Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘mental illness’

When You Face Too Many Options

Delphotostock/ from adobestock.com

It often seems that bipolar disorder and especially bipolar depression narrow your life down to the fewest possible choices. Try to take a shower or stay in bed. Eat a handful of cereal or skip eating. Cry or … cry. And that’s all true. These disorders are quite limiting.

However, it’s also true that sometimes we’re faced with too many choices. Right now I am in the process of having our house rebuilt after it was destroyed by a tornado. Every other day it seems the contractor has something new we have to pick out – paint colors, floor coverings, lighting fixtures, ceiling fans – even the color of the grout between the tiles in the kitchen, an aspect of decorating I didn’t know even existed. It’s overwhelming.

The worst was the paint colors. Sherwin Williams has a color palette about 100 pages thick, with seven different shades on every page. My husband and I have a hard time trying to pick a place to go for lunch, much less what color paint we’ll likely have to live with for the rest of our lives.

Needless to say, I dithered for a long time about the colors. The only reason that it didn’t totally immobilize me is that I employed the technique of weeding. Once I had decided on a color for each room (my husband left that largely up to me, except for his study), I began looking at the paint samples and not choosing what I liked, but pitching out what I hated. No beige anywhere. No teal, not even for the bathrooms. And so on. What was left was a much smaller assortment of choices, which hubby and I were able to process. He always liked the lightest version of a color and I the next darker, but we were never far apart.

We got through the process in just a couple of weeks, and with only one real regret (the green we chose was yellower than we really liked, but we’ll mitigate that by covering the walls with photos, posters, and art prints).

Exhaustion is another aid to making choices. I have some mobility issues and can’t walk for very long, especially on the concrete floors in home improvement warehouses. And I’ve always hated shopping, except on the internet. At some point in the process of looking and comparing, I just throw up my hands and say, “What the hell! That’ll do!” and arbitrarily pick one of the two light fixtures that have most attracted my attention. It’s not like my world will fall apart if I don’t get the one, exact light fixture that complements the room. I just need to be able to see. Then I go home, have some iced tea, and put my poor, tired feet up.

One of my therapists once taught me another technique for making decisions – flipping a coin. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. The simple act of coin-flipping can work in one of two ways. Either you can leave the choice in the hands of the coin (as it were), or the result of the flip can focus your mind on what it is you really want. Any number of times Dan and I have played, “Heads, lunch at Frisch’s; tails, Waffle House.” If it comes up tails, we often instantly realize that it was Frisch’s we were wanting all along.

Frankly, I don’t know whether it’s better to have a limited number of choices or a lot. Either way can be mind-numbing, a seemingly insoluble riddle that threatens to stymie you into making no choice at all. (Or, as the therapists tell us, “Not to decide is to decide not to.”) But it is possible to develop techniques that allow you to make those choices and continue with your life.

Of course, I know these are comparatively trivial decisions. I sure couldn’t have figured out “leave or stay” by flipping a coin, especially as seriously unmedicated and out of control as I was at the time. “Get a job or go back to college” was also an important one, but ultimately an easier one to make – I envisioned the situations and asked myself which I’d rather be doing, writing press releases or reading books. The choice was clear at that point. Both were major turning points in my life, but one was excruciating and the other just another choice. I attribute that in large part to the medication and therapy I’d had in between and the coping mechanisms that I had learned and practiced.

 

My Mental Illness Is Real

By gustavofrazao via adobestock.com

Five years ago this month, Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, vetoed a bipartisan mental health bill because he didn’t believe mental illness existed. He was influenced by Scientologists, a group founded by writer/guru L. Ron Hubbard, that opposes psychiatry, among other things. Abbott is still the governor of Texas.

Aside from Scientologists, what leads people to deny the reality of mental illness, when the signs are all around them? After all, one out of every four people will experience a mental disorder at some time in their lives.

I can think of several reasons. Not good reasons, but reasons.

The first is the “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. People who suffer mental illnesses just keep on suffering them, darn it. It’s not like they have one episode and then it’s gone, like a broken arm. After the second uncompleted suicide attempt or the fourth episode of cutting, the observer concludes that the person with mental problems really has none and the symptoms are just “cries for attention.” In other words, the only thing wrong with the person is that they want to be seen as mentally ill, but really isn’t. They are dismissed as “crazy,” but not mentally ill.

