Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘coping mechanisms’

A Sensory Self-Soothing Room

Photo from the author’s collection

Not long ago, I read in the Creativity in Therapy blog (http://creativityintherapy.com/2016/05/create-a-sensory-self-soothing-kit/) an article by Carolyn Mehlomakulu, art therapist, called “Create a Sensory Self-Soothing Kit.” The idea was that a box filled with items that engage your five senses is an excellent tool for being grounded when you need centering or self-care. The recommendations were for any five things that appeal to the senses of touch, sight, hearing, taste, and smell. I tried the exercise and came up with the following:

Touch – plush animal

Sight – amber necklace

Hearing – iPod playlist

Taste – caramel

Smell – Oolong tea

I never actually made myself such a self-comfort box, but I remember the exercise as a way to think about my senses and how nourishing them can nourish me.

Lately, though, I have acquired a room of my own and have been decorating it to suit myself. Recently, I realized that it has all the requisites of a comfort kit toolbox.

Touch – I have quite a collection of stuffed animals stashed around the room. A great many of them were gifts from my husband, who knows my history with stuffed animals (as we used to call them). Every Easter there was a new stuffed rabbit in our Easter baskets, along with the chocolate bunny and the jelly beans.

Perhaps the most important plushie in my room is named “Trauma Bunny.” My husband found her in the store he works at, squashed behind two huge bags of dog food in the pet aisle, rather than in toys where she belonged. Of course, he bought her and brought her home to me. Now she sits on my desk, guarding my headphones and cellphone, close enough for me to reach out and pat her on the head or fondle her ears.

Sight – I have furnished my room with many things I like to look at, from travel souvenirs to prints and paintings that have significance for me. Even the walls are a toasty rusty-brickish color that makes me feel warm just to look at. I also have a television, where I can watch shows that comfort me, such as ones on the Food Network. I have two windows, and the blinds are always up on at least one of them. The view isn’t terrific, but the sunshine is welcome.

Hearing – I do have iTunes on my computer, with more music than I could listen to in a week. Among the tunes are ones recorded by some of my singer/songwriter friends, as well as the well-known artists I like best, ones you don’t hear on the radio anymore. There is also instrumental music, from Vince Guaraldi to Béla Fleck, if I want something less distracting than voices and lyrics.

I also have a cat tree by the window, where my two cats love to sit or sleep. Both cats purr nicely and loudly. One of them even snores when she sleeps – daintily, but she definitely snores. (Of course, petting the cats also qualifies as touch, and watching them bathe themselves, which I find soothing, counts for sight as well.)

Taste – My husband keeps my room stocked with things he knows I like such as Cocoa Puffs. There’s always diet cola in the bottom drawer on the lefthand side of my desk. Right now there are honey-roasted peanuts in case I need a more proteinaceous snack.

I generally eat only one meal a day, and when I’m really depressed sometimes skip eating altogether. It’s good to know that there’s something here that is easy to access, requires no cooking, and meets some of my basic needs and likes.

Smell – Since I’ve transferred most of my library to an ereader, there are fewer books in my room, but most of the ones I still have are old and retain that almost-indefinable book smell – dust, paper, and some other distinctive aroma that I remember from trips to the used book store as a kid.

I also have a candle that smells like snickerdoodle cookies. I’ve never lit it, but sometimes I just pick it up for a deep sniff. Then there’s my tiny Mr. Coffee, which I use for tea, including oolong, herb tea, and possibly my favorite, the spicy smell of Constant Comment tea.

I practically live here, even though the house is fairly large and there are sensory delights in the other spaces as well. But what I have here, I recently realized, is a comfort box that’s just the size of a room.

Yes, It Was That Bad

By patpitchaya/adobestock.com

There’s a tendency, once you’ve started to heal from the wounds that mental illness has left you with, to forget how bad it really was at the time. It’s not that time heals all wounds. It’s just that the memories fade as they flow backward into the past. You find yourself asking, was I really that miserable? That irrational? That out of control? Once therapy and medication – or whatever works for you – have gotten you past the crisis stage, it gets harder to remember what it all felt like at the time.

Nor do we want to. Going through an episode of serious mental illness is hard enough when you do it once. Reliving it is devoutly to be avoided, if possible.

Still, the memories get a little fuzzy around the edges. Now that you are mentally healthier, you know that you would never tolerate the kind of treatment you used to, or be so self-destructive, or put yourself down so thoroughly. The times when you did those things, when you felt those ways, seem in some sense unreal.

