Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘freelance work’

From Panic to Manic to Proactive

Hypomania isn’t all bad. Right now I’m facing one of my worst triggers, and instead of retreating into depression, I kicked into hypomania. Then I harnessed as much of it as I could and channeled it to work for me.

Here’s the sitch. My longest and most vicious major depressive episode (which lasted literally several years, even when I was under treatment and on medication) was triggered by, among other things, massive financial problems. (There were other factors involved: health problems, family health problems, family problems, irrational thinking, strained relationships, and bad ol’ neurotransmitters.) I was unable to work. There was plenty of anxiety along with the depression, you can be sure.

So here I am again, almost a decade later, once again in dire financial straits. I’m able to work, but only part-time and telecommuting. Then one of my biggest, most reliable clients cut way, way back. I made the mortgage this month, but next month looks iffy at best.

In the past, this would have resulted in major mental symptoms, and physical ones as well. (Better you shouldn’t ask, but my digestive tract responds to stress in an overwhelming manner. I know, TMI.) I would be immobilized, unresponsive, and spend most of my days on the sofa when I wasn’t in the bathroom. I would abandon the financial problems – and myself – to my husband’s care, for as long as he could keep everything together. Until he burned out too.

During this new version of assorted crises, I seem to have a better handle on things, and I credit hypomania. I am trying to better the situation, though not yet particularly effectively, but steadily.

I am looking for new clients and more work from my old ones. I am looking for other sorts of telecommuting jobs, and even part-time outside work that seems to be within my modest-at-this-point capabilities.

(This process is hindered by the fact that all the job search engines are lousy. When I say I am a writer, I get leads for technical aerospace writing and service writers for car repair shops. When I say I’m an editor, I get invitations to become a driver for Uber. True story.)

I pursue these avenues every day. Soon after this post goes up, I have a networking “date” with a former client and a former co-worker.

And in the meantime? When the days stretch out with nothing happening and the sofa calling my name?

I blog. I work on my novel. And I take surveys.

Admittedly, none of these pursuits brings in mortgage-payment-sized money. But the surveys bring in a couple of dollars a day, which is pitiful, but helping with a getaway my husband and I planned before the finances went belly-up. (My husband is still working, but his wages alone aren’t enough to pay all the bills. We need both of us, a situation familiar to millions of people in the U.S., with or without mental illness.)

And, aside from the getaway, which it’s too late to cancel, we’ve instituted cutbacks. We typically spend way too much on food and now must revisit our newly married days, when we subsisted on mac-n-cheese and tomato sandwiches. It’ll be good for us, I tell myself. We could both stand to lose some weight.

I don’t know how long my “proactive hypomania” will last, when our financial situation will improve, or whether my energy level will survive after it does. Or, for that matter, whether we’ll end up eating cat food under the Third Street Bridge and fighting stray dogs for cold french fries.

But right now, for now, I’m dealing. And that’s something I couldn’t do before.

Parts of My Life I Miss the Most

Last month I wrote about how bipolar disorder had cost me – well, not the ability – but the capacity to read (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp). I am intensely thankful that the concentration, focus, and motivation to read have returned as my healing has progressed.

But there are some other things that are missing from my life that I wish desperately that I could get back. Or wish I had never lost in the first place. (Depression is very much with me right now, so forgive me if I dwell in the past with my failures a bit.)

First are friends. I’ve written about this before too (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-2W), but the subject was brought home to me recently when I received a fuck-off letter from a former friend I was trying to reach out to, in hopes of reestablishing the relationship. One of her main reasons for cutting me off was that every time we went out, she felt it was “her and me and my misery.”

She did acknowledge that at times our friendship had been burdened by her misery too, but evidently that either didn’t count as much, or else mine lasted too long. (If it was too long for her, it was even longer for me.) I am very disappointed that, now that my “black dog” is smaller and on a leash, she found other reasons not to associate with me. To make it more ironic, she has been a therapist and now teaches psychology.

I also miss having a steady paycheck. My last 9-5 office job was over ten years ago, and since then my mental state has not allowed me to get and keep another such position. The security of knowing how much money I would have every month allowed me to plan.

