Friday, 26 July 2013

Emotional Scale

Everyone experiences emotions. Happy, sad, anger, fear, joy, excitement, sorrow, etc... However, for those of us with a mental illness the scale on which we feel these emotions is vastly different than a normal person's scale. If the normal person's range runs from 1 to 100, ours runs more like 1 to 1,000,000. I'm not exaggerating. So imagine the saddest event you've ever experienced and multiply by a thousand, you will get close to understanding how devastating and paralysing that same event can be for someone with mental illness. I'm not just talking about people who have severe depression or are bipolar. The emotional scale for all mental illnesses seems to be skewed. Of course everyone is different so everyone's scale is different, so I will only speak to mine.

Going back as far as I can remember in my life, I think I subconsciously knew my emotions were "off". I can remember certain times when I would have an emotion that actually caused me physical pain. As a child growing and learning, just like with all things, you learn what is normal and acceptable and what is not. I knew my emotions weren't normal and acceptable, so I had to outwardly fake things to appear normal. I buried the pain, sorrow, anger, hatred, etc. deep inside. Happiness and excitement were no better. Largely because once I hit a "high" with something, the next time had to be vastly "higher" or it just didn't have the same impact. It would become flat. For example, if I got a great birthday present, the next year the gift had to be bigger and better.

So as the years went by, my highs got higher and my lows got lower. To some extent this happens naturally with everyone I think. I've tried to describe it before like this: a toddler gets a new toy and they are ecstatic, but take that toy away for even a minute and their entire world crashes. Why the extremes? They don't have much life experience at the point to gauge their highs and lows on. Comparatively a normal adult gets a DVD they wanted and they are happy. The DVD gets lost or broken, the adult isn't happy, but their world doesn't crash around them like the toddler with the toy. The adult has had more life experiences to put things into context. An adult has experienced things like marriage, child birth, death, graduations, promotions, etc. that has developed their emotional range.

Because of my mental illnesses, my range of emotions got perverted as I grew. For me personally, there are many different factors that affected my scale. For example, emotional abuse, alcoholism in my family, sexual abuse, trauma, chemical imbalances and such. By my teens, my range was so vast that a good event in my life barely pulled me up past the half way mark. Life became darker and more pointless. I was fifteen when the depression finally took over and I succumbed and had a complete emotional collapse. Everyday was worse than the day before. When nothing can make you feel happiness anymore, that very fact makes every moment of your self slide further and further down the emotional scale. You eventually realise their is no bottom. It's a bottomless pit and the walls are greased. No climbing back up.

It took me literally decades of therapy, medications, hospitalisations, and self reflection to rework my emotional scale. It's by no means "normal" compared to the average, but it's nowhere near as vast. That's not to say I've magically erased all the bad from my past. It's still there and so are the low points on my scale. But I've learned to live in a narrower range. I've even managed to up the high side which not even seven years ago I thought would be impossible.

I try live in what I refer to as the "content" range. It's still a lot wider than most. Just ask my husband, he deals with my wack-a-doodle ass everyday. But I've gotten much better at realising when an emotion is an overreaction. Sometimes it's not exactly in the moment and I have to back track and make apologies for ridiculous responses (once again, talk to my hubby), but the fact that I can recognise my irrationality at all is amazing to me. So I forgive myself when I'm overly emotional and say or do things that hurt others. And I make apologies when necessary. I allow myself to have bad days, but have my depression combat kit at the ready with all the tools that help me stay in my "content" range. I've also surrounded myself with loving and supportive family and friends.  Those closest to me know my story so are able to help me regulate when necessary.

Living with a skewed emotional scale isn't easy. But with support and effort, it is manageable I've discovered. 

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Unexpected Benefits

I've been writing about living with mental illness for a few months now. Quite the accomplishment for me. Us creative bipolars fall into two categories I think: those with a never ending source of ideas that flood out easily and those that are gripped by fear of failure. I'm the latter. I'm getting better at embracing my creativity and actually producing things, but it's definitely a process that is taking me time.

So how then have I managed to consistently keep up this blogging thing I wonder? Let's see... 

I have been told by many people who have heard my story that I should write a book. Apparently surviving the hell I've been through and coming out the other side happier and healthier is impressive to some people. Even my mother, who could barely acknowledge my mental illness for most of my life, now brags about what I've overcome. It's all very strange to me. I certainly didn't choose this course of events. Who would?

