A Simple Lesson on Nurturing Ourselves

Lessons On Nurturing

I believe many people regard taking care of themselves as a frivolity, or an act of selfishness. Unhealthy demonstrations, disguised as “self-care” are, indeed, selfish and even destructive. Unhinged shopping sprees may give me a temporary lift, but it isn’t the soulful lift I need to manage myself and others. However, taking the time to replace the drawer of missing and tattered socks isn’t selfish. Not all acts of shopping for myself are selfish.

Bad Lessons

  • The quality of love and care that one gives is circumstantial and conditional.
  • Nutrition is unimportant- grab some junk food and soda.
  • If somebody is behaving badly, keep out of their way or behave badly in return (watch for signals).

Not Trained To Think of Myself As Important

As children, my sister and I never got new clothes or even used clothes very often. Sometimes we got a bag of clothes from an aunt or grandparent. I’m quite sure I never considered the bag of bell-bottom corduroys as a gift or a curse. I got through my high school years wearing jeans and t-shirts- black t-shirts, concert t-shirts, one-size-fits-all shirts. I was happy wearing those clothes and it was very low-maintenance. I still do not treat myself by way of buying clothes, although I am very much in need of the most essential of clothing, jeans, and t-shirts. I long for some dressy clothes sometimes but never make the effort to buy myself such things.

Diet & Nutrition- Taking Care of The Physical Body

Those who lack a strong support system especially need to manage self-care in a balanced fashion. We should not turn to mere substitutes or addictions, no matter how benign they may appear. I am guilty of using caffeine as a crutch. This is probably a factor in my erratic moods and weak food choices (carbs, lots of carbs). A steady stream of caffeine and a depletion of vital, cleansing water leads to an abundance of empty calories and garbage in the body. Perhaps my mood swings are the only way my body can adapt to balancing all the garbage I eat and all the mindless clutter I am consumed by each day? This is something I will explore further.

Leisure Time

Let’s face it- men have their “man-caves”, and some ladies like to get manicures. And then we have the rest of the world. These are ordinary people taking care of their families, working a job, attending school, etc. They may lack the means- time, energy or money- to enjoy “leisure” activities. It is essential to carve out even a little bit of time for yourself each day, whether you have to stay up after the kids go to bed, or get up earlier to go for a walk, read, or whatever else feeds your soul.

Being busy in life sometimes makes us lose ourselves, which can cause us to feel bitter, devoid and empty. Often, it is not until a crisis or conflict when it becomes apparent that self-care is as important as the care we provide for others.

Unpacking the Baggage of the Past

Issues from “the past”, people from our past and messages from the past continue to plague us subconsciously. Both solitude and good company can help us “recharge” and make sense of the world around us. I have suffered frequent episodes of depression in my life, which has made me more isolated at the very times I needed support. I was taught it was embarrassing and “weak” to cry or have emotional needs. As a child, others were told to “not baby me” when I needed to talk or receive encouragement (not criticism). My achievements were not validated by my mother, I wasn’t “validated”. Today, I still battle with such feelings of inadequacies.

My first job as a production artist proved challenging for many reasons- my depressed moods, adjustment to medications, and the stressful work environment (my supervisor didn’t like me, our boss came into work intoxicated, and he and my supervisor had a “love/hate” relationship). In the past decade, I have settled for a more mundane job, but one that provides my family with stability nonetheless. My job does not (always) subject me to harsh attitudes or very much dysfunction, and I have great co-workers.

I’ve had very little training in thinking of myself as important as those around me. Even as I write this, I justify the reasons to take better care of myself so that I can be able to provide a better life for my family. Often, when I project my well-being to others, I’m deeply disappointed when I become depressed or sick.

Today, I will make an effort to ask for help when needed.

There’s nobody to ask- I will pray for strength and endurance.

I’m a weak person and often a weak follower, but I am a believer.

