Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘mental illness’

The Self-Esteem Dilemma

I’ve heard that narcissists (and multiple murderers) have too-high self-esteem. I’ve also heard that they have low self-esteem. Which assertion is right? Surely they can’t both be!

Self-esteem became a big topic of conversation in the 1980s. That’s when self-esteem programs for children were beginning to be taught in schools and preschools. There were many questions about them, some of which I asked when assigning a writer to a story about them. (I was an editor for a publication for childcare workers and daycare owners at the time.) Why do children need self-esteem programs? Doesn’t daily living foster self-esteem? What can self-esteem programs do that parents and teachers can’t or don’t? The writer seemed taken aback, but bravely tackled all those questions and wrote a fine article on the subject.

Later, the self-esteem movement came into disrepute and was the subject of much mocking and more authentic criticism. Chief among the things detractors made fun of were “participation trophies” given to every participant in a game or sport, spelling bee, or whatever other sort of competition. Complaints included that this negated the idea of competition altogether, falsely inflated children’s sense of accomplishment, shortchanged children who had truly excelled, and was a touchy-feely practice that had no place in the realm of sports or other competitive areas.

It was also thought that self-esteem programs were teaching the wrong lesson. Instead of learning that effort doesn’t always achieve the desired results, children were learning that everyone was as good as everyone else, which seemed like a mistake to some. Self-esteem programs were also said to lead children to the idea that the world was a kindly place where they would be rewarded just for existing. Instead, they should “toughen up” and learn that the world would deal them harsh blows at times and that they needed to be ready to cope with them. Debate continued about when and where such a lesson should be taught and even if it should be taught at all.

How does this relate to the aforementioned narcissists and toxic people? The two theories about their level of self-esteem seem contradictory and counterintuitive. Do they have low self-esteem? It doesn’t seem like it, the way they take control over others’ lives and manipulate them. Do they have high self-esteem? This sounds a little more plausible.

Reconciling the two theories is problematic. On the one hand, these people’s self-esteem seems to be too great, so they feel they are special and entitled to control other people who aren’t up to the same standard. On the other, their self-esteem might be too low, driving them to overcompensate for their lack by acting powerful and controlling others.

It seems unlikely that both of these mechanisms could apply to a single person. How could they feel genuinely powerful and compensate for being less powerful at the same time?

But, at its heart, true, healthy self-esteem isn’t about power. It’s about loving, accepting, and appreciating yourself for the good qualities that you do have. It’s about recognizing that your place in life is to be neither a doormat nor an idol. It’s about having confidence in yourself that you can face obstacles – though not conquering every obstacle – but knowing your limitations.

Does life teach self-esteem? It can, certainly, if a child is raised in a supportive, encouraging environment; if the child learns that both effort and accomplishment are possible; if the child has role models for self-esteem; and if good lessons about self-worth are taught in the home and at school.

Of course, we know that not all children are raised in such an ideal environment. Probably far too few are. Or children receive mixed messages about self-esteem from parents, schools, religion, and other places where they get training for life events: not to be unrealistically proud but to be proud of achievements; to be humble or to be confident; to be assertive or to obey authority; to share with others or to know what’s theirs and defend it; to cooperate or to take the lead.

Self-esteem is particularly difficult for those of us with brain illnesses or psychological disorders. We may feel broken, unsure of ourselves, and clueless about where we fit into society. In the grip of mania, we can feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. When we are depressed, we can feel worthless. In bipolar disorder, in particular, the two states can be encompassed in a single individual at different times.

But this is not to say that people with psychological challenges are all narcissists. Far from it. I would say that in every person, there are varying degrees of longing to have control and desire to relinquish control. It’s achieving a healthy balance of these two things that’s the real trick.

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Understanding Mental Illness

My friend Martin Baker (https://www.gumonmyshoe.com/) recently posted a series of prompts for mental health bloggers. Number 29 was: Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself? Here are my thoughts.

In general, I do believe that having a mental illness yourself is the best and perhaps the only way to truly understand the reality of mental illness – the daily struggles, the need for self-care, the loneliness, and the stigma.

