Tag Archives: triggers

Putting Myself Out There

Despite how busy summer has been I have found myself doing very few of the things I wanted to do. I’m fully aware that feeling helplessness doesn’t look good on me, so I decided to try a few things outside my comfort zone in an effort to feel more in control of my own life and to pep up a potentially dangerous sense of boredom.

For better or worse, my sense of curiosity has always been able to steer me into the mindset of, “well let’s try _____ and see what happens!” Sometimes the results have been wonderful and sometimes they have been devastating, so when I went to work trying to decide what new thing to try I wanted to be a little conscientious of that fact. Ideally trying something new and maintaining whatever scrap of emotional and mental stability I have is the goal, but knowing that living with treatment resistant symptoms of bipolar disorder means that any little detail could potentially rock my brain-boat is challenging. I have often found myself opting to do nothing at all because doing anything is potentially risky (in terms of creating instability in my mental health) but, tired of doing nothing, I decided the reward was potentially worth the risk.

I have been described as having an “overactive imagination” and more than one therapist has told me that when things are perfectly fine my mind has a tendency to imagine problems that aren’t really there… these days I would consider this description to be something like a cute version of saying, “psychosis”. For a time I thought this might lend itself well to writing fiction, but back in 2007 when I tried my hand at writing a novel I found that I lost track of where the novel ended and reality began. The problems in the story became the problems of real life, and I abruptly vowed never to venture down that path again.

All this time I’ve been writing nonfiction instead, and while I’ve enjoyed writing for this blog the past five years I feel like I am constantly moving toward the point where I wont have anything more to say without being redundant. I’ve been learning a lot about myself and writing in the process (and I don’t expect to stop any time soon) but part of me has wondered if I could write about something else. Anything else, really. I admit there are times where I don’t want to think about my own mental health. I want the freedom to think of other things, of other problems, and for the love of Pete, to talk about something other than myself.

With a little experimentation I found that while writing fiction that takes place in a modern setting (like my writing in 2007) is too close to my own life for me to separate myself from it, writing about situations on other planets or in places I’ve never actually been seems to create enough distance to keep my mind from getting the two confused. It seems that following an odd story down a rabbit hole makes perfect use of my (previously useless) problem-generating brain because stories need conflicts to be interesting.

Writing any fiction at all certainly took me out of my comfort zone, but in the past few weeks I decided to take things one step further and I joined a local writing group. Frankly just getting out of my apartment to meet with them was a huge step and even though I was anxious as heck to make my first appearance I did my best to remind myself that they’re strangers, so who cares if they like me anyway?

It turns out they are all quirky, imaginative, and intelligent individuals and just passively listening to them share about the different projects they are writing was both interesting and encouraging. Within an hour or two I found myself holding conversations with people casually and I left knowing that I wanted to go back again.

Of course, I put it off a little. Since it is a critique group I knew that at some point I would have to share something I had written, and when I’m working on something I’m typically very private about it until the final version is completed. Even though I don’t like sharing something unfinished because of how vulnerable it makes me feel, I have had a lot of questions that I knew would probably be answered if I just powered through my anxiety and shared my work.

So the thing I did this week to step out of my comfort zone was to read something I had written in front of a group of people and listen to their feedback. I had a knot in my stomach all day leading up to the group and every five minutes I could feel myself changing my mind, thinking, “well… I’ll print these read along pages and bring them, but I don’t have to read them.” Then, “well… I will tell the moderator I have something to read, but maybe they wont get to me before the group ends.”

Finally, that night at the group after an hour and a half the moderator asked me, “do you want to go next?”

I knew that if I left without reading I would feel twice as anxious the next time around and I knew I couldn’t handle a double dose of anxiety driven irritable gut another day. I had already gone through 5 or 6 tums and it seemed there was little to do but press on.

I decided to take a leap of faith and even though it was wildly uncomfortable, even though my hands were shaking and my ribs were contracting as I powered through a panic attack while I read, I reached the last page in a triumphant (and slightly dissociative) stupor.

I never used to have problems reading aloud, not when I was in school. I gave so many presentations, so many speeches (even publicly at the state fair) that I never expected to feel so overwhelmed when speaking publicly. I know my anxiety is much worse these days, but I also think that the unfinished nature of my story and the effort I had put into it were huge in informing how nervous I was.

