Monthly Archives: April 2012

Follow Your Gut

First of all, the word gut kind of grosses me out. I associate it with Zach Galifianakis’ sweaty swollen belly sliding against Robert Downey Jr.’s face in the recent film Due Date. Or, if I am not picturing a gut, “gut” gets lumped into the image of guts, which is about equally as unpleasant as the Galifianakis reference.

So why do people say follow your gut? 

Do my bowels know something I don’t?

Does my protruding tummy stick out further than any other part of my body, so I am destined to “follow” it wherever I go unless I walk backwards?

Is following the gut any different than following your heart?

Is following the gut the masculine equivalent to the feminine following of the heart? After all, they say the way to a man’s heart is often through his stomach (gut)!

Speculation. What I do think I can say pretty clearly is that the gut seems to represent instinct. Follow what feels right. In that sense, I would say the gut is synonymous with the heart, because both involve feelings. Emotions.

I’ve been at a bit of a loss lately, things have been fairly out of control and I really wasn’t sure what to do about it. My conclusion was, initially, to follow my gut instinct. 

After going through the stream of thoughts I’ve just gone through here, though, I concluded that might not be wise.

I have a bipolar gut.

I’d love to believe they aren’t, but my instincts are almost completely as inconsistent as I am. Relying on a feeling to make a decision in my situation means relying on something that can change rapidly at any moment. Going so far as to base my happiness on something that my gut tells me seems foolish, when three minutes later it might say, “just kidding!”

This back and forth dialogue of emotion usually continues until I either have what I associate as an epiphany (which in the last couple years I’ve concluded tends to be something linked to mania, in one form or another) or a total breakdown (due to depression), at which point the flip flopping stops just long enough for my gut to get a word in edgewise. This is usually the only time I rely on that gut.

How could I trust my gut otherwise? The instincts associated seem to sway back and forth with the tides of bipolar disorder.

And I couldn’t follow it physically, right?

I mean, what is says usually sounds a bit like, “arrrrarararrrrrraaaarrrrrr”.

Unless it is stressed out. Then it gets angry.

It kind of seems like the stress and anxiety in my life is hard wired directly through my gut, up to my brain. Really, the wiring could act as something of a stress-o-meter.

The only trouble with the gut-stress-meter is that mine wont discern whether the stress is good stress (like excitement or anticipation) or the bad kind of stress (frazzling, pressure of yucky magnitudes). If I am on my way to disneyland (and you remove the emotions from this equation), I will feel very similar physically to waking up and preparing to take a driving test. Good and bad both feel the same at that point, so if I had to discern which I was experiencing while blindfolded I couldn’t tell the difference.

Thankfully, I don’t usually have to make that distinction because I can tell if something is good stress or bad stress depending on how I feel about it emotionally.

Last week, for the first time in a long time, I was stressed out to the point I lost my appetite. It vanished without a trace for four days, and at first it felt almost somewhat refreshing.

Well this is nice, I thought on the first day, I don’t feel like eating continuously for the entire day! Maybe I’ll save a couple bucks! Maybe I’ll lose a couple pounds!

As the days began to go by, though, I started getting a little worried. By Saturday, there was a point where someone mentioned hot wings (that is a bit of a holy-grail food for me) and though I was overjoyed, my stomach still made no response. 

No response! 

It was as if my stomach had died. There was no pulse left, just a shriveled, lifeless blob.

(I ate the wings anyway.)

Maybe this is the sign I was looking for all along. If my gastric juices are not aroused by the idea of hot wings, I am certainly dealing with a lot more stress than is reasonable for my body to handle. If the stress is having that effect on my stomach, I can only imagine what kind of contribution it is having to the (rather excruciating) episodes I’ve been having.

And maybe if I can’t rely on these emotional instincts that are so willy-nilly, there is something tangible about what my gut is saying after all! Do you think there are physical instincts that I’m still housing in this body, even when my emotional instincts don’t seem to function properly? Maybe I’m just not in tune with the way my gut has been trying to communicate with me all this time.

It is easy, I think, to get wrapped up in the roller coaster of emotions I’m dealing with at any given time, and the things my body says to me fall by the wayside. It is almost funny, too, that even though I spent last week wishing I could shut my mind off, it was my stomach shutting off that finally got my attention!

Now that I’ve discovered this, I can absolutely say there is a huge gap in communication between my mind and body. I feel something like a pioneer who has crossed the West to finally get to the ocean, picking up a guttural seashell upon arrival, and putting an ear to it to hear the ocean.

College Students Vulnerable to Bipolar Disorder

I read an interesting article this morning about the emergence of bipolar disorder in college years.

