Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘positive thinking’

I Don’t Need a “Pep Talk”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here for you.

You can always call me.

I’m sorry you’re hurting.

Tell me if you need anything.

Do you need distraction?

Do you need to be alone for a while?

Do you need to talk?

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

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

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

Flap My Arms and Fly

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not a big fan of positive thinking memes. In fact, they have the opposite effect on me. Someone who claims that a positive attitude is all that I need to change my life is likely to get only a “pfui” from me. As a person with bipolar disorder, I sometimes have major depression, and no amount of thinking is going to pull me out of it. In fact, the only thinking I can do at times like that is likely only to pull me farther into the depths.

If affirmations and positive thoughts work for you, I say, good. If mindfulness and meditation are your jam, then I say, whatever works. But please don’t try to deny my perception of reality.

That perception is that there are some things that positive thinking can’t do. That there are some situations that are immune to positive thinking. That positive thinking can’t change the outcome of everything.

Admittedly, positive thinking can change one’s attitude toward one’s circumstances. One can choose, as my father did, to be determined, stubborn, and positive in the face of his diagnosis with multiple myeloma. It likely helped him live long past what his doctors expected.

But not everyone can do that, and maybe not everyone should. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that acceptance was the final stage of the process of dying, not the first. The same, I think, is true of grieving. Anger, denial, bargaining, and depression are natural responses to cataclysmic events, including diagnoses, and in this case, particularly diagnoses of serious mental illness.

Although my father was well-known for his “positive mental attitude” about his cancer diagnosis, I remember a time when he could not even say the word.  He swallowed it, leaving out the vowels: cncr. And I remember that at times he was in denial about his illness and tried to do things he was physically not capable of doing – even, at one point, walking down the short hall to the bathroom. Even positivity could not help him there.

I watch a lot of competition shows on TV – Chopped, Forged in Fire, etc. – and I often hear the contestants say that they are doing it to prove to their children that they can do anything they set their minds to.

A part of me always says, “Okay, then. Flap your arms and fly.”

I know that sounds cynical and bitter, but it’s also the truth. The contestant who was cut in the first round has not done what he or she intended to or believed he or she could do. After that, they espouse the more reasonable and attainable lesson that their children, or others, should try to follow their dreams and take that trial as a noble effort, even if it doesn’t end in victory.

I have bipolar disorder. There are some heights I can never fly to, no matter how hard I flap my arms. I know I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I know that, even with medication, I will still experience mood swings. I know that I will never be able to really trust my moods – that a setback might send me teetering over the edge or a triumph might make me imagine that I can indeed fly.

And, you know what? I’m okay with that. What I’ve accomplished with the help of medication, therapy, and the support of my family and friends, is good and is good enough. My dreams are down-to-earth, not grandiose. I do not dream of flying, but of remaining as stable as I can, right here and now. I choose not to delude myself with unattainable goals.

My father didn’t think he was going to live forever, but he was determined to live as long as he could, and to enjoy what he could in spite of the pain. I think that’s as ambitious as someone with a catastrophic illness can get. I admire him for his sustained effort and his stubborn resistance to despair. I admire those of my friends – and there are some – who can choose not to be dragged down by the circumstances of life.

Maybe it’s different for me because my disorder by its nature involves a component of lowered mood. But my expectations are not to flap my arms and fly, but just to keep on keeping on.

Beware the Mental Health Meme

This post was specially written for BlogHer’s Social Media and Blogging section, but I thought it worth sharing here too. (Credit for the photo goes to my husband, Dan Reily.)



Most Internet memes are harmless, or even amusing. They proclaim that someone has a wonderful granddaughter or that kittens are cute.

But some memes that travel the world sow unhelpful or even hurtful ideas as they go. The one above appears mild and even inspiring, but to a person with mental illness, it says a lot more than appears on the surface.

The meme that started me on this train of thought was one that invited people to embrace the crazy or enjoy the madness or some such. As a person with mental illness – bipolar disorder – I found the message troubling. The comments were even more so. One said that manic-depressives could at least enjoy the mania.

Admittedly, mania comes with feelings of soaring confidence and a whirlwind of creativity. Mania can also prompt risky behaviors – reckless driving, shoplifting, unsafe or extramarital sex – that can lead to a lifetime of problems, including failed relationships, arrest records, serious debt, and worse. Those are surely the opposite of enjoyable.

But I didn’t know if I was alone in these feelings, so I asked other bipolar bloggers how they react to popular memes. Here’s what they had to say.

Nondescript inspirational memes (of the sort that proclaim daylight follows darkness) seem relatively harmless. Reactions went from “meh” to “a waste of time.” Bipolar blogger Brad Shreve ( likens them to affirmations. His research showed that evidence from reputable studies confirms that affirmations mitigate stress. Nevertheless, “I find most of them trite and condescending,” he says. “They just aren’t my thing. I choose meditation.”

