Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘support systems’

I Don’t Need a “Pep Talk”

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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.

Do I Need Advice or Do I Need to Vent?

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Sometimes we need advice. But sometimes we just need to vent. This is true of all people but especially true of people with mental illness.

Venting is the act of getting something off your chest. It may come explosively if it has built up for a while. There may be one final incident, however tiny, that sets you off. All you really want is to feel heard, that someone acknowledges your distress and understands it. All you really need is a sympathetic ear and maybe a pat on the shoulder.

Venting acts as a safety valve. It allows you to “let off steam” that might otherwise build up pressure until it comes out violently, or at least excessively.

Why do I say this is particularly true of people with mental illness? So often we have feelings we can’t articulate, thoughts we don’t understand, or events that trigger us in both large and small ways. It’s natural to want to keep all these things inside. We’re taught to do that – not to “let the crazy show,” to keep all those messy thoughts and feelings to ourselves. Eventually, we get to the point where we think that no one will understand anyway, so there’s no point in giving voice to these feelings.

Then, when we do finally vent, inevitably someone says we’re overreacting. Because, you know, crazy.

If I’m venting, the wrong thing to do is to give me advice. Unless I specifically ask for advice, that is. But even well-meaning advice can easily go wrong. People who do not suffer from psychiatric conditions often offer advice regarding what works for them when they feel a certain way. And yes, a walk in the fresh air and sunshine can certainly be uplifting. But when I’m too depressed to get out of bed, it can be an impossibility. It can even make me feel worse about myself.

To me, suggestions for possible remedies for my disorder are even worse. It’s taken me and my assorted doctors years to assemble the right medications at the right dosages to tame my bipolar disorder down to something livable. When someone tries to tout the latest remedy they heard about – Pilates, elderberries, juice cleanse, probiotics, or whatever – it feels to me like “pill-shaming,” like I’m being blamed because none of my meds will “fix” me thoroughly enough. Add the fact that these suggestions come from questionable sources – laypersons or bogus “studies” – and I’m likely to dig in my heels and feel offended.

At times, though, I do need advice. When I do, I usually get it from my therapist, someone else who shares my disorder, or an old friend who has been there for me on my journey. Sometimes I need a reality check – am I just catastrophizing or is it really true that something bad might be happening? Sometimes I need help dealing with a specific person – what can I say to my sister to help her understand my condition? Sometimes I need a reminder that I really ought to make an appointment with my therapist and get a “check-up from the neck up.”

And it should be understood that advice is just that – a suggestion that I am free to take or leave. Even my therapist, who usually gives very good advice when I ask her, sometimes suggests techniques or approaches that just don’t work for me. And even she knows that sometimes I just need to vent, to feel the feelings of sorrow or hurt or rage and let them out in a safe place. To quote Jimmy Buffet, “It cleans me out and then I can go on.”

The Importance of Alone Time

Alone time is a precious thing. But right now, with the self-isolation that accompanies the pandemic, many of us are experiencing too much “alone time.” But many of us need more.

Alone time has been important to me as I have struggled with bipolar disorder. I have a loving, supportive husband who is there when I need him to be. But even he knows that sometimes what I need is to be left alone.

Sometimes the world is too much with us, and we long to escape – read a book, hide under the blankets, just sit in the corner and think. At times like that, interacting with another person can feel like an intrusion, an annoyance, unwelcome. Alone time can allow you to catch your breath, calm yourself, practice mindfulness, or simply be alone with your feelings.

Of course, getting alone time is not always easy, especially now when we may be cooped up with our nearest and dearest, with no respite in sight. In my opinion, these are the times when a bit of alone time is even more necessary. Even with people you love, being with them 24 hours a day, every day, will begin to wear on you all. Stress builds and you may be triggered by noise, conflict, or other stimuli.

I’m lucky. That supportive husband knows, if his other efforts at drawing me out (offering me food, or a movie, or music) have failed, the greatest gift he can give me is alone time. He’ll even ask me if I need alone time, in case I don’t realize that is exactly what I do need.

I’m also lucky that there is a dedicated space in my house that is perfect for alone time – my study. It has a computer, music, comfort objects, games, favorite pictures, and more. It even has a comfy chair so that I can just sit and think if that is what I need to do. I know that I come at this topic from a place of privilege.

