Polyamory and Mental Illness – The Wrong Diagnosis (Guest Post by Michón Neal)

Receiving the proper diagnosis can mean the difference between life and death, acceptance and ostracism, understanding and confusion. The right treatment can be an important part of functioning well, forming and maintaining relationships, and finding peace with your limits. However, when you’re a queer and poly female-bodied person of color the lines start to blur between experience and illness.

What do I mean? Well, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression at a young age. Black women are much more likely to be misdiagnosed. We are also more likely to have our sexual history interpreted differently, through the lens of mental illness rather than through sexual agency. So the doctors took one look at my sexual history, my mood swings, and my suicidal tendencies and decided that I was bipolar. It didn’t matter that I was suffering from PTSD due to my history of sexual and physical abuse. It didn’t matter that the reason I’d come in for help was because I only felt insane when I was having my menstrual cycle. My large sex drive was seen as an aberration, as dysfunctional instead of simply being part of who I was.

I could have died from being treated for conditions I didn’t have. I’d been treated with medications for depression and bipolar disorder. These medications wrecked my body and only ended up making things worse because the underlying problems actually turned out to be physical and not mental. There’s very little education about the overlap between physical disabilities and mental disorders. Many of the physiological effects can be similar or overlapping. And for black women in the US, it is much more likely that our physical symptoms will be ignored in favor of mental ones. It is often so easy to simply believe that we are crazy rather than ill.

For physical illnesses it is also incredibly difficult to find treatments for the mental effects. Doctors tend to focus only on the physical aspects and you’re pretty much on your own mentally. Which of course means that you’re still experiencing chronic condition-related mental illness yet cannot always take the same medications as someone who developed it in other ways. And if you’re of a different race and sex they are also less willing to try alternative treatments, often going for the extremes. Many black people forgo treatment for mental and physical illnesses due to poverty, lack of access to quality care, and because they aren’t receiving the correct care. Sometimes the healthiest choice they can make is to self-manage and self-treat, at least until they can afford better.

In the polyamorous community there are plenty of people who say they absolutely will not date anyone with a mental disorder. Or they stress not dating anyone who’s unmedicated, regardless of the cause, history, or severity of their mental illness. Even simply not dating outside of one’s race is one of the hidden biases of the community. And when you have physical illnesses and a traumatic past that can actually lead to mental disorders like anxiety and depression then it becomes even murkier. When you take birth control that can actually cause anxiety, things really get fun! Imagine trying to explain to potential lovers that you were diagnosed with bipolar, but wait, no, it’s really PCOS and endometriosis and fibromyalgia, oh, and did I mention that I have depression and anxiety caused by PTSD and my illnesses but I’m still totally fine?

For many people it’s hard enough to try to understand mental illness alone. And most never hear about disabilities beyond the obvious physical ones. And very few understand how health interacts and intersects with race, class, sex, and sexuality. While poly people like to think they know a lot about emotional health they do tend to disguise their preferences for healthy, drama-free people as not being ableist, racist, or offensive. It’s rather tempting for poly people to make very clear and exclusive lists of the types of people they’re looking for, regardless of circumstances. And getting left out is simply par for the course for those of us who have mental and physical illnesses on top of being from other races. While everyone has a right to ask for exactly what they want it also behooves them to examine the source of those preferences. There might be more to the story that they’re not seeing. In short, they might be misdiagnosing a hell of a lot of people.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

About Michón

Michon NealMichón Neal writes a mix of scifi, fantasy, erotica, and autobiography called cuil fiction about unique people in unique circumstances. Ze is currently working on The Cuil Effect Project, a ridiculously long tale about healing, absurdity, and all the different ways people interact. Zir books are available on Kindle, Smashwords, Scribd, Kobo, and more. You can find more details, sneak peaks, links, and absurdity on zir blog, Shadow in the Mirror.

Course of Treatment: The Treatment Roller Coaster

Here’s the way psych treatment goes in the movies. You’re suffering through some serious shit when you get taken in hand by a quirky doctor with a love of life and some magic pills. Under the doctor’s tutelage you embrace life again, and the magic pills restore you to healthy mental state, where you live happily ever after with the love of your life. The end.

Ask anyone whose been in treatment for mental illness their opinion of this baloney. I dare you.

Let’s imagine just for a minute that you do find a quirky doctor who shakes you out of the hopelessness and self hatred that often come from years of living with mental illness. Let’s further imagine that this doctor manages, on the first try, to prescribe the perfect pill to cure your symptoms. Here’s what happens next:

  1. You and your doctor gradually experiment with dosage levels (weekly or monthly blood tests being very much a thing) while you find the right amount of medication to give you the maximum help without too many side effects
  2. You need to relearn to live life as a mentally functional human being.
  3. You need to rebuild relationships that were damaged by your mental illness and learn/re-learn how to have healthy relationships
  4. You need to watch out for and learn how to live with whatever side effects your new medication gives you.
  5. In 6 months or 2 years or 10 years, the medication stops being effective. You need to repeat steps 1 and 4, or find maybe find a completely new medication. (Here’s hoping your doctor can get a hole in one twice)

Now, keep in mind that even the best psych treatments on average a 30% success rate (success meaning “creates significant improvement”). All psych treatments (with the exception of as needed meds for panic attacks and the like) require time to take effect and establish whether they work or not. This applies to psych meds, talk therapy and he vast majority of alternative medicine approaches. You’re usually looking at about a month to figure out if a treatment is working at all.

I tapped someone with better math than I have to find out that given a 30% success rate, you are looking at two attempts, on average, to find a treatment that works. This means that even the most effective treatments it will take an average of two months to find a treatment that works. First off, that’s an average. Some people will get lucky and find something on the first try, some will take three or four or six tries.

Second, and more importantly, if the more effective treatments don’t work, you are looking at the less effective treatments, at trying combinations of treatments, at finding treatments that work, but come with side effects that are nearly as bad as the disease they treat, so you need to decide do you stay with what you know works, or try to find something else, that might not work as well, but won’t destroy your liver in the next ten years.

Some people spend over a decade trying one treatment after another, searching for something that works.

Polyamory and the Treatment Roller Coaster

Unsurprisingly the treatment roller coaster is stressful on relationships. The stress can be short term–the treatment you’ve been using stops working, you go to your doctor, up the dosage (either increased therapy sessions or larger pills or both), maybe trying a new treatment, get back under control, adjust to new side effects and schedule changes, and you are good to go.

Or the stress can be long term, trying a new medication every few months, and dealing with first withdrawal symptoms from the old med, then the adjustment period for the new med, then side effects of the new med, then finding the new med doesn’t work, and start over. Over and over again. One therapist or style of therapy isn’t helping, you seek out a new therapist, find one that is promising, but doesn’t click or you can’t build a rapport, or they do something that damages your trust, or their approach to therapy just doesn’t work for you, and you seek out a new therapist.

The stress ans strain on the person trying to get help will definitely reverberate through the polycule, but stress also lands directly on poly partners. The first psych med I tried left me feeling numb. I had energy. I wasn’t depressed or sad anymore. I just didn’t feel anything anymore. If I’d been dating anyone at the time, they probably would have thought I completely lost interest in them. I was more myself in the depths of depression than i was on this medication. One of the first anxiety meds I tried made me extremely irritable, snapping people’s heads off over nothing. These kinds of adverse affects are really hard on poly partners.

It’s even harder on a new relationship. You’re just starting to get to know one another, and suddenly your poly partner changes completely. Are they showing a side of themselves they’ve kept hidden until now? Is it a reaction to a new medication? Are they just stressed about that thing at work? How do you tell? And are you willing and able to stick around and find out?

A common side effect of some psych meds is reduced libido. This means the treatment roller coaster can also be the sexual roller coaster.

Speaking for myself, my hormones are whack jobs so I’m on a sexual roller coaster already, but (thank god) my roller coaster is pretty damn predictable. the effect of psych meds on libido…not so much. Having your (or your partner’s) libido drop through the floor when they start a new med, then skyrocket when they get off it, stay level for the next med, but drop again when the dosage increases….

And all of this doesn’t begin to take into account the hell of watching someone you love struggle to find something–anything!–that works while feeling helpless to make a difference. (Reminder: you’re not)

Mental Illness Treatment Intensity and the Impact on Polyamory

FYI, depression is once again trying to kick my ass. Posts may be delayed while I’m getting it back under control. Thankfully, so far I seem to be winning.

