A Cruel Mistress (First Published March, 2014)

Bipolar disorder is a cruel mistress.  Now, don’t jump to any conclusions and think I believe other mental illnesses are easier to live with.  I don’t feel that way at all.  But bipolar disorder can be especially cruel.

Imagine this:  Life is wonderful.  You’re happy, singing along with the radio, sunglasses on, and driving down the road.  You have a smile on your face and just know it’s going to be one of the best days ever.  A wonderful day to be alive and experience all that God has created for you.  Even though it may be the bleakest of winter days, there’s always something to appreciate.  The shape of a particular tree, your dog’s joy at seeing you, the sunlight streaming through clouds.  Something.  And on this day, everything good and enjoyable is noted.  Happy dances are offered up to the heavens in gratitude.  Shopping is an enjoyable experience.  It doesn’t matter that people keep blocking the aisles and you have to do the WalMart two-step to get around them.  Nope.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s not a huge inconvenience that there aren’t enough check stands open and only mildly irritating when the woman with the screaming kid gets behind you in line.  All in all, it could be worse.  Chores somehow take care of themselves, it seems.  Dinner is almost a masterpiece.  Or at least it’s a fully cooked meal.  And it’s no problem that sleep is limited.  Just don’t feel very sleepy.  Yep.  Life is indeed wonderful.

Depressed woman in bed.

Turn the page to the next day. Before you open your eyes, you know you have a problem.  The aches and pains are real.  Not a figment of your imagination.  The fact is, you feel as though you have a bad case of the flu.  Your head is foggy.  Thinking is such a chore.  Bed.  Bed is the only place you want to be.  If it was the flu, you know you’d have that luxury.  But because it’s not, you have to somehow crawl out of bed.  There are kids to get off to school.  Maybe even a job to go to.  Maybe.  If you’re one of the “lucky” ones.  The day drags by.  All you want to do is sleep…stay in your pajamas and sleep.  Then you realize you have to leave the house, if you haven’t already.  The problem is there’s no energy for a shower.  It’s just too much work.  Showering.  Drying off.  Getting dressed.  And for those of us females, doing something with our hair.  It requires more energy than is stored in the ol’ battery.  Dinner.  Frozen pizza again, that someone else has to put in the oven?  Minimal exchanges with family.  Talking is just so difficult.  The least little thing sets you off in tears.  You find a corner as far away from the family as possible.  You feel terrible that you can’t join in, but you may just as easily feel irritated by the noise.  Finally you can go to bed.  And you wonder if there’s any hope tomorrow will be different.

Bipolar disorder.  The best of the best and the worst of the worse.  It’s like having each foot firmly planted in a different world.  And the worlds ARE different.  The hopelessness of major depressive disorder and the jubilation of hypomania or mania.  Yes, negatives DO come with the mania/hypomania, but we’ll address those in a different post.  For now, let’s look at the black and white of bipolar disorder.

Before I knew my condition had a name, I called my hypomanic periods my “euphoric” times.  Truly, that’s what it was like.  Everything was tinged with gold and I could accomplish twice as much in half the time and do it better.  Then there was a period of “ordinariness” followed by a period of not being able to stay awake and feeling as though I was getting sick.  Really!  My sinuses and ears would hurt and I’d be achy.  And teary.  Oh, and I’d want to tear the head off of the hubster for no reason at all.  I knew I was being irrational, but couldn’t help it.  The anger would be accompanied by sadness…kind of a pity party, in a way.

So I’ve driven both roads plenty of times.  I’ll finish part two of my personal journey into crushing depression and awareness of my illness later.  Right now, it’s about those roads.  You see, I’ve been on them for years.  In fact, for the past ten years I’ve been on one road or the other.  No periods of ordinariness in between, more’s the pity.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the hypomanic states, but I flip flop more than a politician in an election year!

But there is one benefit to having been on these roads.  This, too, shall pass.  That’s it.  No magic chant or upbeat slogan.  Just “This, too, shall pass.”

Let me explain.  During hypomania, as long as I’ve been dealing with this I’ve come to expect the eventual let down that occurs.  Hypomania cannot be sustained for long periods of time.  At least, that’s my experience.  Because of that, it’s bittersweet.  It’s like when you’re a child and realize that there is an after-Christmas.  All the anticipation and build up occurs then, wham! It’s over.  You learn to enjoy the season while you can, but there’s always that knowledge that it won’t last forever.  With bipolar disorder, there is no “cure”.  You have bipolar disorder and what goes up always comes down.

