Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘being overwhelmed’

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 Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.com

When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.

 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

The Golden Glow and the Spoons

art board cooking flowers

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Hypomania is as insidious as it is enjoyable.

I remember when I quit my 9–5 office job to go freelance. I remember when I made the decision. I had gotten my first bad review, ever, shortly after disclosing my bipolar disorder to my new boss.

I remember driving around shortly thereafter, running errands in the middle of the day. I felt the warm, golden glow that goes with either happiness or hypomania. I could wake when I pleased and work when I pleased. I could run those errands when I wanted. I could take my mother to her doctor’s appointments whenever I needed to. I could make and go to my own appointments as necessary.

Best of all, I felt as though I had enough spoons to do all this. I was able to keep up with the work and the errands and the appointments and, hey, if I got tired I could take a nap in the middle of the day.

But.

Eventually the glow wore off and the spoons ran out. Hypomania dumped me back into the depression I was oh-so-familiar with. I had more work to do and less energy to do it. My mother’s problems increased and I had to take over her finances as well as my own. I was teetering on the edge of a major depression, and then I fell off that cliff.

Anymore I don’t trust hypomania. First of all, I can’t distinguish it from actual happiness, competence, or satisfaction. I always question its sincerity and watch out of the corner of my eye for the coming crash. In other words, when I’m happy I can’t even enjoy happiness without reservation.

One way I keep track of my hypomania is by being aware of the number of spoons I have. If I’m flying on a hypomanic cloud, I feel replete with spoons. It never occurs to me that I will run out. When I’m experiencing garden-variety happiness, I still suffer at some point from lack of spoons. No matter how many pleasing things are scheduled for the day, I know deep inside that I cannot simply dive into all that bounty. My joy is measured out, as the poet said, in coffee spoons or in this case metaphoric spoons which I always visualize as small white plastic ones.

Stability for me does not mean that I can ignore my supply of spoons, either. I may be on an even keel, able to do most of what I want, but inevitably the spoon depletion hits, sooner or later. There is simply no more that I can do, much as I want to. And if I force myself past that point, I will surely pay for it in exhaustion, irritability, or isolation.

Spoons, therefore, run my life. If I am too happy, I have to watch for incipient spoon depletion.  If I am level, I know that I must still keep track of the spoons I use. And if I am low, my spoons can disappear altogether, to the familiar point of not being able to get out of bed.

I think the trap of hypomania is the worst of all. On a high like that I can lose track of my spoons – even forget that they are necessary. Fortunately, I don’t get the full-blown version of mania. I fear I would squander spoons recklessly, leaving me a terrible absence of any.

Spoons are a useful way to explain the energy demands of chronic and/or mental illnesses. My husband and I speak spoonie shorthand. But I wish I could experience that golden glow, that haze of happiness, that feeling of floating, without having to keep one eye on the spoon-meter.

 

Back to Work – Full Time

business clean computer connection

Photo by Ken Tomita on Pexels.com

As is true with many of us who can manage to work only part-time while dealing with bipolar disorder, I was always one paycheck away from financial disaster.

Then the checks stopped coming.

When my main source of work dried up, that financial disaster loomed closer. I knew that it was time to try to go back to regular work. Full-time. Outside in the world, if need be, rather than in my home office, in my jammies.

Looking for work was a job in itself (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-zY). It turns out I’m overqualified for many things and underqualified for others, sometimes both at once.

And the specter of bipolar reared its fearsome head. Even if I found full-time work, could I do it? Especially out there where it’s all people-y? It’s been years since I’ve worked in such an environment and my last few years at it did not go well, as I was beginning to slide into a major, long-lasting bipolar depressive episode.

Looking for work at home was not much better. Even telephone jobs (customer service or order handling, please, not sales) required some experience and my Girl Scout cookie days were back when we still thought it was safe to go door-to-door. When I responded to work-from-home jobs, many of them turned out to be Uber or Lyft, which is hardly the same as work-at-home, if you ask me.

I found a couple of small gigs to tide me over. Then I found one that was really promising.

Proofreader.

They warned me during the phone interview that I was vastly overqualified. I told them that this kind of job was exactly what I needed at this point in my life and please to keep me in mind if any of the other candidates washed out.

The job was with a transcription service, proofing scripts of meetings and reports that other people had typed up from audio files. But there wasn’t much of it, and it didn’t pay very well.

Then they asked me if I would move up to typing. And whether I would do it full-time.

Those were separate questions. I’m not a fast or good typist. I never took typing in high school (though I discovered that I needed it once I got into college). All these years I’ve been faking it, looking at the keyboard and using at most six or seven fingers to type with. But I said I’d try and I did. I’ve been sweating over these typing jobs and they take me lots longer than they do for other, ten-fingered, trained typists, but I’ve been hitting my deadlines.

Full-time was another issue. I said I’d try, with the understanding that I’d go back to part-time if I couldn’t handle it. It’s certainly been a challenge, forcing myself to spend six or more hours at the keyboard five days a week (and then using my days off to write blogs and work on my novel). It’s exhausting. But at least I’m still in my jammies and ready to go to bed afterward.

