Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘cats’

Do Distractions Help?

Well, not when you’re driving, certainly. But when you have bipolar disorder, sometimes they do.

Of course, bipolar disorder is a distraction from life itself. And that’s not good. But every once in a while, it’s worthwhile to give bipolar a taste of its own medicine. Now, I’m not saying that distractions are good when you’re trying to meditate or in a therapy session. But sometimes, when you’re locked in your own head, you need something outside of you to unlock it.

Personally, I need distractions a lot. And, given the popularity of coloring books and fidget spinners, so do a lot of other people. Fortunately, I have found many ways to be distracted. Some of my favorites are music, bad jokes, cooking shows, sleep, and cats.

These don’t always work when I’m in the depths of depression, though I try them even then. But when I’m hypomanic, buzzing around without a landing site, they can help.

Music gives me both a chance to focus and a place to dissipate my energy. There are plenty of songs that express my feelings of depression, but also a number that encourage me to let out the feelings of flying, of soaring, of digging life – Little Richard’s version of “Get Rhythm,” for example, or the songs that have punctuated my life with my husband.

Again, bad – or even good – jokes are no help to me when I’m depressed. But when I’m obsessing about some anticipated (perhaps never to materialize) crisis, they can pull me back from the edge. (Once I called up a silly friend and said I needed a distraction. He said, “Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!,” a joke I didn’t get until later, when someone explained it to me.)

Cooking shows keep me grounded in a way. So does actual cooking. I’ve found that when I’m tense and about to lose it, making a cup of tea or heating a pan of soup grounds me, even if I have no desire for tea or soup. Making it for someone else is even more grounding. Cooking shows, even if I have no intention of ever trying the recipes, have a similar grounding effect. Unlike movies or dramatic shows, I know that nothing terrible will happen, unless you count a chef cutting her finger.

Sleep may be hard to do when my brain is whirling, but if I can accomplish it, my brain gets a reprieve and perhaps even a respite with a hot-n-juicy dream (though not nearly often enough). I love the feel of cotton or flannel nightshirts or pajamas. I love the quiet and the dark. I love the giving up of the stresses of the day and surrendering to temporary oblivion.

Even sleep in the middle of the day soothes me. If I’ve been unable to sleep the night before, a mega-nap the next day can reboot my brain and replenish my spoons. It may seem like an escape (and in some ways it is), but sometimes escape is what I need.

And as for cats, they help me in so many ways. I find watching them wash themselves hypnotic and comforting. I find snuggling with them in bed soothing. I find their antics infinitely distracting. I find caring for them takes me out of myself and requires that I focus on another being.

If I’m able to focus (which is not always the case), I find reading a suitable distraction as well. I have a few “comfort books,” old favorites that I can return to with an assurance that nothing too alarming will happen. I can lose myself and my anxieties in the struggles and triumphs of others. I can find distraction in tales of things I will never experience, like mountain climbing or space flight.

I have tried some of the tried-and-true distractions as well. I have several coloring books and a plethora of colored pencils. I have sudoko and mahjong programs and word puzzles on my computer. I have my writing, which, while not always soothing, does refocus my concentration and provide an outlet for any troubling feelings I may be experiencing.

Being bipolar, I find that my brain is both my enemy and my friend. It sustains me and betrays me. And it provides me ways to escape from its less sustaining moments. After all, if I didn’t have distractions, I would be locked within my brain with no relief from the tricks it plays on me. I’m glad that there are ways that I can escape, at least for a little while.

Self-Care: Beyond Pets, Sleep, and Creativity?

New research from Western Sydney University has revealed that simple self-care strategies, such as spending time with animals and getting enough sleep, are helpful for people managing bipolar disorder symptoms. (https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-02-pets-people-bipolar-disorder.html)

Sleep, pets, and photography – everything in one bundle

This is not exactly news, but the headline (“Sleep and time with pets help people living with bipolar disorder”) reflected my life so perfectly that I had to read on.

It turns out that the research involved only 80 subjects and was conducted by Edward Wynter, an honors student, who says he hopes “that knowledge of effective strategies can inspire proactive therapeutic engagement and empower people living with bipolar disorder to improve their health and wellbeing.”

And here’s the money quote:

This research reveals support for strategies already well known to professionals and people living with bipolar disorder, including those relating to quality and quantity of sleep, and drug and alcohol abstinence; but this study also highlights the effectiveness of several strategies yet to be explored such as spending time with pets and engaging in creative pursuits. (emphasis added)

Here’s some news, Mr. Wynter: Spending time with pets and engaging in creative pursuits are not “yet to be explored,” except perhaps by researchers. As he himself notes, professionals and people with bipolar disorder already know these concepts. I wonder what sort of grade this research gained him?

