Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Do I Have PTSD?

Once a therapist I was considering going to put down on my form that I was suffering from PTSD. She based this on the fact that I was having nightmares and flashbacks to the toxic relationship that I counted as a significant part of my past.

It was rubbish, I thought. I had never been in the Vietnam or Iraq war. And her idea of my trauma was that I supposedly had been coerced by an older man into doing sexual things that, had I been in my right mind, I would have objected to.

I chose a different therapist, who was bemused, to say the least, at that therapist’s notes. I had had a relationship with an older man and done sexual things that were not precisely the plainest vanilla, but I had surely not been coerced into them. (The gaslighting was a separate issue, one I did not recognize at the time.)

I still have the dreams of being back in his house, and I am occasionally triggered by things that remind me of the relationship, especially when I am depressed or otherwise vulnerable, but by and large, I don’t think that I have PTSD based on that.

Then, recently, I was hit with a more physical trauma. I survived a tornado that destroyed the house I was living in, taking the roof off the second floor where I was sleeping. I have also had nightmares about that and anxiety whenever there are storms and lightning. So, do I have PTSD now?

Let’s see. For starters, mirecc.va.gov provides a “civilian checklist” of PTSD symptoms:

  • Avoid activities or situations because they remind you of a stressful experience from the past
  • Trouble remembering important parts of a stressful experience from the past
  • Loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy
  • Feeling distant or cut off from other people
  • Feeling emotionally numb or being unable to have loving feelings for those close to you
  • Feeling as if your future will somehow be cut short
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling irritable or having angry outbursts
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Being “super alert” or watchful on guard
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled

To begin with, many of the symptoms which I have are also indicative of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder – loss of interest in enjoyable pursuits, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating. And I have noticed a few of the other signs – jumpiness and irritability, for example.

But, by and large, aside from the dreams and flashbacks, I have few symptoms that are attributable to PTSD but not to bipolar disorder.

I was talking with my therapist the other week and posed the question to her: Could I have PTSD?

“There are all kinds of trauma,” she said, “and all kinds of reactions to it.” I think what she meant was that I didn’t need to worry about having a specific label. I have been through traumatic events and I have had reactions to them. The reactions and symptoms may not rise to the level that constitutes clinical PTSD, but I have been affected by them nonetheless.

I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who have been diagnosed with PTSD or those who are suffering from it without ever acquiring the label. I know that what I have experienced cannot compare to what some of them have experienced, and I can only hope it never does.

But still I think there are a lot of us out there who could count ourselves among the “walking wounded,” who have experienced physical or psychological traumas and still have adverse reactions to them. Call it borderline PTSD or some other type of stress disorder, if using the label PTSD seems arrogant or insensitive.

But know that there are other traumas besides war that can leave a person damaged, struggling to find themselves among the shards of a shattered world. We may not have lost a part of our physical selves, but the damage to our psyches can be just as real.

 

 

The Biggest Gaslighter

The subject of gaslighting is big these days. Everyone from your ex to the president is called a gaslighter. But what is gaslighting, really, and who is the biggest gaslighter of them all?

I’ve written quite a bit about gaslighting and here are the basics: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. The gaslighter denies the other person’s perception of reality. The gaslighter tries (and often succeeds) in making the other person feel that she or he is crazy. Gaslighting is very difficult to escape from. Healing from the effects of gaslighting can take a long time, even years.

By those standards, I maintain that bipolar disorder, or maybe mental illness in general, is the biggest gaslighter of all. Think about it.

Bipolar disorder is basically your own mind inflicting emotional abuse on itself. It denies your reality and substitutes its own. It makes you think you are “crazy.” It is very difficult to escape from. And healing from it can take years.

First, let’s consider bipolar disorder as emotional self-abuse. Bipolar disorder uses your own brain to make you miserable. It takes control of your emotions and often your behaviors, and uses them in a destructive manner. Emotional abuse inflicts a conditional called “learned helplessness” on a person. The abuser turns positive and loving just often enough to keep the victim hooked – to keep the victim believing that the abuse is really his or her own fault. Bipolar disorder can relent just enough to let you think you are over it or gives you enough euphoria to make you think that your life is just dandy. These are lies, of course.

