Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘family’

Why People Don’t Believe in Mental Illness

Some people just don’t believe that mental illness exists. There are reasons for this. Not good reasons, but reasons.

I recently saw a meme that blamed mental illness on capitalism. There was no mental illness per se, only the toxic effects of a culture that compels us to put up with overwork and underpay, exploitation and inescapable drudgery. The stress of dealing with these conditions is what causes us – an increasing number of sufferers – to feel depression and anxiety.

There may be something to this, sort of. Environmental conditions that lead to stress and anxiety can certainly make mental illness worse, particularly those like bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. And, while capitalism may or may not be the cause, the majority of us are working harder with less to show for it than ever before. But the majority of us are not mentally ill.

My mother may have bought into this philosophy. She knew I had mental troubles, but she thought that if only I got a better job, I would be all better. Admittedly, finding a better-paying job that was less stressful would improve anyone’s mood, but it can do little or nothing for a clinical mood disorder.

Then there are people who seem to “believe” in mental illness, but really don’t. These are the people who acknowledge that mental illness exists, but think that it is a “choice” – that any person can choose happiness, health, or sanity merely by an effort of will. Those of us who can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” are simply not trying hard enough. The “choose happiness” people don’t seem to get that for most of us, our only choice is whether to get help from someone else – a doctor who prescribes a psychotropic, a therapist or counselor who listens or advises, or even a friend who reaches out.

And, of course, there are people who acknowledge mental illness, but think it is a good thing, the fount of creative brilliance. They point to Vincent van Gogh and his amazing art. They forget about the suffering, the self-harm, and the suicide.

But, romanticizing mental illness and even revering it do nothing to help people who actually have psychiatric conditions. It’s true that some people with mental disorders – Sylvia Plath and Dale Chihuly, to name two in addition to van Gogh – have created works of great art, beauty, and significance. But it’s certainly valid to wonder what they would have produced if they had not had the trials of mental illness to deal with. Would their work have been less inspired or more? It’s impossible to say. Personally, I believe that mental illness interferes with creativity more often than it enables it.

But the most common reason, I believe, that people don’t recognize the existence of mental illness is that it has never touched their lives, isn’t a part of their perceptions. A relative of mine once watched a talk show where women recounted dire experiences of having hysterectomies. “Those women are such liars,” my relative said. “I had a hysterectomy and it was nothing like that.” Her perception of reality – her personal experience – was extended to the whole world.

Similarly, when someone has no direct experience of mental illness, either by having a disorder themselves or by knowing someone very close to them with the disorder, the reality of mental illness itself comes into doubt. “No one I know has it, so no one does.”

Sometimes people who believe such things are capable of changing their minds, though. If a woman goes through a profound, long-lasting exogenous depression after the death of her husband, she may have more sympathy and understanding for people who have profound, long-lasting endogenous depression, or major depressive illness, as it’s more commonly known. Or a dear friend’s struggles to help a schizophrenic son may awaken her to what mental illness truly can be. Once it touches her life in some way, mental illness becomes real.

And since, according to statistics, one in four or five Americans will experience some type of mental or emotional disturbance in their lifetimes, the odds increase that people’s personal experience with mental illness will also increase accordingly.

In the meantime, those of us in the mental health community can help spread the word that mental illness does exist, that it affects the lives of millions of people, and that even people who are not directly affected need to understand how easily it can happen to someone they know.

Blaming mental illness on capitalism, overwork, or an insane world may be easy and may make us feel better by comparison, but it will do nothing to address the actual problem.

Coping With Disaster

On Memorial Day, our house was hit by a tornado. I was trapped upstairs in the bedroom before my husband made it home and rescuers came to get us out. The Red Cross and the First Baptist Church took us in until we could arrange lodging at a motel, thanks to our dear friends Robbin and Stuart.

I am still quite numb from the whole ordeal, but none of us was physically injured. When the shock wears off and reality sets in, I imagine I will allow myself to freak out and let out my fears and other emotions however they choose to come out. Until then I am coping, with the help of my husband and many friends and neighbors.