I’ve written about pets and creative pursuits myself. Service dogs for the mentally ill, for example (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-nN):

Emotional Support Animals are dogs or cats (or, less commonly, other animals such as miniature horses or guinea pigs) that live with and provide comfort to a person with a psychiatric disorder, [t]ypically … one that qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

And even everyday pets can help (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-jS). As I said of my very first cat: “We needed each other. I needed someone to care about, to focus my attention outward on. She needed someone to draw her out of her shell, to care for and about her.”

And regarding creativity (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-uT):

Coloring books and pages for adults have been the trend for a while now. (Some of them are really for adults.) Jenny Lawson draws and also puts together tiny little Ferris wheels. I know someone who can make little sculptures out of drink stirrers or paper clips. The point is … [j]ust keeping your brain and your hands occupied is a good idea.

As for sleep, we all know that proper rest is a good thing, even if we’re not always able to achieve it. And I’ve written about that too (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-vk):

Whether you sleep too much or not enough, bipolar disorder may be the cause. There are treatments, some involving meds, and others not. Meditation, for example, helps many people sleep … It’s a thing to discuss with your psychiatrist and/or your psychotherapist.

If I, a non-professional, already know about these aspects of treatment for bipolar that don’t involve therapy or medication (though I’m not knocking either one), why is research covering this old ground? Surely even lowly grad students can think of better, more productive topics than this.

 

The Comfort That Remains

Here I am, caught between reactive depression and clinical depression.

If you’ve been reading my last several posts, you know that I’ve been having a rough month. Several months. It’s been a real challenge to my hard-won quasi-stability.

3ff82b43-7ccd-4bde-8219-be5598c73452Last week, my 20+ year old cat, Louise died. The week before that, my husband’s 17+ year old cat died. So now I am trying to deal with those reactive feelings of grief and loss, without losing myself in the eternally waiting Pit of Despair that is clinical depression.

In doing that, I am trying to find things that remain to take comfort in.

I take comfort that my husband was here with me, to help me through.

That Louise had a good, long life spent in our loving care since she was a tiny kitten.

That she died peacefully, at home, in my lap, with me petting her.

That I had a chance to say goodbye to her.

That I know she loved me as much as I loved her.

That her presence and her purr helped calm me and helped me when nothing else could.

That she gave me a constant presence through a third of my life, and all of hers.

We have two cats now – Dushenka and Toby. They are young and healthy, but of course our time with them is not guaranteed. I know that, just by having them and loving them, we are inviting future grief into our lives, along with the joy. That’s just how it is.

I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on animals, humans, and what we share with each other. I know this is likely to happen again, and soon, for our dog is also aged and nearly ready to go. It’s hard. Is it harder when your brain doesn’t work right and tries to tell you that sorrow doesn’t end?

I don’t know.There’s no scale by which to compare pain, and loss, and despair, and grief. We each go through it the only way we can.

I hope that soon, at least a few of the clouds will part and I can feel something besides sorrow, express something other than pain. Maybe next week’s blog will be about healing, or coping, or sharing strengths.

Those are all things I need to be doing – that we all need to be doing.

Someone remarked this week that a recent post (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-k8) was not about healing. It reflected, the commenter said, all the privileges I have – money (or those who can lend it to me), drugs I can take to help me through a crisis (too many, according to the commenter), a supportive husband. And that’s all true. I have these privileges and more besides – a home, work that I can do without leaving the house, insurance, a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist. Some of these come to me because of circumstances I don’t control, and some I have had to work very hard for, as I have worked hard for the ability to heal, a little bit at a time.

There are still things I cannot do – leave the house more than twice a month or so, shop for groceries, see the dentist without massive panic, stop taking the psychotropic meds that allow me to think, have a healthy sexual relationship. I expect that some of these will get better and others won’t.

But, no matter our symptoms or their severity, we as people with bipolar disorder are all in this together – or as the Bloggess would say, alone together. Maybe I have an easier time of it, but that’s far from saying it’s easy for me.

I still experience grief and sorrow, depression and anxiety, irrationality and immobilization, pain and despair, relief and help, struggle and hard work, love and loneliness.

And always, I look for the comfort that comes when I need it most, or expect it least, or believe I’ll never feel again. We all do.

Struggles and Tears

In the past week I have had to deal with:

  • My husband being out of town
  • Said husband driving home for 10 hours with faulty brakes
  • My insurance company going belly-up
  • My meds running out before new insurance could be implemented
  • My cat going missing
  • My check being late, so I could not pay mortgage, pay new insurance, pay for meds, pay power bill
  • Being immobilized and unable to leave the house

Out of all of those, which do you think came nearest to breaking my brain, causing me to catastrophize and dissolve into prolonged fits of weeping?

