Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘language’

How Do We Talk About Mental Illness?

Language matters. What we call things matters. Does language shape thought or does thought shape language? Either way, both are important when it comes to brains.

The latest discussion in the debates over language is what to call mental illness (which is what I’m used to saying). Many of the words and phrases that have been in use for years no longer seem quite accurate.

Take mental health, for example. When policymakers talk about subjects like mass violence, they often speak of “mental health issues” and what should be done about them. The thing is, if someone is mentally healthy, nothing really needs to be done about that. But mental illness is a term that doesn’t sound so easily addressed. Policymakers are notorious for using language that soft-pedals actual problems. Not to mention the fact that when they talk about mental health, they’re usually talking about addiction issues or homelessness (though they still aren’t particularly effective in addressing those either).

Mental health is still a better term than “behavioral health.” I remember when community treatment centers and insurance programs were called behavioral health plans. Again, there was a lot of lumping psychiatric illnesses and addiction together. It was also wildly inaccurate. It was not the behavior that was unhealthy (the way smoking is). Behavior may have looked like the problem, but it wasn’t the cause. Something to do with thought or the brain was. Also, there was no equivalent term “behavioral illness.” That wouldn’t even make sense.

So. We have mental illness as the term currently most used, with SMI (Serious Mental Illness) often used for disorders like bipolar and schizophrenia. Lately, though, there has been a push to replace those terms with “brain illness.” (The companion term is “brain health.”) It hasn’t caught on yet with the general public, though it’s gaining some traction among practitioners, advocates, and those affected by assorted conditions. I’ve heard some people are frustrated that it hasn’t caught on more widely already. They feel the process is going too slowly.

Calling schizophrenia, bipolar, and other disorders “brain illnesses” certainly makes one sit up and take notice more than “behavioral health.” And it jibes with the notion that these mental disorders (there’s another term) are caused by something going wrong in the brain. This is not without controversy, however. There are those who think that referring to depression or bipolar disorder as “chemical imbalances” in the brain or faulty neurotransmitters (or their receptors) is inaccurate. There are various theories as to what causes these conditions, all the way from childhood trauma to gut bacteria. To me, the most likely scenario is that there’s a combination of brain-related factors and environmental influences at work here. Nature and nurture, in other words.

Brain illness is certainly an attention-getting term. That should make it more likely to catch on with policymakers, but I suspect it won’t. It’s not a comfortable concept and there are no easy-sounding solutions to it. I doubt that it will catch on with the general public either. We still haven’t gotten people to move away from crazy, insane, maniac, psycho, or even nuts and stop throwing them around indiscriminately. Hell, we haven’t even been able to convince people that psychiatric institutions don’t use straightjackets anymore.

Does “brain illness” make these conditions sound more treatable? Is it likely to increase compassion for those who have them? Is it likely to make any kind of a difference? I don’t think we’ll really know until it penetrates the consciousness of the person-on-the-street. And I have my doubts about when or if that might happen.

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Words Matter

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is one of the worst lies that grownups tell to children. Children threw stones at me when I was a child (though they fortunately never broke my bones). But the many, many words they hurled hurt me deeply internally, rather than externally. I was bleeding inside from them, as much as I bled externally from the rocks.

Plenty of children feel the pain of words. We say, “Children are cruel” and leave it at that, or tell children to simply ignore cruel remarks. We have anti-bullying campaigns that are notably ineffective, especially in the face of cyberbullying. Children who hear demeaning words from their parents, teachers, or other adults are likely the most damaged.

People with mental disorders feel the pain of words, too. There are many ways this happens.

One of the most common taunts, often used in popular media, is “psycho.” One may possibly excuse Robert Bloch, who wrote the book Psycho in 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock, who made the movie in 1960, because they were products of their time, when microaggressions and the concept of nonracial slurs did not exist. American Psycho (2000), has much less of an excuse. In movies such as these, “psycho” is shorthand for “serial killer.”

But now “psycho” is in common usage in phrases such as “psycho bitch from hell” (which is anti-woman as well as offensive to persons with mental illness). Songs such as “Sweet But Psycho,” “I Might Just Go Psycho,” and “Am I Psycho?” are recorded.

“Craziness” is also taken lightly in words and phrases such as “cray-cray,” “cuckoo,” “maniac,” “lunatic,” and “cracked,” not to mention “bonkers,” “bananas,” and the more offensive “batshit crazy,” “bug-fuck crazy,” and dozens of other words. There’s even the stereotype of “crazy cat lady.” It may seem cute or silly to call a friend one of these words in a joking manner, but the person who does have a mental illness hears such a word as an insult. Even if it is just overheard, it tells a lot about how the speaker regards the seriousness – or unseriousness – of mental disorders.

