Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘acting “normal”’

Wounded People, Invisible Scars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does “Normal” Mean?

When I was young, I wanted like anything to be normal. I didn’t know what normal meant, but I knew I wasn’t it.

I had a lot of the trappings of what passed for normal in that day and age: parents still married, one sister, suburban house in a town with good schools, church down the street, same-age children living within a block, working father, stay-at-home mom, abundant books and toys, and vacations to visit the relatives.

But I knew. There was something different about me. Everyone else knew it too. I wasn’t normal. I was too sensitive, whatever that meant. I was precocious. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t know how to.

As I reached my tween and teen years, I encountered a dilemma. I desperately wanted to be normal. Normal kids had friends, got to hang out with each other, laughed and smiled a lot, wore what was in fashion. They gave off an aura of being normal. I longed for that. I was in love with the idea of normalcy.

But every time I tried, I failed. I was always too weird, too emotional, too smart, too something.

So I began to hate the idea of normalcy. If I didn’t fit in, then by God, I would scorn the idea of fitting in. I would embrace non-normalcy. I would hang with the few other misfits I could find. I would eschew the latest fashions and trends. I didn’t rebel, exactly. I was too timid for that (yet another too).

And I blamed the suburb and the Midwestern state where I lived. Maybe this kind of normal was bland, spiritless, and hum-drum. Maybe I was right not to want to be of it.

So, of course, I tried the geographical cure, going away to college, where I thought the people would be more like me, where there would be enough diversity that I could find others like me and finally fit in. Be normal within a different definition of normal.

And it worked, at least partially. But by that time it was too late for me to ever be normal.

What happened was that bipolar disorder caught up with me. I had probably been struggling with it all the time I was a weird kid who didn’t fit in. Other kids threw rocks at me. My moods were extreme. I cried and laughed at things that were neither sad nor funny. Being betrayed by a friend sent me into a severe meltdown.

By the time I was in college, there was no doubt that I was struggling with a mood disorder, although we didn’t have that term for it at the time. At the time it seemed like major depression and for the most part, it was, or at least that was the only mood I could identify.

Years later, when I got a proper diagnosis and the right medication, it was easier to look back and see my bipolar tendencies slowly building over the years. But I’ll admit something – I still both love and hate the idea of normalcy. I still want to fit in and I’ve found a few groups where I seem to. But I also want to embrace my oddness, celebrate my differences, glory in my assorted varieties of geekiness.

I never want to go back to that lost, lonely, spinning-out-of-control kid who was always too much or not enough. My lifestyle helps since I don’t have to try to fit in at a nine-to-five office job. My husband helps, as I was at least normal enough to find one. And my writing helps, so I can work out some of my conflicting emotions and bipolar moods through this blog and other venues.

Here’s another reason to hope: Matt Norris, a blogger at The Thinking Orc, recently wrote:

Disapproving of people who aren’t “Normal” went from a virtue to vice within my lifetime. The shift in public morals changed the rules on what it took to be seen as a good person. It used to be about not doing anything weird, and looking down on anybody who did. Now it’s about not doing anything cruel, and looking down on anyone who does.

Besides, to quote songwriter Steve Goodman, “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” I know that now. So in that sense, I do at last fit in.

The Perils of Working Full-Time Again

 

Working full-time is a bitch. Working full-time while mentally ill is even worse.

I work as a writer and editor, but lately I’ve been working mostly as a transcriptionist. Dan works as a clerk in a big box store and grocery. Neither one of us makes very much money at this.

Both of us used to work in more professional settings. Neither one of us is able to now. Working at home in my jammies suits me fine. I don’t know that I’m capable now of dressing up like a competent businesswoman and going to an office where it’s all people-y and I have to be professional and appropriate for eight hours straight. My husband suffered serious burn-out and depression and can no longer handle a managerial position.

The freelance lifestyle has been a godsend for me. Mostly, when bipolar depression hit, I could declare myself a “mental health day” and not work. Most of my deadlines used to be flexible enough to accommodate an iffy schedule. Now not so much.

The transcription job changed from part-time to full-time when the financial crunch crunched. It involves listening to the audio of assorted business meetings, podcasts, and the like and typing them. And there are definitely deadlines. Often very tight ones, but always very specific. I can’t get away with saying, “I’ll have this for you Monday, or Tuesday at the latest.” In fact, I have to take the tightest deadlines I can get because they pay better. I’ve been taking extra work on my days off, too, just for the extra bit of money. But it’s wearing me down, mentally and emotionally. (Sitting at a desk all day isn’t doing wonders for my back either.)

