Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘support systems’

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.

 

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.

 

Helping Someone Else

My husband used to work in a community correctional facilityessentially a jail. The residents were considered nonviolent offenders technically on parole for mostly drug crimes, but things could still get interesting. Mostly he didn’t talk about his work because he would try to dismiss it from his mind every day as he went by a certain overpass on his way home from work.

One day, though, I was bitching in disbelief about something that had happened at my work – another editor had put his table of contents in random order instead of numerical. I was appalled by the stupidity of that.

There I was ranting about it. Then my husband said, “Boy, that’s tough. All I did today was break up a fight and spot a guy who might have a septic wound. But you – the table of contents out of numerical order? Wow!” That put me in my place.

My husband was someone who helped other people. For years after he left the job, people would come up to him when he was out and about, and reminisce with him. They’d tell him about how well they were doing, how they were clean and sober, how they had jobs, how they had improved their lives. They always said thank you to my husband.

This morning when I woke up and checked my email, I found something I wasn’t expecting. There, nestled in amongst the spam, was a response to a post that I wrote back in January, about passive suicidal ideation (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Me).

In the reply, the person told of having thought about suicide but not acting on it. The response ended, “I’ll follow your advice and seek professional help.”

It’s difficult to describe what I felt then. Mostly, it was gratitude that my writing had helped someone, combined with not a little surprise at receiving a response at all. Sometimes writing is like shouting down a well. You never really know if anyone even hears you or if you’ve made a difference. Most of the time when I write this blog, I have no idea how the posts will affect my readers, if at all. But this time I knew – at least if the person followed through – that I had actually helped someone.

When I started Bipolar Me, it was to share my experiences with bipolar disorder and my thoughts on mental illness and mental health. If my writing resonated with someone, good. But I wasn’t writing with the intention of being inspiring, or helping people solve problems, or being a “good example.” I’m not a professional and the kind of advice I give (when I do) is largely commonsense – don’t stop taking your meds, seek professional help, thank your caregivers, and so on.

I’m not going to break my arm patting myself on the back here. There are lots of people who do the work of caring for the desperate and hurting every day. I am privileged to know some of them and to have even been helped by some. There are people like Sarah Fader and Gabe Howard who are advocates and activists for the mentally ill, who go out on a limb to do something to help the whole mental health community.

But today, for just a moment, I felt that I had really touched someone, really helped. It was a good feeling.

So there it is. I started this blog for self-centered reasons, to chronicle my own struggles and occasional victories. If it helped anyone, fine. If not, I still had stories to share. But now I find that having helped someone else has made a difference – in the other person, in me, in the world. Now I believe that my blog and my book could do more of that.

The Languages of Love and Bipolar Disorder

In 1995, Dr. Gary Chapman published his popular relationship book, The Five Love Languages. In it he proposed that there are different ways – or “languages”  – that people use to communicate their love. Problems happen when one partner doesn’t speak the same language as the other; for example, when one gives the other literal gifts while the other yearns for time together.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about love and bipolar disorder lately and it occurred to me that the five love languages could be a helpful lens for looking at relationships. In particular, they might help a person realize what the other one needs when experiencing symptoms of the disorder.

Here are the five love languages and how they might be helpful if you are in a relationship with someone who has bipolar disorder.

Words of affirmation. I’m not talking here about the kinds of affirmation we are supposed to look in the mirror and give ourselves. I mean words of affirmation that come from outside, from another person, and are gifts of love. Everyone needs affirmations at times, but for people whose love language is words of affirmation, they can be positively soul-feeding.

For the bipolar person, these affirmations can be as simple as, “Thank you for coming out with me,” or “Congratulations on getting the bills paid,” or even, “I know you can do it,” or “I knew you could do it!” And for the bipolar person who struggles with self-esteem, imposter syndrome, or lack of motivation, these can be the words that keep us going.

Quality time. Quality time doesn’t have to mean an elaborate outing or a two-week vacation. It can be as simple as sitting on the sofa with your partner watching a movie, or cooking together. Especially when there’s something else you could be doing. Giving up that other activity to spend time with your loved one is another kind of love-gift.

