Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘anxiety’

Hitting the Plateau

Back in September, I wrote about my bipolar disorder being in remission and how much I loved that feeling. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m not in remission. I’ve had significant setbacks, though not long-term ones. At one point I felt broken, but when that lifted I felt jazzed. Maybe I’m on a baseline and never wander too far off it. Maybe I’m stuck on a plateau, halfway between mental illness and mental health.

I ask myself, will I get any better?

It’s like when I had my second back operation (micro-laminectomy). When I went for a follow-up visit to the surgeon, I was no longer in pain. But I was slow and uncertain when walking and felt keenly that my physical capacities were diminished. “Will I get any better, or is this it?” I asked.

“You’ll improve,” said Dr. West. “It will take a while, but you’ll feel better.” And he was right. I did. But I still have some pain at times and sometimes I walk with a cane. I may be better, but I’m clearly not totally well. I’m not bitching (much). I know that once your back goes out, it never gets back to 100%. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t suffer the excruciating pain of a bulging disk and a pinched nerve.

My bipolar disorder is like that. I am no longer suffering on a daily basis. My meds are working and haven’t changed much in years. My mood levelers are doing their job. But I still have symptoms. There are still things I can’t do, or do only with great mental effort. I’ve never been at 100% and don’t ever expect to be. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t have the in-the-depths lows, the ever-edgy anxiety, for more than a few days at a time.

But I wonder, am I stuck on this plateau forever? Is this as close as I’ll ever come to mental wellness? Or maybe, I think, mental health is an illusion. I can’t remember a time when I was unaffected by my disorder. The plateau itself may be an illusion. Maybe I am still improving, in such tiny steps that I can’t see the change. Maybe a new medication or treatment will come along and remove more of my remaining symptoms. (I’m not counting on that, though.)

My bipolar disorder feels like it’s running a low-grade fever. I can get done my work and my blogs, but little more. I don’t feel in the least joyful. It may be that this is just real life getting me down –  the weather, politics, the endless details and frustrations I have to deal with while we’re rebuilding our house. Perhaps this is just a normal mood swing like everyone gets or a reactive depression to the aforementioned stressors.

That’s one of the constant worries once you have bipolar disorder – not trusting your feelings or your feelings about your feelings. Every setback scares me that I’m teetering on the edge, ready to plunge off that plateau. Realistically, I know that I am as stable as I’m likely ever to be.

My superpower seems to be overanalyzing. I may really be in remission.

Depression lies. Anxiety lies. So, perhaps, does the plateau.

Asking for What You Need

I saw a post on a bipolar Facebook page that asked what coping mechanisms people used. There were the usual responses about self-care, which is certainly a fine coping mechanism. But it’s far from the only one.

I’ve learned any number of coping mechanisms over my years in psychotherapy. There’s “looking at how far I’ve come.” There’s “leaving the room when my anxiety gets too bad.” And there’s always one of my favorites: “petting the cat.”

But the answer I put down was “asking for what I need.”

It’s a good coping mechanism because no one can read minds. No one else knows what I need. And, short of them guessing and hoping to hit on the right thing, the only thing I can really do is ask.

I can ask my therapist whether we can work on my anxiety today. I can ask my friend to check in on me daily for a while. I can ask my husband for a hug, or alone time, or some distraction.

Of course, I don’t always know what it is that I need at any given time. At times like that, I can simply ask for things that might help or have helped in the past, like the aforementioned hug or alone time. My husband has been with me for so long and is so familiar with my bipolar disorder that he knows a number of things that are likely to help, and he can suggest them. If all else fails, he suggests I go to bed, or read, or listen to music, all things which can calm or center me. Sometimes he simply puts on my favorite movie, to help draw me out.

Closely tied to the mechanism of asking for what I need is the technique of negotiation. I may know what I want or need, but the other person may not be capable of providing it, or at least not right then. If a friend can’t take my phone call, I can suggest an alternative: Call me after 10:30 or sometime tomorrow. If I need distraction and my husband has to go to work, he can suggest that we go out to lunch the next day.

