My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘psychological pain’

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.

Forgiving and Forgetting

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Forgive and forget. That’s the saying.

To err is human; to forgive, divine. That’s another saying.

But what about when you can’t forget and can’t forgive? When you’re human, not divine?

Forgiveness is a tough subject for me, because there are things I can’t forget, despite the fact that either my bipolar disorder or my meds have made my memory spotty at best. But there are things I remember too well. And some of those I can’t forgive.

I can’t forgive the person who called my mother a murderer because she had her sick, ancient little dog euthanized. And then kept rubbing her face in it by saying she did not support my mother’s actions. This person caused my mother unnecessary pain when what she needed were understanding and comfort. By those criteria, I am a murderer too. A person that toxic is someone I don’t need in my life.

And maybe that’s wrong of me, but it was my decision.

Another person I can’t forget or forgive is my gaslighter, Rex, about whom I’ve written before (see https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-dR, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-4t). In one of those posts I said, of forgiving and forgetting:

I can’t do either. The memories have faded over time and seldom give me flashbacks anymore. (The dreams still come.) As for forgiving? He’s never asked for it and never would. I’m sure he doesn’t think he did anything that needed forgiving….

That emotional abuse happened, and I can’t forget it. It was my first serious relationship and I left chunks of my soul and most of my barely existent self-esteem in that house on the hilltop. I had failed – at the relationship, at meeting my parents’ expectations, at so many things. I felt I was the one who needed forgiveness and spent much of the following years repeating incessantly, “I’m sorry.”

I once encountered a Christian who said that the essence of forgiveness was to “fore-give,” to give someone something before they ask for it, as in Jesus, fore-giving his life for His followers. Or giving a homeless person your coat before they ask for it.

I’ve since been told that that’s an inaccurate reading of the word “forgive.” But at the time it stuck with me and influenced my thinking. If that was forgiveness, I didn’t understand it and couldn’t accomplish it. Something to do with that “to forgive, divine” thing.

I couldn’t fore-give my mother’s pain. I surely wouldn’t have given it to her myself and I couldn’t fore-give that other person the right or the opportunity to do so.

I couldn’t fore-give Rex my pain. I gave him enough of my life – over a year – as well as some of my hopes and dreams and aspirations. And yes, at the time, my love.

I’ve thought about writing him a letter, the kind that therapists often suggest you write as an exercise in exploring your feelings, explaining what went on from my point of view. But I haven’t – not even the kind that you don’t mail.

It would be futile. I’ve written about the person and the pain here in these posts and it hasn’t done a thing toward making me forget or forgive. Far from forgetting, I sometimes need to remind myself of the pain – to affirm to myself that yes, it really was that awful and to warn myself never to get caught in a situation like that again.

I don’t go through my life holding grudges against everyone who has ever wronged me (or my mother). Everyday hurts – unless they come every day – are possible to let go of. I’ve mostly forgotten the kids who bullied me in school. And I’ve forgiven them. They were kids and didn’t know any better. I’ve forgiven friends who have cut me out of their lives because they couldn’t handle my bipolar symptoms. Sometimes I can’t handle the symptoms either. If I get fed up with my disorder, it’s easy to see how someone else could too.

I’m not going to give you any advice on forgiveness and whether you should forgive or not. The topic is too complex and I don’t know how or why you’ve been wronged.

All I’m going to say is to be a little easy on yourself if you find you can’t forgive what you can’t forget. Those sayings about forgiveness are guidelines, not laws, and your situation may not fit into those guidelines. Just know that I do understand.

Reaching Out and Reaching In

A lot has been said in recent days about reaching out when you’re in trouble psychologically. And that’s always a good idea. Reach out to your friends, your family, your therapist, your psychiatrist, your church or synagogue or temple.

hands people friends communication

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Unfortunately, not everyone has those resources. And sometimes when you reach out to them, they do not reach back to you or even respond in hurtful ways.

Sometimes – many times – you’re just not able to reach out. That’s true of me, anyway. When major depression hits me like a truck, I get immobilized. Uncommunicative. Isolated. I usually have the wherewithal to get to my therapist, if my husband drives me, but not much more.

My family and friends can tell when I’m in trouble. And they do reach out, even when I don’t reach back.

My mother always knew when I hit a particularly bad spot because she could recognize it in my voice – it lacked animation, even if I was talking about something I loved. Not that I talked much or felt much. Depression can damp down all your feelings sometimes. You don’t cry, you don’t feel sad. You feel nothing. And it shows to someone who knows how to look and listen.

