Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘coping mechanisms’

Dissociative Identity Disorder: The Basics

I had a friend, Hal, who had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I never met any of his alters until once we went to the corner store. He giggled. He grabbed numerous bags of chips and other snacks. When we got home, I mentioned this to him, and he said, “You just met Julie. She’s a teenage girl.” Later, I met an alter known only as The Angry Man, which is part of why we’re no longer friends.

DID, as its name says, is a dissociative disorder, one of three different kinds – Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalization Disorder, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID is the most severe of the three conditions. All involve symptoms such as memory loss, “out of body” experiences, emotional numbness, and lack of self-identity. DID is thought to be a reaction to the trauma of extreme physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that occurs usually before the age of six.

Some trace the history of DID to 1584, when the records of a French woman who was exorcised recounted symptoms that today would very likely be attributed to DID. It’s likely that more cases that were actually DID have over the years been attributed to demonic possession. Later, it was seen as a form of hysteria, another disorder with dissociative symptoms.

DID really hit the big time in the 1950s through the 1970s, when the books The Three Faces of Eve and Sybil became best-sellers and were made into movies. The books, written by Corbett H. Thigpen and Flora Rheta Schreiber, respectively, were accounts from psychoanalysts about the diagnosis and treatment of DID, which was at the time called Multiple Personality Syndrome, since the disorder was notable for “alters,” or separate personalities that appeared while the primary personality was unaware that they existed. “Eve” had three alters, while “Sybil” had 16.

Since that time, both of those cases have been controversial, with exposes purporting to reveal that neither Eve nor Sybil really had multiple personalities. The theories were that either the subjects were faking the disorder, or that the doctors suggested to them via leading questions and hypnosis that they had multiple personalities. (This was related to the “repressed memory” controversy in the 1980s to 1990s, which raised many of the same issues. Healthline recently reported that “the majority of practicing psychologists, researchers, and other experts in the field question the whole concept of repressed memories. Even Freud later discovered many of the things his clients ‘remembered’ during psychoanalysis sessions weren’t real memories.”)

Still, DID is real enough to have made it into the DSM. (We should remember, though, that diagnoses of “illnesses” such as homosexuality were present in earlier editions but later removed.) There are therapists who treat it with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), medications, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and/or hypnosis, which started to be a treatment in the 1830s and is said to lead to a rapid recovery. Although hypnosis for diagnosis or treatment of DID is still controversial, it may be useful for reintegrating the alters back into the primary personality.

DID has also been used as a potential criminal defense in legal cases over the past several decades, in cases that range from drunk driving to murder. It has been used to support a plea of “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” (NGRI). This defense is used in less than 1% of felony cases and is successful in only a fraction of them. The theory that a crime was committed not by the primary personality but by one of the alters has not always proved persuasive. It’s difficult to prove, for one thing, and there are professional witnesses and psychologists who testify that either DID does not exist or that even if an alter committed the crime, the primary person is legally responsible for it. The DID defense did work in 1977 for Billy Milligan, who was said to have 24 separate personalities, two of whom were claimed to be responsible for his crimes of rape.

DID is subject to a number of myths or beliefs. For example, many people believe that DID is either nonexistent or an overdiagnosed “fad” seen only in North America. Some believe that it is caused by the doctors who treat it rather than by childhood trauma, or that it is in reality the same as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). However, there have been neuroanatomical changes recorded by MRI in cases of DID: “The neuroanatomical evidence for the existence of DID as a genuine disorder is growing and the structural differences seen in DID patients’ brains…contribute to that growth.” So, although DID is believed by some to be nonexistent, there are studies that back up its reality.

As for me, I have experienced a few mild instances of dissociation related to my bipolar disorder, but nothing even remotely like what occurs in DID. But then, I didn’t have the childhood trauma associated with it. (During the “repressed memory” days it was said that the only truthful answer to “Have you experienced extreme childhood trauma?” is “Not that I’m aware of.”) Nonetheless, I find the subject fascinating, as well as dissociation in general. (This is not intended to diminish the experiences of people who have a dissociative disorder.) But I look forward to learning more about DID, particularly the neuroanatomical changes when they become available.

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Boundaries and Cookies

What are boundaries and why is it important to have them?

