Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘depression’

No, I’m Not Taking Bipolar Passively

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Time I Was (Sort of) Hospitalized

When I was a teenager, being hospitalized for mental illness was a big joke. The local facility was located on a street called Wayne Ave. Wayne Ave., despite whatever else was located there (a pizza restaurant, I think), was shorthand for “crazy.” (This was no doubt an annoyance to people who actually lived on Wayne Ave., of which there were many. Now the former mental facility is a Hospice.) I knew by then that I was mentally unbalanced, but it never occurred to me that I would end up in Wayne Ave. It was an address used only to tease other kids, which was uncomfortable enough.

By the time I got to college, I was aware that I was in trouble, mentally. I had turned down the offer to see the school district psychologist in high school, delusionally afraid that it would show up in my permanent record and prevent me from getting into a good (or any) university.

I did, however, get into a very good university. (No idea if they took my lack of mental health treatment into consideration.) But by this time I was really suffering mentally and emotionally. I tried at least one therapy group, but was able to breeze through it without making any notable progress, thanks to my ability to “act normal” for an hour at a time.

Still, I figured it was just a matter of time until my mental disorders manifested themselves sufficiently to be generally noticed. Maybe even noticed enough to be diagnosed. And I was waxing delusional. I felt sure that at some point in my life I would be hospitalized for my illness. I just wanted to make it through college and work at a paying job for at least two years, if I could, in hopes of getting Social Security. (I said I was delusional.)

Along the way, though, I was (sort of) hospitalized for mental illness. I say “sort of,” because I went to the university clinic, a small facility with about a dozen beds, most of them used for students with flu and the like. (There was a sort of witticism going around campus: It’s a short trip from Willard Straight (the student union building) to Willard State (the nearest psychiatric facility). Again, going to a psychiatric facility was considered a joke.)

I was nearing the end of a disastrous relationship, self-injuring, self-medicating, and vaguely suicidal. I checked in to the campus clinic. I don’t remember much of it, my brain obviously not working too well at the time. I had to tell them I wasn’t really suicidal, or else they would have called my parents, which I definitely didn’t want.

I do remember a nurse who would look in on me as I lay in bed crying. I don’t remember what if any treatment they prescribed. In my memory, mostly they just let me cry.

One very peculiar thing happened, though. The man of the disastrous relationship “checked me out” for an evening (much as you would check out a library book) to go to a dinner with someone in editing or publishing that he thought might help me get that coveted job after college. I don’t remember the dinner being a hit, and of course no job ever came from it. Then I was checked back into the clinic for a few more days of crying. I don’t remember how long I stayed or why I was finally released. It was altogether a peculiar experience, and the gaps in my memory have swallowed most of it.

I don’t think it actually helped me at all, other than to confirm to me that I was indeed ill, with some kind of mental disorder, and to reinforce my delusions. It also, I think, hastened the dissolution of that relationship, which proved to be a good thing in the long run. Was it all a ploy by the boyfriend to establish that I was the “sick one” for the purposes of couples counseling, which I had convinced him to try at one point? I’ll never know.

But since that time, I have never been hospitalized for my bipolar disorder. I have been properly diagnosed and treated. I now take psychotropic meds faithfully and see a therapist. I have been working for decades (except during a major depressive episode, when I learned how hard indeed it is to get Social Security for a psychiatric disability).

I suspect my hospitalization was far from typical. After all, it was dozens of years ago and not in a dedicated mental hospital or ward. I can’t say whether it helped me or not. But it’s an experience I never want to repeat – and, at last, something I never expect to endure again.

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What Is Bipolar Disorder Like?

There are a number of metaphors that try to express what it’s like to have bipolar disorder, and none of them is accurate. Thanks to television commercials for bipolar medications, we have even more metaphors, none of which express the reality of the disorder. Maybe, at heart, it is futile to try to come up with a metaphor. The map is never the territory. But let’s examine some of the most common and see where they succeed and where they fail.

