Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

Coping With Disaster

On Memorial Day, our house was hit by a tornado. I was trapped upstairs in the bedroom before my husband made it home and rescuers came to get us out. The Red Cross and the First Baptist Church took us in until we could arrange lodging at a motel, thanks to our dear friends Robbin and Stuart.

I am still quite numb from the whole ordeal, but none of us was physically injured. When the shock wears off and reality sets in, I imagine I will allow myself to freak out and let out my fears and other emotions however they choose to come out. Until then I am coping, with the help of my husband and many friends and neighbors.

I am learning new things about the meaning of self-care during the middle of a disaster.

When the fire/police/paramedics came to get us in the mandatory evacuation, they yelled, “Grab your medications and get out now!” Then they helped us through the rubble. Having those medications with us was essential. If I didn’t have my psychotropics, I would have undoubtedly fallen apart before now.

As Mr. Rogers advised, look for the helpers. They are everywhere. Don’t be ashamed to accept help or to ask for what you need.

My self-care routine has become very basic. A place to sleep, a hot meal, and clean underwear now seem to me to be the essentials of life.

Helping each other is evident throughout the area, but has never been more important to my husband and me. We remind each other to take our meds, to eat, to rest. We try very hard to understand that the other one is experiencing a flood of unfamiliar feelings too and we need to take care of each other emotionally – being accepting of what each of us thinks is important, shouldering more of the load when it all gets too overwhelming, thanking each other for small kindnesses.

We also have to be careful not to try to do too much in any one day. There are, of course, a million things that need doing, but we have found our limits. In the morning we make a plan. What absolutely has to be done today? Which of us is capable of doing it? What can we do together. My husband has done a lot of the heavy lifting of heavy lifting, while I have become the communications person. dealing with insurance, utilities, housing, and anything else that can be handled by phone or computer. Three activities in a day seems to be our limit, whether it’s visiting the laundromat, trying to get valuables undercover, or making arrangements for the next hotel we move to.

Perhaps next week in this blog I can tell you more about the psychological effects of this traumatic experience. They have barely begun to hit yet. Until then, though, we are safe and uninjured, our cats are safe and cared for, and we are muddling through the muck and the mess that surrounds us, inside and out.

It’s tough enough for someone with bipolar or depression or anxiety to go outside, where it’s all people-y. It’s another level of achievement when such a person deliberately puts herself or himself out into the public eye.

But that’s just what I did this week. My publisher arranged for me to do a reading and signing of my book at a local branch of a national bookstore. And I agreed to do it. Thursday night was my debut.

Let me go back a few steps. I do have some experience speaking in public, so it wasn’t going to be a completely novel experience. Those occasions were, shall we say, a bit distant in time, mostly before my bipolar disorder reached its heights (or depths). In high school, I did debate and extemporaneous speaking. In grad school, I taught introductory English classes. During my somewhat-less-than-successful business years, I once addressed a power breakfast meeting. I even opened with a joke.

I was prepared to open with a joke (or at least a witticism) this time, too. But my plans soon flew out the window.

I had prepared – or over-prepared, probably – somewhat obsessively. I spent spoons like they were disposable plastic. I picked out an outfit and a back-up outfit, including earrings and back-up earrings. I did my hair. I agonized over which pieces from my book to read, then printed them out in huge type so I wouldn’t have to squint at them. I took an anti-anxiety pill and Immodium, just in case. I was fortunate that Thursday was my day off and also my husband’s, so he could be present as my emotional support animal, wearing one of my book t-shirts.

My expectations, such as they were, took a nose-dive when only two people showed up – both friends of mine, one of whom had already bought my book. It was time to rearrange my plans on the spot, not really one of my strong suits. Why had I knocked myself out making plans if the universe wasn’t going to cooperate with them? I had thought that at least half a dozen people would turn up. I was trying to keep my expectations reasonable, after all.

I’ll admit that when I saw such a small audience, I felt a wave of despair. In actuality, it proved good that they were both friends of mine, because they were a receptive audience who wished me well.

Given the meager audience, though, I abandoned my introduction (though I worked my joke in later). These people already knew me. I gave a brief synopsis of “What is bipolar disorder?” and plunged into my readings.