We’ve developed a shorthand for such situations. When the only thing I can do is say, “help,” he responds with, “help how?” If I can then come up with a suggestion, I do. A lot of the time he is able to provide what I need. But sometimes he just isn’t. Maybe he isn’t able to get me out of the house for lunch. So instead I say, “I need comfort food.” He usually says, “You can get that.” Or he may respond with what it is that he can do: “There’s cheese and crackers here. Will that do?”

Asking for help isn’t easy, and Lord knows negotiating for what you need isn’t either. Both take lots of practice. And there is always the possibility that another person simply cannot supply what you need. That’s where self-care comes in. I know down deep that a nap, or comfort food, or music may help me, and if no one else can provide them, I can usually do it myself.

Receiving help may not be easy, either. Asking for what you need can make you feel, well, needy. And receiving help from someone else may make you feel guilty or unworthy. But the fact is that you – all of us – need help at times and that learning how to ask for and accept help is a valuable skill. And a totally valid coping mechanism.

Dealing With Other People’s Anger

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 and anxiety, I thought I was just a wimp.

Anger – anyone’s anger – frightened me, even if it was not directed at me. I spent a lot of time cringing, until it became an automatic reaction.

This was not because I was raised in an abusive home. I wasn’t. My parents expressed anger appropriately when they were angry, which wasn’t very often, and didn’t take it out on us kids. Once, my father, in a fit of frustration, kicked the locked door to a room my sister and I were squabbling in, and it shocked me. But compared to what some unfortunate kids go through, it was nothing. Once my fifth-grade teacher slapped my hand when I was holding hands with a boy, but again, my main reaction was shock.

But by the time I reached my late teens and early 20s, strong negative emotions overwhelmed me. And not just my own emotions, but other people’s. I was seldom touched by their joy or relief, but their anxiety or anger really got to me. That’s when I started cringing, literally drawing back in fear and trepidation when voices were raised. At its worst, I cringed even when the voices were in another room.

Along with this, my startle reflex was in overdrive. A sudden noise from another room caused me to jump and gasp. The sound of someone dropping a kitchen utensil was enough to set me off.

I believe that these reactions were a result of the anxiety disorder that my psychiatrist eventually diagnosed me with. I always felt that the negative emotions, the anger, and the attacks would be coming at me. I was always on edge, anticipating the raised voice, the accusation, the threatening sound. And it was exhausting. There’s a certain amount of adrenaline that goes with fear and anxiety, and it can leave you shaking.

Oddly enough, I didn’t really start to get over my fear of anger until I began to get in touch with my own anger. For years, I thought that my only feeling was anxiety, but hiding behind the fear was anger. Even in situations that should have made me angry, when I had a legitimate reason to be angry, I never felt that feeling. That part of building a wall against my feelings worked, even if anxiety and depression were walled in, not out.

Gradually, I began to see that there were times when I should have been angry about something that had happened – that I had a right to feel angry. Later, I learned that I also had a right to express my anger. And I learned that neither feeling anger nor expressing it would destroy me. At that point, other people’s anger began to have much less of an effect.

I’m not completely over it. When someone expresses not simple anger, but rage, near me, I again feel the need to rebuild the walls. But I am learning to deal with it. Sometimes I am able to help the person examine their rage and explore what to do with it. Other times I can simply remove myself physically from the situation, so the rage doesn’t come pounding in on me. I learned to do that when I was dealing with simple anger and the anxiety surrounding it. But I’ve found that it works for rage, too. If I don’t have to be around it, I don’t stay within range.

Fortunately, rage is rare in the people I choose to have around me. Anger still happens, both for me and others around me, but I have learned coping mechanisms and built up the strength to withstand it.

I no longer cringe.

 

 

Future Obsession

I used to obsess about the past. Now I obsess about the future. This is progress, I think.

