My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘support systems’

Surviving College While Bipolar

I had two goes at college, and they were very different from each other, based on the state of my bipolar disorder at the time.

The first time I went to college, for my undergraduate degree, I was undiagnosed and unmedicated – except for self-medication. I was away from home for the first time – that was my first goal when choosing a college, being after a “geographical cure.” I ended up in the Ivy League, a scholarship student and a fish out of water. And profoundly depressed.

I did manage to hit the ground hiking, as the university sponsored backpacking trips led by juniors and seniors for entering students. We used to joke that it was meant to lose a few along the way, but really it was for orientation. Campfire chats about college life and the like.

On that hike through the Adirondacks, I met Caren, Roberta, and Cyndi, who instantly became my best friends and were my support system throughout the five years I spent there.

Yes, five, though only four of them were really at the university. After my first year, I took a year off. My depression had gotten so bad that I was given to sitting on the floor in the hallway, staring at a poster for hours at a time instead of sleeping. During my year away, I worked a dreary but educational job as an evening shift cashier at a restaurant. When I returned, I had a new major and the same old depression.

Oh, I did have fits of hypomania. I joined a sorority during one, though I deactivated later in a depressive downturn. And I went through the ups and downs exacerbated by several failed romances, including one total trainwreck.

The only help I got, aside from the support of my friends, was one brief therapy group at the campus mental health center and a brief stay at the university clinic, because of some suicidal ideation that my friends recognized.

Needless to say, I came out in no better mental shape than I went in, but I did manage to snag a B.A. degree. Now I feel that I missed a lot of opportunities along the way. It was just another occasion when I felt that my lack of mental health got in the way of what could have been a more productive time, as a well as a happier one. When I left college I was still almost as ill-prepared to function as when I went in.

By the next time I gave college a try, I was, if not mentally healthy, at least mentally healthier. And being back in the town I had been so eager to leave, I had a larger support system, now including a therapist, parents, close friends, and a husband. This time I had help.

I was still a mess, but less of one. With my depression lifting, I was able to teach introductory courses and manage my own course load. I remember my first semester teaching as a blaze of hypomania as I adored the subject and thought I was sweeping all the students along with my enthusiasm. Then one of the students gave me a bad review and I plunged again, never to recover that soaring sensation. I plodded through the next three semesters of teaching.

This time I came out with an M.A. and better job prospects. The day after I graduated I was working as a temporary editorial assistant, a job I kept for 17 years, moving up to editor along the way.

What did my experiences with college teach me (aside from modern poetry and how to swallow aspirin without water)?

  1. Making it through college is possible when you’re unmedicated and have minimal support, but I don’t recommend it.
  2.  Even with diagnosis, medication, and support, it’s still not easy. You know how hard it is to get out of bed and take a shower some days? Now think about going to a class on top of that, where your work will be critiqued. Taking a year off was one of the best things I ever did.
  3. Being bipolar isn’t your only identity, though it looms large in your life. I was also a student, a teacher, a friend, a daughter, a wife, a poet, a cashier, and so many other things. I may not have enjoyed them as I should, gotten as much from them as I could, but they were as much a part of me as bipolar was.

I can’t see myself at this point going back to college and getting a Ph.D. Which is not to say I’ve never considered it. But I like to think that, were I to try, this time I would have a better chance of getting through, sanity intact, with something more to show for it than a piece of paper to hang on the wall. This time, I tell myself, I wouldn’t let Bipolar Me take the experience away from Me.

Self-Care and Human Needs

Self-care is one of the hot topics these days in the world of bipolar disorder and the people who live with it. Self-care can be as basic as remembering to eat or as complicated as knowing and avoiding your triggers.

Back in 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow created what he called a “hierarchy of needs” – a series of stages that human beings must go through on the way to the ultimate goal of “self-actualization.” With few changes, the concept, usually illustrated as a pyramid, has continued to influence the study of human motivation and developmental psychology.

So what does self-care have to do with the hierarchy of needs?

The most basic needs of human life form the base of the pyramid. These are called “physiological needs” and are essentially what a person needs to stay alive: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing. Without meeting these needs, a person cannot move up to the next level of the hierarchy.

A large part of self-care is devoted to meeting these very basic, fundamental needs. Air is usually not a problem but shelter and clothing can be, for those bipolar persons who are homeless – and there are more than a few. Many of us are just one financial reverse – loss of income, insurance, options – from being homeless.

The most common advice for self-care is to pay attention to these base-level needs: Remember to eat. Stay hydrated. Get enough sleep. At times, it’s a real struggle just to meet these self-care needs. Add “get exercise” to the list and it can suddenly be overwhelming. People with bipolar or major depressive disorder often need help accomplishing them. That’s as high as we get on the pyramid.

