Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘depression’

Nothing to See Here

Many people with SMI are afraid that it shows, that other people can see automatically that there is something wrong with them. They feel as though they stand out in a crowd. Everyone notices them, and probably talks about them.

I have the opposite problem. My bipolar depression makes me feel invisible. It’s not just that SMI is often an invisible illness. It’s that I myself seem to become invisible. I think of myself as a particularly ineffectual ghost, frightening no one and unable to affect anything in my environment. Some people call this dissociation.

At first, I made the best of it. I’m especially invisible when I’m out in public and reading a book. So I found that if I was at a business convention and wanted to remain invisible, my best strategy was to sit alone at a table and read a book. Only once did a man approach me while I was so engaged. No one else ever did.

Apparently, though, I don’t need a book to disappear. Maybe it’s anxiety that makes me keep quiet when people around me are discussing something interesting. Maybe it’s my instinct not to be noticed so I won’t be subject to derision or worse. Either way, I can’t seem to catch anyone’s eye or add my bit to the conversation. I blend into the crowd, even if it’s only a crowd of three or four.

It’s almost like there’s some aura around me when I’m out in public that says, “Don’t notice me,” like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I do not use my invisibility for pranks or mischief, though. I don’t use it intentionally at all (except for using a book, as I mentioned).

Why do I think this invisibility is part and parcel of my bipolar disorder? It could be imposter syndrome at work. I feel so unworthy that I don’t want anyone to see me for what I am. Or it might be the anxiety component of my hypomania that keeps me from presenting myself more assertively. Or maybe people can see that I have a troubled mind and simply look away.

I am slowly learning to make myself seen and heard. I find that calling people by name makes it easier for them to see me. It seems to signal them that there’s another person in the vicinity. And once I even set up an occasion where I would be the center of attention, speaking about my bipolar disorder at a signing for my book.

I also use my writing to make myself “visible.” This blog (and my other one) and my books give me a presence, though not a physical one, even at a distance. When I see likes and follows and sales, I know that someone has noticed me, or at least discovered that I exist.

I sometimes think that going out in public more – practicing being visible – might help. But actually, that’s when I feel the most overlooked, the most unseen and unheard. The most lost.

Perhaps what I need is to go out and meet a specific person, someone who expects to see me. Then I could be guaranteed of one person who would see me.

But it has been suggested to me that I may not want to be seen at all – that I would prefer to fade into the background, not put myself forward and disappear from the stresses of being seen. Perhaps that is true, or at least once was.

Now I think I would prefer to be seen, flaws and all. If someone cannot tolerate the sight of me, a mentally disordered person, or glances over me as if I did not exist, I think I shall insist on being seen. I will use my voice, my (admittedly glitchy) brain, and my human physicality to assert that I exist, that I matter, that I have something to say.

And in social situations I will try to assert myself (if politely) to join the public discourse and add my two cents, whether the subject is mental illness or the latest bestseller.

I exist. I deserve to be seen. I will not remain invisible.

Where Is My Home?

You know that feeling of dislocation you get when you’re bipolar and depressed? Like you don’t belong anywhere. Like you just don’t fit in. Like even the things around you aren’t real. That has happened to me concerning one of the things that gives most people contentment and grounding and even joy: home.

I’ve never been literally homeless, unless you count the day I spent in a Red Cross shelter after a tornado destroyed our house. I have no idea what it’s like living on the street, though I know a lot of the seriously mentally ill do. It’s just that none of the places I have lived have felt like home to me.

Maybe it’s the fact that I have real difficulty bonding with things and places (and, even at times, people). Making the emotional investment seems pointless when everything seems unreal, when anything can be taken away or even just disappear, like so many things have: my stability, my capacity for positive emotions, my ability to feel.

I don’t remember the house my family lived in when I was born. I don’t even remember how old I was when we moved into the house where I grew up. I have a vague memory of standing on tiptoes, trying to peer over the counter and into the sink, so maybe four? Whenever it is you’re that tall. 

