My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘mental health’

Why I Didn’t Get Depressed When I Got a F**k Off Letter

Brenda was a friend to my husband and me for many long years. We partied with her, and talked with her, and grieved with her and supported her when her marriage ended.

I became closer to her than Dan had, although he had met her first. Then we grew apart. Then I heard that she had given up on me. I wrote, asking for one more chance.

Recently, she sent me a three-page letter. When a mutual friend asked what it said, I replied, “Basically, ‘fuck off.'”

I’ve written before about the friends I’ve lost due to my bipolar disorder (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W) – the pain and loss I sometimes still feel, my unsuccessful attempts to apologize or rebuild the relationships, the continuing rejection, the knowledge that those important people are gone from my life forever.

But this time, the rejection didn’t seem to bother me as much.

Why? I wondered.

I know that people sometimes do drift apart, and there was an element of that in the death of the relationship.

I knew that I had refused many invitations and stood her up many times. But apparently, when I did show up, I brought along an extra person, “my misery.” It seems like a trap: don’t accept an invitation, or be unwelcome when I do because of my constant companion, which I was unable to just leave at home. In those days, and sometimes still, the Black Dog was always with me. But Brenda saw it as something she couldn’t compete with, something that was always more important to me than she was.

In a sense that was true, though I didn’t see it as a competition. It wasn’t like I valued my disorder more than I valued her. Feeling miserable was important to me, in the sense that it seemed ever-present, but it was important to me in a bad way – the thing that dragged me down, the thing I fought against, the thing that did make my life a misery. But it was a misery I could not put down, much as I wanted to, even for people I cared about. At the depth of my depression, it was simply a part of me. I am sometimes amazed that I came through it with any friends left. But I have.

To be fair, Brenda also blamed her own misery after her divorce as a contributing factor to our parting. Then there would be four of us present – two people and two miseries – and evidently it was too much.

Most perplexing to me, though, was Brenda’s contention that her growing religious fervor and burgeoning political conservatism contributed to her decision to cut ties. I freely admit to being a liberal and to disliking organized religion, but I have friends who feel otherwise and yet remain my friends. There’s lots we agree to disagree on or simply choose not to talk about. Even my mother and I had profound differences but never gave up on each other.

According to Brenda, her religious and political leanings required “personal responsibility” – including responsibility for one’s moods. As she put it, despite her reactive depression, her happiness was a choice. One that she made and I didn’t.

She compared mental illness with high blood pressure and diabetes – conditions that one must take personal responsibility for treating and trying to control. The fact is, I was trying to control my disorder, with therapy, with medication, and once almost with electroshock. I know she knew this, as once we went to the same therapist.

And that’s why I said, “eh” when I got the letter. By Brenda’s own criteria I was doing my best. And that’s all anyone can do. I couldn’t go back and change my misery, or try harder to find relief. And I couldn’t simply choose to be happy, which I don’t believe is possible for most people like me. If you can manage it, more power to you, and to Brenda.

I think what bothered me most about the letter is that Brenda has a degree in psychology and is teaching psychology in college now. I wonder what her students are learning from her.

 

 

Caregivers Need Care Too

While there are professional caregivers, family members often provide care and support for those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

My husband of 35 years is my caregiver. He does a spectacular job – making sure I have my meds, taking me to my appointments, running the errands that I have no spoons to do, keeping the house quiet when I need to sleep, making sure I eat at least one nutritious meal a day.

It’s a lot. And there are things I can give him in return. Things he needs.

Appreciation. When my father was dying of cancer, my mother was his primary caregiver. One day she came to me, wanting me to tell her that she was doing a good job. She knew that she was. She just needed to hear it from someone else, someone who could tell her that her excellent care had been noticed and appreciated.

Appreciation – validation – is the thing that caregivers need most, to replenish themselves, to allow them to keep doing the things that are so vital for their charges. And it’s the easiest to give. When you’re in the depths of depression, it may be difficult to remember to say “thank you,” but it means a lot to your caregiver.

Now I’m mostly out of my depression (usually), and I say “thank you” a dozen times a day. And he always responds, “You’re welcome, friend.”

Alone time. Primary caregiving can be a full-time job. I know that one thing I need in the process of healing is alone time. Dan needs it too. He needs time off, even if that’s just time to retreat to his study and watch a movie or go outside and dig in the garden. I can always reach him if I really need him – for example, if I have a panic attack – via cell phone if nothing else. But, as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty vessel. That’s part of the reason that he’s able to give me so much of what I need.

