Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘emotions’

Yes, It Was That Bad

By patpitchaya/adobestock.com

There’s a tendency, once you’ve started to heal from the wounds that mental illness has left you with, to forget how bad it really was at the time. It’s not that time heals all wounds. It’s just that the memories fade as they flow backward into the past. You find yourself asking, was I really that miserable? That irrational? That out of control? Once therapy and medication – or whatever works for you – have gotten you past the crisis stage, it gets harder to remember what it all felt like at the time.

Nor do we want to. Going through an episode of serious mental illness is hard enough when you do it once. Reliving it is devoutly to be avoided, if possible.

Still, the memories get a little fuzzy around the edges. Now that you are mentally healthier, you know that you would never tolerate the kind of treatment you used to, or be so self-destructive, or put yourself down so thoroughly. The times when you did those things, when you felt those ways, seem in some sense unreal.

I think that’s one reason that some people go off their meds. It’s not just that they feel better or think that they’re cured. It’s that on some level they can’t remember how bad it really was back then. So why should they need psychotropics?

Well, I’m here to tell you that, yes, it’s much better now, but yes, it was that bad back then. You may not remember the weeping and wailing and total despair. You may not remember that you were immobilized for months at a time. You may not recollect pushing away people that were trying to help you. But all that happened.

Perhaps you don’t recall what it was that led you to consider self-harm or suicide. You wouldn’t think that way now, of course – you’re so much more stable. Perhaps you think to yourself that an abusive partner wasn’t really all that bad. After all, you got away from him/her/them. It was survivable, so it must have been not that big a deal.

But it was that big a deal. Denying the experiences you’ve had and minimizing their effects on you make it harder to see the long way you’ve come. It’s hard for me to remember now the major bipolar depressive episode that lasted for literally years, when I wasn’t able to work, or write, or read, or be there for my husband or even myself. But it happened, and I can’t deny it. I’d be lying to myself if I tried.

I’m not recommending that you wallow in the memories of the horrible times. I’d rather think about it as keeping little bits of them in a box on a shelf. Every now and then, on a day when you feel particularly strong, you open the lid and peek in. It may be shocking to realize how bad off you were, but a positive relief when you consider how far you’ve come. As the saying goes, the bad times make the good seem so much better.

Bad and good, your experiences have made you what you are today. Denying or minimizing the bad makes it seem like your journey was less long and hard than you know it was. In a way, mental illness is the yardstick by which we can measure mental health. Moving onward and upward are important, but so is being realistic about the past. Yes, it was that bad.  And yes, you made it through anyway!

The Demise of a Bipolar Support Group

By Artur / adobestock.com

Funny, but I thought support groups were supposed to be supportive. Recently, though, I ran into one that was anything but.

I won’t name the group, since some people may still get something out of it, but as far as I could see, it was a group of over 5,000 people out of control. Many posts were off-topic, sexually-oriented, political, and even abusive. Of course, many people never contributed at all, so I don’t know whether they approved, ignored, or simply watched from the sidelines.

I have my own opinions about bipolar support groups – they should be focused on bipolar disorder, its symptoms, treatments, and lifestyles. Within that large umbrella, there are lots of topics to be covered.

To me, it is legitimate to have “getting to know you” posts – Where are you from? What is your favorite comfort food? What kind of music do you like? Such posts and responses enable people to reach out and make connections, to realize that there are people in the world who experience life in the same way that they do – or in different, equally valid ways.

Similarly, it is understandable that people post about their symptoms – Do you ever wake up angry? Do you often get hypersexuality as a symptom? What do you do about it? Is there anything that alleviates your feelings of being alone? These posts encourage people to share commonalities and suggest ways to deal with them.

I can even see some good in comparing medications, though I don’t much like them. Has anyone tried Vraylar? Do you have much weight gain with Abilify? As far as I can see, the only answers to such questions are: Ask your physician or pharmacist. Medications affect everyone differently. Yes, I have, but your mileage may vary. The only truly useful things I can think of to say are: Don’t stop taking your medication without a doctor’s help, and If you get a rash, especially around your mouth and nose, see your doctor immediately. But if it gives comfort to know that someone else has the same reactions you do, that may indeed be helpful.

