Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘bullying’

The Fire and the Window

fire orange emergency burning

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When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”

I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.

“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”

That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.

Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.

The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.

The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.

The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.

Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.

The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.

My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.

I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.

But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.

The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.

 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

What Schools Are – and Aren’t – Doing About Mental Health

I believe that mental health education belongs in schools. I’ve written about that (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw). There’s good news about the subject and there’s less-good news. I’ll let you sort out which is which.

First, two U.S. states are now required by law to include mental health in their curriculum – New York and Virginia.

New York’s law mandates teaching the subject as part of the K-12 health curriculum, which has only two other specifically required topics: alcohol, drug and tobacco abuse and the prevention and detection of certain cancers. According to the law, the new education requirements seek to “open up dialogue about mental health and combat the stigma around the topic.” Free resources for New York schools, such as teacher training, are available online. These include lesson plans, though schools and teachers are free to design their own curricula.

In Virginia, mental health education is required only in grades 9-10. Huffington Post reports that the legislation came about “after state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) saw that three high school students had researched, developed and presented the proposed legislation, which struck close to home for the legislator, who had lost his son to suicide in 2013.”

Indeed, those laws are good things, though one could wish that the other 48 states would take note and do likewise. They are, of course, not forbidden to teach mental health education, and many do, especially around the topics of drug and alcohol prevention and suicide prevention. Some of them even require education on those two topics, along with bullying. Many of these efforts are sincere, significant, and even life-saving, but it is worth noting that bullying and student suicide are events for which schools are at risk of legal liability. One might wonder whether that has influenced the laws, rather than supporting more comprehensive mental health education.

Contrast the U.S. experience with England, where all secondary school teachers and other school staff are being given training that will help them identify mental health issues in children, including depression and anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorders. This is thanks in part to Prince Harry’s openness about needing counseling to help him deal with the death of his mother, Princess Diana, which happened when he was 12. The Prime Minister has said that the prince’s disclosures will help “smash the stigma” regarding mental illness and the need for getting help.

“The programme is delivered by social enterprise Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, backed by £200,000 in Government funding,” notes the Telegraph, “and will be extended to primary schools by 2022.”

The campaigns around the mental health mandate, especially those featuring Princes William and Harry, have focused on the need for Britons to abandon their “stiff upper lip” image and to accept that men can and do need to seek help for mental difficulties. While that is indeed a vital message, one hopes that girls and women do not get left behind in the efforts.

What about U.S. states where mental health education is not a fact of life?

For schools in the U.S. that have not mandated mental health education, the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) has developed resources that can help districts, schools, teachers, and families address the problem through the NAMI Parents & Teachers as Allies program of training.

They have also developed a presentation for students called NAMI Ending the Silence, “designed for middle and high school students that includes warning signs, facts and statistics and how to get help for themselves or a friend.” These programs are offered free to schools and communities. For more information, go to https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Mental-Health-in-Schools.

For a more DIY approach, youth.gov (https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/school-based) recommends that schools “partner with community mental health organizations and agencies to develop an integrated, comprehensive program of support and services.” Among the actions they recommend are for schools and partnerships to:

  • develop evidence-based programs to provide positive school climate and promote student skills in dealing with bullying and conflicts, solving problems, developing healthy peer relationships, engaging in activities to prevent suicide and substance use, and so on.
  • develop early intervention services for students in need of additional supports such as skill groups to deal with grief, anger, anxiety, sadness, and so on.

In other words, for schools to spend the time and energy to do for themselves what the state and national governments are unwilling or unlikely to do.

To me, this is one of those times when a national curriculum makes sense, or at the very least a mandate in every state. Mental health education should be comprehensive, freely available, easy to access, and scientifically accurate for all schools and schoolchildren. The education this would provide and the statement it would make would be invaluable. Drug and alcohol, bullying, and suicide prevention are just a start, but a start that many states have not made.

 

 

Forgiving and Forgetting

man standing on riverbank

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Forgive and forget. That’s the saying.

To err is human; to forgive, divine. That’s another saying.

But what about when you can’t forget and can’t forgive? When you’re human, not divine?

Forgiveness is a tough subject for me, because there are things I can’t forget, despite the fact that either my bipolar disorder or my meds have made my memory spotty at best. But there are things I remember too well. And some of those I can’t forgive.