Then there is caring burnout. A person may be sympathetic to a friend or family member with depression or PTSD or whatever, may help them through a number of episodes. But at some point, they get tired. They simply can’t continue expending the considerable effort it can take to deal with a mentally ill person. “If she cancels or doesn’t show up to one more coffee date, that’s it!” they think. I have lost friends for this reason.

Another, more complicated reason is the denial of a person’s reality. I may be suffering internally, but it may not show on the surface. Many of us with mental disorders try to hide the symptoms and sometimes, especially among the high-functioning, it even sort of works for a while. The reality is that the illness continues “behind the scenes,” as it were, and is not apparent to others. This is a double whammy. The disorder exists, but is denied by observers – and maybe even the person who has it.

The truth is that my mental illness is real. It is mine to live with and mine to deal with and mine to experience. What you think about it or whether you believe in it does not affect the reality of it at all.

Well, that’s not quite true. Denial of mental illness does cause pain to the person who has one. Not being believed, being discounted, being blamed for various behaviors can be at the least wearying and at the most, soul-crushing. It feels like gaslighting to have someone say, “You’re not really ill. You’re just making it up/a drama queen/overreacting/going through what everyone goes through. Snap out of it!”

Just imagine what those people in Texas felt when they couldn’t get the help they needed because the governor “didn’t believe” in mental illness. The bill would have given “more resources to medical professionals that help residents dealing with mental health problems. The bill in question was widely popular, supported by many large medical associations in the state and both political parties,” reported the Greenville (TX) Gazette.

Far be it from me to wish a mental disorder on anyone, including Abbott or his family, but sometimes the only way a person can truly understand the reality of mental illness is when it strikes close to home – especially to a family member. One of my own relatives didn’t really believe until she saw up close what I was going through. She now at least believes, though she doesn’t really understand.

Real understanding may be too big a leap for some people to take who have not experienced mental illness for themselves. Belief in its existence ought to be much easier. Apparently, it isn’t.

Resource

http://www.greenvillegazette.com/r/texas-governor-vetoes-mental-health-bill-because-he-doesnt-believe-mental-illness-is-real-103158/

What’s the Difference Between Anxiety and Mania?

kues1 from adobestock.com

Ha!, you say. That’s an easy one. I know the answer to that. It’s like the difference between walking on pins and needles and walking on eggshells. For me, anxiety is the pins and needles, while mania is produces the eggshells. Pins and needles hurt more, but eggshells are easier to break. Anxiety causes me more pain, but mania has me treading carefully on a fragile edge.

Anxiety and Mania

I know more about anxiety than mania. My diagnosis is actually bipolar 2 with anxiety disorder. As such, I never really experience true mania. Hypomania is about as far as I get. And believe me, that’s enough. 

First, let’s start by admitting that anxiety and mania have a lot in common. At least they do in my life. Both of them make me frantic. Both of them make me obsessed with money. Both disrupt my eating habits. And both of them make me very very twitchy.

Frantic. Both anxiety and hypomania make me feel frantic, like there is something that I need to be doing to alleviate them. I know this isn’t true, that they are out of my control, but it feels that way. I get all revved up inside, a nagging, prickly feeling that jangles my nerves and irritates my brain. I try desperately to think what it might be that would calm the feeling, but there is nothing this side of an anti-anxiety pill, which might or might not help.

Obsessed with money. With anxiety, I obsess about the bills and how I am going to pay them. With mania, I obsess about what money I do have and how I can best spend it. Since this is, after all, hypomania, I tend not to go on wild spending sprees, but I have been known to buy myself or my husband presents, telling myself that the costs are comparatively reasonable and that at least I have limited myself to a non-extravagant amount. (Which may be the anxiety and the hypomania arguing with each other.) With anxiety, I try to anticipate all possible bills and juggle their amounts, due dates, and relative necessity (power cut off or trash removal cut off). I take on extra work, not because I think I have the wherewithal to do it, but because I want the extra money, no matter what it costs me in terms of physical and emotional energy.

