Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘public perception’

Simone Biles: Mental Health Is Health Too

There’s been a lot of media interest lately in Simone Biles. The gymnast described by many as the Greatest of All Time withdrew from the Olympics, citing mental health reasons. Many news outlets and commenters have been understanding, but some have not. A Texas Deputy Attorney General, for example, called Biles a “selfish, childish national embarrassment,” which he apologized for six hours later. A podcaster called her “weak,” and said that her performance showed that “when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces.” After Biles pulled out, the team won a silver medal, with the Russians getting the gold.

Many have compared Biles with Kerri Strug, who performed the vault in the 1996 Olympics, despite having an injured leg. At the time she was praised for her courage and strength, although it turned out that the American Women’s Gymnastic Team would have won the gold even without Strug’s dramatic vault.

Biles’s situation and its comparison with Kerri Struggs serves to reinforce the idea that only physical injuries are “real” and that talking about and acting on mental health matters is not acceptable. Yes, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has talked about his struggle with depression, but only after the Games were over. It was brave of him to talk about it, but he received little to no backlash after deciding to talk openly about depression and suicidal ideation.

As in so many other situations, mental health and mental disorders are considered less “real” than physical disorders. And the pressure put on athletes and Olympic athletes in particular can be a factor in damaging their mental health. Athletes have long been encouraged to “play through the pain,” even when that results in severe physical injury. Few have considered how playing through psychological pain affects athletes.

Added to the stress of competition and the pressures of fans, parents, and coaches to succeed, many athletes have suffered through physical and sexual abuse. Simone Biles has commented that she is part of the #MeToo movement that has brought attention to previously unrecognized instances of sexual harassment and exploitation. In a lengthy tweet, Biles revealed that she was one of the victims of team physician Larry Nasser, who is now in jail following over 100 counts of such behavior. “As I continue to work through the pain,” Biles tweeted, “I kindly ask everyone to respect my privacy. This is a process, and one that I need more time to work through.” She could have tweeted the same thing regarding her recent mental health problems.

Another factor in the language surrounding Biles’s decision to remove herself from the Olympic competition is how many people talk about how she personally denied “us” a gold medal (as if all Americans were in contention for the medal) or ceded the victory to the Russians. Ideological matters ought not to be a point of discussion regarding an athlete’s mental health. But they are. People forget that the Olympic Games are just that – games. Too much patriotic fervor is whipped up based on the outcome and the international goodwill of the Games has been lost.

Along with the fact that an amazing athlete was strong enough not to let the pressures of competition further affect her mental health. Simone should be praised for her decision, not called weak and childish.

Words Matter

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is one of the worst lies that grownups tell to children. Children threw stones at me when I was a child (though they fortunately never broke my bones). But the many, many words they hurled hurt me deeply internally, rather than externally. I was bleeding inside from them, as much as I bled externally from the rocks.

Plenty of children feel the pain of words. We say, “Children are cruel” and leave it at that, or tell children to simply ignore cruel remarks. We have anti-bullying campaigns that are notably ineffective, especially in the face of cyberbullying. Children who hear demeaning words from their parents, teachers, or other adults are likely the most damaged.

People with mental disorders feel the pain of words, too. There are many ways this happens.

One of the most common taunts, often used in popular media, is “psycho.” One may possibly excuse Robert Bloch, who wrote the book Psycho in 1959, and Alfred Hitchcock, who made the movie in 1960, because they were products of their time, when microaggressions and the concept of nonracial slurs did not exist. American Psycho (2000), has much less of an excuse. In movies such as these, “psycho” is shorthand for “serial killer.”

But now “psycho” is in common usage in phrases such as “psycho bitch from hell” (which is anti-woman as well as offensive to persons with mental illness). Songs such as “Sweet But Psycho,” “I Might Just Go Psycho,” and “Am I Psycho?” are recorded.

