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Posts tagged ‘mental health’

Bipolar Disorder: Mood and Food

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FDA looks to ban trans fats. Exceptions made if consumed while depressed, anxious, or without anything better to do.

The Daily Show

If that were true, I could eat all the trans fats I wanted, because my bipolar 2 often leaves me depressed and/or anxious.

In fact, my friend Leslie, who is my partner in depression, invented the perfect snack for depressive times: a ruffled potato chip dipped in cream cheese with an M&M on top. My husband starts to worry about me when I ask him to get those ingredients at the store.

But there’s a reason for our peculiar snack. Leslie and I are simply self-medicating.

“Blood sugar and carbohydrate intake are very important to the brain,” according to Everyday Health. “Your brain runs on glucose and depends on carbohydrates to supply the energy it needs. Carbohydrate intake also prompts the production and release of important neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, which creates a feeling of calm and well-being and reduces depression. So people with bipolar disorder may be indulging in a form of self-medication when they eat sugary snacks during depressive lows or manic highs.”

Not that self-medication is good for us. Bipolar people are more likely to have type 2 diabetes than the rest of the population. Three times more likely. One of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes is excessive weight and we all know and bitch about the weight gain from our assorted meds. Prescribing ourselves the Ben & Jerry’s treatment is not going to help, even though it may feel like it at the time.

So what are we supposed to be eating to help stabilize our moods? Of course, people will recommend turmeric, cider vinegar, or the latest “superfood.”  But every serious list I saw looked like this:

  • complex carbohydrates, especially fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • protein in the form of lean meats, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy
  • omega-fatty acids from fatty fish (such as salmon), walnuts, and flaxseeds

In other words, exactly the kind of diet that is recommended to everyone for general good health! I think this comes under the heading of self-care, which is not always easy to do. Especially when I’m so depressed I can’t even manage a microwave cup of mac-n-cheese, or when my husband brings home a rack of ribs that he bought on sale.

But if I am stable enough to shop and cook and eat properly, those recommended foods may be good for my mood disorder as well as my body. According to bipolar.newlifeoutlook.com, eating protein “promotes serotonin and improved moods.” They also note that researchers in Italy say “increased consumption of omega fatty acids helps reduce depressive episodes and decreases the risk for suicide in patients with bipolar.” So apparently fish is brain food after all.

The other common suggestion in this realm of self-care is to keep a food journal, or I guess in this case a food and mood journal, to keep track of what you’re eating and how it affects your moods. If you’re the journalling sort, by all means, give this a try. As for me, I blog rather than journal and I know you don’t want to see a lot of “ate salmon, felt energized; ate chips with cream cheese and M&Ms, felt sad.”

The fact that food and mood are related is just one more example of how the brain and the body are intertwined, interdependent. It gives us a clue about the kinds of self-care that may do the most to help us stabilize our moods. And it gives us a chance to take more control, if we can, of our mental as well as physical health.

The Appropriate Committee

 

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When I was a teenager, my life was spent resenting the Appropriate Committee. I always ran afoul of them.

It seemed there was some nebulous group, invisibly judging us and deciding whether what we did, or wore, or how we acted was appropriate or not.

Part of the Appropriate Committee was, of course, the adult world. Teenagers were supposed to be polite and respectful and not talk or play music too loudly. To do otherwise would be inappropriate.

The social milieu was also part of the Appropriate Committee. How we monitored one another to make sure our pants weren’t too short, or that we didn’t wear ankle socks, or that we didn’t stay in the Girl Scouts past Brownies. The punishment was derision.

Of course being bipolar didn’t help. Both adult and junior versions of the Appropriate Committee took note of my mood swings – my loud, inappropriate laughter; my extreme, inappropriate crying; my extended, inappropriate isolation.

I tried to defy the Appropriate Committee. I laughed at them, thought they were stupid, and vowed not to let them run my life. They did anyway, of course. They were all-powerful and I had not yet gained the wherewithal not to care. It was like a pervasive, invasive form of bullying: Everything I did or said was wrong. The rules changed capriciously. I was punished with disapproval, mocking, and the wrong kind of laughter.

And they broke me. At times I tried desperately to fit in, to live up to expectations, to suppress my differences. At other times, when the effort became simply too much, I let my natural weirdness float to the surface and looked for the few other like-minded individuals that could tolerate that. Depression set in and, rarely, hypomania. I still dressed “wrong.” I still laughed at the wrong things, and too loudly. I still isolated and wept.