That’s the other thing that bipolar disorder does – tells you lies. Bipolar depression tells you that you are worthless, hopeless, and pathetic; that nothing you do is right; and that nothing you can do can change that. It’s a big suckhole for all your emotions, but especially good feelings. And those are lies. You are not worthless. You do many things well. You can escape depression’s clutches. Depression – your brain – tries to substitute an alternate reality for your own.

Bipolar mania lies too. It tells you that you are delighted and delightful, able to accomplish anything and indulge in any behavior without consequence. It lifts you up to a realm of unreality. Again, this is your brain telling you lies, ones that can adversely affect your health, your relationships, your finances, and more. And these lies you want to believe, because they are so seductive and at first feel so good.

These lies are denials of reality. No person is as worthless as depression makes them feel. No one is as invincible as mania says you are. Taking these lies seriously can cause profound damage.

And make no mistake, bipolar disorder makes you think you’re crazy, or at least ask yourself if you are. The out-of-control emotions, the out-of-control behavior, the mood swings, the despair, the euphoria feel crazy. You know your emotions aren’t under your own control and you don’t know what to do about it.

But just as there is healing from gaslighting, there is healing from bipolar disorder. The first thing to do in either case is to remove yourself from the situation. For gaslighting, that can mean breaking up with a partner or even moving away. Breaking up with bipolar disorder is even harder. It likely means starting medication and therapy.

With gaslighting, there can be a tendency to go back, to think that it really wasn’t all that bad. And there were undoubtedly things that drew you to the gaslighter in the first place, plus the intermittent reinforcement of loving apologies that make you deny your own perceptions of reality. And with bipolar disorder, the work of healing is so difficult that you may want to stop doing it – skip your therapist appointments, stop taking your meds, retreat to your emotional cycles, which at least are familiar.

But both gaslighting and bipolar disorder don’t have to steal your entire life. You can get away from the gaslighter. You can find healing from bipolar disorder. At the very least, you can improve your life and not have to ask yourself all the time: Is this real? Am I crazy? Getting treatment for bipolar disorder can break the hold it has on your life, disrupt the cycles that have you feeling perpetually out of balance.

But there’s the big difference between bipolar and gaslighting. You have to run away from gaslighting; you can’t change it. You can’t run away from bipolar disorder.  You have to face it and do the work to find remission and healing.

I saw a meme the other day that said, “Grow through what you go through.” I thought to myself, “This is going to take a while.”

Now, I’m not saying that the meme promotes a bad idea. I just mean that it’s not as easy as the meme makes it sound. Memes are like that. They encapsulate a difficult and painful process into a succinct platitude that never captures the reality of what it purports to express.

It is certainly possible to grow because of bad experiences that you have gone through, and I have surely done this. But it hasn’t been quick or easy. Not that it is for anyone, but especially not for people with serious mental illnesses.

Bipolar disorder, and bipolar depression in particular, often leads one to recall and obsess about the very things one would most like to forget. (Of course, this happens with unipolar depression, too.) It’s like having a recorder in your head that replays the most painful, embarrassing, humiliating, or devastating events in your life. And there is no “off” button or even a “pause.”

Getting through something is not the same as getting over something. And growing through something is something else again. It takes as long as it takes. There is no way to rush it or to speed it up.

Take grief, to choose an example that most people with and without mental disorders are familiar with. I saw a TV show once in which various characters were concerned that the hero had not “gotten over” the death of a friend as quickly as they thought he should. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid. There’s no arbitrary limit on how long a person should grieve.” I know that in days past, a mourning period of a year was customary, with restrictions on dress and activities. That’s stupid too. It may take a few months or a year or the rest of your life, depending on how close you were to the deceased and the circumstances of her or his death.

Deaths don’t have to be physical, either. The death of a relationship can be just as soul-searing, as traumatic, as a literal death. It’s still a loss and one that you may have put your whole heart and soul into.

Of course, it’s great if you can grow through the experience. It’s possible to acquire a new depth of spirit when you go through something traumatic. You can emerge stronger and more resilient and more compassionate because of the experience. I think that’s what the meme was talking about.

