My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘my experiences’

Rebuilding Myself

After my last (and, I hope, last) major bipolar breakdown, my therapist pointed out that I had a unique opportunity: I could reclaim those parts of my life that had fallen away, or I could leave them behind.

I could choose. That idea was very powerful.

I had a lot of irrational feelings and associations that I needed to reconsider after leaving a toxic relationship. I had given up needlework after making an elaborate set of chair backs destined to be inherited by someone else’s children that I would never see. I got to dismiss those feelings and reclaim my creativity. I chose to take up needlework again. Whoever’s children can have the chair backs.

In fact, I had bad associations with nearly everything associated with that relationship: folk music, guitar lessons, cooking and entertaining, even blue spruce trees and cobalt blue glassware, for God’s sake. I reclaimed the music and the cooking, but let the entertaining largely fall by the wayside, as it triggered my bipolar disorder as well as my memories. I got over the blue spruce and learned to shrug at anything cobalt blue, though I still don’t buy any.

None of these things caused my major meltdown, though they may have contributed to my shaky mental state. They were simply things that I had lost along the way. And since I was in the process of rebuilding myself afterward, I could view them as stones to build something solid with or as broken bricks to discard.

Rebuilding from the bipolar breakdown was not as easy as merely taking back a few hobbies and interests. It involved reevaluating large parts of my life. Would I go back to school and get another degree? I would not. I weighed the idea and decided it would be too much stress just to add a few more letters after my name. Would I resurrect my mostly-dormant writing career? Yes. And I’ve taken it further than I ever thought I would. Would I reconnect with the country music I loved best but had been shamed for listening to? Of course!

The process of putting myself back together is one I have been through several times now, and each time I got to choose what to bring with me and what to leave behind. Bipolar disorder, much as I hate what it has done to me in so many ways, has at least given me that chance to reinvent myself if I wished to or resurrect myself if I felt like it.

I’ve always hated when people say about some bad experience I’ve had such as my appalling relationship or my bipolar condition, “But you’ve learned so much from it!” I always think, “Maybe so, but the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid.” But having the opportunity to rebuild myself – and especially to choose what I want to be part of the new me – is very nearly worth it. I owe that epiphany to my longtime therapist, Dr. B. But I’m the one doing the work. And it is indeed very much a work in progress. I am a work in progress.

Bipolar disorder is one of the bricks I have to rebuild with, and it always threatens to make my new structure a bit shaky rather than completely solid. But isn’t every life a work in progress? Don’t we all have bricks or timbers or stones that are at least a little unsound or misshapen, that we have to shore up or fit in as best we can?

I can’t guarantee that my structure won’t crumble again, though it has been relatively stable for some time now. But at least now I know that I have the ability to start over yet again. And to choose myself. That choice is both powerful and empowering. Just as it is said that all writing is rewriting, all my building is rebuilding.

And I’m okay with that.

Good Enough

I know a man who used to be caught in all-or-nothing thinking. Anything at all – a dinner, a gift – had to be “fantastic” or it was “wrecked.” “Okay” wasn’t good enough. “Fine” wasn’t good enough. “Nice” wasn’t good enough. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough. He heard them all as “wrecked.”

Fortunately, over the years, he learned to accept compliments that were lesser than “fantastic.” He could even understand “needs work” or “meh” without feeling that those meant “wrecked.”

There was I time when I thought my life was wrecked. Irretrievably, permanently wrecked. All I had to look forward to was someone recognizing my wretched wreckedness and having me committed. Fantastic was never even an option.

Later I learned that my life wasn’t wrecked, though it surely hit some rough patches and there were a few things that were wrecked along the way – friendships, my self-esteem. But gradually I learned that the problem was not wreckage, it was bipolar disorder.

And now my life is not wretched and wrecked. Bipolar disorder has backed off.

I don’t think I’ve been cured of bipolar disorder, because I don’t think that’s possible. I think that the most that you can say is that I’m in remission.

And that’s okay.

I’m content with the idea that I’ll have to take medications for the rest of my life. They’re what got me here and they’re what keep me here, in the land of Good Enough.

I don’t ever expect to be normal – whatever that means – but I do expect to remain reasonably functional. I have a good marriage. I can do paying work. I have a comfortable home. I’m stable most of the time. I go to a psychiatrist only for med checks.

I have just enough symptoms to remind me how I used to be (that is, dreadful, miserable, and sometimes numb). I still don’t like to go out of the house, but I can if I need to. I still have to lean on my husband for support. I still get free-floating anxiety at times. But those are symptoms I can live with.

Of course, the road to remission has been very (very) long. I’ve fought my way through meltdowns. I’ve had to learn coping skills and some degree of self-care. I’ve tried nearly every combination of medications on the market, except for the newest ones – I’m not switching from what works now in hopes of getting a little bit better. Because that might not happen.

And because I’m good enough.