Boundaries are limits in a relationship that your friends, partners (and relatives) need to observe. They can be simple or complicated. They can address different aspects of a relationship – social, emotional, or physical, for example. And there can be different levels of boundaries that you set.

In the kink community, boundaries are set before a consensual relationship starts. The different levels are “hard no,” “yes,” and “maybe.” It’s easy to understand what hard no and yes mean – that the person simply will not perform certain acts or gives voluntary consent to them. The maybe category is a bit trickier. These are acts that the person is willing to consider or try, but hasn’t definitely either agreed to or ruled out. That’s why partners have “safe words” or other signals that indicate when a maybe isn’t working for them and they need to slow down or stop.

Boundaries are useful in nonsexual relationships too, and again have categories like hard no, maybe, and yes. For example, in romantic relationships I have a hard no against physical abuse, and I communicate that to all my partners. If one of them hits, slaps, or otherwise gets physically violent with me, that’s the end of the relationship. No explanations, no excuses, no second chances. I’m out of there. I’ve made my husband aware of this boundary and he respects it. He’s never crossed that boundary.

Unfortunately, at the time I established that boundary about physical abuse, I didn’t know about the concepts of verbal abuse and emotional abuse. In one significant relationship, I put up with these for quite some time. Verbal abuse and emotional abuse are two of the tactics of gaslighting. I put up with those for far too long before I was able to say, “I’m out of here.”

Dan once described boundaries to me using the metaphor of cookies. Suppose someone offers you a cookie and says, “Here’s a delicious chocolate chip cookie I made just for you. Yum, yum. Try it.” Only when you do try it do you discover that the cookie isn’t a chocolate chip cookie at all. Instead, it’s a shit cookie – something you definitely don’t want to eat. You set up a boundary about shit cookies. Just because someone offers you a shit cookie, you don’t have to eat it. And you really don’t have to say, “Yum, yum. This is delicious!”

What kinds of shit cookies are you likely to encounter? They can be insults. You don’t have to believe them. They can be other kinds of distressing – talking about you behind your back, for instance. You don’t have to respond or explain. Or they can be actions such as the aforementioned gaslighting, sandbagging, or saying one thing and then undercutting it with actions. You don’t have to put up with those. Refuse to eat the shit cookies. They are all bad for your mental health.

There are less drastic boundaries that you may have to set as well. If you have a friend who always calls you and vents at length about their problems but never listens to your problems or your advice regarding their problems, you might set a boundary: “You can call me with problems, just not after 9:00 p.m.” or you could set an unspoken limit that you will only listen to the friend for half an hour at a time. After that, you end the conversation and get off the phone. Perhaps you establish a signal that you have reached your limit: “My eyes just glazed over.” Your friend may even pick up on the signal: “Your eyes just glazed over, didn’t they?”

Or you might have a partner that has unreasonable expectations. Such a limit might be that you will be involved in disciplining the children, but you won’t do it all yourself. It could even be a seemingly silly one. I refused to iron my husband’s shirts because I felt resentful when he treated me like a laundress. He came to understand what I meant. And we worked out a solution: wash-and-wear shirts. Those I would gladly purchase. Problem solved.

Sometimes, however, there are people in your life who go beyond simple boundary breaking. They refuse to acknowledge any boundaries that you may have. People who hurt another family member, for instance, or who expect you to solve all their problems – not just asks for help, but insists on it and gets offended when you try to establish that boundary. It’s best to cut toxic people out of your life entirely.

But what if it’s a member of your own family who’s toxic? That makes the situation more difficult. You might cut off contact with the person, but have to see them at family reunions or holiday occasions. The toxic person might go behind your back and tell their side of the story to the rest of the family.

The only thing you can do in those circumstances is not to eat the shit cookies. Establish your boundaries and remain firm with them.

You’ll get a lot of pushback from other family members and even your friends. “But they’re family!” they’ll cry. “Family comes first, before everything else.” But that’s a trap. Family may be very important to you, but at some point you have to establish that ultimate boundary in order to protect yourself and your mental and emotional health.