I started this blog for one reason. After years of relative contentment, I started to get severely depressed after moving to the UK from the US to be with my new husband. I was confused by my conflicting emotions of pure joy to be with my love and the uncertainty and upheaval of leaving all I knew behind. I was starting to spiral and I needed to get the thoughts out of my head. I was suddenly realising that even though my illness was fairly well under control it wasn't gone. I became very scared. Scared I could lose everything I had worked so hard for once again. What if I woke up again in the hospital heavily sedated with little memory of the events that put me there? Could I survive it all again? I was gripped in fear!

I made myself do all the things I taught myself to do when I felt the depression creeping in. I tried to paint, went for walks, played games, watched movies, etc. but I was still struggling. I thought about that book everyone told me to write. Too much. Too big. Too scary. Then I started thinking about blogging. I did a little research, signed myself up on Google+, downloaded a blogging app, and wrote an intro. I scrutinised it for a couple days before finally publishing it out into the great unknown. I was so proud that I actually put something out there. I never anticipated what would happen next. People responded to my story.

I couldn't believe it. People actually read my blog! And better yet, they liked it! Amazing! This response encouraged me to write again and again. I got involved in the online support communities and started developing a repoir with lots of people. I find myself reading other blogs and researching topics almost daily. I thought I would run out of ideas quickly, but actually I find myself getting sparks of inspiration at nearly every turn. My biggest hurdle currently is focusing on one topic at a time. Suppose that's a good problem to have creatively speaking.

I have started to relax a bit. I work on projects. I explore my area. I smile and enjoy my surroundings. It has all started to fall into place. I am making friends and starting a new part time job. My new home is becoming a home! My blogging experience has actually given me a lot more insight into my illness and its manifestations. I think I'm actually getting better at recognising aspects of my illness I just chalked up to character flaws previously. I thought my blog would just be an electronic journal essentially, but it has become much more. It's a learning tool for me and those who read it. It's a cathartic and creative outlet. It gives me social interaction of sorts. And perhaps someday the foundation for that book? We shall see.

I tell my story with the hope that my experiences can help and inspire others with mental illness. Who knew I would help and inspire myself!

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Did I Trade in Cutting for Tattoos?

I started writing this blog as a way to help get some thoughts out of my head and hopefully help someone else along the way. I knew I was going to tell my stories but I didn't realise how much I was going to learn about myself along the way. The latest thing that has piqued my interest is why I get tattoos.

I started getting tattoos as soon as I was old enough to legally do so much to my mothers dismay. I've gotten tattooed six times now. Truth be told, if I hadn't tried so hard to conform to society norms in early adulthood, I would have a lot more. Six may seem like a lot to some and not much to others. All of them are easily hidden, but if I had my way I would have sleeves. I love every one of them, even my first one which is not the best, but it's part of me now and I wouldn't change a thing. I'm forty now and still want more. People try to tell me I'm too old to still be getting tattoos. They say I will regret them when I'm old. I think they will be fun to talk about when I'm in the old folks home getting a sponge bath from some young whipper snapper. Or I will end up with dementia and won't care what anyone thinks. So I'm gonna keep 'em coming!

The question I am asking myself is why do I like getting tattoos? I don't just like the self expression of having art on my body, I also enjoy the actual act of being tattooed. It's hilarious to those close to me because I have a deep seeded fear of needles and blood. But I love getting tattooed! I pass out nearly every time I get my blood drawn. Go ahead and laugh. I do at this point. So why do I love those little needles tap tap tapping away at my flesh? I wonder...

I was in my early teens when the depression, anxiety, and severe emotional pain started to grow. I would have such extreme inner turmoil that I would feel like I was dying. I would then slump into a period of complete numbness. Sometimes the antidepressants I started to take helped, but sometimes they made things worse. At some point the cycling pain and numbness became too much. I don't remember exactly how it started but I remember sitting in the dark crying and shaking. For some reason I had gotten a hold of an old hunting knife of my fathers. I was just pressing it against my skin. I soon pressed so hard that I cut myself and started bleeding. I didn't notice this immediately, but when I finally saw the blood I just stared as it trickled down my leg. I was mesmerised. I dragged the blade across my skin again. Another little line beaded up and started to stream down parallel to the other. I found some relief.

