Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

How I Learned a Few Social Skills

I thought my social skills were bad until I encountered a woman who asked me, “Do you have mental problems?” (She recognized me from our mutual psychiatrist’s waiting room, but still….)

expression

With practice, however, I have been able to improve my casual conversation skills, at least enough to get by in some situations, as long as they don’t last more than an hour. Here are my secrets. They do take practice. I have been fortunate to have had people to practice with – friends, coworkers, and of course my husband.

Introductions. Actually, I taught this one to my husband. Often when we met someone that he knew, he would fail to introduce me, leaving me standing there like the proverbial bump on a log. He claimed that the problem was that usually he couldn’t remember the person’s name. “Just point to me and say, ‘This is my wife, Janet.'” Then I will stick out my hand to shake and say, “And you are?” That way we both learn the person’s name. It works like a charm, every time.

Very Brief Conversations. Conversation with strangers – just a sentence or two – is also relatively easy to learn. The trick is the innocuous comment and there are two ways to go about it. The first is to make the comment yourself – “Those are great shoes! They make your feet look really small.” “What a lovely handbag. My mother had one that was similar.” Make an observation and then a related remark, usually complimentary. They don’t even have to be true technically. If you can’t think of anything else to say, a comment on the color of an outfit is usually good. There’s hardly any way someone can take offense at “That’s a great shade of blue on you.”

The other side of the equation is to get someone else to make a comment to you. This requires a prop most of the time. I used to carry a purse shaped like an armadillo, and that proved a great conversation starter. I memorized several responses that I could use when the other person said, “Oh, what an unusual purse!” I could say, “My mother gave it to me for Christmas one year” or “A friend found it in some catalog.” The purse went over  big, especially if there were children present.

Longer Conversations. These require more practice. Luckily at one of the jobs I had, there were a couple of people that I could invite out to lunch and practice conversation with. (I suspect that they knew what I was doing, but they never mentioned it. In effect, they played along.) Mary, for example, had two adopted children, and questions about them we’re always good for a few minutes of interesting listening. They also had a cat and a snake. Pets and children make good topics.

Sometimes it’s best to steer clear of work-related subjects, but if the person is really understanding, you may be able to vent. You should also be able to listen to the other person too. The secret to that is not to try to fix the problem. Simply listen and validate the person’s feelings. “That sounds awful! Does she do that all the time?”

Formal Settings. Mary also provided me with the opportunity to learn about a sometimes-necessary but difficult situation – funerals. Mary and a few other people invited me to go with them to the viewing of a person that I knew only slightly in a work context, so the stakes were low. From watching Mary and her friends, I learned that the proper procedure is to stand briefly at the coffin looking solemn, then go to the bereaved, shake hands or hug (depending on whether they proffer a hand or two arms), and say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My deepest sympathy” and at least one remark about the departed. It can be as simple as “He was a pleasure to work with” or “Everyone at work is going to miss her.”

Not Melting Down. Another important social skill is not having a major meltdown in front of other people. When I first visited my husband’s family, I became very uncomfortable quite often because everyone seemed to be yelling at each other. Loud, angry voices tend to upset me, especially if they continue for any length of time. The technique I developed was to go into the other room and make a cup of tea. Making tea is socially acceptable. (If you’re in the kitchen, go to the bathroom or step outside for fresh air.)

Much later I learned that my husband didn’t realize that his family reacted to even minor questions with argumentative responses in loud voices. To him, and to them, this was simply the normal style of conversation. It wasn’t what was normal in my family, and it triggered my aversion to confrontation. I guess whatever you grow with grow up with seems normal to you.

One other piece of advice: Don’t attempt flirting unless you have a coach. It’s really tricky and possibly dangerous. Not for the novice (especially not the kind of novice who wears a habit).

 

What Was I Thinking?

When I was a kid, I had irrational thoughts all the time. I think most kids do. They were harmless – even amusing.

It’s when you’re older that they become problems, or even dangers.