Eating habits. Both anxiety and hypomania make me eat too much. With anxiety, no doubt I am trying to fill an existential hole or find something to distract me from my worries. With hypomania, I crave the relatively safe sensations of rum raisin ice cream; cinnamon Danish; or salted, buttery popcorn.

Twitchy. Both anxiety and hypomania can cause the shakes, tremors in my hands and arms and legs. Alas, not for me the euphoria of true mania, but the inherent sensation that I’m doing something wrong at some level. I can’t even enjoy hypomania without guilt.

There are differences, however.

Anxiety leaves me immobilized, in a way that hypomania just doesn’t. You’d think with all that nervous energy vibrating around my body and brain, I would hyper myself into a frenzy. Instead, all the jitters cancel each other out, leaving me with no place I can go to escape. My fears leave me paralyzed. The money worries leave me unable to decide what bill to pay first. I can’t decide whether it’s better to stay awake and try to read (if I have enough ability to concentrate), or take that anti-anxiety pill and try to rest, if not sleep.

Mania can make me productive, in a way that anxiety can’t. When I’m hypomanic, I can write, or at least put words on the screen. (Whether they’re any good or not is anybody’s guess.) But at least I have the illusion of motion, the impetus to create. That extra energy seems more focused, at least in comparison with anxiety. When I hit a hypomanic jag, I sometimes try to get ahead on my blogs, or at least jot down titles and ideas that I hope I can decipher and develop later.

Neither state of mind is preferable. Anxiety is the more painful and hypomania the more fragile. Anxiety is more familiar to me and hypomania more rare and even exciting. But I can’t choose. I can’t say that I like hypomania more than anxiety, although it does seem to have more benefits. But I know that it can be destructive and futile, promising things that it can’t fulfill.

Given the choice, I’d rather not walk on pins and needles or on eggshells. Level ground is fine with me.

 

Fear of Offending

By Drobot Dean from Adobestock.com

I have to keep a close watch on what I say in public or post online. I am afraid of offending people. Many times I have lost friends because of things I’ve said or done.

Is losing friends because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes. Is being afraid of offending others because of my bipolar disorder? In a way, yes.

I was not very well socialized as a child. The house I grew up in was very insular. My parents made few attempts to mix and mingle with neighbors or other school parents, so I didn’t see much of that as a young person and learn the unwritten rules. (My father did mix and mingle with the local gun club, but there were not many persons of my age and gender there.) I never went to preschool because I had a sister, we were very close in age, and my mother figured we could simply play with each other. (This was in the days before formal “playdates.”)

As I got older and my bipolar disorder began to manifest, I was even more out of sync with what the other kids were doing and saying. My mood swings left me laughing uproariously at things no one else thought were funny, or being gloomy and surly as a self-isolating hermit. I never learned the rules at school, either, of how to negotiate the complex patterns of behavior required as a student. I didn’t even know enough not to show off my intelligence, which didn’t win me many friends.

As I grew older, I got in the habit of tapping my face – symbolic slaps – whenever I said something that I realized I ought not to have said. (This was both puzzling and annoying to my companions.) It was a reminder to me to keep more of what I thought under wraps.

Of course, at the time I didn’t know that I was bipolar. I thought I was just weird. It never occurred to me that my brain was different, that I reacted in peculiar ways because of something I could not, at the time, control. I tried to be quiet and unobtrusive, but the manic humor kept leaking out, usually when no one else thought whatever it was was funny. I garnered a reputation as an oddball, even among the odd people who befriended me.

Later on, in the world of work, I was even more out of my depth. I still didn’t know how to socialize. I couldn’t manage “team-eating,” the mysterious rituals of the groups of workers who lunched together. I consciously practiced my socializing with the few people who would put up with me. I observed social interactions, but I never really internalized them.

I made statements that were meant to be funny, but they came out sarcastic, and I lost friends. I made statements that were meant to be assertive, but they came out bossy and I lost friends. I became more and more afraid to say anything that might be seen as hurtful, but I still did.

All of this made me afraid to offend people, so I began to shut down. I kept my jokes to a minimum. I didn’t even try to join the ladies who lunch. My social life was practically nonexistent.

