I’ve had a number of interesting conversations since my last blog post, which has given me more insight into why mental illness is so misunderstood, both by people who have it and people who don’t. Here’s why:
Your normal isn’t my normal. In fact, it’s probably very different.
This is actually true for everyone, because everyone’s life experiences vary. People who live in different communities and cultures, or under different circumstances, will have very different ideas of what constitutes “normal” life.
People tend to assume that what is normal for them is normal for everyone else. This works pretty well when you are surrounded with people with similar life experiences, i.e. most of the time for most people. But it’s literally a killer for people with mental illness.
I grew up with bipolar disorder. I was probably asymptomatic as a little kid, but like other people, I don’t remember much from my childhood. It was definitely present from the time I was twelve or thirteen, so I have had bipolar mood cycles as far back as I can remember. Aside from the decade or so that I’ve been on medication, I’ve spent my entire life cycling up and down. Those mood cycles are “normal” for me. It’s what my body and brain do if allowed to interact naturally with the world.
It took me thirty-four years to realize that other people experience the world differently. Very differently. Everyone assumes that their reality is normal. And since you can’t see inside other people’s heads, there’s no way to know what their reality is like. You have to go on behavior. What do they say? What do they do? Are there any differences between what they do and what I do?
And because mental illness is invisible, I simply didn’t realize that there were differences between me and other people. Yes, I got anxious and depressed frequently. But so did my friends. Teenage angst and depression are nothing new; my parents either didn’t notice, or figured it was a phase everyone went through. (They had other problems to deal with at the time, so it would have been fairly easy for it to go unnoticed.) I figured I was basically like everyone else – especially since I managed a straight A average and was the captain of a state champion math team. So clearly, whatever it was, it wasn’t serious, nor was it atypical.
In college, I didn’t notice it either. I went to a pressure-cooker college. We were all stressed. Feeling depressed and anxious wasn’t anything abnormal among my friends – half of whom were on medication for mental illness – so again, I assumed that was just a normal part of college life. And I was doing fine in my classes. I had no reason to think that other people experienced the world differently.
Even when I was hospitalized at the end of my first year of graduate school, I didn’t realize that other people’s thought processes were different than mine. Everyone thought I had depression – well, normal people get depressed when they’re in a stressful environment. You go to therapy, you get over your childhood traumas, you get better. I went to therapy, things got better, and I figured I was cured.
The thing was, my experience was never normal. But I had no way of knowing that, because it didn’t even occur to me to question it. I had “up” periods, where I would have a lot of energy, get lots done, and be really happy. Awesome! People thought I was super-productive! I was an amazing person! But I also had “down” periods, where I got really stressed out and had trouble functioning. I thought that was because of my environment, because people get anxious when they’re in a stressful environment. I did my best to fix that. And I learned ways to manage my mood swings.
What I didn’t understand is that normal people don’t have those mood swings. I always assumed that other people reacted to the world the same way I did: some periods of high productivity followed by some periods of low productivity. To all appearances, I looked normal, except for being freakishly productive sometimes and less productive other times. That’s not unusual. And I was really good at dragging myself out of bed on days when I was freaking out, because everyone else shows up to work on time, and if they can drag themselves into work on their “down” days, you should too. Or you’re being lazy.
And that’s the root of society’s problem with mental illness. I assumed that other people were undergoing the same mood swings that I was. I had no conception that this might be abnormal, because it was normal. For me. Why would you question something that’s completely normal? Do you notice that you breathe? I didn’t. What I did notice was that other people were coping with their mood swings a lot better than I was. I wondered, more than once, why I just couldn’t seem to get my act together.
The problem cuts both ways. Someone who has never had depression doesn’t have any concept of what it’s like living with depression. To them, “feeling depressed” is what happens when they aren’t quite feeling up to snuff themselves. Well, everyone has their down days, but you can’t just let that stop you. You get out of bed anyway, you take a shower and eat breakfast, and a few hours later you’re no longer feeling depressed. If you stayed in bed, you’d have wasted an entire day! The solution to depression isn’t to give in to it, but to get yourself going.
That works for normal people, because their depressions are temporary – a couple hours or days – and generally not as severe as the person who can’t get out of bed. Let me give you an idea of what the depressed person may be going through.
