Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘bipolar disorder’

Are Lobotomies Gone for Good?

By alexlmx/adobestock

If I were a few decades older, I might have undergone a lobotomy. Treatment-resistant bipolar disorder (or manic depression, as it was called then) and schizophrenia are some of the disorders lobotomies were recommended for. It was thought that such mental illnesses were caused by faulty connections in the brain and that the cure was to sever those connections. Lobotomy pioneer Antonio Egas Moniz received a Nobel prize for inventing the operation.

The main problem was it didn’t always work as planned. There were other problems as well, such as the flattening of affect and severe brain damage (what a surprise). The most noted person to have a lobotomy (also called leucotomy) was Rosemary Kennedy, the developmentally delayed sister of John and Robert.

There were two kinds of lobotomies, though only the method differed. The prefrontal lobotomy involved drilling holes in the patient’s skull in order to get to the frontal lobes, where the trouble was thought to lie. The other, and to me more alarming, version was called the transorbital lobotomy. The “orbit” in transorbital refers to the eye socket. An instrument was introduced into the brain by going through the eye socket (without disturbing the eye) and used to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain. Around 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S., most between 1949 and 1952

Doctor Walter Freeman was the champion of the transorbital lobotomy, often called “icepick surgery” for the slender instrument that was inserted and then swooped about, in hopes of severing the faulty brain wiring. Dr. Freeman was so adept at this that he could perform many of these surgeries in a day, and indeed performed around 3,500 during his career, including 2,500 icepick lobotomies. He once performed 228 of the procedures in a two-week period and taught the technique to countless other doctors. Some of his patients underwent more than one lobotomy.

Eventually, the lobotomy came into disrepute for A) being the horrible invasion that it was, B) reducing many patients to an emotionless or brain-damaged state, and C) being depicted in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a punitive, brutal, and unnecessary procedure. The lobotomy all but disappeared from the psychiatric and surgical landscape.

But wait! Lobotomies may be out of fashion, but psychosurgery (or “functional neurosurgery”) is still performed for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. In these operations, however, rather than randomly severing neural connections, the surgeon removes the areas of the brain thought to be the cause of the psychiatric problem. Modern versions of psychosurgery include “amygdalotomy, limbic leucotomy, and anterior capsulotomy,” none of which I know enough about to comment on. Suffice it to say that the days of drilling burr holes in patients’ skulls or taking an icepick to their brains are, as far as I can determine, gone. 

Psychosurgeries are now performed rarely, deep brain stimulation being the preferred form of treatment, especially for non-psychiatric conditions like Parkinson’s or treatment-resistant seizures. And they’re always performed under anesthesia. The patient’s consent is required.

Electroshock therapy is much less invasive and is still used today, although in a lower-key and safer manner than the original procedure – under sedation and with lower amounts of electricity. It still has side effects, such as the loss of short-term memory for the period surrounding the treatment.

Electroshock therapy was considered in my case because of my long-term, treatment-resistant case of bipolar 2, which involved years-long depressive episodes. At first I was terrified, but after doing some research and talking to knowledgeable people, I was just about ready to agree to it. At that point my psychiatrist suggested we try one more drug first – which worked, alleviating (though not curing) my condition like turning on a switch.

(Side note: When I began researching lobotomies, I found that the book My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, was particularly interesting. The story didn’t follow the usual pattern. Instead, it seems, Dully’s hospitalization and operation (in 1960, when the boy was 12) were largely instigated by his stepmother, who wanted him out of the way, though schizophrenia was diagnosed by Dr. Freeman (see above) before the transorbital procedure.)

 

 

Time Flies When You’re Bipolar

Finding stability is difficult when you have bipolar disorder. The days seem to melt into one another, either life in dense fog or life on a tightrope. You can’t remember whether you’ve eaten that day or showered that week or when you need to pay that phone bill.

And forget those lists of self-care things you should do. Contemplating even one (“go for a walk outside”) leaves me feeling defeated. It involves too many steps – getting out of bed, finding clothes, getting dressed, and then the actual walking. Most of the self-care lists contain things that are next to impossible for a truly depressed person to do (wash one dish), or too mundane to engage a manic person’s psyche (nap, complete one craft project).

For myself, I get lost in the week, since I usually measure time by weeks. What was I going to do on Thursday? Isn’t there a call I need to make this week? Do I need more groceries this week? I can also get lost in the month sometimes – Is it time to water my plant? Do a breast self-check? Pay a bill? Most of these I can handle with small nudges. Water the plant on the first day of the month. Pay a bill when I get an email or call about it.

