Scared of What’s Next

Over the past month, I’ve been declining.

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The other night, my husband made a minor comment that made me feel bad, and I fell into a thought spiral on the thought “It’s not supposed to be this hard.” I started crying. I sank deeper into dark ideas, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness and meaninglessness. When the sadness became too great for my brain, it turned to pure fear instead. My mind’s solution to fear is often to ascribe meaning to it that isn’t there, just because it needs to have a reason to be afraid. This time, my mind picked ghosts. The room around me was full of ghosts. They all stood still, with their hands at their sides, all silent, all staring at me. There must have been at least 30 of them. There was not enough space between any of them for me to leave the room or even get off the couch.

 

I called out to my husband to help me and told him about the ghosts. He tried to help me fact-check by telling me that there couldn’t be ghosts because ghosts are not real. That didn’t work this time. I could see them. I could feel them looking at me. My husband is a creative problem-solver when I’m in crisis, so he was on top of the situation. He told me that there were no ghosts in the bedroom, so we could go in there and be safe. He made a path through the ghosts with his body so that I could follow behind him without touching them. It worked. The ghosts stayed out of the bedroom, so I stayed in it. I moved on to other troubling beliefs, but none as bad as the audience of 30 translucent spirits in the living room.

 

Those ghosts were a psychotic symptom, somewhere in a mix between hallucination, delusion, and paranoia. Mental illness symptoms are rarely simple or plain. Everything is a mixture of gradients. It’s been a long time since I’ve had such a striking and problematic psychotic episode.

 

I also had a night when I put together many pieces of “evidence” that my husband was cheating on me. It was full-fledged paranoia. I was seeing meaning and clues in everything. I spent the afternoon in a perpetual fit of Continue reading

Memories That Almost Break Me

Yesterday in therapy I told the story of the last days with Sophie and my first days of incapacitating mental illness, just before I was officially diagnosed. I was surprised at how upset I became in therapy, and by the clarity of my often faulty memory. Timeline was:

 

I started to feel like I was becoming invisible in October, right after I started dating Sophie, right when I turned 19.

 

My depression increased. I started to disappear.

By Christmas, I knew something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what. I remember saying “Something is really wrong with me,” to my mom when I came home for Christmas break. When my folks drove me to Austin at the New Year to put me on a plane back to Ohio, my dad gave me a giant teddy bear in the parking lot, and I hugged him and cried very hard. My mom took a picture of us that I have here in my house. Our eyes are red, even though we’re smiling. His arm is around my shoulder, and we both look like we’re holding our breath.

 

January was something called “Winter Term,” which exists because it’s basically too cold to live in Ohio in January. The campus empties out. Everyone did an individual project during Winter Term, appropriately called a “Winter Term Project,” and you could complete your project anywhere in the world. Oberlin is mostly wealthy, so students would do their projects in Hawaii or Barbados or Portugal. Wherever they wanted, basically. A tiny minority of students would stay on campus, so the ice-laden, snow-covered campus stayed partially open. The libraries had some limited operating hours, and one of the cafeterias was kept functioning. I chose a listening/research project on mezzo-sopranos of the last century. My roommate, Laura, went away somewhere for the month, so Sophie and I had a giant room to ourselves. We hid inside, only leaving to find food or go to the conservatory to research. Baldwin had a large, round practice room on the first floor with a piano in it, directly below my own round room, so we didn’t even need to go to the conservatory to practice. There were two places near us that delivered food: a Chinese place on Main Street and a Dominos about 30 miles away. With temperatures severely below zero, it was worth the money and the wait to not have to leave the house. We binge-watched TV and movies on her laptop, ate takeout, and existed naked with the radiators cranked. The sky was only ever grey or black.

 

I started to think that I would marry this girl, and soon after I had that thought, I started Continue reading

I Am Disabled

Conv Bloodshot Earth.jpegI don’t like that I’m not supposed to say that I’m disabled. I was told recently that what I’m supposed to say is “person living with a disability.” I was told this by a healthy person with healthy privilege. Something is not right here.

I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet my cat on the idea that a healthy person coined the idea of  “people living with disabilities.”

I am completely supportive of trying to make the world a kinder place, and if saying only “a person living with a disability” instead of “a disabled person” is what we need to do to make people with disabilities (which I am not opposed to saying as long as “disabled person” is still something people can call themselves) feel more accepted, safe or supported, I will do it. But I will not give up my right to call myself disabled.

The word “disabled” is incredibly powerful to me. It took me years to accept that I am truly limited in a way that most people aren’t. Before I accepted that I was disabled, I measured my life against healthy standards instead of standards that are realistic for someone with my disorders. Because I did not yet acknowledge Continue reading

What to Expect in a First Therapy Appointment

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When you see a therapist, it’s good to go in with goals in mind. Those goals can be big or small, broad or narrow. Some of my goals in the past have been “reduce depression”, “cope with anxiety”, “build a healthier relationship with food and lose weight”, “learn assertiveness skills”, “set firm boundaries with parents”, and “minimize psychotic episodes”. At your first therapy appointment, be ready to set one or more goals. Your therapist may ask you directly what your goals are, or they might let you direct the session. Either way, let them know what your goals for therapy are.