I thought that when I grew to adulthood, I would no longer be subject to the censure of the Appropriate Committee, Of course, that was completely delusional. I learned that the Appropriate Committee for Adults was a powerful force. It is particularly insidious in the business world, where it judges not just your appearance, but even seemingly minor matters such as where and how you eat lunch (with the “cool kids,” of course) and how you spend your breaks (cigarettes OK, crossword puzzles not). There’s still the problem of being laughed at in meetings and needing to go into the restroom to cry.

I finally realized that the Appropriate Committee exists in part to perpetuate stigma. So many of the behaviors of people with mental illness defy societal norms. It’s the Committee that insists we fit in, no matter what we’re feeling. It’s the reason that neurodivergent people are so reluctant to admit their differences in public and try their best to “play through the pain,” something that isn’t good for them, or for athletes either, really.

I’ve had enough of the Appropriate Committee over the years. Now that I’m properly diagnosed and medicated and relatively stable, I could undoubtedly fit in better than at any time previously in my life. But I dress how I like, even if it’s pajamas. I play my music as loud as I want and laugh or cry along with it if I feel like it. I embrace my weirdness, my differences, and seek out like-minded weird friends who are also living in defiance of the Committee.

Maybe the Appropriate Committee is needed for some places and times and people, like theater audiences or church services. Maybe. But for the mentally ill the Committee is hurtful, and stigmatizing, and unrealistic. We can strive to overcome our differences and sometimes we need to. But sometimes it’s better just to embrace weirdness, differentness, and our membership in the group of the neurodivergent.

And when I despair, I remind myself of songwriter Steve Goodman’s lyric: “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” And I let it blast.

The Golden Glow and the Spoons

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Hypomania is as insidious as it is enjoyable.

I remember when I quit my 9–5 office job to go freelance. I remember when I made the decision. I had gotten my first bad review, ever, shortly after disclosing my bipolar disorder to my new boss.

I remember driving around shortly thereafter, running errands in the middle of the day. I felt the warm, golden glow that goes with either happiness or hypomania. I could wake when I pleased and work when I pleased. I could run those errands when I wanted. I could take my mother to her doctor’s appointments whenever I needed to. I could make and go to my own appointments as necessary.

Best of all, I felt as though I had enough spoons to do all this. I was able to keep up with the work and the errands and the appointments and, hey, if I got tired I could take a nap in the middle of the day.

But.

Eventually the glow wore off and the spoons ran out. Hypomania dumped me back into the depression I was oh-so-familiar with. I had more work to do and less energy to do it. My mother’s problems increased and I had to take over her finances as well as my own. I was teetering on the edge of a major depression, and then I fell off that cliff.

Anymore I don’t trust hypomania. First of all, I can’t distinguish it from actual happiness, competence, or satisfaction. I always question its sincerity and watch out of the corner of my eye for the coming crash. In other words, when I’m happy I can’t even enjoy happiness without reservation.

One way I keep track of my hypomania is by being aware of the number of spoons I have. If I’m flying on a hypomanic cloud, I feel replete with spoons. It never occurs to me that I will run out. When I’m experiencing garden-variety happiness, I still suffer at some point from lack of spoons. No matter how many pleasing things are scheduled for the day, I know deep inside that I cannot simply dive into all that bounty. My joy is measured out, as the poet said, in coffee spoons or in this case metaphoric spoons which I always visualize as small white plastic ones.

Stability for me does not mean that I can ignore my supply of spoons, either. I may be on an even keel, able to do most of what I want, but inevitably the spoon depletion hits, sooner or later. There is simply no more that I can do, much as I want to. And if I force myself past that point, I will surely pay for it in exhaustion, irritability, or isolation.

Spoons, therefore, run my life. If I am too happy, I have to watch for incipient spoon depletion.  If I am level, I know that I must still keep track of the spoons I use. And if I am low, my spoons can disappear altogether, to the familiar point of not being able to get out of bed.

I think the trap of hypomania is the worst of all. On a high like that I can lose track of my spoons – even forget that they are necessary. Fortunately, I don’t get the full-blown version of mania. I fear I would squander spoons recklessly, leaving me a terrible absence of any.

Spoons are a useful way to explain the energy demands of chronic and/or mental illnesses. My husband and I speak spoonie shorthand. But I wish I could experience that golden glow, that haze of happiness, that feeling of floating, without having to keep one eye on the spoon-meter.

 

Bipolar Sex: Drought and Abundance

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Here’s something bipolar people talk about amongst themselves but not so much with the world outside: sex.

The two poles of bipolar, depression and mania, govern a person’s appetite for sex. A lot of other factors determine whether the sex will be any good, or good for the participants.