I’ve noted before that my mother-in-law didn’t really understand the concept of mental illness. It was like the time when she saw some women on the Phil Donahue show who were talking about their hysterectomies and the pain and suffering they went through. “Those women are such liars,” she said. “I had it done and it wasn’t like that at all.” It’s a matter of assuming your own experience is true for the rest of the world as well, a common logical fallacy. (Later she came around to believing mental illness existed, at least. I attribute this to spending time with me and my husband and reading one of the books I wrote, Bipolar Me.)

Even my husband – who has lived with me for 40 years, sympathized greatly, and helped me unselfishly – didn’t really “get depression” until he got depression. It was a situational depression that deepened into clinical depression. He’s still on medication for it. I remember him saying that he felt miserable and despondent, and had for months. “Try doing it for years,” I said. “I couldn’t,” he replied.

With a person who doesn’t understand – or even believe in – mental illness, there’s not a lot you can do to change their mind. The images and stories they get from the news, movies, novels, and TV shows tell them that anyone with a mental illness is likely to be a serial killer or a crazed gunman, probably psychotic or at least delusional. Conversely, they can believe that any notorious evildoer must have been mentally ill and probably “off their meds” at the time the atrocity occurred.

We often say that education is the answer. Informing people about the reality of mental illness is supposed to raise their consciousness and help eradicate stigma. That’s all well and good, but getting accurate and informative materials into people’s hands is not that easy. Sure, there are websites, books, and blogs, but the general population simply doesn’t run across these on their own. We who deal with mental illness daily must point them to these resources. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read or interact with the resources. They have to be interested in and open to the topic.

Public awareness campaigns featuring movie stars and top athletes may help in getting the audience to believe in mental illness in others, and even if they have a mental disorder such as depression themselves. Whether these can counteract the inaccurate and insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media is still, I think, an open question. Even commercials for various medications for psychiatric illnesses can help people understand a little bit more, though I still believe that many of these ads present a less-than-accurate picture of depression, for example, making it seem no worse than a hangover. And many of the ads promote telemedicine sites for those who have – or suspect they have – some sort of mental disorder. They are less useful for the totally uninformed.

Still, we keep trying to inform and educate. But are we shouting down a rabbit hole or into an echo chamber? Maybe seeing posts from Facebook friends who have mental disorders really does help. I know that some of my Facebook friends have said that my posts and blogs on bipolar disorder have helped them learn.

But in general, I’m pessimistic about people understanding mental illness until or unless they experience it for themselves or in their own families – and maybe not even then. There are those who deny that they have depression, for example, or who may suspect they have a psychiatric disorder but feel that getting help is “for the weak.”

Or maybe I’m just pessimistic today.

Nevertheless, I’ll go on writing this blog in the hope that it will make a difference to someone.

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Going Off (Some) Meds

I regularly tell people not to go off their meds without consulting their psychiatrist. I yell at them, in all caps. It’s not just a bad idea, it can result in withdrawal and even lessening the meds’ effectiveness if you do go back on them. Yet recently, I went off two psych meds without my psychiatrist’s prior approval.

Here’s what happened.

My husband and I recently had COVID – probably the Delta or Omicron Variant, as we have both been triple-vaxxed. That is to say, my husband tested positive for COVID and I have close contact with him, plus I had the same symptoms that he did.

Since we didn’t need expensive and rare treatments or hospital stays and ventilators, we relied on over-the-counter medication to treat the symptoms, which included sore throat, coughing, fever, congestion, and fatigue. We recovered in a couple of weeks to a month and my husband is back to his job, where he regularly interacts with numbers of people. I work at home, so I didn’t have that problem. I just needed to take some time off when I felt truly crappy.

When we read the directions on the OTC symptom-relief pills, however, there was a warning that said not to take anti-anxiety agents or sleep aids with them. My regular routine has been to take a sleeping aid at bedtime and an anti-anxiety pill in the morning and at bedtime, with an extra dose allowed if I have an anxiety attack during the day. I have been taking both of the meds literally for years and have never had any problems with them. (I won’t say what any of the medications are, since everyone has different reactions to different medications, and my reactions, while fairly typical, won’t hold true for everyone.)

