My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘mental illness’

Stone Cold Depression

I saw an ad online recently for a crystal antidepressant necklace. It was basically a crystal point hung from a chain.  The crystal was pink in color, which meant it was either rose quartz or pretending to be.

When I looked at the website, there were other colors available, such as clear (quartz), turquoise (turquoise), purple (amethyst), and black (maybe onyx?). Of course, there was always the possibility that these were not naturally occurring colors and that every crystal was plain quartz died some other hue. The turquoise certainly looked dyed to enhance its turquoise-ness, and isn’t a crystal anyway. I also had my doubts about the black one.

In point of fact, I had my doubts about all of them. Not that they weren’t authentic crystals, but that they would work. I’ll be honest here. I don’t believe in crystals as channels of psychic power or healing or whatever. I think they’re beautiful and make great jewelry, though. I have quite a collection of necklaces and earrings made from semi-precious stones, some of which are crystals. I feel better when I wear them, but that’s because I actually have taken the time to accessorize before I go out.

I think that, if crystals have any effect at all, it is the placebo effect, which I’m not discounting. That at least is a real thing. But the ad for the depression crystals got me thinking. If the 12 or so widely varied stones that were featured in the ad are all good for depression, what’s the point? I thought at least specific crystals were supposed to be good for different things.

So I researched some of the advertised crystals to see what effects they were supposed to have and how they might relate to mental health. Here are some of the associations I found:

rose quartz – emotional healing, releasing toxic emotions

turquoise – spiritual expansion, a path to your vibrationally highest self

onyx – inner strength, balance, confidence, protection

amethyst – release of addiction, relaxing energy, sound sleep

I’ll admit right off that I don’t know what “a path to your vibrationally highest self” means, but then again, turquoise is not one of my favorite stones. I have worn rose quartz, amethyst, and occasionally onyx, but felt nothing in particular regarding my emotions, confidence, or sleep (though, to be fair, I never have worn amethysts to bed). Amethysts for relief of addictions most likely goes back to medieval days, when they were thought to counteract poisons.

Then I checked another site, which connected assorted crystals and stones specifically with mental health issues. Here the results were more specific and more focused. Rose quartz was again associated with emotional turmoil, which is pretty close to releasing toxic emotions. Blue lace agate, a very pretty stone, was associated with journaling, which was both different and interesting.

Even more interesting to me were the purported beneficial effects of amber, unakite, tiger’s eye, and smoky quartz. According to this website, amber, perhaps my favorite semiprecious gem (though not technically a crystal), is particularly effective for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Unakite, a little-known stone that mixes gray-green and dusky pink colors, is said to be beneficial for anxiety and negative thoughts, both of which I, of course, have in abundance.

Smoky quartz appears to be the recommended crystal for depression and tiger eye for mood swings. Both should therefore help with my bipolar disorder. (I don’t remember whether smoky quartz was among the crystals and stones offered in the antidepression crystal ad, but according to this website, it should have been.) I used to wear a ring of tiger’s eye, but it did nothing to ward off bipolar.

I can’t see any scientific basis for crystals having any sort of effect on a person’s emotional states. But I suppose that if these stones bring you some solace or seem to encourage your healing, I shouldn’t put them (or you) down. I don’t happen to believe in their alleged powers myself, but I also know that affirmations, CBT, and positive thinking don’t work for me, as far as my mental health goes, while they do work for other people.

But I do think it is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst for that particular website to advertise that these varied stones and crystals all have antidepressant effects. Even those who believe in the power of crystals believe that different ones have different effects.

Personally, I think that a black crystal would do more to reinforce depression than to ward it off. I know someone will tell me if they think I’m wrong.

 

 

When You Don’t Want to Live, but You Don’t Want to Die

“I hope I don’t wake up tomorrow morning.”

That is the classic thought of someone suffering from passive suicidal ideation. It’s not really a desire to die by suicide. It’s just a way of expressing how much it hurts to be you.

