Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category

Mental Health and Awareness Campaigns

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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Dissociative Identity Disorder: The Basics

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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Not Breathing Affects Our Mental Health

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: Who Do I Think I Am?

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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How Do We Talk About Mental Illness?

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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The Storms of Life

There are lots of memes that compare life to a storm. There are the ones that advise you to bend with the storm like some resilient kind of tree and grow back stronger. Ones that exhort you to withstand the storm. Even ones that tell you to talk to the storm, telling it “I am the storm.”

It’s a metaphor, of course, meant to symbolize the difficulties of life and your reactions to them. Generally, the point is that storms are survivable and can even make you stronger. And they refer to disasters of various kinds – physical, psychological, psychiatric, grief, or whatever.

The memes are meant to be encouraging, to tell people that they are strong enough to withstand anything. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. Because the storm metaphor implies that you can get through the storm by yourself, just by being you. And that’s not the way it is in real life.

I have been through a real-life storm, a tornado that hit when I was on the second floor of the house in my bedroom. I was on the phone with my husband, who was at work. “Take cover,” he shouted. “There’s a tornado!” “It’s too late,” I replied. “The roof just came off!” Standing strong was not an option. I hid my head under a pillow and hoped for the best.

Once the tornado passed, my husband made his way to the house. It was nighttime. There were trees down all over the place. He had to abandon his car and continue on foot. He had to wade a creek and lost a shoe. A neighbor boy with a flashlight helped him get to the house. He shoved aside the toppled furniture that blocked the way to the bedroom, and he came for me. He helped me withstand the storm. I couldn’t have done it alone.

After that, the emergency services got us out and took us to the Red Cross shelter. Our vet boarded our cats. Two friends used their credit card to stake us to a week in a motel. Our insurance company moved us into a pet-friendly hotel, then rented a house for us. A contractor rebuilt our house from the ground up. The insurance company paid to replace our possessions.

It took a lot of people to help us withstand that storm.

It can take a lot of people to help you withstand the storms of life, too. Take my bipolar disorder, for example. It has taken at least two psychiatrists and I don’t remember how many therapists, or how many prescriptions for psychotropics. It has taken my husband’s total support. It has taken decades. There were many storms, not just one – depression, hypomania, gaslighting, loss, grief, dark nights of the soul, days without hope, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and more.

It took lots of people to help me through the physical and the metaphoric storms. Neither was something I could just tough out, pull myself up by my bootstraps, and conquer. I didn’t bend with the storm. I tried to withstand it as best I could, sometimes trying, sometimes failing. I didn’t defy the storm. I came close to being destroyed by it. I didn’t believe that I was the storm, though there surely was a storm inside me.

I heartily dislike those memes about withstanding the storm. Too many people are visited by too many storms, ones that they can’t handle alone. And though I had people and services that helped me through mine, some people just don’t. Psychiatric care is out of reach for many. Friends have disappeared. The social network has collapsed. Some don’t even have a home to be rebuilt or possessions to be replaced.

So, no, the storms of life are not always survivable – at least not without lots of help and resources. So don’t tell me to say “I am the storm.” Even when there’s a storm inside my head, I am not the storm itself. I am the leaves blown off the trees. I am the branches that break, the roof that comes off. I don’t withstand the storm. After it abates, I pick up the pieces – and not by myself. I need other people to help. Together, we beat back the storm and rebuild.

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Garden-Variety Jerks

I see a lot of questions of this kind: My neighbor/sister/friend does this [unpleasant behavior]. Is this caused by his/her bipolar disorder?

There certainly are behaviors of people with bipolar disorder that are unpleasant to those surrounding them. Not taking showers for a week when the person is depressed is one of them. Another, when the person is in the grip of mania, is having sex outside a relationship. Being unable to leave the house is a bipolar-related behavior. So is gambling away your savings. So is standing you up or ghosting you. And blaming themselves for everything. And taking on too many projects and finishing none of them. Talking too fast or too slowly.

Playing their music too loud or parking across your driveway is not a bipolar-related behavior. Neither is littering. Or insisting that you take the garbage out. Or yelling when they are angry. Or becoming huffy when you criticize them.

There are some behaviors that may or may not be bipolar-related – for example, talking about themselves too much. This could be an indication that the person is depressed and brooding (if the talk is about how worthless they are) or manic and aggrandizing (if the talk is about how great they are). Or it may just be that the person has low or high self-esteem that doesn’t rise to the level of pathology. Feeling that everyone is picking on them could go either way. So could taking offense at every little remark. It’s sometimes hard to tell, particularly if you’re not a psychologist.

