Those Old-World Blues

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, major depression, memories, personal experiences, ptsd, therapy

I won’t lie, readers; I’ve been down quite a bit lately. Most of it stems from deep-seated guilt that’s been playing the long con on me for most of my 28 years–it likes to pop its ugly head up and hit me so hard that sometimes it feels like I can’t breathe.

I’ve been carrying around a back-breaking load of guilt since I was a child. Some of it was inflicted by others, some of it by myself. There were so many little things–messages, perhaps–that sneaked in and grabbed me when I was at my most vulnerable.

When my mother went to prison, one of my maternal aunts abandoned her life in Chicago–what I perceived to be a vibrant life of friends and work and independent living–to return to her hometown to help my grandmother raise me. She never tried to make me feel guilty, but the damage had been done long before her arrival. I felt that there was something “wrong” inside me, that I didn’t deserve to be treated well, that I had done something to deserve the early childhood abuse and neglect that made me into a cautious, anxious, hypervigilant kid.

It all began to snowball from there. Anytime someone would do something nice for me–even something as simple as buying me an ice cream cone–I would immediately feel terribly sad for reasons that my child’s mind couldn’t comprehend. (Fun fact: To this day, the music from an ice cream truck makes me want to cry. Brains are weird.)

As many of you know, I’m studying clinical mental health counseling at Hopkins. I never expected to get in, but I was ecstatic! (I still am, though thankfully, the disbelief has faded a bit.)

My fiance has generously offered to support me financially through this time, as it’ll be probably another year until I can land a paying gig in my field. He’s told me time and time again that he doesn’t mind doing this because he’s financially secure enough to do so and because he loves me (and I suspect it also helps that I’m incredibly low-maintenance–see above paragraphs on guilt). I trust him and try to take him at his word.

But more and more frequently, the old guilt starts to creep in, which leads to devastating lows. Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to cry but not quite knowing why. I think it’s because I’ve suppressed so many emotions. I deal with everything by not dealing with it, which I recognize as alarmingly unhealthy behavior. Once I’m added to his insurance plan, my first order of business is to find a really good trauma therapist (that isn’t based out of one of the sites I’m looking at for practicum/internship).

Today, my fella told me that he thinks I have things “more together” than I think. And he’s probably right–I feel very good most days, although there are little nagging low points on even the best days. I can usually brush them aside using a couple of methods I’ve learned, which I’ll describe below.

Tonight is a rough night. He’s at dance practice, which is awesome–I’m glad we each have interests of our own, and it gives me time to practice the piano without being embarrassed about how rusty I’ve become. It also means I have time alone to cry everything out without worrying about making him worry.

Earlier, I went out on our balcony and looked up at the sky. It wasn’t quite dark but the moon was out in full force. It reminded me of my Great-Aunt Mare and how she’d come to the house twice a day when I was young–once in the morning for coffee with Grandma (her sister) and once in the evening to watch Wheel of Fortune with us. (Side note: I was awesome at Wheel of Fortune.)

I decided that a good cry would be the best medicine, since I’ve been feeling kind of weird all day, emotionally speaking. Shortly after her death, I made a small album on Facebook of the best photos of me and my great-aunt–Halloween at a pumpkin patch, hugging me close for a photo at my eighth birthday party, holding me when I was a baby. I looked at them and I let myself cry. I let myself howl my sadness into the void. And then I sat up and said, “That’s enough; let’s go write a blog post about it.”

I find that if I don’t come up with ways to distract myself, the sadness will become endless waves of grief and shame and all of the emotions I’ve been hiding away all these years. Once it’s out of the box, it’s so hard, so exhausting, to put it all back in.

I apologize for the downer post, readers. I haven’t had a personal post in quite a while but I feel as though being open and honest about my emotions, good or bad, can make others feel less alone. There have been so many times when I’ve been endlessly Googling about a specific worry or fear and bam, there’s a blog post about it. Though it may not help right away or offer solutions, it does make me feel less alone.

I hope you’re all staying safe and doing at least okay tonight. We all need to support each other, at our best moments as well as (and especially) our worst. We’re a community. We survived horrific things, and we continue to survive. Never forget that.