Then came the internet and, especially, Facebook. Every time I wanted to post something, I had to run the content through the internal filters I’d built. Was it too racy? Too political? Too self-revealing? Too something? Would it offend someone and lose me more friends?

I developed techniques to soften my replies to other people’s posts. I’d agree with any part of a post I could and then add my real opinion, very softly. (I agree with you that there’s a lot wrong with our economic system, but it’s very complex and I think more regulations will be needed to improve it. I agree that most police are protective and well-regulated, but I think training in dealing with mentally ill persons would benefit everyone.) I became wishy-washy.

How does this reflect my bipolar disorder? Losing friends was one of the big traumas I went through as a child and I never wanted it to happen again. My first physical trauma was at the hands of other children, who threw rocks at me. My first bipolar “break” was a result of being humiliated by my best friend. (“Kids can be mean,” my parents said, but I knew deep inside it was all my fault.) Losing friends became one of my major triggers, something I would try anything to avoid. I just wasn’t very good at avoiding it.

Gradually, I am getting better at socializing and at speaking up without the constant fear that my words and actions will drive away people who care about me. I still try not to be confrontational, but if a meme expresses something I care deeply about, well, I will repost it. I still try not to insult the persons closest to me, but sometimes it takes me a while to figure out how to say something with just the right words in just the right tone of voice.

Bipolar? I think my glitchy brain got sidetracked by the illness when I should have been learning the ways most people behave. Now that my illness is mostly under control, I am trying to make up for lost time.

 

I Don’t Need a “Pep Talk”

MarekPhotoDesign.com/adobestock.com

Here’s the thing. Many people, when you mention a problem, feel obliged to help you fix it or fix it for you. When the problem is related to mental illness, though, that can be counterproductive.

The fact is, most serious mental illness can’t be fixed, at least not by a friend or loved one. To try is to invite frustration on the part of the fixer and worse feelings on the part of the fixee.

Some of the worst help we are offered are pep talks, which are meant to be encouraging. Smile more. Keep trying. Other people have it worse. Everyone goes through this.

No, says my stubbornly glitchy brain. Everyone does not go through a major depressive episode. And when I’m having one is not the time I can concentrate on what constitutes “worse.” I can try all I want, but my bipolar disorder isn’t going to just go away. And smiling when I’m ready to cry is a suggestion that denies my perception of reality and encourages me to lie about my feelings.

You can see much of this kind of advice on Facebook, for example. There are always memes that exhort you to look on the sunny side, have a positive mental attitude, or choose to be happy. But it’s easy enough to scroll by them.

These pep talks hurt more when they’re offered in person by someone you know or even love, especially when that person knows you have a mental disorder. You can’t just scroll by someone you love telling you that, in effect, it’s your own fault that you don’t get better.

I know these sentiments are kindly meant (except for the ones that blame you for your own condition). But the reality is that we can’t cure ourselves of SMI by smiling, or jogging, or thinking happy thoughts, or eating turmeric. We can’t cure ourselves at all.

But we can make things better, through therapy and medication, and yes, through some things that are not cures themselves but adjuncts to healing – physical activity, engagement, mindfulness, self-care, and the like. Who knows? Maybe even turmeric.

So, if pep talks don’t work, what can you do instead? What might actually help your friend or loved one? Here are a few suggestions.

Treat the person with mental illness the way you would treat a person with any other illness. I’m not suggesting sympathy cards are appropriate, but a phone call or text message saying you care is usually welcome.

Listen without judgment. Don’t offer advice. If the person opens up to you, respect that. Don’t minimize the problems. If the person doesn’t respond, wait a while and try again.

None of that will “fix” the person, but you know what? Neither will a pep talk. My brain, for one, is simply unable to process them, digs in its metaphoric heels, and says, “Oh, yeah?”

So, what are some things you can say instead of giving a pep talk? Try these.

I’m here for you.

You can always call me.

I’m sorry you’re hurting.

Tell me if you need anything.

Do you need distraction?

Do you need to be alone for a while?

Do you need to talk?

What can I do for you? (The answer may be, “nothing,” but at least you cared enough to ask.)

