Q & A: Do animals experience mental illness or are those conditions unique to humans?

Mammals are extremely complicated creatures. I’d actually think it more unusual if they didn’t experience mental illness. Certainly there’s no question that creatures apart from humans suffer from PTSD. Find any animal recovering from an abusive situation if you require proof. My terrier is terrified of large trash bins. I’ve had her for nearly 10 years and I’ve certainly never menaced her with such a thing. But whoever she was with before probably did, and she remembers. My big dog has severe anxiety if someone starts shouting. She flinches at any loud noise – firecracker season is a living hell for her. I’ve only had her for a year, and normally she’s extremely loyal but mellow overall. The way she carries on I wonder if someone lit firecrackers near her once, or maybe her former owner took her hunting.

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Q & A: Why do people with mental illness always blame other people for their problems even if they are clearly the ones causing them?

Let’s define a term first. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.” Stereotypes are always inaccurate because they don’t take individual actions / behaviors into account. In other words, while some people behave in the manner you’re suggesting, not all people who are mentally ill do so.

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (aka “DSM 5”) lists 297 disorders. What do they have? Their diagnosis will obviously influence their reasoning process, which will obviously influence their behavior.

Mental illness overall is a very strange beast. Though I was born mentally ill, I wasn’t diagnosed as such until I was in my 30s. Until then I knew I was weird, but “mentally ill” never crossed my mind. I wasn’t correctly diagnosed until I was in my 50s. Until then I knew I was mentally ill, but “autistic” never crossed my mind. Self-awareness is extremely difficult when you don’t know what you don’t know. So if the person you’re dealing with isn’t entirely self-aware they may have no idea how they’re contributing to the situation. It all just depends.

Q & A: Do people with borderline personality disorder care when you learn that your partners are left with PTSD and psychological trauma after you devalue them?

It depends. What side of the switch are you on? People with BPD tend to either elevate the people around them to an unrealistic status or to demonize anyone who isn’t on the pedestal. Since you specifically include partners that have somehow been left behind, it’s logical to assume they’d be in the “demonize” category. If that’s the case then it’s unlikely the person with BPD would be all that concerned about the condition their former partner is in.

Case in point – yesterday was Father’s Day. I was at my parent’s house when the topic of my children came up, or should I say the kids my ex and I intended to have, but we divorced before I got pregnant. As I was driving home I started calculating how old they’d be if my then-husband and I had followed through with our original family plan. Amazing! My eldest child would have turned 23 this year.

When we got married we immediately started talking about the family we were going to have. Those who were older and wiser cautioned us against thinking TOO much about it before we were ready. Too much could go wrong. We should have listened. But we were caught up in the moment, so we just had fun with it. We even picked out the names we hoped to use some day. So as I drove down the highway I mulled looking him up. Seeing if he really did have kids, and if he had used the names we picked. What did these phantom children look like? Even as I thought about it, I rejected the idea. Not because I’ve got enough self discipline not to creep my ex-husband. Nothing so noble. I just don’t care. He’s dead to me, the kids are meaningless. If he had PTSD from our divorce the information would barely register. That’s how BPD works.

Q & A: Do autistic people know they are autistic?

In my case, absolutely not. And now, 2 years after being diagnosed, there’s still a part of me that can’t freakin’ believe it. The facts are undeniable. Now that I understand what to look for I’m the poster child for Asperger’s. But when I was growing up the only autistic child I’d ever seen had an oddly round moon-shaped face. She flapped, she rocked, she screamed but couldn’t speak… clearly I’m not that! So I couldn’t be autistic, right?

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Had they tested female children when I was growing up, they might have caught it. But back then it was assumed that only boys were autistic (even though the child I described above was a girl!). Had they caught the diagnosis early I might have learned constructive coping skills. Instead I was diagnosed with an IQ that rivaled Einstein. So it must be MY FAULT I couldn’t do basic math or solve for X (while at the same time I had a good working knowledge of theoretical physics). I was just being WILLFUL, LAZY and STUBBORN because I couldn’t spell (even though I’m one of the best writers I know). Blazing anger raged inside of me every time I was punished for not doing something that clearly someone as bright as me should be able to do, until the anger defined me. My first diagnosis was Bipolar I / Psychotic – damage done.

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So no, I think a huge portion of the population has no idea whatsoever that they’re autistic. Just imagine what the true numbers would be if everyone who actually has it knew about it!

