Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

My husband and I both have sleep apnea. We also both have depression, or at least he does and I have bipolar disorder with a pretty hefty depressive bent.

Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person stops breathing multiple times a night. The body responds to this by resuming breathing after a second or two, but sleep disruption has already occurred. For my husband, this occurs up to 60 times a night, while it happens to me more like six times. (Technically, my version is called “hypopnea” (hypo+pnea – low+breath; apnea, a+pnea – no+breath.))

The body depends on breathing, of course, for oxygen, but it also depends on sleep – which is disrupted in sleep apnea – for proper functioning. REM sleep, for example, is vital for dreaming, which has multiple beneficial effects on the body and mind. REM sleep has been known to be altered in depression, and studies have suggested that it is involved in modulating mood symptoms, including psychological distress in general.

One of the more observable symptoms of sleep apnea is loud and prolonged snoring, which both my husband and I have suffered from. While I was traveling with my mother, she even requested that I let her go to sleep first since my snoring kept her awake.

But what does sleep apnea actually do to the sufferer’s brain? Surely lack of oxygen to the brain has some effect.

Indeed it does.

According to research conducted at UCLA, “gasping during the night that characterizes obstructive sleep apnea can damage the brain in ways that lead to high blood pressure, depression, memory loss, and anxiety.”

Sleep apnea has been associated with difficulty concentrating, memory problems, poor decision-making, depression, and stress. Psych Central reports that untreated sleep apnea increases the chance of anxiety by over three and a half times; depression, by more than three times; severe psychological distress, by not quite three times; and suicidal thoughts, by more than two and a half times. Sleep apnea has also been associated with PTSD. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recommends that “in individuals with [obstructive sleep apnea] and psychiatric illness, treatment of both disorders should be considered for optimal treatment outcomes.”

Studies suggest that sleep apnea is linked with changes in at least two neurotransmitters in the brain (GABA and glutamate) that combine and coordinate signals that help regulate emotions, thinking, and some physical functions. Researchers plan to investigate whether treatments for sleep apnea will help these brain chemical levels return to normal.

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft) are thought to be valuable in treating sleep apnea. One study indicated that SSRIs may be a good treatment option for [sleep apnea], particularly for those [patients] with epilepsy. Another study showed a link between “having sleep apnea and increased odds of having a mental health issue” or symptoms such as anxiety or thoughts of suicide.

Treatments for sleep apnea include dental appliances to be worn while sleeping, lifestyle changes, and even surgeries. These treatments sometimes address snoring directly, but not the underlying mechanism. The more effective treatment is “positive air pressure,” delivered by CPAP machines.

CPAPs use positive air pressure to keep the sleeper’s airway from collapsing, which is what impedes their breathing and jolts thie brains into resuming it. They consist of a unit that generates air pressure, a hose and mask to deliver it, and assorted straps to keep the hose in place throughout the night. The masks can be ones that cover the entire nose and mouth or cannulas that are simply placed in the nostrils. There are also cushions on the masks or available separately that reduce discomfort as well as waking up with “mask face.” Many people find the masks uncomfortable to wear all night, but others use them not only at night but also for naps. Unlike a ventilator, the CPAP doesn’t breathe for a person. It allows them to breathe more effectively on their own.

Diagnosing sleep apnea requires a “sleep study” ordered by a doctor. Assorted leads are attached to the subject, who then spends all night sleeping (or trying to). Breathing rate, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and other parameters are measured and a record is kept of the number of times the subject stops breathing during the night. This is sent to the doctor, who can then prescribe a CPAP unit and mask.

Dan and I both use CPAP machines. They are a bit inconvenient, especially when we travel and have to take power cords so we both can use them at the same time (and power converters when we travel abroad). When it comes to packing, the machines are a bit bulky and somewhat heavy. Still, we take them with us religiously.

Has sleep apnea treatment improved our mental health? It’s hard to tell, especially since we’re both taking SSRIs anyway. I know correlation isn’t causation, but our depression and bipolar have certainly eased up since we started getting treatment and our sleep cycles have become more regular. But if all it does is stop the snoring, that’s still a win for us.

So, if you snore a lot and have mental health issues, you might want to be tested for sleep apnea and treated if you do. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt and might help.

