Thursday, April 30, 2009

Bipolar Friendships

In response to an earlier post, Kelly wrote, "How does a person with bipolar disorder make friends? My moods aren't exactly conducive to deep meaningful relationships. I'll go through a stretch when being with another person is the last thing I want. Then, of course, the poles swing and I suddenly seek contact with the outside world. My biggest question is always how to explain these mood swings, and whether an explanation is even necessary. I don't think I could trust anyone knowing I have bpd."

Dear Kelly,
This is a great question, and I appreciate your bringing it up. I can only present my own opinion on this, but I'm hoping my readers will respond to you as well.

In my case, since I wasn't diagnosed until I was 43, it wasn't a problem for most of my life. I have always found it relatively easy to make friends. And by the time I was diagnosed, I had a core of friends from my youth whom I had known for many years.

I had other friends whom I'd made in a wide variety of different careers, but I found that because of the competition in the industries in which I worked, I considered them more acquaintances than friends.

And while I had suffered depressive episodes for much of my adult life, the episodes weren't that disruptive to relationships. After my diagnosis, and the subsequent medication-merry-go-round, the erratic behavior that was medication induced, and the extended length of the depressions (also medication-induced), things changed.

For the last 15 years, I've had a real problem making new friends because I've been so depressed for such extended periods, and/or I alternated between depressions and hypomanias.

However, in my own case, I have been very open with long-term friends about my bipolarity. Since they had known me for so many years--the diagnosis meant nothing to them or to me. What was difficult was that once the depressions got so much worse and remained so for months at a time, I disappeared from sight.

While I know there are others who find it easier to be with people during a depressive episode, I've never been comfortable trying to make conversation when I feel so miserable that I can barely speak. And I have always found it difficult to pretend I'm interested in people's lives when it takes all of my energy just to survive.

However, again I'm not representative because I'm medication-resistant, and for years I had no relief at all from a series of increasingly devastating depressions.

Still, as I've written before, for most of my life, I tried very hard to communicate with my friends on a few levels. First, when I could feel a depression on the horizon--and since mine do last for months at a time--I would email them and let them know what was going on. I explained that I don't talking on the telephone when I'm depressed, but if I felt well enough I would respond to emails, and if I didn't--I wouldn't.

But, the moment I felt better--even if it took six months--I'd email and say, "I'm back." And I'd call people and invite them to the house for a meal or make a plan to see them. I'd try very hard to find out what happened to them during my absence, and to send belated cards for significant milestones in their lives. I tried to listen more than I talked, although I wasn't always successful.

While some friendships have waned, I have a core of people who remain friends. And now that I'm feeling so much better, I've begun meeting people again. The easiest way for me to find people I like--since I worked as a freelance writer for so many years (which is a very solitary occupation) and I'm now semi-retired--is to meet them in classes or through activities that interest me.

Currently, I'm taking a gardening class and a digital photography class. I've signed up to volunteer at my local animal shelter. I'm also volunteering at a local community garden, and I'm involved in a program at UCLA, which is my alma mater. Soon, I plan on participating in sports once again, and playing music at a senior citizen facility.

When I meet new people, I don't initially tell them I'm bipolar because it doesn't seem any more appropriate than having them tell me they're divorced, going to AA, or that they have diabetes. However, once we develop a friendship, I usually do disclose my bipolarity. The reason is because as far as I'm concerned, my behavior is "normal," although I still do suffer from periodic depressions--and I need to explain my absences without hurting their feelings.

I'm not sure if this is the best tact to take or not. And perhaps others will have different advice. But, while I spent years worrying that I wasn't a good friend to my friends because of my absences, I have finally realized that friends of mine--who are more available than I am--have other qualities that I don't particularly like. So, things even out.

I believe the only way to have good friends is to be a good friend. And without friends, life isn't at satisfying, as least to me.

I hope this is helpful. I also hope that others will provide guidance as well.

Warmly,

Susan

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When Our Doctors Disappoint Us

Although I had promised Kelly who wrote a comment on an earlier post about friendship that I would explore that subject further today, it will have to wait until tomorrow. The problem is that after reading Gianna's post, Another Doc Bites the Dust, I've felt so sad that I need to write about my feelings in order to let go of them.

While I hope this doesn't sound like I'm cynical, because I truly am not, if there's anything I've learned from bipolarity, it's that I can't trust my psychiatrists and other so-called healers. During the very sickest period of my life--which was unequivocally caused by toxic medications--I was stunned by the breadth and depth of their deceit and lack of willingness to assume responsibility for the condition they had wrought!

As I have mentioned before, pre-diagnosis, which was a period of 25 years after my first depressive episode, I suffered two semiannual six-week depressive episodes. Once I began taking medication, I went from feeling depressed a total of 85 days a year to feeling so physically ill and emotionally shattered for 365 days a year that I barely survived my first year-long depression.

When I think back, I am speechless at the thought of such a quick and dramatic downhill slide. I can't imagine why I didn't stop taking the medication from the get-go. But, I strongly remember (and I have copious notes confirming this) my psychiatrist saying over and over, "If you're bipolar, you need to be on medication for the rest of your life. And your decline is caused by so many years of untreated depressions."

Of course, in retrospect what Dr. R said doesn't make sense at all. If, previous to taking medication, I was well for 280 days a year--and once I went on mood stabilizers I was ill 365 days a year--then any sane person would conclude it was the medication, not the illness.

Yet, after taking medication for only a few months, I felt worse when I tried to stop taking it. And my psychiatrist kept on blaming my untreated depressions rather than the medication for my condition. Because the Internet was in its infancy, it was difficult to get information about other people's experiences. And, I could find no books that provided any success stories of people who had successfully gone off drugs.

