Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘bipolar disorder’

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.

Bipolar Moonshine

Honestly, the things they ask on Quora these days! Quora, for those of you not familiar with it, is a website that allows people to ask questions for “experts” to answer. Somehow, I have become one of the people that others come to with questions about bipolar disorder. (Also the Ivy League, but that’s another story.)

Some of the questions are serious, but others are less so. “If you could stay hypomanic all the time, why wouldn’t you?” “How can I get my bipolar dad to stay on his diabetes meds?” I actually had an answer for that: You can’t. And bipolar has nothing to do with it. 

I’ve answered a few of the questions if I had the time or if a good answer hadn’t already been given. Many of the answers are written by doctors, who can do a much better job than I.

Recently, however, I saw a question that I thought it wouldn’t take a medical degree to answer:

“Is bipolar disorder causally linked to lunar cycles?”

Impressed that the writer knew the difference between “causally” and “casually,” I responded:

“No. The cause, as far as we know, is a glitch in the brain between the synapses. There may also be a genetic or hereditary component. But nothing to do with the moon.”

To my surprise, I received a reply. The writer, while asserting that he or she was also bipolar, said that my response was “no answer at all” and incorrect. Acknowledging the genetic component I mentioned, the author then proceeded to enlighten me with an “unpublished hypothesis.” (He or she also claimed to be “a bipolar scientist,” though not a neurophysiologist.)

The argument was based on several points.

  • Sexual reproduction is always in response to lunar cycles.
  • This is based on gravity, illumination, and diurnal and lunar cycles/high tides.
  • Bipolar disorder is a disruption of sleep.
  • It first manifests at or near puberty, with the onset of hormonal cycles.
  • Something about teenagers having a different sleep cycle than adults, staying up later to reproduce while the parents sleep. (I can’t say I understood this part.)
  • During the full moon, hospitals and police report increases in both people out late at night and odd behaviors and emergencies.
  • Anecdotally, the writer noticed “elevated and depressed moods not necessarily linked to lunar cycles, but not necessarily independent of them either,” noting that “periods of mania occur during full and nearly full/new moon.”

The writer’s hypothesis, if I follow it correctly, is that bipolar disorder involves sleep-hormonal cycles related to the full moon, which evolved in the days before artificial lighting. This apparently gave a reproductive advantage of being awake at night because bipolar disrupts the sleep cycle. This is noted to be “an obvious evolutionary reproductive strategy.” There was more, but that was enough for me. (The writer admitted that statistics to prove any of this did not exist or had to be derived from “Bayesian statistical methods,” which one source I looked at called “a measure of the strength of your belief regarding the true situation.”)

So, where to start? First, if the writer thought he or she already knew the answer, why write in with the question? Obviously, to seek validation or to promote a theory (or to make me look like a fool).

I could answer each point individually. (I’m not a neurophysiologist either, but I do have some experience with rhetoric and logic. And bipolar.) But let’s just take a few.

Not all animals’ reproductive cycles are based on the moon, and neither are humans’. Women have menstrual cycles at all times of the month, and men don’t. (And what about bipolar men?)

Bipolar disorder can certainly cause a disruption of sleep, but is not caused by it. That is too simple an explanation for a complex disorder.

We’ll just skip that one about teenagers reproducing while parents sleep. Its connection with bipolar disorder is slim at best.

That one about the full moon is most likely anecdotal, as reported by police and emergency room workers, but no statistics (other than perhaps Bayesian ones) seem to bear this out. And the moon is full, nearly full, or new for more than half the month. Let’s also disregard the fact that bipolar cycles are seldom exactly a month in length. I had a depressive crisis that lasted several years.

Many causes have been theorized for bipolar disorder, from gut bacteria to early trauma to brain wiring. At the moment, as far as I know, the jury is still debating. Perhaps all of these are components of the cause, though I favor brain wiring as the principal cause. But given the actual science, I’m betting that the moon isn’t the answer.

Riding the Mania

This has been a couple of good weeks for me. Either that or I’ve been riding the wave of mania.

