Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Helping Someone Else

My husband used to work in a community correctional facilityessentially a jail. The residents were considered nonviolent offenders technically on parole for mostly drug crimes, but things could still get interesting. Mostly he didn’t talk about his work because he would try to dismiss it from his mind every day as he went by a certain overpass on his way home from work.

One day, though, I was bitching in disbelief about something that had happened at my work – another editor had put his table of contents in random order instead of numerical. I was appalled by the stupidity of that.

There I was ranting about it. Then my husband said, “Boy, that’s tough. All I did today was break up a fight and spot a guy who might have a septic wound. But you – the table of contents out of numerical order? Wow!” That put me in my place.

My husband was someone who helped other people. For years after he left the job, people would come up to him when he was out and about, and reminisce with him. They’d tell him about how well they were doing, how they were clean and sober, how they had jobs, how they had improved their lives. They always said thank you to my husband.

This morning when I woke up and checked my email, I found something I wasn’t expecting. There, nestled in amongst the spam, was a response to a post that I wrote back in January, about passive suicidal ideation (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Me).

In the reply, the person told of having thought about suicide but not acting on it. The response ended, “I’ll follow your advice and seek professional help.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt then. Mostly, it was gratitude that my writing had helped someone, combined with not a little surprise at receiving a response at all. Sometimes writing is like shouting down a well. You never really know if anyone even hears you or if you’ve made a difference. Most of the time when I write this blog, I have no idea how the posts will affect my readers, if at all. But this time I knew – at least if the person followed through – that I had actually helped someone.

When I started Bipolar Me, it was to share my experiences with bipolar disorder and my thoughts on mental illness and mental health. If my writing resonated with someone, good. But I wasn’t writing with the intention of being inspiring, or helping people solve problems, or being a “good example.” I’m not a professional and the kind of advice I give (when I do) is largely commonsense – don’t stop taking your meds, seek professional help, thank your caregivers, and so on.

I’m not going to break my arm patting myself on the back here. There are lots of people who do the work of caring for the desperate and hurting every day. I am privileged to know some of them and to have even been helped by some. There are people like Sarah Fader and Gabe Howard who are advocates and activists for the mentally ill, who go out on a limb to do something to help the whole mental health community.

But today, for just a moment, I felt that I had really touched someone, really helped. It was a good feeling.

So there it is. I started this blog for self-centered reasons, to chronicle my own struggles and occasional victories. If it helped anyone, fine. If not, I still had stories to share. But now I find that having helped someone else has made a difference – in the other person, in me, in the world. Now I believe that my blog and my book could do more of that.

Bipolar Moonshine

Honestly, the things they ask on Quora these days! Quora, for those of you not familiar with it, is a website that allows people to ask questions for “experts” to answer. Somehow, I have become one of the people that others come to with questions about bipolar disorder. (Also the Ivy League, but that’s another story.)

Some of the questions are serious, but others are less so. “If you could stay hypomanic all the time, why wouldn’t you?” “How can I get my bipolar dad to stay on his diabetes meds?” I actually had an answer for that: You can’t. And bipolar has nothing to do with it. 

I’ve answered a few of the questions if I had the time or if a good answer hadn’t already been given. Many of the answers are written by doctors, who can do a much better job than I.

Recently, however, I saw a question that I thought it wouldn’t take a medical degree to answer:

“Is bipolar disorder causally linked to lunar cycles?”

Impressed that the writer knew the difference between “causally” and “casually,” I responded:

“No. The cause, as far as we know, is a glitch in the brain between the synapses. There may also be a genetic or hereditary component. But nothing to do with the moon.”

To my surprise, I received a reply. The writer, while asserting that he or she was also bipolar, said that my response was “no answer at all” and incorrect. Acknowledging the genetic component I mentioned, the author then proceeded to enlighten me with an “unpublished hypothesis.” (He or she also claimed to be “a bipolar scientist,” though not a neurophysiologist.)

The argument was based on several points.

  • Sexual reproduction is always in response to lunar cycles.
  • This is based on gravity, illumination, and diurnal and lunar cycles/high tides.
  • Bipolar disorder is a disruption of sleep.
  • It first manifests at or near puberty, with the onset of hormonal cycles.
  • Something about teenagers having a different sleep cycle than adults, staying up later to reproduce while the parents sleep. (I can’t say I understood this part.)
  • During the full moon, hospitals and police report increases in both people out late at night and odd behaviors and emergencies.
  • Anecdotally, the writer noticed “elevated and depressed moods not necessarily linked to lunar cycles, but not necessarily independent of them either,” noting that “periods of mania occur during full and nearly full/new moon.”

