Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘reading’

Do Distractions Help?

Well, not when you’re driving, certainly. But when you have bipolar disorder, sometimes they do.

Of course, bipolar disorder is a distraction from life itself. And that’s not good. But every once in a while, it’s worthwhile to give bipolar a taste of its own medicine. Now, I’m not saying that distractions are good when you’re trying to meditate or in a therapy session. But sometimes, when you’re locked in your own head, you need something outside of you to unlock it.

Personally, I need distractions a lot. And, given the popularity of coloring books and fidget spinners, so do a lot of other people. Fortunately, I have found many ways to be distracted. Some of my favorites are music, bad jokes, cooking shows, sleep, and cats.

These don’t always work when I’m in the depths of depression, though I try them even then. But when I’m hypomanic, buzzing around without a landing site, they can help.

Music gives me both a chance to focus and a place to dissipate my energy. There are plenty of songs that express my feelings of depression, but also a number that encourage me to let out the feelings of flying, of soaring, of digging life – Little Richard’s version of “Get Rhythm,” for example, or the songs that have punctuated my life with my husband.

Again, bad – or even good – jokes are no help to me when I’m depressed. But when I’m obsessing about some anticipated (perhaps never to materialize) crisis, they can pull me back from the edge. (Once I called up a silly friend and said I needed a distraction. He said, “Look at the grouse! Look at the grouse!,” a joke I didn’t get until later, when someone explained it to me.)

Cooking shows keep me grounded in a way. So does actual cooking. I’ve found that when I’m tense and about to lose it, making a cup of tea or heating a pan of soup grounds me, even if I have no desire for tea or soup. Making it for someone else is even more grounding. Cooking shows, even if I have no intention of ever trying the recipes, have a similar grounding effect. Unlike movies or dramatic shows, I know that nothing terrible will happen, unless you count a chef cutting her finger.

Sleep may be hard to do when my brain is whirling, but if I can accomplish it, my brain gets a reprieve and perhaps even a respite with a hot-n-juicy dream (though not nearly often enough). I love the feel of cotton or flannel nightshirts or pajamas. I love the quiet and the dark. I love the giving up of the stresses of the day and surrendering to temporary oblivion.

Even sleep in the middle of the day soothes me. If I’ve been unable to sleep the night before, a mega-nap the next day can reboot my brain and replenish my spoons. It may seem like an escape (and in some ways it is), but sometimes escape is what I need.

And as for cats, they help me in so many ways. I find watching them wash themselves hypnotic and comforting. I find snuggling with them in bed soothing. I find their antics infinitely distracting. I find caring for them takes me out of myself and requires that I focus on another being.

If I’m able to focus (which is not always the case), I find reading a suitable distraction as well. I have a few “comfort books,” old favorites that I can return to with an assurance that nothing too alarming will happen. I can lose myself and my anxieties in the struggles and triumphs of others. I can find distraction in tales of things I will never experience, like mountain climbing or space flight.

I have tried some of the tried-and-true distractions as well. I have several coloring books and a plethora of colored pencils. I have sudoko and mahjong programs and word puzzles on my computer. I have my writing, which, while not always soothing, does refocus my concentration and provide an outlet for any troubling feelings I may be experiencing.

Being bipolar, I find that my brain is both my enemy and my friend. It sustains me and betrays me. And it provides me ways to escape from its less sustaining moments. After all, if I didn’t have distractions, I would be locked within my brain with no relief from the tricks it plays on me. I’m glad that there are ways that I can escape, at least for a little while.

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.

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.

 

On Pain and/or Suffering

Recently, when I was reading Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis by Lisa Sanders, I came across this:

Eric Cassell, a physician who writes frequently about the moral dimensions of medicine, argues, in a now classic paper, that pain and suffering are very different. Pain, according to Cassell, is an affliction of the body. Suffering is an affliction of the self. Suffering, writes Cassell, is a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.

Later, when I was reading M Is for Malice, by Sue Grafton, I read this: “Pain was better than anxiety any day of the week and sweat was better than depression.”

The universe seemed to be telling me to focus my attention on pain and/or suffering.

Cassell (as quoted by Sanders), could have been (but probably wasn’t) talking about bipolar disorder when he defined suffering as “a specific state of distress that occurs when the intactness or integrity of the person is threatened or disrupted.” I certainly don’t feel intact or integrated while in the midst of a bipolar episode – either hypomanic or depressive. I suffer. My personhood is certainly threatened and disrupted.

It’s common to hear bipolar described this way: “I suffer from bipolar disorder.” I prefer to say “I live with bipolar disorder,” which I feel is more accurate. It’s always there, but I’m not always suffering. I live with it and it lives with me.

I think Cassell was wrong, though, about pain being a purely bodily sensation. I addressed the concept back in the early days of this blog. with a post called “Depression Hurts” (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6Z). In it I claimed that bipolar (or depression specifically) caused physical pain as well as emotional pain. I still maintain that one is as valid as the other and that they are virtually inseparable. The mind and the body not being entirely separate, or separable, you see. You get both for the price of one.