A Few Coping Techniques

  • I saw this one on Reddit last week and loved it. In a nutshell, the poster’s therapist advised them to think of someone they really dislike and imagine that all of the negative thoughts and worries are being spoken aloud by [whatever person]. The person this poster chose to use is Trump.
    • The way it works: Whenever worries or negative self-talk pop up, you go, “Shut up, Trump! [or whatever person you’ve chosen].” It actually does work, and it’s great for shutting down those thoughts at the drop of a hat. Of course, it’s always good to revisit those thoughts at a calmer, more appropriate time, but it’s nice to have a method to use when you’re in a situation where you can’t fully emote.

 

  • Another method I love (and promote to others quite frequently) is Ellis’ A-B-C-D-E method of challenging distressing thoughts. It comes from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (or REBT). Here’s the breakdown.
    • Step A: Identify the activating event–this is the event that triggers anxiety, depression, etc.
    • Step B: Look at the emotion you’re feeling and combine it with the activating event. Then, try to identify the beliefs that go along with that event and examine how they cause anxiety/etc.
      • For example, someone buying me something makes me feel guilty. This feeling of guilt and sadness comes from early childhood experiences. The end result is that I feel as though I don’t deserve kindness.
    • Step C: Look at the consequences of your irrational beliefs and realize that they can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because my response to kindness has been guilt and sadness for so long, I expect to feel that way every time someone is kind to me.
    • Step D: This is where you start to challenge those irrational beliefs and replace them with other, more positive ones. In my case, I need to work on building up my self-worth (long term) and thinking about the symbolism behind gifts and acts of kindness–“This person loves me and cares for me, and this act of kindness is coming from that place of love, not from a sense of obligation.”
    • Step E: This is basically the end goal and is usually called “cognitive restructuring.” At this point, you put all of the steps together and take special care to notice how the process has affected you and whether or not it has helped you to combat all the pieces that bring on the negative emotions (in Steps A and B).
      • You’re essentially re-conditioning your brain to replace negative associations with positive ones. It’s definitely a long road, but I’ve found it to be extremely helpful. However, it’s less useful to me when I’m in a crisis moment.
  • The last one is very calming to me, because a lifetime of CPTSD has led me to an incessant and sometimes self-destructive need for control. I worry endlessly about bad things happening to loved ones (because abandonment issues are fun!), so this little mantra really helps me chill out and remember that I can’t control every variable in my life.
    • Essentially, the saying goes, “If you can change something, do not worry, because you will find a way to change it. If you cannot change something, also do not worry, because there’s nothing you can do about the situation.”
      • This takes some getting used to if you’re like me and overanalyze and catastrophize everything, but once you’re there, it can be a very powerful tool for derailing anxiety before it hits its boiling point.

28.

Authoress, ptsd, three hopeful thoughts

Today is my 28th birthday. I generally don’t put much stock in them–it’s just another day when you get past a certain age, in my opinion. But my fella made today really special (breakfast and a mini scavenger hunt to my gift!), so it’s the best birthday I can remember.

Birthdays are significant to me for one reason: they’re proof that I’m still alive. It might seem silly to most people, but as quite a few of you know, those of us afflicted with PTSD tend to also be plagued by the belief that we’re just not going to live very long.

For me, this feeling of dread started when I was in my mid-teens. I thought I wouldn’t make it to sixteen, then nineteen, then twenty-one…and here I am at twenty-eight, having endured three lifetimes worth of horror and survived it all. Every year on this date, I take a moment to marvel at that.

It’s kind of incredible. And you, my readers–all of you–are incredible for hanging on and being alive. Remember that when the bleakness starts to press close and you feel like you’re buried above ground. You are still here, and you should be so proud of that.

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely.

 

The Big Bad Blues, they’re a-comin’

anxiety, Authoress, bipolar disorder, major depression, personal experiences

The Blues are back in town, and unfortunately, I don’t mean the Snooks Eaglin, ramblin’-soul-man-with-a-guitar type. Thanks, winter!

Don’t get me wrong–I am loving the Maryland weather. The winter has been mild, but when it’s 70 degrees one day and 30 the next, oh man, that’s like hitting a brick wall doing 90 miles an hour.