 

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum, Joshua Tree, United States

When Anxiety Overwhelms: Rules for Purging Things

Problem: It is difficult for me to identify what causes me to purge things compulsively. It is something I do when I feel anxious and overwhelmed. Decluttering- throwing away or giving away things seems to temporarily relieve my anxiety.

Some of the things I’ve discarded or have given away have been perfectly good items, and perhaps, they didn’t take up much room or appear distracting in any way.

In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t always this way, although I can easily see that I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, emotions, and disordered eating. Likewise, I can see the times in my life when things were ideal, or when I’ve felt like my true self (euthymic).

Support Systems

During those times, I have coped well and I’ve expressed myself through visual art and writing, exercise and sports. Solid (but imperfect) relationships carried me through adolescence, except for the years when I struggled with anorexia (age 14-18). My grandmother was of great emotional support when I was entering adolescence. Luckily, my sister and I lived with my grandparents during the summer that my parents separated. I was encouraged to draw and go outside to ride my bike while under their roof. Previously, I did not feel free to be a child while living in a dysfunctional home with my parents.

Deciding To “Disappear”

Having a few good friends in high school helped me overcome the misery I experienced in middle school. I was awkward, chubby and lonely before tenth grade. With my friends, I experienced camaraderie and belonging. At home, with the discord of my mom and her boyfriend, I felt invisible at best. At worst, I was awoken by the alcohol-fueled verbal assault of my stepfather towards my mother.

Sometimes I felt I was supposed to be in charge of tending to the emotional wounds of the narcissist in my life who tore me apart with names that caused me to starve myself. I controlled myself and my appearance (at least) by starvation.

muhammad-ruqiyaddin-1367343-unsplash

The more invisible my body became, the more people started to pay attention to me- I was “admired” for my slender physique by the very people I wanted to look like in high school.

From the time I started to become an “adult” (i.e., the period in life that becomes more complex- more responsibilities and learning to focus less on self), my minimalist ways have become the primary thread in the tapestry of life. It is also important to note that at the same time I was becoming an adult, I was more isolated from friends and family.

In reflecting, I realize the following things about being a minimalist (if that is actually the broad stroke that can be applied):

Minimalism and purging for me are cyclic and may be attributed to hormones. During a monthly “cycle” (menstrual), I am wrought with a multitude of emotions and my eating habits become unhealthy. It is during a “cycle” in a woman’s life that we must reflect, regenerate and prepare for the new “phase” in life.

Sometimes simply feeling anxious, overwhelmed or depressed, at any time in the month, brings me to the point of purging things. Two weeks ago, I wanted to chop off my hair for instant relief and regeneration (of a “new” me).

Does purging/decluttering specifically equate to a minimalist lifestyle? When I ask myself about the appearance of the “minimalist” style- the clean lines, simplicity, and functionality of minimalism, I believe the answer is “yes”. But not all minimalists tend to their lifestyle and philosophy because of emotional wounds. Some minimalists don’t soothe their anxiety by way of design choices. Many people choose to live minimally due to religious beliefs, cultural upbringing, even because of thrift, frugality, or poverty.

Going through my “things” (sorting) allows me to think about the needs of myself and family.

For instance, I understand my daughter’s clothing style and choices change over time. It is beneficial for us to go through her closet and decide what should stay and what can be donated. In doing so, I can help her manage her belongings while listening to her needs. Sometimes it takes a while for me to realize that my son will never wear the brand-new jeans in his closet because he doesn’t like the cut- or perhaps I overlooked the fact that his pants are becoming too short!

As a parent, I subconsciously want my kids to remain children forever.

Perhaps sorting and getting rid of stuff- even clothes or toys that are in great condition- is a way to allow them to grow, while allowing me to process this “growth”. Maybe purging and sorting things makes me feel more in control of the process?

 

Not Everyone Approves Of The Minimalist Lifestyle

There are times when other methods or mechanisms may have been better employed. I have purged things of my children’s without discussing it with them (knowing they probably would want to cling onto what I was ready to part with). I should have allowed them time to process the “loss” or have a voice in the matter. In those instances, I could have boxed up the item(s) until a later time.