When I worked in an office or a restaurant, there were ways to measure days. Casual Fridays were a dead give-away, for instance. But there were no weekly group meetings or, in the case of the restaurant, even specific chores or a consistent schedule for each week. I used to be able to pinpoint Thursdays because it was chicken-n-dumplings day at the Hasty Tasty.

But since COVID I no longer go out to work or to the Hasty Tasty or get dressed for work (I work in pajamas at my desk). I can sometimes tell time by my husband’s days off – Thursday and Sunday – but even that gets confusing, since I measure by when he goes into work (Wednesday, for example, and Saturday evenings) and he counts by when he gets off (Friday and Monday mornings). “Thursday into Friday” or “Sunday into Monday” is too much for my poor glitchy brain to handle.

I have better luck when I measure by my own work. I have off Thursdays and the weekend. Sometimes there is no work on a particular day, and sometimes I take on extra work on Thursdays or over the weekend, so it’s not completely reliable.

I do try to stick to a schedule when it comes to my writing, though. By Tuesday, I try to have an idea for my blogs. Wednesday I firm it up or do research, if needed. Thursday, I write a draft, since I don’t have my regular job to do. Fridays I tweak the draft. Saturdays I proofread and add tags. Sundays I publish. Mondays I check to see how well my blogs have done. Since my novel is finished, I have added doing three queries a day, first thing in the morning. And when I don’t have regular work, I try to either do research for my next novel, or write scenes that I know have to go in it somewhere, though not in order, since I don’t have an outline firmed up.

I suppose self-care encompasses going to bed. I usually get in bed by 9:00 or 10:00 and read to unwind (I know that this is not recommended, but it’s an essential part of my daily cool-down, whatever the day of the week it is). After I start to get sleepy, I take my nighttime pills and read a little more until they kick in. I usually just awake naturally, unless I have a work assignment that’s due early in the morning. Then I set an alarm.

These are the techniques I use to keep grounded in my days and weeks. When something unexpected happens, such as my husband’s days off being switched, I get back into the trap of not really knowing what day it is.

But as for self-care, I don’t schedule a massage or take up yoga or call a friend (I keep in touch on social media). It’s all I can do to get through a week at a time and be grateful for that.

 

The Journey to Proper Meds

By areeya_ann / adobestock.com

This week when I went to my four-times-a-year med check, I told my psychiatrist that I thought I needed a change in medication. The previous time I saw him I had expressed concerns over assorted Life Stuff that was making me extremely anxious. Given what was going on in my life at the time, the anxiety was understandable.

Since then my anxiety has lessened somewhat, now coming out mostly as irritability and difficulty sleeping. And my depression now makes me feel like I have a low-grade fever – logy, listless, exhausted (which is not helped by the sleep problems) – plus the usual depressive numbness, lack of holiday cheer, and all the rest.

My psychiatrist listened to my symptoms, then discussed my meds with me. There were only two, both mood levelers, that he would recommend increasing. I chose the one that had had the most dramatic effect on me when I started taking it. So he increased the dosage from 200 mg. to 300 mg. We’ll see how that works out. I’m to call him before my next med check if I need to.

I’m used to changes in medications. It took a long, trying – even painful – time for my previous psychiatrist and me to work out the cocktail of drugs that would alleviate my seemingly treatment-resistant bipolar disorder. We tried various antidepressants, anti-anxiety agents, anti-seizure meds, antipsychotics, mood levelers, and I-don’t-remember-what-else. At last, when we were about to give up and try ECT, one of the drugs worked. It took some more tinkering before we got the dosages right, but for years now, I’ve been on basically the same “cocktail” of drugs.

Psychiatric Times, in an article on switching antidepressant medications (most of the literature seems to focus on antidepressants), reports that approximately half of all patients fail to achieve an adequate response from their first antidepressant medication trial. High treatment failure rates make it critical for prescribers to know how to safely and effectively switch antidepressants to ensure patient-treatment targets are met.” Other publications put the figure at nine percent, one-third or two-thirds. Whichever is correct, it’s a substantial number.

One method of switching medication is simply called “the switch.” The patient goes off one drug and onto the other. But there are problems with that, including drug interactions between the old medication and the new one.

