Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘emotions’

Do I Have PTSD?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Biggest Gaslighter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing May Take a While

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Emotional and Mental Work

I am weary to my bones and to my soul. As the spoonies say, I’m so out of spoons I can’t eat soup.
Physically, I haven’t done that much to wear myself out. A little light housecleaning. Running some errands. Answering emails and making phone calls. No heavy lifting, unless you count the time I had to help my husband push the washer back into place.
No, the heavy lifting I have been doing is emotional and mental. Make no mistake, that is work and it is exhausting. I am responding to a physical and emotional crisis that happened almost exactly a month ago. After the disaster (a tornado destroyed our house), my husband has done almost all of the physical heavy lifting.
The mental work is stuff that I’m easily capable of doing on a good day: dealing with bureaucracy, organizing the trivia of paperwork and daily life, paying bills, etc. Now, however, there is so much of it to deal with that I am falling behind. I haven’t kept up with sorting our receipts. I haven’t returned the phone call about the hole the cable guy made in the wall. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail about it. I haven’t responded to a friend’s request to look over an official letter she is writing.
The emotional work is entirely different. My husband is dealing with issues of grief, loss, and anger regarding the loss of our house and our possessions. Somewhere inside, I must be having similar feelings, but his are closer to the surface and he is able to express them more.
And I am having some difficulty dealing with this. First of all, angry men distress me, even if I’m not the object of their anger. It’s a throwback to other times and other relationships, a button that was pushed and has stayed mostly stuck in that position. Dan is doing his best to accommodate this quirk, trying to keep his voice down and his conversation rational when we speak of it. But I hear him when he is alone in his study, bellowing or wailing in emotional pain about something I do not fully understand.
My husband and I are operating from different places, with differing agendas, regarding the loss of our house and belongings. He invests his memories and emotions in things much more than I do. I look at what can be replaced and he looks at the irreplaceable – artifacts from his trips to Africa and Israel, for example. Those can’t even have a price put on them and there is no way to replace them. His grandfather’s diamond ring could be physically replaced, but not the sentimental value he attaches to it.
I do understand this, though not at the gut level he does. I do (or did) have possessions that meant a lot to me – a guitar, paintings a friend did, some carvings in semi-precious stones, some photos, of course (though some are stored on my computer, which survived). And I think the salvage company did a poor job of inventorying what they had to throw away and keeping what was small but important, letting us participate in the process. But my anger doesn’t extend to revenge fantasies.
All these feelings, both expressed and unresolved, are sapping my strength and my energy. I have gone back to my therapist for reminders of my coping mechanisms and validation on what I have been able to do – and to have a safe space to vent when all of this does begin to spill over.
And now I have decided to go back to work, on a reduced schedule at least. I don’t know if this is a good idea or a bad one, but it seems a necessary one. Perhaps it will provide a missing piece of familiarity in my life, something to anchor me. Perhaps a different kind of work will distract me from what I have been dealing with.
I know there’s still a lot of emotional and mental labor to do, but with help from my husband and my therapist, I believe I will get through it, especially if I pay some attention to self-care: taking my meds regularly, sleeping and eating regularly, taking breaks when I need them, taking comfort in our cats, and trying to eat the elephant one bite at a time.
This is one of the biggest elephants I can remember, though.

When Will My Breakdown Happen?

For those of you who follow this blog, this is another chapter in the saga of our experience with the Memorial Day tornado, which destroyed our house. My husband, who lives with depression, and I have been coping very well so far.

I saw my psychiatrist on Saturday. During the session, I mentioned that I hadn’t had a breakdown yet, but that I knew it was coming. “I hope not,” he replied.

Frankly, I think he’s being unrealistic. I keep saying it will come when we are settled in a living space, which we now are (a rental house) and when I don’t have to deal with insurance, housing, furniture, landlords, finances, utilities, and the thousand-and-one things that I’ve been in charge of dealing with. (Dan has been in charge of the more physical stuff, like salvage at our dearly lamented former house. He’s better at that and I’m better at working the phones and the computer.)

I think my brain will want to decompress with a crying jag and a couple of days in bed, at the very least. I plan to start work again next Monday, so it will likely happen during this next week. I know you can’t schedule these things, but I hope that’s the way it works out.

Dan is already at the ragged edge. He went back to work a couple of weeks ago, though physical health problems interfered with that somewhat. On Saturday he slept the whole day, having worked all night without sleep, owing to our moving out of the hotel and into the house in just a couple of hours. His emotions are also closer to the surface, too. He’s expressed anger at the salvage people and a need to cry when he sees what’s left of the house and our belongings.

Much as I dislike having breakdowns, or mini-melt-downs, or whatever you call them, I think sometimes they are both necessary and inevitable. When a bipolar brain gets too clogged up with the effort of coping during especially trying circumstances, it seems only natural that when the stress lets up even a little, that brain will need to let out all the feelings that have been suppressed while dealing with the crisis.