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Self-image is a problem shared by millions of people every day. Take women, for example. They are bombarded by relentless messages that they are too fat (or too thin); too plain; with inadequately full, shiny hair; or with un-perky, non-voluptuous breasts. (Men face messages too about their lack of muscles, excess paunch, thinning hair, or short stature – but nothing like the volume (in both senses) that women receive.)

Self-image is also a big problem for people – both women and men – who live with mental illness. It’s not always physical self-image. Sometimes we get messages about how we should think and feel from all the ads on TV and in magazines and on the internet that feature happy people interacting joyfully with their friends and families. The subliminal message is that if your life isn’t like that, the advertisers’ products will make it so that it is.

Of course, nowadays there are also ads that feature depressed or bipolar people, but they end the same way. Get online help or psychotropic meds and you’ll turn into one of those happy, joyful people living life to the fullest. For many of us, that’s not the way it is. There are treatment-resistant disorders, for example, and complex problems like OCD, PTSD, and schizophrenia that aren’t mentioned at all. (PTSD is sometimes addressed in the context of veterans helping one another, which is good, but the ads for this usually offer moral and financial support, rather than a more trauma-conscious solution.)

I’ve been through my own battles with self-image, and not all of them related to things I saw in the mirror. When I was a child, I endured bullying that made me feel unworthy and unable to fit in. As a teen, I saw myself as plain and unlovable. I even doubted my parents’ abundant love, thinking they loved me only because, as I was their daughter, they had to. Later, my self-image consisted of being a depressed person. That’s who I was and all I could see of myself.

When I was working, I saw myself as an imposter. I had a “respectable business lady disguise” that I could put on when desperately needed, but I knew it wasn’t accurate. Then, when I lost my job, I saw myself as a failure.

Still later, after my most severe breakdown, I defined myself as my husband’s “sick, crazy, crippled wife.” I know those are terms we’re not supposed to use, but that’s what my brain was telling me. (The “crippled” part was because I had mobility issues that necessitated two operations on my back, and thereafter used a cane.) I used it as an excuse not to go places, see people, or do things. Actually, my husband used it as an excuse too, though he didn’t phrase it that way. (Now he doesn’t.)

In short, my self-image was someone who was broken – and not “in the best way possible,” as Jenny Lawson says.

Years of therapy and medication have largely gotten me to the point where my negative self-images are no longer constantly haunting me. They still rear their ugly heads on occasion, but now they aren’t all-pervasive. My husband helps too. He says, based on photos, that I was cute when I was in high school and he would have dated me. (I still have my doubts about that.)

What I’m getting at is that a person’s self-image can and does change over time. I think I am more accurate now in thinking I am no longer cute, except maybe when I smile; still mobility-challenged but not so self-conscious about it; and, I would have to say, a “recovering” bipolar person.

We’re getting to the point where we don’t all or always think that what we see in the mirror reflects our worth or our true self. We’re learning not to believe our own or others’ negative messages about our appearance – though there is certainly still a long way to go.

What I’m not sure of is that we’re making much headway on redefining our self-images regarding our mental health or lack thereof. Despite all the positive affirmations we see and hear in so many memes and elsewhere, do they really sink in and change our thinking? Or is the only way to do that bound up in time, treatment, and the support of our family and friends? I’m just glad that it is possible to change, whatever the mechanism. My life is much more settled and happier now that I no longer see or define myself as I once did. That’s something I want to hang on to.

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Language matters. What we call things matters. Does language shape thought or does thought shape language? Either way, both are important when it comes to brains.

The latest discussion in the debates over language is what to call mental illness (which is what I’m used to saying). Many of the words and phrases that have been in use for years no longer seem quite accurate.

Take mental health, for example. When policymakers talk about subjects like mass violence, they often speak of “mental health issues” and what should be done about them. The thing is, if someone is mentally healthy, nothing really needs to be done about that. But mental illness is a term that doesn’t sound so easily addressed. Policymakers are notorious for using language that soft-pedals actual problems. Not to mention the fact that when they talk about mental health, they’re usually talking about addiction issues or homelessness (though they still aren’t particularly effective in addressing those either).

Mental health is still a better term than “behavioral health.” I remember when community treatment centers and insurance programs were called behavioral health plans. Again, there was a lot of lumping psychiatric illnesses and addiction together. It was also wildly inaccurate. It was not the behavior that was unhealthy (the way smoking is). Behavior may have looked like the problem, but it wasn’t the cause. Something to do with thought or the brain was. Also, there was no equivalent term “behavioral illness.” That wouldn’t even make sense.

