Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

You’ve no doubt heard that the mental health care system in the U.S. is broken. You’ve probably experienced that for yourself. But have you heard what John Oliver had to say about it? On August 1, on Oliver’s Last Week Tonight program, the comedian/commentator devoted a full 25 minutes to examining the flaws that plague mental health care.

During the broadcast, Oliver presented appalling statistics (some of which even I had never heard before) and clips of interviews with participants in the mental health system, including people who have been affected by it, practitioners, and insurance executives. With his trademark sardonic humor, exasperated outrage, and comic zingers, Oliver deftly skewered the insurance industry and remote mental health companies, among other targets. It was an enlightening and satisfying performance.

Here are some of the highlights.

Oliver started with a flashback from the 1950s of women entering a beauty parlor (!) to receive makeovers that were supposed to solve their mental problems. “I don’t know what’s more alarming there — nurses being forced to take on the skills of a Sephora brand ambassador or the fact that ‘can make-up cure sad?’” Then he tackled the PSA on mental illness stigma featuring Harrison Ford, which was designed to make discussions of mental health “cool and trendy” and dissed the gallbladder for some reason.

Next, he went through some stats on why such a PSA was necessary – the lack of access to mental health care, particularly since “for every ten clinicians entering work in mental health clinics there, 13 leave. And if we continue at that rate, one day, we’re going to wind up with negative therapists.”

Oliver noted that nearly 85% of all psychologists are white, and ran an interview with an African-American couple. The man said that he “couldn’t find a black man to save my life,” which Oliver said was “something you expect to hear about the crowd on January 6th, or all ten seasons of “Friends.” He also played a video of another man who couldn’t find treatment. His friends said, “Everything will be fine tomorrow. Suck it up, buttercup,” a response that to him meant “a 12-pack of something or a bottle of something.”

Oliver also reported on the fact that hospital ERs are overrun, with one interviewee suffering a stay of 27 days there, and then receiving advice to go from the ER to a doctor. Oliver noted that 27 days in an ER is “not calming” and that seeking help is serious, that “you can’t just put off mental healthcare indefinitely. It’s not a check engine light.”

Some of Oliver’s most biting comments were reserved for AI programs that claim to counsel users on mental health issues. One of the free services was Woebot – “Bot as in robot and ‘woe’ as in ‘Whoa, that’s a dumb name.'” Their mascot is a robot waving a wrench (“He’s going to fix my brain with that!”). And when questioned about anxiety and lack of sleep, which affect 18% of people, the AI responded, “I can’t wait to hop into my jammies later.” Oliver also reported that when Woebot was confronted by the BBC with a test case of a 12-year-old reporting sexual abuse, it replied with the comment that it “shows me how much you care about connection, and that’s really kind of beautiful.”

He did note that teletherapy is valuable and it can fill some the gaps in care. But Oliver also highlighted investigations of sites that were “pill mills,” one of which claimed that 95% percent of their users “should get a scrip.” Noting that it was not 100%, Oliver compared it to the saying, “It’s not arson if you only burn most of a building down.”

Regarding lack of accessibility and insurance parity despite laws requiring it, the program noted that the issue was complicated by finding a provider who will take your insurance. The Labor Department has investigated only 74 claims against insurance companies in the past year (but closed only 12 of the complaints) and has issued fines only 13 times since 2017.

And insurance payments are often based on their own opinions on when a treatment is “medically necessary.” Oliver likened it to an insurance company, saying, “Imagine an insurance company reversing their decision in the middle of any other serious treatment. ‘Hey, we love how this heart surgery is going, just popping in to say, it’s done. Yeah, it’s done now. Hit the showers, everyone, great job. Don’t bother closing anything up, that’s not medically necessary.’” California, Oliver noted, requires insurers to “base medical necessity determinations on current, generally accepted standards of mental health care, instead of just making up the criteria for themselves.”

Insurance companies also have “ghost networks” that offer patients providers who aren’t taking new patients or even practitioners who have died. Phone numbers can be wrong too, some of them reaching “jewelry stores and boutiques,” which Oliver admitted that, “to be fair, if you’re a woman in the 1950s, a boutique and a jewelry store is apparently the only mental health care you need.” 