I also know that my Achilles heel is judgement. I’ve never taken criticism particularly well, never felt good about the idea of being examined and torn apart. I feel like I can say that I generally feel good about who I am, but there has always been the fear of judgement present in some form in my life. Fear of God’s judgement as a child, fear around the judgement from my peers in school, fear around critiques in college, and fear around the scrutiny of Social Security and the government as a disabled adult.

By the time I stumbled into the critique portion of the reading I had catastrophized the whole situation so much that it inevitably went much better than I expected. Some of my concerns were confirmed, some new issues were brought to my attention, but for the most part everyone seemed excited about what I had written, which acted as a cork in my odorous anxiety bottle.

My boyfriend, sweet as he is, went to work right away when I got home to remind me that I don’t need to take any of the advice I was given. I don’t need to change anything I wrote if I don’t want to. I know he has continuously witnessed the way other people’s opinions have acted like quicksand for me in the past. The defiantly obsessive portion of my brain loves to latch on to those statements without letting go, and I immediately found myself wrestling with them as they echoed (ironically) in my mind, “redundant, redundant, redundant…”

The difference now comes from the knowledge that has come from my DBT group. I know that when I’m closed in with the garbled echoes of disappointment or disapproval or judgement I can open the windows in my brain-house and let that stuff escape. I don’t have to be hosting the equivalent of a mental dinner party six years from now and set an extra place setting for “redundant” because it’ll be long gone. That’s the hope, anyway.

Having said that, I don’t know if I will read my writing aloud again any time soon. I need time to practice letting go of these comments, time to sort them out of the “terribly important, don’t stop thinking about this,” pile into the, “backlog” bin. If I can manage it without much incident I expect to have another go, because having the opportunity to practice letting go of, “this sentence is redundant,” is infinitely easier to me than having to let go of considerably more cruel and pointless scrutiny. Anything I can do to help myself learn and grow is good, but anything that also helps me learn to be less reactive and less prone to destabilization is a serious win.

 

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PokéMania

I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning before my parents were awake to play Duck Hunt on the NES as a child. I wouldn’t call that my introduction gaming induced mania, but it certainly had me hooked on gaming.

By the time I was a teenager and my mood had begun to destabilize (even though I didn’t know it was bipolar disorder at the time) I found that the power I felt beating my teenage boyfriend at Mario Kart 64 on vs. mode 82 times in a row was obviously feeding something, and I didn’t quite know what it was or how to stop it -but then again I didn’t want to. It felt incredible.

By the time Everquest was in full throttle in the early 2000’s I was able to limp our computer and dial-up to a place where I could play it, and I discovered some very important things.

  1. I didn’t want to stop. Not to pee, not to eat, not to shower. Heaven forbid any of my family members needed to make a phone call, that was outrageous.
  2. The main reason I didn’t want to stop was because of how miserably depressed I felt in my daily life, and when I played Everquest I found myself feeling like a million dollars.
  3. Constantly choosing the sleepless mania of gaming and feeling good also seemed to have negative consequences in all other aspects of my life, but for a while I was feeling far too great to care.

After that blew up in my face I went years without playing another substantial game, I swore off of anything more rigorous than Wii bowling or Zelda. I hadn’t really displayed the ability to make good choices when engrossed in a fantasy world (particularly a social one) so I figured it would be best to let it lie.

But then, as an adult, I started dating a gamer. I started out trying to be careful, but before long I was being swept up by the Xbox 360 and then the Xbox One, feeling overwhelmingly tempted to stay up until 3 am because, well, everyone else was.

I wish I could say that the release of Pokémon Go this week didn’t rattle me, but the original debut of Pokémon landed right in the age-range sweet spot for my sister and I the first time around. We played the games, we watched the show, and our binder full of cards probably weighed a metric ton.

I knew it might be a slippery slope for me, but I had an easy out. With a windows phone I couldn’t download the Pokémon Go app, and my brand loyalty to Microsoft started out feeling like a blessing until I was sucked down into a vortex of depression. After two days of not being able to play the game everyone else around me seemed to be playing I felt miserable, and the safety of going without this game somehow transformed into a wretched despair over missing something potentially profound.

That night I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly eat breakfast, and as soon as the clock struck nine I was out the door headed to the mall. Before I had time to think, before I had time to react, really, I’d signed up for a brand new phone and spent the next eight hours setting it up so I could play Pokémon Go.

