Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘depression’

Do My Friends Really Like Me?

There have been times in my life when I thought I didn’t have a friend in the world, and my disorder was the cause of it. I was just too weird, too odd – unlovable. I didn’t fit in anywhere, with anyone.

Actually, it started in my childhood. I had the idea that my parents only loved me because they had to – because I was their child. Ergo, if I weren’t their child, they would never love me. This was very untrue and unfair, I now realize, but I lived the early part of my life believing it.

I had very little evidence that I could make friends. I just never seemed to get the hang of it. There were kids in the suburban neighborhood where I lived, but we didn’t form what you would call lasting friendships. As I recall, there were two sisters who tried to humiliate me with a cruel prank involving a Ouija board and tape-recorded “messages” from the beyond.

In third grade, children threw stones at me. I had to have three stitches in my forehead. Another kid chased me around the schoolyard with a hypodermic needle that I hope was imaginary. My “best” friend in junior high school literally kicked me in the ass in front of a group of younger kids, which led to the first major meltdown that I can remember.

Though now, looking back, high school was the time when I began to embrace my oddity. I wasn’t diagnosed yet, so I didn’t know that the depressive and manic episodes were responsible, but I was learning that there were people who would accept me regardless. I had a tight little group of three or four friends, most of whom are still my friends to this day. They taught me that lasting friendship was possible. In college, I acquired another tight little circle of friends – and one disastrous train wreck of a relationship that left me with defective coping mechanisms such as self-harm.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve found more friends. Several have not been able to adjust to my mood disorder and have broken off contact. It hurt badly, of course, but I could see their point. When I was at my lowest point, I was not able to be a good friend to them either.

So, how has bipolar disorder been involved in my friendships (or lack thereof)? First, with all the chaos inside my head and my constant need to deal with it, I didn’t have much energy left to find friends. When I did get close to people, I ended up pushing them away with my erratic behavior. Only a few kindred souls stuck with me.

I suffered from imposter syndrome too. I thought that it might look like I had friends, but they would soon realize how damaged I was and leave. Or I believed that I was faking being a friend and really had no idea how to go about it.

I ghosted people without intending to when I went into a depressive episode. If I met them when I was manicky, I might be the proverbial life of the party, entertaining with my peculiar sense of humor. The next time they saw me, though, I might be an uncommunicative, weepy lump.

Still, there are people who have known me through the whole range of my moods and my disorder, and I am confident that they are my true friends. They really like me (shades of Sally Field!) and some even love me. I have Facebook friends that I keep in touch with regularly. They provide me a link to the outside world. I have IRL friends whom I see occasionally (we tend to live in different states). I even have a few friends nearby.

I love my friends. Because of how hard they’ve been to come by, I value them greatly. They have stood by me. They have invited me to dinner, to their parties, and on their vacations. They have comforted me when I was down, distracted me when I was anxious, and enjoyed my company when I’ve been stable. They’ve cried on my shoulder and I have cried on theirs. They’ve bought my books. Some have even lent me money when I really, really needed it. They have become my family of choice.

I treasure every one of my friends – especially my husband, who is my best friend. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

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What’s Really Scary

It’s very nearly Halloween and there are lots of scary things out there, from costumes to movies. But here’s what I find scary.

My number one fear is the return of my bipolar symptoms, especially the depression. I’ve been mostly stable for years now, with only occasional and relatively mild symptoms when I relapse. But I still remember what it was like and I don’t want to go back there. The misery and the hopelessness. The numbness and the pain. The lack of joy, or contentment or, for that matter, even blankness.

Hypomania isn’t as scary, though I know it can and does recur from time to time. I don’t have a history of extreme symptoms and, with my husband’s help, I’m able to navigate the ones that do occur.

I can handle it if I get mild “breakthrough” symptoms when I encounter triggers. I have coping mechanisms in place, including simply waiting for them to pass, because I know they will. That trust in my resiliency – and my medications – has grown over the years.

Still, there’s always the thought in the back of my mind that the efficacy of my meds could wane. I could crash again. There’s no guarantee.

Then there’s the fear that I could develop a batch of new symptoms, triggered by God only knows what. I know that some people with bipolar disorder have hallucinations, hearing or seeing things that aren’t there. One friend of mine has heard voices for years, and another one is visited at times by an imaginary animal. (He doesn’t mind it; he says it’s always been pleasant.) Again, not likely, but then again, my brain has already been proven to be glitchy.