My younger self wouldn’t eat rhubarb because I knew that some part of the plant was poisonous and I didn’t want to take a chance. (I still don’t eat rhubarb. Any vegetable that needs that much sugar to make it palatable hardly seems worth it.) I suppose that could be considered an early OCD-type thought, since it was about potentially toxic food.

Another paranoid idea I had was that when someone threw a cigarette out of a car window, it could cause a major fireball explosion if it just happened to land underneath another car that just happened to have a leaking gas tank. I always looked around and braced for disaster when I saw someone fling a death-stick onto the road. It might as well have been dynamite, as far as I was concerned. (And I was very concerned.)

Yet another irrational fear (looking back, my irrational thoughts were almost all fears) was based on the fact that I had no idea how plumbing really worked. I was afraid that if I flushed the toilet right before I brushed my teeth, the waste water somehow flowed past the tap and could end up on my toothbrush.

(Another plumbing-related misconception dealt with sex (though not conception), but we won’t go into that now. Let’s just say that they never covered it in health class back then. For all I know, they still don’t. I had my mother buy me a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask so I could find the answer.)

In my teen years, my irrational thoughts became more delusional, and more related to my by-then-shaky mental health. At some point it was recommended (I think by the high school, though I don’t remember the circumstances) that I should visit a counselor. And they were right. I certainly should have, although in retrospect, child psychiatry in those days was fairly primitive and I most likely wouldn’t have received a correct diagnosis or treatment. I don’t think bipolar type 2 even existed.

I’ll say this for my parents: They consulted me on whether I wanted to go or not, which was not what I would have expected. I declined.

My “reason”? I somehow thought that having such a thing on my permanent record would keep me from getting into a good – or perhaps any – college. (When I started applying, of course, no one even asked.)

And once I was in college and knew that my sanity was truly on shaky ground, my life goal was to graduate, and then work enough quarters (at pretty much anything) until I qualified for Social Security before I was put away. I was convinced that was likely to be my fate. I’m not sure why I thought that having Social Security would have helped.

None of those irrational fears were ever addressed in a timely manner. Except the sex one. Yay, me! for finding some accurate information on that one and Yay, Mom! for facilitating my enlightenment.

If you’ve noticed a trend of increasing irrationality and increasing potential for sabotaging my own life, you’re not wrong.

*** TRIGGER WARNING ***

The rest of this is tough stuff. You know what’s coming, so stop now if you’re not ready to hear about it.

When I had my major meltdown ten or so years ago, I had the worst irrational thought of all. My mother had just died, so my thought processes were pretty scrambled anyway.

Then my husband did something that I thought was unethical and likely illegal as well. Then he said he’d do it again. I managed to talk our way out of the first instance as a simple mistake, but his statement that he might do it again haunted me.

I catastrophized, of course. This time, however, the potential catastrophe loomed large and to me very real. If he did repeat his actions. there would be no possibility of smoothing things over. He would be culpable. And I would be in the position of needing to report it.

Then he would lose his job – at the very least – which was at the time loosely related to the legal system. They wouldn’t be able to overlook it.

I was unable to work at the time, trying to get disability, and we were barely staying afloat. Without his job, we would sink.

So I thought that, if he did it again, and I reported it, and he lost his job, the only thing left for me to do was kill myself.

Like I said, pretty irrational.

I had a plan, though. In fact, I had three or four different plans and I couldn’t decide among them. Indecision is part of what kept me alive.

As it turns out, my husband did not choose to repeat his actions, and I was spared the necessity of choosing among mine.

Soon thereafter, I got help. I never mentioned the suicidal thoughts till they were long gone, so I never even had to fear the dreaded lock-up that I had anticipated all those years before.

I kept one of the intended means of exit for a while, though. Just in case.

It was a major day in my healing when I finally let that go. That irrational thought had been dismissed and conquered.

 

 

Those Science Fiction Crazies

There has recently been a huge kerfuffle in the science fiction community regarding the Hugo Awards. You don’t really need to know much about it and probably don’t want to. Suffice it to say that two groups had it out over the past and future direction of science fiction and fantasy, and the meaning of the asterisk.

