My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘psychological pain’

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

“Don’t be sad/angry/upset.”

“Calm down.”

“Smile. It’ll make you feel better.”

“Stop getting all revved up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 5 Stages of Depression

One of my depression triggers has been well and truly tripped and I am experiencing the long plunge downward. It’s been quite a while since this has happened, but oh, how well I remember it.cracked egg conceptual image for birth

In the classical Five Stages of Grieving, depression is the fourth, right before acceptance. For me, in the Five (or however many) stages of depression, the first stage is (duh) depression. I guess the next four would be immobility, numbness, despair, and Total Meltdown.

Right now I would have to say that I am somewhere between depression and immobility. I got out of bed for a few hours today, and I am writing this. I managed to get a big project done before this bout of depression hit, which was a Good Thing. I also now have a good supply of meds on hand, which is, I think, an Even Better Thing.

The Best Thing is that I have Dan, my husband. He just made sure I got a hot meal and is now giving me space and alone time, which is what I need more than attempts at engagement. And a cat just licked my face, which would be comforting if he hadn’t just been licking his butt.

As Jenny Lawson says, depression lies. Right now it’s telling me I’m useless, helpless, guilty, and ashamed. I hope that at least some of these are lies, though at the moment they’re what my brain is telling me is true. Then add in a large helping of catastrophizing, which at the moment is more likely to happen than not. I can’t see a way out.

Since I’ve been through this process before, I know the things that will help (at least a little) and those that won’t. I’ll try to keep my brain engaged enough to continue writing, and I’ll try to intersperse the doom and gloom with some ideas I made notes on before all this hit. I feel a responsibility to this blog and its readers to keep the thing going as best I can.

Based on my estimate, this episode is likely to last a minimum of two months. Maybe this time I can stop the slide before Total Meltdown. Wish me luck.

Owning My Bullying

bullying, written on vintage metal texture

I have written many times before this on the subject of bullying – and now I have to admit that I have been a bully too.

Bullying is often seen in stereotypical terms as a larger kid extorting money from a smaller, weaker one, or torturing someone in the locker room with “swirlies” and other indignities. But there are many kinds of bullying. There is physical bullying – the kind most people thing of. There is ostracism or social bullying – the stereotype of which is the clique of mean girls or arrogant jocks. There are racist bullying, ethnic bullying, socioeconomic bullying, ableist bullying, sexual bullying, and just about any other type you can name.

Nowadays, one of the most vicious types of bullying, with the most harmful and longest-lasting effects, is cyberbullying. The tools of connection are being used to separate, exclude, and destroy reputations and even lives.

None of those is the kind of bully I was.

I was an intellectual bully. And since I realized that – only recently – I am ashamed.

I am not ashamed of my intelligence or my educational accomplishments. Those were the products of nature and nurture that I had little control over. It was what I did with those advantages that is shameful.

I used my smarts and my vocabulary to squash other students.

It may have started as a defense against the bullying I received – physical and social and whatever else. Intelligence seemed like the only weapon I had, and I wielded it as one. I was taking revenge in the only way I knew how. And that is something I should never have done.

I may not have intended it that way, but every snarky remark, every intellectual put-down, every sesquipedalian word flung back at my bullies carried a message. I was telling them that they were stupid and inferior, and that I was smarter  – better – than they were.

If that’s not bullying, I don’t know what is. And I’m sure it caused damage to egos and self-esteem, as well as perpetuating the cycle of be-bullied-and-bully that leaves countless perpetrators and victims in its wake.

Later in life, as my bipolar disorder deepened, I turned the bullying inward. I made self-deprecating remarks, snarked at myself, even made fun of myself for being overeducated and pedantic. I thought I had to do these thing to myself before someone else did them to me. It was at once a measure of my profoundly low self-esteem and a way to lower it even further.

In essence, I was bullying myself. And I’ve known other people who have done likewise. (For what it’s worth, I’ve since learned that it can be profoundly irritating to listen to a person tear himself or herself down this way.)

Intellectual bullying is a hard habit to break. The words, the ideas, the sarcasm are there for the using. The consequence, of course, is driving people away, sometimes without even realizing it. I have done this and seen it only when looking back at the potential or actual friends lost, the coworkers who thought I was a jerk, the people I’ve hurt.

