My Sojourn through Bipolar Illness – Life before Anxiety

I have limited or very limited memories of what life was like for me as a child and/or a teen before bipolar illness hit me in my twenties as a college student.   This is particularly true of my early childhood years before middle school. These memories before middle school are largely blank. They are not bad memories, per say, they are just not memories at all. Like a blank screen on a TV set — all images gone with little sound either. I am seeking to explore the lack of early memories as time moves forward and as my therapy progresses.

In high school, I was a typical over-achiever and straight A student.  I graduated at the top of my high school class and was voted by high school peers to be “the most likely to succeed.”  I had a steady high school boyfriend for my Junior and Senior years in high school.  My study peers were the Advanced Placement teens while my social peers were “the in-crowd.”  Somehow it was important for me to feel that I was part of “the in-crowd” rather than just being satisfied with my academic peer group. Most of my memories of high school are very strong as I was able to hold onto this vision of myself as “successful.” These memories are much more vigorous than memories from the years before middle school.

Most of my memory absence appears to be before middle school years. When I was in sixth grade, my parents divorced.  I tended to manage what I now recognize as what may have been anxiety and feelings of depression by becoming a great student and high achiever.  I felt somehow if I could be a straight A student, there was no wrong happening in my life and all was right with the world. 

My Dad remarried a short time after I transferred in sixth grade to a private school. When I was a Sophomore in high school, my Mom also remarried.   With both parents happily remarried, I continued to live life relatively anxiety-free or so it seemed.  I was a super student and a valued member of the cheerleading squad, the track team and the student council.  I was the top student in my Senior class and voted in as “the May Queen” by my Senior class peers. 

It was not until I arrived at Ivy College that I first experienced anxiety that I was aware of.  Suddenly everybody was as smart as I was.  Suddenly my coping mechanisms for stress – being the top in my class – seemed very very far away.  I took to studying all the time to keep my grade point average in the “A” zone rather than adopting an acceptance for “B” work.  This preponderance for “A” work I think was a factor in my inability to distance myself from the come-on’s and other subpar behaviors of my college thesis professor–  Professor Flannigan — during my Senior year.   The coping mechanisms I had adopted in my middle school and upper school years were inadequate for coping with the challenges in college days, particularly those challenges of my late Junior and early Senior year days.  Perhaps unlike many college students, in college I did not appear to grow out of or beyond coping mechanisms that were helpful in my younger years in middle and high school.    

In addition, it may have been that Professor Flannigan, untrained therapist that he was, was somehow trespassing dangerously into the “safe world” of that six-year-old child while that six-year-old child was striving desperately to stay on course.  Once again, Flannigan’s assuming to be a trained therapist or acting like one was likely very, very dangerous for me particularly if sexual or other abuse was present for me as a young child.

What has changed since college days? There is still a blank screen there where there should be early memories, but at least now I am in a place to work through those voids with a trained therapist rather than an emotionally immature egotist.

What Makes a Marriage Work?

This is a reworking of a comment I left on a prior blogpost I read and commented on….

I did not meet my husband (one and only) until I was 38 years old. Before then I had been in a series of relationships, some lasting a while (almost three years) and some not lasting long at all. I seemed for years to go back and forth between men who were like my father and men who were like my step-father. This yoyoing back in forth consumed all of my twenties and some of my early thirties. I was engaged to be married to someone before my current husband arrived on the scene.

I learned from that failed engagement that a couple does well to share a belief in God and to argue well. My fiance had clinical depression so on that level we understood each other’s behavioral health challenges. I have bipolar illness. But our relationship was toxic. We always had the same argument over and over. Why aren’t you opening up? Why aren’t you letting me in? Eventually he would call off the engagement, but it was a friendly parting. Years later he wrote and seemed to wonder about our getting back together. I had already moved on.

After the engagement broke off, I began a period of celibacy. This lasted for almost 7 years. During that time I stopped with the yoyo dating and focused inward on myself and my job. It was very important for me to validate myself during those years with something other than a relationship (short-term or otherwise) with a man. I did not even kiss a man for this 7 year period before I met my soon-to-be husband.