So. We have mental illness as the term currently most used, with SMI (Serious Mental Illness) often used for disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia. Lately, though, there has been a push to replace those terms with “brain illness.” (The companion term is “brain health.”) It hasn’t caught on yet with the general public, though it’s gaining some traction among practitioners, advocates, and those affected by assorted conditions. I’ve heard some people are frustrated that it hasn’t caught on more widely already. They feel the process is going too slowly.

Calling schizophrenia, bipolar, and other disorders “brain illnesses” certainly makes one sit up and take notice more than “behavioral health.” And it jibes with the notion that these mental disorders (there’s another term) are caused by something going wrong in the brain. This is not without controversy, however. There are those who think that referring to depression or bipolar disorder as “chemical imbalances” in the brain or faulty neurotransmitters (or their receptors) is inaccurate. There are various theories as to what causes these conditions, all the way from childhood trauma to gut bacteria. To me, the most likely scenario is that there’s a combination of brain-related factors and environmental influences at work here. Nature and nurture, in other words.

Brain illness is certainly an attention-getting term. That should make it more likely to catch on with policymakers, but I suspect it won’t. It’s not a comfortable concept and there are no easy-sounding solutions to it. I doubt that it will catch on with the general public either. We still haven’t gotten people to move away from crazy, insane, maniac, psycho, or even nuts and stop throwing them around indiscriminately. Hell, we haven’t even been able to convince people that psychiatric institutions don’t use straightjackets anymore.

Does “brain illness” make these conditions sound more treatable? Is it likely to increase compassion for those who have them? Is it likely to make any kind of a difference? I don’t think we’ll really know until it penetrates the consciousness of the person-on-the-street. And I have my doubts about when or if that might happen.

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The Storms of Life

There are lots of memes that compare life to a storm. There are the ones that advise you to bend with the storm like some resilient kind of tree and grow back stronger. Ones that exhort you to withstand the storm. Even ones that tell you to talk to the storm, telling it “I am the storm.”

It’s a metaphor, of course, meant to symbolize the difficulties of life and your reactions to them. Generally, the point is that storms are survivable and can even make you stronger. And they refer to disasters of various kinds – physical, psychological, psychiatric, grief, or whatever.

The memes are meant to be encouraging, to tell people that they are strong enough to withstand anything. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Because the storm metaphor implies that you can get through the storm by yourself, just by being you. And that’s not the way it is in real life.

I have been through a real-life storm, a tornado that hit when I was on the second floor of the house in my bedroom. I was on the phone with my husband, who was at work. “Take cover,” he shouted. “There’s a tornado!” “It’s too late,” I replied. “The roof just came off!” Standing strong was not an option. I hid my head under a pillow and hoped for the best.

Once the tornado passed, my husband made his way to the house. It was nighttime. There were trees down all over the place. He had to abandon his car and continue on foot. He had to wade a creek and lost a shoe. A neighbor boy with a flashlight helped him get to the house. He shoved aside the toppled furniture that blocked the way to the bedroom, and he came for me. He helped me withstand the storm. I couldn’t have done it alone.

After that, the emergency services got us out and took us to the Red Cross shelter. Our vet boarded our cats. Two friends used their credit card to stake us to a week in a motel. Our insurance company moved us into a pet-friendly hotel, then rented a house for us. A contractor rebuilt our house from the ground up. The insurance company paid to replace our possessions.

It took a lot of people to help us withstand that storm.

It can take a lot of people to help you withstand the storms of life, too. Take my bipolar disorder, for example. It has taken at least two psychiatrists and I don’t remember how many therapists, or how many prescriptions for psychotropics. It has taken my husband’s total support. It has taken decades. There were many storms, not just one – depression, hypomania, gaslighting, loss, grief, dark nights of the soul, days without hope, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and more.

It took lots of people to help me through the physical and the metaphoric storms. Neither was something I could just tough out, pull myself up by my bootstraps, and conquer. I didn’t bend with the storm. I tried to withstand it as best I could, sometimes trying, sometimes failing. I didn’t defy the storm. I came close to being destroyed by it. I didn’t believe that I was the storm, though there surely was a storm inside me.

I heartily dislike those memes about withstanding the storm. Too many people are visited by too many storms, ones that they can’t handle alone. And though I had people and services that helped me through mine, some people just don’t. Psychiatric care is out of reach for many. Friends have disappeared. The social network has collapsed. Some don’t even have a home to be rebuilt or possessions to be replaced.

