Q & A: Do You Believe Bipolar Is Real? If So, Why?

That’s an interesting question.

When I was diagnosed as Bipolar way back when I was initially relieved. Finally there was some way to explain what was happening to me in a way others could understand! But while some understood that a chemical imbalance affects the brain, others completely dismissed the diagnosis. This included some members of my immediate family!

Too often the term “mental illness” is thought to be an excuse, someone covering up an obvious character flaw. I’ve been told (in various ways) that psychiatrists tell patients like me that it’s ok to be a bitch. They are quacks who enable weak minded losers. These are the same people who tell people with Clinical Depression to “cheer up!”, “Look on the bright side!” or “Get over it! Everyone gets depressed!”.

You would never ask someone who is blind if they “believe” they can’t see. You would never tell someone with no legs that they can’t run a marathon because they’re not trying hard enough. You would never tell someone with cancer that it’s all in their head. And yet, this is what someone with an invisible disability deals with every day. It’s not enough that they’ve been diagnosed with a serious illness. They also have to deal with people who reject the very idea of it simply because it can’t be seen.

Bipolar is not a matter of faith.  Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is a mental illness that brings severe high and low moods and changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior. I’m glad you asked.

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Q & A: Does sexual orientation have anything to do with hormone levels?

In a 2008 report, The American Psychiatric Association notes that at present there is no biological (physical) test to determine sexual orientation – this research really hasn’t progressed from then until now. So at the moment the answer is “We really don’t know.” However, psychologically (mentally), most who identify as homosexual report that they “experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” So it’s assumed that the root cause is biological, but the trigger is uncertain.

 

Q&A: What medical condition do you have that you thought was absolutely normal?

Congenital Prosopagnosia aka “Face blindness”.

prosopagnosia

It’s a cognitive disorder that affects perception. I can drive with no problems – I can tell a stop light is red etc. But people are a different story. My mother came to pick me up from the airport once, and yes – I walked right by her.

There are two ways to get this – you’re born with it (like me) or you experience some sort of physical trauma to the brain. The majority of people who have it don’t know it. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” scenarios. I just thought I had a bad memory, because the people I was with could recognize someone across the room or on TV, and I never did. For the longest time I couldn’t tell Brad Pitt apart from Robert Redford, even though Redford is significantly older. Incidentally, Brad Pitt is also face blind. 🙂

100830_r19937_p646

Diane Sawyer once did a program on Prosopagnosia. She started by looking at photos laid out on a table, but they were all upside down. That’s it. The heads pointed town, torso was on top. The psychologist she was with asked her to identify the people in the photos. After a while she asked “Am I supposed to know them? I mean, are they famous or something?” She was assured that under normal circumstances she’d know who they were. Finally she gave up and turned them around. They were photos of her family. That’s EXACTLY what it’s like.

Meeting someone new, especially in a public place, is extremely stressful. I can usually pick up on my mother by her hair cut and posture, or my father by the way he walks. But strangers are the worst. When I was in the ER last time I was seen by several nurses, an intake guy, a few specialists and the paramedics. Not only could I not tell any of them apart, but when some of them came back into the room a second or third time I acted as though that was the first time we’d met. Fortunately word got around that I was face blind, so after a while each one coming back into the room would say “Hi Lisa, I’m XYZ and I was here 20 minutes ago. How do you feel?” I nearly cried I was so grateful!

Fighting the Beast

This is the new “Forward” or “Author’s Note” I’ve written for Fighting the Beast.

I want to talk to you. You picked up this book for a reason. Maybe you thought the cover was interesting, or the title caught your eye. Maybe you went looking specifically for it. No matter how you did it, I’m glad you’re here.

It was a sunny day, I remember that. My doctor left me alone in his office – offering a little private time to collect my thoughts. Only, I didn’t have any thoughts. Every hope or dream I’d ever had derailed during that conversation. My mind was a gerbil wheel, spinning idly without reason or purpose. I walked over to the window and looked down to the street several stories below. There were little bubbles in the glass – unexpected in a high rise. Ordinary people walked down the street as though the world hadn’t just ended. I remember how the thick carpet muffled my steps, I still feel the slightly worn wood of the chair’s arm when I sat down again.

fight yourselfI don’t know how I got home that night. In shock, I don’t really remember anything except feeling somehow unhinged and disconnected. I wasn’t frightened, or angry. I felt almost alien, as though everything about me was distanced and unreal. I was trapped in a thing I had always thought of as “me”. Somehow, in the course of that afternoon, my body became “other”. It was no longer “me” – it was the enemy. Surrounded by my friends, in a city full of people, I’d never felt so alone.