Couples time. This doesn’t necessarily mean sex. It means time spent together, doing something other than dealing with mood swings and trauma. It’s a little gift we give each other. Sometimes I sit through a movie I don’t really care for, just to give him the gift of snuggling on the couch. He got me color-and-bake ceramic mugs that are great for creativity and distraction. One rainy afternoon we sat together and each colored one side of the mugs.

Life stuff. Dan does most of the chores and tasks of daily living, but I do what I’m able to. I earn money. I pay bills online and do most of the other computing, except what he does for leisure. I help with cooking to the extent I can – sous-chefing, finding recipes, breading or mixing or inventing dressings and sauces, making grocery lists. He can ask me for help too.

Sharing my spoons. When I do find myself with a few spare spoons – a little extra energy occasionally – I try not to be selfish with it. When I have spoons to spend, I like to shower and dress and go out for lunch. But the other day, I showered and dressed and went for a walk in the woods with Dan, something he’s been longing for. My spoons ran out pretty rapidly, but he appreciated that I made the effort and shared one of his delights. It was another gift that cost no money.

In other words, when you have a caregiver, don’t think it’s all one way. Your caregiver needs care too. Small or large, what you are able to give will be appreciated.

 

I Don’t Care If They Discover the Cause of Bipolar

Recently there have been several so-called “breakthroughs” in discovering the cause of bipolar disorder.

And I really don’t care.

Whatever they decide the cause is, I still have bipolar disorder. No matter if it’s toxoplasmosis, gut bacteria, or faulty synapses that are behind it, I still get to experience the lows and (sometimes) highs, the apathy and psychological pain, the weeping and despair, the irritability and touchiness, the anxiety and the gloom.

Knowing the cause will not alleviate my symptoms one bit.

I know that people believe that discovering the cause will bring us that much closer to a cure.

But will it really?

If the cause is genetic, how am I supposed to go back and change my genes? Or does anyone really believe that gene therapy will be available to the mentally ill when even hospital beds are denied them?

If the cause is viral, does that mean that a cure is right around the corner? We now know what virus causes AIDS – HIV was discovered in 1983 – but nearly 35 years later, a cure is still far away. Yes, there are treatments that improve health and extend life, but there are also treatments that alleviate some of the symptoms of bipolar disorder. Will any advances be orders of magnitude greater, or merely incremental? And how much money will be devoted to finding those treatments when Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and a host of other conditions are still without a cause, a cure, or sometimes even minimal treatments?

With most bipolar sufferers being treated (if at all) in community mental health centers, via EAPs, or through six-weeks-and-out insurance programs, what are the odds that any new breakthroughs and any new treatments that result will be available to the bipolar-on-the-street (or in the group home or even at home or at work)? Will someone really arrange MRIs or TMS or brain implants for the homeless?

With bipolar disorder once again considered a pre-existing condition and not given parity with physical ailments for insurance purposes, will any advances trickle down to us at all?

What do you want to bet that any breakthroughs regarding the causes of bipolar disorder will lead to more pharmaceutical research and yet another pill that costs more than the average person can pay or the average insurance will reimburse? And how long will that treatment take to get through the FDA pipeline to reach the people who need it?

Nor is knowing the cause of a disorder necessary to cure it. Isaac Semmelweis didn’t need to know the cause of childbed fever, a disease that killed thousands – perhaps millions – of new mothers. Germ theory wasn’t even developed until decades later by Lister and Pasteur. But Semmelweis knew that if only doctors washed their hands between conducting autopsies and putting their hands in pregnant women’s vaginas, the death rate would decrease.

So when I hear that there’s a new theory on the cause of bipolar disorder – and they seem to be coming with increasing frequency – I say, “Where’s the treatment? Where’s the cure? Who will be able to access it? Who will be able to afford it? When will it produce positive results for me and those like me?”

Get back to me when you’ve found something that will help. Until then, keep splicing your genes and culturing your bacteria and stimulating your synapses. I’m getting pretty good results with what you’ve already discovered. For now.

Don’t keep raising my hopes until you have something more than “mights” and “some days.”

 

 

Picking Up on Feelings

As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I ought to be.

I began to notice that I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran., I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone – who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned before cocooning was a thing. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio. I got drunk on ginger ale.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized that I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits.

Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. (It was only much later that I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.)

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

Nor did the bad feelings have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be till he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown (which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago), my therapist told me that my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now.

I know it’s a good thing that I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

Don’t Tell Me Not to Feel the Way I Feel

“Don’t be sad/angry/upset.”

“Calm down.”

“Smile. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Stop getting all revved up.”