If you are also suffering from SMI, there is even more you can do. You can say, “I understand how you feel,” and mean it. You can recommend a therapist. You can congratulate the person on any accomplishment, the kind that wouldn’t seem like an accomplishment to anyone else.

In general, stay away from platitudes, feel-good sentiments, and quick fixes – unless you know that the person responds well to that kind of encouragement. They’re too easy to say and too hard to follow through on. Save them for people who are simply having a bad day, not someone who has mental illness.

The Big Disruption

alphaspirit/adobestock.com

I don’t know if I’ll be able to make a blog post next week unless I can write an extra one this week and save it. Next week at this time we’ll be moving from the three-bedroom house we’re currently living in to a one-bedroom apartment, where we expect to stay for three months at the maximum.

The circumstances that led to this situation are complex and the whole process has been feeding into my triggers and issues. No, bipolar disorder won’t stay on hold for even two weeks so we can get this accomplished.

Overthinking. First and perhaps foremost, I hate cleaning, packing, and moving, especially when there’s a time limit on them. I even hate packing for vacations. (I’m okay once the vacation has started. It’s just the lead-up to it that gets me.) When I pack, I always overthink and almost always overpack, as if I’m planning for the Normandy invasion. This is exhausting.

Anxiety. I often have anxiety dreams about packing and moving, usually having to do with moving into or out of a dorm at college. This was indeed a stressor for me, as I lived someplace different every year and went home over the summer. Apparently, it has never quite left my psyche. This set of moves will be unpleasantly like those – a massive, frantic rush at the beginning of summer and another set of the same, though one hopes not as frantic, at the beginning of fall.

Uncertainty. What happened to us is that our house was destroyed by a tornado a year ago. Since that time, we have been living in a house provided for us by the insurance company. Now, however, they’ve put us up here as long as they care to and our former house isn’t completely rebuilt and ready for re-occupancy yet. We’ve had just over a month to make alternative arrangements. Combine that with trying to get a three-month lease, and a one-bedroom was all we could find. (We call it “The Shack.”)

Belonging. I’ve had a hard time bonding with places where I’ve lived – they’ve never truly felt like home to me – and I hope that the rebuilt house, which we are completely furnishing, will have that feel of “mine.” But The Shack will feel the least like home since any I’ve lived in since college. Even my study, where I do my writing, will be a utility room with a table and chair rather than a desk. Nor will we have much in the way of furnishings. A bed, a television, two chairs, boxes for bedside tables, and not much else. The rest is in storage or not to be delivered until permanent move-in.

Immobilization. It is the one-year anniversary of the tornado and we will be swept up in a virtual tornado of packing and moving. I have already noticed tornado dreams and severe storm-related anxiety as the date approaches. I anticipate being virtually immobilized just when I need to be most productive and proactive. It already feels overwhelming.

Isolation. And no, there is no one around who can help us move. It’s just me and my husband, with maybe a little help from U-Haul and Two Men and a Truck. My husband suffers from depression, and between that and my bipolar disorder, we’ve been isolating so much that even with pizza and beer we couldn’t pull together a work gang.

We’ll get through, I know. And we’ll get through living in The Shack until it’s time to go home at last. I just wish I could see a clear path between now and then.

The Experiment That Changed Psychiatry

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The experiment was famous in the annals of psychiatric history. As I put it in a post in 2016:

A professor at Stanford University devised a simple experiment. He sent eight volunteers, including both women and men, to psychiatric hospitals. Each person complained of hearing a voice saying three words – and no other symptoms.

All – all – were admitted and diagnosed, most of them as schizophrenic. Afterward, the “pseudopatients”  reported to their doctors and nurses that they no longer heard the voices and were sane. They remained in the psychiatric wards for an average of 19 days. They were required to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.

Rosenhan’s report, “On being sane in insane places,” created quite a stir. Indignant hospital administrators claimed that their staff were actually quite adept at identifying fakes and challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment.

This time hospital personnel were on their guard. They identified over 40 people as being “pseudopatients” who were faking mental illness. Rosenhan, however, had sent no volunteer pseudopatients this time. It was a dismal showing for the psychiatric community.