What this particular support group got into, however, was way off-topic remarks, sexual solicitations, stalker-like behavior, politics, name-calling, and general nastiness. It seemed like some of the participants went out of their way to be offensive. One poster asked, “Do you know what ‘tea-bagging’ is?” A few others got into a, shall we say, heated discussion about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter that involved calling each other not just racist, but “cunt” and “fucking POS.” Yet another complained about the cursing appearing in such posts and was met with a long list of responses, all of which said, “Fuck you.”

Part of the problem seemed to be inexperienced or overwhelmed moderators. They did not take down the most offensive posts. They did not try to steer the discussion in productive directions. Admittedly, moderating a support group is not an easy thing to do, and dealing with a group that experiences symptoms such as anger, despair, hypersexuality, sensitivity, and irrational thinking, as well as the normal responses of outrage, insult, offense, anger, retribution, and hurt, is that much more complicated.

Perhaps the majority of the 5,000 group members don’t mind such interactions, but there were more than a few who did, and said so. Some quit the group or went off to start their own. Others decided to stay around for a while to see if things got better.

I am torn. I hate the group the way some members are currently behaving. I hope that more administrators/moderators can get the group back on track to something that is truly a support group. But my time, attention, and patience are limited. Unless I see some changes – and soon – I’m outa there. I may not be missed, but neither will I miss them.

When My Carer Needs Care

By Farknot Architect / adobestock.com

My husband is the mainstay of my support system and, in large part, my caregiver. I cannot count the things he has done for me and does for me every day. We’ve been married for over 35 years and during that time he has helped me through daily life, major depression, anxiety attacks, loneliness, irrational thoughts, school, therapy. He makes sure I practice self-care and cares for me as needed.

Recently, though, he needed my help and care. The other day he experienced distressing eye-related symptoms – a large “floater” (dark spot) in his vision and unexpected flashes of light. What could I do about it? First, I answered his request to get a flashlight and look in his eye, but I saw nothing.

Next I arranged an appointment for him at our eye doctor. Dan used to be terrible at admitting when he needed medical treatment, but since a heart scare he’s been much more amenable to seeing a doctor. That particular evening, he was scared and cranky, and made up excuses. He left his phone in the car. That’s okay. I had mine right there. He didn’t know the number. That’s okay. I have it programmed into my phone. I waited on hold. “Forget it,” he said. “Never mind,” I replied. “I’ve got nothing else to do.” He said he didn’t see the floater any more. I pointed out that his eyes were closed. I got through to the doctor and made him an appointment for the next day.

Naturally, I drove him to the appointment, as they would have to dilate his eyes. Then, afterward, I drove him on several other errands (including an appointment with a different doctor) and made sure he ate lunch. I canceled one of the errands and put off others when I saw how tired and nervous he was getting. I took him home and tucked him in bed. (The floater turned out to be nothing truly alarming, just an effect of his aging eyes. He named it “Freddie the Free-Floater.”)

Dan has done almost exactly the same for me, many times. I could usually make my own appointments, but he encouraged me to do so. He has driven me to appointments countless times. He makes sure I eat. When I run out of spoons, he cancels or postpones errands, or even runs them for me. He reminds me when I need to have a lie-down or to sleep or to shower.

It was unusual for me to be the caregiver in this situation, and at times difficult, but I didn’t begrudge it. How could I possibly?

Of course, later in the day, I had a crisis and a mini-meltdown of my own, and there was Dan, ready to be with me, talk me through it, and make sure I didn’t skip a meal.

I know this is what marriage is supposed to be – partners helping each other through their individual and mutual times of difficulty. I also know that mental illness can put a terrible strain on a relationship. I admit that I am very needy at times, and was even more so at other times in my life.

But this time I got to be the strong one and take care of his needs before my own. And I was pleased and proud to be able to do that. Often there’s little enough that I can do for him, except offer him encouragement and remind him that I love him and appreciate him and all he does for me. If he asks for something he needs, I try to make sure he gets it (except for the $900 woodchipper, I mean). And I do what I can that benefits both of us – working to bring in money, paying the bills, doing computer research, handling phone calls, reminding him of appointments when I can – mostly stuff that involves computers and phones and recordkeeping and occasionally knowing where missing stuff is. And reassuring him when he gets trapped in the depression that he also suffers from that I love him and that he is strong and good and that he needs to take care of himself, and that if he can’t, I will try and do my best.

My Hypothetical Baby

By pololia / adobestock.com

Having bipolar disorder was one of the reasons I decided not to have children. Really, it was having major depression, which was what I was diagnosed with at the time.