So here I am, dealing with many of the difficulties of full-time work – setting an alarm to wake me up, working when I don’t feel well enough, not being able to take breaks when I need them, fighting the stress of tight deadlines. I am fortunate, and I know it, to be able to work at all, what with the bipolar and the anxiety. I shouldn’t complain. But the freelance market is tight these days and transcription is almost all I can get. It’s leaving me feeling battered and afraid. The work is said to slow down drastically between Christmas and New Year. But the bills don’t, of course.

Dan’s work is less mentally stressful but more physically challenging. Working third shift requires him to sleep most of the next day just to recover and his depression is kicking in as well. His brush with mortality and enforced inactivity depressed him further. Plus, he has to deal with me and my mood swings, from resigned numbness to hypomanic panics. We’ve often said that when both of us are emotionally afflicted at the same time, things get pretty ugly. Neither one of us can truly be there for the other, or only in small bursts.

But until or unless our circumstances ease up, here we are – fighting our way through full-time work and part-time mental function. I just keep pounding these keys and he just keeps stocking those shelves. There’s no time off for bipolar and depression.

 

The Appropriate Committee

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I was a teenager, my life was spent resenting the Appropriate Committee. I always ran afoul of them.

It seemed there was some nebulous group, invisibly judging us and deciding whether what we did, or wore, or how we acted was appropriate or not.

Part of the Appropriate Committee was, of course, the adult world. Teenagers were supposed to be polite and respectful and not talk or play music too loudly. To do otherwise would be inappropriate.

The social milieu was also part of the Appropriate Committee. How we monitored one another to make sure our pants weren’t too short, or that we didn’t wear ankle socks, or that we didn’t stay in the Girl Scouts past Brownies. The punishment was derision.

Of course being bipolar didn’t help. Both adult and junior versions of the Appropriate Committee took note of my mood swings – my loud, inappropriate laughter; my extreme, inappropriate crying; my extended, inappropriate isolation.

I tried to defy the Appropriate Committee. I laughed at them, thought they were stupid, and vowed not to let them run my life. They did anyway, of course. They were all-powerful and I had not yet gained the wherewithal not to care. It was like a pervasive, invasive form of bullying: Everything I did or said was wrong. The rules changed capriciously. I was punished with disapproval, mocking, and the wrong kind of laughter.

And they broke me. At times I tried desperately to fit in, to live up to expectations, to suppress my differences. At other times, when the effort became simply too much, I let my natural weirdness float to the surface and looked for the few other like-minded individuals that could tolerate that. Depression set in and, rarely, hypomania. I still dressed “wrong.” I still laughed at the wrong things, and too loudly. I still isolated and wept.

I thought that when I grew to adulthood, I would no longer be subject to the censure of the Appropriate Committee, Of course, that was completely delusional. I learned that the Appropriate Committee for Adults was a powerful force. It is particularly insidious in the business world, where it judges not just your appearance, but even seemingly minor matters such as where and how you eat lunch (with the “cool kids,” of course) and how you spend your breaks (cigarettes OK, crossword puzzles not). There’s still the problem of being laughed at in meetings and needing to go into the restroom to cry.

I finally realized that the Appropriate Committee exists in part to perpetuate stigma. So many of the behaviors of people with mental illness defy societal norms. It’s the Committee that insists we fit in, no matter what we’re feeling. It’s the reason that neurodivergent people are so reluctant to admit their differences in public and try their best to “play through the pain,” something that isn’t good for them, or for athletes either, really.

I’ve had enough of the Appropriate Committee over the years. Now that I’m properly diagnosed and medicated and relatively stable, I could undoubtedly fit in better than at any time previously in my life. But I dress how I like, even if it’s pajamas. I play my music as loud as I want and laugh or cry along with it if I feel like it. I embrace my weirdness, my differences, and seek out like-minded weird friends who are also living in defiance of the Committee.

Maybe the Appropriate Committee is needed for some places and times and people, like theater audiences or church services. Maybe. But for the mentally ill the Committee is hurtful, and stigmatizing, and unrealistic. We can strive to overcome our differences and sometimes we need to. But sometimes it’s better just to embrace weirdness, differentness, and our membership in the group of the neurodivergent.

And when I despair, I remind myself of songwriter Steve Goodman’s lyric: “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” And I let it blast.

The Question I Hate the Most

There are many things you shouldn’t say to a bipolar person: Cheer up. Smile. What have you got to worry about? We all have mood swings. Calm down. You’re overreacting. You don’t look depressed.

Each of these remarks contains a hidden assumption, from simple – you can choose your moods; to dismissive – your anxiety is not as severe (or as important) as mine; to possible gaslighting (see https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu).

I’ve gotten all of those and more. Once I revealed my disorder to a coworker and she’d ask me, “How are you?” with a concerned look several times a day, taking my emotional temperature. But the question I hate most is a simple one.