That home is the only one that ever felt like home to me, and I had to stake a claim on a space within it to feel that. One day, in a burst of hypomania, I decided to move out of the room I shared with my sister and lay claim to the other bedroom, one that we saved for visits from Grandma, which happened once a year or less. One roller and some yellow and orange paint later, I had a room that no one else wanted to stay in. It was mine, one square corner of the house.

But inside I always believed that I belonged – could belong – somewhere else. When the time came for college, I attempted the “geographical cure” and moved out of state to what I thought would be a more stimulating environment, one conducive to fitting in.

It worked about as well as the geographical cure ever does, which is to say, not very. All the time I was there, I never experienced anything that felt like a home. I lived in a different place every year: dorm room, sorority house, rented apartment, and a house with other people. (That house was designed, built, and possessed by someone else. There was never a chance that it would be my home.)

After college came a series of apartments. I don’t remember even trying to make them more homelike. In one of the places, I remember hanging bedsheets over the windows instead of buying curtains. Not even clean, new sheets. (One astute friend remarked, “You didn’t think very much of yourself back then.”)

Next came marriage and another series of rentals. Someone else had a key to them and could – and did – come and go whenever they wanted. Eventually, we landed in a house we had a chance to buy from the owner. But it was dark and shabby and pedestrian and fed right into my recently diagnosed depression.

The desire to find a home of our own grew. We managed to find a house that was above our price range, really, but irresistible. This was a place, I thought, I could finally call home.

The only thing was, it wasn’t a home to us. My husband still thought of his parents’ house as “home.” This house, as special as it was, wasn’t his home and therefore wasn’t our home. I loved the house, but felt somehow detached from it. It had all the comforts of home, but something was missing. Something inside me. This was the house that the tornado destroyed.

We moved from shelter to hotel to rental house, which is where we’re living now. All the furniture and even the dishes are rented too. We’ve hung some of our art collection on the walls, which has helped, but there is no way that this can ever fill that need in me for a home.

Our old house is being rebuilt. We are working with an architect and a contractor to make it a space that we have contributed to, helped shape, and will get to furnish, pretty much from scratch. I have hopes, especially now that my bipolar depression shows itself less often, that this can be my home. There will not even be the specter of Dan’s parents’ house, which has been sold, his ties to it broken.

Will this house be the home I’ve been looking for? Will I be able to fall in love with it, to bond to it, the way you do to a special person? I don’t know. I haven’t really had such a space in my life.

But maybe this is my chance. Maybe this will be the place I truly belong. My home.

Mental Illness: Fact and Fiction

I’ve had a bit of experience with mental health and nonfiction, though none so far with bipolar fiction. But lately, I’ve been thinking about it.

Bipolar nonfiction is (comparatively) easy to write. There are numerous memoirs, essays, and blogs – including my own. Bipolar disorder has not appeared much in fiction, however. There are reasons for this.

First, let’s tackle the idea of mental illness in “genre fiction” (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, and the like – not mainstream fiction, anyway). A friend of mine recently attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, where they had a panel discussion on just that topic.

My friend reports that the panel “had a mental health nurse, a psychologist and some writers talking about portrayals of mental illness that got it right or wrong.”

He went on to add, “Consensus seemed to be that the Punisher completely nailed PTSD, that Drax in the first GotG movie nailed Aspie but that they rewrote him into a cute Manic Pixie Dream Creature for the second one; and the depiction of Sheldon from Big Bang is an abomination against God and Man.” (To unpack that just a bit, the Punisher is a character from Marvel, GotG means the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and “Manic Pixie Dream Creature” is a riff on “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a trope in which one woman (the MPDG) opens the hero’s eyes to life lived fully so that he can then go off and win his One True Love, who is not the MPDG.)

I myself have no experience with the Punisher and saw only one of the GotG movies. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a character I know a little more about. As I understand it, Sheldon Cooper is not intended to represent a person with any particular sort of mental illness (as he always points out, “My mother had me tested”). Still, the character exhibits behaviors that are often associated with Asperger’s, OCD, and perhaps some other mental illnesses or conditions.