Toxicity can eat away at your soul. It can destroy whatever good or even tolerable relationship you had with that person. It’s not worth it to try to understand a toxic person or to give them fourth and fifth and fifteenth and fiftieth chances to change. At some point, you have to draw the line and recognize that nothing you say or do will ever change that person. It’s not reasonable to expect you to change your feelings or your actions to accommodate them.

Setting boundaries and sticking to them – sometimes it’s the only way you can live with others or, more importantly, with yourself, at least in terms of your mental health. It takes practice and determination. But in the end, you’ll be mentally healthier. And you won’t experience the lingering taste of shit cookies.

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How I Learned I’m Not “Pathetic”

When I first went to my therapist, I often described my life and myself as “pathetic.” Slowly, as I made progress, I stopped doing that. It was a revelation that took some time to sink in. Here are some of the things my therapist said and did to help me overcome this harmful description of myself and my bipolar disorder.

Refusing to accept my description. This may seem like an obvious thing, but it had real meaning for me. I had been majorly depressed for approximately three years and bipolar as long as I could remember. I couldn’t do anything – get out of bed, shower, feed myself or the cats, or perform the tasks of daily living. (My husband picked up the slack. Thank God for him.) My therapist never said in so many words, “You’re not pathetic” or “Your thinking is wrong.” She just patiently spent the time with me and gave me tools I could use to get better.

You’d think I would take this as denying my perception of reality, which I ordinarily hate when anyone tries it. But this time, I welcomed it. It was nice at that point to have someone denying my perception because Dr. B.’s perception was so much more appealing than mine. It gave me something to shoot for – a time when I would no longer feel that “pathetic” was an apt description. She also let me cry it out, which I often did when I was feeling particularly pathetic.

Baby steps. (Also known as “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”) My healing was slow, thousands of baby steps of accomplishing more and more. Because my therapist never gave up, neither did I. Baby steps take you only so far at a time – after all, they’re tiny. But over time, they add up to a measurable distance. As I slowly moved away from my “pathetic” label, I also moved away from feeling pathetic. Eventually, I was able to eat, if not the whole elephant, at least a larger portion of it through slow but steady progress.

Not that I didn’t sometimes backslide. Whenever I hit another depressive episode, my feeling of pathetic-ness came roaring back. It was only as I learned that some other feeling was possible that I was able to catch a glimpse of a time when pathetic might no longer describe me.

Saying, “Look how far you’ve come.” This is something that my therapist kept reminding me. Dr. B. noted that I was becoming able to get out of bed to come to her office. She would bring up the tools that I had acquired or developed to help myself leave the bad old days largely in the past. She would also point out that I not only remembered those tools, I was using them.

Sticking with me. Dr. B. was also there when I backslid. A couple of times I had made so much progress that I thought I was able to go it alone. But, sooner or later, I would need a “booster shot” of work with her to remind me of the things that I really already knew. When I was feeling too low to make it into the office, we would have phone sessions. When COVID hit and in-person visits became even more difficult or impossible to arrange, we began having videoconference sessions. Slowly, I worked up from every week to once every two weeks to once every three weeks – and am now meeting with her only once a month.

And, let me tell you, it feels great not to feel pathetic anymore.

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Releasing Old Ghosts

I don’t know what the proper term is (exorcise? banish? reject?), probably because I don’t believe in ghosts. What I do believe in are memories – persons and situations that haunt you, follow you, and inhabit your dreams.

I’ve had my share, especially of the dreams sort.

When I first got out of a truly destructive relationship, I was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, medicated with valium (prescribed for temporomandibular joint syndrome) and self-medicated with wine. I was not in good shape.

For a long while, anything associated with that harrowing relationship, I shunned. Rex had like blue spruce trees. I avoided them. He had collected cobalt blue glassware. I could barely stand to look at them. He gave me heart-shaped boxes as gifts. I threw away every one I had, even the ones that were actually pretty and useful. He shamed me for my cooking. I gave it up. I gave up things I enjoyed, things that had been part of me. And I didn’t allow myself to explore things that Rex once loved.

He haunted me. I would have dreams in which I was going to meet him, where I was in a place I knew he might show up. I dreamed I was in his house, with cheerful parties going on around me as I panicked. I would have flashbacks to cruel things he had said, such as an obscene song he had written “in my honor.” Times when he said I had “betrayed his honor” for something as simple as cooking the wrong dish for a gathering. Plenty of others.

