mental illness issues
(Yes, this gets a trigger warning.)
My History with Self-Harm
I used to self-harm, sometimes known as self-injury, self-mutilation or nonsuicidal self-injury. It started when I was 13. I remember the first time. I remember thinking that the point on a compass (used for geometry glass) was very, very sharp. And then I remember thinking what a bad daughter I was. And then I remember using the very sharp compass point over and over on my flesh until I had dug a line extending about two inches on my ankle. After that, it happened again and again. I remember thinking I deserved it. And when I got older, it became more apparent that I was using that behavior as a way of dealing with pain that I couldn’t control. At 13, I didn’t get this, but at 17, I did. At 17, I was aware of the acute, painful, depressed (although I didn’t know it was depression), suicidal feelings I was having but I had no way of dealing with them so out would come the Exacto knife (I had graduated to actual blades when I was quite young). But things got better when I graduated from high school and got away from my very sick family. Over time, I stopped self-harming without really trying. I knew I didn’t want to do it so eliminating the behavior was simple once the pain lessened.
The Pain of Depression Returned, and So Did the Self-Harm
Unfortunately, the pain came back a couple of years later. When I was 19 or so, the depression really hit, like being bludgeoned with a 2×4 with nails hammered into the end of it. The pain, in all its infinite darkness, had returned. And so did the self-harming behaviors. Self-harm was being driven by the pain.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Recently, a commenter was here and she was frustrated because her doctor told her to separate herself from her bipolar thoughts. And the commenter remarked,
How am I supposed to separate myself from my thoughts? I AM MY THOUGHTS. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I am, started with a thought.
This is true and it isn’t. I understand this commenter’s frustration and I understand how illogical it seems to suggest that you can separate yourself from your thoughts. After all, don’t you have to think about the separation? And how does that work, exactly?
What this commenter’s doctor failed to mention is probably the most confusing part of any mental illness. The mentally ill thoughts come from the brain while the ability to separate from those bipolar thoughts come from your mind. And you brain and your mind are not the same thing.
For weeks people have been asking me my opinion of ABC’s new show Black Box. According to Wikipedia, about 6.9 million people watched Black Box’s series opener and it seems like about half of them have contacted me about it.
People are wondering about this show because Black Box’s lead, Catherine Black, (played by Kelly Reilly) is a neuroscientist who has bipolar disorder. In fact, the first episode of Black Box details the Black’s descent (ascent?) into mania after she stops taking her medication (which includes lithium, an anticonvulsant, and an antipsychotic).
In short, I think Black Box tries for accuracy and they hit it here and there but, as with all television shows, it’s dramatized and so bipolar disorder isn’t terribly accurately, or fairly, portrayed.
Earlier I wrote about the realities involved in bipolar relapse and now I want to address the question as to how to plan for a future when relapse of bipolar disorder tends to hang over your head.
I understand this question and this uncertainty. It’s very hard to live with a disease like bipolar that you know can bite you any day, any time and often without any provocation. And it can be very hard to see yourself as a serious professional, with a 24/7 career, when you know that relapse is almost a certainty, at some point.
It’s trite to say that, “no one knows what the future holds for any of us.” It’s true, but it’s hardly helpful, and it’s unfair to compare the uncertainty that the average person faces (ie, I might be hit by a bus tomorrow) to the uncertainty that a person with bipolar faces when, in his case, bipolar relapse is very likely.
So how does one plan, or even make big life decisions, when bipolar relapse means an uncertain future?
I give presentations on mental illness in different places, and one of those places is in schools. Kids aged 12-18 get to hear about mental illness, stigma and my personal story of bipolar disorder. This takes around an hour. And after hearing an hour of me speak about my personal challenges and about how I have faced down bipolar disorder are a myriad of treatment failures, the teens often feel a certain closeness with me. I suspect it is for this reason that after the presentation, so many of them come up and talk to me. They talk about how they have been in the hospital or how they have a friend with bipolar or that they think they might have a mental illness.