I wasn’t so much concerned with passing my condition on to any potential offspring, since, at the time when I was contemplating motherhood, the genetic links were not yet that firmly established. Now that I know more about it, I think that might have been another deterrent. My parents had no idea what to do with me when bipolar symptoms started happening, and there’s no guarantee that I would have done any better. I’d like to think I would, but there’s no telling, really.

No, what I feared was having to go off my medication while pregnant (and breastfeeding, should it come to that). I was terrified of being unmedicated and I knew that psychotropic drugs were not good for pregnant women or their developing babies. Once I had discovered the benefits of Prozac and other mood-regulating meds, I knew I never wanted to be without them again. I never wanted to again fall into the pit that I had clawed my way out of. (In truth, that pit was waiting for me anyway, when I experienced a major depressive episode many years later.) 

Postpartum depression scared me too. I had heard the horror stories of women killing their children and/or themselves while suffering from the illness. I knew how out of control I could get with just plain ol’ garden-variety depression and anxiety. Adding postpartum hormones to the mix could be a really bad thing.

But the main reason that I decided my bipolar disorder made it unwise to have a child was that it would be unfair to the child. How to explain to a toddler that mama couldn’t get out of bed today or that she burst into tears for no apparent reason? How to explain weeks or months like that? How to deal with a child jazzed up on mama’s sudden hypomanic jag, who would then be let down when she crashed? How to soothe a child’s anxieties when mine were making me jump out of my skin? How to take care of a child’s essential needs, when I suck at taking care of my own?

Is that selfish? I know there are people who would say it is. That when the time came, I would suck it up and do the best I could. And I might. But would that “best I could” be good enough? I’ve heard it phrased that I was too involved with giving birth to myself – a relatively stable, reasonably happy, mostly functioning self – to give birth to someone else. And I think there’s some truth in that. It’s been a struggle, filled with despair, misery, hard work, setbacks, immobilization, dangerous thoughts, and living too much in my own head. To do the work of bringing myself to some baseline of functioning while trying to nurture and bring up another person daunts me.

I do understand that there are women with bipolar disorder and even postpartum depression who have children and that those children can be happy, healthy, and as well-adjusted as any modern child ever is. I don’t know how they do it, though. I was fortunate that I had a choice of whether or not to have children. I know that not all women do, and that many are delighted with their choice – whichever way they decide. I know that there are those who desperately want children and are unable to have them. I was fortunate that my husband didn’t push the issue, despite the fact that he would have welcomed a child.

I also had irrational thoughts about that potential child. I imagined that if the child were a boy (which run in my husband’s family), Dan (whose inner child is, shall we say, close to the surface) and the little boy would be natural allies and I the odd one out. He would be the fun dad and I the not-fun mama. And while that’s somewhat irrational, it also might be partly true. It took a long time for me to learn how to relax and have fun and share it with another person.

The one time I was open to having a child was when my father was dying a slow death. I thought that if he was going to see his grandchild, I’d better produce one promptly. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. I later realized that that was a really poor reason to bring a new life into the world.

What I’m saying is that the decision is not – was not – an easy one. Having a mental disorder makes it even more difficult.

 

Missing the Finer Things in Life

By GoodIdeas / adobestock.com

One of the ways I know when I’m slipping into bipolar depression is when I lose my sense of humor. Not even my husband’s awful jokes get a rise out of me. I also lose interest in many things that I ordinarily enjoy – reading, puzzles, and games, to name a few. The joys of life are few and far between.

Lately, I’ve noticed that I seem to be slipping again. I don’t feel overly depressed yet, but the signs are creeping up on me.

I think I first noticed it when it occurred to me that I had not done the New York Times crossword puzzle for at least a week. The Sunday Times puzzle is, or was, something I looked forward to every week. Now, I may not get around to playing it till mid-week or simply wait for next week’s, in hopes that I feel better. Most of my other entertainments have fallen by the wayside as well.

I know part of the problem is lack of spoons. I have been taking on extra work in my transcription job, simply to make extra money, which we do need. But it means I have given up almost all my days off and have had to get up very early to finish assignments. There’s little of me left over to do frivolous things, the things that bring joy.

On top of that, I have a house to furnish from top to bottom. I do not find shopping relaxing or enjoyable. In fact, I loathe it. Yet there I am, once or twice a week, at the vast home improvement store, picking out lighting or flooring or something else the contractor needs right away. It’s exhausting, not rewarding, and it eats into my spoons and my days off even more. It’s almost like having a second job, what with all the research, phone calls, appointments, choices, and decisions. Perhaps I’ll be able to rejoice in our new digs when it’s all done, but right now I can barely picture it.

