Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘coping mechanisms’

When Trauma and Mental Illness Happen Together

Couples who experience serious trauma may go through the experience together, but they do not always stay together afterward. The death of a loved one, infidelity, the onset of a disease – many things can test a couple’s ability to cope with the event and with each other.

Serious mental illness can also be a relationship killer. Dealing with symptoms, treatments, medications, setbacks, hospitalization, mood swings, and just generally going off the rails is more of a task than many couples can handle.

Combine serious trauma and serious mental illness, though, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a new level of disaster.

One of the potential pitfalls is two people who grieve in different manners or on different timescales. One partner may feel it necessary to process events aloud and at length, while the other may prefer to process feelings internally, without conversation. One person may take a year to get over a death, while the other is still grieving after three or more.

Then there’s couple who have different agendas when it comes to whatever is troubling them both. One may feel that moving on is the best response to a traumatic event, while the other person can’t let go of the past.

Many relationships crack and break apart under the strain. And those are just for couples who don’t have mental disorders.

Now take an example (not completely at random) of a couple who have lost their home in a natural disaster. He suffers from depression. She has bipolar disorder. He grieves the loss of their home and all their belongings to a point that she considers excessive. She kicks into hypomania and focuses on the small details of their situation. He thinks she doesn’t grieve. She thinks he needs to help her address the future.

It will be easier for this couple to stay on track and stay together if they can talk about what has happened and what is happening. That may well involve talking with other people – a trusted friend, a professional counselor, even each other. But it’s important that both people feel that they are being listened to and, more importantly, being heard. And that’s not always something that the other partner can provide.

If the couple can talk to each other, their communication skills will be severely tested. Depressed people and those with bipolar disorder both tend to isolate in times of stress. Processing feelings may not be either person’s greatest strength. And those different timescales and differing agendas are likely to throw up roadblocks should they try to talk about it all.

Being aware that trauma and mental illness both have detrimental effects on a relationship may help. Although even previously strong relationships can be stressed to the breaking point, stepping outside oneself to try to understand the other person can be enlightening. Feelings that seem callous or stubborn or flippant or shallow can just be different ways of dealing with trauma. Thinking the way you feel is the only way to feel will severely impede healing.

If it sounds like I am trying to remind myself of all these things, well, I am. We lost our home in a tornado, and my husband and I were dealing with mental difficulties before that happened. I feel that I must be on alert now for any signs that our relationship is cracking. But it’s not just my problem. The disaster, and the mental disorders, and the relationship are things that we share. They have led to a tangle of emotions and reactions that aren’t predictable or rational or even helpful.

We know the basic things we need to do – take our meds, practice self-care (and help each other do so as well), talk when necessary and be alone when that is what’s needed. We have to keep our eyes on what’s important: our mental health and getting through these difficult times intact both personally and as a couple. And we need to see the humor where there is any. But this isn’t the ordinary sort of disagreement that lasts a day or a week. It’s something we’ll be working on long-term.

Wish us luck.

Emotional and Mental Work

I am weary to my bones and to my soul. As the spoonies say, I’m so out of spoons I can’t eat soup.
Physically, I haven’t done that much to wear myself out. A little light housecleaning. Running some errands. Answering emails and making phone calls. No heavy lifting, unless you count the time I had to help my husband push the washer back into place.
No, the heavy lifting I have been doing is emotional and mental. Make no mistake, that is work and it is exhausting. I am responding to a physical and emotional crisis that happened almost exactly a month ago. After the disaster (a tornado destroyed our house), my husband has done almost all of the physical heavy lifting.
The mental work is stuff that I’m easily capable of doing on a good day: dealing with bureaucracy, organizing the trivia of paperwork and daily life, paying bills, etc. Now, however, there is so much of it to deal with that I am falling behind. I haven’t kept up with sorting our receipts. I haven’t returned the phone call about the hole the cable guy made in the wall. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail about it. I haven’t responded to a friend’s request to look over an official letter she is writing.
The emotional work is entirely different. My husband is dealing with issues of grief, loss, and anger regarding the loss of our house and our possessions. Somewhere inside, I must be having similar feelings, but his are closer to the surface and he is able to express them more.
And I am having some difficulty dealing with this. First of all, angry men distress me, even if I’m not the object of their anger. It’s a throwback to other times and other relationships, a button that was pushed and has stayed mostly stuck in that position. Dan is doing his best to accommodate this quirk, trying to keep his voice down and his conversation rational when we speak of it. But I hear him when he is alone in his study, bellowing or wailing in emotional pain about something I do not fully understand.
My husband and I are operating from different places, with differing agendas, regarding the loss of our house and belongings. He invests his memories and emotions in things much more than I do. I look at what can be replaced and he looks at the irreplaceable – artifacts from his trips to Africa and Israel, for example. Those can’t even have a price put on them and there is no way to replace them. His grandfather’s diamond ring could be physically replaced, but not the sentimental value he attaches to it.
I do understand this, though not at the gut level he does. I do (or did) have possessions that meant a lot to me – a guitar, paintings a friend did, some carvings in semi-precious stones, some photos, of course (though some are stored on my computer, which survived). And I think the salvage company did a poor job of inventorying what they had to throw away and keeping what was small but important, letting us participate in the process. But my anger doesn’t extend to revenge fantasies.
All these feelings, both expressed and unresolved, are sapping my strength and my energy. I have gone back to my therapist for reminders of my coping mechanisms and validation on what I have been able to do – and to have a safe space to vent when all of this does begin to spill over.
And now I have decided to go back to work, on a reduced schedule at least. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a bad one, but it seems a necessary one. Perhaps it will provide a missing piece of familiarity in my life, something to anchor me. Perhaps a different kind of work will distract me from what I have been dealing with.
I know there’s still a lot of emotional and mental labor to do, but with help from my husband and my therapist, I believe I will get through it, especially if I pay some attention to self-care: taking my meds regularly, sleeping and eating regularly, taking breaks when I need them, taking comfort in our cats, and trying to eat the elephant one bite at a time.
This is one of the biggest elephants I can remember, though.