In the past, I’ve written about how fleeting the feeling of hypomania can be (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-df). One pinprick and it bursts, leaving nothing but the air. Maybe that’s because I was hypomanic or rapid cycling at the time. Or maybe it was just a temporary feeling of joy that lasted only a few minutes and then retreated in the face of disappointment.

It’s difficult trusting your feelings when you have a mood disorder. I always have to ask myself, is this feeling a reaction to the real circumstances that surround me, or is it just a glitch that occurs between my synapses? It’s tiring questioning all your emotions all the time.

I’ve been stable for many months now. I’m not symptom-free. I still find it difficult to do daily tasks or leave the house, though lately, I have gotten up, groomed, dressed, and out of the house – including a record of three or four times in one week, rather than once or twice a month. But I have been feeling what feels like genuine happiness.  Contentment. Energy. Productivity. Engagement. Can I trust this?

Since over-thinking is one of my superpowers, let’s take a closer look. Do I have any of the symptoms of mania or hypomania to go with my lightened moods? Hypersexuality? No. Racing thoughts? No. Risk-taking behaviors? No.

But I have been overspending. Maybe. Our finances have improved of late, so there’s no real harm in buying a few things that I’ve been putting off. And my purchases have not been excessive – nothing over $30, and that was a birthday present for my husband. Still, I have been beset by the feeling, right before I hit checkout, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” or “I don’t really need that.” Again, my feelings are questionable. Maybe my purchases are influenced by hypomania and the stable part of my brain is warning me. On the other hand, the purchases may be modest and reasonable, and my questioning a holdover of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” from when our budget had no room at all for discretionary spending.

Then there’s my writing. I’ve written a couple of extra essays and guest blog posts in addition to my regular two blogs per week. I’m getting them done early, too. Once I even decided a post I was working on wasn’t very good, so I wrote a new one to take its place in a single day. I renamed and redesigned my other blog (newly christened “But I Digress…,” still available at janetcobur.wordpress.com). But is what I’m writing any good? It’s hard to tell. My stats on blog readership haven’t been as good as usual, but the editors were happy with the guest posts I wrote. The rewritten post was selected for special treatment on Medium.

It’s been observed that I could over-analyze a ham sandwich. But I am tired of examining every mood and emotion to be sure it isn’t pathological. Having unstable emotions is not a pleasant thing to live with, but neither is this level of self-doubt.

I saw my psychiatrist last weekend and he thought there were plenty of good things happening in my life – my published book (amzn.to/2RLU8hP), the extra writing, an upcoming podcast (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Pi), a science fiction convention to attend – to explain my good mood. If he isn’t worried, why should I be?

All in all, I’m very tempted to say, “what the hell,” and ride this wave until or unless it crashes.

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.

Rebuilding Myself

After my last (and, I hope, last) major bipolar breakdown, my therapist pointed out that I had a unique opportunity: I could reclaim those parts of my life that had fallen away, or I could leave them behind.

I could choose. That idea was very powerful.

I had a lot of irrational feelings and associations that I needed to reconsider after leaving a toxic relationship. I had given up needlework after making an elaborate set of chair backs destined to be inherited by someone else’s children that I would never see. I got to dismiss those feelings and reclaim my creativity. I chose to take up needlework again. Whoever’s children can have the chair backs.

In fact, I had bad associations with nearly everything associated with that relationship: folk music, guitar lessons, cooking and entertaining, even blue spruce trees and cobalt blue glassware, for God’s sake. I reclaimed the music and the cooking, but let the entertaining largely fall by the wayside, as it triggered my bipolar disorder as well as my memories. I got over the blue spruce and learned to shrug at anything cobalt blue, though I still don’t buy any.

None of these things caused my major meltdown, though they may have contributed to my shaky mental state. They were simply things that I had lost along the way. And since I was in the process of rebuilding myself afterward, I could view them as stones to build something solid with or as broken bricks to discard.

Rebuilding from the bipolar breakdown was not as easy as merely taking back a few hobbies and interests. It involved reevaluating large parts of my life. Would I go back to school and get another degree? I would not. I weighed the idea and decided it would be too much stress just to add a few more letters after my name. Would I resurrect my mostly-dormant writing career? Yes. And I’ve taken it further than I ever thought I would. Would I reconnect with the country music I loved best but had been shamed for listening to? Of course!

