Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘bipolar disorder’

Why Can’t I Cry?

There’s a lot that’s been happening around me that ought to have made me cry, but I just haven’t. There have been personal losses – the death and funeral of a dear friend. Occasions when I should have cried tears of joy – when an estranged friend wanted to reconnect with me. Professional losses – when I finally had to give up and admit that the novel I had spent years on was just not good enough to be published.

I’ve even thought about the deaths of some beloved animals, to see if that would make me cry. It didn’t.

In the past, I’ve never had trouble crying. As my bipolar disorder is largely bipolar depression, I have cried a lot – teared up, sobbed, wept – on occasions that were appropriate and some that weren’t.

I can’t even cry over the fact that I don’t seem able to cry.

There have been times in my life when I probably should have cried, but didn’t – when I was helping my mother pick out a dress to wear to my father’s funeral, for example. In that case, and in others like it, I postponed crying, or put my emotions in a box and sat on the lid.

Actually, I have had to do that many times throughout my life. Back when I was a teenager, an unmedicated person with bipolar disorder, and full of the volatility, despair, rage, and hormones of that time in life, I suppressed the impulse to cry, in order to look more “normal.”

It didn’t always work. For instance, some songs like Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” would almost always turn on the waterworks. But for the most part, I tried to suppress the need to cry.

The thing about it is, when you stuff down the ability to feel sadness or despair, just to survive, you can end up suppressing most of your other emotional reactions as well. Peace, humor, interest, gladness, tenderness all go into that box with the sadness and despair and you sitting on the lid.

That may be what has happened this time. I know I had to suppress my feelings to pick out a funeral outfit and attend the service. I felt despair over the end of my writing attempt, but I didn’t cry. I felt a sense of waiting to see how it would work out when the friend appeared to be reengaging.

I don’t know what else is in the box or how I can get it open again. I am not interested much in the TV shows I used to watch obsessively. I can read only a few pages of books that I would otherwise have devoured. I can’t remember the last time I laughed over something silly my husband said or did. I did not cry over the movie that he finds so very touching that he cries every time he sees it.

I am doing all the right things, though. I am taking my meds regularly and as prescribed. I have called the psychologist that I used to go to and made an appointment for a telehealth session. And I’m trying to figure out how to tell my psychiatrist all this when I go for my med check at the end of the month, if nothing else has worked by then.

Maybe one of those things will open the floodgates, un-stuff the box of stuff, and allow me to cry again, normally, when it’s needful.

But I don’t really know. Writing this post hasn’t done it.

Bipolar Disorder Has Turned Me Into a Pouty Child

I am blessed with many friends, online and off, who are as dear to me as anyone can be. We have laughed together, cried together, eaten together, danced together, sung together, joked together, mourned together, and loved together.

Now that I’m back in my cycles of depression and hypomania, hurtling around like a marble in a shoebox, I haven’t heard from any of them.

A lot of the contact I have with friends is on Facebook, and I have almost entirely stopped posting or replying, or otherwise interacting there. No one seems to have noticed. At least no one has called or IMed to check on me.

Am I ghosting them? No, because I don’t want the relationships to end. In fact I very much want them to continue. My scattered moods, primarily depression, have sapped my ability to reach out. It may be that they assume since I post my blogs every Sunday, I am all right.

I desperately want someone to reach out to me. This is selfish and childish and unworthy. If I want human contact, I should be able to reach out and initiate it myself. But I haven’t been able to. Between the exhaustion of depression and the exhaustion of hypomania, it’s difficult to make any kind of effort.

The memes say that if you have a depressed friend, reach out to them, even when they can’t reach back. And there have been times when my excellent friends did that, back when I had been in the Pit of Despair. And they kept reaching, even when I didn’t respond.

I guess I miss those days – not the Pit of Despair – but the little parachutes of care that rained down and demanded nothing. The phone calls “just to check in” or to distract, the invitations that I was never going to be able to make myself go to or reciprocate, the awful jokes that I might not even be able to laugh at.