Are you off your meds?

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

First, the underlying message is that, to the speaker, you are acting in a strange, inappropriate, frightening, incomprehensible, or otherwise “off” manner.

The second assumption is that you must be on medication in order to appear “normal” at times.

Third, that since you do not appear “normal” to the speaker, the only explanation is that you must not be medicated at the moment.

Fourth, that the speaker has the right to give you advice on how medicated you need to be in order to appear “normal.”

And, finally, that “meds” are the answer to all your problems. If you want to fit into society you must be on your guard at all times and medicate until you are acceptable to them.

There is a slightly less offensive version of the question: Have you taken your meds today?

This might be marginally acceptable from a loved one, who knows that you take medication for your disorder and also knows that you are sometimes forgetful.

But really. Most psychotropic medications build up in a person’s system over time and leave the body over a long time as well. Missing a single dose is not likely to have an appreciable effect on a person’s moods or actions.

There are some anti-anxiety medications that have short-term effects, and a bipolar person might have forgotten a dose or two.

But unless the speaker is the bipolar person’s caregiver, official or unofficial, it’s still rather parental and demeaning – suggesting that we aren’t competent to handle something as vital as our own medications.

Of course, sometimes it may be necessary to help a loved one remember to take medication, whether that person is bipolar or not. On a vacation, for instance, when one’s normal routine is disrupted, a gentle reminder may not be amiss. When one has just started treatment and the routine is still unfamiliar. Or if the person actually is a child.

You wouldn’t ask an adult with the flu “Have you taken your antibiotics today?” You wouldn’t say to a blind person “Now, don’t go out without your service dog.” Most people, most of the time, are deemed competent to know their needs and take care of those needs themselves.

But bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, being largely “invisible illnesses,” seem to invite meddling. Everyone else knows what’s best for us, from a different drug to herbal medicine to a walk in the park to prayer.

They know a little bit about the disorders, perhaps, largely through television and celebrities. But they don’t know your particular version of the disorder (bipolar 1 or 2, rapid cycling, dysthymia, hypomania, anxiety, etc.)

So if I snap at you, or seem anxious, or don’t want to go out, don’t assume. I have regular “normal” moods too, even when I’m on medication. Sometimes I get annoyed if my husband has lost his cell phone for the third time this month. Sometimes I feel sad if my picnic is rained out. Not every mood is pathological.

So don’t assume you know what’s going on inside my head. Unless I ask for help, refrain from putting in your oar.

And don’t ask me, “Are you off your meds?” It’s an insult, not a question.

Bipolar Me, Looking for Work

I have been very fortunate over the last few years in that I have been able to work and that, combined with my husband’s far-from-large – but steady – paycheck, we have been able to pay the bills. Now that seems to be changing.

After my last big emotional crash, I was unable to work at all, and after my husband’s major burnout, he was not able to work for a while. We ran through our IRAs and ended up in the situation where we are now.

I do writing, editing, and proofreading jobs from my home computer. It is really ideal, in that the projects usually come sporadically, with time in between them, so I seldom require more energy than I have available. I do not have to go out very much, or dress up very often and can work in my comfort zone, in my comfortable study, in my comfy pajamas. In these respects I am lucky or blessed, or however you wish to define it.

But clients have become a little thin on the ground lately. And I am afraid. I fear both a financial crash and an emotional one. The two are not unrelated. Finances and dealing with them were two of the largest triggers that started the major depression-plus-anxiety that swallowed me up for quite a few years.

Now I am feeling the pinch again. I felt it back in August, when my “proactive hypomania” helped me get through (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4). But one can do that only so many times. Or at least I can’t summon the necessary mood at will. (Surprise, surprise.)

I have a writing project now, but it will run out in January. I have another client, but work from them is not as consistent as it used to be. We are already behind on some of our bills, including the mortgage.

So I am looking for more work, and it is scary.

The kind of work I’ve been doing is ideal, even when my symptoms increase. It lets me work around the deficits that bipolar heaps upon me. If I have a project due Monday, I can work during the weekend. If I have insomnia, I can work at night. If I am immobilized, I can usually schedule my deadlines so they don’t all hit at once.

I try to network, also at home from my computer, but that lets out job fairs and professional organizations and groups inhabited by people. I should put together a resume and sample packet and then try to figure out whom to send it to. Which is kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. And the impressive kind of packet – slick, personalized, colorful, foil stamped, business-carded, sample-stuffed, stationeried – costs money to prepare, which of course is itself a problem since you have to spend it before you get results, if any.

So I have signed up with a number of sites that provide leads on jobs, and some of them don’t even want me to drive for Uber or move to Massachusetts.

Each time I apply, I ask myself, “Can I really do this job?”