The segment ended with the statement and plea, “It can’t be the case that, when people ask for help, our only option is to tell them to ‘suck it up, buttercup.’”

We can only hope that Last Week Tonight‘s take on the U.S. mental health care system will reach its literally millions of viewers with the news that something needs to be done – and soon. You can see the whole segment at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtIZZs-GAOA or on John Oliver’s official website, https://iamjohnoliver.com/. It’s definitely worth a visit.

This post originally appeared on The Mighty (themighty.com).

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There are many different occasions when you may find yourself hearing voices. Usually, you only hear the voices of people who are physically in the room or on the phone or chat speaking to you. But sometimes the voices aren’t real, and that can be a cause for worry.

One thing that bipolar people fear is developing – or having – psychosis. And one of the major symptoms of psychosis is hearing voices that seem to come from outside you when no one is actually speaking to you. Psychosis is not a disorder, but a symptom. Most often associated with schizophrenia, psychosis involves detachment from reality and delusions of things that are not real. Among the possible delusions is that other voices are speaking to you from another realm.

This can be the television or satellites sending secret messages to you. It can involve demons that are trying to take over your brain and even your body. Often, voices of angels or demons are signs of psychosis. (Sometimes, some people experience a voice that comes from a higher power and ascribe it to a supernatural cause. Is this psychosis? Some people think so, and others perceive it as a different form of reality. If the voice instructs you to do harm to yourself or others, it’s probably psychosis.)

If people with bipolar disorder have the experience of hearing voices, it usually comes during manic episodes, though it can also occur during depressive ones. The initial symptoms of bipolar psychosis are often indistinguishable from other symptoms of the disorder – anxiety, difficulty communicating or concentrating, or flat affect (the blunting of emotional expression). Unwarranted suspicion of others is another sign that something may be amiss. Support groups or “accountability partners” can help a person recognize and cope when they believe they are about to experience psychosis.

Psychosis can be frightening to the person experiencing it and to the people around them, or it can be something that the psychotic person doesn’t even notice (anosognosia). It should be noted that hallucinations and/or delusions can be caused by other problems, such as a brain tumor, dementia, or a bad reaction to medication. My mother experienced the latter when taking a new pain medication, though it was a case of seeing things that weren’t there rather than hearing them.

Psychosis can be treated, but not cured, by a variety of psychotropic medications that reduce the experience of hearing voices. These include mood stabilizers, antidepressants, or anti-psychotic medications. (A person with bipolar disorder may already be taking some of these.) They should be monitored closely by a psychiatrist.

Another example of hearing voices, though, is the inner voice that most of us – especially those with mood disorders – experience regularly. Most of the time it is an “inner critic,” bringing us down with negative self-talk, telling us that we’re worthless or can’t do anything right. This is not a form of psychosis, but can definitely be associated with stress, depression, and anxiety. It might say anything from “You’re fat and you’ll never lose weight” to “You can’t do math” to “The people at work aren’t really your friends. They treat you nicely because they have to.”

These inner voices and negative self-talk can be reinforced by the real voices of other people as well. A family member might say, “You’re really not good at picking boyfriends” or “You’re never on time for anything” or “You just can’t drive in traffic.” If you start to believe these messages and those of your inner critic, they can be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe that you don’t deserve respect and friendship, those thoughts will influence your actions, leading to other people perceiving you that way as well.

But if you have an inner critic, you also have – or at least can cultivate – an inner champion. There are ways to empower yourself through positive self-talk. It’s not quick or easy. Daily affirmations can help. You can try them whenever you “hear” your inner critic dissing you. First, say, “Stop!” Derail that negative thought right away. Then replace the thought with a more accurate one – “I’m not worthless. I got out of bed and out of the house today,” if that’s your small triumph.

Daily affirmations are good too. You can try looking in the mirror in the morning and saying something positive about yourself. It’s better if it’s really specific, but it’s okay if it’s just “I am a good person.” Some experts recommend personalizing the positive feedback using the second person – “You made it to work on time yesterday” – or even using your name as you think or say, “Janet, you took a shower today.”