The awards have now been given, but still the blogosphere is full of recriminations, sour grapes, and schadenfreude.

What does this have to do with mental health? Aside from the fact that very smart people can behave like vicious toddlers, it’s interesting to note that the various sides in this dispute did not always, shall we say, acted rationally. You probably guessed that from the asterisks.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Hugo Awards. If you have never been to a science fiction convention, let me tell you about it.

Most of the people there will be very intelligent, obsessive about their particular fields of interest, lacking in social skills to various degrees, and will have a history of being outcast or bullied in their youth.

Does any of that sound familiar?

I’m not a psychologist (nor do I play one on TV), but I can’t help thinking that if you tested everyone at one of these events they would score higher than a random group of people on the autism spectrum. Simply put, the SF community appears to have more than its share of Aspies – and a fair sprinkling of bipolar, depressive, and OCD people.

When their oddities are carried to the extreme – and they often are – SF fandom can devolve into incivility that results in unconscionable threats and exceedingly ugly online behavior.

When you see these kinds of behavior, it is tempting to dismiss science fiction fans as being the caricatures that the media have instilled in us – clueless losers who live in their parents’ basements, show up at jury duty dressed in Star Trek uniforms, and insist that Harry should have ended up with Hermione.

Admittedly, to a certain extent that is true. If you look around at a convention you will almost certainly see a number of people who conform to that stereotype. I myself have a relative who could be Queen of the Get-a-Lifes.

What you may not see is that, despite the cluelessness, rudeness, sometimes elitist or misogynistic behavior, obsessiveness, and disregard for the feelings of others, the science fiction community is actually, at heart, a place where the non-typical person can find a group of like-minded individuals to talk with, obsess with, bond with, and occasionally practice social skills with. It fullfills a very real social and psychological need. Without the science fiction community, whether online or in “meatspace,” many of these people would have little or even no place to have much of a social life at all.

Certainly the stereotype is not true of all members of fandom. Most hold regular jobs in technical, creative, or other fields, have families and close relationships, and negotiate their way through modern society as well or poorly as anyone else. But there are consistencies in their background. Most are incessant readers and have been since childhood. Many have been the targets of cliques in school and the workplace. A number would be described by their neighbors as quiet loners (though this is not to imply that SF fandom harbors more spree killers  than any other group). They have odd senses of humor or in some cases none at all. In a very real sense, sf fandom is for them, as one song would have it, made up of “My Thousand Closest Friends.”

So if you happen to be in a hotel and find the meeting space is overflowing with people dressed as Klingons, robots, and giant furry animals, remember that they are mostly harmless and enjoying a moment of fitting in to a part of society that celebrates and honors their differences and shares their pride in their oddness. Where they can relax and be themselves, without worrying about seeming weird or threatening or being put down, avoided, or scorned. Think of it as a support group with parties, art shows, panel discussions, music, costumes, movies, and chocolate.

A lot of us with mental disorders are glad to know that such places exist. A lot of us wish we could find or make such places, too.

Music Charms the Troubled Mind

Once I knew a man whose wife was going to leave him. I knew he was in a lot of pain and despair about it, though he also turned into a huge asshole before everything was said and done. He was also suicidal for a time.

One day when I was trying to talk him through a bad patch, I asked whether he might turn to music to help him. “What?” he said. “Do you think I should listen to country music and cry in a beer?”

I wasn’t suggesting that at all. I just knew that he was a singer and songwriter of talented amateur status and was known for this in various circles. I honestly thought that music might help.

On the other hand, I always forget, when I am on the downswing, how much music can do for me. It soothes and heals, but it also lets me tap into the emotions that I have been suppressing.

Do I have the inexplicable blues that are part and parcel of my condition? There’s a song for that. Am I feeling unrequited love? Unrequited lust? There’s a song for those too. Is the world spinning too fast for me? Do I need to know that everything will be all right? Or do I just need to know that someone, somewhere and somewhen, has also felt this way? I can turn to music.

“Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
– Oliver Saks, Musicophilia

Saks also says, “The power of music, whether joyous or cathartic, must steal on one unawares, come spontaneously as a blessing or a grace.” There he and I part company.

Music can certainly steal on us unawares, whack us upside the head with a memory, a feeling, a piercing stab of emotional intensity, all the stronger for being unexpected.

But we can also choose to bring music into our lives when nothing else seems to touch us. We can tap into those memories and feelings – good or bad – and let the music wash over us as we listen and feel.

According to scientific experiments with fMRI, music uses more parts of the brain than almost any other activity. The neural connections fire all over the place – more so if one is playing an instrument, but even when just listening. The memory centers, artistic areas, language centers, emotional areas – even the motor complexes – are stimulated.

My problem is remembering all that music can do for me. When my emotions are dulled, flattened by the steamroller of depression, I sometimes forget that I can be any other way. The music I love is always there for me. I can bathe in it, wallow in it, be uplifted by it, float on it, join in with it, feel it emotionally and viscerally and intellectually all at once or one at a time. It can express the things that I just can’t.

When you’re depressed is a time for writing bad poetry. Or you can let good poets and songwriters take you with them as they explore the human condition in ways you’re not capable of. I think that’s why they do it – create their art. The really good ones anyway.

There’s also something to be said for music as distraction. A song from years ago – even a frivolous one – can take you away from your troubles, even if only for a moment. This is not the time for exploring new musical avenues. Remembering that things once were good can feed your sadness, your depression, but it can also give you perspective. If you took joy in this music once, there will come a time when you will again. And maybe that time is now.

Perhaps the most amazing power of music is to provoke catharsis. Certain songs leave me sobbing like a baby. They don’t even have to be sad songs, though many of them are. “The Mary Ellen Carter” by Stan Rogers is about as life-affirming as you can get, but it can still turns me into a weeping puddle. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fhop5VuLDIQ) His song “Lies” has nothing to do with my situation personally, but its evocative power touches me nonetheless. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D79XOc1vKzQ) And almost no one I know can make it through Kathy Mar’s “Velveteen.” (http://www.last.fm/music/Kathy+Mar/_/Velveteen)

Afterwards, I feel drained and, if not exactly better, less emotionally constipated, I guess you’d say. Clearing away a bit of blockage can be cleansing. If music can do that – and it can – then I don’t care if its country with a beer, jazz with a glass of wine, or hip hop with an energy drink. Even easy listening with a glass of milk, if that’s your thing.

So thank God and Apple for iTunes. And here’s hoping that my Swiss cheese of a memory will give me a nudge in the right direction when I need it next time.

Mr. Fix-It

Him: I just groomed the cat. I used a cat-a-comb.

Me: *total silence*

Him: Hey, honey! I just groomed the cat – with a cat-a-comb!

Me: *more silence*

I was depressed, and he was trying to cheer me up. Using exactly the same joke that had gotten no response only seconds before. I don’t know why he thought it would work better the second time.

Many men have the instinct that, when confronted with a problem, they will try to solve it. When something is broken, they will try to fix.

I wasn’t broken, exactly, but I was deep in the Pit of Despair, aka the lower mood swing of my bipolar disorder. At that stage I am immobilized, uncommunicative, and utterly humorless.

The fact that Dan had worked in hospitals and psychiatric facilities was actually a bad thing, despite what you might expect. He had run laughter therapy groups, he knew the jargon, and he sincerely wanted to be helpful.

But he didn’t know – viscerally – what depression was like. How it felt in your body and mind and soul, how it damped down your personality and blunted your reactions and removed your ability to view life as anything other than miserable. Certainly not funny.

Later Dan learned all this when he experienced his own bout of clinical depression and became another one of my Prozac pals. But until then, he would occasionally come shrinking at me, until I had to tell him to stop. I could accept a hug, but not a joke or a “remedy.”

But all that was early in our relationship and before I had begun to heal or even get proper treatment. And I literally would not have made it this far without Dan. I need him and likely always will.

