When Normal Isn’t Normal

abnormal

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” – Alfred Adler

I dislike using the word normal in reference to mental health. There is no true normal. Everyone has their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. I prefer to use the word “average”. I have average days. I feel like I fit in, like I’m not struggling against myself and my brain and I actually get along. I’m not antsy, irritable, or depressed.  I sort of miss the energy of hypomania, but average is nice.  Sometimes I get a few of these days strung together, maybe even a couple of weeks.   It happens between hypomanic events and depression. It’s still not normal.

On my average days I can enjoy life. I can be happy; my moods are stable and not as magnified. I still have breakthrough moments of sadness and anxiety, but I recover quickly. It’s still not normal, though; there are drawbacks. I still feel like I’m waiting for things to go bad, for the other shoe to drop. I feel better, but I’m still nervous about trusting my own judgment, that there is still something lurking inside that will turn a seemingly simple decision into something horrendous. Overall, I feel good, but never entirely carefree.

Since these average experiences occur between hypomania and depression I’m somewhat leery of what’s going to happen next. This is the main reason I do not refer to my periods of feeling average as normal. I know at some point the average feeling will end and something will eventually replace it . I don’t know if it’s going to be depression or hypomania. If it’s hypomania, how far up will my mood go? It can range from being slightly euphoric and energetic to completely out of control. If I move into depression, how low will I drop? Will I become suicidal again? Will this be the depression I don’t survive? This is my worst fear, that I’m one mood swing from taking my own life.  The statistics make it a coin flip that I’ll attempt it.

There is a positive side to this, especially these days.  I’ve been in treatment for eight months, the longest I’ve ever lasted before going off my meds and I feel better more often and for longer periods.  Although the fear of relapse  occasionally rattles around in my brain, I don’t sit around and ruminate or try to hide from it.   Being afraid of the depression and anxiety cause me to be more depressed and anxious.  I now have reason, however, to not see this as a stressor or trigger.

My most recent hypomanic episode passed without any major incidents. I felt a bit more energetic and occasionally irritable, but nothing unmanageable.  The medication and therapy are working, so although I’m concerned about the next mood swing, I’m not trying to hide from it or lock myself away in fear. I haven’t had an episode of depression since early this year, so I remain positive.  It’s possible that I may be in a sort of remission and the average days will continue.

That’s about the best I can hope for and as close to “normal” as I can get for now.

The Sins of the Father

BiPolar

“It’s a sad affair
When there’s no one there
He calls out in the night
And it’s so unfair
At least it seems that way
When you gave him his life”
– Tears for Fears “Suffer the Children”

Last week when I wrote about dealing with the symptoms of irritability and anger I talked about my son and how I was trying to avoid letting my symptoms affect him. It isn’t easy and it isn’t always effective. I try to shield him from my outbursts, but he will see me when my anger takes over and I yell and curse. I try desperately to avoid him becoming the brunt of my anger. Part of my daily cycle usually includes being more irritable at the end of the day, usually around the time he has to take a bath and go to bed. If his mother is home she will handle this part of the routine, but lately she’s been working late so it’s been my responsibility.

When it comes to certain things, my son does not move quickly. Things like getting dressed for school or to go out at all, getting into the car and putting on his seat belt, and walking through stores, all seem to take forever. Now I know this is not specific to him and a lot of children do this, so I deal with it and I good-naturedly tease him a little, although he did not know what the phrase “slow as molasses in winter” meant. He uses his same time-consuming process in his night time routine, taking forever to get in the bath, getting his pajamas on, brushing his teeth, trying to con me into giving him one last snack or glass of chocolate milk. Again, none of these are unusual, but by this time of day I have no patience. I need him to go to bed so I can have my time to calm down and go to bed. I spend a lot of time muttering under my breath that he should hurry up and move his ass to get into bed. When he asks what I said, I can respond, “Nothing, just talking to myself,” and carry on. I keep telling myself that it’s not his fault. I have to try to keep calm. Deep breathing and occasionally leaving the room for two minutes to collect myself usually works.

At the other end of the mood swings is the depression. This is the most painful part for me. I completely withdraw. I sit on the couch with a hoodie pulled down over my eyes and avoid all communication. He knows Daddy isn’t feeling well. I lie and blame one of more physically tangible illnesses, usually that my stomach is bothering me. This can only work for so long. He knows that something is up. He’s six, not stupid. One day he asked me outright, “Why are you so sad all the time?” I just wanted to break down and sob when he asked. Not only did he figure it out, he had questions that I’m not ready to answer. How do I explain bipolar depression to him at his age?