But the other side to the coin is the knowledge that depressed states will also come to an end.  I will come out of it.  The reprieve may not last long, but it will be there.  I used to panic when I’d slide back into the darkness, fearful that my medication was no longer working.  I don’t fear that anymore.  The question is in the back of my head, but I don’t fret over it.  I know even with the best of care I’m going to have downs with the ups.  I have bipolar disorder, after all.  Yes, it sucks.  But the good times are all the sweeter for my knowledge and acceptance.  I’ve also learned that if my down periods last very long, I need to see my pdoc (psychiatrist).  Something needs to be adjusted.  It may be due to seasons, sunlight vs. darkness, or even just becoming accustomed to my medication, but a little change can do wonders.

With “This, too, shall pass” comes patience.  Maybe that’s the disorder’s purpose.  To teach patience.  To give us compassion.  The down times are a time to regroup, recharge.  Good periods are times to do good.  To capitalize on the energy to work magic on the world around us.  And I don’t just mean “out there” in the world.  I mean with our own families at home.  After all, they go on this journey with us.

The Ugly Demon and the Crafting Sword

You know that I have bipolar disorder, right?  I mean, I admit it in virtually every post!  What you may not realize is that the bulk of my time is spent depressed rather than hypomanic.  At one time I would have said deeply depressed, but now…fortunately…it’s just depressed.  The difference, you ask?  Well, deeply depressed is an overwhelming feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, some shame as a bit of seasoning, sadness, and a belief that it will never, ever end.  Depression is bad enough.  Deeply depressed is like drowning in air.  It’s staying in bed because there’s no energy to even get up.  With depression, the feeling is that there is a life preserver out there somewhere, it’s just a matter of finding it.  You might note that I didn’t say anything about being sad.  It’s my belief, not a fact, just my own belief, that clinical depression has little to do with sadness.  I’ll talk about that in another post.  I found my life preserver in the hands of a compassionate, skilled psychiatrist and an outstanding therapist.  Well, that and the right pharmacological cocktail.  But it took the pdoc (psychiatrist) understanding how neurotransmitters work to come up with my cocktail.

Depression world cloud

But wait!  There’s more!  I also craft!  Yes, even while depressed, I craft.  Crafting gets me into another world for a while.  When I get into the zone, the depression is pushed to the side.  I become happy, hopeful, excited even!  And I’m learning there’s a whole bunch of people who feel the same way.

You see, I belong to a Facebook group for craft hoarders.  Yep, you got that right.  Craft hoarders!  We can’t pass up craft supplies without buying something.  We sneak it in in the middle of the night, or mixed in with groceries or such.  We’re that bad!  Actually, we’re pretty good.  Pretty good at hiding our crafting obsessions from others!  HA!  We may have a designated crafting space, but that doesn’t stop the supplies from tumbling out all over the house.  As if a mere designated space could hold the bounty of our supplies!  But we use these supplies!  Or we will.  Someday.  Someday soon.  Glitter. Paper. Fabric. Deco mesh. Buttons. You name it, I and others have it.  And it will all be put to good use.  I will soon be getting a good sized she-shed with an attached shop.  No, not the shopping kind of shop.  But the kind where my youngest will no doubt work on cars, motorcycles, and such.  But it’ll make a good overrun area for supplies!

Artist painting.

I was surprised the other day when one of these dear people…a woman, as are most of the group’s members…mentioned being depressed.  I was relieved when she received so much support.  Sadly, there is still a great deal of stigma attached to mental illness.  However, I was astounded at the number of other members, literally dozens, who admitted to struggling with depression and anxiety.  This one thread was so full of positive energy as admissions were made to the difficulties of life with depression, and the benefit of creating in keeping the ugly demons at bay.  Also, the positive affirmations to one another to keep crafting.  I was actually in tears.

I am not my illness.You might have noticed one of the categories on my blog is “crafts”.  If it’s a blog for mental illness, why add crafts, you may wonder?  Because while I might have bipolar disorder with a heavy emphasis on the depression, that’s not who I am.  It doesn’t define me.  I’m multifaceted and one of my facets includes creating.  Actually, since reading some of the comments within that FB group, I’m pondering the possibility that a great deal of creating comes from those who suffer, in one way, shape, or form.  Could it be we’re given these talents to help us cope?  I do know I want to reach out to these women and see if any of them are willing to share how they create.  I’ve seen the work of some of the people in this group and it’s astounding!  I’d love to show it off on my blog.

