Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘social skills’

Nothing to See Here

Many people with SMI are afraid that it shows, that other people can see automatically that there is something wrong with them. They feel as though they stand out in a crowd. Everyone notices them, and probably talks about them.

I have the opposite problem. My bipolar depression makes me feel invisible. It’s not just that SMI is often an invisible illness. It’s that I myself seem to become invisible. I think of myself as a particularly ineffectual ghost, frightening no one and unable to affect anything in my environment. Some people call this dissociation.

At first, I made the best of it. I’m especially invisible when I’m out in public and reading a book. So I found that if I was at a business convention and wanted to remain invisible, my best strategy was to sit alone at a table and read a book. Only once did a man approach me while I was so engaged. No one else ever did.

Apparently, though, I don’t need a book to disappear. Maybe it’s anxiety that makes me keep quiet when people around me are discussing something interesting. Maybe it’s my instinct not to be noticed so I won’t be subject to derision or worse. Either way, I can’t seem to catch anyone’s eye or add my bit to the conversation. I blend into the crowd, even if it’s only a crowd of three or four.

It’s almost like there’s some aura around me when I’m out in public that says, “Don’t notice me,” like Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. I do not use my invisibility for pranks or mischief, though. I don’t use it intentionally at all (except for using a book, as I mentioned).

Why do I think this invisibility is part and parcel of my bipolar disorder? It could be imposter syndrome at work. I feel so unworthy that I don’t want anyone to see me for what I am. Or it might be the anxiety component of my hypomania that keeps me from presenting myself more assertively. Or maybe people can see that I have a troubled mind and simply look away.

I am slowly learning to make myself seen and heard. I find that calling people by name makes it easier for them to see me. It seems to signal them that there’s another person in the vicinity. And once I even set up an occasion where I would be the center of attention, speaking about my bipolar disorder at a signing for my book.

I also use my writing to make myself “visible.” This blog (and my other one) and my books give me a presence, though not a physical one, even at a distance. When I see likes and follows and sales, I know that someone has noticed me, or at least discovered that I exist.

I sometimes think that going out in public more – practicing being visible – might help. But actually, that’s when I feel the most overlooked, the most unseen and unheard. The most lost.

Perhaps what I need is to go out and meet a specific person, someone who expects to see me. Then I could be guaranteed of one person who would see me.

But it has been suggested to me that I may not want to be seen at all – that I would prefer to fade into the background, not put myself forward and disappear from the stresses of being seen. Perhaps that is true, or at least once was.

Now I think I would prefer to be seen, flaws and all. If someone cannot tolerate the sight of me, a mentally disordered person, or glances over me as if I did not exist, I think I shall insist on being seen. I will use my voice, my (admittedly glitchy) brain, and my human physicality to assert that I exist, that I matter, that I have something to say.

And in social situations I will try to assert myself (if politely) to join the public discourse and add my two cents, whether the subject is mental illness or the latest bestseller.

I exist. I deserve to be seen. I will not remain invisible.

Did Bipolar Disorder Lose Me Jobs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

What Does “Normal” Mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appropriate Committee

 

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When I was a teenager, my life was spent resenting the Appropriate Committee. I always ran afoul of them.

It seemed there was some nebulous group, invisibly judging us and deciding whether what we did, or wore, or how we acted was appropriate or not.

Part of the Appropriate Committee was, of course, the adult world. Teenagers were supposed to be polite and respectful and not talk or play music too loudly. To do otherwise would be inappropriate.

The social milieu was also part of the Appropriate Committee. How we monitored one another to make sure our pants weren’t too short, or that we didn’t wear ankle socks, or that we didn’t stay in the Girl Scouts past Brownies. The punishment was derision.

Of course being bipolar didn’t help. Both adult and junior versions of the Appropriate Committee took note of my mood swings – my loud, inappropriate laughter; my extreme, inappropriate crying; my extended, inappropriate isolation.

I tried to defy the Appropriate Committee. I laughed at them, thought they were stupid, and vowed not to let them run my life. They did anyway, of course. They were all-powerful and I had not yet gained the wherewithal not to care. It was like a pervasive, invasive form of bullying: Everything I did or said was wrong. The rules changed capriciously. I was punished with disapproval, mocking, and the wrong kind of laughter.