In hindsight it is hard to say if manically buying a new phone to play a Pokémon game is more or less embarrassing than last week’s manic interlude (after all, catching socially acceptable pretend creatures is probably less alienating to people on the street than collecting the dead corpses of real ones) but after the jolting, humming, rush of ecstasy subsided a day or two later I’ve been able to be a little more objective.

After spending the last five years getting to know my brand of bipolar disorder intimately and getting a grip on some of the things that trigger it for me I think I’m able to do a better job of regulating something I know can amp me up if I’m not careful. I intend to follow all of the rules I’ve set for myself playing any videogames in order to avoid issues with triggering hypomania and mania, things like:

  • No games after 10 pm (11 at the latest on weekends). Part of the reason games can trigger mania for me is that I lose track of time, and without having a set time in place for me to detach myself from the games and work on winding down before bedtime I wont be able to sleep. I’ve found that anything after 11 (and I try to be safe and stick to 10 pm) only makes me more alert and is huge for triggering insomnia for me. Guess what? Insomnia breeds mania!
  • Play at set times. I like to have a routine, to have structure in my day to make me feel less useless (since I’m just at home alone most days). My boyfriend and I play Xbox in the evening after dinner before we watch tv and I try to limit my Xbox time to that window (even if I am not always successful). Likewise I’m trying to limit Pokémon time to specific times of day (lunch time, walking home from an appointment (not to it or I’m likely to lose track of time), waiting for the bus, etc).
  • Limit my interaction with others. Ok, this might sound odd, but if I am starting to feel amped up and then I begin talking to other players who are equally amped up, I can easily become hypomanic or manic. Being aware of my mood state before interacting with people online or in person has been really important to help me understand how much I should interact and when to just be silent.
  • Food Food Food Food. I need to eat, and I need to eat more than candy and chocolate. I have to keep eating on my regular schedule, and not settle for eating a few handfulls of stale fruit loops becuase I am not willing to walk away from a game. If I don’t eat my mood gets all out of whack, and it doesn’t always mean a date with hypomania but that is one of the (less sucky) outcomes that could occur. Limiting caffeine is also huge, it has also triggered hypomania for me in the past as well as insomnia if I have any too late in the day.

As the case has been with everything lately, I’m working hard to try and find a sense of balance in as many areas of my life as possible. I want to be able to enjoy the things I want to enjoy (like catching them Pokémons) while remaining as stable as I can. It can be a tough nut to crack, but I’m hopeful that a little extra effort I can do it.

The Bees Knees

Though I do have mania that occurs on its own it has always attacked me more like a lightning bolt. It hits rapidly and jolts me into some kind of dream world before disappearing as quick as it came on.

When I have manic symptoms for an extended period of time they are almost always mixed episodes where depression intermingles with the lightning long enough to keep it grounded. In those cases the result tends to be more like ongoing electrocution, quite unpleasant really.

Of course, that is only naturally occurring mania. For someone who has spent five years cycling through medications to try to find one that helps out with my treatment resistant bipolar disorder, you can be sure I am no stranger to medication induced mania too.

Generally speaking, pairing an antidepressant with a depressed person can send that depression packing… but when you give an antidepressant to me (and to many people with bipolar disorder) my depression suddenly busts through its shirt like the incredible hulk and screams, “I’m the King of the world!” before doing a keg stand.

For whatever reason my body takes this phenomenon one step further. I can have mania induced by many different kinds of medications, anything from nasal sprays to opiate painkillers to antipsychotics.

I was reminded of this fact in full force over the holiday weekend while I was trying my hand at taking Geodon again. I slipped into mania without even realizing it, being far too wrapped up in my new life plan to become a ventriloquist to sleep and then crawling around in the bike lane of Seattle streets collecting several dozen dead bees that had gotten too much sap on their wings to fly, dying along the streets and sidewalks.

The funny thing in these situations is when I can actively think about what I’m doing and how it must look to all of the people walking past me but feel powerless to stop it, and then I go on to notice that I am totally comfortable with that powerlessness so I might as well just enjoy the ride.

It wasn’t until I realized that I hadn’t paid any of our bills, our rent, and hadn’t renewed our lease on time that I began to think that I might need to stop taking Geodon. Even then, I didn’t feel completely sure… thank goodness it was also giving me periodic headaches and stomach cramping or I might have let it carry on a few more days.

