Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Green Flags, for a Change

I recently saw a meme that pointed out the red flags in a relationship, such as getting rid of friends and family; financial control; insisting on knowing whereabouts; gaslighting; intermittent reinforcement; and, of course, physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse.

But the meme went on to say that, just as there are red flags of a bad relationship – one you shouldn’t get into or should get out of – there are green flags that indicate when a relationship is healthy and positive.

I’ve had relationships of both kinds and, although I didn’t recognize them at the time, have learned the hard way to notice and avoid the red flags. But I’ve also learned how to recognize the green flags.

It’s only fair to say that recognizing both red flags and green flags is more difficult when you live with SMI. It clouds your perceptions. It makes it harder to recognize when and why you should get out of a bad relationship and when a new one is a safe space to be in. We doubt ourselves so much that our vision gets clouded.

So, what do I see as the green “go ahead” flags in a relationship? Besides the absence of all the red flags, I mean.

Listening to you is the first one and maybe the most important. Along with that comes validating your perception of reality. It’s a hard thing to find, especially if you and your new partner have disagreements – which all couples do. You can disagree with someone without tearing them down, even if you have an emotional reaction to whatever you’re disagreeing about. It can actually be easier to agree on religion and politics than it is when the topic pushes one of your buttons. Realizing that you disagree but respect and love the person anyway is a hard thing to do and a harder one to say, but it’s important.

It’s also very important to act on what you say and to make your words and actions congruent. This is the very basis of integrity and trust. We’ve all met someone who says one thing and does another. It’s beyond disappointing. In fact, it’s one of the biggest red flags there is. Not being able to rely on your partner to do what they say they’ll do is a breach of trust. To cite one example (not completely at random), there’s the person who says that an open relationship is the ideal but then demeans you when you act on it – the same way they have always done.

Laughter is vital in any relationship. In order to share jokes and laugh with a person, you must be able to relax with them. Trust is involved here, too. You have to be able to trust that the other person won’t use “humor” to attack you, especially in front of other people. Sarcasm directed at you sours the good feelings you may have had. But genuine laughter, whether at a joke, a silly song, or a funny movie, brings people together. If you have SMI, laughter may have been long absent from your life. Getting back the capacity to laugh is a revelation.

Another aspect of a relationship that can be pivotal is understanding each other’s “love language.” This idea comes from a book by Dr. Gary Chapman that was published in 1995, The Five Love Languages. The five languages – ways that people communicate their love – are words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together or physical touch. Figuring out your partner’s love language and adjusting yours to match theirs can be difficult.

Most important, I think, is perseverance. I often say that we could describe ourselves as “The Couple Too Stubborn to Quit.” We’ve been married now for 40 years. We’ve had bad times when we went to couples counseling – more than once. We’ve even tried to work out if each of us could make it if we separated.

So, those are my “green flags” for a relationship: listening, trust, laughter, understanding, and sticking with it. There may be more, and I’d love to hear from you what others you’ve found.

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What Should I Write Next?

One of the writing groups I belong to just posted a question: Where do you want to be this time next year?

Honestly, I had to answer that I wanted to be exactly where I am today. Then I started thinking. Does this mean I am complacent? Don’t I have any ambition? Is my writing stagnating?

Well, maybe. On the other hand, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and I’m enjoying it. Every week, I may do the same things, but they’re fulfilling things. It’s been a long road getting here, and my bipolar disorder has set me back at times, but I need to keep doing what I’m doing.

It’s a bitch trying to have any kind of career with bipolar, but I’ve had several. They haven’t all been in the creative area, but many have been. I used to be a poet, but no one ever made any money at poetry except for Rod McKuen and Helen Steiner Rice, and I didn’t want to be either of them. I haven’t written any poetry in years, except for a couple of haiku and sonnets about bipolar disorder.

At one point in my life, I had a job at an advertising agency. When I was let go from that, I applied for similar jobs. Then one day, I asked myself whether I would rather be writing about table saws or about books and ideas. The answer was painfully clear. I went back to school for another degree in English, with no idea what I would – or could – do after I finished.