Sometimes the answer is “Probably not, but I’m going to apply anyway.” Those are the 9-to-5 office jobs that would require me to upgrade my wardrobe just the teensiest little bit and try to keep the depressive phases under control if not totally under wraps. I have serious doubts about my ability to be “on” for eight hours a day, five days a week.

The Americans With Disabilities Act says that certain categories of people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” in order to fulfill their job requirements. For someone like me, accommodations might include flextime, doing part of my work at home, time off for doctor appointments, and the like. If I got one of those jobs, I would have to reveal my mental disorder in order to receive accommodations, and I would have to decide whether to speak up about it before or after I got the job. Probably after.

The not-quite-as-frightening jobs are part-time ones, like working the circulation desk at the local library. They have their drawbacks too, including the same ones as full-time jobs, with less pay besides. Would it provide enough income to make a difference? Maybe not. Would I be able to do a part-time job and still squeeze in a little freelance work? I just don’t know. The idea is still daunting, to say the least.

(Another potential solution would be for my husband to get a better-paying job, but he is in the process of changing his meds, so that doesn’t seem likely either, at least for now.)

I know this seems like a better class of problem than many people with bipolar disorder have. Trying to keep up the mortgage payments is better than living under the Third St. bridge, fighting stray dogs for cold french fries. My husband’s job may be low-paying, but at least it’s steady and has a health insurance plan. I am truly grateful for these things.

And I am truly scared nonetheless. And tired. And sliding back down into depression.

When You Think Other People Are Talking About You

You know when you feel sure that other people are talking about you? You notice them whispering, or looking at you, or studiously not looking at you, and you think, what are they saying about me?

Two smiling friends sharing secret in coffee talkPsychologists call those feelings “ideas of reference.” (If you alter your behavior because of the supposed scrutiny, they’re known as “delusions of reference.”) Ideas of reference are often associated with paranoia. However, if you ask clinically depressed or bipolar people, you will find that many of them have them as well.

I know I have. It’s hard not to. You already feel that you’re not really normal (whatever that means) and you’re afraid that it shows. If people can see that you’re not like everyone else, they’re bound to be talking about it. Never mind that your difference is a mental one; you’re sure that everyone can tell just by looking at you that you’re crazy.

In actual fact, the people you think are talking about you usually aren’t – until you go over to them and defensively berate them or accuse them of doing so. Then you can be sure they will be talking about you after you leave.

Except perhaps in junior high school, most people in everyday life do not spend their time discussing how odd the people around them are. (Except for those people who take pictures of others at Walmart and then post them on the internet.) But the average person is too involved in his or her own daily life to give more than a passing glance to a stranger. The people you see whispering behind their hands are most likely developing their own secrets or gossiping about someone you don’t even know.

Even if the people are talking about you, ask yourself – so what? Do their opinions really matter? I know that you want to say yes, they do. But in the larger scheme of things, they don’t. Your life will not change in the slightest if they are saying they don’t like your haircut or that they heard you bite your nails. Malicious gossip and social bullying are separate matters. But again, you don’t really know that these people are saying anything that’s actually harmful.

Perhaps you feel it’s more significant if the people you think are talking about you are family members, coworkers, or friends. They may really be talking about you. The point is, even if they are, you have no idea what they’re saying. Most of the time they speak in low tones so as not to upset you, never realizing that that upsets you more. Tell yourself they could be planning a surprise party or talking about Aunt Edna’s affair with a younger man. Not everything is about you.

Ideas of reference may be a factor in imposter syndrome – the feeling that you are not really successful, competent, or talented, but are just faking it, and that everyone around you can tell. Or perhaps your ideas of reference are like intrusive thoughts – sudden, distressing notions that pop into your head, seemingly without cause or warning. These can be anything at all, from “I wonder if my passport has expired” to “Who would miss me if I died?” to “Those people are talking about me.”

What can you do if you have ideas of reference? Resist the urge to ask if the people are really talking about you. That will only make things awkward and worse. Ignore them if you can. (This is not the same as the bad old non-advice about ignoring bullies. You know when a bully targets you. With ideas of reference, you never really know if your fears are true.) Since you didn’t actually hear what the people said, you can realistically assume they were talking about someone or something else entirely. Imagine that one is telling the other that her slip is showing. (Do people still wear slips? I know they don’t wear pantyhose anymore.)

If you feel you must react, use a minimal response such as the good ol’ side-eye, which is sufficiently ambiguous that the person (who may also have ideas of reference) can assume it’s directed at someone else.

Another suggestion I’ve heard is to work with your therapist on issues of self-esteem and self-concept, or to try cognitive behavioral therapy. Some medications may help too. Still, if you feel you can manage it, I think the best idea is to tell yourself “So what?” and move on.

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