Now, it seems, the dreams have faded. I have reclaimed parts of my life I used to enjoy. I have banished things that were only his obsessions. The flashbacks are nearly gone.

What has helped me banish these destructive ghosts?

Time, of course, though you’d be surprised how many years it took. And it was gradual. He didn’t vanish from my brain like a puff of smoke. At times I still remembered music in particular – festivals and concerts we had been to together, the obscene song. (As I write this, they come bubbling up again.)

People. A few even from the time that the relationship was going on, who have helped me realize that I should not have been there, that I should not have gone through what I did, that I should have left sooner. I treasure these people. They saw me at my worst, knew me as I was recovering, and are still my friends today.

Other people – friends I had from long before Rex – have steadfastly remained in or reappeared in my life. I may have been bipolar and undiagnosed when I knew them, but these people stood by me, put up with my mood swings and odd behaviors. They have been part of my support system. And new friends, who have no association with those times, but who have had similar feelings and experiences.

Psychiatrists and therapists – also important parts of my support system for all these years. Ones who diagnosed my illness and medicated me properly so that I could deal with the issues that remained. Ones who helped me realize that I had some good memories from those times, that I could rebuild myself by retaining anything that I liked, that I had tools and techniques that I could develop and use to help me do that. I had done bargello needlework for Rex. I switched to cross-stitch. He called the kind of music I liked shit. I delved even further into it, reveled in it. Having developed a love of cats when I lived with him, I’ve never been without one again.

Love. One of the people I met during the next-to-last weekend of my time with Rex is now my husband. He has been with me through the dreams, the flashbacks, and the memories and has been the mainstay of my support system. And there are other people I love, and who have loved me back.

It seems strange that I was with Rex only a little over a year and it has taken me decades to work to this point where the memories have faded, the ghosts no longer haunt me, when it all seems like simply a bad time that has receded into, if not oblivion, at least only a clog that has slowly been removed from my psychological plumbing.

Now I know the right word. It’s time to flush those ghosts that plug up our mental and emotional systems.

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Reminders for New Year’s (and Beyond)

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. I can barely plan my day, let alone the whole year. And I’m also not big on making commitments I know I can’t or won’t keep.

Instead, I remind myself of certain behaviors I think I (maybe) can accomplish and refer to the list as often as needed. Here are a few suggestions that may be appropriate reminders for you as well.

You don’t have to drink alcohol at New Year’s Eve parties. Or ever, really. No one should try to pressure you into doing this, but if they do, simply saying, “No thanks,” should be enough. If the person is really pushy, you may have to ask, “Do you have soda or fruit juice?” You are not required to explain why you don’t want to drink alcohol, and you may want to forego attending parties that do not have such non-alcoholic alternatives in the future. You don’t have to attend parties at all, and “No, I can’t make it” is a perfectly reasonable response to an invitation. Or “Maybe next year.”

You don’t have to make New Year’s resolutions per se. You can have New Year’s intentions, small goals you don’t have to announce to the world at large and that you don’t have to beat yourself up over if you don’t fulfill them. Instead of resolving to jog every day, intend to get out of doors once a week, even if it’s only to walk to the mailbox and back. Baby steps, after all.

I hate to use the word “should,” but you should keep track of your medications, reorder them if they’re getting low, and see your prescribing physician if the scripts are about to run out. That’s just common sense that’s necessary for your mental health, not a resolution. These days, you may even be able to arrange to have meds delivered.

Try to engage in a hobby once in a while. Say, once a month. It honestly doesn’t matter what the hobby is. Read a book, or even a short story or magazine article. Knit or crochet. Repot a plant. Water a plant. Do a crossword puzzle. Bake your favorite cookies, then eat them all yourself if you want to.

Keep comfort objects nearby. These can be anything that soothes you. A music playlist. A stuffed animal. A scented candle. A cozy blanket or sweater. A favorite warm beverage like cocoa or green tea. Don’t be embarrassed about using them to ground yourself. Most neurotypical people won’t even notice if you’re wearing a favorite sweater or have a scented candle lit.