Perhaps out of an excess of caution, I decided not to take the anti-anxiety and sleeping meds while on the OTC ones. When I quit taking them, though, I was worried that I might experience some of the ill effects that were possible.

Throughout the course of my bout of COVID, I didn’t notice any withdrawal symptoms, excess anxiety, or difficulty sleeping as I feared I might. In fact, I slept better than usual and had fewer attacks of anxiety. So I decided that I would try going off the two meds for a while, even after I felt better. It was about six weeks until my next med check with my psychiatrist.

Of course, when my med check came around, I told my psychiatrist what I had done and why. I thought he might react badly when I said that I did this on my own, without his advice and consent.

Instead, he seemed thrilled.

“Good for you,” he said. “You’ve stopped taking the two addictive ones, too.”

I had known those drugs were potentially addictive, which was why I was watching for withdrawal symptoms. I took the lack of these as signs that, though the drugs were addictive, I was not addicted. (My psychiatrist has to regularly have an analysis done to show whether his patients have a high risk of abusing psych meds or taking more than needed. My score was 0%.)

It felt good to have my psychiatrist validate that I had done a good thing and not a bad one. But even more, it felt good to be taking fewer pills each day. I’ve never minded having to take pills or felt ashamed of taking them, but it was still significant to me that I had lowered my medication schedule to just the ones that had beneficial psychotropic effects, such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers. I was delighted to find that I didn’t need as many pills as I had once thought.

All in all, my experiment was a success, but I was lucky, and my experience is not medical advice. I don’t recommend it to anyone else. Consult your prescribing physician before you cut back on or stop any medication. I MEAN IT!

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How I Learned I’m Not “Pathetic”

When I first went to my therapist, I often described my life and myself as “pathetic.” Slowly, as I made progress, I stopped doing that. It was a revelation that took some time to sink in. Here are some of the things my therapist said and did to help me overcome this harmful description of myself and my bipolar disorder.

Refusing to accept my description. This may seem like an obvious thing, but it had real meaning for me. I had been majorly depressed for approximately three years and bipolar as long as I could remember. I couldn’t do anything – get out of bed, shower, feed myself or the cats, or perform the tasks of daily living. (My husband picked up the slack. Thank God for him.) My therapist never said in so many words, “You’re not pathetic” or “Your thinking is wrong.” She just patiently spent the time with me and gave me tools I could use to get better.

You’d think I would take this as denying my perception of reality, which I ordinarily hate when anyone tries it. But this time, I welcomed it. It was nice at that point to have someone denying my perception because Dr. B.’s perception was so much more appealing than mine. It gave me something to shoot for – a time when I would no longer feel that “pathetic” was an apt description. She also let me cry it out, which I often did when I was feeling particularly pathetic.

Baby steps. (Also known as “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”) My healing was slow, thousands of baby steps of accomplishing more and more. Because my therapist never gave up, neither did I. Baby steps take you only so far at a time – after all, they’re tiny. But over time, they add up to a measurable distance. As I slowly moved away from my “pathetic” label, I also moved away from feeling pathetic. Eventually, I was able to eat, if not the whole elephant, at least a larger portion of it through slow but steady progress.

Not that I didn’t sometimes backslide. Whenever I hit another depressive episode, my feeling of pathetic-ness came roaring back. It was only as I learned that some other feeling was possible that I was able to catch a glimpse of a time when pathetic might no longer describe me.

Saying, “Look how far you’ve come.” This is something that my therapist kept reminding me. Dr. B. noted that I was becoming able to get out of bed to come to her office. She would bring up the tools that I had acquired or developed to help myself leave the bad old days largely in the past. She would also point out that I not only remembered those tools, I was using them.