And they broke me. At times I tried desperately to fit in, to live up to expectations, to suppress my differences. At other times, when the effort became simply too much, I let my natural weirdness float to the surface and looked for the few other like-minded individuals that could tolerate that. Depression set in and, rarely, hypomania. I still dressed “wrong.” I still laughed at the wrong things, and too loudly. I still isolated and wept.

I thought that when I grew to adulthood, I would no longer be subject to the censure of the Appropriate Committee, Of course, that was completely delusional. I learned that the Appropriate Committee for Adults was a powerful force. It is particularly insidious in the business world, where it judges not just your appearance, but even seemingly minor matters such as where and how you eat lunch (with the “cool kids,” of course) and how you spend your breaks (cigarettes OK, crossword puzzles not). There’s still the problem of being laughed at in meetings and needing to go into the restroom to cry.

I finally realized that the Appropriate Committee exists in part to perpetuate stigma. So many of the behaviors of people with mental illness defy societal norms. It’s the Committee that insists we fit in, no matter what we’re feeling. It’s the reason that neurodivergent people are so reluctant to admit their differences in public and try their best to “play through the pain,” something that isn’t good for them, or for athletes either, really.

I’ve had enough of the Appropriate Committee over the years. Now that I’m properly diagnosed and medicated and relatively stable, I could undoubtedly fit in better than at any time previously in my life. But I dress how I like, even if it’s pajamas. I play my music as loud as I want and laugh or cry along with it if I feel like it. I embrace my weirdness, my differences, and seek out like-minded weird friends who are also living in defiance of the Committee.

Maybe the Appropriate Committee is needed for some places and times and people, like theater audiences or church services. Maybe. But for the mentally ill the Committee is hurtful, and stigmatizing, and unrealistic. We can strive to overcome our differences and sometimes we need to. But sometimes it’s better just to embrace weirdness, differentness, and our membership in the group of the neurodivergent.

And when I despair, I remind myself of songwriter Steve Goodman’s lyric: “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” And I let it blast.

Bipolar Me, Looking for Work

I have been very fortunate over the last few years in that I have been able to work and that, combined with my husband’s far-from-large – but steady – paycheck, we have been able to pay the bills. Now that seems to be changing.

After my last big emotional crash, I was unable to work at all, and after my husband’s major burnout, he was not able to work for a while. We ran through our IRAs and ended up in the situation where we are now.

I do writing, editing, and proofreading jobs from my home computer. It is really ideal, in that the projects usually come sporadically, with time in between them, so I seldom require more energy than I have available. I do not have to go out very much, or dress up very often and can work in my comfort zone, in my comfortable study, in my comfy pajamas. In these respects I am lucky or blessed, or however you wish to define it.

But clients have become a little thin on the ground lately. And I am afraid. I fear both a financial crash and an emotional one. The two are not unrelated. Finances and dealing with them were two of the largest triggers that started the major depression-plus-anxiety that swallowed me up for quite a few years.

Now I am feeling the pinch again. I felt it back in August, when my “proactive hypomania” helped me get through (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-y4). But one can do that only so many times. Or at least I can’t summon the necessary mood at will. (Surprise, surprise.)

I have a writing project now, but it will run out in January. I have another client, but work from them is not as consistent as it used to be. We are already behind on some of our bills, including the mortgage.

So I am looking for more work, and it is scary.

The kind of work I’ve been doing is ideal, even when my symptoms increase. It lets me work around the deficits that bipolar heaps upon me. If I have a project due Monday, I can work during the weekend. If I have insomnia, I can work at night. If I am immobilized, I can usually schedule my deadlines so they don’t all hit at once.

I try to network, also at home from my computer, but that lets out job fairs and professional organizations and groups inhabited by people. I should put together a resume and sample packet and then try to figure out whom to send it to. Which is kind of like throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. And the impressive kind of packet – slick, personalized, colorful, foil stamped, business-carded, sample-stuffed, stationeried – costs money to prepare, which of course is itself a problem since you have to spend it before you get results, if any.

So I have signed up with a number of sites that provide leads on jobs, and some of them don’t even want me to drive for Uber or move to Massachusetts.

Each time I apply, I ask myself, “Can I really do this job?”

Sometimes the answer is “Probably not, but I’m going to apply anyway.” Those are the 9-to-5 office jobs that would require me to upgrade my wardrobe just the teensiest little bit and try to keep the depressive phases under control if not totally under wraps. I have serious doubts about my ability to be “on” for eight hours a day, five days a week.