Last week I talked about the range of treatment from hospitalization to home care–ie the different levels of intensity of care that is available to people struggling with mental illness. This week we’re going to look at how those treatment options affect polyamorous relationships.

polyamory and mental illnessHospitalization and Polyamory

Let’s start with the obvious: it doesn’t matter why a member of your polycule ends up in the hospital. This is one area where mental illness or heart attack or emergency C-section doesn’t matter. If one of your polycule is in the hospital, you may need to deal with disruptions of your normal routine, financial challenges from loss of income, fears for their health and well-being, limitations on when and how long you can see them (visiting hours suck!) and other issues.

Shorter hospital stays have less of an impact than longer hospital stays.

The one way I am aware of that mental illness makes a difference, is for caregivers. Caregivers for your loved one during their mental illness can deal with everything from making sure they take care of their meds to helping them shower to cooking their meals, in addition to helping them through panic attacks and differentiate delusion from reality. For a caregiver, having your loved one enter the hospital can be a huge weight off your shoulders (their life is no longer literally in your hands). It can also be a source guilt (if only you’d done enough, been good enough, helped enough, etc…). If there has been friction between a caregiver and another member of the polycule, there may also be blame–in either direction.

Don’t go there. No the caregiver(s) blaming the rest of the polycule for not giving more support and help. No other members of the polycule blaming he caregiver for not doing enough. Just don’t fucking go there.

Partial Hospitalization and Polyamory

From a practical perspective, entering a partial hospitalization program is much like starting a new 9-5 job. Loss of income may be a problem if the person entering the program had a job. Otherwise, you are dealing with the same schedule changes etc that come with any commitment to be out of the house from morning til evening.

However, partial hospitalization can be mentally and emotionally draining far more so than most jobs. You are literally spending all day every day in various types of therapy. Someone in partial hospitalization will come home drained and needing significant self-care some days. Other days they’ll be hyped with plenty of energy and excitement. And this may have nothing to do with how good or bad the day was!

In some ways, this can strain relationships more than hospitalization. Your loved one is RIGHT THERE but doesn’t have the energy or focus to give to their poly partners. Patience and some adjustments are needed. It sucks if the one evening a week you have to spend together your poly partner wants to do nothing but watch YouTube and recover from the stress of their day. But sometimes that’s what they need. Try to be understanding–it really isn’t personal. If it happens every week, you might want to ask about their schedule, and what is happening on that day every week that is leaving them so drained. If art therapy, or that one group activity, or program outings to this or that local thing are hitting them particularly hard, you might want to reschedule your regular time to a day when that activity isn’t on their schedules.

Partial hospitalization is a mixed blessing for caregivers, on the one hand, you have time during the day that can actually be for you. Heavenly! On the other hand, you need to help your loved one get ready and out the door, when they may barely be able to get out of bed.

Outpatient Therapy and Polyamory

Outpatient therapy will not usually affect regular schedules, family incomes, or other “major” issues. For caregivers–as opposed to supportive friends and family–outpatient therapy has a lot of the same challenges as partial hospitalization. “I know you feel like shit, love. But you can’t afford to miss another appointment. Come on, I have your clothes here…” without the benefit of several hours a day you can take for yourself and your priorities without fear of interruption. On the plus side, outpatient therapy is usually once a week, at most 2 or 3 times a week, so it’s not an everyday struggle.

For all poly partners, the rest of the day after a therapy session can be the same emotional rollercoaster as evenings after partial hospitalization. You never know what state your partner will be in when they come out of a session. They may be happy and relaxed, stunned with a new realization, broken and weeping…. it can definitely be rough on all concerned.

Whenever possible, don’t schedule important shit–whether it’s a family discussion about a recurring problems, or a special date, or your kid’s birthday party–after a therapy session. No one–not the person in therapy and not their poly partners–needs the stress that can bring with it.

Medication Only and Polyamory

For someone who has found their equilibrium and just needs a bit of help to keep their mental illness under control, medication only therapy can be just what is needed. Medication only might mean medication that needs to be taken every day, like lithium for mood stabilization. Or it might mean medication that is only taken as needed–such as many anti-anxiety pills.

Medication only therapy should not have a direct impact on polyamory. However, it is generally a good idea to know your more entwined partner’s medications and possible side effects. If only so on the day they have the flu and are on doctor ordered bed rest, you know what you are doing when they ask you to get the Haldol for them.

Sometimes people miss their regular medication. They might be caught out of town unexpectedly, lose their meds and need to wait for a refill, or just forget. If your poly partner isn’t able to take their medication as scheduled, you may see some personality changes, mood swings, or withdrawal symptoms. Try to be patient and remember that this time is even harder on them than it is on you.

Home Care and Polyamory

Whether in combination with medication and/or outpatient therapy or on it’s own, home care is critical for most people with mental illness. Ideally, whatever home care is necessary–be it meditation, some time in the sun, or a cup of chamomile tea before bed–is just a part of your normal routine. Much like taking a shower or combing your hair when you get up in the morning. Sometimes, especially when mental illness is acting up, home care can be disruptive. For instance, needing to cancel a regular activity because of a bad anxiety day.

When home care is part of a routine, it usually won’t impact polyamory directly. It can be helpful for poly partners to take part in or at least support, parts of the routine. Join in the meditation, have a cup of tea together etc.

When home care needs to disrupt routines and expected activities it can definitely have an impact. Someone going through a bad patch may need to cancel dates, ask for additional support, ask for additional space, and a great deal more. These disruptions can range from a loved one calling you up randomly “I’m having obsessive thoughts about X, help distract me please.” to “I’m having a panic attack, I need to cancel our date. Can you just come over and spend time with me instead?” to “No, I can’t go on our planned weekend outing my mental health is too shakey, and I don’t want to risk being away from my support system,” right up to “the suicidal thoughts are back, can you please give me a ride to the hospital/clinic/therapists? I don’t trust myself to drive right now.”

That last is, thankfully, rare.

Mental illness tends to run in cycles. Depression is a mildly annoying problem until it swamps you out of nowhere. After a few weeks you manage to get back on your feet and depression is a mildly annoying problem again. Until the next wave. During a bad part of the cycle, home care will have more of an impact on polyamory, and your poly partner may need more help and support. During a good part of the cycle, you may not even be aware of the steps they take each day to take care of themselves.

How often and how extreme these cycles are vary, and some people find the cycle takes them from home care to hospitalization and back. For others, they can rely on home care as their primary treatment throughout the cycle, but some months they won’t take a single as-needed pill while other months they are taking the maximum allowed every day.

Standard disclaimer

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Course of Treatment: Treatment Options–Treatment Intensity

In Western medicine, there are varying levels of treatment for mental illness. In theory, the more you are able to take care of and manage your own mental health care, the lower the level of treatment you receive.

Hospitalization

Hospitalization for mental illness has a bad reputation. A reputation that is historically valid but far less of a problem today. At least in the US and Europe, the vast majority of people in the hospital or mental illness are their voluntarily. They recognized a need for more help than they could get at home. Most hospitalization is short term. Intensive care and/or 24 hour supervision is available for someone who lost control to depression, bi polar, or other mental illness. These people need time in a safe place to regain their balance with the help of trained professionals. They may spend a few days or a few weeks in the hospital. When they leave, they switch to partial hospitalization or out patient therapy and resume their normal life.

In the US, anyone experiencing problems with mental illness can go to the nearest hospital and request admittance for 72 hours. This observation period allows doctors and the patient to work together to determine if hospitalization is needed. Often the patient just needs their medication tweaked, or referral to an out patient program.

Last December my partner went into the hospital for an observation period. He ended up staying 4 days because the doctors wanted to make sure he was adjusting well to the medications they put him on. He left the hospital with a referral to a partial hospitalization program, medication he had needed for over six months and the hope that comes from finally having help with a problem that has been overwhelming you.

Long term hospitalization is an option for people who just can’t function on their own. In the US, long term hospitalization can only be mandated if you are a threat to yourself or others. But people with severe mental illness who need help eating, taking their medications, getting dressed in the morning, etc, may admit themselves for long term care.

Hospitalization often mixes group therapy, individual talk therapy, art and/or music therapy, and plenty of down time to relax without the stresses of daily life constantly triggering a mental illness. Some hospitals also offer alternative medicine, meditation classes, and other programs.

Partial Hospitalization/Partial Day Program

Partial hospitalization probably has other names in other parts of the world–god knows it goes by enough different names in the US! Whatever they are called, these are intensive treatment programs. Patients spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, participating in various forms of therapy. At the end of the day they go home and tend to their own needs.

Partial hospitalization is available for people who need intense and ongoing access to mental health care, but are still able to take care of their own day-to-day needs. Unlike being in the hospital, someone in a partial hospitalization program takes care of their own meals, hygiene, clothing, etc while they are at home in the evening. They are able to go out and socialize with friends if they so choose, and can spend time with family in the morning and evening. Partial hospitalization programs offer many of the same therapy approaches and options as hospitalization.