Making mental and physical space for alone time is harder when you have a roommate or a family that doesn’t understand the concept of alone time. The TV may be blaring, the washer clanking, the kids yelling, the spouse being needy. There may be someone in every room of the house, making noise or demanding your attention. Sometimes you can’t even be alone in the bathroom. You want everything to stop, just for a while.

In situations like that, you may have to ask for alone time. First, realize that it’s a reasonable request. Suggest ways to make it happen – I need to be alone in the basement (garage, kitchen, yard, whatever) for a while. Don’t disturb me unless someone’s bleeding or something’s on fire. Offer to return the favor. If you’re feeling pent up, chances are someone else in the house is too.

Of course, too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. Even though I need a fair amount of alone time, too much can leave me stuck inside my own head, not always a comfortable place to be. I can brood, catastrophize, feel lonely or bored, give in to depression. It helps if I can recognize when alone time is turning toxic like that. When I’ve had enough alone time, I can choose to leave that behind and rejoin the world in a better frame of mind.

As far as I can see, alone time is vital for every person, even the very gregarious. It allows us to let go and drop our metaphoric masks. But alone time is particularly necessary for those with mental illness. The ability to be alone with oneself can be a powerful step in understanding and healing. And whether time alone is the norm or the exception now, people’s mental health suffers. Connection is what we hear most about – virtual meetings, video chats, texts, and calls – but alone time is vital too. Treasure it when you get some. 

Asking for What You Need

I saw a post on a bipolar Facebook page that asked what coping mechanisms people used. There were the usual responses about self-care, which is certainly a fine coping mechanism. But it’s far from the only one.

I’ve learned any number of coping mechanisms over my years in psychotherapy. There’s “looking at how far I’ve come.” There’s “leaving the room when my anxiety gets too bad.” And there’s always one of my favorites: “petting the cat.”

But the answer I put down was “asking for what I need.”

It’s a good coping mechanism because no one can read minds. No one else knows what I need. And, short of them guessing and hoping to hit on the right thing, the only thing I can really do is ask.

I can ask my therapist whether we can work on my anxiety today. I can ask my friend to check in on me daily for a while. I can ask my husband for a hug, or alone time, or some distraction.

Of course, I don’t always know what it is that I need at any given time. At times like that, I can simply ask for things that might help or have helped in the past, like the aforementioned hug or alone time. My husband has been with me for so long and is so familiar with my bipolar disorder that he knows a number of things that are likely to help, and he can suggest them. If all else fails, he suggests I go to bed, or read, or listen to music, all things which can calm or center me. Sometimes he simply puts on my favorite movie, to help draw me out.

Closely tied to the mechanism of asking for what I need is the technique of negotiation. I may know what I want or need, but the other person may not be capable of providing it, or at least not right then. If a friend can’t take my phone call, I can suggest an alternative: Call me after 10:30 or sometime tomorrow. If I need distraction and my husband has to go to work, he can suggest that we go out to lunch the next day.

We’ve developed a shorthand for such situations. When the only thing I can do is say, “help,” he responds with, “help how?” If I can then come up with a suggestion, I do. A lot of the time he is able to provide what I need. But sometimes he just isn’t. Maybe he isn’t able to get me out of the house for lunch. So instead I say, “I need comfort food.” He usually says, “You can get that.” Or he may respond with what it is that he can do: “There’s cheese and crackers here. Will that do?”

Asking for help isn’t easy, and Lord knows negotiating for what you need isn’t either. Both take lots of practice. And there is always the possibility that another person simply cannot supply what you need. That’s where self-care comes in. I know down deep that a nap, or comfort food, or music may help me, and if no one else can provide them, I can usually do it myself.

Receiving help may not be easy, either. Asking for what you need can make you feel, well, needy. And receiving help from someone else may make you feel guilty or unworthy. But the fact is that you – all of us – need help at times and that learning how to ask for and accept help is a valuable skill. And a totally valid coping mechanism.

I’m Not Giving Up on You

Not you, Rachel, and not you, Paul.

Rachel, I know that your life has been shitty lately. I know that your health problems are overwhelming you and your depression is dragging you down to the deepest levels. I know your brother’s death by suicide still resonates with you and makes you think that there is an easy way to end your pain.

Paul, I know that your life has been full of drama and trauma lately. I know that the tasks of daily living get the better of you and the future keeps retreating further and further away. I know that you have barely any spoons each day and feel compelled to spend them on others instead of on yourself.