You can connect with people online. This counts as interacting with people. Say happy birthday. Forward a funny meme. You don’t have to make it specific to your condition, but there are plenty of people on Facebook, for example, who have bipolar disorder or PTSD or an autoimmune disorder. You don’t even have to interact with them. You can join a group, then just sit back and see what others post there.

Avoid triggers, if you can. That judgmental aunt. Your creepy cousin. Your boastful neighbor. Again, you have the right to say no and not explain why. (It’s the not explaining that’s the hardest.) Don’t watch movies that you find upsetting, whether it’s Die Hard or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which many people don’t like because of the implicit bullying).

Write about how you feel, if you want to. It could be a mood journal, a regular journal, a letter that you will never mail, a poem. Don’t feel that you have to show it to anyone. Tear it up afterward, if you want to.

You don’t have to face the new year as a whole. If you must have resolutions, resolve to get through the next week or even the next day.

Make an appointment with your therapist. Many therapists are offering tele-visits these days, so it’s easier than ever just to touch base or to work through a problem, a trigger, or feeling overwhelmed.

In other words, do whatever you can to get you through the next day, week, month, or season. The year will take care of itself, whether you make resolutions or not.


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No, I’m Not Taking Bipolar Passively

It may look like I’m taking my disorder passively. I stay in bed a lot. I seldom leave my house. It’s true I don’t exercise or go out with friends or hike in the woods or volunteer at a charity or arrange spa days for myself or sleep under a weighted blanket. Those may be good, proactive things that people can do in terms of elevating mood and practicing self-care. But I don’t do any of those.

I do all the “required” things, like visiting my psychiatrist regularly and taking all my meds faithfully. But when it comes to more active practices, I fall far short of the “ideal.”

It may look like I’m passive, but in reality, fighting bipolar disorder is a constant struggle for me. It just mostly happens inside my head.

First, there’s tracking my moods. This takes an active awareness of my behaviors and what they may be telling me about my moods. If I find myself spending more money than usual, I may realize I’m drifting into hypomania. If I can’t laugh at jokes anymore, I may be headed towards depression. If I receive an unexpected bill and start to feel overwhelmed, I may be in line for an anxiety attack.

Even activities that seem ultimately passive or ordinary may require positive activity for me. Answering a phone call may take a lot of effort, even if I know it’s a friend calling. Going to the grocery, as mundane an activity as possible, can take a lot of effort on my part – getting out of bed, getting showered and dressed, going out of the house, choosing from the many options at the grocery, carrying my purchases indoors. These are actions that may not seem related to my mental health, but are. And I must struggle internally with doing them. It takes up psychic energy, not just physical.

And what about seeing my psychiatrist and taking my meds? These, though they may seem minimal, are not passive actions either. As with grocery shopping, I must convince myself – even force myself – to keep track of my appointments and show up at them bathed and clothed. I must monitor how much of my meds I have left and pick up refills. (Or order home delivery for meds and groceries, if possible.)

When even the smallest efforts seem to take too much, well, effort, trying to accomplish them is at heart a mental battle – to think of what needs doing, convince myself I need to do it, plan for it, prepare myself to do it, attempt to do it, and, if I fail, try again later.

Lying in bed may seem the ultimate in passivity, but there can be a constant, very real struggle going on. On one hand, there’s trying to get to sleep and stay asleep. On the other hand is the struggle to get out of bed and do something – anything. Even if my struggles aren’t successful, that doesn’t mean that I am passive. They can be exhausting (though not enough to sleep). They can require tremendous mental effort, which is sometimes more difficult than the active kind for a person with a mental disorder.

So, no, I am not taking bipolar passively. I am fighting to get through it, to conquer it, to keep it at bay, to not let it win. Giving up would be the ultimate passivity, and I’m not going to allow myself to do that. I will continue struggling with my disorder as best I can, determined to do all I can to meet it actively, with intention, and with repeated efforts if necessary. And not beating myself up when I find myself being reactive rather than proactive. It’s important for me to remember that I’m doing the best I can with what I have. And that I dare not be truly passive when it comes to my mental disorder, lest it take over again.