Bottling up your feelings is generally not a good idea, but sometimes you just have to in order to keep going. But like a shaken bottle of soda, the pressure builds up and there has to be a way to release it. The metaphoric bottle may simply explode, spraying shrapnel and its contents over everyone and everything within reach. This is not pretty, but it is understandable.

Keeping your feelings suppressed too long – putting them in a box and sitting on the lid – is not healthy, either. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the emotions and deal with them, they may fester and spring out of the box at the most inopportune time. Or you may turn off your emotions entirely and not be able to feel anything – including relief and satisfaction, in addition to the distress, anger, and/or despair that are in that box. A lot of us, including me, have done this for years in the course of our disorder. Feeling nothing but numbness can seem appealing if the alternative is chaos and pain.

So, in a way, I am hoping that I do have a bit of a breakdown, in a safe space where I can rage, weep, isolate, and grieve what we have lost. I don’t think I’ll be quite whole again until I have gone through the emotions that I’ve been putting off.

This week I’ve made an appointment with my psychotherapist, whom I stopped seeing about a year ago. I hope that she will be able to help me process the process, as it were. I think it’s definitely time for a “check-up from the neck up.” Maybe in her office, I will find that safe space and begin to feel the feelings that I know are hiding somewhere deep inside me.

 

Disaster in Dreams

On May 27th, our house was destroyed by a tornado. I was on the second floor of the building at the time and the roof came off. I emerged without a scratch.

On June 12th, I had my first dream about the tornado.

Up until then, I had been coping with the disaster, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with what must be dealt with, eating the elephant one bite at a time. Now, it appears, my disorder or my subconscious has caught up with me.

As is typical with dreams, there are both similarities and differences with real life. As for the similarities, the dream took place in a wooden building and I was on the second floor. I wasn’t wearing shoes at the time. (In the dream I was looking for a pair of boots that fit me. In real life, I was able to slip on a pair of shoes before the rescuers ordered me out.)

But there were significant differences. In the dream, I was not in my house but in a riding stable that shows up on occasion in my various dream landscapes. I was waiting for a horse to ride, which may have been related to my desire to escape.

In real life, I had little to no knowledge that the tornado was coming. I heard about it with no time to get downstairs to a safe place. I put a pillow over my head and hoped for the best. I was alone when the roof blew off.

In the dream, I knew that the tornado was coming. I could see it through a window or maybe through a skylight (which is what our great room became).

The biggest difference, though, is that in the dream I was terrified. I panicked. I screamed. There may have been someone there with me in the dream, but no one who could help me. In real life, I was alone, though rather calm, but as soon as he could, my husband came for me and then the rescue squad came for us both.

I’m not a Freudian when it comes to interpreting dreams and in this case, I didn’t have to be. It was frighteningly literal. Clearly, my conscious mind had fed my subconscious mind all the details it needed to recreate the event in a slightly altered but basically straightforward form.

I had been proud of myself for keepin’ on keepin’ on, doing the things that had to be done. But by the time the dream hit, the mundane details were 90 percent taken care of. We were in a residential hotel instead of a shelter. Our cats, who also survived (there was a part of the dream about missing cats), were with us. The insurance company and rental agents and salvage people were on the job and on the spot. My husband was keeping track of physical details while I worked the phones and the bureaucracy. A friend remarked how well I was handling it all, without having the breakdown everyone including me had expected.

Since that dream, I’ve been more troubled by phenomena like wind, thunder, and lightning. There is less coping to do to distract me and my disorder takes over. Even as I write this, there are high winds and I worry about the hotel’s roof blowing off. (We are on the top floor, which may have been a bad idea. They said it was the “quietest” floor.)

I’ve also had a bad-hotel-experience dream which was almost amusing in its details but seems to me to be a symptom of a deeper disquiet with our current living situation.

My husband and I are not on the same page with all this. His memories reside in things much more than mine do and I cannot be entirely sympathetic with his grief over the losses we suffered. To me, we rebuild and refurnish and salvage what we can and let go of the rest. He’s had his meltdowns too, though he remains solicitous of mine. As far as I know, his dreams are untroubled, though his daily life is, to the extent that he’s considering seeing a therapist. (A local college is offering free counseling to tornado victims – or survivors, however you prefer to think about it.)

I do not like the loss of my composure. I do not like the dreams or the fact that I am having them. I have expected them but was still not ready for them to come. I’m now having trouble getting to sleep at night.

I know this was inevitable but I do not like it. I’m lucky that it held off long enough for me to function effectively. I wonder how long it will be with me. Other traumas I have suffered have recurred in my dreams for literally decades. I hope this one is different.

 

My Emotional Support Animals

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

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