It’s important to see a therapist with whom you are comfortable, but most people are not comfortable with their therapist for the first handful of appointments with them. It’s perfectly normal to be nervous and uncomfortable in therapy at first. The hope is that you will gradually learn that you can trust your therapist. If you have a deep dislike or disrespect for your therapist right away, leave. But if you’re just nervous, awkward, or uncomfortable, then try giving them 4 sessions before you decide whether you need to find someone else. Therapy is awkward at first, especially if you grew up in an environment where it wasn’t okay to openly and honestly express emotions. If you grew up in an emotionally accepting family, therapy will be easier to dive in to. If you didn’t, then it might be a little hard to open up, but there is nothing you could say or express to a therapist that would be inappropriate or out-of-bounds. This is the one person who legally must keep your secrets and is not there to get anything out of your relationship other than employment. They are only there to help you, and they have chosen that as their life’s work.

You can say as much or as little as you want in a therapy session. I encourage you Continue reading

What is EMDR?

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Above: Right brain and left brain, pictured on opposite sides, surround the present mindful moment that flows out between the two.

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a partially physical treatment in psychotherapy used to reduce psychological pain associated with trauma. It involves watching a light move back and forth, tapping your hands on your legs, or holding two small vibrating paddles, one in each hand, while letting your brain relive a traumatic event. The physical component (be it the moving light, the tapping hands, or the vibrating paddles), causes bilateral stimulation. When combined with the brain’s amazing ability to make sense of complicated feelings and situations, effective healing can occur.

We have two hemispheres in our brains; the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. They are connected in the middle by a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum does the job of communicating thoughts, memories, emotions, and other information between the two hemispheres. When you experience a traumatic event, your brain makes a fixed memory, including all of the physical and emotional feelings you had at that moment. This is sometimes referred to as a “flashbulb memory” (flashbulbs were used with old cameras as the necessary light source for a photo), because the image is frozen in your mind in great detail, and details will remain there, largely unchanged, for years. It is important to note that most memories are extremely flimsy and subject to change, even from hour to hour. Flashbulb memories are different. They are “stuck” in a neural memory network in a specific part of your brain and are cut off from the rest of your brain. Anything that comes in contact with this “stuck” part of your brain will be negatively affected by your trauma. The stuck trauma can cause negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is where EMDR comes in.

Bilateral stimulation means that both hemispheres are stimulated alternatingly (right brain, then left brain, then right brain, then left brain, and so on). Bilateral stimulation is the crucial element in EMDR because it aides the corpus callosum in communicating between Continue reading

On Gaining Weight. And Losing weight. And Gaining Weight…

conv meditation.jpegTrigger Warning: This article discusses weight loss, severe weight gain, and disordered eating.

Psychiatric drugs make weight gain so, so easy. My first antipsychotic made me feel like I was never full for the first year and a half that I took it. I would eat seconds, thirds, fourths, dessert and second dessert. I would get the feeling that my stomach hurt from being so overly filled, and I would stop at that point. I would have a stomach ache for the next hour, and I was still hungry. This was when I was at Oberlin and had access to a cafeteria. Yikes.

The weight gain was slow at first, but over the years I grew to a size that was unacceptable to me. A big problem I have is using food as a pleasure button that I push to entertain myself. Eating makes me feel good, so I want to do it more often than is healthy. Sometimes I go on binges and don’t purge afterward. I’ve also gone through years in my life with symptoms of anorexia. Eating disorders are real mental illnesses, and while I’ve only been informally diagnosed by my therapist as having some sort of disordered eating, I know how complicated my relationship with food is, and that it’s not a healthy relationship at all.

I have had a period of my life during which my relationship with food was very healthy, Continue reading

Tell the Truth: Ask for Help!

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I’m trying to act in a way that promotes self-acceptance and honesty. I have stopped lying to people when my illness precludes me from participating in something. I no longer say I have a stomach bug, or that my parents need me to help them with something. I say that I am disabled, and I need to just sit and do nothing for a day or two in order to prevent an episode. This puts me in a vulnerable position. I may be judged harshly, not taken seriously, or even hurt someone’s feelings. But if I want to be a mental illness advocate, I know I need to live that role. Most people are understanding and want to help, even if they don’t know fact one about mental illness, so I decided that it’s a good idea to put awareness and information out into the world. I want to be an ambassador of our cause, and the best way I can do that is by being open, honest, and frank about my disability and what kind of help I need.