I like to imagine that there’s some kind of a party going on in my brain. I  picture my synapses and neurons and all those delicious chemicals that enter my body in pill form each morning to keep me sane, dancing around in a conga line with lampshades on their heads before passing out with permanent marker on their faces.

The party bit isn’t what troubles me. That feels okay and decidedly un-manic these days. It’s the afterward, that insidious unraveling of the good-times and how they fray bit by bit until all that’s left is the worst kind of loneliness–the loneliness that is you and your brain and nothing else.

There is a vast emptiness that comes with depression. When I decide to stay up after Paul has gone to bed (because our sleep schedules are pretty different–he has day classes, mine are at night), I’m often struck by an aching loneliness. Even though I know he’s fifteen feet away in the bedroom on the other side of the wall from me, a dark antsiness sets in. It’s not because we’re not together, because I can be my own company and take care of myself. It’s how frightening it can be in the quiet of the apartment when the day is done but I’m not tired enough for bed and while my brain isn’t especially active, the emotions hiding just beneath the surface start to make me feel bad for no reason.

Sometimes I get shivers, but on the inside. It’s like having someone reach out from inside your organs and tickle your ribs, disconcerting and uncomfortable. It makes you want to cry for no reason, but then when you try, you find that you can’t. There is no catharsis. There is only waiting and distracting yourself until it calms down or you go completely mad (and sometimes both, by turns).

These are the Big Bad Blues, and it seems they’re back in town.

Sometimes they show up only at night, and only for a day or two. It’s unavoidable; no matter how well-medicated and well-adjusted you are, things are going to slip in through the cracks from time to time. It’s the nature of the beast. My body and my mind are like a drafty house in that way. I take care to shut the doors tight, to put plastic on the windows and check the vulnerable spaces with candle flames to see where there’s a leak, but in the night, little wisps of cold sometimes slip in and wrap around me. If I don’t catch it early and fight back with whatever’s within grabbing distance, I begin to feel as though I’ll never be warm again.

Then there are the ones that come in the late afternoon, just before sunset, when the shadows stretch long and the light begins to turn golden in the before-dark time. The Golden Hour, I’ve always called it, but it doesn’t mean anything good. I have about a thousand theories as to why this time of day gets me down harder than anything else, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with that information once I figure it out or how the insight will make me feel better. For now, all I can do is turn my head away and get through it until it passes and the calming near-dark comes.

When I start to feel like this late at night, I slip quietly into bed and read for a while. The proximity to someone I love who loves me back is comforting, and whatever book I’m currently reading relaxes and distracts me. When I get to feeling low, distraction seems to be the only thing that can snap me out of it. I spend a lot of my time hanging out by myself in the apartment with the cats and my textbooks, but having something to do keeps me sane. It’s the nothingness that’ll get you, and it will get you every single time.

I’m pleased to report that I woke up today (albeit much later than I wanted) feeling just fine. At present, I’m working on reading ahead a week or two for my classes, though I’ll inevitably forget to cross it off in my planner and then go back to it on the appropriate week and wonder if a mysterious ghost-highlighter has gotten hold of my books. It’s actually a good source of humor and plus, it’s always a relief to realize that you have less homework than you thought.

And I know I’ve been promising-promising-promising that series, which at this rate will be out by sometime next year. (I kid! I need to make some sort of research schedule for each day, though, because I am spectacularly unmotivated and there always seems to be some other thing that grabs my attention.)

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely.

 

Update!

explanations, housekeeping, Uncategorized

Good afternoon, readers!

I have not abandoned you–on the contrary, I’ve been busy doing research for the upcoming series on deinstitutionalization and the history of psychiatric hospitals here in the United States. (I’m also back in school now and taking three classes–counseling techniques, diversity and social justice, and legal and ethical issues of counseling–all of which are very interesting!)

I do post more regularly on the Facebook page for The Dissociated Press, so you can check out (and like, if you’re so inclined) the page for updates and other bite-sized posts.

I hope to be back on a more regular posting schedule soon!

-Jess

News Day Tuesday: Alabama inmate struggling with mental illness commits suicide

News Day Tuesday

Good afternoon, readers! First of all, I want to apologize for the lack of posts these past few weeks–I got slammed with two bouts of cold/flu/whatever nastiness is going around this time of year and have been laying low.