I met my current husband (one and only) at an online data service in 2001- this was very early in the web dating sphere. That is a story in and of itself. The first thing I noticed was that our mutual faith in God seemed to make things easier. I also noticed a couple of other characteristics of our relationship as it started to grow and mature. These are my insights into what has made my marriage a successful endeavor for someone with bipolar illness and someone with addiction issues.

For me there are three keys that help my marriage work – though I cannot guarantee these will work for everyone. Hold some sort of faith belief in common. It helps me through the darkest hour if that is not a topic that I argue about with my spouse but one that grounds me in that relationship. Second, be able to argue well. I try not to always go back to the I told you so’s. I try to make each argument have a beginning, middle and end. I try to learn from it once it’s over instead of drudging it up over and over. Finally, a sense of humor goes a very long way. I find it important to be able to laugh at myself and with my partner. It is amazing how a good laugh clears the air.

In addition to these three items, I am adding the ability to be thankful to God for people who are helpful in my life’s journey. I am still working on being thankful every day instead of always asking God for something. There is so much to be thankful for. So here is my two moments of marriage wisdom. Took me until I was 38 to figure it out – still figuring it out at 56. Oh well, later is better than never. 🙂

This has come up today

This has come up today in reviewing and updating comments from an earlier post of mine. It has been suggested that people who are accustomed to mental health and behavioral health issues may be able to empathize not just sympathize with people who are experiencing depression and anxiety for the first time due to covid-19.

Therefore mental health “veterans” like us may be able to help others in some small way. I am very curious to hear what those of us who are familiar with depression or anxiety might say to those who are first encountering symptoms due to covid-19 – likely situational depression and anxiety and uncertainty. These folks may not have clinical depression or clinical anxiety but that does not diminish the impact of what they are experiencing.

What might that look like if we were to reach out to those who are not familiar with or are new to depression or anxiety or uncertainty of all kinds?

A list for a rainy day (or any day):

I am creating a list of things I like to do:

  1. Put a balanced meal on the table for my family at dinner time – I am almost always successful in this except for our new “take-out night” once a week in the post-covid-19 era.

2. Keep healthy foods on hand for my family to eat for breakfasts and lunches. I typically do pretty well at this but I have a pescatarian for a daughter and she keeps me on my toes in trying to provide snacks and foods that meet her “high” standards.

3. Regularly count my blessings that I have not lost any one to the pandemic, that my family can eat and pay the bills. I have done this but need to do this more and more. There are so many people who have been hit harder, much harder than me and my family. Be thankful for the big and small stuff.

4. Play a board game with family – I have done this once since covid started and laughed so hard during the game of Monopoly I wonder why I am not doing this every day.

5. Take the dog for a walk. I have been doing this regularly for the last month or so. Feels good to get a little exercise and to engage my husband into doing the same.

6. Talk to my Mom over the phone each day to help alleviate her feelings of isolation and mine. She lives alone and we have only had two in-person socially distanced get-togethers outside her condo in the garden for twenty minutes each. I do this phone call to her every day. Somehow or another we find something new to talk about even when there is not too much new going on.

7. Plan a socially distanced get together with my Mom after my daughter finishes with the remote learning requirements for 10th grade. Have a barbeque or something outside where we can visit at 6 to 8 feet apart and include my 83 year old Mom. This planning is underway. We have talked about the inherent risks of a get together, but plan on keeping our social distancing up to minimize this risk.

8. Bake bread with my daughter. I have done this once during covid and it was great! Need to do this again.

9. Set up the tent in the backyard for a virtual camping overnight trip. This is just an idea at this point.

10. Watch a movie or TV series with my husband and 16 year old daughter. This has been happening every day of the quarantine. Go figure. While it is sometimes a little difficult to find a show that appeals to all three of us, we largely have done this. Everybody looks forward to this time after dinner each night – school night or weekend no matter. Sometimes I do popcorn.

11. Reach out to someone who is on the front lines of the pandemic. I have reached out to family who includes a cousin who is a nurse in the ER in Massachusetts. I also try to say thank you when I go to the grocery and the pharmacy and the lab to those who are coming into work these days and putting themselves at risk. I could do more of this – thanking and acknowledging people who are doing essential things.

12. Provide financial assistance to those who are short of food. We have made one food contribution so far. As soon as we get our covid-19 check we will plan to pledge a certain amount to a food bank in our area.

