Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘support systems’

The Demise of a Bipolar Support Group

By Artur / adobestock.com

Funny, but I thought support groups were supposed to be supportive. Recently, though, I ran into one that was anything but.

I won’t name the group, since some people may still get something out of it, but as far as I could see, it was a group of over 5,000 people out of control. Many posts were off-topic, sexually-oriented, political, and even abusive. Of course, many people never contributed at all, so I don’t know whether they approved, ignored, or simply watched from the sidelines.

I have my own opinions about bipolar support groups – they should be focused on bipolar disorder, its symptoms, treatments, and lifestyles. Within that large umbrella, there are lots of topics to be covered.

To me, it is legitimate to have “getting to know you” posts – Where are you from? What is your favorite comfort food? What kind of music do you like? Such posts and responses enable people to reach out and make connections, to realize that there are people in the world who experience life in the same way that they do – or in different, equally valid ways.

Similarly, it is understandable that people post about their symptoms – Do you ever wake up angry? Do you often get hypersexuality as a symptom? What do you do about it? Is there anything that alleviates your feelings of being alone? These posts encourage people to share commonalities and suggest ways to deal with them.

I can even see some good in comparing medications, though I don’t much like them. Has anyone tried Vraylar? Do you have much weight gain with Abilify? As far as I can see, the only answers to such questions are: Ask your physician or pharmacist. Medications affect everyone differently. Yes, I have, but your mileage may vary. The only truly useful things I can think of to say are: Don’t stop taking your medication without a doctor’s help, and If you get a rash, especially around your mouth and nose, see your doctor immediately. But if it gives comfort to know that someone else has the same reactions you do, that may indeed be helpful.

What this particular support group got into, however, was way off-topic remarks, sexual solicitations, stalker-like behavior, politics, name-calling, and general nastiness. It seemed like some of the participants went out of their way to be offensive. One poster asked, “Do you know what ‘tea-bagging’ is?” A few others got into a, shall we say, heated discussion about Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter that involved calling each other not just racist, but “cunt” and “fucking POS.” Yet another complained about the cursing appearing in such posts and was met with a long list of responses, all of which said, “Fuck you.”

Part of the problem seemed to be inexperienced or overwhelmed moderators. They did not take down the most offensive posts. They did not try to steer the discussion in productive directions. Admittedly, moderating a support group is not an easy thing to do, and dealing with a group that experiences symptoms such as anger, despair, hypersexuality, sensitivity, and irrational thinking, as well as the normal responses of outrage, insult, offense, anger, retribution, and hurt, is that much more complicated.

Perhaps the majority of the 5,000 group members don’t mind such interactions, but there were more than a few who did, and said so. Some quit the group or went off to start their own. Others decided to stay around for a while to see if things got better.

I am torn. I hate the group the way some members are currently behaving. I hope that more administrators/moderators can get the group back on track to something that is truly a support group. But my time, attention, and patience are limited. Unless I see some changes – and soon – I’m outa there. I may not be missed, but neither will I miss them.

When My Carer Needs Care

By Farknot Architect / adobestock.com

My husband is the mainstay of my support system and, in large part, my caregiver. I cannot count the things he has done for me and does for me every day. We’ve been married for over 35 years and during that time he has helped me through daily life, major depression, anxiety attacks, loneliness, irrational thoughts, school, therapy. He makes sure I practice self-care and cares for me as needed.

Recently, though, he needed my help and care. The other day he experienced distressing eye-related symptoms – a large “floater” (dark spot) in his vision and unexpected flashes of light. What could I do about it? First, I answered his request to get a flashlight and look in his eye, but I saw nothing.

Next I arranged an appointment for him at our eye doctor. Dan used to be terrible at admitting when he needed medical treatment, but since a heart scare he’s been much more amenable to seeing a doctor. That particular evening, he was scared and cranky, and made up excuses. He left his phone in the car. That’s okay. I had mine right there. He didn’t know the number. That’s okay. I have it programmed into my phone. I waited on hold. “Forget it,” he said. “Never mind,” I replied. “I’ve got nothing else to do.” He said he didn’t see the floater any more. I pointed out that his eyes were closed. I got through to the doctor and made him an appointment for the next day.

Naturally, I drove him to the appointment, as they would have to dilate his eyes. Then, afterward, I drove him on several other errands (including an appointment with a different doctor) and made sure he ate lunch. I canceled one of the errands and put off others when I saw how tired and nervous he was getting. I took him home and tucked him in bed. (The floater turned out to be nothing truly alarming, just an effect of his aging eyes. He named it “Freddie the Free-Floater.”)

