My Experience Only. YMMV.

Posts tagged ‘support systems’

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.

 

Where Churches and Mental Illness Meet

bible black background book chapter

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Lately, I’ve been thinking – and writing – about the place where faith and mental illness intersect. (See Mental Illness, Faith and Sin – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-DB; Prayer and Bipolar Disorder – https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-B6.) I’m still thinking about it, so I’m still writing.

Churches, among other groups, have outreach ministries to the homeless mentally ill, providing sandwiches, socks, and hope of salvation. And the stereotype of the soup kitchen is that patrons “pay” by listening to a hymn or a sermon.

But what about the rest of the mentally ill community – those like me who have homes and families and a certain degree of function? What are churches doing about us?

The answer is: They struggle, but at least some of them are doing something.

Of course, some of them are doing the wrong thing. Andrea Jongbloed reported in Relevant magazine:

I sat in the chair in my pastor’s office, listening to him list off strange things I had done recently. My pastor informed me, “the church leadership is not convinced you are mentally stable enough to continue leading your bible study.”

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. I had come here to talk about the book I was writing, on mental health and spirituality. Instead, I felt bombarded with accusations…. I left feeling judged and misunderstood.

An article in Christianity Today notes, “In many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness.” The author adds:

The more Christians struggle with how to deal with mental illness, the more we fail to create a safe and healthy environment in which to discuss and deal with these issues. As a result, many of our Christian churches, homes, and institutions promulgate an aura of mistrust, guilt, and shame.

Amy Simpson, writing at qideas.org, outlines what is wrong with churches’ relationship with the mentally ill:

In general, the church tends to handle mental illness in one of three ways: ignore it, treat it exclusively as a spiritual problem, or refer people to professionals and wash our hands of their trouble.

Like it or not, the church is the first place many turn in crisis. And fair or not, the church’s silence or rejection feels like rejection from God. We cannot keep turning away from the most vulnerable among us.

According to Lifeway Research, however, 66% of pastors speak to the church about mental illness in sermons or large group messages “once a year, rarely, or never.” And 74% of pastors say that they are “reluctant to get involved with those with acute mental illness because it takes too much time and resources.”

But some churches are taking on the challenges, or at least trying to.

In a PBS interview, Deborah Potter, a correspondent from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, explores how Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta and St. Catherine-St. Lucy Roman Catholic Church in suburban Chicago are providing not just outreach, but community to the mentally ill.

According to Potter,

Holy Comforter responded … when a group home opened nearby and the priest at the time invited the residents to church. Today, almost two-thirds of the congregation is made up of people with mental illness—including bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and schizophrenia—who worship together and pray together.

The video also features Connie Rakitan, who founded the program at St. Catherine-St. Lucy, “helping to design worship that’s welcoming to all.”

Rakitan explains:

Walking into a church with a long service and a long sermon and lots of music and lots of people could just be so overwhelming that it’s just not doable….We would never, ever use a healing passage, because we would not want to set somebody up for an unrealistic disappointment, because the fact is not everybody gets cured.

Rakitan also points out that the church community offers something that the mentally ill may not find elsewhere: “Their families might be alienated from them or estranged or whatever. They might not have work communities. What do they have left but their faith in God?”

Lorrie Lattimore, of the Baptist Press, tells about a weekly “combined Sunday school and worship time” at First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

It’s not an ordinary class. Some get up and pace during the Bible lesson. Some rock steady in their chairs. Some mumble to themselves. But all love God and know God loves them in spite of being consumers [sic] of a mental illness, those who have schizophrenia, for example, or depression or bi-polar disorder. Jimmy Tilley, the leader of the class, who also suffers from depression, chronic anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, wouldn’t want the group to act any other way.

She adds:

Few Baptist churches offer some kind of outreach for mental illness consumers. Jim Hightower, minister of pastoral care at First Baptist Church…. noted more churches should have education programs and even ministries because “every church has members who have a mental illness.”