The technique most recommended is the one that my previous psychiatrist used with me, which is known as “cross-tapering” – tapering down on the first drug and then ramping up on the second. A “wash-out period” when no drug is given allows time for the first med to clear the body before the second is given. This is promoted as the safest method.

I can testify that it is also the slowest and most miserable. Going off one drug, being basically unmedicated while you wait for the second drug to ramp up, and then possibly going through the whole process again when the second drug doesn’t work either (or has side effects you can’t tolerate) is brutal. I went through the process more than once, and it was hell. Basically, it took me back to full-strength depression during the wash-out period and minimal to no effect as the new drug being tried ramped up.

However, eventually, we found a drug that made a huge difference and that, in conjunction with my other medications, allowed me to function almost normally. Close enough for jazz, as they say. The recent adjustment in dosage does not appear to be having much of an effect yet, but I didn’t expect it to. Pretty soon, relatively, I’ll know. And if it doesn’t help – or if it induces side effects – I still have my psychiatrist’s phone number.

References

https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/strategies-and-solutions-switching-antidepressant-medications 

https://www.uptodate.com/contents/switching-antidepressant-medications-in-adults

https://www.healthline.com/health/mdd/switching-antidepressants

Workplace Adjustments I Would Like to Have Had

by Chinnapong / adobestock.com

I missed out on the heyday of the ADA. People didn’t become as conscious of accommodating people with disabilities until much later. And even then, the most common accommodation was wheelchair ramps. But there are some workplace adjustments or accommodations I wish I had available to me, back when I worked in an office.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), persons with disabilities are entitled to accommodations to make it possible for them to work. Most of us think about certain kinds of lighting, closed captions, or specialized chairs. But what about when you have an invisible disability?

The ADA definition of a disability is one that impairs an individual’s ability to – among other “major life activities” – learn, read, concentrate, think, communicate, and work. Certainly, a number of psychological or psychiatric conditions qualify as producing trouble in these areas. In my case, my bipolar disorder made it difficult to do many of those in your standard office work environment.

But would the ADA have made accommodations available to me? The ADA does include some mental illnesses in its list of disabilities. Examples of mental disabilities commonly considered under the ADA are:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Examples of accommodations or work adjustments for those with psychological disabilities include, among others:

  • Flexible Workplace – Telecommuting and/or working from home.
  • Scheduling – Part-time work hours, job sharing, adjustments in the start or end of work hours, compensation time and/or “make up” of missed time.
  • Leave – Sick leave for reasons related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery, leaves of absence and/or use of occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy and other related appointments.
  • Breaks – Breaks according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule, more frequent breaks and/or greater flexibility in scheduling breaks, provision of backup coverage during breaks, and telephone breaks during work hours to call professionals and others needed for support.

Of course, in order to receive accommodations or adjustments, it’s necessary to reveal to someone – at least your boss or maybe the HR department – that you have a psychological or psychiatric disorder.

My own experience of needing accommodations at work was not great. In the job I held the longest, I only mentioned my depression (as it was then diagnosed), to my immediate supervisor. He was sympathetic, but the work environment was not exactly conducive to my needs.

One of the things that I could have used in dealing with the anxiety that went along with my depression was privacy. At first, that was not even possible, since my entire department was located in a cube farm, where no one had any real privacy. Even the fact that I was an editor and needed to concentrate on my work did not win me a private space.

Later, when we moved to an office that had actual offices, I snagged one with a door. The only problem was that I was not allowed to close the door, or at least looked askance at when I did.

An ideal situation for me (aside from being allowed to close my door) would have been permission to work from home. There was one person at this office who had this privilege, but it was never considered for me. Admittedly, this was very much pre-pandemic, but most of my work was done on a computer, and I had one at home that was compatible with the office computers. It wouldn’t even have been necessary for the company to supply me with one.

Another accommodation that would have helped lots would have been a hotel room to myself at business conventions, which would have allowed me time and space to decompress after a long day of being “on,” meeting and greeting, and being sociable and respectable. Unfortunately, that was a privilege reserved for the men. (As I understood it, the salesmen were booked into double rooms as well, but winked at when they rebooked them into singles.) This may have nominally been due to my sex rather than my mental condition, but not having a solitary retreat from the clamor of a convention definitely had a deleterious effect.

After 17 years at that job, I was let go, most likely because I was considered “unreliable.” At the next office where I landed, I had a boss who understood bipolar disorder (as I was then diagnosed) and who was satisfied with my work.  Never a bad evaluation – until that boss left. “I’m going to miss you,” I said. “I know you will,” she replied.

