Gratitude

Watercolor of my cat, Olivia

Thankful that I didn’t have an episode today when I almost could have at the store. Thankful that I have a roof over my head and food in the fridge. Thankful that I laughed more than once today at something stupid. Thankful that I have family that understands and supports. Thankful that there are people who can differentiate me from the illness. Thankful for modern medicine and drugs. Thankful for my curious and silly cat. Thankful for being healthy enough to be able to help others. Thankful for being able to hope. Thankful for today, despite what yesterday was and tomorrow might be.

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The door

About half of my posts go unpublished. It’s not because I think they are poorly written, uninteresting, or offensive. And it’s not because I’m being lazy and I give up. It’s because when I read them again after a day or so, those thoughts and opinions don’t reflect how I feel in another time. I found that to be invalidating to my “other self” who wrote the piece in the past. So I’m going to go ahead and publish that now. It’s unfinished because my mood changed before I could finish it. I hope that in posting it, it’ll help me feel like that part of myself is still me, no matter how contradictory it is to my present self.


Tuesday 5th, 2017

Today was pretty painful. I admit I was not a place to be vulnerable- but as life goes, you show up to your weekly therapy appointments.

I felt normal this morning with no symptoms on either side of the bipolar spectrum even though I got very little sleep because of my anxiety. I hoped the mood would continue.  I got to my therapist’s and I started talking about my anxiety, which has been at an all time high. “What am I afraid of?” She asked. “Was it something about the future?” No, I hardly ever thought about my future in detail anymore because it terrified me that I didn’t have a plan, a five-year-plan, or a ten-year-plan. I felt like if I thought about it, I would open the pandora’s box for the second time.

I thought a little more and it went like this.

What I am most afraid of right now is myself. There is always this door in my mind, you see, that stays closed most of the time. I hardly noticed this door when my mood is above normal. It’s troubling when it goes below that mark. The door becomes an option, an appealing portal to go through. An escape, an exit out of this life. That door is labeled suicide. This door didn’t even come into existence before this year, when the stress piled up and my mind blew up. It still scares me that I’ve opened this door and contemplated stepping into it a few times. That was when I thought (perhaps not based on reality) I had “no way out” of mediocrity, and I had no way to get to my career goals, or my life situation. In my right mind, that doesn’t make sense to me of course. I mean, I’m still here. That means that there is always a way out right?

Most people don’t have this door in their heads- the meticulous plans, the scene by scene of how your last day will go and what you will leave the ones that will grieve, fortunately. It’s another maladaptive coping mechanism, clinically speaking. This door, the sole existence of it, in the most twisted way, is comforting to me. It’s quite ironic, I realize- but it represents that I have a choice on what to do with my life, when it doesn’t seem like I have any control over it– and that it isn’t someone else’s decision to make (unless one is on the other side of the law in certain states). When you lose control, or you feel powerless, the normal thing is to let go and move on and not obsess about it. The person with the mental illness does the exact opposite thing, not because they want to, but because that’s the only thing they know how. They cling to the door and toy with the handle when things just explode.

I’m working on covering up this door permanently in my mind with the help of my therapist. I’m trying to make it no longer an option. I want it gone from my mind. A big reason for starting this blog was to rid of this door that left me standing at the edge of a cliff every time depression hit. But it’s not as straightforward as I thought it would be.

Physical vs. mental

Physical illness will try to kill your body. Mental illness will try to kill your mind, your spirit, your personality, your dreams as well as your body, like a traitor.

It takes enormous strength and courage to fight this. Don’t give up.

Coping with BPD: Skewed perceptions

I’m drinking tea from a measuring cup this morning because frankly, I haven’t had time to unpack everything yet! Nevertheless, I feel more settled now. I’m not dissociating even though this is a new neighborhood for me, so that is a relief.

There are two questions I’m getting used to asking when I get up in the morning.

  1. What state am I in? (manic, hypomanic, depressed)
  2. Am I functional enough to do things? If so, what can I manage and what can’t I manage?

The first one is important for someone with bipolar because that changes one’s perception of everything- interactions with others, self regard, view of the future and the past. If hypomanic perceptions are like rose colored glasses, depression is a very dark set of shades, and neither of them are proper representations of the truth; or if you’d like, realities most “normal” people see if they were in your shoes. If I know how skewed my vision is, I can manually correct my thinking one way or the other, with practice and if it’s not too severe. Less pink, or more light is needed. I’m being too optimistic or I’m catastrophizing.

