My Family History of Mental Illness

I remember my grandmother in her baggy dresses that covered every inch of her body like the shrouds that covered the furniture when the summer folk had left for the season. My cousin Heidi was surprised when I told her that my grandmother — her aunt — had spent many hours of each day lying in bed.

“But she was always so jolly, so friendly.”

“Yes,” I said. “She could be like that. Like so many of us she knew how to fake happiness.” I do not mean that as a slander. I admire how she could pull herself together despite her suffering and be there.

I know my grandmother loved me. When I was young, she used to get in big fights with my mother for the way she mistreated me. The rows were long and loud — I would go to the very back of the yard so that I could not hear them.

My mother had her own problems: there was a deep-seated meanness in her. She disparaged my grandmother when we were alone together, complaining about what she thought as Stella’s laziness. When I was depressed, she was panicked at the thought that would do the same, so she hectored me about getting a job — any job — no matter how inappropriate or soul-killing it was. Once, when she was in the hospital with roof-busting high blood pressure, I told the doctor about our family secret. A psychiatrist prescribed Prozac. For three months, she was a nice person.

Where are you in “recovering” a life that is meaningful to you?

The biggest loss after I was diagnosed was my poetry. Before my diagnosis, I wrote a lot — I filled a ring binder with it. Two inches of verse, mostly free. Then I stopped because I believed that going to readings and writing it made my condition worse. And I believed that I lost the ability to write it. I did not stop, but my output was meager and sparse. One poem a year. Some years I wrote nothing. But a part of me yearned for the truth and beauty of a fine image. So last spring, I conducted an experiment. Thanks to a psycho-stimulant that gave me a renewed ability to focus, I cautiously began to compose free verse and haiku. To my joy, I did not explode into mania. I was not writing long intense blogs as had been the signature of my mania and I did not lapse into consequent depressions. So I have begun thinking: If I can handle poetry what about spirituality? Could I attend a church without turning into a prophet? Could I handle being a member of a congregation and not its priest? So I have been contemplating where to go, what denomination suits my temperament. That is the next signpost.

The Benefits of Bipolar Disorder

When I am manic, I get things done. That is as long as I am not running to the top of the inside stairs and down again seeking something that I cannot remember. Then it is The Great Eater of Time. My depression helps me to see what projects I have taken up that are pointless wastes like the schemes of making a million quickly by stuffing envelopes at home. I can detect what is rigged: I will not spend hours trying to win games that cannot be won or spend money on hobbies that I will never get around to finishing. I have ships in a bottle that I have not pulled the rigging up. I bought these in hypomania.

Depression has a wisdom about it, bitter at times, with a predictive power and insight into the motives of some men and women. I do not trust certain people when I am in depression: This often proves a smart thing.

Then there is the stillness that comes, a beautiful blue film that falls gently over my consciousness calling for silence and appreciation of the moment. If I shut down the voices that hector me for a moment, I find the peace that the racing thoughts of mania do not permit. I may feel fatigued, but I am not agitated as I am in a mixed state. Depression is a better place in the mind than mania or the vicious mixed state.

A Letter to My Illness

You moved in when I was very young, shoved me into your corner, made me cry and when I cried you caused the kids to laugh at me, taunt me saying “Don’t cry Joel.” Sister Annette told me to buck up, to learn to be a man and hold the tears back. Damn you and damn her. I couldn’t say it at the time. Two years of living under the threat of her ruler, but the taunts were worse, hurt worse. The more they called me names, you and my parents reasoned, the stronger I would become but this practice was flawed. I played alone or with other losers. My mother criticized my choice of friends, calling them slow, hinting that they were retarded. Even among them I lived in a shell and the kids continued to wear at my head, trying to produce the streams of salt water they loved so much to see. I don’t know what brought you to make a home in my head. I don’t know why you made me sensitive to the twist in their voices. Was it the arrival of my two cousins who stayed for a year? If it was, you stayed beyond a year, brought me suffering. I looked at Jesus and wondered what was worse: crucifixion or this hell I was going through? If I was on the cross with Him, it was an absurdity.

Ends of a Mood Swing

My mania feels like a fishing line pulled taut to the breaking point.

My depression feels like I am that same fishing line let to fall in a curled mess and tossed to the bottom of the sea.

My mania feels like omnipotence — the power of God — channeled through my neck, my spine, my limbs, and my eyes.

My depression feels like my failure to be of any effect, like I have botched things up, crippled animals, alienated friends, brought evil into the world.

My mania feels like I can do great things, that I have a destiny that will change the world — bring peace, soften stone hearts, make people live in harmony.

My depression feels like a hole that sucks in everything good, that is no place to hide from despair.

My mania gives me energy to glide up the last spine leading to Everest’s summit and dive without a bathyscaphe to the bottom of the Challenger Deep.

My depression makes me stay in my house dreaming dark dreams.

My mania makes me love all humankind — especially women — and spark with anger if the purity of that love is questioned.

My depression makes me the lover of my pillow, my sheets, and my blanket, a friend of the curtained darkness, the noises of the day, and the deep emptiness of the night.