This week, I want to share a recent story (updates were just posted about an hour ago) about Jamie Wallace, an inmate in Alabama who committed suicide in his cell. He originally pleaded non compos mentis (not guilty by way of mental illness, more commonly known as the “insanity defense”) in his mother’s murder, though he later changed his plea to guilty.

Those are some of the basic facts that led to Wallace’s incarceration. The more important point, however, is that before his death, Wallace mentioned receiving inadequate mental health care while incarcerated.

On Dec. 5, at the opening of a federal trial over mental health treatment in state prisons, Wallace described having multiple psychiatric disorders and claimed a prison officer once offered him a razor to use to kill himself. He also testified he had tried to hang himself at least once before. (Source: Seattle Times)

If this is true, it’s incredibly disturbing. It’s no secret that mental health care in general leaves much to be desired, though the problem is especially prevalent within the United States penal system. This is hardly the first instance of an inmate committing suicide while in prison, though Jamie Wallace’s case is yet another reminder of how much work still needs to be done.

I’m going to keep watching for updates and more details, but in the meantime, I think it’s important for all of us to focus not on Wallace’s crimes but on how the prison system failed to provide a human being with the resources needed to keep them alive. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the general state of health care within the prison system, but as in the “outside” world, it seems that mental illness is regarded as far less serious than physical ailments.

Let’s take this time to remember that we have a long way to go before we’ve achieved equality. Let’s take the time to mourn the fact that a person died by his own hand because he did not receive the help he desperately needed. Removing the “inmate” label from the equation also removes the stigma and helps us focus on what’s most important here.

Until next time, readers, stay safe and keep warm! I’ll post any updates about Jamie Wallace on the Facebook page.

Andrea Gibson – The Nutritionist

a cure for what ails you, three hopeful thoughts

Hello, readers!

Today, I want to share with you a poem/spoken word piece that has always deeply resonated with me. The first (and second, and third…) time I heard it, I was reduced to helpless tears. I had the privilege of meeting Andrea Gibson and seeing her perform about six years ago, when she was doing a show in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. I ended up getting a comforting hug and crying on her shoulder when I told her how much this poem means to me, and I will never forget that moment.

“The trauma said, don’t write this poem. No one wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones.” This, and the final lines: “Live. Live. Live.” will always make me cry–not from sadness, but from relief. This is the single most reassuring thing I have ever read (and heard) in my life.

When I discovered Andrea Gibson I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was not alone and that everything was going to be all right in the end. It was the first step in my long journey that eventually culminated in the ability to just sit with the pain and accept it for what it is. I have learned that no matter how low I feel, how dark the dark nights of the soul get, not every day will be like today.

The Nutritionist

The nutritionist said I should eat root vegetables
Said if I could get down 13 turnips a day
I would be grounded,
rooted.
Said my head would not keep flying away to where the darkness is.

The psychic told me my heart carries too much weight
Said for 20 dollars she’d tell me what to do
I handed her the twenty,
she said “stop worrying darling, you will find a good man soon.”

The first psychotherapist said I should spend 3 hours a day sitting in a dark closet with my eyes closed, with my ears plugged
I tried once but couldn’t stop thinking about how gay it was to be sitting in the closet

The yogi told me to stretch everything but truth,
said focus on the outbreaths,
everyone finds happiness when they can care more about what they can give than what they get

The pharmacist said klonopin, lamictil, lithium, Xanax
The doctor said an antipsychotic might help me forget what the trauma said
The trauma said don’t write this poem
Nobody wants to hear you cry about the grief inside your bones

My bones said “Tyler Clementi dove into the Hudson River convinced he was entirely alone.”
My bones said “write the poem.”

