Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘writing’

Nothing to See Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Illness: Fact and Fiction

I’ve had a bit of experience with mental health and nonfiction, though none so far with bipolar fiction. But lately, I’ve been thinking about it.

Bipolar nonfiction is (comparatively) easy to write. There are numerous memoirs, essays, and blogs – including my own. Bipolar disorder has not appeared much in fiction, however. There are reasons for this.

First, let’s tackle the idea of mental illness in “genre fiction” (fantasy, science fiction, mystery, horror, and the like – not mainstream fiction, anyway). A friend of mine recently attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Dublin, Ireland, where they had a panel discussion on just that topic.

My friend reports that the panel “had a mental health nurse, a psychologist and some writers talking about portrayals of mental illness that got it right or wrong.”

He went on to add, “Consensus seemed to be that the Punisher completely nailed PTSD, that Drax in the first GotG movie nailed Aspie but that they rewrote him into a cute Manic Pixie Dream Creature for the second one; and the depiction of Sheldon from Big Bang is an abomination against God and Man.” (To unpack that just a bit, the Punisher is a character from Marvel, GotG means the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies, and “Manic Pixie Dream Creature” is a riff on “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a trope in which one woman (the MPDG) opens the hero’s eyes to life lived fully so that he can then go off and win his One True Love, who is not the MPDG.)

I myself have no experience with the Punisher and saw only one of the GotG movies. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is a character I know a little more about. As I understand it, Sheldon Cooper is not intended to represent a person with any particular sort of mental illness (as he always points out, “My mother had me tested”). Still, the character exhibits behaviors that are often associated with Asperger’s, OCD, and perhaps some other mental illnesses or conditions.

I have read that Jim Parsons, the actor who portrays Sheldon, did no research on any of those conditions or illnesses because he didn’t want Sheldon to represent a person with any particular disorder. This allows the viewer to read into the character whatever he or she believes Sheldon’s “problem” is (if any).

But an important point was brought up in the book Philosophy and The Big Bang Theory. One of its essays questioned whether the audience should feel comfortable laughing at Sheldon. If one believes that he has a mental illness or Asperger’s, the answer is, of course, “no.” Yet most of the audience does – apart from those who see the portrayal as an “abomination.”

It’s so hard to get a portrayal of mental illness right, on TV or particularly in genre fiction. Take bipolar disorder, for example. Abigail Padgett’s Bo Bradley series of mysteries features a protagonist who has bipolar disorder. But most of the depiction depends on whether or not the character is having a manic episode at any given time. While the depiction is laudable – and I like the series immensely – it is telling that bipolar depression is seldom a plot element.

Perhaps this is because depression is too, well, depressing to write or read about. A character who is unable to leave her bed or who questions her very existence is hardly likely to move the plot forward. Searing depictions of depression, both bipolar and unipolar, have been written about, but almost exclusively in nonfiction. Even those can be hard to read for someone who experiences clinical depression.

Depression, however, did become a metaphor in the writing of J.K. Rowling. She has said that in her portrayal of “Dementors” in her Harry Potter fantasy epic, she was specifically thinking of depression and its soul-sucking effects on those who suffer from it. That’s genre fiction and that’s doing mental illness right.

In talking about mental illness and genre fiction, I’m deliberately ignoring the many portrayals of sociopaths in shows such as Dexter. Those are stereotypes too, but I’m wondering about less “drama-friendly” mental illnesses. Dissociative identity disorder seems to be one of the few other mental illnesses that feature prominently in popular forms of fiction, usually in the psyche of a villain. You could also count the many detective characters suffering from PTSD, a commonly used trope that is seldom examined closely but rather serves as a personality trait associated with violence.

I wasn’t at the convention and didn’t hear the panel (though I would have loved to), but it raised interesting questions. What would a protagonist (or other character) with bipolar disorder be like or do in what is too often a formulaic plot? Can a mentally ill character be portrayed accurately within the confines of genre fiction? Can mental illness be anything but a metaphor – or be experienced by a character other than one played for laughs? Is there any such book that I should be reading?