In my experience, someone with mental illness cannot check themselves into a partial program. A referral is usually needed from a hospital or therapist.

Mental Health Rehab

Mental health rehab programs vary widely. From what I have seen and what my research has found there is no clearly defined idea of what mental health rehab should be or should consist of. Most rehab programs I have seen focus less on traditional therapy and more on helping someone with mental illness re-integrate into society. This may involve a back-to-work program, classes in community action and involvement, and a great deal more. However these programs are largely unique and each one will be different.

In terms of intensity and time commitment, rehab seems to fall somewhere between partial hospitalization and outpatient therapy. Participants may spend several days a week in various classes and activities, but will rarely spend a full day in rehab.

Out Patient Therapy

Out patient therapy is what most people think of when they think of mental health therapy. You spend an hour or so with a therapist and go home. Depending on your needs, you may see a therapist three times a week or once a month. Out patient therapy covers every form of therapy. Talk therapy is far and away the most common out patient therapy, followed by group therapy.

Out patient therapy is ideal for people who are managing to keep up with daily life, but have difficulty managing their mental illness. It is also a good safety net for people who are starting medication.

If your therapist is a psychiatrist, they will often offer medication in combination with therapy. This can be a very good option for people who are still trying to find the right treatment combination for managing their mental illness.

Medication Only

It is becoming increasingly common for psychiatrists to offer medication without any therapy or much in the way of support. You see them for 15 minutes month, tell them about any changes you’ve noticed, and they give a prescription for your next bottle of pills. For people who have been living with their mental illness for years and are on an established medication schedule that works for them, this approach can be effective.

However, I have seen psychs who did not know me at all, knew that I was not currently on any medication and did not know what medication would work for me. They spent 20 minutes getting to know me and y history, wrote out a script for psych meds, and told me to come see them again in a month. Given some of the possible side effects that psych meds have, I don’t have words for how fucked up this is.

Thankfully, most of these psychs will tell you the same thing I will: you need to get counseling as well. Until you have an established med plan in place, it is very important to combine medication with out patient therapy. You need someone to help you manage the effects of the medication and to help you catch signs of side effects early, before they become dangerous.

(You might notice I have strong feelings on this topic)

For some people, mediation only can be a great low stress approach. You need to have your mental illness largely under control with home care and medication. You also need to know exactly what medication you need. If you can do this, than seeing a psych once a month for medication work. But if you are still juggling medications, dosages, and treatment options, please also see a therapist.

 

This post is already pretty damn long, so next week we’ll take a look at how these different treatment options impact polyamory.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Course of Treatment: Treatment Options — Home Care

Let me get this out of the way first. Being able to take care of your mental health at home is pretty awesome, but it isn’t for everyone. As a primary treatment, home care works best for people who have experience dealing with their mental illness. You need to be able to recognize a downturn and get professional help when needed. Otherwise, home care should NOT be your only treatment choice.

However, home care is almost always a good support while pursuing more intensive therapy.

Understanding Home Care

Home care for mental health can involve a wide variety of things. What it is, is learning what works to manage your mental illness and taking steps every day to keep your illness under control.

Home care is “maintenance mode.” For some people home care is enough to keep their mental illness under control. Others combine home care with other maintenance treatments; medication is probably the most common.

Everything from diet to exercise to meditation to having a cup of tea before bed can be a part of home care. Everyone’s home care is different, and depends on their needs, experiences, and how their mental illness functions.

Types of Home Care

Meditation

Let me get this one out of the way first. Meditation is one of the first suggestions of a lot of able-minded people. And one a lot of mentally ill folks have learned to hate.

Personally I have often enjoyed and benefited from meditation. But I learned meditation as a personal practice first, and applied it to my treatment much later. For people who do not have practice mediating, using meditate to help mental illness often just makes things worse. I think this is because “clear the mind” styles of meditation are the most talked about and the meditations people are most likely to try first.

Clearing the mind meditations can be some of the worst for many mentally ill folks. When you focus on not thinking and clearing away all your conscious thoughts, it leaves space in your mind. Space that gets filled by all the poison your mental illness creates. So you end up spending 15 minutes or so “meditating” on how you are a worthless pathetic piece of shit who could be a functional human being if you would only try hard enough. Not because that’s what you are trying to meditate on, but because that’s what your mental illness shouts at you when you try to stop thinking.

I have found clearing the mind meditation to be useful for understanding what is going on in my head. But to be useful, and not damaging, (at least for me) it needs to be just a few minutes. Stop, close my eyes, and clear my mind. As soon as I can clearly “hear” the poison my mental illness is spewing, get out of the meditation.

You know those days when you are an absolute wreck, your mental illness is out of control, and you don’t know what triggered it? Those are the days that I use “clearing the mind” meditations. Once I know what is going on, I have at least a chance of addressing the problems.

Breathing meditations are another useful type of mediation. These are where you sit and focus on your breath. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, breathe out for a count of 4, repeat. For me, this type of mediation gives my mind a rest. With all my concentration on my breathing, with my body focused on the feel of air rushing in and out of my lungs, my mind stills. My mental illness doesn’t have anything to grab hold of and hurt me with. For a little bit, my mind can rest, and I can relax without my mental illnesses ambushing me with more poison.

Different meditations will have different effects for different people. If you want use meditation to manage your mental illness, experiment with several different types of meditation. It can take time to find one that works for you. And immediately stop any meditation that triggers you or makes your illness worse.

Herbs, Dark Chocolate, and Other Home Remedies

When I reviewed alternative medicines, I said you shouldn’t take herbs without professional guidance. A few herbs, however, are mild enough to be the equivalent of over-the-counter medication. Things like lavender, most mints, and chamomile. That doesn’t mean they won’t sometimes have unexpected effects. The first time my mother gave me a lavender sachet to help me relax, I had a panic attack. It took me a long time to realize that the lavender did relax me. It relaxed me enough I was actually able to feel a the anxiety I lived with day in and day out! Which triggered the panic attack.

Herbs for home use can be crushed leaves and flowers in sachets, essential oils in the bath, or herbal teas. I favor teas, but use what works for you. Lavender and chamomile are calmatives. Mint is good for alertness and those awful low energy days. Lemon and lemon grass are cheering and energizing.

Dark Chocolate, according to some preliminary studies, has a similar effect of antidepressants. Dark chocolate may be an alternative treatment for people who don’t have health care coverage. It isn’t cheap, but it is less expensive than paying for antidepressants out of pocket. And if your depression is under control, a bar of the dark stuff can be good to keep on hand for the bad days.

I’m sure there are other home remedies I’m not familiar with. Talk with your doctor first, try in small doses and stop immediately if a remedy makes things worse.

Exercise

Jane Fonda wasn’t making shit up to sell videos, endorphins are real. So is the satisfaction of meeting a goal and the wrung-out relaxed good feeling of working your body. And like tears, sweat can help clear toxins from the body. Exercise can’t address specific symptoms of mental illness, it can be a generalized mood lifter, an outlet for frustration and anxiety, and a great way to boost your self esteem and self confidence.

Exercise doesn’t need to be a big production. A ten minute walk each day is a good start. Bonus if you combine exercise with something you enjoy like hiking, dancing or swimming. Or, you could reward yourself for exercise until it becomes a regular part of your routine. I used to walk down to the corner sore each day, about a half mile round trip and pick up a small treat. Little things like that can help you get up and going.

Stretching

Stretching is separate from exercise. Most experts now recommend you exercise and stretch separately, instead of stretching right before exercise. Stretching is definitely useful for people dealing with anxiety or depressive disorders. These mental illnesses tend to put strain on the muscles: anxiety from the constant tension, depression from the way it makes us curl in on ourselves. Stretching counters the physical effects of mental illness and keeps our blood flowing, bringing more energy to our brains.

Sunlight

A shit ton has been said elsewhere about the benefit of sunlight in treating mental illness. In fact, light bulbs that give of light in the same wavelengths as sun are available to help people battle seasonal affective disorder.

The full effect of sunlight on mental illness isn’t fully understood. However, we do know that getting out in the sun for 10 or 15 minutes a day can help lot. Combine your sunlight time with some exercise for a double boost.

How to Access Home Care

There is a wide variety of information on all forms of home care available online. That said, it’s the internet, with all its awesomeness and flaws. Especially be careful about taking internet advice on meditation, giving the possible complications.

Herbs and dark chocolate are often available somewhere local, and if not can be ordered online. Chocolate tends to be on the expensive side, even more so if you are aware of and prefer to buy Fair Trade chocolate.

Exercise, stretching, and sunlight are there for the taking, but mental illness will usually make it hard to actually get up and take them. Gotta love the way the mind fights to stay broken and miserable.