And the worse I felt, the more drugs my psychiatrists gave me. Over a ten-year period, four psychiatrists prescribed 25 different medications in different combinations and dosages, including: Abilify, Adderall, Ativan, Buspar, Celexa, Concerta, Cymbalta, Depakote, Effexor, Geodon, Klonopin, Lamictal, Lexapro, Lithium, Neurontin, Parnate, Prozac, Seroquel, Strattera, Tegretol, Topamax, Trileptal, Wellbutrin, Zoloft, and Zyprexa.

And I experienced the attendant side effects, including anxiety, blurred vision, confusion, cognitive memory loss, diarrhea, dry mouth, hair loss, erratic behavior, exaggerated response to stress, hand tremors, headaches, insomnia, irritability, rapid cycling, a severe rash, shortness of breath, slowed mental functioning, slurred speech, vomiting, weight gain, and so much more.

The medications made the depressions far worse, and produced hypomanic behavior I'd never experienced before. For six years, all I did was cycle from depression to hypomania and back again.

It's difficult to describe the depth of problems all of this caused. But I was so sick so much of the time that death would have seemed like a viable alternative. It seemed as if the medication destroyed everything I love. I had always been a successful person with high self-esteem. And when erratic behavior and cognitive memory issues destroyed my career, I was devastated.

The strain on my husband caused atrial fibrillation, and high blood pressure. We had terrible financial problems due to the loss of my salary, the cost of health insurance, and the fact that so little of my treatment was covered. The length of the illness and its severity destroyed friendships and family relationships.

But, for me, the very worst thing of all was the impact on my son (whom I love more than life itself). I was sick for much of his childhood and my illness affected every aspect of our lives. It's too painful for me to recount, but my inability to forgive my doctors and my rage at the incompetence of the treatment protocol are due to my feelings of loss and grief regarding my son's childhood.

Because I couldn't find the help I needed within psychiatry, I pursued a number of alternative practitioners--some of whom are quite well-known--and the level of their deceit was even worse than my doctors (although there was no residual damage to my system). As I read about these people getting grants from medical centers or going on Oprah and being written about in such positive ways, a part of me badly wants to "name names."

I want to shout out, "The acupuncturist who you are currently funding (ten years after I saw him), promised me that if I came to him for 13 sessions, and bought all the herbs he gave me that I brewed for tea, he could eliminate my depressions. And it was an out and out lie. In my experience--and with all the research I've done--I believe that acupuncture is most effective for musculoskeletal problems. There is no conclusive evidence that it works for depression.

I want to write to Oprah and say, "The holistic psychiatrist who's been on your show is perhaps the worst charlatan I've ever seen. During one of the most painful depressive episodes of my life, she charged me $400 for a consultation and another $157 for vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, and never once looked me in the eye as she was asking me the most stupid questions I'd ever heard. She's totally clueless about depression, and her entire process is a sham."
And there are so many more stories I could share that tears are running down my face as I write this.
So, when I read that Gianna's doctor wanted to give her Cortisol despite the fact that her research suggested it would be harmful for her, and she had repeatedly told him she felt that way, and he kept on insisting she needed it until she raised her voice, and then he hung up on her, I knew exactly how she felt.

Over time, I learned what it's like to be desperately ill, and yet feel abandoned by a wide range of so-called healers. My psychiatrists weren't interested in how painful and long-lasting the depressions had become, or how horrible the medication was. Their answer to everything was to throw more medication at me. The alternative folks were happy to take my money, and provide no relief whatsoever.

After years of struggling, and feeling worse and worse, I finally lost hope. The only reason I was able to survive is because I would never abandon my son. And, slowly I began finding people online like Gianna and so many others who were in the same situation, and I realized that if our doctors couldn't help us, perhaps we could help each other.

While I am now able to control my anger about what happened to me for so many years, it is far more difficult for me to control my sadness. And perhaps that's okay.

If a treatment protocol makes us sicker rather than better, I believe it's important to speak out. If we feel that our psychiatrists are using us as guinea pigs, we must speak out. If we believe that alternative healers are being dishonest, we must say so.

Because if we don't bear witness to what's happened to us, it will happen to others. And truthfully, if I felt my silence would cause someone else to experience the pain and suffering that I have had to withstand, I couldn't live with myself.

(As a follow-up, I'd urge you to read Gianna's post today. She mentions it in her comment, but it's something you really don't want to miss.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Post for Left-Handed BIPS (Part 2)

In Goggling "left-hand bipolar," I was surprised to read that other BIPS (bipolar people) have wondered if there's a connection. In forums, most people just wrote things like, "I'm left-handed and have read there is more mental illness among left-handed people. Are you left-handed?" Others replied and affirmed they either were left-handed or weren't. So, there was no real value for me.

However, I did find a very interesting article, Left Hand, Left Brain: The Plot Thickens, written by Carolyn Asbury in 2005. She writes:
Knowing that each side (hemisphere) of the brain controls movements of the opposite side of the body, some scientists have looked to handedness to yield clues to how the hemispheres function. Adding greatly to the interest are reports that three times as many left-handed people have schizophrenia, bipolar disease, or autism as would be expected from the prevalence of left-handedness in the population at large. A disproportionately high prevalence of left-handedness has been found, as well, in people with dyslexia and stuttering, in people with math and music prowess, and among people in intellectually demanding professions. But, not surprisingly, some of the proposed linkages have been challenged by other studies that use different designs, so scientists are left without definitive answers.
According to Asbury, much of the research on hemisphere dominance, handedness, and ability and disability was done by two Harvard researchers Norman Geschwind, M.D. and Albert Galaburda, M.D. They found that non-right-handedness (I'm assuming they mean left-handed people and those who are ambidextrous) was more common in architects and in children who were mathematically gifted. Left-handed males had more incidence of autism and learning disabilities. Autoimmune diseases and juvenile diabetes was more prevalent in left-handers. Their conclusion was that "left-handedness is a marker of the brain's normal asymmetry of the hemisphere."
So, how does all this relate to being a left-handed BIP?
I spent a long time reading the rest of Asbury's article and I couldn't figure it out. She writes paragraph after paragraph about the research done by geneticist Amar Klar, Ph.D. at the National Cancer Institute. But I could neither synthesize the information nor understand what it truly meant. So, I Goggled Klar and found the following abstract from a lecture, Genetics on Human Handedness, Schizophrenia, and Bipolar Traits.