I had tried out one of my readings previously, when I was on a podcast for indie authors. Of course, I had no eye contact with my audience then and no real idea how my performance went over. On Thursday, I explained Spoon Theory, as it came up in one of the pieces I was to read. I had chosen two of my more light-hearted pieces, though on serious topics (psychotropics and side effects, and cognitive dissonance). Then I finished with a reading of a piece on why I write about bipolar disorder and why I put myself out there to the extent that I do in this blog and my book, and indeed my public appearance.

The big surprise of the evening came when I invited a Q&A session. My husband fed me questions to get things started and my friends also had queries. What I hadn’t been expecting, however, was that a few people in the bookstore cafe where this all occurred got sucked into the discussion and had questions of their own, though they had no idea that the event was scheduled at all. One worked at a local university and had heard his students talking about having bipolar disorder. Another was a woman studying psychology in order to become a counselor. I didn’t always have the answers, and I’m sure I bobbled some of the explanations, but I did my best to come up with reasonable answers about treatments and medications, self-care, and so on.

Then came the signing portion of the evening. I signed a book for one of my friends and the counselor-in-training asked me to sign her notebook with any little inspirational words I might have. (I winged it. I was tired by then and am not usually inclined to be inspirational.)

Then my husband and one of my friends and I went out for milkshakes, which I highly recommend as a way to decompress after such a fraught experience.

All things considered, I’m glad I took the risk and gave it the old college try, as it were. If nothing else, it was good practice for the next time I speak in public, perhaps when my second book comes out.

The reason that I write about bipolar disorder and my experiences with it is that I want to share what I’ve learned and lived. I think I did that Thursday, even if not to the extent that I had hoped. I don’t regret the anxiety and the preparation that went into it and, all things considered, count it as a win. When I think about the melt-downs I could have had – before, during, and after – I feel pride that I kept my depression and anxiety at bay for long enough to share information about bipolar and healing and mental health.

I think it was worth putting myself out there.

 

I have been stable for a few years now and let me tell you, it’s great. But not without its problems.

First, the good stuff. I’m now able to go out of the house more than once or twice a month. In fact, I just went to a weekend-long convention where there were plenty of people and noise, ordinarily two of my triggers. (I still don’t know if I could handle Chuck E. Cheese.) This was a gathering that, although it was attended by hundreds of people, was host to a good many old friends and featured some excellent music.

While at the convention, I experienced one of my more upsetting physical symptoms of stress (the less said, the better). Although it did distress me, I didn’t freak. I dealt with it and went on to enjoy the rest of the convention. I didn’t retreat to my bed and miss the rest of the fun. In earlier times, I would have.

I have more spoons per day. This is a Good Thing, as now I have a job four days a week, two blogs, and assorted other writing to do, including completing my next book. (It should be available later this year.) During the aforementioned convention, I did have to sit and rest on occasion, but I did not have to miss hours at a time owing to a nap attack. I seem to be able to get by on eight or so hours of sleep per night, rather than ten or 12. And I can almost always get to sleep by midnight.

My creativity and emotions are not blunted. My confidence is up. I can push myself a little bit to accomplish things. I can feel satisfied, and content, and happy. And I do, especially today.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Bipolar disorder is still with me. A part of me. An influence on perhaps every part of my life, not excepting my stability. I am not “cured.” I live with bipolar disorder every day of my life, even if it affects my daily life less than it used to.

To maintain my hard-won stability, I must take medications. Every day. Personally, I don’t mind this, but I know there are those who would disagree with me. Finding the right combination of psychotropics and dosages took literally years to determine and I know enough not to stop taking them simply because I “feel better.” As far as I’m concerned, daily medication is a small price to pay for relative stability. 

I say “relative” stability because I know that at any time, this stability could desert me. I’ve been fooled before by good feelings that disastrously disappeared when the stressors became too great or my brain glitched again, or whatever. That chasm is still out there waiting for me and, to mix my metaphors, I keep having to look over my shoulder at the possibility that it will catch up with me.

I also say “relative” stability because I cannot deny that I’m still a fair distance from functioning “normally” in the “normal” world. In addition to my meds, I still need – indeed, could not do without – the help of my husband, who is my anchor. Alone, I would be much more likely to succumb to the evil influences that beset my brain. I still have symptoms, though I find them manageable and not too intrusive on my life. I tell myself that everyone has problems and limits. Mine may be different, but they are eminently survivable. Even livable.