Of course, I do find other things scary. I am terrified of bees, wasps, ticks – anything that impinges on my dermal boundaries. I’ve been stung once and suffered no symptoms beyond the usual, but it did nothing to allay my fears. In fact, I took beekeeping in college, hoping that I would get over the fear. That didn’t work either. I still freeze, shake, scream, cover my head, or run. It’s a phobia, though not a crippling one. It doesn’t bother me enough to try eradicating it via therapy. Besides, if the beekeeping class didn’t help with desensitization, I’m not sure what would.

But there are less personal fears that I have too.

Some are societal problems. Stigma regarding serious mental illness still exists. And although people increasingly seem to be concerned about “mental health,” it turns out what they really mean is usually substance abuse or crime. Initiatives and funding tend to focus on those problems, sometimes to the exclusion of actual brain illnesses – except maybe schizophrenia, and then only as it relates to violence or homelessness. Of course, those are real problems, but there are a lot more people who need to be helped that aren’t getting attention, funding, or treatment.

Speaking of treatment, that’s another subject that’s frightening. It just isn’t available in many locations. I don’t know what the situation is regarding available beds in my geographic area, but I doubt there are many, given national trends and the complete lack of an inpatient ward at the hospital nearest me. If I did experience more extreme symptoms, I’m not altogether sure I could get good, prompt treatment.

Finding a psychiatrist or a therapist can also be difficult, bordering on impossible. When Dr. R., my longtime psychiatrist, retired, I tried to find a new one. I called the doctors he recommended, but none had openings. I turned to my primary care physician, who at least agreed to continue my psychotropics until I could find a psychiatrist. Six months later, I got in to see someone. And that was only for med checks. I had slightly better luck finding a therapist, but it was by no stretch of the imagination a breeze. Fortunately, both have managed to avoid retiring.

Call me a pessimist (okay, I’m a pessimist), but I also fear that things aren’t going to get much better anytime soon.

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Three Days in the Life

What’s it like to have bipolar type 2? Here’s a look at three typical days.

It’s a day when I’m depressed. I wake up late and try to decide whether to get out of bed. I do so in order to take my meds, since I have to go to the bathroom anyway. If I have anticipated this depression, I will have left a box of Cocoa Puffs by my bedside, and these constitute my breakfast.

If I stay in bed all day, I am bored, because I can’t even focus enough to read. Everything I try to read means nothing to me. If I get up, I spend a large part of the day on the sofa, watching horrible reality shows that remind me that there are other people with crappy lives too. I skip lunch. I forget that I have an iPod with thousands of songs on it. I skip therapy appointments because I’m unable to get up and dressed and drive there. I feel numb and useless and pathetic. My brain reinforces this belief.

In the evening, I cry. I weep. I sob. Snot runs from my nose. I have circling thoughts about every stupid, embarrassing thing I’ve ever done. I try to wait till my husband’s asleep so he won’t hear me crying. I wake in the middle of the night, still crying.

I have anxiety attacks too, particularly when I’m in bed at night. I wake gasping. My husband holds me and strokes my hair until I fall asleep again. It’s really all he can do for me.

My psychiatrist and I keep trying different meds, but none of them does more than take the edge off a little. I still can’t function.

There is nothing I can do to change any of this. I can’t cheer up. I can’t even see a time when I won’t feel this way. This goes on every day for months. For years, even. I’d hope for an end to this, but I have given up on hope.

______________________________________________________

It’s a day when I’m hypomanic. I wake up early, not exactly refreshed, but with a more-than-usual alertness. I take my meds, then go downstairs and have a muffin and a container of yogurt for breakfast.

I go to my computer and start writing. I may have an assignment – typing or ghostwriting – or I may just work on new blog posts. The momentum of writing stays with me and presses me to keep going. I write lots, but badly. Maybe I forge ahead and write another blog post or volunteer for more typing. I forget that I need lunch.

I jump around from project to project. I scroll and scroll through Facebook. I check my email every few minutes. I go to clothing websites and order underwear and pajamas and blouses. I look at jewelry, too. I check my bank account at least four times.

I don’t read, because nothing holds my attention. I watch competition shows because of the excitement. I try to listen to music, but I can’t finish one song without flipping to another.

