Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘childhood depression’

Fear of Offending

By Drobot Dean from Adobestock.com

I have to keep a close watch on what I say in public or post online. I am afraid of offending people. Many times I have lost friends because of things I’ve said or done.

Is losing friends because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes. Is being afraid of offending others because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes.

I was not very well socialized as a child. The house I grew up in was very insular. My parents made few attempts to mix and mingle with neighbors or other school parents, so I didn’t see much of that as a young person and learn the unwritten rules. (My father did mix and mingle with the local gun club, but there were not many persons of my age and gender there.) I never went to preschool because I had a sister, we were very close in age, and my mother figured we could simply play with each other. (This was in the days before formal “playdates.”)

As I got older and my bipolar disorder began to manifest, I was even more out of sync with what the other kids were doing and saying. My mood swings left me laughing uproariously at things no one else thought were funny, or being gloomy and surly as a self-isolating hermit. I never learned the rules at school, either, of how to negotiate the complex patterns of behavior required as a student. I didn’t even know enough not to show off my intelligence, which didn’t win me many friends.

As I grew older, I got in the habit of tapping my face – symbolic slaps – whenever I said something that I realized I ought not to have said. (This was both puzzling and annoying to my companions.) It was a reminder to me to keep more of what I thought under wraps.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know that I was bipolar. I thought I was just weird. It never occurred to me that my brain was different, that I reacted in peculiar ways because of something I could not, at the time, control. I tried to be quiet and unobtrusive, but the manic humor kept leaking out, usually when no one else thought whatever it was was funny. I garnered a reputation as an oddball, even among the odd people who befriended me.

Later on, in the world of work, I was even more out of my depth. I still didn’t know how to socialize. I couldn’t manage “team-eating,” the mysterious rituals of the groups of workers who lunched together. I consciously practiced my socializing with the few people who would put up with me. I observed social interactions, but I never really internalized them.

I made statements that were meant to be funny, but they came out sarcastic, and I lost friends. I made statements that were meant to be assertive, but they came out bossy and I lost friends. I became more and more afraid to say anything that might be seen as hurtful, but I still did.

All of this made me afraid to offend people, so I began to shut down. I kept my jokes to a minimum. I didn’t even try to join the ladies who lunch. My social life was practically nonexistent.

Then came the internet and, especially, Facebook. Every time I wanted to post something, I had to run the content through the internal filters I’d built. Was it too racy? Too political? Too self-revealing? Too something? Would it offend someone and lose me more friends?

I developed techniques to soften my replies to other people’s posts. I’d agree with any part of a post I could and then add my real opinion, very softly. (I agree with you that there’s a lot wrong with our economic system, but it’s very complex and I think more regulations will be needed to improve it. I agree that most police are protective and well-regulated, but I think training in dealing with mentally ill persons would benefit everyone.) I became wishy-washy.

How does this reflect my bipolar disorder? Losing friends was one of the big traumas I went through as a child and I never wanted it to happen again. My first physical trauma was at the hands of other children, who threw rocks at me. My first bipolar “break” was a result of being humiliated by my best friend. (“Kids can be mean,” my parents said, but I knew deep inside it was all my fault.) Losing friends became one of my major triggers, something I would try anything to avoid. I just wasn’t very good at avoiding it.

Gradually, I am getting better at socializing and at speaking up without the constant fear that my words and actions will drive away people who care about me. I still try not to be confrontational, but if a meme expresses something I care deeply about, well, I will repost it. I still try not to insult the persons closest to me, but sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how to say something with just the right words in just the right tone of voice.

Bipolar? I think my glitchy brain got sidetracked by the illness when I should have been learning the ways most people behave. Now that my illness is mostly under control, I am trying to make up for lost time.

 

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.

Wounded People, Invisible Scars

Let me tell you about the time I got stoned in third grade. I was a weird kid – smart, scrawny, emotionally out-of-step, lonely. I dressed funny. I was no good at sports. In short, I was bully-bait. One day I was waiting at the bus stop with some other kids. They decided it would be a fun game to throw rocks – broken pieces of macadam – at my feet. I jumped over them easily, laughing along.

Then one of them threw a rock and hit me in the head. As I was sobbing and bleeding, a passing teacher rescued me and called my mother. The kids ran off, yelling, “We didn’t mean to hurt her!”

I was wounded, nonetheless. Three stitches later, I was, if not as good as new, at least able to carry on. The scar on the outside has since faded to invisibility. The scar on the inside is invisible, too, but very much still with me.