Personally I found it particularly interesting because even though I had my first big episode in high school, I left for college unmedicated and had a second episode and hospitalization during the first year of college, right before dropping out.

According to this article, it is extremely common for bipolar college students to leave school without finishing a degree, and even to be underemployed for the ones who completed a degree (no surprise to me there!).

This article by The Boston Globe also talks a bit about why college aged students are likely to experience their first bipolar episodes during college, if they have bipolar disorder, and what schools in New England are doing to try and help bipolar students succeed.

To check out the full article, click here… 

Baby Mixed Episodes, Return to Therapy

I thought I must be coming out of the depression because a few days ago I was hit with a big wall of creative energy. Instead, I seemed to stay depressed, or rather experience waves of depression.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized those waves of depression were being accompanied by energy and extremely intense racing thoughts -which meant I actually had transitioned out of depression like I thought. I just transitioned into low level mixed episodes, which feel about ten times worse.

Racing thoughts are acting as the defining mark of these episodes, and they are so overwhelming and out of control I have trouble holding a conversation when they are happening. The activity in my brain feels so great that my head might just explode at any minute, and I am pretty sure they’ve set up extra temp cubicles in my sinuses because they’ve run out of room in the general… you know, skull-part.

I was really amazed that I hadn’t noticed the signs sooner, but all of those negative depressive signs that stuck around kept dancing and drawing my attention while the hypomanic symptoms set in.

I’m not sure if these baby waves are ripples leaving a triggering moment, or if they are happening organically, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were triggered. I made the mistake of cracking open a book that had a few really intense, traumatic stories, and within 30 minutes I was crying uncontrollably in the kitchen.

Did I trigger the mixed episodes? Did I trigger gobs of emotion that, when they come up, just happen to be in the mixed realm because that’s where I’m sitting now? Or was that episode of crying and flailing around (which you shouldn’t do while cooking alfredo and asparagus, by the way) singular and not connected to these increasingly dysphoric episodes that keep happening?

It is definitely difficult to know with so many variables swirling around, and though I have theories, the scientist inside of me says we’ll never know for sure.

Stress is definitely still high, and I finally got a chance to meet with my therapist yesterday after 3 weeks of not (because she was so ill she was on bed rest).

I had a long list of things to talk about, but among them was my job, and how I nearly quit two weeks ago when I was at the peak of being upset about it.

I am trying to ride it out, that is true, but even though I didn’t physically quit, I’ve removed myself emotionally. So I did kind of a mental quit, the rest of me hasn’t decided if I should reign that back in, or follow in its footsteps.

I asked my therapist what to do.

“Well I don’t have an easy answer,” she said, slightly comically.

“What,” I replied, “you mean you aren’t a human-shaped magic eight-ball I can pay $20 to spit out an answer?”

“Reply hazy, try again.”

Apparently what I need for that is psychic, which is not the same as psychologist. Must have been those p-s-y-c-h’s that threw me off.

What I feel when I go to a good therapist is that I have been cleansed of something. Like a human carwash, perhaps. I tell them my twisted, awkward thoughts or actions and they tell me everything is fine, and how to deal with it (with a few exceptions). I leave feeling lighter, smarter, and like my crazy, irrational behavior has been washed away.

I then spend the next week to two weeks (often) building up a new set of awkard, irrational thoughts and actions.

If I wait too long before going to the therapist again, those thoughts and actions will eat me alive.

I realize now that sounds an awful lot like religion, and maybe there is something spiritual about it, I don’t know. I do know, though, that for me God is not involved in this process. Just a young girl sitting in the chair opposite, canceling out my irrationalities with her rationalness.

Therapists in general do not hold special power I think, they’re just people who have been trained to think and respond logically to often illogical information. After all, this feeling of comfort and that something has been rationalized also comes when I speak to regular people about things as well, for the most part, it just usually takes a lot longer. Generally speaking, the average joe is not professionally trained to know what to say to help counteract irrational behavior.

So, things are very much the same, but different. As is the case for me, usually. I just thought I’d give a brief update.

And finally, if you’re in the Seattle area, I’ve emailed the NAMI folks until they finally chose a date for our NAMI walk. It is supposed to be held late in October (which seems entirely counterintuitive to me, the weather will probably be horrendous). If you feel like dropping them a line about it, I think that would be an excellent idea.

The Buddy System

I am stubborn.

No, it’s alright. I know I am. I often feel like, why get help with something that I could ultimately fix myself? 

Because fixing something myself means feeling good. For me anyway. I can give myself a teeny little pat on the back, maybe dance around for a minute, but then all of my hard work has been traded for a fleeting few moments of joy before it dissipates out into the cosmos.