The lockdown isn’t helping, either. One of the things I used to enjoy was going out to my favorite restaurants or discovering new ones. Now that is right out. I know some people are again indulging, but I’m not willing to risk my life for a cheeseburger and a brew or even tiramisu. My space and my life are constricted to a one-bedroom apartment, with a laundry/utility area substituting for my beloved study.

I do still have some comfort in my life, which is a mercy. When it all gets too much for me, I knock off for a while and watch some cooking shows on TV, which I find soothing, or read a chapter in a book before I fall asleep. At least I haven’t lost my ability to read, which I did once during a major depressive episode. And I’ve been able to maintain my blogs, which gives me satisfaction.

But as to joy, there is none. Life has become a tedious slog through one damn thing after another. One of the questions they always ask you during the depression screener at the doctor’s office is, “Do you no longer enjoy things you used to?” 

I’d say that’s true. Or at least I no longer have the wherewithal to do the things that I used to enjoy. Is it a marker of bipolar depression, or simply a reaction to all the things piling up on me right now? And which one causes the other?

On the surface, my retreat from joy is not excessively alarming. It has not yet reached the point of a major depressive episode. I can still do my work and my work on completing the house. What I can’t do is find a way to take mental time off – and I know that’s not good for my emotional stability.

I guess I’m just afraid that, in my life as it stands right now, there is no room left over for enjoyment. And that feels a lot like psychic numbness and depression. Perhaps when life settles down a little bit – if it ever does – I will get some of the enjoyment back. Perhaps it will become clear to me whether this exhaustion is circumstantial or anhedonia, a symptom.

Nevertheless, I plod onward, hoping for the day when satisfaction, relaxation, engagement – joy – will return. So far, it always has, though sometimes it seems forever before it does. That’s the nature of this illness and of recovery.

 

Fear of Offending

By Drobot Dean from Adobestock.com

I have to keep a close watch on what I say in public or post online. I am afraid of offending people. Many times I have lost friends because of things I’ve said or done.

Is losing friends because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes. Is being afraid of offending others because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes.

I was not very well socialized as a child. The house I grew up in was very insular. My parents made few attempts to mix and mingle with neighbors or other school parents, so I didn’t see much of that as a young person and learn the unwritten rules. (My father did mix and mingle with the local gun club, but there were not many persons of my age and gender there.) I never went to preschool because I had a sister, we were very close in age, and my mother figured we could simply play with each other. (This was in the days before formal “playdates.”)

As I got older and my bipolar disorder began to manifest, I was even more out of sync with what the other kids were doing and saying. My mood swings left me laughing uproariously at things no one else thought were funny, or being gloomy and surly as a self-isolating hermit. I never learned the rules at school, either, of how to negotiate the complex patterns of behavior required as a student. I didn’t even know enough not to show off my intelligence, which didn’t win me many friends.

As I grew older, I got in the habit of tapping my face – symbolic slaps – whenever I said something that I realized I ought not to have said. (This was both puzzling and annoying to my companions.) It was a reminder to me to keep more of what I thought under wraps.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know that I was bipolar. I thought I was just weird. It never occurred to me that my brain was different, that I reacted in peculiar ways because of something I could not, at the time, control. I tried to be quiet and unobtrusive, but the manic humor kept leaking out, usually when no one else thought whatever it was was funny. I garnered a reputation as an oddball, even among the odd people who befriended me.

Later on, in the world of work, I was even more out of my depth. I still didn’t know how to socialize. I couldn’t manage “team-eating,” the mysterious rituals of the groups of workers who lunched together. I consciously practiced my socializing with the few people who would put up with me. I observed social interactions, but I never really internalized them.

I made statements that were meant to be funny, but they came out sarcastic, and I lost friends. I made statements that were meant to be assertive, but they came out bossy and I lost friends. I became more and more afraid to say anything that might be seen as hurtful, but I still did.

All of this made me afraid to offend people, so I began to shut down. I kept my jokes to a minimum. I didn’t even try to join the ladies who lunch. My social life was practically nonexistent.

Then came the internet and, especially, Facebook. Every time I wanted to post something, I had to run the content through the internal filters I’d built. Was it too racy? Too political? Too self-revealing? Too something? Would it offend someone and lose me more friends?