That was the first time I had “the talk” but the worst was yet to come. Between now and then I’ve had that talk twice more. Each time I looked across at a doctor who offered to “give me a moment” so that I could collect myself. I’m starting to get used to it, but it doesn’t get easier.

Have you had “the talk”? You know, the one that changes your entire life? Do you know someone who’s going through it? I know it feels like it, but you’re not alone. I’ve been there. Let’s do this together.

 

No One Dies From Mental Illness

RobinThis morning news has traveled around the globe of the death of Robin Williams.  Already, mixed with the sadness, the “social sneer” has appeared.  Robin Williams was weak.  He was selfish.  How could he do this to his family?  What a jerk, to only think of himself.  On and on. On his death certificate it will read that Robin died from suicide due to asphyxiation.  It will not list the actual cause of death.  Officially no one ever dies from mental illness.

According to the Center for Disease Control 1,500 Americans die every day from cancer.  1 in 4 deaths can be attributed annually to heart disease. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, adults suffering from a serious mental illness die, on average, 25 years before a mentally healthy person.  And yet no one dies from mental illness. 

If someone shoots himself in the head, his cause of death will be “self inflicted gunshot wound”, even though everyone knew he suffered from Depression.  Rather than face the social stigma of a “crazy” diagnosis, some of the mentally ill self-medicate.  If someone drinks themselves to death, the contributing factor will be alcoholism, not schizophrenia.   Obesity is a common side-effect to many psychiatric medications. Cause of death?  Heart attack, not Bipolar.

The idea of how a “Mental Illness” is diagnosed has come under fire of late.  There’s a legitimate debate to be had about exactly what is “mentally ill” in a world of for-profit medicine.  And of course not all alcoholics or obese people are mentally ill.  Right now let’s stay focused on just this fact – no one dies from mental illness.  Which makes the tears of this clown particularly tragic.  If you want to honor this man who brought the world so much happiness, please start a conversation about mental illness.  It’s time to be rid of the social stigma surrounding this issue.

Goodbye Robin Williams. I’ll miss you.

There but for the grace of God

police line

This is the graphic they used in the media when describing my friend

In August 2011 a friend of mine shot and killed her abusive husband.  When she was arrested she was allowed a mental health evaluation only if her own private insurance would pay for it, even though she told them at the time of her arrest that she was mentally ill.

Last November, after a fifteen month wait, she was convicted of “voluntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.”  This was a deal – her original plea was “Guilty but Mentally Ill”.

My family and I have tried for a year and a half to contact her.  Almost everything we sent was returned, though the more expensive items like Christmas gifts simply vanished.  We have no evidence she ever received anything, and never heard a word from her.

Until now.  We’ve received a letter.

It’s nothing fancy.  Just a few lines to let us know she’s surviving.  She wants to tell us what happened, but all her mail is read before it’s sent.  All she could do it tell us that she’s alive, she loves us, and where she was – or at least where she was when the letter was written.

cat heavenIt was enough.  We’ve been in overdrive ever since.  All the letters sent to that address were returned – she was transferred.  Again.  A call to the prison she was sent to resulted in more red tape.  Transferred yet again.  But finally, this morning, I think I have her address.  I spoke to the sweetest lady who was so exasperated.  Not by us – apparently I’m not the first person who called!  But by the system that can’t even give a straight answer about the location of a prisoner.  I *think* I know where she is.

I’m sending her this picture.  She loves cats – she had about a dozen at the time of the shooting.  They’re all gone now, of course, along with everything else she ever knew.

Why did it come to this?  I keep thinking over and over that had things gone slightly different for me, it could be me in that cell, not her.  I’ve been on the wrong side of the locked door 5 times.  But I was always let out in the end.   I got the help I needed.  I was given the time and space to try to heal, without anyone threatening me.  I had a strong support network in my family, and those friends strong enough to remain in my life.

She had no one except a guy who beat her, and her cats.

If “there but for the grace of God” means anything to you, give your family a hug tonight, and an extra cuddle to your pet.  When one is mentally ill, so little stands between you and her fate.

Cheats, liars and frauds

Hello.  My name is Mori.  I am the most articulate homicidal maniac you’ll ever meet.  I suffer from a serious mental illness as well as a crippling physical disability.  And no one believes me.  Why?  Gary Thompson.

“Friendly Lexington beggar is a fraud”

Gary Thompson“Gary Thompson has a mental disability and is confined to a wheelchair — at least that’s what he wants you to believe when he’s begging for money.  In reality, Thompson is a fraud, raking in $60,000-$100,000 per year (so he says) by panhandling in Lexington.