The process of putting myself back together is one I have been through several times now, and each time I got to choose what to bring with me and what to leave behind. Bipolar disorder, much as I hate what it has done to me in so many ways, has at least given me that chance to reinvent myself if I wished to or resurrect myself if I felt like it.

I’ve always hated when people say about some bad experience I’ve had such as my appalling relationship or my bipolar condition, “But you’ve learned so much from it!” I always think, “Maybe so, but the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid.” But having the opportunity to rebuild myself – and especially to choose what I want to be part of the new me – is very nearly worth it. I owe that epiphany to my longtime therapist, Dr. B. But I’m the one doing the work. And it is indeed very much a work in progress. I am a work in progress.

Bipolar disorder is one of the bricks I have to rebuild with, and it always threatens to make my new structure a bit shaky rather than completely solid. But isn’t every life a work in progress? Don’t we all have bricks or timbers or stones that are at least a little unsound or misshapen, that we have to shore up or fit in as best we can?

I can’t guarantee that my structure won’t crumble again, though it has been relatively stable for some time now. But at least now I know that I have the ability to start over yet again. And to choose myself. That choice is both powerful and empowering. Just as it is said that all writing is rewriting, all my building is rebuilding.

And I’m okay with that.

Stone Cold Depression

I saw an ad online recently for a crystal antidepressant necklace. It was basically a crystal point hung from a chain.  The crystal was pink in color, which meant it was either rose quartz or pretending to be.

When I looked at the website, there were other colors available, such as clear (quartz), turquoise (turquoise), purple (amethyst), and black (maybe onyx?). Of course, there was always the possibility that these were not naturally occurring colors and that every crystal was plain quartz died some other hue. The turquoise certainly looked dyed to enhance its turquoise-ness, and isn’t a crystal anyway. I also had my doubts about the black one.

In point of fact, I had my doubts about all of them. Not that they weren’t authentic crystals, but that they would work. I’ll be honest here. I don’t believe in crystals as channels of psychic power or healing or whatever. I think they’re beautiful and make great jewelry, though. I have quite a collection of necklaces and earrings made from semi-precious stones, some of which are crystals. I feel better when I wear them, but that’s because I actually have taken the time to accessorize before I go out.

I think that, if crystals have any effect at all, it is the placebo effect, which I’m not discounting. That at least is a real thing. But the ad for the depression crystals got me thinking. If the 12 or so widely varied stones that were featured in the ad are all good for depression, what’s the point? I thought at least specific crystals were supposed to be good for different things.

So I researched some of the advertised crystals to see what effects they were supposed to have and how they might relate to mental health. Here are some of the associations I found:

rose quartz – emotional healing, releasing toxic emotions

turquoise – spiritual expansion, a path to your vibrationally highest self

onyx – inner strength, balance, confidence, protection

amethyst – release of addiction, relaxing energy, sound sleep

I’ll admit right off that I don’t know what “a path to your vibrationally highest self” means, but then again, turquoise is not one of my favorite stones. I have worn rose quartz, amethyst, and occasionally onyx, but felt nothing in particular regarding my emotions, confidence, or sleep (though, to be fair, I never have worn amethysts to bed). Amethysts for relief of addictions most likely goes back to medieval days, when they were thought to counteract poisons.

Then I checked another site, which connected assorted crystals and stones specifically with mental health issues. Here the results were more specific and more focused. Rose quartz was again associated with emotional turmoil, which is pretty close to releasing toxic emotions. Blue lace agate, a very pretty stone, was associated with journaling, which was both different and interesting.

Even more interesting to me were the purported beneficial effects of amber, unakite, tiger’s eye, and smoky quartz. According to this website, amber, perhaps my favorite semiprecious gem (though not technically a crystal), is particularly effective for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Unakite, a little-known stone that mixes gray-green and dusky pink colors, is said to be beneficial for anxiety and negative thoughts, both of which I, of course, have in abundance.