I’ve been tweaking my medications for the last few months, because one of the meds I was on for over a decade has a weight gain side effect that has resulted in my putting on 40 pounds in the last ten years. Long-term, that becomes a serious health issue, so my psychiatrist and I decided to see if we could find one that controlled the bipolar disorder without predisposing me to gain weight. So we’ve been experimenting with different medications. It turned out that the last one didn’t control the bipolar disorder, so a few days ago I actually had a day of relatively mild bipolar depression, the first one in over a decade. This is what it was like.
I woke up in the morning feeling both emotionally and physically exhausted. That’s how I feel when I’m coming down with a cold, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up again, I was feeling a bit better physically, but still feeling emotionally drained, and a bit anxious. Low blood sugar and/or dehydration can do that to me, so I drank a quart of water, and ate a piece of fruit. No change. I thought about calling my psychiatrist, but figured I’d try a workout first. So I did about half an hour of intense exercise, which helped, but an hour later the anxious, depressed feeling came back. I still wasn’t sure if it was something physically wrong or a bipolar episode, so I figured I’d wait an hour and see how it went.
I sat down at the loom and started threading my next warp. Here’s what was going through my head. The flow of my usual thoughts is in normal text; the thoughts of my “watcher” (the part of me that constantly monitors my mood and interrupts if it sees something abnormal) are in italics.
Wow, I hope this isn’t a bipolar episode. I’ve been through four new meds in the last three months, but they’ve all had bad side effects, and this latest combination may not even be working. I’m starting to run out of new medications to try.
Well, I can always go back on the Abilify, I guess. But if I do that, I’ll keep gaining weight, and then I’ll have all the physical problems associated with weight gain. I might wind up with Type II diabetes, and that might kill me too.
On the other hand, Type II diabetes isn’t nearly as bad as bipolar disorder, and if it kills me, that’s how it goes. I’ve already had twenty-six years longer than I would have had without medication. I’ve had a good run, I’ve had a lot of bonus time. It’s not so bad.
Wait. Why are you suddenly being so morbid?
Well, because I’m in a bad spot. If these meds aren’t working, then I’m doomed.
Stop. This isn’t normal. This is bipolar depression, and you need to call your psychiatrist..
(Gets up, calls psychiatrist, leaves a message.)
Okay, now where were we?
You were obsessing over morbid stuff and getting yourself more depressed. Stop doing that. Think about something positive.
OK, fine. I’m working on this scarf, let’s focus on that for awhile.
(A few minutes go by.)
Gee, I hope I can finish these scarves in time. It was really stupid of me to have lost the ones I wove earlier. Now I have to spend this week re-weaving the scarves so I can get them to Handwoven before the article deadline. That’s an entire week lost that I could have been working on the business! Now I won’t be able to get the class out in January, as I had planned. In fact, if this bipolar medication adjustment thing keeps going, I’ll never be able to get anywhere on the business. Then I’ll run out of money and have to depend on Mike, and that will totally ruin our relationship.
Stop. You’re obsessing about negative stuff again. This is depression, not reality. I’m certain of that, because you weren’t thinking like this all day yesterday – you were being much more positive and feeling much less bleak about the future. This is not reality. Let go of those thoughts, and realize that this is going to pass. You just need to get through today, and tomorrow you’ll try something else and it will probably work. If it doesn’t, you can always go back on the Abilify; you know that works. It’ll be okay.
Okay, whatever you say. But I’m still worried about this whole bipolar thing. I mean, I know Mike gets stressed when I’m not feeling well. I worry that all this experimenting with medications is going to cause him a lot of stress and make him get anxious himself. I don’t want to cause him any problems, especially if things get worse and I start getting suicidal, like last time. I don’t know how he’s going to handle it.
WILL YOU FUCKING STOP?!?!?
Of course, I didn’t stop. That’s one of the problems with depression: it doesn’t stop just because you tell it to, or because you know it isn’t “real”. In fact, this went on all day. I would start thinking negative thoughts and spiral down into obsessively morbid thinking; I’d catch myself a few seconds or minutes later, and stop that train of thought. Two or three minutes later, it would happen again. All. Day. Long.
Fortunately, I know various ways to cope with this, since I lived with it for most of my life. Exercise helps, if only temporarily. Talking to other people can reset my mood briefly. Doing something that occupies my brain will help keep it from happening – I can’t have negative mental dialogue if I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I don’t have mental dialogue at all. I also knew this was temporary, because I knew I had an effective medication combination to fall back on. If I hadn’t known that, I would have been terrified. One day isn’t bad, it’s like having a serious headache all day – painful, but livable. But when it goes on for months, that’s incredibly painful. It can drive you to suicide. (Trust me.)