Affirmations that stifle your inner critic and build up your inner champion may not be a cure for psychosis or bipolar disorder, but they can help with the problems of anxiety and depression that so many people with mood disorders face on a daily basis. For that reason alone, it’s worth a try.

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It’s inevitable. Once you’ve dealt with a mental illness, you’re afraid it will come roaring back, even if you’ve been stable for a long time. You wonder if your medications will stop working. You dread “breakthrough” episodes that will put you back in the same awful space you thought you had escaped from. You have flashbacks or dreams that take you to places you thought you had left far behind. You imagine you hear someone call your name and wonder if it’s a symptom. Sometimes, something you never thought of as a trigger will catch you by surprise and send you right back to the dark place, the anxious place, the out-of-control place.

Those fears are not unwarranted. All of those things could happen. For many people, they do. For most, the thoughts pop up at odd moments, even when you’re doing well. They’re unpredictable. That’s part of what makes them so scary – the knowledge that you have no control over these thoughts of recurrence.

It certainly happens to me. I obsess over my own thoughts. I fear dropping back into depression. I wonder if I’m exhibiting hypomanic behavior without realizing it. I overanalyze nearly every feeling I have if it has the slightest hint of a symptom of bipolar about it.

That’s when it’s good to have a strong support system – a person or persons you can talk to and check in with. Someone who recognizes your baseline behavior and when you start to depart from it. Someone who understands your disorder and what the symptoms might be.

I’m fortunate to have a support system in place, though it consists of only two or three people at this point – my therapist, my husband, and to some degree my prescribing psychiatrist. I see my psychiatrist only four times per year for med checks, but I can tell him when I think I’m experiencing symptoms and ask whether he thinks it’s something that warrants a change in meds.

I see my therapist approximately once a month, and she has a better handle on intrusive thoughts and whether they are irrational or not. She provides a “sanity check” for me. Most of the time, she reassures me that they’re normal (or nearly so). Sometimes, she tells me if I should bring them up with my psychiatrist the next time I see him. Mostly, she listens, which is what I think a good therapist does.

The mainstay of my support system, however, is my husband. He understands bipolar disorder from years of living with me and living through my mood swings. He knows my baseline level of behavior and when I begin to depart from it. For example, he can recognize when I am starting to get hypomanic and suggest to me that I might be beginning an episode. Or, if I feel like I might be getting manicky, I can ask him if he sees the symptoms in me or not. If I’m having delusions that other cars are swerving into my lane, he can suggest I take an anti-anxiety med.

Four former members of my support system are no longer there, two because they recognized my symptoms increasing and were not able to deal with them, and two lost to death. Even though my husband and my mental health providers help keep me on an even keel, I do miss the additional input. I need reassurance when I am doing well and help when I begin to veer off course.

This month, however, I am doing better. I just postponed my therapist appointment because I have no pressing issues that need addressing this month. May it stay that way.

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Once I attended a weekend photography workshop. One of my photos received praise as being innovative and interesting, one based on a technique I had seen a friend use. The rest of my photos missed the mark. I was frustrated by my lack of progress. The instructor reassured me, advising me that I should take (or was taking) “baby steps.” That photo provided a brief glimpse of what I could do if I kept at it.

My therapist has also reminded me of this numerous times. And she’s been right. Almost all the progress I’ve made in dealing with being bipolar has been gradual and incremental.

The baby steps process was long and arduous, lasting for years. The first step was taking Prozac, which helped me for a while, then didn’t. Most of the progress I’ve made with medication has been in tiny, discrete steps. My prescribing psychiatrists have never done anything quickly, which is in one way a blessing and in another a torment. They would try me on one drug, then wait to see the results, then try a different dose or a different drug altogether. Lather, rinse, repeat until progress at last occurred.

Progress in therapy has likewise been gradual over the years. First there were therapists who diagnosed me with depression, which was certainly true, though not the whole picture. And they helped, or at least a number of them did over the years. I learned a lot about depression in general and how it applied to me in particular. I also learned about relationships, and those insights helped my marriage.