I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit. Oddly, the Internet helps. It is, as has been noted, true that there are few ways to convey tone of voice in chat or email. There is no sarcasm font. But there are ways to let the recipient know that you do not mean a message literally or unkindly. You can place <snerk> after a remark or a  😛 emoji or a sticker that demonstrates you mean well. I’ve even seen people use <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> around their messages to make them clearer.

But mostly, I try to guard my speech. I have to install a little censor (or sensor) that says, “Ooh! That’s funny! But is it insulting?” before I make a remark.

I’d rather pause for a second and look like a doof than go back to being a bully.

Stuffing Your Feelings in a Box

We all know it’s a bad idea to stuff your feelings, especially if you then pile food or alcohol on top of them.

The thing is, sometimes you need to suppress a feeling, for just a little while, in order to get through a difficult situation. When that happens, I put my feelings in a box.Cardboard box with the zipper isolated on white background

Here’s an example. My father was dying, and had only days to live. We all knew it. My mother, who didn’t drive, asked me to take her shopping for something to wear at his funeral. “Do you mind if I don’t wear black?” she asked. “If you don’t mind that I do,” I replied.

It was my first encounter with a close family death, and I had to get through this awful, wrenching shopping trip. I had to keep my composure so that my mother could keep her composure. I had to steer her away from a flowered dress, which would have been fine for church, to a navy suit and a lighter blue top, which would be suitable for a funeral but not so somber that she couldn’t wear it for anything else. All while my father lay in the hospital, dying painfully of bone cancer.

My feelings were complicated and I absolutely could not afford to feel them at that time. I had to stuff them in a box and close the lid on them until my mother’s needs had been met. Then I could let them out, in a time and place where it was safe to, in the presence of a person I could trust with those feelings.

When such circumstances arise – and they will, in one form or another – I recommend using a box, one in which the feelings will be out of sight for a while. A box is small; only a few feelings will fit in it. If you think the feelings are going to leak out, you can sit on the lid. Then, when it has served its purpose, you can rip the box open (or gently lift the lid) and feel the feelings. Cry. Rage. Grieve. That’s the important part.

You have to experience the grief or fear or even the crushing weight of guilt in order to come through it and heal.

But why put feelings in a box instead of something stronger? Who wants to feel those negative emotions anyway? Aren’t we better off without them? Shouldn’t you just build a wall around them to keep them from breaking out?

We’ve all tried it. It works for a while. But a couple of consequences go with the practice. First, all of your feelings get trapped behind that wall – the good as well as the bad. When you find yourself disconnected from all your feelings, life is a gray blur. In your depression or anxiety or fear or rage, you may not have had many good feelings. But when you build that wall, you cut off even the possibility of having them.

Second, you’re only postponing the pain. The wall will leak sometimes; your unpleasant feelings will come out some way – in your dreams, around your eyes, in sudden spurts, or trickling back into your everyday life. Worse, the wall may shatter – fail altogether, releasing all those feelings in an unstoppable torrent, only stronger and more concentrated from having been confined. They overwhelm both you and anyone in the vicinity. It’s not pretty. And it’s destructive – to you, your mental health, your healing, your employment, your relationships – to every aspect of your life.

If feelings are behind a wall, you may be able to tell yourself they don’t exist. But if you stuff them in a handy box, you can choose the time and place to open it – and yourself – back up.

 

The Comfort That Remains

Here I am, caught between reactive depression and clinical depression.

If you’ve been reading my last several posts, you know that I’ve been having a rough month. Several months. It’s been a real challenge to my hard-won quasi-stability.

3ff82b43-7ccd-4bde-8219-be5598c73452Last week, my 20+ year old cat, Louise died. The week before that, my husband’s 17+ year old cat died. So now I am trying to deal with those reactive feelings of grief and loss, without losing myself in the eternally waiting Pit of Despair that is clinical depression.

In doing that, I am trying to find things that remain to take comfort in.

I take comfort that my husband was here with me, to help me through.

That Louise had a good, long life spent in our loving care since she was a tiny kitten.

That she died peacefully, at home, in my lap, with me petting her.