It’s more than a little weird that people are willing to attribute all kinds of bad behavior to mental illness. But think of all the racist haters and killers that are assumed to be mentally ill. While some may be, it’s an automatic and often unwarranted assumption. It takes away from the attention that ought to be given to real mental disorders and it perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. Or it assumes that racism and hatred are mental illnesses. These are extreme cases, of course.

Sometimes bad behavior is not due to mental illness at all. Sometimes what you’re dealing with is a garden-variety jerk. To address the picture above, it’s not pathology to be messy and it’s not a sign of mental illness to be mad at a roommate for being messy.

There’s not a lot you can do if the behavior you object to is caused by mental illness. You may have to simply understand or let the annoyance go. The person may resent that you assume their behavior is a sign of mental illness, even if it is. And about all you can do in that case is help the person get help if you can.

When you’re dealing with a garden-variety jerk, there are other sorts of remedies you can apply. You can call the police on the neighbor with the loud stereo. You can ask the messy roommate to straighten up or leave. You can set boundaries of what you will and won’t put up with and enforce those boundaries firmly but fairly when they are violated.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the person in question has a mental illness and is also a jerk. If you can figure out what to do in those cases, please let me know.

I’m not saying that mental illness should be an excuse for bad behavior or absolve a person of the consequences of their actions. I am saying that it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior is due to mental illness, just as much as it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior comes from being a jerk, or worse.

In a lot of cases, you simply have to live with it.

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The Self-Esteem Dilemma

I’ve heard that narcissists (and multiple murderers) have too-high self-esteem. I’ve also heard that they have low self-esteem. Which assertion is right? Surely they can’t both be!

Self-esteem became a big topic of conversation in the 1980s. That’s when self-esteem programs for children were beginning to be taught in schools and preschools. There were many questions about them, some of which I asked when assigning a writer to a story about them. (I was an editor for a publication for childcare workers and daycare owners at the time.) Why do children need self-esteem programs? Doesn’t daily living foster self-esteem? What can self-esteem programs do that parents and teachers can’t or don’t? The writer seemed taken aback, but bravely tackled all those questions and wrote a fine article on the subject.

Later, the self-esteem movement came into disrepute and was the subject of much mocking and more authentic criticism. Chief among the things detractors made fun of were “participation trophies” given to every participant in a game or sport, spelling bee, or whatever other sort of competition. Complaints included that this negated the idea of competition altogether, falsely inflated children’s sense of accomplishment, shortchanged children who had truly excelled, and was a touchy-feely practice that had no place in the realm of sports or other competitive areas.

It was also thought that self-esteem programs were teaching the wrong lesson. Instead of learning that effort doesn’t always achieve the desired results, children were learning that everyone was as good as everyone else, which seemed like a mistake to some. Self-esteem programs were also said to lead children to the idea that the world was a kindly place where they would be rewarded just for existing. Instead, they should “toughen up” and learn that the world would deal them harsh blows at times and that they needed to be ready to cope with them. Debate continued about when and where such a lesson should be taught and even if it should be taught at all.

How does this relate to the aforementioned narcissists and toxic people? The two theories about their level of self-esteem seem contradictory and counterintuitive. Do they have low self-esteem? It doesn’t seem like it, the way they take control over others’ lives and manipulate them. Do they have high self-esteem? This sounds a little more plausible.

Reconciling the two theories is problematic. On the one hand, these people’s self-esteem seems to be too great, so they feel they are special and entitled to control other people who aren’t up to the same standard. On the other, their self-esteem might be too low, driving them to overcompensate for their lack by acting powerful and controlling others.

It seems unlikely that both of these mechanisms could apply to a single person. How could they feel genuinely powerful and compensate for being less powerful at the same time?

But, at its heart, true, healthy self-esteem isn’t about power. It’s about loving, accepting, and appreciating yourself for the good qualities that you do have. It’s about recognizing that your place in life is to be neither a doormat nor an idol. It’s about having confidence in yourself that you can face obstacles – though not conquering every obstacle – but knowing your limitations.

Does life teach self-esteem? It can, certainly, if a child is raised in a supportive, encouraging environment; if the child learns that both effort and accomplishment are possible; if the child has role models for self-esteem; and if good lessons about self-worth are taught in the home and at school.

