Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘mental illness’

Mental Illness: Fact and Fiction

I’ve had a bit of experience with mental health and nonfiction, though none so far with bipolar fiction. But lately, I’ve been thinking about it.

Bipolar nonfiction is (comparatively) easy to write. There are numerous memoirs, essays, and blogs – including my own. Bipolar disorder has not appeared much in fiction, however. There are reasons for this.

First, let’s tackle the idea of mental illness in “genre fiction” (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, and the like – not mainstream fiction, anyway). A friend of mine recently attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, where they had a panel discussion on just that topic.

My friend reports that the panel “had a mental health nurse, a psychologist and some writers talking about portrayals of mental illness that got it right or wrong.”

He went on to add, “Consensus seemed to be that the Punisher completely nailed PTSD, that Drax in the first GotG movie nailed Aspie but that they rewrote him into a cute Manic Pixie Dream Creature for the second one; and the depiction of Sheldon from Big Bang is an abomination against God and Man.” (To unpack that just a bit, the Punisher is a character from Marvel, GotG means the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and “Manic Pixie Dream Creature” is a riff on “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a trope in which one woman (the MPDG) opens the hero’s eyes to life lived fully so that he can then go off and win his One True Love, who is not the MPDG.)

I myself have no experience with the Punisher and saw only one of the GotG movies. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a character I know a little more about. As I understand it, Sheldon Cooper is not intended to represent a person with any particular sort of mental illness (as he always points out, “My mother had me tested”). Still, the character exhibits behaviors that are often associated with Asperger’s, OCD, and perhaps some other mental illnesses or conditions.

I have read that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Sheldon, did no research on any of those conditions or illnesses because he didn’t want Sheldon to represent a person with any particular disorder. This allows the viewer to read into the character whatever he or she believes Sheldon’s “problem” is (if any).

But an important point was brought up in the book Philosophy and The Big Bang Theory. One of its essays questioned whether the audience should feel comfortable laughing at Sheldon. If one believes that he has a mental illness or Asperger’s, the answer is, of course, “no.” Yet most of the audience does – apart from those who see the portrayal as an “abomination.”

It’s so hard to get a portrayal of mental illness right, on TV or particularly in genre fiction. Take bipolar disorder, for example. Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries features a protagonist who has bipolar disorder. But most of the depiction depends on whether or not the character is having a manic episode at any given time. While the depiction is laudable – and I like the series immensely – it is telling that bipolar depression is seldom a plot element.

Perhaps this is because depression is too, well, depressing to write or read about. A character who is unable to leave her bed or who questions her very existence is hardly likely to move the plot forward. Searing depictions of depression, both bipolar and unipolar, have been written about, but almost exclusively in nonfiction. Even those can be hard to read for someone who experiences clinical depression.

Depression, however, did become a metaphor in the writing of J.K. Rowling. She has said that in her portrayal of “Dementors” in her Harry Potter fantasy epic, she was specifically thinking of depression and its soul-sucking effects on those who suffer from it. That’s genre fiction and that’s doing mental illness right.

In talking about mental illness and genre fiction, I’m deliberately ignoring the many portrayals of sociopaths in shows such as Dexter. Those are stereotypes too, but I’m wondering about less “drama-friendly” mental illnesses. Dissociative identity disorder seems to be one of the few other mental illnesses that feature prominently in popular forms of fiction, usually in the psyche of a villain. You could also count the many detective characters suffering from PTSD, a commonly used trope that is seldom examined closely but rather serves as a personality trait associated with violence.

I wasn’t at the convention and didn’t hear the panel (though I would have loved to), but it raised interesting questions. What would a protagonist (or other character) with bipolar disorder be like or do in what is too often a formulaic plot? Can a mentally ill character be portrayed accurately within the confines of genre fiction? Can mental illness be anything but a metaphor – or be experienced by a character other than one played for laughs? Is there any such book that I should be reading?

I don’t have the answers. But we need facts in fiction. We need understanding. We need representation. I haven’t tried to write fiction featuring a bipolar character, much less a main character who is bipolar. 

Maybe I should.

Did Bipolar Disorder Lose Me Jobs?

I lost two jobs, one that I had held for 17 years, because of my bipolar disorder. I only realized this comparatively recently. In both cases, I readily admit that my work had gone downhill, but at the time (at least for the first job), it never occurred to me that bipolar disorder was the reason for my dismissal.

I was working at a publishing company as an editor, having worked my way up from editorial assistant. I had been the editor of two different magazines, assistant editor for a couple of others, and writer and proofreader for them all. (It was a very small company.)

