Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘blogging’

How I Became a Mental Health Blogger

Of course, blogging didn’t exist when I started writing. It was quite a journey ending up where I am today. Even mental health services were a big blank to me when I was young, something that no one I knew experienced or even talked about, except to make jokes about going to “Wayne Avenue,” the location of the nearest insane asylum (as we called it then).

But it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t write. Childish poems fueled by voracious reading. Hideously depressive poems fueled by burgeoning bipolar disorder. (I still commit poetry from time to time, writing sonnets and villanelles about bipolar disorder.)

But before I returned to poetry with more structure, I indulged in free verse – unrhymed, unmetered verse that relied on the juxtaposition of images rather than formal style. I studied creative writing in high school and college. But the bipolar disorder was undeniably with me, influencing the topics I wrote about: “Two Ways of Looking at the Same Pain” and “Whiskey on the Knife,” a poem about self-harm, are two examples.

As my poetry developed, it started reading more and more like prose, strung out in sentences that relied on line breaks with twists and jarring pauses to create poetic effects. Eventually, I gave up on poetry and simply gave in to prose. I made my living doing prose, and nonfiction at that, writing for magazines about education, technology, child care, and even martial arts.

Bipolar disorder took that away from me. After being diagnosed with clinical depression for years, I finally was identified as having bipolar 2. It was treatment-resistant for many years and during that time I was often unable to write.

My mental health blog, which you’re reading now, grew out of a journaling exercise. I began by listing what I did each day – not much, as I was stuck in a major depressive episode and not able to do much. But once again, what started as something else turned into prose. And by that time blogging was a thing.

I started blogging largely as an exercise for myself, to explore bipolar disorder, its symptoms and treatments, and my particular version of it. I set myself the task of posting once a week, a schedule that I still keep. I wrote short essays and longer pieces, whatever I was thinking about at the time. Hardly anyone read the blog. I sometimes wonder if the title “Bipolar Me” was a turn-off, but really that summed up my knowledge about bipolar – my own experiences.

Slowly, I started finding my voice. and finding things to say with it. Things other than what was inside my own head. Oh, I still wrote about my symptoms and my meds and my coping mechanisms, major depression and hypomania, mood swings and roller coasters. But I also started approaching the wider world of bipolar. Bipolar in the news. Bad science reporting about bipolar. TV commercials about bipolar meds. Bipolar disorder and gun violence. All of this was still through the lens of my own experience, as I have no degree in psychology, counseling, or biochemistry, for that matter.

And I started reaching a wider audience. My writing appeared in The Mighty, Invisible Illness, IBPF, Thought Catalog, Medium, and as guest posts on other bloggers’ sites. Eventually, I had enough material to make Bipolar Me into a book of the same name. And then a sequel, Bipolar Us. Both are still available on Amazon and through other outlets.

I know I’m not in the same league with mental health bloggers like Pete Earley and Gabe Howard. They are true activists and influencers, as well as terrific writers. Their work reaches thousands of people with information, analysis, inspiration, and more impact than I will likely ever have.

But I won’t give up blogging just because I’m not the best. I’ll be here every Sunday, posting my bipolar thoughts and opinions, sharing my bipolar experience, and chronicling my bipolar life.

Hitting the Plateau

Back in September, I wrote about my bipolar disorder being in remission and how much I loved that feeling. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m not in remission. I’ve had significant setbacks, though not long-term ones. At one point I felt broken, but when that lifted I felt jazzed. Maybe I’m on a baseline and never wander too far off it. Maybe I’m stuck on a plateau, halfway between mental illness and mental health.

I ask myself, will I get any better?

It’s like when I had my second back operation (micro-laminectomy). When I went for a follow-up visit to the surgeon, I was no longer in pain. But I was slow and uncertain when walking and felt keenly that my physical capacities were diminished. “Will I get any better, or is this it?” I asked.

“You’ll improve,” said Dr. West. “It will take a while, but you’ll feel better.” And he was right. I did. But I still have some pain at times and sometimes I walk with a cane. I may be better, but I’m clearly not totally well. I’m not bitching (much). I know that once your back goes out, it never gets back to 100%. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t suffer the excruciating pain of a bulging disk and a pinched nerve.