And I’ve learned a few things. One is “Never volunteer.” Often the company has extra work with even tighter deadlines that pay more per minute and are up for grabs. I made the mistake of grabbing a couple. It nearly did me in, combined with my regular work. (I did get an Amazon gift card for working on the Fourth of July.) Full-time work is hard enough. Full-time plus is a meat-grinder, or I should say a me-grinder.

So now for the big question – did I disclose my bipolar disorder?

I did not. As long as could do the work, it didn’t seem relevant. Work-at-home is not the sort of gig where they make accommodations or modifications for those with disabilities. And if I can keep up my stability and relative mental health, and get time off for doctor’s appointments, my mental status shouldn’t be relevant.

But I’m thinking I may have to cut back to four days a week. Five days is running me ragged. And then in December, when I retire, I can give it up altogether or work only a couple of days a week.

I will have a fixed income, which has both good and bad points, but at least it will lift from me the crushing anxiety of “Will we make the mortgage this month?” (I never was able to get disability.)

So, for now at least, and for the next few months, I will be working full- or almost full-time, if only my bipolar disorder will let me.

Wish me luck.

(Full disclosure: That photo is not an actual representation of my writing space. Mine is littered with legal pads, stuffed animals, Kleenex, and water bottles.)

Bipolar Travel Tips

photo by Dan Reily

Last week I blogged about “Running Away From Home” (aka the geographical cure) https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-F9. This week I want to talk about actual travel – for business or pleasure. Travel was one of my greatest joys and one of the things I’ve missed most since bipolar stole so many parts of my life. I am delighted to be able to say that I am beginning to reclaim it.

I know that many people aren’t able to travel at all because of their bipolar disorder, but for those who can, here are some tips to make it easier.

The basic thing to remember while traveling is this: self-care. You may find it hard to do while on the road, but it is essential to keeping yourself functional. Just give yourself permission to do the things you have to do. And find ways to avoid the things that trigger you.

Business Travel

Business travel is the most difficult, and something I’m no longer able to do at all. Oh, I can drive an hour for a half-day training session, but I want to be back in my own house and bed when it’s over with. But the kind I used to do – four to seven days, with coworkers (sometimes in shared hotel rooms), and especially with booth duty – are simply beyond me. There’s no time or space for self-care.

If you must travel on business, however, I recommend bringing along a comfort object (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-k9) such as a small plush animal, a favorite pillow, or toiletries that have a soothing scent like lavender. Fuzzy slippers may have to do as a comfort object if you have to share a room. It’s also a good idea to bring along portable snacks such as nuts or raisins in your purse or briefcase, as regular meal schedules are often thrown off by meetings and other events.

“Me” time is hard to arrange, but do try. One trick that works for me is to find an unused function space and sit there with a pad of notepaper. Zone out. Then if anyone comes looking for you, claim you were just consolidating your notes.

Visiting Relatives

Avoiding arguments is one of the particular challenges of visiting relatives – particularly in-laws.

On one of the first visits I made to my in-laws’ house, I noticed that they shouted a lot. When that happened, I would go into the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea. That’s a strategy I have often used. It’s also a grounding method I can use when things are spinning out of control. When everything around me is chaos, the simple, familiar, soothing action of heating a pan of soup or a teakettle can bring me closer to stability. Whether I really want soup or tea is not the question.

My husband noticed that I kept skipping out to the kitchen and asked why I kept making tea. “Because you’re all shouting at each other,” I replied.

“No, we’re not,” he said.

“Listen to yourselves.”

Just then an argument broke out over where to go to get some sandwiches. “You take the 422 to Souderton, then turn…” “Nah, you follow Cowpath Road then cut over to the 309. That’s shorter.” “But there’s more stoplights!” With each comment, the volume grew. Dan and I went out and got the sandwiches and when we got back, the family members were still arguing about the best way to go. Dan had to admit that I had a point. He just couldn’t hear it until I shifted his perspective.

Another technique you may find helpful when hit with nosy questions from relatives is the “Boring Baroque Response,” described here – https://wp.me/p4e9wS-cY.

Leisure Travel

My friend Robbin says that when you travel, the only things you really need to have in your carry-on are your meds and some clean underwear. Anything else you can buy when you get there if your luggage doesn’t manage to arrive when you do. It’s also good to talk to your pharmacist beforehand and make sure you have enough meds for the scheduled length of the trip. (Do not do what I did and take your entire supply of meds and then leave them at the bed-and-breakfast.)

Once I went to DisneyWorld https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2K. (Okay, twice, but the first time was epic.) Surviving it was an exercise in self-care. The things I learned there are applicable to almost any travel situation.

It helps if you go with a person or people who understand your disorder and your needs. When you’ve exhausted yourself, it’s good to have someone who can think of options – “Of course, we can go back to the hotel now, if you want, or we could sit in this café and have a cold beverage while you rest your feet for a while.”

The point is, you don’t have to go on what a friend calls the Bataan Fun March – you don’t have to ride every ride, see every scenic overlook, visit every church or castle. Give yourself permission to take a nap or read a book or lounge around the pool, if that’s what you need to do. (If you’re on a guided tour and want to skip an event, let the tour guide know, so the head count doesn’t come out wrong after an event or stop.)