A lot of us have invisible wounds and not all of them come with physical scars. There’s a whole category of conditions called “invisible illnesses.” They’re the ones that don’t come with wheelchairs or crutches or seeing-eye dogs. People who look “normal” on the outside but are fighting like hell on the inside. Some of these conditions are autoimmune disorders. Others are caused by developmental difficulties, uncommon viruses, and even hormonal disruptions.

Then there are the ones that live in the brain. In memories. In scars no one can see. In mental illnesses. What was wrong with me was mental and emotional, inside my brain. Maybe the other kids could sense that and that was what made me a target.

There are a lot of the walking wounded among us, along with non-ambulatory people who are also wounded in other ways. People with brain injuries or PTSD. These disorders can strike anyone and you can’t tell who those people are simply by looking at them.

In cases of serious mental illness, in particular, the wounds and scars, while internal, can be deadly. At least once, my own brain has tried to kill me. Bipolar depression, combined with irrational thinking and problems in the world outside my brain, left me with seemingly only one choice. Fortunately, I didn’t act on the pain. I lived through it.

Too many of us have invisible, internal wounds. Too many of us spend enormous amounts of time and energy pretending that we don’t. For some reason, internal wounds seem more shameful, less understandable, than external ones. A broken leg elicits sympathy. A broken brain, not so much.

I know that the rock that hit my head wasn’t what broke my brain. Bipolar disorder is much more subtle than that. Whatever its causes – and the jury seems to be still debating that – a minor physical impact is not considered to be one. The seeds of my bipolar disorder were likely already there, lurking in my differentness, my emotional oddities, my uncooperative but active brain.

But the incident sure didn’t help. It made me more vulnerable to the shocks and disappointments of life as a weird kid. It took a pothole-sized chunk out of what should have been my developing self-esteem. It opened up crevices in my brain where the doubts, fears, insecurities, and excesses of bipolar disorder could lodge.

Wounded people surround us every day. Sometimes the pain leaks out around their eyes. Other sufferers are more adept at hiding it. The important thing to know is that anybody – anybody – you see on the street or meet at work or at church or at the gym could have one of those invisible scars.

Not all the broken look broken. Not all wounds are visible. Not all scars are external.

Be gentle with other people. You never know who’s hurt inside.

What Does “Normal” Mean?

When I was young, I wanted like anything to be normal. I didn’t know what normal meant, but I knew I wasn’t it.

I had a lot of the trappings of what passed for normal in that day and age: parents still married, one sister, suburban house in a town with good schools, church down the street, same-age children living within a block, working father, stay-at-home mom, abundant books and toys, and vacations to visit the relatives.

But I knew. There was something different about me. Everyone else knew it too. I wasn’t normal. I was too sensitive, whatever that meant. I was precocious. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t know how to.

As I reached my tween and teen years, I encountered a dilemma. I desperately wanted to be normal. Normal kids had friends, got to hang out with each other, laughed and smiled a lot, wore what was in fashion. They gave off an aura of being normal. I longed for that. I was in love with the idea of normalcy.

But every time I tried, I failed. I was always too weird, too emotional, too smart, too something.

So I began to hate the idea of normalcy. If I didn’t fit in, then by God, I would scorn the idea of fitting in. I would embrace non-normalcy. I would hang with the few other misfits I could find. I would eschew the latest fashions and trends. I didn’t rebel, exactly. I was too timid for that (yet another too).

And I blamed the suburb and the Midwestern state where I lived. Maybe this kind of normal was bland, spiritless, and hum-drum. Maybe I was right not to want to be of it.

So, of course, I tried the geographical cure, going away to college, where I thought the people would be more like me, where there would be enough diversity that I could find others like me and finally fit in. Be normal within a different definition of normal.

And it worked, at least partially. But by that time it was too late for me to ever be normal.

What happened was that bipolar disorder caught up with me. I had probably been struggling with it all the time I was a weird kid who didn’t fit in. Other kids threw rocks at me. My moods were extreme. I cried and laughed at things that were neither sad nor funny. Being betrayed by a friend sent me into a severe meltdown.

By the time I was in college, there was no doubt that I was struggling with a mood disorder, although we didn’t have that term for it at the time. At the time it seemed like major depression and for the most part, it was, or at least that was the only mood I could identify.

Years later, when I got a proper diagnosis and the right medication, it was easier to look back and see my bipolar tendencies slowly building over the years. But I’ll admit something – I still both love and hate the idea of normalcy. I still want to fit in and I’ve found a few groups where I seem to. But I also want to embrace my oddness, celebrate my differences, glory in my assorted varieties of geekiness.