Finally, I was given an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder 2 with anxiety. That was where the steps toward reaching some resolution regarding my medication really started. That was also when I started working with the therapist who reminded me about baby steps.

Although I had made steps toward healing in the past, I had taken a deep and protracted plunge into depression before I started going to her. Several years of it had left me immobilized, despairing. At my lowest point, I described myself as “pathetic.” There were going to be a lot of baby steps needed to get me out of that miserable place.

So we went to work. I liked the kind of therapy she practiced – non-directional, non-judgmental. (I had had problems with therapists who weren’t like that in the past. Needless to say, I made no progress with them. In fact, I even took steps backward.) There was a long way to go.

Dr. B. frequently reminded me of the importance of baby steps and, eventually, how far those steps had taken me. I learned coping mechanisms. I learned new ways of thinking. I learned to accept myself with the reality of my bipolar disorder, but without the constant misery. And, by the time my proper medications had kicked in, we were making some even bigger steps. But all my progress was built on a foundation of many, many baby steps along the way.

I think all therapy consists of a lot of little steps. I don’t know anyone who has had a great revelation that instantly moved them further along with their healing. I only got glimpses of what my situation could be like if I persisted. And along the way, I regressed at times, needing to re-learn the lessons I had been exposed to and re-taking the steps I had already accomplished. Progress is like that – two steps forward and one step back – especially with a disorder as cyclical as bipolar.

Anyway, I still go to therapy and still take baby steps toward whatever my future holds. I realize it will take a long time – probably the rest of my life – but I’m dedicated to the process.

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There certainly are a lot of mental health campaigns going on. There’s one or more in every month. Most of these are “awareness” days, which is a little bit confusing. People who already have the assorted disorders are already aware of them, as are probably their families and perhaps their friends.

When it comes to awareness, though, most non-affected people (or people who don’t realize they are affected) find out about them through TV commercials – during Men’s Health Month, in ads for medications, or from organizations like the Wounded Warriors Project. There may be local events, too, but I haven’t seen any in my area. I don’t even see much of anything on my Facebook timeline, even though my friends list contains a lot of people with mental health concerns. I note that there isn’t a Women’s Mental Health Month, even though most people who receive treatment for mental illnesses are women. (There are many, many special days not related to mental health that I knew nothing of until I started to research this post, such as World Animal Road Accident Awareness Day (though I have some experience with this phenomenon), Insect Repellent Awareness Day, and even Spider-Man Day.)

Here’s what I did find.

January

Mental Wellness Month

February

Children’s Mental Health Week

International Boost Self-Esteem Month

National School Counseling Week

National Eating Disorders Week

March

Self-Harm Awareness Month

Brain Injury Awareness Month

World Bipolar Day (which I had never heard of, despite being bipolar myself)

April

National Stress Awareness Month

National Counseling Awareness Month

May

Mental Health Awareness Month

National Maternal Depression Month

National Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness Month

Tourette Awareness Month (May into June)

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week

June

PTSD Awareness Month

Men’s Mental Health Month

July

International Self-Care Day

BIPOC (or Minority) Mental Health Month

August

National Grief Awareness Day

September

World Suicide Prevention Day (and National Week and Month)

October

World Mental Health Day

National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month

ADHD Awareness Week

OCD Awareness Week

November

National Family Caregivers Month

International Stress Awareness Week

International Survivors of Suicide Day

December

International Day of Persons With Disabilities

National Stress-Free Family Holidays Month

So, how are people made aware of most of these various disorders? By people wearing different colors of ribbons that correspond to them. The idea, I guess, is to prompt people to ask, “What is that silver ribbon for?” and to be told, “It’s for Borderline Personality Disorder Awareness.” If the person inquires further, it’s a chance to educate them, but most people don’t ask at all or ask only what the color means.

There are only a couple of colored ribbons that everyone knows the meaning of – yellow and pink. The yellow ribbon campaign was started in 1979 to show support for persons held hostage in Iran, but now means support for the Armed Forces. The pink ribbon for the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign started in 1991 and is probably the most successful ribbon awareness symbol there is.

Here are the colors of various ribbons and what mental health concerns they are intended to promote awareness of.