I don’t have the answers. But we need facts in fiction. We need understanding. We need representation. I haven’t tried to write fiction featuring a bipolar character, much less a main character who is bipolar. 

Maybe I should.

Anxiety Says No, but Mental Health Says, “Do It!”

It’s tough enough for someone with bipolar or depression or anxiety to go outside, where it’s all people-y. It’s another level of achievement when such a person deliberately puts herself or himself out into the public eye.

But that’s just what I did this week. My publisher arranged for me to do a reading and signing of my book at a local branch of a national bookstore. And I agreed to do it. Thursday night was my debut.

Let me go back a few steps. I do have some experience speaking in public, so it wasn’t going to be a completely novel experience. Those occasions were, shall we say, a bit distant in time, mostly before my bipolar disorder reached its heights (or depths). In high school, I did debate and extemporaneous speaking. In grad school, I taught introductory English classes. During my somewhat-less-than-successful business years, I once addressed a power breakfast meeting. I even opened with a joke.

I was prepared to open with a joke (or at least a witticism) this time, too. But my plans soon flew out the window.

I had prepared – or over-prepared, probably – somewhat obsessively. I spent spoons like they were disposable plastic. I picked out an outfit and a back-up outfit, including earrings and back-up earrings. I did my hair. I agonized over which pieces from my book to read, then printed them out in huge type so I wouldn’t have to squint at them. I took an anti-anxiety pill and Immodium, just in case. I was fortunate that Thursday was my day off and also my husband’s, so he could be present as my emotional support animal, wearing one of my book t-shirts.

My expectations, such as they were, took a nose-dive when only two people showed up – both friends of mine, one of whom had already bought my book. It was time to rearrange my plans on the spot, not really one of my strong suits. Why had I knocked myself out making plans if the universe wasn’t going to cooperate with them? I had thought that at least half a dozen people would turn up. I was trying to keep my expectations reasonable, after all.

I’ll admit that when I saw such a small audience, I felt a wave of despair. In actuality, it proved good that they were both friends of mine, because they were a receptive audience who wished me well.

Given the meager audience, though, I abandoned my introduction (though I worked my joke in later). These people already knew me. I gave a brief synopsis of “What is bipolar disorder?” and plunged into my readings.

I had tried out one of my readings previously, when I was on a podcast for indie authors. Of course, I had no eye contact with my audience then and no real idea how my performance went over. On Thursday, I explained Spoon Theory, as it came up in one of the pieces I was to read. I had chosen two of my more light-hearted pieces, though on serious topics (psychotropics and side effects, and cognitive dissonance). Then I finished with a reading of a piece on why I write about bipolar disorder and why I put myself out there to the extent that I do in this blog and my book, and indeed my public appearance.

The big surprise of the evening came when I invited a Q&A session. My husband fed me questions to get things started and my friends also had queries. What I hadn’t been expecting, however, was that a few people in the bookstore cafe where this all occurred got sucked into the discussion and had questions of their own, though they had no idea that the event was scheduled at all. One worked at a local university and had heard his students talking about having bipolar disorder. Another was a woman studying psychology in order to become a counselor. I didn’t always have the answers, and I’m sure I bobbled some of the explanations, but I did my best to come up with reasonable answers about treatments and medications, self-care, and so on.

Then came the signing portion of the evening. I signed a book for one of my friends and the counselor-in-training asked me to sign her notebook with any little inspirational words I might have. (I winged it. I was tired by then and am not usually inclined to be inspirational.)

Then my husband and one of my friends and I went out for milkshakes, which I highly recommend as a way to decompress after such a fraught experience.

All things considered, I’m glad I took the risk and gave it the old college try, as it were. If nothing else, it was good practice for the next time I speak in public, perhaps when my second book comes out.