Sticking with me. Dr. B. was also there when I backslid. A couple of times I had made so much progress that I thought I was able to go it alone. But, sooner or later, I would need a “booster shot” of work with her to remind me of the things that I really already knew. When I was feeling too low to make it into the office, we would have phone sessions. When COVID hit and in-person visits became even more difficult or impossible to arrange, we began having videoconference sessions. Slowly, I worked up from every week to once every two weeks to once every three weeks – and am now meeting with her only once a month.

And, let me tell you, it feels great not to feel pathetic anymore.


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Is Stigma a Problem? Is Systemic Breakdown?

Some people who have mental illnesses say that stigma is a problem. Others say that’s not the real problem – a lack of social or political action is. I say, why not combine the two?

Stigma Fighters (https://stigmafighters.com/) and other organizations such as the International Bipolar Foundation (ibpf.org/), the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) (https://www.nami.org/Get-Involved/Pledge-to-Be-StigmaFree), and even Facebook groups, promote the eradication of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. They say that mental illness is stigmatized in our society – some even deny that it exists – because people don’t understand it. This happens when churches say that mental illness is a sign of sin or refuse to welcome people with mental problems into their congregations or have any kind of outreach to them. It happens when a person is honest about having a mental illness and tells her boss or friends about it and receives negative feedback, incomprehension, or the back-away-slowly-and-don’t-make-eye-contact look.

People who believe that stigma is a problem say that stigma is one of the largest reasons that people refuse to seek treatment for their mental disorders. Being seen going into a psychiatric clinic, people finding out that the person sees a psychiatrist, and being ignored or discounted when talking about mental illness are seen as ways that stigma propagates.

People who believe that stigma is a problem promote education as the main solution. If more people understood what mental illness is and how many people suffer from it, they would be less likely to discriminate against those who have mental conditions. Stories about celebrities who have mental dysfunctions or whose relatives do are considered inspiring and helpful. Stars who speak out encourage others to seek treatment (though it’s increasingly true that public expressions of mental illness diagnoses are tied to specific online therapy businesses).

People who believe that political action is necessary also try to effect changes in people’s thinking, but, more importantly, support changes in the systems that are supposed to provide services to the mentally ill. These systems include schools where mental illness plays no part in the curriculum; lack of beds for psychiatric patients in hospitals; the response of police to calls regarding people with mental disturbances; the number of medical schools that provide no information to doctors; the lack of psychiatrists, especially in rural communities, which mean people must wait a long time for services or have no access to them at all; politicians who put mental health issues low on their list of priorities; law enforcement that reacts with deadly violence to calls involving persons with mental illnesses; and health insurance and EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) that treat mental illness differently than physical illness or even addictions. NAMI promotes grassroots activism as one facet of the appropriate response to such problems (https://www.nami.org/Advocacy/Advocate-for-Change).

People advocating for political change also see education as one partial solution to the problems caused or exacerbated by insurance companies, educators, medical schools, media, law enforcement personnel, correctional facilities, and politicians. Political action is seen as the right course to take to improve conditions. (Though it should be noted that people have sent books about the breakdown in societal responses to mental illness to politicians and receive only standardized, unhelpful “thank you” letters that are mostly signed and sent by staffers rather than the political figure.)

I say that education is the best response to both of these problems. Education of the general population about the realities of mental illness will lead to less stigma. Education of the voters, their representatives, and their local communities will help to lessen the inequities and difficulties that now abound.

This will not be easy. Education about the realities of mental illness is hard to convey to either citizens at large or politicians and others who have some degree of authority. Until it touches their own lives, people will largely be blind to the problems. Educational campaigns and the testimony of celebrities may help educate individuals. But politicians are likewise only affected by the aspects that touch their own lives, such as the public revelations by those like Kitty Dukakis (wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis), who has been quite open about her mental difficulties and her ECT treatments (https://www.amazon.com/Shock-Healing-Power-Electroconvulsive-Therapy/dp/1583332839).