It’s true that sometimes when we wear these colored glasses for too long, we forget that we are wearing them, and start to believe what we see behind the glasses. This is dangerous. For example, for me, when the suicidal thoughts get too loud, it’s all I hear, and that becomes my reality. I gets difficult to assess if these thoughts are “true”, because that is all that you hear. At this time, you need to hear someone else’s point of view to be able to course correct your thoughts, whether if that may be a family member, a friend or a suicide prevention hotline. It’s much easier to get hold of which tint you are looking through if they change frequently. Depression is easy to spot when you were hypomanic just yesterday, but not so easy if you’ve been down in the slumps for a whole month.

The second question is something that I ask throughout the day, but most importantly, at the beginning. Because I live in the city, once I decide to leave, take the subway out to another neighborhood, I usually have to commit to being out and about for the whole day. Even with breaks in coffee shops and quiet bookstores, it gets rowdy and anxiety provoking out there. I need to decide based on my assessment of my condition in the morning, whether if I’m fit to take the subway out a couple of stops into Manhattan, or if I should hang out and do chores in Brooklyn, or even, just stay at home and do laundry and feel like I’m well enough to fetch the mail from downstairs.

I think things would look different if I were more stable if my meds somehow eliminated the more extreme states, but with fluctuating mood and energy levels, I’m at a point where I need to be vigilantly self perceptive. I’m not yet an expert at figuring out how my day is going to go based on the few hours in the morning, of course. It can turn upside down because of when or what I ate before leaving the house, or if I run into something unexpected or unpleasant and get triggered (you will not believe what you see on the NYC subways, but that’s a story for another time). My body and mind are super sensitive to external events, which are totally out of my control. I strive to respond to them best as I can, but when I’m in my danger zones (severely depressed or hypomanic), I can’t get myself out of the deep end without the help from others- I mean, they don’t call this an illness for nothing.

At this point in my journey (and with this mood), I think that it’s possible to live with bipolar. But it’s definitely harder than is to live without the challenges. It’s like constantly being in an incubator all the time. I think that you need a lot of practice in order to see yourself clearly, and you also need to be humble. You need to be okay with being “wrong” about your perceptions and be more flexible with your thinking- which is so difficult when you are severely manic or severely depressed.

How do you cope with your daily schedule while riding the bipolar roller coaster?

Dealing with the world outside the mental health bubble & shame

I finally got caught up with all the text messages and emails from friends I’ve missed out on for over a month. Friends outside my mental health bubble, but friends nevertheless, in the Facebook definition of the term. The reason (and not the excuse) for leaving them unanswered was because at the time the anxiety of concocting a response probably would have caused another episode which I could not afford. It took nearly a month for me to recover enough and to have enough courage to even write a reply to a simple, “Hey, how are you doing?”

Well, there is the honest answer and the not honest answer to that. But would it make sense for them to hear that it’s been the worst time in my life? Was it just pure shame? After consideration, I tell them that I’m sick and in treatment for a neurological disorder.

The friends who are outside of this bubble consist of the following:

  1. the coworkers I remained friendly with, but don’t know me that well,
  2. those who seemed or have proven to be scared/ignorant/judgmental about mental illnesses and those suffering from them,
  3. those who don’t know how to act around me post-hospitalization (other than saying I’m so sorry, like someone died), or doesn’t act the same way around me or have abandoned me since the diagnosis
  4. and those friends that I just can’t really tell whether or not they will react well to the news because I’ve never spoken them about it.

This could all just be me making it up in my head. It’s possible that people are kinder than they are in my head.

Then there are those inside my mental health bubble that I can share what is actually going on.

  1. my parents
  2. my treatment team (therapist and psychiatrist)
  3. friends who work in the mental health field (there are very few of these people in my life as I have not worked in the industry)
  4. friends who are also going through similar struggles from group therapy
  5. other writers/speakers/bloggers who write about their stories

Why must I isolate myself, or make up a vague story to cover up a very important part of my life to just get by and to not be found? That’s what guilty people do because they’re ashamed, but I haven’t done anything wrong except to have won the lottery to have a stigma filled disorder. I found this to be very uncomfortable to be nontransparent to those I used to call “friends.” Sure, the ones that work in the industry I might go back to might not get the full details because employers will not look at my illness favorably if they find out- it seems to be a literal death sentence to your career in my field. But the friends who you used to be close to, but do not know the whole story about why you dropped off the face of the earth? That’s tricky, especially when it’s over a text, you can’t know their genuine reaction, so you wouldn’t know how to respond appropriately. Do you respond with a psych education video, or do you laugh it off like it’s nothing?

I sound a little paranoid, I know. But I feel like I would have to make a decision now on how to tell the people I meet in my life about what is going on with me, as someone who isn’t fully stable (yet). I don’t want to be someone who is inconsistent and flaky, but that’s what I do sometimes to take care of myself- that has not gone well received/ understood. Part of me wants to out myself to everyone just to show them. Fight the stigma by showing them all that I’m not what they imagine I am. But it’s pretty scary, and I fear the silent rejection and ostracism that I may have to face. I may not have enough courage for this one yet.