The second step of the pyramid, which people need to work on after they’ve met the requirements of the first step is called “safety needs”: personal security, employment, resources, and health. Again, the needs on this step may seem insurmountable, and may – probably will – require help to achieve.

But they are self-care needs too. Current society may not view them as such, but that’s because they tend not to struggle with them, at least not on the level of a person with a mental disorder. Individuals can sometimes help meet these needs, but more often government, community, or charitable organizations provide necessary help. Talking about self-care at this second level may seem like pie-in-the-sky to those who have not yet conquered the first. But truly, taking care of these needs is a form of self-care, enabling one to maintain the gains represented by achieving those of the first level.

The third level of human needs – and self-care – is called “love and belonging”: friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connectedness. Again, this is not usually thought of as a part of self-care. But it certainly is. Many of us – I include myself – lose friends, become estranged from family, fail at intimate relationships. There are other places to look for ways to practice self-care on this level, however.

Therapy groups and self-help groups can lead you to people who share your problems and may be able to help you in achieving self-care. (My husband met one of his dearest friends, who provided support, listening, understanding, and companionship, at a self-help group meeting.) If in-person meetings are not possible, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress provide opportunities to meet some social self-care needs through various groups and online communities.

The top two levels of the pyramid are not as easy to think of as self-care, and not as easy to tackle. Level four is esteem: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom. And five is self-actualization: to become the most that one can be. Realistically, these are not strictly speaking things that can be accomplished through self-care. Even neurotypical people may never complete step four, and there is reason to think that few people ever reach self-actualization. These are goals to strive for, but not guarantees.

Wherever you may currently be on the pyramid, the important thing to remember is that self-care will help you reach the next step; that each follows the one before; and that your bipolar life will improve with every step you achieve.

 

Tracking Your Moods: Low-Tech, High-Tech, and In Between

Many therapists and people with bipolar disorder recommend journaling as a practice that allows you to track your moods and figure out what your triggers are. And many individuals do well with journaling.

I didn’t, however. I tried starting a journal of what I was doing and what I accomplished daily. It rapidly turned boring and whiny. My entries looked like this:

Accomplishments:

  1. Paid cell phone.
  2. Forced myself to finish work assignment.
  3. Finally got off that stupid level of that horrible Candy Crush.

Writing is what I do, but journaling, especially when depressed, was an unrelenting series of pitiful nothing. Instead, I started this blog (on 1/7/14). In my blog, I could write about anything. Still, it wasn’t much good as a way to track my daily moods.

Technology is starting to address that problem. Recently some inventions have come on the market that promise to help you track your moods not just daily, but hourly (or even more often). Most of these devices resemble what would happen if a Fitbit and a mood ring had a child.

Most of them claim to monitor your moods by tracking your heart rate and/or your breathing. (One notes that it tracks your steps too, so you don’t need an extra device to do that. Another promises to monitor galvanic skin response, pulse, and skin temperature, which sounds more like a lie detector than mood tracking.) Then you take that data and compare them with what you were doing at the time and voilà – a mood journal.

Of course, these devices make certain assumptions – for example, that when your heart rate is elevated, you are anxious or tense. Needless to say, there are plenty of other things that can raise your heart rate and breathing. Sex, for one. Or running. Neither one of which is necessarily a source of anxiety for everyone. There is, as far as I can see, no way for the device to tell when you are depressed. They appear to assume that everything except anxiety is normal.

Then there’s the fact that you still have to journal. The devices work on the theory that you can look for patterns in your breathing and respiration, then figure out what you were doing when that happened. Upgraded devices and apps are planned that will add calendar and location functions to make this easier. But if you’re in your house the whole time the moods are happening, it won’t tell you much.

(One brand of these devices is available only from an employer, health plan, or EAP, which, if you ask me, is pretty creepy. If there’s anyone I don’t want to have information about my moods, it’s my employer.)

My friend Mike came up with an in-between solution that uses both higher-tech and lower-tech approaches to monitoring his moods. Over a period of several months, Mike had been on four different drug regimens for depression. Not all of them worked, and he was unsure which did the most good.

His idea was to go to his social media and chat apps and take a look at when he was the most active, engaged, and responsive. Then he looked at what medication he was on at the time. He noticed, for example, that in the first few weeks of April, he was posting more about accomplishments and responding to others’ posts and chat messages. A quick check of his pharmacy records and he had a pretty good idea of which medications were working best. No journaling involved – the evidence of his increased energy was right there in front of him, already recorded. And no $150 expense for an emotional tracking device.

Maybe journaling is right for you. Maybe a wearable mood tracker is the thing that will help. But don’t overlook the tools you already have. Think about them in new ways and you may already have a handle on understanding your moods and meds.