Is it worth it? 

This is something I’ve been considering a lot lately… and I think this is a big factor for a lot of people who aren’t willing to seek help for treatment. There is a lot of fear around the idea of asking someone for help.

Fear of rejection
Fear of abandonment
Fear of looking weak
Fear of confrontation upon disagreement

And the list goes on.

I went to 6 12 step meetings a few months ago. Though I am not technically an addict, my life has been greatly affected by addicts on more than one occasion. They request that you attend 6 meetings before making a final decision about moving on with the program.

Ultimately, my decision was to stop after 6. There were things I disagreed with, but things I really loved as well, but the final decision was made when I couldn’t seem to focus on anything long enough to be of benefit because bipolar disorder kept rearing its ugly head and distracting me. As I mentioned in my recent post, I have a genuinely hard time taking my focus off of bipolar disorder and putting it on something else without the bipolar element rearing its ugly head and bringing the whole thing down. Without any help from medication, wrestling with bipolar disorder consumes me.

Anyway, the thing I liked the most about these 12 step programs is the idea of having a sponsor.

A sponsor is someone you like and get along with who has been through a similar struggle as you, and is able to help guide someone through the process of recovery.

Well, I’m the sort of person who loves patterns, and I quickly identified that in the grand scheme of things or in another setting, a sponsor might be a mentor if they were helping with your career or non-profit work, this person might be your therapist if you are seeking professional help for various reasons, this person might simply be a friend who has already had two kids when you’re having your first one.

What do they all have in common? This person is someone you go to when you have questions about a specific part of your life. When you want to bounce ideas off of someone. Someone that allows you to talk about specific things because they have a genuine interest in something similar.

What I’m suggesting here is the buddy system. 

I know I said earlier that it is difficult for me to ask for help. I have gotten better at it, but what has changed is knowing who to talk to. It is difficult for me to talk to someone about my feelings if I don’t know how they’re going to react, there are times when that fear can be extremely overwhelming.

When I started going to a local support group, I found the overall experience helpful, but like the 12 step program I attended, I didn’t have anyone to bounce the ideas I got from the group off of. Luckily, one of the attendees who was in my age range latched onto me about as quickly as I latched onto her, and I discovered the secret, amazing world of having a bipolar buddy.

We’re not just buddies anymore, we’re really good friends too. When I was hospitalized last year for a big episode of depression, I was terrified to tell anyone where I was. I knew, though, that she would understand. She did, and brought me an assortment of rockin’ magazines and art supplies.

Therapists also make good buddies, and though you’re very unlikely to go out for drinks with them afterwards, if you are buddy-less and can afford to see one on a regular basis, I think therapists can be amazing when it comes to supporting people in their search of knowledge and understanding.

You can meet other bipolar people at support groups, you can start a social group for bipolar people in your area on meetup.com (or there might already be one!). You can have a bipolar pen-pal, which is a great type of buddy because you can email them any time, 24 hours a day.

We’re all on the same team here, so I think it is a wonderful idea to watch each other’s backs. Some people don’t have a willing ear to listen, and I don’t know about you but I have two ears so I try to listen whenever I can. In the process, I almost always learn something about myself, too!

Before you run out and grab yourself a bipolar buddy, here are a few things you may want to think about first:

  1. It is probably best to have a buddy who is actively seeking treatment, and interested in learning more about themselves and what they experience. Obviously, if your buddy is a therapist you are safe on that end, but it can be dangerous to take on buddies who are in a current self-destructive mode. That self-destruction could potentially launch us into “saving mode”, and the point is not to save others. If you are a licensed mental health professional, by all means have at it, but otherwise it would be safer all around to have a buddy who is in the realm of at least stable-ish.
  2. Some people don’t mesh well, and that is natural. There are certain people I “click” with right away, and others I’ve tried to be friends with but just can’t seem to get in the groove. I would suggest not forcing it, when you find the right person, you will probably know it right away. Also, if the other person is of the opposite gender, you may want to ask their intentions (platonic? romantic?) before moving forward to make sure they align with your own intentions.
  3. Think about what level of commitment you feel comfortable with. Just email? Talking on the phone? Meeting in person? Sometimes that level of commitment is flexible depending on how comfortable you feel with the other person, and that is ok too.
  4. Know your buddy’s emergency plan. In the event that your buddy has a big episode, have a plan made ahead of time so you will know what to do. It is unfortunate, but a realistic possibility that emergencies pop up, but if your buddy also knows your emergency plan they can be equally as helpful in the event that you experience a big episode as well.
  5. Put the mask on yourself before putting it on someone else. I know this is a recurring theme in this blog, but it is important to remember that as a bipolar individual, you have specific needs in order to help keep yourself stable. Sometimes that means taking a day or two to respond to an email, or saying no when plans are requested, but that is ok. It is extremely important to take care of yourself first (because you’re the only one who is going to do it!) and it is very likely that your buddy will know exactly where you’re coming from (because they’ve probably been there too!).

