Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘depression’

Flap My Arms and Fly

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not a big fan of positive thinking memes. In fact, they have the opposite effect on me. Someone who claims that a positive attitude is all that I need to change my life is likely to get only a “pfui” from me. As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes have major depression, and no amount of thinking is going to pull me out of it. In fact, the only thinking I can do at times like that is likely only to pull me farther into the depths.

If affirmations and positive thoughts work for you, I say, good. If mindfulness and meditation are your jam, then I say, whatever works. But please don’t try to deny my perception of reality.

That perception is that there are some things that positive thinking can’t do. That there are some situations that are immune to positive thinking. That positive thinking can’t change the outcome of everything.

Admittedly, positive thinking can change one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances. One can choose, as my father did, to be determined, stubborn, and positive in the face of his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. It likely helped him live long past what his doctors expected.

But not everyone can do that, and maybe not everyone should. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that acceptance was the final stage of the process of dying, not the first. The same, I think, is true of grieving. Anger, denial, bargaining, and depression are natural responses to cataclysmic events, including diagnoses, and in this case, particularly diagnoses of serious mental illness.

Although my father was well-known for his “positive mental attitude” about his cancer diagnosis, I remember a time when he could not even say the word.  He swallowed it, leaving out the vowels: cncr. And I remember that at times he was in denial about his illness and tried to do things he was physically not capable of doing – even, at one point, walking down the short hall to the bathroom. Even positivity could not help him there.

I watch a lot of competition shows on TV – Chopped, Forged in Fire, etc. – and I often hear the contestants say that they are doing it to prove to their children that they can do anything they set their minds to.

A part of me always says, “Okay, then. Flap your arms and fly.”

I know that sounds cynical and bitter, but it’s also the truth. The contestant who was cut in the first round has not done what he or she intended to or believed he or she could do. After that, they espouse the more reasonable and attainable lesson that their children, or others, should try to follow their dreams and take that trial as a noble effort, even if it doesn’t end in victory.

I have bipolar disorder. There are some heights I can never fly to, no matter how hard I flap my arms. I know I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I know that, even with medication, I will still experience mood swings. I know that I will never be able to really trust my moods – that a setback might send me teetering over the edge or a triumph might make me imagine that I can indeed fly.

And, you know what? I’m okay with that. What I’ve accomplished with the help of medication, therapy, and the support of my family and friends, is good and is good enough. My dreams are down-to-earth, not grandiose. I do not dream of flying, but of remaining as stable as I can, right here and now. I choose not to delude myself with unattainable goals.

My father didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he was determined to live as long as he could, and to enjoy what he could in spite of the pain. I think that’s as ambitious as someone with a catastrophic illness can get. I admire him for his sustained effort and his stubborn resistance to despair. I admire those of my friends – and there are some – who can choose not to be dragged down by the circumstances of life.

Maybe it’s different for me because my disorder by its nature involves a component of lowered mood. But my expectations are not to flap my arms and fly, but just to keep on keeping on.

Hitting the Plateau

Back in September, I wrote about my bipolar disorder being in remission and how much I loved that feeling. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m not in remission. I’ve had significant setbacks, though not long-term ones. At one point I felt broken, but when that lifted I felt jazzed. Maybe I’m on a baseline and never wander too far off it. Maybe I’m stuck on a plateau, halfway between mental illness and mental health.

I ask myself, will I get any better?

It’s like when I had my second back operation (micro-laminectomy). When I went for a follow-up visit to the surgeon, I was no longer in pain. But I was slow and uncertain when walking and felt keenly that my physical capacities were diminished. “Will I get any better, or is this it?” I asked.

“You’ll improve,” said Dr. West. “It will take a while, but you’ll feel better.” And he was right. I did. But I still have some pain at times and sometimes I walk with a cane. I may be better, but I’m clearly not totally well. I’m not bitching (much). I know that once your back goes out, it never gets back to 100%. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t suffer the excruciating pain of a bulging disk and a pinched nerve.

My bipolar disorder is like that. I am no longer suffering on a daily basis. My meds are working and haven’t changed much in years. My mood levelers are doing their job. But I still have symptoms. There are still things I can’t do, or do only with great mental effort. I’ve never been at 100% and don’t ever expect to be. And I am truly grateful every day that I don’t have the in-the-depths lows, the ever-edgy anxiety, for more than a few days at a time.