The best advice for churches? Amy Jongbloed sums it up nicely:

Be open to learning about mental illness. Have potentially awkward conversations with newcomers who struggle with their mental health. You won’t regret stepping outside your comfort zone. You will be blessed with stories of struggle, resilience and redemption. If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll even become part of someone’s story of recovery and reconciliation with the Church.

References

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2012/06/22/june-22-2012-churches-and-the-mentally-ill/11386/

http://qideas.org/articles/mental-illness-what-is-the-churchs-role/

http://www.villagelife.org/church/archives/baptist_mentalhealth.html

https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2016/may/christian-struggle-with-mental-illness.html

https://relevantmagazine.com/god/church/4-misconceptions-about-mental-illness-and-faith

Bipolar Travel Tips

photo by Dan Reily

Last week I blogged about “Running Away From Home” (aka the geographical cure) https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-F9. This week I want to talk about actual travel – for business or pleasure. Travel was one of my greatest joys and one of the things I’ve missed most since bipolar stole so many parts of my life. I am delighted to be able to say that I am beginning to reclaim it.

I know that many people aren’t able to travel at all because of their bipolar disorder, but for those who can, here are some tips to make it easier.

The basic thing to remember while traveling is this: self-care. You may find it hard to do while on the road, but it is essential to keeping yourself functional. Just give yourself permission to do the things you have to do. And find ways to avoid the things that trigger you.

Business Travel

Business travel is the most difficult, and something I’m no longer able to do at all. Oh, I can drive an hour for a half-day training session, but I want to be back in my own house and bed when it’s over with. But the kind I used to do – four to seven days, with coworkers (sometimes in shared hotel rooms), and especially with booth duty – are simply beyond me. There’s no time or space for self-care.

If you must travel on business, however, I recommend bringing along a comfort object (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9) such as a small plush animal, a favorite pillow, or toiletries that have a soothing scent like lavender. Fuzzy slippers may have to do as a comfort object if you have to share a room. It’s also a good idea to bring along portable snacks such as nuts or raisins in your purse or briefcase, as regular meal schedules are often thrown off by meetings and other events.

“Me” time is hard to arrange, but do try. One trick that works for me is to find an unused function space and sit there with a pad of notepaper. Zone out. Then if anyone comes looking for you, claim you were just consolidating your notes.

Visiting Relatives

Avoiding arguments is one of the particular challenges of visiting relatives – particularly in-laws.

On one of the first visits I made to my in-laws’ house, I noticed that they shouted a lot. When that happened, I would go into the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. That’s a strategy I have often used. It’s also a grounding method I can use when things are spinning out of control. When everything around me is chaos, the simple, familiar, soothing action of heating a pan of soup or a teakettle can bring me closer to stability. Whether I really want soup or tea is not the question.

My husband noticed that I kept skipping out to the kitchen and asked why I kept making tea. “Because you’re all shouting at each other,” I replied.

“No, we’re not,” he said.

“Listen to yourselves.”

Just then an argument broke out over where to go to get some sandwiches. “You take the 422 to Souderton, then turn…” “Nah, you follow Cowpath Road then cut over to the 309. That’s shorter.” “But there’s more stoplights!” With each comment, the volume grew. Dan and I went out and got the sandwiches and when we got back, the family members were still arguing about the best way to go. Dan had to admit that I had a point. He just couldn’t hear it until I shifted his perspective.

Another technique you may find helpful when hit with nosy questions from relatives is the “Boring Baroque Response,” described here – https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cY.

Leisure Travel

My friend Robbin says that when you travel, the only things you really need to have in your carry-on are your meds and some clean underwear. Anything else you can buy when you get there if your luggage doesn’t manage to arrive when you do. It’s also good to talk to your pharmacist beforehand and make sure you have enough meds for the scheduled length of the trip. (Do not do what I did and take your entire supply of meds and then leave them at the bed-and-breakfast.)

Once I went to DisneyWorld https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2K. (Okay, twice, but the first time was epic.) Surviving it was an exercise in self-care. The things I learned there are applicable to almost any travel situation.

It helps if you go with a person or people who understand your disorder and your needs. When you’ve exhausted yourself, it’s good to have someone who can think of options – “Of course, we can go back to the hotel now, if you want, or we could sit in this café and have a cold beverage while you rest your feet for a while.”