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Why CBT Isn’t for Me

It’s been suggested more than once that CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, might help me with some of my problems, including “depression, anxiety disorders, marital problems, and severe mental illness” (bipolar disorder, in my case), according to the American Psychological Association (APA). And I understand that it’s helped a lot of people, including some in my position, with some of the same problems I have. If it works for you, that’s great. I’m not saying that no one should ever use it or that it’s a rotten form of therapy.

I, however, dislike the premise of CBT and have never felt comfortable trying it. Here’s why.

One of the basic tenets of CBT is that the client’s thinking is faulty and the therapist helps the client to discover how and where. Then they work together to pinpoint the faulty thinking and replace it with healthy behaviors, or at least less destructive ones.

Again, according to the APA, “CBT treatment usually involves efforts to change thinking patterns” and examine “what is going on in the person’s current life, rather than what has led up to their difficulties.”

When I first got into therapy with the counselor who has helped me the most, what I needed was not someone to convince me that my thoughts were faulty. I had worked hard to reclaim my memories, validate them, and recognize that they really were damaging events. I would resist any attempt to undo that work by invalidating those memories, and my attempts to understand them, as “faulty.”

Despite all the times it has betrayed me, I think my brain is the most powerful weapon I have in moving forward, but that does not include denying the past or brushing it aside in favor of what the APA calls “learning to recognize one’s distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality.” Evaluating the memories and the thinking associated with them is a large part of what has helped me most, but calling them “distortions” would not be helpful. I needed to reclaim those memories and understand the feelings, accept them for what they were and how they changed my life, and then go on to rebuilding a new life – not one free from those memories and feelings, but one that validates them as part of my lived experience.

The methods used in CBT discomfort me as well. The idea of “homework assignments” and role-playing my future interactions does not appeal to me. I have gotten on much better with good ol’ talk therapy (and medications) than I believe I could with body relaxation and mind-calming techniques.

My problem largely involves confronting my memories and not denying them or downplaying them, but learning how to live despite having them in my past. It does me no good to deny a train-wreck as “faulty thinking” or to dismiss it as part of my past. Owning it as part of my past and realizing what it did to me is much more helpful. Validating my feelings and reclaiming my memories, then moving beyond them, is what I need. My therapist has helped me do that, without ever once suggesting that my thought patterns are faulty. We’ve worked on coping skills, sure – but never based on the premise that my past doesn’t affect my present or future.

CBT is also said (by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to be a short-term process (which I’m sure the insurance companies love) or one that can be carried out without a therapist guiding it. To me, this smacks of the “think away your troubles” idea. If I could have, I would have, without the help of long-term talk therapy.

My therapy has been a long and often painful process, but never one that attempts to make me think that my memories are invalid and that my progress will come by admitting that. Talk therapy is hard work, and I don’t believe there is any shortcut to mental health. Even now, after I have largely ceased therapy, I sometimes need a “booster shot” when my problems become overwhelming. Again, this comes from recognizing that my problems are real and that thinking them away rather than hard work is not the answer.

I am sure that people will tell me that I have misunderstood CBT, what it is all about, and how it is practiced. They may have many good experiences with it. But I don’t want to take a chance on a form of therapy that denies my reality and dismisses it as “unhelpful thoughts.” I need my reality heard and validated and examined. I need depth and breadth of therapy that recognizes my “train wrecks” and to what degree they have left me wounded. I need coping mechanisms that acknowledge my past as part of what going forward may mean.

I don’t trust CBT to do those things.

Fake It Till You…Can’t

I used to have a couple of suits hanging in my closet. One was oatmeal-colored. One was blue tweed. One was rust-colored. I had a couple of silk blouses and a jacket or two that I could wear over a dress.

I called them my “Respectable Business Lady” disguises.

At the time I was working at a 9-to-5 job where the dress code was pretty casual. Fridays were jeans days, not casual days. But every so often I had to go to meetings or business conventions, and for them, I needed the disguises. I was dressing to “fit in” and to give an impression that I was competent and stable.

I don’t honestly know if the suits worked as a disguise, but I made it through meetings and conventions fairly successfully (I think), if I was allowed to collapse afterward, at home or in a hotel room. I think the disguises were as much to remind me how to behave as they were to convince people that I was indeed respectable and a business lady.