"The causes of human hand-use preference, and the psychiatric diseases of schizophrenia and bipolar remain unknown. Our population studies have suggested that a single gene, Rght1, makes one a right-hander and those with both copies of the nonfunctional r (for random) allele are a fifty-fifty mixture of left/ambidextrous and right-handers. This same genetic mechanism also controls the development of clockwise vs. counterclockwise direction of rotation of scalp hair whorl on the top of our heads.

"Handedness genetics must have evolved in humans so that most right-handers develop language processing in the left brain hemisphere and left-handers are fifty-fifty in developing language in either hemisphere. Also it is known that psychosis patients are three times more likely to be lefties as compared with the general public, thus there is weak connection between handedness and schizophrenia and bipolar diseases. Our recent work has suggested that psychosis results strictly from genetics, possibly due to anomalies of the asymmetric development of brain hemispheres."
What does this mean? For me, it means absolutely nothing.
While research like this is interesting, I imagine you can take any premise, research it, and come to some conclusion. While some people believe that the future of "finding a cure" for bipolar disorder will result from brain research, I'm not sure it will. And even if it does, it won't happen for years, and will have no affect for me because I'll be long gone.

If I were the Bipolar Wellness Czar, I would focus my resources on providing people with the help they need on a daily basis. I would care more about insurance parity than genetic research. I would provide more funding for researchers who are interested in helping people survive--and flourish--on a daily basis than for those whose research will possibly help others who have yet to be born.

Actually, I'd probably provide more funding for BIPs themselves rather than for researchers. I'd support bipolar bloggers so they could help others and make a living do so.

I'd enable every BIP the ability to take free personality testing to determine whether introversion is a common trait, and whether they need more help dealing with extroverts than with their gene pool. I'd provide people with the counseling they need at an affordable cost, and I'd also provide free exercise programs, nutritional counseling, and so much more. But, that's the subject of another post!

P.S. Mariposa continued yesterday's dialogue in her blog, Mariposa's Tales. You might want to check it out!

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Post for Left-Handed People (Part 1)

In Mariposa's comment about yesterday's post, in which I linked to a 20-question free brain test, which allegedly (I truly have no idea how accurate it is) might help us determine whether we have a dominant left brain or right brain, she mentioned she's left-handed. So am I. And, for the first time in many years I wondered how being left-handed affects us.

When I was a child, from kindergarten on I knew I was different. When my teacher tried to force me to "saw wood" with my right hand, my mother came to school and told her she didn't want her to change me to become a right-hander. As I remember, I think my mom thought that perhaps she had been changed as a child, but I can't remember why.

When I was learning how to write, I realized there were no other left-handed children in my elementary school class. When the teacher demonstrated how to write on the blackboard (every single day), she would say, "Susan, it's the same for you; just use your other hand." In fact, it wasn't the same for me. But, I worked very hard to develop good penmanship.

As a left-handed person in a right-handed world, we learn to adjust, but some things are more difficult than others. As I remember, cutting with right-handed scissors was never easy (these days you can easily find left-handed ones). Writing in spiral notebooks was clumsy at first. There was a problem with school desks, but I adapted. I'm sure there's a lot more, but I guess I just adapted without thinking about it.

While I'm a good athlete, this is one of the few areas in which I play different sports with different hands. I play tennis with my left-hand, and it was always an advantage because most people I played were right-handed and they were used to playing right handers. I play golf with my right because my grandmother taught me, and I used her clubs. My father taught me how to bat a baseball and throw a ball, so I do them both as a left-hander. But I learned how to bowl (a sport I rarely do) as a right-hander because there weren't left-handed bowling balls (unless you owned your own one) when I was a kid.

In music, I was taught to play the violin (my first instrument) as a right hander, and I was so awful at it that I quit within a year. Yet, I was also taught to play the guitar right-handed and I'm fine. In a way, I figured it was an advantage to use my left hand for chords. As an adult, I chose to learn to play the ukulele as a right-hander.

Of course, it doesn't surprise me that most equipment is made for right-handed people. When we recently bought a chain-saw because I was cutting some trees in our backyard, I never thought to look online for a left-handed one, and it's a bit tricky for me. But, I don't see a problem with our power drill, or sander.

The real question is: Am I having difficulty learning how to knit because I've never been able to learn, or is it a left-handed issue? I guess I'll have to read Karen's Left-Handed Knitting Page to find out.

Tomorrow, I plan on writing more about how being left-handed affects us. But, in the meantime, you might want to check out a great site: The Left-Handed Page by Rosemary West. And, just for a teaser, I've provided a few facts.

*Between 13-30 percent of the population is left-handed.

*Earlier studies suggested that right-handers live 9 years longer than left-handers, but a 1994 study by geographer Peter Rogerson suggests it's only one year longer.

*Yes, Barack Obama is left-handed. Other famous left-handers (and I've decided to give you an eclectic list) include: Joan of Arc, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Helen Keller, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, James Baldwin, H.G. Wells, Judy Garland, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Cole Porter, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert DeNiro, Greta Garbo, Oprah Winfrey, and so many more.

Question: Are you left-handed? How has it affected you?

P.S. The graphic is from Anything Left-Handed, a store in the United Kingdom.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Are You a Left-Brain or a Right-Brain Person?

Yesterday, I spent three and a half hours in a nursery with my gardening glass. When I came home, I was tired in a good way. And it felt like my brain was relaxed in the same way it is when I play musical instruments, engage in sports, spend time in nature, or take photographs.