I think that’s one reason that some people go off their meds. It’s not just that they feel better or think that they’re cured. It’s that on some level they can’t remember how bad it really was back then. So why should they need psychotropics?

Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s much better now, but yes, it was that bad back then. You may not remember the weeping and wailing and total despair. You may not remember that you were immobilized for months at a time. You may not recollect pushing away people that were trying to help you. But all that happened.

Perhaps you don’t recall what it was that led you to consider self-harm or suicide. You wouldn’t think that way now, of course – you’re so much more stable. Perhaps you think to yourself that an abusive partner wasn’t really all that bad. After all, you got away from him/her/them. It was survivable, so it must have been not that big a deal.

But it was that big a deal. Denying the experiences you’ve had and minimizing their effects on you make it harder to see the long way you’ve come. It’s hard for me to remember now the major bipolar depressive episode that lasted for literally years, when I wasn’t able to work, or write, or read, or be there for my husband or even myself. But it happened, and I can’t deny it. I’d be lying to myself if I tried.

I’m not recommending that you wallow in the memories of the horrible times. I’d rather think about it as keeping little bits of them in a box on a shelf. Every now and then, on a day when you feel particularly strong, you open the lid and peek in. It may be shocking to realize how bad off you were, but a positive relief when you consider how far you’ve come. As the saying goes, the bad times make the good seem so much better.

Bad and good, your experiences have made you what you are today. Denying or minimizing the bad makes it seem like your journey was less long and hard than you know it was. In a way, mental illness is the yardstick by which we can measure mental health. Moving onward and upward are important, but so is being realistic about the past. Yes, it was that bad.  And yes, you made it through anyway!

When You Face Too Many Options

Delphotostock/ from adobestock.com

It often seems that bipolar disorder and especially bipolar depression narrow your life down to the fewest possible choices. Try to take a shower or stay in bed. Eat a handful of cereal or skip eating. Cry or … cry. And that’s all true. These disorders are quite limiting.

However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re faced with too many choices. Right now I am in the process of having our house rebuilt after it was destroyed by a tornado. Every other day it seems the contractor has something new we have to pick out – paint colors, floor coverings, lighting fixtures, ceiling fans – even the color of the grout between the tiles in the kitchen, an aspect of decorating I didn’t know even existed. It’s overwhelming.

The worst was the paint colors. Sherwin Williams has a color palette about 100 pages thick, with seven different shades on every page. My husband and I have a hard time trying to pick a place to go for lunch, much less what color paint we’ll likely have to live with for the rest of our lives.

Needless to say, I dithered for a long time about the colors. The only reason that it didn’t totally immobilize me is that I employed the technique of weeding. Once I had decided on a color for each room (my husband left that largely up to me, except for his study), I began looking at the paint samples and not choosing what I liked, but pitching out what I hated. No beige anywhere. No teal, not even for the bathrooms. And so on. What was left was a much smaller assortment of choices, which hubby and I were able to process. He always liked the lightest version of a color and I the next darker, but we were never far apart.

We got through the process in just a couple of weeks, and with only one real regret (the green we chose was yellower than we really liked, but we’ll mitigate that by covering the walls with photos, posters, and art prints).

Exhaustion is another aid to making choices. I have some mobility issues and can’t walk for very long, especially on the concrete floors in home improvement warehouses. And I’ve always hated shopping, except on the internet. At some point in the process of looking and comparing, I just throw up my hands and say, “What the hell! That’ll do!” and arbitrarily pick one of the two light fixtures that have most attracted my attention. It’s not like my world will fall apart if I don’t get the one, exact light fixture that complements the room. I just need to be able to see. Then I go home, have some iced tea, and put my poor, tired feet up.

One of my therapists once taught me another technique for making decisions – flipping a coin. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. The simple act of coin-flipping can work in one of two ways. Either you can leave the choice in the hands of the coin (as it were), or the result of the flip can focus your mind on what it is you really want. Any number of times Dan and I have played, “Heads, lunch at Frisch’s; tails, Waffle House.” If it comes up tails, we often instantly realize that it was Frisch’s we were wanting all along.

Frankly, I don’t know whether it’s better to have a limited number of choices or a lot. Either way can be mind-numbing, a seemingly insoluble riddle that threatens to stymie you into making no choice at all. (Or, as the therapists tell us, “Not to decide is to decide not to.”) But it is possible to develop techniques that allow you to make those choices and continue with your life.

