In Control

I like to feel sorry for myself.  I like hearing a “woe is me” story from a friend, knowing I can outdo her on any level of sadness.  No matter what bad thing has happened to someone else, should she choose to share it with me I can usually top it with some horror story from my past.  It’s a pretty selfish personality trait, one from which I derive almost no sympathy.  But it’s taken me years to realize I’m not doing it for the sympathy, or empathy of others.  I’m doing it because I like to believe my sorrowful past and present is a direct result of my bipolar disorder, and that gives me something on which to blame it all.

To shed some light on my past, I should give you a few examples of what I consider to be a life full of unfortunate happenings.  For starters, my sister died before I was born.  I never met her – I just like to tell people I lost a sister because it gives me an excuse to be sad.  Additionally, my older brother died in a plane crash when I was 23 and my father died of a heart attack on the floor of my children’s playroom while I stood and watched because I couldn’t remember how to do CPR.  My only surviving sibling doesn’t much like me or my disease and therefore doesn’t speak to me, my husband left me after 17 years of marriage, and I cannot find a full-time job to help pay my mounting pile of bills.  In addition, my non-smoking mom was just diagnosed with lung cancer and my 10-year old daughter has Oppositional Defiance Disorder and is likely also bipolar.

Yeah, yeah – I realize that my problems are trivial in comparison to what is going on in the world around me.  Wars and global warming and starving children.  I am aware of all that, and yet the selfish person who I am refuses to recognize that there is anything wrong with any part of the world that does not directly concern me.  It’s like I’m oblivious to anything or anyone other than myself and my problems.  Selfish?  You bet.  Incredibly, ridiculously selfish.  But it’s as if I can’t help myself.

I often refer to a great book called, “Loving Someone With Bipolar Disorder” by Julie A. Fast.  The book was intended for the spouse or partner of someone suffering from bipolar, but I don’t have a spouse or a partner anymore so I read it hoping to learn to love myself.  The book repeatedly references the selfishness of those suffering from bipolar disorder.  They can only think of themselves.  They think they are the only ones with real problems.  They believe their lives are worse than anyone’s around them.  I recognize that I am incredibly selfish, and it’s not a trait I’m proud of.  But as I mentioned earlier, I can’t seem to focus on any problems but mine.

In addition, bipolar people are often narcissists.  I believe there is a direct link between believing yourself to be better than everyone else and wanting everyone to feel sorry for you.  Part of being a narcissist is believing that you have control over the world and what happens in it.  For example, if only I had known CPR, perhaps my father would still be alive.  Control.  If only I had recognized my bipolar disorder earlier, then I could have sought treatment before my behavior became so intolerable that my husband could no longer remain with me.  Control.  If I had known that I was bipolar and that my future children had a 20% increased chance of becoming bipolar as a result of genetics, I could have prevented my young daughter from possibly developing the disorder by simply not having children.  Control.  Ridiculous and unrealistic expectations of control.

I also feel like my bad luck is contagious.  Don’t get too close, it might rub off on you.  Sometimes I believe my bad luck extends to the outcome of my son’s baseball game; I’ve had a rough day, so I shouldn’t attend or he will surely lose.  I probably shouldn’t go to the picnic or it might rain because of me.  Bad luck follows me around so be sure to keep your distance.  A pathetic state of mind, don’t you think?  My therapist thinks so.  Once, in the middle of a tirade about how I was directly or indirectly the cause of all bad things that had happened in my life or in the lives of those around me, she stopped me to declare, “My goodness.  I wish I had that kind of power.  Imagine what I could use it for.  The power to control people’s lives and the events of your own.  I would love being that powerful”

I felt like an idiot.