Depression

The Black Dog

Winston Churchill was notoriously given to episodes of depression, and he referred to them as “The Black Dog.” It would come and go, but when it was with him, he descended into the depths. (Of course, this did not prevent him from becoming Prime Minister of England and making significant policy decisions and speeches during World War II.)

Dementors

J.K. Rowling has said that the soul-sucking monsters that appeared in the Harry Potter books were metaphors for depression, being able to remove not only joy and happiness from a person’s soul, but the memories of those emotions, and the possibility of ever feeling them again. (Incidentally, once out of the Dementors’ grasp, chocolate is said to help the person recover.)

Masks

This one is popular in TV commercials. A woman (almost always a woman) holds a smiley-face mask in front of her face to cover up her sad expression. Then, after she takes psychotropic medication, she puts the mask in her purse or pocket and suddenly reveals her own smiling face. Or a stock photo shows one person with a brown paper bag over his or her head with a sad face drawn on with marker. This bothers me because it implies that medication takes effect almost immediately, but I suppose there’s no way to show the six-week lag in TV ads.

Fog

The underlying metaphor here is being lost and being unable to find your way out. Everything around you is gray (and most likely rainy) and indistinguishable. It’s difficult to impossible to find your way through. This is actually a fairly accurate metaphor for severe depression or a major depressive episode. The sense of futility, of immobilization or being lost, of being unable to see a way out, is common to people with depression.

Anxiety

Skin

One of the most common sensations reported by people with anxiety is being about to jump out of their skin, or feeling itchy or twitchy all over. The itchiness or twitchiness may manifest in actual physical symptoms, in which case they’re a perception, not a metaphor anymore.

Electricity

The feeling of shocks running through the body or the brain is another way we describe anxiety. It can feel like jolts of current that only add to the twitchiness or agitation.

Indecision

Sometimes the paralyzing side of anxiety is represented by having too many choices or being unable to decipher a map. Instead of being agitated, the person is stymied and motionless. Make no mistake, this is a symptom of anxiety as much as it is one of depression.

Mania

House of cards

This metaphor comes to us thanks to a TV commercial. A person suffering from mania confronts a pyramid made of playing cards, climbs it, and keeps climbing until there are only a few cards left, with the idea that they will ultimately tumble. There’s no indication, though, that the person with mania built the pyramid of cards themselves, and the medication kicks in before the stack ever falls.

Soaring

The feeling of flying is often associated with mania. Soaring far above the mundane and the insignificant, the person with mania feels a sense of grandeur and empowerment, the ability to do anything – and to sustain it. Of course, sustaining the feeling never quite happens. Persons flying high with mania never see the inevitable crash that is coming.

Bipolar Disorder

Playground equipment

The seesaw. The teeter-totter. Even the swings. These metaphors certainly catch the up-and-down, back-and-forth motion of bipolar cycles. There are just two things wrong with these metaphors: They portray movements of equal length. And they’re fun. Bipolar moods do not come on a schedule or last a predictable amount of time. And there’s nothing fun about bipolar disorder.

Rollercoaster

A rollercoaster is perhaps the most common metaphor for bipolar disorder. It improves on the playground equipment analogy some. A rollercoaster, like bipolar, can be scary, especially the first time you experience it. It does involve up and down motions of unequal length. But the rollercoaster has the process backward. The climb up is slow, not an exhilarating whoosh. The swift ride to the bottom is the exciting part, which of course it isn’t. And, of course, once you’ve been through the whole route once, you have to get off and pay to get on again.

We use these metaphors because it’s almost impossible to convey what bipolar disorder is like to someone who’s never experienced it. And they can never convey the reality. Among those of us who have experienced the disorder, we use them as shorthand to describe the feelings we share, at least to some degree, with one another and with others, in hopes that they’ll “get it,” even just a bit.

But language has its limits, especially when it comes to describing what’s going on with our brains and emotions. Sometimes metaphors are as close as we can get.

Following My Moods

When I was a teen and undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, I had a weird reaction to people around me – I would pick up their moods and personalities and found myself mimicking them. I suppose it was a way for me to try on other personalities that I might someday integrate into my own, when I was stable enough to do so.