It isn’t only his observing my symptoms that bothers me, even though I wonder how he processes the behavior he sees. I worry that he may suffer these symptoms himself. Children with a bipolar parent run a 15-25% chance of suffering the same disorder. I hope each and every day that he isn’t part of that number, that he will escape dealing with these uncontrollable emotions and the cycling mood swings. I am horrified by the thought of him suffering through the pain of depression.

I try not to dwell on these thoughts. He is a very happy, funny, and adorable child. I want him to be nothing but happy. Despite my mental illness, he is a source of incredible joy for me and the reason I’m alive. When I was at my lowest and seriously considering suicide, I stopped each time because of what it would do to my son. It would have been a violently selfish act that would devastate him and cause immeasurable pain, the one thing I’ve been trying to avoid. When my irritability slowly creeps up by the end of the day, it is his laughter and happiness that ultimately see me through.

The Strange Case of Me and Me

872250a Film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

“Well when the game is over, I won’t walk out the loser
And I know that I’ll walk out of here again
And I know someday I’ll walk out of here again
But now I’m trapped”
–Bruce Springsteen, “Trapped”

Yesterday wasn’t one of my best days. I’ve previously written that one of the symptoms of bipolar is mood intensification. Another is irritability. The combination of the two is unbearable. I woke up in a truly foul mood for no reason and it proceeded to get worse as the day progressed.

Imagine the anger that sets in when you’re in a supermarket or on some other shopping excursion. The checkout line is too long. The person behind you keeps pushing and bumping into you with their shopping cart. The person in front of you has two full shopping carts and a screaming child pulling candy off the shelf. At the front of the line is a person old enough to have sailed on the ark with Noah and is taking forever to get the groceries on the conveyor. Then they have an envelope full of coupons. Then they have the nerve to pay by check. You know this feeling. A temporary hatred for humanity, all of whom seems to have gathered with a 20 foot radius of you as you are simply trying to buy some milk and thinking this would be a quick trip. These feelings of consuming anger build until you exit the store, take a deep breath, retreat to your car, and head home.

On this particular day, this how I feel when I wake up. Except there is no deep sigh of relief or quiet place where I can calm myself. There is no relaxation. There is no reason for this irritability and anger. It merely is; and I have to deal with it. I try to sit and use deep breathing but it doesn’t work. I keep bouncing my heel off the floor, shaking my whole leg. I can’t sit still, which makes relaxation impossible. This is psychomotor agitation at its finest. I want to claw my way out of my own skin. I want to scream and throw a tantrum like a child, do anything I can to exorcise this rage until I can collapse, thoroughly exhausted, and finally rest. I can’t. I have to manage myself responsibly. I have to watch my six-year old and not lose my temper with him.

My son isn’t making it easy. As we sit on the couch watching TV, he insists on lying right up against my arm. Normally I don’t mind and I take comfort in it. Not today. Every time he moves and accidentally kicks or elbows me, I become angrier. I am able to maintain composure and ask him to move over. He does – for about five minutes – then he is back to leaning on me yet again.

I take a hydroxyzine, a non-narcotic I was prescribed for both anxiety attacks and mania, to calm down. This is the equivalent of throwing a brick in the Grand Canyon. Utterly useless, but I can’t take a second one for fear of falling asleep or being too groggy to watch my son. Everything culminates when my son accidentally breaks my glasses. I let out a “GODDAMMIT!” He bursts into tears. It takes almost ten minutes to calm him down. He apologizes repeatedly and promises never to play with my glasses again. I feel awful for yelling like I did and try to rationalize it by saying I wasn’t yelling directly at him, merely yelling in frustration, but it doesn’t ease my guilt. We forgive each other eventually and move on.

The worst part is that as this anger festers and grows, I recognize clearly what is happening, but I am unable to do anything about it. It is beyond my control and I am powerless to stop it. Anything I do to calm down doesn’t work and psychomotor agitation makes it worse. My wife asks several times what I’m upset about, but I can only tell her, “Nothing.” There is no specific event that has set this off. I feel completely helpless and trapped inside my own brain. I understand what’s happening and I can think rationally about it, but I’m locked away inside myself while the monster tries to get out and play. I feel as if some bizarre version of Jekyll and Hyde is being played out and I desperately want Jekyll to win. I want this day to be over.

Later that night (technically, early the next morning) I eventually get to sleep. I’ve never been so grateful for feeling tired.  Yesterday is finally gone and today, so far, has been very different. Yesterday’s crisis is over and I feel relatively average again. The next test is seeing what I can accomplish while the better mood lasts.