I may notice that I’m hypomanic and try to control it. This goes on for a week or so. I hope it ends soon.

______________________________________________________________

It’s a day when I’m stable. I wake up after nine hours of sleep and take my meds. I have a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea for breakfast. I check my calendar and see what I have scheduled for the next few days, such as an appointment with my therapist or finishing my writing or typing assignment. I have peanut butter and fruit for lunch.

I do my work. I reread what I wrote when I was hypomanic and immediately start revising it – if I haven’t already submitted it. I take on new assignments and try to space them out so they’re not overwhelming. Sometimes I even succeed. I keep a calendar on my computer with dates of appointments for both me and my husband, when assignments are due and when bills need to be paid, and which week is recycling week.

I meet with my therapist once a month via video chat and see my psychiatrist four times a year for medication updates. The only time I miss one of those is when my car is at the mechanic.

I’m very close to “normal.” I hope this goes on forever.

This post first appeared on The Mighty.

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Are Holistic Approaches to Mental Health Useful?

Well, first of all, the answer to that question depends on what you mean by “holistic.” If you mean treatment that considers the mind, body, and soul, I certainly have to say yes. All three are inextricably intertwined and healing one tends to heal the others as well.

Certainly, the mind is involved – that’s implicit in the word “mental.” To many, this means the brain as the location of the mind. Increasingly, this also means thinking of and referring to mental illnesses as brain illnesses. And the competing theories of what causes depression and bipolar disorder, for example, have had something to do with the brain. Perhaps neurotransmitters in the brain are not behaving the way they are supposed to, or processing traumatic events causes brain illnesses (certainly true in PTSD), or genetics is responsible. whichever it is, the brain is involved.

It’s not controversial to say that the body and the mind are linked in the most profound ways. What affects one affects the other. Mental illness has demonstrable effects on the body, all the way from not being able to care for oneself physically to having a shortened life span. Treatment programs for mental illness often include an exercise component, which causes physical changes in the body and brain. Depression in particular is known to be alleviated by even small amounts of exercise. The exercise partially relieves the depression, which makes it more likely that the depressed person will be able to exercise. It’s a cycle that benefits both the body and the mind.

As far as the soul goes, I don’t feel theologically competent to make any definitive statements. I do know, however, that many people find that spiritual practices such as prayer help them cope with the effects of brain illnesses. It may be subjective, but what works, works. I personally don’t believe that prayer cures mental illness, but even if it just makes the sufferer feel more at peace and more comforted, that’s a component of healing that’s important.

Holistic healing that recognizes the interconnectedness of these three aspects of the person is, in my opinion, more likely to be more effective than any one of them alone.

Then there’s the other thing people often mean when they say “holistic healing.” To many, holistic healing means avenues of treatment beyond the scope of Western medicine. Herbal medicine, meditation, homeopathy, acupuncture, yoga, and crystal healing are among the avenues that have been explored.

There is certainly some validity to herbal medicine. It’s been practiced for thousands of years and the results are well-known, particularly by indigenous peoples who have passed that knowledge on throughout the years. Chamomile, lavender, passionflower, and saffron have been studied for mitigating anxiety or depression in cancer patients, with favorable risk-benefit profiles compared to standard treatments. Ginseng is another popular herb for relieving mental conditions. St. John’s wort has been used as a treatment for depression for hundreds of years, and so has valerian for anxiety. And there are many vitamins and supplements such as B vitamins and zinc that might have beneficial psychological effects.

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous scientific study of plant-based medicine. For people who gather herbs and plants from the wild, there’s no telling the potency or amount of the active substance that may be present. Even in herbal products sold at health food stores, there is little standardization, so you don’t always know what you may be getting in terms of dosage.

Meditation and yoga are popular adjuncts to talk therapy and/or medication for psychological problems. In fact, these days, they seem to be promoted as a panacea for mental health. They’re particularly popular recommendations in corporate settings, where they’re seen as a low-cost alternative to more expensive treatments that would affect the company’s health insurance costs.

Nonetheless, meditation and yoga do have beneficial effects on mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and may be helpful for conditions such as PTSD as well. Any amount of exercise is commonly recommended for people with depression and bipolar disorder. The effects are cyclical. The more one exercises, the more one feels able to get going with exercise. Yoga, being low-impact, is something that can be tried by nearly everyone. I’d still say they are adjuncts to traditional treatments for mental illnesses rather than a first-line approach.