“Craziness” is also taken lightly in words and phrases such as “cray-cray,” “cuckoo,” “maniac,” “lunatic,” and “cracked,” not to mention “bonkers,” “bananas,” and the more offensive “batshit crazy,” “bug-fuck crazy,” and dozens of other words. There’s even the stereotype of “crazy cat lady.” It may seem cute or silly to call a friend one of these words in a joking manner, but the person who does have a mental illness hears such a word as an insult. Even if it is just overheard, it tells a lot about how the speaker regards the seriousness – or unseriousness – of mental disorders.

There are lots of other examples. “Off their meds” is one. It, along with plain “crazy” or “psycho,” is quite often applied to mass shooters, suicide bombers, and other offenders. While it is true that some of such people have mental disorders, the terms are thrown around long before anyone finds out whether the person is diagnosed with a mental illness or is on psychotropic medication. It is the default explanation. Julie Beck, in an article in the Atlantic, called the easy leap from mass killing to mental illness “a consistent and dangerous narrative.”

Other usages seem innocent enough, but really aren’t. “The weather is bipolar,” meaning it changes quickly, is common. It isn’t accurate, however. Only a person can have bipolar disorder, a serious illness. Applying it to oneself when you change your mind or have a momentary mood swing, is also inaccurate. Likewise, “schizophrenic” is used to describe something or someone that has two sides, or that seems incomprehensible to the viewer. “Multiple personality” (more correctly called Dissociative Identity Disorder, or DID) is shorthand for someone who exhibits different sides of his or her personality on different occasions. People who disagree with you politically are not “insane” or “crazy” either, unless they have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder by a professional.

These ways of speaking hurt the persons they are spoken about, but also the mental health community. Fear of being called “psycho” or “crazy” is one reason that some people don’t seek treatment for a disorder or conceal it if they do.

And that’s a sin and a shame.

Fake It Till You…Can’t

I used to have a couple of suits hanging in my closet. One was oatmeal-colored. One was blue tweed. One was rust-colored. I had a couple of silk blouses and a jacket or two that I could wear over a dress.

I called them my “Respectable Business Lady” disguises.

At the time I was working at a 9-to-5 job where the dress code was pretty casual. Fridays were jeans days, not casual days. But every so often I had to go to meetings or business conventions, and for them, I needed the disguises. I was dressing to “fit in” and to give an impression that I was competent and stable.

I don’t honestly know if the suits worked as a disguise, but I made it through meetings and conventions fairly successfully (I think), if I was allowed to collapse afterward, at home or in a hotel room. I think the disguises were as much to remind me how to behave as they were to convince people that I was indeed respectable and a business lady.

Nevertheless, I can’t really buy into the “fake it till you make it” philosophy that has been so popular in self-help books, including those promoting business and entrepreneurship help. I had no notion of becoming a respectable business lady by wearing those suits. I was always going to be awkward and out of my league. I was only trying to pretend by using protective coloration.

The essence of “fake it till you make it” is practice. As the saying goes, you get good at what you practice. Unfortunately, you can’t practice not having bipolar or another disorder. You can practice assorted coping mechanisms and get better at doing them, but they’re a solution to some of the symptoms, not the disease.

I don’t think that “fake it till you make it” really applies to people with mental health problems. No matter how much or how long you fake it, your mental disorders are not going to disappear, though they may ease up at times. I certainly don’t think the business lady disguises made me go into remission for a week or a weekend. They were merely a coping mechanism and nothing I practiced enough to get really good at.

One danger of trying to fake your way through mental illness is that you can fall into the trap of what’s called “smiling depression.” When this happens, people don’t notice that you’re miserable because your smile makes it seem you are happy. It’s another disguise, but not a permanently successful one.

Once I was teaching a class, and several women gathered around another woman and asked her what was wrong. “I didn’t think it showed,” she said. “No, honey,” I said, “it leaks out around the eyes.” She wasn’t crying or anything like that, but we could all tell something was wrong, despite her smile. We offered her conversation and sympathy until she pulled herself together a bit.