My bipolar disorder is like that. I am no longer suffering on a daily basis. My meds are working and haven’t changed much in years. My mood levelers are doing their job. But I still have symptoms. There are still things I can’t do, or do only with great mental effort. I’ve never been at 100% and don’t ever expect to be. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t have the in-the-depths lows, the ever-edgy anxiety, for more than a few days at a time.

But I wonder, am I stuck on this plateau forever? Is this as close as I’ll ever come to mental wellness? Or maybe, I think, mental health is an illusion. I can’t remember a time when I was unaffected by my disorder. The plateau itself may be an illusion. Maybe I am still improving, in such tiny steps that I can’t see the change. Maybe a new medication or treatment will come along and remove more of my remaining symptoms. (I’m not counting on that, though.)

My bipolar disorder feels like it’s running a low-grade fever. I can get done my work and my blogs, but little more. I don’t feel in the least joyful. It may be that this is just real life getting me down –  the weather, politics, the endless details and frustrations I have to deal with while we’re rebuilding our house. Perhaps this is just a normal mood swing like everyone gets or a reactive depression to the aforementioned stressors.

That’s one of the constant worries once you have bipolar disorder – not trusting your feelings or your feelings about your feelings. Every setback scares me that I’m teetering on the edge, ready to plunge off that plateau. Realistically, I know that I am as stable as I’m likely ever to be.

My superpower seems to be overanalyzing. I may really be in remission.

Depression lies. Anxiety lies. So, perhaps, does the plateau.

On Stigma Fighting and Political Advocacy

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in mental health circles. It’s a question of philosophy on some levels. What should we, as people concerned about mental health, mental illness, and society, be doing with our time and energy?

The two choices boil down to fighting stigma and political advocacy. They each have their motivation and their adherents.

The stigma fighters (including the organization Stigma Fighters) maintain that the way to make things better for the mentally ill is to erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness (particularly serious mental illness, or SMI). And there’s no doubt that there is stigma. The mentally ill are feared and blamed for violence in society. They do not get jobs or lose jobs because of their conditions. They hesitate to enter treatment for fear that friends or family will find out.

While mental illness is no longer the “secret family shame” that led to family members being “put away quietly,” kept locked in the attic, and never mentioned, many families do still find that mental illness – in themselves or their loved ones – is something to hide. Something not to discuss in polite company. Something to ignore the existence of.

People who fight stigma usually do so with information and education. Celebrities – even the British royal family – speak openly about conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, and other of the more common diagnoses. You undoubtedly have heard the PSAs on television that explain that mental health is important and that seeking treatment is not something to be ashamed of.

Are the stigma fighters making a dent in the stigma? It’s hard to say. At least they seem to have opened a conversation about mental health, mental illness, treatments including medications, mental illness among men, suicide, and other problems we face.

Still, the political advocates say, all that stigma fighting has done nothing to increase the number of psychiatric beds available or the number of psychologists caring for rural populations, the homeless, or people with schizophrenia and other psychoses that are foreign to most people’s experience. What we need are people who will bring up these and other issues with legislators and influencers at the local, state, and national levels; who will present proposals that may do some good in increasing access and funding; and who will advocate for improvements such as training for first responders in how to address mental health concerns.

And it’s true. All these things – and more – are needed. We may debate the wisdom of involuntary commitment or compulsory medication, but they are certainly topics that need to be explored if a consensus is ever to be reached. Most people in the mental health community admit that the system is broken and needs to be fixed – or possibly re-thought from the ground up.

Where do I stand on this debate? I feel that one or the other is not enough. It’s not an either/or situation. It seems to me that unless there is some real progress made in fighting stigma, the voting public and the legislators will not understand the realities of mental illness, the need for change, and what needs to be done to fix the system. Unless we engage in spreading information and changing people’s minds about what being mentally ill means, support for policy changes will be thin on the ground. And unless we come up with some solutions that people understand and support, nothing will change.

Myself, I work mostly in the stigma fighting camp. I don’t have the political acumen, contacts, and energy that real activism takes. I know it is vitally important, but it is not something I can do very much or very well.