Amy Balot, who blogs at, dislikes the sort of memes that tout positivity. “I do have a big problem with the way a lot of ‘motivational’ images seem to imply that all you need to do is think positive thoughts and your life will be hunky-dory,” she says. “It seems to be blaming people for things like depression or anxiety.”

Supposedly positive memes raise the hackles on a number of the bloggers. Dyane Leshin-Harwood, blogger at and author of the upcoming memoir Birth of a New Brain, says they range from “cool and empowering” to “[make] me feel guilty that my life isn’t as good as it could

be! It seems like it would bring anyone with bipolar depression down even

It does that to me as well.

Many such memes also promote a “bootstrap” approach to mental illness – which Jim Buchanan, who blogs at, finds “irritating”: “I feel that this sort of thinking is harmful and it essentially blames the person reading it for their problems by implying that they ‘don’t want to allow themselves’ what is needed for a good life.”

Shreve adds, “Usually these entail [the idea that] the individual can change by doing one thing – [changing] our attitude. As if we could just snap out of depression, mania and more, if we would just put [our] mind to it. I find these guilty of mental health shaming.”

And as for the “find-your-sanity-in nature” meme that began this article? Amy Balot doesn’t care for that type. “I don’t dispute that spending time with animals or outdoors can be great and even therapeutic; but I do dispute the implication that these things are a replacement for therapy or better than therapy,” she says. “It minimizes the struggles of the mentally ill and says they’d be ok if they just took their dogs for more walks in the woods. Not all problems are solved by a little sunshine and fresh air.”

Memes intended to be humorous are a gray area, since humor is so subjective. Personally, I don’t mind being called “crazy,” but many bipolar people do. Using “crazy,” “insane,” or any of the many synonyms – “weird,” “eccentric,” “not normal” – can make people with mental disorders feel as if the meme speaks directly to them, even if that wasn’t intended.

But some people with mental disorders enjoy a gentle poke of fun at themselves. Shreve agrees: “These can be touchy because they could hurt or offend someone who is going through a difficult time, but they help me.” (Here’s one of his favorites:

I must admit that I can sometimes see humor in our situations. I’ve written pieces called “The Lighter Side of Insomnia” and “Confessions of a Crazy Cat Lady.” It’s not a matter of malice being intended; I don’t think people who pass along memes that we consider hurtful are “out to get” those with mental disorders. But that’s the problem: They don’t think before they click “Share.”

So I’m asking: Please think first. One of four Americans will have a mental or mood disorder at some time during their lives. You wouldn’t make fun of someone with a physical illness. Ask yourself: Would this meme still be amusing or inspiring or helpful if you substituted fibromyalgia or diabetes or paraplegia for “mental illness”?

If not, think again.

On Dithering

If dithering were a power source, I could light up Chicago. Good thing it burns nerve endings instead of fossil fuels.

The last couple of weeks have seen a lot of dithering and anxiety. I hardly ever get to enjoy the rush of hypomania – except for that one brief spell a few weeks ago – because it comes out sideways as anxiety.

I also have a third-degree black belt in catastrophizing.

Both have gotten a workout lately, since a cyst was discovered in my left breast. (I wrote flippantly about mammograms on my other blog, so irony gifted me with this.)

I checked my usual sources (Mayo Clinic website and a friend who is a biologist and had a lumpectomy), and the consensus was that I had only the remotest chance of the anomaly turning out to be anything really dire.

Do you think that stopped my dithering?

Hell no! Of course not!

What could have gone wrong?

They could have stuck a needle in my breast to aspirate fluid and get a sample for the lab. (A friend who should know tells me that some people do this kind of thing for fun. Somehow, it doesn’t appeal to me.)

If the results were worse, I could have been scheduled for a lumpectomy. There was extra anxiety on this one because my friend almost had a mastectomy instead of a lumpectomy when the surgeon started making the wrong incision. (An operating room tech noticed, saving the day and the breast.)

And of course, my anxiety told me that a mastectomy could be in my future (either on purpose or accidentally, I suppose). My mother had a mastectomy, which added extra oomph to the dithering.

A mastectomy would suck for oh so many reasons. Cancer, surgery, body image issues, obviously.

Also, I would keep falling over to the right. And before the operation I’d have to take my breast on a farewell tour for all its friends and admirers.

Maybe worst of all, I would have to put up with all the pinkness and positivity. Not to denigrate this strategy for those who find it helpful, but I am not that person. Anyone with my brain chemistry is not going to respond to slogans and cheerleading and daily affirmations. (Reminder – As always with my posts, YMMV.)

Barbara Ehrenreich has written about this phenomenon in Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  Apparently many breast cancer survivors feel they must get something positive from the experience – appreciating life and family more and so on.

We’ve come a long way from Betty Rollins’s First, You Cry. Now it seems like we’re never supposed to.

The anticlimactic but welcome result came today: Everything is OK. I just need to keep up with yearly mammograms.

And now I can move on to the next thing that needs dithering about – the work I wasn’t able to do while I was catastrophizing.

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