The day after I graduated, though, I got a job as an assistant editor at a magazine publisher. It was a small place, so in addition to editing, I had to do a lot of writing. It was good for me. But after about 17 years, I was let go, largely because I had become reclusive and unreliable. I lost the editing job that came after that one, for similar reasons. Actually, I quit it, with dreams of a career as a freelancer. I was sailing on the dream of making my own hours, publishing what I wanted to write, and being a great success.

Guess what? That was hypomania talking. And when I came down, I hadn’t become a success. I crashed hard. For several years, I sank into a deep depression, perhaps the worst and certainly the longest-lasting I ever had. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even summon the focus to read.

At last, my psychiatrist and I found a cocktail of meds that worked for me and brought me back to life. I started writing again, starting with my two blogs, this one and another one for non-bipolar topics. They were a labor of love, which means I didn’t make any money at it.

After a couple years of that, I realized that I had enough material for a book about bipolar disorder. I found a small, semi-indie publisher that specialized in mental health books. They published two collections of my blog posts, Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us. I got a few 5-star reviews on Amazon, but neither one of them sold. While I was finishing the second book, the publishing company went belly-up, under inauspicious circumstances. I couldn’t face going back to querying publishers, so I retreated to just writing blog posts. (I now have enough material for a third book, which I would call Bipolar World, but I haven’t pursued it.)

Hypomania struck again, and I wrote a murder mystery with a bipolar main character. I sent it to over 100 agents and got only rejections. When I came down this time, I realized that the book was deeply flawed and that I had rushed into trying to sell it when I hadn’t written or self-edited well.

Then, last year, I found a side gig ghostwriting to supplement my Social Security. It took off, and now I am working steadily at it, writing mostly self-help books. I’m finding it satisfying, and I’m good at it.

That’s where I want to be next year – ghostwriting and blogging. I make some money and am proud of it. Proud? Even though I’m not writing my own ideas and books? Yes. I keep getting customers and getting good reviews from them. I’m stable and working steadily. My bipolar disorder is in check. What more could I want?

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I see a lot of comments on mental health sites that are filled with resentment and want accountability from those with serious mental illness (SMI). These come from, I assume, family members or loved ones of the afflicted person. (Maybe therapists, too.)

The comments I’ve seen concerned issues from bipolar mania to schizophrenia. But by far the most common complaint was the person’s noncompliance with medication. “How can I get him to take his meds? He doesn’t think he needs them anymore, but when he doesn’t take them, he slides right back into disruptive behavior. How can I make sure he takes them every day?” What they want is accountability, and what they’re feeling is resentment (among other things).

I accept the fact that my condition will require me to take medication basically forever, and I am about as compliant as one can be. Yet despite that, my bipolar disorder does recur. So do I hold myself accountable for my actions, or can they be explained away by my mental illness?

One thing I can say is that I may not be able to identify a hypomanic mood swing when it happens, but when it does, there certainly are consequences that have to be dealt with. And I’m the one who has to deal with a lot of them, as I’m the one who works with the bills, credit cards, and banking. For example, in November and December, I undeniably overspent. (The holidays didn’t help.) Because many of my online purchases were presents for Dan, he didn’t know all the things I bought or how I paid for them. So, could my behavior be attributed to my disorder? Probably yes.

January rolled around and suddenly I was faced with the fact that hypomania had had me in its grip. The credit card balances are now higher than I like. The bills that I enter on my Google Calendar are that way, too. The bank balance is fluctuating between a-okay and OMG. I’ve been moving money around from checking account to credit cards and from savings account to checking account to try to keep up with the outflow. It’s gotten pretty tight at times, but I haven’t actually overdrawn.

So, did my hypomanic actions cause resentment? My husband has been pretty calm about it all, though he has been rather frustrated by having to ask me whether to use the checking account or a card when making necessary purchases.