When it’s Pit of Despair time again (which it sometimes still is), he checks on me to see if I need that hug, or some food, or a kind word, or just to be left alone. When I am better, he still does the cooking and shopping, and reminds me to eat regular meals and take showers and tells me I smell nice after I do. Sometimes he can coax me out of bed with a tape of The Mikado or out of the house with lunch at Frisch’s. If I’m too nervous to drive to my appointments, he takes me. When I’m together enough to work, he keeps the house quiet and fixes food when I need a break and validates me for being able to bring in money, even when it’s difficult.

But he can’t fix me. And now he knows that.

Yes, I Am Crazy. Thanks for Asking.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my time, from schoolyard taunts (loony tunes, weirdo) to psychiatric labels (clinically depressed, bipolar 2). This used to bother me, but anymore, I don’t mind.

It’s not because of the old saying, “Sticks and sones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. We all know that’s a damn filthy lie. I think it’s because I’ve developed a sense of humor about the “crazy” thing. If Al Yankovic can embrace “Weird,” I can embrace “squirrel-bait” or “wacko.” Even “bat-shit” or “bug-fuck” crazy don’t get me riled, though many find them offensive – and I can’t fault them for that. Everyone has a different level of tolerance and sense of what’s funny.

Take, for example, the time when my sister Kathy gave me a t-shirt that said, “Leave Me Alone. I’m Having a Crisis.” Her husband was dubious about the gift, thinking that I would be offended. I wasn’t. Kathy thought it was a hoot and so did I. (I just bought a t-short that says, “You Won’t Believe the Crazy Shit That Happens Next…” I’m going to wear it to my next psychotherapist appointment.)

I admit to being disconcerted when publicly confronted by a person who asks “Are you the one there’s something wrong with?” or “Do you have mental problems?” (In the first case, the elderly gentleman was thinking of my sister-in-law, who had MS, and in the second, the person recognized me from the psychiatrist’s waiting room.) But I’m not offended. Mostly I regret that I didn’t have snappy come-backs. (I thought of some great ones later.)

There are still some assumptions that do offend or at least irritate me. Here’s a link to an article that enumerates a few of the touchy subjects and unwelcome phrases.

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/bipolar-disorder-myths/

That sums it up pretty well. I’m not going to walk into a fast food outlet and start shooting up the place. Mania is not fun. I’ve decided not to reproduce, but nobody can tell me that I shouldn’t.

Oh, and there’s one other thing. In the past, when I’ve mentioned my mood disorder to acquaintances or co-workers, they feel obliged to take my emotional temperature five times a day. “Are you okay? How are you feeling?” So I would add to the list: Not all people with bipolar disorder are rapid cycling.

So, am I crazy? Yes. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Most people use the word “crazy” to describe how they feel when they’re in love. And I’m good with that.

Not Waving but Drowning

Consider this a trigger warning. The third section is going to talk about some difficult stuff, although in mostly general terms.

Here’s a list of how I know how bad my mood disorder is at any given time. Being bipolar, I cycle in and out of these phases, along with periods of reasonably competent functioning and even, occasionally, contentment or even happiness.

There are basically three stages of increasing dysfunction.

Starting to Sink
My sense of humor takes a hike.
I need more alone time.
I take mega-naps.
I forget that music can help.
I snap at my husband.
Noises irritate me.
I can force myself to work.

Floundering
I don’t want to eat.
I turn off my phone.
I sleep up to 14 hours a day.
Attention span is one hour (or one average book chapter).
I can trick myself into working.

Going Under
Can’t sleep.
Can’t work.
Can’t read.
Attention span: 15 minutes max.
Thinking “Maybe the plane will crash and I won’t have to deal with this anymore.”
Regretting I flushed my stash of pills.
Urge to cut.

Fortunately, I am well-medicated enough that category 3 doesn’t happen nowadays, though I remember it clearly and am appalled. At that point, the only things I can do are keep seeing my doctors and taking my meds. And remember to thank my husband when I come out of it.

(The title of this post is from a poem by Stevie Smith. The last two lines are: I was much too far out all my life / And not waving but drowning.)

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: