My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘mental health’

Prayer and Bipolar Disorder

My mother believed in the power of prayer, and thought I should do more of it. I can’t say she was wrong. She prayed for self-improvement (for God to take away her bitterness at someone) and for social issues (returning prayer to schools). I don’t know whether she ever prayed for an end to my bipolar disorder (she kept most of her praying private between her and God), but I never have. I don’t think it works that way.

So, what do I think about bipolar disorder and prayer? I think there are many things about bipolar disorder that you could pray about.

You could pray that science finds better treatments for bipolar disorder.

You could pray that you find a support system that helps you (or give thanks for the one you already have).

You could pray that you find a therapist, or a therapy, or a psychiatrist, or a medication that helps you. (Though I would recommend putting some effort into this one yourself as well as praying.)

You could pray that you have the strength to get out of bed in the morning or to sleep at night.

You could pray for understanding of what you’re going through – by another person, by an employer, by the world at large, or even by yourself.

You could pray that you not do too much harm while in the grip of mania or depression.

You could pray that you will recognize when someone is reaching out to you, and that you will have the ability to accept.

You could pray that you have the courage to reach out to someone else, and the wisdom to keep reaching.

In my opinion, what you can’t do is “pray away” the bipolar disorder. If you’ve got it, you have to find a way to live with it. If prayer helps you do that, more power to you. But, again in my opinion, prayer is not a cure for the disorder. There are some things that are meant for religion or philosophy to make better, and things that science has a better shot at.

You can point to various miraculous remissions of cancer or other diseases, or make the argument that removing demonic possession would now be called healing of mental illness. And if those give you comfort or hope, again, good for you.

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally afflicted (though personally, I think she should be the patron saint of abused children). If she, or God, or some other higher power of whatever religion or denomination or sect can lessen your suffering, go for it.

I just don’t believe that you – or I – personally will be cured of bipolar disorder by prayer.

Feel free to disagree with me.

Does It Help When Celebrities Talk About Mental Illness?

It usually doesn’t hurt.

But how much does it help?

That depends on who is talking about mental illness and what they say.

Celebrity Activists

We need more mental health advocates like actors Carrie Fisher and Glenn Close. Both of them have spent years talking about their own and their loved ones’ experiences with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Neither one is a one-benefit-and-they’re-gone supporter. They repeat their vital messages again and again, in different ways, in different venues, in different words. Carrie Fisher, in particular, used her mega-star power and witty personality to keep the discussion alive and spread it to millions of people.

Active Celebrities

While not devoting as much time and attention to mental health activism as Fisher and Close, other well-known entertainers including Demi Lovato and Lady Gaga have made contributions to the public discussion on various mental illnesses. Because of their large number of fans, these messages reach millions of people. And their music reaches people at an emotional level that PSAs just can’t. If even a small percentage of their audiences pays attention to the messages, that’s a lot.

And we can’t forget Prince Harry. Positive messages about mental health coming from royalty are ones that people will listen to. (You know how we Americans love royals.)

Celebrities

Other celebrities mention their mental health diagnoses in public, but do little more to campaign for mental health causes. Catherine Zeta-Jones spoke of her bipolar II diagnosis when she was hospitalized for five days, saying that it was brought on by stress. And renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly admitted his bipolar disorder when he was more or less forced to by a lawsuit.

Staying quiet certainly is their right. Mental illness is a deeply personal and to many, a private thing. And celebrities as much as any of us must struggle with when and how and to whom to reveal their struggles. Perhaps in the future they may become more comfortable talking about their problems and contributing to mental health causes and organizations.

Suicides

Unfortunately, suicides speak loudly. Robin Williams’s death by suicide made a big impression. It got people talking – if only to ask “why?” Though a lot of the conversation revolved around “Even funny people can have suicidal depression,” that’s a start on the message that you can’t tell who’s suffering inside just by looking at them. It’s just too bad that the death of a beloved entertainer is needed to start that discussion.

Media

Are the media “celebrities”? A few individuals truly are, But as a group, the media have the largest platform of all. And what do they say about mental health? I think you know the answer. Mental health gets discussed in the news media in cases of terror and tragedy, and when no other explanation comes readily to mind.

The media bear a huge responsibility when it comes to stigmatizing mental illness. Theirs are the only messages that many people hear – and believe. The news media have (or at least used to have) a reputation for spreading the truth. Nowadays we can’t even count on that. The splintering of the news media into “sides” to promote opposing ideologies – combined with shrinking budgets that have nearly eliminated informed science reporting – make it difficult for the average news consumer to know who and what to believe.

Who does that leave to spread the message? Us. Those of us who live with mental illness or have loved ones who do. And sometimes I worry that we are talking mostly to ourselves – to each other. Don’t get me wrong. Those conversations are vital in helping one another deal with our difficulties and sharing messages of support and understanding.

But maybe we can do more – even if it’s educating a family member about depression or wearing a semicolon tattoo to promote suicide prevention or posting/commenting on social media when a news outlet has gotten its coverage of mental illness all wrong.