I realized what she meant when I revealed to my new boss that  I had bipolar disorder. “What does that mean?” she asked. Taken aback, the only reply I could think of was, “Sometimes I have good days and sometimes I have bad days.”  It wasn’t a great description of my condition and set me up for problems. After one year of my mother’s health and my psychiatrist appointments requiring me to miss work, and my missing work in winter owing to living at the bottom of a snowy, icy hill, I received my first bad evaluation. Nothing about my performance had actually changed since my work with the first boss. I could have easily worked from home and occasionally was permitted to, but my work was dubbed sub-par once I did.

(Not that it’s a big thing, but I would also have appreciated being able to take a “brain break” such as doing a crossword puzzle, instead of a cigarette break, since I don’t smoke. And not being asked work questions when I was on the toilet.)

After that, I went freelance, worked at home nearly all the time, and was only required to attend a meeting at an office once or twice a year. I have worked that way since and it suits me. It’s only now that I’ve become my own boss that I’ve been able to get what I really need when it comes to work.

 

References

https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/americans-disabilities-act-amendments-act-2008#:~:text=The%20Act%20emphasizes%20that%20the,shall%20not%20require%20extensive%20analysis.

https://www.sfglife.com/blog/top-10-causes-disabilities-us-and-why-you-need-disability-insurance/

https://adata.org/factsheet/health

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/mental-health/maximizing-productivity-accommodations-for-employees-with-psychiatric-disabilities

https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/cms_011495.aspx

https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12102

Take a Hike: Nature and Mental Health

photo from the author’s collection

 As a child and as a teenager, I was a Girl Scout. We hiked. We camped. We did all sorts of nature-related crafts. We ate wild plants. Well into my 20s, I was an outdoorsy-type person, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, walking to all my classes through the leafy green environs of my college campus, even trudging contentedly through the copious snowfall. One year I lived in a log cabin on a hilltop so far from civilization that you had to go to town to pick up your mail.

All the while, I had bipolar disorder, and it was relentless, I experienced the inevitable mood swings, the crashing lows, the tempestuous highs, the confusing mixed states. 

Now, everywhere you turn, there are articles and memes touting how time spent in nature is good for various psychiatric conditions. When you look more closely, though, the studies often refer to simply alleviating bad moods or improving cardiovascular health. Very few of them seem to apply to actual mental illnesses. Perhaps this is to be expected, since improvements in emotions or mental health are largely self-reported or tracked by means of a survey. It’s hard to quantify mental health. But let’s take a look at some of the studies anyway.

Harvard Men’s Health Watch published an article called “Sour Mood Getting You Down? Get Back to Nature.” The subtitle on the piece read, “Research suggests that mood disorders can be lifted by spending more time outdoors.” Then the article went on to suggest that “ecotherapy” shows “a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.” 

The subtitle suggests that the outdoors has an effect on alleviating mood disorders. The body of the article, though, stresses alleviating unpleasant moods in general, not primarily what psychiatrists would class as mood disorders. The article cited a 2014 study saying that “people who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, or unemployment had the greatest mental boost from a group nature outing.” Stressful and sad events, certainly, but not mood disorders such as PTSD, clinical depression, or bipolar disorder.

The article also cites a report published online March 27, 2017, by Scientific Reports, which suggests that “listening to natural sounds caused the listeners’ brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention, a process that occurs during wakeful rest periods like daydreaming. Listening to artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus, which occurs during states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.” It does mention psychiatric disorders, but it says only that inward-directed focus occurs during these states, not that inward-directed focus causes them.

Greater Good published an article that claims, among other things, that “scientists are beginning to find evidence that being in nature has a profound impact on our brains and our behavior, helping us to reduce anxiety, brooding, and stress, and increase our attention capacity, creativity, and our ability to connect with other people.” Again, this says nothing about actual psychiatric disorders.

The article also cited a Japanese study: “Results showed that those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and higher heart rate variability (indicating more relaxation and less stress), and reported better moods and less anxiety, than those who walked in urban settings.” The researchers concluded that there’s something about being in nature that had a beneficial effect on stress reduction, above and beyond what exercise alone might have produced.