That I had a chance to say goodbye to her.

That I know she loved me as much as I loved her.

That her presence and her purr helped calm me and helped me when nothing else could.

That she gave me a constant presence through a third of my life, and all of hers.

We have two cats now – Dushenka and Toby. They are young and healthy, but of course our time with them is not guaranteed. I know that, just by having them and loving them, we are inviting future grief into our lives, along with the joy. That’s just how it is.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on animals, humans, and what we share with each other. I know this is likely to happen again, and soon, for our dog is also aged and nearly ready to go. It’s hard. Is it harder when your brain doesn’t work right and tries to tell you that sorrow doesn’t end?

I don’t know.There’s no scale by which to compare pain, and loss, and despair, and grief. We each go through it the only way we can.

I hope that soon, at least a few of the clouds will part and I can feel something besides sorrow, express something other than pain. Maybe next week’s blog will be about healing, or coping, or sharing strengths.

Those are all things I need to be doing – that we all need to be doing.

Someone remarked this week that a recent post (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-k8) was not about healing. It reflected, the commenter said, all the privileges I have – money (or those who can lend it to me), drugs I can take to help me through a crisis (too many, according to the commenter), a supportive husband. And that’s all true. I have these privileges and more besides – a home, work that I can do without leaving the house, insurance, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Some of these come to me because of circumstances I don’t control, and some I have had to work very hard for, as I have worked hard for the ability to heal, a little bit at a time.

There are still things I cannot do – leave the house more than twice a month or so, shop for groceries, see the dentist without massive panic, stop taking the psychotropic meds that allow me to think, have a healthy sexual relationship. I expect that some of these will get better and others won’t.

But, no matter our symptoms or their severity, we as people with bipolar disorder are all in this together – or as the Bloggess would say, alone together. Maybe I have an easier time of it, but that’s far from saying it’s easy for me.

I still experience grief and sorrow, depression and anxiety, irrationality and immobilization, pain and despair, relief and help, struggle and hard work, love and loneliness.

And always, I look for the comfort that comes when I need it most, or expect it least, or believe I’ll never feel again. We all do.

Struggles and Tears

In the past week I have had to deal with:

  • My husband being out of town
  • Said husband driving home for 10 hours with faulty brakes
  • My insurance company going belly-up
  • My meds running out before new insurance could be implemented
  • My cat going missing
  • My check being late, so I could not pay mortgage, pay new insurance, pay for meds, pay power bill
  • Being immobilized and unable to leave the house

Out of all of those, which do you think came nearest to breaking my brain, causing me to catastrophize and dissolve into prolonged fits of weeping?

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Woodcut by Peggy McCarty. Used by permission.

If you guessed the missing cat, you’re right. One day she trotted out the deck door while I was feeding the dog, a thing she had never done before. I scooped her up and put her back inside, and resolved to close the door further in the future. Louise is 20 and rather thin, so it’s easy to misjudge what she can squeeze through.

When my husband got back (safely), he took over feeding the dog. Then the next day, Louise didn’t show up for her morning breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. She usually has a hearty appetite and meows quite loudly if a meal is late.

Naturally, I thought she had gotten outside again and was lost. We searched through the house, calling her name, and went around outside the house doing likewise. My husband thought she might be feeling poorly and holed up somewhere, most likely in the basement, which is also the garage and not easy to search because of all the clutter.

I thought she must have gotten out and succumbed to some fate out in the woods – a dog or other animal, the rain, hunger, illness and debilitation.

I was convinced she was gone for good. And I had thought I still had more time with her, despite her advanced age (20+). I was inconsolable. My precious cat, gone. No knowing what had happened to her. No chance to say goodbye. No way to comfort her in her last hours on earth.

Dan told me that everything would be all right, but I didn’t believe him.

Then, the next day, she showed up at mealtime, bellowing that she wanted food NOW! Dan had been right. She had hidden somewhere in the house and came out when she was ready to.  I had my darling Louise back, for however long she still has.

Then, after the long holiday weekend, the check came and I paid the bills and set up the new insurance and got my meds and went out to lunch with Dan and everything was all right.

