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.
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:
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:
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.
I once wrote that if you asked me to describe myself, the word Bipolar wouldn’t show up in the first 10 adjectives I used.
If you had asked me before I quit drinking I wouldn’t have used the word alcoholic either.
Now, I’m pretty sure it belongs in the top 3.
You may have heard the expression, you are what you eat (Hopefully that’s not true, because then I’ll have to start introducing myself as Reese’s Cup). Well I’ve always thought it more accurate to say, you are what you do.
The English language seems to agree with me on this point. Let’s say you’re an accountant. If someone asks you what you do for a living, you don’t respond with “I do accounting.” No, you are an accountant.
Even many family identities have their roots in what people did for work: Smith, Carpenter, Cooper, Potter, Mason, Taylor, Miller, Baker, Spicer, Cook, Fisher, Shepherd, and on and on. Incidentally, I’m glad this tradition has fallen away. It’d be unseemly for my daughters to possess the not-so-proud surname of Drinker.
Sobriety has made me realize that I haveno idea what I do, and therefore, I have no idea who I am. For my entire adult life, drinking is what I did, and an alcoholic is who I was – even if I wasn’t willing to admit it.
I’d even find ways to incorporate drinking into non-drinking things. I’m currently vacationing in Maine. My wife’s family has a beautiful cottage on a secluded lake in a rural area of the state. There are tons of activities available from canoeing, row boating, sailing, boccie ball, and mountain biking just to name a few.
So those all sound like healthy things to do… but a boat’s a great place to keep a six pack. And a glass of whiskey is a really good counter balance to a smooth boccie ball roll. And a can of beer is a great motivator to get you over that last hill on the bike.
Week three of sobriety has led me to a startling realization:
I don’t really like any of the things I thought I did. I only like drinking.
It makes sense really. Why did I use to get irritated doing fun things like going to a concert, or going to the state fair? It’s because these things made drinking harder to do.
You might be irritated that it costs 10 dollars to get a crappy beer at the concert, but it really pisses me off. How dare they? That’s just ridiculous! And then… I wish I had stayed home.
I bought a fancy cooler because it has what I refer to as a “smuggler’s pocket.” It’s one of those coolers on wheels that has 15 pockets, and one extra special, extra hard to find one – perfect for sneaking beer through security checks.
10 bucks for a beer? Ha! I’m much smarter than that!
So now that I’m sober I’ve discovered a great emptiness where my “interests” used to be. It’s terrifying – but if I may risk some optimism – it’s actually sort of exciting. I might actually discover what I like doing.
And so I’ll conclude this week 3 sobriety update with my first positive update – This past weekend my wife, two daughters and I did something that I hate. We went to the state fair. I’ve always hated the crowds, and there’s only onegoddamned beer tent!
Here’s the thing though – I LOVED IT!
My 3 year old frolicked through the pens of cows, sheep, pigs, horses – filled with the wonderment and joy of childhood. But there I was with her, experiencing the same – filled with a joy of discovery I’ve been denying myself for an age. As she experienced happiness, I felt it too – and I can’t remember the last time I really felt the experiences or emotions of another person. I can’t remember the last time I was actually happy for someone, and the last time that happiness affected me.
I’ve written before about how sobriety has reduced me to the level of a child; how I lack even basic coping skills, and how my reactions to stress are not much more advanced than the reactions of my children. But maybe I’ve been thinking about it wrong – maybe I’ve been elevated to the level of a child; capable of experiencing joy and discovery again.
So week three is in the books – maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t suck as much as I thought.
This is part 3 of a series. The previous part can be found here.
I got very close to a relapse this week. I was blindsided by members of my family who discovered this blog and then told the rest of my family about it. I was not ready for anybody to know about this part of my life, and that disclosure sent me into a three day tailspin that caused me to miss work, and compromised my ability to continue on this path. It is clear to me that my family does not think of me as an adult worthy of respect and privacy, but rather as the child they remember from years past.
My family’s lack of discretion has caused me to question whether or not I should continue posting on this blog. How can I possibly speak honestly and openly when this is a source of gossip for them? Could you do that? Could anyone?
But I need to keep going. Writing here has been one of the precious few countermeasures against my urge to drink. To stop now would jeopardize my ability to keep walking this path. And I must walk this path.
Why Do I Have To Quit?
Drinking is an important part of my culture. Alcohol is present at nearly every gathering of family or friends. It would be more unusual if there wasn’t alcohol present. Very rarely is drinking perceived as being an issue. Sure we drink a lot, but we can keep it on the rails; well, except for me.
Drinking is not an obvious problem. If you go to a party, chances are pretty good that everybody’s drinking. It’s perfectly legal and accepted. In fact, it’s usually considered weird if you aren’t drinking. But if I went to a party and started snorting lines of cocaine, it’d be pretty obvious that I had an issue.
So what distinguishes my drinking from normal drinking? Why do I call myself an alcoholic? Where’s that line and how did I cross it?
This will take a little while to explain so bear with me:
During this second week of sobriety I’ve uncovered a truly crippling weakness: My ability to naturally handle stress has been completely blunted as a result of abusing alcohol for over a decade.
For years I’ve taken the easy way out. If I was ever pushed to feel something I didn’t want to, I simply drank until the feeling went away. If I had a stressful day at work, or a stressful day of parenting, I’d just get hammered. Easy!