The point is, you don’t have to go on what a friend calls the Bataan Fun March – you don’t have to ride every ride, see every scenic overlook, visit every church or castle. Give yourself permission to take a nap or read a book or lounge around the pool, if that’s what you need to do. (If you’re on a guided tour and want to skip an event, let the tour guide know, so the head count doesn’t come out wrong after an event or stop.)

Finances tend to prevent the kind of leisure travel I used to do, but at least now if I can ever afford it, I can also survive it.

 

Running Away From Home

photo by Karen Cox

When I was a teenager, I lived in Ohio, and all I wanted to do was leave. The suburb I lived in was homogenous and boring. The surrounding area had little to interest me. I was miserable. When it came time to select a college, the first thing I ruled out was anything in the state of Ohio.

It did not occur to me then that the reason I was miserable was not the state of Ohio, but bipolar disorder. And of course I took that with me to college.

When I returned to Ohio and began living in a suburb very near the one I grew up in, my friends were astonished. “I thought you hated Ohio,” they said. “I never expected you’d come back here to live.”

What I had been seeking was a “geographical cure” for a problem I didn’t know I had. I thought could outdistance it, outrun it, make a new life for myself somewhere better.

Believe me, it’s not possible; unless you are trying to leave an abusive relationship, moving somewhere else will do nothing for your underlying problem. Probably not even then.

The next time I had a chance to take the geographical cure – to move to Pennsylvania – I turned it down. I had by that time built up a support system in Ohio of family, friends, and doctors, and I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them and trying to build a new support system in an unfamiliar place. (Eventually, my husband-to-be moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio, where we’ve lived ever since.)

But there are still times when I think about running away from this life. Often, I wish the Mothership would arrive and take me away to some interesting planet or galaxy.

But sometimes, when life just seems to be too much for me, I think of simplifying my life by starting over somewhere. It would be like being in the Witness Protection Plan, I always imagine. I’d live in a small, unimposing town somewhere. I would have a bookstore (maybe used books). I would live in a small apartment over the shop with one or two cats.

But alas, that wouldn’t work. Aside from the difficulties of moving, which I loathe, I would find myself in another place where I had no support system – no doctor to prescribe meds, no therapist to continue my progress with (I hate breaking in new doctors), no family or friends or husband. (I usually picture myself on my own, except for the cats.)

And life would be just as difficult, if on a smaller scale. I would still have days when I couldn’t get out of bed and open the store; weeks when I couldn’t bring myself to shower, driving away customers; times when the loneliness would become overwhelming. I would still have trouble with finances, health, isolation, shopping, business, et endless cetera. At least I would have a lot of books to read.

I would still have bipolar disorder. I might be able to replace some of what I would have to give up; it wouldn’t be easy or freeing. But sometimes I still like to imagine that it would be.

If my husband dies before I do, I may find myself in some form of such a solitary life and have to adjust to it, though I would most likely remain in my comfortable suburb, where I know a few people and have some great friends, and a psychiatrist and a therapist. I doubt I would again attempt a geographical cure unless forced by circumstances to relocate.

But I wouldn’t enjoy it, just as I wouldn’t really if I ran away from home now. The bipolar would just come with me, hopping into my suitcase before I even packed my underwear.

Twelve-Step Groups for Bipolar?

Why are there no 12-Step groups for persons with bipolar disorder?

There are a number of support groups, both online and in local areas – and even a Facebook page called Bipolar Anonymous (https://www.facebook.com/bipolaranonymous38/) – though it’s not a 12-Step group and seems to consist mostly of posted memes of encouragement. They describe themselves as:

a group page for people who suffer from a Mental Illness, or are having a rough time of things, to seek out people with like problems, for support and a place to vent.

My short answer is that a 12-Step program would not work for bipolar disorder.