Except now the wind seems to be shifting. Many psychological experiments from those long-gone days have been called into serious question, some because of reports from participants and others because of unreproducibility. The Rosenhan study, which is widely featured in psychology textbooks, is no exception.

I picked up Susannah Cahalan’s book The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, expecting to find more details of the experiment – maybe the reports written by the test subjects. Instead, I found a piece of journalistic research that attempted to track down the pseudopatients, and used Rosenhan’s notes for his unpublished, half-finished book extensively.

The author’s conclusion? That the experiment, though published in the prestigious journal Science, was at best dubious and at worse fraudulent. Rosenhan, the author says did not get volunteers from among his grad students, teach them to “cheek” pills so they wouldn’t actually be taking psychotropic meds, and turn them loose on several unsuspecting mental institutions.

Instead, the author says, Rosenhan himself was one of the pseudopatients and so were two friends of his. A sample size of eight or nine is small, but one of three is anecdotal in the extreme. Rosenhan’s write-up of the experiment used an even smaller sample – two, himself and one other. The third was relegated to a footnote as an outlier, one who found his assigned mental hospital to be a kind, helpful, and nurturing place. The sample of two related that the biggest problem on the wards was boredom, barely relieved by the occasional group session, and brief, infrequent drop-ins by a psychiatrist. Nurses remained in “cages” where they could view the floor of the dayroom and hand out meds at the assigned time.

There is doubt, too about how the three pseudopatients got out of their situations. They were all voluntarily committed, so could walk out any time they wanted, but Rosenhan’s notes say that the were released AMA (against medical advice), but with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia, in remission.” (Only one of the alleged pseudopatients had a different diagnosis of bipolar disorder.) Apparently, Rosenhan claimed to have had a lawyer draw up writs of habeus corpus, should the pseudopatients need to be “sprung,” but according to the lawyer involved, this did not happen, but was only briefly discussed.

So, after all this time, what difference does it make whether there were nine pseudopatients or only two or three; whether Science was hoodwinked into publishing a paper the author knew to be deeply flawed (to put it kindly)? We all know that such a situation could not happen today. It takes much more than a self-report of brief auditory hallucinations to get into a psych ward these days. There are extensive interviews, the MMPI test, various screeners to go through. Many of these procedures may have been put in place because of the influence of Rosenhan’s experiment.

But Calahan says that the most far-reaching effect of the experiment was that, not only did it put the entire field of psychiatry in doubt, it was cited again and again in other papers. Those papers – and thus the experiment – were influential in the massive closing of psychiatric hospitals, leading to the current situation of actual people with serious mental illness (SMI) with no place to go, a lack of psychiatric beds in hospitals, sufferers forced to live with untrained relatives, no supervision of medication, and various other breakdowns in the system.

It would be unfair to say that Rosenhan caused all that, but according to Cahalan’s reporting, his paper contributed significantly to exacerbating the problem.

 

How I Became a Mental Health Blogger

Of course, blogging didn’t exist when I started writing. It was quite a journey ending up where I am today. Even mental health services were a big blank to me when I was young, something that no one I knew experienced or even talked about, except to make jokes about going to “Wayne Avenue,” the location of the nearest insane asylum (as we called it then).

But it’s hard to remember a time when I didn’t write. Childish poems fueled by voracious reading. Hideously depressive poems fueled by burgeoning bipolar disorder. (I still commit poetry from time to time, writing sonnets and villanelles about bipolar disorder.)

But before I returned to poetry with more structure, I indulged in free verse – unrhymed, unmetered verse that relied on the juxtaposition of images rather than formal style. I studied creative writing in high school and college. But the bipolar disorder was undeniably with me, influencing the topics I wrote about: “Two Ways of Looking at the Same Pain” and “Whiskey on the Knife,” a poem about self-harm, are two examples.

As my poetry developed, it started reading more and more like prose, strung out in sentences that relied on line breaks with twists and jarring pauses to create poetic effects. Eventually, I gave up on poetry and simply gave in to prose. I made my living doing prose, and nonfiction at that, writing for magazines about education, technology, child care, and even martial arts.