And to travel. I really miss traveling. Admittedly, part of my inability to travel now is determined by my physical health. But my anxiety would make it just that much more difficult. Now I can barely get away for a weekend, and even then I must carefully monitor my moods, limit my activities, track my eating and sleeping, and avoid crowds.

One of my deepest regrets is that when I was undiagnosed and untreated, I couldn’t fulfill my potential. I attended an Ivy League university, but I can’t say I got out of it what I could or should have. I feel now that I skated by, impeded by many depressive spells, lack of focus and concentration, and confusion. I even took a year off to get my head together, but since that didn’t include getting help for my bipolar disorder, its value was questionable.

Lest this seem like nothing but whining (which my depression is telling is what it is), there are also some things that bipolar disorder has taken from me that I don’t miss at all.

Oddly, one of them is a 9-5 office job. While I do miss the steady paycheck, I absolutely don’t miss the things that came with it. Now, doing freelance work, I can fit my work around the things I need to do (like seeing my therapist) and the things I have to do (like slowing down when depression hits). I don’t have to get up at the same time every day and dress appropriately (if at all) and try to fit in and socialize with my co-workers. That was never easy for me and became nearly impossible after my big meltdown.

And, as much as I miss travel, I don’t miss business travel. Again, being “on” all the time, for days at a time, with no time or place to decompress, would be impossible now. Since we usually had to share hotel rooms, there wasn’t even a chance for any alone time, which I need a fair amount of. I could never get the hang of “team eating” either.

Finally, I don’t miss the boyfriend who took an already broken me and broke me worse. (I wrote about him in my post about gaslighting http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm.) My self-esteem was not great before the relationship, but afterward it went into negative numbers. Self-harm, self-medication, self-doubt, and negative self-talk were what I had instead. But Rex didn’t do it alone. He had my bipolar disorder there to reinforce his words and actions. And to not let me see what was happening.

Bipolar disorder is a balancing act, in more ways than one. It takes away good things from our lives. But my therapist reminds me that it also gives an opportunity – as I rebuild my life, I can choose which pieces I want to reclaim and which I want to discard. And the parts I can rebuild are what I should concentrate on.

And I will, once this spell of depression releases me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Not Introverted. I Just Don’t Want to Leave the House.

Maybe you would call me an introvert. I stay in the house for weeks at a time, never sticking my nose out into the fresh air. I wear pajamas all day, most days. My husband does the grocery shopping, picks up my prescriptions, and does most of the other errands.

I go out when I have a doctor’s appointment or when Dan entices me out with the promise of a restaurant meal.

I don’t consider myself an introvert.

I do consider myself a social person.

Why, then, do I stay indoors?

First, because my bipolar disorder makes me sensitive to noise and crowds. Technically, I think this is more agoraphobia than introversion. I can handle being in small groups of people or audiences, but hundreds milling around, as at a mall, make me panicky. And forget places that are both noisy and people-y, like Chuck E. Cheese or other family-intensive restaurants.

Second, I like to be social – on my own terms. That largely means Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, various online bipolar support groups, IM, email, Skype, and the good old-fashioned telephone. In the years since I’ve been on Facebook, for example, I’ve connected more deeply with old friends and coworkers, reconnected with old schoolmates and Girl Scout troop members, gained new relationships with friends-of-friends, and discovered things I never knew about my acquaintances. I keep up with birthdays; look at baby, travel, and pet pictures; and cheer on accomplishments, as I would in person. (Except for the hugs. Virtual hugs are just not the same. But my husband takes up the slack there)

Most of all, I stay inside because I can. My husband enables me in this, as when he does the grocery shopping. We tried splitting the shopping, but even with the little runabout scooter-with-a-basket (mobility issues), I was overwhelmed and exhausted after shopping just one-half of the store.

I’m able to work, at least some, and the work I do is conducive to telecommuting. I can sit in front of my keyboard and monitor, in my pajamas, and still be a useful, productive member of society. I have clients and interact with them in the aforementioned ways.

I haven’t had an assignment that involves leaving the house in years – not even to do research. I used to have to visit libraries occasionally, and while they’re not known for being noisy and people-y, Google and the Internet put virtually any information I need right on my screen or hard drive.