The lamplight.
Considering the river bed.
To the chandelier of your fate hanging by a thread.
To everyday you could not get out of bed.
To the bulls eye on your wrist
To anyone who has ever wanted to die.
I have been told, sometimes, the most healing thing to do-
Is remind ourselves over and over and over
Other people feel this too

The tomorrow that has come and gone
And it has not gotten better
When you are half finished writing that letter to your mother that says “I swear to God I tried”
But when I thought I hit bottom, it started hitting back
There is no bruise like the bruise of loneliness kicks into your spine

So let me tell you I know there are days it looks like the whole world is dancing in the streets when you break down like the doors of the looted buildings
You are not alone and wondering who will be convicted of the crime of insisting you keep loading your grief into the chamber of your shame
You are not weak just because your heart feels so heavy

I have never met a heavy heart that wasn’t a phone booth with a red cape inside
Some people will never understand the kind of superpower it takes for some people to just walk outside
Some days I know my smile looks like the gutter of a falling house
But my hands are always holding tight to the ripchord of believing
A life can be rich like the soil
Can make food of decay
Can turn wound into highway
Pick me up in a truck with that bumper sticker that says
“it is no measure of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society”

I have never trusted anyone with the pulled back bow of my spine the way I trusted ones who come undone at the throat
Screaming for their pulses to find the fight to pound
Four nights before Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington bridge I was sitting in a hotel room in my own town
Calculating exactly what I had to swallow to keep a bottle of sleeping pills down

What I know about living is the pain is never just ours
Every time I hurt I know the wound is an echo
So I keep a listening to the moment the grief becomes a window
When I can see what I couldn’t see before,
through the glass of my most battered dream, I watched a dandelion lose its mind in the wind
and when it did, it scattered a thousand seeds.

So the next time I tell you how easily I come out of my skin, don’t try to put me back in
just say here we are together at the window aching for it to all get better
but knowing as bad as it hurts our hearts may have only just skinned their knees knowing there is a chance the worst day might still be coming
let me say right now for the record, I’m still gonna be here
asking this world to dance, even if it keeps stepping on my holy feet

you- you stay here with me, okay?
You stay here with me.
Raising your bite against the bitter dark
Your bright longing
Your brilliant fists of loss
Friend

if the only thing we have to gain in staying is each other,

my god that’s plenty

my god that’s enough
my god that is so so much for the light to give
each of us at each other’s backs whispering over and over and over
“Live”
“Live”
“Live”

You can watch one of the many versions of Andrea performing here, and I encourage you to check it out! It’s a great reminder that no matter how lonely we get, none of us exist in a vacuum.

Continue to raise your bite against the bitter dark, friends. Fight as hard as you can, because the world sees us as broken. Refuse to give up. Fight to show everyone that you matter, that you are more than the sum of your parts or the chemicals inside your brain. You are more than a diagnosis, a code on a medical chart, the endless insurance claims and the bills and the medications you swallow every day just to feel okay.

You are a human being, first and foremost. I hope none of you ever forget that. You matter. Your life matters. You are worth something to the universe not because of who you are or what you’ve done, but because you’re here. And you’re going to be okay.

News Day Tuesday: More Progress on Mental Health Care Parity?

a cure for what ails you, three hopeful thoughts

Good afternoon, readers!

It’s no secret to most of us that securing quality mental health care can be frustrating, if not seemingly impossible. In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was passed, which basically ensured that insurance companies were not allowed to discriminate against mental health care when offering coverage–benefits for these services had to be more or less equal to the benefits offered for standard medical and surgical care. (You can read more about the act here!)

I was nineteen years old when the act was passed, and it was a huge moment in my life. But things are still not great; many insurance plans have extremely strict limits on the number of counseling visits allowed per year (the insurance plans I’ve had in the last ten years have placed a limit of twelve appointments per calendar year), and there is still much to be done before we can honestly say that mental health care is equal, in the eyes of insurers, to other types of medical care.

For one thing, enforcement of the parity law tends to leave much to be desired. The task force, which formed in March of this year, has identified the following objectives in reforming mental health care parity:

  • The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is awarding $9.3 million to states to help enforce parity protections. California, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon and Rhode Island were cited as models of promising enforcement efforts.
  • A new government website will help consumers identify the right agency to assist with their parity complaints and appeals.
  • A newly released consumer guide will help patients, families and providers understand their rights and look into whether they have experienced a parity violation.
  • The Department of Labor will report each year on its investigations into parity violations

-npr.org, “Federal Panel Calls For Stricter Enforecement of Mental Health Care Parity Law”

Though I am a bit skeptical that any great strides will be made in the immediate future, I am trying to remain cautiously optimistic that within the next few years, we’ll be able to enjoy equal benefits for mental health care.