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Woodcut by Peggy McCarty. Used by permission.

If you guessed the missing cat, you’re right. One day she trotted out the deck door while I was feeding the dog, a thing she had never done before. I scooped her up and put her back inside, and resolved to close the door further in the future. Louise is 20 and rather thin, so it’s easy to misjudge what she can squeeze through.

When my husband got back (safely), he took over feeding the dog. Then the next day, Louise didn’t show up for her morning breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. She usually has a hearty appetite and meows quite loudly if a meal is late.

Naturally, I thought she had gotten outside again and was lost. We searched through the house, calling her name, and went around outside the house doing likewise. My husband thought she might be feeling poorly and holed up somewhere, most likely in the basement, which is also the garage and not easy to search because of all the clutter.

I thought she must have gotten out and succumbed to some fate out in the woods – a dog or other animal, the rain, hunger, illness and debilitation.

I was convinced she was gone for good. And I had thought I still had more time with her, despite her advanced age (20+). I was inconsolable. My precious cat, gone. No knowing what had happened to her. No chance to say goodbye. No way to comfort her in her last hours on earth.

Dan told me that everything would be all right, but I didn’t believe him.

Then, the next day, she showed up at mealtime, bellowing that she wanted food NOW! Dan had been right. She had hidden somewhere in the house and came out when she was ready to.  I had my darling Louise back, for however long she still has.

Then, after the long holiday weekend, the check came and I paid the bills and set up the new insurance and got my meds and went out to lunch with Dan and everything was all right.

Just a little while ago, I wrote about how having a cat saved my sanity (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-jS) and how they can be good for people with mental disorders. I even said that losing a pet could teach us something about the grieving process.

But when my own cat disappeared, all that philosophizing went out the window (or the deck door). Louise was gone and I was bereft. Nothing anyone could say could make it better. And the situation was complicated by the fact that both one of our other cats and our dog are also ancient. I know I will go through their loss, and likely soon.

Will I hold up any better?

I really don’t know. The other cat and the dog are my husband’s, bonded to him the way Louise is bonded to me. Likely his grief will be greater than mine. Or maybe when they pass they will remind me of how close I came to losing Louise. Maybe I’ll be able to support him in his loss, or maybe my brain will break again. Maybe it will happen when I am more stable, with fewer disasters and near-disasters clustering around my head.

That’s the thing with pets. You never know how long you have with them. You never know whether you’ll be relatively stable when you have to face their loss.

But I know I won’t give them up. The loneliness of not having them is even worse than the pain of their going.

ETA: Dan’s ancient cat Garcia passed away peacefully at home this morning (Saturday). We were both with him at the end.

How a Cat Helped Me Stay Sane

Queen LouiseAny pet can help with mental health, really. But in my case, it was a cat.

I was living alone after a bad breakup that had shattered me, mind and spirit. After moving twice, once from another state and once from an apartment complex after I lost the job that paid for it.

I was damaged, and I was alone, in the upstairs of a small house in a small town. I asked my landlady if I could have a cat. She was dubious, but said yes.

I found a cat at a shelter. She was an adult tortoiseshell calico named Bijou. She was small and shy and quiet. The first night I took her home, she slept across my throat.

We needed each other. I needed someone to care about, to focus my attention outward on. She needed someone  to draw her out of her shell, to care for and about her.

We took it slowly. At first she didn’t like to be held. When I got home from work she would meet me at the door. I would pick her up, give her a quick kiss on the head, and set her right back down. Soon she learned that being held wasn’t such a bad thing.

Since then I have never been without a cat.

And they have improved my mental health. Pets do.

Pets entertain when we need distraction.  They can make us smile and even laugh.

Petting them brings tactile comfort and purring offers a soothing sound.

Caring for a pet makes us feel – be – needed. Even when we have a hard time caring for ourselves, a pet becomes a responsibility bigger than we are.

Losing a pet teaches us about the process of necessary grieving. Then getting another pet teaches us about the process of loving someone new, opening our hearts again.

Pets listen. They don’t judge.

Pets communicate with us, and teach us their personal language.

Pets are now being used as therapy animals and comfort animals for the anxious, the aged, prisoners – and psychiatric patients. The laws and policies regarding “assistance animals” are only just beginning to be enacted. They are far from catching up with the need.

Even visits with farm animals – lambs and chickens and ponies – are fulfilling vital roles in people’s lives.