Conference of DBSA California, 2016

I have just returned from the conference of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of California. Between keynote addresses and workshops, here are the things I attended (for some, I have notes).

Keynote speaker for Friday morning, stand up comic David Granirer, on “I’m OK But YOU Need Professional Help: Creating Recovery – One Laugh At A Time!” For obvious reasons, I didn’t take notes for this one.

Adult Suicide Prevention Training (presenter Liam Mina, MSW): Liam Mina is a social worker with Didi Hirsch, a Southern California organization founded in 1942, which works on suicide prevention. After the death of Marilyn Monroe, in which they were involved in a “psychological autopsy,” they started getting phone calls, not about Monroe, but from people who themselves wanted help. So they established the first suicide hotline in the US. Now they have 24/7 service in English and Spanish, along with texting and chat for the deaf, and Korean and Vietnamese from 4:30 pm to midnight Pacific time. 90% of suicide is associated with mental illness, but 50% are not in treatment. Responding to warning signs of suicide: Build rapport, assess risk (ask directly, and for people who do say that they are thinking about suicide assess degree of risk by asking about plans and with scaling questions), establish safety (make a plan, connect to resources, ask to repeat back plan).

Ask the Pros: Kent Layton and Himasiri Da Silva. This always popular session allows people to pose questions to a clinical psychologist (Layton) and a psychiatrist (Da Silva). Topics included what to do in a crisis, what to do if you’re allergic to all the meds, what are the effects of different strains of marijuana, the difference between ADHD or ADD and bipolar disorder, whether ketamine is recommended for treatment-resistant depression (and the same question for Lexapro), what about food supplements, and the DSM-V.  A few notes from the answers: Medical marijuana isn’t recommended for bipolar disorder. Useful supplements include fish oil (omega-3) and folic acid (not in place of medication, but alongside it). Da Silva feels that the DSM needs to build in more bioevidence; bipolar disorder had a large genetic component. As time goes on the DSM will become more biologically and evidence based. If you’re in crisis, keep showing up and suiting up, get up even if you can only manage a walk around the block, and don’t give up even if getting your meds right takes trial and error.

Bipolar Disorder: A Family Affair (presenter Angela Paccini): I didn’t take many notes on this one. It focused a lot on family stories, in the interest of showing what knowing roles and triggers and providing support looks like.

Bipolar Disorder – The Future (presented Da Silva): There have been four eras in psychiatry: The Asylum Era, the Psychodynamic Era, the Psychopharmacology Era, and what we are now entering, the Molecular Neurobiology Era. We still draw on what was learned in earlier eras (e.g. psychotherapy, especially CBT and DBT, helps, as do medications developed in the psychopharmacology era), but a new improvement in treatment is our understanding of pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics. Medications don’t provide chemicals in the form effective in the brain; first they need to be processed by the liver. Here, pharmacokinetic genes, such as CYP450, are important. The CYP450 system involves 57 enzymes responsible for drug metabolism, primarily in the liver. People can be normal, fast, or slow metabolizers, and a genetic test can show which you are. For example, only 55% of people metabolize Seroquel normally, while others metabolize faster than normal (and therefore see less effect) or slower than normal (and therefore see more side effects). Medication interactions are important (for instance, the estrogen in birth control pills can speed up the breakdown process for Lamictal). So is folate, and some people, with a variant form of the MTHFR gene, lack the ability to metabolize folate and may need, instead, to take methylfolate. Genesight offers genetic testing. Da Silva also talked about evidence based practices governing which medications should be given first (ones for which there are large scale studies supporting efficacy and few side effects).

Saturday morning keynote speaker: Antoinette Brunasso spoke on Coping with Depression and Bipolar Disorder: The Impact on Self and Family. This was a very good talk, at a level easy for a lay person to understand, largely around developing what Brunasso calls a “solid, flexible sense of self,” one that allows you to tolerate anxiety, and avoid reacting to conflict by reflexively caving, avoiding, or locking in your position, but rather work through the conflict toward a solution that works for both partners. How “fusion” can lead a spouse to get stuck in the same place as the bipolar or depressed spouse, and how developing a healthier sense of self can help you work through marital conflicts better even when one of you is also dealing with mental illness.

Reflective Functioning and Mentalization in Relation to Bipolar Disorder (presenter Nazare Magaz): Mentalizing is the capacity to imagine inner states in self and others. It can be affected by your early attachment process, which can lead either to secure attachment or to less secure forms (anxious avoidant, anxious preoccupied, disorganized); if you are a therapist, both knowing your own attachment style and recognizing that of your patient can be useful (don’t crowd someone whose attachment style is anxious avoidant). In bipolar disorder, ability to mentalize drops when you go into episode. Signs of mentalizing: You can imagine multiple states of mind that could lead another person to behave as he or she does. If you can only think of one possibility, you may be falling out of the open, curious state you need to mentalize, and instead in a place of psychic equivalence, where you have a thought about what another person is thinking and then assume it’s true. What do you do when someone else is in a place of psychic equivalence? You need to empathize with that person first. How do you develop mentalizing ability? By being around and learning from people who have it.