What I fear is that these individual occurrences will motivate only a small number of people enough to make a change in society as a whole. It’s easy enough to say, “Oh, Catherine Zeta-Jones has bipolar disorder. Too bad for her, but that doesn’t affect me” or “Someone in my family has a mental illness, but my constituents won’t support legislation to benefit the homeless mentally ill or to provide halfway houses in their neighborhoods. Better to spend my time and influence on stopping terrorism or drugs.”

But until or unless something changes, mental health will still be swept aside or ignored outright. People at large need to understand that just because mental illness hasn’t touched their lives so far, it still could in the future. Public officials and public servants need to believe that mental illness issues are vital to their communities and something that can be made better if only they have the courage and compassion to make the necessary changes.

Stigma-fighting or political action? Both are problems that need solving and education is at least part of the solution to both. And it appears that it’s up to us, those who have mental illnesses, to do the educating.

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COVID News and Mental Health

Many people have been blaming COVID for depression and other mental health problems. They have said that quarantining and uncertainty have raised the level of anxiety in the general population, and quarantining has caused depression. These increased levels may be – probably are – accurately reported, but I don’t think they necessarily indicate an increase in the incidence of mental illness in our society.

The depression and anxiety that people are feeling are, I believe, natural and expected reactions to the pandemic conditions that prevail. I’m not trying to minimize these experiences, but most people have never experienced clinical depression or anxiety and so don’t understand the nature of the actual illnesses. What depression and anxiety the pandemic has caused is likely to clear up when (if) the pandemic does. This is situational depression and anxiety.

This is not to say that people experiencing pandemic-related depression and anxiety don’t need help. Of course they do. “Talk therapy” may do them a lot of good, and there has been an upswing in the number of online and virtual counseling services available. Whether these people need antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds is a question I’m not able to answer. My best guess is that they don’t, at least not long-term courses of drug treatment, as their symptoms are probably not indicative of mental illness. Short-term anti-anxiety meds may do some good.

I do think that the pandemic and the reactions to it have been triggering for many people who do have mental health conditions. People with OCD who are germophobic saw their most extreme fears become reality. People who have Seasonal Affective Disorder may have suffered more from lack of sunlight during the stay-at-home orders and quarantines.

Many people are in extreme denial, believing that the pandemic is a hoax and refusing to take any steps to prevent its spread. Is this a symptom of mental illness? I don’t see how threatening officials and doctors who promote pandemic precautions is a sign of mental health, but are the people who do this delusional or are they merely at one extreme end of the anxiety spectrum?

I understand that people’s perceptions of reality differ, but it annoys me when people deny mine, which currently is made up of snot and phlegm, as well as depression and anxiety. We can have these academic debates, but for my husband and me, at least, the pandemic has pushed us from believing that it is “out there” to realizing that it’s in here, in the most literal and alarming sense.

My husband has tested positive for COVID, and I have a terrible sore throat and cough, so I likely have it too. We’re resting and taking Coricidin until we hear from our doctors what to do. A dear friend has sent us a pulse oximeter, with instructions to get more help if our O-sats fall below 90.

All this is messing with my head. I was entering a depressive phase anyway. Now I’m not sure if it was due to my bipolar disorder or my immune system crapping out. (Just FYI, my husband and I are both triple-vaxxed. He probably got the virus at work and undoubtedly passed it on to me. I can’t imagine I would test negative now.)

I don’t think our illness is life-threatening, though honestly, it could be. You never know with COVID. And now, that’s part of my reality.

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Reminders for New Year’s (and Beyond)

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. I can barely plan my day, let alone the whole year. And I’m also not big on making commitments I know I can’t or won’t keep.

Instead, I remind myself of certain behaviors I think I (maybe) can accomplish and refer to the list as often as needed. Here are a few suggestions that may be appropriate reminders for you as well.

You don’t have to drink alcohol at New Year’s Eve parties. Or ever, really. No one should try to pressure you into doing this, but if they do, simply saying, “No thanks,” should be enough. If the person is really pushy, you may have to ask, “Do you have soda or fruit juice?” You are not required to explain why you don’t want to drink alcohol, and you may want to forego attending parties that do not have such non-alcoholic alternatives in the future. You don’t have to attend parties at all, and “No, I can’t make it” is a perfectly reasonable response to an invitation. Or “Maybe next year.”

