Thursday, 7 April 2011

'Coping Mechanisms'

I've heard this phrase a fair few times now, & it never fails to amuse me. It just seems to me to be putting a fancy name to something that is - to me at least - more common sense & reactionary than anything planned or well looked into. Still, my counsellor has praised me for my 'coping mechanisms' several times now, & seems to think they're worth sharing with others, so I guess I'll share them here. Again, this is mostly stuff I just started doing as a reaction to what I was going through, with only a few bits & pieces picked up from books or classes. I'm sure most of it will strike you as blindingly obvious ...

Self Awareness
I can't help this. I have always been very self-critical, & now that I've got a diagnosis it isn't going to get any better - in fact it'll probably get worse. But as far as my moods go, I try to just be a bit more aware of how I'm feeling & acting on an objective level; if I'm in a good mood, or a bad mood, or feeling irritable, are these reasonable reactions to what's going on around me or might they be a sign of something more?

It's tiring, though, constantly doing this. I seem to be second-guessing myself an awful lot. But hopefully I'll get used to it, or become more aware of the warning signs so I don't have to keep this up all the time.

Stress Management
Coping with stress has never been one of my best skills, I'll admit. But after being sent on a stress management course by my doctors I did pick up some tips that do help with depression and anxiety, even when they are due to the disorder. It might sound obvious to some, but I bet there are others to whom these sort of things never occured. I'm talking about getting enough sleep, taking 'me' time, cutting down on stimulants like caffeine (I found a lovely side effect of doing this to be the almost total disappearance of my migraines, by the way), avoiding stressful situations where I can, & so on.

Challenge Negative Thoughts
This is what gets me through some of my depressions. When my brain is throwing all sorts of terrible thoughts out at me, telling me I'm useless, I'm to blame, I'm a waste of space, trying to challenge those thoughts can give me a bit more perspective. Questions like 'Are other people really going to be thinking this about me?', 'Am I expecting too much of myself?', 'Is this going to matter in a year's time?'

Another fancy phrase (which I found in a book about exorcism, of all places), which is apparently an actual therapeutic technique for helping people get control of their behaviour (with things like OCD & other compulsive behaviours). All it is is putting the blame for this behaviour - or thoughts & feelings, in my case - on the disorder, & not on myself. So when I'm in the depths of a depression & feeling like I'd be better off dead, or if I'm beating myself up over some stupid stupid thing I did while I was ... in one of my odd moods, I try to remind myself that no, those thoughts aren't mine, they're the depression talking. & that stupid thing wasn't a result of me being an idiot, but of a weak moment caused by the disorder.

This isn't about shifting the blame - I'm not about to go out & rob a bank & try to plead insanity - it's about putting less blame on myself, & not making myself feel terrible over something I actually can't entirely help. Yes, I can do more to try & manage the situations, or to cope with the moods, & I am going to. So this isn't me making excuses & letting the moods take me wherever. It's about forgiving myself the slip-ups & moving on.

Self Suicide Watch
This is the freakiest thing. When I get really depressed I start to slip into the worst, blackest thoughts, thoughts of self harm & suicide. When I catch myself thinking about these things, when they really start to take hold of my mind (& they do, like fish hooks they latch on & refuse to let go), I try for a bit more of that objectivity. I talk myself down from the proverbial ledge. If I did kill myself, what would be left after me? I think of the people who would mourn me, the suffering I would cause them, even the silly little inconveniences I would cause my boss & colleagues by suddenly not being there any more. I think of all the things I would miss in the future that I'm looking forward to. I think about who would get lumbered with my bills, who would look after my cat, who would have to sort out all the stupid little details like selling my car & cancelling my phone contract. Daft things to consider, I know, & sometimes I am painfully aware that the only way I talk myself down is by guilt-tripping myself into sticking around for fear of inconveniencing other people, but that's how it is when the depression gets really bad. If I can't convince myself I'm worth living for, then I'll use any tactic that works.

Talking To People
When I first started seeing a counsellor, I was surprised to find just how much the simple act of talking to someone about this stuff helped me. It was such a relief just to lift the weight off of my shoulders a little, so to speak. It didn't stop the problem, of course, but it somehow made it a little easier to bear. Now that I know the problem & have been open about it, I have had so many messages of support from my friends, & each one has made the burden a little easier. & this is after only a few weeks!