Lunchtime keynote speaker: David Miklowitz, on Child and Adolescent Mood Disorders. I didn’t take notes on this one, because having notepaper around a lunch table is awkward, but I did live tweet some of it after I had eaten.

Happiness with music (presenter Mike Sullivan): We played ukeleles. I didn’t take notes.

Trauma Effects – Depression and Bipolar (presenter Christine Monroe): Trauma is always part of psychotherapy. It’s part of life. This talk covered: What is trauma? How does PTSD compare to bipolar disorder (e.g. flashbacks to traumatic event compared to depressive ruminating)? What events can lead to PTSD? What puts people at risk? References: Ross Rosenberg on trauma levels. Dan Siegel on parenting. Evidence based treatments: Trauma focused CBT, exposure therapy (start mild), relational therapy, and, a particularly good therapy for PTSD, EMDR.

And that was my last workshop. I condensed my notes a lot for this post, so I may, if I find time, have a longer post on one or another of the individual sessions.

 

 

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, Went home and put a bullet through his head.

I learned just yesterday that one of my college housemates died last year. I remember “Richard” as an outgoing young anthropology major, with plenty of friends, and interesting stories of life among the Mbuti pygmies. A mutual friend and fellow housemate told me yesterday that he had died.

I Googled his name (with appropriate accompanying words to distinguish him from all the other men with the same name), and found his obituary, and some other things that people had written, before and after his death. There I found hints at what looked like an upper middle class childhood, note duly made of Richard’s Stanford degree, two books that he had written (I’m impressed, as I have written zero books, unless you count the novel in a drawer and the screenplay in a drawer), and stories of his woodsman skills and the meals he cooked for his friends.

I could see, perhaps, a few things lacking: the obituary listed no spouse or lover or children to mourn him, only parents and siblings and nephews and nieces. And one brother had died before him (ten years before him, of a heart attack, I found in another obituary helpfully supplied by Google). An article from a couple of years ago said that his small business was struggling a bit.

But nothing in these bits and pieces, or in my memories, prepared me for the closing paragraph of the warmest blog post of memories.

One summer day last year, Richard hung himself.

 

Review: An Angel at My Table

Janet Frame endured eight years as a mental patient before she went on to become the poet laureate of New Zealand. She was misdiagnosed. While she was incarcerated she underwent electro-convulsive therapy without anesthesia and was lined up for a lobotomy until her doctor learned that she had won a prestigious literary prize and took her off the list. This movie is the story of three periods in her life. Her time in a mental hospital is the second.

I would guess that social anxiety and, perhaps, depression were the demons that afflicted Frame. She would hide in corners. She failed at her work as a teacher. When two of her sisters died, she crashed into a frozen despair.

If Angel at My Table is accurate, Frame was most certainly not schizophrenic. An early scene in the second part of the film shows her riding to the hospital in a car with two women who are severely impaired by their illnesses. She stands out as unafflicted by whatever is troubling her fellow passengers. Things were done to her while she was in the hospital just because they were the latest treatment. Her mother desperately signed the papers for the lobotomy: if Frame had been trapped in a mindless system, we would have lost a great author. Fortunately, a doctor noticed in time and helped her win her release.

Read More

Articles on dealing with people with mental illness-review

I never know whether or not to open links to articles on how to deal with someone like me. I have problems with it from the get go. I am an individual, not one size fits all. I feel like i am being talked about without my input.

I recently braved reading:

4 Ways to Find Out If Your Partner Is Using Their Depression as an Excuse for Controlling Behavior

http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/depression-and-partner-abuse/

She then lists four things controlling/manipulative people sometimes do. You don’t have to have depression to do any of these things:

Do They Make You Spend All of Your Time with Them?

Do They Threaten Suicide When You Have Disagreements?

Do They Make You Feel Responsible for Their Mental Health?

Do They Trivialize Your Problems in Comparison to Theirs?

Keeping you to themselves is common in abusive relationships

I had an ex-boyfriend with no diagnosis threaten to commit suicide if I didn’t get back together with him

Many co-dependent partners worry their partner won’t be okay if they leave.

I don’t think trivializing others problems is solely something done by the mentally ill

I really don’t like the title or premise of this article. It could just be signs you are in a controlling/abusive relationship.

I do think there are some topics in this article that could be good for family members.

We are taught to take all mentions of suicide seriously. But, what do you do if it seems manipulative? I don’t know and that would be more meaningful for me.

How do you leave someone with a mental illness (or other condition) when you worry about how they will be on their own?

I felt the author used a provocative title/subject to grab readers

Low-Grade Depression?

I have been trying to discern if I have been in a low grade depression or not. It can be tough to recognize these borderlands. The signs can be subtle. While I do not have negative thoughts coming at me and trying to carry me off on the backs of lemmings flooding over a cliff, I have found it harder to complete tasks and sleep less than 11 hours a day. If I am not in a depression, I am very near one, I think.

Two things in particular seem to be helping at this point. The first is my Vyvanse. The second is exercise. Vyvanse is known for raising people out of funks. Exercise is a remedy that I have used for a long time. But it only helps when I am gasping at the surface of that great ocean of drowning. So if I am down, it is not very far.