I never want to go back to that lost, lonely, spinning-out-of-control kid who was always too much or not enough. My lifestyle helps since I don’t have to try to fit in at a nine-to-five office job. My husband helps, as I was at least normal enough to find one. And my writing helps, so I can work out some of my conflicting emotions and bipolar moods through this blog and other venues.

Here’s another reason to hope: Matt Norris, a blogger at The Thinking Orc, recently wrote:

Disapproving of people who aren’t “Normal” went from a virtue to vice within my lifetime. The shift in public morals changed the rules on what it took to be seen as a good person. It used to be about not doing anything weird, and looking down on anybody who did. Now it’s about not doing anything cruel, and looking down on anyone who does.

Besides, to quote songwriter Steve Goodman, “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” I know that now. So in that sense, I do at last fit in.

Children’s Bodies, Children’s Minds

I read recently that the Duchess of Cambridge was visiting a series of schools to mark Children’s Mental Health Week. The duchess is the royal patron of Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity. The article said that this year’s theme for Mental Health Week would be “Healthy: Inside and Out, focusing on the connection between physical and mental health.”

The article explained, “The charity works with more than 280 primary and secondary schools across England, Scotland and Wales, providing support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.” 

The duchess, it says, would be meeting with members of the school community to discuss students’ school readiness, teacher welfare, the wellbeing of the school community, and the importance of being active; and also talk with parents about good routines and habits around sleep, screen time, healthy eating, and exercise.

All of which sounds fine and worthy. But does anyone else see something missing from this public relations tour? Maybe it’s just me, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual emphasis on children’s mental health.

Yes, we know that the body and the mind are intimately connected. Yes, we know that children need a sense of wellbeing. Yes, we know that being active and eating healthy are important for kids. And we know that parents, teachers, and school communities have important roles to play in students’ healthy development. We also know that sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are good for people with mental illnesses. Hell, they’re good for everyone.

But there’s a lot more to mental health than physical fitness and a sense of wellbeing. If that was all it took, we could just eat kale and kiwis, meditate, and send the therapists home.

Of course, the article was short and seemed to focus on the duchess’s meetings with the youngest kids, who after all the most photogenic. Maybe the charity and the duchess also educate about the thornier aspects of mental health. Maybe they promote dialogue about self-harm, suicide prevention, childhood depression, and other conditions. I would like to think that they do.

But the article and many others like it focus on the physical and feel-good aspects of mental health and not the mental and emotional. Bubble baths for self-care! Pets as the best therapists! Super foods for regulating moods!

Memes are not the answer. And the physical aspects of mental health are certainly important. But we’re talking about mental illness and mood disorders here. Can’t we at least spend time talking about the mind and the emotions?  Maybe even have a dialogue about what happens when something goes wrong with them? Stress the importance of seeking help when one is confused, overwhelmed, and despairing?

I think society at large is still uncomfortable talking about mental illness and twice as uncomfortable talking about mental illness in children. Many of us are still laboring under the illusion that childhood is a uniformly happy time. In fact, many kids suffer from serious mental illnesses. If the statistics give any indication, 20% to 25% of them will experience a mental health problem at some time in their lives.

We should talk about this and ultimately do something about it. Something more than emphasizing good physical health and getting celebrities to do 30-second spots about how they too experience depression, though these are indeed good things.

I’ve written before about what I think a mental health curriculum in schools should look like (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Hl). I suppose that first we need to be aware that children can and do have mental health problems – that it may not be “just a phase they’re going through” or something they’ll “just get over.” It’s a serious problem and requires serious attention, not to mention serious actions.

Whatever else we do, let’s put the mental back into mental health.

 

 

The Appropriate Committee

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I was a teenager, my life was spent resenting the Appropriate Committee. I always ran afoul of them.

It seemed there was some nebulous group, invisibly judging us and deciding whether what we did, or wore, or how we acted was appropriate or not.

Part of the Appropriate Committee was, of course, the adult world. Teenagers were supposed to be polite and respectful and not talk or play music too loudly. To do otherwise would be inappropriate.

The social milieu was also part of the Appropriate Committee. How we monitored one another to make sure our pants weren’t too short, or that we didn’t wear ankle socks, or that we didn’t stay in the Girl Scouts past Brownies. The punishment was derision.

