Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘my experiences’

My Emotional Support Animals

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

Anxiety Says No, but Mental Health Says, “Do It!”

It’s tough enough for someone with bipolar or depression or anxiety to go outside, where it’s all people-y. It’s another level of achievement when such a person deliberately puts herself or himself out into the public eye.

But that’s just what I did this week. My publisher arranged for me to do a reading and signing of my book at a local branch of a national bookstore. And I agreed to do it. Thursday night was my debut.

Let me go back a few steps. I do have some experience speaking in public, so it wasn’t going to be a completely novel experience. Those occasions were, shall we say, a bit distant in time, mostly before my bipolar disorder reached its heights (or depths). In high school, I did debate and extemporaneous speaking. In grad school, I taught introductory English classes. During my somewhat-less-than-successful business years, I once addressed a power breakfast meeting. I even opened with a joke.

I was prepared to open with a joke (or at least a witticism) this time, too. But my plans soon flew out the window.

I had prepared – or over-prepared, probably – somewhat obsessively. I spent spoons like they were disposable plastic. I picked out an outfit and a back-up outfit, including earrings and back-up earrings. I did my hair. I agonized over which pieces from my book to read, then printed them out in huge type so I wouldn’t have to squint at them. I took an anti-anxiety pill and Immodium, just in case. I was fortunate that Thursday was my day off and also my husband’s, so he could be present as my emotional support animal, wearing one of my book t-shirts.

My expectations, such as they were, took a nose-dive when only two people showed up – both friends of mine, one of whom had already bought my book. It was time to rearrange my plans on the spot, not really one of my strong suits. Why had I knocked myself out making plans if the universe wasn’t going to cooperate with them? I had thought that at least half a dozen people would turn up. I was trying to keep my expectations reasonable, after all.

I’ll admit that when I saw such a small audience, I felt a wave of despair. In actuality, it proved good that they were both friends of mine, because they were a receptive audience who wished me well.

Given the meager audience, though, I abandoned my introduction (though I worked my joke in later). These people already knew me. I gave a brief synopsis of “What is bipolar disorder?” and plunged into my readings.

I had tried out one of my readings previously, when I was on a podcast for indie authors. Of course, I had no eye contact with my audience then and no real idea how my performance went over. On Thursday, I explained Spoon Theory, as it came up in one of the pieces I was to read. I had chosen two of my more light-hearted pieces, though on serious topics (psychotropics and side effects, and cognitive dissonance). Then I finished with a reading of a piece on why I write about bipolar disorder and why I put myself out there to the extent that I do in this blog and my book, and indeed my public appearance.

The big surprise of the evening came when I invited a Q&A session. My husband fed me questions to get things started and my friends also had queries. What I hadn’t been expecting, however, was that a few people in the bookstore cafe where this all occurred got sucked into the discussion and had questions of their own, though they had no idea that the event was scheduled at all. One worked at a local university and had heard his students talking about having bipolar disorder. Another was a woman studying psychology in order to become a counselor. I didn’t always have the answers, and I’m sure I bobbled some of the explanations, but I did my best to come up with reasonable answers about treatments and medications, self-care, and so on.

Then came the signing portion of the evening. I signed a book for one of my friends and the counselor-in-training asked me to sign her notebook with any little inspirational words I might have. (I winged it. I was tired by then and am not usually inclined to be inspirational.)

Then my husband and one of my friends and I went out for milkshakes, which I highly recommend as a way to decompress after such a fraught experience.

All things considered, I’m glad I took the risk and gave it the old college try, as it were. If nothing else, it was good practice for the next time I speak in public, perhaps when my second book comes out.

The reason that I write about bipolar disorder and my experiences with it is that I want to share what I’ve learned and lived. I think I did that Thursday, even if not to the extent that I had hoped. I don’t regret the anxiety and the preparation that went into it and, all things considered, count it as a win. When I think about the melt-downs I could have had – before, during, and after – I feel pride that I kept my depression and anxiety at bay for long enough to share information about bipolar and healing and mental health.

I think it was worth putting myself out there.

 

Riding the Mania

This has been a couple of good weeks for me. Either that or I’ve been riding the wave of mania.

In the past, I’ve written about how fleeting the feeling of hypomania can be (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-df). One pinprick and it bursts, leaving nothing but the air. Maybe that’s because I was hypomanic or rapid cycling at the time. Or maybe it was just a temporary feeling of joy that lasted only a few minutes and then retreated in the face of disappointment.