As time went on, though, I became less and less reliable. I edited my magazines, but I had trouble dealing with people. I had particular trouble with an art director who didn’t like my cover choices (despite the fact that several of them had won awards), humiliated me in a staff meeting because of it, and reminded everyone about it later. She was toxic, sure, but I was unable to deal with the situation or even stand up for myself.

There were other humiliations that I tolerated because I didn’t have the wherewithal to quit. When, during the financial crisis, salaries were cut by 20%, mine was cut by 40%, which to me meant that I was twice as useless as, say, a salesperson.

I stayed, but I isolated myself. My office had a door and I used it, the only person in the company to do so. I knew that people thought this was odd behavior, but by that point, I didn’t care. I was let go with no explanation given.

Yes, the company was a toxic environment and no, I didn’t deal with it well. But the situations I put up with exacerbated my bipolar disorder until I was headed for the crash. When I was on the upswing I was able to do my assignments and, I like to think, do them well. But when things went bad, I was prey to the voices that told me I was no good. Losing the job proved that to me.

The next job I went to was editing textbooks. My supervisor knew me and knew that I had bipolar disorder. The fact that she understood helped me keep on an even keel for a while. I developed little techniques to stave off difficulties. But some of my coping mechanisms were unacceptable. (Apparently, it’s okay to have a cigarette break but not a crossword puzzle break.)

Then my supervisor left. I said to her, “I’m going to miss you,” and she replied, “I know.” Prophetic words. I was open with my new supervisor about having bipolar disorder and was quite taken aback when she asked, “What does that mean?” Unprepared to give a proper explanation, I blinked and replied simply, “It means I’ll have good days and bad days.”

From that point on, my performance and their satisfaction with me fell, until I received a bad review, the first one I had ever had. Before the six-month probation period was up, I left of my own accord, determined to make it as a freelancer.

There were personal circumstances at the time, including my disorder, that made me less capable. I became responsible for my mother’s health and finances. I could easily miss half a day of work just getting her to her various appointments. That no doubt affected many of my job functions, particularly my attendance and my ability to concentrate. My major breakdown began not long after I left that job.

The thing is, in 2008, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) added bipolar disorder as a covered condition. Employers were (and as of this writing still are) required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to affected individuals. Examples of reasonable accommodations include job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, and “a change or adjustment to a job or work environment.”

To receive accommodations under the ADA, an employee must disclose their bipolar disorder (which I did, at least at the second job) and request accommodations (which I didn’t do, other than offering to work from home).

The EEOC (2009) has a publication called “Psychiatric Disabilities and the ADA,” which is available online at http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/psych.html. Among their recommendations to help a bipolar employee continue to function in the work environment – maintain stamina and concentration; stay organized and meet deadlines; work with supervisors; and handle stress, emotions, and attendance issues – are these:

  • Allow flexible scheduling
  • Allow for time off for counseling
  • Allow work from home during part of the day or week
  • Provide space enclosures or private office
  • Allow telephone calls during work hours to doctors and others for needed support
  • Provide flexible leave for health problems
  • Allow the employee to make up time missed
  • Maintain open channels of communications between the employee and the new and old supervisor in order to ensure an effective transition

I know there are those who would consider such accommodations “coddling.” And I wouldn’t have needed them all, or all of them at the same time. But even an understanding of my closed door and my need to work at home would have helped.

Do I Have PTSD?

Once a therapist I was considering going to put down on my form that I was suffering from PTSD. She based this on the fact that I was having nightmares and flashbacks to the toxic relationship that I counted as a significant part of my past.

It was rubbish, I thought. I had never been in the Vietnam or Iraq war. And her idea of my trauma was that I supposedly had been coerced by an older man into doing sexual things that, had I been in my right mind, I would have objected to.

I chose a different therapist, who was bemused, to say the least, at that therapist’s notes. I had had a relationship with an older man and done sexual things that were not precisely the plainest vanilla, but I had surely not been coerced into them. (The gaslighting was a separate issue, one I did not recognize at the time.)

I still have the dreams of being back in his house, and I am occasionally triggered by things that remind me of the relationship, especially when I am depressed or otherwise vulnerable, but by and large, I don’t think that I have PTSD based on that.

Then, recently, I was hit with a more physical trauma. I survived a tornado that destroyed the house I was living in, taking the roof off the second floor where I was sleeping. I have also had nightmares about that and anxiety whenever there are storms and lightning. So, do I have PTSD now?