I understand that everyone is fighting their own battles these days, with isolation, anxiety, panic, and other reactions to the pandemic, the lockdowns, the vaccines, the separated families. Mental health struggles, especially including depression and anxiety, are spreading to people who have never experienced them before. A lot of people are suffering, and a lot of people don’t know what, if anything, they can do about it. People have had to resort to Zoom weddings and funerals and outside-the-window visits to relatives in nursing homes.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that I have been so relatively stable and functional for so long now. I made it through a tornado and a year of home dislocation and all the associated disruptions and bureaucracy without having one of my famous meltdowns. So, now, when even I have not been expecting or experiencing any psychological trauma to speak of, it’s easy to understand that no one else has seen it or noticed.

Then there’s my husband. He is my rock, my caregiver, my “emotional support animal.” Ordinarily, he takes up most of the slack in making me feel seen and heard and cared for. But unfortunately, he is having depression and anxiety of his own right now. He has recently had health problems, has changed jobs, and has physically strenuous activities he must complete, within a deadline. Of course, he is reacting with depression and anxiety of his own. And when both of us are depressed and anxious at the same time, it’s not pretty. We don’t have enough psychic stamina to help ourselves, much less each other.

So, I understand why it isn’t happening. But I miss the check-ins I’m not getting. The calls that don’t come. The personal long-distance reach-in. The wave from outside the window.

I’m not quite to the point of, “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I guess I’ll go eat some worms.” But close.

Hypomania and Exhaustion

I’ve done so much. I should feel exhausted. I do feel exhausted. Why do I keep doing so much?

The answer, of course is hypomania, or maybe a mixed state.

I had been thoroughly depressed over my writing, as I sent out query after query to agents, and getting back rejections or the horrifying limbo of “no response means no.” I kept doing this for nearly four months, until I had apparently run out of agents to query. (I know that can’t be literally true. There are thousands of agents in New York alone, but I had been through all the usual lists and gone pretty far down the Google pages.) Yet I trudged along, depressed but pushing myself. Get the queries done. Get my work done. Get these blogs done. Go to bed. The same the next day. Call it functioning depression. I was still in motion, doing what I told myself had to be done, but enjoying none of it (or anything else).

Then I got an invitation to try out for some work-for-hire (which is sort of like ghostwriting, only different). Instantly, preparing submissions (three of them!) for this gig consumed me. And I kept on with the queries, the work, and the blogs. But I was tipping over into hypomania.

I wrote the submissions insanely quickly, when I knew I should have taken the time to analyze them, polish them, try a couple of different drafts. But no. I found myself pushed to get them done and get them out there. Or rather, I pushed myself to do it.

My submissions were rejected, but this time instead of slipping back into a funk of depression, I wrote a nice note saying that if another opportunity like this came up to please consider letting me apply again. They responded to the note, seeming astonished that I had sent it, and complimenting me on my attitude. Nothing like a pat on the head to keep the juices flowing.

It was at about that point that hypomania truly hit. I focused everything on my writing. I reworked the first three chapters that I had been submitting to agents and submitted them to still more. I started taking on extra work assignments. I took only brief breaks to eat a bowl of soup, then plunged back into it again. I had trouble getting to sleep and trouble sleeping, even though I was so exhausted that I turned in early each night. And I woke early, ready to keep on keeping on.

Then the miracle happened. I got a positive response from an agent. They wanted to see more of my work. I tweaked the newly revised first three chapters and sent them in. Now I’m waiting, nearly bouncing out of my chair, for them to respond. I just know that they will want to see the whole novel and become my agents. I do know that the deal is a long way away from being sealed, but hope after so long of slogging through my depression, hypomania has taken control.

I am (sort of) still contemplating my WIP (work in progress, a sequel to the novel that might now become real), thinking I need to rethink it entirely or try a different plot altogether. I am still taking on extra work, though it exhausts me. During my brief breaks from work, I scour the internet for presents for my husband’s birthday, and spend more than I had intended for more presents than I had planned.

And I am writing this blog post the day before I need to post it, rather than the three to four days I usually allow myself to write it. And I still need to polish the post for my other blog. And pay bills. And find a place for us to get a health check that’s required by my husband’s employer. (I have already set up appointments for our vaccine shots.)