The friendly, recognizable face from some of Lexington’s most popular shopping centers was exposed this week for his money-making scam, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down.  Thompson told LEX 18′s Kristen Pflum he’s “the best” at what he does and plans to continue doing it as long as he’s making money.”

Put another way:

Gary Thompson, Kentucky Beggar Who Fakes Having a Disability, Earns $100,000 a year

One of the last jobs I held I was working commission sales for a food company.  I was driving to meet a potential client when I saw a beggar on the corner.  He had the obligatory sign:

ph “Homeless Vet Anything Helps God Bless!”

I thought to myself “If the people in the car ahead of me gives him something, this guy will have made more today than I probably will.”

Just as I thought that the window slid down and a dollar appeared.  The beggar approached with just the right combination of humility and gratitude, took the cash, and added it to a neatly folded wad in a nylon fanny pack. My sale fell through.  I didn’t make a dime that day.  Was he a fraud?  I’m not prepared to say one way or the other.  Many are, but many are not.

Fake panhandler makes $100,000 a year.  Scumbag or good businessman?

My partner is a college professor.  One of the classes she teaches is Cultural Diversity.  There’s a week dedicated to the disabled.  Every class, the stories are the same.  “My cousin/boyfriend/parent/aunt hasn’t worked in 20 years.  They think the world owes them something.  All they do is fill out some forms and everything’s paid for!”  “I saw a guy begging next to the train station.  At the end of the day he walked over to a nice car and drove away!”  “I HATE Social Security!  I work to pay for those bums.”

hungryI’m sorry.  Yes, you do.  You pay taxes not only to take care of granny and wounded vets, but also so that scumbags can take advantage of the system.  But I pay for it too.  There may come a day when I am confined to a wheelchair.  When I must beg on the streets and hold a cardboard sign.  I’ve even thought what I’d write on it.

“I was like you once.  You might be like me someday.  Please help.”

If the worst case scenario happens, it will have been made even more difficult than it has to be.  Why?  Gary Thompson, and all others like him.

The well-intended, completely pointless TWLOHA movement

I just found out that March 1 is “Self-Injury Awareness Day.”  I thought that was interesting.  March 1st is my biological birthday, and I’ve got hundreds of scars across my arms and legs due to cutting.  I thought I could do an interesting tie-in for a new blog post.

While I was looking up information on “Self-Injury Awareness Day” I saw a link pop up to the “To Write Love On Her Arms” site.  I’ve seen this phrase all over the place.  I had no idea what it meant.  In fact, I thought it had something to do with “Twilight”.  It seemed like something Edward would say to Bella … “I love you SO much I’ll write LOVE on your arms!”  “I love YOU so much I’ll wear LOVE on my arms!”  *shudder*  So I didn’t really look into it.

This morning I followed my nose to the “TWLOHA” site.  The folks running this site seem like very nice people.  Here’s their mission statement:

“To Write Love on Her Arms is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.  TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

Yes.  Very nice.  Pointless, but nice.

And yes, I really do know how that sounds.  So let me clarify – it isn’t pointless to those who wish to offer support.  I’m thrilled they are investing in treatment and recovery.  It’s desperately needed.  But let’s be very specific about what this, and movements like it are.  TWLOHA does not support people who suffer from “depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.”

TWLOHATWLOHA is a support group for supporters.  It’s a place where well-meaning people can join together with like-minded souls to talk about how they want to help people.  And I’m all for that.  Those who suffer benefit from talking to their own kind.  People offering support suffer.   Their job is thankless and so difficult it seems next to impossible.  Talking to other care-givers will help them.

But does it help those who are diagnosed with Depression?  No.  At least, not initially.  Would it help me now?  Over 10 years into my recovery?  Maybe.  I’m seeing a lot of blog posts from people who, like me, used to cut.  I can see the benefit in that case, sharing your stories with others to help them learn, to help you grow.  But for someone actually going through it right now?  No.

Let’s look at the mission statement to see why.  They’re a movement “dedicated to presenting hope…”

STOP.  Right there.  That’s far enough.  If you’re “presenting hope” to care-givers, this is a good thing.  If you’re “presenting hope” to the diagnosed, it’s almost insulting.  I wrote about this before in a larger post.

“Under normal circumstances human beings occasionally suffer from “depression”.  Lower-case “d”.  They’ll get the blues or mope around for no good reason.  They feel sorry for themselves.  They have a bad day now and again. A person with depression can be cheered up by things around them.  If you tell them to “look on the bright side” it makes sense, even if they’re bummed out.