Quality time – extended periods of togetherness – can be extra special to someone with bipolar who feels lonely, isolated, or unlovable. Just the idea that someone wants to spend time with you, even though you can barely stand to be with yourself, sends a powerful message.

Receiving gifts. There are people who value physical gifts and see in them the care and attention that another person spends selecting just the right thing. Diamond rings are unnecessary. In this language of love, a simple houseplant can even be preferable.

You probably shouldn’t expect a physical gift to “cheer up” a person with bipolar depression. As with any gift, the important thing is knowing what the person values and providing it to them. Comfort objects such as plush animals, mp3s of calming or favorite music, or a weighted blanket to ward off panic may be just the thing. Even a silly coffee mug with an appropriate saying can become a treasured item.

Acts of service. If the person you love values acts of service, then your way of speaking that love is accomplished when you do something for her or him. Doing the dishes or some other chore that usually falls to the loved one is one example.

For the bipolar person, acts of service that speak of love may be as simple as handling phone calls and visitors, or doing the shopping when he or she just can’t face the grocery store. “I’ll do it for you” is a powerful message that says, “I care about you and want to help ease your burdens.”

Physical touch. Strange as it may seem, some people never think of physical touch as a language of love unless they’re talking about sex. Of course, the physical and emotional intimacy of sex can speak love, but other kinds of touch do just as well for some people.

Bipolar people in the manic phase can have a high sex drive and appreciate some sexual attention even if you wouldn’t ordinarily want it at that time of day, for example.  But the bipolar person can crave touch without sex as well. Hugging and cuddling, sitting close with an arm around the shoulders, and even a touch on the shoulder as you leave a room can speak volumes.

The important part of this is to learn and know what your partner values – what language of love she or he speaks – and to give it to them. Mixed signals, speaking the language that you would want instead of the one that your partner does, will not be processed as love. Physical gifts to one who hears love in affirmations will miss the mark.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to ask your partner which “language” they speak. But she or he may not even realize that there are different languages or which one is theirs. Observation, attention, and even trial and error may be necessary to get the communication going. But if you want to speak love to a person with bipolar disorder, these are communication skills that can be vital.

Big Box Mental Health

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According to an article published on the blogsite She Knows, “a Boston-based company that manages mental health care for 40 million people, has opened a small clinic in a Walmart location in Carrollton, Texas, and has plans to expand the program in other retail locations throughout the country.”

And I don’t know whether to vomit or applaud.

Walmart’s ubiquity is one point in its favor. They’re everywhere. And for some people, whether they love or despise Walmart, it’s the only choice they have for groceries, household goods, or much of anything else. Those areas are also likely to be underserved by the mental health system, such as it is.

And sparse as the options offered by the Walmart walk-in clinics is – treatment for anxiety, depression, grief, relationship issues, and stress management – it’s more than a lot of people have access to now. The trial site is said to be staffed with one licensed clinical social worker, has a sliding fee scale for those with no insurance, and will soon be approved for Medicaid reimbursement (it is hoped). There will even be remote Skype therapy services if necessary.

All that is good, as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? Will people be able to get more than a pat on the head and a pep talk as they do their weekly or monthly shopping? How will the walk-in clinic handle referrals for people with serious mental illness or a need for psychotropic medication, something that clinical social workers can’t provide? How many people can get help from a single professional? How good is internet therapy? And what percentage of Walmart shoppers have access to the internet?

The walk-in clinics are touted as reducing stigma around mental health issues. After all, the thought is, getting your mental health services at Walmart will become as natural as getting a haircut or an eye exam there. Well, maybe. On the other hand, how many people are willing to have their friends and neighbors see them publically, sitting in the waiting room or ducking surreptitiously through the door? It seems to me it might perpetuate stigma, rather than lessening it.

Besides, Walmart is hardly a bastion of high-quality goods and services. Will the mental health services be second-rate as well? It could be that even second-rate care is better than no care at all. But it’s surely not enough to deal with issues that require long-term therapy with actual treatment plans; scheduled repeat visits; building a relationship with a particular therapist; access to medications; and all the other aspects of more effective treatment, especially considering complicated disorders like bipolar, OCD, or anorexia.