My current insurance plan offers a very limited selection of counselors and psychiatrists, and wait lists are often several months long. I had an intake appointment a few weeks ago and am still waiting to hear back on whether or not the counselor in question will even accept me as a patient. I know my experience is not unique and, even more disturbingly, there is the continued dearth of hospital beds for people struggling with severe mental illness who need immediate hospitalization to survive.


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News Day Tuesday: Ohio State Mental Health Triage

a cure for what ails you, anxiety, News Day Tuesday, therapy

Good afternoon, readers! Today, we’re tackling the concept of mental health triage for university students. Ohio State University has reported a 43% jump in the last five years in the number of students seeking mental health care. Needless to say, that’s huge.

The question of how much academic demands contribute to anxiety levels among the student body is a complicated one. Parenting styles have definitely changed over the last decade or so–I’m 27 and when I was young, “helicopter parenting” really wasn’t a thing. My peers and I were allowed to walk alone to and from school and play outside unsupervised, often late into the after-dark hours. My family placed relatively few restrictions on how I spent my free time; reading and viewing choices were left up to my own discretion, with the assumption that I would make good choices for myself. As a result, I didn’t have much trouble adapting to the freedom that comes with college life, though I did live at home for the first two years of my undergraduate program.

As a non-parent, I can’t speak personally to what parenting styles are in vogue these days. However, it seems that (for very valid reasons) parents have become much more cautious and protective. This naturally leads to students feeling anxiety over the unprecedented freedom that comes with college and living away from home for the first time. Tuition and student loans are also enormously stressful–I know I’m not the only one who had a bit of a freak-out upon receiving that first scary bill after the post-graduation grace period ended. The overall “climate” of university life, combined with the myriad of complicated developmental changes adolescents and young adults have to navigate, creates a perfect storm for the emergence of mental health issues.

This brings us back to the subject at hand: mental health triage. It’s an intriguing concept and one that’s particularly timely; with so many patients in need being turned away from psychiatric wards due to lack of beds, it’s clear that we need to figure out a way to prioritize who needs what kind of help, and how urgently they need it.

Ohio State’s triage consists of determining whether students require more intensive one-on-one therapy or more general group-based therapy and seminars. The university offers a workshop called “Beating Anxiety,” which is something that I’d love to see implemented at more schools, particularly as part of the standard first-year curriculum. During my first year of undergrad, I saw many of my peers struggle with taking full responsibility for every aspect of their lives. It can be overwhelming to navigate roommates and coursework as well as meeting daily needs for the first time. Add to that a work-study job or two to supplement financial aid, and it’s not hard to see why so many students are stressed.

Another aspect of Ohio State’s program that I love is the “Recess” event:

On a grassy lawn, there are tents where students can make balloon animals, blow bubbles and play with therapy dogs and a large colorful parachute. The event is designed to help students relieve stress and to introduce students to counseling center services and staff in a fun way.

– Students Flood College Mental Health Centers, The Wall Street Journal

You can read more about the impressive range of resources offered to students at Ohio State here.

Readers who have a college background, what kinds of programs do you think are most valuable? What was/is available to you?


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News Day Tuesday: Bipolar Awareness Day!

a cure for what ails you, explanations, major depression, medication, mood diary, News Day Tuesday, ptsd, rapid-cycle bipolar disorder, stigma, therapy

Happy Tuesday, readers! Today (October 4th) is Bipolar Awareness Day, so I wanted to share an article with you that outlines the basic symptoms (for the uninitiated, as I know there are some new readers here) as well as what’s on the horizon in terms of treatment.

First of all, let’s hear about what bipolar disorder actually is. I’m referencing bt.com for the purposes of this tidbit, as the article I found gives a really great Reader’s Digest condensed version of the illness.

National charity Bipolar UK characterise the condition as “a severe mental health illness characterised by significant mood swings, including manic highs and depressive lows”, and note that, “the majority of individuals with bipolar experience alternating episodes of mania and depression”.

According to this article, it takes 10.5 years on average (in the UK) for people with bipolar disorder to be properly diagnosed. The National Depressive and Manic Depressive Association (NDMD) paints a similarly grim picture: it can take ten years or more for a diagnosis to be reached, and 69% of cases are misdiagnosed.