Let’s see. For starters, mirecc.va.gov provides a “civilian checklist” of PTSD symptoms:

  • Avoid activities or situations because they remind you of a stressful experience from the past
  • Trouble remembering important parts of a stressful experience from the past
  • Loss of interest in things that you used to enjoy
  • Feeling distant or cut off from other people
  • Feeling emotionally numb or being unable to have loving feelings for those close to you
  • Feeling as if your future will somehow be cut short
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Feeling irritable or having angry outbursts
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Being “super alert” or watchful on guard
  • Feeling jumpy or easily startled

To begin with, many of the symptoms which I have are also indicative of depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder – loss of interest in enjoyable pursuits, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating. And I have noticed a few of the other signs – jumpiness and irritability, for example.

But, by and large, aside from the dreams and flashbacks, I have few symptoms that are attributable to PTSD but not to bipolar disorder.

I was talking with my therapist the other week and posed the question to her: Could I have PTSD?

“There are all kinds of trauma,” she said, “and all kinds of reactions to it.” I think what she meant was that I didn’t need to worry about having a specific label. I have been through traumatic events and I have had reactions to them. The reactions and symptoms may not rise to the level that constitutes clinical PTSD, but I have been affected by them nonetheless.

I don’t want to minimize the suffering of those who have been diagnosed with PTSD or those who are suffering from it without ever acquiring the label. I know that what I have experienced cannot compare to what some of them have experienced, and I can only hope it never does.

But still I think there are a lot of us out there who could count ourselves among the “walking wounded,” who have experienced physical or psychological traumas and still have adverse reactions to them. Call it borderline PTSD or some other type of stress disorder, if using the label PTSD seems arrogant or insensitive.

But know that there are other traumas besides war that can leave a person damaged, struggling to find themselves among the shards of a shattered world. We may not have lost a part of our physical selves, but the damage to our psyches can be just as real.

 

 

Growing May Take a While

I saw a meme the other day that said, “Grow through what you go through.” I thought to myself, “This is going to take a while.”

Now, I’m not saying that the meme promotes a bad idea. I just mean that it’s not as easy as the meme makes it sound. Memes are like that. They encapsulate a difficult and painful process into a succinct platitude that never captures the reality of what it purports to express.

It is certainly possible to grow because of bad experiences that you have gone through, and I have surely done this. But it hasn’t been quick or easy. Not that it is for anyone, but especially not for people with serious mental illnesses.

Bipolar disorder, and bipolar depression in particular, often leads one to recall and obsess about the very things one would most like to forget. (Of course, this happens with unipolar depression, too.) It’s like having a recorder in your head that replays the most painful, embarrassing, humiliating, or devastating events in your life. And there is no “off” button or even a “pause.”

Getting through something is not the same as getting over something. And growing through something is something else again. It takes as long as it takes. There is no way to rush it or to speed it up.

Take grief, to choose an example that most people with and without mental disorders are familiar with. I saw a TV show once in which various characters were concerned that the hero had not “gotten over” the death of a friend as quickly as they thought he should. I remember thinking, “That’s stupid. There’s no arbitrary limit on how long a person should grieve.” I know that in days past, a mourning period of a year was customary, with restrictions on dress and activities. That’s stupid too. It may take a few months or a year or the rest of your life, depending on how close you were to the deceased and the circumstances of her or his death.

Deaths don’t have to be physical, either. The death of a relationship can be just as soul-searing, as traumatic, as a literal death. It’s still a loss and one that you may have put your whole heart and soul into.

Of course, it’s great if you can grow through the experience. It’s possible to acquire a new depth of spirit when you go through something traumatic. You can emerge stronger and more resilient and more compassionate because of the experience. I think that’s what the meme was talking about.

But if the trauma – the death or separation or other experience – is fraught with pain as well as grief, then growing through it can be even harder and take even longer. A son whose abusive mother dies has feelings that can hardly be expressed, a jumble of emotions that’s almost impossible to articulate, much less grow through. The end of a relationship with a gaslighter may evoke relief as well as grief, conflicting emotions that can impede growth. These and other situations can call up memories and feelings that one wants to escape, not dwell on. But processing them seems perhaps the only way of growing through them.

That process cannot be rushed. It may take years of bad dreams and flashbacks – at least it did for me – as well, perhaps, as a period of therapy that, like grief, takes as long as it takes to make progress in growing through whatever happened. From outside the situation, it may seem like the person is wallowing in the pain or grief. But on the inside, the process of growing may be occurring at a rate that you can’t see or understand.