I can understand the frustration and resentment of family members and loved ones of psychiatric patients who have to deal with non-compliance and the attending financial, legal, or relationship issues – and even the threat of violence in some cases. This resentment is even more heightened when the person with SMI also has anosognosia, the inability to realize that they are ill and need help. The lack of public supports for both the patients and their families only exacerbates the situation. Parents and grandparents of the SMI sufferers also worry about what will happen when they are no longer able to care for their dependent but know that they can’t manage on their own without going off the rails.

It’s easy enough to say that yes, persons with SMI should be responsible for their actions and should be held accountable. But it’s often not that easy. Family members and caregivers can certainly be tempted to embrace the philosophy of “tough love” when they’ve had to deal with the consequences of the illness by themselves. But realistically that means leaving the patients even more vulnerable to their illness and at risk of homelessness and even worse outcomes. There aren’t easy solutions and, in many cases, no solutions at all.

It’s clear that many of the situations seem – or maybe are – hopeless, unless there would happen to miraculously appear more inpatient treatment centers or maybe Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). But until that happens, families will continue to struggle.

Am I accountable? Yes, but I’m able to be. Was I always? No. In the depth of my major depressive episodes, even less so. But I’ve taken back over the things I was unable to do back then, like the bills and bank stuff. And I’ve apologized to my husband for the things I said when I had some bipolar rage. I’m grateful that I have a “cocktail” of drugs that works, and I take them faithfully. I schedule therapy and med checks regularly. I have sympathy for the families that don’t have those and the people who aren’t capable of doing that.

But do I know a way to increase accountability and reduce resentment? No. Sympathy is the only thing I have to give, and I know that doesn’t make things better.

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When people talk about your comfort zone, mostly what they say is to break out of it. All things considered, I’d rather stay in mine. The reason that it’s called a comfort zone is that I’m comfortable there. And I like feeling comfortable. It’s comforting. To me, those are good things.

Comfort is a large part of self-care. We do things that, in one respect or another, bring us comfort. From high-end massages and indulgent bubble baths to easy-to-prepare lunches and wash-ups in the sink, self-care is designed to bring either the comfort of sensual luxury or the comfort of meeting our own basic needs. Personally, I tend toward the latter, simpler comforts, though I have scheduled a massage for next month. Self-care makes me more comfortable in my life and in my own skin.

Most of us – bipolar or not – can identify comfort foods. These may be carb-laden favorites, our mothers’ remembered recipes, or weird combinations (like cream cheese and M&Ms on ruffled potato chips). They may evoke memories of a better time or fulfill a craving. They’re often simple dishes or items. (I don’t know anyone whose comfort foods are caviar and sushi. Although sushi does have special memories for me.)

I also have a fondness for comfort media – books and movies that I return to again and again, even when I have an e-reader full of unread books and streaming services full of unseen movies. Somehow, rereading Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels and watching the Stratford Festival version of The Mikado interests me in the wider world again, while not challenging me with anything that might disturb me or make me feel inadequate. I have comfort TV shows, too, mostly cooking or medical or true crime. Then there are shows to binge-watch – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Firefly, and, for my husband, MASH.

Certain clothes are comforting, too. I live in pajamas because I seldom go out. When I do go out, I have a collection of t-shirts that remind me of places I’ve traveled to and events I’ve attended. In cooler weather, I have any number of cuddly sweaters. (My husband and I both refer to the cozy pajamas and sweaters as “woobies,” our term for soft, comforting fabrics and garments.)

There are comfort places in my life, as well. Primary among them is our bed. When I can’t get out of bed, obviously, it’s my refuge. When I’m able to get up, I return to the bed eventually and sink into the mattress, burrow under the quilts, and sleep, even if it’s not time for bed.