It’s difficult trusting your feelings when you have a mood disorder. I always have to ask myself, is this feeling a reaction to the real circumstances that surround me, or is it just a glitch that occurs between my synapses? It’s tiring questioning all your emotions all the time.

I’ve been stable for many months now. I’m not symptom-free. I still find it difficult to do daily tasks or leave the house, though lately, I have gotten up, groomed, dressed, and out of the house – including a record of three or four times in one week, rather than once or twice a month. But I have been feeling what feels like genuine happiness.  Contentment. Energy. Productivity. Engagement. Can I trust this?

Since over-thinking is one of my superpowers, let’s take a closer look. Do I have any of the symptoms of mania or hypomania to go with my lightened moods? Hypersexuality? No. Racing thoughts? No. Risk-taking behaviors? No.

But I have been overspending. Maybe. Our finances have improved of late, so there’s no real harm in buying a few things that I’ve been putting off. And my purchases have not been excessive – nothing over $30, and that was a birthday present for my husband. Still, I have been beset by the feeling, right before I hit checkout, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” or “I don’t really need that.” Again, my feelings are questionable. Maybe my purchases are influenced by hypomania and the stable part of my brain is warning me. On the other hand, the purchases may be modest and reasonable, and my questioning a holdover of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” from when our budget had no room at all for discretionary spending.

Then there’s my writing. I’ve written a couple of extra essays and guest blog posts in addition to my regular two blogs per week. I’m getting them done early, too. Once I even decided a post I was working on wasn’t very good, so I wrote a new one to take its place in a single day. I renamed and redesigned my other blog (newly christened “But I Digress…,” still available at janetcobur.wordpress.com). But is what I’m writing any good? It’s hard to tell. My stats on blog readership haven’t been as good as usual, but the editors were happy with the guest posts I wrote. The rewritten post was selected for special treatment on Medium.

It’s been observed that I could over-analyze a ham sandwich. But I am tired of examining every mood and emotion to be sure it isn’t pathological. Having unstable emotions is not a pleasant thing to live with, but neither is this level of self-doubt.

I saw my psychiatrist last weekend and he thought there were plenty of good things happening in my life – my published book (amzn.to/2RLU8hP), the extra writing, an upcoming podcast (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Pi), a science fiction convention to attend – to explain my good mood. If he isn’t worried, why should I be?

All in all, I’m very tempted to say, “what the hell,” and ride this wave until or unless it crashes.

What Does “Normal” Mean?

When I was young, I wanted like anything to be normal. I didn’t know what normal meant, but I knew I wasn’t it.

I had a lot of the trappings of what passed for normal in that day and age: parents still married, one sister, suburban house in a town with good schools, church down the street, same-age children living within a block, working father, stay-at-home mom, abundant books and toys, and vacations to visit the relatives.

But I knew. There was something different about me. Everyone else knew it too. I wasn’t normal. I was too sensitive, whatever that meant. I was precocious. I didn’t fit in and I didn’t know how to.

As I reached my tween and teen years, I encountered a dilemma. I desperately wanted to be normal. Normal kids had friends, got to hang out with each other, laughed and smiled a lot, wore what was in fashion. They gave off an aura of being normal. I longed for that. I was in love with the idea of normalcy.

But every time I tried, I failed. I was always too weird, too emotional, too smart, too something.

So I began to hate the idea of normalcy. If I didn’t fit in, then by God, I would scorn the idea of fitting in. I would embrace non-normalcy. I would hang with the few other misfits I could find. I would eschew the latest fashions and trends. I didn’t rebel, exactly. I was too timid for that (yet another too).

And I blamed the suburb and the Midwestern state where I lived. Maybe this kind of normal was bland, spiritless, and hum-drum. Maybe I was right not to want to be of it.

So, of course, I tried the geographical cure, going away to college, where I thought the people would be more like me, where there would be enough diversity that I could find others like me and finally fit in. Be normal within a different definition of normal.

And it worked, at least partially. But by that time it was too late for me to ever be normal.

What happened was that bipolar disorder caught up with me. I had probably been struggling with it all the time I was a weird kid who didn’t fit in. Other kids threw rocks at me. My moods were extreme. I cried and laughed at things that were neither sad nor funny. Being betrayed by a friend sent me into a severe meltdown.

By the time I was in college, there was no doubt that I was struggling with a mood disorder, although we didn’t have that term for it at the time. At the time it seemed like major depression and for the most part, it was, or at least that was the only mood I could identify.