I am learning new things about the meaning of self-care during the middle of a disaster.

When the fire/police/paramedics came to get us in the mandatory evacuation, they yelled, “Grab your medications and get out now!” Then they helped us through the rubble. Having those medications with us was essential. If I didn’t have my psychotropics, I would have undoubtedly fallen apart before now.

As Mr. Rogers advised, look for the helpers. They are everywhere. Don’t be ashamed to accept help or to ask for what you need.

My self-care routine has become very basic. A place to sleep, a hot meal, and clean underwear now seem to me to be the essentials of life.

Helping each other is evident throughout the area, but has never been more important to my husband and me. We remind each other to take our meds, to eat, to rest. We try very hard to understand that the other one is experiencing a flood of unfamiliar feelings too and we need to take care of each other emotionally – being accepting of what each of us thinks is important, shouldering more of the load when it all gets too overwhelming, thanking each other for small kindnesses.

We also have to be careful not to try to do too much in any one day. There are, of course, a million things that need doing, but we have found our limits. In the morning we make a plan. What absolutely has to be done today? Which of us is capable of doing it? What can we do together. My husband has done a lot of the heavy lifting of heavy lifting, while I have become the communications person. dealing with insurance, utilities, housing, and anything else that can be handled by phone or computer. Three activities in a day seems to be our limit, whether it’s visiting the laundromat, trying to get valuables undercover, or making arrangements for the next hotel we move to.

Perhaps next week in this blog I can tell you more about the psychological effects of this traumatic experience. They have barely begun to hit yet. Until then, though, we are safe and uninjured, our cats are safe and cared for, and we are muddling through the muck and the mess that surrounds us, inside and out.

Why I’m Not Like Sheldon Cooper

Obviously, I’m not a man or a theoretical physicist or a character on The Big Bang Theory. But also, I can’t say, as he often does, “I’m not crazy. My mother had me tested.” I’d like to have that t-shirt, but it would be false advertising.

I am crazy and my childhood was entirely free of psychological testing.

It probably shouldn’t have been, because the crazy had taken full hold during my tender years. Crippling depression. Massive anxiety. But both my parents were ordinary folk from Kentucky transplanted to a bland Ohio suburb. They stayed true to their roots and never considered testing or counseling for me or my sister. According to their upbringing, having crazy relatives might be upsetting or embarrassing, but that’s just the way it was. You tried to shelter them from the outside world – and vice-versa – but you didn’t involve agencies or doctors or hospitals.

My crazy got too obvious to ignore when I was in junior high school. I developed a nervous tic – my head would jerk up and to the left uncontrollably. This was very distracting, not only to me, but to whoever was sitting behind me in class. It got me noticed.

It did not, however, get me to a psychologist or other mental health professional. I didn’t want to see one anyway, because I had the irrational notion that being “shrunk” would go on my permanent record and I would never get into a good college.

Instead, I was taken to our family doctor. He prescribed Valium, which did stop the twitching but did absolutely no good for my depression.

Later, during my college years – at a good school, I might add – I had another run-in with Valium. This time my symptom was pain like a railroad spike being driven into the side of my head. Naturally, I thought it was a brain tumor.

I went to the doctor, who said, “I can do any test you want, but I can tell just by looking at you what your problem is. Your jaw is crooked.” He diagnosed me with temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, explained that tension made my muscles contract unevenly and cause excruciating pain in my temples. He sent me away with a prescription for Valium. Which helped with the stabbing pain, but again not with the depression. (Also, I was self-medicating with wine, which just made the crazy train run faster.)

It was not until years later, after college, that I got half a diagnosis – depression – and a non-Valium prescription – Prozac. And many years after that until I got the more accurate diagnosis (bipolar 2) and an appropriate regimen of drugs, which does include Ativan, but not prescribed alone or with wine.

And that’s another thing I don’t have in common with Sheldon Cooper. He’s not taken any psychotropics (or wine) and is happily stuck in his supposed non-craziness. I’ve accepted my craziness, gotten help for it, and am slowly rising, if not above it, at least to where I can peek over the top of it.

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