“Depression” (capital “D”), one half of bipolar,  is a non-negotiable chemical imbalance in the brain. It is not a “case of the blues”.  It isn’t a lack of perspective.  Rather, it is the absence of hope.  Depression is physically painful.  The only thing I’ve experienced similar in feel is a car accident.  It causes the entire body to ache, even blinking hurts.  Also, I found that everything seemed heavier, and in some cases I couldn’t lift everyday objects.  Even my own limbs were sometimes too heavy to manage.  Consequences be damned, there was no reason on earth to move, except to try to end the pain.”

The root cause of mental illness is a physical impairment, not a character flaw.

This cheerfully optimistic, determined, extremely well-intended group goes on to say:

“We live in a difficult world, a broken world. My friend Byron is very smart – he says that life is hard for most people most of the time. We believe that everyone can relate to pain, that all of us live with questions, and all of us get stuck in moments. You need to know that you’re not alone in the places you feel stuck.

We all wake to the human condition. We wake to mystery and beauty but also to tragedy and loss. Millions of people live with problems of pain. Millions of homes are filled with questions – moments and seasons and cycles that come as thieves and aim to stay. We know that pain is very real. It is our privilege to suggest that hope is real, and that help is real.

You need to know that rescue is possible, that freedom is possible, that God is still in the business of redemption…”

screamMust.  Control.  Primal.  Scream.

Note to readers – I just deleted my first three attempted responses to this “Vision Statement”.  It has taken me over an hour to write all this.  Please understand I’m REALLY trying here.

Maybe expanding on that idea will help people who are not diagnosed understand why statements like this are so infuriating.

roaring_lionMy hands are shaking.  My heart is pounding.  I feel a tightness in my chest and a sincere desire to physically lash out.  The Beast is clawing inside me, raging for a chance to speak, to howl until it IS heard.  I’m controlling it by an act of will, but I am grateful, so grateful, that my partner isn’t awake yet.  Because of the destruction of our apartment (thank you SO much HOA… that’s another blog post…) her desk is only inches from mine.  She would be very upset to see me so agitated.

But now The Beast within is calming.  He’ll have his chance to speak.  My heart is slowing, though my chest still aches from the attempt.  I don’t need to take my blood pressure, I know it’s still through the roof.  But it’s getting better.

Ok, folks.  You may not have understood that reaction, but rest assured it’s very real.  I will do my best to explain.

hulkThe fury within me is the definition of Bipolar.  When the fury lashes out I’m in manic phase, as I am right now.  When it turns inward, that’s Depression.  But, like the Hulk, the fury is always present.  And the best way to trigger it is to attempt to invalidate my struggle.  Especially by telling me that if I just see things from a different angle I’ll suddenly cheer up and understand the light at the end of the tunnel.

TWLOHA is the finest example of that I’ve seen in quite a while.

“You were created to love and be loved.”  Thank you.  I know that, you really don’t need to tell me.

“You were meant to live life in relationship with other people, to know and be known.”  I know that too.  The fact that you put this in a vision statement tells me that you do not understand why a person suffering from Depression pulls away from the world.  If only you remind me that I should be in a relationship with others, I’ll suddenly say “ooooh, wow, I never thought of it like that before!”  Really.  No.  People with Depression pull away from the world because of the cataclysmic lack of understanding, combined with well-meaning people who try to offer us a “perspective check”.

“You need to know that your life matters”.  My eyebrow is starting to twitch.

“We live in a difficult world, a broken world.”  And?

“My friend Byron is very smart – he says that life is hard for most people most of the time.”  Good for Byron.  If I meet him I’ll give him a gold star and a cookie.

“We believe that everyone can relate to pain, that all of us live with questions, and all of us get stuck in moments.”  That’s nice.  In return, I believe that if you have never suffered from Depression (as opposed to “depression”) you can not relate to the pain I feel, as it is utterly irrational.  It is based on a chemical imbalance in the brain that does not allow me to operate as a typical human being would.  I do not suffer from a lack of perspective.  To say that Depression is similar to being “stuck in a moment” is like telling a blind person that they just need a fresh perspective and they’ll suddenly see the colors of the rainbow.

(I’ll skip the next paragraph – I’m sure you get it by now)

“You need to know that rescue is possible, that freedom is possible, that God is still in the business of redemption.”