Years later, when I got a proper diagnosis and the right medication, it was easier to look back and see my bipolar tendencies slowly building over the years. But I’ll admit something – I still both love and hate the idea of normalcy. I still want to fit in and I’ve found a few groups where I seem to. But I also want to embrace my oddness, celebrate my differences, glory in my assorted varieties of geekiness.

I never want to go back to that lost, lonely, spinning-out-of-control kid who was always too much or not enough. My lifestyle helps since I don’t have to try to fit in at a nine-to-five office job. My husband helps, as I was at least normal enough to find one. And my writing helps, so I can work out some of my conflicting emotions and bipolar moods through this blog and other venues.

Here’s another reason to hope: Matt Norris, a blogger at The Thinking Orc, recently wrote:

Disapproving of people who aren’t “Normal” went from a virtue to vice within my lifetime. The shift in public morals changed the rules on what it took to be seen as a good person. It used to be about not doing anything weird, and looking down on anybody who did. Now it’s about not doing anything cruel, and looking down on anyone who does.

Besides, to quote songwriter Steve Goodman, “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” I know that now. So in that sense, I do at last fit in.

I Hate My Job, But I Don’t Hate My Life

The other day I found myself thinking, “I hate my job. I hate my life.” But then I stopped. The truth was that I do hate my job, but I don’t hate my life.

There have been times when the two thoughts absolutely went together. I well remember getting up in the morning and thinking, “Now I have to go to the bad place where they make me unhappy.” Unfortunately, the thought would color my whole day. Instead of unwinding after a rotten day – or a whole series of them – I brooded about what came before and dreaded what would come the next day. I was caught in a loop of bad thoughts and they wouldn’t let me go, or enjoy, or relax. My life seemed to stretch out into an unending series of more of the same.

Of course, that was when I was deep in bipolar depression, improperly medicated, and unaware of self-care. Oh, the job was indeed pretty terrible. I was an editor, a writer, and a proofreader, tasks and occupations I normally enjoy. There’s something wonderful about taking something mediocre and making it good, or even taking something bad and making it better. Once or twice I even got compliments on the job I was doing.

But at that time, when I hated it, the job was a misery. A reorganization had put the editorial department under the marketing department, which had been true in fact for a long time but was now formally acknowledged, with a resulting new chain of command. Anything I wrote was essentially a puff piece for some advertiser. Three senior editors were fighting over my time and attention, each determined that I should work on their project first and foremost.

I wasn’t quite ready for a major breakdown, but I was close. I hated both my job and my life.

Now I have a tedious and basically unfulfilling job. I transcribe audios of boring business meetings and lawyer consultations, relieved only by the occasional podcast. On top of that, I’m a really crappy typist, so it takes me hours to do a job that others could zoom through. Add in foreign accents and mumblers, and you get a job that brings me no joy, but only a modest paycheck.

But for some reason it also suits me. I work four days a week, at home in my pajamas. No one is looking over my shoulder. If I make my deadlines (and I do), I can expect fairly steady work, except during the holiday season. I earn enough to supplement my social security without going over their limit on extra income.

I also have medications that stabilize me and a much better knowledge of self-care. Working at home for only one boss is part of that. So is taking meal breaks whenever I want them and spending that time with my husband. Eating nutritious meals. Letting myself say, “I hate it! I hate it!” after a particularly trying assignment. Reading a book before I go to bed. Snuggling with the kitties. Allowing all these things to seep beneath my skin and feed my soul.

I don’t belong to the regular-massage-and-decadent-chocolates school of self-care. Maybe I’m a simple soul, but I prefer the everyday comforts that make my life not a misery and help me appreciate what I can of my situation. Not that I’ve got anything against either massages or chocolate. But to me, they are special indulgences rather than a part of my daily self-care.

In the end, medication and self-care are what keep me going, hating my job, but not my life.

Rebuilding Myself

After my last (and, I hope, last) major bipolar breakdown, my therapist pointed out that I had a unique opportunity: I could reclaim those parts of my life that had fallen away, or I could leave them behind.

I could choose. That idea was very powerful.

I had a lot of irrational feelings and associations that I needed to reconsider after leaving a toxic relationship. I had given up needlework after making an elaborate set of chair backs destined to be inherited by someone else’s children that I would never see. I got to dismiss those feelings and reclaim my creativity. I chose to take up needlework again. Whoever’s children can have the chair backs.

In fact, I had bad associations with nearly everything associated with that relationship: folk music, guitar lessons, cooking and entertaining, even blue spruce trees and cobalt blue glassware, for God’s sake. I reclaimed the music and the cooking, but let the entertaining largely fall by the wayside, as it triggered my bipolar disorder as well as my memories. I got over the blue spruce and learned to shrug at anything cobalt blue, though I still don’t buy any.

