Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘memories’

Grief and Depression

A number of years ago, I saw a TV show in which the main character was grieving the death of a friend. The other characters decided that he was grieving for too long and concocted a plan to distract him from his grief.

I was pissed off. What the man needed was time, not distraction. And how long he took to process his grief was not up to his friends. Grief takes as long as it takes, and it’s a different amount of time for different people.

Mostly we think of the death of a person when we think about grief. But that’s not the only occasion when grief comes to us. The death of a friendship can bring grief. I have lost friends to circumstances other than death, and I still miss them and find myself thinking, “Oh, Kim would like that,” or “I need to talk this over with Hal,” then remember that they’re no longer in my life. I do grieve the loss of those relationships, the ones I know will never be mended.

One can even grieve the loss of a beloved pet. There are those who say, “It’s just an animal. You can get another one.” But that’s not the case. I had my cat Louise for over 20 years from the time she was a tiny bit of fluff to when she took her last breath resting on my lap. I have since gotten – and loved – other cats, but none can truly replace my beloved companion. I grieved for her and still do. My grief is less intense and not always with me now, but I can’t say it’s gone, not the way Louise is gone. I still dream about her and find myself calling our other cats by her name.

Even the loss of a possession can trigger grief. “Oh, it’s just a thing that you can replace,” you may hear. But think about a wedding ring that was given 40 years ago. Yes, we replaced it, but it had been the repository of that long-ago wedding day and all the years since. A new band of gold didn’t have the emotional weight that the original carried.

Among the worst of all losses is the death of a dream. Poet Langston Hughes said it with these simple words:

Hold fast to dreams 
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

So why am I writing this for a blog on mental health? Because grief is also a mental health issue. Grief and depression are not the same thing, though one can easily bleed over into the other. Like grief, depression has no timeline. Like depression, grief can ambush you suddenly, when you are least expecting it. You will get through it, or learn to bear it, and you will do so in your own time, or with help.

Both grief and depression evoke feelings of hopelessness, numbness, and loneliness. And both are eased somewhat by the loving presence of friends and family. While it’s true that no one who has not lost a child, for example, can know the exact shade of grief and eternity of pain that brings, anyone who has experienced a different form of loss and grief can be there to hold your hand, provide a shoulder to rest against, cry with you. That doesn’t make it better, except that it kind of does. Being alone in your grief is itself another kind of grief. But you don’t have to be. There are grief counselors, just as there are therapists for mood disorders, and they can help you process the memories you bear with you and the pain you feel on every birthday or holiday.

As with mental illness, no one should tell you that grief is something you have to get over or that you should be over it in a certain amount of time or that you’re expressing your grief in the wrong way. We all experience grief at some point in our lives, but the exact boundaries of it differ from person to person. Those boundaries need to be respected.

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Releasing Old Ghosts

I don’t know what the proper term is (exorcise? banish? reject?), probably because I don’t believe in ghosts. What I do believe in are memories – persons and situations that haunt you, follow you, and inhabit your dreams.

I’ve had my share, especially of the dreams sort.

When I first got out of a truly destructive relationship, I was undiagnosed with bipolar disorder, medicated with valium (prescribed for temporomandibular joint syndrome) and self-medicated with wine. I was not in good shape.

For a long while, anything associated with that harrowing relationship, I shunned. Rex had like blue spruce trees. I avoided them. He had collected cobalt blue glassware. I could barely stand to look at them. He gave me heart-shaped boxes as gifts. I threw away every one I had, even the ones that were actually pretty and useful. He shamed me for my cooking. I gave it up. I gave up things I enjoyed, things that had been part of me. And I didn’t allow myself to explore things that Rex once loved.

He haunted me. I would have dreams in which I was going to meet him, where I was in a place I knew he might show up. I dreamed I was in his house, with cheerful parties going on around me as I panicked. I would have flashbacks to cruel things he had said, such as an obscene song he had written “in my honor.” Times when he said I had “betrayed his honor” for something as simple as cooking the wrong dish for a gathering. Plenty of others.

Now, it seems, the dreams have faded. I have reclaimed parts of my life I used to enjoy. I have banished things that were only his obsessions. The flashbacks are nearly gone.

What has helped me banish these destructive ghosts?

Time, of course, though you’d be surprised how many years it took. And it was gradual. He didn’t vanish from my brain like a puff of smoke. At times I still remembered music in particular – festivals and concerts we had been to together, the obscene song. (As I write this, they come bubbling up again.)

People. A few even from the time that the relationship was going on, who have helped me realize that I should not have been there, that I should not have gone through what I did, that I should have left sooner. I treasure these people. They saw me at my worst, knew me as I was recovering, and are still my friends today.

Other people – friends I had from long before Rex – have steadfastly remained in or reappeared in my life. I may have been bipolar and undiagnosed when I knew them, but these people stood by me, put up with my mood swings and odd behaviors. They have been part of my support system. And new friends, who have no association with those times, but who have had similar feelings and experiences.

Psychiatrists and therapists – also important parts of my support system for all these years. Ones who diagnosed my illness and medicated me properly so that I could deal with the issues that remained. Ones who helped me realize that I had some good memories from those times, that I could rebuild myself by retaining anything that I liked, that I had tools and techniques that I could develop and use to help me do that. I had done bargello needlework for Rex. I switched to cross-stitch. He called the kind of music I liked shit. I delved even further into it, reveled in it. Having developed a love of cats when I lived with him, I’ve never been without one again.

Love. One of the people I met during the next-to-last weekend of my time with Rex is now my husband. He has been with me through the dreams, the flashbacks, and the memories and has been the mainstay of my support system. And there are other people I love, and who have loved me back.