You don’t have to make New Year’s resolutions per se. You can have New Year’s intentions, small goals you don’t have to announce to the world at large and that you don’t have to beat yourself up over if you don’t fulfill them. Instead of resolving to jog every day, intend to get out of doors once a week, even if it’s only to walk to the mailbox and back. Baby steps, after all.

I hate to use the word “should,” but you should keep track of your medications, reorder them if they’re getting low, and see your prescribing physician if the scripts are about to run out. That’s just common sense that’s necessary for your mental health, not a resolution. These days, you may even be able to arrange to have meds delivered.

Try to engage in a hobby once in a while. Say, once a month. It honestly doesn’t matter what the hobby is. Read a book, or even a short story or magazine article. Knit or crochet. Repot a plant. Water a plant. Do a crossword puzzle. Bake your favorite cookies, then eat them all yourself if you want to.

Keep comfort objects nearby. These can be anything that soothes you. A music playlist. A stuffed animal. A scented candle. A cozy blanket or sweater. A favorite warm beverage like cocoa or green tea. Don’t be embarrassed about using them to ground yourself. Most neurotypical people won’t even notice if you’re wearing a favorite sweater or have a scented candle lit.

You can connect with people online. This counts as interacting with people. Say happy birthday. Forward a funny meme. You don’t have to make it specific to your condition, but there are plenty of people on Facebook, for example, who have bipolar disorder or PTSD or an autoimmune disorder. You don’t even have to interact with them. You can join a group, then just sit back and see what others post there.

Avoid triggers, if you can. That judgmental aunt. Your creepy cousin. Your boastful neighbor. Again, you have the right to say no and not explain why. (It’s the not explaining that’s the hardest.) Don’t watch movies that you find upsetting, whether it’s Die Hard or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (which many people don’t like because of the implicit bullying).

Write about how you feel, if you want to. It could be a mood journal, a regular journal, a letter that you will never mail, a poem. Don’t feel that you have to show it to anyone. Tear it up afterward, if you want to.

You don’t have to face the new year as a whole. If you must have resolutions, resolve to get through the next week or even the next day.

Make an appointment with your therapist. Many therapists are offering tele-visits these days, so it’s easier than ever just to touch base or to work through a problem, a trigger, or feeling overwhelmed.

In other words, do whatever you can to get you through the next day, week, month, or season. The year will take care of itself, whether you make resolutions or not.

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Schizophrenia: Nature and Nurture

Think about the devastation that a case of schizophrenia can cause a family. Then multiply that times six.

If you want a book that explores such a situation, look no further than Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker. It’s the true story of a middle-class family with 12 children, six of whom became schizophrenic. The children included ten boys and two girls; neither of the girls developed schizophrenia, so that’s a full 60% of the boys who did.

The story begins in the 1950s, when at least there were hospital beds as well as halfway houses for psychiatric patients. The matriarch, Mimi Glavin, however, preferred to care for her boys at home as much as she could. This was, of course, disruptive to the rest of the family. And the patterns were perhaps obscured by the fact that four of the boys and the two girls never developed the disorder. One of the girls was sent to live with a rich friend, and the other managed to be admitted to a boarding school. These were irregular family arrangements, intended to get the girls out of harm’s way, though they certainly harbored resentment at what they saw as abandonment.

The 50s and 60s were the era of what the mental health community called the “schizophrenigenic” mother. Back then, schizophrenia was thought to be caused by the mother, who was either too cold and distant or too controlling. Take your pick. It was the mother’s fault. It was also the era when Thorazine was the best (or only) treatment that could be given for the disorder.

The boys, many of whom were talented athletically or musically, presented with schizophrenia, as you would expect, during their late teen or early adult years. Chief among the delusions affecting Donald, the oldest son, were religious ones. The younger ones also heard voices. One committed a murder-suicide, and another sexually abused his younger sisters. Violence among the brothers was common. Overlooked in all this was that Don Galvin, the father, had suffered a mysterious hospitalization while on duty in the service, which was classified as depression.