Admittedly, getting out into the fresh air would be good for me. We live in a nice secluded area that would be good for walking, and there are any number of parks nearby, if I want variety. I know that going out and getting at least a small amount of exercise would be good for my bipolar depression, but I haven’t been able to force myself to do it yet. Going outside to walk involves getting out of my jammies into real clothes, and possibly taking a shower, either before I leave or when I get back. And many of you know what a challenge showers are for people with depression, bipolar or otherwise.

But again, this is a symptom of my bipolar disorder and the immobility it causes, rather than introversion. I’m not afraid of meeting people while out walking, or even having conversations with them. Usually “hi” is all that’s needed in these situations, and I have the ability to make small amounts of small talk appropriate to the occasion. (“Sure is windy today.” “Are those shoes comfortable?”) Since I seem to be riding a hypomanic swing these days, perhaps I’ll be able to get out and walk occasionally. I know my husband would heartily endorse the idea and most likely go with me to offer me encouragement.

Bottom line? I can go out amongst people if I want to. I just usually don’t want to.

Can I? Can’t I? Bipolar and Business

I work freelance at writing and editing, and as many of you know, that life is fraught with insecurity. How much work will I get? How much will I be paid for it? Will the check be enough to cover the mortgage and the health insurance? Anything else, like light and cable and phone, which I need in order to work from home?

Since  I’m bipolar, these questions are laced with more than the usual amount of anxiety. Especially since the progression toward my last major breakdown was a lot of what caused me to lose that 9–5, well-paying job. My attendance became spotty, my attention refused to focus, my relationships with coworkers went downhill, my evaluations took a turn for the worse, and I bailed.

I stayed immobilized for a long time, applied for disability (didn’t get it), then embarked on freelance work.

I’m much more stable now. I’ve have published this blog and my other one for over two years, and proved to myself that I can attend business meetings, at least once in a while. My paying work has built up to the point where we can at least live paycheck to paycheck, but not much more. Time to spread my wings?

So I started looking around for other jobs, in addition to my faithful, steady client who has sustained me for years now. First I asked them if they could send any more work my way. Then I started expanding my platform, as we say in the writing biz.

I joined LinkedIn. And there, one day, I saw a listing for someone who needed an editor. One with exactly my skillset. Precisely my experience. The kind of work I love to do.

But.

It was full-time, likely high-pressured, and 45 miles away (during rush hour). I knew those factors would make it impossible for me to succeed at the job, even if I got it.

But.

I wanted it. I wanted to have back the things I lost after my breakdown – my competence, my confidence, my pride. Oh, and the money too.

But.

Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t let myself apply for it. I didn’t want to trigger the kind of meltdown I had before. I didn’t want another period of literally years when I could do nothing – not work, not take care of myself, not cook, not read. Nothing.

So, with reluctance, I let the opportunity pass by. I went back to my blog posts and my irregular freelance work. I occasionally do some non-paying work for organizations like the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF), or Sheknows.com, TheMighty.com, and even redtri.com. I lined up a gig editing a friend’s dissertation.

Then, as it sometimes happens, another opportunity appeared – a part-time paid position with a company that already knew my work. Steady work. Pay. Work at home. All this could be mine if I applied, passed the editing test, and was able to work the number of hours per week I rather optimistically said I could. I’ve taken the test (it was two hours long and grueling, the kind I used to give to other people). And now I wait, more or less patiently, never my best quality.

And while I wait, I wonder. Am I even capable of doing half-time paid work at home, plus my other freelance assignments, plus my blogs, plus the novel I’ve written about 1/3 of? Can I do the part-time job (if I get it), without my disorder screwing me up too badly to do it or anything else well? Is hypomania tricking me again? Do I have to give something up to get something better? Will it really be better?

The answer to all those questions is, “I don’t know.”

My disorder surely lost me the 9–5 job I once had. It made me give up the idea of trying for that similar job that seemed “just right.” But at least now I have some ambitions again.

Can I? Can’t I? This balancing act of higher ambitions and lowered expectations is delicate.

 

 

 

 

Work Hacks

Yay me! I just finished a big project (or at least the first phase of it) for which I will be paid actual money!

I am very fortunate/grateful that I am able to do freelance work at home, on my own schedule (mostly), using my education and skills, in my pajamas. Telecommuting is so way cool!