Sources

https://www.l2inc.com/daily-insights/spire-wants-to-be-the-fitbit-for-your-emotions

https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/239743

http://nerdist.com/sentios-feel-wristband-fitbit-for-your-emotions/

Caregivers Need Care Too

While there are professional caregivers, family members often provide care and support for those with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.

My husband of 35 years is my caregiver. He does a spectacular job – making sure I have my meds, taking me to my appointments, running the errands that I have no spoons to do, keeping the house quiet when I need to sleep, making sure I eat at least one nutritious meal a day.

It’s a lot. And there are things I can give him in return. Things he needs.

Appreciation. When my father was dying of cancer, my mother was his primary caregiver. One day she came to me, wanting me to tell her that she was doing a good job. She knew that she was. She just needed to hear it from someone else, someone who could tell her that her excellent care had been noticed and appreciated.

Appreciation – validation – is the thing that caregivers need most, to replenish themselves, to allow them to keep doing the things that are so vital for their charges. And it’s the easiest to give. When you’re in the depths of depression, it may be difficult to remember to say “thank you,” but it means a lot to your caregiver.

Now I’m mostly out of my depression (usually), and I say “thank you” a dozen times a day. And he always responds, “You’re welcome, friend.”

Alone time. Primary caregiving can be a full-time job. I know that one thing I need in the process of healing is alone time. Dan needs it too. He needs time off, even if that’s just time to retreat to his study and watch a movie or go outside and dig in the garden. I can always reach him if I really need him – for example, if I have a panic attack – via cell phone if nothing else. But, as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty vessel. That’s part of the reason that he’s able to give me so much of what I need.

Couples time. This doesn’t necessarily mean sex. It means time spent together, doing something other than dealing with mood swings and trauma. It’s a little gift we give each other. Sometimes I sit through a movie I don’t really care for, just to give him the gift of snuggling on the couch. He got me color-and-bake ceramic mugs that are great for creativity and distraction. One rainy afternoon we sat together and each colored one side of the mugs.

Life stuff. Dan does most of the chores and tasks of daily living, but I do what I’m able to. I earn money. I pay bills online and do most of the other computing, except what he does for leisure. I help with cooking to the extent I can – sous-chefing, finding recipes, breading or mixing or inventing dressings and sauces, making grocery lists. He can ask me for help too.

Sharing my spoons. When I do find myself with a few spare spoons – a little extra energy occasionally – I try not to be selfish with it. When I have spoons to spend, I like to shower and dress and go out for lunch. But the other day, I showered and dressed and went for a walk in the woods with Dan, something he’s been longing for. My spoons ran out pretty rapidly, but he appreciated that I made the effort and shared one of his delights. It was another gift that cost no money.

In other words, when you have a caregiver, don’t think it’s all one way. Your caregiver needs care too. Small or large, what you are able to give will be appreciated.

 

The Tools for Tackling Bipolar Disorder

When you’re facing bipolar disorder – which is, when you have it, nearly every day – there are some things you can do to lessen its hold on you. But in order to do so, you’ve got to have the right tools. Try to collect as many as possible for best effect.

Shall we take a look at what they are?

The Usual Suspects

  • medication – to tame your symptoms, level your moods, get your brain back in gear, and/or regulate your energy
  • psychiatrist – to prescribe your medications (a primary care physician may also do this)
  • psychotherapist – to discuss with you the issues you haven’t resolved, the problems you still have, and the things the medication can’t do

Self-Care 

The two most important tools you need for self-care are sleep and food. Without either, the body can’t function properly, and if the body doesn’t function, the brain is less likely to function properly either.

Ideally, the food should be nutritious and eaten regularly, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen. But you’ve got to give your body something to run on. If there are carrot sticks there, eat them; if there is mac-n-cheese, eat that. If there’s Raisin Bran, well, it’s easy to eat and requires no preparation. Try for at least one substantial meal per day – two is better, if you can manage it.

(Of course, this advice doesn’t count if you have an eating disorder. In that case, see your doctor or psychotherapist or support group.)

Support

Find support where you can – a friend who’s willing to listen, a support group online or in real life. Try for a combination of these and don’t rely on any one of them for too much. Maybe you have a friend you can phone once a week; a support group that meets every two weeks; and an online group or two of people who really understand, with links to helpful articles and blogs. Before you know it, you’ve got a support system, especially if you count your therapist (which I do) or have a supportive family (which I don’t).

Spoon Theory

If you don’t know what this is, see https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/. Basically, Spoon Theory is a way to measure how much energy you have on any given day – and an understandable metaphor for explaining your symptoms to others, and a shorthand for other people who are also up on the theory. It can also help alleviate the guilt of not being able to do all the things you are “supposed” to do in a day. It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

Distraction

Let’s face it, it’s all too easy to dwell on your symptoms and how miserable you are. And if you’re at the bottom of the depressive well and your meds haven’t kicked in yet, there may be nothing you can do about it.

