Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

I’m Not Giving Up on You

Not you, Rachel, and not you, Paul.

Rachel, I know that your life has been shitty lately. I know that your health problems are overwhelming you and your depression is dragging you down to the deepest levels. I know your brother’s death by suicide still resonates with you and makes you think that there is an easy way to end your pain.

Paul, I know that your life has been full of drama and trauma lately. I know that the tasks of daily living get the better of you and the future keeps retreating further and further away. I know that you have barely any spoons each day and feel compelled to spend them on others instead of on yourself.

But I won’t give up on either one of you.

Rachel, I will take your calls even when I’m exhausted and listen while you vent. I will support you in every way I know how. I will honor and thank you for your generosity when I know that you could easily focus only on your troubles. I will maintain contact even when I am low on spoons.

Paul, I will keep sending you reminders that I am thinking of you and offering you solace and support. I will willingly accept that you are not able to reply just now. I will not take that as a reason to make a break with you. I will keep trying.

Rachel, you know you can say anything to me, for I have surely been there. You know that your suicidal ideation makes me uncomfortable, but I won’t ask you never to speak of it. I have had those thoughts myself and gotten through them. I know you can too. I see all the things that you do to reach out to others and extend your goodness to them. I empathize with your difficult family situation. I don’t know what to do about it, but I will acknowledge the pain that it gives you.

Paul, you know that I have listened to you in the past and will continue to do so, no matter what it is you have to say. I will not let my own anxiety and depression stand in the way of listening to yours. Please know that I understand what you’re going through more than I can say or have ever said.

Rachel, please know that I celebrate with you even the smallest achievements you make. When you are able to stand up for yourself against City Hall, I applaud you. When you investigate ways to make your living situation better, I will not judge you, though they may seem harsh or unacceptable to others.

Paul, please know that I wish only the best for you, even if I don’t always understand what it is that you need. I admire your continuing strength, even when I feel that it would be good if you could lay your burdens down for just a while. I acknowledge that I am not the person that can help you do this, much as I would like to.

The reason that I say these things is that I want you to know that there is someone who does truly understand and truly care. I have been where you are and have found my way out, at least a little. I remember the people – including you two – who have reached out to me even when I was not able to reach back. The very least I can do is to do the same for you.

When you are relieved of your burdens and can again see the light of day, I will be there to celebrate with you. I will not despair or think that you can never see that light.

I will not give up on you. I will not give up on any of my friends who are burdened with depression, anxiety, or some other difficulty. I will do what I can, because I must. There are people who have never given up on me. I know what that feels like, and I wish that same healing and help and health for you.

Aaand…we have a new contender for what causes mental illness.  According to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, it’s a breakdown in Judeo-Christian morality. In fact, he blames a lot of woes on what he calls “secularism”:

Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic.”

Let’s look at that for a minute. Immorality causes wrecked families, depression and mental illness, suicide, violence, and drug epidemics. Lack of religion – or at least the proper Judeo-Christian one – brings on everything but the zombie apocalypse.

Steve Benen, writing for MSNBC, points out the flaws:

For one thing, it’s factually wrong. There are complex factors that contribute to problems such as drug abuse, gun violence, mental illness, and suicide, but to assume these issues would disappear in a more religious society is absurd. There are plenty of Western societies, for example, that are far more secular than the United States, and many of them are in better positions on these same social ills.

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/ag-barr-blames-moral-upheaval-conspiring-us-secularists

Plus, Barr’s theory would have you believe that in the most religious places in the United States, such ills should not occur. Sadly, we have learned that no community is exempt from these tragedies. And it completely ignores the fact that many mass shooters and bombers cite the Bible as justification for their horrendous crimes.

Ah, but you say, those crimes are attributable to mental illness, which, as Barr tells us, is a product of the breakdown of moral values. It’s a simple equation to him: Immorality leads to mental illness leads to an increase in senseless violence. (As opposed to sensible violence, I suppose.)

And that’s where this slippery slope gets dangerous for those of us who have mental illnesses. Not only are we stigmatized by being blamed for mass violence, we are stigmatized by “ignoring” the cure for our disorders – adherence to the right religious values. (I think it’s fair to assume that Buddhist, Islamic, Baha’i, or Shinto religious values don’t count. In fact, to some religious people, such beliefs are tantamount to mental illness themselves.)

If mental illnesses can be cured by inculcating appropriate religious values, why are we spending so much money on psychologists and psychiatrists, medications, and hospital beds? According to Barr’s theory, that money would be better spent on religious indoctrination, especially for young people. There are many, especially in the halls of power, who agree with him.

