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Posts tagged ‘my experiences’

The Fire and the Window

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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

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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 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.

The Disability Tapdance

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Once I applied for disability for my bipolar disorder and I was turned down Then I took the process as far as I could with a lawyer and he eventually advised me to give it up too. Here’s my story.

I had gotten to the end of my proverbial rope and we had gotten to the end of our money. For over a year I had been sidelined by unremitting depression. There was nothing I could do and nothing my psychiatrist prescribed or my therapist said had helped. We had been living on my husband’s salary and what was in my 401K from when I had last been able to work.

At last my husband pointed out that we couldn’t hold out much longer. He encouraged me to apply for disability. I knew that there would be lots of hoops to jump through and that there was no guarantee of succeeding. But Dan was willing to go with me to the Federal Building and help me get through it. I certainly wasn’t capable of managing it on my own.

Between the two of us, we had looked up what sorts of documents I would need and had acquired them. I was glad we were able to do this because going back again and again for missing documents would have been a horror. I had my appointment with the intake person and went back home to wait.

There were more forms to come. My psychiatrist had to fill out a long one, of course, or write a letter, I don’t remember which. I had to pay him for his time and trouble in doing that but at that point it was just another step that needed taking.

The big step was the psychological interview where I had to perform my little song and dance and convince someone that I was truly disabled. Fortunately, the appointment was not downtown in the Federal Building but in a relatively nearby office building that I knew how to find. Then the hoop-jumping and tap dancing really began.

They tested my memory. They told convoluted stories and asked me questions about them such as the order in which things happened and why the characters did what they did. They were confusing.

They tested my spatial perception. They had me put together those cubes with triangles on them to match patterns they showed me. I still don’t know what that had to do with bipolar disorder.

Then came factual knowledge. I was good at that one. I admit I guessed when they asked me how big around the equator was. I knew the easy stuff like who wrote Tom Sawyer and such.

By the time they got to the word association test, I was very tired. First they gave a pair of words and asked what they had in common, easy ones like truck and train. Later they gave difficult pairs of words that seemed to have nothing in common, like acceptance and denial, but I was supposed to come up with a commonality anyway.

Finally, an interview. I remember the woman asking me if I knew what the saying, “What goes around, comes around” meant. I replied, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and she looked at me funny.

A seemingly endless time later my claim was denied and I got a lawyer to pursue it. By that time so much time had passed that I was coming out of the depression and was able to work a few hours a week. How much did I get paid per hour? he asked. “Thirty dollars,” I said, explaining that I could only work a very limited number of hours. It didn’t matter. As soon as I said thirty dollars the judge’s head would explode, evidently. Lawyer Joe recommended I drop the claim and I did. At least I was getting some work and some income even without disability.

It seemed that for me to get disability I would have had to be together enough not to need it, but sufficiently disabled that I would. Catch-22, as Joseph Heller said.

 

 

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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