I decided it was because I utilize a different side of my brain with those activities. I have always thought of myself as a left-brain dominant person and a visual learner. Just for fun, I Googled "left-brain and right-brain" to see what I could learn, and found a free brain test, which I took. The first-time results were 64% auditory and 35% visual (a huge surprise), but 72% left-brain and 27% right-brain with the following summary:

Susan, you are mildly left-hemisphere dominant while showing a slight preference for auditory processing. This overall combination seems to indicate a well-working blend of logic and judgment and organization, with sufficient intuition, perception and creativity to balance that dominance.

You will at times experience conflict between how you feel and what you think which will generally be resolved in favor of what you think. You will find yourself interested in the practical applications of whatever material you have learned or whatever situation you face and will retain the ability to refine whatever knowledge you possess or aspects of whatever position you are in.

By and large, you will orient yourself toward intellectual activities and structure. Though not rigid, you will schedule yourself, plan, and focus on routine and continuity of operations, rather than on changes and disruptions

When changes or disruptions occur, you are likely to consider first how to ensure that such disruptions do The same balance is reflected in your sensory preference. You will tend to be reflective and measured in your interaction style. For the most part, you will be considered objective without being cold and goal-oriented while retaining the capacity to listen to others.

Preferentially you learn by listening and maintaining significant internal dialogues with yourself. Nevertheless, you have sufficient visualization capabilities to benefit from using graphs, charts, doodles, or even body movement to enhance your comprehension and memory.

To the extent that you are even implicitly aware of your hemispheric dominance and sensory style, you will feel most comfortable in those arenas which emphasize verbal skills and logic. Teaching, law, and science are those that stand out among the professions, along with technical sales and management.


Since I am so sure I'm a visual learner, I retook the test, and only changed the answers in which I had debated between two possibilities. This time, the results were 50% visual and 50% auditory, and 65% left-brain and 34% right-brain with the following summary:

Susan, you are somewhat left-hemisphere dominant with a balanced preference for auditory and visual inputs. Because of your "centrist" tendencies, the distinctions between various types of brain usage are somewhat blurred.

Your tendency to be organized and logical and attend to details is reasonably well-established which should afford you success regardless of your chosen field of endeavor, unless it requires total spontaneity and ability to improvise, your weaker traits. However, you are far from rigid or overcontrolled. You possess a degree of individuality, perceptiveness, and trust in your intuition to function at much more sophisticated levels than most.

Having given sufficient attention to detail, you can readily perceive the larger aspects and implications of a situation or of learning. You are functional and practical, but can blend abstraction and theory into your framework readily.

The equivalence of your auditory and visual learning orientation gives you two equally effective sensory input systems, each with distinctive features. You can process both unidimensionally and multidimensionally with equal facility. When needed, you sequence material while at other times you "intake it all" and store it for processing later.

Your natural ability to use your senses is also synthesized in your way of learning. You can be reflective in your approach, absorbing material in a non-aggressive manner, and at other times voracious in seeking out stimulation and experience.

Overall you tend to be somewhat more critical of yourself than is necessary and avoid enjoying life too much because of a sense of duty. You feel somewhat constrained and tend to sometimes restrict your expressiveness. In any given situation, you will opt for the rational, and learning of almost any type should be easy for you. You might need certain ideas explained to you in order to fit them into your scheme of things, but you're at least open to that!


Needless to say, it was food for thought. If you decide to take the test, not only is the summary interesting, but if you review the questions, it will explain how they rate the answers.

Questions for today: Are you a left-brain or a right-brain dominant person? An auditory or visual learned? Did the answers of the test surprise you?

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Brief Respite

I'm off for a few days, and decided to delete my last post (although I really appreciate the support). I thought you might enjoy a few photographs from my class, Gardening Practices and Techniques as well as those from the Learning Garden where we have our gardening plots. See you Monday!
My plot, although I've moved the signage.

California Native Plants

Cactus

Learning Garden master gardener David King

My teacher, Nancy Harrington, landscape contactor extraordinaire

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Support Groups

I wonder if this is a type of support group too. It sure made me laugh. I found it on Cute Overboard.

According to Anne Harrington, author of The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, the value of support groups for cancer survivors was heralded by Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford University. He and Dr. Irving Yalom (a colleague) had conducted a study in 1989, which determined that women with late-stage metastatic breast cancer who participated in a support group lived on average twice as long as those in control groups.
"It was the first time a randomized clinical trial--the gold standard of medical research--had ever been used to test the power of healing ties."
This wasn't surprising information. I'd read about Spiegel's study in the Bill Moyers' book, Healing and the Mind, which was based on the blockbuster PBS television special.

What was surprising to me was that the evidence from the original study has never been replicated. And that is a stunning realization. One of the reasons I started this blog was because I believe that we can help each other heal.

As I read further, the following paragraph provided me with a lot to think about. When Dr. Spiegel arranged for Harrington to visit the original support group, she asked the following question: "Living this particular 'healing ties' story from the inside, did they believe it? Did they think it was helping them live longer?"

Harrington said she will never forget what happened when she asked the question. There was silence until a number of women said they didn't believe the premise of the study. The reason why was because so many women in their group had died.

However, one woman said, "It would be nice if David's hypothesis proves out and maybe it will in the long run. But I don't think it matters to me at all. That's not why I joined this group."

When Harrington asked why she and the others were in the group, the women said "they stayed in the group because they learned there, from one another, how to live with cancer and how to die better with cancer, something they could learn nowhere else in our culture."
And I realized that is the reason why I continue writing this blog. I believe that illness enables us to look at our lives more honestly, and to speak more openly about important life issues. Perhaps if I had never suffered from depression, my life would have remained largely unexamined.
It's difficult to tell. But, what I do know is that is that being ill has enabled me to be with people who are ill. Surviving debilitating depressions has given me the ability to empathize with others who have suffered losses.

As I am trying to be more forgiving these days, I realize that I can finally forgive my mother's friends who abandoned her when she got Dementia, and moved into the assisted living facility.