As expected, within forty eight hours of discontinuing it I was rapidly sliding down into depression. I had strained one of my quads at some point -probably when I was picking up all those bees, I can’t typically feel pain during mania so it is hard to say- and had to spend two days resting because I couldn’t walk!

It’s funny to me how even with medication induced mania I feel some sense of shame after it’s over. Like maybe I could have done something to stop myself, or recognize it earlier, or whatever. Of course my doctors and therapist have all told me that I shouldn’t be embarrassed because it wasn’t my fault… but there is something difficult for me about resigning to the fact that sometimes I really don’t have control over myself.

Needless to say, I haven’t been posting as regularly as I would like but now that I’ve experienced the worst mixed episode I’ve had in at least five years, the most intense period of mania I’ve had in five years, subsequent intense depression, and psychosis (a story for another day) in the span of about two months I’d say I’m doing pretty well, all things considered.

 

 

 

 

Stepping Stones; Stepping out of PTSD

Trigger Warning – my brand of PTSD came from situations involving sexual assault, and this post may contain loose details about that situation or other sexual topics regarding my recovery. Nothing super graphic though, don’t be gross.

Post traumatic stress disorder seemed to come into my life like a flood. One minute life seemed totally normal, and the next it began to deteriorate rapidly.

It was sort of like, if you could imagine, every time you bought a smoothy someone would walk up and take that smoothy away from you after a couple sips. After a while, you sort of just know to either avoid buying smoothies or, if you do buy one, only expect two sips. This is just the way things are, and because you haven’t known much else there are no real expectations otherwise.

Now imagine someone sits down with you and tells you that we live in a world where you could have (and you deserve) that entire effing smoothy. I mean, more than two sips. And that these people who have been taking this delicious fruity beverage away from you are a-holes who have done something profoundly inappropriate.

Well there’s shock. And anger. And definitely some horror associated with the fact that people can be so awful to one another, and that you’ve let this smoothy-snatching business go on for so long. There is guilt for not knowing things could have been different, and fear that this cycle is something that will never end.

But, maybe you feel a little empowered too. Like maybe now that you know this business about the smoothies you can buy one and enjoy the entire thing. You can break the cycle! So you go out, you buy a smoothy, and after two sips someone walks up, takes it, and walks away.

This time it feels different though, doesn’t it? This time you know you’ve been violated, that the other person is in the wrong, but maybe you just froze and didn’t know what else you could do to stop it. The anger is much bigger, much more difficult to contain. The fear becomes profound, because now you know that people seem cavalier about hurting you and that it can happen anywhere at any time. The shock leaves you frozen, bringing guilt because, somehow, you knew this would happen, didn’t you? Maybe the horror is so overwhelming you decide to pretend the whole thing never happened, just to put it all out of your mind, and ultimately blame yourself. After all, you really just can’t be trusted with a smoothy.

For me there was a series of moments like these that were like seeds being planted. I pushed the memories and my reactions down into the dirt as far as they would go, and once they were there I didn’t feel a need to address them because I thought I won. I thought I put them somewhere that was somehow equivalent to them not-existing, and if they didn’t exist I couldn’t be upset, right?

I admit, it is easy for me to look over this whole process when it is about a deliciously fruity blended beverage or something as seemingly harmless as seeds and connect the dots, but even now, years later, thinking about this process in terms of sexual assault there is a whole host of emotions that come up making it difficult for me to see through the fog that they create.

For several years I did a great job of putting the whole thing out of my mind and ignoring it. Then, after enough time had passed, those seeds that had been planted began to grow.

They broke through the soil and I suddenly began having panic attacks in crowded places. I became physically ill when someone, anyone, would touch me. I couldn’t leave the house without getting into arguments with people, so I didn’t leave the house. I felt powerless and depressed, but also angry and very afraid. Every time I closed my eyes I could sense someone standing next to me waiting for me to be vulnerable, like any moment I was happily unaware or in the shower or asleep.

The most infuriating part of this process for me was not being able to see how one person could get from the situation I was in to something better. My PTSD symptoms (mostly the anxiety and panic) were just as treatment resistant as my bipolar symptoms so I couldn’t rely on any anti-anxiety medications to help with the panic attacks and fear I was having. My doctors suggested deep breathing and reading boring case studies about PTSD, and while the deep breathing only really helped keep me from constantly screaming the reading seemed to trigger my symptoms over and over again.