When I was a little older, I began journaling, which quickly turned into blogging. My journals were repetitive and boring, consisting mostly of “Felt depressed. Went to post office.” It didn’t seem helpful to me, though I know journaling is helpful to a lot of people. It helps them express what is happening to them and how they feel about it. In that way, it’s like a diary. Going back over a journal after, say, a year or so of writing (not necessarily every day) can help a person track their moods and their triggers. People can note their physical surroundings and emotional response and note whether seasons or weather, food and drink, interactions with certain persons, or other life circumstances have an effect on their moods and can help identify events that bring on depression or mania.

There are variations of this. One friend of mine used Facebook as his “diary.” He would look back through a year of his posts and conversations to determine when depression had struck him (there were fewer posts during those time periods).

In my own case, my husband and I have noticed that our moods follow each other’s. When I am depressed for a few weeks, he becomes depressed, too. When I am hypomanic, his mood lifts and he finds more joy in his own life. We do things together, like baking or watching our favorite TV shows together or going for day-long or even weekend getaways.

The same is true the other way around. When Dan is depressed or angry or just plain surly, I find it extremely difficult to maintain even a level mood. His mood creeps in and takes over mine. I sometimes try to maintain a level mood when this happens, but it is very difficult. I find myself struggling not to lose whatever peace or joy I have. I find myself frustrated by his depression or annoyance, to the point where I want to tell him to snap out of it. (I try not to do this. It doesn’t help anyway.)

If we both hit lows at the same time, or experience anger simultaneously, it gets fairly ugly. That’s when we fight, or both retreat to our rooms, or spend time away from each other, indulging in our own pursuits. Admittedly, such contemporaneous moods don’t hit very often, but when they do, it’s hell.

Both of us have learned techniques to respond to these “following” or simultaneous moods. We generally need more space or alone time. We ask each other for what we need and if the other is able to give it (hugs, for example). We offer what we are able to do, if there is indeed anything we realize might help.

Mostly, though, we just wait for the moods to pass and for both of us to return to a level state. I continue taking my meds and writing my blogs.

Interestingly, it was my husband who first noticed these “following” moods. Over the years, he has become pretty perceptive about both our feelings. It may help that he has studied and even worked in psychological settings for a while (no, that’s not where we met), but I think his real education has been living with me for almost 40 years. In all that time, you begin to notice patterns.

At one time my blogs did record my day-to-day (or week-to-week) feelings and actions. Sometimes they still do. But anymore, I find myself exploring other aspects of bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. I don’t believe I’ve said all there is to say about my feelings and symptoms, but this blog has allowed me to stretch out and consider the wider world of mental health.

Apparently, my husband is getting better at it too.

Another Kind of Depression – Dysthymia

Of all the types of depression that get discussed – major depressive disorder, exogenous depression, endogenous depression, bipolar depression – there’s one type that isn’t talked about very often: dysthymia. The word comes from Greek, where it is made up of dys (bad or ill) and thymia (mind or emotions). But in clinical terms, dysthymia has a more exact meaning than “ill humor” or “bad mood.” I had always assumed that it came along a scale of severity that ranged from major depression through dysthymia to stability to hypomania to mania. It could be that I was mistaken.

Johns Hopkins Medical has this to say: “Dysthymia is a milder, but long-lasting form of depression. It’s also called persistent depressive disorder. People with this condition may also have bouts of major depression at times.” So, it’s milder, but long-lasting, persistent, and may occur in people with major depression. Not very specific, is it?

Johns Hopkins also notes that to diagnose dysthymia, “an adult must have a depressed mood for at least 2 years (or one year in children and adolescents).” The Mayo Clinic also refers to it as “Pervasive Depressive Disorder.”

Dysthymia seems like a “squishy” diagnosis, as the signs and symptoms overlap so greatly with major depressive disorder.

Garden-variety depression or “Major Depressive Disorder,” again according to the Mayo Clinic, “affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities, and sometimes you may feel as if life isn’t worth living.” The risk factors and symptoms of the two disorders are virtually the same.