You’d think that with the crumbling of the “pray away the gay” philosophy, these people would be hesitant to attempt changing someone’s internal constitution and thought processes simply through the exercise of religion.

Make no mistake, it’s an exercise that is doomed to failure. God does not miraculously grant the right balance of neurotransmitters to the faithful. He does not prevent or cure schizophrenia in those who pray to Him. He does not see to it that tendencies to mental disorders are not handed down through the generations in godly families. Mental illness can strike anyone and does afflict one in four people at some time in their lives. Surely that 25% of people are not all secularists. Just because people with mental disorders are sometimes shunned by faith communities (and that does happen) doesn’t mean that they aren’t religious enough.

Morality is not just for the mentally healthy and mental illness is not just for the immoral. If we let this absurd statement go unchallenged, we are setting ourselves up for more stigma, less funding, less freedom, less choice, and less dignity. If we make sure to oppose this dangerous notion whenever we encounter it, we are doing ourselves, our families and friends, and our nation a service. Educating people about mental illness may begin at home, but it needs to spread to society at large or we will be bombarded by more of these ridiculous, dangerous theories.

We all know that when writing a resume, you should write either “good” or “excellent” when you refer to your health. Any other response will make it certain that your resume will be headed straight for the circular file.
But what about your mental health? Most resumes and most job applications don’t include a space for that, but what if they did? What would you answer? What should you answer? And should you tell the truth if you do answer?
 
In one corner of England, job seekers were encouraged to hedge their bets or to flat-out lie. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that welfare personnel “have urged jobseekers who have depression to hide their diagnosis and only admit on work applications that they are experiencing ‘low mood.'” 
 
Fortunately, there has been a backlash from mental health organizations, who describe the advice as an “outrage” likely to increase stigma. They point out that “the law provided protection to disabled people, including those with mental health problems, if their disability has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on normal daily activities.”
 
The welfare department in question brushed off the controversy by saying the suggestion was only “well-intentioned local advice” and encouraging people seeking jobs to “speak freely about a health condition or disability.” But that’s not a choice that everyone is willing to make.
 
Whether or not to disclose one’s mental health condition when applying for a job is not an easy decision. American law (at the moment) protects employees and potential employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But many people are rightly suspicious that disclosing a mental illness at the application is a one-way ticket to unemployment. Even when applications invite you to disclose and pointedly proclaim that they abide by EEOC regulations, many people choose not to disclose.
 
Disclosing after you’ve been hired or have been working at a place for a while is another matter. Many people (including me) have lost jobs because their bosses and coworkers don’t understand mental illness. There is plenty of motivation never to mention it.
 
That may not always be possible, however. Sometimes, the symptoms of bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness are obvious and negatively affect work. (I’m included here, too.) If a person isn’t able to do the work – for whatever reason – it’s understandable that they will be let go.
 
That brings us to the subject of accommodations that permit a person to do the work. Under ADA law, persons with disabilities, including mental disorders, are to be given “reasonable accommodations” to help them perform their job duties. For blind, deaf, or mobility-impaired workers, these accommodations are obviously necessary and most employers can and will provide them. (There is also no question as to whether to disclose these disabilities or not. Visible disabilities are more widely understood than invisible ones.)
 
Accommodations for mental disorders need not be difficult, either. Solutions such as flextime, work-at-home situations, or time off for appointments are more and more being offered to all employees, regardless of ability level, and these can certainly help people with mental illness, too. Other reasonable accommodations might include flexible break times, an office with a door or full-spectrum lighting, or the understanding that phone calls and emails need not be returned instantly. Of course, to receive these accommodations, one must disclose the disorder and negotiate the possible solutions, which can certainly be daunting, if not impossible, for those with anxiety disorders, for example.
 
But what we’re talking about here is not whether to disclose a disability on an application or to an employer. What we are talking about is misrepresenting a potentially disabling condition – or to use the less polite term, lying about it. I don’t have “occasional mood swings,” I have bipolar disorder. My depression is not simply a “low mood,” it can be debilitating. And I suspect that even admitting to a “low mood” might be greeted with something less than understanding by a potential or actual employer.
 
Ayaz Manji, a senior policy officer at a mental health charity in England, said of the semi-disclosure policy, “Anyone who discloses a mental health problem at work deserves to be treated with respect, and jobcentres should not be reinforcing stigma by advising people not to disclose.”
 