But if the trauma – the death or separation or other experience – is fraught with pain as well as grief, then growing through it can be even harder and take even longer. A son whose abusive mother dies has feelings that can hardly be expressed, a jumble of emotions that’s almost impossible to articulate, much less grow through. The end of a relationship with a gaslighter may evoke relief as well as grief, conflicting emotions that can impede growth. These and other situations can call up memories and feelings that one wants to escape, not dwell on. But processing them seems perhaps the only way of growing through them.

That process cannot be rushed. It may take years of bad dreams and flashbacks – at least it did for me – as well, perhaps, as a period of therapy that, like grief, takes as long as it takes to make progress in growing through whatever happened. From outside the situation, it may seem like the person is wallowing in the pain or grief. But on the inside, the process of growing may be occurring at a rate that you can’t see or understand.

In other words, if a person has been through a trauma, don’t expect him or her to “get over it” on what you think is a proper timescale. Some plants, like dandelions, grow incredibly rapidly. Others, like oaks, grow incredibly slowly. For each, it takes as long as it takes.

 

It seems the days when I most need self-care are also the days when I’m least able to accomplish it. I mean, when I can’t even get out of bed, I’m not likely to have the wherewithal to perform any kind of self-care regimen.

I’m not talking here about the take-yourself-to-the-spa type of self-care, either. That’s beyond my means and my capacity. What I’m thinking about are the most basic needs that must be met – meds, food, sleep, and the like. But there are sometimes things that prevent me from accomplishing even these.

Part of the reason, of course, has to do with lack of spoons. It takes energy to shower and dress, make a meal, go to appointments, and all the other tasks that should actually make me feel better. According to Spoon Theory, we wake up with an unknown amount of spoons every day and must choose how to spend them. Some days I wake up with only a few or even zero.

The other obstacle I’ve noticed that inhibits my self-care is my occasional inability to plan. Yes, I can make sure I eat at least one meal a day, but on some days only if I have gone to the grocery store earlier in the week and bought at least a box of Cocoa Puffs and some bottled water to keep by my bed. Not much of a meal, I know. It’s the bare minimum I can do, but sometimes all I can manage.

Taking my meds is the only part of self-care that is an essential that I don’t do without. I usually have that bottle of water right next to my bottles of pills, but even if I don’t, back in college I learned to swallow pills with only spit. But again, this takes a little planning – calling in prescriptions and getting to the pharmacy to pick them up.

On days when I have slightly more spoons, I have to plan and prepare for the days when I don’t have enough for proper self-care. Even the planning and preparing use up spoons.

But there are also days when I can manage a little self-care. On those days, if the spoons are low, but not completely nonexistent, I take shortcuts. I wash up in the sink instead of showering. I put a piece of salami between two pieces of bread and call it a meal. I put on clean pajamas and underwear instead of getting all the way dressed. I use mouthwash instead of brushing my teeth. I pet the cat instead of calling friends.

And I call it good enough.

Admittedly, those are some low standards for self-care. It would be nice if I could do more – and on some days I can. But on many days, the obstacles seem overwhelming. Inertia takes over and entropy sets in. I know it’s not good for me and can slow my recovery from spoon deficit spending, but that’s just the way depression is sometimes. It sucks you down into a hole that’s hard to climb out of when it’s at its worst.

But, thanks to the aforementioned meds and the minimal self-care I’m able to do, I know that one day I’ll be out of the hole and able to work on some proper self-care. Even plan for the next time that self-care seems impossible.

You’ve seen those lists of life stressors, the ones where they assign you so many points for each stressful life event that occurred during the past year and use the total to calculate the likelihood of your becoming physically ill. Death of a spouse or child is at the top of the list, for 100 points. Marriage, divorce, taking out a mortgage (or losing your home), and even retirement are on the list.

The lists you find in various places differ in the details. Some list only ten major stressors, while others list 20 or more. (Nowhere in any of the lists does being diagnosed with, or living with, a serious mental illness appear. Apparently, only physical illnesses are considered stressful.)

I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the major stressors this year, though I can count retirement, my husband’s heart attack, and losing our home in my total. But there was one life event on one of the lists that I hadn’t even considered: changing one’s residence.