What are the symptoms?

There are two sides to bipolar: mania and depression.

During a bout of depression, it is possible to feel: grumpy, without hope, guilty, self-doubting, suicidal, pessimistic, worthless, lacking curiosity and concentration.

And with mania: elation, full of energy, ideas and plans, easily distracted, feeling invincible, risky behaviour including spending huge amounts of money.

Both can feature: lack of appetite, insomnia and delusions.

-bt.com

My experience began very early. I remember fits of agitation and depression as early as eight years old, which at the time was chalked up to the incredibly rough hand I was dealt–a broken home, a mother who struggled with bipolar disorder herself as well as alcoholism, extreme bullying, and persistent nightmares (which were later diagnosed as a feature of PTSD). NAMI states that rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, the most severe form of the illness, seems to be more common in individuals who begin exhibiting symptoms early in life.

From NAMI.org:

Early Warning Signs of Bipolar Disorder In Children and Teens

Children may experience severe temper tantrums when told “no.” Tantrums can last for hours while the child continues to become more violent. They may also show odd displays of happy or silly moods and behaviors. A new diagnosis, Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD), was added to the DSM-5 in 2014.

– See more at: http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Bipolar-Disorder/Overview#sthash.l0XKtkSy.dpuf

When I was eighteen, I decided to see a therapist and psychiatrist for the intense mood swings that had plagued me for most of my life. I was initially told that my deep depressions were the result of PTSD. I was prescribed fluoxetine (brand name Prozac), which only made the agitation worse. And I was still depressed.

At 22, I relocated to Wisconsin and began the search for something, anything, that would finally help me feel “normal.” The misdiagnoses continued: major depressive disorder, for which I was prescribed Abilify and trazodone. I felt amazing on Abilify for about two weeks, and then I crashed. Trazodone made me a zombie. (Note: It is not atypical for antipsychotics to be prescribed to treat both MDD and bipolar disorder.)

Bipolar disorder is most often misdiagnosed in its early stages, which is frequently during the teenage years. When it is diagnosed as something else, symptoms of bipolar disorder can get worse. This usually occurs because the wrong treatment is provided. Other factors of a misdiagnosis are inconsistency in the timeline of episodes and behavior.

-healthline.com

When I was 24 and in my first “adult job” with health insurance, I found a wonderful psychiatrist who, over the course of several sessions, examined my family history and asked very specific questions to find the root of my illness. At first, I didn’t even think to mention my “up” periods, because even with the agitation and sleeplessness, I actually felt good–and no one goes to the doctor when they’re feeling well. But upon deeper probing, he came to a conclusion: first bipolar II, then, after further investigation and a few weeks of mood tracking in a journal, rapid-cycling bipolar I.

That first year was rough. I cycled so frequently that the days were exhausting. One day, I bounced between depression and mixed episodes several times in a single 24-hour period. Slowly but surely, the medications my doctor had prescribed (venlafaxine/Effexor, lamotrigine, and lithium) began to take effect. I began to stabilize. There were no more florid creative periods, but I was also able to sleep for more than an hour a night for the first time in weeks. My misery began to ebb, and though it didn’t disappear completely (a dysfunctional marriage contributed, among other things), I began to feel like a person again instead of a defective thing that needed to be turned off and fixed.

Aside from pharmaceuticals, NAMI’s website mentions cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychotherapy that focuses on self-care and stress management, and, in rare cases, electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Learning to recognize the triggers for each type of episode is key; one suggestion offered by the numerous therapists I’ve seen over the years is mood tracking/journaling.

However, I had to stop at one point because, in the heyday of my illness, I began to obsess over the cycles, sometimes tracking up to ten or eleven times a day. Instead of the journaling soothing my mind, I began to worry that I was untreatable. I found my mood journal during a recent move and it was difficult reading, to say the least. But it was also a reminder of how far I’ve come and how much my quality of life has improved since receiving a proper diagnosis.

These days, I’m doing much better. My medications have been adjusted slightly to accommodate the deep depressive episodes I’m prone to during the fall and winter months, but I am proud of myself for being able to recognize that the winter storm was a-comin’. Three years ago, I would not have been able to see the symptoms for what they are: a warning sign and a signal that I need to not only keep up with my medications, but to practice good self-care. In the past, I saw fall and winter as something awful that I had to endure. Now, I realize that I can still enjoy life even when the days begin to get longer and darker. The seasons are no longer a metaphor for the overall “climate” in my head.