However, major depressive disorder, according to multiple sources, must last around two weeks, while dysthymia lasts for two years or more. Personally, I can’t see how this is called “milder.” Alternating between the two conditions is sometimes referred to as “double depression.”

I have thought of dysthymia as milder, and perhaps it is what I have now that my depression is pretty well controlled by medication and therapy. I no longer have extreme symptoms such as the self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Then again, one of my major depressive episodes lasted three years or more, with no visible letup. Was that relatively mild? It sure as hell didn’t feel like it.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what you call it. The experience of the disorder seems to me more important than the label put on it. I haven’t looked the conditions up in the DSM (I don’t have a copy). But all my life I have been diagnosed with depression or major depression (before my diagnosis was changed to bipolar type 2 with anxiety, and it seems pointless now to call myself dysthymic. Maybe I’ll ask my psychotherapist when I see her next week if she can shed any light on this confusing nomenclature. Maybe she’ll have a handle on which of these I technically have.

However you want to name it or frame it, though, I have – and probably have had since I was a child – some version of the disorder, and have applied the treatments for it (meds and therapy for both), and now experience occasional episodes of the “milder” version, though they certainly don’t last two years.

In a way, I wish the various authorities would make up their minds and quit changing the labels. In another way, I don’t care what the labels are (unless they affect insurance companies and what treatments they allow). I experience this disorder in the way that I experience it. Most of the time I simply call it depression, and I don’t see how it helps to subdivide it. When I hit rock bottom, I call it a major depressive episode. When I’m relatively stable, I call it “in remission.” These may not be the technically correct terms, but they’re what make sense to me.

I don’t know whether other people with bipolar disorder make these fine distinctions, or simply think of their shifting moods as lows and highs, depression and hypomania or mania, or whatever.

But do we really need more labels? Isn’t lived experience good enough? Does the definition affect how our doctors treat us? Are there going to be more subdivisions in the future (a trend which seems particularly rampant right now, as with autism, Asperger’s, high-functioning, low-functioning, and more and more variations)? Does what we call it really help anyone get better?

Maybe I’m wrong here, but I don’t think so.

Coming Down From a Manic Jag

I have been manicky lately, and it has expressed itself, as it does for so many people, with spending money we don’t have. Or at least spending money we’re supposed to be getting but don’t have yet on things which we can’t afford until we get it.

The thing is, we have a nice lump sum of money coming, but we don’t know when it will arrive. And instead of sensibly waiting for it to arrive, I have already begun spending it. A new-old truck for Dan; passport applications for us both; tattoos for us both; concert tickets; clothes and maps and guidebooks and airline tickets for a trip we plan to take next year; a short getaway vacation last week; gardening and home improvement supplies. Just to name a few.

All this leaves us very little for necessities like mortgage, electricity, internet (essential for my work), and even food. We can probably live on our credit card for a while, but I know that’s only a temporary solution, and a bad solution at that, even though the credit company increased my credit limit so we could pay for the airline tickets.

Of course, I am mostly responsible for all this spending. Some of the expenditures wouldn’t wait – the airline tickets, which we had to buy immediately to lock in the current price, and the passports, which I understand can take months to arrive and we shouldn’t wait till the last minute to apply for.

But for other purchases, Dan has been enabling me – “You know you want to go hear Emmylou Harris,” for example. “She’s one of your heroes.” “Might as well get the ticket for Rodney Crowell, too. How likely is it that he’ll be playing in this area again, at least anytime soon?”

Now the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. Last week I had to deal with a guy at the door who was there to shut off our electricity unless I gave him a check for the past-due balance on the spot. The credit card company may come to regret the limit increase. I’m sure they gave it to me because I regularly paid them more than the amount due, and I can’t do that anymore.

I realize this is relatively minor compared to some spending jags that people in the manic phase of bipolar have gone on – gambling debts, for example, and even ones that end in homelessness. But the spending adds up, and we are strained past our limit until that windfall finally arrives.