In other words, if a person has been through a trauma, don’t expect him or her to “get over it” on what you think is a proper timescale. Some plants, like dandelions, grow incredibly rapidly. Others, like oaks, grow incredibly slowly. For each, it takes as long as it takes.

 

The Stressor I Didn’t Realize I Had

You’ve seen those lists of life stressors, the ones where they assign you so many points for each stressful life event that occurred during the past year and use the total to calculate the likelihood of your becoming physically ill. Death of a spouse or child is at the top of the list, for 100 points. Marriage, divorce, taking out a mortgage (or losing your home), and even retirement are on the list.

The lists you find in various places differ in the details. Some list only ten major stressors, while others list 20 or more. (Nowhere in any of the lists does being diagnosed with, or living with, a serious mental illness appear. Apparently, only physical illnesses are considered stressful.)

I’ve managed to avoid a lot of the major stressors this year, though I can count retirement, my husband’s heart attack, and losing our home in my total. But there was one life event on one of the lists that I hadn’t even considered: changing one’s residence.

When I thought about it I could understand it, though. Moving is a major disruption of your life. It entails endless details, physical effort, and a need for psychological stamina. Packing up your life in boxes is itself a stressful process. (Hell, I get stressed just packing for a vacation.)

In the past month and a half, we’ve moved a total of four times, if you count the night we were evacuated from our tornado-damaged house to the Red Cross shelter. (Not that we did any packing for that. The rescue squad just yelled, “Grab your medications and come with us!”) We then moved to a hotel, then a pet-friendly hotel, and finally to a rental house where we can stay for up to a year while our house is rebuilt. (We had good insurance.)

It was the last move that was possibly most traumatic, though it was the one that brought us closest to a “normal” situation. A whole house. A full kitchen. A backyard. A mailing address. Like the hotels, it came with various rented amenities such as linens and dishes that made the transition easier, but it was still foreign to us.  We’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and are adjusting, but it’s undeniable that the whole process has stressed us very badly.

I know that we are fortunate in so many ways. The closest we came to true homelessness was the day spent in the Red Cross shelter. We both survived the tornado physically intact, and so did our cats. We know we still had a lot to be thankful for, and we were, and are.

The tornado was the really big stressor, but I only recently realized how much stress the constant moving added to the toll. As a person with bipolar disorder, I find all these moves jarring as well as stressful. I like to cocoon, rarely leaving the house. I want my comfort objects around me. The series of moves tapped into my fear of abandonment, my anxiety around packing, and my feeling of being overwhelmed by life. My husband, who is given to depression, feels the loss of all the things that embodied his memories very keenly. Our local paper observed that many of the tornado victims were suffering PTSD. I may be among them, as I have had tornado dreams and other sorts of upsetting ones.

Will we succumb to stress-induced physical illness? Who knows? Have we been suffering from the psychological effects of stress? Definitely. If you had asked me two months ago whether moving was a stressor, I would most likely have said yes.  But I had no idea of the reality. We had intended to stay in our home for the rest of our lives. When suddenly that became not an option, we came unmoored both physically and psychologically.

Stability has always been a problem for me, but now my husband and I have even less of it than usual. When we finally get a chance to settle in, take a deep breath and a day off, perhaps the stress will lift a little. But until then, we’ll keep slogging through it.

 

When Trauma and Mental Illness Happen Together

Couples who experience serious trauma may go through the experience together, but they do not always stay together afterward. The death of a loved one, infidelity, the onset of a disease – many things can test a couple’s ability to cope with the event and with each other.

Serious mental illness can also be a relationship killer. Dealing with symptoms, treatments, medications, setbacks, hospitalization, mood swings, and just generally going off the rails is more of a task than many couples can handle.

Combine serious trauma and serious mental illness, though, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a new level of disaster.

One of the potential pitfalls is two people who grieve in different manners or on different timescales. One partner may feel it necessary to process events aloud and at length, while the other may prefer to process feelings internally, without conversation. One person may take a year to get over a death, while the other is still grieving after three or more.

Then there’s couple who have different agendas when it comes to whatever is troubling them both. One may feel that moving on is the best response to a traumatic event, while the other person can’t let go of the past.

Many relationships crack and break apart under the strain. And those are just for couples who don’t have mental disorders.

Now take an example (not completely at random) of a couple who have lost their home in a natural disaster. He suffers from depression. She has bipolar disorder. He grieves the loss of their home and all their belongings to a point that she considers excessive. She kicks into hypomania and focuses on the small details of their situation. He thinks she doesn’t grieve. She thinks he needs to help her address the future.