Impact on Poly Partners

Unless a significant part of the food budget is going to buying dark chocolate, home care is not likely to have a large impact on poly partners. That said, there is a great deal you can do to support your mentally ill partners in home care.

  1. Participate. Join in the exercise, sit on the porch and get sun together while you catch up, have a cup of chamomile tea when you are over, etc
  2. Ask them what you can do to help. If they are homebound, can you pick up lavender at the store? If they have trouble motivating themselves, can you remind them to meditate each day? Ask first. They are in charge of their care, but there are lots of things you can do that will help.
  3. If your partner is managing their mental illness only with home care, be alert for signs they are entering a downswing and may need more help. Someone on the outside can sometimes see problems before we can.

If you haven’t yet, check out the other treatment options for mental illness. Don’t forget to subscribe to the Poly on Purpose newsletter, so you never miss a post.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

Fucked Up Parts of Mental Illness: Punishing Myself for Having Fun

Okay, once again not the post I was planning on writing. This time I could probably push through and write about home care for mental illness, but I think what’s going on today is kinda relevant to a lot of folks with mental illness.

This week has been awesome for me. Depression has been largely not a thing. Anxiety has been mild. I not only got caught up on all the shit I haven’t been able to do, but I got far enough ahead that I started sorting out the shit I’m going to need to do in the near future. Those of you with moderate to severe mental illness will now how freaking awesome this is.

I found a schedule that worked for me, ways to accommodate my mental hang ups that kept me from getting triggered, and actually had a fucking clean home for the first time in I don’t know how long. I made the goddamn beds, even.

I was feeling positive about myself and the future, I still didn’t have a buffer for my blogs and shit (obviously) and catching up on my book writing was going to take a while, but still…

I got caught out in the rain running errands yesterday. A mile walk in the rain is not most peope’s idea of a good time, but I used to got out in the first rainstorm of the summer and dance in the puddles. In my then-frame of mind, the rain wasn’t a bad thing, but a chance to revel in just being alive and able to enjoy it.

For most of a mile, I laughed and grinned as the rain soaked through my clothing to the point I had to hold my skirt up to keep it from falling off. Even walking in slippery leather sandals couldn’t steal my fun. I jut took my sandals off and walked barefoot through the puddles.

Eventually the rain tapered off. And a dagger slammed into my side. Pain. Pain pain painpainpainpainpain. I gasped for breath. I blinked back tears. I bit back a scream.

When I was younger, I would have thought I was sick. Something was wrong. Maybe I had appendicitis. No. For whatever reason, for me, emotional pain manifests as this feeling of being stabbed right in the viscera. I sure actually being stabbed hurts worse, but the mind-body connection is real enough to send people to the hospital thinking they were having a hear attack. I know this main. I walk through it, the rest of the way home.

I try to review what might have set me off. My mind diverts me into thoughts about my children. The aftershocks of my custody case (I STILL don’t even have regular phone calls)  are always guaranteed to be painful to think on. But there is nothing new there. Nothing to cause this sudden pain, nothing but old and familiar aches.

My mind was tricking me, but I let it.

The rest of the day did not go well. It wasn’t a complete loss, but the smooth productively I had been enjoying was gone. Doing anything was a struggle. I blamed the way my computer was stuck in unending updates, the date who canceled dinner b/c he decided to try getting back together with his ex. I tried not to think about that stabbing pain, which had quickly faded anyway as my mind successfully diverted me from thinking about whatever had caused it.

 

Then I woke up this morning and couldn’t think. It took me an hour to get breakfast for my kid, because I couldn’t get up off of the couch. I couldn’t begin to try to stuck to my schedule. Trying to finish my half-completed blog post that was already late wasn’t even a possibility.

And I didn’t know what happened. Nothing that happened yesterday was bad enough to explain this crash. After the way the afternoon went, I might have expected a rough day, some trouble focusing, not this complete break down to the point I could manage the most basic tasks.

I finally got myself moving, and with momentum, came a small amount of clear headedness. “Why?” I asked myself. I probed my head using everything I learned in 2 decades of working to explore and understand my mind and my mental illnesses. My mind tried to divert me again, but this time I wasn’t willing to let it. Painful or not, I HAD to know what was going on.

And I remembered that walk in the rain. I remembered the fun. And I finally “heard” the evil thought that had been attacking me from my subconscious. I had enjoyed myself yesterday. not just enjoyed myself, not just taken pleasure in getting stuff done. I had had FUN. Simple, joyous, fun unshadowed by any fears or worries or self recrimination. I’m not allowed to have fun. I’m broken, pathetic, mentally ill. I’m  healthy or normal or capable. I don’t deserve anything as pure and simple as enjoying a walk in the rain.

My mind was punishing me, attacking me, destroying me, because as a mentally ill, broken, shattered, pathetic wreck of a person, I don’t deserve to have fun.

God, the mind is a fucked up thing sometimes.

If you grew up in the US in the 80s or eary 90s you probably remember the old GI Joe cartoons that ended with a ittle moral sermon. The kid would say “Now I know.” And Sgt. Slaughter always replied with “And knowing is half the battle.”

It’s surprisingly true in dealing with mental illness. Once I identified this vicious thought pattern, it became a lot easier to function. Not easy. This is still going to be a fucked up painful day. But fucked up and painful is a huge improvement over shut down and broken to pieces. I can pick up my schedule now. Go back o getting my work done. I’ll slide a bit. but I’ll be able to keep going. Just pacing myself, like always, while this knew and strange psychic wound heals. Because I know those thoughts are lies. And now I can deal with them like any attacks from someone I love. Does it hurt when someone I love attacks me? Yes, but as long as I know what they say isn’t true, it doesn’t destroy me.

That’s what 20 years of healing has given me. The ability to recognize that these destructive thoughts are lies. That I completely and totally deserve my awesome walk in the rain, and many more like it. But it wasn’t always that way.

I used to believe those destructive thoughts, and then I helped my illness destroy me, adding my own actually self hatred to the fake hatred of my sickness. If I was still in that place now, I would be in desperate need of professional help right now. Because it is that kind of destructive thought, backed by the power of true belief, that can lead people to pick up a knife, a gun, a rope.

 

I don’t know how common it is to believe we don’t deserve the good things in life. I do know that when we internalize the idea that being mentally ill makes us less deserving, less worthy, less HUMAN, than the people around us, we are on course for our own destruction.

This can manifest in ways that vary from seeking out destructive and unhealthy relationships, to creating drama in the relationships we have, to, in a similar case to my own, attacking and hating ourselves for daring to take joy in our loved ones. NRE can be a particularly bad time for this, as every burst of joy t losing ourselves in a new partner is countered by a flare of self hatred that we have dared to embrace love and life.

If you or your mentally ill partner often find yourself taking a bad turn after something great happens, whether its as simple as jut being happy walking in the rain, or as big as a commitment ceremony within your polycule, you might want to ask if maybe you might be punishing yourself for the good things that happen to you.

Don’t. You deserve every bit of it.

And poly partners, don’t be afraid to tell your loved one this. As loudly and longly as you need to.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Course of Treatment: Treatment Options — Alternative Medicine

Last week, we look at alternative therapies. This week we’ll be looking a bit further afield, at alternative medicine. What’s the difference? Alternative therapies all try to fit within the framework of psychology. Even the alternative therapies you should run like hell from (like rebirthing) use psychology to explain why they are supposed to work.

Alternative medicine refers to medical practices that are an alternative to Western medicine. In some parts of the world these medical practices are widely used and accepted, in others they are barely known.

Alternative medicine takes two forms. On type of alternative medicine is “alternative” only in that the form of treatment doesn’t meet the demands of Western medicine–functionally, there is little difference between willow bark and aspirin, in fact, aspirin is basically a manufactured version of the active ingredients in willow bark. But willow bark tea can’t be given as precise a dosage as modern medicine demands, while the dosage of aspirin in a pill can be measured to the limits of modern equipment.

The other type of alternative medicine doesn’t fit with in the framework of Western medicine at all. The germ theory of medicine, and all the curlicues it’s developed over the years, simply has no room in it for treating illness with gems and chanting. While massage is a very valuable treatment for injuries, no one can yet explain how it can benefit mental illness in a way that first the theories of Western medicine. Often ways that alternative medicine is explained (such as the idea of storing emotions in muscles, mentioned below) sound ridiculous to folks who prefer the scientific approach of Western medicine.

Today we are going to take a look at three alternative medical approaches that I and others I am familiar with have found most useful, which also have at least some studies supporting their use.