Bipolar disorder took that away from me. After being diagnosed with clinical depression for years, I finally was identified as having bipolar 2. It was treatment-resistant for many years and during that time I was often unable to write.

My mental health blog, which you’re reading now, grew out of a journaling exercise. I began by listing what I did each day – not much, as I was stuck in a major depressive episode and not able to do much. But once again, what started as something else turned into prose. And by that time blogging was a thing.

I started blogging largely as an exercise for myself, to explore bipolar disorder, its symptoms and treatments, and my particular version of it. I set myself the task of posting once a week, a schedule that I still keep. I wrote short essays and longer pieces, whatever I was thinking about at the time. Hardly anyone read the blog. I sometimes wonder if the title “Bipolar Me” was a turn-off, but really that summed up my knowledge about bipolar – my own experiences.

Slowly, I started finding my voice. and finding things to say with it. Things other than what was inside my own head. Oh, I still wrote about my symptoms and my meds and my coping mechanisms, major depression and hypomania, mood swings and roller coasters. But I also started approaching the wider world of bipolar. Bipolar in the news. Bad science reporting about bipolar. TV commercials about bipolar meds. Bipolar disorder and gun violence. All of this was still through the lens of my own experience, as I have no degree in psychology, counseling, or biochemistry, for that matter.

And I started reaching a wider audience. My writing appeared in The Mighty, Invisible Illness, IBPF, Thought Catalog, Medium, and as guest posts on other bloggers’ sites. Eventually, I had enough material to make Bipolar Me into a book of the same name. And then a sequel, Bipolar Us. Both are still available on Amazon and through other outlets.

I know I’m not in the same league with mental health bloggers like Pete Earley and Gabe Howard. They are true activists and influencers, as well as terrific writers. Their work reaches thousands of people with information, analysis, inspiration, and more impact than I will likely ever have.

But I won’t give up blogging just because I’m not the best. I’ll be here every Sunday, posting my bipolar thoughts and opinions, sharing my bipolar experience, and chronicling my bipolar life.

Do I Need Advice or Do I Need to Vent?

COK House / adobestock.com

Sometimes we need advice. But sometimes we just need to vent. This is true of all people but especially true of people with mental illness.

Venting is the act of getting something off your chest. It may come explosively if it has built up for a while. There may be one final incident, however tiny, that sets you off. All you really want is to feel heard, that someone acknowledges your distress and understands it. All you really need is a sympathetic ear and maybe a pat on the shoulder.

Venting acts as a safety valve. It allows you to “let off steam” that might otherwise build up pressure until it comes out violently, or at least excessively.

Why do I say this is particularly true of people with mental illness? So often we have feelings we can’t articulate, thoughts we don’t understand, or events that trigger us in both large and small ways. It’s natural to want to keep all these things inside. We’re taught to do that – not to “let the crazy show,” to keep all those messy thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Eventually, we get to the point where we think that no one will understand anyway, so there’s no point in giving voice to these feelings.

Then, when we do finally vent, inevitably someone says we’re overreacting. Because, you know, crazy.

If I’m venting, the wrong thing to do is to give me advice. Unless I specifically ask for advice, that is. But even well-meaning advice can easily go wrong. People who do not suffer from psychiatric conditions often offer advice regarding what works for them when they feel a certain way. And yes, a walk in the fresh air and sunshine can certainly be uplifting. But when I’m too depressed to get out of bed, it can be an impossibility. It can even make me feel worse about myself.

To me, suggestions for possible remedies for my disorder are even worse. It’s taken me and my assorted doctors years to assemble the right medications at the right dosages to tame my bipolar disorder down to something livable. When someone tries to tout the latest remedy they heard about – Pilates, elderberries, juice cleanse, probiotics, or whatever – it feels to me like “pill-shaming,” like I’m being blamed because none of my meds will “fix” me thoroughly enough. Add the fact that these suggestions come from questionable sources – laypersons or bogus “studies” – and I’m likely to dig in my heels and feel offended.