This is called “flat affect” by psychiatrists. The person’s face, voice, mannerisms do not reflect emotions, sometimes not even anxiety or despair. And sometimes people adopt a flat affect so as not to betray their inner turmoil. (It can still leak out around the eyes, even to relative strangers. And I don’t mean crying.)

My husband knows I’m depressed when I turn monosyllabic. Ordinarily, I enjoy talking to my husband about anything and nothing – things we’ve read or heard, what’s happening at work (his, mostly), funny things the cats did, and so forth. But when I stop responding and communicating, or respond only with “yeah,” “nah,” and “meh” sorts of answers, or don’t laugh or at least groan at his jokes, he knows I’m headed downward.

I stop communicating other ways, too. I don’t post on Facebook or only pass along the occasional pass-along. I skip commenting on posts regarding things I usually care about. I spend hours alone reading, if my sometimes-dubious powers of concentration let me. Or I sleep, and nap, then sleep some more. I certainly don’t leave the house or even make plans to go out. I don’t call friends. I isolate. I don’t reach out, like the memes say I’m supposed to.

I am fortunate to have friends that do reach out to me. John would lend me books, talk about them with me, and listen if I needed to vent. Peggy would call and invite me to visit, even when she knew I wasn’t leaving the house. Pete sometimes IM’s every day just to check in and JB assures me that when he IM’s and I don’t feel like chatting that’s still okay. Robbin calls me and tells me all about her life even when I can’t talk about mine, then says, “Let me know when you surface.” If she doesn’t hear from me for awhile, she calls again and reminds me that I can call her too. (She can also “read” my voice and knows when there’s some topic I’m avoiding.) My husband offers a hug or kisses me on the head. My mother prayed for me. I am fortunate indeed to have had people like these around me when I really need them.

Reaching out to others is good. So is reaching in to the suffering. Best is a combination of both. But that takes work and not everyone is able to do it.

If you can reach out, reach out.

If you can reach in, reach in.

If you’re lucky, you’ll meet in the middle, where hope lives.

 

Bad Thoughts and Tattoos

Sometimes I have bad thoughts. We all do. I find that mine fall into three groups.

The first kind of bad thoughts are when I want to snap or snipe or snark at my husband, despite the fact that he is indispensable to me. He takes care of me, understands me, helps me, hugs me, feeds me in ways I can’t begin to describe.

When those bad thoughts arise, I have a brief internal chat with myself. (It looks like I’m thinking what to say because that’s exactly what I’m doing.) Then I choose not to say the nasty thing or I think of a less-nasty way of saying it. (I’ve written about the phenomenon before in “Managing My Anger” https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-kw.)

The skills involved are impulse control, the use of “I statements,” and the ability to rephrase. I try to say something that will get my point across without hurting or making things worse. These are techniques I have learned over the years, which makes me think they are things that can be developed with a little practice.

Learning to restrain myself has prevented many a fight. Some people find this style of communication inauthentic or wishy-washy – that I am tiptoeing around my husband instead of saying what I really think. All I can say to that is that it works for me and for our marriage.

The next kind of bad thought is the kind that comes with depression: I’m useless. I’m pathetic. I can’t do anything right. I’m worthless. Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess) talks about these thoughts in her book Furiously Happy, and she has one thing to say about them: Depression lies. These are the thoughts of a biochemically influenced brain that makes you miserable and sometimes wants to kill you, or at least kill your possibility of happiness.

Fortunately, my husband has read Jenny Lawson too. When I express these bad self-thoughts – and it’s best if you have a safe person to tell them to – he reminds me. He doesn’t try to deny the thoughts (You know you’re not worthless. You do lots of things right). He tells me, “That’s depression lying to you.” I used to get stuck in these cycles a lot before I was properly medicated and before I had his help and that of my therapist.

Then there are the really bad thoughts, those of self-harm or worse. Most of the time I don’t have these anymore, but when I do, there is one thing I can do. (Actually, there are more things I can do, but this is one that works for me.) I look at my tattoos.

The one on the right wrist is a symbol for bipolar disorder made up of punctuation : ) :  in the form of a smiley face/frowny face. This reminds me that my brain isn’t working right and is sometimes out to get me.

The other is on my left wrist, near my scars from self-harm. It is a semicolon. You may have heard about the Semicolon Project or seen the semicolon symbol on t-shirts or jewelry.