My Emotional Support Animals

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

Rebuilding Myself

After my last (and, I hope, last) major bipolar breakdown, my therapist pointed out that I had a unique opportunity: I could reclaim those parts of my life that had fallen away, or I could leave them behind.

I could choose. That idea was very powerful.

I had a lot of irrational feelings and associations that I needed to reconsider after leaving a toxic relationship. I had given up needlework after making an elaborate set of chair backs destined to be inherited by someone else’s children that I would never see. I got to dismiss those feelings and reclaim my creativity. I chose to take up needlework again. Whoever’s children can have the chair backs.

In fact, I had bad associations with nearly everything associated with that relationship: folk music, guitar lessons, cooking and entertaining, even blue spruce trees and cobalt blue glassware, for God’s sake. I reclaimed the music and the cooking, but let the entertaining largely fall by the wayside, as it triggered my bipolar disorder as well as my memories. I got over the blue spruce and learned to shrug at anything cobalt blue, though I still don’t buy any.

None of these things caused my major meltdown, though they may have contributed to my shaky mental state. They were simply things that I had lost along the way. And since I was in the process of rebuilding myself afterward, I could view them as stones to build something solid with or as broken bricks to discard.

Rebuilding from the bipolar breakdown was not as easy as merely taking back a few hobbies and interests. It involved reevaluating large parts of my life. Would I go back to school and get another degree? I would not. I weighed the idea and decided it would be too much stress just to add a few more letters after my name. Would I resurrect my mostly-dormant writing career? Yes. And I’ve taken it further than I ever thought I would. Would I reconnect with the country music I loved best but had been shamed for listening to? Of course!

The process of putting myself back together is one I have been through several times now, and each time I got to choose what to bring with me and what to leave behind. Bipolar disorder, much as I hate what it has done to me in so many ways, has at least given me that chance to reinvent myself if I wished to or resurrect myself if I felt like it.

I’ve always hated when people say about some bad experience I’ve had such as my appalling relationship or my bipolar condition, “But you’ve learned so much from it!” I always think, “Maybe so, but the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid.” But having the opportunity to rebuild myself – and especially to choose what I want to be part of the new me – is very nearly worth it. I owe that epiphany to my longtime therapist, Dr. B. But I’m the one doing the work. And it is indeed very much a work in progress. I am a work in progress.

Bipolar disorder is one of the bricks I have to rebuild with, and it always threatens to make my new structure a bit shaky rather than completely solid. But isn’t every life a work in progress? Don’t we all have bricks or timbers or stones that are at least a little unsound or misshapen, that we have to shore up or fit in as best we can?

I can’t guarantee that my structure won’t crumble again, though it has been relatively stable for some time now. But at least now I know that I have the ability to start over yet again. And to choose myself. That choice is both powerful and empowering. Just as it is said that all writing is rewriting, all my building is rebuilding.

And I’m okay with that.

Stone Cold Depression

I saw an ad online recently for a crystal antidepressant necklace. It was basically a crystal point hung from a chain.  The crystal was pink in color, which meant it was either rose quartz or pretending to be.

When I looked at the website, there were other colors available, such as clear (quartz), turquoise (turquoise), purple (amethyst), and black (maybe onyx?). Of course, there was always the possibility that these were not naturally occurring colors and that every crystal was plain quartz died some other hue. The turquoise certainly looked dyed to enhance its turquoise-ness, and isn’t a crystal anyway. I also had my doubts about the black one.

In point of fact, I had my doubts about all of them. Not that they weren’t authentic crystals, but that they would work. I’ll be honest here. I don’t believe in crystals as channels of psychic power or healing or whatever. I think they’re beautiful and make great jewelry, though. I have quite a collection of necklaces and earrings made from semi-precious stones, some of which are crystals. I feel better when I wear them, but that’s because I actually have taken the time to accessorize before I go out.