Types of Alternative Medicine

Massage

First off, whether or not massage is “alternative” medicine depends on where you live and what it is used for. There is nothing “alternative” in using massage to treat muscle injuries, help the healing process after an accident, and basically do anything that involves damage to the muscles and tendons. A trained massage therapist can use massage to realign muscle tissue, preventing and reducing scarring and restoring mobility to an injury. While still not as widely known and used in the US as it could be, the rest of the Western world accepted this type of massage treatment long ago and have no doubt it belongs in the annals of Western medicine.

Massage as treatment for mental illness is less accepted. The most accepted theory behind why massage can help mental illness is that clears stress toxins from the body and triggers a relaxation response. Another, less accepted theory, is that our bodies somehow “store” negative emotions and mental problems in our muscles. By stretching and relaxing the muscles, these negative things get released, allowing us to move on without the burden of those problems. Anecdotal evidence in support of this theory is that many people dealing with trauma or mental illness will find themselves swamped by unexpected emotions during massage. When I worked in massage, I was frequently told “Don’t worry if I start cries/have a panic attack/freak out during the massage. I always feel better after.” From my own experience, the worse my mental state gets, the more the right side of my body locks down, to the point that one really bad days I have a distinct limp and trouble raising my right arm. Obviously there is some connection between the state of our mind and the state of our muscles. What that connection is, and what effect massage has on it, is harder to define.

Studies into the effect of massage on mental illness have largely focused on use of Swedish massage to treat depression or anxiety. Many studies found a temporary improvement after massage.

Herbal Treatments

Digitalis_lanata_ParisThe rule of thumb with herbal treatments is that is science has created a synthesized version, it’s Western medicine, and if you are taking the actual herb it is alternative medicine. Part of this is that it takes years of studies to confirm the effects of a treatment, and there simply hasn’t been enough time to test all the herbs that are supposed to be beneficial. Even more than massage, herbal treatments are among the most accepted by Western medicine–if only because so much of modern medicine, from aspirin to quinine to most of the common heart medications, wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t come from herbs first. The other part, as mentioned above, is the Western medicine has very precise dosing standards, and these standards are difficult with herbal treatments.

The attitude of many doctors and researchers I’ve discussed herbal treatments with is “Some of these herbs are definitely helpful, some we don’t know yet, some are a waste of time. Until we can confirm side effects, dosage, etc, you’re better sticking with known and tested pills–but herbs definitely have potential.*” When it comes to psychiatric treatment, where a 30% success rate is the gold standard, whether or not you are “better” with Western medicine is a matter many find highly debatable.

St. John’s Wort is well known as a treatment for depression. It is also known to have some potentially dangerous side effects. As some one who has spent a lot of time recovering from the side effects of standard psych meds, my reaction to that is “And this is different how?” However, if you do want to try St. John’s Wart, please use it under medical supervision, just like you would standard psych meds. Side effects aren’t something to fuck around with.

For more on herbal treatments for mental illness, consult a trained herbalist–and always check with the herbalist and your doctor for potential interactions and side effects.

Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a system of medicine first developed in China several thousand year ago. It has continually evolved and adapted during that time. TCM is the best known of the Asian systems of medicine, and most of the medicine of SouthEast Asia is based on TCM.

Unlike most other alternative medicines, TCM is a complete system of medical theory and practice. This has led to a giant problem in studies testing the effectiveness of TCM. Put simply, when researchers study TCM, they have never started with verifying or disproving the basic theories underlying TCM. Instead researchers have taken specific TCM treatments, and tested them on Western diagnosis. This is kind of like if a society that had never heard of the germ theory of medicine tested penicillin by using it as a treatment for a cough with fever and headache–but because they didn’t know the germ theory, were testing antibiotics on both bacterial infections and viral infections. So they run a test during the height of flu season, and of course the antibiotic doesn’t work.

This is the way researchers have been testing TCM. So while there are some studies that support TCM, and some studies that don’t support TCM, my opinion is that all the studies are completely useless. (I have actively sought out studies evaluating the theory behind TCM, and not found any. However I am not a professional researcher, and don’t have access to many medical journals. If anyone has any further info on this, please contact me!)

There are three basic theories underlying TCM

1) That everything in life exists in cycles, including our bodies. This theory is in complete accord with Western science–from the day/night cycle, to the metabolic cycle, to the sleep cycle, to the cycle of the trade winds, yeah, life is made up of cycles.

2) That illness and disease are caused by something disrupting our normal bodily cycles. These causes are broken down into internal and external. Here, science can quibble with the details–wind is considered an external cause of disease in TCM. So is dampness. Of course, dampness brings mold and mildew, so for a society with no concept of microscopic organisms, it may just be that they were describing the ancient Chinese doctors were just describing the causes of disease as best they could within their knowledge of the world.

Overall, the basic idea that there are internal and external causes of disease, and that these things cause disease but disrupting healthy cycles, isn’t something Western medicine can quibble with, and the specific causes can be studied and identified or eliminated, just like Western medicine had to adapt Germ theory when it recognized not all disease is caused by germs–the basic theory is still sound.

Five Element Interaction. A metaphor.
Five Element Interaction. A metaphor.

3) That the cycle of the elements and the way they interact is an accurate metaphor for the cycles of the body, and disruption of the cycles of the body can be accurately described and diagnosed using this metaphor. On these, Western science got nothing. Researchers never bothered to test this metaphor to see if this theory is sound. If this theory is sound, then the basic ideas and practices behind TCM are likely sound, and the individual practices just need to be continually refined through further research. If this theory is not sound, than we are wasting our time testing treatments from TCM, because the very basis for determining those treatments is flawed. Also if this theory is sound, we can begin testing and studying TCM treatments within the framework of this theory. As opposed to doing the medical equivalent of testing the claims of quantum mechanics using and the theory of relativity.

Now, in TCM, everything is connected. What I said before about the connection between the mental state and the muscles? According to TCM, of course they are connected, and you can’t treat one without treating the other. So a trained TCM practitioner is not going to treat you for depression. Instead they are going to look at your sleep pattern, the color of your eyes, your physical symptoms, your emotional symptoms, how you move, the state of your tongue and fingernails (did you know that our fingernails develop ridges when we are under high levels of stress? the body is fricking weird sometimes), and a whole bunch of other stuff.

They will use all of this to diagnose you with a specific disruption of your bodily cycles, which will mean absolutely nothing to you unless you are familiar with Chinese medicine, but will sound something like “Your heart is overactive and there is a blockage in your liver.” This doesn’t mean your literal heart and liver, it means the bodily cycles that the metaphor of Chinese medicine associates with your heart and liver. Then they will use acupuncture, herbs, massage, and other treatments–some of them damn odd to Western eyes–to calm your heart and unblock your liver. Which, if they have correctly diagnosed you and if the TCM theory of disease is accurate, will correct the symptoms you describe–including the depression.

Like Western medicine, TCM treatments may be a one-time thing (take an antibiotics for two weeks and call me if the symptoms come back), an on going thing (take your anti-depressant every morning, and we’ll evaluate the dosage in a month to see if it is working), or a palliative (I’m sorry, the cancer is deep in the brain where we can’t operate, and chemo isn’t working. All we can do is make her comfortable.) If you do decide to pursue TCM as a treatment for mental illness, make sure you discuss with your practitioner what TCM says the likely cause of your illness is, and whether they think you will need ongoing treatments or not.

Other Alternative Medicines

There are many more types of alternative medicine, from Ayerveda (an ancient system of medicine from India, and to my knowledge the first system of medicine to include dentistry and plastic surgery), to crystal healing, to colon cleanses. Some of these alternatives to Western medicine have a great deal of value to offer, others are probably little more than placebos. Do your research, and be aware that unless your country regulates the type of non-Western medical treatment you are interested in, it will be up to you to verify that a practitioner is trained and knowledgeable. Quacks and snake oil salesman are just as much part of the medical world today as they were 100 years ago, and the unregulated nature of alternative medicine makes it easy for them to hide there.

How to Access Alternative Medicine

If your country uses and insurance model to pay for medical treatments, whether a single-payer system or privatized, or anything in between, access to alternative medicine through insurance will be hit or miss-and often miss.

Some insurance coverage will cover some types of alternative medicine–it will be much easier to get insurance coverage for massage in Canada or Europe than it is in the US, for instance. US insurance companies are more likely to cover acupuncture treatments these days, but that’s far from universal. I would expect it to be far easier to get coverage for acupuncture in Japan or China, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.

If you don’t have insurance, or if your insurance doesn’t cover the alternative medicine you are interested in, you will be paying out-of-pocket.

You’re best option for finding an alternative medicine practitioner is to do your research. Many alternative medicine practitioners have formed groups which provide training, information on the treatments available, fund further research into the effects of their form of alternative medicine, etc. These groups will have information on the training available to practitioners and how to find a trained practitioner.