The reason that I write about bipolar disorder and my experiences with it is that I want to share what I’ve learned and lived. I think I did that Thursday, even if not to the extent that I had hoped. I don’t regret the anxiety and the preparation that went into it and, all things considered, count it as a win. When I think about the melt-downs I could have had – before, during, and after – I feel pride that I kept my depression and anxiety at bay for long enough to share information about bipolar and healing and mental health.

I think it was worth putting myself out there.

 

Riding the Mania

This has been a couple of good weeks for me. Either that or I’ve been riding the wave of mania.

In the past, I’ve written about how fleeting the feeling of hypomania can be (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-df). One pinprick and it bursts, leaving nothing but the air. Maybe that’s because I was hypomanic or rapid cycling at the time. Or maybe it was just a temporary feeling of joy that lasted only a few minutes and then retreated in the face of disappointment.

It’s difficult trusting your feelings when you have a mood disorder. I always have to ask myself, is this feeling a reaction to the real circumstances that surround me, or is it just a glitch that occurs between my synapses? It’s tiring questioning all your emotions all the time.

I’ve been stable for many months now. I’m not symptom-free. I still find it difficult to do daily tasks or leave the house, though lately, I have gotten up, groomed, dressed, and out of the house – including a record of three or four times in one week, rather than once or twice a month. But I have been feeling what feels like genuine happiness.  Contentment. Energy. Productivity. Engagement. Can I trust this?

Since over-thinking is one of my superpowers, let’s take a closer look. Do I have any of the symptoms of mania or hypomania to go with my lightened moods? Hypersexuality? No. Racing thoughts? No. Risk-taking behaviors? No.

But I have been overspending. Maybe. Our finances have improved of late, so there’s no real harm in buying a few things that I’ve been putting off. And my purchases have not been excessive – nothing over $30, and that was a birthday present for my husband. Still, I have been beset by the feeling, right before I hit checkout, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” or “I don’t really need that.” Again, my feelings are questionable. Maybe my purchases are influenced by hypomania and the stable part of my brain is warning me. On the other hand, the purchases may be modest and reasonable, and my questioning a holdover of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts” from when our budget had no room at all for discretionary spending.

Then there’s my writing. I’ve written a couple of extra essays and guest blog posts in addition to my regular two blogs per week. I’m getting them done early, too. Once I even decided a post I was working on wasn’t very good, so I wrote a new one to take its place in a single day. I renamed and redesigned my other blog (newly christened “But I Digress…,” still available at janetcobur.wordpress.com). But is what I’m writing any good? It’s hard to tell. My stats on blog readership haven’t been as good as usual, but the editors were happy with the guest posts I wrote. The rewritten post was selected for special treatment on Medium.

It’s been observed that I could over-analyze a ham sandwich. But I am tired of examining every mood and emotion to be sure it isn’t pathological. Having unstable emotions is not a pleasant thing to live with, but neither is this level of self-doubt.

I saw my psychiatrist last weekend and he thought there were plenty of good things happening in my life – my published book (amzn.to/2RLU8hP), the extra writing, an upcoming podcast (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Pi), a science fiction convention to attend – to explain my good mood. If he isn’t worried, why should I be?

All in all, I’m very tempted to say, “what the hell,” and ride this wave until or unless it crashes.

No Resolutions – Just Memories and Hopes

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. But since January is named after Janus, the two-faced god that can look both ways, I do look to the past and the future just to see what I can see.

Last year was a very mixed bag. It brought the heights of joy and the depths of depression, along with a little hypomania and dysthymia thrown in just because my brain does that.

The big negative this year was my husband’s heart attack in August and all the medical and financial repercussions that entailed. He’s back at work now, though he’s having difficulty managing the mental and physical stresses of it, so much so that he hasn’t made it to cardiac rehab in over a week. Rehab is not just a good thing physically; Dan said it made him feel energized, productive, and cheerful. I know, I know, exercise could do the same for me.

Still, there have been good things. My book, named after this blog, has now been published. This is a huge event in my life that lifted me temporarily out of depression and into (possibly) hypomania. And I have retired, meaning only that I will start collecting Social Security next year. It will not alter my blogging, writing, or other pursuits, since what I make from them won’t be over the “allowed-to-make-in-addition” line.