I’ve written about “crazy cat ladies” before and even identified myself as one (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-bI). There is a stigma that goes along with the label – yet another kind of stigma that we would be better off without. Admittedly, we can become obsessed with our companion animals, even to an extent that is unhealthy. They can be burdens, and annoyances, and expenses.

There are some people – perhaps people with rage issues, for example – who should not own pets. Having pets is a choice that should only be made if they and you fit together well. We’ve all read the stories and seen the pictures online of people who abuse pets horribly. Now those are the ones that I consider crazy.

Pets may not me be the right choice for other reasons. A person who travels a lot, or has extended hospital stays, may not be able to make the commitment. Germophobes and emetophobes may not be able to handle the inevitable messes that come with pets. Even pet fish need their bowls cleaned.

Personally, I would avoid fish, unless the care of, say, tropical fish fascinates you. And their placid swimming can be calming. But for most of us, a pet that interacts with us is preferable. Birds aren’t very cuddly, but they make agreeable (to some) sounds. Reptiles have their own fascination and aficionados. Me, I want something I can pet.

The picture that accompanies this post is of Louise (aka The Queen of Everything). She is 20 years old and, although she is hanging in there, I will be devastated when she goes. My husband’s 17-year-old cat, Garcia, has some health problems, though again, not terrible ones considering his age. Then there are our youngsters, Dushenka and Toby.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that they are as much a part of my support system as I am theirs.

 

 

 

Is My Cat Bipolar?

It sure seems like it. She lies around all day, barely moving. Then at any given time she races through the house pursuing nothing at all. Afterward she lies back down, immobilized again. It looks an awful lot like rapid cycling.

I’m not going to get into the debate here of whether animals have emotions or humans are simply anthropomorphizing. Of course animals have emotions, and act on them. Our cat Maggie could snub you so you really knew you’d been snubbed. Another cat, Shaker, was mortally offended if you stuck a whisker on the top of her head and made “beep beep” noises. Our dog Bridget has deep anxiety around strangers, both human and canine. She has been known to wet herself, or my husband’s shoe. Polar bears can experience boredom. I have it on good authority that sheep can hold a grudge.

But can animals experience mental illness? Recently the BBC examined the question in an article by Shreya Dasgupta.(http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150909-many-animals-can-become-mentally-ill)

The article is long and rather technical, citing genetic studies I’m not capable of summarizing and using words like “telomere.” But the Beeb’s resounding answer to the question is yes. Not only can animals feel emotion, they can suffer from mental disorders. The report says:

To our eyes, many animals seem to suffer from forms of mental illness. Whether they are pets, or animals kept in ill-managed zoos and circuses, they can become excessively sad, anxious, or even traumatised….There is growing evidence that many animals can suffer from mental health disorders similar to those seen in humans.

It was decades ago that I first heard about polar bears on Prozac, due to their pacing obsessively or swimming repetitively back and forth. (I did wonder how the vets calculated the dosage – by body weight or brain size.) Of course, rather than psychotropics, what the bears really needed was more appropriate-sized enclosures.

Stress and social deprivation seem to be two of the factors that can bring on mental illness – particularly depression or PTSD – in animals. Dogs that serve in combat zones have been known to have trouble adjusting to civilian life. And the death of an animal’s relative or beloved human companion has been anecdotally linked to profound grief and even death.

The BBC notes that all the evidence we have for animal mental illness comes from pets, captive animals, and research specimens:

That probably reflects our own preferences for certain animals. “It’s the animals that we find very charismatic, like elephants or chimpanzees, or animals that we share our homes with, like dogs,” that command our attention, says animal behaviour expert Marc Bekoff.

But do wild animals really suffer from mental disorders? It’s practically impossible to tell.

For one thing, wild animals cannot bare their souls to therapists. For many reclusive wild animals, we know so little of what is normal behavior that we would be hard pressed to identify abnormal responses to environmental stressors.

Still, the experts say, even invertebrates like octopi and honeybees seem to suffer from, if not what we would call mental illness, at least maladaptive reactions to trauma.

Severe psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia seem to go with higher intelligence. (Octopi are actually quite smart.) But again, how can you tell whether a dolphin is hallucinating? It may be that animals with extreme mental illness are weeded out by evolution, as their erratic behavior may lead to early death and loss of the ability to pass on their genes.

Is this true for humans as well? Are mental illness and intelligence correlated? As yet, there is little consensus. Sometimes the debate boils down to chicken-and-egg levels. Do people with lower intelligence experience more depressed because they are unable to accomplish what they want to do? Or does depression make it more unlikely that they will accomplish what they wish for? (Most of the studies seem to relate to depression.)