Q & A: How do I get a diagnosis for high functioning autism as an adult?

Great question – thanks for asking! I just went through this myself. Here are the steps I recommend.

  1. Do your homework. If you suspect you’re autistic find out as much about it as you can, especially how it manifests in adults. Keep notes – be brutally honest. This symptom applies to me perfectly. This one, not so much. I never do this, but I do this instead and it’s not even listed!
  2. After you’ve done your research break it into bullet points, or some other easily consumed format. Keep emotion out of it – stick to the facts. This is a big step for you, one that needs to be confirmed or denied by someone who’s never met you before. Give them tools to use.
  3. Find a therapist who is both accepting new patients and who works with adults. This might take some patience, but with a bit of determination it should be possible. I started my search by using the “Find a Therapist” option on the Psychology Today website. It took a few weeks for me to line up an appointment, don’t be discouraged.
  4. Don’t tell your new therapist that you have autism. Tell them that you suspect it, present your evidence, and ask if they think it’s reasonable for you to be tested.
    1. If they agree, great! Skip to #5.
    2. If they do not agree, politely ask why. Listen closely to the answer. If you disagree stay calm, stick to your facts. I say this because after tracking down the diagnosis, going through the research AND finally finding someone who will test you, it may be a bit nerve wracking if they say “nope, just eat some kale and drink more water – you’ll be fine!”
      1. If they really won’t test you, but you’re convinced you’re autistic, return to step 3 – start again.
  5. Be prepared for more brutal honesty and a few hours of paperwork. I can’t remember now, but I think there were something like seven forms to fill out. Each form is more like a packet – it’s not a single sheet of paper. And the questions might feel uncomfortably invasive. I can’t stress this enough – BE HONEST!!! Seriously. If a question pisses you off, write it out. Exactly as you’re thinking / feeling it. I got so angry at some of them I drew notes in the margins, along with arrows and bullet points for emphasis (I really hate repetition).
  6. In addition, your therapist will probably include a second packet for someone close to you to fill out.
    1. Resist temptation. Don’t read the second set of forms either before or after they’re filled out. If you’re anything like me, it’ll just make you paranoid.
  7. Once the paperwork is submitted, be patient. It’s a lot to go over, and again the therapist just met you. It took a few weeks for my therapist to work it all out, though in his defense this was all happening during the holidays. Even in the best of times it’ll take a while.
  8. Get the results. If you’re officially diagnosed I’d recommend setting up regular sessions. This diagnosis is harder to deal with than I would have dreamed. If you’re not diagnosed stay calm. Ask why, listen carefully, be polite.

And that’s about it really! Depending on the outcome you might want to consider going into regular therapy. For me, getting confirmation was just the beginning. This hit me much harder than any other life changing diagnosis I’ve received (and I’ve had several). Your therapist will be able to recommend a constructive course of action after the two of you have gone over the details of the results.

Best of luck!

Q & A: Why do I envy people when I see them killing themselves or dying in another way?

What an interesting question! Warning: this post contains spoilers for the reboot of Battlestar Galactica as well as the movie Casablanca.

There’s a scene in Battlestar Galactica that always resonated with me. It’s right at the beginning, just after the battle of Ragnor. The survivors are shell-shocked, assembled for a mass funeral. There are so many dead they had to have the ceremony on the hangar deck.

The bodies surround them, each draped in the flags of their homeworld. For every body on the deck, there’s at least a thousand they couldn’t get to. At the end of the ceremony the assembled respond back “So Say We All”. It’s their version of “Amen”. It’s subdued. Quiet. Defeated.

Adama, their commander, steps forward. He turns and looks at the assembled. Then he asks “Are they the lucky ones? That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?”

And in my heart I had to answer “Yes.”

He then goes on to give one of the most rousing speeches in history. It’s so good it’s right up there with the The St. Crispin’s Day speech. They will go on. They will find Earth, they will go home! It gives his people hope. It gets them through the night, and into the next day. The only problem is, as the viewers find out very quickly, it was all a lie. Adama has no idea if Earth even exists, much less where to find it.