As for next year, I expect to see more of the same (minus, I hope, the heart attack). There will still be problems paying the bills, including the massive hospital one, but at least I will have a steady, fixed income. It will help me with my anxiety over potential financial collapse and my unreasonable fear of losing the house.

I’m also planning to get away for another long weekend at a bed-and-breakfast on a working farm. The last time we did it, it proved enormously soothing and relaxing. Another such mini-vacation would be ideal. We certainly won’t be able to take a full vacation, so I won’t even hope for that.

The other good news is that my second book, Bipolar Us, will be published. It may not be attended with the same level of hypomania that the first one was, but at the very least there will be real joy. Also in the coming year, I plan to finish my mystery novel and place it with an agent.

As far as my bipolar disorder, in the coming year, I will still have it. I expect that my meds will change not at all, or minimally since I’ve been relatively stable for so long. But I know it won’t go away just because I’ve crossed “publishing a book” off my bucket list. That’s not the way it works.

If this sounds like my 2019 will be more of the same, well, that’s because that is truly what I expect. Of course, my expectations will have no influence on the outcome. The year will be what it will be, as rife with unexpected events as this one was. My main hopes are that my husband’s health and my writing both improve.

I’ll try to remember the lessons learned from this year – that we are both strong and good things can happen to us. And I’ll try to plan for some positive accomplishments in 2019 and hope they’re within our reach. I won’t call them resolutions, though. Resolutions are so easily broken and I don’t like to think that my plans and hopes are.

Back to Work – Full Time

business clean computer connection

Photo by Ken Tomita on Pexels.com

As is true with many of us who can manage to work only part-time while dealing with bipolar disorder, I was always one paycheck away from financial disaster.

Then the checks stopped coming.

When my main source of work dried up, that financial disaster loomed closer. I knew that it was time to try to go back to regular work. Full-time. Outside in the world, if need be, rather than in my home office, in my jammies.

Looking for work was a job in itself (https://wp.me/p4e9wS-zY). It turns out I’m overqualified for many things and underqualified for others, sometimes both at once.

And the specter of bipolar reared its fearsome head. Even if I found full-time work, could I do it? Especially out there where it’s all people-y? It’s been years since I’ve worked in such an environment and my last few years at it did not go well, as I was beginning to slide into a major, long-lasting bipolar depressive episode.

Looking for work at home was not much better. Even telephone jobs (customer service or order handling, please, not sales) required some experience and my Girl Scout cookie days were back when we still thought it was safe to go door-to-door. When I responded to work-from-home jobs, many of them turned out to be Uber or Lyft, which is hardly the same as work-at-home, if you ask me.

I found a couple of small gigs to tide me over. Then I found one that was really promising.

Proofreader.

They warned me during the phone interview that I was vastly overqualified. I told them that this kind of job was exactly what I needed at this point in my life and please to keep me in mind if any of the other candidates washed out.

The job was with a transcription service, proofing scripts of meetings and reports that other people had typed up from audio files. But there wasn’t much of it, and it didn’t pay very well.

Then they asked me if I would move up to typing. And whether I would do it full-time.

Those were separate questions. I’m not a fast or good typist. I never took typing in high school (though I discovered that I needed it once I got into college). All these years I’ve been faking it, looking at the keyboard and using at most six or seven fingers to type with. But I said I’d try and I did. I’ve been sweating over these typing jobs and they take me lots longer than they do for other, ten-fingered, trained typists, but I’ve been hitting my deadlines.

Full-time was another issue. I said I’d try, with the understanding that I’d go back to part-time if I couldn’t handle it. It’s certainly been a challenge, forcing myself to spend six or more hours at the keyboard five days a week (and then using my days off to write blogs and work on my novel). It’s exhausting. But at least I’m still in my jammies and ready to go to bed afterward.

