Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Do Distractions Help?

Well, not when you’re driving, certainly. But when you have bipolar disorder, sometimes they do.

Of course, bipolar disorder is a distraction from life itself. And that’s not good. But every once in a while, it’s worthwhile to give bipolar a taste of its own medicine. Now, I’m not saying that distractions are good when you’re trying to meditate or in a therapy session. But sometimes, when you’re locked in your own head, you need something outside of you to unlock it.

Personally, I need distractions a lot. And, given the popularity of coloring books and fidget spinners, so do a lot of other people. Fortunately, I have found many ways to be distracted. Some of my favorites are music, bad jokes, cooking shows, sleep, and cats.

These don’t always work when I’m in the depths of depression, though I try them even then. But when I’m hypomanic, buzzing around without a landing site, they can help.

Music gives me both a chance to focus and a place to dissipate my energy. There are plenty of songs that express my feelings of depression, but also a number that encourage me to let out the feelings of flying, of soaring, of digging life – Little Richard’s version of “Get Rhythm,” for example, or the songs that have punctuated my life with my husband.

Again, bad – or even good – jokes are no help to me when I’m depressed. But when I’m obsessing about some anticipated (perhaps never to materialize) crisis, they can pull me back from the edge. (Once I called up a silly friend and said I needed a distraction. He said, “Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!,” a joke I didn’t get until later, when someone explained it to me.)

Cooking shows keep me grounded in a way. So does actual cooking. I’ve found that when I’m tense and about to lose it, making a cup of tea or heating a pan of soup grounds me, even if I have no desire for tea or soup. Making it for someone else is even more grounding. Cooking shows, even if I have no intention of ever trying the recipes, have a similar grounding effect. Unlike movies or dramatic shows, I know that nothing terrible will happen, unless you count a chef cutting her finger.

Sleep may be hard to do when my brain is whirling, but if I can accomplish it, my brain gets a reprieve and perhaps even a respite with a hot-n-juicy dream (though not nearly often enough). I love the feel of cotton or flannel nightshirts or pajamas. I love the quiet and the dark. I love the giving up of the stresses of the day and surrendering to temporary oblivion.

Even sleep in the middle of the day soothes me. If I’ve been unable to sleep the night before, a mega-nap the next day can reboot my brain and replenish my spoons. It may seem like an escape (and in some ways it is), but sometimes escape is what I need.

And as for cats, they help me in so many ways. I find watching them wash themselves hypnotic and comforting. I find snuggling with them in bed soothing. I find their antics infinitely distracting. I find caring for them takes me out of myself and requires that I focus on another being.

If I’m able to focus (which is not always the case), I find reading a suitable distraction as well. I have a few “comfort books,” old favorites that I can return to with an assurance that nothing too alarming will happen. I can lose myself and my anxieties in the struggles and triumphs of others. I can find distraction in tales of things I will never experience, like mountain climbing or space flight.

I have tried some of the tried-and-true distractions as well. I have several coloring books and a plethora of colored pencils. I have sudoko and mahjong programs and word puzzles on my computer. I have my writing, which, while not always soothing, does refocus my concentration and provide an outlet for any troubling feelings I may be experiencing.

Being bipolar, I find that my brain is both my enemy and my friend. It sustains me and betrays me. And it provides me ways to escape from its less sustaining moments. After all, if I didn’t have distractions, I would be locked within my brain with no relief from the tricks it plays on me. I’m glad that there are ways that I can escape, at least for a little while.

Mental Illness: Fact and Fiction

I’ve had a bit of experience with mental health and nonfiction, though none so far with bipolar fiction. But lately, I’ve been thinking about it.

Bipolar nonfiction is (comparatively) easy to write. There are numerous memoirs, essays, and blogs – including my own. Bipolar disorder has not appeared much in fiction, however. There are reasons for this.

First, let’s tackle the idea of mental illness in “genre fiction” (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, and the like – not mainstream fiction, anyway). A friend of mine recently attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, where they had a panel discussion on just that topic.

My friend reports that the panel “had a mental health nurse, a psychologist and some writers talking about portrayals of mental illness that got it right or wrong.”

He went on to add, “Consensus seemed to be that the Punisher completely nailed PTSD, that Drax in the first GotG movie nailed Aspie but that they rewrote him into a cute Manic Pixie Dream Creature for the second one; and the depiction of Sheldon from Big Bang is an abomination against God and Man.” (To unpack that just a bit, the Punisher is a character from Marvel, GotG means the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and “Manic Pixie Dream Creature” is a riff on “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a trope in which one woman (the MPDG) opens the hero’s eyes to life lived fully so that he can then go off and win his One True Love, who is not the MPDG.)

I myself have no experience with the Punisher and saw only one of the GotG movies. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a character I know a little more about. As I understand it, Sheldon Cooper is not intended to represent a person with any particular sort of mental illness (as he always points out, “My mother had me tested”). Still, the character exhibits behaviors that are often associated with Asperger’s, OCD, and perhaps some other mental illnesses or conditions.

I have read that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Sheldon, did no research on any of those conditions or illnesses because he didn’t want Sheldon to represent a person with any particular disorder. This allows the viewer to read into the character whatever he or she believes Sheldon’s “problem” is (if any).

But an important point was brought up in the book Philosophy and The Big Bang Theory. One of its essays questioned whether the audience should feel comfortable laughing at Sheldon. If one believes that he has a mental illness or Asperger’s, the answer is, of course, “no.” Yet most of the audience does – apart from those who see the portrayal as an “abomination.”