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired. I was raised to be an optimist. To see the best in others. To believe in the rules, to follow those rules, and know that by doing so I’m a good person. Life has taught me the truth, of course, as it teaches us all. That truth is exhausting. So when Adama stepped forward, asking if the dead are lucky, my heart simply answered “Yes.”. Because for them the struggle is over. Or, to quote Rick in Casablanca:

I understand why you envy the dead. In death there are no more lies, no more defeats. No more pain. Just peace. Any reassurance that might lead to hope is most likely just a set up – another lie that, if you believe it, will lead to more pain to come.

And yet, I’m also reminded of the end of these two tales. At the end of Casablanca we see Rick make an incredibly noble sacrifice. His heart breaks even as he finds hope once again. He walks into the distance having what seems to be a casual conversation with the chief of police. But to those who know and now understand him, it means everything.

Translation: instead of buying a packaged lie intended for mass consumption, Rick remembers a personal truth – some things really are worth fighting for.

The end for Adama is much the same. After years of fighting and crippling loss, he didn’t find what he was expecting. He didn’t find Earth. The love of his life died, and was buried, the moment they stopped running.

And yet in this scene I didn’t envy the dead. I looked at Adama with love and respect. Like Rick in Casablanca he discovered, perhaps to his surprise, a simple truth. Some things are worth fighting for. Maybe not the things you expected, and you might not get what you hoped for. But it’s worth it just the same.

I think it’s normal to envy the dead, especially in times of trouble. It’s normal to want something uncomplicated, especially when you’re overburdened, even if it’s just to rest. At times like this perhaps the answer isn’t to look outside yourself, but within. Your simple truth, the reason each one of us gets up in the morning, will be what remains when your struggle ends. And that is worth fighting for.

I wish you the best.

Q & A: Why did my husband agreed to go for the diagnosis of Asperger’s then disagreed with that diagnosis and refused to go in therapy?

He can’t go into therapy unless he first acknowledges that he’s autistic. Then he must admit that he needs help dealing with it. Only THEN can he actually go into therapy for it.

When I was diagnosed I had just turned 50. I had suspected it for several months prior to making it official. Even so, there is just no way to prepare for a doctor looking you in the eye and saying “You’re autistic.” Even though I had fought to find this doctor, then put myself and my family members though rigorous tests, even though all my oddball symptoms pointed to only one logical conclusion, I broke down in the doctor’s office. I thought I was crying from relief. I finally knew what was going on! The answers I’d searched for – a quest 2 decades long! But no, not really. The moment the quest to finally get diagnosed was over, that was the moment the quest for acceptance began.

For some reason I can’t quite comprehend I was able to handle my Bipolar diagnosis more or less in stride. After all, Princess Leia was Bipolar. If she could handle this, I could. Psychotic? Actually that one was no surprise at all. Neither was Borderline, once I got my mind around what a dumb name it was. But this? THIS? Just as Deborah noted earlier, this was beyond what I could handle. One simple reason – autism = brain damage. Retardation. Pills won’t help. Therapy won’t cure. I keep imagining a misshapen human brain lurching about in my skull, a foul, steaming thing full of odd colors and writhing shapes.

Yeah, I have one of THOSE imaginations. I tend to go to dark places.

I know, logically, none of that is true. I know autism can be a gift. I know I walk with giants of science and art. I know my quicksilver brain and massive creative streak, my ability to write as well as reason all stem from autism. But I also see the ruin of my life behind me, the opportunities I couldn’t take advantage of because I had NO idea why I did what I did. For the longest time I didn’t know anything was wrong with me at all.

I’m glad I finally know the truth. No matter what, knowing is better than wondering. I’ll always opt for the red pill. But had you told me two years ago that I’d still be struggling to accept this diagnosis today I would have laughed. It’s not the first one I’ve received that changed my entire life. But it’s by far the hardest.

It could be that your husband is going through a similar struggle. If so, be patient with him. The autistic mind is wired differently to begin with. We’re not adept at going down rabbit holes unless we make them ourselves.

Q & A: What do you want others to know about what it is like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome?

That’s a great question! There’s so many potential answers. Here’s one that addresses the most common situation I find myself in.

Please leave me alone. It’s not you, it’s me. I’ve been through way too much when dealing with a neurotypical population. I have no reason to expect the population will change simply to suit me. I’m not asking for it to. I’m simply asking to be left in peace. There’s no need to take it as a personal insult.