I’m good enough to write blogs. I’m good enough to write a book (I wrote a book!). I’m good enough to have lots of friends, both online and off. I’m good enough to help other people who are going through the same things I did.

I’ll never be perfect, but let’s be honest, that was never a goal of mine or even a possibility, really.

But I feel I have beaten this bipolar disorder; it hasn’t beaten me.

And that’s good enough for me.

What My Husband Has Learned From My Bipolar Disorder

First, let me say I’ve learned a lot from my husband and from my bipolar disorder. The two of us have been married for more than 35 years and I’ve been bipolar all that time. I’ve learned a lot from him about caregiving, steadfast love, and coping, among many other things.

But he’s also learned a few things from living with me and my disorder. I asked him to tell me about it, and here’s what he said he learned.

He can’t fix me or control my emotions. (Of course, the corollary to this is neither can I.) “It’s not necessarily my fault when she feels bad and it’s not my responsibility to make her feel better,” he says. This particular lesson caused both of us a lot of trouble early in our marriage. Dan would blame himself for my moods and become angry when he couldn’t do anything to make me feel better or even respond to his attempts. He was in there trying, but he had to learn to let go and help me find ways to work toward my own healing.

He knows my comfort items and my triggers. Over the years, Dan has learned that while he can’t make me better by himself, he can help me get the things that bring me comfort and avoid the things that trigger me. For example, he knows I find watching cooking shows calming. Him, not so much. But often he joins me on the sofa while I indulge. “Sometimes I’ll sit and be with her even if I’m not really interested in the cooking shows,” he says. “Just to be with her. I do it because I want to be with her.” Sometimes I do that with him too, when he watches shows about treasure hunting or weird science. Sometimes we even sit together and watch shows we both like, such as Forged in Fire.

He has also learned about things that trigger my anxiety, such as loud noises. “I have to be mindful if she’s in a place where loud noises affect her,” he says.  “If I do have to hammer or pound on something, I give a warning so that she’s not blindsided or startled by it.” “There’s going to be a crashing noise,” he says, or “Everything’s okay. I just dropped a pan.” He also lets me know where he’s going to be and how to get hold of him in case I panic badly.

He knows to ask, offer, or get out of the way. I can be needy at times, but don’t always know what it is I need. At times like that he’ll ask, “Do you need a hug? Do you need to eat?” Other times he’ll simply give me that hug or put on one of my comfort movies (The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance usually draws me out of bed). If neither one of us can figure out what might help, he’ll simply let me alone until I feel better or until I think of something.

If I do ask for something I need he’ll say, “You can get that.” If he can’t do what I need, we’ll sometimes negotiate a partial solution. Or he’ll give me the tools to do it myself.

He knows how to help with self-care. Like so many people with bipolar disorder, I find that taking a shower, getting dressed, and going out requires quite a number of spoons, sometimes more than I have. Dan helps with that. For example, he’ll give me a clean towel and clean clothes, and remind me that I need that shower. Or he’ll encourage me to get out of the house by negotiating how many errands we’ll do on a given day or by including a stop at a bookstore or a favorite restaurant among them.

He knows that self-care is important for him too. Sometimes he’s the one who needs that hug or that alone time, and he asks for it. He knows that I have learned that he needs these things too and that I will ask him what he needs, or offer it, or say, “You can get that” to him. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty vessel.

A lot of what we’ve both learned from my bipolar disorder are just the things that any partners need to learn: Tolerance. Give-and-take. Negotiation. Touching. Sharing. Civility. Support. We’ve both grown from the experience and that to me is very important. This marriage would never have worked if either one of us had stayed stuck in the way we were in the early days.

Ridding Your Life of Toxic People to Save Your Mental Health

It’s hard to cut toxic people from your life, even if the person is a gaslighter or other abuser. There’s always the temptation to give the person one more chance, believe his or her protestations of love or change, or to feel it is up to you to change the situation or the other person.

But sometimes it’s necessary to end the relationship.

A toxic person is like a psychic vampire who sucks all the confidence and energy and spirit from your life. He or she exhausts you emotionally and adds nothing to your life but annoyance, pain, and trouble.

Once or twice I’ve even been that toxic person when I was in the grips of the depressive phase of my bipolar disorder. Several people cut me out of their lives and I can’t say that they were wrong to do so. I gave nothing, only took. I was the psychic vampire. And I deeply regret that, even though my hurtful actions were manifestations of my disorder. It lasted so long, with no apparent signs of letting up, that it simply wasn’t worth it to them to continue to associate with me.

Once or twice I’ve been on the other side of the equation, though. I can think of two times in particular. One was when I got out of the relationship with the person who turned out to be gaslighting me, which I have written about before. I learned something from the experience (though I still maintain that the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid).

What I discovered is that it is better to make the break definitive. If you’re going to cut a toxic person out of your life, do it cleanly. Don’t leave that door open for continued contact. In my case, I felt I owed the person some money and sent him a little every month. An acquaintance called me on this and pointed out that even if I did owe money (which he doubted), it was better just to send a single, final payment and end it there.