I can’t forgive the person who called my mother a murderer because she had her sick, ancient little dog euthanized. And then kept rubbing her face in it by saying she did not support my mother’s actions. This person caused my mother unnecessary pain when what she needed were understanding and comfort. By those criteria, I am a murderer too. A person that toxic is someone I don’t need in my life.

And maybe that’s wrong of me, but it was my decision.

Another person I can’t forget or forgive is my gaslighter, Rex, about whom I’ve written before (see https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-dR, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-4t). In one of those posts I said, of forgiving and forgetting:

I can’t do either. The memories have faded over time and seldom give me flashbacks anymore. (The dreams still come.) As for forgiving? He’s never asked for it and never would. I’m sure he doesn’t think he did anything that needed forgiving….

That emotional abuse happened, and I can’t forget it. It was my first serious relationship and I left chunks of my soul and most of my barely existent self-esteem in that house on the hilltop. I had failed – at the relationship, at meeting my parents’ expectations, at so many things. I felt I was the one who needed forgiveness and spent much of the following years repeating incessantly, “I’m sorry.”

I once encountered a Christian who said that the essence of forgiveness was to “fore-give,” to give someone something before they ask for it, as in Jesus, fore-giving his life for His followers. Or giving a homeless person your coat before they ask for it.

I’ve since been told that that’s an inaccurate reading of the word “forgive.” But at the time it stuck with me and influenced my thinking. If that was forgiveness, I didn’t understand it and couldn’t accomplish it. Something to do with that “to forgive, divine” thing.

I couldn’t fore-give my mother’s pain. I surely wouldn’t have given it to her myself and I couldn’t fore-give that other person the right or the opportunity to do so.

I couldn’t fore-give Rex my pain. I gave him enough of my life – over a year – as well as some of my hopes and dreams and aspirations. And yes, at the time, my love.

I’ve thought about writing him a letter, the kind that therapists often suggest you write as an exercise in exploring your feelings, explaining what went on from my point of view. But I haven’t – not even the kind that you don’t mail.

It would be futile. I’ve written about the person and the pain here in these posts and it hasn’t done a thing toward making me forget or forgive. Far from forgetting, I sometimes need to remind myself of the pain – to affirm to myself that yes, it really was that awful and to warn myself never to get caught in a situation like that again.

I don’t go through my life holding grudges against everyone who has ever wronged me (or my mother). Everyday hurts – unless they come every day – are possible to let go of. I’ve mostly forgotten the kids who bullied me in school. And I’ve forgiven them. They were kids and didn’t know any better. I’ve forgiven friends who have cut me out of their lives because they couldn’t handle my bipolar symptoms. Sometimes I can’t handle the symptoms either. If I get fed up with my disorder, it’s easy to see how someone else could too.

I’m not going to give you any advice on forgiveness and whether you should forgive or not. The topic is too complex and I don’t know how or why you’ve been wronged.

All I’m going to say is to be a little easy on yourself if you find you can’t forgive what you can’t forget. Those sayings about forgiveness are guidelines, not laws, and your situation may not fit into those guidelines. Just know that I do understand.

Does Emotional Abuse Cause Bipolar Disorder?

I belong to a fair number of bipolar support groups on Facebook and I often read posts or comments from people who attribute the cause or the severity of their bipolar disorder and/or PTSD to emotional abuse, particularly in childhood and particularly from family members.

I can’t really comment on PTSD since I don’t have it (though one therapist mistakenly diagnosed me with it), but I do have some experience with emotional abuse.

First, let me say that what I experienced was never physical abuse, unless you count deserved childhood spankings, which I know some people do. No sexual abuse, either – no “funny uncles” or neighborhood predators. (There was one older man that all the kids warned one another to stay away from, but I did, so I don’t know if the rumors were true.)

My childhood was pretty idyllic, if you get right down to it. My parents never divorced. We lived in a neat suburb of starter homes with excellent schools, where I got good grades and praise. We frequently visited our extended family in the next state, with plenty of aunts and uncles and cousins, farms and chickens and horses, along with occasional trips to local state and national parks. We went to the nearest local church, which did not emphasize hellfire and brimstone. If there was any mental illness in my family, I never knew about it.

And yet, sometime during that childhood, bipolar disorder began to manifest.

My life, of course, was not perfect. I was smart and loved school, and was very different from my parents, who weren’t big readers and didn’t know what to do with me, especially in the area of developing social skills and guiding my education. I fought with my sister, but not any more than other siblings I knew.