But I wonder, am I stuck on this plateau forever? Is this as close as I’ll ever come to mental wellness? Or maybe, I think, mental health is an illusion. I can’t remember a time when I was unaffected by my disorder. The plateau itself may be an illusion. Maybe I am still improving, in such tiny steps that I can’t see the change. Maybe a new medication or treatment will come along and remove more of my remaining symptoms. (I’m not counting on that, though.)

My bipolar disorder feels like it’s running a low-grade fever. I can get done my work and my blogs, but little more. I don’t feel in the least joyful. It may be that this is just real life getting me down –  the weather, politics, the endless details and frustrations I have to deal with while we’re rebuilding our house. Perhaps this is just a normal mood swing like everyone gets or a reactive depression to the aforementioned stressors.

That’s one of the constant worries once you have bipolar disorder – not trusting your feelings or your feelings about your feelings. Every setback scares me that I’m teetering on the edge, ready to plunge off that plateau. Realistically, I know that I am as stable as I’m likely ever to be.

My superpower seems to be overanalyzing. I may really be in remission.

Depression lies. Anxiety lies. So, perhaps, does the plateau.

I’m Not Giving Up on You

Not you, Rachel, and not you, Paul.

Rachel, I know that your life has been shitty lately. I know that your health problems are overwhelming you and your depression is dragging you down to the deepest levels. I know your brother’s death by suicide still resonates with you and makes you think that there is an easy way to end your pain.

Paul, I know that your life has been full of drama and trauma lately. I know that the tasks of daily living get the better of you and the future keeps retreating further and further away. I know that you have barely any spoons each day and feel compelled to spend them on others instead of on yourself.

But I won’t give up on either one of you.

Rachel, I will take your calls even when I’m exhausted and listen while you vent. I will support you in every way I know how. I will honor and thank you for your generosity when I know that you could easily focus only on your troubles. I will maintain contact even when I am low on spoons.

Paul, I will keep sending you reminders that I am thinking of you and offering you solace and support. I will willingly accept that you are not able to reply just now. I will not take that as a reason to make a break with you. I will keep trying.

Rachel, you know you can say anything to me, for I have surely been there. You know that your suicidal ideation makes me uncomfortable, but I won’t ask you never to speak of it. I have had those thoughts myself and gotten through them. I know you can too. I see all the things that you do to reach out to others and extend your goodness to them. I empathize with your difficult family situation. I don’t know what to do about it, but I will acknowledge the pain that it gives you.

Paul, you know that I have listened to you in the past and will continue to do so, no matter what it is you have to say. I will not let my own anxiety and depression stand in the way of listening to yours. Please know that I understand what you’re going through more than I can say or have ever said.

Rachel, please know that I celebrate with you even the smallest achievements you make. When you are able to stand up for yourself against City Hall, I applaud you. When you investigate ways to make your living situation better, I will not judge you, though they may seem harsh or unacceptable to others.

Paul, please know that I wish only the best for you, even if I don’t always understand what it is that you need. I admire your continuing strength, even when I feel that it would be good if you could lay your burdens down for just a while. I acknowledge that I am not the person that can help you do this, much as I would like to.

The reason that I say these things is that I want you to know that there is someone who does truly understand and truly care. I have been where you are and have found my way out, at least a little. I remember the people – including you two – who have reached out to me even when I was not able to reach back. The very least I can do is to do the same for you.

When you are relieved of your burdens and can again see the light of day, I will be there to celebrate with you. I will not despair or think that you can never see that light.

I will not give up on you. I will not give up on any of my friends who are burdened with depression, anxiety, or some other difficulty. I will do what I can, because I must. There are people who have never given up on me. I know what that feels like, and I wish that same healing and help and health for you.

Should You Lie About Your Disorder?

We all know that when writing a resume, you should write either “good” or “excellent” when you refer to your health. Any other response will make it certain that your resume will be headed straight for the circular file.
But what about your mental health? Most resumes and most job applications don’t include a space for that, but what if they did? What would you answer? What should you answer? And should you tell the truth if you do answer?
 
In one corner of England, job seekers were encouraged to hedge their bets or to flat-out lie. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that welfare personnel “have urged jobseekers who have depression to hide their diagnosis and only admit on work applications that they are experiencing ‘low mood.'” 
 
Fortunately, there has been a backlash from mental health organizations, who describe the advice as an “outrage” likely to increase stigma. They point out that “the law provided protection to disabled people, including those with mental health problems, if their disability has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on normal daily activities.”
 