The writer’s hypothesis, if I follow it correctly, is that bipolar disorder involves sleep-hormonal cycles related to the full moon, which evolved in the days before artificial lighting. This apparently gave a reproductive advantage of being awake at night because bipolar disrupts the sleep cycle. This is noted to be “an obvious evolutionary reproductive strategy.” There was more, but that was enough for me. (The writer admitted that statistics to prove any of this did not exist or had to be derived from “Bayesian statistical methods,” which one source I looked at called “a measure of the strength of your belief regarding the true situation.”)

So, where to start? First, if the writer thought he or she already knew the answer, why write in with the question? Obviously, to seek validation or to promote a theory (or to make me look like a fool).

I could answer each point individually. (I’m not a neurophysiologist either, but I do have some experience with rhetoric and logic. And bipolar.) But let’s just take a few.

Not all animals’ reproductive cycles are based on the moon, and neither are humans’. Women have menstrual cycles at all times of the month, and men don’t. (And what about bipolar men?)

Bipolar disorder can certainly cause a disruption of sleep, but is not caused by it. That is too simple an explanation for a complex disorder.

We’ll just skip that one about teenagers reproducing while parents sleep. Its connection with bipolar disorder is slim at best.

That one about the full moon is most likely anecdotal, as reported by police and emergency room workers, but no statistics (other than perhaps Bayesian ones) seem to bear this out. And the moon is full, nearly full, or new for more than half the month. Let’s also disregard the fact that bipolar cycles are seldom exactly a month in length. I had a depressive crisis that lasted several years.

Many causes have been theorized for bipolar disorder, from gut bacteria to early trauma to brain wiring. At the moment, as far as I know, the jury is still debating. Perhaps all of these are components of the cause, though I favor brain wiring as the principal cause. But given the actual science, I’m betting that the moon isn’t the answer.

Riding the Mania

This has been a couple of good weeks for me. Either that or I’ve been riding the wave of mania.

In the past, I’ve written about how fleeting the feeling of hypomania can be (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-df). One pinprick and it bursts, leaving nothing but the air. Maybe that’s because I was hypomanic or rapid cycling at the time. Or maybe it was just a temporary feeling of joy that lasted only a few minutes and then retreated in the face of disappointment.

It’s difficult trusting your feelings when you have a mood disorder. I always have to ask myself, is this feeling a reaction to the real circumstances that surround me, or is it just a glitch that occurs between my synapses? It’s tiring questioning all your emotions all the time.

I’ve been stable for many months now. I’m not symptom-free. I still find it difficult to do daily tasks or leave the house, though lately, I have gotten up, groomed, dressed, and out of the house – including a record of three or four times in one week, rather than once or twice a month. But I have been feeling what feels like genuine happiness.  Contentment. Energy. Productivity. Engagement. Can I trust this?

Since over-thinking is one of my superpowers, let’s take a closer look. Do I have any of the symptoms of mania or hypomania to go with my lightened moods? Hypersexuality? No. Racing thoughts? No. Risk-taking behaviors? No.

But I have been overspending. Maybe. Our finances have improved of late, so there’s no real harm in buying a few things that I’ve been putting off. And my purchases have not been excessive – nothing over $30, and that was a birthday present for my husband. Still, I have been beset by the feeling, right before I hit checkout, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” or “I don’t really need that.” Again, my feelings are questionable. Maybe my purchases are influenced by hypomania and the stable part of my brain is warning me. On the other hand, the purchases may be modest and reasonable, and my questioning a holdover of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” from when our budget had no room at all for discretionary spending.

Then there’s my writing. I’ve written a couple of extra essays and guest blog posts in addition to my regular two blogs per week. I’m getting them done early, too. Once I even decided a post I was working on wasn’t very good, so I wrote a new one to take its place in a single day. I renamed and redesigned my other blog (newly christened “But I Digress…,” still available at janetcobur.wordpress.com). But is what I’m writing any good? It’s hard to tell. My stats on blog readership haven’t been as good as usual, but the editors were happy with the guest posts I wrote. The rewritten post was selected for special treatment on Medium.

It’s been observed that I could over-analyze a ham sandwich. But I am tired of examining every mood and emotion to be sure it isn’t pathological. Having unstable emotions is not a pleasant thing to live with, but neither is this level of self-doubt.