Understand that you’re not inviting me to go somewhere because I actually need the company of others. In fact, this little social dance you’re doing has nothing to do with me at all. This is actually about you and your compulsion to reach out. To shape my behavior into something you understand. In truth I’m perfectly fine at home (even if you don’t understand how that can be). I’m not lonely and I have no desire to participate in your drama. Please don’t put me in a position where I must turn you down, and especially don’t keep insisting that I go out with you and your friends after I’ve turned you down once already. Yes, I know. I’m a complete ingrate – a real b*tch for snapping at you when you asked me for the fifth or sixth time. Even though you apparently can’t hear the word “no” unless it’s spoken in anger. Even though you set up this entire scenario. (yes, it’s definitely my fault. yep. You’re just trying to be “nice”, even though there’s nothing “nice” about being unable to graciously accept that I said “no”. Twice.)

Please don’t be insulted if I turn down your invitation to spend the holidays with you. Because really, though I know you mean well, I can’t imagine a worse case scenario. I’m not comfortable with the idea of socializing with total strangers during the holidays – strangers that expect me to somehow assimilate into their group as a witty, charming member. Please, understand that some people are not part of the herd for a reason. Just go away.

Thank you.

Q & A: Every day I fantasize about killing my family members, is this healthy?

Is it healthy to dream of murdering your family? No. But your circumstances are going to skew the answer.

For example, if you are a member of an average family, with the typical ups, downs, challenges and rewards of family life, and yet you constantly dream of murdering them, this indicates a maladaptive trait. It will lead to significant negative consequences for you even if you don’t follow through. This is a topic best suited for a professional, someone who can help guide you through these urges and toward a more productive way to express your feelings.

However, if your family is cruel to you, if (for example) you are a victim of abuse, some might consider imagining killing them to be somewhat normal under such extreme circumstances. Again, a professional’s help is needed here. They can help you to productively cope with these feelings of rage, while also helping you to hopefully relocate to a safe place.

I wish you the best.

Q & A: How did you find out you were terminally ill?

Thank you for asking me to answer this! However, I must clarify that I was never diagnosed as being “terminally ill”. Instead, when I was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease the tests revealed that I also have a rare birth defect in my spine. It significantly increases the risks associated with any surgical procedure. Becoming a quadri / paraplegic or even dying while in surgery is a real possibility every time someone carves on my back.

At the time the pain from three ruptured discs was so intense that I considered suicide not just daily, but hourly. From the outside it seems like a pretty straightforward decision! The reason I’m answering this is because it’s anything but. In fact, making this decision was such a huge challenge it changed the rest of my life.

If I rejected the surgery everyone would think it regrettable but reasonable. Birth defect, what can I do? I could blame God, Mother Nature, bad genes, none of which are in my control. Eventually I’d go crazy from the pain and probably throw myself off a roof. But none of it would be my fault and everyone would understand. They’d be sympathetic. They’d be on my side. I win.

If I decided to go ahead with the surgery, additional complications and all… and if something went wrong… it’s all on me. Not the surgeon. Not the hospital. Not God, Mother Nature or bad genes. I knew the risk and did it anyway, and most people in their heart of hearts would think I deserved my fate for making such a reckless decision. I lose.

That day I decided not only how I wanted to meet death, but what public opinion really means to me. All the BS I had cloaked myself in for the last 30 years got stripped away in an instant, replaced with hard, cold, unblinking truth. I learned precisely who I am and exactly what I believe in. What’s important, what isn’t. I realized what I wanted to do with my life, and that even if I woke up from the table I would always be defined by an illness, not an accomplishment. Maybe surviving this surgery (and those to come) is the accomplishment. It taught me to lower some expectations I had set very high, while giving myself more credit for things that seem inconsequential to everyone else.

It’s like that scene from the Matrix. Take the blue pill and walk away. Stay in your comfy world of delusion and die a coward. Or take the red pill, go for the surgery, take your chances and understand that everything that defined you as “you” will die on the table, but YOU, the real you, the stripped down version, may have a chance to go on.

Obviously I lived through it, and I’ve had two more surgeries since then. I’m nearly 2 inches shorter than I was on that day, and over 100 lbs heavier. And no one understand what an accomplishment each day is, except me. In facing my own mortality I realized an astonishing moment of clarity. From that moment on I couldn’t live with the everyday lies most people find comfort in. It’s a strange, lonely way to live, but I’m far more honest – with myself and everyone else – than I would have been otherwise.