What I can do, through my blogs and my books, is help with the information and education, spreading the word about mental health and mental illness, and helping alleviate the stigma that accompanies them. I also intend to start looking for opportunities in my writing to comment on the larger societal issues and proposed solutions and help with education about them as well.

To solve the problems surrounding mental illness, we must all do what we can, and what we do best.

Nothing to See Here

Many people with SMI are afraid that it shows, that other people can see automatically that there is something wrong with them. They feel as though they stand out in a crowd. Everyone notices them, and probably talks about them.

I have the opposite problem. My bipolar depression makes me feel invisible. It’s not just that SMI is often an invisible illness. It’s that I myself seem to become invisible. I think of myself as a particularly ineffectual ghost, frightening no one and unable to affect anything in my environment. Some people call this dissociation.

At first, I made the best of it. I’m especially invisible when I’m out in public and reading a book. So I found that if I was at a business convention and wanted to remain invisible, my best strategy was to sit alone at a table and read a book. Only once did a man approach me while I was so engaged. No one else ever did.

Apparently, though, I don’t need a book to disappear. Maybe it’s anxiety that makes me keep quiet when people around me are discussing something interesting. Maybe it’s my instinct not to be noticed so I won’t be subject to derision or worse. Either way, I can’t seem to catch anyone’s eye or add my bit to the conversation. I blend into the crowd, even if it’s only a crowd of three or four.

It’s almost like there’s some aura around me when I’m out in public that says, “Don’t notice me,” like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I do not use my invisibility for pranks or mischief, though. I don’t use it intentionally at all (except for using a book, as I mentioned).

Why do I think this invisibility is part and parcel of my bipolar disorder? It could be imposter syndrome at work. I feel so unworthy that I don’t want anyone to see me for what I am. Or it might be the anxiety component of my hypomania that keeps me from presenting myself more assertively. Or maybe people can see that I have a troubled mind and simply look away.

I am slowly learning to make myself seen and heard. I find that calling people by name makes it easier for them to see me. It seems to signal them that there’s another person in the vicinity. And once I even set up an occasion where I would be the center of attention, speaking about my bipolar disorder at a signing for my book.

I also use my writing to make myself “visible.” This blog (and my other one) and my books give me a presence, though not a physical one, even at a distance. When I see likes and follows and sales, I know that someone has noticed me, or at least discovered that I exist.

I sometimes think that going out in public more – practicing being visible – might help. But actually, that’s when I feel the most overlooked, the most unseen and unheard. The most lost.

Perhaps what I need is to go out and meet a specific person, someone who expects to see me. Then I could be guaranteed of one person who would see me.

But it has been suggested to me that I may not want to be seen at all – that I would prefer to fade into the background, not put myself forward and disappear from the stresses of being seen. Perhaps that is true, or at least once was.

Now I think I would prefer to be seen, flaws and all. If someone cannot tolerate the sight of me, a mentally disordered person, or glances over me as if I did not exist, I think I shall insist on being seen. I will use my voice, my (admittedly glitchy) brain, and my human physicality to assert that I exist, that I matter, that I have something to say.

And in social situations I will try to assert myself (if politely) to join the public discourse and add my two cents, whether the subject is mental illness or the latest bestseller.

I exist. I deserve to be seen. I will not remain invisible.

Helping Someone Else

My husband used to work in a community correctional facilityessentially a jail. The residents were considered nonviolent offenders technically on parole for mostly drug crimes, but things could still get interesting. Mostly he didn’t talk about his work because he would try to dismiss it from his mind every day as he went by a certain overpass on his way home from work.

One day, though, I was bitching in disbelief about something that had happened at my work – another editor had put his table of contents in random order instead of numerical. I was appalled by the stupidity of that.

There I was ranting about it. Then my husband said, “Boy, that’s tough. All I did today was break up a fight and spot a guy who might have a septic wound. But you – the table of contents out of numerical order? Wow!” That put me in my place.

My husband was someone who helped other people. For years after he left the job, people would come up to him when he was out and about, and reminisce with him. They’d tell him about how well they were doing, how they were clean and sober, how they had jobs, how they had improved their lives. They always said thank you to my husband.