I can’t work an eight-hour day in an office any more (and likely won’t again). I can only concentrate for a max of three hours at a time, and some days not even that. Occasionally, if there’s a tight deadline, I can manage two sessions, or one and a half.Just Get Through It message on a dry erase board encouraging you to stick with your project or challenge during a stressful time in your work or life

Of course motivation is a factor. Deadlines and money are two really good ones. But sometimes I have to force myself – or trick myself – into doing actual work. This was true even when I did work in an office.

Anyway, here are some of my techniques – work hacks, as I guess they’re now called.

Taking breaks. Now of course, I can take breaks whenever I want, from a quick game of Candy Crush to an actual nap. My brain and body let me know when it’s time. They just crap out.

When I worked at the office, I tried taking crossword puzzle breaks at my desk. But apparently smoking was the only permissible break activity. Hiding in the bathroom didn’t work. People were known to track me down and ask questions anyway. (“Do you mind if I wipe and flush first?” Sarcasm seemed called for.)

When I got twitchy, I walked around the third floor or even more than one floor until I calmed down. The trick is to carry a clipboard or a few manila folders and walk sort of briskly so it looks like you’re going somewhere and doing something. It works best if the office has more than one room.

Pretending to work. I developed this technique at the office, but it can also be used at home. I would say to myself, “I don’t know how to get started. I’ll just write one sentence, so if someone walks by my cube, it looks like I’m working.” It was surprising to find that once the first sentence was on the screen, I knew what the second one should be – or that the first one was horrible and I could revise it, which also looked like work. Once I built some momentum this way, I was rolling. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder now, but the idea is the same – one sentence is the minimum, then see what happens.

Bribery and rewards. These are actually more or less the same. If I do X amount of work, I can check my email or eat a cookie or call a friend. I get to feel virtuous for working and satisfied by the little treat.

Forcing myself. If I’ve got a really tight deadline, I have to apply some internal pressure, especially if it’s one of those I-don’t-think-I-can-get-out-of-bed-days. Everyone in this house likes to eat. (The cats insist on it.) My pay will cover the mortgage, so we won’t be living under the Third St. bridge next month. This is dangerous, because I am a great catastrophizer, but sometimes it’s the only thing that works.

Artificial goals and lying to myself. If I can just do five more pages I can quit for the day. I know I can make it to the end of this section (that would be the lying part).

Stupid work. There are a lot of fairly pointless tasks that must be done anyway, but can be done by rote – adding headers and footers and page numbers, alphabetizing, running spell-check (or typing-check, as I prefer to think of it), that sort of thing. To me, that counts as actual work, and some days it’s all I can manage.

Unfortunately, none of these are effective for housework. No one pays me for that.

 

What Bipolar Disorder Has Cost Me

We lose a lot when we live with bipolar disorder – function, memory, friends and even family.

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But we also lose something more tangible – money. Or at least I did, and I know that a number of others have experienced this as well. Here’s how it went for me.

Work. I quit my full-time office job (possibly in a fit of hypomania). I had a new boss and had told her about my disorder. Her only question was, “What will that mean?” My answer was, “Sometimes I’ll have good days and bad days.” (It caught me by surprise.) Immediately after that, I began receiving bad evaluations, which I never had before. Was my performance really declining? It probably was, as I was heading into a major depressive episode.

But I wasn’t out of work quite yet. For a while I worked freelance, and pretty successfully. Then my brain broke, and there I was – unemployed. I had savings in a 401K, and we ran through all of that. Then my husband had a depressive episode and we ran through his 401K as well. And the money we got from refinancing our house.

Disability. Sometime in that stretch of time, my husband realized that our money was going to run out. He asked me to file for disability. Many of you know that story. I was denied. I got a disability lawyer. By this time – years later – I was able to work freelance again a bit, and my lawyer told me shortly before my appeal hearing was scheduled that the hearing officer’s head would explode when he learned what my hourly rate was.

Never mind that I could work only a few hours a week – maybe five, in a good week.

Insurance. Then there was insurance. As a freelancer, of course, I didn’t have any. My husband’s good county job had covered us, until he became unemployed too. I’m sure a lot of you know that story as well. No insurance. Huge pharmacy bills, and psychiatrist and psychotherapist, and doctor visits and the odd trip to Urgent Care.

