Bipolar Disorder Described in a Word: Frustrating

I wrote a post on The Bipolar Writer Blog wherein I described Bipolar Disorder as engrossing.  I encourage you all to read that post, but the short version is this: One effect of hypomania or mania experienced by many people suffering from bipolar disorder is an intense desire and focus to do one thing – in short, they become completely engrossed in that one thing, sometimes to the point of having no desire or ability to do anything else.

Basically, this.

Engrossing isn’t always a terrible thing – you can get a lot done in a short amount of time if you have the time to work on that thing.  In fact, I think this is one of the best parts of bipolar disorder.  I’ve learned a lot by becoming engrossed in different things throughout my life.  The problem is that things like work, children, and… you know… eating, sleeping, and having actual relationships sort of get in the way.

And this leads us to frustration.  Ah, frustration – that thing you feel when you’re unable to achieve something you want… or what you experience when trying to open one of these:

clamshell.png
Fort Knox.

To me, frustration is one of the defining emotions of bipolar disorder.  I get so wrapped up in one single thing, and it becomes all I want to do; but life keeps getting in the way!  I still have a family.  I still have a job.  And my 4 month old doesn’t care that I have to finish this blog post or I’ll lose my mind!

This leads to anger, and the occasional shameful parenting moment; and over time it can lead to resentment.  Unfortunately these emotions are usually directed (unfairly) at the so-called “obstacles” to fulfilling the object of your manic engrossment.  This leads to some very odd, very unhealthy thoughts like: man, can’t my 3 year old just walk to preschool so I can work on this masterpiece tongue depressor bridge model that I have to finish. (side note here: It turns out tongue depressor bridge building is a thing because of course it is.  While googling it to find an image for this post I found a rich online community dedicated to it.  I love the internet…)

Frustration is a normal part of parenting, and life in general.  But it can be elevated to irrational levels for someone suffering from bipolar disorder.  Denying access to the object of a manic or hypomanic person’s engrossment is like denying an alcoholic their precious whiskey… something I also know nothing about.

In turn, the person or people who are seen as denying access can come to be seen as “enemies” – which to me is one of the most difficult and tragic parts of bipolar disorder.  Anything that has the ability to make you view your family as an “enemy” – even temporarily – is truly terrible.

And finally, bipolar disorder is frustrating when the depression returns and robs you of your will to continue pursuing your engrossment.  It’s like when you have to sneeze, and at the last moment you can’t.  Except the sneeze is your entire life’s work, and the sneeze going away is soul-crushing depression returning.

Here’s another helpful image:

Science’s best depiction of bipolar disorder.

It’s around the time the depression returns that you begin to realize you’ve probably been neglecting a lot of things you shouldn’t have – and maybe you’ve been a bit of a jerk too.  These realizations make the depression even worse, and feed into self-loathing… but that’s a topic for another post.

So that’s how I find bipolar disorder to be frustrating.  This is the second part of a series I am writing that explores various aspects of bipolar disorder, and how I experience them as someone suffering from type 2 bipolar disorder.

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5 Things Your Loved One With Mental Illness Wants You To Know

You just learned that your friend, spouse, boyfriend, or whoever, is suffering from a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder.  Now what?

Maybe you don’t know how to talk to them – so you don’t.  Or you do… but it’s really awkward.  You have no idea how to address it; do you address it?  Will you hurt their feelings if you do?   Will you hurt their feelings if you don’t?

This article hopes to give you some advice on how to proceed by sharing with you the things I, as a person with a mental illness, would like my friends and loved ones to know.  If you’re suffering from mental illness and you like what I have to say here, share this.

Now please note, I am not a mental health professional.  I am a person who suffers from Bipolar II Disorder.  My insight comes from someone experiencing an illness, and my own personal interactions with that illness.  Everybody is different.  Every illness is different.  In short, your mileage may vary depending on the individual person and the circumstances of their individual illness.  Use judgement.

With that caveat aside, here are 5 things I want people to know about me after learning I have a mental illness:

#1 – I Have Boundaries

Believe it or not, not everybody is cool with talking about themselves.  Some people have a really hard time with it actually.

Mental illness is still very taboo.  Mental health stigma is a very real thing.  Many people are not comfortable admitting they even have a mental illness.  Hell, most people probably aren’t comfortable admitting it.

Please respect the fact that people may not want to talk about it.  Take me for instance; I don’t really want to talk about it right now – at least not in person.  I’ve spent a long time building a pretty serious wall to talking about my problems and it’s going to take some time to dismantle.  So if you try to surprise me with a heart to heart about my mental illness… well… it feels sort of like this:

Nope.

I’m just going to run as fast as I possibly can away from you.  And then I won’t want to talk to you at all.  Because I’m afraid you’re going to eat me.  See?  That hasn’t really accomplished anything, has it?