At the time I found their behavior inexplicable, and so very disappointing. Two years later, I feel sad for them. What kind of people abandon a friend they have known and loved for most of their lives? Why didn't they know that while mother may not have remembered what she'd eaten for breakfast that morning, she retained most of the memories from her life, except recent ones.

Where was their compassion?

In my forgiveness mode, I pity my mother's friends. Whatever prompted their behavior, they missed out on the last years of my mother's life. They missed her smile, her sparkling blue eyes, and her love--which never diminished. And I'm so grateful that I didn't.

It was a blessing that I could be there for her. She lives forever in my heart. And I'm sorry for people who were either so frightened of their own mortality, or of illness, that they lost their humanity.

If that's one of the lessons I've learned from bipolarity, and from our discussions with each other, it's another reason to feel grateful!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Healing from Despair (Part 2)

What Rabbi Eli Spitz said in Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World that made such a difference to me is this:

"Losses impose heavy burdens upon us. Under the weight of the burdens we may find ourselves in a deep, dark, lonely place. This book is about the experience of loss when it becomes utterly overwhelming. This book tells how, amid the shattered bits of our broken selves we can uncover divine sparks, and with them bring light to others. This book acknowledges that even in the grip of suffering we can choose: choose to listen to the message of hope, choose to craft our identity, choose to accept a worldview of faith in the good of the world, and choose to discuss our calling in healing the world..."

"As shattered vessels we hold fast to shards that can reflect the light of a good world into the dark corners of souls in despair. Our experiences in a place of darkness leave us forever changed, mindful of the comfort a listener can bring. Our time spent suffering teaches us that a thoughtful listener can lighten the burdens that overwhelm us. Our own moments of pain show us that a caring listener is a blessing. Through our own despair, we may become a source of comfort and hope to others. In the words of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, this simple but paradoxical truth is expressed as follows:
"Showing others who suffer how we were given help is the very thing which makes life so worthwhile to us now. Cling to the thought that, in God's hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have--the key to life and happiness for others. With it, you can avert death and "misery for them."
What it means to me is this: Rather than grieving for all the years I lost due to repeated depressive episodes, I no longer have to feel the losses has been in vein. The very fact that I've survived is enough.

And rather than dwelling on whatever I feel I haven't accomplished, I can offer great thanks for what I have. To know that beneath my darkness, misery, and loneliness are "divine sparks," that will "lighten the burden of others" is a true blessing. And for that I can be deeply grateful!

FYI...On Beyond Meds, I just read a wonderful article called The Value of Depression by retired psychologist Al Galves. I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Healing from Despair (Part 1)

Sometimes I pick up a book that provides exactly the information I need to read, and I am always so grateful. The day before my birthday, I found a book called, Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz, and it's been illuminating.

Independent of one's faith, Rabbi Spitz is one of the only writers I've ever read on this subject whose feelings truly resonate with mine. And perhaps the reason is because he has experienced such a deep case of depression (caused by meningitis and viral encephalitis when he was 27 and a practicing attorney) that when he returned to work he felt he "was no longer whole, that I was in some sense broken, that I was forever altered."
These are almost the exact words I used when I experienced my first depressive episode as an 18-year-old college freshman.
While Rabbi Spitz wasn't sure at the time why the illness caused his decline, he knew his ability to concentrate was impaired. "I found myself angry, filled with fear, and increasingly isolated."

Ultimately, he quit his job, sold his possessions, and fled to Tahiti. "Perhaps in choosing to travel so far to an unknown locale, I was trying to flee myself. I had no clue that within a year, I would have spiraled down into utter darkness, leading to a series of hospitalizations in mental hospitals."
In the same way, I finally quit college for a year and traveled for six months to Europe and Israel, and then worked for a political campaign before returning to school, but my feelings of despair were unrelenting.
Elsewhere in the book, Spitz writes, "For me, my spirit was weakened by meningitis and encephalitis, but I already carried burdens--how to realize my parent's dreams, how to make my life purposeful--that had compromised my strength before I became ill. Because I had not learned to understand those burdens, I found I could not bear the additional weight from the illness.

"When we experience loss, the injury may leave us more compromised than before. Life can weaken us, leaving us in pain, exhausted, and self-pitying, when we are carrying beyond our capacity. Our hurt becomes anger, and when bottled up inside, that anger may lead to destructive behavior. Our unaddressed resentment is expressed as hostility, violence, and isolation.

"The longer we carry the weight of unexamined losses, the heavier they become. Through the experience of processing, of coming to understand the sources and manifestations of our pain, we lighten our load and become stronger. We find our capacity for healing, for forgiving, and ultimately for understanding the blessings that come from despair."

(to be continued)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Watering as Therapy

While I usually don't post on the weekends, today is my day to water all the gardening plots for my class. For the first few weeks, they need watering every day, and each of us are now volunteer waterers. As my gardening teacher explained it, since the area hasn't been worked for a year, we'll need to water a lot for the first week. And we have about 30 plots at the Learning Garden. So, I've decided that perhaps watering other people's garden plots could be construed as Watering Therapy (although I don't plan on carrying an umbrella like the woman in the image from Corbis).

A few days ago, my son bought a new iPod and gave me his old one, which he loaded with some of the music I like. When I come up with a list, and/or give him CDs, he'll add more. iPods are the one technology I know nothing about. At one time or another, I've ranted that kids (and adults) who go through life wearing earphones are missing out on connecting with other people, eavesdropping on conversations (which, as a writer, I would terribly miss), and so much more. But, when I put on the earphones the other day, slipped the iPod in my pocket, and silently sang along with Bob Dylan, I decided that maybe I've been too harsh, and perhaps listening to music might be a component of water therapy.