My basic problem with bipolar depression is that it is constantly trying to change my concept of “normal” to something negative, painful, and hopeless. I’ve had enough cognitive behavioral therapy that I can identify that the shift is happening, and get myself out of the downward spiral of thoughts, but it’s like chasing a hyperactive, obsessive two year old, because twenty seconds later, it starts happening again. It’s like living with an abuser who is trying to gaslight you into thinking that your previous perception of reality was totally wrong. But you can’t walk away from this abuser, because it’s your own brain. You live together; you’re always going to live together. So there’s no way you can stop this from happening; the best you can do is grit your teeth, keep reminding yourself that this is not reality – that there is a better and more valid reality out there – and just keep hanging on.
This particular day was actually pretty mild. I didn’t get a lot done, but I was more or less OK. There are other things that happen when I’m having a more serious episode. For example, I start having random moments when I think of something I did wrong. Not so bad in itself, but these flashes of memory are invariably accompanied by a vision of being tortured – my arm with its skin flayed off, a knife stuck into my back, and so on. I’m not stupid, and I’m not psychotic: I know perfectly well that those visions aren’t real. But they’re also unpleasant to deal with, for obvious reasons, and they happen more and more frequently as the episodes get more serious. When they’re really bad, they happen several times an hour, sometimes even more often. Knowing that it isn’t real, that it’s just your brain biochemistry trying to kill you, isn’t that helpful when it’s happening a hundred times a day.
My point in all this isn’t that my life is woeful and you should feel sorry for me. My point is that the mentally ill person who is lying in bed, unable to get up that day, is probably having a very different experience than the “normal” person who had a bad day yesterday and is feeling kinda down, and wouldn’t it be nice of they didn’t have to get out of bed? But the difference isn’t visible, either to the mentally ill person or the normal person. So the mentally ill person thinks that there’s something wrong with them because they somehow aren’t coping with the insanity as well as other people do. And the normal person thinks that the mentally ill person just doesn’t have the willpower to get up and deal with it, and if they did, everything would be fine.
I am fortunate enough to be able to see both sides. Having lived with mental illness for a long, long time, I have an intimate understanding of what it’s like to live in a brain that is trying to kill you. But I’ve also been living a pretty bipolar-free life, on medication, for the last ten years. After a decade, I’m finding that my experience is pretty “normal” – or at least fairly pain-free. (I actually have no more idea of what is actually “normal” than you or anyone else does, since I can’t see into anyone’s head but mine, but at least I’m no longer having mood swings.) If I had lived my whole life in “normal” mode, I’d have absolutely no clue what living with mental illness is like. And for the thirty-four years I was living in “mental illness” mode, I really didn’t understand that “normal” people experience the world totally differently.
So that’s why I think people misunderstand mental illness. Everyone thinks that their perspective is normal. But your “normal” isn’t my normal, and if you don’t recognize that, your assumptions about mental illness can lead to terrible things.
P.S. The latest medication works just fine, so it was just that one day. What a relief!
Wanda Milwee says
I appreciate the clarity and honesty of your description of living with mental illness. I have family members with depression and bi-polar and others who cannot understand that getting up and doing something isn’t the cure-all. This subject should be required curriculum in health classes in middle and high school and college.
Kate Lister says
Tien, Thank you.
Cynthia Hull says
Whew! After reading your long post, I was so relieved by your P.S. Hope it continues to work for you.
Kate Chitwood says
Thank you for sharing your reality. My brother was bipolar- and you’ve given me an insight into his life. Thank you
Elizabeth Santarpio says
Tien, thank you for opening your heart to us. Mental health issues need to brought into the light and be discussed and pondered with an open mind. I think that commentaries such as yours will ultimately teach us that tolerance of differences can lead us to true understanding. Understanding can lead us to empathy and acceptance. You are a brave, talented, brilliant woman – I respect you enormously.
Thanks Tien. I’ve posted these to my Facebook account hoping they might help some of my family. It has been very hard for them to see they have a problem.