If the type of alternative medicine you are looking for is regulated, that can help, but check your local regulations! While massage is becoming increasingly regulated in the US, the national standards are still 500 hours of training. 500 hours of training is plenty for people who just want a relaxing massage after a hard day. If you want massage for medical purposes, you probably want someone with more intensive schooling.

Impact on Polyamory

The impact on polyamory will vary widely depending on the type of alternative medicine you are considering. However the biggest impact may be the views of your polycule on alternative medicine. If your poly partner wants to try Traditional Chinese Medicine, but you’ve read all kinds of studies that say it is a waste of time…at the very least there may be hard feelings, at the worst their may be blame and judgement thrown around related to quackery, people who aren’t really interested in getting better, and people who are too busy judging to see what’s in front of their faces.

If your poly partner is suffering from mental illness and wants to try alternative medicine, but you believe alternative medicine is all quackery, the best thing you can do is be honest but supportive. Even if you believe any benefit from alternative medicine will be a placebo, remind yourself that placebos do make people feel better. In the world of mental illness, where we can spend decades trying to find a treatment that works, would you really blame your partner for wanting to try something–anything–that will help them feel better and regain control of their lives?

If you are suffering from mental illness, and your partner thinks you should try alternative medicine, but you think it’s quackery–it’s your illness and your treatment. Politely thank your partner for their concern, but tell them you want to stick with treatment that you are comfortable with. It’s your illness, it’s your treatment, it’s your choice.

 

If you haven’t yet, check out the other treatment options for mental illness, and don’t forget to subscribe to the Poly on Purpose newsletter, so you never miss a post.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

*I have met a few doctors who insist that herbs have nothing to offer modern medicine, and no herb has ever provided a successful medical treatment. To which I am tempted to ask how they treat their heart patients if they believe digitalis is ineffective.

Course of Treatment: Treatment Options — Alternative Therapies

Sorry for the late post. Next post should be on time tomorrow.

Understanding Alternative Therapies

For purposes of this discussion, I am using “Alternative therapies” to refer to mental health therapies which are not commonly available and/or are often not covered by insurance.

Alternative therapies cover a lot of ground, and I can only begin to introduce them here. Because of the diverse range of alternative therapies it is impossible to effectively summarize them, and I’m not going to try. Instead I’m goingt o introduce three of the most well known and accepted alternative therapies.

Types of Alternative Therapies

220px-Crayones_ceraArt Therapy

Art therapy uses art creation as a means of treating mental illness. Art therapy can take several forms. Every form of art therapy starts with a person suffering from mental illness creating art to express how they feel. Two very common forms of art therapy are the use of art therapy as a spring board, and the use of art therapy to express and come to terms with emotions.

Art therapy as a spring board–some psychologists, and all trained art therapists, are able to use art to identify a patient’s needs. One of my teachers in college described working with a young boy who constantly drew pictures of guns firing, trains, and a few other things. My teacher described putting these drawings together with the boy’s interest in Superman (faster than a speeding bullet….) to understand that the boy’s drawings were expressing a desire to be strong and powerful, a desire the boy wasn’t able to express directly. In my own experiences with art therapy, I once drew a multi-colored star, using pastels (my favorite art medium). When I finished the star I was compelled to take the black pastel and draw thick lines caging the star in. If had been working with an art therapist who was using my art as a spring board for further therapy, they probably could have easily identified what I didn’t recognize until years later–that I was feeling trapped and unable to express myself.

Art therapy as expressing and coming to terms with emotions–the old G.I. Joe cartoons used to end with a moralistic skit and the phrase “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” In an odd way, this is true in mental health. Our mind is a dark and mysterious place, and we can only shine a light on parts of it. If we can’t recognize that (as a random example) we are feeling trapped and unable to express ourselves, we aren’t able to start getting ourselves out of the trap.

Art, as my own experience demonstrates, allows us to express things that we aren’t aware of feeling. This can be a powerful way of coming to terms with the dark spaces in our mind, and by extension managing our mental illness.

Music Therapy

Similar to art therapy, music therapy using self expression through music to help develop self awareness and encourage healing. Music therapy also has other applications in treating autism and other developmental disorders, pain management and other areas.

I have no experience with professional music therapy, but as a teenager I (like many kids in the US) took piano lessons. When I was depressed, I would pull out my song book for Les Miserables, and play, over and over again, the most depressing songs from that musical (and if you know Les Mis, you know it has a LOT of depressing and sad songs). The singing seemed to purge the worst of the sadness and depression, and I would always get up from the piano able to function at least a little better. To this day when I find myself reaching a non-functional level of depression, I start singing. It doesn’t stop the depression, but it does purge the fog enough that for a short time I can get things done.

512px-FEMA_-_10669_-_Photograph_by_Jocelyn_Augustino_taken_on_09-11-2004_in_FloridaAnimal Therapy

Most people are familiar with Seeing Eye Dogs. But fewer are familiar with the use of therapy animals. Therapy animals generally take two forms, a service animal trained to provide therapy, support, and assistance to a specific person, and therapy animals who visit a number of people for an hour at a time (sometimes called “animal assisted therapy). Exposure and interaction with animals to known to trigger a relaxation response in the mind and body, and for people struggling with mental illness the simple an unquestioned acceptance and caring of an attentive animal can be a wonderful thing.

Therapy animals that make “house calls” (usually hospital calls) need to be well behaved, love to interact with people, and not react badly to other animals or loud noises. People who are struggling with mental illness can spend time holding, cuddling, playing, or just sitting with therapy animals who are happy to give the humans they visit the love and acceptance they need. The instinctive relaxation that comes from an animals presence can allow people suffering from anxiety or PTSD a blessed break from the constant tension and stress caused by their illness.

Therapy service animals need to be everything regular therapy animals are, plus highly trainable. Therapy service animals are trained to recognize the signs of illness in their people and provide whatever assitance they can. Examples of therapy service animals include:

  • A cat who when her person was having a panic attack would sit on her chest and purr until the attack was over
  • A dog who would, without being ordered, fetch their person’s anti-anxiety medicine when their signs of an anxiety attack
  • A cat who, if her person was leaving the house, would stop her if she had forgotten to turn off the stove

Alternative Therapies to Avoid

The specific therapies I have covered here are generally accepted and promoted by medical and psychiatric professionals. Leaving aside any issues with the medical and psychiatric industry, that means they are at mininum safe to participate in.

However there are many alternative therapies, and not all of them have been subjected to studies or overview. A few years ago, a new alternative therapy known as “rebirthing” became popular for a time. Many psych professionals warned that it had not been studied and there was no reason to believe rebirthing actually helped. Spending time and money on a useless therapy is bad enough, but anyone seeking treatment for mental illness becomes familiar with it. But rebirthing wasn’t just a potentially unuseful therapy, several people were severely injured, and at least one died, during rebirthing “treatments.”

It is impossible for me to cover all possible alternative therapies here, especially since new ones are being developed all the time. And over time, many alternative therapies become accepted and standard treatments. At one time CBT was an alternative therapy. Art and Music therapy are slowly moving toward wide spread acceptance and regular insurance coverage. If you are contemplating an alternative therapy, do your research. Discuss the therapy with a psych professional you trust. Look for a professional association about that therapy and studies done to confirm the effectiveness of that therapy.

Be safe and protect yourself.

How Alternative Therapies Work

Sadly, we need to go with the usual answer here “Good fucking question.” While there are theories to why some alternative therapies are effective (such as the relaxation response to animals), how and why alternative therapies work is largely a grey area.

By and large, alternative therapies have been studies far less extensively than more standard therapies, and it is often impossible to even cite a success rate for alternative therapies, much less a reason for their success.

How to Access Alternative Therapies

The most accepted alternative therapies, such as art, music and animal therapy, are easiest to access through institutions. Psych wards, psych rehab centers, community clinics, etc, will often include the more accepted and mainstream alternative therapies. These are also the settings where alternative therapies are most likely to be covered by insurance (at least in the US).

You can also seek out private therapists who offer alternative therapies. If an alternative therapy has a professional association (For instance, the American Music Therapy Association) they will often have information for finding a therapist on their website.

Therapy service animals in the US are usually only available to people who are legally disabled. It is possible to pay for a privately trained service animal, but these animals will not benefit from the protections available to an “official” service animal. For instance, you cannot be denied an apartment if your service animal is “official” but a privately trained “unofficial” service animal will restrict you to housing that usually allows pets. If you feel you or a loved one would benefit from a trained service animal, you will need to seek out information locally on the requirements and availability of getting one.

Impact on Polyamory

Art and music therapy have a similar impact on poly as talk therapy. Especially the post session trauma and the growth-as-change impact. Animal assisted therapy usually won’t have an effect on poly unless one of your partners is allergic to dogs and you come home covered in dog fur.