Nevertheless, I can’t really buy into the “fake it till you make it” philosophy that has been so popular in self-help books, including those promoting business and entrepreneurship help. I had no notion of becoming a respectable business lady by wearing those suits. I was always going to be awkward and out of my league. I was only trying to pretend by using protective coloration.

The essence of “fake it till you make it” is practice. As the saying goes, you get good at what you practice. Unfortunately, you can’t practice not having bipolar or another disorder. You can practice assorted coping mechanisms and get better at doing them, but they’re a solution to some of the symptoms, not the disease.

I don’t think that “fake it till you make it” really applies to people with mental health problems. No matter how much or how long you fake it, your mental disorders are not going to disappear, though they may ease up at times. I certainly don’t think the business lady disguises made me go into remission for a week or a weekend. They were merely a coping mechanism and nothing I practiced enough to get really good at.

One danger of trying to fake your way through mental illness is that you can fall into the trap of what’s called “smiling depression.” When this happens, people don’t notice that you’re miserable because your smile makes it seem you are happy. It’s another disguise, but not a permanently successful one.

Once I was teaching a class, and several women gathered around another woman and asked her what was wrong. “I didn’t think it showed,” she said. “No, honey,” I said, “it leaks out around the eyes.” She wasn’t crying or anything like that, but we could all tell something was wrong, despite her smile. We offered her conversation and sympathy until she pulled herself together a bit.

I’ve never been able to school my face into any kind of smiling depression anyway. If some people have “resting bitch face,” I have “resting sad face.” I can’t count the number of times when I didn’t feel particularly sad, but someone asked me what I was sad about. Of course, I was probably suffering from low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever, but at the time I was undiagnosed and had no idea that I had a mental problem that caused me to look that way.

Basically, what I’m saying is that when you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, you can fake being psychologically together for a while, but you can’t sustain it forever. Certainly not until you “make it.” After I took off my Respectable Business Lady disguise, I would revert to my original self, as far from a respectable business lady as ever. Sometimes it would take me days to recover enough to feel that I was functioning again on any sort of level.

I think it’s better, ultimately, to admit who you are and what you need rather than to try to disguise or fake it. Even if your authentic self is depressed and miserable, getting help for it is still better than trying to cover it up.

The Song as Self-Care

Almost six years ago, I wrote a blog post about music and its power to heal, or at least alleviate, depression. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I’m currently in the middle of what may turn into a major depressive episode. Again, I return to thoughts of music.

I once gave my therapist a CD of the music I liked best. I had been telling her how I had been stereotyped and even ostracized for the kind of music I like best and was embarrassed to share it with others. (Okay, it was country music, or at least the style now known as Americana – not pop country.) She played snippets from several songs while I watched her not cringe at them.

It’s the music that moves me. I’ve heard a theory that the music we love and respond to when we’re in our late teens and early 20s is what we imprint on. No matter how much or what styles of music we listen to later in life, those are the tunes and songs that will move us, no matter how old we get. These were mine. Later in life I started listening to acoustic blues, light jazz, filk, and 70s oldies, but country/Americana is still what lives in me.

Right now, one of the things I’ve been feeling is emotionally constipated. And maybe it’s time to try allowing music to alleviate that logjam.

Whenever I’m really depressed, I forget how much power music holds. When I’m on an even keel, I semi-regularly throw myself “music parties.” I hole up in my study with my computer and let iTunes blast. I even sing along, though I’m a terrible singer. Sometimes my husband joins me for a while and we have guessing games. (Who’s that singing backup? Emmylou Harris. Who wrote this? No, Shel Silverstein, not Kinky Friedman.) Sometimes I look up music that resonates with Dan and download it for him.

But mostly, it is a solitary pursuit. I wrap myself up in the music and let it soothe me. Or I rock out to the music and let it energize me. Or I let the music reach inside me and pull out feelings I didn’t even know were in there. Sometimes I use the shuffle function and let it surprise me. Other times I thread a path through the songs, letting my brain tell me what to play next. (It’s one of the things I can rely on my brain for.)

Call it a way to provide myself some self-care without spending any money. Although massages and pedicures and lunches out with friends are often touted as good self-care methods, I can’t do any of those things when I’m depressed. For me, they just add extra stress – showering, getting dressed, going out among people. I love massages, but I love them when I’m feeling good, only just a bit tense. I love lunches out, but they can’t raise me out of depression. I like them better when even chicken and dumplings feels celebratory.