The welfare department in question brushed off the controversy by saying the suggestion was only “well-intentioned local advice” and encouraging people seeking jobs to “speak freely about a health condition or disability.” But that’s not a choice that everyone is willing to make.
 
Whether or not to disclose one’s mental health condition when applying for a job is not an easy decision. American law (at the moment) protects employees and potential employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But many people are rightly suspicious that disclosing a mental illness at the application is a one-way ticket to unemployment. Even when applications invite you to disclose and pointedly proclaim that they abide by EEOC regulations, many people choose not to disclose.
 
Disclosing after you’ve been hired or have been working at a place for a while is another matter. Many people (including me) have lost jobs because their bosses and coworkers don’t understand mental illness. There is plenty of motivation never to mention it.
 
That may not always be possible, however. Sometimes, the symptoms of bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness are obvious and negatively affect work. (I’m included here, too.) If a person isn’t able to do the work – for whatever reason – it’s understandable that they will be let go.
 
That brings us to the subject of accommodations that permit a person to do the work. Under ADA law, persons with disabilities, including mental disorders, are to be given “reasonable accommodations” to help them perform their job duties. For blind, deaf, or mobility-impaired workers, these accommodations are obviously necessary and most employers can and will provide them. (There is also no question as to whether to disclose these disabilities or not. Visible disabilities are more widely understood than invisible ones.)
 
Accommodations for mental disorders need not be difficult, either. Solutions such as flextime, work-at-home situations, or time off for appointments are more and more being offered to all employees, regardless of ability level, and these can certainly help people with mental illness, too. Other reasonable accommodations might include flexible break times, an office with a door or full-spectrum lighting, or the understanding that phone calls and emails need not be returned instantly. Of course, to receive these accommodations, one must disclose the disorder and negotiate the possible solutions, which can certainly be daunting, if not impossible, for those with anxiety disorders, for example.
 
But what we’re talking about here is not whether to disclose a disability on an application or to an employer. What we are talking about is misrepresenting a potentially disabling condition – or to use the less polite term, lying about it. I don’t have “occasional mood swings,” I have bipolar disorder. My depression is not simply a “low mood,” it can be debilitating. And I suspect that even admitting to a “low mood” might be greeted with something less than understanding by a potential or actual employer.
 
Ayaz Manji, a senior policy officer at a mental health charity in England, said of the semi-disclosure policy, “Anyone who discloses a mental health problem at work deserves to be treated with respect, and jobcentres should not be reinforcing stigma by advising people not to disclose.”
 
He’s right, of course. Disclosing or not disclosing is a hard enough choice for the mentally ill. Lying about one’s condition should not even be a consideration. And isn’t lying on resumes and applications an automatic cause for dismissal? 
 
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Permission to Be Depressed

Depression can be so riddled with guilt. Why am I not able to fake being okay? Why do I isolate when what I need is interaction?

Sometimes what I need is to give myself permission to be depressed. I have bipolar disorder 2, with a heavy depression component. It has overwhelmed me many times. I have fought against it, given in to it, tried to make compromises with it, tried to ignore it – almost any reaction you can imagine. Then I learned how to give myself permission to be depressed.

This is not quite the same as giving in to depression. It involves acknowledging that I am depressed and allowing myself to feel the feelings that I have. Of course, I don’t give myself permission to be permanently depressed. In a way, it’s more like giving myself permission to practice self-care and not to force myself to smile and bull my way past the depression. I recognize that I am depressed and do what I need to do to get through it. That may be staying in bed. It may be crying. It may be wallowing in sad music. These are things that I’m likely to do anyway when I’m depressed, but giving myself permission to do them is surprisingly freeing.

I used this technique probably for the first time when my husband and I went on a “barefoot” cruise vacation. It was something we both enjoyed and both want to do again someday.

But I knew from the beginning that depression might overtake me – probably would, at that time in my life – even while I was doing something enjoyable. Naturally, I didn’t want the depression to ruin the whole vacation, so I decided to give myself permission to do what I needed to do to cope with those feelings.

Most often, that involved retreating to my bunk for a nap. This enabled me to get away from other people when I was feeling overwhelmed and unable to socialize. Sure, I missed some of the onboard and shore activities, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed them anyway while in the metaphorical fog and darkness. I enjoyed what I could, then let myself not do what I didn’t feel up to doing. I didn’t try to make my husband stay with me and miss all the fun. There wasn’t anything he could do for me anyway. If the other passengers thought it was odd – and they did – they barely mentioned it to me. My husband told them I was tired. Seasickness was also a believable excuse.