When I thought about it I could understand it, though. Moving is a major disruption of your life. It entails endless details, physical effort, and a need for psychological stamina. Packing up your life in boxes is itself a stressful process. (Hell, I get stressed just packing for a vacation.)

In the past month and a half, we’ve moved a total of four times, if you count the night we were evacuated from our tornado-damaged house to the Red Cross shelter. (Not that we did any packing for that. The rescue squad just yelled, “Grab your medications and come with us!”) We then moved to a hotel, then a pet-friendly hotel, and finally to a rental house where we can stay for up to a year while our house is rebuilt. (We had good insurance.)

It was the last move that was possibly most traumatic, though it was the one that brought us closest to a “normal” situation. A whole house. A full kitchen. A backyard. A mailing address. Like the hotels, it came with various rented amenities such as linens and dishes that made the transition easier, but it was still foreign to us.  We’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and are adjusting, but it’s undeniable that the whole process has stressed us very badly.

I know that we are fortunate in so many ways. The closest we came to true homelessness was the day spent in the Red Cross shelter. We both survived the tornado physically intact, and so did our cats. We know we still had a lot to be thankful for, and we were, and are.

The tornado was the really big stressor, but I only recently realized how much stress the constant moving added to the toll. As a person with bipolar disorder, I find all these moves jarring as well as stressful. I like to cocoon, rarely leaving the house. I want my comfort objects around me. The series of moves tapped into my fear of abandonment, my anxiety around packing, and my feeling of being overwhelmed by life. My husband, who is given to depression, feels the loss of all the things that embodied his memories very keenly. Our local paper observed that many of the tornado victims were suffering PTSD. I may be among them, as I have had tornado dreams and other sorts of upsetting ones.

Will we succumb to stress-induced physical illness? Who knows? Have we been suffering from the psychological effects of stress? Definitely. If you had asked me two months ago whether moving was a stressor, I would most likely have said yes.  But I had no idea of the reality. We had intended to stay in our home for the rest of our lives. When suddenly that became not an option, we came unmoored both physically and psychologically.

Stability has always been a problem for me, but now my husband and I have even less of it than usual. When we finally get a chance to settle in, take a deep breath and a day off, perhaps the stress will lift a little. But until then, we’ll keep slogging through it.

 

Couples who experience serious trauma may go through the experience together, but they do not always stay together afterward. The death of a loved one, infidelity, the onset of a disease – many things can test a couple’s ability to cope with the event and with each other.

Serious mental illness can also be a relationship killer. Dealing with symptoms, treatments, medications, setbacks, hospitalization, mood swings, and just generally going off the rails is more of a task than many couples can handle.

Combine serious trauma and serious mental illness, though, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a new level of disaster.

One of the potential pitfalls is two people who grieve in different manners or on different timescales. One partner may feel it necessary to process events aloud and at length, while the other may prefer to process feelings internally, without conversation. One person may take a year to get over a death, while the other is still grieving after three or more.

Then there’s couple who have different agendas when it comes to whatever is troubling them both. One may feel that moving on is the best response to a traumatic event, while the other person can’t let go of the past.

Many relationships crack and break apart under the strain. And those are just for couples who don’t have mental disorders.

Now take an example (not completely at random) of a couple who have lost their home in a natural disaster. He suffers from depression. She has bipolar disorder. He grieves the loss of their home and all their belongings to a point that she considers excessive. She kicks into hypomania and focuses on the small details of their situation. He thinks she doesn’t grieve. She thinks he needs to help her address the future.

It will be easier for this couple to stay on track and stay together if they can talk about what has happened and what is happening. That may well involve talking with other people – a trusted friend, a professional counselor, even each other. But it’s important that both people feel that they are being listened to and, more importantly, being heard. And that’s not always something that the other partner can provide.

If the couple can talk to each other, their communication skills will be severely tested. Depressed people and those with bipolar disorder both tend to isolate in times of stress. Processing feelings may not be either person’s greatest strength. And those different timescales and differing agendas are likely to throw up roadblocks should they try to talk about it all.