Buddies come in all shapes and sizes, and they might share similar backgrounds, similar mindsets, similar ages, or similar symptoms as you. Having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even just talk with periodically can be extremely helpful -especially if you are between therapists.

So shake off the isolation! Spend some time with someone who’s communication barriers are down. Practice talking about what you experience in an open way, because a little practice can open the door to talking openly in other areas of your life as well!

The Psychopath Test

A friend of mine recently called to tell me she read a book about psychopaths and prisons and serial killers and psychiatry. She mentioned something about the DSM, which I found very curious (as I don’t normally attribute knowledge of that sort of thing with anyone without a slough of diagnoses under their belt).

She told me I should read it. It’s called The Psychopath Test.

“I am not a detective, not a psychologist, and I didn’t even score that well when I self-diagnosed with the DSM-IV.” P.153

Jon Ronson is known (to some degree) for his slightly sporadic journalistic style. He wrote The Men Who Stare at Goats, if that gives you any clue. He fills The Psychopath Test  with a series of stories about his journeys to learn about psychopaths (also called sociopaths, if you’re not familiar) and he sprinkles the pages with his own anxieties… which is fun, because it becomes quite easy [for me] to relate to.

“Suddenly, madness was everywhere, and I was determined to learn about the impact it had on the way society evolves. I’ve always believed society to be a fundamentally rational thing, but what if it isn’t? What if it is built on insanity?” P.31-32

The conclusion I came to while reading this book is that psychopaths are very nearly the opposite of a bipolar individual. They experience a very narrow sliver of emotion, for the most part, and almost zero empathy. Being bipolar, I experience a very engorged range of emotions, and amounts of empathy that are almost overwhelming.

Whether you’re interested in reading about serial killers or psychopaths in general or not, that isn’t why I’d recommend this book. There are a few chapters that were absolutely mind-blowing, chapters that made me gasp, and chapters that made me have to set the book down for a moment to shake my fist in the air.

Even one, “I knew it!” was shouted, which is always a good treat.

The cover says, “a journey through the madness industry” and it is exactly that.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who might want to read it (it is a pretty quick and easy read, and I don’t really read a lot anymore so that is saying something), but this book is all non-fiction, and written by a journalist. I just want to re-iterate that before noting a few of the subjects captured in this book:

  • the DSM and the sorts of diagnoses therein
  • conspiracy theories
  • experimental LSD treatment in the 60’s
  • the role of mental illness in the media
  • a man who feigned insanity to avoid prison
  • a cryptic puzzle
  • scientologists and their hatred of psychiatry
  • the possibility of the world economy being driven  (and destroyed) by psychopaths
  • the epidemic of childhood bipolar diagnoses

Personally, this book had a pretty profound effect on me. I filled the darn thing with sticky-notes any time I read something that resounded with me, and the pages are now bursting with a rainbow of mildly adhesive slivers of paper. I’m supposed to return it to the library tomorrow, but I don’t want to… I’d love to just read the darn thing over again!

“Practically every prime-time program is populated by people who are just the right sort of mad, and I now knew what the formula was. The right sort of mad are people who are a bit madder than we fear we’re becoming, and in a recognizable way. We might be anxious, but we aren’t as anxious as they are. We might be paranoid, but we aren’t as paranoid as they are. We are entertained by them, and comforted that we’re not as mad as they are.” -P. 211

Jon Ronson’s writing style reminds me a teensy bit of Chuck Palahniuk, it is fast paced and introspective while being informative (only this stuff’s true!) and interesting. At the same time, he covers a wide number of bases to get several different perspectives, so just when you think you can agree with some of the things he’s discovered, he’ll challenge your thoughts in a new way in the next chapter. If you’re looking for a good read, try picking up The Psychopath Test at amazon.com or your local library today!

Childhood Trauma Linked to Schizophrenia

Most of us familiar with the concept of mental illness know that there have long been debates over whether these disorders are primarily genetic, environmental, or a combination of both.

Researchers at Liverpool and Maastricht University in the Netherlands have brought together and analyzed information from 30 years of studies to try to better understand the link between childhood trauma and the development of psychosis.

Findings suggest that there are both neurological and genetic factors at play, and these recent studies yielded similar conclusions:

Children who had experienced any type of trauma before the age of 16 were approximately three times more likely to become psychotic in adulthood compared to those selected randomly from the population.