As the BBC report says, “Mental disorders seem to be the price animals pay for their intelligence. The same genes that made us smart also predisposed us to madness. There’s nothing shameful in that.”

Except, of course, that in humans there is stigma. Cats, now – they can get away with acting as crazy as they want. We’ll just call it adorbz and post it on YouTube.

Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady

One can be a crazy cat lady without living alone in a cavernous house with a dozen or more cats. I should know. I am one, and I don’t.

First let’s start with definitions. I’m crazy. I think we all know that by now and I don’t mind saying so. (See “Yes, I Am Crazy. Thanks for Asking” http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-4h.) I’m also a cat lady. We had dogs growing up, but I never got very close with them. I did have a rabbit that I was awfully fond of, but this was in the days before lop-eared rabbits became house pets. She lived in a cage in the garage, or in the back yard when the weather was nice.

To me a crazy cat lady is someone who has eight or more cats, lives alone with them, usually in a large house, but one not quite big enough for all the inhabitants. Often you hear news stories about crazy cat ladies who die alone and are eaten by their cats, or crazy cat ladies whose pets are taken away from them because of inadequate care – especially sanitation.

I have a friend who was had more than eight cats at once, and is just as crazy as I am. She does not, however, believe that she is a crazy cat lady because another lady down the street has more cats. And truthfully, she doesn’t meet the other requirements of crazy-cat-lady-hood. She has a family, and keeps up with the care and feeding of her menagerie.

Do crazy cat ladies have an actual mental disorder? If so, do they all have the same kind? Maybe not. The crazy cat lady on The Simpsons (Eleanor Abernathy) is pretty clearly schizophrenic, though I doubt that many are in real life. Real-life cat ladies may demonstrate obsessive-compulsive tendencies, or their isolation may be due to depression. Or something else entirely.

Psychology Today tells us there is no real basis for the stereotype.

The stereotypic term “crazy cat lady” is used in a pejorative sense to classify an older, female animal hoarder and there is no research to support such correlation. Research on animal hoarding is lacking and there is not one plausible theory that suggests why older females tend to hoard animals more than men.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/when-more-isnt-enough/201106/animal-hoarding-is-there-such-thing-the-crazy-cat-lady

Still, crazy cat lady behavior may be psychologically classified as a “hoarding disorder.” Mother Nature Network reports that the condition…

…is only now getting the recognition that will prove helpful to sufferers. Recent research has revealed abnormal brain activity in people with hoarding disorder. And both experts and hoarders hope and believe that the new DSM classification will help bring about better treatment.

Read more: http://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/stories/crazy-cat-ladies-to-get-a-new-clinical-definition#ixzz3nG9WWESM

I would make the case that crazy-cat-lady-hood is actually a defense against mental disorders. Carried to an extreme, perhaps, but beneficial nonetheless.

Caring for cats – even multiple ones – gives a person another living being to care about. Patients in geriatric facilities are often brought into contact with small domesticated farm animals or cats and dogs (therapy animals), which pretty clearly help them deal with isolation and depression.

For an isolated person, cats provide someone to talk to. Not that the cats necessarily listen or respond, of course, except in the most perverse ways possible. They are cats, after all.

I got my first cat when I was living alone and recovering from several years of psychological trauma. My future husband went with me to the shelter, but was studiously unhelpful in selecting a cat, thereby proving that he had some sense and a grasp of how important it was for me to find a kitty I could bond with.

“Which one should I get?” I asked.

“Gee,” he replied, “I dunno, honey. They all look like nice cats to me.” The one I chose was Bijou, a tortoiseshell.

We as a couple have since had up to five cats at one time, and through the years a total of well over a dozen.

When my bipolar disorder was at its worst, after I had suffered a major meltdown (nervous breakdown, decompensation, or whatever you call it), I was certainly crazy, but hardly a cat lady. I was unable to take care of my own daily needs, much less those of anyone else, human or feline. My husband, who was taking up enormous amounts of slack, took over pet care as well. Now that I’m back on a fairly even keel, I can do my part with feeding, litter box tending, grooming, and so forth.

Fortunately, even when I was immobilized, my cats, in addition to my husband, gave me emotional sustenance. The therapeutic effects of a purr, a gentle kneading, and a nice snuggle are not to be underestimated. The antics of a kitten may be exhausting to watch, but they provide more than a little distraction, if that’s what you need.

Do dogs have the same therapeutic effect? I don’t know. For some people I suppose they do, but I have never bonded with a dog as I have with my cats.

In psychological terms, my cats are “comfort objects,” like furry, living security blankets, or teddy bears that shit and meow. I hope never to be without a cat again. I need them for my mental health.

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