The fact is, though, that I may say I’m stable, but that comes with a big “for now.” I know the nature of this disorder and the fact that it may come roaring back despite anything I can do to allay or prevent it.

But for now, I am stable, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. And that is a victory, even if it’s not a guarantee.

 

 

A Work in Progress

In an earlier post, I discussed how I am rebuilding myself, casting aside pieces of my past and my traumas that no longer fit with who I am becoming (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-NH).

There are a number of materials that I am using to construct the new me. Some of them are old remnants, things that I had forgotten that give me life and pleasure. Others are ways of working and remembering and loving that make me who I am going to be. What are these materials?

Memories. I have certainly lost friends because of my illness, but I have gained others and kept some of the most important. Though my memories are patchy at best, I do remember good times with good friends – laughter, love, music, meals, adventures. Some of those memories are fleeting. Some come only when someone reminds me of them. I can’t access them when I’m depressed, but those pleasant memories and steadfast friends strengthen me and give me a better idea of who I want to be.

Therapy. It was one of my therapists who gave me the metaphor of rebuilding myself, and she surely helped me do that. I hold tight to some of the things she taught me, or that I discovered with her. I have come a long way. I now have healthy coping mechanisms. I know that if I ever need it again, therapy will be available to me. It builds me up.

Medication. I do love me some psychotropics. I went through a lot of misery combined with trial and error getting to the right cocktail of meds that worked for me. I never want to try life unmedicated again. The stakes are simply too high. If that means that part of my new self will rest on a foundation that includes pills, I’m cool with that.

Creativity. In one way or another, I’ve always been a writer. Bipolar depression stole that from me. At my worst, when I was considering having ECT, a friend suggested that I could write about it. “That’s what you do!” he said. But alas, at that point I couldn’t. And I knew it. Now I can write about the bad things as well as the good and feed my new self with both. Creativity is like hypomania without the crash afterward.

Stubbornness. I’ve always said that the Coburns are a stubborn people. I know I am. And I can use that stubbornness, keep it as a part of the new me. Stubbornness is an antidote to my bipolar. Whether I am down or up, I stubbornly believe that I will someday be back to baseline, even if there is no sign of it at the moment. I will not give up. I will not let bipolar win.

Do I like who I am becoming? Yes, for the most part. I still have my old flaws, the ones I had before bipolar smacked me down, and maybe some new ones since. I can be lazy and self-centered. I sometimes fail to see the good in others. I find myself being timid and fragile when I need to be brave and sturdy.

But those are things I can work on. I couldn’t do that during all the years that bipolar sapped every bit of energy, creativity, and insight that I had. Now I can do the work and I have the tools.

I am a work in progress. But aren’t we all?

Alike But Different

Having bipolar disorder makes us all alike, but how we have it makes us different.

Those of us who are bipolar share a lot. Obviously, we have mood swings, from depression to mania or hypomania and back again. We are all affected by the stigma that attaches to serious mental illness. And we all want and try to achieve some balance in our lives.

Yet there are differences. Bipolar disorder comes in a variety of versions, the best known being 1 and 2, but now also 3 and 4. (I don’t know enough about 3 and 4 to discuss them here and now, but I’ll try to catch up on it and write about that later.) Those with bipolar 1 know more of mania than I do, but I’m an expert on depression. Others go through different levels and combinations of the two. Some people experience psychosis and may have to be hospitalized. But some of us manage the symptoms and go through life with less extreme manifestations. Some of us are seriously disabled and others decidedly less so.

Even our experiences of mood swings differ. We may go through long spells of depression or mania, or little of one and more of the other. Or we have symptoms that come and go in shorter bursts, or even in “rapid cycling” or “mixed states.”

If we’re lucky enough to get treatment for our bipolar disorder, we can have many different experiences of that, too. There’s talk therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Some people try “natural” treatments involving meditation, diet, supplements, exercise, and other techniques. And there are new treatments being developed, including ketamine, a revised version of ECT, and TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation).

Of course, for many people, bipolar disorder means medications. The list of possibly helpful meds is long and seems to grow longer every day.  And the doses of those meds vary as well. So do the side effects. What works for one bipolar person may have no effect on another, even if they have the same symptoms. Effective dosages will differ. And side effects can be intolerable to one person, acceptable to another, and not even happen to a third. (That’s one reason I don’t like to give advice about medications. Ask your doctor, or at least your pharmacist.)