FYI...Last night after entertaining friends, I couldn't fall asleep for hours. In my sleepless state, I found a bunch of blogs about nature and gardening that I genuinely liked...at least at first glance. So, here are a few recommendations:

Tom Mangan of Two-Wheel Drive (a blog I do know and like) has written a great post on Hiking as Therapy.

While Phillip Oliver's Dirt Therapy isn't truly about horticultural therapy, he has created a beautiful garden in Northwest Alabama, and his photographs of flowers should make you smile.

Donnie MacKay's photographs of Hebrides at Photo Hebrides are wonderful.

Caroline from Caroline at Coastcard [Land and Lit] and I share two interests and she also posts some lovely photos.

And the four women who write Garden Rant usually make me smile because they're so opinionated and so very knowledgeable about gardening.

Have a lovely weekend!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Wellness Activity: Gardening

Last night at my gardening class, I planted my very first garden in a 6' x 10' plot at the Learning Garden. It's an herb garden with ten different herbs, two different kinds of flowers, a potted plant as a centerpiece, and a home-made wooden sign by my husband, which says "Susan's Herb Garden." I had intended to show you a photograph, but it will have to wait until Saturday.

What I'm enjoying so much about gardening--which is a brand new hobby--is that I'm so totally engrossed in it that I think of nothing else. I'm learning a tremendous amount from my teacher, and fellow students. And it's so far afield from anything I've done before that I feel there's an entire world out there to explore.

While I'm too tired to write much else, I thought I'd leave you with a few quotes about gardening.

"Gardens are a form of autobiography."
~Sydney Eddison, Horticulture magazine

"You can bury a lot of troubles digging in the dirt."
Author unknown

"Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination."
~Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897

"The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth."
~Dorothy Frances Gurney, Garden Thoughts


I hope everyone has a healthy and happy weekend!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Do We Wear Out Our Friends?

Because a friend had a "friendship problem," I spent yesterday thinking about the impact of bipolarity on friends.

When I began the medication-merry-go-round fifteen years ago, I always made it a point to call my friends as soon as a depressive episode was over to say, "I'm back." I tried very hard to be responsive to their needs, I sent belated cards for milestones in their lives I'd missed, and we entertained them at our house or I treated them to a meal to celebrate my return.

After years of doing this, it became exhausting. And then I realized that after an extended absence, there were some people with whom I just wasn't interested in renewing relationships. It was somewhat of a stunning realization to figure out that I hadn't missed them at all during my absence, and/or I no longer had the energy or interest in trying to maintain the relationship.

For me, it was the hypomanias and rapid cycling that seemed to wear people out. During the 10 years I was so ill and experienced such severe medication-induced rapid cycling, there were those who disliked the mood swings. (If we're being honest, so did I, but what could I do?). There were still others who needed more stability than I could provide.

In return, I became tired of trying so hard all the time. After living through the silence of so many depressions and the death-like experience of them, I didn't feel like muting the natural enthusiasm that comes with a hypomania. I figured that since I could barely speak for six months a year, so what if I talked a bit too much during the other six months?

In retrospect, it wasn't the most healthy attitude. But, at the time I felt like so much had been taken from me--my health, happiness, career, independence, sense of humor, and self-respect --that I was tired of constantly monitoring my behavior so that it fit within so-called normal patterns.

All these years later, I wonder what it's like to be a friend to someone whose moods shift? Do people feel abandoned when I'm depressed? Or are they relieved that I usually don't share my true feelings with them? During the few times I have shared my feelings, it's inevitably disastrous because most people don't know how to respond. And a depression is surely the worst time to try and explain what I need.

What I do know is that my mother was wonderful, and no one can take her place. She was always so glad to see me that it didn't matter if I was sad. She looked at me with such love in her eyes that I inevitably felt better. To her, I was always perfect. Since I knew she felt that way, it made me feel good about myself. And because she suffered from dementia in her final years and had memory issues, and I suffered from depression and had memory issues, I never had to worry if I was repeating myself.

During a hypomania, I wonder what people so disliked? Was it that I sometimes seemed "too over the top?" Or was it that they knew these periods wouldn't last? Did I make promises I wasn't able to honor? Or were they uncomfortable with my energy level and passion?

I have no idea. My feeling is it's probably not easy being a friend or relative to someone who's bipolar and whose behavior isn't under control.

On the other hand, it's sometimes not easy for me to be friends with people who aren't bipolar. Quite honestly (and I'm writing this somewhat facetiously), I tire of their stability. I find it utterly boring when people are the same way day after day and year after year. People who lack passion and enthusiasm aren't as interesting to me as those of us who have it. I don't find folks who have never been depressed as empathic and soulful as those of us who have been.

So...I guess the bottom line is that we all bring something to the table. And just maybe, people who aren't bipolar could learn a thing or two from those of us who are!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Interior Person

For much of my adult life I have wondered why I think about things so deeply, why I see things others don't (or they do, but they don't talk about it), and why I can't focus on external things like most of the people I know.

I guess a part of me has always realized that it's never been a conscious choice. It's the very essence of who I am.

In fact, I wrote my first memoir when I was 27. It was about all the jobs and careers I'd had by then. I thought it might be helpful to recent college graduates. Publishing houses rejected it en mass. Finally, one editor wrote and said, "You've got a wonderful 'voice,' but no one cares about your job search or your life unless you're a celebrity."

Even that didn't dissuade me. Ultimately I hooked up with my college career counselor who had become a good friend, changed the book entirely, and wrote a "how-to" book called Job Search Strategy for College Grads, which was published.

It wasn't the story I wanted to tell, but it was a story I could tell. Still, I have continued to write "personal stuff" despite all the rejections. The reason is because I need to write it to understand my life...to make sense of the world around me.

Despite everything, I've never been interested in writing fiction. I am only interested in "confessional writing," which "is degraded by the very term used to describe this revelation of one's most intimate story, while objectivity, distance, detachment, and impartiality are valorized," according to Deena Metzger in her book, Writing for Your Life.