Just a little while ago, I wrote about how having a cat saved my sanity (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-jS) and how they can be good for people with mental disorders. I even said that losing a pet could teach us something about the grieving process.

But when my own cat disappeared, all that philosophizing went out the window (or the deck door). Louise was gone and I was bereft. Nothing anyone could say could make it better. And the situation was complicated by the fact that both one of our other cats and our dog are also ancient. I know I will go through their loss, and likely soon.

Will I hold up any better?

I really don’t know. The other cat and the dog are my husband’s, bonded to him the way Louise is bonded to me. Likely his grief will be greater than mine. Or maybe when they pass they will remind me of how close I came to losing Louise. Maybe I’ll be able to support him in his loss, or maybe my brain will break again. Maybe it will happen when I am more stable, with fewer disasters and near-disasters clustering around my head.

That’s the thing with pets. You never know how long you have with them. You never know whether you’ll be relatively stable when you have to face their loss.

But I know I won’t give them up. The loneliness of not having them is even worse than the pain of their going.

ETA: Dan’s ancient cat Garcia passed away peacefully at home this morning (Saturday). We were both with him at the end.

Trigger Warning: Trigger Warnings

What is a trigger warning?

Let’s start with a more basic question. What is a trigger?

Just as a literal trigger activates a gun, a figurative trigger activates your mental disorder. It’s a stimulus that sets off either a manic or depressive phase, or a bout of PTSD.

Triggers are usually unique to the individual. What sets you off may not affect me at all.

Over the years I’ve learned what my triggers are, and so do most bipolar or PTSD sufferers. Loud noises and large crowds trigger my anxiety, which is why I could never work at a Chuck E. Cheese. My depressive phases don’t often have triggers except for bad dreams about an ex-boyfriend. Most of my depressive episodes just happen without a trigger.

Generally, one avoids triggers, because who needs more manic or depressive phases in addition to those that occur naturally, with no prompting?

A trigger warning is something else. It is a notice that someone puts at the beginning of a piece of writing to warn readers that the subject matter may be intense. Ordinarily, trigger warnings are given for major life events that have caused trauma and may cause flashbacks, severe stress  or other extreme reactions.

Some of the most common trigger warnings are for graphic depictions of rape, suicide, self harm, or physical or sexual abuse. The trigger warning says to a potential reader: If you don’t want to encounter this material, if you think it will make your illness worse, or cause you undue stress, don’t read any further.

Although we call relatively minor stimuli triggers, they usually do not require trigger warnings. If you’re going to write about having a fight with your mother, you probably don’t need to put a trigger warning on it. If your mother hit you in the face with a frying pan and sent you to the ER, you might need to place a trigger warning on your post about it.

Online, the standard form for trigger warnings is first to state, often in all caps, TRIGGER WARNING and state the type of trigger it is – TRIGGER WARNING: SELF-HARM, TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDAL THOUGHTS, etc. To be extra sensitive, the writer leaves a number of blank spaces or a few dots before beginning to write the difficult material. This gives the reader the choice of whether to scroll down and read it or not.

Trigger warnings have become controversial, particularly in schools and colleges. Many pieces of literature and even textbooks on history or sociology discuss difficult topics that may be triggering. For example, a novel might feature a rape as a plot point, or a history text might discuss slavery.

Some people believe that a trigger warning will help a prospective reader know whether reading further will provoke a strong reaction. Other people believe that trigger warnings are a way of coddling the weak and letting students avoid challenging material that is necessary for the class.

My own opinion is that a trigger warning is like chicken soup: It won’t hurt and might help. It may mean that a student asks for an alternative reading or assignment, but it also may mean that the student simply wants to be in a safe space – not surrounded by strangers, for example – before reading the material.

People that believe trigger warnings should not be given have usually not experienced the kind of emotional breakdown that can result from unexpectedly confronting a traumatic topic. Very likely they have never even been in the presence of someone who has had such an extreme reaction.

I suppose that ideally, we could all read any material and simply brush it off if we found it troubling. Unfortunately, for those of us with mental disorders such as bipolar illness, PTSD, and anxiety disorders, this is simply not possible. A trigger warning may prevent someone from having a public meltdown and others from having to witness one.

I don’t know why that should be controversial. It seems like simple courtesy to me.

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