Of course, we know that not all children are raised in such an ideal environment. Probably far too few are. Or children receive mixed messages about self-esteem from parents, schools, religion, and other places where they get training for life events: not to be unrealistically proud but to be proud of achievements; to be humble or to be confident; to be assertive or to obey authority; to share with others or to know what’s theirs and defend it; to cooperate or to take the lead.

Self-esteem is particularly difficult for those of us with brain illnesses or psychological disorders. We may feel broken, unsure of ourselves, and clueless about where we fit into society. In the grip of mania, we can feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. When we are depressed, we can feel worthless. In bipolar disorder, in particular, the two states can be encompassed in a single individual at different times.

But this is not to say that people with psychological challenges are all narcissists. Far from it. I would say that in every person, there are varying degrees of longing to have control and desire to relinquish control. It’s achieving a healthy balance of these two things that’s the real trick.

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My Mental Health Goals

When I was a teen to early college age, my main mental health goal was staying out of an inpatient department of a hospital or other mental health facility. I knew, though I wasn’t yet diagnosed, that there was something wrong with me – that I had some kind of mental health problem based on my aberrant behavior and how people reacted to me. That fear has never completely left me, though as I’ve grown and learned more about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder with anxiety, I’ve come to think it is less and less likely. Yet I know that bipolar can sometimes lead to psychosis and necessitate hospitalization. That’s not as likely to happen to me as a person with bipolar 2, but it still crosses my troubled mind.

Later in life, it became my goal to find a therapist and a psychiatrist who could help me. I tried various ones, including ones through EAPs, therapy groups, and couples counseling. Some seemed to help, but others were spectacular failures. Some positively shredded me, leaving me worse off than when I came in. Others misdiagnosed me (which I can’t really fault them for, as bipolar 2 was a rare or even nonexistent diagnosis when I started looking for help). Among other things, I learned that group therapy was not for me. And I learned that Prozac did help, at least to some extent.

At that point, my main mental health goal was to find someone who could tell me what was happening to me and to figure out what could help. I no longer remember how I found him, but eventually I came to Dr. R. He was the one who finally gave me the correct diagnosis. Then my mental health goal became finding a medication that would help me with this new diagnosis better than Prozac did.

Dr. R. was patient with his patient. He and I began a journey that lasted for several years, trying one medication after another and then combinations of medications, in hopes of finding a “cocktail” of drugs that worked for me. That became my new mental health goal – along with enduring the years of failures as just the right combination eluded us.

One of my other (it seemed irrational) fears and mental health goals was to avoid being subjected to electro convulsive therapy (ECT). But that became a real possibility when my case proved so resistant to medication that Dr. R. recommended it. I freaked out. It seemed that my fears were about to become reality. I eventually agreed with him that it might be necessary and began to prepare myself for what had seemed to me like an ultimate horror, right up there with being hospitalized.

Fortunately, however, Dr. R. had one more medication in his arsenal and it proved so effective that the ECT was deemed unnecessary. We achieved that effective cocktail of medications that would stabilize me.

Then Dr. R. retired. Immediately, my new mental health goal was to find a new psychiatrist who could prescribe for me and a therapist who could help me with the day-to-day difficulties of living with bipolar 2. It took a while to find a psychiatrist who had an opening – though with a wait of about six months. (My primary care physician continued writing prescriptions for me while I waited.) Eventually, I found Dr. G., who said that, as I was fairly well stabilized on my assorted medications, he needed to see me only four times a year for maintenance and to tweak my meds if I encountered any further difficulties.

It was also time to choose a therapist, and my goal became finding one that I meshed with. (I had learned this was necessary from all the bad experiences that I had had in the past.) I started “interviewing” therapists. I tried to find one that had dealt with mood disorders in the past, wasn’t a Freudian, and could come at things from a feminist perspective. I found Dr. B. I wasn’t exactly typical of her patients. She dealt mostly with college students. (Her practice was in a clinic within the Student Union building at a university that was, fortuitously, right down the road from me.) I have been with her and Dr. G. ever since.

My current mental health goal is to maintain – the medications I’m stabilized on and the sessions with Dr. B. to help me navigate through the difficulties such as anxiety that still pop up from time to time.

It’s a whole lot better than having that goal to stay out of a mental hospital.

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