I’ve never been able to school my face into any kind of smiling depression anyway. If some people have “resting bitch face,” I have “resting sad face.” I can’t count the number of times when I didn’t feel particularly sad, but someone asked me what I was sad about. Of course, I was probably suffering from low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever, but at the time I was undiagnosed and had no idea that I had a mental problem that caused me to look that way.

Basically, what I’m saying is that when you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, you can fake being psychologically together for a while, but you can’t sustain it forever. Certainly not until you “make it.” After I took off my Respectable Business Lady disguise, I would revert to my original self, as far from a respectable business lady as ever. Sometimes it would take me days to recover enough to feel that I was functioning again on any sort of level.

I think it’s better, ultimately, to admit who you are and what you need rather than to try to disguise or fake it. Even if your authentic self is depressed and miserable, getting help for it is still better than trying to cover it up.

My Triggers

By shane / adobe stock.com

Bipolar disorder is a funny thing. It can come on with no warning. One moment you’re fine, and the next you’re in the infinite doldrums or jagging on a spike of enthusiasm. Most of the time, it’s like that. The moods come on unexpectedly and stay as long as they want.

Sometimes, however, there are things in your life that seem to trigger a bout of depression or mania.  This isn’t quite the same as what’s commonly called a trigger. In the usual sense, a trigger is something in your past, like a traumatic memory, that comes bursting through when you read, see, or otherwise encounter a reminder of that memory. Suddenly, you are thrown back into the situation that triggered you, reliving the trauma, feeling as if you were still there, re-experiencing it. Triggers are most commonly associated with PTSD (or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many people associate PTSD and its flashbacks with veterans and war, but other traumas, such as rape, assault, and natural disasters can also cause PTSD.

Trigger warnings are controversial. Some people need a warning that the content – especially books, blog posts, or films – may trigger a suppressed or otherwise traumatic memory and leave the person caught up in the sensations during a public moment, such as in a classroom. Obviously, people with traumatic memories would prefer to avoid this, so a trigger warning is placed at the beginning of a story, novel, or even a song that deals with rape, domestic abuse, or other traumas, especially ones depicted in a particularly graphic manner.

To other people, reacting to a trigger is an admission of fragility, at best, or at worst, an excuse for avoiding content that most people can easily handle. This is part of the mindset that leads to calling the severely traumatized “snowflakes” for their perceived inability to deal with stimuli that “normal” people take for granted. They do not understand the power of traumatic memories or the power they have over people who have been through trauma. They consider such people weak. They consider themselves strong, even if – or especially if – they have been through traumas themselves.

In general, my life has been less traumatic than some, more traumatic than others. There are memories that invade my dreams, situations that cause me panic, and stimuli that rev me up. I am not in control of these stimuli, or what they do to me.

Most of the stimuli trigger depression in me, as my bipolar disorder is heavily weighted towards depression. (In fact, I was diagnosed with unipolar depression before a psychiatrist finally recognized my condition as bipolar 2 with anxiety.) When I encounter one of these “personal” triggers, I am panicked, unable to communicate, and immobilized, or nearly so, and must rely on the help of others, especially my husband, to get me through. There’s no telling how long that depression will last.

Primary among my triggers is what I call “the rotten ex-boyfriend who almost ruined my life.” It was a toxic, gaslighting relationship that left my soul sucked dry and my emotions shattered. Fortunately, I do not often encounter anything that reminds me of those days. A friend I met during that time, in fact, has helped me heal both then and for many years thereafter.

Still, I have dreams – ones where I am traveling to the man’s house, ones where I am in the house but he is not present, and ones in which he is. I wake feeling vaguely seasick and nervous. The feeling persists like a hangover through most of the next day. It interferes with my ability to do work and to interact with people. My reactions used to be much worse, with specific words even able to throw me into panic and depression.