Having said that, (spoiler alert) I am sitting here today really feeling like I have finally made a big dent in untangling myself from those awful PTSD plants and I found myself wondering just what I did to make it here. I thought that perhaps sharing what helped create a makeshift ladder for me might be useful to others in a similar situation, and while I am not suggesting you go out and do any of the things I am about to share I can honestly say they helped me, and all of these things were done with the consent of my healthcare team (including my therapist and psychiatrist).

For Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Basically I needed to desensitize myself to being around people and sort of re-learn that people (in general) aren’t trying to hurt me. The real trouble was that any time I was in a more crowded place (the bus, downtown, the grocery store) it would just trigger the panic attacks over and over again. Even at house parties of people I knew and loved I felt overwhelmed and would panic, so I entered into the realm of medical marijuana.

I realize this might not be a popular idea, but totally legal here in Washington State. Also, like many of the medications I have tried, it turned out there are some forms of cannabis that actually made my anxiety and panic symptoms worse, so the process of narrowing things down was a little frustrating. Thankfully, as someone with treatment resistant symptoms I have a lot of experience trying treatments that either aren’t effective or have some rough side effects so I already had a system for taking detailed notes on the effects I was experiencing.

I wont lie, I felt pretty weird about this idea at first. Growing up in a time where I was led to believe that the slightest proximity to any and every “drug” out there (D.A.R.E!!) would immediately make me an addict or banish me to hell or make me lose everything I loved made me initially totally recoil from the idea.  The legalization of medical cannabis only dampened this mindset slightly, but after speaking with three different psychiatrists and four separate therapists, all of whom who told me [given the nature of my treatment-resistant symptoms] I should proceed with anything I found that was helping, I felt a little more comfortable. Even so, it took some time for me to feel ok when other people were being judgmental about it but the fact that my doctors had my back (and heck, even my grandmother agreed) made me feel less squeamish about the whole thing.

Once I was able to pinpoint a couple strains that helped alleviate the anxiety and panic I was feeling (without sabotaging something else, like my mood for example) it was a matter of using it strategically (not all the time) to introduce me into settings where I might normally totally freak out, but because the cannabis removed the elements of anxiety and panic I was able to experience triggering situations in what felt like a non-threatening way.

Basically, cannabis allowed me to remember what it was like to be around people and feel safe, or at-ease, and after long enough it became the default setting for my brain again.

For Regaining a Sex Life

This has been very tricky, and while the cannabis was helpful enough to get me to the point of being able to be touched in general (like a back rub or foot massage) I had a big blinking red stop light in my brain around sex for a long time. Not super helpful, considering my PTSD symptoms didn’t actively show up until several years into a committed and safe relationship! Even though it had been years since I was in a place where I was in danger, once those seeds sprouted it didn’t matter.

I am sure it will sound a little funny, but the most helpful thing to removing fear and panic around sex for me was when I had surgery and my doctor told us we weren’t allowed to have sex. That’s right! Having even the possibility of having sex taken off the table made me feel more comfortable because then it wasn’t this awkward thing (or an obligation) I felt compelled to dodge constantly because I felt uncomfortable. Effectively we had to almost start our physical relationship over at square one (I recognize I am really lucky my boyfriend is the most patient person I’ve ever met) and in doing so we re-built the trust that I knew was there, but couldn’t feel because of my anxiety and panic.

For Fear and Paranoia

First I would say going to therapy and spending a lot of time talking about being assertive about boundaries helped me feel a bit more confident, but I was still really afraid that if something happened again I would freeze up and be unable to assert myself.

Something that really helped solidify a confidence in my ability to protect myself was taking a self-defense class with a friend at Fighting Chance Seattle. The staff was really knowledgeable and our male instructor made me feel very much at ease and did not require us to practice defensive moves with him, instead with anyone we felt comfortable with. Being able to connect a physical action to a feeling or desire to protect myself made me believe that if there was ever another situation I knew what to do and would be less likely to freeze in the moment. The class was only one day, but it really helped me feel like I was moving forward.

Another milestone was getting a tattoo that would act as a reminder that the fear I was feeling was coming from me, not from threats around me.

Over the last few years I have tried to keep my apartment feeling like a safe space for me. At first that meant coming home and looking behind every curtain and in every closet to be certain it was safe, but now that I have made some progress with my fear and paranoia I try to talk myself through the fear and visualize every detail of the apartment when it is dark to remind myself it is empty and safe. It is funny to me sometimes to think that my brain wants to imagine all kinds of horrors waiting for me when I close my eyes, but I spend a lot of time actively un-imagining them!