It’s so hard to get a portrayal of mental illness right, on TV or particularly in genre fiction. Take bipolar disorder, for example. Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries features a protagonist who has bipolar disorder. But most of the depiction depends on whether or not the character is having a manic episode at any given time. While the depiction is laudable – and I like the series immensely – it is telling that bipolar depression is seldom a plot element.

Perhaps this is because depression is too, well, depressing to write or read about. A character who is unable to leave her bed or who questions her very existence is hardly likely to move the plot forward. Searing depictions of depression, both bipolar and unipolar, have been written about, but almost exclusively in nonfiction. Even those can be hard to read for someone who experiences clinical depression.

Depression, however, did become a metaphor in the writing of J.K. Rowling. She has said that in her portrayal of “Dementors” in her Harry Potter fantasy epic, she was specifically thinking of depression and its soul-sucking effects on those who suffer from it. That’s genre fiction and that’s doing mental illness right.

In talking about mental illness and genre fiction, I’m deliberately ignoring the many portrayals of sociopaths in shows such as Dexter. Those are stereotypes too, but I’m wondering about less “drama-friendly” mental illnesses. Dissociative identity disorder seems to be one of the few other mental illnesses that feature prominently in popular forms of fiction, usually in the psyche of a villain. You could also count the many detective characters suffering from PTSD, a commonly used trope that is seldom examined closely but rather serves as a personality trait associated with violence.

I wasn’t at the convention and didn’t hear the panel (though I would have loved to), but it raised interesting questions. What would a protagonist (or other character) with bipolar disorder be like or do in what is too often a formulaic plot? Can a mentally ill character be portrayed accurately within the confines of genre fiction? Can mental illness be anything but a metaphor – or be experienced by a character other than one played for laughs? Is there any such book that I should be reading?

I don’t have the answers. But we need facts in fiction. We need understanding. We need representation. I haven’t tried to write fiction featuring a bipolar character, much less a main character who is bipolar. 

Maybe I should.

Did Bipolar Disorder Lose Me Jobs?

I lost two jobs, one that I had held for 17 years, because of my bipolar disorder. I only realized this comparatively recently. In both cases, I readily admit that my work had gone downhill, but at the time (at least for the first job), it never occurred to me that bipolar disorder was the reason for my dismissal.

I was working at a publishing company as an editor, having worked my way up from editorial assistant. I had been the editor of two different magazines, assistant editor for a couple of others, and writer and proofreader for them all. (It was a very small company.)

As time went on, though, I became less and less reliable. I edited my magazines, but I had trouble dealing with people. I had particular trouble with an art director who didn’t like my cover choices (despite the fact that several of them had won awards), humiliated me in a staff meeting because of it, and reminded everyone about it later. She was toxic, sure, but I was unable to deal with the situation or even stand up for myself.

There were other humiliations that I tolerated because I didn’t have the wherewithal to quit. When, during the financial crisis, salaries were cut by 20%, mine was cut by 40%, which to me meant that I was twice as useless as, say, a salesperson.

I stayed, but I isolated myself. My office had a door and I used it, the only person in the company to do so. I knew that people thought this was odd behavior, but by that point, I didn’t care. I was let go with no explanation given.

Yes, the company was a toxic environment and no, I didn’t deal with it well. But the situations I put up with exacerbated my bipolar disorder until I was headed for the crash. When I was on the upswing I was able to do my assignments and, I like to think, do them well. But when things went bad, I was prey to the voices that told me I was no good. Losing the job proved that to me.

The next job I went to was editing textbooks. My supervisor knew me and knew that I had bipolar disorder. The fact that she understood helped me keep on an even keel for a while. I developed little techniques to stave off difficulties. But some of my coping mechanisms were unacceptable. (Apparently, it’s okay to have a cigarette break but not a crossword puzzle break.)

Then my supervisor left. I said to her, “I’m going to miss you,” and she replied, “I know.” Prophetic words. I was open with my new supervisor about having bipolar disorder and was quite taken aback when she asked, “What does that mean?” Unprepared to give a proper explanation, I blinked and replied simply, “It means I’ll have good days and bad days.”

From that point on, my performance and their satisfaction with me fell, until I received a bad review, the first one I had ever had. Before the six-month probation period was up, I left of my own accord, determined to make it as a freelancer.

There were personal circumstances at the time, including my disorder, that made me less capable. I became responsible for my mother’s health and finances. I could easily miss half a day of work just getting her to her various appointments. That no doubt affected many of my job functions, particularly my attendance and my ability to concentrate. My major breakdown began not long after I left that job.

The thing is, in 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) added bipolar disorder as a covered condition. Employers were (and as of this writing still are) required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to affected individuals. Examples of reasonable accommodations include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, and “a change or adjustment to a job or work environment.”

To receive accommodations under the ADA, an employee must disclose their bipolar disorder (which I did, at least at the second job) and request accommodations (which I didn’t do, other than offering to work from home).

The EEOC (2009) has a publication called “Psychiatric Disabilities and the ADA,” which is available online at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/psych.html. Among their recommendations to help a bipolar employee continue to function in the work environment – maintain stamina and concentration; stay organized and meet deadlines; work with supervisors; and handle stress, emotions, and attendance issues – are these:

  • Allow flexible scheduling
  • Allow for time off for counseling
  • Allow work from home during part of the day or week
  • Provide space enclosures or private office
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Provide flexible leave for health problems
  • Allow the employee to make up time missed
  • Maintain open channels of communications between the employee and the new and old supervisor in order to ensure an effective transition

I know there are those who would consider such accommodations “coddling.” And I wouldn’t have needed them all, or all of them at the same time. But even an understanding of my closed door and my need to work at home would have helped.

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.

Growing May Take a While

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.

 

When Self-Care Seems Impossible

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.

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