If cutting or self harm in general is alien to you, be glad. It's not a pretty place to be. So why do people do it? I can only say why I did, but the story is fairly similar across the board. Two basic premises: first, you have so much emotional pain inside that the infliction of physical pain actually eases the emotional and second, if complete numbness sets in feeling anything at all is actually a relief, letting you know you are still alive. I fell into both categories. The girl who hates needles and blood found solace in cutting herself. And I didn't care what I used. Knives, broken glass, pins, etc., didn't matter as long as I got my relief. The deeper my pain, the deeper the cuts. If this is still unfamiliar to you let me point out that cutting is not about suicide. Cuts are superficial. They may or may not scar, but are not done in an attempt to end life. It's all about the relief and release of pain.

I cut on and off through the worst parts of my illness. I pray that the worst is behind me and I can maintain my semblance of normalcy (whatever that is). I do have scars on my arms and legs leftover from those days, but thankfully they are not too bad. Visible, but not grotesque.

Now my tattoos... That's a different story. I love them! Every last one. And wish I had gotten more throughout my life to memorialise moments and milestones. I love the symbolism they represent. And the pain. Is that wrong? Is that sick? Am I still beyond help? In a group discussion regarding tattoos it was mentioned that a model had written a memoir regarding her journey through self harm and depression. She traded in cutting for tattoos. This made me wonder if I had done the same thing. So I started thinking about the similarities and differences.

First of all, my cutting and tattooing overlapped. Okay fine. Whatever. I'm crazy. Enough said. But are tattoos a healthier alternative to cutting? I read several articles and other posts to see what other people said before I wrote this. It was clear that people who have dealt with mental illness think tattoos can be a better alternative to straight up self harm. That's not to say that all people that love tattoos are mentally ill. Or that mentally ill people with tattoos use to self harm. As with most mental illness scenarios, there is no hard fast rule. I'm no expert so I can't speak for the masses. I do my best to inform myself before forming opinions and always keep an open mind.

So what about me personally? I do think tattooing is a release for me similar to cutting. I got two of my tattoos after the last time I cut. Neither time made me want to cut, but I was in a much healthier place mentally. Could it create the urge in an unstable person? Possibly. Now having thought about the tattoo process and the pain involved, I definitely think there is a correlation. The girl who hates blood and pain loves tattooing. I have a psychological desire for controlled pain which I see in other areas of my life as well. Not completely sure if that's considered good or bad. Just is what it is.

I'm sure a lot of people find it strange that I love the pain involved in tattooing, but to each his own. Would I recommend tattooing as an alternative to self harm? No. Is it a good alternative? Yes. But if I went back in time and got a tattoo instead of cutting every time, I'm sure I would have the most ridiculous collection of doodles on my body. The root cause of cutting needs to be addressed and stabilised before any alternative therapy is suggested, including tattooing. I absolutely see now that I use the tattooing process as a release because the illness never really goes away. I've just learned to deal with it better and channel my energy in somewhat more productive arenas.

I'm feeling the itch...

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

But Really... I Could Fly!

I know it's not unusual for children to have imaginary friends or create a fantasy world, but I've often wondered if there is a correlation between these things and mental illness. I had imaginary friends and a very active fantasy world. But there is one specific element I want to talk about today. When I was a little, I could fly.

Really I could fly. As an adult I rationalise that it's not possible, but I have such intense memories of flying like a bird when I was little that when I close my eyes and think about it I can still feel the freeing sensation. What's ironic to me is that I'm petrified of heights as an adult. But when I was a kid, I used to love swooping around the neighbourhood, diving and doing loop-de-loops, skimming the tree tops. Even as I write this I get this tingly happy feeling as I remember those days.

My best friend "Diana" loves for me to tell this story about my life to her and new people. She thinks it's hilarious that I am so insistent about my super special childhood abilities. She will say to someone "Kay thinks she could fly when she was a kid" which of course enrages my defences and I am immediately compelled to retort back "I don't THINK I could fly... I COULD fly!" And I will say the same thing to you if you ask me. I could fly when I was a kid.

I'm not sure when I stopped being able to fly. Think I was nine or ten. And I'm not sure why I stopped flying. It was such a freeing, empowering activity for me as a child. I sure could've used that kind of release as a teen. But all good things must come to an end as the saying goes.