Of course being bipolar didn’t help. Both adult and junior versions of the Appropriate Committee took note of my mood swings – my loud, inappropriate laughter; my extreme, inappropriate crying; my extended, inappropriate isolation.

I tried to defy the Appropriate Committee. I laughed at them, thought they were stupid, and vowed not to let them run my life. They did anyway, of course. They were all-powerful and I had not yet gained the wherewithal not to care. It was like a pervasive, invasive form of bullying: Everything I did or said was wrong. The rules changed capriciously. I was punished with disapproval, mocking, and the wrong kind of laughter.

And they broke me. At times I tried desperately to fit in, to live up to expectations, to suppress my differences. At other times, when the effort became simply too much, I let my natural weirdness float to the surface and looked for the few other like-minded individuals that could tolerate that. Depression set in and, rarely, hypomania. I still dressed “wrong.” I still laughed at the wrong things, and too loudly. I still isolated and wept.

I thought that when I grew to adulthood, I would no longer be subject to the censure of the Appropriate Committee, Of course, that was completely delusional. I learned that the Appropriate Committee for Adults was a powerful force. It is particularly insidious in the business world, where it judges not just your appearance, but even seemingly minor matters such as where and how you eat lunch (with the “cool kids,” of course) and how you spend your breaks (cigarettes OK, crossword puzzles not). There’s still the problem of being laughed at in meetings and needing to go into the restroom to cry.

I finally realized that the Appropriate Committee exists in part to perpetuate stigma. So many of the behaviors of people with mental illness defy societal norms. It’s the Committee that insists we fit in, no matter what we’re feeling. It’s the reason that neurodivergent people are so reluctant to admit their differences in public and try their best to “play through the pain,” something that isn’t good for them, or for athletes either, really.

I’ve had enough of the Appropriate Committee over the years. Now that I’m properly diagnosed and medicated and relatively stable, I could undoubtedly fit in better than at any time previously in my life. But I dress how I like, even if it’s pajamas. I play my music as loud as I want and laugh or cry along with it if I feel like it. I embrace my weirdness, my differences, and seek out like-minded weird friends who are also living in defiance of the Committee.

Maybe the Appropriate Committee is needed for some places and times and people, like theater audiences or church services. Maybe. But for the mentally ill the Committee is hurtful, and stigmatizing, and unrealistic. We can strive to overcome our differences and sometimes we need to. But sometimes it’s better just to embrace weirdness, differentness, and our membership in the group of the neurodivergent.

And when I despair, I remind myself of songwriter Steve Goodman’s lyric: “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” And I let it blast.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism, though it’s not strictly speaking a mental illness. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older elementary children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need help find it before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

This is a post I published almost exactly a year ago on my other blog, janetcobur.wordpress.com. I thought I would share it here as well, and have more to say about it next week.

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.

Surprise!

Surprise parties are fun for everyone, right?

Wrong!

While many people enjoy the surprise element (probably the guests do more than the honoree), even neurotypical people can shy away from the practice. Coming home to a darkened house, only to be greeted by bright lights and loud noise, can be an alarming experience.

For a person with bipolar depression, autism spectrum disorder, PTSD, or other mental conditions, it can be a nightmare.

My husband once decided to throw me a small surprise party. We and another couple were cleaning up an old house while a few friends gathered back at home.

One of the people had actively discouraged Dan from having the party. Robert had experienced depression and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and knew how difficult such an event would be for him. He also knew about my depression and some of the incidents associated with birthday parties in my mind.

For instance, when I was a young teen, my “best friend” and I were supervising a party of younger children. During the game of Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey, while I was blindfolded, she kicked me in the ass. Literally. In front of all the kids.

It was the occasion of my first major meltdown. For years afterward, I would not even admit to having a birthday, much less let anyone celebrate it.

Robert had experienced similar traumas involving groups of children, humiliation, and abuse. He was not able to cope with surprise parties and thought I might freak out as well.

Fortunately, decades had gone by since my traumatic party experience. I had been diagnosed and properly medicated and counseled about my issues. Dan knew me well enough to realize that I could tolerate a small, low-key surprise party. And so I did.

Still, Robert was right to be concerned.

Common events at surprise parties are triggers for many people. My friend Joanie has panic attacks when there’s lightning. Would flash photography set her off? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be the one who finds out. If the party is held in a restaurant, a person who hates being singled out in a crowd of strangers may have problems. People hiding in one’s home could cause flashbacks of a home invasion. My startle reflex is hypersensitive and could easily be triggered by sudden, unexpected shouts of “Happy birthday!”