So, no, the storms of life are not always survivable – at least not without lots of help and resources. So don’t tell me to say “I am the storm.” Even when there’s a storm inside my head, I am not the storm itself. I am the leaves blown off the trees. I am the branches that break, the roof that comes off. I don’t withstand the storm. After it abates, I pick up the pieces – and not by myself. I need other people to help. Together, we beat back the storm and rebuild.

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Garden-Variety Jerks

I see a lot of questions of this kind: My neighbor/sister/friend does this [unpleasant behavior]. Is this caused by his/her bipolar disorder?

There certainly are behaviors of people with bipolar disorder that are unpleasant to those surrounding them. Not taking showers for a week when the person is depressed is one of them. Another, when the person is in the grip of mania, is having sex outside a relationship. Being unable to leave the house is a bipolar-related behavior. So is gambling away your savings. So is standing you up or ghosting you. And blaming themselves for everything. And taking on too many projects and finishing none of them. Talking too fast or too slowly.

Playing their music too loud or parking across your driveway is not a bipolar-related behavior. Neither is littering. Or insisting that you take the garbage out. Or yelling when they are angry. Or becoming huffy when you criticize them.

There are some behaviors that may or may not be bipolar-related – for example, talking about themselves too much. This could be an indication that the person is depressed and brooding (if the talk is about how worthless they are) or manic and aggrandizing (if the talk is about how great they are). Or it may just be that the person has low or high self-esteem that doesn’t rise to the level of pathology. Feeling that everyone is picking on them could go either way. So could taking offense at every little remark. It’s sometimes hard to tell, particularly if you’re not a psychologist.

It’s more than a little weird that people are willing to attribute all kinds of bad behavior to mental illness. But think of all the racist haters and killers that are assumed to be mentally ill. While some may be, it’s an automatic and often unwarranted assumption. It takes away from the attention that ought to be given to real mental disorders and it perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. Or it assumes that racism and hatred are mental illnesses. These are extreme cases, of course.

Sometimes bad behavior is not due to mental illness at all. Sometimes what you’re dealing with is a garden-variety jerk. To address the picture above, it’s not pathology to be messy and it’s not a sign of mental illness to be mad at a roommate for being messy.

There’s not a lot you can do if the behavior you object to is caused by mental illness. You may have to simply understand or let the annoyance go. The person may resent that you assume their behavior is a sign of mental illness, even if it is. And about all you can do in that case is help the person get help if you can.

When you’re dealing with a garden-variety jerk, there are other sorts of remedies you can apply. You can call the police on the neighbor with the loud stereo. You can ask the messy roommate to straighten up or leave. You can set boundaries of what you will and won’t put up with and enforce those boundaries firmly but fairly when they are violated.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the person in question has a mental illness and is also a jerk. If you can figure out what to do in those cases, please let me know.

I’m not saying that mental illness should be an excuse for bad behavior or absolve a person of the consequences of their actions. I am saying that it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior is due to mental illness, just as much as it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior comes from being a jerk, or worse.

In a lot of cases, you simply have to live with it.

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I’ve heard that narcissists (and multiple murderers) have too-high self-esteem. I’ve also heard that they have low self-esteem. Which assertion is right? Surely they can’t both be!

Self-esteem became a big topic of conversation in the 1980s. That’s when self-esteem programs for children were beginning to be taught in schools and preschools. There were many questions about them, some of which I asked when assigning a writer to a story about them. (I was an editor for a publication for childcare workers and daycare owners at the time.) Why do children need self-esteem programs? Doesn’t daily living foster self-esteem? What can self-esteem programs do that parents and teachers can’t or don’t? The writer seemed taken aback, but bravely tackled all those questions and wrote a fine article on the subject.

Later, the self-esteem movement came into disrepute and was the subject of much mocking and more authentic criticism. Chief among the things detractors made fun of were “participation trophies” given to every participant in a game or sport, spelling bee, or whatever other sort of competition. Complaints included that this negated the idea of competition altogether, falsely inflated children’s sense of accomplishment, shortchanged children who had truly excelled, and was a touchy-feely practice that had no place in the realm of sports or other competitive areas.