My minimalist ways have conflicted with the hoarders in my life.

My minimalist ways have also conflicted with the toxic people in my life.

When I shared physical and emotional space with these types, there have been problems with my purging/decluttering compulsion. Compulsion or a lifestyle choice? It is a bit of both for me, hence the compulsion that is the primary aspect of a minimalist lifestyle. The toxic relationships in my life may have exacerbated my habit/disorder (?). It is apparent that it was for the best that the relationships be altered. The process of purging, albeit MINDLESS purging, served as a catalyst for changes in the relationships.

Regret: The process of purging is often sudden and mindless for me. Many things I have discarded have had to be repurchased. Some of the things- drawings, writings, photos and things that have taken time and money to make it into my space- can’t be (easily) replaced. In life, I can sometimes make amends. Other times it is out of my control. But simply “holding onto” things (or relationships, feelings, grudges, wounds) for sake of fear, is unhealthy as well.

Grief Still Remains If You Don’t Handle The Emotional Aspect Of Certain Possessions

I wish I could hold onto some things a little longer. For instance, I would like to keep papers and duplicate photos longer before discarding them. Better yet, I would love to be the kind of person that manages such things creatively- such as making a scrapbook and utilizing them into space, walls, artwork. For this reason, I stay away from talented women on Pinterest. Sometimes I peek into their lifestyles. Other times I follow the other minimalists to see how their managing life. In any event, they may or may not have the same emotions and complexities going on in their minds.

My Minimalism Rules

  • Don’t throw away things when feeling depressed or manic. Wait until moods are “euthymic”.
  • Discuss with children before discarding or donating some things.
  • Read a book on anxiety, stress, spirituality, etc. when feeling the urge to purge.
  • Some notable choices include:

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns

My Age Of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, And The Search For Peace Of Mind by Scott Stossel

Acceptance, Improvement, And Letting Go

Finally, it is often hard to accept myself when I fail others. When I disappointment those around me with flaws- what seems rational to me is irrational to others. I can’t push my beliefs on anybody else, but when I hurt them through my actions (purging), I need to seek amends, if they are willing to accept my peace offerings. My kids have forgiven me when I got rid of a book of a toy they wanted (I often have re-purchased some items $).

The toxic people– those who value possessions above people, or those who hold others to unattainable standards- I’ve let them go for now. I can’t work on myself if I am trying to contend with somebody else’s personality/character flaws. There is no clarity or benefit in such situations.

How Early Trauma Caused Much of My Anxiety

I am inclined to believe that living in a stressful environment triggers OCD. As a new mother who suffered from depression and anxiety, the compounding factor of being in a dysfunctional relationship seemed to be the trigger in the development of my OCD.

My husband was an alcoholic and often abused me, verbally, physically, emotionally and financially. I became consumed with the compulsion to discard things in my home. I look back with regret when I realize the importance of things I threw or gave away. Sometimes, I even re-purchased similar items to replace things I threw out or donated.

The process of getting rid of purging became cyclic. I recall, getting rid of items I had stored in plastic boxes, then I got rid of the boxes. I would feel “better”, or just get a desire to purchase something. Then I had to move other things around to “purge” myself when I became overwhelmed by the ritual of shopping.

 

Other times, I got rid of “things” when I was overwhelmed with emotions and did not realize I was not finding a proper outlet for my emotions. My husband only made my condition worse by calling me “crazy” or “unstable.” Sometimes I purged items when I was experiencing symptoms of PMS. He called me “hormonal” when he discussed such issues to my in-laws (who also called me “crazy” and “unstable”).