A little while ago, I wrote about how our recent disaster (a tornado) had affected my obsessive thoughts and interrupted my sleep (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-TO). At the time, my thoughts were focused backward on all the belongings we’d lost that needed to be replaced. I was losing sleep with obsessive thoughts and spending the daytime cruising the web for potential purchases. I discussed this with my psychiatrist and he prescribed an increase in one of my medications, a mood leveler, that he thought might help me turn off the insistent thoughts and allow me to get to sleep more easily. He was right. It did help.

Now, however, I am obsessing over thoughts of what will happen months from now, next spring or summer. I am anticipating the rebuilding of our house and the house-warming party that we should have. Yes, I am obsessing over what to serve at a party that is at least six months away, or perhaps even more. Two kinds of punch, obviously. Beer and wine? Cucumber sandwiches and melon with prosciutto? Cheeseboard with figs and nuts? All desserts? I’ve already changed the menu four times. I am already deciding what to wear. The red silk shirt that a friend gave me? Jeans? Message t-shirt? Butterfly dress? Something I buy specially for the occasion? And, OMG, am I channeling Martha Stewart?

This is an odd feeling. For most of my life, I have obsessed about things that had already happened. I’ve spent literally dozens of years analyzing a failed relationship and how it has affected my mental health and emotional stability. To be contemplating and obsessing about the future is unfamiliar territory.

Obsessive thoughts are one of the hazards of bipolar disorder as well as depression. I can well remember having a mental recording device that played back for me every stupid thing I ever did or social faux pas I made. I still remember when one cute guy asked me for a glass of water and I gave it to the wrong cute guy. I still remember being mortified. I know this is not just a thing that I experience because I have compared notes with others. It seems to be A Thing amongst many fellow sufferers.

This time around, I worked out the thoughts of the past with choosing what things to replace now and what to postpone to a more appropriate time, like closer to when the house is rebuilt. I know I don’t need a new desk yet (though I have bookmarked several online). Ruined books I allow myself to replace, along with my husband’s wedding ring.

I do not know how to work out the thoughts of the future. The future is strange to me. I have so much trouble living in the present instead of the past that the future rarely occurs to me. If my husband asks me to make a decision about an event that’s one week off, I reply, “I can’t think about that yet.” My husband actually lives in the future a lot and asks me to make choices that are years or even decades hence. It’s tiring on some existential level. I don’t know what to do for dinner and he wants me to discuss how we’ll spend our Golden Years.

Given what I know about myself and my disorder, it’s likely that the closer the time comes to moving into the rebuilt house, the greater my anxiety will become. You’d think it would be a time of great joy, but I am already feeling pre-overwhelmed at the thought.

Even so, I think it is perhaps a touch healthier to be obsessing forward instead of backward. It acknowledges that I do believe I have a future, that I can plan for it, and that I can take some pleasure along with the obsessions. I can learn to appease my obsessive thoughts by giving them the more sensible parts of what they seem to demand. I can, to some extent, live in my present with work to do and deadlines to meet that keep me anchored in the now.

What will happen in the future, of course, I can’t predict or control. But perhaps I can train my brain to experience anticipatory enjoyment instead of anticipatory anxiety. That’s my goal, anyway.

 

Permission to Be Depressed

Depression can be so riddled with guilt. Why am I not able to fake being okay? Why do I isolate when what I need is interaction?

Sometimes what I need is to give myself permission to be depressed. I have bipolar disorder 2, with a heavy depression component. It has overwhelmed me many times. I have fought against it, given in to it, tried to make compromises with it, tried to ignore it – almost any reaction you can imagine. Then I learned how to give myself permission to be depressed.

This is not quite the same as giving in to depression. It involves acknowledging that I am depressed and allowing myself to feel the feelings that I have. Of course, I don’t give myself permission to be permanently depressed. In a way, it’s more like giving myself permission to practice self-care and not to force myself to smile and bull my way past the depression. I recognize that I am depressed and do what I need to do to get through it. That may be staying in bed. It may be crying. It may be wallowing in sad music. These are things that I’m likely to do anyway when I’m depressed, but giving myself permission to do them is surprisingly freeing.

I used this technique probably for the first time when my husband and I went on a “barefoot” cruise vacation. It was something we both enjoyed and both want to do again someday.