Dan has done almost exactly the same for me, many times. I could usually make my own appointments, but he encouraged me to do so. He has driven me to appointments countless times. He makes sure I eat. When I run out of spoons, he cancels or postpones errands, or even runs them for me. He reminds me when I need to have a lie-down or to sleep or to shower.

It was unusual for me to be the caregiver in this situation, and at times difficult, but I didn’t begrudge it. How could I possibly?

Of course, later in the day, I had a crisis and a mini-meltdown of my own, and there was Dan, ready to be with me, talk me through it, and make sure I didn’t skip a meal.

I know this is what marriage is supposed to be – partners helping each other through their individual and mutual times of difficulty. I also know that mental illness can put a terrible strain on a relationship. I admit that I am very needy at times, and was even more so at other times in my life.

But this time I got to be the strong one and take care of his needs before my own. And I was pleased and proud to be able to do that. Often there’s little enough that I can do for him, except offer him encouragement and remind him that I love him and appreciate him and all he does for me. If he asks for something he needs, I try to make sure he gets it (except for the $900 woodchipper, I mean). And I do what I can that benefits both of us – working to bring in money, paying the bills, doing computer research, handling phone calls, reminding him of appointments when I can – mostly stuff that involves computers and phones and recordkeeping and occasionally knowing where missing stuff is. And reassuring him when he gets trapped in the depression that he also suffers from that I love him and that he is strong and good and that he needs to take care of himself, and that if he can’t, I will try and do my best.

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.

Do I Need Advice or Do I Need to Vent?

COK House / adobestock.com

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.

My Emotional Support Animals

As I mentioned last week, my home was destroyed in the Memorial Day tornadoes. Although I was upstairs in bed when it hit and blew the roof off, I emerged physically without a scratch. The emotional effects have not begun to hit me yet, except for a feeling of numbness. Part of what’s keeping me together is my emotional support animals.

The first and most important is my husband. He earned this title when I had to go to the dentist a few years ago (which terrifies me). “Can I bring my emotional support animal?” I asked, gesturing toward Dan. It was meant as a joke, to lighten the mood, but he indeed came into the procedure room with me, sat in a chair in the corner, and placed his hand on my ankle, the only part of me he could reach. And it really did help, that physical contact that helped keep me grounded, and a sympathetic pat from time to time. 

He was much more than that to me this time around. Dan was at work when the tornado hit. I called him and told him the roof was gone. “I’ll be there,” he said. Although his work is only about three or four miles away, it took him an hour to reach me. He drove into our plat until he couldn’t drive anymore, blocked by downed power lines. Then he set off on foot.

It was midnight dark and all the landmarks were gone, as the many trees had fallen or been blown away. It took him an hour to navigate that last half mile. He crawled over huge tree trunks. He fell backward into a creek. He clawed his way up a muddy bank. He lost track of where he was in relation to the house. He had no flashlight. 

But he got to me and we huddled together amongst the dust, dirt, and insulation until the rescue people came. He looked after me at the shelter, made sure I ate and got a shower, and generally acted as my interface with the Red Cross and church volunteers until we left there for a hotel, where we stayed for almost a week.

Meanwhile, back at the house, our cats remained. Every day we had to go to the shell of our home, give Toby and Dushenka food and water, and make sure they were still okay. We couldn’t get them out of the house for days because there was no way to carry them through the obstacle course of trees, branches, utility cables, roofing, boards, and other debris.

Days later a path to the house was cleared and we were able to rescue them. The motel where we were living did not allow pets, but our vet agreed to board them as long as necessary and our insurance agreed to pay for it. They were treated for the difficulties they suffered from having tried to clean their fur when it was matted with insulation. We were their emotional support animals, visiting them and loving them, and playing with them, and making sure they got good care. They needed us and caring for them gave us something to focus on besides ourselves and the devastation in our lives.

Finally, we were moved to a hotel that was pet-friendly and our little family was reunited. It really is an emotional comfort to have our cats with us again, sleeping on the bed with us, exploring the room, and returning that little bit of peace and normality to us. It’s now less of just a hotel room and more of a temporary home.

In a way, taking care of the cats has provided emotional support for us as well. When we need comfort, there is someone there to respond with affection and trust. When we are lonely, there is another being there to pet and cuddle. When we get short-tempered, we can find solace and distraction in their purring.

Our cats aren’t trained service animals, of course. But they give us emotional support just the same, especially when our ability to support each other wears thin. We and our animals have been emotional supports for each other and helped us bear up under these difficult times so that we can be the emotional support animals when needed, too.

 

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