The semicolon is my favorite punctuation mark. It comes at the place in a sentence where a writer could choose to put a period and stop; instead, she continues the sentence. The semicolon says, “My story isn’t over,” something you’ll also see on t-shirts and such. (I’m thinking of making that sentence my third tattoo.)

Recently I had a bout of those really bad thoughts. But I looked at my tattoos and told myself, “My story isn’t over yet. I still have things I need to do.” One of them is to tell my story, in this blog and in a book I’m trying to write.

My tattoos helped me get over the bad thoughts. They have paid for themselves many times over. I never regret getting them. They may have saved my life.

On Pain and/or Suffering

Recently, when I was reading Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders, I came across this:

Eric Cassell, a physician who writes frequently about the moral dimensions of medicine, argues, in a now classic paper, that pain and suffering are very different. Pain, according to Cassell, is an affliction of the body. Suffering is an affliction of the self. Suffering, writes Cassell, is a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.

Later, when I was reading M Is for Malice, by Sue Grafton, I read this: “Pain was better than anxiety any day of the week and sweat was better than depression.”

The universe seemed to be telling me to focus my attention on pain and/or suffering.

Cassell (as quoted by Sanders), could have been (but probably wasn’t) talking about bipolar disorder when he defined suffering as “a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.” I certainly don’t feel intact or integrated while in the midst of a bipolar episode – either hypomanic or depressive. I suffer. My personhood is certainly threatened and disrupted.

It’s common to hear bipolar described this way: “I suffer from bipolar disorder.” I prefer to say “I live with bipolar disorder,” which I feel is more accurate. It’s always there, but I’m not always suffering. I live with it and it lives with me.

I think Cassell was wrong, though, about pain being a purely bodily sensation. I addressed the concept back in the early days of this blog. with a post called “Depression Hurts” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6Z). In it I claimed that bipolar (or depression specifically) caused physical pain as well as emotional pain. I still maintain that one is as valid as the other and that they are virtually inseparable. The mind and the body not being entirely separate, or separable, you see. You get both for the price of one.

Grafton, on the other hand, through her character Kinsey Millhone, was talking about the physical act of running. We all know by now (or should) that exercise is recommended for those who have bipolar disorder or other mental/emotional conditions. But again, there is this idea that physical discomforts (pain and sweat) are better than emotional distress (anxiety and depression). She seems to be saying that pain is the antidote for suffering.

This can be dangerous territory. As someone who used to self-harm, I can easily see how one might think that pain is preferable to anxiety, or numbness, or dissociation – to suffering, that is. But in such cases, pain is really just another aspect of suffering, expressed in bodily terms. Again, the two are inextricably intertwined.

Personally, I would be delighted to avoid all four sensations – pain, anxiety, sweat, and depression. But I don’t think that’s possible, even with avoiding both exercise and self-harm. Sweat is the easiest to dispense with, thanks to modern toiletries, but there have been plenty of times when my anxiety has caused me to sweat. Think about being summoned to a tax audit, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Pain is unavoidable; no one goes through life without stepping on a nail or some such. Anxiety and depression occur at least occasionally in the neurotypical as well as the mentally disordered.

The human condition itself involves feeling both pain and suffering. Bipolar disorder involves both pain and suffering. Well, what do you know? We’re only human, after all.

Is My Pain as Real as Yours?

The other day I got a comment on a post I wrote a while back called “Who’s a Spoonie?” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-h6).

The commenter said that I was wrong to use the term “Spoonie” for those with mental illnesses. The kinds of disorders that merited the appellation “Spoonie” were only those that involved a “physical debilitating condition where pain and fatigue play major roles.” That I am not a Spoonie. That the language is not mine to use. That I am a part of the problem.

Let’s take a closer look at some of those assumptions.

Mental illness is not an invisible illness.

I wrote about that, in a post called “Is Bipolar Disorder an ‘Invisible Illness’?” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-gI). Disabled World (https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/invisible/) seems to think it is. Their definition specifically includes mental disorders:

These [mental] diseases can also be completely debilitating to the victim, and can make performing everyday tasks extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Bipolar disorder and depression are included in their partial list of “invisible illnesses.” And if you want to talk about “everyday tasks,” consider the number of bipolar and other sufferers who can’t get out of bed, can’t shower, can’t leave their homes, can’t work.

The condition must be physical.