I developed techniques to soften my replies to other people’s posts. I’d agree with any part of a post I could and then add my real opinion, very softly. (I agree with you that there’s a lot wrong with our economic system, but it’s very complex and I think more regulations will be needed to improve it. I agree that most police are protective and well-regulated, but I think training in dealing with mentally ill persons would benefit everyone.) I became wishy-washy.

How does this reflect my bipolar disorder? Losing friends was one of the big traumas I went through as a child and I never wanted it to happen again. My first physical trauma was at the hands of other children, who threw rocks at me. My first bipolar “break” was a result of being humiliated by my best friend. (“Kids can be mean,” my parents said, but I knew deep inside it was all my fault.) Losing friends became one of my major triggers, something I would try anything to avoid. I just wasn’t very good at avoiding it.

Gradually, I am getting better at socializing and at speaking up without the constant fear that my words and actions will drive away people who care about me. I still try not to be confrontational, but if a meme expresses something I care deeply about, well, I will repost it. I still try not to insult the persons closest to me, but sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how to say something with just the right words in just the right tone of voice.

Bipolar? I think my glitchy brain got sidetracked by the illness when I should have been learning the ways most people behave. Now that my illness is mostly under control, I am trying to make up for lost time.

 

The Big Disruption

alphaspirit/adobestock.com

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make a blog post next week unless I can write an extra one this week and save it. Next week at this time we’ll be moving from the three-bedroom house we’re currently living in to a one-bedroom apartment, where we expect to stay for three months at the maximum.

The circumstances that led to this situation are complex and the whole process has been feeding into my triggers and issues. No, bipolar disorder won’t stay on hold for even two weeks so we can get this accomplished.

Overthinking. First and perhaps foremost, I hate cleaning, packing, and moving, especially when there’s a time limit on them. I even hate packing for vacations. (I’m okay once the vacation has started. It’s just the lead-up to it that gets me.) When I pack, I always overthink and almost always overpack, as if I’m planning for the Normandy invasion. This is exhausting.

Anxiety. I often have anxiety dreams about packing and moving, usually having to do with moving into or out of a dorm at college. This was indeed a stressor for me, as I lived someplace different every year and went home over the summer. Apparently, it has never quite left my psyche. This set of moves will be unpleasantly like those – a massive, frantic rush at the beginning of summer and another set of the same, though one hopes not as frantic, at the beginning of fall.

Uncertainty. What happened to us is that our house was destroyed by a tornado a year ago. Since that time, we have been living in a house provided for us by the insurance company. Now, however, they’ve put us up here as long as they care to and our former house isn’t completely rebuilt and ready for re-occupancy yet. We’ve had just over a month to make alternative arrangements. Combine that with trying to get a three-month lease, and a one-bedroom was all we could find. (We call it “The Shack.”)

Belonging. I’ve had a hard time bonding with places where I’ve lived – they’ve never truly felt like home to me – and I hope that the rebuilt house, which we are completely furnishing, will have that feel of “mine.” But The Shack will feel the least like home since any I’ve lived in since college. Even my study, where I do my writing, will be a utility room with a table and chair rather than a desk. Nor will we have much in the way of furnishings. A bed, a television, two chairs, boxes for bedside tables, and not much else. The rest is in storage or not to be delivered until permanent move-in.

Immobilization. It is the one-year anniversary of the tornado and we will be swept up in a virtual tornado of packing and moving. I have already noticed tornado dreams and severe storm-related anxiety as the date approaches. I anticipate being virtually immobilized just when I need to be most productive and proactive. It already feels overwhelming.

Isolation. And no, there is no one around who can help us move. It’s just me and my husband, with maybe a little help from U-Haul and Two Men and a Truck. My husband suffers from depression, and between that and my bipolar disorder, we’ve been isolating so much that even with pizza and beer we couldn’t pull together a work gang.

We’ll get through, I know. And we’ll get through living in The Shack until it’s time to go home at last. I just wish I could see a clear path between now and then.

Do I Need Advice or Do I Need to Vent?

COK House / adobestock.com

Sometimes we need advice. But sometimes we just need to vent. This is true of all people but especially true of people with mental illness.

Venting is the act of getting something off your chest. It may come explosively if it has built up for a while. There may be one final incident, however tiny, that sets you off. All you really want is to feel heard, that someone acknowledges your distress and understands it. All you really need is a sympathetic ear and maybe a pat on the shoulder.