None of these things caused my major meltdown, though they may have contributed to my shaky mental state. They were simply things that I had lost along the way. And since I was in the process of rebuilding myself afterward, I could view them as stones to build something solid with or as broken bricks to discard.

Rebuilding from the bipolar breakdown was not as easy as merely taking back a few hobbies and interests. It involved reevaluating large parts of my life. Would I go back to school and get another degree? I would not. I weighed the idea and decided it would be too much stress just to add a few more letters after my name. Would I resurrect my mostly-dormant writing career? Yes. And I’ve taken it further than I ever thought I would. Would I reconnect with the country music I loved best but had been shamed for listening to? Of course!

The process of putting myself back together is one I have been through several times now, and each time I got to choose what to bring with me and what to leave behind. Bipolar disorder, much as I hate what it has done to me in so many ways, has at least given me that chance to reinvent myself if I wished to or resurrect myself if I felt like it.

I’ve always hated when people say about some bad experience I’ve had such as my appalling relationship or my bipolar condition, “But you’ve learned so much from it!” I always think, “Maybe so, but the lesson wasn’t worth the price I paid.” But having the opportunity to rebuild myself – and especially to choose what I want to be part of the new me – is very nearly worth it. I owe that epiphany to my longtime therapist, Dr. B. But I’m the one doing the work. And it is indeed very much a work in progress. I am a work in progress.

Bipolar disorder is one of the bricks I have to rebuild with, and it always threatens to make my new structure a bit shaky rather than completely solid. But isn’t every life a work in progress? Don’t we all have bricks or timbers or stones that are at least a little unsound or misshapen, that we have to shore up or fit in as best we can?

I can’t guarantee that my structure won’t crumble again, though it has been relatively stable for some time now. But at least now I know that I have the ability to start over yet again. And to choose myself. That choice is both powerful and empowering. Just as it is said that all writing is rewriting, all my building is rebuilding.

And I’m okay with that.

Good Enough

I know a man who used to be caught in all-or-nothing thinking. Anything at all – a dinner, a gift – had to be “fantastic” or it was “wrecked.” “Okay” wasn’t good enough. “Fine” wasn’t good enough. “Nice” wasn’t good enough. “Good enough” wasn’t good enough. He heard them all as “wrecked.”

Fortunately, over the years, he learned to accept compliments that were lesser than “fantastic.” He could even understand “needs work” or “meh” without feeling that those meant “wrecked.”

There was I time when I thought my life was wrecked. Irretrievably, permanently wrecked. All I had to look forward to was someone recognizing my wretched wreckedness and having me committed. Fantastic was never even an option.

Later I learned that my life wasn’t wrecked, though it surely hit some rough patches and there were a few things that were wrecked along the way – friendships, my self-esteem. But gradually I learned that the problem was not wreckage, it was bipolar disorder.

And now my life is not wretched and wrecked. Bipolar disorder has backed off.

I don’t think I’ve been cured of bipolar disorder, because I don’t think that’s possible. I think that the most that you can say is that I’m in remission.

And that’s okay.

I’m content with the idea that I’ll have to take medications for the rest of my life. They’re what got me here and they’re what keep me here, in the land of Good Enough.

I don’t ever expect to be normal – whatever that means – but I do expect to remain reasonably functional. I have a good marriage. I can do paying work. I have a comfortable home. I’m stable most of the time. I go to a psychiatrist only for med checks.

I have just enough symptoms to remind me how I used to be (that is, dreadful, miserable, and sometimes numb). I still don’t like to go out of the house, but I can if I need to. I still have to lean on my husband for support. I still get free-floating anxiety at times. But those are symptoms I can live with.

Of course, the road to remission has been very (very) long. I’ve fought my way through meltdowns. I’ve had to learn coping skills and some degree of self-care. I’ve tried nearly every combination of medications on the market, except for the newest ones – I’m not switching from what works now in hopes of getting a little bit better. Because that might not happen.

And because I’m good enough.

I’m good enough to write blogs. I’m good enough to write a book (I wrote a book!). I’m good enough to have lots of friends, both online and off. I’m good enough to help other people who are going through the same things I did.

I’ll never be perfect, but let’s be honest, that was never a goal of mine or even a possibility, really.

But I feel I have beaten this bipolar disorder; it hasn’t beaten me.

And that’s good enough for me.

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