Sidelines

Yesterday, I heard an opinion that those like me who live with mental illness won’t suffer as badly during the pandemic as those who are used to being happy and productive.

The logic goes like this: we’re used to feeling bad, we’re used to sitting on the sidelines and not being able to do much, so how is this different?

I didn’t know how to react when I heard this. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be seen as a constant liability to the world. I wanted to point out that right now a lot of mentally ill people are trying extra hard not to be a burden on an overloaded system. When their symptoms torment them, the knowledge of the crisis feeds their shame and lowers their resistance to judgment and stigma.

There is no time to be mentally ill while the world burns, the thought repeats. So what if they’ve run out of their meds, or if the only thing keeping them going was that therapist they can’t go see now.

They will not ask for help. They will try to cope as best they can. Some will fail to make it through.

Meeting a Reader

I had another “first” last week; the first of many new experiences for someone who’s never written a book before.

I was at a sort of cheesy group mindfulness class. Most of us had been referred there because we suffered from depression, addiction or other conditions, and didn’t get to see a one-on-one therapist very often on our health plan.

So, one woman in the class talked about not thinking the techniques we’re learning would work for her. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

“Okay, so maybe this homework will help with my depressive thoughts and feelings. But what if I have depression and addiction? What if I have depression and addiction and trauma to deal with? I’m supposed to just let it all in? It’s too much. I could never address it all at once. But if I stop working on any of them they sneak in and sabotage me.”

Her voice was edged with both resentment and resignation. Resentment because she was already feeling dismissed and expecting to be patted on the head and told to go play like a good girl. Resignation because even as she spoke, she didn’t think speaking up was going to do any good.

I wanted to let her know she was not alone. I wanted her to know someone understood what it’s like to deal with multiple conditions. Understood the “it’s too much” feeling, understood what it was like to feel different no matter what therapy you’re trying. What it’s like to throw yourself into treating one thing and work your ass off only to be tripped up by one of the others, until you’re where she is: a place of “it’s too much.” And I wanted to tell her there is life and growth coexisting with that place.

I said some things. I named the different conditions I live with. But what I really wanted to say to her would have taken a long, long time.

What I really wanted was to give her my book. Have her take it home, curl up and read it cover to cover and know she wasn’t the only one to feel some of what she felt.

The contents of my book are what I wanted to say to her. And that makes me feel that, no matter how hard the writing and editing is, I am on the right track.

Safe

“Safe space” is a concept these days, and I’m for it. But is there really such a thing as a safe space for me?

I’ve been struggling lately with the fact (as I’ve mentioned) that I no longer feel safe talking about any kind of physical or mental health issue with some people. From now on, when certain people greet me and ask how I’m doing, I am in perfect health and having a good day. Like a gazelle in a herd, I must not show weakness or injury lest I be targeted by wolves.

“But wait,” I interrupt myself, “isn’t it important to be authentic about your issues? Might you be missing an opportunity to be helpful to someone?” Well, I don’t put up shields lightly. This is a case where I’ve shared my truth several times and had it discounted.

So that’s become a space that is safe for me to talk about writing, but not other things. There are spaces where I can talk about addiction, but too much talk of psych treatment might get me rejected. There are therapy spaces where I can talk about mental health, but have to hold back on talking about my writing lest I be accused of intellectualizing.

Sometimes being unsafe is the right thing to do, of course. Sharing honestly in a recovery meeting may help someone feel less alone, so it can be worth consequences to me. I have to weigh the risks and benefits and make a choice about how transparent to be.

The book in progress, of course, represents a choice to be extremely transparent. It’s possible to do because I can tell myself that no matter how many “unsafe” places it ends up, it has a good chance of also reaching places where it could help someone else feel a little safer. A little more seen.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter

“Wait a minute,” I can hear readers thinking. “This author’s all about self-disclosure and authenticity and all that jazz. Truth has to be important to them.”

You’re right. Truth, in general, is of paramount importance. But I’ve recently been given food for thought about one particular circumstance in which truth may be a bit irrelevant.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been very popular for a while, and is helpful for many people. A central principle of CBT is to question your negative thoughts and assumptions, learn to recognize illogical thinking, and use various techniques to decrease the number and severity of negative thoughts you have.

In other words: get into the habit of believing, and trying to prove, that your negative thoughts about yourself or your life are not true (or at least vastly exaggerated.)

Although I find many of the techniques useful, I have encountered two issues with this. First, since the goal is to change my thinking, I feel like I’ve failed when negative thoughts are still such a big part of my consciousness. Second, the content of some of my negative thoughts is true and trying to argue with it doesn’t help at all.

My planet really is in trouble. I really do regret not writing for decades. Relatives really are going to get harder to deal with as they age. I really did irreversibly fuck up my body in some ways. The odds of my book getting published really are low.