Then there are practitioners of alternative medicine. These therapies range from acupuncture to chi balancing to aromatherapy to biofeedback to reflexology to reiki. Let’s start with one that has some science to back it up.

Acupuncture and its cousin acupressure have solid adherents behind them. Johns Hopkins Medicine says that acupuncture is useful in treating anxiety, depression, insomnia, nervousness, and neurosis, though more studies need to be done. And who am I to argue with Johns Hopkins? If they say it’s effective or even promising, I’m willing to say it falls inside the spectrum of helpful approaches.

Reflexology, not so much. The idea that there are areas on the feet that correspond to body parts and can be helped by foot massage is not scientifically proven for health in any body parts, either anatomically or physiologically. (It hasn’t been disproven either, but you can’t prove a negative.) It’s based on the idea that “energy lines” throughout the body somehow combine in the feet (or hands) to produce a map of the body. It is recommended for anxiety and stress relief.

On the other hand, the massage practice of concentrating on muscles that are tensed is much more well-documented. The Mayo Clinic has said that it can reduce stress and anxiety, and even mentions it as a treatment for depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). The thing is, any practice that reduces stress is good for relieving anxiety. Whether or not massage has any effect on serious mental illness (SMI) is doubtful.

Relief from tension is, of course, possible when a person believes that a particular technique can reduce it. So if you believe in aromatherapy, for example, it may help you relax. It’s the placebo effect. I’d rather stick with massage.

Then there are approaches that simply don’t work. Homeopathy is supposed to work on the theory that if a substance is good for the body, introducing a single drop of it into water will be effective in the treatment of a disorder. Never mind the science (though there are rigorous studies that say homeopathy simply doesn’t work), the math doesn’t support this. Diluting a substance to the extent that there are minuscule, millionth amounts per glass of water – or even less – just isn’t sufficient to do anything. If there are larger concentrations of the substance, in which there can be alcohol or heavy metals like iron and lead, there may be drug interactions or serious side effects. In 2017, the FDA alerted consumers that some homeopathic teething tablets contained excessive amounts of the toxic substance belladonna. Belladonna is also said to be a treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Crystals are another way that alternative practitioners attempt to cure assorted diseases and conditions. Jasper and tiger’s eye are recommended for anxiety and lepidolite or citrine for depression. Smoky quartz is even said to relieve suicidal thoughts. I wouldn’t count on it. Again “energy fields” of the body and “vibrations” of the various stones, minerals, and crystals are supposed to combine to affect mental and physical health. I own and wear any number of crystals for their beauty, but have never felt any healing effects. The only benefit I see is if a stone is carried in the pocket as a “worry stone,” which the person can rub to induce a calming effect, an early version of the “fidget spinner,” as far as I can see.

Still, proponents of these alternatives to traditional Western medicine will continue to hope for beneficial effects. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that Americans spend over $30 billion annually on alternative health care. I say, “Let the buyer beware.”

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What If My Symptoms Come Back?

It’s inevitable. Once you’ve dealt with a mental illness, you’re afraid it will come roaring back, even if you’ve been stable for a long time. You wonder if your medications will stop working. You dread “breakthrough” episodes that will put you back in the same awful space you thought you had escaped from. You have flashbacks or dreams that take you to places you thought you had left far behind. You imagine you hear someone call your name and wonder if it’s a symptom. Sometimes, something you never thought of as a trigger will catch you by surprise and send you right back to the dark place, the anxious place, the out-of-control place.

Those fears are not unwarranted. All of those things could happen. For many people, they do. For most, the thoughts pop up at odd moments, even when you’re doing well. They’re unpredictable. That’s part of what makes them so scary – the knowledge that you have no control over these thoughts of recurrence.

It certainly happens to me. I obsess over my own thoughts. I fear dropping back into depression. I wonder if I’m exhibiting hypomanic behavior without realizing it. I overanalyze nearly every feeling I have if it has the slightest hint of a symptom of bipolar about it.

That’s when it’s good to have a strong support system – a person or persons you can talk to and check in with. Someone who recognizes your baseline behavior and when you start to depart from it. Someone who understands your disorder and what the symptoms might be.