***

While I can’t sit here and say, “and that’s how I kicked PTSD in the face! It is gone forever!” Things have gotten significantly better.

I still get triggered from time to time, but I’ve got enough tools to keep myself from replanting that same seed over and over again. After taking that self-defense class I felt quite empowered when I was faced with a situation on a city bus, a creepy dude next to me put his hand on my leg.

Initially I started to freeze. I could feel myself starting to shut down as I had in the past, but somehow I managed to turn things around and do the total opposite of the cowering I felt like doing.

“Excuse me?!?” I yelled in his face and then stood abruptly, pushing past him to sit in another seat. He looked over at me and I scowled, shaking my finger at him. Even though my hands were shaking and my heart was racing I turned away to look out the window and my scowl turned into a faint smile.

I was free.

Travel; Mental Health Hurdles

This year my Grandma turned 80 years old, and to celebrate my family wants to host a camping trip in her honor. The reality of the situation though is that traveling anywhere (whether it is just heading downtown, upstate, across country, or across the globe) while living with a mental illness involves taking a bit more into consideration than the “where” and “when”.

Things got panicky last week when some crossed communication left me under the belief that my boyfriend and I would not be able to bring our own vehicle to the camp because of it’s affiliation with the military.

For anyone else, carpooling seems like the obvious answer, right? Well for me, living with bipolar disorder means knowing my triggers, and anytime I start to feel trapped in a strange place without an exit strategy (oh, say, like on a beautifully landscaped but guarded-by-armed-men sort of military recreation site – I have no affiliation with the military personally) I melt down. And I mean total manic/psychotic, you’ll-find-me-in-the-woods-later melt down. It is almost like a guarantee, and knowing myself well enough to know this would be an issue (after kicking countless ‘vacation’ situations in the balls while psychotic and trying to escape) left me in a bit of an odd position.

Of course, it isn’t unusual for me to try to push myself through things like this. Tell myself, “well, those other times are a fluke, and you will be totally fine this time.” I start to feel like I am making a big deal over nothing, and when friends or family who don’t have to make these kinds of considerations for themselves agree, I have a bad habit of walking into the same situation over and over again and reacting poorly on ‘repeat’.

Last week’s situation was a little more special because I went in to see both my therapist and my psychiatrist, and both immediately sided with the rational, more cautious part of me.

“Absolutely not,” they both said. “You’ve been triggered this way several times before, and you know that walking into a situation like this will be more of a strain than you are likely to handle.”

Keep in mind, my situation is really pretty singular in that my symptoms are not regulated by medication. My symptoms of bipolar disorder and anxiety are treatment resistant (they have not responded to any medications), so I am largely in a position to have to cope with them on my own. That is another big reason why it is important that I am familiar with my own triggers, because knowing what could put me in a dangerous position and either preparing myself for the outcome or avoiding the situation altogether are the best strategies I have for dealing with my symptoms on a regular basis.

I have found one of the biggest strategies that helps me when traveling or heading into a potentially stressful situation is knowing I can leave at any time. If I have an exit strategy, if I can leave the stressful environment before my irritability or mania becomes psychosis things are much more likely to go smoothly.

Even though my therapist and psychiatrist both agreed this trip would be detrimental for me, I couldn’t help but feel bad about needing to cancel. I mean, my granny is 80, and you can believe she has been talking about this for a month already.

The final decision I made was to go back and double check the policy that would keep me from having my escape route. I scoured websites and even eventually called the navy to help clarify their policies on bringing in civilian vehicles to their recreational sites. And -wouldn’t you know it? The entire situation was a communication error. We should be able to bring a vehicle to the site without a problem (so long as we have the proper documentation, yada yada yada).

Ultimately, the problem is no problem at all, but I am proud of myself for taking the steps I did (talking with my boyfriend, my therapist, my psychiatrist, and looking for a solution) before responding emotionally or making a final decision about going, or not, to this event.

Sometimes living with my current mental health situation can feel like I have to live in a small bubble to survive, and while the bubble feels safe it also shields me from many of the life experiences I want to have. That bubble doesn’t guarantee I wont become depressed, or manic, or psychotic, so I don’t feel like forgoing all manner of travel and personal growth that comes with it should be kept from me because doing so does not mean I will be able to live peacefully. I will have bipolar and anxiety outside the bubble, but I have it inside the bubble as well. For me, the trick is knowing what my absolute deal breakers are (like transportation) to keep me from moving from a “moody” travel situation to an emergency travel situation.

