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Posts tagged ‘social skills’

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.

Bipolar Me, Looking for Work

I have been very fortunate over the last few years in that I have been able to work and that, combined with my husband’s far-from-large – but steady – paycheck, we have been able to pay the bills. Now that seems to be changing.

After my last big emotional crash, I was unable to work at all, and after my husband’s major burnout, he was not able to work for a while. We ran through our IRAs and ended up in the situation where we are now.

I do writing, editing, and proofreading jobs from my home computer. It is really ideal, in that the projects usually come sporadically, with time in between them, so I seldom require more energy than I have available. I do not have to go out very much, or dress up very often and can work in my comfort zone, in my comfortable study, in my comfy pajamas. In these respects I am lucky or blessed, or however you wish to define it.

But clients have become a little thin on the ground lately. And I am afraid. I fear both a financial crash and an emotional one. The two are not unrelated. Finances and dealing with them were two of the largest triggers that started the major depression-plus-anxiety that swallowed me up for quite a few years.

Now I am feeling the pinch again. I felt it back in August, when my “proactive hypomania” helped me get through (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4). But one can do that only so many times. Or at least I can’t summon the necessary mood at will. (Surprise, surprise.)

I have a writing project now, but it will run out in January. I have another client, but work from them is not as consistent as it used to be. We are already behind on some of our bills, including the mortgage.

So I am looking for more work, and it is scary.

The kind of work I’ve been doing is ideal, even when my symptoms increase. It lets me work around the deficits that bipolar heaps upon me. If I have a project due Monday, I can work during the weekend. If I have insomnia, I can work at night. If I am immobilized, I can usually schedule my deadlines so they don’t all hit at once.

I try to network, also at home from my computer, but that lets out job fairs and professional organizations and groups inhabited by people. I should put together a resume and sample packet and then try to figure out whom to send it to. Which is kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. And the impressive kind of packet – slick, personalized, colorful, foil stamped, business-carded, sample-stuffed, stationeried – costs money to prepare, which of course is itself a problem since you have to spend it before you get results, if any.

So I have signed up with a number of sites that provide leads on jobs, and some of them don’t even want me to drive for Uber or move to Massachusetts.

Each time I apply, I ask myself, “Can I really do this job?”

Sometimes the answer is “Probably not, but I’m going to apply anyway.” Those are the 9-to-5 office jobs that would require me to upgrade my wardrobe just the teensiest little bit and try to keep the depressive phases under control if not totally under wraps. I have serious doubts about my ability to be “on” for eight hours a day, five days a week.

The Americans With Disabilities Act says that certain categories of people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” in order to fulfill their job requirements. For someone like me, accommodations might include flextime, doing part of my work at home, time off for doctor appointments, and the like. If I got one of those jobs, I would have to reveal my mental disorder in order to receive accommodations, and I would have to decide whether to speak up about it before or after I got the job. Probably after.

The not-quite-as-frightening jobs are part-time ones, like working the circulation desk at the local library. They have their drawbacks too, including the same ones as full-time jobs, with less pay besides. Would it provide enough income to make a difference? Maybe not. Would I be able to do a part-time job and still squeeze in a little freelance work? I just don’t know. The idea is still daunting, to say the least.

(Another potential solution would be for my husband to get a better-paying job, but he is in the process of changing his meds, so that doesn’t seem likely either, at least for now.)

I know this seems like a better class of problem than many people with bipolar disorder have. Trying to keep up the mortgage payments is better than living under the Third St. bridge, fighting stray dogs for cold french fries. My husband’s job may be low-paying, but at least it’s steady and has a health insurance plan. I am truly grateful for these things.

And I am truly scared nonetheless. And tired. And sliding back down into depression.

Ten Opinions That May Offend Someone

Recently I noticed that I have been reluctant to offend people, particularly on Facebook. I keep my opinions to myself, especially on social and political matters, and dread being “unfriended” or starting (or continuing) a “flame war.”