So now as I sit here blogging my little heart out I wonder how common this is among people. I can't be the only person to have created such an intense escape fantasy. And as I reflect I realise that maybe I just swapped flying for other fantasies. As far back as I can remember I created worlds and personalities to escape my reality. I've never been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder but I definitely have some of the characteristics.

My fantasies have always been so all encompassing. There have been times when I can sit and literally watch an alternate reality play out in front of me. The images are so vivid that the reality and fantasy blur together. It can definitely be frightening to have that kind of power because sometimes I lose control of the fantasy and it takes over. I eventually come back to the reality and can reflect back on the fact that the fantasy was just that, a fantasy. But not always. Especially when other aspects of my illness take over.

Normal people can't understand this. They can't understand how and why I would create these alternate worlds. They haven't suffered the mental and emotional pain I have. Everyone has fantasies, but most people don't get lost in them. They don't lose control. I do. It's scary. Even the nice fantasies I have to work really hard to keep them on the surface. If I get too close to that blurring line, something clicks and the fantasy takes over, maybe just for a few moments but sometimes way longer. Like flying.

Now any "normal" person who just read all of this will think I'm batshit crazy. I am but that's besides the point. Mental illness can include necessary coping mechanisms that we create to survive. Unfortunately severely mentally ill people can let these aspects take over without us even knowing it. It's imperative that I have a very close circle of family and friends who can recognise when detrimental thought processes take over. I need these people to keep me in reality when I start to wander off too far. Luckily my husband is willing and quickly learning to recognise these things. I will never stop fantasising. I need it and to some extent like it, as long as I control the fantasy and not the over way around.

... Now if I could just remember how to fly...

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Addiction & Mental Illness: Part Three

...So I was back in my childhood home. I was nearly thirty-five years old and I had literally crawled back to my mother, tail between my legs, begging for help. I quit everything. Drugs, alcohol, and the myriad of psychiatric meds I had been abusing as well.

I had no idea how I was going to get my life back, but since I had already lost everything, I somehow managed to realise I no longer had anything to lose. It was the guilt and shame that had kept me using drugs so I had to somehow figure out how to leave it all behind me. So I put some blinders on and just kept clawing my way forward, inching my way out of the darkness, the emptiness. I found a job at a restaurant within walking distance doing whatever they asked. I still hadn't won back friends and frankly everyone acted weird around me, so I just spent time alone. I worked, I walked, and I meditated. My head was starting to clear.

As the fog slowly faded away from my existence, I realised I didn't know who I was. But for some reason this actually made me happy. I realised all the bad things I had done in the past weren't actually me. I had created many different fractured personalities to deal with what I couldn't. I wasn't a bad person. I was at the mercy of my illness back then. I was neutral. I had no idea who I was, but that was good because it meant I wasn't bad. I could choose who I wanted to be. And I chose to be happy and good.

It wasn't always easy. Some days were straight up impossible. I would have to literally will myself through every second of the day just to get through it. It was exhausting. But everyday got a little easier. And something amazing started to happen, I started to like myself. I had come to appreciate the little things in life. I appreciated my mother for helping me, my boss for giving me a job, my friends for giving me another chance yet again, and God for getting me through the darkness.

Now did the idea of using drugs again float through my head? On bad days, yes. I would think about how that first high would make the bad feelings go away. And then I would make myself think about all the bad things that followed and ask myself if that's what I really wanted. The answer was no. I had started to see a glimpse of myself and I realised I wasn't so bad after all. In fact, I was pretty freaking awesome!

I had been through hell. A hell I wouldn't wish upon anyone. Somehow I made it through. I had a chance to start over. A chance to discover who I really was deep inside. I made some decisions about what kind of person I wanted to be and have stuck to it ever since.

First, no guilt or shame. There was no room for that in my future so I left it in the past. I wasn't going to let my past define me. 

Second, be open and honest. This goes hand in hand with not being ashamed. If I'm honest with people about who I am, I don't have to keep secrets about my past.  Not everyone will accept my past, but I have and that's all that matters.

Third, be generous. If I am able to give to someone in need, I do. Simple.

Fourth, be kind. Even if someone isn't kind to me, I try to be mindful of what they might be going through that I don't know about. Maybe they need a little kindness.