Never in the history of ever has any communication of this sort had the desired effect on a person – especially one with bipolar disorder.

When you offer this sort of “advice,” what you are basically doing is telling the person not to feel the way they feel. Not only is this useless, it’s insulting.

It’s useless because ordering someone to feel a certain way simply won’t work. Saying, “Be cheerful” will not make it so. Emotions aren’t like flipping a switch on command. Even for neurotypical people, emotions are complex interactions of chemicals in the brain. While some people claim – or may perhaps be able to – shift their emotional state at will (from angry to merely annoyed or to neutral), it isn’t easy or natural. There’s a reason that you feel the way you do.

For the person with bipolar disorder, it’s even more difficult – if not impossible – to shift moods at a whim, especially someone else’s. Bipolar is a mood disorder. It affects moods and emotions in a nonstandard, often unpredictable way. Telling someone to alter their own brain chemistry merely by thinking about it is ludicrous.

Even if the bipolar person’s moods or feelings seem exaggerated or uncalled-for to you, that person is having an experience no different than when you feel elated or despairing or fearful. The emotions may even be more profound, less susceptible to alteration by force of will.

But telling bipolar people not to feel the way they feel is not just pointless, it is insulting. You are denying their perception of reality, invalidating their experience, dismissing their concerns, minimizing their problems, discounting their feelings. In effect, you are saying, “I don’t feel the same way, so your feelings are wrong. Change them to match mine.”

Imagine that you have written something – a report, a poem, whatever – and feel good about it. You’ve made your point and done it well. You’ve captured reality as you see it and communicated it in a way you think is clear and effective. Then someone comes along and reads it and says, “This is crap.” They have denied what you feel and believe. And even if they’re right, even if it is crap, they have profoundly insulted you. And, of course, they may be wrong.

Diagnosed bipolar people already know that their emotions do not run the same as other people’s. There’s no need to remind them of that. And bipolar people are generally doing what they can to alleviate their symptoms, be it through therapy, medication, mindfulness, meditation, or whatever works best for them. When you discount their feelings you are discounting them as persons. That can be anywhere from annoying to soul-damaging.

Adam Savage, of Mythbusters fame, sometimes wears a t-shirt that says, “I Reject Your Reality and Substitute My Own.” He is (I hope) talking about substituting a provable, scientific reality for a mythical, uninformed one.

But to go around substituting your own emotional reality for other people’s – and trying to make them agree with you – does a disservice to the people you think you are trying to help.

So, what would be better than saying, “Don’t feel ________”?

How about, “I know you feel _________ and I can see why.”

Or “I can tell you’re feeling _______. How can I help you?”

In other words, start by acknowledging that the other person’s feelings are real. Then ask what the person needs. This lets the person know that you understand his or her feelings and that you would like to help in the way that the person thinks best.

If you know other things that have worked in the past, you could suggest them (after validating the feelings, of course). Would you like me to run a hot bath? Do you need a hug? Do you just need time alone? Do you want to talk about it? Maybe later?

It occurs to me that this is not really news to a bipolar person. The ones who need to read it are the ones who are doing the invalidating, not the ones who feel invalidated.

So, if you know someone like that – a friend or loved one, feel free to copy this post and give or send it to them, if you think it will help. I know it helped me when I figured out what was going on and what my husband and I could do about it.

Why Do I Write About Mental Illness?

I have bipolar disorder. But that by itself isn’t the answer. Here’s why I write about mental illness and mental health.

It’s what I do. I’m a writer. It’s what I would be, bipolar disorder or not. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and writing and editing professionally for decades. But that isn’t the whole answer either.

It’s what I have to do. I have plenty of topics to write about besides mental illness. Over the years I have written poetry; a few children’s stories; and articles about martial arts, religion, cats, education and teachers, technology, architecture, and other subjects. In addition to this blog, I have another – janetcobur.wordpress.com – in which I write about whatever crosses my mind or my path – books, news, humor, and the things that made me name my blog Et Cetera, etc.

But this blog is the one that I have to write. It started as journaling but quickly – in a matter of weeks – became more.

It’s what I am. Mentally ill, that is. A life-long acquaintance with – or rather, experience of – a mental illness makes the subject one that goes to the bone. I can’t call up a memory from my childhood that doesn’t involve desperation, sobbing, and disaffection, or fragile, giggling glee at things no one else noticed or cared about. My college years were marred by distress, anxiety, and apathy. My adulthood has been marked by breakdowns, immobility, and psychotropics. I can’t get away from the subject, even if I try.