Naturally, because that’s the way things go, now that I have come to and realized the reckless spending, it has triggered my anxiety. Financial troubles have always been one of my triggers, but it’s appalling to realize that I have dug this hole myself.

And naturally, because that’s the way things go, that anxiety triggers my depression – maybe not a full-blown depressive episode, but enough to affect my life and actions. I isolate. I grow surly with my husband. I have trouble sleeping or sleep too much.

In truth, I am angry with myself and with this damned disorder. When I get manicky, I generally am able to limit my spending to amounts of $25 or less, if sometimes for several such items (or meals). But this time I have overwhelmed myself, and my husband as well. I know we’re not supposed to use bipolar disorder as an excuse for bad behavior, but I can’t help thinking that hypomania is involved at some level. The idea of live music and foreign travel were just so irresistible. I couldn’t make myself wait until a better time.

We’ll get through this, I know. Someday the expected check will come and I can start straightening out some of the mess I’ve created. But until then, anxiety and depression will be my companions. I hope the mania stays fully tamped down until then. At least, I’ll take my meds and hope so. And not skip my therapist appointment in a week and a half. We haven’t had much to discuss lately, but now I’m sure we do.

When Depression Doesn’t Go Away

Back in the day, I suffered from treatment-resistant depression. (This was likely due to the fact that what I had was actually bipolar 2, but never mind that for now.) My psychiatrist prescribed me medication after medication, but none of them worked, or at least not for long. We got into a seemingly endless spiral of trying one drug, adding another, weaning me off one drug and ramping up another, then another and another.

Some of them just plain didn’t work. Others had intolerable side effects, from vivid horrible nightmares to making me feel like I was about to jump out of my skin.

All this went on for certainly months – maybe years. (Memory problems were one of the many intolerable side effects.)

Eventually, my doctor reached the correct diagnosis, and then there were months of trying medications that were targeted for bipolar disorder instead of plain depression with anxiety. Again, nothing worked, or didn’t work adequately.

Nowadays, there are non-pharmaceutical methods of coping with treatment-resistant depression, including ECT (better known as electroshock), TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), and ketamine treatment.

I never had any of these treatments, since my psychiatrist and I finally worked out a drug combo that brought me back to balance, with only minor tweaks in dosage over the years. Nonetheless, I’ve become interested in the alternate means of dealing with treatment-resistant depression, and here’s what I now know. (If you want a patient’s own experience with ECT, TMS, and ketamine treatment, look up Kitty Dukakis or read some of the Bloggess’s posts.)

ECT, or electroconvulsive therapy, is what used to be known as shock treatment. For a long time it went the way of prefrontal lobotomy, stigmatized as a cruel and harmful procedure. The portrayal of ECT in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and then the movie of the same name were major influences in terrifying the general public, leading to a nearly complete disavowal of its use.

It’s making a comeback, though. The theory behind it is that electric stimulation of the brain will shock the brain back into normal functioning. The American Psychiatric Association notes that it is now performed under anesthesia, with medical personnel attending the procedure. They report improvement in 80% of patients.

(ECT is the alternative treatment that I was ready to try when none of the drugs prescribed for me proved effective. Then my doctor wanted to try one last drug, and that was the one that did the trick.)

TMS, or transcranial magnetic simulation, is described by the Mayo Clinic as “a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to improve symptoms of depression.” It’s also called rTMS, or Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, because more than one treatment is generally needed. The theory is that the magnetic pulses stimulate areas of the brain involved with mood control and depression. It doesn’t cause seizures or require anesthesia. The exact mechanism of how it works isn’t really understood, but that’s true of many other treatments for depression, including medications.

Harvard’s Health Blog reports that rTMS helps about 50% to 60% of people who did not respond to drug treatment “experience a clinically meaningful response.” They do note that treatments, “while encouraging, are not permanent,” which is true of many other forms of treatment.

Ketamine is the newest of the treatments for treatment-resistant depression. Ketamine was once known as a “party drug” called “Special K,” described by the DEA as “a short-acting anesthetic with hallucinogenic effects.” As a treatment for depression, however, it is thought to “enable brain connections to regrow,” according to scientists at Yale. The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists notes that ketamine “is not a first-line therapy for psychiatric disorders,” but then, neither are ECT and TMS.