Of course, I know these are comparatively trivial decisions. I sure couldn’t have figured out “leave or stay” by flipping a coin, especially as seriously unmedicated and out of control as I was at the time. “Get a job or go back to college” was also an important one, but ultimately an easier one to make – I envisioned the situations and asked myself which I’d rather be doing, writing press releases or reading books. The choice was clear at that point. Both were major turning points in my life, but one was excruciating and the other just another choice. I attribute that in large part to the medication and therapy I’d had in between and the coping mechanisms that I had learned and practiced.

 

The Importance of Alone Time

Alone time is a precious thing. But right now, with the self-isolation that accompanies the pandemic, many of us are experiencing too much “alone time.” But many of us need more.

Alone time has been important to me as I have struggled with bipolar disorder. I have a loving, supportive husband who is there when I need him to be. But even he knows that sometimes what I need is to be left alone.

Sometimes the world is too much with us, and we long to escape – read a book, hide under the blankets, just sit in the corner and think. At times like that, interacting with another person can feel like an intrusion, an annoyance, unwelcome. Alone time can allow you to catch your breath, calm yourself, practice mindfulness, or simply be alone with your feelings.

Of course, getting alone time is not always easy, especially now when we may be cooped up with our nearest and dearest, with no respite in sight. In my opinion, these are the times when a bit of alone time is even more necessary. Even with people you love, being with them 24 hours a day, every day, will begin to wear on you all. Stress builds and you may be triggered by noise, conflict, or other stimuli.

I’m lucky. That supportive husband knows, if his other efforts at drawing me out (offering me food, or a movie, or music) have failed, the greatest gift he can give me is alone time. He’ll even ask me if I need alone time, in case I don’t realize that is exactly what I do need.

I’m also lucky that there is a dedicated space in my house that is perfect for alone time – my study. It has a computer, music, comfort objects, games, favorite pictures, and more. It even has a comfy chair so that I can just sit and think if that is what I need to do. I know that I come at this topic from a place of privilege.

Making mental and physical space for alone time is harder when you have a roommate or a family that doesn’t understand the concept of alone time. The TV may be blaring, the washer clanking, the kids yelling, the spouse being needy. There may be someone in every room of the house, making noise or demanding your attention. Sometimes you can’t even be alone in the bathroom. You want everything to stop, just for a while.

In situations like that, you may have to ask for alone time. First, realize that it’s a reasonable request. Suggest ways to make it happen – I need to be alone in the basement (garage, kitchen, yard, whatever) for a while. Don’t disturb me unless someone’s bleeding or something’s on fire. Offer to return the favor. If you’re feeling pent up, chances are someone else in the house is too.

Of course, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Even though I need a fair amount of alone time, too much can leave me stuck inside my own head, not always a comfortable place to be. I can brood, catastrophize, feel lonely or bored, give in to depression. It helps if I can recognize when alone time is turning toxic like that. When I’ve had enough alone time, I can choose to leave that behind and rejoin the world in a better frame of mind.

As far as I can see, alone time is vital for every person, even the very gregarious. It allows us to let go and drop our metaphoric masks. But alone time is particularly necessary for those with mental illness. The ability to be alone with oneself can be a powerful step in understanding and healing. And whether time alone is the norm or the exception now, people’s mental health suffers. Connection is what we hear most about – virtual meetings, video chats, texts, and calls – but alone time is vital too. Treasure it when you get some. 

I Can Hardly See the Scars

Scars from self-harm are reminders of dark periods in our lives, times when we felt too little or too much. Times when we thought that feeling physical pain could distract us from emotional pain. Times when we felt so numb that we self-harmed to reassure ourselves that we were still alive.

Tattoos can be a lot of things. They can indicate membership in a tribe, be a reminder of a happy occasion, commemorate the passing of a loved one, be a work of art, be a relict of a drunken night, espouse a cause, or have a personal meaning that no one else is party to.

Self-harm is something a lot of us have tried, in one form or another. And the scars produced by it have many meanings. They can be reminders that we lived through a really bad time or reminders that we chose a really bad coping mechanism. Some people look at their own scars and feel lucky to have survived. Some look and feel shame.

Now, a Philadephia tattoo studio, Crown and Feather Tattoo Co., is offering to cover up people’s self-harm scars with free tattoos. The service is so popular that the studio has had to hire more tattoo artists to keep up with the demand.