I have read that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Sheldon, did no research on any of those conditions or illnesses because he didn’t want Sheldon to represent a person with any particular disorder. This allows the viewer to read into the character whatever he or she believes Sheldon’s “problem” is (if any).

But an important point was brought up in the book Philosophy and The Big Bang Theory. One of its essays questioned whether the audience should feel comfortable laughing at Sheldon. If one believes that he has a mental illness or Asperger’s, the answer is, of course, “no.” Yet most of the audience does – apart from those who see the portrayal as an “abomination.”

It’s so hard to get a portrayal of mental illness right, on TV or particularly in genre fiction. Take bipolar disorder, for example. Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries features a protagonist who has bipolar disorder. But most of the depiction depends on whether or not the character is having a manic episode at any given time. While the depiction is laudable – and I like the series immensely – it is telling that bipolar depression is seldom a plot element.

Perhaps this is because depression is too, well, depressing to write or read about. A character who is unable to leave her bed or who questions her very existence is hardly likely to move the plot forward. Searing depictions of depression, both bipolar and unipolar, have been written about, but almost exclusively in nonfiction. Even those can be hard to read for someone who experiences clinical depression.

Depression, however, did become a metaphor in the writing of J.K. Rowling. She has said that in her portrayal of “Dementors” in her Harry Potter fantasy epic, she was specifically thinking of depression and its soul-sucking effects on those who suffer from it. That’s genre fiction and that’s doing mental illness right.

In talking about mental illness and genre fiction, I’m deliberately ignoring the many portrayals of sociopaths in shows such as Dexter. Those are stereotypes too, but I’m wondering about less “drama-friendly” mental illnesses. Dissociative identity disorder seems to be one of the few other mental illnesses that feature prominently in popular forms of fiction, usually in the psyche of a villain. You could also count the many detective characters suffering from PTSD, a commonly used trope that is seldom examined closely but rather serves as a personality trait associated with violence.

I wasn’t at the convention and didn’t hear the panel (though I would have loved to), but it raised interesting questions. What would a protagonist (or other character) with bipolar disorder be like or do in what is too often a formulaic plot? Can a mentally ill character be portrayed accurately within the confines of genre fiction? Can mental illness be anything but a metaphor – or be experienced by a character other than one played for laughs? Is there any such book that I should be reading?

I don’t have the answers. But we need facts in fiction. We need understanding. We need representation. I haven’t tried to write fiction featuring a bipolar character, much less a main character who is bipolar. 

Maybe I should.

Did Bipolar Disorder Lose Me Jobs?

I lost two jobs, one that I had held for 17 years, because of my bipolar disorder. I only realized this comparatively recently. In both cases, I readily admit that my work had gone downhill, but at the time (at least for the first job), it never occurred to me that bipolar disorder was the reason for my dismissal.

I was working at a publishing company as an editor, having worked my way up from editorial assistant. I had been the editor of two different magazines, assistant editor for a couple of others, and writer and proofreader for them all. (It was a very small company.)

As time went on, though, I became less and less reliable. I edited my magazines, but I had trouble dealing with people. I had particular trouble with an art director who didn’t like my cover choices (despite the fact that several of them had won awards), humiliated me in a staff meeting because of it, and reminded everyone about it later. She was toxic, sure, but I was unable to deal with the situation or even stand up for myself.

There were other humiliations that I tolerated because I didn’t have the wherewithal to quit. When, during the financial crisis, salaries were cut by 20%, mine was cut by 40%, which to me meant that I was twice as useless as, say, a salesperson.

I stayed, but I isolated myself. My office had a door and I used it, the only person in the company to do so. I knew that people thought this was odd behavior, but by that point, I didn’t care. I was let go with no explanation given.