Another thing that triggers me is disastrous financial matters, or at least ones that I perceive that way. IRS dealings are by far the worst. A letter with that return address throws me into a panic. Once I even collapsed on the street after an IRS engagement and was unable to get up without assistance. Overdue bills and dealing with personal finances are triggers, exacerbated by the fact that I pay most of the bills, despite the fact that I make less than half the money. This is one of my contributions to the household since there are many things I am unable to do. Such situations leave me with my head in my hands, shaking and catastrophizing, unable to do what must be done until I calm down. (My husband is by now adept at helping me do this.)

And I have one of the more “traditional” trauma triggers – a natural disaster. A year and a half ago, our house was destroyed by a tornado. At the time it hit, I was upstairs in the bedroom. I remember the roof coming off. I remember putting a pillow over my head and hoping for the best. For many months I suppressed the trauma. But now it has come out. When the wind blows very hard or the rain blows sideways, I panic. Despite the fact that upstairs is the very place I shouldn’t go, that’s where I end up – in bed with a pillow over my head. (I also avoid movies like Twister. I’m not even sure I should try The Wizard of Oz.)

As for hypomanic triggers, I have few. Most of my hypomanic flights are unexpected, lifting me up with no warning. Although they can be exhilarating, they are also dangerous. One of the hazards is unwise spending, which of course can lead to the aforementioned financial depression triggers.

One trigger that takes me as near as I ever get to hypomanic sexuality, though, is a sensory, rather than a situational, trigger. For some reason, the smell of Irish Spring soap brings up the heat in me. I distinctly remember the first occasion on which I noticed this. A coworker walked past me and I smelled the distinctive scent. It started my juices flowing. Later, we became lovers. My reaction to Irish Spring is less extreme these days, but it still triggers a memory of the feeling. I seldom encounter the scent anymore, as my husband prefers Zest.

At any rate, it is my experience that triggers can arise from sensory memories, from dreams, from upsetting situations. I have few triggers related to textual representations, though I am not immune to those in films (I left the movie “What Dreams May Come” before it was over and waited in the lobby until it was over).

What I can say is that people’s triggers do not make them “snowflakes.” Triggers elicit visceral reactions that are no less real for not being visible to outsiders. While I don’t advise purging any possible triggering material from, say, academic curricula, I do think a trigger warning on syllabi or blog posts is only polite, and possibly psychologically necessary.

 

Mental Illness and Homelessness

By Halfpoint / Adobestock

There are a lot of assumptions made about mental illness. One is that all of the homeless population are – or at least predominantly are – mentally ill. That’s far from the truth.

Homeless people get that way for a variety of reasons. Some lose their jobs or are evicted from their housing. Some have no friends who can put them up when that happens to them, so they have time to pull themselves together and find a new job or living situation. Some live on the streets because of alcohol or drug addiction.

And yes, some people are homeless because they are mentally ill. Disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse disorders are frequently seen in the homeless population. According to the Harvard Medical School, “about a quarter to a third of the homeless have a serious mental illness — usually schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression — and the proportion is growing.” 

Psychiatric Times states, “There is clearly a link between psychiatric disorders and homelessness; disentangling the nature of this relationship is complicated….Mental illness had preceded homelessness in about two-thirds of the cases. Homelessness in turn has been associated with poorer mental health outcomes and may trigger or exacerbate certain types of disorders.” 

PTSD is also a factor among homeless veterans and others with traumatic pasts. Many military veterans suffer from it as a result of their experiences in combat situations. A traumatic event such as witnessing or being victim of an attack, sexual assault, and so forth experienced during homelessness can itself cause PTSD. And homelessness itself can be the traumatic event that leads to PTSD.

The system is rigged against homeless people. With no address, phone, no reliable transportation, no place to bathe, it is hard to get and keep a job. Many times homeless people are taken advantage of when they can get day labor such as mopping a store, cleaning toilets, or sweeping a parking lot. The job “broker” for casual labor can easily demand a kickback from the homeless person in exchange for finding the person a job.

Some homeless people have been kicked out of their houses because of their alcoholism, drug addiction, or disturbances caused by mental illness – or because of “tough love” philosophies.