This, of course, does not apply to those in urban settings who do not have much access to forests or sometimes even parks. And the abstract of the Japanese study says, “Despite increasing attention toward forest therapy as an alternative medicine, very little evidence continues to be available on its therapeutic effects. Therefore, this study was focused on elucidating the health benefits of forest walking on cardiovascular reactivity.” It doesn’t really deliver what the headline offers: “How nature makes you kinder, happier, more creative.” Good heart health is, of course, a good thing, but to extrapolate that to mental health benefits is quite a stretch.

The UK’s Mind.org does offer a link between ecotherapy and mental health in one instance, at least: “Being outside in natural light can … be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year.” This article also acknowledges that there are “other options for treatment and support – different things work for different people….You might do an ecotherapy programme on its own, or alongside other treatments such as talking therapies, arts and creative therapies and/or medication. Some ecotherapy sessions follow a set structure, and incorporate types of talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). People in the group may or may not have experience of mental health problems, but the main focus is usually working together on the shared activity.” This at least sounds both more scientific and more likely to produce results.

If a walk in a natural setting does you good and alleviates your symptoms of mental illness, then by all means, make it part of your routine (or do it as often as you can manage). My bipolar depressions, however, are so debilitating that I am unable to plan, much less embark on, a walk in nature, even as far as the mailbox. Bringing nature indoors is, of course, an alternative. But the little plant pictured here, which needs two ounces of water once a month, is all I can really handle.

Resources

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative

https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2014/834360/

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/

A Letter From the Future to Bipolar Me

by sosiukin via adobestock.com

Dear Me:

You’re 13 years old now, and there are a few things you should know.

You have bipolar disorder. No one knows this, not even you. But a lot of people notice that you act “weird” at times. You have decided to embrace your weirdness, which is fine, but what you really need is psychological help. And medication.

Don’t pass up any chance to get that help. Your high school will recommend to your parents that you get counseling. When your parents leave the choice up to you, take it. It will not go on your permanent record, and you will still get into a college. A very good college, in fact.

I know that at times you sit alone and cry. Other times you laugh at things no one else finds funny. This is not just “weirdness.” This is a mood disorder, called bipolar disorder, type 2. Your mood swings will make it difficult for you to make and keep friends. Keep trying. The friends you will find are worth it and will stand by you when you really need them. You will not be alone in dealing with this.

Your choice to go to college out of state will be a good one. There you will have a variety of experiences that will make you grow in unexpected ways. Your mood disorder will go to college with you, though. Leaving Ohio will not mean you will leave bipolar disorder behind. You will still feel the mood swings, and most of them will be depression.

It’s a good idea to take that year off between freshman and sophomore year. I know it will feel scary, but at that point you will be in no shape to carry on with academics. Instead, you will get a job which, while not great, will introduce you to more new people and new ways of life. At least one of those people will stick with you till you are old and gray.

Returning to school will be a good decision. Your parents will support you in that decision. They won’t object to your year off, because they know you will go back. It still won’t be easy, but you will have a core group of friends that accept you, even though you are different from them.

Your bipolar disorder will follow you back to college. It will make you miss some opportunities and choose others that will not be good for your mental health. You will be unhappy most of the time, but you will find that music helps you through it.

Try not to self-harm. I know you will feel numb and want to feel something else, but cutting yourself is a bad decision and will not help. You will carry those scars forever.

When you meet Rex, though, you will be encountering a problem too big for you to handle, and the relationship will leave you scarred as well. It would be best if you were to steer clear of him altogether. But then again, you will find some true friends in his circle, and it would be a shame to miss them. Try your best to hold yourself together, remember what I said about self-harm, and don’t give up on who you are. You are not your disorder, and you will get through this, despite everything.

I know you never gave a thought to marrying, but you will meet a man and in a few years you will marry him. This, I assure you, is a good decision. He will stick by you no matter what and help you find help.

Going into the building that says “South Community Mental Health” will be a good decision. Whatever you will be feeling at this point – most likely misery – it’s not mentally healthy. This will be the place where you will start to climb out of the hole you have found yourself in.

At last, a doctor will tell you that you have bipolar disorder – most often depression, but also anxiety. He will work with you to find a combination of medications that will help you. When that happens, you will become reacquainted with your brain and relearn how to function in the world at large. Your brain will function in a new way, one with fewer out-of-control feelings. You will experience life more fully and be glad of your new outlook.

It won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but you will have therapists, and friends, and work, and love, all of which will help see you through. You will have bipolar disorder all your life, but it will not be your life, though it seems that way now.

Reach out for help whenever and wherever you find it. Cherish your friends. Keep trying, even when you want to give up. Better times are on the way.