Venting acts as a safety valve. It allows you to “let off steam” that might otherwise build up pressure until it comes out violently, or at least excessively.

Why do I say this is particularly true of people with mental illness? So often we have feelings we can’t articulate, thoughts we don’t understand, or events that trigger us in both large and small ways. It’s natural to want to keep all these things inside. We’re taught to do that – not to “let the crazy show,” to keep all those messy thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Eventually, we get to the point where we think that no one will understand anyway, so there’s no point in giving voice to these feelings.

Then, when we do finally vent, inevitably someone says we’re overreacting. Because, you know, crazy.

If I’m venting, the wrong thing to do is to give me advice. Unless I specifically ask for advice, that is. But even well-meaning advice can easily go wrong. People who do not suffer from psychiatric conditions often offer advice regarding what works for them when they feel a certain way. And yes, a walk in the fresh air and sunshine can certainly be uplifting. But when I’m too depressed to get out of bed, it can be an impossibility. It can even make me feel worse about myself.

To me, suggestions for possible remedies for my disorder are even worse. It’s taken me and my assorted doctors years to assemble the right medications at the right dosages to tame my bipolar disorder down to something livable. When someone tries to tout the latest remedy they heard about – Pilates, elderberries, juice cleanse, probiotics, or whatever – it feels to me like “pill-shaming,” like I’m being blamed because none of my meds will “fix” me thoroughly enough. Add the fact that these suggestions come from questionable sources – laypersons or bogus “studies” – and I’m likely to dig in my heels and feel offended.

At times, though, I do need advice. When I do, I usually get it from my therapist, someone else who shares my disorder, or an old friend who has been there for me on my journey. Sometimes I need a reality check – am I just catastrophizing or is it really true that something bad might be happening? Sometimes I need help dealing with a specific person – what can I say to my sister to help her understand my condition? Sometimes I need a reminder that I really ought to make an appointment with my therapist and get a “check-up from the neck up.”

And it should be understood that advice is just that – a suggestion that I am free to take or leave. Even my therapist, who usually gives very good advice when I ask her, sometimes suggests techniques or approaches that just don’t work for me. And even she knows that sometimes I just need to vent, to feel the feelings of sorrow or hurt or rage and let them out in a safe place. To quote Jimmy Buffet, “It cleans me out and then I can go on.”

Caution: Wide Mood Swings

imageBroker – stock.adobe.com

Mood swings are universal. Everybody has them at one time or another.

Bipolar disorder is not just mood swings. Not everyone has moods that can last for months or years at a time or moods that are so extreme that they interfere with one’s daily life. The depths of despair and the rocketing highs are not what most people experience – and they should be glad they don’t. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness (SMI). It can be more or less severe, and it can be well or poorly controlled with medication and therapy, but the reality is that bipolar is a mood disorder, an illness, and a curse. 

Of course, the mood swings of bipolar disorder don’t always last for months or years. Sometimes you go spinning out of control every few weeks. This is called “rapid cycling.”

But even rapid cycling doesn’t describe the lightning-quick mood changes that can happen within a day or two. That’s called “ultra-rapid cycling,” and it’s like being whip-sawed by your brain. Those valleys and peaks come so closely together that you don’t even have time to catch your breath between them.

I think that the official criteria miss the mark on this. Many of them define rapid cycling as experiencing four mood swings within a year. Ultra-rapid cycling seems not to have a specific definition, but I and a lot of other people with bipolar disorder experience moods that swing not over the course of months, but over the course of weeks, or even days.

Ultra-rapid cycling blurs the lines into mixed episodes. Those are occasions when high and low moods occur at the same time. For many bipolar sufferers, this means simultaneous exaltation and despair, which is a terrible combination and a bitch to experience. For me, a person with bipolar type 2 whose hypomania expresses most of the time as anxiety, a mixed episode is a frightening blur of defeat and nervousness, a simultaneous feeling that the worst has already come and that it is about to descend to even lower levels. It’s like ricocheting off the insides of your own skull.

What to do at a time like this is a puzzle. Do I try the things that soothe me when anxiety strikes? Do I try self-care for depressed moods? Do the two strategies cancel each other out, leaving me swinging helplessly? Do I try to suppress both moods, knowing that the consequent numbness will make it all the more difficult for me to feel “normal” moods again? Once those walls are built, they are hard to tear down.