They call this effort “Project Tsukurou,” a word derived from Kintsugi, a Japanese art form that involves repairing broken pottery with resin and gold dust. I wrote about Kintsugi recently (Beautiful at the Broken Places, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Yj). Rebuilding oneself after a breakdown and thinking about making it a work of art was very empowering to me. Apparently, the tattoo artists and their patrons felt the same way.

I have scars from self-harm and I have tattoos. The tattoos don’t cover the scars but are located in close proximity. The scars have faded, nearly invisible now since the dozens of years since they were created. I am over that, healthier than that now. (Once someone asked me how I quit self-harm. I replied, “I didn’t need to anymore.”)

At first, I was ashamed of those scars. I tried to hide them with wide bracelets and watchbands. Later, I made my peace with them. They were now a part of me, a reminder of a time of despair and despondency. They were a reminder never to let things get that bad again. That there are things I can now do to alleviate the pain or the numbness, should it ever get that bad again anyway.

Mostly, I don’t look at the scars anymore. But my tattoos are right there next to them. One is a semicolon, a symbol and reminder of suicide prevention. (See projectsemicolon.com for more information.) The other is the :): symbol for bipolar disorder. When I look at these tattoos, I think of the reality of both my disorder and my new, better, life-saving coping mechanisms.

Of course, tattoos are not a choice that everyone is prepared to make. Some people feel that they shouldn’t modify their body in that way. But for someone who has already modified their body with scars of self-harm, tattoos can possibly give them back a measure of dignity and pride that their self-harming days are over. They can look at their bodies and see, not mutilations, but life-affirming works of art.

So far, the only tattoo studio that I know of performing this service for free is the one in Philly. But most tattoo studios are used to covering over regretted tattoos with new ones. They should be able to cover the scars of self-harm as well. And if they don’t do it for free, well, one could think of the money as an investment in healing or moving forward or creating a work of art where once there was only a reminder of pain.

 

Reference:

https://scoop.upworthy.com/tattoo-studio-covers-up-self-harm-scars-for-free-it-totally-changes-your-outlook?fbclid=IwAR0sjb_G3sS_P3FsXmImsBtRaIrFkak_8OHjcNJJjocnnSrrL1X-bBqgSlc

Asking for What You Need

I saw a post on a bipolar Facebook page that asked what coping mechanisms people used. There were the usual responses about self-care, which is certainly a fine coping mechanism. But it’s far from the only one.

I’ve learned any number of coping mechanisms over my years in psychotherapy. There’s “looking at how far I’ve come.” There’s “leaving the room when my anxiety gets too bad.” And there’s always one of my favorites: “petting the cat.”

But the answer I put down was “asking for what I need.”

It’s a good coping mechanism because no one can read minds. No one else knows what I need. And, short of them guessing and hoping to hit on the right thing, the only thing I can really do is ask.

I can ask my therapist whether we can work on my anxiety today. I can ask my friend to check in on me daily for a while. I can ask my husband for a hug, or alone time, or some distraction.

Of course, I don’t always know what it is that I need at any given time. At times like that, I can simply ask for things that might help or have helped in the past, like the aforementioned hug or alone time. My husband has been with me for so long and is so familiar with my bipolar disorder that he knows a number of things that are likely to help, and he can suggest them. If all else fails, he suggests I go to bed, or read, or listen to music, all things which can calm or center me. Sometimes he simply puts on my favorite movie, to help draw me out.

Closely tied to the mechanism of asking for what I need is the technique of negotiation. I may know what I want or need, but the other person may not be capable of providing it, or at least not right then. If a friend can’t take my phone call, I can suggest an alternative: Call me after 10:30 or sometime tomorrow. If I need distraction and my husband has to go to work, he can suggest that we go out to lunch the next day.

We’ve developed a shorthand for such situations. When the only thing I can do is say, “help,” he responds with, “help how?” If I can then come up with a suggestion, I do. A lot of the time he is able to provide what I need. But sometimes he just isn’t. Maybe he isn’t able to get me out of the house for lunch. So instead I say, “I need comfort food.” He usually says, “You can get that.” Or he may respond with what it is that he can do: “There’s cheese and crackers here. Will that do?”

Asking for help isn’t easy, and Lord knows negotiating for what you need isn’t either. Both take lots of practice. And there is always the possibility that another person simply cannot supply what you need. That’s where self-care comes in. I know down deep that a nap, or comfort food, or music may help me, and if no one else can provide them, I can usually do it myself.