Meds. Then my doctor put me on Abilify – $800 a month. I got a couple of months free from the drug company – just enough to discover that it really worked for me and I didn’t want to give it up.

Then, with remarkable timing, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) came along and we were able to get insurance again. It wasn’t really affordable, though, costing only slightly less per month than the Abilify. But it covered all our other prescriptions, too, so we came out a little ahead.

Budget. Since then, that’s the way it’s been going – month to month and disaster to disaster. My work is irregular and I never know how much I’ll get in any given month. My husband’s pay is steady, but meager – minimum wage. We have managed to make our mortgage payments and keep the house, which my husband doubted we’d be able to do when I couldn’t work. I know in that respect, we’re way luckier than many families struggling with bipolar disorder.

Our latest disaster came this week, when our only remaining partially working vehicle (no reverse gear) blew out second gear as well. The money we had borrowed and put aside for major dental work that the insurance wouldn’t cover disappeared with a poof – and still wasn’t enough. We had to borrow more from an already fed-up relative. I don’t blame her. She never expected to have to keep bailing out her grown son and his wife when she herself was past retirement age.

Our Future. I don’t see anything changing. My mental disorder is under much better control, but I know I’ll never be able to work in a full-time 9–5 job again. Job opportunities are few for people our age anyway, despite anti-age-discrimination laws. And I’ve never tried applying for a job where I must ask for accommodations to offset my illness, but I’m sure employers find lots of reasons not to hire people who need those. Again, despite the laws.

So why am I telling you all this? Am I just whining and feeling sorry for myself? Well, yes, I am, but that’s not the point, really. Bipolar disorder takes a brutal toll on our emotional lives, our families, our relationships, and more. It can also put us on the brink of poverty, or in our case, one paycheck and one more disaster away from desperate straits. I know that there are bipolar sufferers, including some of my friends, in much worse straits.

It’s stressful.

And we all know how stress affects a person with bipolar disorder.

Badly.

P.S. Aaand the well pump just gave out.

Am I Ready to Stop Therapy?

I got my first hint that I might be ready to stop therapy when I realized how little I was going. Over the years I have scaled down from weekly sessions to biweekly.

Then I noticed that, effectively, I’ve been going only once a month. I’ve been forgetting appointments, showing up on the wrong day, oversleeping, feeling poorly physically, or having too much freelance work to do.

Of course, those could be signs that I’m in denial, that I’m resisting therapy, that we’ve hit a bad patch of difficult issues and I just don’t want to deal with them.

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening. Here’s why.

I’m stabilized on my medications and they’re effective. When my psychiatrist moved away a few months ago, he left me with enough refills to last until this month and a list of other psychiatrists. My PCP agreed to prescribe my psychotropics if I lined up another psychiatrist for emergencies. I’ve done that, though I couldn’t get an appointment before March.

And that doesn’t alarm me. I don’t have the oh-my-god-what-if-my-brain-breaks-again panics. I don’t have the feeling that my brain is about to break again. I’ve thought about it, and I’m comfortable with letting my involvement with the psychiatric profession fade into the background of my life.

As long as I keep getting my meds.

I have more good days and I’m beginning to trust them. Oh, I still question whether I’m genuinely feeling good, happy, and productive or whether I’m merely riding the slight high of hypomania. But really? It doesn’t seem to matter very much. A few days ago I reflected on a string of particularly good days – when I accomplished things, enjoyed my hobbies, and generally felt content. And I simply allowed myself to bask in those feelings.

That’s not to say I don’t still have bad days. After a few days of hypomania, I hit the wall, look around for spoons and don’t find any, and require mega-naps to restore me. (I’m intensely grateful that I work at home and can do that. Most offices don’t appreciate finding an employee snoring underneath her desk. And my cat-filled bed is much more comfy-cozy.)

I still get low days too, but they are noticeably dysthymic rather than full-out, sobbing-for-no-reason, Pit-of-Despair-type lows that last seemingly forever. I know – really know, deep within me – that they will last a day or two at the most. And just that knowledge makes me feel a little bit better.

My creativity, concentration, and output are improving. I can work longer, read longer, write longer, take on new projects, think past today or even next week. I can trust my muse and my energy, if not immediately when I call on them, at least within a reasonable time.