Peach – Invisible Illness

Yellow – Suicide Prevention

Periwinkle blue – Anorexia Nervosa

Teal – Agoraphobia, Anxiety Disorders, Dissociative Identity Disorder, OCD, Tourette Syndrome, Stress Disorders, Social Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, Panic Disorder

Green – Mental Health, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder

Lime green – Mood Disorders, Psychosis, Depression, Mental Illness, Postpartum Depression, Childhood Depression, Maternal Mental Health

Purple – Binge Eating Disorder, Bulimia Nervosa, Eating Disorders, Caregiver Appreciation

Purple and Teal – Suicide, Survivors of Suicide, Family Members of Suicide

Gray – Personality Disorders

Orange – ADHD, ADD, Self-Harm

Silver – Borderline Personality Disorder

So now you know what color ribbon to wear and what month to wear it in. I hope that if you do, people will ask about it and allow you to expand on what it means. I don’t expect that, however. Almost no one has ever asked me about my semicolon tattoo for Suicide Prevention and Awareness. (I occasionally get to explain it if I point it out to them.) Probably the most effective reminders are t-shirts that identify the condition and maybe the awareness month date, but those are harder to come by, except for Break the Stigma and Mental Health Matters ones. (I do have a t-shirt and a hoodie for The Mighty, a website for mental illness and other chronic illnesses.)

Whatever you do to promote mental health and awareness of mental illnesses, though, keep trying. We need to get the word out!

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I had a friend, Hal, who had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I never met any of his alters until once we went to the corner store. He giggled. He grabbed numerous bags of chips and other snacks. When we got home, I mentioned this to him, and he said, “You just met Julie. She’s a teenage girl.” Later, I met an alter known only as The Angry Man, which is part of why we’re no longer friends.

DID, as its name says, is a dissociative disorder, one of three different kinds – Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID is the most severe of the three conditions. All involve symptoms such as memory loss, “out of body” experiences, emotional numbness, and lack of self-identity. DID is thought to be a reaction to the trauma of extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that occurs usually before the age of six.

Some trace the history of DID to 1584, when the records of a French woman who was exorcised recounted symptoms that today would very likely be attributed to DID. It’s likely that more cases that were actually DID have over the years been attributed to demonic possession. Later, it was seen as a form of hysteria, another disorder with dissociative symptoms.

DID really hit the big time in the 1950s through the 1970s, when the books The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil became best-sellers and were made into movies. The books, written by Corbett H. Thigpen and Flora Rheta Schreiber, respectively, were accounts from psychoanalysts about the diagnosis and treatment of DID, which was at the time called Multiple Personality Syndrome, since the disorder was notable for “alters,” or separate personalities that appeared while the primary personality was unaware that they existed. “Eve” had three alters, while “Sybil” had 16.

Since that time, both of those cases have been controversial, with exposes purporting to reveal that neither Eve nor Sybil really had multiple personalities. The theories were that either the subjects were faking the disorder, or that the doctors suggested to them via leading questions and hypnosis that they had multiple personalities. (This was related to the “repressed memory” controversy in the 1980s to 1990s, which raised many of the same issues. Healthline recently reported that “the majority of practicing psychologists, researchers, and other experts in the field question the whole concept of repressed memories. Even Freud later discovered many of the things his clients ‘remembered’ during psychoanalysis sessions weren’t real memories.”)

Still, DID is real enough to have made it into the DSM. (We should remember, though, that diagnoses of “illnesses” such as homosexuality were present in earlier editions but later removed.) There are therapists who treat it with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), medications, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and/or hypnosis, which started to be a treatment in the 1830s and is said to lead to a rapid recovery. Although hypnosis for diagnosis or treatment of DID is still controversial, it may be useful for reintegrating the alters back into the primary personality.

