission (or whatever they call it). Maybe I was hypomanic. It’s a mystery to me.

But maybe, just maybe, I can take this baby step toward reclaiming some of the things that used to bring me pleasure. It’s about damn time.

 

 

The Depression Diet

It seems that Target (and other stores) can now send, well, targeted ads based on previous purchases. The example usually given is that someone who buys a home pregnancy test will start receiving coupons and discount offers on diapers and strollers.

I maintain that one way to spot depressives is through their grocery-buying habits. Just as psychologists say that odds are that the last three people in any long line are likely to be clinically depressed, I say that someone who purchases an entire chocolate chip cheesecake and a bottle of Jose Cuervo is going to be in the back of that check-out line too.

Which brings me to my point. There are certain foods that depressed people tend to eat. These foods don’t cure depression, of course, but they do seem to provide some comfort.

The first category of depression food is, of course, comfort food. We all have our own definitions of comfort food, but a lot of them seem to be high-carb, high-fat, no-nutrition sorts of food. They bring back memories of childhood, maternal nurturing, and a simpler time when calories didn’t count. Some of my comfort foods include club sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese.

My husband knows enough to make me comfort food when I’m stressed out. He does add tuna fish and peas to the mac and cheese to make it somewhat more nutritious. He knows my needs and does well at meeting them, though his grilled cheese will never rival my mother’s. He does pretty well on the tomato soup.

The next category of depression food is weird food. I suppose this category includes the chocolate chip cheesecake and tequila. One of my depressed friends introduced me to her particular specialty: wavy potato chips dipped in cream cheese with an M&M stuck on top. My husband starts to worry about me if I ask him to pick these up for me at the store. But it does contain all four food groups: salty, sticky, sweet, and crunchy.

When I was a kid, my favorite was a block of cream cheese with that odd, unnaturally orange French dressing poured over it, mashed with a fork, and with pickle relish if I we had any. This was my own chip dip creation. It resembled my friend’s in the cream cheese and wavy chips department, but French dressing is no substitute for M&Ms. Let’s just say my tastes have grown. (Not necessarily up.)

Another category of depression food is useless food. These are edibles that one can make with very little effort, as even small efforts can be overwhelming at this point in depression. Frozen dinners are good for this. I recommend Marie Callender pot pies if you go this route, because they have both a top and bottom crust and so feel more like a meal. Foods that come in small cups with pop-open tops are good too: Beefaroni, mac and cheese, soups.

Sometimes, however, the depression is so severe that even these simple efforts are beyond you. For those occasions, there are truly useless foods. It’s a mistake to call them meals at all. Here I’m talking peanut butter straight out of the jar (spoon optional), and dry cereal straight out of the box. During my worst days I used to keep a box of Cocoa Puffs by my bedside, just in case. As I slowly improved, I replaced that with a box of Life cereal. (The name was a coincidence, I assure you.)

I know that eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet is one of the most common suggestions for keeping depression at bay (along with exercise, sleep, and all that other good advice). I also remember that when a person is talking about suicide, one of the questions you’re supposed to ask is, “When’s the last time you ate?” Supposedly it’s harder to take your own life if you’ve recently done something as life-affirming as eating. (I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I did try it once and the person is still alive, so maybe.)

I also know that sometimes irrational thinking extends to food choices as well. I worry about my husband when he starts eating peanut butter sandwiches dipped in cold chunky soup (still in the can). I’ve been told that’s a guy thing, not a depressive thing, but still sometimes I wonder. Even at my most depressed, I’ve never been tempted to do that. Ew. Just ew.

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