I was diagnosed with OCD and GAD several years ago. At the time when I was diagnosed, the two disorders were listed in the same category in the DSM. In 2013, the fifth edition of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) remains under the section under anxiety disorders, OCD is under a section labeled as “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders. Included under this category are hoarding disorder, trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), and body dysmorphic disorder. Though individuals suffering from GAD and OCD tend to spend much time worrying, the difference is that people with OCD rely on physical or mental rituals (compulsions) to relieve stress caused by an obsession. Those with GAD tend to worry about “real” problems, while those with OCD are plagued by intrusive thoughts that are somewhat illogical or unrealistic, such as unnecessary counting, or a preoccupation with symmetry.

Though my GAD may have progressed into OCD during my marriage, I recall other stages in my life where I have been afflicted by one or both of these disorders. In my twenties, I attended college despite my impairing social anxiety disorder. I rarely made any social connections during my academic pursuits. I managed to take several drawing classes as part of my graphic design course load. I became repulsed by using pencils in my drawing classes. I was unable to pick up the charcoal sticks to complete my work because I was focused on the trail of dust left behind from the materials. The dust was attached to my artist’s toolbox and my portfolio. I spent a great deal of effort obsessing about the dust and eraser crumbs in my tools and supplies. Years after I dropped out of my classes, I tried to save the pieces I had labored over, but like everything else that had some sentimental value, I discarded them too (OCD Almost Destroyed My Creativity!).

Exposed To Adult Life

As children, my sister and I became fixtures at the local bars. From ages 10 until about 12, we were dragged along to a number of bars near our house so my mom could drink and be with my dad. The bar was a dive and quite disgusting. My mom bought us pop and Slim Jims, and I sat at the booth with my sister. Sometimes we were allowed to pick songs on the jukebox (I played, “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac and “Rapture” by Blondie on a loop!).

At times, it felt glamorous to hang out in bars. Other times, it was unsettling to see adults become less inhibited, argumentative, and repulsive. I could get a sense when people were getting too “loose”…almost an innate vide to warn of impending danger (in my adult life, this “sense” was clouded by my own self-doubt and afflictions).

My mom got annoyed when I sat on the barstool next to her, spinning around, so she sent me off with a constant supply of quarters to play arcade games and the pinball machine. When I 12, I was old enough to not have to sit at the bar. At some point, it was decided that I was old enough to take care of everybody else.

I was appointed the neighborhood babysitter- my mom offered my babysitting services to her friend so they could go out drinking. I was given no instructions on how to feed, entertain, or comfort the kids. The house in which I cared for them didn’t appear to show signs of toys, books or anything that could help me occupy the kids while they left us for hours on end. We sat in front of the TV, bored, tired and hungry until they returned after the bars closed at 2:30 AM. Sadly, when I became a mother, I was haunted feelings of inadequacies due to these experiences.

Help! I’m Starving Myself (To Get Control And Acceptance!)

At age 14 I developed an eating disorder. When I stood in front of the mirror, I would section off the parts of my body I deemed too fat. Within six months I had dropped down to size 2 in jeans. I survived by drinking soda and eating just one item per day, usually a school lunch item, as to not draw too much attention to my disorder.

At dinner time, I covered food in napkins, moved food around on my plate, or I simply gave the food to the dog. Eventually, my mom realized my tactics and I had to eat more of my dinner. I still rationed my food, or only ate half servings. This went on for four years. When I overcame one element of my disorder, it manifested in some other way, as in discarding things. Sometimes I purged the food I ingested, but mostly I purged “things”.

My compulsion to discard things is more manageable now. I have limited contact with people that may provoke or trigger anxiety and OCD symptoms. I try to be more mindful by writing in a journal and meditating on my faith. I also keep a few empty boxes out of sight for those times when I feel compelled to purge. My rule is that I must wait a few days before deciding the permanent home for all the “things”. This time allows me to sort my thoughts, gain clarity and determine the reasons why I feel the intrusive thoughts.

 

References:

Glasofer, Deborah R., Ph.D., “What Is the Difference Between GAD and OCD?”

www.verywell.com, July 28, 2016, accessed August 21, 2016.

 

A lady with long, dark hair stands outside on a cloudy day.