But I won’t give up on either one of you.

Rachel, I will take your calls even when I’m exhausted and listen while you vent. I will support you in every way I know how. I will honor and thank you for your generosity when I know that you could easily focus only on your troubles. I will maintain contact even when I am low on spoons.

Paul, I will keep sending you reminders that I am thinking of you and offering you solace and support. I will willingly accept that you are not able to reply just now. I will not take that as a reason to make a break with you. I will keep trying.

Rachel, you know you can say anything to me, for I have surely been there. You know that your suicidal ideation makes me uncomfortable, but I won’t ask you never to speak of it. I have had those thoughts myself and gotten through them. I know you can too. I see all the things that you do to reach out to others and extend your goodness to them. I empathize with your difficult family situation. I don’t know what to do about it, but I will acknowledge the pain that it gives you.

Paul, you know that I have listened to you in the past and will continue to do so, no matter what it is you have to say. I will not let my own anxiety and depression stand in the way of listening to yours. Please know that I understand what you’re going through more than I can say or have ever said.

Rachel, please know that I celebrate with you even the smallest achievements you make. When you are able to stand up for yourself against City Hall, I applaud you. When you investigate ways to make your living situation better, I will not judge you, though they may seem harsh or unacceptable to others.

Paul, please know that I wish only the best for you, even if I don’t always understand what it is that you need. I admire your continuing strength, even when I feel that it would be good if you could lay your burdens down for just a while. I acknowledge that I am not the person that can help you do this, much as I would like to.

The reason that I say these things is that I want you to know that there is someone who does truly understand and truly care. I have been where you are and have found my way out, at least a little. I remember the people – including you two – who have reached out to me even when I was not able to reach back. The very least I can do is to do the same for you.

When you are relieved of your burdens and can again see the light of day, I will be there to celebrate with you. I will not despair or think that you can never see that light.

I will not give up on you. I will not give up on any of my friends who are burdened with depression, anxiety, or some other difficulty. I will do what I can, because I must. There are people who have never given up on me. I know what that feels like, and I wish that same healing and help and health for you.

Why People Don’t Believe in Mental Illness

Some people just don’t believe that mental illness exists. There are reasons for this. Not good reasons, but reasons.

I recently saw a meme that blamed mental illness on capitalism. There was no mental illness per se, only the toxic effects of a culture that compels us to put up with overwork and underpay, exploitation and inescapable drudgery. The stress of dealing with these conditions is what causes us – an increasing number of sufferers – to feel depression and anxiety.

There may be something to this, sort of. Environmental conditions that lead to stress and anxiety can certainly make mental illness worse, particularly those like bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. And, while capitalism may or may not be the cause, the majority of us are working harder with less to show for it than ever before. But the majority of us are not mentally ill.

My mother may have bought into this philosophy. She knew I had mental troubles, but she thought that if only I got a better job, I would be all better. Admittedly, finding a better-paying job that was less stressful would improve anyone’s mood, but it can do little or nothing for a clinical mood disorder.

Then there are people who seem to “believe” in mental illness, but really don’t. These are the people who acknowledge that mental illness exists, but think that it is a “choice” – that any person can choose happiness, health, or sanity merely by an effort of will. Those of us who can’t “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” are simply not trying hard enough. The “choose happiness” people don’t seem to get that for most of us, our only choice is whether to get help from someone else – a doctor who prescribes a psychotropic, a therapist or counselor who listens or advises, or even a friend who reaches out.

And, of course, there are people who acknowledge mental illness, but think it is a good thing, the fount of creative brilliance. They point to Vincent van Gogh and his amazing art. They forget about the suffering, the self-harm, and the suicide.

But, romanticizing mental illness and even revering it do nothing to help people who actually have psychiatric conditions. It’s true that some people with mental disorders – Sylvia Plath and Dale Chihuly, to name two in addition to van Gogh – have created works of great art, beauty, and significance. But it’s certainly valid to wonder what they would have produced if they had not had the trials of mental illness to deal with. Would their work have been less inspired or more? It’s impossible to say. Personally, I believe that mental illness interferes with creativity more often than it enables it.