And let’s not forget people who have been released from jail or a mental health facility. It can be almost impossible to find a job and an affordable rental. Thanks to a broken system of both prisons and psychiatric facilities, the recently released have no place to go but the streets. When Reagan closed down and defunded “asylums,” he took away the most common way for the mentally ill to get help. Where did these people end up? Either in prison or a homeless camp.

In fact, being in jail is a luxury for some homeless people. They may commit petty crimes in order to be arrested and put where they know they will receive “three hots and a cot” for at least a couple of months. But there is little to no psychiatric care for homeless people in jails or prisons. Despite this, the prison system is clogged with mentally ill people who have no way to get better and nowhere to go when they are released.

With a few exceptions, people do not choose to be homeless. Many people look down at the homeless, sure that they know what would be best for them or clinging to the outdated notion that a homeless person can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and conquer both mental illness and homelessness. People who experience schizophrenia or psychosis are particularly hard to place, even in shelters.

What about those shelters? To begin with, they are overcrowded. Not everyone who needs one is able to get a place. Many are horrible, crowded places, where theft, assault, and rape occur. Many make the residents leave at 7:00 a.m., whether they have a place to go or not. Many others make residents adhere to codes of conduct little better than jail, or insist that a resident profess the preferred religion of those who run the shelter. And don’t forget bedbugs, lice, and infections linked to too many people being in an enclosed space. COVID restrictions make it even harder to find a place in a shelter. There are more shelters for women – and especially women with children – than can accommodate the women who make up 29% of the homeless

And what about the violence associated with both the homeless and the mentally ill?

Lynn Nanos, in her book Breakdown: A Clinician’s Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry, makes an excellent case that schizophrenic and psychotic patients, especially those with anosognosia, are the most likely of all psychiatric patients to commit violence and be victims of violence. 

But murderous violence is not the only kind. An NCBI study reported that “mental illnesses only moderately increased the relative risk of any violence, that is, assaultive behaviors ranging from slapping or shoving someone to using a weapon in a fight.” In addition, they said, “the absolute risk was very low; the vast majority of people with diagnosable serious psychiatric disorders, unless they also had a substance use disorder, did not engage in violent behavior.”

In terms of the myths about the mentally ill homeless, much of that is related to the stigma surrounding the seriously mentally ill. When we look at the facts we find that, while mental illness may be one cause of homelessness, it’s wrong to say that all the homeless are mentally ill – just as wrong as it is to say that all of the seriously mentally ill are homeless.

It’s often said that most of the U.S. population is one paycheck, spouse, illness, job loss away from homelessness. Let’s add mental illness to that list of potential causes. As the sign in the accompanying picture says: Once I was like you. We need better programs to serve the homeless, the mentally ill, and the homeless mentally ill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Are Lobotomies Gone for Good?

By alexlmx/adobestock

If I were a few decades older, I might have undergone a lobotomy. Treatment-resistant bipolar disorder (or manic depression, as it was called then) and schizophrenia are some of the disorders lobotomies were recommended for. It was thought that such mental illnesses were caused by faulty connections in the brain and that the cure was to sever those connections. Lobotomy pioneer Antonio Egas Moniz received a Nobel prize for inventing the operation.

The main problem was it didn’t always work as planned. There were other problems as well, such as the flattening of affect and severe brain damage (what a surprise). The most noted person to have a lobotomy (also called leucotomy) was Rosemary Kennedy, the developmentally delayed sister of John and Robert.

There were two kinds of lobotomies, though only the method differed. The prefrontal lobotomy involved drilling holes in the patient’s skull in order to get to the frontal lobes, where the trouble was thought to lie. The other, and to me more alarming, version was called the transorbital lobotomy. The “orbit” in transorbital refers to the eye socket. An instrument was introduced into the brain by going through the eye socket (without disturbing the eye) and used to sever the connections between the frontal lobe and the rest of the brain. Around 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the U.S., most between 1949 and 1952

Doctor Walter Freeman was the champion of the transorbital lobotomy, often called “icepick surgery” for the slender instrument that was inserted and then swooped about, in hopes of severing the faulty brain wiring. Dr. Freeman was so adept at this that he could perform many of these surgeries in a day, and indeed performed around 3,500 during his career, including 2,500 icepick lobotomies. He once performed 228 of the procedures in a two-week period and taught the technique to countless other doctors. Some of his patients underwent more than one lobotomy.