But I knew from the beginning that depression might overtake me – probably would, at that time in my life – even while I was doing something enjoyable. Naturally, I didn’t want the depression to ruin the whole vacation, so I decided to give myself permission to do what I needed to do to cope with those feelings.

Most often, that involved retreating to my bunk for a nap. This enabled me to get away from other people when I was feeling overwhelmed and unable to socialize. Sure, I missed some of the onboard and shore activities, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway while in the metaphorical fog and darkness. I enjoyed what I could, then let myself not do what I didn’t feel up to doing. I didn’t try to make my husband stay with me and miss all the fun. There wasn’t anything he could do for me anyway. If the other passengers thought it was odd – and they did – they barely mentioned it to me. My husband told them I was tired. Seasickness was also a believable excuse.

In a way, having bipolar depression at that level is like having the flu. I feel bogged down and logy, inclined to cocoon, rest, and stay away from other people. I realize this is not always possible, but if it is, I can allow myself to do it. Fortunately, this spell of depression wasn’t so bad that it completely incapacitated me as it has at other times in my life. I was still able to feel enjoyment at some times, though not at others.

At other times, I’ve had to give myself permission to have anxiety. If a situation makes me anxious, I acknowledge that I am nervous, and do what I need to do. I can’t “think away” my anxiety, but sometimes I can get myself out of the situation at least temporarily. I do not have to sit and be anxious while people around me argue or shout at each other, one of my anxiety triggers. When I recognize how I’m feeling (which takes practice) and give myself permission to feel the way I feel, I’m better able to come up with coping mechanisms, such as leaving the room to get some fresh air or making myself a cup of tea.

You may notice that when I give myself permission to be depressed or anxious, part of my solution involves avoiding other people. That’s sometimes a hard thing to do. Isolation can certainly make depression worse, but it can sometimes also be necessary if pushing through, trying to smile, mingle, and socialize will make the depression worse in the end. And I have learned that if I try to do that, the depression comes along with me. Once a friend told me that it was like having a separate person with me, a person called Misery. Better to give myself permission to stay home and give myself some self-care.

What I can’t do is give myself permission to stay depressed or anxious. Giving myself permission is a very limited-time offer. It doesn’t work for those really lingering, midnight-dark depressions that last for weeks or months on end. Those, I have to fight. And while I’m depressed, I don’t give up on meds or therapy. Those are necessary to alleviate the depression instead of resigning myself to feeling it.

In Remission

My bipolar disorder is in remission. I know I’m not cured. There is currently no cure for bipolar. But I’ve reached a point where I’m stable enough that I don’t expect a crash or a buzz to descend on me at just any old time.

I still get moods, of course. They’re just not severe or long-lasting enough to be symptomatic. Yesterday, for example, I spent several hours wrestling with phone trees and people who wouldn’t switch me to a supervisor when all I was trying to do was straighten out a couple of bills that contained errors. Afterwards, I felt frustrated, cranky, and a bit sad. But those were normal emotions, based on what I had just gone through. After a nap I felt better, and dinner blew out the remaining cobwebs. Napping is definitely better than staying in bed the entire next day.

Of course, I didn’t achieve remission alone. It took years of doctor visits, therapy, and medications to reach this state. I am particularly grateful for mood levelers. For me, they actually do what they’re intended to do. They keep my moods within an acceptable range, or at least one that’s acceptable to me.

Too many people fear mood levelers, I think. Level moods sound boring – as though there are no variations, just a blank, straight line. That simply isn’t so. Mood levelers have pushed the spikes that used to go wild in either direction to a less extreme range. If you think of mood as an EEG, mood levelers prevent the lines from going off the charts, settling them to fluctuate within a middle range that most non-bipolar people have naturally.

I think the term “mood leveler” scares some people. They seem to think that such a drug would make them perfectly level, robotic, unchanging. They fear that any spark of personality or creativity would be lost.