But she was right.  Who was I to think I had the kind of power to control whether or not someone dies, or someone’s team wins or loses, or whether my child develops bipolar or not?  My perception was that I was in control of all of these things, when the truth is that I am only in control of what happens to my own person on a day-to-day basis.  And what happens to me each day is largely dependent on my mood, which is largely dependent on the current state of my disorder.  I’m not really in control of my illness, even though my doctors assure me I should be.  Sure, I can do DBT and ECT and take medication to help control it, but the true reality is that it controls me.  My bipolar determines, indirectly, how I spend my days and whether I’m happy or sad.  It decides if I’m feeling up to going to the movies, or prefer to stay within the confines of my safe, warm bed all day.  It determines whether I yell at my kids or shower them with indulgences.  When it gets bad, it decides that I will undergo ECT with the hope that voluntary electrocution will set me straight, buying me a few more weeks of relative sanity.  My bipolar disorder defines me, because I let it.  Because it gives me an excuse to be pathetic.  Because it allows me to fall back on my stories of sorrow and woe.  My disorder allows me to be the “winner” of the “who has a more terrible life” competition.  At least I get to win at something.

Do I hope that someday I will be in completely in control of my bipolar disorder, instead of it being in control of me?  You betcha.  I’m just not there yet.

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Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain

I recently came across some writing called “Morning Prayer”. I read it, then I read it again. And I loved it, thinking how directly it applies to me, but not for the reasons one might think.

I am trying hard to be a good Christian, and I have recently allowed religion back into my life, hoping it will guide me through my pain and misery. So please excuse the fact that while I’m going to share this prayer with you, I’m going to change it a little so that it applies more closely to my situation. I hope I will not offend any believers or better Christians than I.

Where the original prayer uses the phrase, “O Lord”, please allow me to substitute it instead with “My Healthy Brain”:

“Morning Prayer for my Healthy Brain”

My Healthy Brain, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings me with tranquility. Grant that I may fully surrender myself to your good will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things. Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day, teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm conviction that all is subject to your will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions. In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget that all is under your care.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely with every member of my family, neither embarrassing nor saddening anyone.

My Healthy Brain, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the coming day and all the events that take place during it. Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. Amen.”

Amen

Sssshhhhhh

My mom is a patient at a hospital while recovering from surgery, and while pacing the halls I noticed a quote that was etched beautifully into the tiles of the floor:

“Quietly talk. Quietly walk. Quiet promotes healing”.

I like that. I’ve decided to make it my new mantra, but I’m also going to add a line:

“Quietly talk. Quietly walk. Quietly THINK. Quiet promotes healing”.

Perfect for my bipolar brain.

The State of Bipolar

I was chatting in the yard yesterday with my new neighbor, who just moved here to Colorado from Texas.  She was telling me that they used to refer to Texas as the “Bipolar State” because of its crazy weather fluctuations, but claims that Colorado has weirder highs and lows than any place she’s ever lived until now.  She said that Colorado has now assumed the label of “Bipolar State” in her household because here it’s not unusual to have weather in the 70s in the middle of winter, and then two feet of heavy wet snow in April.  When she told me this, I giggled politely and agreed with her synopsis.

Funny, two years ago this sort of misuse of the term “bipolar” would have probably sent me over the edge.  I was always so offended when people used the label incorrectly.  “My husband must be bipolar because he was so depressed about the outcome of the U.S. Open, but ten minutes later was over the moon because we had steaks for dinner”.  I’ve also heard, “Yeah, that kid at school must be bipolar or something because he’s so weird”.  The best yet?  “My cat is so bipolar!  She flips out if her food dish isn’t full!”

I wonder if any of these people are actually familiar with the reality behind the term “bipolar”? It is a medical diagnosis, not a description for erratic behavior.  It is a noun, not an adjective.  Would people walk around claiming, “OMG, that guy is acting soooooo diabetic”, or “That grass is growing as fast as cancer”.  Those diseases deserve respect and tolerance, and it’s rare that someone would dare express ignorance by misusing those words in a way that could be derogatory.  So why does the term “bipolar” not demand the same respect?