I saw my psychiatrist last weekend and he thought there were plenty of good things happening in my life – my published book (amzn.to/2RLU8hP), the extra writing, an upcoming podcast (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Pi), a science fiction convention to attend – to explain my good mood. If he isn’t worried, why should I be?

All in all, I’m very tempted to say, “what the hell,” and ride this wave until or unless it crashes.

Bipolar Me Radio/Podcast

My book, Bipolar Me, is going to be reviewed live, including an interview with me, on the Authors-First Show on ArtistFirst World Radio Network, Monday, April 15th at 7:00 PM (EDT). Tune-in from anywhere on your Smart Phone, Car, Tablet, PC, or any wi-fi device.

To listen LIVE visit   http://www.artistfirst.com   and select one of the many “Click to Listen” buttons or links.

When I was young, I wanted like anything to be normal. I didn’t know what normal meant, but I knew I wasn’t it.

I had a lot of the trappings of what passed for normal in that day and age: parents still married, one sister, suburban house in a town with good schools, church down the street, same-age children living within a block, working father, stay-at-home mom, abundant books and toys, and vacations to visit the relatives.

But I knew. There was something different about me. Everyone else knew it too. I wasn’t normal. I was too sensitive, whatever that meant. I was precocious. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t know how to.

As I reached my tween and teen years, I encountered a dilemma. I desperately wanted to be normal. Normal kids had friends, got to hang out with each other, laughed and smiled a lot, wore what was in fashion. They gave off an aura of being normal. I longed for that. I was in love with the idea of normalcy.

But every time I tried, I failed. I was always too weird, too emotional, too smart, too something.

So I began to hate the idea of normalcy. If I didn’t fit in, then by God, I would scorn the idea of fitting in. I would embrace non-normalcy. I would hang with the few other misfits I could find. I would eschew the latest fashions and trends. I didn’t rebel, exactly. I was too timid for that (yet another too).

And I blamed the suburb and the Midwestern state where I lived. Maybe this kind of normal was bland, spiritless, and hum-drum. Maybe I was right not to want to be of it.

So, of course, I tried the geographical cure, going away to college, where I thought the people would be more like me, where there would be enough diversity that I could find others like me and finally fit in. Be normal within a different definition of normal.

And it worked, at least partially. But by that time it was too late for me to ever be normal.

What happened was that bipolar disorder caught up with me. I had probably been struggling with it all the time I was a weird kid who didn’t fit in. Other kids threw rocks at me. My moods were extreme. I cried and laughed at things that were neither sad nor funny. Being betrayed by a friend sent me into a severe meltdown.

By the time I was in college, there was no doubt that I was struggling with a mood disorder, although we didn’t have that term for it at the time. At the time it seemed like major depression and for the most part, it was, or at least that was the only mood I could identify.

Years later, when I got a proper diagnosis and the right medication, it was easier to look back and see my bipolar tendencies slowly building over the years. But I’ll admit something – I still both love and hate the idea of normalcy. I still want to fit in and I’ve found a few groups where I seem to. But I also want to embrace my oddness, celebrate my differences, glory in my assorted varieties of geekiness.

I never want to go back to that lost, lonely, spinning-out-of-control kid who was always too much or not enough. My lifestyle helps since I don’t have to try to fit in at a nine-to-five office job. My husband helps, as I was at least normal enough to find one. And my writing helps, so I can work out some of my conflicting emotions and bipolar moods through this blog and other venues.

Here’s another reason to hope: Matt Norris, a blogger at The Thinking Orc, recently wrote:

Disapproving of people who aren’t “Normal” went from a virtue to vice within my lifetime. The shift in public morals changed the rules on what it took to be seen as a good person. It used to be about not doing anything weird, and looking down on anybody who did. Now it’s about not doing anything cruel, and looking down on anyone who does.

Besides, to quote songwriter Steve Goodman, “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” I know that now. So in that sense, I do at last fit in.

The other day I found myself thinking, “I hate my job. I hate my life.” But then I stopped. The truth was that I do hate my job, but I don’t hate my life.

There have been times when the two thoughts absolutely went together. I well remember getting up in the morning and thinking, “Now I have to go to the bad place where they make me unhappy.” Unfortunately, the thought would color my whole day. Instead of unwinding after a rotten day – or a whole series of them – I brooded about what came before and dreaded what would come the next day. I was caught in a loop of bad thoughts and they wouldn’t let me go, or enjoy, or relax. My life seemed to stretch out into an unending series of more of the same.