Fifth, appreciate what I have. I lost all my possessions at one point. I learned what is important. When I have more than I need, I appreciate every bit of it.

Sixth, ask for help. Guess what? I can't do it all, so if I need help, I ask.

I hope my story helps others get through their nightmare. I hope that it helps knowing it is possible to not only get through hell, but to end up immensely happy on the other side. And I have no regrets. If I hadn't been through my hell, I wouldn't have found myself. It was part of my journey. It wasn't pretty, but it was part of who I am.

I am Kay and I'm pretty awesome! Just sayin...

Monday, 1 July 2013

Addiction & Mental Illness: Part Two

*Warning: contains graphic descriptions and triggers*

...After spending years trying to pin all my happiness on my husband and stepsons, I was coming to the realisation that I was a shell of a human being. To keep myself from having time to think about the void in my soul, I kept busy. Really really busy. I worked a forty hours plus a week job. I had decided to go back to college and attended classes four nights a week. I had loads of homework. And I was raising two teenage boys. All the while my husband was working eighty hours a week and was having to go on business trips more and more frequently. To top it all off, we had taken in my father-in-law who had complicated medical issues.

I begged my husband for months into years to cut back at work. I needed more of him. Our marriage was crumbling. The love and caring was there, but the marriage suffered greatly. Looking back, I realise now spending more time with me wasn't going to solve my problems. He had married a character I created and I no longer knew how to play that part. It wasn't his fault or mine. It was the illness inside me that was taking over.

As the emptiness grew, so did the depression. Sleep cycles became erratic. Mood swings ran rampant. Food lost its taste. Everything was dull and grey. I would spend hours staring out a window contemplating how to end it all. My work suffered. My marriage suffered. And I suffered. I eventually had a breakdown at work and was found near catatonic on the bathroom floor crying hysterically. Next thing I knew, I was being checked into an institution. Again. After a couple weeks, I was back home but I still couldn't function and a few months later, I was back in the hospital.

I was so afraid of everything. The questions and thoughts blazing through my head dizzied me. I was cycling through manic episodes at lightning speed. In my haze, I found myself charmed by a fellow patient. I didn't know it, but I was about to delve into a world you can only imagine in your worst nightmares.

This patient, lets call him Daniel, related to me, wooed me, brainwashed me. Next thing I knew, my husband and I were separated and I was following Daniel halfway across the country. I convinced myself he loved me and on some level I think he did. But Daniel was an addict. Not an occasional drug user, but a full fledged addict. He would disappear in the middle of the night with my car and money and wouldn't come back for hours and sometimes days. In my warped state of mind, I decided that if I did the drugs with him, I could control when and how much we did. We were smoking crack, lots of it. It didn't take long before the drug took over my life, along with my cocktail of prescription psychiatric meds. My reality was askew. I couldn't quit and didn't want to quit. When I wasn't high, the pain, guilt, and shame was overwhelming, so I stayed high at all costs. I would beg on street corners for money to feed my habit, and in some cases, even worse. We bounced from place to place, taking what we could from whoever would help us, running from dealers we ripped off, sleeping in back alleys and abandoned buildings, hitch hiking all over the southeast US.

All the while my family and friends were slowly giving up on me. The help I was given I didn't appreciate. The only thing that mattered was killing the enormous pain inside me. I couldn't stand what I had become, I had to stay high or thoughts of suicide took over. I engaged in self harm to punish myself, to bleed the pain out, to see if I was still alive. I was in and out of hospitals with several suicide attempts. No one answered the phone when I called. I had nothing. I was nothing. Even Daniel had abandoned me. Over the course of three years, I went from being a wife, stepmom, daughter, sister, etcetera to a homeless drug addict.

Daniel was attempting to get his life together and I was dragging him down. I begged him to help me, but he was angry with me. Somehow he blamed me for everything bad in his life. He finally agreed to help me, but there was a price to pay. I somehow convinced my estranged husband to buy me a bus ticket to where Daniel was living in New Orleans. Daniel said he was going to help me get a job and place to live. What he actually had in mind was unthinkable. He spent three days beating me, raping me, torturing me. Breaking me. And he did. I was broken. I was at rock bottom.

I decided my only option was to beg my mother for help one last time. She begrudgingly agreed and so I was on a bus back home to Ohio. This was it. This was my last chance at help. My last chance to live...