The article at Science Daily goes on to suggest that children who had been severely traumatized early on in life were at a greater risk (up to 50% more) than children who were traumatized to a lesser extent.

The study also suggests different types of trauma during childhood can lead to specific sets of symptoms. Childhood sexual abuse was more likely to produce hallucinations later in life, while children brought up in a “children’s home” were more likely to produce paranoia later in life.

 “The causes of psychotic disorders, particularly schizophrenia, are a source of controversy amongst psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors. There is also disagreement about how the disorders are defined. It’s not unusual, for example, for a patient to be diagnosed with schizophrenia by one psychiatrist, but as bipolar by another.”

-Professor Richard Bentall, from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society

Now that researchers understand that childhood environment plays a crucial role in the onset of psychosis later on in life, research is going to be geared toward finding out the particulars, and why these events can cause symptoms so much later in life.

There is a bit more on the original article and it is definitely an interesting one I’d recommend. You can read the original article here… 

Exploration of New Territory

Today I am trying something new.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know that in addition to bipolar disorder, I have a number of other diagnoses (these are usually referred to as co-morbid diagnoses since they exist in addition to one another). Generalized Anxiety Disorder is one of the flowers in my bouquet of mental illness, I was diagnosed with it a year ago.

Just the fact that even the name has the word generalized in it makes the whole thing seem a little vague (hey, I’m a little ignorant about this world, ok?) but I know for sure that anxiety is something I struggle with on almost (if not on) a daily basis, and it is something that has been a part of my life since childhood.

I’ve been to a sizable smattering of support groups that focus on bipolar disorder, and led some, but as much as I address bipolar disorder, I am not addressing the other components. Anxiety. PTSD. OCD.

It is like being in the ocean in a small boat in the middle of an oil spill.

My boat springs a leak, and I start sinking.

My initial reaction, though, is shit. Oil is getting all over everything! 

I’ve been trying to clean up this oil, cleaning and cleaning and making a tiny dent… but underneath that oil is water, and that water may seem less threatening but it is still collecting together and threatening to sink my boat.

The trouble has been that since I do not have a series of medications to help stabilize my bipolar disorder, I spend an exceptional amount of energy and attention wrestling with it myself to keep it from wreaking too much havoc. It is time consuming, it is exhausting, but the tools I’ve compiled are making a difference. I still feel like hell a lot of the time, but I can control myself enough to keep from having a huge meltdown 9 times out of 10.

Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to address anything else even remotely emotional or thought provoking because I am trying to listen to a story or look at a different part of myself while wrestling a bull. The bipolar bull. Sometimes it gives you wings, sometimes it just stomps on you with its sharp, pointy hooves.

I feel pretty confident in saying this is probably why many therapists wont work with a bipolar patient who isn’t medicated. I’ve stumbled upon the explanation by accident. I have to keep 75-85% of my brain subduing a bull, and the remaining 15% can’t absorb the information fast enough to really make a huge difference.

Of course, therapy is entirely helpful for bipolar-related stuff at this moment, and to have someone act as a non-biased level-headed advice person (always good) as described in the last post. But, if I take a minute to let go of the bull to try and focus on something else, there’s a stampede and I wind up getting trampled.

It is quite frustrating.

Anyway, the new thing that I am going to do today is go to an anxiety support group.

I love support groups of all kinds, and even with my 15% attention span I almost always find some portion helpful, and relatable, and thought-provoking.

I do, however, get anxiety (ha!) when going to a group where I know the majority of the people -well, I don’t know that they’re more sane but they generally have a lot fewer issues than I have going on. Does that make sense?

I feel like I have become accustomed to bipolar, and even schizophrenic folks in my support groups. I find solace in the idea that the people there have generally had as many, if not more struggles than I have had… and I can walk away knowing that if others can survive with more difficult problems than I have, I can do what I need to do.

I have been to a group or two in passing where I am clearly the black sheep in the room, and I don’t think it is bad, I just don’t really know how to handle myself in those situations.

My therapist wants me to practice “filtering” myself in different situations so what I say is appropriate, but I have trouble discerning where “filtering” ends sometimes and straight up lying begins… which is why I’ve avoided doing it up to this point, really. I’d rather just say nothing at all than something that isn’t true.

In any case, I think I ought to go into this as optimistically as possible. I am excited, to some degree, though a little nervous, and I’m sure if I take the time to think before I speak it should be fine.

Plus, maybe I can act as that banner for someone else.

Hell, if that odd, bipolar girl can deal with her anxiety, so can I!