Understanding Moods at Various Life Stages

“I don’t wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work.” -Pearl S. Buck

The complexities of the mind never cease to fascinate me! With so many factors to be considered by the medical community, it’s no wonder the DSM-IV lists over 297 disorders!

I’m no doctor or therapist, but simply a person with an intense curiosity about mental health issues. As I look back on my own mental health history, I’ve noticed many changes. Parallel to my mental health history, I must consider my environment at each stage. Was I surrounded by supportive people?

No- in the most difficult times in my life, I was either isolated or surrounded by negativity. I use the term “negativity” loosely, mostly because in many instances, I lived in a dysfunctional environment. In the case of my teenage years, I lived with an alcoholic mother from whom I sought approval. Every time I skipped a meal, it was to win her approval. It was also an erroneous effort to remain fragile and adolescent.

Postpartum Depression

After I had my children, I experienced postpartum depression. Being a new parent is hard enough, let alone being a new mother with no happiness emanating. My depression made me feel unworthy. I didn’t measure up to what I felt a new mother should look like or feel like. The mothers I observed were smiling, singing to their kids, and they had energy. I often felt catatonic but through prayer, I was able to push through the sadness. I tried to get enough rest and get my kids out of the house- even when it meant I had to face what felt like a harsh world.

Reflecting On The (Painful) Past

My first-born had colic and cried frequently for the first few weeks. Although I read books and scoured the internet for information, I couldn’t escape feeling at fault. Babies with colic love white-noise, music and motion. They also like a change of scenery, so car and stroller rides were key to help ease my son’s symptoms.

Walking helped me and my kids get away and connect with each other, away from the toxicity of alcoholism and unsupportive people. I remember getting a double-sided stroller for my kids- right before I knew the time was nearing for us to move on from our home. In 2007, during our stay at the women’s shelter, we used it quite often when the staff arrived at 8:00 A.M each morning.

Children playing outside in the Fall season.

My children and I lived in utter chaos for many years as a result of my husband’s drinking and verbal abuse. At this juncture in my life- with very little emotional resources (or resources of any kind), I couldn’t overcome my depression and anxiety issues, become the kind of parent I desired to be in a marriage riddled with so much strife.

My mind couldn’t take anymore. I wasn’t getting enough rest, and as a result, I wasn’t always attentive to my children’s needs. Fast-forward ahead, divorce, new job, and relocation. It’s hard to believe how much has changed in life, and with my health.

Looking back, I was very withdrawn, anxious, and depressed for 15 years. Then I suffered from postpartum depression and recovered. I went to the doctor and tried Lexapro, then switched to Prozac. I took it sporadically because I felt fine sometimes. I quit taking it when I started to experience electrical surges in my brain. Sometimes I felt like it was too much medicine, even though it was the lowest dose and I usually broke it in half!

In 2017 I was told by a psychiatrist that I was “a little bipolar.” My speech was sped up when I spoke to her, but I honestly didn’t feel I fit into all the typical patterns of a person afflicted with bipolar disorder. She prescribed Lamictal, which I never took.

When Joy And Sadness Are Natural Reactions

At this point, I’m betting that I need to go get an MRI to see if I have something else wrong with me. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with joy and laughter. Then there was that time at church a few years ago that I couldn’t stop crying at the Mother’s Day service.

Maybe the crying has to do with actual grief of the loss of relationship with my mother, or that motherhood itself has many strong memories- memories of my personal failures attributed to my depressed mood- the times that I isolated my family from what I perceived as a harsh world.

Over the years, my moods have seemed to improve, with a few exceptions (when exposed to conflict, harsh conditions, and disrespectful attitudes). I am not subject to the empty, hopeless feelings of my twenties. The anxiety- GAD and agoraphobia, that I was plagued by in my thirties has diminished significantly. Consequently, I am no longer under the influence of certain family ties.

Sometimes I feel that I have been delivered from the depths of depression and anxiety. I often prayed to have any other affliction except those dueling monsters of invisible mayhem! Maybe all the years of taking SSRI’s have chemically altered my brain. But I took the medicine sporadically- if at all. I relied more on prayer than human wisdom during those years, so I am a little biased to feel it wasn’t pills that helped me.