The Americans With Disabilities Act says that certain categories of people are entitled to “reasonable accommodations” in order to fulfill their job requirements. For someone like me, accommodations might include flextime, doing part of my work at home, time off for doctor appointments, and the like. If I got one of those jobs, I would have to reveal my mental disorder in order to receive accommodations, and I would have to decide whether to speak up about it before or after I got the job. Probably after.

The not-quite-as-frightening jobs are part-time ones, like working the circulation desk at the local library. They have their drawbacks too, including the same ones as full-time jobs, with less pay besides. Would it provide enough income to make a difference? Maybe not. Would I be able to do a part-time job and still squeeze in a little freelance work? I just don’t know. The idea is still daunting, to say the least.

(Another potential solution would be for my husband to get a better-paying job, but he is in the process of changing his meds, so that doesn’t seem likely either, at least for now.)

I know this seems like a better class of problem than many people with bipolar disorder have. Trying to keep up the mortgage payments is better than living under the Third St. bridge, fighting stray dogs for cold french fries. My husband’s job may be low-paying, but at least it’s steady and has a health insurance plan. I am truly grateful for these things.

And I am truly scared nonetheless. And tired. And sliding back down into depression.

Ten Opinions That May Offend Someone

Recently I noticed that I have been reluctant to offend people, particularly on Facebook. I keep my opinions to myself, especially on social and political matters, and dread being “unfriended” or starting (or continuing) a “flame war.”

This is not just a matter that relates to my bipolar disorder, though it is certainly that too. I have written a number of times about how having bipolar disorder and the behaviors it has brought out in me have cost me friends, even ones that I thought were “forever-friends.” These losses have affected me greatly, at times pushing my anxiety and depression buttons nearly as far as they can go.

Just as I have toned down my comments on subjects such as liberal vs. conservative issues, I have also let pass by posts in bipolar support groups and mental health memes on people’s general Facebook timelines that I’ve disagreed with. Oh, when I see a particularly incorrect or egregiously stigmatizing remark, I’ve been known to smack the person on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, but often in a soft, “In my experience, you may not be correct” manner.

There are also conflicts within the bipolar world that I have strong opinions about but have not jumped into, for fear of offending someone. And I have to ask myself, what would be the consequences of offending someone in such a discussion?

Yes, I might be unfriended. More likely I would be ignored. Or (virtually) yelled at. In other words, if I offend someone with my opinions, they may in turn offend me with their opinions. And while that’s not a productive state of affairs, it’s hardly the end of the world. In an ideal world, I might cause someone to question or consider or engage in fruitful discussion. Not likely, but possible.

So, if I am trying to overcome my fear of offending people with my positions on guns, abortion, health care, climate change and the like, what am I to do about my opinions regarding bipolar disorder and mental health in general?

Well, first of all, I can state where I’m coming from: straight, white, female, married, childless, bipolar type 2, 60 years old, diagnosed for years and on any number of medications for years as well. Not much controversial there. That’s just facts about me and hard to deny.

But here are some things I believe that I know are sometimes subject to differences of opinion. And for what it’s worth, here’s my take on them.

  1. Psychotropic medications are good things. Yes, they can be overprescribed or improperly prescribed, but when dispensed and used correctly, they help.
  2. The Scientologists are way off base. Mental illness exists, and so do treatments for it.
  3. “Natural” or “holistic” treatments for mental illness are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy.
  4. Sunshine, exercise, and positive affirmations are good things, but also are not enough to replace medication and talk therapy. They do good for a number of people, less for others, and not much at all for some.
  5. We’ve got to change the popular dialogue about mental illness and violence. We must not let it go unchallenged. For that matter, we must change the popular dialogue about mental health in general.
  6. While it’s a good thing if those with mental illness take their medications properly, it is absolutely their right to refuse treatment.
  7. Health care (and insurance plans) should cover mental health care at the same levels as physical health. (Okay, that one’s not really controversial among the mental health community.)
  8. Emergency responders including police should all receive training in dealing with mental health issues, but they probably won’t.
  9. Most people don’t/won’t/can’t understand mental illness until it touches their own life in some way, and maybe not even then.
  10. Education about mental health issues should begin in grade school.

There. If you disagree with any of those statements or feel that I am an idiot for stating them, so be it.

Oh, and while we’re at it, persons with a mental health diagnosis should not automatically be prevented from owning guns, but people with domestic violence convictions should be.

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