Eventually, the lobotomy came into disrepute for A) being the horrible invasion that it was, B) reducing many patients to an emotionless or brain-damaged state, and C) being depicted in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a punitive, brutal, and unnecessary procedure. The lobotomy all but disappeared from the psychiatric and surgical landscape.

But wait! Lobotomies may be out of fashion, but psychosurgery (or “functional neurosurgery”) is still performed for treatment-resistant mental illnesses. In these operations, however, rather than randomly severing neural connections, the surgeon removes the areas of the brain thought to be the cause of the psychiatric problem. Modern versions of psychosurgery include “amygdalotomy, limbic leucotomy, and anterior capsulotomy,” none of which I know enough about to comment on. Suffice it to say that the days of drilling burr holes in patients’ skulls or taking an icepick to their brains are, as far as I can determine, gone. 

Psychosurgeries are now performed rarely, deep brain stimulation being the preferred form of treatment, especially for non-psychiatric conditions like Parkinson’s or treatment-resistant seizures. And they’re always performed under anesthesia. The patient’s consent is required.

Electroshock therapy is much less invasive and is still used today, although in a lower-key and safer manner than the original procedure – under sedation and with lower amounts of electricity. It still has side effects, such as the loss of short-term memory for the period surrounding the treatment.

Electroshock therapy was considered in my case because of my long-term, treatment-resistant case of bipolar 2, which involved years-long depressive episodes. At first I was terrified, but after doing some research and talking to knowledgeable people, I was just about ready to agree to it. At that point my psychiatrist suggested we try one more drug first – which worked, alleviating (though not curing) my condition like turning on a switch.

(Side note: When I began researching lobotomies, I found that the book My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, was particularly interesting. The story didn’t follow the usual pattern. Instead, it seems, Dully’s hospitalization and operation (in 1960, when the boy was 12) were largely instigated by his stepmother, who wanted him out of the way, though schizophrenia was diagnosed by Dr. Freeman (see above) before the transorbital procedure.)

 

 

Workplace Adjustments I Would Like to Have Had

by Chinnapong / adobestock.com

I missed out on the heyday of the ADA. People didn’t become as conscious of accommodating people with disabilities until much later. And even then, the most common accommodation was wheelchair ramps. But there are some workplace adjustments or accommodations I wish I had available to me, back when I worked in an office.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), persons with disabilities are entitled to accommodations to make it possible for them to work. Most of us think about certain kinds of lighting, closed captions, or specialized chairs. But what about when you have an invisible disability?

The ADA definition of a disability is one that impairs an individual’s ability to – among other “major life activities” – learn, read, concentrate, think, communicate, and work. Certainly, a number of psychological or psychiatric conditions qualify as producing trouble in these areas. In my case, my bipolar disorder made it difficult to do many of those in your standard office work environment.

But would the ADA have made accommodations available to me? The ADA does include some mental illnesses in its list of disabilities. Examples of mental disabilities commonly considered under the ADA are:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia

Examples of accommodations or work adjustments for those with psychological disabilities include, among others:

  • Flexible Workplace – Telecommuting and/or working from home.
  • Scheduling – Part-time work hours, job sharing, adjustments in the start or end of work hours, compensation time and/or “make up” of missed time.
  • Leave – Sick leave for reasons related to mental health, flexible use of vacation time, additional unpaid or administrative leave for treatment or recovery, leaves of absence and/or use of occasional leave (a few hours at a time) for therapy and other related appointments.
  • Breaks – Breaks according to individual needs rather than a fixed schedule, more frequent breaks and/or greater flexibility in scheduling breaks, provision of backup coverage during breaks, and telephone breaks during work hours to call professionals and others needed for support.