13. Play music that I haven’t listened to in a long while. Play music I used to like to dance to and dance if I feel like it. Have not done this yet.

14. Reach out to old friends by text or cell. I have done some of this but I could do more.

15. Blog on a regular basis. I have been doing this for a couple of months now. I feel I could improve my blog presence by including what I am doing to counter my anxiety and depression and bipolar symptoms more that just offloading these feelings in my blog posts.

16. Take a hot bath and think about nothing. I do this on a regular basis. I could add some bath salts to enhance the experience.

17. Plan what we will do as a family this summer. We have found out that my daughter’s camp will not be taking place this summer. We are uncertain of a trip for my daughter and mother to visit cousins in the UK. We are uncertain of plans to drive North to visit family. I could poll my family and ask what fun things they might want to do during a covid-summer if that is what we will have.

18. Journal and write notes about what I have been feeling and thinking about the pandemic and other challenges. I like to keep a handwritten account of what I am dreaming and/or concerned about. Right now I am most concerned with there being a second wave of covid-19 in the late summer or fall. Although I am not in a position to affect outcomes, it helps me to write down my concerns. Perhaps it helps me let go of anxious thoughts that I have no control over.

19. Consider buying a modest gift online to spruce up the house. I have not done this yet but usually feel very good when it comes time to decorate for Christmas and Easter. I like decorating. Perhaps I need to buy a new set of pillows for the living room or some other fun accent to keep it light and not be too expensive.

20. Plant flowers or herbs in the front yard. I have been doing this for five years since we moved into this new house and for as long as I can remember in the house before that. I enjoy going to Home Depot and getting flowers or herbs to plant on the front porch. It is a cheerful way to enter the house each time we go out and come in again. My winter pansies are pretty well ka-put and need a refresher at this point.

21. Talk with family and extended family each week using Zoom or something similar. My sister and her husband have been arranging this for us. I could learn how to host Zoom so as to do this once a week. So far, I have just been a Zoom participant.

22. Find a way to celebrate my daughter’s graduation from 10th grade in two weeks. Since schools are not open this is a challenge. I am just thankful that she is not a Senior in high school now with virtual high school graduation in the works. We often do a nice dinner out to celebrate good grades and end of the school year. Perhaps this will morph into a take-out celebration dinner.

There is a whole other list of things I “should” do like clean out the garage or clean out the junk room or organize my closet. I am not really doing the “should” list until it becomes essential like paying bills and doing the housecleaning.

I have not been doing that great – there, I said it!

My old old “friend”depression has been lurking about since Easter – about three weeks ago. During that time s/he has been competing with my other old “friend” anxiety. The depression and anxiety appear to be competing for the royal broo-hah-hah throne of my well-being. I have tried talking both depression and anxiety out of my life right now but they are very persistent with their need to be put first and for my well-being to be put second.

I certainly hope others are not being visited by these two “old friends.” If so, are you successful in asking them, – no telling them, to go away? Beat it?

Thought for the day – resilience

I do not know if this is the experience of other people with bipolar disorder or clinical depression or other behavioral health diagnoses including addiction, but when I am in the midst of a high or a low, it feels like that state will never end. The mania is all consuming. The depression seems never ending. Yet invariably the high or the low does dissipate. Perhaps this is because I have found medication that is useful or perhaps I or my therapist have talked myself out of anxiety about this or that potential event occurring. In the past when I have had a low or a high that was not receptive to medications, I have felt like that high or that low would last forever. The mania is all consuming so that I am unable to think of anything else. The depression feels like it will go on interminably. The only silver lining in these episodes is the idea that “this too shall pass.” Invariably after medication (including trial and error with multiple meds) and/or therapy do take hold, I can see clearly that the mania was temporary as was the depression. So is it possible that those of us who are first-hand familiar with anxiety and/or depression are perhaps more familiar with the anxiety that surrounds us today perhaps because of our own mental health conditions? Do we go through each day with the knowledge and perhaps the mantra that “this too shall pass?” Can we be a reminder to each other through our words and our actions that whatever negative thoughts or feelings we are having, in time things will be looking up or at least be more manageable? Can we be a reminder to those unfamiliar with anxiety or depression that again “this too will pass?” Can we through it all be the face of resilience?