Other places are ones where I can get away from it all. There’s a bed-and-breakfast in Kentucky with secluded cabins that we return to as often as we can. The proprietors leave us alone to relax in whatever way we want to, except for the morning when they bring us a bountiful farm breakfast with enough food to last us all day. There are cats, peacocks, and farm animals that we can watch or photograph. I could wish it weren’t such a long drive away, but it’s the most comfortable and comforting of getaways.

Most important of all are “comfort people.” There are people in my life that I can turn to when I need a person to talk to, someone to commiserate with, someone to distract me. There are people with soothing voices who can talk to me about anything and make me feel more centered. There are people I’ve shared good times with when I could, and ones I’ve shared bad times with who understand what I go through. We bake cookies, sing silly songs, or compare traumas (which actually does provide a kind of comfort).

So I’m stuck in my comfort zone. So what? I like it here. I thrive here. I’ll step out of it (cautiously) if I have to – I did so when I quit my editing job to become a freelancer. But most of the time you’ll find me here, enjoying my comfort zone and all the comforts of home. It’s comfort for the mind and soul as well as the body.

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There are two things associated with the new year – looking backward and looking forward. Looking backward is easier for me, so I’ll start there.

The year 2022 has presented both challenges and joys for me. There was our trip to Ireland, which was a joy but provoked overthinking and anxiety. An over-ambitious schedule and over-packing made the journey less successful than it could have been. Miscalculations on our part meant difficulty with flights and panic over finances when we had to extend our hotel stays and spend more money than we had budgeted. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road made me unable to do any of the driving and panicky whenever we negotiated a corner, encountered a curve, or parallel parked. I spent a lot of the car rides holding on to the “oh, shit” handle and pressing my hand to the roof of the small rental car. I was relieved to have remembered to take my anti-anxiety meds with me, and my husband helped by suggesting when my behavior might necessitate taking some.

Then there was our experience with COVID. My husband was diagnosed. I never was, but I had all the same symptoms, so I assume that I also had it. I remember being concerned, but not unduly anxious. We had (relatively) mild cases, so we sheltered in place and took over-the-counter remedies to combat our symptoms. We had groceries delivered and slept a lot, so I guess I would have to say we coped. When the immediate danger was over, I had COVID anxiety regarding my husband’s job, which includes lots of contact with the public. We both knew it could have been a lot worse and were grateful that it wasn’t.

I kept up with my therapy appointments via WebEx. We both liked the process so well that we have continued meeting that way even though the danger of COVID has lessened. My med appointments were somewhat more problematic. These I had to attend in person, braving the masked world four times during the year. My psychiatrist is less tech-savvy than my therapist, but he did learn how to send my scripts to the pharmacy electronically, so the process was easier for me.

When my typing job slowed way down and was in danger of disappearing, I was able to find a new gig ghostwriting, which added a steady supplement to our income and lessened my perpetual anxiety and preoccupation with financial matters. Now that the typing is almost nil, ghostwriting has proved to be not only a financial boon but a boost to my self-esteem. After a rocky beginning with my first couple of assignments, I’ve had much better success and now feel both competent and confident.

All in all, the past year has been pretty good, I would say. Despite the anxiety I suffered, it never proved crippling. And I didn’t notice any real depression. Relative stability, which is what I felt, is a good thing.

It’s also a harbinger for the coming year, or at least I hope so. I don’t make New Year’s resolutions per se, but my goal for the year is to keep on keepin’ on. I will continue to take all my meds as prescribed. I will continue seeking ghostwriting assignments and doing my best to fulfill them. I will try to rein in my anxiety when we go to Gatlinburg for a few days this spring. I will keep a close eye on our finances but try to avoid major anxiety about them. I will also try to keep a lid on my overspending when I get hypomanic.

I have developed a new sleep-wake cycle in order to be with my husband in the mornings when he gets ready to go to work. I now go to bed at around 8:00 and get up around 6:00, or even 4:30 when Dan has an earlier workday. On those days, we both take a nap in the late afternoon, which sometimes makes our meal times more irregular. Generally speaking, it all works out, for the most part, and I see no reason to change it during the coming year.