To the best of our current knowledge, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses spring from glitches in the neurotransmitters in our brains. The brain, a physical organ. Neurotransmitters, a physical substance.

Pain and fatigue are required to play major roles.

Well, I’ve written about that too, in a post called “Depression Hurts” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6Z).

My head and eyes hurt from all the crying spells. My back hurt from lying in bed all day. I had painful knotted muscles from the anxiety that went with the depression. I had intestinal cramps because my overactive nerves led to irritable bowel syndrome. I had headaches and eye strain from the over sensitivity to light and noise. And I had the general flu-like malaise that is practically the hallmark of depression. You know the one. Every bone and muscle aches, but you can’t think why.

Were these aches and pains psychogenic? Undoubtedly some of them were. But others, like the irritable bowel, were all too demonstrably physical phenomena.

Oh, and are they chronic? I’ve lived with them all for years. Not all at the same time, maybe, and not without times when the pain let up. But are all Spoonies required to be in constant pain and fatigue? Again, Disabled World says not.

The language is not mine to use. 

Sorry, but language doesn’t work that way. Once a word is released into the wild, it goes where it wills, acquiring new usages and new meaning. And “Spoonie” is certainly out in the wild. The essay that first defined it is all over the Internet. The suffix -holic has escaped from the word “alcoholic” and is now used for dissimilar ideas including “shopaholic” and “chocoholic.” Can we say, “No, you mustn’t do that. It must be reserved for alcohol addiction”? We might, but it’s not going to happen. Trust me on this. I have some training in linguistics.

I am part of the problem.

I suppose so, if you believe there’s actually a problem. In my post on Spoonies, I asked:

Isn’t that how Spoon language started – as a way to begin a conversation on what invisible illnesses are and how they affect our lives? Not a secret language that only those who know the password and handshake can use.

Obviously, opinions on the subject will vary, and mine is only one among many. I cordially dislike exclusionary language. Does anyone else want to weigh in?

The Gray Dog and Me

Nothing is really wrong.

Feeling like I don’t belong.

– The Carpenters “Rainy Days and Mondays”

After quite a long spell of stable feelings (and maybe some productive hypomania – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4), I’ve hit the wall of depression again.

Not full-blown depression, like I’ve had so often in my life. This is technically dysthymia, which is psych-speak for a low-grade depression, sort of like a low-grade fever that makes you tired and headachey and not wanting to get out of bed. To curl up in a blanket and sleep. To take aspirin and forget about everything else.

That’s where I am. I’m not wrestling with the Black Dog (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-5Y). Call it the Gray Dog.

I am finding it very hard to write this, but I am pushing to do it, because at the moment, that’s one of the few positive things that I can point to – that my husband can point to – and remind me that depression lies.

What depression is telling me now is that I haven’t accomplished anything in my life. That I skated through high school and missed wonderful opportunities in college. That my jobs have been a pointless series of minimal value to anyone. That my writing is self-indulgent crap, unoriginal and meaningless.

Depression is telling me that I don’t matter. That I am becoming invisible. And that it’s my own fault, for never going out, for not reaching out. It’s not quite the self-pitying whine of “If I died, no one would come to my funeral.” It’s more like turning into a particularly ineffectual ghost – frightening no one, bringing no message from beyond, just fading and losing substance.

Depression is telling me that the future is bleak. I have a writing assignment now, but in a month it will be over and I’ll be right back where I was – at the edge of panic or worse, despair, or worst, both.

Depression is telling me that I’m a terrible burden and I don’t deserve my husband, who takes care of me when I’m like this.

At the moment I don’t have the ability to believe that all these are lies.

I do know that this won’t last forever. I’ve come far enough in my healing to believe that. And comparatively, it’s not that bad. I am quietly leaking tears, not weeping copiously. My bad thoughts are not as ugly as they could be, have been.

I haven’t given up.

But I almost want to.

It’s the “almost” that makes this the Gray Dog and not the Black Dog. That keeps me taking my meds and waiting for the Gray Dog to depart. That tells me to write this, even though I doubt its usefulness.

Useless sums up how I feel. Old and tired. Detached from society.

As depression goes, I’m really in a not-terribly-bad place. Which doesn’t make it much easier to live through. A little, though. I still have my support system, and I did get out of bed today (after noon), and I’m writing, even as I doubt my ability. But if I’m quoting The Carpenters, I can’t help but feel just a wee bit pathetic.

The Gray Dog is with me. One day soon but not soon enough, it won’t be.

 

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