Not to mention the value of a sympathetic gesture here & there. If your friends & family know you're having a tough time of it, they'll try to help. & personally I find that even the deepest depression has to recede a little when my boyfriend responds to a text from me about 'having a bad day' by having a hot bubble bath, a cup of tea & my favourite meal all ready for me when I get home from work. I might have convinced myself the world hates me, but such concrete displays of care & affection cannot be denied.

Physical Symptoms
Stress, anxiety & depression, whatever the cause, trigger certain physical symptoms in a lot of people, & sometimes countering those can help ease the feelings too. Personally I suffer shortness of breath & chest pains when I'm feeling very anxious; I get very sluggish & lethargic when I'm depressed. I've found that controlling my breathing, forcing myself to take long, deep breaths, can counter the breathlessness & chest pains when I'm stressed, & forcing myself into activity when I feel the sluggishness coming on helps to fend it off too. Not always, but sometimes, if I catch it quickly enough or if I can gather the willpower to get out & do something. I picked this up from the stress management class I was sent to; it wasn't something I'd really considered before.

So that's what I'm doing at the moment to keep on top of things; there is one more thing, but I'll save it for the next 'chapter'. It could be a lengthy one.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

So ... What's It Like?

So what's it like being bipolar? It has its ups & downs (hahaha, I'm a comedy genius).

For anyone who isn't sure, bipolar disorder is the 'new' name for manic depression. So it's periods of mania, or elevated moods, & periods of depression, & sometimes a weird mix of the two. My own experience is by no means as severe as some; I've heard some real horror stories about people who are so severely afflicted that they can't function properly, are constantly on the verge of suicide, or get totally out of control with their manic states. In comparison, my case is mild.

But that's me being objective. Ask me if it's mild when I'm in the middle of a depressive state & I'd probably either punch you or cry. Or both. When I'm depressed, everything is falling down around me, everything is going wrong & it's all my fault. I'm too timid, I'm too stupid, I'm too weak, I'm fundamentally flawed in such a way that I am a drain on everyone & everything around me. Every mistake I ever made comes back to haunt me. As well as this, I get physically exhausted; it is a monumental struggle to summon enough energy just to get through the day. I'm slow, clumsier, weaker, & I have trouble thinking clearly. It's like I'm thinking & moving through soup. Everything - EVERYTHING - is just ... too ... hard.

On the flip side, sometimes I feel great. There's nothing wrong with feeling great ... except sometimes when I'm feeling good I start to notice little things that aren't quite right. Like I'm talking too fast, or too loud, & people are giving me funny looks. Or my thoughts are racing too fast, & I have trouble making myself understood because I can't get the words out as fast as I'm thinking them ... so I get tongue-tied & frustrated. I can't get things done as fast as I feel I should be able to either; it's literally like my body can't keep up with my brain. Sometimes I get shaky & feel wired, like I've had too much coffee. If I'm sitting still, I get fidgety, I feel like I have to do something, anything, RIGHT NOW, to use up all this energy I have. Sometimes it sort of reverses itself & instead of feeling good, I feel irritable, frustrated, always on edge ... which turns to panicky & anxious, which occasionally turns into depression ...

Now what with me being me, I don't always show a lot of this. I've never been good at showing weakness. I can tell people there's something wrong with me, but I don't like them to see it. So I hide it when I'm feeling depressed, & if I catch myself going in the other direction (& I don't always) I try to rein that in too. I think it's fair to say that unless it's very bad, most people won't notice when I'm in 'one of my moods'. For better or worse ... it's probably my tendency to hide it that meant it took so long for me to get help. I've been struggling with what I considered depression or mood swings for ... oh, 8 odd years now. At least.

What's it like knowing I'm bipolar? Well, initially it was a relief just to put a name to it. People fear what they don't understand, right? So I want to understand this. Then I can stop being afraid of it & start dealing with it. At least, that's the plan!

But sometimes it does seem slightly absurd to me. I'm bipolar? Sometimes it's hard to believe that what I'm suffering qualifies. I can function; I can hold down a job & a relationship, I have lots of friends. If I'm bipolar, shouldn't I be worse than this? It turns out that bipolar has many levels of severity, like most other things. I watched a documentary called 'The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive' with Stephen Fry, & it made me realise that it's not so clear-cut ...

Still, it's weird. Sometimes it sems that life, the universe, whatever, has ben trying to give me little clues for a while now. I've been a big Emilie Autumn fan for a while now, & she's bipolar; she sings about it & writes about it constantly in her work. I never stopped to wonder why her music resonated with me so strongly until now. I'm into live action roleplay, & for a while I was playing a manic-depresive Malkavian in a Vampire: The Masquerade game, & I had to take a break from that because it was making me feel kind of  weird (in effect, I suppose I was triggering myself? If that's possible?). All over the place, I was starting to hear about more & more people - both celebrities & people I know - who are bipolar. And now this ...