The crazy thing is that this actually worked for a very long time. I’ve been able to maintain a high level of functionality by balancing my mental health and stress issues with alcoholism. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that this balance is destined to break down at some point. Life’s stresses have a tendency to grow as work and family responsibilities increase, and your body becomes increasingly efficient at processing alcohol. As a result you need to drink larger quantities with increasing frequency just to achieve the same effect. Eventually you cannot possibly drink enough, frequently enough, to manage your stress level. This is when the scheme of the alcoholic collapses, and life begins to fall apart.
In the past three years I have been promoted three times, had two children, and moved to another state. My responsibility has increased 10-fold, but my ability to handle it has lagged behind. My alcoholism has intensified in the past couple years to bridge the gap, but despite my best efforts the gap keeps widening.
In the past month or two I began joking with my wife that I needed better drugs. Maybe I needed to score some cocaine to maintain the false sense of superiority and confidence that has helped fuel my professional rise. Maybe I could supplement alcohol’s stress relief benefits with some narcotic pain killers.
The thing is, I wasn’t joking. I was realizing that I was at the point of collapse and I was desperate for relief. I was no longer able to maintain all my responsibilities, my mental health, and my stress level with alcohol alone. Either something would have to give, or I’d simply have to find more and better drugs.
For me, giving anything up was simply not an option. The most realistic move would have been quitting my job, and finding one with lighter duties that more closely match the particular strengths and weaknesses of someone struggling with bipolar disorder. But my pride couldn’t handle this, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell my wife that I was no longer capable of providing our family with the standard of living we had come to enjoy.
So that left better drugs as the only option.
I couldn’t really ask anybody in my personal life how to acquire these drugs – that would be a pretty obvious crack in the facade of greatness I’ve crafted. Perhaps I could buy drugs online. I mean, why not? You can buy anything online, can’t you?
I began researching how to access the dark web, and how to conceal your internet activities and purchases from authorities. I had the money, and I certainly had the motivation, I just needed to acquire the means, and I was getting closer. Soon I’d have my relief.
Thankfully, I realized the ridiculousness of this scheme well before I acted. I was already married to alcoholism, and I would be embarking on a path that would almost certainly lead to the destruction of my family, and probably end with me in prison.
I abandoned my ill-advised quest to get a better high and quickly fell into despair. I couldn’t handle my job and the responsibilities of my family. I wasn’t getting the relief I needed anymore. The ultimate solution started creeping into my mind.
During the performance of my normal work duties there is cause for me to go up to the roof from time to time. When I’d go up there I’d start feeling that familiar, eerie pull into oblivion. The feeling came more and more often, eventually striking me when I wasn’t even on the roof. Then I’d start finding reasons to go up there when really there were none. I couldn’t stop the thoughts – I didn’t want to. They became a strange source of comfort for me. If all else failed I always had that one, ultimate, source of relief.
A lot of things prevented me from jumping off that building: my wife, my mom, my dad, my brother – but ultimately nothing was more compelling than the image of my 3 year old daughter asking her mom, “Where’d Dada go?”
That’s why I have to quit drinking. I need to discover a sustainable way to cope because my life is on the line.
What’s Sobriety Like So Far?
Well, if there is one positive thing that’s come from these first two weeks of sobriety it’s the disappearance of the suicide imagery. Mercifully, that seems to be gone.
But the rest has been very negative. In fact, it’s been so negative that I often find myself asking why I’m even doing this. Surely, it can’t be worth all this.
I find myself in an extremely precarious position. I hold a job that I don’t think I’m capable of doing anymore now that I can’t go home and get hammered afterwards. I have no idea what I’m going to do with all this stress, and I can barely get myself out of bed to go to work anymore.
I’m struggling at home with the kids. When I have support, I don’t have an issue. But when my wife is working and I’m alone with the two kids I go to pieces.
Just before finishing this post, I couldn’t get the baby to stop crying for almost 2 hours. I’m ashamed to admit it, but two weeks ago I would have gone downstairs, drank a glass of whiskey, then returned upstairs to take care of my child; no problem! Now, deprived of that source of relief, I simply break down.
I had to put the baby down and go downstairs to have what I can only characterize as an adult temper tantrum – throwing things, screaming into a pillow, crying, ripping my hair. This is pathetic, weak behavior that is not unlike the reactions of my three year old when deprived of some toy. But this is what I’ve become.
Alcohol has left me stunted in an infantile state wherein I’m incapable of processing the frustration and helplessness that comes from being unable to soothe an infant. My ability to father our children has been compromised, and I am deeply ashamed of that.
Logically, I know I need to push through this. I need to develop the ability to cope with life’s stresses without resorting to alcohol; but I can’t help but think, maybe I should just keep drinking until the baby has grown up a little bit. Maybe I should keep drinking until things are a little less stressful. But is that really for the best? Is there ever going to be a good time to quit? What better time than now?
Alcohol allowed me to run away from my emotions, while maintaining a “normal” life. Now, bereft of that relief, I find myself daydreaming about literally running away. I catch myself thinking about quitting my job, and driving to Arizona to just disappear for a while… or maybe forever.
But my children deserve a father. My wife deserves a husband. My parents deserve a son. And I deserve peace. So really, all that’s left is to become stronger. Become stronger, or become consumed by frustration, anger, and regret. There is no other choice.
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:
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?
“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.
#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…
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:
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.
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.