Ketamine can be administered via nasal spray, but for psychiatric purposes (including to treat bipolar disorder and PTSD) it is often given as a series of infusions. An article in The Lancet says that “Ketamine is thought to act by blocking … receptors in the brain.” Another article by doctors at the National Institutes of Health comments that ketamine “has a robust and rapid effect on depression, which was seen immediately after the administration of ketamine and sustained at the end of 1 month.” Repeated treatments are generally necessary.

I don’t know about other patients and doctors, but after years of drug therapy not working, I was ready to give almost anything a try. ECT was next on the list, and the only likely alternative, as TMS and ketamine were not available at that time. I’m just glad that now patients and their doctors have more options when depression resists drug treatment and “talk therapy.” And I hope that even more alternatives become available for people with depression who are desperate to find a treatment that works for them.

Fake It Till You…Can’t

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

I called them my “Respectable Business Lady” disguises.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the Spectra

Most often when “the spectrum” is mentioned, it’s the autism spectrum that springs to mind. There’s good reason for that. Autism affects varying people in varying ways and to various degrees.

But there are other conditions, disorders, and traits that vary across a spectrum as well: right brain/left brain, introvert/extrovert/, depressed/manic, and many others. The one I’m most familiar with, of course is the depressed/manic spectrum (or in my case depressed/hypomanic), but I’ve recently been reading about the other spectra I mentioned.

The first thing to know about spectra is that no one is fully at either end of the spectrum, or at least not all of the time. Think of a spectrum as the weight gauge on an old-fashioned scale at a doctor’s office. Most people’s weight tips the scale at somewhere other than the middle, and if they are all the way to one end or the other, the clinician moves the weight and starts over until the pointer rests in between the two extremes and the heavy weight falls somewhere between either end.

So, to use myself as an example (the one I’m most familiar with), when I am stable (properly medicated), I am close to the middle of the depressed/hypomanic spectrum, with the “weight” perhaps listing just a wee bit toward the depressed side. During depressive or hypomanic episodes, I slide toward one end or the other. No one is either all depressed or all hypomanic, though it feels like it at times, and people don’t stay at one end or the other all the time, except perhaps for the unmedicated person who has never had proper treatment and self-care.

Then consider the right-brain/left-brain scenario. When this theory was first proposed, it associated various traits with one or the other side of the brain. Type-A, energetic, risk-taking, mathematically oriented people were said to be left-brained, while shy, creative, language-loving, and risk-averse types were said to be “right-brained.”

This theory was extrapolated into the real world. Naturally, society at large was judged to be left-brained and that was deemed the better thing to be. These people got things done – businesspeople, politicians, scientists, and the like. Artists, writers, and other creative types were said to be right-brained, and not well adjusted to the left-brained society. There was even a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which tried to harness that hemisphere in pursuit of artistic accomplishments and getting left-brained people in touch with their other “side” for a while.

Whenever I’ve taken one of those sided-ness tests, though, I almost always come out somewhere near the middle. What does this mean? I suppose either that my corpus callosum (which connects the two hemispheres) is particularly robust, or that I partake of both natures to some extent, more or less, and at different times. For example, I am mostly a stay-at-home reader and writer, but I am also a closet science geek, and like foreign travel, considered a risk-taking pursuit.

The same with introvert/extrovert (which seems to me to overlap considerably with right/left brainedness, and indeed with depressive/manic). I prefer to stay at home and pursue quiet activities like reading and writing, but I also enjoy going to science fiction conventions, which are known to be rather people-y. I can also tolerate moderate sized gatherings such as parties and book signings, as long as they aren’t filled with loud noise such as screaming children.

What I’m getting at here is that most scales are fairly useless and most people are somewhere in the middle of them, partake of both ends, and slide back and forth to some degree. I suppose there are people who are all one or the other, but I don’t know many and probably wouldn’t find them very interesting if there were.