It was also thought that self-esteem programs were teaching the wrong lesson. Instead of learning that effort doesn’t always achieve the desired results, children were learning that everyone was as good as everyone else, which seemed like a mistake to some. Self-esteem programs were also said to lead children to the idea that the world was a kindly place where they would be rewarded just for existing. Instead, they should “toughen up” and learn that the world would deal them harsh blows at times and that they needed to be ready to cope with them. Debate continued about when and where such a lesson should be taught and even if it should be taught at all.

How does this relate to the aforementioned narcissists and toxic people? The two theories about their level of self-esteem seem contradictory and counterintuitive. Do they have low self-esteem? It doesn’t seem like it, the way they take control over others’ lives and manipulate them. Do they have high self-esteem? This sounds a little more plausible.

Reconciling the two theories is problematic. On the one hand, these people’s self-esteem seems to be too great, so they feel they are special and entitled to control other people who aren’t up to the same standard. On the other, their self-esteem might be too low, driving them to overcompensate for their lack by acting powerful and controlling others.

It seems unlikely that both of these mechanisms could apply to a single person. How could they feel genuinely powerful and compensate for being less powerful at the same time?

But, at its heart, true, healthy self-esteem isn’t about power. It’s about loving, accepting, and appreciating yourself for the good qualities that you do have. It’s about recognizing that your place in life is to be neither a doormat nor an idol. It’s about having confidence in yourself that you can face obstacles – though not conquering every obstacle – but knowing your limitations.

Does life teach self-esteem? It can, certainly, if a child is raised in a supportive, encouraging environment; if the child learns that both effort and accomplishment are possible; if the child has role models for self-esteem; and if good lessons about self-worth are taught in the home and at school.

Of course, we know that not all children are raised in such an ideal environment. Probably far too few are. Or children receive mixed messages about self-esteem from parents, schools, religion, and other places where they get training for life events: not to be unrealistically proud but to be proud of achievements; to be humble or to be confident; to be assertive or to obey authority; to share with others or to know what’s theirs and defend it; to cooperate or to take the lead.

Self-esteem is particularly difficult for those of us with brain illnesses or psychological disorders. We may feel broken, unsure of ourselves, and clueless about where we fit into society. In the grip of mania, we can feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. When we are depressed, we can feel worthless. In bipolar disorder, in particular, the two states can be encompassed in a single individual at different times.

But this is not to say that people with psychological challenges are all narcissists. Far from it. I would say that in every person, there are varying degrees of longing to have control and desire to relinquish control. It’s achieving a healthy balance of these two things that’s the real trick.

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When I was a teen to early college age, my main mental health goal was staying out of an inpatient department of a hospital or other mental health facility. I knew, though I wasn’t yet diagnosed, that there was something wrong with me – that I had some kind of mental health problem based on my aberrant behavior and how people reacted to me. That fear has never completely left me, though as I’ve grown and learned more about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder with anxiety, I’ve come to think it is less and less likely. Yet I know that bipolar can sometimes lead to psychosis and necessitate hospitalization. That’s not as likely to happen to me as a person with bipolar 2, but it still crosses my troubled mind.

Later in life, it became my goal to find a therapist and a psychiatrist who could help me. I tried various ones, including ones through EAPs, therapy groups, and couples counseling. Some seemed to help, but others were spectacular failures. Some positively shredded me, leaving me worse off than when I came in. Others misdiagnosed me (which I can’t really fault them for, as bipolar 2 was a rare or even nonexistent diagnosis when I started looking for help). Among other things, I learned that group therapy was not for me. And I learned that Prozac did help, at least to some extent.

At that point, my main mental health goal was to find someone who could tell me what was happening to me and to figure out what could help. I no longer remember how I found him, but eventually I came to Dr. R. He was the one who finally gave me the correct diagnosis. Then my mental health goal became finding a medication that would help me with this new diagnosis better than Prozac did.

Dr. R. was patient with his patient. He and I began a journey that lasted for several years, trying one medication after another and then combinations of medications, in hopes of finding a “cocktail” of drugs that worked for me. That became my new mental health goal – along with enduring the years of failures as just the right combination eluded us.

One of my other (it seemed irrational) fears and mental health goals was to avoid being subjected to electro convulsive therapy (ECT). But that became a real possibility when my case proved so resistant to medication that Dr. R. recommended it. I freaked out. It seemed that my fears were about to become reality. I eventually agreed with him that it might be necessary and began to prepare myself for what had seemed to me like an ultimate horror, right up there with being hospitalized.