But then there was the bullying at school – the first emotional abuse I can remember. I’ve written about that before. At one point I noted:

There was the boy who chased me around the playground, threatening me with what he claimed was a hypodermic needle.

There were the kids at the bus stop who threw rocks at me while I tried to pretend it was a game of dodge-rock. Never being good at sports, I came out of that episode with three stitches in my forehead. I don’t know which upset me more, but by the end of it all, I was hysterical. And not the good, funny kind.

And there was my best friend and the birthday party. The party was for her younger sister and all the attendees were about that same age. My BFF and I were supposed to be supervising, I guess. But while I was blindfolded, demonstrating Pin the Tail on the Donkey, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all those younger kids.

It seemed a bit extreme.

I have also read about bullying and its relation to emotional abuse, and written about that:

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

So. Emotional abuse in my childhood, in the form of bullying. Did it cause my bipolar disorder?

Probably not. But it sure didn’t help.

I was already at the least depressed and most likely bipolar by the time all that happened, and was certainly bipolar by the time I encountered undeniable emotional abuse in young adulthood.

But I firmly believe that the roots of my bipolar disorder were located squarely in my brain, between the synapses, due to the lack or overabundance of neurotransmitters or other brain chemicals. That’s the current thinking, and it makes sense to me. (Of course there’s the possibility that in the next decades genes or gut bacteria or some other factor will prove to be involved, but given present science, I’ll stick with the brain chemistry theory.)

I don’t think that the emotional abuse caused my bipolar disorder. But I sure as hell know that it exacerbated the illness, which has made it all the harder for me to make progress in finding peace and healing over the decades.

But I can only speak for myself. Your mileage may vary.

Who’s Crazy Now? A Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane. The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.)

But what does gaslighting have to do with bipolar disorder? Someone who is in the depressive phase of bipolar – especially one who is undiagnosed – is especially susceptible to gaslighting. The very nature of depression leaves a person wondering, “Am I insane?” To have another person reinforcing that only strengthens the idea.

Back when I was undiagnosed and in the middle of a major depressive episode, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couple’s sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one, and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. For a person in the grips of depression or mania, this will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to to tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that being the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

Getting help for the depression or bipolar disorder is also an important step in escaping the effects of gaslighting. With proper therapy and/or medication, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

Owning My Bullying

bullying, written on vintage metal texture

I have written many times before this on the subject of bullying – and now I have to admit that I have been a bully too.

Bullying is often seen in stereotypical terms as a larger kid extorting money from a smaller, weaker one, or torturing someone in the locker room with “swirlies” and other indignities. But there are many kinds of bullying. There is physical bullying – the kind most people thing of. There is ostracism or social bullying – the stereotype of which is the clique of mean girls or arrogant jocks. There are racist bullying, ethnic bullying, socioeconomic bullying, ableist bullying, sexual bullying, and just about any other type you can name.

Nowadays, one of the most vicious types of bullying, with the most harmful and longest-lasting effects, is cyberbullying. The tools of connection are being used to separate, exclude, and destroy reputations and even lives.

None of those is the kind of bully I was.

I was an intellectual bully. And since I realized that – only recently – I am ashamed.

I am not ashamed of my intelligence or my educational accomplishments. Those were the products of nature and nurture that I had little control over. It was what I did with those advantages that is shameful.

I used my smarts and my vocabulary to squash other students.

It may have started as a defense against the bullying I received – physical and social and whatever else. Intelligence seemed like the only weapon I had, and I wielded it as one. I was taking revenge in the only way I knew how. And that is something I should never have done.

I may not have intended it that way, but every snarky remark, every intellectual put-down, every sesquipedalian word flung back at my bullies carried a message. I was telling them that they were stupid and inferior, and that I was smarter  – better – than they were.

If that’s not bullying, I don’t know what is. And I’m sure it caused damage to egos and self-esteem, as well as perpetuating the cycle of be-bullied-and-bully that leaves countless perpetrators and victims in its wake.

Later in life, as my bipolar disorder deepened, I turned the bullying inward. I made self-deprecating remarks, snarked at myself, even made fun of myself for being overeducated and pedantic. I thought I had to do these thing to myself before someone else did them to me. It was at once a measure of my profoundly low self-esteem and a way to lower it even further.