Yes, the company was a toxic environment and no, I didn’t deal with it well. But the situations I put up with exacerbated my bipolar disorder until I was headed for the crash. When I was on the upswing I was able to do my assignments and, I like to think, do them well. But when things went bad, I was prey to the voices that told me I was no good. Losing the job proved that to me.

The next job I went to was editing textbooks. My supervisor knew me and knew that I had bipolar disorder. The fact that she understood helped me keep on an even keel for a while. I developed little techniques to stave off difficulties. But some of my coping mechanisms were unacceptable. (Apparently, it’s okay to have a cigarette break but not a crossword puzzle break.)

Then my supervisor left. I said to her, “I’m going to miss you,” and she replied, “I know.” Prophetic words. I was open with my new supervisor about having bipolar disorder and was quite taken aback when she asked, “What does that mean?” Unprepared to give a proper explanation, I blinked and replied simply, “It means I’ll have good days and bad days.”

From that point on, my performance and their satisfaction with me fell, until I received a bad review, the first one I had ever had. Before the six-month probation period was up, I left of my own accord, determined to make it as a freelancer.

There were personal circumstances at the time, including my disorder, that made me less capable. I became responsible for my mother’s health and finances. I could easily miss half a day of work just getting her to her various appointments. That no doubt affected many of my job functions, particularly my attendance and my ability to concentrate. My major breakdown began not long after I left that job.

The thing is, in 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) added bipolar disorder as a covered condition. Employers were (and as of this writing still are) required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to affected individuals. Examples of reasonable accommodations include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, and “a change or adjustment to a job or work environment.”

To receive accommodations under the ADA, an employee must disclose their bipolar disorder (which I did, at least at the second job) and request accommodations (which I didn’t do, other than offering to work from home).

The EEOC (2009) has a publication called “Psychiatric Disabilities and the ADA,” which is available online at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/psych.html. Among their recommendations to help a bipolar employee continue to function in the work environment – maintain stamina and concentration; stay organized and meet deadlines; work with supervisors; and handle stress, emotions, and attendance issues – are these:

  • Allow flexible scheduling
  • Allow for time off for counseling
  • Allow work from home during part of the day or week
  • Provide space enclosures or private office
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Provide flexible leave for health problems
  • Allow the employee to make up time missed
  • Maintain open channels of communications between the employee and the new and old supervisor in order to ensure an effective transition

I know there are those who would consider such accommodations “coddling.” And I wouldn’t have needed them all, or all of them at the same time. But even an understanding of my closed door and my need to work at home would have helped.

Do I Have PTSD?

Once a therapist I was considering going to put down on my form that I was suffering from PTSD. She based this on the fact that I was having nightmares and flashbacks to the toxic relationship that I counted as a significant part of my past.

It was rubbish, I thought. I had never been in the Vietnam or Iraq war. And her idea of my trauma was that I supposedly had been coerced by an older man into doing sexual things that, had I been in my right mind, I would have objected to.

I chose a different therapist, who was bemused, to say the least, at that therapist’s notes. I had had a relationship with an older man and done sexual things that were not precisely the plainest vanilla, but I had surely not been coerced into them. (The gaslighting was a separate issue, one I did not recognize at the time.)

I still have the dreams of being back in his house, and I am occasionally triggered by things that remind me of the relationship, especially when I am depressed or otherwise vulnerable, but by and large, I don’t think that I have PTSD based on that.

Then, recently, I was hit with a more physical trauma. I survived a tornado that destroyed the house I was living in, taking the roof off the second floor where I was sleeping. I have also had nightmares about that and anxiety whenever there are storms and lightning. So, do I have PTSD now?

Let’s see. For starters, mirecc.va.gov provides a “civilian checklist” of PTSD symptoms:

  • Avoid activities or situations because they remind you of a stressful experience from the past
  • Trouble remembering important parts of a stressful experience from the past
  • Loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy
  • Feeling distant or cut off from other people
  • Feeling emotionally numb or being unable to have loving feelings for those close to you
  • Feeling as if your future will somehow be cut short
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling irritable or having angry outbursts
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Being “super alert” or watchful on guard
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled

To begin with, many of the symptoms which I have are also indicative of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder – loss of interest in enjoyable pursuits, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating. And I have noticed a few of the other signs – jumpiness and irritability, for example.