Psychiatrists and other researchers were at that time conducting twin studies to examine whether twins were equally likely to develop schizophrenia or not. The Galvin family was a treasure trove.

Still, the family couldn’t resolve the nature-nurture debate. Were the six boys affected by defective genes? Or was their illness because they had all been raised in the same household? DNA study was in its infancy. Most of the family agreed to interviews and blood studies, though they proved not to be much help.

Of course, the children, when they began to have children themselves, were afraid that the family affliction would be passed down to them. One of the young women put her child in therapy at a young age, hoping to spot incipient signs of psychosis. This choice did possibly more harm than good, as the young boy never developed any symptoms and resented the unnecessary therapy.

The heroines of this story were, of course, Mimi – who cared for all her children as best she could, and her husband after he had a stroke in later life – and Lindsay, the youngest child. The care for her schizophrenic brothers was her purview – monitoring their health, their medications, their hospitalizations, and their money, as well as caring for her mother, who became incapacitated in old age. The mentally healthy brothers and the older sister largely detached from the family and went about living their own lives.

Why read this book? It delves into how schizophrenia can affect not just a person, but a whole (and large) family. It illuminates the struggles the family had to deal with in caring for the brothers who had mental illness. It records how treatments for and research about schizophrenia over the years worked and didn’t. And it’s a well-written book on top of that. I could easily have read it in a couple of days, but I stretched it out over weeks to savor and contemplate.

The book rings with authenticity, as interviews with all of the family and records of their therapy and hospitalizations were made available to the writer. It resonates with pain, frustration, pity, courage, illness, relapses, and desperation. It is truly the best chronicle of schizophrenia I have read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Time I Was (Sort of) Hospitalized

When I was a teenager, being hospitalized for mental illness was a big joke. The local facility was located on a street called Wayne Ave. Wayne Ave., despite whatever else was located there (a pizza restaurant, I think), was shorthand for “crazy.” (This was no doubt an annoyance to people who actually lived on Wayne Ave., of which there were many. Now the former mental facility is a Hospice.) I knew by then that I was mentally unbalanced, but it never occurred to me that I would end up in Wayne Ave. It was an address used only to tease other kids, which was uncomfortable enough.

By the time I got to college, I was aware that I was in trouble, mentally. I had turned down the offer to see the school district psychologist in high school, delusionally afraid that it would show up in my permanent record and prevent me from getting into a good (or any) university.

I did, however, get into a very good university. (No idea if they took my lack of mental health treatment into consideration.) But by this time I was really suffering mentally and emotionally. I tried at least one therapy group, but was able to breeze through it without making any notable progress, thanks to my ability to “act normal” for an hour at a time.

Still, I figured it was just a matter of time until my mental disorders manifested themselves sufficiently to be generally noticed. Maybe even noticed enough to be diagnosed. And I was waxing delusional. I felt sure that at some point in my life I would be hospitalized for my illness. I just wanted to make it through college and work at a paying job for at least two years, if I could, in hopes of getting Social Security. (I said I was delusional.)

Along the way, though, I was (sort of) hospitalized for mental illness. I say “sort of,” because I went to the university clinic, a small facility with about a dozen beds, most of them used for students with flu and the like. (There was a sort of witticism going around campus: It’s a short trip from Willard Straight (the student union building) to Willard State (the nearest psychiatric facility). Again, going to a psychiatric facility was considered a joke.)

I was nearing the end of a disastrous relationship, self-injuring, self-medicating, and vaguely suicidal. I checked in to the campus clinic. I don’t remember much of it, my brain obviously not working too well at the time. I had to tell them I wasn’t really suicidal, or else they would have called my parents, which I definitely didn’t want.

I do remember a nurse who would look in on me as I lay in bed crying. I don’t remember what if any treatment they prescribed. In my memory, mostly they just let me cry.