It all goes back to the stigma associated with my disorder.  It’s something only “crazy” people have, it’s “all in her head”, it’s not a real disease.  But it is real.  And I mean no disrespect for those suffering from diabetes or cancer, but sometimes I wish I had something different because bipolar disorder does not elicit the kind of sympathy and tolerance that patients suffering from the previously mentioned diseases might receive.  Instead, it’s the families of those who are bipolar who seem to be the only ones receiving any empathy or attention.  “I’m so sorry you have to deal with a mentally ill spouse……”.

In retrospect, I realize that my neighbor wasn’t making light of my disorder.  She doesn’t know anything about my bipolar-ness.  She wasn’t trying to diminish the importance of my disease.  She was merely making conversation, and in her defense, “bipolar state” is probably a pretty accurate description for Colorado’s “crazy” weather.  And I clearly have learned tolerance of these kind of remarks because I didn’t lecture her, then turn on my heel and march out of her yard while flipping her off as I might have done a couple of years ago.  Instead, we are meeting for coffee next week.

The “State of Bipolar” remains the same.  We need to continue to decrease stigma and increase awareness and tolerance of our disorder.  We need to stand up for ourselves and educate those around us. Maybe at coffee next week, I can step forward and tell my new neighbor about my illness and maybe the next time she describes Colorado’s weather, she will use the term “unpredictable”, instead.

In the meantime, a “bipolar state” and the “state of bipolar” will provide me with lots to talk about in the future.

“In My Room”

I have always been a huge fan of the Beach Boys.  I love that most of their songs seem to be about girls, surfing or cars, or a combination of all three.  However, I recently googled “songs about bipolar” and was surprised to see one of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits on that list:  “In My Room”.

Maybe I was surprised because I guess I always thought that the song was about a teenage boy and masturbation……

Anyway, here are the lyrics so you can decide for yourself:

“There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to
In my room, in my room
In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears
In my room, in my room

Do my dreaming and my scheming
Lie awake and pray
Do my crying and my sighing
Laugh at yesterday

Now it’s dark and I’m alone
But I won’t be afraid
In my room, in my room”

Play With Me

I’ve just been watching my 10-year old daughter play with our new neighbor, also a 10-year old little girl.  Her family just moved in next door a few weeks ago, and my daughter was delighted that the new family included a same-age girl.  They’ve been tossing a softball back and forth for twenty minutes now, exchanging casual banter and discussing which of them is more likely to grow up and marry Justin Bieber.

This impromptu playdate brought tears to my eyes, for two reasons.  The first is because I am so unbelievably happy to see my daughter making a new friend.  The second is because I am worried it won’t last.

My 10-year old daughter is bipolar, or at least is believed to be (since bipolar disorder is extremely hard to diagnose in young children).  As a result, her life (and that of her family) is very hard.  Too hard for such a young girl, in my opinion.

My baby’s mood disorder makes it nearly impossible for her to maintain friendships.  As I watch my two older children decide with whom they want to hang out on any given day, I realize how fortunate they are to have such a large circle of friends from whom to choose.  They take for granted their friendships, because they each have so many.  But my youngest?  Her personality makes it very difficult for her to keep friends.  She makes friends very easily – upon meeting her, you see that she is personable and friendly, pretty and sweet.  She is compassionate and helpful, thoughtful and well-spoken.  She loves American Girl dolls and One Direction.  All things other little girls might find attractive in a new friend.  But sadly, her friendships do not last.  At some point, my daughter becomes jealous of “third parties”, her feelings are easily bruised, and she is possessive with her friends.  She also has to be in charge, a trait not popular with the pre-teen group.  She is hypersensitive.  She becomes bossy and irrational when she doesn’t get her way, and cries easily because she believes that she is always being treated unfairly.  Eventually, the friendships end.  Nearly every one. My daughter hasn’t been invited to a birthday party in 7 months, and in this neighborhood when there are parties nearly every weekend, that is a true slap in the face for her.  She is very, very rarely asked to a friend’s house to play.  She eats lunch alone at school most days of the week, and teachers have to assign a partner to her when students are asked to work on a project together because nobody volunteers to work with her.