Of course, in order to receive accommodations or adjustments, it’s necessary to reveal to someone – at least your boss or maybe the HR department – that you have a psychological or psychiatric disorder.

My own experience of needing accommodations at work was not great. In the job I held the longest, I only mentioned my depression (as it was then diagnosed), to my immediate supervisor. He was sympathetic, but the work environment was not exactly conducive to my needs.

One of the things that I could have used in dealing with the anxiety that went along with my depression was privacy. At first, that was not even possible, since my entire department was located in a cube farm, where no one had any real privacy. Even the fact that I was an editor and needed to concentrate on my work did not win me a private space.

Later, when we moved to an office that had actual offices, I snagged one with a door. The only problem was that I was not allowed to close the door, or at least looked askance at when I did.

An ideal situation for me (aside from being allowed to close my door) would have been permission to work from home. There was one person at this office who had this privilege, but it was never considered for me. Admittedly, this was very much pre-pandemic, but most of my work was done on a computer, and I had one at home that was compatible with the office computers. It wouldn’t even have been necessary for the company to supply me with one.

Another accommodation that would have helped lots would have been a hotel room to myself at business conventions, which would have allowed me time and space to decompress after a long day of being “on,” meeting and greeting, and being sociable and respectable. Unfortunately, that was a privilege reserved for the men. (As I understood it, the salesmen were booked into double rooms as well, but winked at when they rebooked them into singles.) This may have nominally been due to my sex rather than my mental condition, but not having a solitary retreat from the clamor of a convention definitely had a deleterious effect.

After 17 years at that job, I was let go, most likely because I was considered “unreliable.” At the next office where I landed, I had a boss who understood bipolar disorder (as I was then diagnosed) and who was satisfied with my work.  Never a bad evaluation – until that boss left. “I’m going to miss you,” I said. “I know you will,” she replied.

I realized what she meant when I revealed to my new boss that  I had bipolar disorder. “What does that mean?” she asked. Taken aback, the only reply I could think of was, “Sometimes I have good days and sometimes I have bad days.”  It wasn’t a great description of my condition and set me up for problems. After one year of my mother’s health and my psychiatrist appointments requiring me to miss work, and my missing work in winter owing to living at the bottom of a snowy, icy hill, I received my first bad evaluation. Nothing about my performance had actually changed since my work with the first boss. I could have easily worked from home and occasionally was permitted to, but my work was dubbed sub-par once I did.

(Not that it’s a big thing, but I would also have appreciated being able to take a “brain break” such as doing a crossword puzzle, instead of a cigarette break, since I don’t smoke. And not being asked work questions when I was on the toilet.)

After that, I went freelance, worked at home nearly all the time, and was only required to attend a meeting at an office once or twice a year. I have worked that way since and it suits me. It’s only now that I’ve become my own boss that I’ve been able to get what I really need when it comes to work.

 

References

https://www.eeoc.gov/statutes/americans-disabilities-act-amendments-act-2008#:~:text=The%20Act%20emphasizes%20that%20the,shall%20not%20require%20extensive%20analysis.

https://www.sfglife.com/blog/top-10-causes-disabilities-us-and-why-you-need-disability-insurance/

https://adata.org/factsheet/health

https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/program-areas/mental-health/maximizing-productivity-accommodations-for-employees-with-psychiatric-disabilities

https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/tools-and-samples/hr-qa/pages/cms_011495.aspx

https://www.ada.gov/pubs/adastatute08.htm#12102

Mental Health Privilege

Vectorarte / Adobestock.com

These days we hear a lot about privilege – class privilege, white privilege, first-world privilege, male privilege, and, I’m sure, many more. The idea is that people who have privilege don’t have problems that other people deal with every day and. In fact, they don’t usually realize that they have this privilege and benefit from it.