Taking my meds faithfully and keeping up with my therapist and psychiatrist appointments are givens. I know that they are the linchpins of my stability. But I will keep on the lookout for depression, anxiety, and hypomania and try to deal with them as soon as I notice the symptoms.

In other words, if I can be said to have plans or goals for the coming year, I intend to continue as I have been and hope that my bipolar disorder doesn’t shake up those plans or goals. As always, it’s a crapshoot.

I see a lot of recommendations that you live not in the past or the future but in the now or in the moment. I have a hard time doing that. I look back on the past – not merely for one year, but for my whole life. I look forward to the future – the idea that there are still good things to come. I look back at how far I’ve come. I look forward to how far I can go.

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I’ve often bitched about TV (and, I assume, magazine) ads for psychotropics. I’ve said that I despise the fact that they make the entire public their own experts on what they need and shills for “Big Pharma.” I’ve complained that they hamper doctors by encouraging consumers to “ask if drug X is right for you” and to accept no substitutes. I’ve also said that the ads present unrealistic pictures of very serious mental conditions by making depression, for example, no worse than the flu or a hangover.

Nonetheless, I’ve decided that drug commercials do have some beneficial purposes and effects. They aren’t all evil after all. They send messages to the viewing public that are actually positive. These messages contradict the prevailing public conception that people with mental illnesses are different from other people – that the entirety of their lives is taken over by their illness. People with bipolar disorder change from the depths of despair to uncontrollable, laughing lunacy within the span of hours or even minutes. People with OCD are picture-straighteners and tile-counters. People with schizophrenia are violent criminals or raving crazies, often hospitalized for life. None of these brain illnesses can be treated, according to the general wisdom.

Modern drugs have improved people’s lives and improved the general public’s conception of what mental illness is like.

First, more of the commercials now present understandable views of what some mental illnesses are like. They do this primarily when they use analogies or metaphors. Bipolar mania is like climbing a house of cards that is destined to collapse inevitably at some point. Depression is like darkness, and medications can lessen it by bringing light. They even make the symptoms and side effects more understandable: tardive dyskinesia, for example, is depicted with actual twitches, intractable movements, and mobility issues.

Also, the ads do emphasize that there are treatments, if not actual cures, for disorders that the general public views in a stereotypical way. Take schizophrenia, for example. Most people associate schizophrenia with homelessness, psychosis, and/or raving unintelligibly. Yes, those are sometimes the consequences of the disorder, but they’re far from the whole story. I’ve seen commercials for schizophrenia medications that show a man with a family playing guitar, two women with schizophrenia calmly discussing their symptoms, and a comparison of daily pills and twice-yearly injections for treatment. They humanize an illness that too many view as intractable and untreatable.

I stand by most of my criticism of ads for psych meds. They are shallow and simplistic. They do promote self-diagnosing and self-prescription and demands on doctors. They minimize the good that talk therapy can do, concentrating instead on medical and pharmaceutical interventions. At the same time, though, these ads promote more accurate, healthier views of mental illnesses, even the most severe. They portray people who have the illnesses as having alternatives, socially productive lives, and “normal” interactions with others despite their psychiatric conditions.

I have no scientific evidence to support this theory, but my guess is that after viewing these ads, often several times a day, a poll would reveal changes in attitude. That, combined with the public service announcements about depression and even ads for telemedicine therapy sessions, may indeed make it more likely that people who live with these conditions without realizing it to better understand their own possible mental problems and those of their friends and family, and to have greater empathy toward them.

And those are good things. May the trend continue.

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The Three Kinds of Care

December is National Family Caregivers Month, so it seemed like a good time to talk about caregiving. In my view, there are three kinds of caregiving: giving care, receiving care and self-care.

Caregiving

Caregiving is not an easy task, no matter whether you’re a family member or a professional. With an uncommunicative person such as one with depression, it practically takes telepathy. At times it seems impossible to know what kind of care is needed. A hug? Encouragement? Alone time? Help with chores? A listening ear? My husband, who is my principal caregiver, does all those things for me.