I have the skills for it. I have read a lot about mental illness and bipolar disorder, in self-help books, more scholarly works, memoirs, and even fiction (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-nE). I have an academic background and an intelligent layperson’s knowledge of science and psychology. I can share that perspective with others.

It helps me and others understand. Examining aspects of bipolar disorder necessitates that I learn more about it – and therefore about myself. Planning, writing, and editing posts help me clarify my thinking about this illness I live with every day. Sometimes I am just too close to it until I step back and look at it from a different or even new perspective. That’s one of the benefits for me.

The feedback I get – comments from readers and other bloggers – leads me to believe that what I write has value for them too.

It needs to be talked about. The general public – society at large – doesn’t understand mental illness. There are widespread jokes, misunderstandings, and inaccurate media portrayals. Above all, there is discrimination – in jobs, housing, medical treatment, the legal system, and more. There is more trash talked about mental illness and psychotropics every time there is a mass shooting incident or a domestic terrorist bombing.

One of the solutions to these problems is education. Most of the writing I’ve done in my life has been on (or near) the subject of education. I consider myself an advocate for education. And now I am an advocate for education about mental illness. That education should start in public and private school health or social sciences classes. It should continue in adulthood for those who never learned it in school.

Celebrities like Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss have big names and big audiences and a vital message to spread about mental illness. I don’t have the big name or the big audience, but I do what I can.

Because the people, including me, who live with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses every day, need messages of hope and sympathy and experience and activism and explanation and thought and outrage and kindness.

And that’s why I write about mental illness.

 

 

 

 

Self-Care for Overwhelming Days

It’s been said that time is nature’s way of keeping one damn thing after another from being every damn thing all at once … However, every now and then the damn things gang up on you.

– me, “The Overwhelming Problem,” http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-hy

It’s also been said, by Canadian astronaut and all-around awesome guy Chris Hadfield, that he managed to stay alive in space by always asking himself, “What’s the next thing that might kill me?” If, for example, the most immediate danger were running out of oxygen, the next thing to do would be to check your tank and hoses.

I find that attitude soothing in a way, and helpful in getting through one of those every-damn-thing days. It’s not traditional positive thinking, but it does help you set your priorities.

Today and yesterday and the day before have been examples of every-damn-thing days. I’ve gotten through by asking myself, “What’s the next thing I absolutely have to do?”

It starts when I wake up and can involve the simplest of decisions: Do I take my meds first or do I pee first? Pee first. Pee first is almost always the correct answer and is one of the Mystic Rules of Self-Care.

Do I get dressed or do I eat something? I don’t absolutely have to get dressed yet, because I’m not going out anywhere yet, so eat something. Eat something is almost always the correct answer and is another of the Mystic Rules of Self-Care.

This can get me through the entire day. What is the next thing I absolutely have to do? Get dressed. What is the next thing? Go to the bank and get money. What is the next thing? Pay the power bill. Those are absolutes if I want to have a functioning computer. And I do. Very much.

Next comes a real decision: K-Mart is right next door to where I pay the power bill. Do I stop in and get the loaf of bread I need and maybe some underwear, or do I eat first? I eat first. (See above Mystic Rules.) By the time I finish my banh mi (if I’m out and dressed and in motion, I may as well make the most of it), it’s pouring rain. Do I absolutely have to go back to K-Mart, walk through a wet parking lot, and get that loaf of bread? I do not. I go home. One errand (two if you count the bank, and I do) is a major accomplishment for me.

After I get home, there is no “next thing I absolutely have to do,” so I switch to “What is the next thing I could do?” Say there are three choices: take a nap, watch TV, do some work. Obviously, the work is out. I am spoonless by now. I decide to watch TV until closer to bedtime, then go to bed.

If there is work that absolutely has to be turned in the next day, I get up early and do it when I have a fresh supply of spoons. (After peeing first and taking my meds.)

There is also an element of creative procrastination to this. (See http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ct.) It’s like sorting your tasks into three piles: absolutely, would be nice, and meh. Not that I’m recommending writing them down. That’s not flexible enough. Throughout the day, an event can wander down the progression. “Buy loaf of bread” started out as Category 2, but the rain pushed it into Category 3. I ate the other half of my banh mi for dinner and bought bread the next day. And if I hadn’t had the banh mi, I still had a jar of peanut butter as a back-up plan. Eating it straight out of the jar is pretty depressive, but you do what you have to do when your spoons run out and you still need self-care. (Have I just discovered another Mystic Rule?)

Of course, I’m describing a moderately-functioning day. There are other days when the categories shut down after peeing and meds.

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