This is not just a matter that relates to my bipolar disorder, though it is certainly that too. I have written a number of times about how having bipolar disorder and the behaviors it has brought out in me have cost me friends, even ones that I thought were “forever-friends.” These losses have affected me greatly, at times pushing my anxiety and depression buttons nearly as far as they can go.

Just as I have toned down my comments on subjects such as liberal vs. conservative issues, I have also let pass by posts in bipolar support groups and mental health memes on people’s general Facebook timelines that I’ve disagreed with. Oh, when I see a particularly incorrect or egregiously stigmatizing remark, I’ve been known to smack the person on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, but often in a soft, “In my experience, you may not be correct” manner.

There are also conflicts within the bipolar world that I have strong opinions about but have not jumped into, for fear of offending someone. And I have to ask myself, what would be the consequences of offending someone in such a discussion?

Yes, I might be unfriended. More likely I would be ignored. Or (virtually) yelled at. In other words, if I offend someone with my opinions, they may in turn offend me with their opinions. And while that’s not a productive state of affairs, it’s hardly the end of the world. In an ideal world, I might cause someone to question or consider or engage in fruitful discussion. Not likely, but possible.

So, if I am trying to overcome my fear of offending people with my positions on guns, abortion, health care, climate change and the like, what am I to do about my opinions regarding bipolar disorder and mental health in general?

Well, first of all, I can state where I’m coming from: straight, white, female, married, childless, bipolar type 2, 60 years old, diagnosed for years and on any number of medications for years as well. Not much controversial there. That’s just facts about me and hard to deny.

But here are some things I believe that I know are sometimes subject to differences of opinion. And for what it’s worth, here’s my take on them.

  1. Psychotropic medications are good things. Yes, they can be overprescribed or improperly prescribed, but when dispensed and used correctly, they help.
  2. The Scientologists are way off base. Mental illness exists, and so do treatments for it.
  3. “Natural” or “holistic” treatments for mental illness are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy.
  4. Sunshine, exercise, and positive affirmations are good things, but also are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy. They do good for a number of people, less for others, and not much at all for some.
  5. We’ve got to change the popular dialogue about mental illness and violence. We must not let it go unchallenged. For that matter, we must change the popular dialogue about mental health in general.
  6. While it’s a good thing if those with mental illness take their medications properly, it is absolutely their right to refuse treatment.
  7. Health care (and insurance plans) should cover mental health care at the same levels as physical health. (Okay, that one’s not really controversial among the mental health community.)
  8. Emergency responders including police should all receive training in dealing with mental health issues, but they probably won’t.
  9. Most people don’t/won’t/can’t understand mental illness until it touches their own life in some way, and maybe not even then.
  10. Education about mental health issues should begin in grade school.

There. If you disagree with any of those statements or feel that I am an idiot for stating them, so be it.

Oh, and while we’re at it, persons with a mental health diagnosis should not automatically be prevented from owning guns, but people with domestic violence convictions should be.

Bipolar and Growing Older

I was a bipolar child. I was a bipolar college student. I was a bipolar adult. And now that I am about to be able to get the senior discount card, I am a bipolar – what? – mature adult.

First, let me say that aging sucks. Except that the alternative sucks more. The problem is, I can’t always tell whether anything that happens to me is due to my bipolar disorder or due to aging. I fear that, since my bipolar is fairly well in check at the moment, what are left of my problems may be due to something else.

My hands shake, for example. This has been true for years, though. The neurologist called it “essential tremor,” which I think means it just happens and they don’t know why. But some medications have made the tremor worse, and one of the medications I’m taking now could be increasing the shaking. And the shaking gets worse when I have anxiety. So I think we can chalk that one up to bipolar disorder, mostly.

I forget words. Sometimes, when I’m talking, I forget the word that comes next and have to pause or talk around it until it comes back to me. Sometimes my husband fills in the blank, which is helpful, but really annoying. For a writer, losing words is scary, but the memory difficulties seem to happen more when I talk than when I write.