Of course, there is a lot that goes into it beyond that to prepare, things like

  • having my doctor’s information handy and with me at all times
  • bringing all medications, and extra in case of emergencies
  • making sure I will be in a position where I can eat regularly
  • making sure I will be in a position to have the best chance of sleeping fairly regularly
  • using coping skills to help counteract instabilities
  • maintaining an awareness of my current state
  • informing my fellow travelers how to best help in an emergency situation
  • and knowing when to pull the plug on the trip

to name a few.

Even though I have gotten over the transportation hurdle regarding this short trip, it is still a few months away. I have plenty of time to worry (heh) as more things come up, but I hope to smooth over as many of the rough edges as I can before I get there.

Catching Up; The SSDI Denial

At this point, more than one curious person has asked me about my attempt in applying for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) and to be totally honest, it is something I have been trying to write about for a few months now.

I received my denial letter a couple months ago (I submit my application in December 2012) and after all the time that has passed I was overjoyed to receive this denial letter.

The reason I was overjoyed to be denied was because my path through the application process was neither easy or uplifting, to say the least!

My first hurdle was working with a team of lawyers who told me appear and act a certain way. They strongly suggested I give up this blog completely, which I was very uncomfortable with. On one hand, I wanted to win, but I truly believe (as do my family, friends, and doctors) that anyone who understands my symptoms and has seen me interact with others would not doubt my claim that I am unable to hold a full time job. It was important to me through this whole process to hold onto that and to be ok if things didn’t work out (because I had been honest the whole time), but it was very difficult to feel manipulation and pressure by my lawyers who were advising me to do things that would undermine many of the things that keep me afloat enough to survive (blogging, therapy, spending time with other people, etc).

The second hurdle was the judge I was assigned for my hearing back in February 2014. Apparently different judges who are making the decision regarding SSDI claims have different political affiliations, different beliefs about the way SSDI should be structured, and different viewpoints on the topic of mental illness (among other things). I was told my judge was the toughest in the county and to expect that I had a chance of about zero. While I expected that walking in, what I didn’t expect was the way the judge treated me in the hearing.

On one hand I could understand that it was the last hearing of the week on a Friday afternoon, and that maybe he’d had a bad cup of coffee earlier or was anxious to get home… but I was not prepared to be verbally abused in the courtroom. For the next couple months I became psychotic, trapped in my mind where this judge was constantly attacking me. I was so distraught that I consented to try Seroquel again.

The third hurdle was a full investigation of me, as prompted by the judge and federal government. The investigation happened when I was (naturally) experiencing a hypomanic period, seemingly corroborating the theory that the judge had that I was attempting to commit SSDI fraud. Detectives posed as Seattle Police officers to gain entry to my apartment where my fear of the SPD kept me from mentioning anything regarding my own mental health -again seemingly corroborating the theory that I was faking it.

When I received a copy of their report in the mail (along with notations of voice recordings, notes from being tailed for a week, and copies of blog entries I had made that were taken out of context) I began to nosedive into a second psychotic tailspin. The men who were agents for the government had spoken to my landlord, neighbors, even people in a weaving group I had no longer been part of for over a year -all about my mental health. The paranoia became overwhelming, and I could no longer feel comfortable in my apartment knowing that space had been violated… so we moved.

It might not seem like such a surprise now that I was hospitalized around Halloween last year. I could hardly even talk to my grandmother on the telephone for fear that they were listening to me, let alone send emails or write in this blog. My lawyers told me not to talk about it, so I relied heavily on Corey (my boyfriend), my therapist, and my psychiatrist. I provided my healthcare team with copies of the paperwork I had been sent about what happened and they were both horrified and flabbergasted, but ultimately they had proof that I was telling the truth and could corroborate that the situation had triggered the symptoms I was having.

The final hurdle was a second hearing, scheduled to address the findings of the undercover investigation against me. Initially the hearing was scheduled to take place the same week as my birthday in November 2014 but was cancelled by the judge and rescheduled for April 2015 (the same week as Corey & my anniversary… lame!).