WHAT?

sugar-addicts-total-recovery-program-kathleen-desmaisons-paperback-cover-artThis is NOT a 12-step program.  If I just cast my doubts aside, my worries to the wind and believe in a power greater than my own, I’ll somehow, suddenly understand hope?  That doesn’t even work for addicts, as most of them are also caused by a chemical imbalance – EXACTLY like mental illness.  Look up “sugar addiction“.  You’ll see what I mean.

Please try to understand.  Please.  I know you’re trying hard, members of TWLOHA.  I really appreciate the effort.  But… there’s a commercial out there that has a person stranded on the side of the road.  They call for a tow truck, a pizza delivery guy shows up.  Please try to understand I do not need pizza.  You can bake the most delicious pies all day long.  They’re lovely.  They’re yummy.  But I’ve still got a flat tire.  No matter how fabulous your pie is, what I really need is a mechanic.

I do not need a “Perspective check”.  I need a doctor.

Get it?

lovePS – My partner woke up as I was editing this post.  She asked what was going on.  When she saw me turning colors she patiently sat down and listened to me read the entire post aloud.  Then she nodded and offered thoughtful suggestions about how I could make it better.  That’s how you do it folks.  That’s how you make it through the day.  She is love.   No writing of arms required.

Oh, those wacky bipolar performances!

In a recent article I addressed the challenges of “coming out” in public.  Do you tell people you’re mentally ill and face the resulting backlash?  Or do you pretend that everything is normal while still displaying symptoms?  Neither seem like a good option, and there’s no third choice.  I’ve also mentioned how much I admire Carrie Fisher (as well as many others who speak in public about mental illness).  Her straightforward attitude regarding her struggles gives me a great deal of courage.

carrie fisherMs. Fisher was briefly hospitalized recently after an incident on a cruise ship.  According to reports she appeared drunk, her behavior erratic.  Was she drunk?  Maybe.  Or she might have been on one of any number of mood-altering drugs commonly prescribed to bipolar patients.   Look at these headlines:

Carrie Fisher Heads To The Hospital After Her Wacky Bipolar Performance On A Cruise Ship! (Perez Hilton)

Carrie Fisher briefly hospitalized after bipolar episode during bizarre performance on cruise ship (NY Daily News)

Vs.

Carrie Fisher briefly hospitalized (CBS News)

Carrie Fisher discharged from hospital after bipolar episode on cruise ship (Toronto Sun)

Arg.

I can not speak for Carrie Fisher.  But I have taken a drink more than once. I don’t like alcohol and I hardly ever drink socially.  But when the anxiety of a manic phase becomes too much, when the buzzing gets too bad, I have few options.  Narcotics?  Sure.  I have bottles full of the things, a different color for every occasion.  Problem is, one pill can last for hours, sometimes days, long after the symptoms have worn off.  In almost all cases the side effects from a tranquilizer are much worse than the symptoms of mania.

bacardiberry5 Alternative?  A shot of Bacardi.  I was doing that LONG before I was diagnosed – all through college in fact.  For a while I was worried about becoming an alcoholic.  I used to just grab a fifth and down a few swigs.  Yeah, Janice Joplin lite.  The effect is nearly immediate, it doesn’t last nearly as long as pills, and I can FUNCTION.  The buzzing emotions calm down.  Now that they’ve started flavoring the rums, it almost tastes good.  Sort of.

Of course, there are a few downsides to this.  Empty calories for a start.  During my heavy drinking period I pudged out quite a bit.  Not pretty.  And, of course, alcohol is addictive.  Once you reach the point of addiction any benefit a person may receive from doing a shot is negated.  Now you have two problems – you’re still bipolar and now you’re an alcoholic.  Joy.

There’s also a third downside which only becomes apparent as the cycle progresses.  I only need to drink when I’m manic.  I get the jitters, I start to spaz, I need to calm down  fast.  But when the mania phases into depression… then what?  I start to feel awful, I reach for a shot.  And I immediately feel worse.  What makes the manic phase bearable makes the depressive phase a living hell.  But it’s not always obvious when the phases have switched, except in retrospect.

 
we Carrie Fisher, wherever you are this morning, I salute you.  As always you give me courage.  Courage to write, to get the word out, to continue to champion the cause of those who struggle with mental illness.  It’s not a sexy fight, but hey – someone has to do it.

I am not the back end of a rabbit.

It makes me crawl the walls when I hear someone in public use words such as “retard” (or any of the recent delightful variations).  But when someone in the profession does it?  I’m livid.  Their reaction is always the same.  I’m either “acting out” or I need to “get over myself”.  Finally – here’s my take on it.  I LOVE this article.  Thank you so much to Kathy Day for posting this!

“I am not a Scut.  Or Daffy.  Or Schizo.”