I know I’ve had memory lapses before that can be attributed to my medication, and those memories are gone forever. I’ve written about that phenomenon: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6k. But these seem to be single words that escape me, and that I can usually get back within a few seconds. It doesn’t feel like anything I’ve had associated with bipolar, so I suppose this one is aging. If it’s the onset of Alzheimer’s, I’m going to be so pissed.

I isolate. This I’m pretty sure is bipolar in nature, since I’ve been doing it for years, especially when I’m depressed. I’m also reasonably sure that I am getting less isolated as my bipolar disorder has eased. I still don’t get out much, though I did go to a fabulous (and large) party last Sunday. But I am active on Facebook and Messenger, and I write these blogs, and I talk on the phone.

On the other hand, I seldom leave the house, and that I think is an effect of aging. I have mobility and balance problems because of a bad back and some nerve damage in one foot. But bipolar is involved, since weight gain from medications also affects my mobility, and an aversion to crowds and noise is likely associated with my anxiety.

Side effects of bipolar disorder and bipolar medications are to be expected. So, for that matter, are side effects of aging. Teasing out which is which may seem futile, and perhaps it is. I just want to know which I have some degree of control over and whether some, especially the cognitive symptoms, are likely to fade, stay the same, or get worse.

Why I Didn’t Get Depressed When I Got a F**k Off Letter

Brenda was a friend to my husband and me for many long years. We partied with her, and talked with her, and grieved with her and supported her when her marriage ended.

I became closer to her than Dan had, although he had met her first. Then we grew apart. Then I heard that she had given up on me. I wrote, asking for one more chance.

Recently, she sent me a three-page letter. When a mutual friend asked what it said, I replied, “Basically, ‘fuck off.'”

I’ve written before about the friends I’ve lost due to my bipolar disorder (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W) – the pain and loss I sometimes still feel, my unsuccessful attempts to apologize or rebuild the relationships, the continuing rejection, the knowledge that those important people are gone from my life forever.

But this time, the rejection didn’t seem to bother me as much.

Why? I wondered.

I know that people sometimes do drift apart, and there was an element of that in the death of the relationship.

I knew that I had refused many invitations and stood her up many times. But apparently, when I did show up, I brought along an extra person, “my misery.” It seems like a trap: don’t accept an invitation, or be unwelcome when I do because of my constant companion, which I was unable to just leave at home. In those days, and sometimes still, the Black Dog was always with me. But Brenda saw it as something she couldn’t compete with, something that was always more important to me than she was.

In a sense that was true, though I didn’t see it as a competition. It wasn’t like I valued my disorder more than I valued her. Feeling miserable was important to me, in the sense that it seemed ever-present, but it was important to me in a bad way – the thing that dragged me down, the thing I fought against, the thing that did make my life a misery. But it was a misery I could not put down, much as I wanted to, even for people I cared about. At the depth of my depression, it was simply a part of me. I am sometimes amazed that I came through it with any friends left. But I have.

To be fair, Brenda also blamed her own misery after her divorce as a contributing factor to our parting. Then there would be four of us present – two people and two miseries – and evidently it was too much.

Most perplexing to me, though, was Brenda’s contention that her growing religious fervor and burgeoning political conservatism contributed to her decision to cut ties. I freely admit to being a liberal and to disliking organized religion, but I have friends who feel otherwise and yet remain my friends. There’s lots we agree to disagree on or simply choose not to talk about. Even my mother and I had profound differences but never gave up on each other.

According to Brenda, her religious and political leanings required “personal responsibility” – including responsibility for one’s moods. As she put it, despite her reactive depression, her happiness was a choice. One that she made and I didn’t.

She compared mental illness with high blood pressure and diabetes – conditions that one must take personal responsibility for treating and trying to control. The fact is, I was trying to control my disorder, with therapy, with medication, and once almost with electroshock. I know she knew this, as once we went to the same therapist.