This morning when I woke up and checked my email, I found something I wasn’t expecting. There, nestled in amongst the spam, was a response to a post that I wrote back in January, about passive suicidal ideation (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Me).

In the reply, the person told of having thought about suicide but not acting on it. The response ended, “I’ll follow your advice and seek professional help.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt then. Mostly, it was gratitude that my writing had helped someone, combined with not a little surprise at receiving a response at all. Sometimes writing is like shouting down a well. You never really know if anyone even hears you or if you’ve made a difference. Most of the time when I write this blog, I have no idea how the posts will affect my readers, if at all. But this time I knew – at least if the person followed through – that I had actually helped someone.

When I started Bipolar Me, it was to share my experiences with bipolar disorder and my thoughts on mental illness and mental health. If my writing resonated with someone, good. But I wasn’t writing with the intention of being inspiring, or helping people solve problems, or being a “good example.” I’m not a professional and the kind of advice I give (when I do) is largely commonsense – don’t stop taking your meds, seek professional help, thank your caregivers, and so on.

I’m not going to break my arm patting myself on the back here. There are lots of people who do the work of caring for the desperate and hurting every day. I am privileged to know some of them and to have even been helped by some. There are people like Sarah Fader and Gabe Howard who are advocates and activists for the mentally ill, who go out on a limb to do something to help the whole mental health community.

But today, for just a moment, I felt that I had really touched someone, really helped. It was a good feeling.

So there it is. I started this blog for self-centered reasons, to chronicle my own struggles and occasional victories. If it helped anyone, fine. If not, I still had stories to share. But now I find that having helped someone else has made a difference – in the other person, in me, in the world. Now I believe that my blog and my book could do more of that.

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.

No Resolutions – Just Memories and Hopes

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But since January is named after Janus, the two-faced god that can look both ways, I do look to the past and the future just to see what I can see.

Last year was a very mixed bag. It brought the heights of joy and the depths of depression, along with a little hypomania and dysthymia thrown in just because my brain does that.

The big negative this year was my husband’s heart attack in August and all the medical and financial repercussions that entailed. He’s back at work now, though he’s having difficulty managing the mental and physical stresses of it, so much so that he hasn’t made it to cardiac rehab in over a week. Rehab is not just a good thing physically; Dan said it made him feel energized, productive, and cheerful. I know, I know, exercise could do the same for me.

Still, there have been good things. My book, named after this blog, has now been published. This is a huge event in my life that lifted me temporarily out of depression and into (possibly) hypomania. And I have retired, meaning only that I will start collecting Social Security next year. It will not alter my blogging, writing, or other pursuits, since what I make from them won’t be over the “allowed-to-make-in-addition” line.

As for next year, I expect to see more of the same (minus, I hope, the heart attack). There will still be problems paying the bills, including the massive hospital one, but at least I will have a steady, fixed income. It will help me with my anxiety over potential financial collapse and my unreasonable fear of losing the house.

I’m also planning to get away for another long weekend at a bed-and-breakfast on a working farm. The last time we did it, it proved enormously soothing and relaxing. Another such mini-vacation would be ideal. We certainly won’t be able to take a full vacation, so I won’t even hope for that.

The other good news is that my second book, Bipolar Us, will be published. It may not be attended with the same level of hypomania that the first one was, but at the very least there will be real joy. Also in the coming year, I plan to finish my mystery novel and place it with an agent.

As far as my bipolar disorder, in the coming year, I will still have it. I expect that my meds will change not at all, or minimally since I’ve been relatively stable for so long. But I know it won’t go away just because I’ve crossed “publishing a book” off my bucket list. That’s not the way it works.

If this sounds like my 2019 will be more of the same, well, that’s because that is truly what I expect. Of course, my expectations will have no influence on the outcome. The year will be what it will be, as rife with unexpected events as this one was. My main hopes are that my husband’s health and my writing both improve.

I’ll try to remember the lessons learned from this year – that we are both strong and good things can happen to us. And I’ll try to plan for some positive accomplishments in 2019 and hope they’re within our reach. I won’t call them resolutions, though. Resolutions are so easily broken and I don’t like to think that my plans and hopes are.

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