"Because the inner exploration is so very essential to every creative life, we must challenge those attitudes and risk the exploration of those forbidden realms," Metzger writes. "For despite the prevailing judgments, it is clear that vitality, zest, the very life force itself lie inside and are not to be dismissed, that what is acceptable never has the range of what is still unknown and unexplored, and, finally, that it is the unique vision and exploration, our own subjectivity, that we all secretly seek and cherish."

I couldn't agree more. Recently I've realized that there are paths we take because we must. For a long time I have known that I write to live. And for me, the only writing I care about comes from my heart rather than my head.

This blog is a perfect example. I've spent over 15 years researching bipolar disorder. I've read more than a hundred books on bipolarity, depression, and related topics. I've downloaded more than 1,000 pages of information. I could share that information with you, and I sometimes do.

But, for the most part, journalistic writing doesn't interest me nor does it help me clarify the issues and themes I write about. What helps me is to tell my story...to see if it resonates with you...and to hear yours in return.

While that may strike some people as narcissistic or self-absorbed, I've never seen it that way. But, perhaps Barbara Myerhoff, who was a dear friend of Deena Metzger's, explains it best:

"A self is made, not given. It is a creative and active process of attending a life that must be heard, shaped, seen, said aloud into the world, finally enacted and woven into the lives of others. Then a life attended is not an act of narcissism or disregard for others; on the other hand, it is searching through the treasures and debris of ordinary existence for the clear points of intensity that do not erode, do not separate us, that are most intensely our own, yet other people's too. The best lives and stories are made up of minute particulars that somehow are also universal and of use to others as well as oneself."

FYI...I just read Roller Coaster and learned that Marja has been feeling depressed. If you know her and treasure her as I do, I'm sure she would appreciate your support!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Inner Realm

I'm reading a book that I'm liking so very much. Jazz recommended it to me, and it's called Writing for Your Life: Discovering the Story of Your Life's Journey. Written by Deena Metzger (Her portrait is quite wonderful, isn't it?), a writer who has "spent a lifetime investigating Story as a form of knowing and healing," it's an extraordinary book, although I've only read a few chapters.

Today, I'd just like to share a quote from the book with you. Tomorrow I plan on writing about being an interior person. It's a topic that's been very much on my mind, and this book couldn't have come into my life at a better time. (FYI...Because the initial paragraph is so long, and would be difficult to read online, I've divided it into two paragraphs, but Metzger didn't.)

"Traveling to the inner realm, even though it is explicitly and absolutely ours, is often forbidden or constrained. Each of us knows the fear that if we speak our minds openly, we will be embarrassed or endangered. The reasons for this are obvious.

"About the inner world and its revelations there can neither be consensus or prior definition. The inner world is always, by its nature, every moment, for one's entire life, new territory. And, therefore, the inner world is always outside the prescribed behaviors, outside constraints, rules and regulations, outside traditional and legislative ways of seeing and behaving. Someone who lives in the inner world and abides by its rules is, almost by definition, an outsider.

"And there we have it: the fundamental contradiction and challenge of creativity. If we practice it, if we enter the inner world, we find ourselves outside the perimeter of conventional society--outsiders feeling all the loneliness of that disconnection. And yet we are simultaneously as far as we can get from loneliness because we are finally with ourselves."

Monday, April 13, 2009

Restoring My Dreams

Many of us are aware of the importance of dreams, particularly if we've read anything by Carl Jung. While it's not a subject I'm well versed in, for most of my life--except when I take Ativan for sleep--I've had a rich dream life. Unfortunately, when taking Ativan, I either don't dream or I don't remember my dreams. I'm not sure which.

But, having been off Ativan for more than a week, I'm back to dreaming. While I know next to nothing about Jung's archetypes and the symbolism of dreams, what I do know is this: Dreams enable me to solve problems. When I'm writing a book, I often have started thinking about a chapter I'm having difficulty with before I go to bed, and by the time I awaken, I've usually figured things out.

Dreams entertain me. After a great night dreaming, I wake up with a smile on my face, and a bounce in my step.

Dreams allow me to remember people I love who have died, and I gather it's a common occurrence. Years ago, I went to a lecture by Isaac Balshevis Singer, a famous Yiddish author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1978. While I don't remember much of what he talked about, what I do remember is that he said one of the reasons he could write about people who died is because they're with him all the time in his memory, and in his dreams.

I often feel that way, and it's particularly nice when I awaken having dreamed about someone I love who's died. Last night, I dreamed about Grace Kahn, one of my grandmother's best friends, with whom I spent so much time in my youth. Her husband Gus (who died before I was born) was a famous lyricist. They met when she was playing one on his songs on the piano in a department store window in Chicago. In those days, that was how you sold sheet music.

Although I'm not going to share the particulars of my dream, I can't tell you how nice it was to remember "Aunt" Grace, and when I awakened to think about her and my grandmother Anne Levee.

While I've often written about medication side effects, I've never included "loss of dreams" in that description. And I'm truly grateful they've been restored...again.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Changing Personality Traits

Sorry this post is so late and that it took me so long to respond to comments from yesterday. I had my gardening class last night, spent a lot of the day getting ready for it, and a lot of today recovering from digging for 90 minutes.

This morning, when I reflected on the first two classes, I had a few realizations about my reaction to people and other social dynamics. This week I was feeling much better than I was last week. When I feel "normal," I tend to be outgoing and inclusive. When I'm depressed (even if it's just the tail end), I tend to be quiet and an observer.

During the first gardening class, I felt that I might not make any new friends this semester. I was one of 3 people out of 30 who's taking this class for a hobby rather than as part of the gardening certificated program. Many of these people seemed to know each other. No one seemed terribly friendly.

Last night, since I was feeling far better, I was outgoing. And what I realized is that when I'm "normal," I reach out to people and engage with them because I enjoy doing so. My goal--whether it's expressed or not--is to find out who I might like, who's interesting (to me), who's got a sense of humor, and what we might have in common.