I promise.

Love, me (older and maybe wiser)

A Sensory Self-Soothing Room

Photo from the author’s collection

Not long ago, I read in the Creativity in Therapy blog (http://creativityintherapy.com/2016/05/create-a-sensory-self-soothing-kit/) an article by Carolyn Mehlomakulu, art therapist, called “Create a Sensory Self-Soothing Kit.” The idea was that a box filled with items that engage your five senses is an excellent tool for being grounded when you need centering or self-care. The recommendations were for any five things that appeal to the senses of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. I tried the exercise and came up with the following:

Touch – plush animal

Sight – amber necklace

Hearing – iPod playlist

Taste – caramel

Smell – Oolong tea

I never actually made myself such a self-comfort box, but I remember the exercise as a way to think about my senses and how nourishing them can nourish me.

Lately, though, I have acquired a room of my own and have been decorating it to suit myself. Recently, I realized that it has all the requisites of a comfort kit toolbox.

Touch – I have quite a collection of stuffed animals stashed around the room. A great many of them were gifts from my husband, who knows my history with stuffed animals (as we used to call them). Every Easter there was a new stuffed rabbit in our Easter baskets, along with the chocolate bunny and the jelly beans.

Perhaps the most important plushie in my room is named “Trauma Bunny.” My husband found her in the store he works at, squashed behind two huge bags of dog food in the pet aisle, rather than in toys where she belonged. Of course, he bought her and brought her home to me. Now she sits on my desk, guarding my headphones and cellphone, close enough for me to reach out and pat her on the head or fondle her ears.

Sight – I have furnished my room with many things I like to look at, from travel souvenirs to prints and paintings that have significance for me. Even the walls are a toasty rusty-brickish color that makes me feel warm just to look at. I also have a television, where I can watch shows that comfort me, such as ones on the Food Network. I have two windows, and the blinds are always up on at least one of them. The view isn’t terrific, but the sunshine is welcome.

Hearing – I do have iTunes on my computer, with more music than I could listen to in a week. Among the tunes are ones recorded by some of my singer/songwriter friends, as well as the well-known artists I like best, ones you don’t hear on the radio anymore. There is also instrumental music, from Vince Guaraldi to Béla Fleck, if I want something less distracting than voices and lyrics.

I also have a cat tree by the window, where my two cats love to sit or sleep. Both cats purr nicely and loudly. One of them even snores when she sleeps – daintily, but she definitely snores. (Of course, petting the cats also qualifies as touch, and watching them bathe themselves, which I find soothing, counts for sight as well.)

Taste – My husband keeps my room stocked with things he knows I like such as Cocoa Puffs. There’s always diet cola in the bottom drawer on the lefthand side of my desk. Right now there are honey-roasted peanuts in case I need a more proteinaceous snack.

I generally eat only one meal a day, and when I’m really depressed sometimes skip eating altogether. It’s good to know that there’s something here that is easy to access, requires no cooking, and meets some of my basic needs and likes.

Smell – Since I’ve transferred most of my library to an ereader, there are fewer books in my room, but most of the ones I still have are old and retain that almost-indefinable book smell – dust, paper, and some other distinctive aroma that I remember from trips to the used book store as a kid.

I also have a candle that smells like snickerdoodle cookies. I’ve never lit it, but sometimes I just pick it up for a deep sniff. Then there’s my tiny Mr. Coffee, which I use for tea, including oolong, herb tea, and possibly my favorite, the spicy smell of Constant Comment tea.

I practically live here, even though the house is fairly large and there are sensory delights in the other spaces as well. But what I have here, I recently realized, is a comfort box that’s just the size of a room.

Mental Health Privilege

Vectorarte / Adobestock.com

These days we hear a lot about privilege – class privilege, white privilege, first-world privilege, male privilege, and, I’m sure, many more. The idea is that people who have privilege don’t have problems that other people deal with every day and. In fact, they don’t usually realize that they have this privilege and benefit from it.

I know that I am privileged in many ways. I am white and heterosexual. I have a house, a husband, and work I can do. I have an Ivy League education and grew up in the suburbs, the child of loving parents who never divorced.

But what I don’t have is mental health privilege. I have bipolar disorder.

When a person has mental health privilege, they don’t have to take multiple medications just to keep their brain functioning in something like a normal manner. You won’t get pill-shamed for the meds you take or have random people suggest your problems will all be solved with prayer, yoga, apple cider vinegar, or acupuncture.