And I’ve learned a few things. One is “Never volunteer.” Often the company has extra work with even tighter deadlines that pay more per minute and are up for grabs. I made the mistake of grabbing a couple. It nearly did me in, combined with my regular work. (I did get an Amazon gift card for working on the Fourth of July.) Full-time work is hard enough. Full-time plus is a meat-grinder, or I should say a me-grinder.

So now for the big question – did I disclose my bipolar disorder?

I did not. As long as could do the work, it didn’t seem relevant. Work-at-home is not the sort of gig where they make accommodations or modifications for those with disabilities. And if I can keep up my stability and relative mental health, and get time off for doctor’s appointments, my mental status shouldn’t be relevant.

But I’m thinking I may have to cut back to four days a week. Five days is running me ragged. And then in December, when I retire, I can give it up altogether or work only a couple of days a week.

I will have a fixed income, which has both good and bad points, but at least it will lift from me the crushing anxiety of “Will we make the mortgage this month?” (I never was able to get disability.)

So, for now at least, and for the next few months, I will be working full- or almost full-time, if only my bipolar disorder will let me.

Wish me luck.

(Full disclosure: That photo is not an actual representation of my writing space. Mine is littered with legal pads, stuffed animals, Kleenex, and water bottles.)

Using Facebook to Track Bipolar Depression

I never planned it this way, but I’ve just realized that I can track my moods (roughly) by looking back at my Facebook posts.

When I joined Facebook, I must have been in a hypomanic phase. Thanks to Facebooks “today’s memories” feature, I can see that I posted numerous things going on in my life and assorted weirdness I’d encountered, usually about language or science or feminism:

Plenty of food in the freezer. (Spare freezer outdoors.) Plenty of food in the fridge. (Spare fridge downstairs.) Plenty of seasoned firewood. Plenty of sweaters. Plenty of cat food. Plenty of cats. We’re ready.

Little to no snow here. But bring your brass monkeys inside tonight, folks!

Weird Non-Word of the Day:

bang (a fine word, except when it purportedly means the singular of bangs, the hairstyle)

I also posted an ongoing series of amusing or stupid headlines I saw on the Internet:

“Oh, Who the Hell Cares?” Headline of the Day:

Is 2014 the year of the biscuit?

Unless you’re a dog. Dogs care deeply about this.

Those were all from January 2014. And from 2013:

Just so you know – do not put a whole summer squash in the microwave. It will explode. This tip courtesy of someone who prefers his name not be mentioned. Thank you. You may now go back to whatever you were doing.

I was engaged. I was communicative. I was – dare I say it? – buoyant.

I was hypomanic, or at least on a level playing field.

This year I have taken two breaks from Facebook for my sanity’s sake, in reaction to all the negativity and bad news appearing there. When I do post, it’s always pass-along memes or cartoons. (I’m glad I’m still “alive” enough to find some things funny.) Occasionally I make comments or ask questions about my friends’ posts – but not damn often. I IM with one or two close friends, and that seems the most “productive” thing I do, some days. A series of days or months like that are a pretty clear indication that I’m on the downswing.

I understand that now Facebook’s memories feature will let you weed out bad memories, instead of reminding you of them and offering to repost them for all to see. (If only I could do the same for my brain!) The problem is, right now, you can only have them block references to certain people and certain dates.

Birthdays and holidays are tough for me, as I know they are for many of you, but, anymore at least, they are not so traumatic that I have to expunge them from my life. I can always choose not to repost them. Just as I can choose not to repost things I said that were about depressing topics – not getting a job, being angry about political bullshit, the death of a pet. The people I would block are already on my blocked list, or are ones I never “friended” in the first place.

Facebook also reminds me what I posted on my blogs in various years, and that gives me some idea of what I was thinking or feeling at the same time in various years. If I wanted or needed to, I could look through my Facebook memories and plot a graph of how my moods fluctuated from month to month, year to year. Yes, I know that there are software apps that will do this for you and that I could keep a mood journal or even a paper-and-pencil graph.

Instead I check my Facebook memories and re-repost things that I still think are funny.

 

 

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