I know that I am privileged in many ways. I am white and heterosexual. I have a house, a husband, and work I can do. I have an Ivy League education and grew up in the suburbs, the child of loving parents who never divorced.

But what I don’t have is mental health privilege. I have bipolar disorder.

When a person has mental health privilege, they don’t have to take multiple medications just to keep their brain functioning in something like a normal manner. You won’t get pill-shamed for the meds you take or have random people suggest your problems will all be solved with prayer, yoga, apple cider vinegar, or acupuncture.

(I do recognize that there are many people who take meds for a variety of disorders, including life-threatening ones. I don’t mean to discount their struggles. Physical health privilege and ableist privilege also exist.)

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to question whether or when you should inform a boss, a potential employer, or a friend or romantic partner that you have a mental disorder. You don’t have to fear that that one fact will make it more unlikely that you can achieve a stable work situation (or any work situation) or a stable relationship.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to try to find a therapist who specializes in your problem and can actually help you. You don’t have to repeat your whole psychiatric history every time your therapist gets another job, causing you to start all over with a new therapist. You also don’t have to ask your primary care physician, who may or may not know much about psychotropic meds, to prescribe for you until you find a psychiatrist or when one isn’t even available to you.

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t worry that people will avoid you because you act “peculiar,” miss appointments and dates, or can’t handle crowds or even family gatherings. 

When you have mental health privilege, you don’t have to fear that you may have to stay for a while in a mental ward or have treatments like ECT.

When you have mental health privilege, you won’t get shot by a police officer just because you have a meltdown or a really bad day or a psychotic break.

Of course, the privileges I do have protect me some. Realistically, there is less chance that I will be killed by a police officer than would a person of color. In fact, my race and income make it easier for me to access mental health care.

The Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, in its July 3, 2017 editorial, makes clear that mental health privilege affects not only people who have mental disorders, but also the people who care for them.  The piece, written by Mona Shattell, PhD, RN, FAAN and Paula J. Brown, MBA, points out, “More than 70% of all health care providers in the United States are White (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and many, if not most, have unconscious (or conscious) biases (Institute of Medicine, 2003).” Their level of privilege may interfere with their treatment of their clients. The authors of the editorial encourage those with privilege to use it to help others.

Racial privilege is particularly problematic when considering mental health providers and their clients. NAMI Illinois “reported studies found that ‘black professionals make up only 2.6% of mental health clinicians in the United States, which is low considering that approximately 20% of black Americans seek mental health specialty treatment within a 12-month period.'” “While access to culturally diverse providers is low, the cost of mental health treatment remains high,” they add, “which serves as an additional impediment to bridging the gap between the onset of symptoms and accessing professional care.”

Education about mental health privilege may or may not help. Many people pooh-pooh the idea of any kind of privilege and bridle at the idea that they themselves have privilege by virtue of their health, sex, economic status, or other attributes. Some people’s eyes can be opened. (My husband didn’t recognize male privilege until I pointed out that no one suggested he change his name when we married or that we were “shacked up” because he didn’t.)

It’s understandable in a way.  People have a hard time envisioning that they themselves might ever be mentally ill or poor or homeless or denied work or discriminated against in any number of ways.

But with mental health privilege, it’s even more difficult to get people to understand. Until a close friend or family member faces mental or emotional difficulties – suffers from PTSD, experiences major depression, develops schizophrenia – people will not usually have the opportunity to realize the mental health privilege they have. And they may not even then.

As with any kind of privilege or stigma, if there is to be any improvement, people need to be educated. It’s not easy to open their eyes. But doing so can make a difference in the lives of people who do not share that privilege.

My Mental Illness Is Real

By gustavofrazao via adobestock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resource

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

I Don’t Need a “Pep Talk”

MarekPhotoDesign.com/adobestock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m here for you.

You can always call me.

I’m sorry you’re hurting.

Tell me if you need anything.

Do you need distraction?

Do you need to be alone for a while?

Do you need to talk?

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

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

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

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