Grafton, on the other hand, through her character Kinsey Millhone, was talking about the physical act of running. We all know by now (or should) that exercise is recommended for those who have bipolar disorder or other mental/emotional conditions. But again, there is this idea that physical discomforts (pain and sweat) are better than emotional distress (anxiety and depression). She seems to be saying that pain is the antidote for suffering.

This can be dangerous territory. As someone who used to self-harm, I can easily see how one might think that pain is preferable to anxiety, or numbness, or dissociation – to suffering, that is. But in such cases, pain is really just another aspect of suffering, expressed in bodily terms. Again, the two are inextricably intertwined.

Personally, I would be delighted to avoid all four sensations – pain, anxiety, sweat, and depression. But I don’t think that’s possible, even with avoiding both exercise and self-harm. Sweat is the easiest to dispense with, thanks to modern toiletries, but there have been plenty of times when my anxiety has caused me to sweat. Think about being summoned to a tax audit, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. Pain is unavoidable; no one goes through life without stepping on a nail or some such. Anxiety and depression occur at least occasionally in the neurotypical as well as the mentally disordered.

The human condition itself involves feeling both pain and suffering. Bipolar disorder involves both pain and suffering. Well, what do you know? We’re only human, after all.

Books About Bipolar and Other Fun Topics

I love reading. Always have – except for the period when a major depressive episode stole it from me –https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-qp. I’m never more than two feet away from a book or, at this point in my life, an ereader. Reading is how I explore the world.

So naturally, in trying to better understand my disorder, I read about it. And because I’m interested in psychology in general, in addition to books about bipolar disorder, I read about other mental illnesses as well.

Let me share some of my reading with you.

For sheer delight as well as profound insights, try Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things. Amid the hilarious stories of life in her other-than-typical family are insights into depression and social anxiety, along with a manifesto of defiance – the will to be, well, furiously happy.

The other easily approachable book is Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. What started as a humorous blog grew into a book (with quirky illustrations) featuring two chapters in particular, “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two,” which are about as good as writing about depression gets. A second book, Solutions and Other Problems, was scheduled but has been postponed indefinitely.

And while we’re on the subject of funny books about mental illness, there’s Surviving Mental Illness Through Humor, an anthology edited by Jessica Azar and Alyson Herzig.

Perhaps the best-known book in the field of bipolar disorder is An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, by Kay Redfield Jamison. In it, Jamison deals openly and honestly with bipolar disorder, particularly with mania and psychosis, along the road to becoming a doctor herself. She has also written Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character, about the famous modern poet, but I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t comment.

Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, by Dyane Harwood, is another recent book that I haven’t read yet, either. But I know Harwood’s writing and expect it to be a stand-out, as well as the only book I know of on that particular topic.

Other books on bipolar disorder include Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar by Natasha Tracy.

For books about depression, the definitive work is The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon. A thorough examination of depression, including the author’s own, it is practically a reference book on the topic, though much less dry than that makes it sound.

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron, is another classic on depression that I really ought to read, but haven’t yet because I’m not that fond of Styron’s writing. (Sophie’s Choice is his best-known work.)

For mania, I recommend Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So: A Memoir, by Mark Vonnegut, M.D. The son of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author deals less with his celebrity father, instead focusing on his saving-the-world-style mania during his pursuit of an M.D. degree.

Other books that I can recommend include:

  • My Lobotomy, by Howard Dully, a memoir of a boy who was lobotomized for no particular reason other than the fact that his stepmother hated him, and the difficulties he encountered in and out of institutions.
  • Ten Days in a Mad-House, by Nellie Bly, early undercover journalism at its finest. (I wrote about her experiences in one of my earlier posts: https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-hG.)
  •  Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry, by Jeffrey A. Lieberman, a history of the development of the field from the buried memories days to the biological understanding of today.
  • The Man With the Electrified Brain: Adventures in Madness, by Simon Winchester (who also wrote The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary). Despite the title, this is not about electroshock treatment, but rather dissociative states.
  • Rebooting My Brain: How a Freak Aneurysm Reframed My Life, by Maria Ross; and My Life Deleted: A Memoir, by Scott Bolzan. These books, about a cerebral accident and amnesia, respectively, don’t speak directly to bipolar disorder, but I found them interesting as accounts of rebuilding one’s life after a significant mental condition.

And for an opposing point of view, if you must, there’s Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, by Robert Whitaker. Once you’ve read the title, you pretty much know how the book’s going to go; I don’t recommend this anti-psychiatry screed.

What books do you recommend? Which have helped you?

Depression, Mania, and Mystery

Writing a book takes a certain amount of mental stability. Also, you have to be a little crazy.

Despite the fact that in the popular imagination, creativity is linked with insanity, having a mental disorder is not all that conducive to productive work, particularly to the sort of sustained, focused writing that a book requires.

Still, bipolar, OCD, schizophrenic, and other writers have managed to write books – and some very good and highly acclaimed ones.

I have taken on that venture myself. I am writing a book.

Now, settle down. I am not (yet) asking you to buy this book. It is still only a book in process. Nothing has been published. Maybe nothing ever will be. Nevertheless, I persist.