When I'm well, I don't worry about whether people will like me in return. I truly don't think very much about my behavior. If someone isn't friendly or doesn't want to engage, that's fine. In my mind, I chalk them off the list and move on. If they do want to talk, I ask questions to draw them out.

At the end of the three hours, 90 minutes is spent in the classroom, I realized that some of the people I thought were unfriendly during the first class might just be shy. Perhaps they engaged with the people they knew because they were uncomfortable talking to people they didn't. Most people protect themselves more than I do, and they are not as open.

In reflecting on people's behavior, what I realized is that what changes during a depression is "my perception." When I am depressed, my feelings easily get hurt. When I'm "normal," they don't. When I'm depressed, I assume that people who aren't friendly don't like me. When I'm "normal," I realize their behavior has little to do with me.

So...what I am learning is that when I'm depressed, my perceptions are impaired or at least they are very different than when I'm not.

What was so nice was that as I was leaving class, one of my classmates told me how much she appreciated how friendly I am, how much more she enjoyed herself, and then she thanked me.

Question: Do you see parallels in your own behavior? In what ways?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Virtual Support Group

I want to thank everyone who's commented in the last few weeks. I'm too tired to list all your names and attach the links, but I genuinely appreciate it. Your positive comments make all the difference, and I always forget how important our virtual support group is when I'm struggling with whether or not to continue this blog.

Actually, I did discuss my blog in therapy this week, although I'd already written Monday's post when I talked to my therapist. I told him about my vacillation and how embarrassing it was getting.

In fact, I'm well aware it's a pattern (All I have to do is to read my own posts to figure it out), which oddly enough hasn't stopped me from continuing it. I also realize that I'm often ready to quit after going through a long depression or when a new one hits.

And he gave me great advice. He suggested it's part of an "all or nothing" syndrome and said that other clients, even those who aren't bipolar, struggle with it. What he also said is that it's possible to have conflicting feelings and not to act on them. Rather, he recommended it would be a good idea to carry both feelings until I examine them and decide what to do. And, of course, it never needs to be "all or nothing," does it?

While it would seem obvious, I somehow didn't think of it that way. I know that acting quickly on something is a personality trait. I also realized that I've been an "all or nothing" type person for decades. But, I believe it's never to late to change traits that make our lives more difficult, and add to our stress levels. So, perhaps this, too, shall pass.

Question for today: Are you an "all or nothing" person, and do you think it's a bipolar symptom? (If you were and changed, how did you do it?)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From Me to You

After a month of agonizing about what I want to write about, I finally realized I've known it all along. I'll continue to write about what interests me. In fact, that's what this blog has always been about.

When I started it in February 2007, I was interested in writing about bipolar wellness, and illness to some degree. When my mother was so sick, I wrote about her, and about aging. When relationships with people confuse or hurt me, I write about them. When my behavior has embarrassed me, I've shared that as well. I also write about books I read, and an array of other topics and interests.

For years, I considered my eclectic outlook on life as a strength. I've never liked being pigeonholed. I've always pursued what interests me. I find new areas, become impassioned; some stick and some don't.

Once I was diagnosed as bipolar, I began to feel that my changing passions were problematic, that pursuing things with gusto and then abandoning them was a sign of illness, and that finding a niche and specializing in it would have been a better use of my time.

In the last few days, everything changed for me. As I focused on reading garden blogs, green blogs, and back to nature blogs, I finally realized that while I found them interesting, I also found them limiting. The fact is that all this green stuff is just one area of interest--among many.

I think it's great that people are passionate about gardening, but I've decided it's even better to be passionate about a range of activities.

And that's the answer in a nutshell. I am who I always have been. While my interests may change, what I never lose--no matter how confused I may seem--is my desire to share what I'm learning, to make sense of it, and to write about it.

Perhaps, the only limitation to this blog is the URL--bipolar wellness. Maybe, I just need to write under my own name, or maybe I keep the Wellness Writer moniker (with a different URL) and realize that most of what I write about probably fits under the wellness umbrella. And, it could be that Blogger is the best place to host this blog, but maybe Wordpress is. I'm not sure.

What I am sure about is this: writing is what defines me.

For a long time, I let people define me by bipolarity, but I no longer do. And perhaps in my haste to break free of this label--I threw out the baby with the bathwater.

In anticipation of my birthday, I felt this great need to clarify my life, to finally figure things out once and for all. And, in fact, that will never happen. And I've decided it's a good thing because it means I'm evolving rather than remaining stuck.

So...I've finally realized--after a period of feeling like I was totally lost, and very confused--that I'm not any longer. My great concern was that as I approached my 59th birthday, I wasn't where I want to be. I worried that I'd been wasting my time and talent, and hadn't made the contribution I had hope to--at this stage of my life.

But...the truth is that I've been writing for the last 20 years, and I've been perfecting my skills. I've been blogging for the last 26 months, and I feel good about what I've written.

Whether I write under the moniker of Wellness Writer or under my own name, people will either read me or they won't because of what I have to say. So...until I figure it all out, I'll continue blogging here, and perhaps on the Wordpress blog as well.

When I discussed my confusion and alarm about my behavior with my therapist, he said that many people who aren't bipolar vacillate. Few are as honest about it as I am.

So, perhaps, rather than feeling apologetic about my public display of confusion, I can view it as a strength. Unless we remain static, life is truly about transition. In my experience, most people hide their confusion. They are unwilling to disclose their unhappiness. They pretend everything is okay--even when it's not.

So, maybe sharing a bit of a "messy process" in a public venue is a good thing. Perhaps, it truly is a strength to be able to say, "I've been depressed, and confused. It was painful and difficult. I been working with a therapist to make sense of things. I've been reading books to gain different perspectives . I've gotten some great advice and support from some of you. And now I feel much better."

That said, see you tomorrow!