Fortunately, however, Dr. R. had one more medication in his arsenal and it proved so effective that the ECT was deemed unnecessary. We achieved that effective cocktail of medications that would stabilize me.

Then Dr. R. retired. Immediately, my new mental health goal was to find a new psychiatrist who could prescribe for me and a therapist who could help me with the day-to-day difficulties of living with bipolar 2. It took a while to find a psychiatrist who had an opening – though with a wait of about six months. (My primary care physician continued writing prescriptions for me while I waited.) Eventually, I found Dr. G., who said that, as I was fairly well stabilized on my assorted medications, he needed to see me only four times a year for maintenance and to tweak my meds if I encountered any further difficulties.

It was also time to choose a therapist, and my goal became finding one that I meshed with. (I had learned this was necessary from all the bad experiences that I had had in the past.) I started “interviewing” therapists. I tried to find one that had dealt with mood disorders in the past, wasn’t a Freudian, and could come at things from a feminist perspective. I found Dr. B. I wasn’t exactly typical of her patients. She dealt mostly with college students. (Her practice was in a clinic within the Student Union building at a university that was, fortuitously, right down the road from me.) I have been with her and Dr. G. ever since.

My current mental health goal is to maintain – the medications I’m stabilized on and the sessions with Dr. B. to help me navigate through the difficulties such as anxiety that still pop up from time to time.

It’s a whole lot better than having that goal to stay out of a mental hospital.

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What are boundaries and why is it important to have them?

Boundaries are limits in a relationship that your friends, partners (and relatives) need to observe. They can be simple or complicated. They can address different aspects of a relationship – social, emotional, or physical, for example. And there can be different levels of boundaries that you set.

In the kink community, boundaries are set before a consensual relationship starts. The different levels are “hard no,” “yes,” and “maybe.” It’s easy to understand what hard no and yes mean – that the person simply will not perform certain acts or gives voluntary consent to them. The maybe category is a bit trickier. These are acts that the person is willing to consider or try, but hasn’t definitely either agreed to or ruled out. That’s why partners have “safe words” or other signals that indicate when a maybe isn’t working for them and they need to slow down or stop.

Boundaries are useful in nonsexual relationships too, and again have categories like hard no, maybe, and yes. For example, in romantic relationships I have a hard no against physical abuse, and I communicate that to all my partners. If one of them hits, slaps, or otherwise gets physically violent with me, that’s the end of the relationship. No explanations, no excuses, no second chances. I’m out of there. I’ve made my husband aware of this boundary and he respects it. He’s never crossed that boundary.

Unfortunately, at the time I established that boundary about physical abuse, I didn’t know about the concepts of verbal abuse and emotional abuse. In one significant relationship, I put up with these for quite some time. Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are two of the tactics of gaslighting. I put up with those for far too long before I was able to say, “I’m out of here.”

Dan once described boundaries to me using the metaphor of cookies. Suppose someone offers you a cookie and says, “Here’s a delicious chocolate chip cookie I made just for you. Yum, yum. Try it.” Only when you do try it do you discover that the cookie isn’t a chocolate chip cookie at all. Instead, it’s a shit cookie – something you definitely don’t want to eat. You set up a boundary about shit cookies. Just because someone offers you a shit cookie, you don’t have to eat it. And you really don’t have to say, “Yum, yum. This is delicious!”

What kinds of shit cookies are you likely to encounter? They can be insults. You don’t have to believe them. They can be other kinds of distressing – talking about you behind your back, for instance. You don’t have to respond or explain. Or they can be actions such as the aforementioned gaslighting, sandbagging, or saying one thing and then undercutting it with actions. You don’t have to put up with those. Refuse to eat the shit cookies. They are all bad for your mental health.

There are less drastic boundaries that you may have to set as well. If you have a friend who always calls you and vents at length about their problems but never listens to your problems or your advice regarding their problems, you might set a boundary: “You can call me with problems, just not after 9:00 p.m.” or you could set an unspoken limit that you will only listen to the friend for half an hour at a time. After that, you end the conversation and get off the phone. Perhaps you establish a signal that you have reached your limit: “My eyes just glazed over.” Your friend may even pick up on the signal: “Your eyes just glazed over, didn’t they?”

Or you might have a partner that has unreasonable expectations. Such a limit might be that you will be involved in disciplining the children, but you won’t do it all yourself. It could even be a seemingly silly one. I refused to iron my husband’s shirts because I felt resentful when he treated me like a laundress. He came to understand what I meant. And we worked out a solution: wash-and-wear shirts. Those I would gladly purchase. Problem solved.