Of course, that was when I was deep in bipolar depression, improperly medicated, and unaware of self-care. Oh, the job was indeed pretty terrible. I was an editor, a writer, and a proofreader, tasks and occupations I normally enjoy. There’s something wonderful about taking something mediocre and making it good, or even taking something bad and making it better. Once or twice I even got compliments on the job I was doing.

But at that time, when I hated it, the job was a misery. A reorganization had put the editorial department under the marketing department, which had been true in fact for a long time but was now formally acknowledged, with a resulting new chain of command. Anything I wrote was essentially a puff piece for some advertiser. Three senior editors were fighting over my time and attention, each determined that I should work on their project first and foremost.

I wasn’t quite ready for a major breakdown, but I was close. I hated both my job and my life.

Now I have a tedious and basically unfulfilling job. I transcribe audios of boring business meetings and lawyer consultations, relieved only by the occasional podcast. On top of that, I’m a really crappy typist, so it takes me hours to do a job that others could zoom through. Add in foreign accents and mumblers, and you get a job that brings me no joy, but only a modest paycheck.

But for some reason it also suits me. I work four days a week, at home in my pajamas. No one is looking over my shoulder. If I make my deadlines (and I do), I can expect fairly steady work, except during the holiday season. I earn enough to supplement my social security without going over their limit on extra income.

I also have medications that stabilize me and a much better knowledge of self-care. Working at home for only one boss is part of that. So is taking meal breaks whenever I want them and spending that time with my husband. Eating nutritious meals. Letting myself say, “I hate it! I hate it!” after a particularly trying assignment. Reading a book before I go to bed. Snuggling with the kitties. Allowing all these things to seep beneath my skin and feed my soul.

I don’t belong to the regular-massage-and-decadent-chocolates school of self-care. Maybe I’m a simple soul, but I prefer the everyday comforts that make my life not a misery and help me appreciate what I can of my situation. Not that I’ve got anything against either massages or chocolate. But to me, they are special indulgences rather than a part of my daily self-care.

In the end, medication and self-care are what keep me going, hating my job, but not my life.

My husband, who is also my caregiver, has been away this week, visiting his mother in Florida. There have been times in my life when I could not handle being alone for a week so I would make the trip with him, which involved different sorts of triggers and stresses. There have been other times I have been up to it and this is one of those times.

We prepared carefully, though, in case a bout of depression struck while he was away. First on the list was food. Sometimes when I am very depressed I eat nothing but cereal straight out of the box and peanut butter straight out of the jar. Even though mac-n-cheese is one of my go-to comfort foods, there have been times when I did not have the wherewithal to microwave a cup of even the nasty kind.

Grocery shopping is hard for me too. It sure takes a lot of spoons. But we found a spoonful enough day and made the trek. Our goal was to get easy-to-make comfort foods, plus fruits, nuts, hummus, veggie chips, salad, granola bars, yogurt, cheese, and other vaguely nutritious foods. We got way more food than I actually needed for a week alone, but a lot of it was frozen and would keep.

I helped my husband prepare, too, doing computer stuff like booking his flights, printing out boarding passes, checking regulations on what he could have in his carry-on, and ordering new sunglasses for him. I helped him find a carry-on bag that was the right size. And I drove him to the airport at dark-thirty in the morning, which caused me some anxiety and some unpleasant symptoms when I got home.

Thursday was a particularly big day for me. Since it’s my day off from work, I had scheduled more activities than I really should have – showering, dressing, lunching with a friend, an appointment with our tax lady, and an interview with the local paper about my recently published book (!). It occurred to me that I might have to reschedule at least one of these, most likely the tax appointment, if it all seemed to be getting to be Too Much. But lunch was delightful, the tax appointment was a breeze, and the interview was rescheduled owing to really scary weather. And when it occurred, it went really well.

Other than that, my routine was fairly, well, routine. Do my transcription work, work on my blogs in between assignments, feed and water the cats and the stupid mouse my husband is trying to nurse back to life after a brief encounter with the aforementioned cats, a caregiving duty I did not want and was only convinced to do because he had named the critter Dilbert.

As for the dancing boys? I suppose I should say that I keep the numbers of some strippers in my desk just in case hypersexuality sets in. Really, though, it’s a running joke we have whenever one of us goes away. More like a fantasy, really. Or maybe a memory. There have been times when I was manic enough to gather a gang of girlfriends and go to such a show.

But this time, stability and sustenance were the name of the game. And of course, remembering to pick Dan up at the airport tonight. With Daylight Savings Time in effect now, maybe it’ll even still be light when I do.

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