On the Mind and the Body

The mind and the body are inseparable, part of the same organism. You can’t have one without the other. And each affects the way the other works.

Triggers are a good example. You see (or read) or hear or smell or touch something that unlocks an emotion in your brain. You then have a visceral reaction to that feeling – sweating, shaking, nausea, panic flight, or another physical manifestation.

These reactions are most commonly seen in severe PTSD and trauma related to abuse, but they can happen in less severe circumstances as well. Even something as seemingly innocent as tickling can put the brain in command of a bodily sensation. For example, once I was tickled to the point of pain, with the other person refusing to stop when I pleaded for him to. Ever since, my reaction to tickling is both physical and mental. My brain tells my body to shut down the physical sensation of touch. That may seem – and is – comparatively mild, and I don’t want to diminish the experiences of people suffering with PTSD and reactions to trauma. But it shows how my body and brain interact, almost in a feedback loop.

In circumstances like these, the body signals the brain and the brain tells the body how to react. It’s not like a person can choose whether to be traumatized or not by a trigger. The brain takes over.

Lately, I’ve been facing a fairly deep depression and have faced a lot of things that are triggers for me – financial problems, relationship troubles, overwork, etc. I’ve been feeling the bodily lethargy, exhaustion, psychic numbness, and neurasthenia that come with depression. These certainly affect my body, making me twitchy and nervous and unable to sleep (or to sleep too much), or unwilling or unable to face the world outside, some of the more noted hallmarks of depression and anxiety.

But after a recent visit to my primary care physician, I began to wonder if my body was influencing my brain in a rather direct way. Of course, before I got to see the physician, I had to fill out the depression screener, and as usual, I underplayed my symptoms by a bit. After all, I’m already under a psychotherapist’s and a psychiatrist’s care for it. It’s to be expected if I don’t present as all cheery and “normal.”

After chatting with the doctor about my symptoms (most, I thought, related to growing older), he ordered a bunch of tests for me. I’m to have a mammogram, a ColoGuard test, a bone scan to check my bone density, and had a whole bunch of blood tests.

The mammogram and bone scan I’ve scheduled, though they couldn’t work me in until September. (Evidently there is a lot of pent-up demand for hospital-based testing, as the hospitals weren’t doing non-elective stuff during the pandemic.)

Then the results started coming in. White and red blood cells, okay. Liver function, okay. Glucose and triglycerides, okay. Nearly everything within parameters.

I say “nearly” because I got a call from the doctor’s office saying that he wanted to double my thyroid medication. I had been taking a small amount, but now he figured I needed more.

I looked up the symptoms of hypothyroidism on the Mayo Clinic website, which seems trustworthy. They noted that that the condition may be attributed by the patient to growing older. I definitely noticed those: sensitivity to cold, muscle weakness or aches, and joint pain, all of which I feel.

Then there were other symptoms, which I had attributed either to my psychiatric diagnosis (bipolar II) or to the medications I take for it: fatigue, weight gain, thinning hair, impaired memory, and the biggie – depression.

Between the two sets of symptoms, I could see that the doctor had good reason to suspect my thyroid was out of whack and to prescribe an increased dose of the medication. I am now taking the higher dose and waiting to see what happens.

But it struck me: Maybe my symptoms were a combination of bipolar disorder and thyroid hormone deficiency. Maybe my body was trying to tell me something – that not all the symptoms I feel were caused by my glitchy brain. Maybe some of them were caused by my glitchy thyroid.

I have not been taking the new dosage long enough to see any effects, but I have hope. Perhaps, if and when the new dose kicks in, I will feel less of the lethargy, hopelessness, and other attributes of bipolar disorder.

Maybe my brain and my body have conspired to make me feel the way that I do. Maybe there is some relief to be had from treating my body with hormones, rather than just my brain with psychotropics. Maybe I’m not spiraling down into depression as thoroughly as I thought I was. Maybe a little tweak in my medication will help me to feel better.

Maybe if my body problems get worked out, my brain problems will not assert themselves so aggressively.

It is devoutly to be hoped.

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