I’m fortunate to have a support system in place, though it consists of only two or three people at this point – my therapist, my husband, and to some degree my prescribing psychiatrist. I see my psychiatrist only four times per year for med checks, but I can tell him when I think I’m experiencing symptoms and ask whether he thinks it’s something that warrants a change in meds.

I see my therapist approximately once a month, and she has a better handle on intrusive thoughts and whether they are irrational or not. She provides a “sanity check” for me. Most of the time, she reassures me that they’re normal (or nearly so). Sometimes, she tells me if I should bring them up with my psychiatrist the next time I see him. Mostly, she listens, which is what I think a good therapist does.

The mainstay of my support system, however, is my husband. He understands bipolar disorder from years of living with me and living through my mood swings. He knows my baseline level of behavior and when I begin to depart from it. For example, he can recognize when I am starting to get hypomanic and suggest to me that I might be beginning an episode. Or, if I feel like I might be getting manicky, I can ask him if he sees the symptoms in me or not. If I’m having delusions that other cars are swerving into my lane, he can suggest I take an anti-anxiety med.

Four former members of my support system are no longer there, two because they recognized my symptoms increasing and were not able to deal with them, and two lost to death. Even though my husband and my mental health providers help keep me on an even keel, I do miss the additional input. I need reassurance when I am doing well and help when I begin to veer off course.

This month, however, I am doing better. I just postponed my therapist appointment because I have no pressing issues that need addressing this month. May it stay that way.

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Baby Steps Toward Healing

Once I attended a weekend photography workshop. One of my photos received praise as being innovative and interesting, one based on a technique I had seen a friend use. The rest of my photos missed the mark. I was frustrated by my lack of progress. The instructor reassured me, advising me that I should take (or was taking) “baby steps.” That photo provided a brief glimpse of what I could do if I kept at it.

My therapist has also reminded me of this numerous times. And she’s been right. Almost all the progress I’ve made in dealing with being bipolar has been gradual and incremental.

The baby steps process was long and arduous, lasting for years. The first step was taking Prozac, which helped me for a while, then didn’t. Most of the progress I’ve made with medication has been in tiny, discrete steps. My prescribing psychiatrists have never done anything quickly, which is in one way a blessing and in another a torment. They would try me on one drug, then wait to see the results, then try a different dose or a different drug altogether. Lather, rinse, repeat until progress at last occurred.

Progress in therapy has likewise been gradual over the years. First there were therapists who diagnosed me with depression, which was certainly true, though not the whole picture. And they helped, or at least a number of them did over the years. I learned a lot about depression in general and how it applied to me in particular. I also learned about relationships, and those insights helped my marriage.

Finally, I was given an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder 2 with anxiety. That was where the steps toward reaching some resolution regarding my medication really started. That was also when I started working with the therapist who reminded me about baby steps.

Although I had made steps toward healing in the past, I had taken a deep and protracted plunge into depression before I started going to her. Several years of it had left me immobilized, despairing. At my lowest point, I described myself as “pathetic.” There were going to be a lot of baby steps needed to get me out of that miserable place.

So we went to work. I liked the kind of therapy she practiced – non-directional, non-judgmental. (I had had problems with therapists who weren’t like that in the past. Needless to say, I made no progress with them. In fact, I even took steps backward.) There was a long way to go.

Dr. B. frequently reminded me of the importance of baby steps and, eventually, how far those steps had taken me. I learned coping mechanisms. I learned new ways of thinking. I learned to accept myself with the reality of my bipolar disorder, but without the constant misery. And, by the time my proper medications had kicked in, we were making some even bigger steps. But all my progress was built on a foundation of many, many baby steps along the way.

I think all therapy consists of a lot of little steps. I don’t know anyone who has had a great revelation that instantly moved them further along with their healing. I only got glimpses of what my situation could be like if I persisted. And along the way, I regressed at times, needing to re-learn the lessons I had been exposed to and re-taking the steps I had already accomplished. Progress is like that – two steps forward and one step back – especially with a disorder as cyclical as bipolar.

Anyway, I still go to therapy and still take baby steps toward whatever my future holds. I realize it will take a long time – probably the rest of my life – but I’m dedicated to the process.

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Grief and Depression

A number of years ago, I saw a TV show in which the main character was grieving the death of a friend. The other characters decided that he was grieving for too long and concocted a plan to distract him from his grief.

I was pissed off. What the man needed was time, not distraction. And how long he took to process his grief was not up to his friends. Grief takes as long as it takes, and it’s a different amount of time for different people.