It’s not active suicidal ideation, the kind where you make an actual plan to kill yourself, even if you never put it into practice. It’s passive, meaning that you’d like to be dead but don’t intend on doing anything about it. It’s like asking the universe to take over and do it for you.

I’ve certainly had passive suicidal thoughts. Once I was very stressed and depressed while coming home from a business conference. I clearly remember thinking, “Maybe the plane will go down and keep me from having to deal with all this.” I certainly had no plan to rush the cockpit with a box cutter or anything like that. I just wanted my pain to be over. I wanted the choice taken out of my hands.

Another time I was at a business meeting in a swanky hotel that had rooms surrounding the lobby on numerous floors. I remember being on the 16th floor, looking down at the atrium beneath with what felt like idle curiosity. Would it annoy the hotel more, I wondered, if I landed on the carpeted area, necessitating a thorough cleaning or total replacement? Or would they be more upset if I landed on the marble floor portion of the lobby, making a bigger mess and potentially chipping the surface? (And was it just a coincidence that business meetings made me contemplate my mortality or did they just come packed with a lot of stressful triggers?)

At neither time was I actively suicidal. I’ve been there once too, and this was completely different. When I was suicidal, I had actual plans and plenty of means to carry out any one of them. I’m not going to discuss what those plans were. (The difficulty of choosing among them may have been what kept me from actually doing it. By then my depression had lifted just enough for me to get help.)

It was easy enough later to make jokes about the passively suicidal occasions and most people took them as exactly that – jokes. It was even plausible that they were jokes. I used to talk about jumping out a window, adding that it wouldn’t work because I lived in a basement. It was only much later that I thought about it and realized that I needed help even on those occasions. After all, isn’t pain the source of much humor and the downfall of many comedians?

Passive suicidal ideation is asking yourself “what if?” What if my troubles were over? What if my pain was gone? What if all I had to do to accomplish this was to let that bus hit me instead of stepping out of the way?

The important thing to remember is that someone passively suicidal is in great psychological pain and wants not to feel that way anymore. In that respect, it’s similar to cutting or other self-harm. And like those acts, it doesn’t end the pain at all. It may be a temporary escape valve, but it’s not a solution.

Passive suicidal ideation is certainly a bad thing and an excellent reason to see your psychiatrist or therapist as soon as possible. If you hear a friend or loved one talking this way, encourage them as strongly as possible to seek help. Let a professional decide if the person has passive suicidal ideation or active suicidal ideation. It is entirely possible that passive suicidal ideation will lead to the more active kind and even to death if it is not dealt with.

No Resolutions – Just Memories and Hopes

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But since January is named after Janus, the two-faced god that can look both ways, I do look to the past and the future just to see what I can see.

Last year was a very mixed bag. It brought the heights of joy and the depths of depression, along with a little hypomania and dysthymia thrown in just because my brain does that.

The big negative this year was my husband’s heart attack in August and all the medical and financial repercussions that entailed. He’s back at work now, though he’s having difficulty managing the mental and physical stresses of it, so much so that he hasn’t made it to cardiac rehab in over a week. Rehab is not just a good thing physically; Dan said it made him feel energized, productive, and cheerful. I know, I know, exercise could do the same for me.

Still, there have been good things. My book, named after this blog, has now been published. This is a huge event in my life that lifted me temporarily out of depression and into (possibly) hypomania. And I have retired, meaning only that I will start collecting Social Security next year. It will not alter my blogging, writing, or other pursuits, since what I make from them won’t be over the “allowed-to-make-in-addition” line.

As for next year, I expect to see more of the same (minus, I hope, the heart attack). There will still be problems paying the bills, including the massive hospital one, but at least I will have a steady, fixed income. It will help me with my anxiety over potential financial collapse and my unreasonable fear of losing the house.

I’m also planning to get away for another long weekend at a bed-and-breakfast on a working farm. The last time we did it, it proved enormously soothing and relaxing. Another such mini-vacation would be ideal. We certainly won’t be able to take a full vacation, so I won’t even hope for that.