Of course the above is true for neurotypical people as well. Moods and emotions – things in the brain – have as much or more to do with sex than stuff in the body. Thinking about sex and wanting sex, for example, start in the brain and without them, nothing else is likely to happen anywhere else.

The depression side of bipolar sex is easy enough to map out. After all, some of the hallmarks of depression are numbness, inability to enjoy things that once gave pleasure, and a tendency to isolate. It’s hard to get your motor revving with all that going on.

Still, the depressed person may want to have sex, or at least want to want to. That’s the way it’s been with me. When I’m in a thoroughly depressed state, sex doesn’t even cross my mind. When I’m not quite as depressed, I think I might like to have sex but don’t have the energy for it. And when I’m relatively stable, there’s the meds.

It’s well known that medications for bipolar disorder can kill the sex drive and in men the ability to get or maintain an erection. Some drugs supposedly have less effect on sexuality, but I’ve never found the magic combination. Or the supposed sex-friendly drug has had side effects I can’t tolerate.

So if bipolar depression is largely a big zero for bipolar sex, how about mania?

Overactive sex drive combined with a lack of impulse control can lead to sexual excess. The tendency to minimize risk-taking behaviors means that some of that sex can be detrimental to one’s health, relationships, and self-esteem. Riding that wave is exhilarating, but then, inevitably, comes the crash and the need to pick up the pieces.

Full disclosure here: Since I have bipolar 2 and my hypomania tends to turn sideways and come out as anxiety, I don’t experience that manic sex high. On the whole, I think I am grateful for this. Sex has never been such an important part of my life that I would risk everything for it.

Once, though, I did experience what you might call a hypomanic sex drive. It smoldered for a long time, requited but unconsummated, until the right set of circumstances presented themselves. It was a restlessness, an obsessive thought, a longing for connection, rather than an ungovernable rush of need. It gave me, perhaps, a glimpse of what it might be like to be manic and sexually stimulated. But I’ll never really know.

I do know that I am glad I had the experience, whatever it was. I’m glad it was safe sex.  I’m glad it didn’t destroy relationships. But just to feel that desire again, even if only for a brief time, even with the anxiety it provoked – and there was lots – it was a kind of affirmation that my body and brain are still connected in some vital way.

Most of the time I limp along with only thoughts of sex too fleeting to act upon. And maybe this is not the best way to live, but I have made my peace with it. And once in a great while, every now and then, I still am reminded that I can have a sexual existence.

Even though I have bipolar.

Of course, as always, your mileage may vary.

What Schools Are – and Aren’t – Doing About Mental Health

I believe that mental health education belongs in schools. I’ve written about that (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw). There’s good news about the subject and there’s less-good news. I’ll let you sort out which is which.

First, two U.S. states are now required by law to include mental health in their curriculum – New York and Virginia.

New York’s law mandates teaching the subject as part of the K-12 health curriculum, which has only two other specifically required topics: alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse and the prevention and detection of certain cancers. According to the law, the new education requirements seek to “open up dialogue about mental health and combat the stigma around the topic.” Free resources for New York schools, such as teacher training, are available online. These include lesson plans, though schools and teachers are free to design their own curricula.

In Virginia, mental health education is required only in grades 9-10. Huffington Post reports that the legislation came about “after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) saw that three high school students had researched, developed and presented the proposed legislation, which struck close to home for the legislator, who had lost his son to suicide in 2013.”

Indeed, those laws are good things, though one could wish that the other 48 states would take note and do likewise. They are, of course, not forbidden to teach mental health education, and many do, especially around the topics of drug and alcohol prevention and suicide prevention. Some of them even require education on those two topics, along with bullying. Many of these efforts are sincere, significant, and even life-saving, but it is worth noting that bullying and student suicide are events for which schools are at risk of legal liability. One might wonder whether that has influenced the laws, rather than supporting more comprehensive mental health education.

Contrast the U.S. experience with England, where all secondary school teachers and other school staff are being given training that will help them identify mental health issues in children, including depression and anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders. This is thanks in part to Prince Harry’s openness about needing counseling to help him deal with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, which happened when he was 12. The Prime Minister has said that the prince’s disclosures will help “smash the stigma” regarding mental illness and the need for getting help.

“The programme is delivered by social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, backed by £200,000 in Government funding,” notes the Telegraph, “and will be extended to primary schools by 2022.”

The campaigns around the mental health mandate, especially those featuring Princes William and Harry, have focused on the need for Britons to abandon their “stiff upper lip” image and to accept that men can and do need to seek help for mental difficulties. While that is indeed a vital message, one hopes that girls and women do not get left behind in the efforts.

What about U.S. states where mental health education is not a fact of life?