At times, though, I do need advice. When I do, I usually get it from my therapist, someone else who shares my disorder, or an old friend who has been there for me on my journey. Sometimes I need a reality check – am I just catastrophizing or is it really true that something bad might be happening? Sometimes I need help dealing with a specific person – what can I say to my sister to help her understand my condition? Sometimes I need a reminder that I really ought to make an appointment with my therapist and get a “check-up from the neck up.”

And it should be understood that advice is just that – a suggestion that I am free to take or leave. Even my therapist, who usually gives very good advice when I ask her, sometimes suggests techniques or approaches that just don’t work for me. And even she knows that sometimes I just need to vent, to feel the feelings of sorrow or hurt or rage and let them out in a safe place. To quote Jimmy Buffet, “It cleans me out and then I can go on.”

Caution: Wide Mood Swings

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Mood swings are universal. Everybody has them at one time or another.

Bipolar disorder is not just mood swings. Not everyone has moods that can last for months or years at a time or moods that are so extreme that they interfere with one’s daily life. The depths of despair and the rocketing highs are not what most people experience – and they should be glad they don’t. Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness (SMI). It can be more or less severe, and it can be well or poorly controlled with medication and therapy, but the reality is that bipolar is a mood disorder, an illness, and a curse. 

Of course, the mood swings of bipolar disorder don’t always last for months or years. Sometimes you go spinning out of control every few weeks. This is called “rapid cycling.”

But even rapid cycling doesn’t describe the lightning-quick mood changes that can happen within a day or two. That’s called “ultra-rapid cycling,” and it’s like being whip-sawed by your brain. Those valleys and peaks come so closely together that you don’t even have time to catch your breath between them.

I think that the official criteria miss the mark on this. Many of them define rapid cycling as experiencing four mood swings within a year. Ultra-rapid cycling seems not to have a specific definition, but I and a lot of other people with bipolar disorder experience moods that swing not over the course of months, but over the course of weeks, or even days.

Ultra-rapid cycling blurs the lines into mixed episodes. Those are occasions when high and low moods occur at the same time. For many bipolar sufferers, this means simultaneous exaltation and despair, which is a terrible combination and a bitch to experience. For me, a person with bipolar type 2 whose hypomania expresses most of the time as anxiety, a mixed episode is a frightening blur of defeat and nervousness, a simultaneous feeling that the worst has already come and that it is about to descend to even lower levels. It’s like ricocheting off the insides of your own skull.

What to do at a time like this is a puzzle. Do I try the things that soothe me when anxiety strikes? Do I try self-care for depressed moods? Do the two strategies cancel each other out, leaving me swinging helplessly? Do I try to suppress both moods, knowing that the consequent numbness will make it all the more difficult for me to feel “normal” moods again? Once those walls are built, they are hard to tear down.

Ultra-rapid cycling and mixed episodes may be handy jargon to describe mood swings that don’t fit the common mode of bipolar disorder.  But they’re hell to live through. And since mood levelers, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety meds generally take a while to build up in the bloodstream enough to have an effect, there is little in the way of pharmaceutical help. An anti-anxiety pill may relieve the jitters and racing thoughts, but may also leave you more susceptible to the inevitable lows.

I don’t know if there’s much research going on regarding rapid cycling and mixed episodes. It seems like they’ve barely been named, much less defined or studied. And it’s true that there is a lot about plain old garden-variety bipolar disorder that remains to be understood and treated.

But for those of us who don’t fit the mold of months-long or years-long mood states, rapid cycling can be an uncomfortable way of life. When I was undiagnosed and unmedicated, I experienced those long, interminable lows. They did last months, years, until the depths of hell were all that I could see. The jags of ambition seldom visited me, but the creeping, lingering anxiety could easily take over. Now that I’m no longer subject to those excruciating extremes, I still am subject to the quick-change, rapid-fire series of moods. My mood levelers do work, in the sense that they reduce the peaks and valleys, but they never seem to put me on a totally even keel.

Perhaps that’s too much to expect. I’ll have to admit that I prefer a life of rapid- or ultra-rapid-cycling bipolar to the monotonous despair of long depressive cycles. At least now I have a firm conviction that the moods will end, or at least shift, to something more tolerable, and that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Given the choice between the lingering depths and the more rapid changes, I’ll take the one that doesn’t leave me in misery for years at a time.

 

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