But, by and large, aside from the dreams and flashbacks, I have few symptoms that are attributable to PTSD but not to bipolar disorder.

I was talking with my therapist the other week and posed the question to her: Could I have PTSD?

“There are all kinds of trauma,” she said, “and all kinds of reactions to it.” I think what she meant was that I didn’t need to worry about having a specific label. I have been through traumatic events and I have had reactions to them. The reactions and symptoms may not rise to the level that constitutes clinical PTSD, but I have been affected by them nonetheless.

I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who have been diagnosed with PTSD or those who are suffering from it without ever acquiring the label. I know that what I have experienced cannot compare to what some of them have experienced, and I can only hope it never does.

But still I think there are a lot of us out there who could count ourselves among the “walking wounded,” who have experienced physical or psychological traumas and still have adverse reactions to them. Call it borderline PTSD or some other type of stress disorder, if using the label PTSD seems arrogant or insensitive.

But know that there are other traumas besides war that can leave a person damaged, struggling to find themselves among the shards of a shattered world. We may not have lost a part of our physical selves, but the damage to our psyches can be just as real.

 

 

The Biggest Gaslighter

The subject of gaslighting is big these days. Everyone from your ex to the president is called a gaslighter. But what is gaslighting, really, and who is the biggest gaslighter of them all?

I’ve written quite a bit about gaslighting and here are the basics: Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse. The gaslighter denies the other person’s perception of reality. The gaslighter tries (and often succeeds) in making the other person feel that she or he is crazy. Gaslighting is very difficult to escape from. Healing from the effects of gaslighting can take a long time, even years.

By those standards, I maintain that bipolar disorder, or maybe mental illness in general, is the biggest gaslighter of all. Think about it.

Bipolar disorder is basically your own mind inflicting emotional abuse on itself. It denies your reality and substitutes its own. It makes you think you are “crazy.” It is very difficult to escape from. And healing from it can take years.

First, let’s consider bipolar disorder as emotional self-abuse. Bipolar disorder uses your own brain to make you miserable. It takes control of your emotions and often your behaviors, and uses them in a destructive manner. Emotional abuse inflicts a conditional called “learned helplessness” on a person. The abuser turns positive and loving just often enough to keep the victim hooked – to keep the victim believing that the abuse is really his or her own fault. Bipolar disorder can relent just enough to let you think you are over it or gives you enough euphoria to make you think that your life is just dandy. These are lies, of course.

That’s the other thing that bipolar disorder does – tells you lies. Bipolar depression tells you that you are worthless, hopeless, and pathetic; that nothing you do is right; and that nothing you can do can change that. It’s a big suckhole for all your emotions, but especially good feelings. And those are lies. You are not worthless. You do many things well. You can escape depression’s clutches. Depression – your brain – tries to substitute an alternate reality for your own.

Bipolar mania lies too. It tells you that you are delighted and delightful, able to accomplish anything and indulge in any behavior without consequence. It lifts you up to a realm of unreality. Again, this is your brain telling you lies, ones that can adversely affect your health, your relationships, your finances, and more. And these lies you want to believe, because they are so seductive and at first feel so good.

These lies are denials of reality. No person is as worthless as depression makes them feel. No one is as invincible as mania says you are. Taking these lies seriously can cause profound damage.

And make no mistake, bipolar disorder makes you think you’re crazy, or at least ask yourself if you are. The out-of-control emotions, the out-of-control behavior, the mood swings, the despair, the euphoria feel crazy. You know your emotions aren’t under your own control and you don’t know what to do about it.