I have trouble remembering how bad it used to be. Recently I’ve made connections with several on-line support groups for bipolar and mental health. I find I’m astonished at the crises, the outpourings of misery, the questioning of every feeling and circumstance, the desperate drama of even the most mundane interactions. They are overwhelming. But I realized that it’s been a long time since they’ve overwhelmed me. I recognize that I could some day be in that place again – that’s the nature of this disease. But I have a good support system that I trust to help me not fall too far without a net.

I don’t have much to talk about when I go to therapy. There are issues I need to work on – getting older, getting out of the house more, reclaiming my sexuality. But most of those I feel competent to work out on my own.  My sessions are mostly an update on what’s going on in my life at the moment, plus a recap of my recurring problems. But those problems are ones I’ve faced before and know how to cope with. I already have the tools I need and use them without needing a reminder.

So I’ve talked it over with my psychotherapist and I’m not completely quitting therapy, but I am cutting back officially to the once a month I seem to be going anyway. I know that if and when the bipolar starts giving me major trouble again, I can always call for an appointment or a telephone therapy session.

I’m not going to stop writing these posts. I still have a lot to say about where I’ve been, how I’ve got to where I am now, how things will go in the future, and all the many ways that mental illness affects society and vice versa.

You’re not getting rid of me that easily. I’m sticking around.

Self-Harm Revisited

If that title isn’t enough of a TRIGGER WARNING for you, I don’t know what is.

Not long ago I saw on the web a video with the title “Is scratching self-harm?” Well, of course it is, I thought. The video agreed with me.

It seems like the low end of the spectrum, not as extreme as as what most people think of as self-harm, but a form of it nonetheless. Scratching, pinching, hair pulling, and the like are probably considered subclinical next to cutting and burning. But they are still problems. They can escalate into worse self-harm.

In another article (http://www.upworthy.com/this-researcher-who-studies-self-injury-explains-why-people-do-it-and-why-he-did-it?c=ufb1) I saw this definition for self-harm:

“Self-injury is intentional damage to body tissue (that doesn’t include body modifications like piercings, tattoos, and scarification) without suicidal intent.”

So, yes, scratching is self-harm. It is intentional. It is damage to body tissue. and it does not indicate suicidal intent.

Scratching sounds so minor. We scratch ourselves all the time when we have an itch or an insect bite. We scratch ourselves accidentally on protruding nails. Occasionally we draw blood. We wash it off, slap on a band-aid, and that’s that.

But when scratching escalates to self-harm, it can indeed be serious. For one thing, scratches have a tendency to become infected, infection of the sort can lead to further tissue damage – and if untreated, to more serious complications.

There is also the potential for further harm because the scratching will scab over. Then the desire to scratch off the scabs kicks in. When this happens, the scratches never heal. And yes, that’s both a fact and a metaphor.

My own experience with scratching came when I was working at a job that required me to monitor burglar alarms. The alarms tended to go off – whether there was a burglary or not – during thunderstorms. When a storm hit, a dozen or more alarms could go off simultaneously, or at least in rapid succession. I had to call the owners of the businesses, or emergency services as required.

One night during a particularly bad storm, I missed one of the alarms. I did not call the owners until I looked back at the record. When I called, it was 45 minutes since the alarm. I knew I had made a mistake, and a bad one. The owners of the business would not be happy. My boss would not be happy. I was not happy.

I sat alone by the monitors and imagined the trouble I was in. I started scratching my right arm – long slow strokes from nearly the wrist to nearly the elbow. Repetitively. Obsessively. Painfully. I believe I was punishing myself for making a bad mistake. Perhaps there was some thought that if I inflicted the pain, I would escape further consequences of my mistake.

Of course that makes no sense. It’s an example of the irrational thinking that goes with self-harm.

I don’t cut anymore, as I discussed in a previous post (http://wp.me/s4e9Hv-cutters). I also don’t scratch the way I did that night. I still have a tendency to pick scabs. Occasionally if I have an insect bite, I will scratch it to blood and then pick the scabs on that. I try not to. My husband helps me by reminding me not to pick at scabs or to put band-aids on them. I try to rub instead of scratch, or use lotion.

Jenny Lawson (aka the Bloggess) has admitted in her most recent book, Furiously Happy, that she scratches past the point of bleeding and pulls her hair enough to create bald spots. It’s clear that she considers this self-harm. Her husband tries to help her with it too.