So that’s what I did. I scraped together some money, wrote a check, and released myself from the ties that still bound me.

It’s somehow different when the toxic person is a family member, though. I won’t write much about the actual situation because I want to leave the person their privacy. But it was a toxic relationship that sucked time and energy from me and also from another person that I loved. It was concern for this other person that led me eventually to make the break, though I was growing weary of dealing with the person’s dramas, helplessness, vindictiveness, and general mean-spirited relations with me and others in the family.

I haven’t looked back. Some people have judged me harshly for taking that step because the person was, after all, family. Many people believe that family is more important than anything. But I chose my own mental health and refused to keep forgiving the damage done to both me and others. It took a lot of years until I was able to make the break, but I am never tempted to go back on my decision.

It’s easy to say that one should cut toxic people from one’s life, but it’s often a very hard thing to do. You can end up questioning yourself and your own motives. You can be shamed by others outside of the situation. You may regret your decision and wish you could mend the relationship.

My experience has taught me that sometimes that just isn’t possible. If the person is unwilling to or incapable of seeing the harm he or she has done, it’s likely to be a mistake to let the person have another chance to inflict more damage.

I plan on reaching out one more time to a person that I have harmed. But if they don’t respond, I’ll understand. I own that I was toxic and it was perfectly understandable that they cut me loose. I’ll always have regret and shame for the way I was, and I won’t try to insert myself back into their lives. I just want it to end on a less bad note if that makes any sense.

But I note that the toxic people whom I have cut from my life show no such inclination. I have to believe that they still believe they did nothing wrong and that they have not become less toxic. I still must protect myself and my mental health by not letting them back into my life.

And if that includes family, so be it.

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.

The One Pill I’m Embarrassed About Taking

I know that there are lots of people – and not just the bipolar ones – who don’t like taking medication and especially don’t like needing to take them. It’s a reminder of their illness, I guess, or a dependence on a chemical answer when we’ve been told for so long, “Just say no to drugs” and indoctrinated by DARE. The only thing they leave out is that some drugs are good for you – the prescribed ones that allow you to live and function.

I don’t mind my psychotropic medications. In fact, in many ways I love them. They are the things that keep me relatively stable, on a mostly even keel, and make sure that none of my mood swings lasts more than a couple of days. I loathe pill shaming and consider it just one more kind of stigma that attaches to mental illness (and other chronic illnesses).

But there is one medication I take every day that gives me pause. It is my sleeping pill. My psychiatrist prescribes them and I take one every night, along with my other nighttime pills. In about 20 minutes to an hour, I’m asleep, and I stay asleep usually until 8:00 a.m. or so. It means I get about eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

I do need that sleep. I’m not one of those people who can function on four or five hours of sleep, the way tech geniuses and high-powered execs claim they can. If I don’t get my eight hours – and sometimes even if I do – I take naps during the day. Not just naps: mega-naps. My brain and body sneer at 20-minute catnaps. If I’m going to sleep, they say, it must be an hour at a minimum. Two is even better.

It’s not like I want to go back to the days before the sleeping pills, either. I do still remember the long nights of fear and sorrow, the fits of crying, the panicky sensation of not being able to breathe. The endless mental replay of every stupid thing I’ve ever done. The anticipation of the disasters the next day would bring. The hopelessness and the helplessness and the loneliness. The feeling that I was the only being awake, maybe in the world. If a single little pill can save me from all that, I should be glad to take it.

Why, then, does it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel necessary in the way my psychotropics do. They are prescribed for my bipolar condition and somehow make the difference in how my neurotransmitters operate. The sleeping pill feels like a different category of drugs.

Or perhaps it is because sleeping pills are often a drug of abuse and even suicide. My psychiatrist trusts me with them, though, and has for years. Plus, my anti-anxiety med is also often abused and I feel no guilt about taking that.

Maybe it’s because a sleeping pill feels in some way like a luxury. I don’t think it does anything specific for my bipolar disorder – except that sleepless nights are certainly associated with depression and my middle-of-the-night anxiety as well.

I hate to think it, but maybe the pill-shamers have gotten to me. I take such a cocktail of assorted psychotropics that it’s perhaps natural I should ask myself every now and then if I’m overmedicated (my doctor doesn’t seem to think so) and whether I could do without any of the drugs. The sleeping pill is the only one that might be in that category.

But no. I don’t want to go back to the nights of distress, despair, and devastation. I don’t want to wake my husband up as I gasp for breath and need him to stroke my hair until I fall asleep. And I surely don’t want to go through those bad feelings all alone in the night while he works the third shift.

All in all, I think the sleeping pill is a good thing for me and that I shouldn’t try to give it up. I just wish I didn’t feel so ambivalent about it.

 

 

The Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.com

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.

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