It’s not that people with bipolar don’t need AA. Some do. As James McManamy says at Health Central (https://www.healthcentral.com/article/bipolar-and-alcoholism-is-aa-the-only-game-in-town):

One-half of those with bipolar experience alcoholism at some stage in their lives, far more than the general population. Four in ten experience other substance use issues. This extra burden comes at a huge personal and family and social cost. As if bipolar weren’t bad enough, already.

However, at many 12-Step meetings, according to David Oliver (http://www.bipolarcentral.com/articles/articles-644-1-Ailcoholics-Anonymous-and-Bipolar-Disorder.html), alcoholism is the only condition discussed at meetings. Bipolar disorder is considered an “outside issue.” However, he also notes that for those with a dual diagnosis:

Part of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is to get a “sponsor.” A sponsor is a person who will help the member through the 12 steps of the program, to help them stay sober, and to help them deal with the issues surrounding their alcoholism.

Hopefully, the member with bipolar disorder can find a sponsor who is sensitive to the fact that bipolar disorder is one of the issues that does, in fact, affect their sobriety.

Another facet of AA that can be applicable to those with bipolar disorder is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.

But as to the 12 Steps themselves, only a few are likely to be helpful to bipolar sufferers, and several apply not at all. Let’s take a look at a few:

  • We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  • Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

These, the first two steps, are problematic if you replace alcohol with bipolar. We are not powerless over bipolar. There are treatments, involving therapy and/or medication, that give us power to manage how bipolar affects us. And that Higher Power so essential to AA – often expressed as “God as we understand Him” – will not restore us to sanity, through prayer may help us get through the difficult times associated with the disorder. (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-B6)

On the other hand, a few of the 12 Steps may be relevant:

  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Few would deny that bipolar disorder has often been a factor that affected our relationships with others. We can certainly acknowledge that we have hurt others as well as ourselves while in the grip of mania and/or depression, and we can offer or try to make amends.

But, overall, it seems that 12-Step programs are not for us.

What is there to suggest instead? Here are two places to look:

  • Therapist-led support groups in your area
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), which offers online and in-person peer support groups or chapters http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=home

DBSA has a page that helps you locate support groups in your area. Unfortunately, there are none within a reasonable distance of where I live.

However, I could always start one. And so could you.

Also, I invite you to write any number of steps that would be appropriate for a support group along the AA model.

Gaslighting and Bipolar Disorder: A Follow-Up

Over a year ago, I wrote about gaslighting and bipolar disorder (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm). In my post I said:

[W]hat 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.

Since then, gaslighting has become a hot topic, appearing all over the Web, so I thought I’d write about it again.

The essence of gaslighting is that someone denies your reality and substitutes his own. (Gaslighters are mostly – though not exclusively – men.)

What I believe is driving the interest in gaslighting is the “#MeToo” movement. Women everywhere are speaking up about incidents of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault, and even rape that they had not spoken of before. Or that they had spoken of but not been believed.

In many of these cases, gaslighting was involved. The women say, “This happened.” The men say, “It was a joke/flirting/a compliment/not that big a deal/consensual.” Until now men have denied the women’s perception of abusive reality and substituted their own innocent explanation. And, for the most part, the men’s reality has been accepted. Again and again.

Some of the high and mighty have recently been brought low by revelations of misconduct. The more we hear, the more it seems that men who achieve prominence in any field see women and especially their bodies as just another perk – like a company car or a key to the executive washroom. An audience for a dick pic. A pussy to grab.

Those are the cases that make the news. But the problem goes all the way down to the least prestigious situations. Any male in a position of power over a woman has the opportunity to exploit that relationship. Many are decent men and don’t. But many – from your local McDonald’s manager to the city bus driver to the head janitor – do. That’s millions of men and millions of women, the gaslighters and the gaslit.

Again, why discuss this in a bipolar blog? Because the very nature of our disorder makes us a little unsure of reality anyway. Perhaps this is mania and my boss is complimenting me because I really am sexually appealing. Perhaps this is depression and I deserve the degrading thing that just happened to me. Perhaps this is somewhere in between and I can’t guess what’s what.

A person unsure of her emotions is more likely to take the “bait” that the gaslighter dangles. A person unsure of her reality is more likely to accept someone else’s definition of it.