Now some people will want to talk about it.  And that’s great!  People should feel like they can talk about mental illness.  If I just told you that I was diagnosed with depression, then I’ve sort of opened the door to talk about it.  But if you just heard that I have depression, and you bring that up, I’m going to feel attacked, and I’m going to put my shields up.

Now you don’t necessarily want to totally ignore it either.  This might lead someone to believe you don’t care.  So what do you do then?

Try this:

“Hi so-and-so.  I love you, and I want you to know I’m here for you if you ever want to talk about things.”  Boom!  That was great.  You obviously care, but you also respect boundaries.  Good for you!

Now there is one very important caveat to all of this.  If you think someone is about to hurt themselves or others, or is otherwise in crisis – then you should talk to that person, or hell, call the police if you think something bad is going to happen imminently.  But it has to be pretty extreme.

And lastly, for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t go telling a bunch of people you heard so-and-so has a mental illness behind their back.  Whatever your intention is, it’s likely to be perceived by the person actually suffering as malicious and cruel, and you’re probably going to jeopardize the very existence of a relationship with that person.  This can be very traumatizing for the person suffering from mental illness, and can be detrimental to their treatment and recovery.

#2 – I’m Still Me

Ask me to describe myself and “Bipolar” does not make the top 10 list of adjectives.  I am not my mental illness.

This one is a little tricky, since you’ll often hear someone say I am depressed, or I am bipolar.  The language usage suggests that that person is that mental illness.  But really, they’re not.

And really, this is laughable on the face of it.  Think about it:

Someone has cancer.  Are they cancer?

You have the flu.  Are you the flu?

You have a rash.  Are you a rash?

No.  That all sounds ridiculous.  So yes, you’ll see me write things like I am bipolar but really, that’s just lazy English.

The point is, I’m still the same me I was before you knew I had a mental illness.  You just know a little bit more about me now.  But don’t worry, I’m still here!

Confused?  Don’t over think it.  Just look at this definitely-not-altered GIF, smile, and move on.

Feel better?

#3 – I’m Still Capable

A big reason why the mental health stigma is so real is that people fear that they’ll be perceived as less competent if it’s known they have a mental illness.  But if you’ve known someone to be competent and capable of sound decision making, then the knowledge that they have a mental illness shouldn’t change that.

I have bipolar 2 disorder.  I make decisions every day.  I have a family that I care for.  I take myself to work every day; in other words, I am completely capable of taking care of myself and living a normal life.

Do you want to know the biggest reason I don’t share my mental illness with people in my personal life?  I’m afraid I’ll lose my job – and if I don’t lose my job I’m afraid I’ll never be considered for another promotion again.  I’m afraid some jerk will think I have a defect that compromises my ability to make sound decisions.  This isn’t true, but I know a lot of people think that way.

Now I am not trying to trivialize mental illness in any way.  Many people do struggle with very real mental health issues that diminish their functionality in different ways, and these people do require help.

But if you’ve known so-and-so forever, they’ve always been highly capable, and they confide in you that they have major depressive disorder, I hope your opinion of that person does not diminish.  They’re still as intelligent as they were before.  Actually, there’s some evidence to suggest intelligent people are more at risk for mental illness.

My opinion of you wouldn’t be diminished if I learned you have cancer.  I’d want to help you in any way I could, and I hope that’s your reaction upon hearing a friend or loved one is suffering from a mental illness.

#4 – Help Helps

You may have just learned that someone you love has a mental illness.  You may be filled with an overwhelming desire to help, and that’s good!  But what do you do?  Do you smother them with kindness?  Or do you stay aloof and distant?  You’re just doing what the nice guy on the internet told you to, and respecting boundaries.

How about you listen to them, and ask what you can do to help?  If the answer is nothing, then do nothing.  If the answer is listen to them complain about their day, then do that.  If the answer is get a supersized order of fries from McDonald’s then…

The ketchup is dispensed from a fire hose.

Now sometimes you shouldn’t just wait around and wait for someone to ask for help.  Unfortunately, people who are suffering with depression often can’t see what will help them… even if it’s really obvious.  And sometimes someone will say they don’t need anything when really it’s obvious that they do.  This requires some judgement on your part, and has to be supported by your knowledge of, and relationship with that particular person.

So if there’s something really obvious that would help, like stepping on the gas when you’re being chased by a gigantic dinosaur, then go ahead and do that thing:

You don’t have to wait for an invite to hit the gas.

Just remember that a little bit of kindness can go a really long way with someone suffering from depression or bipolar disorder.

#5 – I Want You To Take Care of Yourself

So I’ve been talking about all the things you can do to help that person in your life who is suffering from a mental illness, but please don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

The person suffering wants you to be well too.  They don’t want to see you suffer, or even develop a mental illness of your own due to the stress of care giving.

Make time for yourself as well.  Make sure you set your own boundaries.  Don’t forget to help yourself too.  Don’t be a hero.

You’re no use to anybody if you get eaten.