I think it is most likely that if the agent rejects my work after all this, I will once again sink into depression – the I’m not worthy anything, I’m a fool to have put this much energy into it, I should just give up kind. Cutting back my activity to the bare minimum – work and blogs. Sleeping more, enjoying it less. Enjoying everything less. My old familiar functioning depression that is only possible because of the meds I take that don’t allow me to swing too far down.

I know people who, when you try to tell them about hypomania, tell you to enjoy it while you have it. They don’t know how wrong they are.

Laughing Out Loud

There’s nothing funny about bipolar disorder. In fact, one of the ways that I know I’m having a spell of bipolar depression is that my sense of humor flies out the window. Nothing brings a smile or a laugh – not my husband’s awful jokes. Not my friend Tom’s silly songs. Not a funny movie like Arsenic and Old Lace.

I have been in a spell of depression for a little while now. As I mentioned last week, part of it may be reactive depression. But here’s the thing. Reactive depression feels the same as bipolar depression. You have the same sense of misery, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, anomie. But you know what caused it and that it will end pretty soon, relatively, unless you tip over into a true depressive episode, which can last a lot longer than that.

But yesterday I laughed. And that was a good thing. It didn’t pull me completely out of my depression, but it let me know that escape was possible, and maybe even starting.

It happened like this:

My husband and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV. I was not enjoying it. Then a commercial came on about “man-boosting” pills that increase testosterone. It promised everything: strength, leanness, stamina, and outstanding performance in the bedroom.

Dan turned to me and said, “Hey, honey. Maybe I should try some of that. Improve my performance in bed-woo-woo-woo!

I turned and looked him straight in the eyes. I said, in a solemn, deadpan voice, without a trace of a snicker: Woo. Woo. I never got to the third Woo because we both dissolved in giggles. And it felt good – not only that I could laugh, but that I could make him laugh. Just thinking about it made us laugh all over again.

Today I am back to feeling overwhelmed, if a little less miserable, but still functioning on some kind of level. I don’t think my depression is over with. But for just a moment, I saw a ray of hope. Yes, it was over something stupid. Yes, I delivered the line with a flat affect. No, I didn’t know it was going to be that funny. I even thought Dan might be offended that I was making fun of him. But the important thing is that we both laughed. 

What I’m saying is that laughter, by itself, is not a cure for depression, however much the memes and the positive thinkers tell you that it is. But if laughter happens to you, it at least reminds you that the depression will end sometime – maybe quicker than you think. The giggles are building blocks that will help you climb up out of your hole, or at least see that there is a way out.

That’s a lot of philosophizing about two words (or syllables, really), and I’m not sure the magic would happen again if either one of us said Woo. But I am taking the memory of that moment with me, for whatever strength it can give me and whatever amusement will stay with me when this depression ends.

My Triggers

By shane / adobe stock.com

Bipolar disorder is a funny thing. It can come on with no warning. One moment you’re fine, and the next you’re in the infinite doldrums or jagging on a spike of enthusiasm. Most of the time, it’s like that. The moods come on unexpectedly and stay as long as they want.

Sometimes, however, there are things in your life that seem to trigger a bout of depression or mania.  This isn’t quite the same as what’s commonly called a trigger. In the usual sense, a trigger is something in your past, like a traumatic memory, that comes bursting through when you read, see, or otherwise encounter a reminder of that memory. Suddenly, you are thrown back into the situation that triggered you, reliving the trauma, feeling as if you were still there, re-experiencing it. Triggers are most commonly associated with PTSD (or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many people associate PTSD and its flashbacks with veterans and war, but other traumas, such as rape, assault, and natural disasters can also cause PTSD.

Trigger warnings are controversial. Some people need a warning that the content – especially books, blog posts, or films – may trigger a suppressed or otherwise traumatic memory and leave the person caught up in the sensations during a public moment, such as in a classroom. Obviously, people with traumatic memories would prefer to avoid this, so a trigger warning is placed at the beginning of a story, novel, or even a song that deals with rape, domestic abuse, or other traumas, especially ones depicted in a particularly graphic manner.