I rarely have bizarre nightmares. I feel happy or at least, content, most of the time. Sometimes I get bursts of mania and creative energy. Seldom, I get depressed and can’t find the desire to write or draw.

With my moods taking shape in different ways, I’m becoming more curious about the human mind. As I get a little older, I certainly cling to the hope that I never lose my mind.

 

Regaining Control Over Anxiety at Work

Another anxiety attack manifested yesterday. The sudden bout of nervousness and agitation were precipitated by a few triggers.

  • My workspace was invaded and altered abruptly.
  • Physical discomfort and exhaustion from hormonal changes.
  • Working in an unorganized and moderately hazardous workspace.
  • Feeling overwhelmed with workload and expectations.
  • Embarrassment and feeling as though there was no “escape” from the chaos!

I would feel tears streaming down my face as I plotted what I could say to my supervisor to escape the madness I was struggling to contain. He was pushing me and my coworker to do more work, to work in between the seconds we waited for parts to assemble at my production job.

At first, I adapted my workspace to accommodate the changes implemented. After several minutes, I felt relaxed and I thought I was working at a moderate pace. My supervisor emerged and started piling partially-assembled bins on my table (which cluttered the space that I diligently maintained). I thought if I quit talking to my coworker working next to me I could work faster, but after working 7 days in a row, and battling PMDD (PMS on steroids), I realized despite my intentions and efforts, I couldn’t do the task today. I usually don’t assess myself so clearly and easily, but I’m well-acquainted with anxiety and all the masks she wears- the mask of OCD, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, PTSD…even bulimia, and anorexia!

How I Gained Some Control

My choices were limited in the frantic environment in which I was thrust. The supervisor was hounding me to do more than I was capable of doing. PMS was wreaking so much havoc on my body that I had to sleep with a heating pad on my stomach for the past two days, and I used a pillow to elevate my sore feet at night. My mood seemed pleasant, mostly, until Sunday at work. I haven’t felt this agitated at work for a few months. At least, not so agitated that I wanted to leave for the day.

So I devised a way to tell my supervisor that I couldn’t handle working this day. After many interpretations of how I would elicit some shred of sympathy, I opted to find one of my supervisor’s subordinates. She nodded as I replayed the events in my work area and as I told her about my PMDD and anxiety symptoms. Within minutes she was able to get me moved to an area where I could work alone and in an orderly environment.

After I was situated in at my new station, I put in my earbuds and listened to some motivating music to get me thinking about how I would enjoy the day once I got out of work!

Here’s What Helped!

  • Change of environment.
  • Asking for help/support.
  • Being assertive.
  • Listening to music.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Working in a clutter-free area.
  • Working alone.
  • Finding a rhythm- working by the timer set on my new machine, as opposed to not having any timer/or relying on the timing and rhythms of my coworkers.

Understanding the Causes of Burnout

When everything around you seems to deplete you of energy, it’s time to do an assessment of your environment, your mind, and your body. If you suffer from a mood disorder, such as bipolar, you may become manic or depressed as a result of any precipitating factor. Take special care of yourself from the very moment you realize you are becoming stressed or ill.

Your body:

Do you have cramps, have a headache or feel nauseous? If it’s any of those things, plus you feel tired and moody, watch out for PMS. PMS can make a logical person act irrationally. Women feel more sensitive and self-conscious during their cycle.

Your environment:

Being around people that drain you, as opposed to people that nourish and encourage you, can deplete your energies in many ways. I work with toxic coworkers, one in particular who complains when she is directed to do something other than making copies or sweep the floors. She has a penchant for gossiping about me and telling others I’m having a “bipolar” day (I made the mistake of confiding in her that I have bipolar disorder). When I am sick or having my cycle, it is challenging to bite my tongue around this woman. I  find it helpful to meditate and pray when circumstances feel beyond my control.