Finances tend to prevent the kind of leisure travel I used to do, but at least now if I can ever afford it, I can also survive it.

 

My Love-Hate Relationship With Hypomania

Most of my time on the bipolar 2 spectrum has been spent on the depressive side. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to acknowledge my hypomanic side as well.

This has been difficult to do. My psychiatrist told me that my hypomania generally comes out sideways, as anxiety, and I’ve certainly had my share of that. One of the earliest I remember, from my teens, was when I had panic attacks in the cereal aisle at the grocery. I attributed it to the bright, loud colors that bombarded my senses and, if my later reaction to Chuck E. Cheese’s is any indication, that may have been accurate. My doctor at the time, however, thought it was an ordinary panic attack that I just happened to have while in the cereal aisle, and the two became linked in my mind. Of course, this was before I was diagnosed bipolar, so who really knows?

I also used to have the panicky kind of hypomania when my husband was driving the car, particularly on the highway. I still maintain that panic while on the highway is not completely unwarranted (compared, say, with the cereal aisle). It is, after all, a dangerous place.

The first time I can remember having the swooping, soaring type of hypomania was when I worked at a publishing company. A young woman came through and asked me about how to get published. Pressured speech? I babbled, I burbled. I spouted advice. I sprayed out ideas. I rejoiced in my own success while encouraging her in hers. I had no idea if she really had the talent or the drive necessary, but by the time I finished twittering at her, she had caught my spark and resolved to go right home and put my advice into practice. I have no idea, to this day, whether she succeeded. But at least, in that case, my hypomania was inspirational.

I used to say, when I was diagnosed unipolar depressed, that I wished I were bipolar, because then I might get something done. (I will pause here while you all laugh.) But the truth is, hypomania pushes me to take on challenges that I can only sometimes accomplish. Once I agreed to interview an old Chinese lady and write something based on her experiences. After the interview, which was fascinating but overwhelming, I was unable to write. It was one of the few times I took on an assignment I couldn’t finish.

More recently I took on an assignment to write 13 children’s stories of 2500 to 3000 words each, with very specific deadlines. Although I’ve met all the dates so far, I wonder whether hypomania has fooled me again. All I can hope is that this is one of those times when it has pushed me into doing something difficult, but will help me maintain until I get through it.

So, it seems, most of my hypomania is related to work (except for the cereal thing and the driving thing). I occasionally get the urge to spend money, but since we don’t have much money, it’s not too hard to fight that one off. Plus, we don’t have a credit card. We learned that lesson years ago.

What to make of all this? I now know that hypomania is part of my psychological makeup. I now know that I have to watch out for unwarranted spending (enabled by my husband, who has that tendency too). I now know that hypomania can push me into work that may overwhelm me. I now know that it can still come out as anxiety and panic, which can have unwanted effects on my everyday life. For those reasons I hate it.

Hypomania can also push me past what I think I can do to what I learn I actually can do. It can let me feel the buzz, the blast of joy that depression so long denied me. And for that I love it.

Mostly, though, I have to be wary of hypomania. It could dump me in either direction, and I won’t know which it is until it’s already happening.

From Panic to Manic to Proactive

Hypomania isn’t all bad. Right now I’m facing one of my worst triggers, and instead of retreating into depression, I kicked into hypomania. Then I harnessed as much of it as I could and channeled it to work for me.

Here’s the sitch. My longest and most vicious major depressive episode (which lasted literally several years, even when I was under treatment and on medication) was triggered by, among other things, massive financial problems. (There were other factors involved: health problems, family health problems, family problems, irrational thinking, strained relationships, and bad ol’ neurotransmitters.) I was unable to work. There was plenty of anxiety along with the depression, you can be sure.

So here I am again, almost a decade later, once again in dire financial straits. I’m able to work, but only part-time and telecommuting. Then one of my biggest, most reliable clients cut way, way back. I made the mortgage this month, but next month looks iffy at best.

In the past, this would have resulted in major mental symptoms, and physical ones as well. (Better you shouldn’t ask, but my digestive tract responds to stress in an overwhelming manner. I know, TMI.) I would be immobilized, unresponsive, and spend most of my days on the sofa when I wasn’t in the bathroom. I would abandon the financial problems – and myself – to my husband’s care, for as long as he could keep everything together. Until he burned out too.

During this new version of assorted crises, I seem to have a better handle on things, and I credit hypomania. I am trying to better the situation, though not yet particularly effectively, but steadily.

I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point capabilities.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I pursue these avenues every day. Soon after this post goes up, I have a networking “date” with a former client and a former co-worker.

And in the meantime? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calling my name?

I blog. I work on my novel. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. But the surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helping with a getaway my husband and I planned before the finances went belly-up. (My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S., with or without mental illness.)

And, aside from the getaway, which it’s too late to cancel, we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I don’t know how long my “proactive hypomania” will last, when our financial situation will improve, or whether my energy level will survive after it does. Or, for that matter, whether we’ll end up eating cat food under the Third Street Bridge and fighting stray dogs for cold french fries.

But right now, for now, I’m dealing. And that’s something I couldn’t do before.

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