That’s not the case. Instead, with level moods – and especially for depression-prone bipolars – a person has much more ability to explore his or her creative side.  I know that’s true for me. Now that my moods are stable and level, I’m able to get more writing done, but also to tell whether the work is good or needs serious revising before I post it.

My doctor recently increased the dosage of one of my medications, a mood leveler, because I was having trouble with hypomania that wouldn’t let me sleep. And it worked. I am now getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night and have enough energy to at least face the day, if not always to conquer it.

Don’t think mine has been a case of spontaneous remission. I’m not sure I believe that’s possible with bipolar disorder. It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work to get to where I am today. For example, it took literally years for assorted doctors and me to find a combination of chemicals, a cocktail of psychotropics, that would work for me. And during all that time, it was as if I was not medicated at all. Only the right combo of drugs and dosages would unlock my brain and level my moods.

So, here I am, in remission – and I love it. My moods aren’t blunted, they’re leveled. I am not as fearful now that my extreme moods may return and wreak havoc on my life. Oh, I still have some symptoms and side effects that remind me I’m not cured. But now I know that remission is possible, with work, with luck, and with the right mood levelers.

Nothing to See Here

Many people with SMI are afraid that it shows, that other people can see automatically that there is something wrong with them. They feel as though they stand out in a crowd. Everyone notices them, and probably talks about them.

I have the opposite problem. My bipolar depression makes me feel invisible. It’s not just that SMI is often an invisible illness. It’s that I myself seem to become invisible. I think of myself as a particularly ineffectual ghost, frightening no one and unable to affect anything in my environment. Some people call this dissociation.

At first, I made the best of it. I’m especially invisible when I’m out in public and reading a book. So I found that if I was at a business convention and wanted to remain invisible, my best strategy was to sit alone at a table and read a book. Only once did a man approach me while I was so engaged. No one else ever did.

Apparently, though, I don’t need a book to disappear. Maybe it’s anxiety that makes me keep quiet when people around me are discussing something interesting. Maybe it’s my instinct not to be noticed so I won’t be subject to derision or worse. Either way, I can’t seem to catch anyone’s eye or add my bit to the conversation. I blend into the crowd, even if it’s only a crowd of three or four.

It’s almost like there’s some aura around me when I’m out in public that says, “Don’t notice me,” like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I do not use my invisibility for pranks or mischief, though. I don’t use it intentionally at all (except for using a book, as I mentioned).

Why do I think this invisibility is part and parcel of my bipolar disorder? It could be imposter syndrome at work. I feel so unworthy that I don’t want anyone to see me for what I am. Or it might be the anxiety component of my hypomania that keeps me from presenting myself more assertively. Or maybe people can see that I have a troubled mind and simply look away.

I am slowly learning to make myself seen and heard. I find that calling people by name makes it easier for them to see me. It seems to signal them that there’s another person in the vicinity. And once I even set up an occasion where I would be the center of attention, speaking about my bipolar disorder at a signing for my book.

I also use my writing to make myself “visible.” This blog (and my other one) and my books give me a presence, though not a physical one, even at a distance. When I see likes and follows and sales, I know that someone has noticed me, or at least discovered that I exist.

I sometimes think that going out in public more – practicing being visible – might help. But actually, that’s when I feel the most overlooked, the most unseen and unheard. The most lost.

Perhaps what I need is to go out and meet a specific person, someone who expects to see me. Then I could be guaranteed of one person who would see me.

But it has been suggested to me that I may not want to be seen at all – that I would prefer to fade into the background, not put myself forward and disappear from the stresses of being seen. Perhaps that is true, or at least once was.

Now I think I would prefer to be seen, flaws and all. If someone cannot tolerate the sight of me, a mentally disordered person, or glances over me as if I did not exist, I think I shall insist on being seen. I will use my voice, my (admittedly glitchy) brain, and my human physicality to assert that I exist, that I matter, that I have something to say.

And in social situations I will try to assert myself (if politely) to join the public discourse and add my two cents, whether the subject is mental illness or the latest bestseller.

I exist. I deserve to be seen. I will not remain invisible.

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