Mostly we think of the death of a person when we think about grief. But that’s not the only occasion when grief comes to us. The death of a friendship can bring grief. I have lost friends to circumstances other than death, and I still miss them and find myself thinking, “Oh, Kim would like that,” or “I need to talk this over with Hal,” then remember that they’re no longer in my life. I do grieve the loss of those relationships, the ones I know will never be mended.

One can even grieve the loss of a beloved pet. There are those who say, “It’s just an animal. You can get another one.” But that’s not the case. I had my cat Louise for over 20 years from the time she was a tiny bit of fluff to when she took her last breath resting on my lap. I have since gotten – and loved – other cats, but none can truly replace my beloved companion. I grieved for her and still do. My grief is less intense and not always with me now, but I can’t say it’s gone, not the way Louise is gone. I still dream about her and find myself calling our other cats by her name.

Even the loss of a possession can trigger grief. “Oh, it’s just a thing that you can replace,” you may hear. But think about a wedding ring that was given 40 years ago. Yes, we replaced it, but it had been the repository of that long-ago wedding day and all the years since. A new band of gold didn’t have the emotional weight that the original carried.

Among the worst of all losses is the death of a dream. Poet Langston Hughes said it with these simple words:

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

So why am I writing this for a blog on mental health? Because grief is also a mental health issue. Grief and depression are not the same thing, though one can easily bleed over into the other. Like grief, depression has no timeline. Like depression, grief can ambush you suddenly, when you are least expecting it. You will get through it, or learn to bear it, and you will do so in your own time, or with help.

Both grief and depression evoke feelings of hopelessness, numbness, and loneliness. And both are eased somewhat by the loving presence of friends and family. While it’s true that no one who has not lost a child, for example, can know the exact shade of grief and eternity of pain that brings, anyone who has experienced a different form of loss and grief can be there to hold your hand, provide a shoulder to rest against, cry with you. That doesn’t make it better, except that it kind of does. Being alone in your grief is itself another kind of grief. But you don’t have to be. There are grief counselors, just as there are therapists for mood disorders, and they can help you process the memories you bear with you and the pain you feel on every birthday or holiday.

As with mental illness, no one should tell you that grief is something you have to get over or that you should be over it in a certain amount of time or that you’re expressing your grief in the wrong way. We all experience grief at some point in our lives, but the exact boundaries of it differ from person to person. Those boundaries need to be respected.

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Not Breathing Affects Our Mental Health

My husband and I both have sleep apnea. We also both have depression, or at least he does and I have bipolar disorder with a pretty hefty depressive bent.

Sleep apnea is a medical condition in which a person stops breathing multiple times a night. The body responds to this by resuming breathing after a second or two, but sleep disruption has already occurred. For my husband, this occurs up to 60 times a night, while it happens to me more like six times. (Technically, my version is called “hypopnea” (hypo+pnea – low+breath; apnea, a+pnea – no+breath.))

The body depends on breathing, of course, for oxygen, but it also depends on sleep – which is disrupted in sleep apnea – for proper functioning. REM sleep, for example, is vital for dreaming, which has multiple beneficial effects on the body and mind. REM sleep has been known to be altered in depression, and studies have suggested that it is involved in modulating mood symptoms, including psychological distress in general.

One of the more observable symptoms of sleep apnea is loud and prolonged snoring, which both my husband and I have suffered from. While I was traveling with my mother, she even requested that I let her go to sleep first since my snoring kept her awake.

But what does sleep apnea actually do to the sufferer’s brain? Surely lack of oxygen to the brain has some effect.

Indeed it does.

According to research conducted at UCLA, “gasping during the night that characterizes obstructive sleep apnea can damage the brain in ways that lead to high blood pressure, depression, memory loss, and anxiety.”

Sleep apnea has been associated with difficulty concentrating, memory problems, poor decision-making, depression, and stress. Psych Central reports that untreated sleep apnea increases the chance of anxiety by over three and a half times; depression, by more than three times; severe psychological distress, by not quite three times; and suicidal thoughts, by more than two and a half times. Sleep apnea has also been associated with PTSD. The Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine recommends that “in individuals with [obstructive sleep apnea] and psychiatric illness, treatment of both disorders should be considered for optimal treatment outcomes.”