For schools in the U.S. that have not mandated mental health education, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed resources that can help districts, schools, teachers, and families address the problem through the NAMI Parents & Teachers as Allies program of training.

They have also developed a presentation for students called NAMI Ending the Silence, “designed for middle and high school students that includes warning signs, facts and statistics and how to get help for themselves or a friend.” These programs are offered free to schools and communities. For more information, go to https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-in-Schools.

For a more DIY approach, youth.gov (https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/school-based) recommends that schools “partner with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop an integrated, comprehensive program of support and services.” Among the actions they recommend are for schools and partnerships to:

  • develop evidence-based programs to provide positive school climate and promote student skills in dealing with bullying and conflicts, solving problems, developing healthy peer relationships, engaging in activities to prevent suicide and substance use, and so on.
  • develop early intervention services for students in need of additional supports such as skill groups to deal with grief, anger, anxiety, sadness, and so on.

In other words, for schools to spend the time and energy to do for themselves what the state and national governments are unwilling or unlikely to do.

To me, this is one of those times when a national curriculum makes sense, or at the very least a mandate in every state. Mental health education should be comprehensive, freely available, easy to access, and scientifically accurate for all schools and schoolchildren. The education this would provide and the statement it would make would be invaluable. Drug and alcohol, bullying, and suicide prevention are just a start, but a start that many states have not made.

 

 

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism, though it’s not strictly speaking a mental illness. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older elementary children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need help find it before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

This is a post I published almost exactly a year ago on my other blog, janetcobur.wordpress.com. I thought I would share it here as well, and have more to say about it next week.

When Your Therapist Tells You What to Do

The classic examples of non-directive therapists are Sigmund Freud and his disciples, who legendarily sat at the head of their couches and made comments like, “Hmm,” “Tell me about your dreams,” and “How do you feel about your mother?”

Freudian psychiatry is, thankfully, now out of vogue. But there are still therapists who believe that their job is to listen, not to instruct.

On the other hand, there are more directive therapists who assign homework. This can be anything from “Listen to this podcast on mindfulness” to “Write a letter to your ex telling him/her what you truly feel.” They probably won’t tell you to kick the bum to the curb, but if you decide to do so they’ll help you prepare for it.

But, although I am far from a Freudian and shy away from those who are (not many these days), I prefer non-directive therapists. I am not averse to doing a little homework or having a therapist ask me in a session to vocalize what I would like to tell a person or even to write a list of the coping mechanisms I’ve developed. My preferred dynamic, however, is to give-and-take with the therapist and then go home to contemplate what was said and how I feel about it.

I have had therapists who have given me homework and I can’t say they were wrong to do so. Sometimes writing something down or throwing teacups against the basement wall (or whatever helps you get your anger out) is a good thing.

My most recent therapist was a combination of the two. She mostly listened while I rambled on about what was happening in my life or what had happened in my past. Then she suggested ways that I could think about the events or pointed out coping mechanisms that I had developed or suggested ways I could put those coping mechanisms to use.

All in all, I felt that our sessions were mostly non-directive. She did suggest that I listen to a podcast on mindfulness, but she never quizzed me on whether I did and only listened when I told her what I got from it. She never told me that I should delve deeper into mindfulness or listen to more podcasts. She left that up to me, if I thought it might be helpful.

I understand that some therapists, particularly those that work in community mental health facilities, are required to file treatment plans and I can see where giving homework can flesh one out more than “talk about feelings.”

Perhaps there is something I’m missing. Perhaps at different stages of therapy, directive psychological interaction is more beneficial. Perhaps my particular problems lend themselves more to non-directive therapy. Perhaps I just have an aversion to being told what to do, especially where it concerns my memories and my feelings.

Of course, everyone has the option not to do the homework. This can be seen as resisting treatment, or disagreeing with the treatment approach, or simply lacking the wherewithal to carry it out. Sometimes it may be more helpful when the therapist sacrifices part of the session to doing the assignment there instead of leaving it to be done at home. In this case, the therapist is being really directive, though of course the client always has the choice not to do the assignment. It’s much harder, though, when the therapist is sitting there waiting for you to make a list of your dreams, your feelings, or your interactions with your mother, or to bash an empty chair with a pool noodle.

What it comes down to, basically, is therapeutic philosophy and therapeutic style. And a client is not bound to pursue whatever style of therapy that is favored. Although it is sometimes difficult to realize, a client has the option to request or to seek a therapist whose therapeutic style matches what the client feels is most helpful.

Remember, your therapist works for you, not the other way around. If you need a more or less directive therapist, it is your right to seek one out. Therapy has been known to stall and a different approach or philosophy may be just what you need.

 

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