But self-harm is basically a private thing – something we do and hide from the world. Some people are able to hide it even from their most intimate family and loved ones. I know I wore long sleeves to cover the dreadful scratch on my right arm. It healed from a scratch to a pink scar and then to a white scar. Now I can’t even see it anymore through the freckles.

But I don’t need the visible reminder. I remember how it felt to do it, how it felt after I did it, and how I felt as I watch the scars slowly fade. its nothing I’m proud of, except for the fact that I survived it and no longer do it.

As most cutters and other people who self-harm do, I feel shame in recalling the act, and almost never speak of it. The reason I’m sharing the story in such a public forum is to let people know that not all self-harm consists of big dramatic gestures. It can start with a tiny scratch. But it is not something to be ignored. We need to talk about self-harm, educate about it, bring it out in the open, and let others know that it doesn’t have to continue.

And that it can start with something as small as a scratch.

Mini-Meltdowns and Many Meltdowns

When my brain broke back in 2001 or so, I thought it was the first time that had happened. Later, on reflection, it turned out that wasn’t so.

The 21st-century breakdown was certainly the most dramatic. Although I had just quit working in an office to start a freelance career, I found myself unable to work after a few months.

I had become unable to work in the office because of mounting difficulties that I now realize were warning signs of the impending breakdown: inability to concentrate, increased anxiety (the feeling that an angry badger was about to claw its way out of my stomach), lessened ability to interact with coworkers, sudden flares of temper, turning people away with unintendedly cutting remarks and sarcasm, isolating, inappropriate affect, catastrophizing – you name it, I had it.

What was causing all these symptoms? My bipolar disorder, obviously. But I’ve had that for years. What was pushing me over the edge this time? I had trouble at work. My boss left and, when I “came out” to my new boss as depressed (which is what I was diagnosed with at the time), she reacted with wariness and incomprehension. She gave me the first bad review I ever had at that job.

My mother’s health was deteriorating seriously, too, about then. I lost time at work taking her to various appointments and I had to have “the talk” with her about how much longer she could live alone. Eventually I took over her finances – and by then I was scarcely handling my own.

I experienced a lift when I quit my job and began freelancing. Hypomania? You bet! My new flexibility allowed me to take better care of my mother, and the assignments kept coming in.

Then everything came crashing down. I screwed up my finances and my mother’s. She began having worse falls and injuries, hospital stays and drug reactions, even hallucinations which scared the hell out of me. I emotionally judo-ed my sister to come up and help, then fought with and resented her, and had to take care of parts of her life as well.

Those and other difficulties on top of my mental disorder added up to a non-functioning me. I dumped all the chores and coping onto my husband, which was a rotten thing to do, fought with him, sobbed for no discernible reason, became unable to work, or care, or do much of anything except think up at least three different ways (and reasons) to kill myself. Fortunately, I was too immobilized to try any of them.

I’ve written before about the things that helped me get back to some kind of functioning – a proper diagnosis, the right meds, time without work (as we gutted our retirement savings), lots of psychotherapy, and my wonderful, patient, ever-helpful, devoted husband.

But now, looking back, I can see that it had happened before, though not so dramatically and completely. In childhood, in my teens, in college – at every stage of my life I had at least one breakdown, often triggered by the circumstances of my life, but fueled and stoked by my mental illness. In every one, my ability to function deteriorated a little more.

The first one that I remember clearly was when I was around 12. My best friend and I were in charge of a birthday party for her younger sister and some friends. This was the old-fashioned kind of party that everyone in the neighborhood had then: cake and ice cream, party games, presents, and not much else. It happened during pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I was blindfolded – literally – and my friend kicked me in the ass – again, literally. In front of all those younger children.

I ran home sobbing. And I curled up into a fetal ball and didn’t quit for at least three days. Non-functioning, non-responsive, non-everything. What finally brought me out of it was seeing my mother’s pain at this inexplicable (to her) meltdown.

I had a mini-meltdown in my freshman year of college, which involved sitting in my nightgown in the hallway, staring for hours at a richly detailed poster of a fantasy realm. (I managed to frighten an intruder by arising, ghost-like, in my pale yellow shroud as he entered the suite.)