Actually, I have two books in the works. One is out of my hands now. It is languishing at a publishing company, where it has languished for a year, waiting for them to determine if their interest in it will lead to actual publication. That book is a memoir of sorts, based on these blog posts. Unless I want to start pimping it to agents and other publishing companies, there is nothing more to do with it right now.

In the meantime, my attention has turned to the other book. It is a mystery, and has nothing to do with bipolar disorder. Except that the writing of it has everything to do with bipolar disorder.

First depression. Depression is great for writing certain types of scenes – deaths and reactions to them, for example, which are good for mysteries. Depression, however, periodically leads to the “this book is shitty” phenomenon, which I understand is not exclusive to depressive writers.

When depression leads me into that trap, I stop writing. Instead, I do “research.” If I am not too depressed to read, I delve into books about the craft of writing – plotting, description, etc. Or I study the works of writers that do things exceedingly well – dialogue, word choice, narrative voice. I highlight examples of good technique. Then, at some point the depression lifts and I try to put what I have learned into my manuscript. Of course this means lots of rewriting and revising, which slows my progress, but, I hope, makes the manuscript better.

Then there’s mania. Or at least hypomania, in my case. It carried me through the first eight chapters of the mystery before the depression hit. If it’s a truism that depression lies (it is and it does), mania is a liar as well. Recently I was tootling along at about 500 words per day, and it occurred to me that, at that pace, I could reasonably expect to have a rough draft by July 4, ready to send to my beta readers.

This was mania talking. Lying, rather. In fact, there was no way I could maintain the pace, meager though it was, of 500 words per day and not a chance in hell that I could meet the self-imposed deadline.

What came next? More depression, of course. More research, this time into how various authors use dialogue tags. And a confusing attempt to improve the pacing by scrambling the order of the chapters.

Until writing mania sets in again, I plug away at scenes I know need to be written, even if I don’t know where they go, and keep my eyes and ears open for both the depressive lies and the manic ones. I have over 45,000 words written and refuse to abandon them now.

So I don’t know all that much about whether bipolar disorder is a help or a hindrance to creativity (I would suspect it is both), but I do know that it is possible to work around it.

Eventually, if I’m lucky and persistent, I’ll ask you to buy my books. Someday.

Bipolar Robbed Me of Reading

I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read.

Except when bipolar disorder took it away from me.

I was what they call a “natural reader” – someone who learns to read without being taught. Someone who just picks it up out of the air. And for me, reading was like breathing. It kept me going, kept me alive. Reading was part and parcel of my identity. I was never without a book within reach. I read while eating, walking down the hall, going to sleep, riding in a car.

Throughout my undiagnosed childhood years, reading was a way for me and my brain to play nicely together. If I was depressed, I could lose myself in escapist fantasy. If I was hypomanic, I could soar on adventures. And during the in-between times, I had access to unlimited worlds – places, people, situations, ideas, conversations – both familiar and strangely new. Reading was my joy and my solace.

For many years, reading was therapeutic. I could not only lose myself and escape the unpleasantness of my disorder for a time, I could learn more about depression and bipolar disorder, compare my experiences with those of others who struggled with mental illness, discover how medicine and law and psychology and sociology could shine a light on my experiences. I could even (God help me!) read self-help books, which were popular at the time, and learn all sorts of theories and techniques that didn’t improve what was wrong with me.

Books and words were my life. I got degrees in English language and literature. I read for work and for fun. I edited magazines, wrote articles and (occasionally) children’s stories, worked on textbooks.

Then my brain broke and reading went away.

I had a major depressive episode, which lasted literally years, and during that time I found it nearly impossible to read.

Why? My old companions, depression and hypomania.

Depression made me dull. I didn’t care about anything and found no happiness even in the books that had always been my refuge. I remember picking up a book that I more than loved and had returned to dozens of times, that had shaped my life in many ways, thinking that the familiar words would touch something still buried inside me. But this time there was no magic. Not even interest. The words were flat and dull, mere ink on the page. Reading – engaging with an author’s ideas, imagining characters, following plots and dialogue, discovering facts – was beyond me.

And hypomania? My version, instead of bringing euphoria, brought anxiety – an overwhelming twitchiness and fear of the unknown, jumping not just at shadows, but at the idea of shadows, things that had never happened. My attention span shrank to nearly nothing. I could barely read a few pages, not even a chapter, and when I was finally able to get back to a book, I was lost, disconnected.

Now that I am recovering from that episode, I am glad to say, I can read again. I read myself to sleep at night once again instead of crying myself to sleep. I devour entire chapters, keep at least two books going at once (one fiction, one nonfiction), delight in revisiting old favorites and seeking out new authors and genres (YA fiction and steampunk) and topics.

Not everything I read is uplifting. At the moment I’m deep in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, a post-apocalyptic science fiction dystopia that is eerily prescient for a book published in 1998. But I can tell when it’s getting too deep and frightening and switch off to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next literary fantasy Lost in a Good Book before the strife and struggle can drag me down.

And I can tell you this: It’s better to be lost in a good book than lost in your own broken brain.

 

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