One very peculiar thing happened, though. The man of the disastrous relationship “checked me out” for an evening (much as you would check out a library book) to go to a dinner with someone in editing or publishing that he thought might help me get that coveted job after college. I don’t remember the dinner being a hit, and of course no job ever came from it. Then I was checked back into the clinic for a few more days of crying. I don’t remember how long I stayed or why I was finally released. It was altogether a peculiar experience, and the gaps in my memory have swallowed most of it.

I don’t think it actually helped me at all, other than to confirm to me that I was indeed ill, with some kind of mental disorder, and to reinforce my delusions. It also, I think, hastened the dissolution of that relationship, which proved to be a good thing in the long run. Was it all a ploy by the boyfriend to establish that I was the “sick one” for the purposes of couples counseling, which I had convinced him to try at one point? I’ll never know.

But since that time, I have never been hospitalized for my bipolar disorder. I have been properly diagnosed and treated. I now take psychotropic meds faithfully and see a therapist. I have been working for decades (except during a major depressive episode, when I learned how hard indeed it is to get Social Security for a psychiatric disability).

I suspect my hospitalization was far from typical. After all, it was dozens of years ago and not in a dedicated mental hospital or ward. I can’t say whether it helped me or not. But it’s an experience I never want to repeat – and, at last, something I never expect to endure again.

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What God Gives You

There are two expressions, common in “inspirational” memes, posters, and the like, that rub me the wrong way.

One is “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” I addressed that one in a post (https://bipolarme.blog/2014/11/10/suffering-and-train-wrecks/) roughly seven years ago, and now I’m ready to tackle the other.

“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”

Let’s take a look at the premise. It implies that God gives us all our trials and troubles. Already, I have problems with that. Perhaps God is love and the devil gives us trials and troubles. Perhaps neither God nor the devil is involved, and life gives us trials and troubles. Perhaps even we give ourselves trials and troubles. It strikes me that these are equally valid propositions, though many people favor one or another.

At the heart of it, though, is the fact that there are trials and troubles in our lives, whoever or whatever gives them to us, and we must handle them. Wherever they come from, they will not be more than we can handle, the saying states.

The evidence of our eyes, and perhaps our own lives, says that this simply isn’t true. Plenty of people encounter (or have given to them) more than they can handle. Think of the homeless mentally ill. Are they able to handle what they’ve been given? The woman with her third miscarriage? The veteran with catastrophic injuries? Sure, some of them face their conditions bravely, but others don’t, and they’ll never make the news as “inspiration porn,” the uplifting stories of people who can and have overcome their afflictions, which is predominantly what we hear about in the media.

The fact remains that some people do receive more troubles than they can handle. There are serious mental illnesses that have no treatment. There are injuries and horrors that leave a person scarred inside and out. There are troubles that are so bad they contribute to death by suicide. In these and other cases, someone or something (or simply life itself) has given certain people more than they can handle.

The premise behind the saying, however, is that God never gives YOU more than YOU can handle. What I’ve said doesn’t mean there is no hope – only that it might come from a source you don’t expect. That might be the same God who ostensibly gave you those trials. It might mean another person, or a group of people, or a society can help you with what you need to make it through.

It’s not necessary to leave it all up to God to solve these problems. And it may be that we cannot rescue ourselves. But perhaps we can be that person, or one of those people, who can help someone whose troubles are more than they can handle by themselves.

I won’t argue whether it is because of the grace of God that other people help. But the original saying, in all its simplicity, is too simplistic. I believe that troubles and trials come to us from somewhere in the world, not from God, and people in the world are ultimately the ones who can help us handle them.

I’m not trying to deny the actions of God in the world. I’m saying that we must do our part to solve these problems too. Donate to a good cause. Volunteer to help. Listen to someone who’s hurting. Even just buy a box of cookies from a Girl Scout. Let’s make that “you” an “us.” God (or life) never gives us more than we can handle – together. (Note: Don’t even get me started on “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not even in the Bible. Go ahead and look. I’ll wait.)

And why is this post in a blog on mental illness? Because that’s one of the things that some people can handle and others can’t, whether it was God or genetics or brain chemicals or trauma that gave it to them.

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