One thing about caregiving that I learned from my parents is that caregivers need recognition, too. My mother took care of my father all through the years of the illness that killed him. He wasn’t mentally ill, but his physical needs were many. Once my mother came to me and asked if she was doing a good job of caring for him. Of course, I reassured her. The thing is, objectively she knew that she was meeting his needs well. She just needed to hear it from someone else. You can talk about not looking for external validation, but sometimes it’s the kind you really need.

Receiving Care

All caregivers need recognition, and the best kind comes from the person for whom they care. That’s not always possible. Many therapists find it inappropriate to get gifts from their clients (mine accepted a small plant graciously). But a simple holiday card can be a nice remembrance. Other recipients of care have something to offer their caregivers as well – simple human connection.

Certainly, those of us receiving care can be irritable or even angry about needing care, but some recognition from us can go a long way toward keeping our caregivers, well, caring. Kindness is reciprocal. I know it’s hard to remember that or to act on it.

I owe my husband – my primary caregiver – more than I can say. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I can do – take care of paying the bills and work enough to keep us mostly current, for example. And I thank him, appreciate him, and do what I can for him. I try not to be greedy with his time and efforts – I know he has other things he’d rather be doing or needs to do for his own care. I know I don’t do nearly as much for him as he deserves.

Self Care

For people who have a mental illness, self-care can be difficult. We know what we should be doing, but it’s often difficult. It feels like self-care is just another chore, on top of all the other things we’re not able to do. If I can’t keep on top of laundry and dishes, how am I supposed to keep on top of showering? If I can’t manage to get out of bed for more than a couple of hours a day, how am I supposed to find time and motivation to exercise?

I know that self-care is important, but I have trouble doing it sometimes. I know I’m capable of it. I’m on my own while my husband is at work, and I managed to keep up self-care while he was out of town earlier this year. But somehow, I never seem to get beyond the very basics of self-care – eating and sleeping regularly. Never mind the manicures, shopping sprees, and bubble baths that some recommend. Those might require getting dressed, going out among people, and spending money. (Bubble baths don’t, of course, unless you count going out to get the bubble bath, which I do count. I sure don’t have any on hand.)

If you’re able to make even modest efforts toward self-care, make sure you give yourself a metaphorical pat on the back. Believe me, you’ve earned it.

The bottom line is this: No matter whether you give or receive care or care for yourself, you need and deserve recognition and appreciation.

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Stress is a major factor in my life, and I’m sure it is in your life as well. As far as I can tell, there is no one these days that doesn’t suffer stress. I don’t know any millionaires or billionaires, but I imagine that, perhaps counterintuitively, even they suffer stress. There’s the stress of keeping their businesses going, watching their investments shrink when the stock market tanks, and stress in their personal lives. It’s hard to feel sorry for the very rich, but I can at least understand that they do have stress.

Yet, the stress I feel as someone with SMI is different. It’s not just the normal stress that comes with day-to-day life – bills, health, family, and the buildup of petty annoyances, et endless cetera. There are stressors specific to people with mental illness.

There’s the stress of symptoms or waiting for them to come back or get worse. There’s the stress of trying to find a therapy – medication or otherwise – that will help. The stress of trying to make a living or get on disability. Avoiding our triggers. Trying to find or maintain relationships. Remembering to take medication every day. The things we think of as stress relievers can be counterproductive, too. Booze or drugs, overeating, over-shopping, and other compulsive behaviors can actually add to the stress. Even performing self-care activities can cause stress – guilt over not doing the things we “should” do like exercise or meditation.

Having a caregiver can help lessen some stress. Caregivers can’t completely eliminate stress, however. In fact, they can be the cause of certain kinds of stress – worry about whether they’ll show up, whether we’re putting them through too much stress, or whether they resent us, to name a few.

So, what are some ways to relieve stress that don’t cause more stress?