To other people, reacting to a trigger is an admission of fragility, at best, or at worst, an excuse for avoiding content that most people can easily handle. This is part of the mindset that leads to calling the severely traumatized “snowflakes” for their perceived inability to deal with stimuli that “normal” people take for granted. They do not understand the power of traumatic memories or the power they have over people who have been through trauma. They consider such people weak. They consider themselves strong, even if – or especially if – they have been through traumas themselves.

In general, my life has been less traumatic than some, more traumatic than others. There are memories that invade my dreams, situations that cause me panic, and stimuli that rev me up. I am not in control of these stimuli, or what they do to me.

Most of the stimuli trigger depression in me, as my bipolar disorder is heavily weighted towards depression. (In fact, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression before a psychiatrist finally recognized my condition as bipolar 2 with anxiety.) When I encounter one of these “personal” triggers, I am panicked, unable to communicate, and immobilized, or nearly so, and must rely on the help of others, especially my husband, to get me through. There’s no telling how long that depression will last.

Primary among my triggers is what I call “the rotten ex-boyfriend who almost ruined my life.” It was a toxic, gaslighting relationship that left my soul sucked dry and my emotions shattered. Fortunately, I do not often encounter anything that reminds me of those days. A friend I met during that time, in fact, has helped me heal both then and for many years thereafter.

Still, I have dreams – ones where I am traveling to the man’s house, ones where I am in the house but he is not present, and ones in which he is. I wake feeling vaguely seasick and nervous. The feeling persists like a hangover through most of the next day. It interferes with my ability to do work and to interact with people. My reactions used to be much worse, with specific words even able to throw me into panic and depression.

Another thing that triggers me is disastrous financial matters, or at least ones that I perceive that way. IRS dealings are by far the worst. A letter with that return address throws me into a panic. Once I even collapsed on the street after an IRS engagement and was unable to get up without assistance. Overdue bills and dealing with personal finances are triggers, exacerbated by the fact that I pay most of the bills, despite the fact that I make less than half the money. This is one of my contributions to the household since there are many things I am unable to do. Such situations leave me with my head in my hands, shaking and catastrophizing, unable to do what must be done until I calm down. (My husband is by now adept at helping me do this.)

And I have one of the more “traditional” trauma triggers – a natural disaster. A year and a half ago, our house was destroyed by a tornado. At the time it hit, I was upstairs in the bedroom. I remember the roof coming off. I remember putting a pillow over my head and hoping for the best. For many months I suppressed the trauma. But now it has come out. When the wind blows very hard or the rain blows sideways, I panic. Despite the fact that upstairs is the very place I shouldn’t go, that’s where I end up – in bed with a pillow over my head. (I also avoid movies like Twister. I’m not even sure I should try The Wizard of Oz.)

As for hypomanic triggers, I have few. Most of my hypomanic flights are unexpected, lifting me up with no warning. Although they can be exhilarating, they are also dangerous. One of the hazards is unwise spending, which of course can lead to the aforementioned financial depression triggers.

One trigger that takes me as near as I ever get to hypomanic sexuality, though, is a sensory, rather than a situational, trigger. For some reason, the smell of Irish Spring soap brings up the heat in me. I distinctly remember the first occasion on which I noticed this. A coworker walked past me and I smelled the distinctive scent. It started my juices flowing. Later, we became lovers. My reaction to Irish Spring is less extreme these days, but it still triggers a memory of the feeling. I seldom encounter the scent anymore, as my husband prefers Zest.

At any rate, it is my experience that triggers can arise from sensory memories, from dreams, from upsetting situations. I have few triggers related to textual representations, though I am not immune to those in films (I left the movie “What Dreams May Come” before it was over and waited in the lobby until it was over).

What I can say is that people’s triggers do not make them “snowflakes.” Triggers elicit visceral reactions that are no less real for not being visible to outsiders. While I don’t advise purging any possible triggering material from, say, academic curricula, I do think a trigger warning on syllabi or blog posts is only polite, and possibly psychologically necessary.

 

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/

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