Studies suggest that sleep apnea is linked with changes in at least two neurotransmitters in the brain (GABA and glutamate) that combine and coordinate signals that help regulate emotions, thinking, and some physical functions. Researchers plan to investigate whether treatments for sleep apnea will help these brain chemical levels return to normal.

SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as fluoxetine and sertraline (Prozac and Zoloft) are thought to be valuable in treating sleep apnea. One study indicated that SSRIs may be a good treatment option for [sleep apnea], particularly for those [patients] with epilepsy. Another study showed a link between “having sleep apnea and increased odds of having a mental health issue” or symptoms such as anxiety or thoughts of suicide.

Treatments for sleep apnea include dental appliances to be worn while sleeping, lifestyle changes, and even surgeries. These treatments sometimes address snoring directly, but not the underlying mechanism. The more effective treatment is “positive air pressure,” delivered by CPAP machines.

CPAPs use positive air pressure to keep the sleeper’s airway from collapsing, which is what impedes their breathing and jolts thie brains into resuming it. They consist of a unit that generates air pressure, a hose and mask to deliver it, and assorted straps to keep the hose in place throughout the night. The masks can be ones that cover the entire nose and mouth or cannulas that are simply placed in the nostrils. There are also cushions on the masks or available separately that reduce discomfort as well as waking up with “mask face.” Many people find the masks uncomfortable to wear all night, but others use them not only at night but also for naps. Unlike a ventilator, the CPAP doesn’t breathe for a person. It allows them to breathe more effectively on their own.

Diagnosing sleep apnea requires a “sleep study” ordered by a doctor. Assorted leads are attached to the subject, who then spends all night sleeping (or trying to). Breathing rate, heart rate, oxygen saturation, and other parameters are measured and a record is kept of the number of times the subject stops breathing during the night. This is sent to the doctor, who can then prescribe a CPAP unit and mask.

Dan and I both use CPAP machines. They are a bit inconvenient, especially when we travel and have to take power cords so we both can use them at the same time (and power converters when we travel abroad). When it comes to packing, the machines are a bit bulky and somewhat heavy. Still, we take them with us religiously.

Has sleep apnea treatment improved our mental health? It’s hard to tell, especially since we’re both taking SSRIs anyway. I know correlation isn’t causation, but our depression and bipolar have certainly eased up since we started getting treatment and our sleep cycles have become more regular. But if all it does is stop the snoring, that’s still a win for us.

So, if you snore a lot and have mental health issues, you might want to be tested for sleep apnea and treated if you do. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt and might help.

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Self Image: Who Do I Think I Am?

Self-image is a problem shared by millions of people every day. Take women, for example. They are bombarded by relentless messages that they are too fat (or too thin); too plain; with inadequately full, shiny hair; or with un-perky, non-voluptuous breasts. (Men face messages too about their lack of muscles, excess paunch, thinning hair, or short stature – but nothing like the volume (in both senses) that women receive.)

Self-image is also a big problem for people – both women and men – who live with mental illness. It’s not always physical self-image. Sometimes we get messages about how we should think and feel from all the ads on TV and in magazines and on the internet that feature happy people interacting joyfully with their friends and families. The subliminal message is that if your life isn’t like that, the advertisers’ products will make it so that it is.

Of course, nowadays there are also ads that feature depressed or bipolar people, but they end the same way. Get online help or psychotropic meds and you’ll turn into one of those happy, joyful people living life to the fullest. For many of us, that’s not the way it is. There are treatment-resistant disorders, for example, and complex problems like OCD, PTSD, and schizophrenia that aren’t mentioned at all. (PTSD is sometimes addressed in the context of veterans helping one another, which is good, but the ads for this usually offer moral and financial support, rather than a more trauma-conscious solution.)

I’ve been through my own battles with self-image, and not all of them related to things I saw in the mirror. When I was a child, I endured bullying that made me feel unworthy and unable to fit in. As a teen, I saw myself as plain and unlovable. I even doubted my parents’ abundant love, thinking they loved me only because, as I was their daughter, they had to. Later, my self-image consisted of being a depressed person. That’s who I was and all I could see of myself.

When I was working, I saw myself as an imposter. I had a “respectable business lady disguise” that I could put on when desperately needed, but I knew it wasn’t accurate. Then, when I lost my job, I saw myself as a failure.