He’s right, of course. Disclosing or not disclosing is a hard enough choice for the mentally ill. Lying about one’s condition should not even be a consideration. And isn’t lying on resumes and applications an automatic cause for dismissal? 
 
For more information:

Black-and-White Thinking

 

My husband used to have only two categories when he reacted to something: It was fabulous or it was wrecked. There was nothing in between. If he cooked a dinner and I said it was “okay,” he heard “wrecked.” If I said “good,” he heard “wrecked.” Only the most superlative of adjectives would convince him that I appreciated his efforts.

Of course, this was a holdover from his childhood, one called “black-and-white thinking” or “all-or-nothing” thinking. And what that is, is a kind of cognitive distortion, a skewed way of thinking that does not represent reality,

Cogbtherapy.com has this to say about the subject:

A cognitive distortion is an automatic way of repeatedly interpreting a situation that causes us to not consider other ways of thinking about it. When we over-rely on cognitive distortions, we usually interpret events in such a way that fuels emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. All-or-nothing thinking is one such distortion.

All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.

http://cogbtherapy.com/cbt-blog/cognitive-distortions-all-or-nothing-thinking

Indeed, my husband was prone to depression and thinking poorly of himself. He would never be as good as his brother, as successful as his father and mother, as artistic or musical or smart as he wanted to be.

Fortunately, he eventually got over this. It’s really tiring to keep thinking of better and better ways to describe dinner. Now I can give accurate feedback, like “satisfying,” or “good enough.” Not everything has to be fantastic.

I must admit that I share in this kind of cognitive distortion. I think it may go with bipolar disorder, which, after all, includes swings from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. But some people attribute it to my having been a Girl Scout or making straight As in school. What I remember is learning it from my parents. When a cousin, for example, screwed up, they would say with a tone of disgust, “Well, I guess some people have to learn from their mistakes.” What I heard was that some people, the good, smart people, didn’t have to learn from their mistakes because they didn’t make mistakes. It was a perfect set-up for making a little girl try to be perfect.

Later in life, I found some flaws in that line of thought. My first experience with a grade of D came in high school in Enriched Geometry. The “Enriched” part was having to do three-column proofs instead of two-column proofs, with the third column being the name or number of the theorem of corollary you were using. I thought that was stupid. You could always look up the theorem or corollary if you really needed to know it. As long as you knew how it worked, I thought, that should be enough. So I didn’t memorize them and I got a D. (Many years later, I was able to hang five pictures, four in a square and one in the middle, which proved to me that I did indeed know enough geometry to get by, theorems and corollaries or not).

I also learned that, according to my parents, perfection was only for me, not for other people. When some work friends of mine started living together, I expected my parents to freak at the sinfulness. They didn’t. But when I did the same thing, they refused even to enter the house.

I know that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy specializes in counteracting distorted ways of thinking, and maybe it would have helped me (or my husband) get over it more quickly or efficiently. But the lesson I eventually learned was that I could be not-perfect and it wouldn’t destroy me. I hung those pictures. I moved on from that relationship and my parents accepted me. I did end up in a job (editing) that requires one to be as nearly perfect as one can regarding as many details as possible, and I suppose that’s an example of turning a negative into a positive.

But if – that is, when – I make a mistake or miss perfection by however wide a margin, my thinking isn’t so disordered that I assume I’m a failure. Black-and-white has been replaced by all manner of shades of gray. That’s really where everyone lives.

Some people just don’t believe that mental illness exists. There are reasons for this. Not good reasons, but reasons.

I recently saw a meme that blamed mental illness on capitalism. There was no mental illness per se, only the toxic effects of a culture that compels us to put up with overwork and underpay, exploitation and inescapable drudgery. The stress of dealing with these conditions is what causes us – an increasing number of sufferers – to feel depression and anxiety.

There may be something to this, sort of. Environmental conditions that lead to stress and anxiety can certainly make mental illness worse, particularly those like bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. And, while capitalism may or may not be the cause, the majority of us are working harder with less to show for it than ever before. But the majority of us are not mentally ill.

My mother may have bought into this philosophy. She knew I had mental troubles, but she thought that if only I got a better job, I would be all better. Admittedly, finding a better-paying job that was less stressful would improve anyone’s mood, but it can do little or nothing for a clinical mood disorder.