Obviously, getting a therapy service animal will have an impact, especially on poly partners you share a home with. While adding a trained animal to the home is not like adding an infant or another poly partner, it will change the dynamics of the home.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



The Course of Treatment: Treatment Options — Talk Therapy

Understanding Talk Therapy

Talk therapy is one of the most popular treatments for mental illness. Usually you will hear talk therapy referred to as counseling or simply “therapy,” but I use the (unpopular) talk therapy to distinguish between talk therapy and other forms of therapy such as music therapy or art therapy.

There are many types of talk therapy from the psychoanalysis developed by good ol’ Freud to the currently popular cognitive behavioral therapy to new and untested talk therapies such as ********.

The basic idea behind all types of talk therapy is that mental illness can be treated through some form of discussion or learning process.

Types of Talk Therapy

“Deal with” Therapies

Obviously official terms are flying out the window here, but bear with me. Broadly, talk therapies can be divided into two groups. The most well known grouping which includes psychoanalysis is all about “dealing with” stuff. In psychoanalysis, for instance, you spend a lot of time examining your childhood to identity what caused various hang ups in the your id and ego, so you can heal and grow past them. Other forms of “dealing with” talk therapy focus on other parts of your life than just childhood, have a different understanding of the way the psyche functions, etc, etc, but they all focus on “bad shit happened in your life that caused you to have mental illness, and we’re going to deal with those bad things so you can heal.

“Learning” Talk Therapies

Unlike “dealing with” talk therapies, “learning” talk therapies aren’t concerned with why you have a mental illness. It could be something from your child, a genetic predisposition, something in your brain chemistry, and “learning” talk therapies say “who cares?” “Learn” talk therapies are the occupational therapy of mental illness. “Mental illness is fucking up your life. Let’s look at how, why, and what we can do to fix this shit so you can go back to living.” CBT is the most popular “learning” talk therapy. CBT focuses on understanding the mind, body, and emotions interact, and why we think and feel the way we do. The idea being that mental illness is a downward spiral caused by the interactions of your mind and body. Find a way to interfere with the spiral–say by recognizing what thoughts are feeding into depression and replacing them with other thoughts–and you can at least mitigate, if not stop entirely the damage the disease causes.

How Talk Therapy Works

Good fucking question. You can see above the ways both psychoanalysis and CBT explain themselves. But do they really work that way? Researchers have been trying for decades to pin down what makes talk therapy work. If they could actually figure it out, they would be a huge step closer to figuring out a form of talk therapy that is effective more than 30% of the time.

How to Access Talk Therapy

Depending on the kind of medical coverage you have, there are two ways you can access talk therapy. The first is to call up a therapist who is included in your medical coverage and make an appointment. The second is to go to your primary care provider/general practitioner and get a referral to a therapist.

If you don’t have medical coverage, or if your medical coverage is insufficient for the care you need, many local and regional municipalities offer support and services to assist people dealing with mental illness. Free forms of talk therapy are sometimes offered by community clinics, religious organizations, and other non-profits.

As usual, folks who live in places with universal health care will have an easier time getting access than those of us dependent on private insurers or paying out of pocket. Easier doesn’t necessarily mean easy–access to therapists in a universal health care system may be restricted due to availability or other issues. (Thanks to Susan for providing further info.)

Impact on Polyamory

Talk therapy will rarely impact polyamory directly. It is, of course, hoped that talk therapy will lead to improved mental health and as a result improve relationships. Talk therapy does share with psychiatric medication the issue of over optimistic partners expecting improvement in a “reasonable” time frame. Always remember two things: the most effective forms of talk therapy have a 30% success rate, and all forms of talk therapy take time. Lots of it.

The Post Session Trauma of Therapies

This issue is most common to “dealing with” therapies, but might come up in “learning” therapies. Talk therapy sessions tend to be pretty rough on people. Spending on hour confronting your worst emotions, most traumatic memories, and unhealthy behaviors can have that effect. It is not uncommon for someone to need time recovering from a therapy session. Crying, withdrawal, needing comfort, and mood swings, and other reactions are common.

It is very important to respect the privacy of someone’s therapy session. If they want to talk about it, certainly be available. But don’t ask them to talk about it. If you want to express your concern and support “Did you have a good session?” is a wonderful, neutral question that doesn’t ask your loved one to share more than they are comfortable with. They might give you a one word answer, or they might give you a blow-by-blow of the entire session. Let it be their choice.

Mental Calisthenics Are Exhausting

Talk therapies require a great deal of mental effort. This is most noticeable with “learning” talk therapies, but that may be because the emotional impact of “dealing with” therapies obscures the sheer exhaustion. However, stopping the destructive thoughts caused by mental illness is a great deal like rolling boulders up hill with your mind. In addition, someone participating in a “learning” talk therapy will often come home with reading material, mental training exercises, and homework.

Depending on the type of “homework” your poly partner may begin making changes in their habits or surroundings. They may ask you to help or support them in the changes they are making, to do mental exercises with them, or to read the papers they bring home so you can better understand what they are going through and how they are trying to address their problems.

Growth is Change

If talk therapy is at all effective, it will lead to growth. Sometimes this will be a growing understanding of mental illness and how the mind works. Sometimes it will be a growing understanding of who they are and what they want in life. Sometimes it will be a growing understanding of how experiences in the past shape their behavior now.

When people grow, they change. And it should go without saying that change can really disrupt relationships. People in therapy may find they need to step back from one or more relationships, address ways their relationships are hampering or helping them to heal, change their own behavior in a way that impacts relationships, and a great deal more.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.



Course of Treatment: Treatment Options – Medication

Gah! Late again! Sorry folks, what was supposed to be a 2-hour out-patient deal yesterday turned into a full day at the hospital thanks to a mild reaction to anesthesia. 

 

Disclaimer: I have some very strong feelings about the use of psychiatric medication. I’m going to be as even handed as I can here, but please do your own research and come to your own conclusions.

Disclaimer 2: I am not a doctor, psych, or any other kind of health professional. As always, this blog is for informational purposes only and information found here is not meant to be used to diagnose, prescribe or otherwise treat mental illness.

Understanding Psychiatric Medication

Okay. That is a misleading title. There is very little we understand about psychiatric medications. We understand that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. We have theories about how they work. But for those of us on the receiving end, it often seems that psychiatric medication is prescribed by guess and the gods. But let me break this down a bit.

Types of Psych Meds

Anti-Anxiety

Just what it sounds like, anti-anxiety meds are intended to reduce anxiety and/or stop anxiety attacks. If you get a really bad panic attack, to the point you need to go to the hospital, they will give you an anti-anxiety med as an injection. The one time I had this happen I went from full-on panic attack to relaxed and calm in seconds flat. It was wonderful. Depending on your level of anxiety, these meds will be prescribed daily or as-needed. As a pill, anti-anxiety meds don’t work as quickly or effectively as injection–the digestive system slows things down a bit. However if taken soon enough an as-needed anti-anxiety pill can be effective in preventing an anxiety or panic attack.

Anti-Depressants

Anti-depressants are both the best known and most controversial of psych meds. The controversy is largely due to the difficulty of evaluating their effectiveness combined with incomplete understanding of how and why they work. If an anti-anxiety injection can take a person from full panic attack to calm in ten seconds, obviously it works. If anti-psychotics can stop hallucinations, obviously they work. These are extreme and obvious symptoms that are either present or they aren’t. Anti-anxiety and anti-psychotics may not work for everyone, but it’s hard to deny that for the people they help, they are effective.

Depression doesn’t have symptoms like panic attacks and hallucinations.  Things that you can *bam* it stopped. Depression is one of the most subtle of the mental illnesses, and there is no obvious way to tell is an anti-depressant is working or not. Doctors put you on an anti-depressant and ask “how are you feeling, do you feel better?” If you feel better it’s working, if you don’t feel better it’s not.

The problem with this is it’s like saying “If you don’t have allergy symptoms today, your allergy medicine is working.” Well…maybe the medicine is working, or maybe the pollen count is just down today. Did you check the pollen count? With depression, there is no good way to check the “pollen count.”

Anti-depressants have helped a number of people to manage their depression. Many people report that finding the right anti-depressant that works for them was a turning point in their treatment and allowed them to regain their lives.

The most popular anti-depressants are SSRIs, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Tricyclics are older anti-depressants, only used today when SSRIs don’t work, and I’ve known several shrinks who won’t prescribe them at all due to side effects. Wellbutrin, Effexor and a few other new anti-depressants don’t fit in either category.