It seems strange that I was with Rex only a little over a year and it has taken me decades to work to this point where the memories have faded, the ghosts no longer haunt me, when it all seems like simply a bad time that has receded into, if not oblivion, at least only a clog that has slowly been removed from my psychological plumbing.

Now I know the right word. It’s time to flush those ghosts that plug up our mental and emotional systems.

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Why CBT Isn’t for Me

It’s been suggested more than once that CBT, or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, might help me with some of my problems, including “depression, anxiety disorders, marital problems, and severe mental illness” (bipolar disorder, in my case), according to the American Psychological Association (APA). And I understand that it’s helped a lot of people, including some in my position, with some of the same problems I have. If it works for you, that’s great. I’m not saying that no one should ever use it or that it’s a rotten form of therapy.

I, however, dislike the premise of CBT and have never felt comfortable trying it. Here’s why.

One of the basic tenets of CBT is that the client’s thinking is faulty and the therapist helps the client to discover how and where. Then they work together to pinpoint the faulty thinking and replace it with healthy behaviors, or at least less destructive ones.

Again, according to the APA, “CBT treatment usually involves efforts to change thinking patterns” and examine “what is going on in the person’s current life, rather than what has led up to their difficulties.”

When I first got into therapy with the counselor who has helped me the most, what I needed was not someone to convince me that my thoughts were faulty. I had worked hard to reclaim my memories, validate them, and recognize that they really were damaging events. I would resist any attempt to undo that work by invalidating those memories, and my attempts to understand them, as “faulty.”

Despite all the times it has betrayed me, I think my brain is the most powerful weapon I have in moving forward, but that does not include denying the past or brushing it aside in favor of what the APA calls “learning to recognize one’s distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality.” Evaluating the memories and the thinking associated with them is a large part of what has helped me most, but calling them “distortions” would not be helpful. I needed to reclaim those memories and understand the feelings, accept them for what they were and how they changed my life, and then go on to rebuilding a new life – not one free from those memories and feelings, but one that validates them as part of my lived experience.

The methods used in CBT discomfort me as well. The idea of “homework assignments” and role-playing my future interactions does not appeal to me. I have gotten on much better with good ol’ talk therapy (and medications) than I believe I could with body relaxation and mind-calming techniques.

My problem largely involves confronting my memories and not denying them or downplaying them, but learning how to live despite having them in my past. It does me no good to deny a train-wreck as “faulty thinking” or to dismiss it as part of my past. Owning it as part of my past and realizing what it did to me is much more helpful. Validating my feelings and reclaiming my memories, then moving beyond them, is what I need. My therapist has helped me do that, without ever once suggesting that my thought patterns are faulty. We’ve worked on coping skills, sure – but never based on the premise that my past doesn’t affect my present or future.

CBT is also said (by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness) to be a short-term process (which I’m sure the insurance companies love) or one that can be carried out without a therapist guiding it. To me, this smacks of the “think away your troubles” idea. If I could have, I would have, without the help of long-term talk therapy.

My therapy has been a long and often painful process, but never one that attempts to make me think that my memories are invalid and that my progress will come by admitting that. Talk therapy is hard work, and I don’t believe there is any shortcut to mental health. Even now, after I have largely ceased therapy, I sometimes need a “booster shot” when my problems become overwhelming. Again, this comes from recognizing that my problems are real and that thinking them away rather than hard work is not the answer.

I am sure that people will tell me that I have misunderstood CBT, what it is all about, and how it is practiced. They may have many good experiences with it. But I don’t want to take a chance on a form of therapy that denies my reality and dismisses it as “unhelpful thoughts.” I need my reality heard and validated and examined. I need depth and breadth of therapy that recognizes my “train wrecks” and to what degree they have left me wounded. I need coping mechanisms that acknowledge my past as part of what going forward may mean.

I don’t trust CBT to do those things.

Mind Like a Steel Trap

Rusty. Unhinged. Not really good for trapping things.

Especially memories.

That’s not quite true. I have that uncanny ability that all depressed people seem to have to remember every stupid, clumsy, embarrassing thing I’ve ever done, as well as every trauma. It’s like a mental DVD that stores them up, then plays them at random moments. Or maybe not so random. Maybe just when I think I’m doing okay.

The memories can be as traumatic as the time other children threw rocks at me or as trivial as the time one person asked for a glass of water and I gave it to someone else.

Unfortunately, the recording feature only works for bad memories. A lot of the good ones are MIA. I don’t remember huge chunks of my childhood, except as stories that family members have told me. I don’t really know if the memories are mine or theirs. And I’m scared to compare notes.

My theory about these childhood memory deficits – and to tell the truth, all the way through my teens and early twenties – is that when you are profoundly depressed, memories don’t imprint the way they’re supposed to. Whatever synapses and neurochemicals are involved in memory are out of whack. I’m also afraid to do the simple Googling required to find out whether this is even a plausible theory. If it’s not, I don’t think I want to know. I have an explanation that makes sense to me, and the memories won’t come back if I learn my theory is wrong.

Later in life, medication has helped controlled the depression and, after it was diagnosed, the other effects of bipolar 2. But if I thought my memory was going to function properly, I was wrong. Some of the drugs left me with a memory like Swiss cheese.

My memory lapses seem more random now. Good things, bad things, neutral things, all disappear into the Pit of Unavailability. Sometimes they are embarrassing – I forgot a friend’s father had died and asked how he was. Other times they are more distressing – mere scraps left of trips I’ve taken. Sometimes they’re heart-searing – total nonrecall of a never-to-be-repeated sexual encounter.

Good and bad, gone.

(“Oh, yes,” said the doctor. “That drug will do that. You can stop taking it now.”)

I guess I’m lucky. If I’d had the electroshock, my memory would probably be as raggedy as old underwear. And about as useful.

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