But just as there is healing from gaslighting, there is healing from bipolar disorder. The first thing to do in either case is to remove yourself from the situation. For gaslighting, that can mean breaking up with a partner or even moving away. Breaking up with bipolar disorder is even harder. It likely means starting medication and therapy.

With gaslighting, there can be a tendency to go back, to think that it really wasn’t all that bad. And there were undoubtedly things that drew you to the gaslighter in the first place, plus the intermittent reinforcement of loving apologies that make you deny your own perceptions of reality. And with bipolar disorder, the work of healing is so difficult that you may want to stop doing it – skip your therapist appointments, stop taking your meds, retreat to your emotional cycles, which at least are familiar.

But both gaslighting and bipolar disorder don’t have to steal your entire life. You can get away from the gaslighter. You can find healing from bipolar disorder. At the very least, you can improve your life and not have to ask yourself all the time: Is this real? Am I crazy? Getting treatment for bipolar disorder can break the hold it has on your life, disrupt the cycles that have you feeling perpetually out of balance.

But there’s the big difference between bipolar and gaslighting. You have to run away from gaslighting; you can’t change it. You can’t run away from bipolar disorder.  You have to face it and do the work to find remission and healing.

Growing May Take a While

I saw a meme the other day that said, “Grow through what you go through.” I thought to myself, “This is going to take a while.”

Now, I’m not saying that the meme promotes a bad idea. I just mean that it’s not as easy as the meme makes it sound. Memes are like that. They encapsulate a difficult and painful process into a succinct platitude that never captures the reality of what it purports to express.

It is certainly possible to grow because of bad experiences that you have gone through, and I have surely done this. But it hasn’t been quick or easy. Not that it is for anyone, but especially not for people with serious mental illnesses.

Bipolar disorder, and bipolar depression in particular, often leads one to recall and obsess about the very things one would most like to forget. (Of course, this happens with unipolar depression, too.) It’s like having a recorder in your head that replays the most painful, embarrassing, humiliating, or devastating events in your life. And there is no “off” button or even a “pause.”

Getting through something is not the same as getting over something. And growing through something is something else again. It takes as long as it takes. There is no way to rush it or to speed it up.

Take grief, to choose an example that most people with and without mental disorders are familiar with. I saw a TV show once in which various characters were concerned that the hero had not “gotten over” the death of a friend as quickly as they thought he should. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid. There’s no arbitrary limit on how long a person should grieve.” I know that in days past, a mourning period of a year was customary, with restrictions on dress and activities. That’s stupid too. It may take a few months or a year or the rest of your life, depending on how close you were to the deceased and the circumstances of her or his death.

Deaths don’t have to be physical, either. The death of a relationship can be just as soul-searing, as traumatic, as a literal death. It’s still a loss and one that you may have put your whole heart and soul into.

Of course, it’s great if you can grow through the experience. It’s possible to acquire a new depth of spirit when you go through something traumatic. You can emerge stronger and more resilient and more compassionate because of the experience. I think that’s what the meme was talking about.

But if the trauma – the death or separation or other experience – is fraught with pain as well as grief, then growing through it can be even harder and take even longer. A son whose abusive mother dies has feelings that can hardly be expressed, a jumble of emotions that’s almost impossible to articulate, much less grow through. The end of a relationship with a gaslighter may evoke relief as well as grief, conflicting emotions that can impede growth. These and other situations can call up memories and feelings that one wants to escape, not dwell on. But processing them seems perhaps the only way of growing through them.

That process cannot be rushed. It may take years of bad dreams and flashbacks – at least it did for me – as well, perhaps, as a period of therapy that, like grief, takes as long as it takes to make progress in growing through whatever happened. From outside the situation, it may seem like the person is wallowing in the pain or grief. But on the inside, the process of growing may be occurring at a rate that you can’t see or understand.

In other words, if a person has been through a trauma, don’t expect him or her to “get over it” on what you think is a proper timescale. Some plants, like dandelions, grow incredibly rapidly. Others, like oaks, grow incredibly slowly. For each, it takes as long as it takes.

 

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