When my counsellor suggested it, I was surprised. I didn't think she was right. When I looked into it a little, I thought she might - MIGHT - have a point. Then I went through a lot of wondering if I was deluding myself - a touch of hypochondria, or maybe I thought it was king of cool, kind of kooky as I like to be? But then I thought of the drugs, that at some point I'll probably have to start taking, & keep taking for the rest of my life. I thought of the Stephen Fry documentary, & the part where they discuss the dangers of getting pregnant when you're bipolar, & of course the fact that it's often passed on to the children (I want kids one day, but now I'm not so sure it's a good idea). Not to mention the suffering of some of those poor people interviewed ... a guy who threw himself in front of a speeding lorry ... a woman who sometimes gets so depressed she can't make herself even move ... Yeah, ok, this is not cool. In the end, I just resolved to be as honest as I could when I spoke to my doctors, & let them decide.

So I'm bipolar, & at first I was scared. What does it mean for me? What's going to happen? How will I cope? I figure the answer is simple: I've been coping with it for a while now, sometimes well, sometimes not so well. Only now I have a name for it. & now that I know what it is, hopefully I can find other ways to cope, & things will be easier.

Wow, that was a long one ...

Saturday, 2 April 2011

So it's a beginning of sorts ...

Well, after several people suggesting I write a blog for whatever reason, I finally gave in & decided to give it a go. The final suggestion - the one that pushed me over the edge, if you like - came from my counsellor, and here's why.

On March 23rd, after nearly a year of visiting my GP, two counsellors & a psychiatrist, & being sent to stress management classes & repeatedly offered anti-depressants, I was diagnosed as having bipolar disorder. It was a weird moment; over the last 8 years or so I've gone from being understandably upset after a big life crisis to being 'kind of moody' to being very aware that I suffer from bouts of depression to having inklings that it might be more than 'just' depression (the 'just' in no way suggesting that depression is in any way a minor or trivial thing, because it's NOT) to the moment when my counsellor suggested - about two months before the diagnosis - that I might be bipolar. The months following that were a struggle to get to see an honest-to-goodness psychiatrist (I heard the phrase "I can't diagnose you, but ..." from FOUR different people) while I went from thinking that it couldn't possibly be bipolar disorder to thinking that it probably was bipolar disorder & right back again ... over & over.

Now I'm told that it is, & according to the psychiatrist who diagnosed me, it's a 'pretty textbook case'. So, that's that, right? Now they put me on drugs that I'll have to take for the rest of my life & I'll turn into an emotionless zombie, right?

Wrong. Oh so WRONG.

First of all, I'm sure the drugs that are used to treat bipolar disorder don't really turn people into emotionless zombies (at least, not any more). I've done a bit of research so far, & I've heard lots of good things about going on the drugs. But personally, I have always had an aversion to drugs. I don't even like being on the contraceptive pill, & if I get so much as a headache I'll suffer for as long as I can before I pick up the painkillers (possibly a bad attitude for someone who suffers from migraines, I know). But that's just me. I prefer the natural approach; alternative therapies, holistic healing, & all that jazz. So when the psychiatrist asked me how I felt about taking drugs, I told him I wasn't thrilled with the idea. His response surprised me somewhat; rather than the expected monologue about how I needed the drugs, how the condition wouldn't go away on its own & would get worse, etc, he instead told me that he thought I'd developed good 'coping mechanisms' & could go without the drugs ... for now. One day, I'm going to get worse, & I'll almost certainly have to go to my GP & ask for a prescription for some of those shiny mood stabilisers sooner or later (I'm hoping later).

My counsellor, on hearing about my diagnosis, echoed the psychiatrist's opinion on my 'good coping mechanisms' (I love that term), & then asked me what I planned to do next. I told her I planned to research the condition, look into alternative ways of coping with bipolar disorder, & see how things went. She applauded this, then suggested I blog it, so that perhaps someone else out there, who hasn't got these awesome 'coping mechanisms' that I apparently have, might be able to take some use from it - or at least a little comfort that they're not alone. Having always been a bit of an outsider, a bit of a weirdo, & all those other charming terms, I rather like the idea of knowing - & letting others know - that I, & people like me, aren't really as weird or alone as we might sometimes feel.

And lo, a new blog is born.