Ultra-rapid cycling and mixed episodes may be handy jargon to describe mood swings that don’t fit the common mode of bipolar disorder.  But they’re hell to live through. And since mood levelers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds generally take a while to build up in the bloodstream enough to have an effect, there is little in the way of pharmaceutical help. An anti-anxiety pill may relieve the jitters and racing thoughts, but may also leave you more susceptible to the inevitable lows.

I don’t know if there’s much research going on regarding rapid cycling and mixed episodes. It seems like they’ve barely been named, much less defined or studied. And it’s true that there is a lot about plain old garden-variety bipolar disorder that remains to be understood and treated.

But for those of us who don’t fit the mold of months-long or years-long mood states, rapid cycling can be an uncomfortable way of life. When I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, I experienced those long, interminable lows. They did last months, years, until the depths of hell were all that I could see. The jags of ambition seldom visited me, but the creeping, lingering anxiety could easily take over. Now that I’m no longer subject to those excruciating extremes, I still am subject to the quick-change, rapid-fire series of moods. My mood levelers do work, in the sense that they reduce the peaks and valleys, but they never seem to put me on a totally even keel.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect. I’ll have to admit that I prefer a life of rapid- or ultra-rapid-cycling bipolar to the monotonous despair of long depressive cycles. At least now I have a firm conviction that the moods will end, or at least shift, to something more tolerable, and that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Given the choice between the lingering depths and the more rapid changes, I’ll take the one that doesn’t leave me in misery for years at a time.

 

The Importance of Alone Time

Alone time is a precious thing. But right now, with the self-isolation that accompanies the pandemic, many of us are experiencing too much “alone time.” But many of us need more.

Alone time has been important to me as I have struggled with bipolar disorder. I have a loving, supportive husband who is there when I need him to be. But even he knows that sometimes what I need is to be left alone.

Sometimes the world is too much with us, and we long to escape – read a book, hide under the blankets, just sit in the corner and think. At times like that, interacting with another person can feel like an intrusion, an annoyance, unwelcome. Alone time can allow you to catch your breath, calm yourself, practice mindfulness, or simply be alone with your feelings.

Of course, getting alone time is not always easy, especially now when we may be cooped up with our nearest and dearest, with no respite in sight. In my opinion, these are the times when a bit of alone time is even more necessary. Even with people you love, being with them 24 hours a day, every day, will begin to wear on you all. Stress builds and you may be triggered by noise, conflict, or other stimuli.

I’m lucky. That supportive husband knows, if his other efforts at drawing me out (offering me food, or a movie, or music) have failed, the greatest gift he can give me is alone time. He’ll even ask me if I need alone time, in case I don’t realize that is exactly what I do need.

I’m also lucky that there is a dedicated space in my house that is perfect for alone time – my study. It has a computer, music, comfort objects, games, favorite pictures, and more. It even has a comfy chair so that I can just sit and think if that is what I need to do. I know that I come at this topic from a place of privilege.

Making mental and physical space for alone time is harder when you have a roommate or a family that doesn’t understand the concept of alone time. The TV may be blaring, the washer clanking, the kids yelling, the spouse being needy. There may be someone in every room of the house, making noise or demanding your attention. Sometimes you can’t even be alone in the bathroom. You want everything to stop, just for a while.

In situations like that, you may have to ask for alone time. First, realize that it’s a reasonable request. Suggest ways to make it happen – I need to be alone in the basement (garage, kitchen, yard, whatever) for a while. Don’t disturb me unless someone’s bleeding or something’s on fire. Offer to return the favor. If you’re feeling pent up, chances are someone else in the house is too.

Of course, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Even though I need a fair amount of alone time, too much can leave me stuck inside my own head, not always a comfortable place to be. I can brood, catastrophize, feel lonely or bored, give in to depression. It helps if I can recognize when alone time is turning toxic like that. When I’ve had enough alone time, I can choose to leave that behind and rejoin the world in a better frame of mind.

As far as I can see, alone time is vital for every person, even the very gregarious. It allows us to let go and drop our metaphoric masks. But alone time is particularly necessary for those with mental illness. The ability to be alone with oneself can be a powerful step in understanding and healing. And whether time alone is the norm or the exception now, people’s mental health suffers. Connection is what we hear most about – virtual meetings, video chats, texts, and calls – but alone time is vital too. Treasure it when you get some. 

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