Anxiety Rears Its Ugly Head

I just wanted OUT!!!   I wanted to run out, screaming at the top of my lungs!  And if I hadn’t been (at that time, anyway) such a quiet, reserved person, I might just have done so.  But at 15, I was very quiet, very reserved, and did not in any way want to call attention to myself.  I couldn’t even tell my parents what I was experiencing.  Yet here I was, attending a big sale at a local store with my parents and about 75 to 100 other people, all of us in a small building, waiting to hear who won the door prize.  By that time, I was almost hyperventilating.  I guess it must have shown a little because when we finally left that horrid setting, my mom asked if I was okay.  I mumbled something and we headed for home.

I now know this was a panic attack.  I also know that my panic attacks began at a very young age.  You see, I used to have what one doctor termed a “delicate system”.  I hated that term.  I didn’t want to be “delicate” as this was the era of “Anything a boy can do a girl can do better” and I was one of the girls determined to prove this adage correct.  However, it was true that I got sick a lot, mostly with ear and sinus infections.  As a result, I missed quite a bit of school.  But, if not for my old friend anxiety, I would have missed far less.

You see, when it came time to go back to school, my heart would pound and I would literally feel weak.  I was terrified, despite having plenty of friends and being an “A” student.  I didn’t know what I was afraid of, just that I was afraid.  I’d tell my mom that I still didn’t feel well and I’d get another one or two days’ reprieve.  And it wasn’t like it was fun and games to stay home.  I had to stay in bed and in my pajamas.  I certainly wasn’t doing anything wild and crazy.

It was easier to go back on a Monday, when everyone else had had a weekend off.  I felt that my reemergence into the classroom wasn’t as dramatic as it would be on, say, a Thursday.  Now, I don’t know that that’s true, but that was my perception back then. Even now, if I’m absent a Sunday or two at Church, while I miss the people there, my heart beats hard in my chest when it’s time to return.

The difference between “then” and “now” is twofold.  One, I’ve discovered a name for what’s wrong with me.  Anxiety.  It has a name!  Hurray! Giving it a name means it has a definition and, yes, my symptoms are right there.  “Generalized Anxiety Disorder”.  It would look better if my flavor of anxiety had a cooler name, but my flavor is pretty gross…I’d had to take on some of the other flavors.

And two is coping mechanisms.  I know no one is going to call me names or try to hurt me if I miss a Sunday or two. I remind myself of this.  I know when I meet someone that he/she is possibly just as nervous as I am, so deep breaths and a big (forced) smile help put the other person at ease and his/her ease helps me feel at ease.  (Did that whole sentence make sense?) Deep breaths, as I’ve told my youngest on many occasions, deep breaths slowly in through the nose…hold…and slowly out through the mouth.  This helps the physical symptoms of anxiety and the physical kinda tricks the mental.

Knowing when to leave is key, also.  I knew when to leave at that sale I attended at 15, I just didn’t know I truly needed to just get outside the doors into the cooler, quieter air.  I know this now, so I leave even if it means walking away from a cart full of groceries.  Now, don’t act like you haven’t done that.  LOL!  I know at least a few of you have done this, or maybe completed the purchase, but in such high-stress mode that you wish you had walked away.  Like many things, there are times I think I have to be the only one, but I later discover there’s a whole bunch of other people who have done the same thing or felt the same way. Knowing when to shop and when to stay away from stores is another, for me, essential coping mechanism.

Now, some may consider this separate from coping mechanisms, but I add my medication to this list as without it, I’m a mess.  A big, ol’ anxiety ridden depressed mess.  I’m grateful to the mini-pharmacy in my upper right desk drawer for helping to keep me on relatively stable terms.

I recently submitted a brief questionnaire to BPHope magazine which essentially asked if there were any external stimuli that contributed to a mood.  Oh, my goodness!  I could have typed forever, but for me the biggest is sound or noises.  Being in that cramped, very noisy room at that sale brought on a full scale panic attack.  Going back to noisy, generally cramped classrooms after the quiet of home was also a trigger.  Now I know this and knowing, they say, is half the battle.

Do crowds bother you?  How about being in a noisy environment?  How do you cope?