And that’s why I said, “eh” when I got the letter. By Brenda’s own criteria I was doing my best. And that’s all anyone can do. I couldn’t go back and change my misery, or try harder to find relief. And I couldn’t simply choose to be happy, which I don’t believe is possible for most people like me. If you can manage it, more power to you, and to Brenda.

I think what bothered me most about the letter is that Brenda has a degree in psychology and is teaching psychology in college now. I wonder what her students are learning from her.

 

 

Surprise!

Surprise parties are fun for everyone, right?

Wrong!

While many people enjoy the surprise element (probably the guests do more than the honoree), even neurotypical people can shy away from the practice. Coming home to a darkened house, only to be greeted by bright lights and loud noise, can be an alarming experience.

For a person with bipolar depression, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, or other mental conditions, it can be a nightmare.

My husband once decided to throw me a small surprise party. We and another couple were cleaning up an old house while a few friends gathered back at home.

One of the people had actively discouraged Dan from having the party. Robert had experienced depression and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and knew how difficult such an event would be for him. He also knew about my depression and some of the incidents associated with birthday parties in my mind.

For instance, when I was a young teen, my “best friend” and I were supervising a party of younger children. During the game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, while I was blindfolded, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all the kids.

It was the occasion of my first major meltdown. For years afterward, I would not even admit to having a birthday, much less let anyone celebrate it.

Robert had experienced similar traumas involving groups of children, humiliation, and abuse. He was not able to cope with surprise parties and thought I might freak out as well.

Fortunately, decades had gone by since my traumatic party experience. I had been diagnosed and properly medicated and counseled about my issues. Dan knew me well enough to realize that I could tolerate a small, low-key surprise party. And so I did.

Still, Robert was right to be concerned.

Common events at surprise parties are triggers for many people. My friend Joanie has panic attacks when there’s lightning. Would flash photography set her off? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be the one who finds out. If the party is held in a restaurant, a person who hates being singled out in a crowd of strangers may have problems. People hiding in one’s home could cause flashbacks of a home invasion. My startle reflex is hypersensitive and could easily be triggered by sudden, unexpected shouts of “Happy birthday!”

Even opening presents in front of others can be difficult if one is weak in social skills, appropriate facial expressions, or spontaneous conversation.

So how do you give a surprise party for someone with certain types of mental illness?

Don’t.

If you think you must, ask the person what kind of party he or she would prefer, and abide by those wishes. You can suggest a surprise party, with the time and place being the surprises, but again, abide by the person’s wishes.

Prepare a small, low-key surprise rather than a party. Give a present a day or two before the actual date. Pack a slice of cake in the person’s lunch. Or take the person out to lunch. (Warn the restaurant personnel not to march around singing and waving balloons, if you mention that it’s a birthday lunch at all.)

Do not have party games, unless they are non-threatening ones such as mad-libs or trivia. Forget ones involving physical contact like Twister or ones that involve sensory deprivation like Blind Man’s Bluff.

You may wish to avoid serving alcohol, especially if the honoree is on anti-anxiety medications. Booze-fueled parties tend to become loud and rowdy.

Make it short. Personally, spending an hour with a group of four or more, even if they are all my friends, is about all I can take. And then I want a lie-down afterward.

Personally, I could live my life happily without ever having another surprise party thrown for me (even though the one Dan threw would have to be called a success). Nor will I be upset if I never get invited to another surprise party. I’ll be too busy worrying what it might be doing to the honoree to enjoy myself.

 

Picking Up on Feelings

As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I ought to be.

I began to notice that I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran., I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone – who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned before cocooning was a thing. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio. I got drunk on ginger ale.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized that I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits.

Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. (It was only much later that I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.)

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

Nor did the bad feelings have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be till he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown (which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago), my therapist told me that my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now.

I know it’s a good thing that I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

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