Sometimes, however, there are people in your life who go beyond simple boundary breaking. They refuse to acknowledge any boundaries that you may have. People who hurt another family member, for instance, or who expect you to solve all their problems – not just asks for help, but insists on it and gets offended when you try to establish that boundary. It’s best to cut toxic people out of your life entirely.

But what if it’s a member of your own family who’s toxic? That makes the situation more difficult. You might cut off contact with the person, but have to see them at family reunions or holiday occasions. The toxic person might go behind your back and tell their side of the story to the rest of the family.

The only thing you can do in those circumstances is not to eat the shit cookies. Establish your boundaries and remain firm with them.

You’ll get a lot of pushback from other family members and even your friends. “But they’re family!” they’ll cry. “Family comes first, before everything else.” But that’s a trap. Family may be very important to you, but at some point you have to establish that ultimate boundary in order to protect yourself and your mental and emotional health.

Toxicity can eat away at your soul. It can destroy whatever good or even tolerable relationship you had with that person. It’s not worth it to try to understand a toxic person or to give them fourth and fifth and fifteenth and fiftieth chances to change. At some point, you have to draw the line and recognize that nothing you say or do will ever change that person. It’s not reasonable to expect you to change your feelings or your actions to accommodate them.

Setting boundaries and sticking to them – sometimes it’s the only way you can live with others or, more importantly, with yourself, at least in terms of your mental health. It takes practice and determination. But in the end, you’ll be mentally healthier. And you won’t experience the lingering taste of shit cookies.

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Nowadays, many workplaces have a toxic culture or at least a dysfunctional one. They demand – not just expect – more from their employees than any human being should have to, or be willing to, give. Sixty-hour weeks. Twelve-hour days. Giving up weekends and holidays. They treat employees as fungible things that can be easily replaced and regularly are, especially if they don’t live up to the brutal “standards” that are supposedly required by the free market.

Toxic workplaces are also full of toxic people. Bullying of employees and coworkers is common. Gaslighting even happens, more regularly than we’d like to admit. Required conformity and enforced corporate “team-building” parties and picnics suck the meaning out of workplace enjoyment. Exhortations that the workplace is a “family” and then behaving in ways that belie this are rampant – false, harmful, and destructive.

Corporate practices aren’t human-friendly, much less family-friendly. Flexible working hours, job-sharing, onsite childcare, remote work, part-time work, and extended sick and other types of leave are largely reserved for only the highest echelons or never even considered for any workers. Health and disability insurance are nonexistent or ultra-expensive for workers because of the monetary costs to the company. Discussions about the stress caused by work end in suggestions to try yoga. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), if they exist, provide some therapy, but only with a provider of the company’s choosing and usually only for six weeks or so.

Then along comes the COVID pandemic. Suddenly, corporations and other, smaller businesses were faced with the difficulties of staffing during lockdowns and quarantines. All of a sudden, workers weren’t so available or so desperate. Owners had to scramble to hire enough workers to keep the wheels turning. Some businesses were forced to raise wages. Others had to rethink corporate travel to cut costs.

And some turned to remote work. Not all could, of course. Some jobs simply can’t be done from home. Construction workers, wait staff, airline attendants, and countless others were simply let go or put on furlough, many of them without even partial pay. But many jobs, particularly office jobs, were the sorts that could be done from home, on the phone or via computer. And that proved beneficial both for the affected companies and for the mental health of their workers. Bosses suddenly realized that work-from-home even improved the bottom line, reducing overhead. It soon became clear that home-workers were able to be as or even more productive when not being constantly interrupted by mandatory meetings and other useless exercises.

How did telecommuting affect workers’ mental health? First, remote workers were spared from many aspects of toxic workplaces. Micromanaging became largely unfeasible.

This certainly helped improve their working conditions and stress. So did getting respectably dressed only from the waist up, especially for those of us with limited spoons. Being able to step away from the computer for a half-hour or more to do something about chores or even hobbies provided a welcome break. Lunches could now be taken whenever you were hungry and last more than 30 minutes. Even spending more time with pets reduced stress and provided emotional support that’s next to impossible in most workplaces.