This one was triggered by my realization that I had probably chosen the wrong major and that there were no job prospects ahead for me. (It turns out I was wrong about that. Maybe I should have stuck with it, but my next choice turned out pretty well.) I took a year off college and took a job as a cashier in a restaurant, where I spent a lot of time crying into the roller towel and being told I should smile more. This convinced me that going back to college, with a new major (and even fewer job prospects), was the right thing to do.

The next meltdown was major. I had finished college, endured a year-long train wreck of a relationship, and lost a job as an assistant restaurant manager (I hadn’t fully learned that lesson yet). I got unemployment, which meant I lay around the apartment for most of the week (except for making half-hearted attempts at job hunting).

One notable symptom of this breakdown was my near-complete immobility. One errand in a day – say, going to the post office for stamps – made it a productive one for me. I had maybe three of those a month, with one being the obligatory visit to the unemployment office – a supremely depressing place to be depressed.

I had some truly irrational thinking that time, too. I thought I could cheer myself up by watching light, fluffy sitcoms on TV. But as I lay there on the couch, I found myself crying with every upbeat, cheery theme song that came with them. Laverne and Shirley making their dreams come true. One Day at a Time, which advised me to get up on my feet because somewhere there was music playing. And, oh, Mary Tyler Moore. Love is all around, my ass.

After that, it was a long, slow slide to my major breakdown. It wasn’t unrelieved misery. I got married. I got a master’s degree and a job in publishing. We acquired a house and cats. We traveled. But the Big One was waiting for me.

Nowadays, I still have mini-meltdowns, but they usually last a maximum of three days, rather than weeks, months, or even years. They still tend to be triggered by stressful life events, especially financial ones. But when I get one, I know I’ll be coming out of it soon. And that’s a wonderful feeling buried in all the misery.

 

 

The Hypomanic Blogger

When I thought I had unipolar depression, I used to wish I were bipolar, on the theory that I could get a lot more done. (I later found that not to be true, as I’m sure many of you can attest.)

I had a lot more experience with depression than with mania. My bipolar disorder is Type 2, which means I get hypomania instead of full-blown mania. And most of the time the hypomania comes out sideways as anxiety and/or irritability.

(Don’t ask me why I get the full-monty-style depression and only a smidge of hypomania. I don’t know. If my shrink does, he hasn’t told me.)

Looking back, I can remember only one hypomanic episode before my new diagnosis made me more aware of the possibility. I was working at writing and editing – the same things I do now, only then I could do it in an office full-time instead of at home and freelance. A woman came to me, asking about how she could become a writer for magazines.

I positively burbled and babbled. I gave her all sorts of advice on query letters and Writer’s Market and niche publications and getting bylines and clips. I told her about how I started, writing for I Love Cats magazine and editing my martial arts club’s journal, and working my way up. (Incidentally, I am, as far as I know, the only person ever to have articles published in both Black Belt and Catechist magazines.)

The woman went away inspired, she said, though I never heard how she made out.

Now I can more easily recognize hypomania when it hits. I still get the anxious and irritable sort, but now I get more of the buzzy kind. And even though it makes me twitchy, I can make use of it.

It was in a bout of hypomania that I decided to start this blog (and my other, general-purpose one – janetcobur.wordpress.com).
It’s hypomania that has kept me going for over a year so far. Though I can now, thanks to medication, force myself to work while in the dysthymic stage or the “meh” stage, if I hit a spell of hypomania, I can use it to write and edit. Right now I’m using a hypomanic swing to stockpile ideas and first drafts against the inevitable downswing.

Of course, the ramblings that go with hypomania are not worth posting (or submitting to a client) the way they hit the screen. When I’m less jazzed, but not in the Pit of Despair, I can re-read, edit, and improve. It’s a fine balance, a tightrope I’m learning to walk. And it takes both therapy and medication to maintain.

In essence, the not-properly-treated bipolar 2 made my work go downhill (even as I did), until I was unable to work at all. Now that my diagnosis and my meds are more on track, so am I. I may not be well, but I certainly am better. I can live with what I’ve got, and even re-learn how to use some of the abilities I lost in my most recent, largest, most devastating crash.

I wouldn’t recommend mania or even hypomania to anyone, but as long as I’ve got it, I might as well make it be good for something.

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