For many months it had been clear I wasn’t going to win, I just wanted the inquiries and fear to end. Honestly I expected the judge to berate me further in the hearing, but to my astonishment he was much more polite (my lawyer said that was likely because of the documentation of his actions directly leading to my most recent hospitalization in my file). After the back and forth with my lawyer he simply looked at me and said my file was inconclusive because of how inconsistent everything was, from the notes from my healthcare team, to my work history, to the report from the detectives, etc.

This was the one small window I was waiting for. For the first time I was able to do what I do best; relate my symptoms and experience with someone else in a way they can understand. I told the judge that inconsistency is the very nature of my disability… that I can be simultaneously the best and worst employee you’ve ever had, and that it feels impossible to remain consistent when I might have strong feelings of joy one minute and intense feelings of despair or fear the next. Most of my employers have considered having an unreliable employee worse than a mediocre one, so that inconsistency has been a huge hurdle in trying to remain employed.

He looked admittedly thoughtful and said he would reconsider the evidence. This, if nothing else, helped me shake off the fear and paranoia that had accumulated the past couple years. It was the first opportunity I had to defend myself and my life and my reason for applying, and even if I was denied benefits at that point I was simply happy to be rid of the specter that had been haunting me.

Several months later I received my denial. I am happy because it means I am free. I am no longer worried that the government is watching me (though who knows), and though I might not be able to take care of myself financially, I do have, however briefly, (heh) my sanity.

Typically I pride myself on being open about my life and my emotions, and I genuinely went into this SSDI application situation with the intention of writing about it every step of the way. The whole experience was much different than I expected, despite knowing I would be at a disadvantage because of my age and my disability being a mental disability as opposed to a physical one.

While not having benefits means I am in a difficult spot financially, I have proven the last five years that there are many organizations willing to help support those with mental illness who do not make the applicants sing and dance, or trigger extreme worsening of their symptoms before they are willing to help. While the point of this post isn’t to shake my fist at the government or attempt to bring shame on those involved, I can’t help but question this system after I have experienced it firsthand.

Of course, this comes with my usual reminder that this was a situation that happened to me. While I have heard many accounts of people in my local support groups achieving SSDI benefits, I haven’t heard many stories like mine… and though I don’t know if they’re out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if people aren’t completely terrified to share them (I sure was!). This is not the inevitable end of every SSDI application, just one, and to me it seems like one worth pondering.

Ultimately, being under the scrutiny of the federal government was one of the least fun adventures I’ve ever had in my life…

I’ve never been so happy to be denied something before!

I do not intend to reapply any time in the immediate future because, well, I can’t without some kind of proof of my symptoms worsening, for one. Even if I could reapply immediately I don’t think I would, based on how emotionally and mentally overwhelming the whole experience was. I really need some room to breathe in the mental health department, and I have always had the outlook that I do much better when I am poor and slightly more content than when I opt to trade financial stability for increased emotional instability.

The last two years involved the longest periods of psychosis I have ever experienced, so thank you to my friends and family and anyone who was even the least bit supportive in that period (well, and ever). Sometimes it has felt easy for me to believe in the power of the judicial system and “justice” in America, but realistically it is the sense of community in the people that rally around me that have done the most to help keep me going.

So, no SSDI? Ok. I still consider myself to be one very lucky girl!

The Difficult Relationship of the Empath

I read an article today I thought I would share called The Toxic Attraction Between an Empath and a Narcissist. While I find the article to be a little rough (and I certainly don’t agree with all of the generalizations) it did make me look at the relationships I have had with people a little differently… and therefore was worth the read.

Every bipolar support group I have gone to that has brought up personality categories or alternative views on bipolar symptoms as a “mental illness” has typically led to one word: empath.

An empath is someone who can easily find themselves feeling the emotions of others, and generally has little trouble imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Needless to say, when I sat in a room of people with a bipolar diagnosis and found that every single one scored the same result (empath) I wasn’t surprised. I have known for a long time that the emotional state of those around me have a huge effect on my own emotions and that I have always had a genuine desire to help others (being able to feel and see situations from their perspective), but it took me many years to learn that there were people who were interested in manipulating these traits and that I needed to protect myself by being selective of the relationships I have with others.

One of the best things I have done for myself is to keep the relationships I have with open, genuine people and discard the rest.

At any rate, an interesting read… and if you’ve found yourself drawn to people who tend to hurt you (romantically or otherwise) check it out!