So that’s all for now.  That should be enough to get you started at least.  There’s a lot more than just that which I’ll share in later articles, but my mania-brain has lost interest in writing, and suddenly I have an uncontrollable urge to watch Jurassic Park.

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Betrayal – Outed as Bipolar, Outed as an Addict

You have probably noticed by now that I post under my first name only. You see, I wish to maintain a certain degree of anonymity in order to feel safe talking about deeply personal issues.  Let me explain:

I am a very proud person. I have never been able to talk about my problems.  Hell, I’ve never been able to talk about myself at all. For over a decade I’ve hid the fact that there’s anything wrong with me.  In my personal life I maintain at all times an appearance of strength, success, and stability.

My pride has served me well. Armed with a tenuous, yet powerful sense of self-confidence, I have achieved a degree of financial success and stability for my family unusual for someone my age.  But this pride inflicts upon me a terrible price.  I’ve suffered with undiagnosed, mistreated bipolar disorder my entire life.  I’ve never sought help or treatment because treatment is weakness.

Admitting I had issues was simply not an option. There were no issues I told myself.  I did what many proud people with a problem do – I drank.  And I drank.  And I drank.  For years I drank as much as I could, and when I wasn’t drinking, I was wishing that I was.

Then children came, and children have a way of making you evaluate yourself, your past, your future, and your own upbringing. I found myself to be unworthy of the unconditional love my daughters naively bestowed upon me.  It took 3 years, but this inadequacy finally persuaded me to admit I have problems, and to seek treatment.

I started this blog for a couple reasons. First and foremost, I’m scared, and I need help.  I wanted to see if there was anybody else out there who was going through similar issues, and if there were, I wanted to connect with them.  To my great relief, I found I was not alone.  I’ve come to meet many great people suffering through similar issues in the very short time I’ve written this blog.  Communicating with you has been one of the precious few sources of help, relief, and joy I’ve found since embarking on this path.

Secondly, I realized I would need a place to deal with my thoughts as I worked through this.  Alcohol had been my constant companion for suppressing my problems for so long, and I knew if I was really going to kick the habit I’d need a healthy outlet.

This blog seemed like a good way to achieve these goals; and by remaining anonymous I could strengthen myself in safety, and one day, I’d be able to share my story with friends and family from a place of success – as someone who had already walked the path, and had returned to help others still struggling along the way.

And now with all that said we can move on to the titular betrayal.

You see, this blog has a Facebook page to help connect me to you, and you to other people who are suffering. Facebook owns Instagram.  Unbeknownst to me, Instagram suggests pages to the personal friends of the owner of the page. As a result, three people from my personal life became aware of this page, and by extension my very secret, very personal problems.

I was shocked, and more than a little terrified; I felt compromised. Naked. I was not ready to talk to these people about this.  I’m still not.

But I thought, these are people I trust, it’s OK. The wife of a great friend, who I recently really met for the first time (Hi Tess!).  A friend from home who stood at our wedding (Hi Steph!).  And lastly, my cousin.

My cousin is the perpetrator of the titular betrayal, and the person to whom this post is really addressed.

She apparently saw fit to tell my aunt about this page, who quickly told my parents. My mother called my wife, apparently filled with concern for the deeply private revelations she was reading from her son.

I wonder, how did you possibly think it was OK to share this with anybody? Did you seek to embarrass me?  Was it out of some ill-conceived attempt to help?

I identify myself with members of the LGBT community who have been outed to loved ones before they were ready to share that deeply personal, stigmatized part of their identity. Coming out is rightly viewed as an extremely difficult, emotional, and important part of someone’s life.  It is something everybody has the right to do on their terms, when they are ready; and if they’re never ready it is also their right to keep that to themselves.

The internet is filled with stories of those who were outed as gay, lesbian, or otherwise non-cis to loved ones before they were ready, and against their wishes. Tragically, many of these stories end in suicide, and now I understand why.

I feel I have been outed. I feel exposed.  I feel like a child again, denied the decency of even the most basic privacy.  A child who needs to spend hours running from home on a bicycle, just to get some moments of solitude to try to process all this shit.

Alcohol was my outlet. Now that’s gone.  This blog replaced it.  And now I feel like that’s been compromised.  This is no longer a place where I feel free to speak openly.  Now where do I turn?  To you?  Why would I ever do that now?

Upon hearing the news of my outing this morning I walked off the job. I got in my car, and the child was back again, running away, trying to find shelter.  I raged, I lost my voice, I cried, I tore my shirt, I damn near drove into a ditch.  I almost drove to the bar.

Then I did what I’m best at. I buried it, composed myself, and 15 minutes and 1 shirt change later I was standing and speaking in front of a group of 50 – none any the wiser.

It’s exhausting living like this, being bipolar, being in recovery.  I honestly don’t have any more energy to give to this post.  I’ll substitute eloquence for succinctness, and simply close with this:

Fuck. You.

-Matt Orcutt