I think that, if crystals have any effect at all, it is the placebo effect, which I’m not discounting. That at least is a real thing. But the ad for the depression crystals got me thinking. If the 12 or so widely varied stones that were featured in the ad are all good for depression, what’s the point? I thought at least specific crystals were supposed to be good for different things.

So I researched some of the advertised crystals to see what effects they were supposed to have and how they might relate to mental health. Here are some of the associations I found:

rose quartz – emotional healing, releasing toxic emotions

turquoise – spiritual expansion, a path to your vibrationally highest self

onyx – inner strength, balance, confidence, protection

amethyst – release of addiction, relaxing energy, sound sleep

I’ll admit right off that I don’t know what “a path to your vibrationally highest self” means, but then again, turquoise is not one of my favorite stones. I have worn rose quartz, amethyst, and occasionally onyx, but felt nothing in particular regarding my emotions, confidence, or sleep (though, to be fair, I never have worn amethysts to bed). Amethysts for relief of addictions most likely goes back to medieval days, when they were thought to counteract poisons.

Then I checked another site, which connected assorted crystals and stones specifically with mental health issues. Here the results were more specific and more focused. Rose quartz was again associated with emotional turmoil, which is pretty close to releasing toxic emotions. Blue lace agate, a very pretty stone, was associated with journaling, which was both different and interesting.

Even more interesting to me were the purported beneficial effects of amber, unakite, tiger’s eye, and smoky quartz. According to this website, amber, perhaps my favorite semiprecious gem (though not technically a crystal), is particularly effective for seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Unakite, a little-known stone that mixes gray-green and dusky pink colors, is said to be beneficial for anxiety and negative thoughts, both of which I, of course, have in abundance.

Smoky quartz appears to be the recommended crystal for depression and tiger eye for mood swings. Both should therefore help with my bipolar disorder. (I don’t remember whether smoky quartz was among the crystals and stones offered in the antidepression crystal ad, but according to this website, it should have been.) I used to wear a ring of tiger’s eye, but it did nothing to ward off bipolar.

I can’t see any scientific basis for crystals having any sort of effect on a person’s emotional states. But I suppose that if these stones bring you some solace or seem to encourage your healing, I shouldn’t put them (or you) down. I don’t happen to believe in their alleged powers myself, but I also know that affirmations, CBT, and positive thinking don’t work for me, as far as my mental health goes, while they do work for other people.

But I do think it is disingenuous at best and fraudulent at worst for that particular website to advertise that these varied stones and crystals all have antidepressant effects. Even those who believe in the power of crystals believe that different ones have different effects.

Personally, I think that a black crystal would do more to reinforce depression than to ward it off. I know someone will tell me if they think I’m wrong.

 

 

Good Enough

I know a man who used to be caught in all-or-nothing thinking. Anything at all – a dinner, a gift – had to be “fantastic” or it was “wrecked.” “Okay” wasn’t good enough. “Fine” wasn’t good enough. “Nice” wasn’t good enough. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough. He heard them all as “wrecked.”

Fortunately, over the years, he learned to accept compliments that were lesser than “fantastic.” He could even understand “needs work” or “meh” without feeling that those meant “wrecked.”

There was I time when I thought my life was wrecked. Irretrievably, permanently wrecked. All I had to look forward to was someone recognizing my wretched wreckedness and having me committed. Fantastic was never even an option.

Later I learned that my life wasn’t wrecked, though it surely hit some rough patches and there were a few things that were wrecked along the way – friendships, my self-esteem. But gradually I learned that the problem was not wreckage, it was bipolar disorder.

And now my life is not wretched and wrecked. Bipolar disorder has backed off.

I don’t think I’ve been cured of bipolar disorder, because I don’t think that’s possible. I think that the most that you can say is that I’m in remission.

And that’s okay.

I’m content with the idea that I’ll have to take medications for the rest of my life. They’re what got me here and they’re what keep me here, in the land of Good Enough.

I don’t ever expect to be normal – whatever that means – but I do expect to remain reasonably functional. I have a good marriage. I can do paying work. I have a comfortable home. I’m stable most of the time. I go to a psychiatrist only for med checks.

I have just enough symptoms to remind me how I used to be (that is, dreadful, miserable, and sometimes numb). I still don’t like to go out of the house, but I can if I need to. I still have to lean on my husband for support. I still get free-floating anxiety at times. But those are symptoms I can live with.

Of course, the road to remission has been very (very) long. I’ve fought my way through meltdowns. I’ve had to learn coping skills and some degree of self-care. I’ve tried nearly every combination of medications on the market, except for the newest ones – I’m not switching from what works now in hopes of getting a little bit better. Because that might not happen.

And because I’m good enough.

I’m good enough to write blogs. I’m good enough to write a book (I wrote a book!). I’m good enough to have lots of friends, both online and off. I’m good enough to help other people who are going through the same things I did.

I’ll never be perfect, but let’s be honest, that was never a goal of mine or even a possibility, really.

But I feel I have beaten this bipolar disorder; it hasn’t beaten me.

And that’s good enough for me.

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.

 

 

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