Smoky quartz appears to be the recommended crystal for depression and tiger eye for mood swings. Both should therefore help with my bipolar disorder. (I don’t remember whether smoky quartz was among the crystals and stones offered in the antidepression crystal ad, but according to this website, it should have been.) I used to wear a ring of tiger’s eye, but it did nothing to ward off bipolar.

I can’t see any scientific basis for crystals having any sort of effect on a person’s emotional states. But I suppose that if these stones bring you some solace or seem to encourage your healing, I shouldn’t put them (or you) down. I don’t happen to believe in their alleged powers myself, but I also know that affirmations, CBT, and positive thinking don’t work for me, as far as my mental health goes, while they do work for other people.

But I do think it is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst for that particular website to advertise that these varied stones and crystals all have antidepressant effects. Even those who believe in the power of crystals believe that different ones have different effects.

Personally, I think that a black crystal would do more to reinforce depression than to ward it off. I know someone will tell me if they think I’m wrong.

 

 

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages. In it he proposed that there are different ways – or “languages”  – that people use to communicate their love. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love and bipolar disorder lately and it occurred to me that the five love languages could be a helpful lens for looking at relationships. In particular, they might help a person realize what the other one needs when experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Here are the five love languages and how they might be helpful if you are in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

Words of affirmation. I’m not talking here about the kinds of affirmation we are supposed to look in the mirror and give ourselves. I mean words of affirmation that come from outside, from another person, and are gifts of love. Everyone needs affirmations at times, but for people whose love language is words of affirmation, they can be positively soul-feeding.

For the bipolar person, these affirmations can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming out with me,” or “Congratulations on getting the bills paid,” or even, “I know you can do it,” or “I knew you could do it!” And for the bipolar person who struggles with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, or lack of motivation, these can be the words that keep us going.

Quality time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean an elaborate outing or a two-week vacation. It can be as simple as sitting on the sofa with your partner watching a movie, or cooking together. Especially when there’s something else you could be doing. Giving up that other activity to spend time with your loved one is another kind of love-gift.

Quality time – extended periods of togetherness – can be extra special to someone with bipolar who feels lonely, isolated, or unlovable. Just the idea that someone wants to spend time with you, even though you can barely stand to be with yourself, sends a powerful message.

Receiving gifts. There are people who value physical gifts and see in them the care and attention that another person spends selecting just the right thing. Diamond rings are unnecessary. In this language of love, a simple houseplant can even be preferable.

You probably shouldn’t expect a physical gift to “cheer up” a person with bipolar depression. As with any gift, the important thing is knowing what the person values and providing it to them. Comfort objects such as plush animals, mp3s of calming or favorite music, or a weighted blanket to ward off panic may be just the thing. Even a silly coffee mug with an appropriate saying can become a treasured item.

Acts of service. If the person you love values acts of service, then your way of speaking that love is accomplished when you do something for her or him. Doing the dishes or some other chore that usually falls to the loved one is one example.

For the bipolar person, acts of service that speak of love may be as simple as handling phone calls and visitors, or doing the shopping when he or she just can’t face the grocery store. “I’ll do it for you” is a powerful message that says, “I care about you and want to help ease your burdens.”

Physical touch. Strange as it may seem, some people never think of physical touch as a language of love unless they’re talking about sex. Of course, the physical and emotional intimacy of sex can speak love, but other kinds of touch do just as well for some people.

Bipolar people in the manic phase can have a high sex drive and appreciate some sexual attention even if you wouldn’t ordinarily want it at that time of day, for example.  But the bipolar person can crave touch without sex as well. Hugging and cuddling, sitting close with an arm around the shoulders, and even a touch on the shoulder as you leave a room can speak volumes.

The important part of this is to learn and know what your partner values – what language of love she or he speaks – and to give it to them. Mixed signals, speaking the language that you would want instead of the one that your partner does, will not be processed as love. Physical gifts to one who hears love in affirmations will miss the mark.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to ask your partner which “language” they speak. But she or he may not even realize that there are different languages or which one is theirs. Observation, attention, and even trial and error may be necessary to get the communication going. But if you want to speak love to a person with bipolar disorder, these are communication skills that can be vital.

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