Receiving help may not be easy, either. Asking for what you need can make you feel, well, needy. And receiving help from someone else may make you feel guilty or unworthy. But the fact is that you – all of us – need help at times and that learning how to ask for and accept help is a valuable skill. And a totally valid coping mechanism.

Dealing With Other People’s Anger

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar 2 and anxiety, I thought I was just a wimp.

Anger – anyone’s anger – frightened me, even if it was not directed at me. I spent a lot of time cringing, until it became an automatic reaction.

This was not because I was raised in an abusive home. I wasn’t. My parents expressed anger appropriately when they were angry, which wasn’t very often, and didn’t take it out on us kids. Once, my father, in a fit of frustration, kicked the locked door to a room my sister and I were squabbling in, and it shocked me. But compared to what some unfortunate kids go through, it was nothing. Once my fifth-grade teacher slapped my hand when I was holding hands with a boy, but again, my main reaction was shock.

But by the time I reached my late teens and early 20s, strong negative emotions overwhelmed me. And not just my own emotions, but other people’s. I was seldom touched by their joy or relief, but their anxiety or anger really got to me. That’s when I started cringing, literally drawing back in fear and trepidation when voices were raised. At its worst, I cringed even when the voices were in another room.

Along with this, my startle reflex was in overdrive. A sudden noise from another room caused me to jump and gasp. The sound of someone dropping a kitchen utensil was enough to set me off.

I believe that these reactions were a result of the anxiety disorder that my psychiatrist eventually diagnosed me with. I always felt that the negative emotions, the anger, and the attacks would be coming at me. I was always on edge, anticipating the raised voice, the accusation, the threatening sound. And it was exhausting. There’s a certain amount of adrenaline that goes with fear and anxiety, and it can leave you shaking.

Oddly enough, I didn’t really start to get over my fear of anger until I began to get in touch with my own anger. For years, I thought that my only feeling was anxiety, but hiding behind the fear was anger. Even in situations that should have made me angry, when I had a legitimate reason to be angry, I never felt that feeling. That part of building a wall against my feelings worked, even if anxiety and depression were walled in, not out.

Gradually, I began to see that there were times when I should have been angry about something that had happened – that I had a right to feel angry. Later, I learned that I also had a right to express my anger. And I learned that neither feeling anger nor expressing it would destroy me. At that point, other people’s anger began to have much less of an effect.

I’m not completely over it. When someone expresses not simple anger, but rage, near me, I again feel the need to rebuild the walls. But I am learning to deal with it. Sometimes I am able to help the person examine their rage and explore what to do with it. Other times I can simply remove myself physically from the situation, so the rage doesn’t come pounding in on me. I learned to do that when I was dealing with simple anger and the anxiety surrounding it. But I’ve found that it works for rage, too. If I don’t have to be around it, I don’t stay within range.

Fortunately, rage is rare in the people I choose to have around me. Anger still happens, both for me and others around me, but I have learned coping mechanisms and built up the strength to withstand it.

I no longer cringe.

 

 

Future Obsession

I used to obsess about the past. Now I obsess about the future. This is progress, I think.

A little while ago, I wrote about how our recent disaster (a tornado) had affected my obsessive thoughts and interrupted my sleep (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-TO). At the time, my thoughts were focused backward on all the belongings we’d lost that needed to be replaced. I was losing sleep with obsessive thoughts and spending the daytime cruising the web for potential purchases. I discussed this with my psychiatrist and he prescribed an increase in one of my medications, a mood leveler, that he thought might help me turn off the insistent thoughts and allow me to get to sleep more easily. He was right. It did help.

Now, however, I am obsessing over thoughts of what will happen months from now, next spring or summer. I am anticipating the rebuilding of our house and the house-warming party that we should have. Yes, I am obsessing over what to serve at a party that is at least six months away, or perhaps even more. Two kinds of punch, obviously. Beer and wine? Cucumber sandwiches and melon with prosciutto? Cheeseboard with figs and nuts? All desserts? I’ve already changed the menu four times. I am already deciding what to wear. The red silk shirt that a friend gave me? Jeans? Message t-shirt? Butterfly dress? Something I buy specially for the occasion? And, OMG, am I channeling Martha Stewart?

This is an odd feeling. For most of my life, I have obsessed about things that had already happened. I’ve spent literally dozens of years analyzing a failed relationship and how it has affected my mental health and emotional stability. To be contemplating and obsessing about the future is unfamiliar territory.