(I do recognize that there are many people who take meds for a variety of disorders, including life-threatening ones. I don’t mean to discount their struggles. Physical health privilege and ableist privilege also exist.)

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to question whether or when you should inform a boss, a potential employer, or a friend or romantic partner that you have a mental disorder. You don’t have to fear that that one fact will make it more unlikely that you can achieve a stable work situation (or any work situation) or a stable relationship.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to try to find a therapist who specializes in your problem and can actually help you. You don’t have to repeat your whole psychiatric history every time your therapist gets another job, causing you to start all over with a new therapist. You also don’t have to ask your primary care physician, who may or may not know much about psychotropic meds, to prescribe for you until you find a psychiatrist or when one isn’t even available to you.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t worry that people will avoid you because you act “peculiar,” miss appointments and dates, or can’t handle crowds or even family gatherings. 

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to fear that you may have to stay for a while in a mental ward or have treatments like ECT.

When you have mental health privilege, you won’t get shot by a police officer just because you have a meltdown or a really bad day or a psychotic break.

Of course, the privileges I do have protect me some. Realistically, there is less chance that I will be killed by a police officer than would a person of color. In fact, my race and income make it easier for me to access mental health care.

The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, in its July 3, 2017 editorial, makes clear that mental health privilege affects not only people who have mental disorders, but also the people who care for them.  The piece, written by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN and Paula J. Brown, MBA, points out, “More than 70% of all health care providers in the United States are White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and many, if not most, have unconscious (or conscious) biases (Institute of Medicine, 2003).” Their level of privilege may interfere with their treatment of their clients. The authors of the editorial encourage those with privilege to use it to help others.

Racial privilege is particularly problematic when considering mental health providers and their clients. NAMI Illinois “reported studies found that ‘black professionals make up only 2.6% of mental health clinicians in the United States, which is low considering that approximately 20% of black Americans seek mental health specialty treatment within a 12-month period.'” “While access to culturally diverse providers is low, the cost of mental health treatment remains high,” they add, “which serves as an additional impediment to bridging the gap between the onset of symptoms and accessing professional care.”

Education about mental health privilege may or may not help. Many people pooh-pooh the idea of any kind of privilege and bridle at the idea that they themselves have privilege by virtue of their health, sex, economic status, or other attributes. Some people’s eyes can be opened. (My husband didn’t recognize male privilege until I pointed out that no one suggested he change his name when we married or that we were “shacked up” because he didn’t.)

It’s understandable in a way.  People have a hard time envisioning that they themselves might ever be mentally ill or poor or homeless or denied work or discriminated against in any number of ways.

But with mental health privilege, it’s even more difficult to get people to understand. Until a close friend or family member faces mental or emotional difficulties – suffers from PTSD, experiences major depression, develops schizophrenia – people will not usually have the opportunity to realize the mental health privilege they have. And they may not even then.

As with any kind of privilege or stigma, if there is to be any improvement, people need to be educated. It’s not easy to open their eyes. But doing so can make a difference in the lives of people who do not share that privilege.

Yes, It Was That Bad

By patpitchaya/adobestock.com

There’s a tendency, once you’ve started to heal from the wounds that mental illness has left you with, to forget how bad it really was at the time. It’s not that time heals all wounds. It’s just that the memories fade as they flow backward into the past. You find yourself asking, was I really that miserable? That irrational? That out of control? Once therapy and medication – or whatever works for you – have gotten you past the crisis stage, it gets harder to remember what it all felt like at the time.

Nor do we want to. Going through an episode of serious mental illness is hard enough when you do it once. Reliving it is devoutly to be avoided, if possible.

Still, the memories get a little fuzzy around the edges. Now that you are mentally healthier, you know that you would never tolerate the kind of treatment you used to, or be so self-destructive, or put yourself down so thoroughly. The times when you did those things, when you felt those ways, seem in some sense unreal.

I think that’s one reason that some people go off their meds. It’s not just that they feel better or think that they’re cured. It’s that on some level they can’t remember how bad it really was back then. So why should they need psychotropics?

Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s much better now, but yes, it was that bad back then. You may not remember the weeping and wailing and total despair. You may not remember that you were immobilized for months at a time. You may not recollect pushing away people that were trying to help you. But all that happened.

