Posts tagged ‘being overwhelmed’
For those of you who follow this blog, this is another chapter in the saga of our experience with the Memorial Day tornado, which destroyed our house. My husband, who lives with depression, and I have been coping very well so far.
I saw my psychiatrist on Saturday. During the session, I mentioned that I hadn’t had a breakdown yet, but that I knew it was coming. “I hope not,” he replied.
Frankly, I think he’s being unrealistic. I keep saying it will come when we are settled in a living space, which we now are (a rental house) and when I don’t have to deal with insurance, housing, furniture, landlords, finances, utilities, and the thousand-and-one things that I’ve been in charge of dealing with. (Dan has been in charge of the more physical stuff, like salvage at our dearly lamented former house. He’s better at that and I’m better at working the phones and the computer.)
I think my brain will want to decompress with a crying jag and a couple of days in bed, at the very least. I plan to start work again next Monday, so it will likely happen during this next week. I know you can’t schedule these things, but I hope that’s the way it works out.
Dan is already at the ragged edge. He went back to work a couple of weeks ago, though physical health problems interfered with that somewhat. On Saturday he slept the whole day, having worked all night without sleep, owing to our moving out of the hotel and into the house in just a couple of hours. His emotions are also closer to the surface, too. He’s expressed anger at the salvage people and a need to cry when he sees what’s left of the house and our belongings.
Much as I dislike having breakdowns, or mini-melt-downs, or whatever you call them, I think sometimes they are both necessary and inevitable. When a bipolar brain gets too clogged up with the effort of coping during especially trying circumstances, it seems only natural that when the stress lets up even a little, that brain will need to let out all the feelings that have been suppressed while dealing with the crisis.
Bottling up your feelings is generally not a good idea, but sometimes you just have to in order to keep going. But like a shaken bottle of soda, the pressure builds up and there has to be a way to release it. The metaphoric bottle may simply explode, spraying shrapnel and its contents over everyone and everything within reach. This is not pretty, but it is understandable.
Keeping your feelings suppressed too long – putting them in a box and sitting on the lid – is not healthy, either. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the emotions and deal with them, they may fester and spring out of the box at the most inopportune time. Or you may turn off your emotions entirely and not be able to feel anything – including relief and satisfaction, in addition to the distress, anger, and/or despair that are in that box. A lot of us, including me, have done this for years in the course of our disorder. Feeling nothing but numbness can seem appealing if the alternative is chaos and pain.
So, in a way, I am hoping that I do have a bit of a breakdown, in a safe space where I can rage, weep, isolate, and grieve what we have lost. I don’t think I’ll be quite whole again until I have gone through the emotions that I’ve been putting off.
This week I’ve made an appointment with my psychotherapist, whom I stopped seeing about a year ago. I hope that she will be able to help me process the process, as it were. I think it’s definitely time for a “check-up from the neck up.” Maybe in her office, I will find that safe space and begin to feel the feelings that I know are hiding somewhere deep inside me.
On June 12th, I had my first dream about the tornado.
Up until then, I had been coping with the disaster, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with what must be dealt with, eating the elephant one bite at a time. Now, it appears, my disorder or my subconscious has caught up with me.
As is typical with dreams, there are both similarities and differences with real life. As for the similarities, the dream took place in a wooden building and I was on the second floor. I wasn’t wearing shoes at the time. (In the dream I was looking for a pair of boots that fit me. In real life, I was able to slip on a pair of shoes before the rescuers ordered me out.)
But there were significant differences. In the dream, I was not in my house but in a riding stable that shows up on occasion in my various dream landscapes. I was waiting for a horse to ride, which may have been related to my desire to escape.
In real life, I had little to no knowledge that the tornado was coming. I heard about it with no time to get downstairs to a safe place. I put a pillow over my head and hoped for the best. I was alone when the roof blew off.
In the dream, I knew that the tornado was coming. I could see it through a window or maybe through a skylight (which is what our great room became).
The biggest difference, though, is that in the dream I was terrified. I panicked. I screamed. There may have been someone there with me in the dream, but no one who could help me. In real life, I was alone, though rather calm, but as soon as he could, my husband came for me and then the rescue squad came for us both.
I’m not a Freudian when it comes to interpreting dreams and in this case, I didn’t have to be. It was frighteningly literal. Clearly, my conscious mind had fed my subconscious mind all the details it needed to recreate the event in a slightly altered but basically straightforward form.
I had been proud of myself for keepin’ on keepin’ on, doing the things that had to be done. But by the time the dream hit, the mundane details were 90 percent taken care of. We were in a residential hotel instead of a shelter. Our cats, who also survived (there was a part of the dream about missing cats), were with us. The insurance company and rental agents and salvage people were on the job and on the spot. My husband was keeping track of physical details while I worked the phones and the bureaucracy. A friend remarked how well I was handling it all, without having the breakdown everyone including me had expected.
Since that dream, I’ve been more troubled by phenomena like wind, thunder, and lightning. There is less coping to do to distract me and my disorder takes over. Even as I write this, there are high winds and I worry about the hotel’s roof blowing off. (We are on the top floor, which may have been a bad idea. They said it was the “quietest” floor.)
I’ve also had a bad-hotel-experience dream which was almost amusing in its details but seems to me to be a symptom of a deeper disquiet with our current living situation.
My husband and I are not on the same page with all this. His memories reside in things much more than mine do and I cannot be entirely sympathetic with his grief over the losses we suffered. To me, we rebuild and refurnish and salvage what we can and let go of the rest. He’s had his meltdowns too, though he remains solicitous of mine. As far as I know, his dreams are untroubled, though his daily life is, to the extent that he’s considering seeing a therapist. (A local college is offering free counseling to tornado victims – or survivors, however you prefer to think about it.)
I do not like the loss of my composure. I do not like the dreams or the fact that I am having them. I have expected them but was still not ready for them to come. I’m now having trouble getting to sleep at night.
I know this was inevitable but I do not like it. I’m lucky that it held off long enough for me to function effectively. I wonder how long it will be with me. Other traumas I have suffered have recurred in my dreams for literally decades. I hope this one is different.
As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.
The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time.
He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.
It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight.
But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.
Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.
Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.
Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.
In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.
Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.
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.