I fully admit that I hate Walmart – the way they have driven out local Mom and Pop stores, for example, and the way they treat their employees. But I have many choices of where to shop near where I live, and access to both therapists and psychiatrists, and insurance that covers my appointments and medications. If I weren’t looking through the lens of privilege, I might see things a lot differently.

So for now, I guess my attitude is to wait and see. One test location does not a Walmart Psych Empire make. Perhaps it will succeed; perhaps not. Perhaps it will become the Great Clips of the psychotherapy world.

But while I’m waiting, I’m hot holding my breath.

 

My Turn to Care

My husband had a heart attack this fall. He got a total of five stents, avoided open heart surgery, and is now in cardiac rehab. And I am helping take care of him.

Dan has been my caregiver as long as I’ve known him. He has stuck with me through the various ups and downs of bipolar disorder – when I was untreated, when I was struggling with finding the proper medication, when I shouted at him, when I was immobilized – whatever. I couldn’t have got through what I’ve been through without him.

Now I get to pay him back, at least a little, for all he has done for me. I have no training and little experience as a caregiver. But there a few things I can do for him, in addition to loving and supporting him as he has loved and supported me.

I can facilitate his appointments, meds, and procedures. Dan has a tendency to forget when is next appointment is, and with which of his many doctors. I have a perfectly good whiteboard in my study on which I note my own appointments as well as keep track of my work. It’s no trouble at all to add his and remind him.

Getting to his appointments is another area where I can help, especially since his cardiologist has a number of offices in various parts of town and in nearby suburbs where he practices on different days of the week. Since I’ve lived here most of my life, I know the area better than he does and I go with him to navigate. (He’s never gotten used to GPS.) I suggest routes that are easy to retrace and figure out when to leave to get there on time.

Dan has in the past had a habit of forgetting to take his various medications.  When that involved sertraline, I didn’t worry much since I know that once a certain level has built up in the body, missing a dose is not such a big deal. But with his blood thinner, a missed dose could lead to a clogged stent and another heart attack. So I proactively encourage him (as my therapist suggests I call nagging) to take them daily and on time.

I can handle financial stuff. With Dan being off work for so long and hospital and doctor bills adding up, our finances are getting pretty tricky. I can make sure I have steady work and even take on extra sometimes. I can fill out the forms for short-term leave, financial assistance, insurance, and other necessities.

I’ve even been able to set up PayPal and Facebook funding pleas to help us get a little extra cash to pay the utilities and other bills. (GoFundMe may be next once all the medical bills are in.)

I can handle computer stuff. Finding locations of offices and hospitals and the cardiac rehab place, phone numbers of financial aid programs, and names and side effects of medication are easier and quicker for me to do on my Mac than for him to do on his ancient PC. I can find things he needs on ebay for the lowest price. I can find and email various forms and records of expenses to wherever they need to go. This may sound minor, but believe me, it can take up a lot of time and frustration. I think of it under the heading of relieving his stress.

I also know how to network. A Facebook friend of mine teaches Tai Chi at a local Y. Through him I found out that the Y does not charge for his classes. And through Google I found that this month the Y waives membership fees if you donate canned goods to a local food pantry. The Y’s amenities include exercise classes and water aerobics, which I also could use. I also found a local Senior Center that has yoga and free weights (and community theater) as well.

I can understand his depression. Being faced with intimations of one’s mortality, combined with money problems and not being able to work can make anyone depressed. And Dan was already taking meds for depression before this current crisis even started. I am, of course, a third-degree black belt when it comes to depression. I know how he feels, why he’s feeling it, and what will and won’t work in helping him through it. I can be patient, supportive, and there to communicate or simply hug when he needs to, as he has so often done for me.

There’s not much care that my husband needs in the way of actual physical care. He is not so incapacitated that he needs help with feeding, dressing, bathing, or other tasks of daily living (other than changing his bandages when he cut his finger open and required eight stitches).

But I like to think that the support I can give him helps in his recovery by taking some of the stress off him, which his doctor recommends and which he has done for me innumerable times. We’re a team and this time it’s my turn to take some of the weight.

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