My go-to stress reliever is music. When it all gets to be too much, I have myself a little music party. Usually, I party by myself, but sometimes my husband joins me, at least for the first half hour or so of it. I have plenty of slow, sad songs on my computer, but my music parties emphasize loud, raucous tunes. My playlist also contains silly songs (think Dr. Demento). I am fortunate enough to have a number of friends who are singer-songwriters and who specialize in the ridiculous, so I’m amply supplied. Sometimes I bounce around from song to song as they occur to me. Other times, I let the shuffle feature pick. An hour or two and I’m unwound enough to sleep.

My cats also provide distraction from stress. For some reason, I find it calming to watch cats wash themselves. The sound of purring is a stress reliever, and one of our cats snores (daintily) while she sleeps. Besides, they generate lots of alpha waves, and those are contagious.

I do also want to address the use of CBD/THC products for stress relief. I don’t have much experience with this, so I’ll have to defer to people more knowledgeable than I am. And I certainly don’t want to encourage anyone to break any laws. But I understand that one of the difficulties of using CBD in particular can be balancing the relaxing effects with potential paranoia. Still, many people find CBD to be a sleep aid, and good, restful sleep is a major stress reliever. At the moment, in my state (Ohio), PTSD and Tourette’s are the only mental disorders for which medical marijuana can be prescribed. Other forms of CBD such as hemp products are more widely available, including online.

What you actually do for stress relief matters less than that you do something. Maybe for you, that’s a massage or a warm bubble bath. But maybe it’s hugs, music, grounding exercises, meditation, or yoga. Whatever you find relieves your stress, making time for it on a daily basis isn’t a bad idea. That way, you’ll be in practice when the stress does hit.

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My brain is notoriously glitchy. Whatever the current state of thought about what causes bipolar disorder, I feel the illness as residing in my brain. It’s a mood disorder, of course, but I can’t locate my moods in any place except my brain.

It’s taken a lot of time and effort – and money, to tell the truth – to get my brain to the point where I can live with it instead of in spite of it. It was badly in need of repair for so long that I didn’t quite realize that my heart needed repair as well.

Look, I know that bipolar moods come and go with little to no reason. That’s one of the hallmarks of the disorder. But the combination of depression and a train wreck of a relationship left me shattered. It’s hard enough to come out of that kind of depression, but add to it the fact that my first real love relationship had imploded so spectacularly and I was a total mess in both brain and heart.

I met my future husband about a week before I fled that situation, heading back to my hometown. After a couple of years of long-distance getting to know each other, he moved here, and together we started the process of helping me achieve healing.

Dan had experience working in psychiatric facilities, so he had some kind of an idea of what I had been going through. But he couldn’t help me psychologically – though he tried. It didn’t work. I needed professional help, from someone not personally or romantically involved with me. “Don’t come shrinking at me,” I once told him. If I had to rely on him for mental healing, I would become unhealthily dependent on him. What he could do was support me through the process. He was enormously patient, helping me with the small things like driving me to my therapy appointments. He sat with me when I cried and dispensed hugs liberally. It was a long journey to some kind of mental stability.

But my heart needed healing as well as my brain. I was emotionally damaged, as much as I was psychologically impaired. The two problems were intertwined, of course. My thinking and feeling lived in the same space – inside my head. And healing both problems had to happen concurrently.

There’s not a lot of point in having your moods stabilized when you’re hurting so badly inside. But a therapist can only do so much. I learned a lot about myself in therapy, but healing my heart was largely a joint project between my husband and myself.

It wasn’t quick or easy. After my previous relationship, I was not inclined to trust anyone with my heart. That’s one of the side effects of being gaslighted. I needed to relearn trust and renew my ability to let someone inside the barriers I had established. I needed relearn intimacy.

Intimacy isn’t just about sex, though it encompasses that too. Intimacy certainly relies on physical touch, which I definitely had trouble with. In my previous relationship, my bodily autonomy was not respected. Touch was an issue. Fortunately, Dan never uses anything except gentle touch.