Your mind:

Have I been neglecting to feed my mind good things? Like the physical body, our minds can only bear good fruit when we feed it with enriching things. When we give our mind a steady diet of garbage tv, vile images, words or music, nothing positive can become of such things.

Others do not need to deal with my crabbiness, either. I must retreat from people when I am being stressed. Solitude refreshes many people, especially introverts like myself. It’s rare that I have much quiet time. Small blocks of time seem to help me quelch the crankiness. A heating pad, good music, and 15 minutes to myself, much needed mental and physical rest not only benefits me, but it helps my family, my co-workers and others.

When I get overwhelmed by stress, my moods or emotions, and I have nowhere to “dump” that which exacerbates my bipolar disorder, I turn to mindless purging- purging of material things, or purging of documents, papers, receipts, and even things I was trying to save (old report cards from my children, school programs, newsletters, etc.). I have not been diagnosed with OCD, but I feel such behaviors are compulsive. These behaviors are rooted in an anxiety disorder.

Sometimes when I do not pay attention to my diet and I drink too much soda pop or eat junk food, I feel ashamed and unhappy with myself. I have wanted to purge on a few occasions, but have avoided this by distracting myself with writing or some other activity.

When we fail to nourish ourselves, our mind and body will cry out for attention. Poor nutrition, overeating, alcohol abuse, and many other unhealthy habits will manifest and cause us more harm in the long run.

A woman wearing dark clothes and hat walks in a field of daisies.

When People Pretend to Understand Bipolar Disorder

Don’t assume anything about Bipolar Disorder.

It is much easier for me to tell people I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder now that I have had an actual psychiatric evaluation. It has taken me years to be led in the right direction for such a diagnosis. Five years ago, I believed I suffered from PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder). A few times a year, when I would become so distraught over my moods, I would schedule a doctor’s appointment. I believed my periods were causing me such psychological problems that they were the major culprit in any interpersonal relationship conflict I had with family, friends or co-workers.
In 2016, I penned an email to my family doctor:

“I am no longer taking Lexapro. I tried for 3 weeks and had some nightmares and discovered I grew a tolerance for it. I felt really hostile on it the final week. I was seemingly fine until my period this week.”

She gingerly replied:

“Unfortunately you did not follow-up at your scheduled appointment where we would typically re-evaluate symptoms of anxiety, depression, PMDD, and any side effects. Therefore none of this is actually documented.”

I had been to the same office for “mood” problems since 2012 when the doctor tried to put me on birth control pills. The “pill” was not effective in treating my mood disorder. Each time I visited the doctor, they tried to give me another antidepressant. Mostly, I was given medication in the SSRI class of antidepressants. Then, I was prescribed Wellbutrin, a medication in the NDRI class (norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor). My doctor determined that I was “sensitive” to medications, which is why she tried me on Wellbutrin.

I was afraid to mess with the new prescription she recommended. Then, my mood would improve, I’d get a euphoric feeling. I felt creative and happy about half of my life, then I descend into depression. It was always with that period of depression that I sought help. My doctor’s office replaced the previous physician with a new doctor. I explained that I was not there for “meds” as the nurse remarked on my intake form. She reviewed my symptoms and gave me a referral to their partner clinic- the clinic that deals with mental illness, therapy and psychiatry. A wave of embarrassment and shame poured over me. The psychiatrist asked me many questions. As I spoke to her, my speech became more rapid. “Do you realize how fast you are talking?” I said I was moderately aware of how my speech changes but nobody else has ever remarked about it.

We talked about my family history, specifically, how members of my family used alcohol to mask what was possibly their own mood disorders. In the past, there was more stigma against mental illness. People kept problems hidden from others, or at least they tried. The alcoholism simply created additional problems. My grandfather was a WWII survivor (USS Indianapolis). He was quiet and held his liquor well. It was socially acceptable to throw down a few beers. He was dealing with traumatic memories that he wanted to suppress. Grandma, on the other hand, was a talker. She was also a drinker, as was my mother. As a child, I witnessed interesting discussions when they all drank together in the kitchen. My grandfather seemed to have much composure. I can’t say the say for the rest of the family.