Still later, after my most severe breakdown, I defined myself as my husband’s “sick, crazy, crippled wife.” I know those are terms we’re not supposed to use, but that’s what my brain was telling me. (The “crippled” part was because I had mobility issues that necessitated two operations on my back, and thereafter used a cane.) I used it as an excuse not to go places, see people, or do things. Actually, my husband used it as an excuse too, though he didn’t phrase it that way. (Now he doesn’t.)

In short, my self-image was someone who was broken – and not “in the best way possible,” as Jenny Lawson says.

Years of therapy and medication have largely gotten me to the point where my negative self-images are no longer constantly haunting me. They still rear their ugly heads on occasion, but now they aren’t all-pervasive. My husband helps too. He says, based on photos, that I was cute when I was in high school and he would have dated me. (I still have my doubts about that.)

What I’m getting at is that a person’s self-image can and does change over time. I think I am more accurate now in thinking I am no longer cute, except maybe when I smile; still mobility-challenged but not so self-conscious about it; and, I would have to say, a “recovering” bipolar person.

We’re getting to the point where we don’t all or always think that what we see in the mirror reflects our worth or our true self. We’re learning not to believe our own or others’ negative messages about our appearance – though there is certainly still a long way to go.

What I’m not sure of is that we’re making much headway on redefining our self-images regarding our mental health or lack thereof. Despite all the positive affirmations we see and hear in so many memes and elsewhere, do they really sink in and change our thinking? Or is the only way to do that bound up in time, treatment, and the support of our family and friends? I’m just glad that it is possible to change, whatever the mechanism. My life is much more settled and happier now that I no longer see or define myself as I once did. That’s something I want to hang on to.

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Garden-Variety Jerks

I see a lot of questions of this kind: My neighbor/sister/friend does this [unpleasant behavior]. Is this caused by his/her bipolar disorder?

There certainly are behaviors of people with bipolar disorder that are unpleasant to those surrounding them. Not taking showers for a week when the person is depressed is one of them. Another, when the person is in the grip of mania, is having sex outside a relationship. Being unable to leave the house is a bipolar-related behavior. So is gambling away your savings. So is standing you up or ghosting you. And blaming themselves for everything. And taking on too many projects and finishing none of them. Talking too fast or too slowly.

Playing their music too loud or parking across your driveway is not a bipolar-related behavior. Neither is littering. Or insisting that you take the garbage out. Or yelling when they are angry. Or becoming huffy when you criticize them.

There are some behaviors that may or may not be bipolar-related – for example, talking about themselves too much. This could be an indication that the person is depressed and brooding (if the talk is about how worthless they are) or manic and aggrandizing (if the talk is about how great they are). Or it may just be that the person has low or high self-esteem that doesn’t rise to the level of pathology. Feeling that everyone is picking on them could go either way. So could taking offense at every little remark. It’s sometimes hard to tell, particularly if you’re not a psychologist.

It’s more than a little weird that people are willing to attribute all kinds of bad behavior to mental illness. But think of all the racist haters and killers that are assumed to be mentally ill. While some may be, it’s an automatic and often unwarranted assumption. It takes away from the attention that ought to be given to real mental disorders and it perpetuates the stigma associated with mental illness. Or it assumes that racism and hatred are mental illnesses. These are extreme cases, of course.

Sometimes bad behavior is not due to mental illness at all. Sometimes what you’re dealing with is a garden-variety jerk. To address the picture above, it’s not pathology to be messy and it’s not a sign of mental illness to be mad at a roommate for being messy.

There’s not a lot you can do if the behavior you object to is caused by mental illness. You may have to simply understand or let the annoyance go. The person may resent that you assume their behavior is a sign of mental illness, even if it is. And about all you can do in that case is help the person get help if you can.

When you’re dealing with a garden-variety jerk, there are other sorts of remedies you can apply. You can call the police on the neighbor with the loud stereo. You can ask the messy roommate to straighten up or leave. You can set boundaries of what you will and won’t put up with and enforce those boundaries firmly but fairly when they are violated.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that the person in question has a mental illness and is also a jerk. If you can figure out what to do in those cases, please let me know.

I’m not saying that mental illness should be an excuse for bad behavior or absolve a person of the consequences of their actions. I am saying that it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior is due to mental illness, just as much as it’s easy to assume that all bad behavior comes from being a jerk, or worse.

In a lot of cases, you simply have to live with it.

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