Play was an issue, too. True intimacy involves being able to play together, and at some level play involves trust – trust that it won’t go too far, trust that it’s fun and not mean, trust that everyone is playing by the same “rules.” Dan is nothing if not playful.

Talk was always the biggest builder of intimacy for me, though. Call me a sapiosexual, but I find the ability to have deep, meaningful conversations a real turn-on. Dan and I have the best conversations. Sometimes I wake up when he does at 4:00 a.m. and we have tea and oatmeal and just chat in the morning. He helps me with ideas for my blogs and tells me things he read in his Archaeology magazine. We look up songs online and play them and sometimes we chair-dance. It’s play and conversation both, and we build intimacy that way.

So, it has taken a lot of work to heal my brain, but also my heart. Both are much better now.

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Do My Friends Really Like Me?

There have been times in my life when I thought I didn’t have a friend in the world, and my disorder was the cause of it. I was just too weird, too odd – unlovable. I didn’t fit in anywhere, with anyone.

Actually, it started in my childhood. I had the idea that my parents only loved me because they had to – because I was their child. Ergo, if I weren’t their child, they would never love me. This was very untrue and unfair, I now realize, but I lived the early part of my life believing it.

I had very little evidence that I could make friends. I just never seemed to get the hang of it. There were kids in the suburban neighborhood where I lived, but we didn’t form what you would call lasting friendships. As I recall, there were two sisters who tried to humiliate me with a cruel prank involving a Ouija board and tape-recorded “messages” from the beyond.

In third grade, children threw stones at me. I had to have three stitches in my forehead. Another kid chased me around the schoolyard with a hypodermic needle that I hope was imaginary. My “best” friend in junior high school literally kicked me in the ass in front of a group of younger kids, which led to the first major meltdown that I can remember.

Though now, looking back, high school was the time when I began to embrace my oddity. I wasn’t diagnosed yet, so I didn’t know that the depressive and manic episodes were responsible, but I was learning that there were people who would accept me regardless. I had a tight little group of three or four friends, most of whom are still my friends to this day. They taught me that lasting friendship was possible. In college, I acquired another tight little circle of friends – and one disastrous train wreck of a relationship that left me with defective coping mechanisms such as self-harm.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve found more friends. Several have not been able to adjust to my mood disorder and have broken off contact. It hurt badly, of course, but I could see their point. When I was at my lowest point, I was not able to be a good friend to them either.

So, how has bipolar disorder been involved in my friendships (or lack thereof)? First, with all the chaos inside my head and my constant need to deal with it, I didn’t have much energy left to find friends. When I did get close to people, I ended up pushing them away with my erratic behavior. Only a few kindred souls stuck with me.

I suffered from imposter syndrome too. I thought that it might look like I had friends, but they would soon realize how damaged I was and leave. Or I believed that I was faking being a friend and really had no idea how to go about it.

I ghosted people without intending to when I went into a depressive episode. If I met them when I was manicky, I might be the proverbial life of the party, entertaining with my peculiar sense of humor. The next time they saw me, though, I might be an uncommunicative, weepy lump.

Still, there are people who have known me through the whole range of my moods and my disorder, and I am confident that they are my true friends. They really like me (shades of Sally Field!) and some even love me. I have Facebook friends that I keep in touch with regularly. They provide me a link to the outside world. I have IRL friends whom I see occasionally (we tend to live in different states). I even have a few friends nearby.

I love my friends. Because of how hard they’ve been to come by, I value them greatly. They have stood by me. They have invited me to dinner, to their parties, and on their vacations. They have comforted me when I was down, distracted me when I was anxious, and enjoyed my company when I’ve been stable. They’ve cried on my shoulder and I have cried on theirs. They’ve bought my books. Some have even lent me money when I really, really needed it. They have become my family of choice.

I treasure every one of my friends – especially my husband, who is my best friend. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

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