Being aware that trauma and mental illness both have detrimental effects on a relationship may help. Although even previously strong relationships can be stressed to the breaking point, stepping outside oneself to try to understand the other person can be enlightening. Feelings that seem callous or stubborn or flippant or shallow can just be different ways of dealing with trauma. Thinking the way you feel is the only way to feel will severely impede healing.

If it sounds like I am trying to remind myself of all these things, well, I am. We lost our home in a tornado, and my husband and I were dealing with mental difficulties before that happened. I feel that I must be on alert now for any signs that our relationship is cracking. But it’s not just my problem. The disaster, and the mental disorders, and the relationship are things that we share. They have led to a tangle of emotions and reactions that aren’t predictable or rational or even helpful.

We know the basic things we need to do – take our meds, practice self-care (and help each other do so as well), talk when necessary and be alone when that is what’s needed. We have to keep our eyes on what’s important: our mental health and getting through these difficult times intact both personally and as a couple. And we need to see the humor where there is any. But this isn’t the ordinary sort of disagreement that lasts a day or a week. It’s something we’ll be working on long-term.

Wish us luck.

I am weary to my bones and to my soul. As the spoonies say, I’m so out of spoons I can’t eat soup.
Physically, I haven’t done that much to wear myself out. A little light housecleaning. Running some errands. Answering emails and making phone calls. No heavy lifting, unless you count the time I had to help my husband push the washer back into place.
No, the heavy lifting I have been doing is emotional and mental. Make no mistake, that is work and it is exhausting. I am responding to a physical and emotional crisis that happened almost exactly a month ago. After the disaster (a tornado destroyed our house), my husband has done almost all of the physical heavy lifting.
The mental work is stuff that I’m easily capable of doing on a good day: dealing with bureaucracy, organizing the trivia of paperwork and daily life, paying bills, etc. Now, however, there is so much of it to deal with that I am falling behind. I haven’t kept up with sorting our receipts. I haven’t returned the phone call about the hole the cable guy made in the wall. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail about it. I haven’t responded to a friend’s request to look over an official letter she is writing.
The emotional work is entirely different. My husband is dealing with issues of grief, loss, and anger regarding the loss of our house and our possessions. Somewhere inside, I must be having similar feelings, but his are closer to the surface and he is able to express them more.
And I am having some difficulty dealing with this. First of all, angry men distress me, even if I’m not the object of their anger. It’s a throwback to other times and other relationships, a button that was pushed and has stayed mostly stuck in that position. Dan is doing his best to accommodate this quirk, trying to keep his voice down and his conversation rational when we speak of it. But I hear him when he is alone in his study, bellowing or wailing in emotional pain about something I do not fully understand.
My husband and I are operating from different places, with differing agendas, regarding the loss of our house and belongings. He invests his memories and emotions in things much more than I do. I look at what can be replaced and he looks at the irreplaceable – artifacts from his trips to Africa and Israel, for example. Those can’t even have a price put on them and there is no way to replace them. His grandfather’s diamond ring could be physically replaced, but not the sentimental value he attaches to it.
I do understand this, though not at the gut level he does. I do (or did) have possessions that meant a lot to me – a guitar, paintings a friend did, some carvings in semi-precious stones, some photos, of course (though some are stored on my computer, which survived). And I think the salvage company did a poor job of inventorying what they had to throw away and keeping what was small but important, letting us participate in the process. But my anger doesn’t extend to revenge fantasies.
All these feelings, both expressed and unresolved, are sapping my strength and my energy. I have gone back to my therapist for reminders of my coping mechanisms and validation on what I have been able to do – and to have a safe space to vent when all of this does begin to spill over.
And now I have decided to go back to work, on a reduced schedule at least. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a bad one, but it seems a necessary one. Perhaps it will provide a missing piece of familiarity in my life, something to anchor me. Perhaps a different kind of work will distract me from what I have been dealing with.
I know there’s still a lot of emotional and mental labor to do, but with help from my husband and my therapist, I believe I will get through it, especially if I pay some attention to self-care: taking my meds regularly, sleeping and eating regularly, taking breaks when I need them, taking comfort in our cats, and trying to eat the elephant one bite at a time.
This is one of the biggest elephants I can remember, though.

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