Asking for help takes bravery, nothing less. It means admitting that you can’t do something for yourself. No adult wants to feel that way or be seen in that light. But if you are disabled, you have a legitimate need that has to be met. If you can’t help yourself in the active sense, you need to spend some time thinking about what help or accommodations you need, so that you can ask the people around you very specifically to help you in those ways. Guess what? Most people want to help. Like seriously, earnestly want to help, even when they don’t understand the problem. If you ask someone for help, you will probably get it. Isn’t that great?

Of course, everyone fears the day Continue reading

A Manic Introduction to a Realistic View

What will I be without my illness?

This question terrified me. And it terrified me to admit that I was terrified because that meant something was wrong with me. And there is. There is a pretty massive thing wrong with me: I have a broken brain.

Along with that broken brain came a personality developed from the results of mental illness. There is a lot I have not been that I want to be. I have rough spots and ugly edges. Now I know that I can make those edges any way I’d like them to be. I have the power to do all of the things I want to do. They are all completely possible. I can step out of the cage and grow into whatever I want to be.

I had a seizure, and it changed me. I woke up in a slightly different world. It’s beautiful. I have the power to make all of the things I want into reality. That is an incredible gift. My life is going to be meaningful.

Now that I have all this power, I have to start looking at what it is I want. If I could pick anything… and I can pick anything… then I need to think hard about what I want my life to be.

Of course, any joy this high comes under scrutiny. Mania is always possible, and it can give one delusions of grandeur. That is what this looks like from the outside, and I know my family will be worried. But having a seizure made me wake up different, and now I’ve got everything figured out. Or, rather, I know how to figure anything out. I will have to work hard, but I know that I can. I just have to keep putting small thing on top of small thing until I make something big.

The paragraphs above were written during mania. I rarely have “happy” mania, but I definitely did when I wrote this. I remembered today that I started writing an article a few nights ago and I wanted to sit down and finish it. I remembered that the article had a positive perspective, and I was excited to see what I had written. Then I read it and immediately went “Oh. Delusions of grandeur.” It made me smile.

It made me smile because I can appreciate the more ridiculous things about my disorder. For years, when I had to come face to face with a shortcoming, weakness, or disability, I would cry and feel deep hopelessness. It felt like I was worthless and broken. Now, I have gotten better at accepting that I am disabled, and I don’t need to be ashamed Continue reading

How An Episode Unfolds, and What It Feels Like

conv fishes sophie2.jpegIn case you don’t already know, I have bipolar II, mixed state, rapid cycling episodes with psychotic features. I get hallucinations as well as paranoid delusions during manic and depressive episodes, which is part of having mixed state episodes. A mixed state episode can lean one way or another so it can be helpful to refer to them as manic or depressive for purposes of communication, but every mixed state episode has features of both mania and depression.

A real-life example of a troubling psychotic episode would be that I can hear the clouds above me whispering (hallucination) and even though I can’t hear what they’re saying, I know they are talking about me and are going to come down and hurt me (paranoid delusion). This happens often in episodes that lean toward mania. In an episode that leans toward depression, it is common for me to believe that there is an intruder in the house (paranoid delusion), or to feel very afraid and not know why (paranoia). Every episode has features of both mania and depression at the same time often in conjunction with hallucinations or paranoia. My episodes are rapid cycling, which means that they are short and intense, usually between 4 hours and 12 hours, and I have them three days in a row at about the same time of day, unless I am able to get 14 hours of sleep in a night, which interrupts the cycle and prevents an episode the next day.

I usually use the metaphor of a thunderstorm to explain how an episode unfolds. Continue reading

How to Survive Depression

I have lots of practice dealing with depression, and I hope I can help you with what I’ve learned. When you’re depressed, not much appeals. Nothing sounds fun. Nothing seems worth doing. When that happens to me, I know I’m depressed. Losing interest in things you usually care about is a normal and typical symptom of depression. For many very lucky people, sadness passes in a day or so. For those of us whose sadness lasts weeks and expands into full depression, we need a plan. Deep depression can lead to suicide or suicide attempts. If you’re going to stay alive, you need tools to help you do so. Suicide happens when the pain you experience exceeds your ability to cope with it, so if you’re going to stay alive, your options are to lower the level of pain or increase your coping ability. This explanation is not original to me, so don’t credit me for it. I use it because it’s a clear and simple analysis of a messy state of mind.Above the Spiral CC

So. You’re depressed. Time to get to work. Self-care is where you begin. Self-care is easier than all-out self-love, which is often not possible when you’re depressed. Taking a shower, brushing your teeth, or eating something is a good place to start. If you’re severely depressed, all three of those things may be impossible. If those things remain impossible for more than two weeks, you need medical intervention. If that’s where you are right now, then the job I assign you for today is to make a doctor’s appointment. That is the only task you need to do today. You can do one thing. You can spend the rest of the day watching TV and crying if you need to, just get that one thing done. It’s the first step to saving your own life. Continue reading