 

Buying furniture when you don’t feel like it

“You will be too much

for some people-

Those are not your people.”

-Source unknown

It’s (American) Thanksgiving today. I spent most of my functional portion of my day packing and begrudgingly buying furniture for my room online. I love furniture shopping on most days, but my mood was all over the place today. The really crappy thing about interior decorating when you’re in a mixed state (or if you’re just really indecisive) is you love one style (for me was modern industrial) and the next moment you’re drawn to something completely different (boho chic), so none of the furniture actually go together in a cohesive way. Maybe it’s better this way- it represents how I am, a paradox. A collection of things that coexist that probably shouldn’t.

So thanksgiving: I avoided thinking about today all day, because it’s a strong reminder of the friends who are no longer in my life, post-diagnosis. Friends basically used to be my family because I have very limited connection to the rest of my real family as the only child of an expat household. Good friends are like pillars for me, and a few of those came crumbling down after I my symptoms got worse and I was hospitalized. Partly it was my own doing because I hid my disorder from my coworkers out of shame, who were also part of group of friends. Thankfully not all of those pillars crumbled, and I found myself still standing. I realized that you need a different kind of person in your life with bipolar, if you can help it. You need someone who will be more hopeful for you when you can’t fathom still existing tomorrow. You need someone who will be there and believe your every word even it may in incomprehensible for them. You need kindness, patience and inner strength. I find that those are rare qualities we don’t often see in others because nowadays we as a society value competitiveness, efficiency and extravagance more than anything. Personally, I do still have a few friends who are these rare mythical creatures standing by me, and I couldn’t be luckier.

 

 

Bipolar and sense of identity

Often times when I don’t understand all the complexities of my brain chemistry, I (consciously and subconsciously) find myself blaming myself for everything being terrible, with little logic. Therapists often have pointed their fingers at various possible traumas for the causes, but I really had no big traumas in my life that I can think of, so I felt the responsibility of being sick fell on me. I felt guilty in a strange way, like serving a prison sentence for a crime that I did not want to commit, as I’ve heard someone describe.

I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions regarding why I had such a volatile sense of self in this last post, and got some lovely feeedback from you, which made me rethink what identity actually meant. I’ve studied “identity” from an anthropological perspective in college, but it turned out psychologists care about a different aspect of identity. Things like “schema.” At first I thought my unstable sense of self might have had to do with my history (living in so many cities/countries growing up, and not being close to family) but I didn’t consider my illness as a cause. With some quick Googling, I found a wonderful post by Elizabeth Brondolo, PhD called, “Who Am I? The Effects of Bipolar Disorder on Identity.” Here is an excerpt:

Some scientists think our identity reflects our underlying schemas. Schemas are mental structures that are comprised of thoughts, feelings, sensations, attitudes and memories that are linked together around a common theme.

Some of the schemas we have are related to our sense of self—our personal identity. These schemas are shaped by our life experiences, and they reflect our interpretation of these experiences. We can think of these schemas as our internal representations of our most important values and our deepest fears.

Schemas about our personal identity can be organized around themes of competence, acceptability, lovability, and strength, among other themes.  The thoughts, feelings, and memories we associate with each theme develop over time. They represent our observations of ourselves in action in the world and in relationships with others.

That’s schema as a general definition. Dr. Brondolo claims schemas have a different effect on us who are bipolar.

But developing bipolar illness can have a significant effect on the schemas we hold about ourselves. Bipolar disorder is a biological illness, but these biological disruptions affect our behavior and our mental processes. In turn, these changes can have a significant effect on our ability to function in the world and to relate to others. As we observe these changes and have new experiences as a result of bipolar disorder, we can develop a new set of schemas. For example:

– If the symptoms of bipolar disorder interfered with our ability to concentrate and plan and disrupted our ability to work or study, we may develop schemas about incompetence.

– If bipolar disorder drove us to behave in an unpredictable or unusual way (i.e., we were aggressive, impulsive, or hypersexual), we may develop schemas about our unacceptability.

– If we were rejected by others and lost relationships, we may develop schemas about being unlovable.

There is an example in the rest of her post about a woman in her twenties that almost is identical to my experience, but what I’ve bolded above was so validating for me. As a result of getting the illness, I wasn’t able to perform as I had before because of the symptoms. That made me feel more incompetent thus less worthy; I felt like a failure- even though that isn’t true sans illness. It makes me believe, and hope, if I can get stable again somehow and get back on my feet, I will maybe be able to feel differently about myself again through new experiences.