But the most common reason, I believe, that people don’t recognize the existence of mental illness is that it has never touched their lives, isn’t a part of their perceptions. A relative of mine once watched a talk show where women recounted dire experiences of having hysterectomies. “Those women are such liars,” my relative said. “I had a hysterectomy and it was nothing like that.” Her perception of reality – her personal experience – was extended to the whole world.

Similarly, when someone has no direct experience of mental illness, either by having a disorder themselves or by knowing someone very close to them with the disorder, the reality of mental illness itself comes into doubt. “No one I know has it, so no one does.”

Sometimes people who believe such things are capable of changing their minds, though. If a woman goes through a profound, long-lasting exogenous depression after the death of her husband, she may have more sympathy and understanding for people who have profound, long-lasting endogenous depression, or major depressive illness, as it’s more commonly known. Or a dear friend’s struggles to help a schizophrenic son may awaken her to what mental illness truly can be. Once it touches her life in some way, mental illness becomes real.

And since, according to statistics, one in four or five Americans will experience some type of mental or emotional disturbance in their lifetimes, the odds increase that people’s personal experience with mental illness will also increase accordingly.

In the meantime, those of us in the mental health community can help spread the word that mental illness does exist, that it affects the lives of millions of people, and that even people who are not directly affected need to understand how easily it can happen to someone they know.

Blaming mental illness on capitalism, overwork, or an insane world may be easy and may make us feel better by comparison, but it will do nothing to address the actual problem.

When Trauma and Mental Illness Happen Together

Couples who experience serious trauma may go through the experience together, but they do not always stay together afterward. The death of a loved one, infidelity, the onset of a disease – many things can test a couple’s ability to cope with the event and with each other.

Serious mental illness can also be a relationship killer. Dealing with symptoms, treatments, medications, setbacks, hospitalization, mood swings, and just generally going off the rails is more of a task than many couples can handle.

Combine serious trauma and serious mental illness, though, and what you’ve got is a recipe for a new level of disaster.

One of the potential pitfalls is two people who grieve in different manners or on different timescales. One partner may feel it necessary to process events aloud and at length, while the other may prefer to process feelings internally, without conversation. One person may take a year to get over a death, while the other is still grieving after three or more.

Then there’s couple who have different agendas when it comes to whatever is troubling them both. One may feel that moving on is the best response to a traumatic event, while the other person can’t let go of the past.

Many relationships crack and break apart under the strain. And those are just for couples who don’t have mental disorders.

Now take an example (not completely at random) of a couple who have lost their home in a natural disaster. He suffers from depression. She has bipolar disorder. He grieves the loss of their home and all their belongings to a point that she considers excessive. She kicks into hypomania and focuses on the small details of their situation. He thinks she doesn’t grieve. She thinks he needs to help her address the future.

It will be easier for this couple to stay on track and stay together if they can talk about what has happened and what is happening. That may well involve talking with other people – a trusted friend, a professional counselor, even each other. But it’s important that both people feel that they are being listened to and, more importantly, being heard. And that’s not always something that the other partner can provide.

If the couple can talk to each other, their communication skills will be severely tested. Depressed people and those with bipolar disorder both tend to isolate in times of stress. Processing feelings may not be either person’s greatest strength. And those different timescales and differing agendas are likely to throw up roadblocks should they try to talk about it all.

Being aware that trauma and mental illness both have detrimental effects on a relationship may help. Although even previously strong relationships can be stressed to the breaking point, stepping outside oneself to try to understand the other person can be enlightening. Feelings that seem callous or stubborn or flippant or shallow can just be different ways of dealing with trauma. Thinking the way you feel is the only way to feel will severely impede healing.

If it sounds like I am trying to remind myself of all these things, well, I am. We lost our home in a tornado, and my husband and I were dealing with mental difficulties before that happened. I feel that I must be on alert now for any signs that our relationship is cracking. But it’s not just my problem. The disaster, and the mental disorders, and the relationship are things that we share. They have led to a tangle of emotions and reactions that aren’t predictable or rational or even helpful.

We know the basic things we need to do – take our meds, practice self-care (and help each other do so as well), talk when necessary and be alone when that is what’s needed. We have to keep our eyes on what’s important: our mental health and getting through these difficult times intact both personally and as a couple. And we need to see the humor where there is any. But this isn’t the ordinary sort of disagreement that lasts a day or a week. It’s something we’ll be working on long-term.

Wish us luck.

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