How long did it take for you to receive a proper diagnosis, readers? Are you taking care of yourselves as winter approaches? I hope you’re all doing well and staying healthy and safe. And spread the word–this illness is massively misunderstood, even by mental health professionals, so it’s our job to reach out and counter-strike against the misinformation and discrimination.


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News Day Tuesday: Knott’s Berry Farm and Fear VR: 5150.

stigma

I stumbled upon this article on a Facebook page dedicated to mental health news earlier, and I’ve been itching to share it with you, readers!

Knott’s Berry Farm is, as most of you know, an amusement park in California. The park has announced plans for an attraction called Fear VR: 5150, set to open just in time for the Halloween season! Festive, spooky fun, right? Hold on a minute.

For the uninitiated, 5150 is the code used in California for an involuntary psychiatric hold. That alone should be enough to give someone pause–a 5150 hold is no joke. It’s no picnic for anyone involved. It’s not something to be taken lightly, and it’s certainly not something that should be marketed as entertainment, as is the case with this attraction.

The ride begins with patrons being strapped into wheelchairs and “admitted” to a psychiatric hospital. The attraction’s story follows a psychiatric patient who is possessed by a demon.While the whole 4D VR experience sounds pretty cool, I must object to the attraction’s subject matter. It’s a shame the technology was used to stigmatize mental illness, since it’s not like the stigma needs any help gaining ground.

I’ve never been hospitalized for my mental illness, which is something that people often find surprising when they learn that I have bipolar disorder. The disorder often does require hospitalization. Therefore, I can’t really speak to what the actual admissions experience is like; though I’ve read plenty of memoirs, nothing can compare to experiencing it for yourself. However, the set-up for the attraction is wildly insensitive and I can’t begin to fathom how it was approved.

On the other hand, the stigma against mental illness is so prevalent that, upon further reflection, it’s frighteningly easy to see how most people could view it as “just fun.”

Thankfully, the “5150” portion of the name has been removed, but the fact that an attraction like this even exists is highly disturbing. I’m unsure whether they’ve revised it and removed the wheelchair/admission portion at this time, but considering Cedar Fair Entertainment (the mother company for Knott’s) issued this statement, I certainly hope so.

“It is never our intent to be disrespectful to any individual or group,” Cedar Fair Entertainment, parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm responded in a statement. “The virtual reality experience is actually built around paranormal, zombie-like activity in a medical hospital setting. Part of the confusion stems from the use of the code 5150 in the experience’s original name. For that reason, the name has been changed to FearVR.”

I can get on board with a horror attraction set in a medical environment–I definitely love horror movies and stories set in spooky old hospitals. What I don’t love is that even for a second (before backlash from mental health advocates pushed Cedar Fair toward some semblance of decency), someone thought that using a police code for an involuntary hold in the title of a theme park attraction was a good idea. And it’s not just one person–it’s the whole team of developers who approved the title. It’s the marketing team, who thought it was okay to take a very serious situation and turn it into a way to make money and draw patrons to the park. It’s the people who didn’t have a problem with the name because they either lack knowledge of mental health care or because they simply don’t care.

That Cedar Fair was quick to issue a statement and change the name of the attraction is cold comfort considering that many people won’t see the harm in the name. Those of us who speak out against it will be accused of whining, of being overly sensitive, of being “special snowflakes.”

The truth is, any sort of hospitalization is not to be taken lightly. I doubt anyone would defend an attraction that was called, for instance, Diabetic Shock or Alzheimer’s Ward. Why is it that in 2016, it’s still considered acceptable to make light of psychiatric illness? I long for the day when people living with mental illness are treated the same as people with cancer or organ transplant candidates.

There’s also a petition to shut the attraction down based on its stigmatizing and highly insensitive concept.

You can check out the full article here. And a new personal post is coming your way this week! It’s hard to say when, since my laptop is on the fritz and I’m borrowing my significant other’s (who needs it for class), but never fear–I will deliver!

Until next time, readers, stay safe and lovely.


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