Living with Anxiety

(This is a completely unedited stream-of-conscious recording of a few minutes in a day with anxiety. Everyone’s experience of anxiety will be different, but I hope this gives you some idea of what living with anxiety can be like.)

The anxiety is moderate today. I can do what has to be done, but it’s hard. Any moment I’m not focused on something the fear comes back. I once read someone describe anxiety as “you know that feeling you get when your trip and you know yuo’re about to fall? It’s like that but all the time.” That’s not my anxiety. but like depression, everyone’s anxiety is different. My anxiety is like the constant feeling you’ve forgotten something. The sense that the other shoe is about to drop. The roiling nausea of knowing that your whole grade rides on this test and you forgot to study. It has me constantly looking over my shoulder, hunching in, seeking to protect myself from the horror that is always just about to hit.

I’m lucky in my anxiety. My anxiety is usually mild, sometimes bad like today. But my bad days almost never get past “moderate” anxiety. I’m not trapped in my home because meeting a stranger in the hall will trigger a panic attack. I can think clearly enough to know that the fears bombarding me are my illness and not in any way real.

“Breathe” I tell myself. A dozen times a minute, “breathe. Keep breathing.” It’s easier if I can hide. A computer game, a book, an interesting discussion, someone else’s problems. Anything to let me hide from the anxiety and not be aware of it for a while. But hiding is dangerous. I can get trapped in it. Stuck in a book and not able to come out because my mind knows that when I stop reading the anxiety will be waiting, so I can’t put the book down, can’t stop reading, and I don’t enjoy the book, I race through it, flipping pages like cards, trying to read fast enough, to distract myself enough, to push aside the looming cloud of anxiety waiting to ambush me the moment my distraction falters.

I’m nauseas now writing this. Thinking about the anxiety, being with the anxiety, and it grows to overwhelming and my gorge rises until I’m so focused on the nausea that the anxiety is…less of an issue.

Michael and our son running around the apartment and I want to shout at them to stop, to shut up, to be quiet because every noise makes me jerk and look, cringe away. Every toss of the beach ball is a disaster about the happen. Every happy squeal is a lighting strike going off next to my ear. I have aural sensitivities. My ears are…funky…and sounds are closely tied with my anxiety. Just the clicking of the keyboard as I type is (Breathe!) making me write faster, racing “away” from the fear in a parodoxical tic that just makes the fear worse as the keys click faster and louder. (Breathe.) The beach balls sails towards the window and I jump. It falls well short of the glass, but still for a moment I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t think “Oh my god, the window will break!” It’s faster than that, there’s no time for thought, no chance for ideas or words, or anything but that instinctly certainty that something bad is about to happen. But it doesn’t. The ball falls lightly t the carpet and my son moves on to practices summer saults and he asks me to watch and critique (Breathe) and everytime he pushes himself over I want to lunge out of the chair and grap him before he falls and it’s just a summersault which he’s done dozens of times before in the middle of an empty floor. But still my breath catches every time he grunts and pushes himself upside down to fall–“fall” a scant foot to a well carpeted floor where he laughs and gets up to do it again, each time pushing me closer to the edge of my sanity while he plays not knowing that his having fun being a kid is slowly destroying me. (Breathe.)

I cheer his summersaults hiding my reaction as best I can.

He gets tired of summersaults and runs into the kitchen to check the therometer we left in the fridge. We talk about tempature for a moment, and talking about ocld and hot and the way we can watch the thermometer go up now that it’s out of the fridge is safe. But soon he’s asking about the thermometer, does this come off or does that come off, or what happens if I do this… (breathe). And he’s not going to hurt himself, it’s a sturdy thermometer, and even if he does manage to damage it, it doesn’t have mercury or anything dangerous in it. But as my anxiety kicks in his voice begins to ring like someone is banging a bell right next to my head. I breathe and tell him I can’t answer any more questions, he needs to go play. He’s in the “why” stage and I can’t think clearly enough to answer his questions. I’m a bad mother. I should be encouraging him to question, encouraging him to learn, but I can’t think, and I can’t answer, and if I tell him I don’t know all he does is ask why I don’t know until I want to tell him to shut up just to get some peace and quiet.

Instead I distract. “Do you want a snack? Let’s get some crackers.” He wants peanut butter on his crackers, his favorite snack. My movements are jerky and unsure. My grip unsteady. My hands aren’t actually shaking, but the tics and twitches and constant jerks are even worse. Nothing that involves fine motor control–like spreading peanut butter on a cracker, or using a knife (I don’t care that it’s a fucking butter knife! My anxiety goes into really high gear at the thought of any kind of knife). So he gets crackers on a plate and a cup of milk, and I retreat to write some more, trying to breathe, to calm, to use the techniques that short circuit the anxiety. It’s still there. Reminding me of blog posts that need to be written, chores to be done, everything that I need to do and every disaster that could happen because I’m not doing it RIGHT FUCKING NOW. My anxiety whispers about the fact that some busybody claiming to be helping us could stop in at any minute and find something wrong with the apartment (they aren’t busybodies, they’ve helped us a lot and I’m grateful for everything they’ve done, but all my anxiety knows is that they can show up and find something wrong and then….logic is a weak log against anxiety. There is nothing wrong here. Our home is clean, we are fed and clothed, and making progress towards our goals. They’ve stopped by twice and said how great everything looks. And the more I talk myself down, reminding myself that there is no reason for a disaster, no reason to fear, my chest loosens and i can breathe because I can point to solid evidence–they’ve been here before and nothing went wrong. That doesn’t work so well other times. And this is why my anxiety is moderate–because I can talk myself down from the edge, because while my son is quite and there are no minor problems and headaches demanding my immediate attention I can work myself down to the point that I can write this, and I can make myself something to eat, and I can clean my son’s dishes without freaking out that someone will walk in RIGHT THIS MINUTE to criticize dirty dishes in the sink.