Many of the stresses that so exacerbate mental health conditions were at least lessened. People were more comfortable in their own homes, with comfort objects and self-care items more readily available. Those with a greater need for alone time suddenly had more of it. If they found that they could work better or more productively part-time at home, it was a benefit for the companies as well.

Of course, not all bosses took to this new way of working. Once they figured out that employees could be more productive when working at home, some of them upped output requirements. They could insist that employees remain logged in during standard working hours, making flex-time less doable. Or they started requiring more output from those telecommuting, or scheduling Skype meetings that cut into employees’ time.

I work at home, remotely, and have for a number of years. I do so because I have been fortunate enough to find jobs that pay (though not a lot), jobs that match my skill set, jobs that aren’t 9-5, and jobs that are conducive to working around my days of depression and hypomania. I’ve considered going back to work in an office from time to time when funds were low, but not enough to actively pursue it. Truth to tell, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again, and not just because I like working in my pajamas. (For those who are curious, I’m doing transcription and ghostwriting at the moment. They provide a supplement to Social Security and allow me time to work on my blogs.)

Did toxic work environments cause mental illness? Probably not, though they have pushed some people closer to the edge and others past the breaking point. It’s hard to work in corporate culture with any kind of mental disorder (except possibly narcissism). For these people, remote working is a blessing. COVID has been devastating, but one of its side effects has been to improve working conditions for millions of people – and especially those living with mental illnesses.

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My friend Martin Baker (https://www.gumonmyshoe.com/) recently posted a series of prompts for mental health bloggers. Number 29 was: Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself? Here are my thoughts.

In general, I do believe that having a mental illness yourself is the best and perhaps the only way to truly understand the reality of mental illness – the daily struggles, the need for self-care, the loneliness, and the stigma.

I’ve noted before that my mother-in-law didn’t really understand the concept of mental illness. It was like the time when she saw some women on the Phil Donahue show who were talking about their hysterectomies and the pain and suffering they went through. “Those women are such liars,” she said. “I had it done and it wasn’t like that at all.” It’s a matter of assuming your own experience is true for the rest of the world as well, a common logical fallacy. (Later she came around to believing mental illness existed, at least. I attribute this to spending time with me and my husband and reading one of the books I wrote, Bipolar Me.)

Even my husband – who has lived with me for 40 years, sympathized greatly, and helped me unselfishly – didn’t really “get depression” until he got depression. It was a situational depression that deepened into clinical depression. He’s still on medication for it. I remember him saying that he felt miserable and despondent, and had for months. “Try doing it for years,” I said. “I couldn’t,” he replied.

With a person who doesn’t understand – or even believe in – mental illness, there’s not a lot you can do to change their mind. The images and stories they get from the news, movies, novels, and TV shows tell them that anyone with a mental illness is likely to be a serial killer or a crazed gunman, probably psychotic or at least delusional. Conversely, they can believe that any notorious evildoer must have been mentally ill and probably “off their meds” at the time the atrocity occurred.

We often say that education is the answer. Informing people about the reality of mental illness is supposed to raise their consciousness and help eradicate stigma. That’s all well and good, but getting accurate and informative materials into people’s hands is not that easy. Sure, there are websites, books, and blogs, but the general population simply doesn’t run across these on their own. We who deal with mental illness daily must point them to these resources. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read or interact with the resources. They have to be interested in and open to the topic.

Public awareness campaigns featuring movie stars and top athletes may help in getting the audience to believe in mental illness in others, and even if they have a mental disorder such as depression themselves. Whether these can counteract the inaccurate and insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media is still, I think, an open question. Even commercials for various medications for psychiatric illnesses can help people understand a little bit more, though I still believe that many of these ads present a less-than-accurate picture of depression, for example, making it seem no worse than a hangover. And many of the ads promote telemedicine sites for those who have – or suspect they have – some sort of mental disorder. They are less useful for the totally uninformed.

Still, we keep trying to inform and educate. But are we shouting down a rabbit hole or into an echo chamber? Maybe seeing posts from Facebook friends who have mental disorders really does help. I know that some of my Facebook friends have said that my posts and blogs on bipolar disorder have helped them learn.

But in general, I’m pessimistic about people understanding mental illness until or unless they experience it for themselves or in their own families – and maybe not even then. There are those who deny that they have depression, for example, or who may suspect they have a psychiatric disorder but feel that getting help is “for the weak.”

Or maybe I’m just pessimistic today.

Nevertheless, I’ll go on writing this blog in the hope that it will make a difference to someone.

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