Obsessive thoughts are one of the hazards of bipolar disorder as well as depression. I can well remember having a mental recording device that played back for me every stupid thing I ever did or social faux pas I made. I still remember when one cute guy asked me for a glass of water and I gave it to the wrong cute guy. I still remember being mortified. I know this is not just a thing that I experience because I have compared notes with others. It seems to be A Thing amongst many fellow sufferers.

This time around, I worked out the thoughts of the past with choosing what things to replace now and what to postpone to a more appropriate time, like closer to when the house is rebuilt. I know I don’t need a new desk yet (though I have bookmarked several online). Ruined books I allow myself to replace, along with my husband’s wedding ring.

I do not know how to work out the thoughts of the future. The future is strange to me. I have so much trouble living in the present instead of the past that the future rarely occurs to me. If my husband asks me to make a decision about an event that’s one week off, I reply, “I can’t think about that yet.” My husband actually lives in the future a lot and asks me to make choices that are years or even decades hence. It’s tiring on some existential level. I don’t know what to do for dinner and he wants me to discuss how we’ll spend our Golden Years.

Given what I know about myself and my disorder, it’s likely that the closer the time comes to moving into the rebuilt house, the greater my anxiety will become. You’d think it would be a time of great joy, but I am already feeling pre-overwhelmed at the thought.

Even so, I think it is perhaps a touch healthier to be obsessing forward instead of backward. It acknowledges that I do believe I have a future, that I can plan for it, and that I can take some pleasure along with the obsessions. I can learn to appease my obsessive thoughts by giving them the more sensible parts of what they seem to demand. I can, to some extent, live in my present with work to do and deadlines to meet that keep me anchored in the now.

What will happen in the future, of course, I can’t predict or control. But perhaps I can train my brain to experience anticipatory enjoyment instead of anticipatory anxiety. That’s my goal, anyway.

 

Black-and-White Thinking

 

My husband used to have only two categories when he reacted to something: It was fabulous or it was wrecked. There was nothing in between. If he cooked a dinner and I said it was “okay,” he heard “wrecked.” If I said “good,” he heard “wrecked.” Only the most superlative of adjectives would convince him that I appreciated his efforts.

Of course, this was a holdover from his childhood, one called “black-and-white thinking” or “all-or-nothing” thinking. And what that is, is a kind of cognitive distortion, a skewed way of thinking that does not represent reality,

Cogbtherapy.com has this to say about the subject:

A cognitive distortion is an automatic way of repeatedly interpreting a situation that causes us to not consider other ways of thinking about it. When we over-rely on cognitive distortions, we usually interpret events in such a way that fuels emotions such as anxiety, depression, or anger. All-or-nothing thinking is one such distortion.

All-or-nothing thinking refers to thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was totally good or totally bad. If you are not perfect, then you are a failure. This binary way of thinking does not account for shades of gray, and can be responsible for a great deal of negative evaluations of yourself and others.

http://cogbtherapy.com/cbt-blog/cognitive-distortions-all-or-nothing-thinking

Indeed, my husband was prone to depression and thinking poorly of himself. He would never be as good as his brother, as successful as his father and mother, as artistic or musical or smart as he wanted to be.

Fortunately, he eventually got over this. It’s really tiring to keep thinking of better and better ways to describe dinner. Now I can give accurate feedback, like “satisfying,” or “good enough.” Not everything has to be fantastic.

I must admit that I share in this kind of cognitive distortion. I think it may go with bipolar disorder, which, after all, includes swings from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. But some people attribute it to my having been a Girl Scout or making straight As in school. What I remember is learning it from my parents. When a cousin, for example, screwed up, they would say with a tone of disgust, “Well, I guess some people have to learn from their mistakes.” What I heard was that some people, the good, smart people, didn’t have to learn from their mistakes because they didn’t make mistakes. It was a perfect set-up for making a little girl try to be perfect.

Later in life, I found some flaws in that line of thought. My first experience with a grade of D came in high school in Enriched Geometry. The “Enriched” part was having to do three-column proofs instead of two-column proofs, with the third column being the name or number of the theorem of corollary you were using. I thought that was stupid. You could always look up the theorem or corollary if you really needed to know it. As long as you knew how it worked, I thought, that should be enough. So I didn’t memorize them and I got a D. (Many years later, I was able to hang five pictures, four in a square and one in the middle, which proved to me that I did indeed know enough geometry to get by, theorems and corollaries or not).