Thank you for sharing. I wasn’t diagnosed with BP & BPD until I was 56 I still struggle mostly everyday with those up and down thoughts, as well as anxiety along with the distorted thinking. I have put on a mask for years to cover up my depression and illness. Not unlike yourself there were factors throughout my life which would have stressed and depressed almost anyone but these same incidents my mind would not let go for days or months still to come back to me in later years as flashbacks. I am thankful for a husband who has stood by me, supporting Family and friends as well as fantastic medical professionals in my life. I am very thankful we raise dogs as I HAVE to get out of bed in the morning. Your sharing gives hope to many knowing we are not alone in our struggle with mental illness. Thank you
Thanks for this, again. I can certainly appreciate the “I have to get this out on time for Handwoven” comments!
I’m not suggesting this so much for you but for your readers:
One powerful tool that I use (I have PTSD) when my inner dialogue goes haywire and my conditioned self (the wacky “you were bullied, so you are a victim” part of me) starts to be present, I simply say, “I see you” or “I see you, conditioned self.” I don’t judge or belittle or try to get it to shut up, because then it screams louder for attention. I acknowledge it and don’t try to change it. This isn’t easy to do, but it does help immensely.
THE NEIGHBORS ARE GOING TO CHOP DOWN YOUR TREES THIS WEEKEND. YOU NEED TO BE AFRAID.
Ahh, hi. I see you.
Thanks for sharing, Tien. It’s always good to be reminded that each of our “normals” is different. I’m so glad your new meds are working. Your story reminds me of when I got glasses in the third grade. I had no idea how bad my eyesight was until I started wearing glasses. I thought everybody saw (or didn’t see as the case may be) the way I did.
Kathleen Conery says
This was a very helpful and clear explanation of what happens inside our heads sometimes. I deal with a mild, but recurring, depression. My husband deals with a stronger, more difficult, chronic depression. When he’s in a bad place, I try to remember what those feelings feel like so that I can empathize. It helps with my patience and understanding. When we’re both not good… those are bad times. Lucky for both of us my lows are not that low. I can get up and do… it does NOT make the low go away (meds do that), but it does keep us functioning until he’s back to “normal”.
The hardest part for him, and for my niece and a cousin who are both BPD diagnosed, is staying on the meds. He does it, but he doesn’t like the way they change his ability to feel… deeply? or maybe strongly? intensely? I understand what he’s saying, but don’t know the right word.
My niece as gone off hers (and, unfortunately gone off the family) because she wants those highs… the high energy, adrenaline charged, and just going full tilt. She craves them… and doesn’t fear the lows enough I guess.
I don’t know if my words are quite correct… the emotional words… it’s just the closest I can get to expressing in my “normal” what seems to be their “normal”.
BTW, have you ever heard the musical “Next to Normal”? It is about a family going through the effects of mental illness. It’s very good. And very moving.
Kathy Brantley says
I didn’t realize that you had bipolar until I read this article; I’m so sorry. Kudos to you for handling it so openly and honestly!
After I suffered my strokes I became depressed. Not just a little depressed, but seriously suicidal. I would dream up ways to kill myself. “I could drive off the cliff” (on my drive down the mountain from where I lived), “I could step in front of that train”, “I could take a LOT of “ … it felt awful. And just like you describe, I couldn’t make it stop. I tried, believe me “” I didn’t think it was remotely cool to be thinking these things “” but I couldn’t. Nor did I call any of the suicide hotlines, because a) I didn’t think they’d understand a 24 year old having a stroke and b) because of the strokes, I couldn’t do many of the things that people normally do to alleviate depression, like exercise.
I tried medication (Zoloft), which was great until the side effects kicked in. Suddenly, it was a moot point. They were as awful as the depression, except I didn’t want to talk about them in public, as they were sexual and extremely embarrassing. SUCK!!!
So I did what I’d been doing since I’d had the strokes and got on the internet and read about my Extremely Embarrasing Problem (EEP). Folks recommended that I try Wellbtrin. After discussing it with my doctor, I tried it, and … the difference was night and day. My EEP was gone, as was my depression, but Wellbutrin did something else: it woke me up. Which nothing else could do (we’d tried everything). Hallelujah!
I’m now on a low dose of Wellbutrin daily to keep my energy level up. It is a GODSEND to me.
Anyway, I wanted you to know that you’re not alone in fighting mental illness. Keep fighting the good fight and please know you’re not alone!