Even opening presents in front of others can be difficult if one is weak in social skills, appropriate facial expressions, or spontaneous conversation.

So how do you give a surprise party for someone with certain types of mental illness?

Don’t.

If you think you must, ask the person what kind of party he or she would prefer, and abide by those wishes. You can suggest a surprise party, with the time and place being the surprises, but again, abide by the person’s wishes.

Prepare a small, low-key surprise rather than a party. Give a present a day or two before the actual date. Pack a slice of cake in the person’s lunch. Or take the person out to lunch. (Warn the restaurant personnel not to march around singing and waving balloons, if you mention that it’s a birthday lunch at all.)

Do not have party games, unless they are non-threatening ones such as mad-libs or trivia. Forget ones involving physical contact like Twister or ones that involve sensory deprivation like Blind Man’s Bluff.

You may wish to avoid serving alcohol, especially if the honoree is on anti-anxiety medications. Booze-fueled parties tend to become loud and rowdy.

Make it short. Personally, spending an hour with a group of four or more, even if they are all my friends, is about all I can take. And then I want a lie-down afterward.

Personally, I could live my life happily without ever having another surprise party thrown for me (even though the one Dan threw would have to be called a success). Nor will I be upset if I never get invited to another surprise party. I’ll be too busy worrying what it might be doing to the honoree to enjoy myself.

 

Picking Up on Feelings

As if it weren’t difficult enough to deal with my own feelings, at times I’ve had to wrestle with the feelings of others.

It started when I was a teen. I had already experienced my first major meltdown and was trying to put myself back together. Like most teens, I wasn’t really sure who I wanted to be. But unlike most teens, I was dealing with undiagnosed bipolar disorder and a shredded sense of self-esteem that made me even less sure of who I was, who I wanted to be, and who I ought to be.

I began to notice that I was picking up the characteristics of whomever I was with. When I was around Binky, I was light-hearted. When I was around Marie, I was a misfit. When I was around Fran., I was trying to fit in. And so on. Intellectual, silly, moody, outdoorsy, smart-alecky, boisterous, quiet – I became them all, in turn. None of them, it turns out, was really me. Or at least not completely me.

And when I was alone – who was I then? I was alone a lot of the time, and my default setting was depressed. I cried at unlikely songs. I hid in books. I cocooned before cocooning was a thing. I had a banner on my wall that said, “I’ve got to start acting more sensible – tomorrow!” I blamed my troubles on living in Ohio. I got drunk on ginger ale.

I was a fractured mess.

Later, in my 20s, as I went out in the world and began to interact with different people, I realized that I was picking up on their moods, rather than their character traits.

Most of those moods were unpleasant ones. And I reacted to them with – you guessed it – fear and depression.

Even if I was in a hypomanic state, I couldn’t maintain it if anyone around me was angry or depressed or resentful, or even just crabby. It felt like I was hanging on to my good feelings by my fingernails, and the least inattention would cause me to lose hold and crash.

As for anger and blame, there was no way I could do anything but cringe and apologize endlessly. (It was only much later that I learned how annoying apologizing and self-deprecation can be to those in the vicinity.)

One person became a master at using this to control me. A sigh and a glare were all it took.

Nor did the bad feelings have to be directed at me. I couldn’t be in a room with people who were yelling at each other. At times even disagreements on television would bother me.

I did develop a few coping mechanisms. If other people were the source of the bad feelings, I would make an excuse to leave the room. A breath of fresh air was usually too transparent, and you can only plead a bathroom break so many times, so making myself a cup of tea was my go-to excuse (which also led to a believable increase in bathroom breaks).

My husband has caught on to my interior mood sensor and reactions. Since even raised voices can trigger me, we’ve developed a signal that he needs to take it down a notch, usually when we’re talking politics – sometimes he even manages to chill out the emotional temperature of an entire room. And if he’s having a snit, I can ask him how long it will be till he gets over it and he lets me know whether it’s a big deal or not.

Now even sighing and glaring is a joke with us. He’ll puff like a steam engine and lower his eyebrows until they touch. Then we’ll both start laughing.

After my most recent and worst meltdown (which I’m surprised to realize was about ten years ago), my therapist told me that my shattered, scattered emotional state gave me a rare opportunity to choose which pieces of my former life I wanted to incorporate into my rebuilt self.

Maybe it’s a good thing I tried on those different identities as a teen, so I don’t have to now.

I know it’s a good thing that I’ve learned better ways to manage what emotions I allow into my life.

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