Then there are people who seem to “believe” in mental illness, but really don’t. These are the people who acknowledge that mental illness exists, but think that it is a “choice” – that any person can choose happiness, health, or sanity merely by an effort of will. Those of us who can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” are simply not trying hard enough. The “choose happiness” people don’t seem to get that for most of us, our only choice is whether to get help from someone else – a doctor who prescribes a psychotropic, a therapist or counselor who listens or advises, or even a friend who reaches out.

And, of course, there are people who acknowledge mental illness, but think it is a good thing, the fount of creative brilliance. They point to Vincent van Gogh and his amazing art. They forget about the suffering, the self-harm, and the suicide.

But, romanticizing mental illness and even revering it do nothing to help people who actually have psychiatric conditions. It’s true that some people with mental disorders – Sylvia Plath and Dale Chihuly, to name two in addition to van Gogh – have created works of great art, beauty, and significance. But it’s certainly valid to wonder what they would have produced if they had not had the trials of mental illness to deal with. Would their work have been less inspired or more? It’s impossible to say. Personally, I believe that mental illness interferes with creativity more often than it enables it.

But the most common reason, I believe, that people don’t recognize the existence of mental illness is that it has never touched their lives, isn’t a part of their perceptions. A relative of mine once watched a talk show where women recounted dire experiences of having hysterectomies. “Those women are such liars,” my relative said. “I had a hysterectomy and it was nothing like that.” Her perception of reality – her personal experience – was extended to the whole world.

Similarly, when someone has no direct experience of mental illness, either by having a disorder themselves or by knowing someone very close to them with the disorder, the reality of mental illness itself comes into doubt. “No one I know has it, so no one does.”

Sometimes people who believe such things are capable of changing their minds, though. If a woman goes through a profound, long-lasting exogenous depression after the death of her husband, she may have more sympathy and understanding for people who have profound, long-lasting endogenous depression, or major depressive illness, as it’s more commonly known. Or a dear friend’s struggles to help a schizophrenic son may awaken her to what mental illness truly can be. Once it touches her life in some way, mental illness becomes real.

And since, according to statistics, one in four or five Americans will experience some type of mental or emotional disturbance in their lifetimes, the odds increase that people’s personal experience with mental illness will also increase accordingly.

In the meantime, those of us in the mental health community can help spread the word that mental illness does exist, that it affects the lives of millions of people, and that even people who are not directly affected need to understand how easily it can happen to someone they know.

Blaming mental illness on capitalism, overwork, or an insane world may be easy and may make us feel better by comparison, but it will do nothing to address the actual problem.

I was supposed to be this genius. Everyone knew it. My parents encouraged it. My teachers loved me. I learned to read without ever being taught. I picked up foreign languages quickly. In school, I was assigned independent reading and math assignments. I was put up a grade.

My parents tried to find an academically challenging program for me but couldn’t afford private school. Instead, I skated through my classes, earning good grades automatically. No one pushed me to do better because I didn’t seem to need pushing.

But.

By my teen years, my bipolar disorder had well and truly kicked in. I laughed aloud in class at things no one else found funny. I had crying jags and a nervous twitch in my neck (which was treated with Valium). I isolated from all but a few friends. I hid behind books, literally and figuratively. I explored colleges pretty much at random. No one guided my education. I ended up, largely by chance, at an Ivy League school.

But.

By then, my bipolar disorder, undiagnosed and untreated, took over my life. Again I skated through, taking whatever classes appealed to me, without regard to my future. I spent a lot of time crying, isolating, and missing out on a lot of opportunities, both academic and extracurricular.

By the time I graduated, I was in such bad shape that all I was looking for was a job that I could work long enough to qualify for disability for when I was finally put away. That’s how far down the bipolar rabbit hole I’d gone.

Still, I had that Ivy League degree, a not-very-marketable major, and a reason to look for work. I took on jobs doing inventory, cashiering at a restaurant, and answering phones at an advertising agency.

Where was this genius I was supposed to have been? Whatever happened to all my great potential?

Bipolar disorder robbed me of my great potential. Bipolar disorder stole my chance at being a genius. It screwed up my thought processes as well as my emotions and my stability.

I was, however, fortunate enough – or smart enough – to get psychological help and, in time, made strides in coping with Life While Bipolar. I adjusted to the fact that my lost opportunities meant that I would never fulfill that potential that seemed so apparent when I was a child.

In a way, I have some version of Imposter Syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is when you feel that, no matter how much you have accomplished, you are a fraud and that someone will notice and denounce you. Fame, talent, success, love – all are illusory and undeserved. In my case, I feel that whatever I’ve accomplished is not enough, certainly not enough to live up to the great potential everyone including me thought I had. Surely someone will notice and say, “You’re not that great. You’re certainly no genius. What have you ever done with your life?” It’s my lack of success that I’m afraid people will notice and comment on.