There are lots of other examples. “Off their meds” is one. It, along with plain “crazy” or “psycho,” is quite often applied to mass shooters, suicide bombers, and other offenders. While it is true that some of such people have mental disorders, the terms are thrown around long before anyone finds out whether the person is diagnosed with a mental illness or is on psychotropic medication. It is the default explanation. Julie Beck, in an article in the Atlantic, called the easy leap from mass killing to mental illness “a consistent and dangerous narrative.”

Other usages seem innocent enough, but really aren’t. “The weather is bipolar,” meaning it changes quickly, is common. It isn’t accurate, however. Only a person can have bipolar disorder, a serious illness. Applying it to oneself when you change your mind or have a momentary mood swing, is also inaccurate. Likewise, “schizophrenic” is used to describe something or someone that has two sides, or that seems incomprehensible to the viewer. “Multiple personality” (more correctly called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) is shorthand for someone who exhibits different sides of his or her personality on different occasions. People who disagree with you politically are not “insane” or “crazy” either, unless they have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder by a professional.

These ways of speaking hurt the persons they are spoken about, but also the mental health community. Fear of being called “psycho” or “crazy” is one reason that some people don’t seek treatment for a disorder or conceal it if they do.

And that’s a sin and a shame.

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages. In it he proposed that there are different ways – or “languages”  – that people use to communicate their love. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love and bipolar disorder lately and it occurred to me that the five love languages could be a helpful lens for looking at relationships. In particular, they might help a person realize what the other one needs when experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Here are the five love languages and how they might be helpful if you are in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

Words of affirmation. I’m not talking here about the kinds of affirmation we are supposed to look in the mirror and give ourselves. I mean words of affirmation that come from outside, from another person, and are gifts of love. Everyone needs affirmations at times, but for people whose love language is words of affirmation, they can be positively soul-feeding.

For the bipolar person, these affirmations can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming out with me,” or “Congratulations on getting the bills paid,” or even, “I know you can do it,” or “I knew you could do it!” And for the bipolar person who struggles with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, or lack of motivation, these can be the words that keep us going.

Quality time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean an elaborate outing or a two-week vacation. It can be as simple as sitting on the sofa with your partner watching a movie, or cooking together. Especially when there’s something else you could be doing. Giving up that other activity to spend time with your loved one is another kind of love-gift.

Quality time – extended periods of togetherness – can be extra special to someone with bipolar who feels lonely, isolated, or unlovable. Just the idea that someone wants to spend time with you, even though you can barely stand to be with yourself, sends a powerful message.

Receiving gifts. There are people who value physical gifts and see in them the care and attention that another person spends selecting just the right thing. Diamond rings are unnecessary. In this language of love, a simple houseplant can even be preferable.

You probably shouldn’t expect a physical gift to “cheer up” a person with bipolar depression. As with any gift, the important thing is knowing what the person values and providing it to them. Comfort objects such as plush animals, mp3s of calming or favorite music, or a weighted blanket to ward off panic may be just the thing. Even a silly coffee mug with an appropriate saying can become a treasured item.

Acts of service. If the person you love values acts of service, then your way of speaking that love is accomplished when you do something for her or him. Doing the dishes or some other chore that usually falls to the loved one is one example.

For the bipolar person, acts of service that speak of love may be as simple as handling phone calls and visitors, or doing the shopping when he or she just can’t face the grocery store. “I’ll do it for you” is a powerful message that says, “I care about you and want to help ease your burdens.”

Physical touch. Strange as it may seem, some people never think of physical touch as a language of love unless they’re talking about sex. Of course, the physical and emotional intimacy of sex can speak love, but other kinds of touch do just as well for some people.

Bipolar people in the manic phase can have a high sex drive and appreciate some sexual attention even if you wouldn’t ordinarily want it at that time of day, for example.  But the bipolar person can crave touch without sex as well. Hugging and cuddling, sitting close with an arm around the shoulders, and even a touch on the shoulder as you leave a room can speak volumes.

The important part of this is to learn and know what your partner values – what language of love she or he speaks – and to give it to them. Mixed signals, speaking the language that you would want instead of the one that your partner does, will not be processed as love. Physical gifts to one who hears love in affirmations will miss the mark.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to ask your partner which “language” they speak. But she or he may not even realize that there are different languages or which one is theirs. Observation, attention, and even trial and error may be necessary to get the communication going. But if you want to speak love to a person with bipolar disorder, these are communication skills that can be vital.

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