I also learned that, according to my parents, perfection was only for me, not for other people. When some work friends of mine started living together, I expected my parents to freak at the sinfulness. They didn’t. But when I did the same thing, they refused even to enter the house.

I know that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy specializes in counteracting distorted ways of thinking, and maybe it would have helped me (or my husband) get over it more quickly or efficiently. But the lesson I eventually learned was that I could be not-perfect and it wouldn’t destroy me. I hung those pictures. I moved on from that relationship and my parents accepted me. I did end up in a job (editing) that requires one to be as nearly perfect as one can regarding as many details as possible, and I suppose that’s an example of turning a negative into a positive.

But if – that is, when – I make a mistake or miss perfection by however wide a margin, my thinking isn’t so disordered that I assume I’m a failure. Black-and-white has been replaced by all manner of shades of gray. That’s really where everyone lives.

Permission to Be Depressed

Depression can be so riddled with guilt. Why am I not able to fake being okay? Why do I isolate when what I need is interaction?

Sometimes what I need is to give myself permission to be depressed. I have bipolar disorder 2, with a heavy depression component. It has overwhelmed me many times. I have fought against it, given in to it, tried to make compromises with it, tried to ignore it – almost any reaction you can imagine. Then I learned how to give myself permission to be depressed.

This is not quite the same as giving in to depression. It involves acknowledging that I am depressed and allowing myself to feel the feelings that I have. Of course, I don’t give myself permission to be permanently depressed. In a way, it’s more like giving myself permission to practice self-care and not to force myself to smile and bull my way past the depression. I recognize that I am depressed and do what I need to do to get through it. That may be staying in bed. It may be crying. It may be wallowing in sad music. These are things that I’m likely to do anyway when I’m depressed, but giving myself permission to do them is surprisingly freeing.

I used this technique probably for the first time when my husband and I went on a “barefoot” cruise vacation. It was something we both enjoyed and both want to do again someday.

But I knew from the beginning that depression might overtake me – probably would, at that time in my life – even while I was doing something enjoyable. Naturally, I didn’t want the depression to ruin the whole vacation, so I decided to give myself permission to do what I needed to do to cope with those feelings.

Most often, that involved retreating to my bunk for a nap. This enabled me to get away from other people when I was feeling overwhelmed and unable to socialize. Sure, I missed some of the onboard and shore activities, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway while in the metaphorical fog and darkness. I enjoyed what I could, then let myself not do what I didn’t feel up to doing. I didn’t try to make my husband stay with me and miss all the fun. There wasn’t anything he could do for me anyway. If the other passengers thought it was odd – and they did – they barely mentioned it to me. My husband told them I was tired. Seasickness was also a believable excuse.

In a way, having bipolar depression at that level is like having the flu. I feel bogged down and logy, inclined to cocoon, rest, and stay away from other people. I realize this is not always possible, but if it is, I can allow myself to do it. Fortunately, this spell of depression wasn’t so bad that it completely incapacitated me as it has at other times in my life. I was still able to feel enjoyment at some times, though not at others.

At other times, I’ve had to give myself permission to have anxiety. If a situation makes me anxious, I acknowledge that I am nervous, and do what I need to do. I can’t “think away” my anxiety, but sometimes I can get myself out of the situation at least temporarily. I do not have to sit and be anxious while people around me argue or shout at each other, one of my anxiety triggers. When I recognize how I’m feeling (which takes practice) and give myself permission to feel the way I feel, I’m better able to come up with coping mechanisms, such as leaving the room to get some fresh air or making myself a cup of tea.

You may notice that when I give myself permission to be depressed or anxious, part of my solution involves avoiding other people. That’s sometimes a hard thing to do. Isolation can certainly make depression worse, but it can sometimes also be necessary if pushing through, trying to smile, mingle, and socialize will make the depression worse in the end. And I have learned that if I try to do that, the depression comes along with me. Once a friend told me that it was like having a separate person with me, a person called Misery. Better to give myself permission to stay home and give myself some self-care.

What I can’t do is give myself permission to stay depressed or anxious. Giving myself permission is a very limited-time offer. It doesn’t work for those really lingering, midnight-dark depressions that last for weeks or months on end. Those, I have to fight. And while I’m depressed, I don’t give up on meds or therapy. Those are necessary to alleviate the depression instead of resigning myself to feeling it.

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