However, as a friend of mine has said, “The ultimate remedy for Imposter Syndrome is knowing that they grade on a curve.” Most of us fit in the fat middle of that bell curve. Few of us are on either of the thin ends. So I’m not exactly where I “should” be on that curve. So people guess at where I am and guess wrong. That has no real effect on me.

And in objective terms, I’ve done pretty well. I have a stable, loving marriage and a relatively stable mental condition. I’ve edited magazines and written two books. My bipolar disorder is in remission. Sure, I seldom get a chance to show off my knowledge of contemporary poetry, but that doesn’t affect my moods and nobody quizzes me about it.

I’m bipolar and not a genius. I make my way through as best I can. I am who I am. And that’s okay. I can accept where I am without feeling the need to be something more.

Permission to Be Depressed

Depression can be so riddled with guilt. Why am I not able to fake being okay? Why do I isolate when what I need is interaction?

Sometimes what I need is to give myself permission to be depressed. I have bipolar disorder 2, with a heavy depression component. It has overwhelmed me many times. I have fought against it, given in to it, tried to make compromises with it, tried to ignore it – almost any reaction you can imagine. Then I learned how to give myself permission to be depressed.

This is not quite the same as giving in to depression. It involves acknowledging that I am depressed and allowing myself to feel the feelings that I have. Of course, I don’t give myself permission to be permanently depressed. In a way, it’s more like giving myself permission to practice self-care and not to force myself to smile and bull my way past the depression. I recognize that I am depressed and do what I need to do to get through it. That may be staying in bed. It may be crying. It may be wallowing in sad music. These are things that I’m likely to do anyway when I’m depressed, but giving myself permission to do them is surprisingly freeing.

I used this technique probably for the first time when my husband and I went on a “barefoot” cruise vacation. It was something we both enjoyed and both want to do again someday.

But I knew from the beginning that depression might overtake me – probably would, at that time in my life – even while I was doing something enjoyable. Naturally, I didn’t want the depression to ruin the whole vacation, so I decided to give myself permission to do what I needed to do to cope with those feelings.

Most often, that involved retreating to my bunk for a nap. This enabled me to get away from other people when I was feeling overwhelmed and unable to socialize. Sure, I missed some of the onboard and shore activities, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway while in the metaphorical fog and darkness. I enjoyed what I could, then let myself not do what I didn’t feel up to doing. I didn’t try to make my husband stay with me and miss all the fun. There wasn’t anything he could do for me anyway. If the other passengers thought it was odd – and they did – they barely mentioned it to me. My husband told them I was tired. Seasickness was also a believable excuse.

In a way, having bipolar depression at that level is like having the flu. I feel bogged down and logy, inclined to cocoon, rest, and stay away from other people. I realize this is not always possible, but if it is, I can allow myself to do it. Fortunately, this spell of depression wasn’t so bad that it completely incapacitated me as it has at other times in my life. I was still able to feel enjoyment at some times, though not at others.

At other times, I’ve had to give myself permission to have anxiety. If a situation makes me anxious, I acknowledge that I am nervous, and do what I need to do. I can’t “think away” my anxiety, but sometimes I can get myself out of the situation at least temporarily. I do not have to sit and be anxious while people around me argue or shout at each other, one of my anxiety triggers. When I recognize how I’m feeling (which takes practice) and give myself permission to feel the way I feel, I’m better able to come up with coping mechanisms, such as leaving the room to get some fresh air or making myself a cup of tea.

You may notice that when I give myself permission to be depressed or anxious, part of my solution involves avoiding other people. That’s sometimes a hard thing to do. Isolation can certainly make depression worse, but it can sometimes also be necessary if pushing through, trying to smile, mingle, and socialize will make the depression worse in the end. And I have learned that if I try to do that, the depression comes along with me. Once a friend told me that it was like having a separate person with me, a person called Misery. Better to give myself permission to stay home and give myself some self-care.

What I can’t do is give myself permission to stay depressed or anxious. Giving myself permission is a very limited-time offer. It doesn’t work for those really lingering, midnight-dark depressions that last for weeks or months on end. Those, I have to fight. And while I’m depressed, I don’t give up on meds or therapy. Those are necessary to alleviate the depression instead of resigning myself to feeling it.

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