The other good news is that my second book, Bipolar Us, will be published. It may not be attended with the same level of hypomania that the first one was, but at the very least there will be real joy. Also in the coming year, I plan to finish my mystery novel and place it with an agent.

As far as my bipolar disorder, in the coming year, I will still have it. I expect that my meds will change not at all, or minimally since I’ve been relatively stable for so long. But I know it won’t go away just because I’ve crossed “publishing a book” off my bucket list. That’s not the way it works.

If this sounds like my 2019 will be more of the same, well, that’s because that is truly what I expect. Of course, my expectations will have no influence on the outcome. The year will be what it will be, as rife with unexpected events as this one was. My main hopes are that my husband’s health and my writing both improve.

I’ll try to remember the lessons learned from this year – that we are both strong and good things can happen to us. And I’ll try to plan for some positive accomplishments in 2019 and hope they’re within our reach. I won’t call them resolutions, though. Resolutions are so easily broken and I don’t like to think that my plans and hopes are.

Men, Women, and Mental Health

My husband is no stranger to situational depression. He experienced it when his father died, when a beloved pet passed unexpectedly, and when his job turned suddenly more stressful and meaningless.

But he didn’t understand clinical, chronic depression. “What would it be like if those feelings lasted for months at a time, or even years?” I asked. He said he couldn’t even picture it. “That’s the way my life is,” I explained. Then he lost his job, and after a brief period of relief from the stress, he finally experienced depression that lasted more than two weeks – two years, in fact, during which he was unable to work.

He did not seek help for it until his best friend and I both proactively encouraged (i.e., nagged) him to do something about it. He’s been on an SSRI ever since and has occasionally seen a psychologist.

Lately, there has been a movement to educate men about mental illness and mental health. Primary among its goals is to help men understand that mental illness is a thing that can affect them and that there is no shame in asking for help.

Certainly, the statistics bear out that the majority of mental health consumers are women. Psychology Today reports: “Research suggests that women are about 40% more likely than men to develop depression. They’re twice as likely to develop PTSD, with about 10% of women developing the condition after a traumatic event, compared to just 4% of men. It’s easy to write off this epidemic of mental illness among women as the result of hormonal issues and genetic gender differences, or even to argue that women are simply more ’emotional’ than men. The truth, though, is that psychiatrists aren’t really sure why mental illness is more common among women.” Perhaps the answer is that seeking treatment for mental illness is more common in women.

Prevention magazine says that there are four mental health conditions that affect women more than men: depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. That PTSD is twice as common in women may surprise you, though the stats about eating disorders are not likely to. The fact is that, although few women experience the traumas that soldiers do, they are much more likely to experience other sorts of trauma, such as rape, which can also lead to PTSD.

But men experience societal and psychological barriers to getting help when they need it. Among the excuses you hear are these:

  • I don’t really need help.
  • I can handle this myself.
  • I don’t want to appear weak.
  • I might lose my job if anyone finds out.

In other words, a lot of bullshit that boils down to “I’m a man and mental illness is not manly. Asking for help is not manly. Talking about emotional problems is not manly. Taking medication for a personal problem is not manly. Not being able to deal with my problems, especially emotional problems, is not manly. Therefore I have no mental problems and don’t need treatment for them because I’m a man.”

Or, looked at another way, the campaigns against stigma around mental illness have been less than effective for most men. Now the attention to that problem, which is surely needed, is beginning to be heard and, one hopes, acted upon.

Still, it’s important to remember that mental illness is not just a men’s problem or a women’s problem. It is a human problem, affecting both genders (and all ages and races) if not equally, then without discriminating.

It is important to get men the mental and emotional help they need, in a timelier and more comprehensive fashion.  I would have liked to see my husband be willing to recognize when he needed to get help and to get it without being pushed. But it would be wrong to push the needs of women aside to accomplish this. This is a societal problem, and while right now spreading the word to men is particularly important, our goal should be to make sure that all people are aware of the prevalence of mental illness, the fact that it can happen to them, and that there are places to get help. That message, at least, is not gender-specific.

The Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

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When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.

 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

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

art board cooking flowers

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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.

 

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