The #MeToo movement is empowering. It allows women to bring into the light the shameful things that have been hidden away. And it gives the bipolar person a more objective standard against which to measure reality. “That happened to me too! I was right that it was inappropriate!” “I saw that happen to my friend. Next time I’ll be strong enough to speak up!” “I see what’s happening. I’ll teach my daughter not to put up with that behavior. And my son not to do it.”

And it says to the bipolar person, “You have an objective reality outside your moods. You can trust your perceptions on these matters. You too have a right to live without these insults, these aggressions, this gaslighting. You can trust your feelings when you perceive that someone has stepped over that line.”

We have bipolar disorder. We are not the disorder. And it does not rule every aspect of our lives. When we perceive a situation as unprofessional, harmful, insulting, degrading, we can say so – and deserve to be believed. Just because we have a mental disorder does not make us any less worthy of decent, respectful treatment by the men in our lives, whether they be boyfriends, husbands, fathers, employers, or supervisors.

We have enough problems in our lives. We shouldn’t have to deal with gaslighting too.

 

 

Mental Illness: Poverty and Privilege

Mental illness is not just an American problem. In fact, it’s a problem around the world, and perhaps much more acute in other nations, especially those plagued by poverty.

There’s no way to know for sure, but many – perhaps most – of the world’s mentally ill are undiagnosed, untreated, ignored. Because what do you do when you live where there’s no psychiatrist? No therapist. No medication. No help.

Your family may support you, shelter you, or shun you, depending on their financial and emotional resources and those of the community. But for many people, there is simply nothing.

Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People for 2015, is working to change that.

As a recent profile in Discover magazine put it, Patel and others like him have set out to prove “that mental illnesses, like bipolar disease, schizophrenia, and depression are medical issues, not character weaknesses. They take a major toll on the world’s health, and addressing them is a necessity, not a luxury.”

In 2003, Patel wrote a handbook, Where There Is No Psychiatrist: A Mental Health Care Manual, to be used by health workers and volunteers in poverty-stricken communities in Africa and Asia. A new edition, co-written with Charlotte Hanlon, is due out at the end of this month.

Patel, in his first job out of med school, in Harare, Zimbabwe, says he learned that there wasn’t even a word for “depression” in the local language, though it afflicted 25% of people at a local primary care clinic. There was little study of diagnosis and treatment in “underserved areas.”

Later epidemiologists learned to their surprise that mental illnesses were among the top ten causes of disability around the world – more than heart disease, cancer, malaria, and lung disease. Their report was not enough to spur investment in worldwide mental health.

Patel developed the model of lay counselors – local people who know the local culture – guiding people with depression, schizophrenia, and other illnesses through interventions including talk therapy and group counseling. By 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) admitted that every dollar invested in psychological treatment in developing countries paid off fourfold in productivity because of the number of people able to return to work.

One objection voiced about Patel’s model is that the real problem is poverty, not depression or other mental illness. The argument goes that the misery of being poor, not a psychiatric illness, leads to symptoms and that Westerners are exporting their notions of mental health to the rest of the world, backed up by Big Pharma. Patel responds, “Telling people that they’re not depressed, they’re just poor, is saying you can only be depressed if you’re rich … I certainly think there’s been a transformation in the awareness of mental illnesses as genuine causes of human suffering for rich and poor alike.”

Of course the problem of underserved mentally ill people is not exclusive to impoverished nations. There are pockets in American society where the mentally ill live in the midst of privilege, but with the resources of the Third World – the homeless mentally ill, institutionalized elders, the incarcerated, the misdiagnosed, those in rural areas far from mental health resources, the underaged, the people whose families don’t understand, or don’t care, or can’t help, or won’t.

I don’t know whether Patel’s model of community self-help can work for those populations as well as they do internationally. This is not the self-help of the 1970s and 80s, when shelves in bookstores overflowed with volumes promising to cure anything from depression to toxic relationships. It would be shameful if the rich received one standard of care for mental health problems, while the poor had to make do with DIY solutions, or none.

But, really, isn’t that what we’ve got now?

 

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