The worst part?  My little girl is fully aware of all of this.  And it kills me to know how much it hurts her.

My daughter does a lot of therapy with a fabulous counselor who teaches her skills and tools to deal with her strong emotions.  She is trying to teach my baby how to be a good friend, how to maintain friendships and how to control her feelings when she notices things going south.  But because the other little girls in her class are vaguely aware of her mental shortcomings, they have very little tolerance for her behavior.  They don’t know how to deal with her intense feelings.  They treat her as if she’s defective.  I notice the same fate occurring with the children in my daughter’s class who suffer from autism or severe ADHD.  Ignorance and intolerance toward anyone who is different.

My child has two friends who she plays with, off and on, once or twice a month.  Both little girls have been her friends since they were toddlers, and their parents are aware that my daughter can be emotionally unstable, and have explained in their own words that instability to their girls.  For that I am thankful, because although those two little girls frequently take “breaks” from playing with my daughter just to avoid tiring of her, they are still her friends.  But they are the only two she has, and we purposely limit their exposure to each other in order to preserve the friendship.

And as I watch my daughter play with our new neighbor, who is still largely oblivious to my little girl’s intense emotions, I have begun to think about my own friendships, or lack thereof.  And I wonder if my dwindling number of true friendships is a direct result of my bipolar disorder.  I started to recognize that I had lost friends last year when my husband and I separated.  I wrote about it in a recent post called “Who Gets What”, discussing how many of our mutual friends somehow felt the need to choose between my husband and myself, perhaps not believing that they could maintain friendships with both of us separately.  For the most part, our mutual friends chose him.  But as I think back to when many of my friendships started to wane, I realize that their demise coincides largely with when I started to “come out” and disclose my mental illness to my acquaintances, a couple of years prior to my separation.

I initially began telling people I am bipolar partially to help explain my occasional erratic behavior and moodiness, and perhaps partially because I needed a little sympathy.  Unlike cancer or heart disease, mental illness does not elicit much sympathy.  And although I believe bipolar disorder to be more of a curse than many other life-threatening diseases, it is always surprising to me that nobody else seems to agree.  At least, nobody who isn’t mentally ill agrees.  And even though mental illness indirectly claims as many lives as several “mainstream” diseases on a yearly basis, it doesn’t receive enough attention or the compassion that I believe it deserves.

Like my daughter, I feel as if I make a good first impression.  I think that, initially, people like me.  And then they learn about my mental illness, and I feel them backing off.  The invitations for coffee or neighborhood walks or book clubs taper, and eventually my “new” friendships fade and disappear.  Sure, people are friendly at the grocery store and chat with me by the sidelines of kids’ sporting events, but I am rarely invited to “play”.  I haven’t been asked to participate in clubs or gatherings by the neighborhood women in many, many months.  And before I stepped forward with my disclosure of bipolar disorder, I had something to do and someplace to go a couple of times a week.

Not anymore.

So although I can blame some of these lost friendships on my marital devastation, I truly believe that people prefer to leave me alone mostly because they are ignorant and uninformed, intolerant of anything that isn’t “normal”, and unwilling to do the work that is required to be the friend of someone with a mental illness.  Because as many of you know, it definitely is a lot of work.

However, like my daughter, I have a couple of friends who are well aware of my situation, and who have continued to love and support me, regardless of my diagnosis.  And for them, I am unbelievably, truly, blissfully thankful.  They stepped forward when my best friend, my husband, stepped back.  Without them, my sweet friends, I would be a lonely disaster.  And although I recognize that they, too, might occasionally need to take breaks from me, I know with certainty that they will always be back.  They check in on me often, they listen to me cry on their shoulders (sometimes every day for weeks), they offer advice and tolerate my outbursts.  They are my true and lifelong friends, and I love them.  When I count my blessings, they are among them.

You know who you are, and without you, I would be lost.

Thank you for playing with me.