And, of course, if a teen thinks they have the symptoms of a mental illness I always say, “Have you talked to your parents about this?”
And I always expect them to look at me like I just said something ridiculous because when I was their age, I sure would have found the notion laughable.
But they generally don’t. Many, many of them have, indeed, talked to their parents. And what have the parents done?
I started thinking about alcoholism the other day because of some stuff going on with a friend and I started to think about how high-functioning people often don’t consider themselves alcoholics because they’re high-functioning. How can I be an alcoholic; I have a job? A family. A wife. Friends. Money. A house. And so on…
And the same is true for people with bipolar disorder. People think to themselves, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a job.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I’m a good mother.” Or, “I can’t have a mental illness – I have a degree from a top-tier school.”
But as I have told audiences over and over – mental illness happens, and it can happen to anyone.
I have attempted suicide. This is not a fact that I wish to wear on my sleeve. This is not a fact a want on my resume. This is a fact that I wish was shoved in a trunk, thrown in a closet and locked away for all eternity.
And I think that most people who have attempted suicide feel the same way. There are many reasons you might want to forget but one of them is the shame associated with a suicide attempt. Many people around you and you, yourself, might consider attempting suicide shameful.
We get the notion of shame from those around us. Imagine looks of scorn if someone happens to belong to a religious community that considers suicide a sin and has no compassion for those who have attempted it. Imagine embarrassed parents forbidding their children to wear short sleeves so that the scars on their wrists are never seen. Imagine the person arriving home from the hospital, after a suicide attempt, not to a welcome home party but to pained silences and looks of pity and contempt. These are the realities that people who have attempted suicide face. And do we feel shame about what we’ve done? Many of us do.
Sometimes I’m Just Mad
As I have stated, over and over, that to experience bipolar disorder is to experience such inflated emotions that they swallow you whole. Bipolar emotions are bigger than you and the particularly nasty ones are bigger than any therapy or coping skill could ever be.
However, not every emotion is a bipolar emotion. Just because I feel a strong emotion like anger, sadness or elation, that doesn’t mean it’s a bipolar overreaction I’m feeling. It’s not necessarily depression, mania or hypomania. Sometimes, people with bipolar disorder feel just like everyone else. Sometimes we’re just reasonably mad.
I have written a lot about what to do before, during and after a suicide attempt. I guess that’s because the people who read my work are the survivors and the loved ones, mostly, of suicide survivors.
But there’s a very underserved community in conjunction with suicide and that is the loved ones left behind by suicide. They are suicide survivors too. These people are left with a void. These people are left with a hole in their hearts and a hole in the information that’s available. But there are things I think you should know if your loved one commits suicide.
Among many things, I have been accused of dismissing the pain of psychiatric patients. Oh, excuse me, “psychiatric survivors.” And I would like to clarify something – I have done no such thing. I, personally, have my own painful stories about psychiatry and I don’t dismiss mine so why, exactly, would I dismiss anyone else’s?
The Bipolar Burble blog welcomes Missy Douglas Ph.D, a British artist and writer with bipolar disorder who works under the studio name ucki ood. Her latest project, the 2:365 Art Book, is available now on Kickstarter.
It’s a commonly held belief that there are close links between bipolar disorder and the creative voice. If you just type the words “bipolar” and “artist” into any Internet search engine, the names of Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and even Michelangelo scream out at you like the painted hero of alleged fellow sufferer, Edvard Munch.
Much as I hesitate to mention myself in the same breath as these four great artists, I do believe this theory to be true. As a girl, I walked the unstable line between anxiety and precociousness. If I was charming and witty, I was also withdrawn, furious and conceited in equal measure. Yet one thing was unerringly constant: the crayon in my hand. Despite various professional flirtations, what I was to become – an artist – was never really in question. By the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 19, it didn’t really come as a shock. I was an artist, and all artists were “crazy,” right?