I told the doctor about my experiences with Lexapro, and how I had very disturbing nightmares. These nightmares dealt with the macabre- death and decay. I found it very difficult to shake these dreams from my waking moments. When I quit taking the medication abruptly, I experienced unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. I prayed that I would avoid getting into trouble or jeopardizing any relationship. The other medications made me feel dull but balanced. While on the meds, I was neither happy nor sad. My face felt like a mask. Any creative inclination I had previously experienced during my “manic” episodes had all but diminished.

My psychiatrist said that my periods likely trigger my underlying condition of bipolar disorder. She told me that more than likely, my mother and grandmother had mood disorders and drank to cope with their issues. The nightmares that I experienced while taking antidepressants was common in bipolar patients.

“Your family doctor sent you here because she didn’t know what else could be wrong”, she explained. I read that in order to be diagnosed with PMDD, the doctor must rule out any mental health issues that could possibly be causing the symptoms. Although I was not thrilled with being diagnosed with any mental disorder, bipolar disorder was less-embarrassing than PMDD. PMDD is not socially-acceptable and most people misunderstand the meaning of “being bipolar.”

When I need to tell people about my disorder (so they don’t think I’m speaking rapidly because I’m strung-out on drugs), I am met with a dismissive attitude. The term “bipolar” has become synonymous with being “edgy”. The term “bipolar” is used to broadly define any rebellious, hip, or bold attitude. Mood disorders are NOT attitudes.

Bipolar disorder is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a serious mental illness in which common emotions become intensely and often unpredictably magnified. Individuals with bipolar disorder can quickly swing from extremes of happiness, energy, and clarity to sadness, fatigue, and confusion. These shifts can be so devastating that individuals may choose suicide.”-APA.org

As a society, we have all but surpassed the days of unrelenting stigmatizing of mental illness, at least for bipolar disorder. In fact, we now must contend with the ignorance associated with bipolar disorder. Much of this ignorance is due in part from people not recognizing bipolar disorder as a real medical condition.

During a manic episode, people suffering from extreme cases of this illness may indulge in risky, foolish or erratic behavior. They may spend money and put their family in debt. They may become promiscuous and wreck their marriage by having affairs. During a depressed cycle, they may experience psychotic episodes, or attempt suicide and/or self-harm. While I have not experienced those elements of bipolar disorder, I have become so depressed that I have ruminated over my own death. I am certain that such dark moods are not appealing to my family.

Bipolar disorder affects each person differently. My variety of this trendy illness doesn’t involve getting tattoos, drinking and driving, or staying up all night like a rock star. Rather, my bipolar can be managed most days, and I have been given the ability to function enough to hold down a full-time job.

Others are not able to work or even manage to get out of bed and get dressed when they are debilitated by depression. When weekends arrive, I am partially relieved because I can rest at home, or so I believe. Often, I become so manic in the afternoon that I am not able to sit down. Weekend mornings, when the kids are still asleep and my worries are quenched for a little bit of time, are the only times I can spend writing. I “binge,” write during such times, except when I am depressed, or when I am trying a new medication.

When I was in my twenties, I started to become aware that something was not right about my moods. Listening to music from Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana opened my mind to certain mental health issues (i.e., “Manic-Depression”, “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge”). I was old enough to drink and I drank exceedingly to suppress or to accelerate my mood shifts. Those were some of the worst years of my life!

When people passively listen to me talk about my mood issues, they appear to be dismissive or they appear to “know it all” about manic depression/bipolar disorder. They do not care or they wish to remain blissfully ignorant. After a while, I let them stew in their ignorance or I pretend to not have a mood disorder. Such people love to use a broad lens when depicting bipolar disorder. The lens they prefer to use, however, does not liberate, it merely conveys a broad, generic perspective of the term “bipolar”.