But at my music parties, I don’t have to deal with any of that. I can stay in my pajamas and slippers. I don’t even have to comb my hair. I can exhibit all the common habits that go with depression and not have to use spoons trying to alleviate them.

So, tonight, I believe, it’s music party time. I’ll shut off my phone. I’ll close the blinds in case I want to chair-dance and don’t want nosy neighbors to have a view. I’ll invite my husband if he wants to be there, and not worry if he doesn’t. (What I call a “party” can easily be a party of one, and most often is.) I’ll unplug my headphones from the computer so the music can fill the room, as well as my head and my heart.

And maybe next week, I’ll have something to tell my therapist about – whether it helped or not.

Caregiving: What We Owe Our Animals

By fantom_rd /

I’ve written before about emotional support animals and what a difference they can make in the life of a person with a mental illness such as bipolar disorder. And that’s still true. Emotional support animals and trained service animals can make a vast difference in helping a neurodivergent person cope with life and their disorder. (A thorough guide to emotional support and service animals can be found here:

It’s unfortunate that misunderstanding and misuse of emotional support and service animals have made it more difficult for persons who really need them to have the comfort and utility of such a companion when they really need it. The fact that pet “vests” labeled Emotional Support Animal are available willy-nilly online is a disgrace. (I saw one site that sold all kinds of vests with assorted patches, ID cards, and collar tags. It had “It is fraudulent to represent your dog as a service animal if it is not” in really small type on only one page.) Real service animals require thorough training and provide specific kinds of support to their humans.

There are many animals that provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support without being official, trained service animals. Cats, for example, are notoriously bad at being able to perform actions such as diverting a person with OCD out of a behavior loop or reminding a person to take medications. Hamsters, rats, and fish, while providing hours of comfort and emotional diversion, are not really qualified as service animals. Monkeys can be officially accepted as service animals, as can pigs and miniature horses. But the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) makes no provision for emotional support sloths, lizards, or rabbits. People who take these animals onto airplanes or into restaurants – or people who take untrained dogs there – screw it up for those who truly have need of nonhuman support.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. I want to discuss people with mental illness and what they owe to the animals they live with. Caregiving.

It’s great that animals can act as supportive caregivers to human beings in need, but the animals have needs, too, and it is up to the human being to accommodate them.

Unfortunately, when I had my worst major depressive episode, I was not able to provide proper care for my companion animals. The cats needed regular food and water, a clean litterbox, and appropriate medical care, at a minimum. Fortunately, when I was too ill to provide those, I had a caregiver (my husband) who was. If he had not been available and willing to take over the pet-care duties, they would have been neglected, and suffered for it.

This is not to say that people with mental illnesses should not have pets. Companion animals can be a wonderful solace and comforting presence. My cats’ purring, lap-sitting, and other behaviors have been soothing and peaceful at times when I really needed it. Just their presence could bring me out of myself for a while. Caring for some other being is a powerful adjunct to therapy.

Even persons with severe mental illnesses can benefit from the presence of animals and are able to care for them, sometimes even better than they can care for themselves. Think of the homeless veteran with PTSD who cares for a companion dog, making sure it eats even if he doesn’t, and finding it shelter from the cold. It’s hard to say which is doing more for the other. And people with depression, for example, may find that caring for an animal brings them out of themselves, at least a little, and connects them with a world wider than the inside of their head.

What I am saying is that people who know they may be incapacitated by their mental illnesses probably should make preparations for a time when they are not able to care adequately for their animal companions. I was lucky to have a caregiver who was as emotionally invested in caring for the cats as I was. He took over the caregiving for them as well as for me.

It is, however, only sensible to make plans for your animal companions if you know you may be unable to give them proper care – for example, if you know you are facing hospitalization. Pet-sitting or boarding arrangements can be made in advance and called upon in case of emergency. Even a pet feeding and watering station that provides several days’ worth of sustenance can make owning a pet more practical when your coping skills disintegrate.

I wouldn’t give up my cats for anything. Unless giving them up was the only way to ensure that they received proper care. No animal should suffer just because I do.

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