SSRIs and Tricyclics both effect the neurotransmitter serotonin, at different points in the neurotransmitter’s cycle

Anti-Manic (aka Mood Stabilizers)

Anti-manic agents, also known as mood stabilizers, are mainly used to treat bipolar disorder, but can be used for other mood problems. Anti-manic agents suffer from many of the same problems in identifying their effectiveness as anti-depressants, however the swing between mania and depression, which tends to include a predictable duration, gives a better measure for judging the effect than is available for anti-depressants.

Anti-Psychotics

Anti-psychotics are best know for treating hallucinations and delusions. As such, they are a class of psych meds who are unusually easy to measure the effectiveness of. Antipsychotics are also used to treat thought disorders (when something interferes with your ability to think), bipolar for short periods, and  recently have been tried with some success for extreme depression.

Anti-psychotics regulate the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Stimulants

Stimulants are exactly what they sound like, and many are closely controlled due to their close chemical relationship with methamphetamine. Stimulants are most often used to treat ADHD, as people with ADHD usually share an atypical reaction to stimulants. Instead of being stimulated, they are calmed down. This is, in fact, one of the rare cases where diagnosis by medication actually has some validity, because giving someone tentatively diagnosised with ADHD a stimulant is the best way to find out if they have this common symptom of ADHD. (That’s rather circular, isn’t it?)

Stimulants are also sometimes prescribed to treat depression, especially when lethargy is a primary symptom.

How Psych Meds Work

Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics work, as noted above, by affecting neurotransmitters levels in the brain. Serotonin and dopamine are both neurotransmitters that are believed to be involved in mood regulation. Lowered levels of serotonin are believed correlate with depression, and heightened levels of dopamine are believed to correlate with psychosis. The theory is that by bringing these neurotransmitters back to their normal levels, it prevents extreme moods caused by the neurotransmitters being out of sync.

It is important to note that this is a correlation. No one knows if depression causes low levels of serotonin or if low levels of serotonin cause depression. Proponents of the medical theory of psychiatry will say te cause is the neurotransmitters. Skeptics of the medical theory are more likely to say the neurotransmitters are symptoms of depression which is caused by something else.

My own (inexpert) knowledge of biochemistry leads me to believe that like many biochemical reactions, there can be many causes, and it may be that both are true–in some cases a disruption of biochemistry or genetic predisposition may cause high serotonin levels, which in turn leads to depression and in some cases outside influences affect our thoughts and moods, leading to changes in serotonin levels which are then a symptom of depression rather than a cause.

Stimulants psych meds work like any stimulant, and their metabolic pathway is well known. Most anti-anxiety medications are tranquilizers. Both stimulants and anti-anxiety meds are used to treat symptoms only, no one believes that they actually address the causes of mental illness. Anti-anxiety meds, in particular, should not be taken for long periods of time, due to long-term side effects.

The Argument Against Psych Meds

Even the most optimistic supporters of psych meds can only point to a 30% success rate. Some studies have found little to no difference between the effect of psych meds, anti-depressants in particular, and placebos. For a detailed review of the argument against psychiatric medication, review the work of Dr. Peter Breggin.

In addition, psych medications often have side effects that can be as detrimental as the illnesses they are supposed to treat. In the case of anti-depressants, a common side effect is an increased risk of suicide. (Yes, you read that right.) Some speculate that this increase is the result of the anti-depressant increasing an ill person’s energy without addressing underlying problems causing the depression. However, some studies have found an increase in suicide risk among people who aren’t depressed. These studies are inconclusive but concerning.

Other side effects common to psych meds range from chemical dependency, to liver damage, to reduced libido.

The first shrink who was actually able to help me was a follower of Dr. Breggin. His rejection of the medical model of psychiatry caused him to look passed the obvious chronic depression and recognize the symptoms of ongoing mental and emotional abuse that prior shrinks had ignored.

To this day, I remain extremely skeptical of anti-depressants and the arguments made for them. I have seen through personal experience and the experience of those around me how beneficial anti-anxiety, mood stabilizers, and anti-psychotics can be when used correctly.

How Psych Meds are Prescribed

Psych meds can be prescribed by a medical doctor or psychiatrist. From personal experience I highly recommend that if you are seeking treatment for the first time you seek out a psychiatrist who also offers counseling, or only see a psychiatrist alongside a licensed psychologist or counselor.

A medical doctor will not be as famliar with psych meds, and will be less able to recognize the best med for you or dangerous side effects. Psychiatrists that only prescribe medication will see you for 15 minutes once a month. Seeing a counsellor or psychologist while going on medication for the first time will allow you spend time with a trained professional every week who can help you evaluate the impact of the medication and recognize any side effects.

If you find a medication or combination of medications that are an effective treatment for you, and you know of any adverse affects it has on you, you can safely switch to just getting your prescription from a medical doctor or psychiatrist who does not provide counselling.

Impact on Polyamory

There are three ways seeking medication as treatment can cause problems in a poly relationship.

Over Optimistic Partners

Find the right medication, assuming any medication is right, is a fraught and exhausting journey. It will be very tempting for poly partners to expect immediate improvements, a quick solution, here’s your meds, what’s your problem?

Seriously, some people spend decades trying different medicaitons and combinations of medications before either finally finding one that works, or giving up on medication entirely. (And yes, I kjnow people who have finally found the right medication after decades of searching, sometimes it does take that long. Sometimes your are unknowningly waiting for them to discover a medication and sometimes it’s just dumb luck.)

You and your poly partners need to go into this treatment plan like a prospector hunting for gold. Not like someone with strep picking up an antibiotic.

The Rollercoaster Effect

Continuing my gold hunting analogy, the search is full or ups and downs. You think you find something that works, like a glimmer of gold at the bottom of a stream. But it turns out to be just a temporary up swing in how you are doing (fools gold) or a minimal improvement that isn’t enough to allow you to function (a bit of gold dust with no clear source).

It’s not just that the search is long, but the constant swing between hope and failure. The way for a few months you seem to be getting better, you are getting better, and then for some reason the medication stops working and you are back at square one. Was it ever working in the first place? Do something change your body chemistry so you know longer respond to it? What the hell happened? You don’t know. You just know that one day you had a successful treatment, and the next day you are picking up the broken pieces of your life and relationships.

This can seriously wear out a poly partner. You want to be supportive, you want your loved one to find help and heal and be able to be fully themselves. But watching them go through the up and down cycle, and living with them through their mood swings on the rollercoaster can be extremely difficult.

For both poly folk with mental illness, and their partners, this can put a huge strain on relationships.

Adverse Effects

As mentioned above, adverse effects from psych meds can be pretty scary at times–increased risk of depression, liver damage, etc. They can also be irritating–disrupted sleep schedules, stomach troubles, lightheadedness or dizziness. And they can be relationship time bombs, like loss of libido. And that doesn’t even consider the really odd adverse effects that they don’t warn you about because they’re just idiosyncratic–like the time I was put on Adderall for a couple weeks, and spent the entire time ready to rip someone’s face off. I’ve never heard of anyone else reacting to Adderall that way, but you can bet the next time a new doctor suggested it my answer was “Fuck no.”

Some adverse effects won’t impact your relationships at all, or will only do so in minor ways. If your medication makes you lightheaded, you probably won’t be going on rollercoasters with your poly partners, and really acrobatic sexcapades will need to take a back seat, but for most people that won’t cause a relationship meltdown. Loss of libido, on the other hand, is a common adverse effect of psych meds that can seriously mess with relationships.

For this problem, I can actually give some useful advice.

1) If your poly partner starts a new psych med, take any personality/behavior/attitude changes with a grain of salt for the first month or so.

2)  Both the person on the psych meds and their poly partners can work together to keep track of changes that occur in the weeks after taking the medicine. Poly partners doing this can actually be a big help because it’s easy to lose track when you are inside of it. So if you hear your partner complain of dizziness a lot, when they never were dizzy before, if your sex life changes drastically, if they start having stomach troubles, or personality changes (good or bad), or being more active, or less active, or happier or quieter or calmer, or anything at all, good or bad, take note, keep it in mind. Let your partner know that you’ve noticed this change.

3) Poly partners can help poly-folk on psych meds assess the effects–good and bad–of a new psych med. Is the good outweighing the bad? As hard as it can be, try to keep this assessment focused on their overall life and wellbeing, not just the impact on your relationship.

4) When poly-folk on psych meds find a psych med or combination of psych meds that work, they and their poly partners can work together to find ways to deal with the adverse effects that impact the relationships.

 

Okay folks, I’ve topped out at nearly 2,500 words–even for me this is a bloody long post! So I’m gonna wrap up here. I hope you’ve found this helpful. Sunday I’ll cover what you can expect from talk therapy, some of the different kinds of talk therapy, and how talk therapy can impact poly relationships.

 

This post of part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series.

 

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