Anyway, I just finished a book called “The Happiness Trap” that was recommended to me. I tend to avoid self-help books, as a rule, but I decided to give it a try. It advocates that we don’t try to argue with our negative thoughts, or control how often we have them, but rather work on coexisting with them and using mindfulness techniques to be less affected by them.

It suggests that when I’m aware of a negative thought I’m having or story I’m telling myself, I don’t ask myself whether it’s true or not–only whether, at this moment, it is helpful.

Sick Squared

Being sick is depressing, sure. For me, though, being sick is clinically depressing.

Maybe those of us with mental health issues are more sensitive than usual to the tiniest changes in our brain chemistry. If we’re on meds, maybe illness changes the way our bodies metabolize them. Whatever the reason may be, even a minor illness seems to guarantee a sharp depressive dip for me.

It was just a bad cold, for heaven’s sake. Severe congestion, touch of fever, no huge deal, only lasted three days…but I’m clawing my way out of leftover mental fog, compulsively pessimistic thinking, and hair-trigger anxiety.

Yesterday was the first day I actually thought about my writing projects again, and it wasn’t pretty. Every gloomy, nihilistic, they’re-no-good-and-even-if-they-were-it-wouldn’t-matter thought I’ve had about them came cascading down at once.

I know what to do; what I’ve had to do thousands of times. Baby steps. Little things like this. Do not try to tackle everything that has piled up, or I’ll end up crawling back under the covers.

I want my brain back to its best functioning now–but what I’ve got is a blog post and a sink full of clean dishes. And that’s probably it for today.

Inspiration or Hypomania?

Both of them present the same way: I have an idea. An amazing idea. The best idea I’ve had in a long time. My head begins to whirl with plans for executing it, alternative plans, and alternatives to the alternatives. I sleep even less than usual because the ideas keep chasing themselves around in my head.

Eventually, one of two things happens: If it’s just inspiration, I question it obsessively, but (hopefully) eventually overcome procrastination and insecurity to take some step toward carrying it out. If it’s hypomania (a symptom of my condition, Bipolar II) I just whirl and whirl until I eventually burn out and crash. After I come back from whatever self-destructive crap I might have done while crashing, the idea seems ridiculous or lackluster.

But what if it’s not either-or? What if it’s a little of both?

The large-scale planning of my book continues. It’s reached the next level after a recent attempt at rounding out a chapter instead of focusing on shorter segments. For several days, I could tell my brain was in high gear, no matter what I was doing. I did mindless things quite often in an effort to slow down and relax, but while I was doing said mindless thing the thoughts were churning in endless circles.

Then a breakthrough seemed to happen: I had a vision for a new way of organizing the chapters that would be more blended and less choppy. It calls for changes about what goes where, using the 90,000 words I have so far as raw material but not necessarily in their current segments.

Evidence on the side of inspiration: I’m already making a lot of notes and at least trying to get the ideas down in some form, which counts as action.

Evidence on the side of hypomania: My brain fucking hurts and I really want to go eat donuts to club it into silence.

In Case of Emergency, Become Sane

My brain is weird.

This isn’t news, of course. But one particular weirdness is obvious this week: the way horrible, debilitating anxiety can click over into calm action during an emergency.

I can have gasping, chest-hurting anxiety over a phone call or a doorbell ringing. But a few days ago when our house was two blocks from the edge of a fire evacuation zone, I sat calmly writing a list of what to grab.

When my daughter had unexplained stomach pain the next day, I worried and obsessed constantly about what it was. But when it became clear we needed to go to the ER, I became completely focused. Driving with someone vomiting and moaning in pain in the passenger seat isn’t easy, but I did fine.

Turned out to be a kidney stone. A night later, she had to go back because she couldn’t keep down her meds. The night after that, she had a sudden, new symptom. Things had been calming down, and when this happened it hit me like a blow from a club. I lost my breath, my chest hurt…what is this? Will it go away? Should I call someone? Should I take her to the ER again? But after it was clear we needed to go, the magic switch flipped.

My husband asked if I was OK to drive. I told him yes. He knew it was true. He could see it clearly–the wife who had been pacing and gasping only a minute ago now met his eyes with solid certainty. And even when the scary symptoms got worse on the way to the hospital, I kept my eyes on the road and got us there. (She’s going to be fine, thank goodness; it was an uncommon meds side effect and they were able to treat it.)

So what’s the story? I know I’m not the only one; I’ve heard others talk about it too. Some highly anxious people actually thrive in crisis-oriented jobs like ER work. I think it has something to do with defined tasks that leave no space for indecision. Whatever choices have to be made must happen fast and be followed by action. The urgency blots out the endless future tripping and second guessing.

Someone I know thinks it’s a type of dissociation, and those of us with certain kinds of brains or trauma are just better at it. That makes sense to me.

Whatever causes it, I’m grateful I can be less of a liability in an immediate crisis. But how I wish I could flip that mysterious switch on command!