Perhaps you don’t recall what it was that led you to consider self-harm or suicide. You wouldn’t think that way now, of course – you’re so much more stable. Perhaps you think to yourself that an abusive partner wasn’t really all that bad. After all, you got away from him/her/them. It was survivable, so it must have been not that big a deal.

But it was that big a deal. Denying the experiences you’ve had and minimizing their effects on you make it harder to see the long way you’ve come. It’s hard for me to remember now the major bipolar depressive episode that lasted for literally years, when I wasn’t able to work, or write, or read, or be there for my husband or even myself. But it happened, and I can’t deny it. I’d be lying to myself if I tried.

I’m not recommending that you wallow in the memories of the horrible times. I’d rather think about it as keeping little bits of them in a box on a shelf. Every now and then, on a day when you feel particularly strong, you open the lid and peek in. It may be shocking to realize how bad off you were, but a positive relief when you consider how far you’ve come. As the saying goes, the bad times make the good seem so much better.

Bad and good, your experiences have made you what you are today. Denying or minimizing the bad makes it seem like your journey was less long and hard than you know it was. In a way, mental illness is the yardstick by which we can measure mental health. Moving onward and upward are important, but so is being realistic about the past. Yes, it was that bad.  And yes, you made it through anyway!

Missing the Finer Things in Life

By GoodIdeas / adobestock.com

One of the ways I know when I’m slipping into bipolar depression is when I lose my sense of humor. Not even my husband’s awful jokes get a rise out of me. I also lose interest in many things that I ordinarily enjoy – reading, puzzles, and games, to name a few. The joys of life are few and far between.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I seem to be slipping again. I don’t feel overly depressed yet, but the signs are creeping up on me.

I think I first noticed it when it occurred to me that I had not done the New York Times crossword puzzle for at least a week. The Sunday Times puzzle is, or was, something I looked forward to every week. Now, I may not get around to playing it till mid-week or simply wait for next week’s, in hopes that I feel better. Most of my other entertainments have fallen by the wayside as well.

I know part of the problem is lack of spoons. I have been taking on extra work in my transcription job, simply to make extra money, which we do need. But it means I have given up almost all my days off and have had to get up very early to finish assignments. There’s little of me left over to do frivolous things, the things that bring joy.

On top of that, I have a house to furnish from top to bottom. I do not find shopping relaxing or enjoyable. In fact, I loathe it. Yet there I am, once or twice a week, at the vast home improvement store, picking out lighting or flooring or something else the contractor needs right away. It’s exhausting, not rewarding, and it eats into my spoons and my days off even more. It’s almost like having a second job, what with all the research, phone calls, appointments, choices, and decisions. Perhaps I’ll be able to rejoice in our new digs when it’s all done, but right now I can barely picture it.

The lockdown isn’t helping, either. One of the things I used to enjoy was going out to my favorite restaurants or discovering new ones. Now that is right out. I know some people are again indulging, but I’m not willing to risk my life for a cheeseburger and a brew or even tiramisu. My space and my life are constricted to a one-bedroom apartment, with a laundry/utility area substituting for my beloved study.

I do still have some comfort in my life, which is a mercy. When it all gets too much for me, I knock off for a while and watch some cooking shows on TV, which I find soothing, or read a chapter in a book before I fall asleep. At least I haven’t lost my ability to read, which I did once during a major depressive episode. And I’ve been able to maintain my blogs, which gives me satisfaction.

But as to joy, there is none. Life has become a tedious slog through one damn thing after another. One of the questions they always ask you during the depression screener at the doctor’s office is, “Do you no longer enjoy things you used to?” 

I’d say that’s true. Or at least I no longer have the wherewithal to do the things that I used to enjoy. Is it a marker of bipolar depression, or simply a reaction to all the things piling up on me right now? And which one causes the other?

On the surface, my retreat from joy is not excessively alarming. It has not yet reached the point of a major depressive episode. I can still do my work and my work on completing the house. What I can’t do is find a way to take mental time off – and I know that’s not good for my emotional stability.

I guess I’m just afraid that, in my life as it stands right now, there is no room left over for enjoyment. And that feels a lot like psychic numbness and depression. Perhaps when life settles down a little bit – if it ever does – I will get some of the enjoyment back. Perhaps it will become clear to me whether this exhaustion is circumstantial or anhedonia, a symptom.

Nevertheless, I plod onward, hoping for the day when satisfaction, relaxation, engagement – joy – will return. So far, it always has, though sometimes it seems forever before it does. That’s the nature of this illness and of recovery.

 

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