But maybe there is. Do you know a person who tells good jokes – or really bad ones? Do you have music you used to play but have forgotten about? Do you know of a TV show that features people whose lives are an even worse train wreck than yours? Do you have a go-to movie that never gets old no matter how many times you see it? (Mine is The Mikado. )

Creativity

If that distraction involves creativity, so much the better. Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. (Some of them are really for adults.) Jenny Lawson draws and also puts together tiny little Ferris wheels. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is, you don’t have to paint masterpieces. Just keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

Comfort

Soft warm, fluffy things and smooth, silky things are soothing. They just are. Cats and dogs come instantly to mind (they also provide distraction). But I also have a collection of teddy bears and other plushies that I sometimes cuddle with. These are “comfort objects,” which is an actual psychological Thing. (I wrote about them once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9.) I even took a plush bunny with me when I went to have a sleep study.

Stubbornness

This may be the most important tool of all. Be stubborn. Take those meds, even if you hate them. Eat that egg, even if you don’t feel like it. Go to that appointment, even if will take all your spoons for the day. Call that friend, even if you don’t think a joke will help. Post on your support group, even if you feel you are alone.

We can’t let bipolar disorder beat us. Not when we’ve got so much to beat it back with.

Five Things Psychotherapy Has Done for Me

Why pay $250 an hour just to talk to someone?

That was my sister’s reaction when I said I was going to start seeing a therapist. This is my answer.

Mental health symbolWell, Lucy, while a psychiatrist doesn’t cost 5 cents anymore, therapy can be had for a lot less than $250. There are community mental health centers with sliding fee scales – which is what I was going to then. There is insurance, for now at least. I’ve even known psychotherapists who would accept less than their usual fee for long-time patients in temporarily dire straits.

And I’m not paying to talk to just “someone.” A therapist usually has at least an M.A., and sometimes a Ph.D. Psychiatrists have an M.D. or D.O. They have years of training, more years of experience, and colleagues they can consult if your problem is particularly challenging or out of their area of expertise. You can also find peer counselors, religious counselors, and proponents of every variety of therapy or treatment you can name, from neuro-linguistic programming to electroconvulsive therapy.

Now, as I reflect on my clueless sister, I’ve started thinking about all the things that therapy has done for me.

Diagnosis. When I first started going, back in the 80s, I could only afford one of those community mental health centers with the sliding fee scale. (At the time, I paid $5 per session.) There I was diagnosed with depression. The primary treatment they offered was “talk therapy,” but I had years and years of mental difficulties to talk about. Later, when I was seeing a psychiatrist, I was re-diagnosed with bipolar 2 and anxiety disorder. Suddenly, my past became a lot clearer, even if my present was still messed up.

Medication. There has been a lot of it over the years. I started, as so many did, with Prozac, which had a noticeable effect on my depression. It was like the difference between watching a black-and-white TV that got only one channel that showed only tampon commercials, compared to a wide-screen color TV that got hundreds of cable channels. The meds I’m on right now keep me functional, at least enough to make a living and be creative.

Perspective. When I first started going to my current therapist, the word I used most often to describe myself was “pathetic.” I no longer call myself that. Dr. B. helped me view parts of my past in a different light and helped me develop techniques and strategies to deal with the problems I was facing at the time. Now she keeps me on track, reminding me that I have the tools to cope with many of my recurring problems. And she reminds me how far I’ve come since my “pathetic” days.

Couples counseling. When we married, I was still smack in the middle of clinical depression. (My husband had problems too, but I don’t want to talk about them here, except to say that a codependent and a depressive living together can never decide where to go for lunch. And that was the least of our difficulties.) Several times since then, we have had to turn to counselors to work on problems related to sex, money, and just plain living and communicating together.

Group therapy. Actually, though I’ve attended group therapy a few times, what I’ve learned from it is that it’s not for me. I do appreciate the fact that it’s there if I should need or want it, and that my therapist can recommend a group if she or he is going to be away for a while. Perhaps I just haven’t found the right group yet, although the support communities I’ve found online may serve part of the same purpose.

In short, therapy has given me my life, my sanity, my coping skills, my emotional strength, and my creativity back. And I can definitely say that professional therapy has been worth more than 5 cents, or whatever insights my sister could have offered.

 

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane. The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.)

But what does gaslighting have to do with bipolar disorder? Someone who is in the depressive phase of bipolar – especially one who is undiagnosed – is especially susceptible to gaslighting. The very nature of depression leaves a person wondering, “Am I insane?” To have another person reinforcing that only strengthens the idea.

Back when I was undiagnosed and in the middle of a major depressive episode, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couple’s sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one, and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. For a person in the grips of depression or mania, this will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to to tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that being the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

Getting help for the depression or bipolar disorder is also an important step in escaping the effects of gaslighting. With proper therapy and/or medication, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

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