DID has also been used as a potential criminal defense in legal cases over the past several decades, in cases that range from drunk driving to murder. It has been used to support a plea of “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” (NGRI). This defense is used in less than 1% of felony cases and is successful in only a fraction of them. The theory that a crime was committed not by the primary personality but by one of the alters has not always proved persuasive. It’s difficult to prove, for one thing, and there are professional witnesses and psychologists who testify that either DID does not exist or that even if an alter committed the crime, the primary person is legally responsible for it. The DID defense did work in 1977 for Billy Milligan, who was said to have 24 separate personalities, two of whom were claimed to be responsible for his crimes of rape.

DID is subject to a number of myths or beliefs. For example, many people believe that DID is either nonexistent or an overdiagnosed “fad” seen only in North America. Some believe that it is caused by the doctors who treat it rather than by childhood trauma, or that it is in reality the same as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, there have been neuroanatomical changes recorded by MRI in cases of DID: “The neuroanatomical evidence for the existence of DID as a genuine disorder is growing and the structural differences seen in DID patients’ brains…contribute to that growth.” So, although DID is believed by some to be nonexistent, there are studies that back up its reality.

As for me, I have experienced a few mild instances of dissociation related to my bipolar disorder, but nothing even remotely like what occurs in DID. But then, I didn’t have the childhood trauma associated with it. (During the “repressed memory” days it was said that the only truthful answer to “Have you experienced extreme childhood trauma?” is “Not that I’m aware of.”) Nonetheless, I find the subject fascinating, as well as dissociation in general. (This is not intended to diminish the experiences of people who have a dissociative disorder.) But I look forward to learning more about DID, particularly the neuroanatomical changes when they become available.

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Grief and Depression

A number of years ago, I saw a TV show in which the main character was grieving the death of a friend. The other characters decided that he was grieving for too long and concocted a plan to distract him from his grief.

I was pissed off. What the man needed was time, not distraction. And how long he took to process his grief was not up to his friends. Grief takes as long as it takes, and it’s a different amount of time for different people.

Mostly we think of the death of a person when we think about grief. But that’s not the only occasion when grief comes to us. The death of a friendship can bring grief. I have lost friends to circumstances other than death, and I still miss them and find myself thinking, “Oh, Kim would like that,” or “I need to talk this over with Hal,” then remember that they’re no longer in my life. I do grieve the loss of those relationships, the ones I know will never be mended.

One can even grieve the loss of a beloved pet. There are those who say, “It’s just an animal. You can get another one.” But that’s not the case. I had my cat Louise for over 20 years from the time she was a tiny bit of fluff to when she took her last breath resting on my lap. I have since gotten – and loved – other cats, but none can truly replace my beloved companion. I grieved for her and still do. My grief is less intense and not always with me now, but I can’t say it’s gone, not the way Louise is gone. I still dream about her and find myself calling our other cats by her name.

Even the loss of a possession can trigger grief. “Oh, it’s just a thing that you can replace,” you may hear. But think about a wedding ring that was given 40 years ago. Yes, we replaced it, but it had been the repository of that long-ago wedding day and all the years since. A new band of gold didn’t have the emotional weight that the original carried.

Among the worst of all losses is the death of a dream. Poet Langston Hughes said it with these simple words:

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

So why am I writing this for a blog on mental health? Because grief is also a mental health issue. Grief and depression are not the same thing, though one can easily bleed over into the other. Like grief, depression has no timeline. Like depression, grief can ambush you suddenly, when you are least expecting it. You will get through it, or learn to bear it, and you will do so in your own time, or with help.

Both grief and depression evoke feelings of hopelessness, numbness, and loneliness. And both are eased somewhat by the loving presence of friends and family. While it’s true that no one who has not lost a child, for example, can know the exact shade of grief and eternity of pain that brings, anyone who has experienced a different form of loss and grief can be there to hold your hand, provide a shoulder to rest against, cry with you. That doesn’t make it better, except that it kind of does. Being alone in your grief is itself another kind of grief. But you don’t have to be. There are grief counselors, just as there are therapists for mood disorders, and they can help you process the memories you bear with you and the pain you feel on every birthday or holiday.

As with mental illness, no one should tell you that grief is something you have to get over or that you should be over it in a certain amount of time or that you’re expressing your grief in the wrong way. We all experience grief at some point in our lives, but the exact boundaries of it differ from person to person. Those boundaries need to be respected.

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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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