But beyond the simple facts of bipolar disorder, there are differences in how we approach it. Affirmations and positivity work for some people but leave others cold. Humor can alleviate the sometimes brutal reality or it can seem insensitive and cruel. Everyone has his or her own tolerance for these approaches and no one can say what’s right or wrong for a given individual.

So, do these differences divide us or do the commonalities bring us together? Personally, I think that sharing our individual experiences of bipolar disorder; our own perceptions of how bipolar affects us; our techniques and methods of getting through the highs and lows; the ways we manage our symptoms and treatments; and our sources of strength – and even moments of weakness – bring us together in spite of an illness that tries its best to separate us from one another and from the rest of the world.

I have my own struggles with bipolar and you have yours. In that sense, each of us is alone, suffering to one degree or another. But we have more in common than separates us. And if, as the saying goes, suffering shared is halved and joy shared is doubled, by sharing we have one more way of fighting this disorder and one more way of finding the good in life despite our illness.

I think too many of us spend time feeling isolated or isolating ourselves from what could be a rich source of companionship and healing. This may in many ways be an individual battle, but in another sense, we’re all in this together.

 

Let me tell you about the time I got stoned in third grade. I was a weird kid – smart, scrawny, emotionally out-of-step, lonely. I dressed funny. I was no good at sports. In short, I was bully-bait. One day I was waiting at the bus stop with some other kids. They decided it would be a fun game to throw rocks – broken pieces of macadam – at my feet. I jumped over them easily, laughing along.

Then one of them threw a rock and hit me in the head. As I was sobbing and bleeding, a passing teacher rescued me and called my mother. The kids ran off, yelling, “We didn’t mean to hurt her!”

I was wounded, nonetheless. Three stitches later, I was, if not as good as new, at least able to carry on. The scar on the outside has since faded to invisibility. The scar on the inside is invisible, too, but very much still with me.

A lot of us have invisible wounds and not all of them come with physical scars. There’s a whole category of conditions called “invisible illnesses.” They’re the ones that don’t come with wheelchairs or crutches or seeing-eye dogs. People who look “normal” on the outside but are fighting like hell on the inside. Some of these conditions are autoimmune disorders. Others are caused by developmental difficulties, uncommon viruses, and even hormonal disruptions.

Then there are the ones that live in the brain. In memories. In scars no one can see. In mental illnesses. What was wrong with me was mental and emotional, inside my brain. Maybe the other kids could sense that and that was what made me a target.

There are a lot of the walking wounded among us, along with non-ambulatory people who are also wounded in other ways. People with brain injuries or PTSD. These disorders can strike anyone and you can’t tell who those people are simply by looking at them.

In cases of serious mental illness, in particular, the wounds and scars, while internal, can be deadly. At least once, my own brain has tried to kill me. Bipolar depression, combined with irrational thinking and problems in the world outside my brain, left me with seemingly only one choice. Fortunately, I didn’t act on the pain. I lived through it.

Too many of us have invisible, internal wounds. Too many of us spend enormous amounts of time and energy pretending that we don’t. For some reason, internal wounds seem more shameful, less understandable, than external ones. A broken leg elicits sympathy. A broken brain, not so much.

I know that the rock that hit my head wasn’t what broke my brain. Bipolar disorder is much more subtle than that. Whatever its causes – and the jury seems to be still debating that – a minor physical impact is not considered to be one. The seeds of my bipolar disorder were likely already there, lurking in my differentness, my emotional oddities, my uncooperative but active brain.

But the incident sure didn’t help. It made me more vulnerable to the shocks and disappointments of life as a weird kid. It took a pothole-sized chunk out of what should have been my developing self-esteem. It opened up crevices in my brain where the doubts, fears, insecurities, and excesses of bipolar disorder could lodge.

Wounded people surround us every day. Sometimes the pain leaks out around their eyes. Other sufferers are more adept at hiding it. The important thing to know is that anybody – anybody – you see on the street or meet at work or at church or at the gym could have one of those invisible scars.

Not all the broken look broken. Not all wounds are visible. Not all scars are external.

Be gentle with other people. You never know who’s hurt inside.

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