In essence, I was bullying myself. And I’ve known other people who have done likewise. (For what it’s worth, I’ve since learned that it can be profoundly irritating to listen to a person tear himself or herself down this way.)

Intellectual bullying is a hard habit to break. The words, the ideas, the sarcasm are there for the using. The consequence, of course, is driving people away, sometimes without even realizing it. I have done this and seen it only when looking back at the potential or actual friends lost, the coworkers who thought I was a jerk, the people I’ve hurt.

I’ve been trying to break myself of the habit. Oddly, the Internet helps. It is, as has been noted, true that there are few ways to convey tone of voice in chat or email. There is no sarcasm font. But there are ways to let the recipient know that you do not mean a message literally or unkindly. You can place <snerk> after a remark or a  😛 emoji or a sticker that demonstrates you mean well. I’ve even seen people use <sarcasm on> and <sarcasm off> around their messages to make them clearer.

But mostly, I try to guard my speech. I have to install a little censor (or sensor) that says, “Ooh! That’s funny! But is it insulting?” before I make a remark.

I’d rather pause for a second and look like a doof than go back to being a bully.

A Bipolar Child

I suppose I was a bipolar child. I don’t really know, but I assume I was, because now I’m a bipolar adult.

I think I was more of a depressed child, which actually makes sense, since I have bipolar 2, with depressive episodes far outnumbering hypomanic ones. There were some times, though, when I would laugh loudly and inappropriately in class, triggered by a word that reminded me of something funny I’d read. There were times I’d walk around with a village-idiot grin because of some minor accomplishment like winning a live goldfish at a school fair.

Depressed child with toyBut mostly I remember misery. Tears. Loneliness. Hysterics. Confusion. Isolation. Hurt. Despair.

I’m fairly sure my depression wasn’t reactive, mostly, although parts of it surely were. The bullying, betrayals by friends, not understanding social conventions – all these were things that could easily make a person depressed, regardless of brain biochemistry.

But by and large my life was what would be considered pretty damned idyllic. I had stable, loving parents, a comfortable home in the suburbs with good schools, all the food I wanted, and as many toys as I could play with. I had a sister and a neighborhood full of children my age, but I remember being perpetually lonely. I had a good education, but looking back I realize that my illness prevented me from getting the most from it. There was no sexual or physical abuse or neglect. No one close to me died or suffered major trauma, at least until I was in high school and my parents suffered illnesses. Even then, they did a good job of keeping life as normal as possible. At the time we never felt it was a tragedy. It was just something we got through together.

That just leaves endogenous depression. Or at least the depression half of bipolar disorder. I remember one day walking home from elementary school and thinking, “All these houses look so pretty, but the people in them aren’t all happy.” It was somewhat of a revelation to me.  I had several major meltdowns, which I’ve written about before, and hundreds of smaller depressive episodes (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6J). I had nervous twitches and tics, and was prescribed Valium for them.

During my high school years, it was suggested that perhaps I ought to go to the school district’s psychologist. (This was probably during the episodes of inappropriate laughter in class.) My parents, who were not really familiar with mental illness and psychiatry, asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t. I probably should have, although back then – the seventies – it’s fairly unlikely that I would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, of any type. I might have gotten some help for the depression, though. They might have taken me off the Valium.

Like most lonely and misunderstood kids, and perhaps most depressive children, I found my salvation in books. They were friends, distractions, instruction manuals on how to survive, food for my emptiness, a place to lose myself when the world was too much with me. By and large it worked, at least as well as anything could – a self-prescribed and self-regulated form of instinctual bibliotherapy.

These were not books on how to make friends, or ones that promised to teach a child how to cope with emotions. They were for the most part pure escapism. Fantasy and science fiction, mysteries and adventures, literature and bestsellers – a complete mishmash of classics and trash. Those were my doctors, my therapists, my Prozac, my mood stabilizers.

I look back now on myself as a child – mentally disordered, undiagnosed, untreated – and wonder how I survived  as much as I did.

If I were a child these days, would I get the help that I needed then? Would my parents recognize that I was not just odd and unhappy, but mentally ill? Would I have been diagnosed properly? Medicated properly? Counseled properly?

With all that needs to go right and all that can go wrong during the process, it feels like getting help for a bipolar child certainly was – and perhaps still is –pretty much of a crapshoot. I made it through, but I hope it’s easier for a kid like me these days.

 

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