It will be easier for this couple to stay on track and stay together if they can talk about what has happened and what is happening. That may well involve talking with other people – a trusted friend, a professional counselor, even each other. But it’s important that both people feel that they are being listened to and, more importantly, being heard. And that’s not always something that the other partner can provide.

If the couple can talk to each other, their communication skills will be severely tested. Depressed people and those with bipolar disorder both tend to isolate in times of stress. Processing feelings may not be either person’s greatest strength. And those different timescales and differing agendas are likely to throw up roadblocks should they try to talk about it all.

Being aware that trauma and mental illness both have detrimental effects on a relationship may help. Although even previously strong relationships can be stressed to the breaking point, stepping outside oneself to try to understand the other person can be enlightening. Feelings that seem callous or stubborn or flippant or shallow can just be different ways of dealing with trauma. Thinking the way you feel is the only way to feel will severely impede healing.

If it sounds like I am trying to remind myself of all these things, well, I am. We lost our home in a tornado, and my husband and I were dealing with mental difficulties before that happened. I feel that I must be on alert now for any signs that our relationship is cracking. But it’s not just my problem. The disaster, and the mental disorders, and the relationship are things that we share. They have led to a tangle of emotions and reactions that aren’t predictable or rational or even helpful.

We know the basic things we need to do – take our meds, practice self-care (and help each other do so as well), talk when necessary and be alone when that is what’s needed. We have to keep our eyes on what’s important: our mental health and getting through these difficult times intact both personally and as a couple. And we need to see the humor where there is any. But this isn’t the ordinary sort of disagreement that lasts a day or a week. It’s something we’ll be working on long-term.

Wish us luck.

When Will My Breakdown Happen?

For those of you who follow this blog, this is another chapter in the saga of our experience with the Memorial Day tornado, which destroyed our house. My husband, who lives with depression, and I have been coping very well so far.

I saw my psychiatrist on Saturday. During the session, I mentioned that I hadn’t had a breakdown yet, but that I knew it was coming. “I hope not,” he replied.

Frankly, I think he’s being unrealistic. I keep saying it will come when we are settled in a living space, which we now are (a rental house) and when I don’t have to deal with insurance, housing, furniture, landlords, finances, utilities, and the thousand-and-one things that I’ve been in charge of dealing with. (Dan has been in charge of the more physical stuff, like salvage at our dearly lamented former house. He’s better at that and I’m better at working the phones and the computer.)

I think my brain will want to decompress with a crying jag and a couple of days in bed, at the very least. I plan to start work again next Monday, so it will likely happen during this next week. I know you can’t schedule these things, but I hope that’s the way it works out.

Dan is already at the ragged edge. He went back to work a couple of weeks ago, though physical health problems interfered with that somewhat. On Saturday he slept the whole day, having worked all night without sleep, owing to our moving out of the hotel and into the house in just a couple of hours. His emotions are also closer to the surface, too. He’s expressed anger at the salvage people and a need to cry when he sees what’s left of the house and our belongings.

Much as I dislike having breakdowns, or mini-melt-downs, or whatever you call them, I think sometimes they are both necessary and inevitable. When a bipolar brain gets too clogged up with the effort of coping during especially trying circumstances, it seems only natural that when the stress lets up even a little, that brain will need to let out all the feelings that have been suppressed while dealing with the crisis.

Bottling up your feelings is generally not a good idea, but sometimes you just have to in order to keep going. But like a shaken bottle of soda, the pressure builds up and there has to be a way to release it. The metaphoric bottle may simply explode, spraying shrapnel and its contents over everyone and everything within reach. This is not pretty, but it is understandable.

Keeping your feelings suppressed too long – putting them in a box and sitting on the lid – is not healthy, either. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the emotions and deal with them, they may fester and spring out of the box at the most inopportune time. Or you may turn off your emotions entirely and not be able to feel anything – including relief and satisfaction, in addition to the distress, anger, and/or despair that are in that box. A lot of us, including me, have done this for years in the course of our disorder. Feeling nothing but numbness can seem appealing if the alternative is chaos and pain.

So, in a way, I am hoping that I do have a bit of a breakdown, in a safe space where I can rage, weep, isolate, and grieve what we have lost. I don’t think I’ll be quite whole again until I have gone through the emotions that I’ve been putting off.

This week I’ve made an appointment with my psychotherapist, whom I stopped seeing about a year ago. I hope that she will be able to help me process the process, as it were. I think it’s definitely time for a “check-up from the neck up.” Maybe in her office, I will find that safe space and begin to feel the feelings that I know are hiding somewhere deep inside me.

 

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