In a way, having bipolar depression at that level is like having the flu. I feel bogged down and logy, inclined to cocoon, rest, and stay away from other people. I realize this is not always possible, but if it is, I can allow myself to do it. Fortunately, this spell of depression wasn’t so bad that it completely incapacitated me as it has at other times in my life. I was still able to feel enjoyment at some times, though not at others.

At other times, I’ve had to give myself permission to have anxiety. If a situation makes me anxious, I acknowledge that I am nervous, and do what I need to do. I can’t “think away” my anxiety, but sometimes I can get myself out of the situation at least temporarily. I do not have to sit and be anxious while people around me argue or shout at each other, one of my anxiety triggers. When I recognize how I’m feeling (which takes practice) and give myself permission to feel the way I feel, I’m better able to come up with coping mechanisms, such as leaving the room to get some fresh air or making myself a cup of tea.

You may notice that when I give myself permission to be depressed or anxious, part of my solution involves avoiding other people. That’s sometimes a hard thing to do. Isolation can certainly make depression worse, but it can sometimes also be necessary if pushing through, trying to smile, mingle, and socialize will make the depression worse in the end. And I have learned that if I try to do that, the depression comes along with me. Once a friend told me that it was like having a separate person with me, a person called Misery. Better to give myself permission to stay home and give myself some self-care.

What I can’t do is give myself permission to stay depressed or anxious. Giving myself permission is a very limited-time offer. It doesn’t work for those really lingering, midnight-dark depressions that last for weeks or months on end. Those, I have to fight. And while I’m depressed, I don’t give up on meds or therapy. Those are necessary to alleviate the depression instead of resigning myself to feeling it.

In Remission

My bipolar disorder is in remission. I know I’m not cured. There is currently no cure for bipolar. But I’ve reached a point where I’m stable enough that I don’t expect a crash or a buzz to descend on me at just any old time.

I still get moods, of course. They’re just not severe or long-lasting enough to be symptomatic. Yesterday, for example, I spent several hours wrestling with phone trees and people who wouldn’t switch me to a supervisor when all I was trying to do was straighten out a couple of bills that contained errors. Afterwards, I felt frustrated, cranky, and a bit sad. But those were normal emotions, based on what I had just gone through. After a nap I felt better, and dinner blew out the remaining cobwebs. Napping is definitely better than staying in bed the entire next day.

Of course, I didn’t achieve remission alone. It took years of doctor visits, therapy, and medications to reach this state. I am particularly grateful for mood levelers. For me, they actually do what they’re intended to do. They keep my moods within an acceptable range, or at least one that’s acceptable to me.

Too many people fear mood levelers, I think. Level moods sound boring – as though there are no variations, just a blank, straight line. That simply isn’t so. Mood levelers have pushed the spikes that used to go wild in either direction to a less extreme range. If you think of mood as an EEG, mood levelers prevent the lines from going off the charts, settling them to fluctuate within a middle range that most non-bipolar people have naturally.

I think the term “mood leveler” scares some people. They seem to think that such a drug would make them perfectly level, robotic, unchanging. They fear that any spark of personality or creativity would be lost.

That’s not the case. Instead, with level moods – and especially for depression-prone bipolars – a person has much more ability to explore his or her creative side.  I know that’s true for me. Now that my moods are stable and level, I’m able to get more writing done, but also to tell whether the work is good or needs serious revising before I post it.

My doctor recently increased the dosage of one of my medications, a mood leveler, because I was having trouble with hypomania that wouldn’t let me sleep. And it worked. I am now getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night and have enough energy to at least face the day, if not always to conquer it.

Don’t think mine has been a case of spontaneous remission. I’m not sure I believe that’s possible with bipolar disorder. It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work to get to where I am today. For example, it took literally years for assorted doctors and me to find a combination of chemicals, a cocktail of psychotropics, that would work for me. And during all that time, it was as if I was not medicated at all. Only the right combo of drugs and dosages would unlock my brain and level my moods.

So, here I am, in remission – and I love it. My moods aren’t blunted, they’re leveled. I am not as fearful now that my extreme moods may return and wreak havoc on my life. Oh, I still have some symptoms and side effects that remind me I’m not cured. But now I know that remission is possible, with work, with luck, and with the right mood levelers.

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.

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