Among my fondest hopes is that one or more of my blog posts will be passed along to someone who needs to hear the word. “Here – read this,” is a message I would be proud to spread, even though I’m no Carrie Fisher.

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.

 

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.

The Fragility of Hypomania: A Reminder

Note: I was away for part of this week and dealing with a personal/financial disaster since I returned, so here is a post – as relevant to my current situation as it was two years ago.

I was in Ireland, on a bus full of journalists and two monsignors. The sun was shining, though the day was cool. We were on our way to some scenic inn where there would be a fragrant peat fire and servings of Irish coffee.

The guide was playing a mixtape through the bus’s sound system. The song playing was “All God’s Critters,” by Bill Staines, a folk song I knew quite well. Here’s the chorus:

All God’s critters got a place in the choir
Some sing low, some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wires
And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got now

I was happy, with that golden glow of joy I had felt so seldom in my life. I was peaceful, with a sense of everything being put in place especially, just for me. I was contented, beyond glad to be where I was and doing what I was doing.

Then one of the other people on the bus asked the guide to turn off the tape. It was weird, she said, and didn’t make sense.

I don’t know whether she didn’t like folk music, or Bill Staines, or that song in particular. Perhaps she thought it was a children’s song. Perhaps she thought we should be listening to something authentic and Irish.

But the guide turned off the tape. And my golden glow was gone. I was still on a bus in Ireland, traveling through sunshine toward a scenic little inn somewhere.

But my feeling of well-being was gone. It was like the breeze had blown it out through the windows of the bus. Everything became plain.

I didn’t do anything about it at the time – ask to wait till the song was over or say it was one of my favorite songs – though now I like to think I would.

Was it hypomania that settled briefly on me like an aura? I hadn’t been introduced to the concept then, but I think that’s what it was. Peace, joy, well-being, a sense of being right where I fit. That could have been just regular happiness, I suppose. But it felt different, and special, and exhilarating.

And it was so fleeting. Once it was gone, it wouldn’t come back. I enjoyed other parts of the trip, but never recaptured that singular moment, that uplifting rush. Once it was gone, it was gone.

Even a regular good mood is hard for me to hang onto. If someone around me is grumpy or cranky, I find it hard not to get sucked into the downward spiral. If they’re angry, forget it. There’s no holding on to any good feeling then. My natural instinct is to cringe, and to apologize.

Or at least it was. As I have slowly gotten stronger and more stable, I do not cower the way I used to. I remove myself from the sucking drain of a person or situation if I can.

Going into the kitchen to make tea is a strategy I have often used. It’s also a grounding method I can use when things are spinning out of control. When everything around me is chaos, the simple, familiar, soothing action of heating a pan of soup can bring me closer to stability. Whether I really want tea or soup is not the question. Making it for someone else may even be more calming.

Right now I am pretty far from hypomania. My husband and I are without transportation and without funds to acquire some. We came close to being stranded in another state, but thanks to the good graces of AAA made it home safely. But before that, we were sitting on wicker rockers on a porch, watching cats and chickens and goats, enjoying smooth jazz, and drinking iced tea. At least now I know what hypomania feels like when it hits, and maybe I can hang onto it for just a little bit longer the next time.

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.

From Panic to Manic to Proactive

Hypomania isn’t all bad. Right now I’m facing one of my worst triggers, and instead of retreating into depression, I kicked into hypomania. Then I harnessed as much of it as I could and channeled it to work for me.

Here’s the sitch. My longest and most vicious major depressive episode (which lasted literally several years, even when I was under treatment and on medication) was triggered by, among other things, massive financial problems. (There were other factors involved: health problems, family health problems, family problems, irrational thinking, strained relationships, and bad ol’ neurotransmitters.) I was unable to work. There was plenty of anxiety along with the depression, you can be sure.

So here I am again, almost a decade later, once again in dire financial straits. I’m able to work, but only part-time and telecommuting. Then one of my biggest, most reliable clients cut way, way back. I made the mortgage this month, but next month looks iffy at best.

In the past, this would have resulted in major mental symptoms, and physical ones as well. (Better you shouldn’t ask, but my digestive tract responds to stress in an overwhelming manner. I know, TMI.) I would be immobilized, unresponsive, and spend most of my days on the sofa when I wasn’t in the bathroom. I would abandon the financial problems – and myself – to my husband’s care, for as long as he could keep everything together. Until he burned out too.

During this new version of assorted crises, I seem to have a better handle on things, and I credit hypomania. I am trying to better the situation, though not yet particularly effectively, but steadily.

I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point capabilities.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I pursue these avenues every day. Soon after this post goes up, I have a networking “date” with a former client and a former co-worker.

And in the meantime? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calling my name?

I blog. I work on my novel. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. But the surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helping with a getaway my husband and I planned before the finances went belly-up. (My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S., with or without mental illness.)

And, aside from the getaway, which it’s too late to cancel, we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I don’t know how long my “proactive hypomania” will last, when our financial situation will improve, or whether my energy level will survive after it does. Or, for that matter, whether we’ll end up eating cat food under the Third Street Bridge and fighting stray dogs for cold french fries.

But right now, for now, I’m dealing. And that’s something I couldn’t do before.

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