I prefer anxiety to depression. Anxiety is easier to channel into action. Anxiety is easier to to turn into adrenaline so I can get my ass in gear and get shit done. Depression shuts me down completely. Anxiety just makes me really, really, really fucking irritable. Unless I start hiding. If I start hiding it’s all over and I might as well be on Mars for all the good I’m doing myself or anyone around me. My anxiety is moderate, my depression can (though thankfully not often) become severe. Of course I prefer anxiety to depression.

But at the end of the day, it’s just a different kind of hell.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness blog series. If you’ve found this blog series valuable, please become a Patron and support my work.

Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness

There’s a bit of a debate in poly circles about rules/agreements vs boundaries.

Short version:

  • Boundaries are personal–I will not date anyone who is anti-thiest. (I’m perfectly happy dating athiests, but if you are going to attack/belittle/look down on religions and religious people I am so fucking out of there.)
  • Rules or agreements are relational–Michael and I agree not to start any long distance relationships (we haven’t–we tend to fall on the boundaries side of the debate, but its an example).

For this post I’m going to talk about boundaries just in keeping with the KISS principle (keep it simple stupid). Most of this post applies equally well to rules in poly relationships, but rules get even more complicated because they involve/require the agreement of more people. Have fun with that.

One of the defining characteristics of mental illness as this blog series uses the term is that mental illness is not static. Where developmental disorders and personality disorders such as autism, ADD, and BPD are constants in a persons life and personality, mental illness is constantly in flux. One day you are so deep in depression you can’t get out of bed, the next you manage to go to work, even if you go through half the day in a depression-daze. While episodes of mental illness can last for years, even decades, within each episode there will be fluctuations, good days and bad days. Days where you can eat and days where you don’t dare go in the kitchen.

Polyamory (and most forms of non-monogamy) work because everyone is on the same page. If I think we all want an open relationship, and my partners want a closed triad there are problems coming. Massive ones. In poly, we tend to stay on the same page partly through constant communication, and partly through establishing boundaries and/or rules/agreements to guide the shape our lives and relationships take. These boundaries can be both a blessing and a curse to someone dealing with mental illness. Let’s take those one at a time.

Boundaries as a Blessing

Hard and fast boundaries are seriously fucking amazing when mental illness is rocking your world. Everything is out of control, your mind is tearing you apart, you can’t even manage to reliably dress yourself from one day to the next, and you just know that your job, relationships, and friendships could implode at any time because of your illness. In this mad chaos you have to have something stable, something reliable, something you can fucking control and cling to as a bit of sanity in an insane you.

Boundaries. You said that safe sex was one of your boundaries, and you would never engage in sex without protection. You also told me that that you would only be in a relationship with me as long as I had safe sex, if I ever chose to have sex without protection, you would stop being intimate with me.

I can hold to this. In a world gone mad I can know that this is solid. This thing you have told me that is one of the bases of our relationship.

Some people with mental illness will cling to boundaries, become obsessed with them, parse them and insist on defining them down to the smallest minutia. In a world where your very mind turns against you, knowing that you have something you can rely on is pretty damn awesome.

Boundaries as a Curse

On the other side of the equation, boundaries can be a fucking minefield. Remember what I said about mental illness not being static? One day I need you to not fucking touch me unless I ask you to. It’s a plain and simple boundary, right? Just don’t touch me. The next day I’m hurt and insecure because you never just come over and give me a hug anymore.

Am I playing games? Messing with you? Being manipulative? No. Yesterday my PTSD was acting up and the wrong kind of touch will trigger a flashback (what’s the wrong kind? It’s like porn, I know it when I feel it. But by then it’s too late.) Today I’m coming down off the PTSD, feeling vulnerable, and need to know that you still care for me in spite of my wackadoodle.

Poly partners (understandably) want the triggers and aids for our mental illnesses written out in a neat little “How-To” book. It doesn’t work that way. Stay the fuck away from my neck, except when I’m feeling safe and want it a little rough, and then my neck is fucking awesome. I can’t eat gooey or mushy foods, except when it’s mac and cheese, and no sauces, but ketchup and alfredo are okay, and oh I love a good pesto. Don’t touch me when I’m curled up in a ball shaking, except for when I need to you to wrap your arms around me and tell me everything will be alright. Don’t cater to my illness except when you need to take it into account in order to get anything done…

We can’t give you a clear set of boundaries regarding our illnesses. The best we can give you is vague semi-guidelines that work except when they don’t. And trying to provide clear boundaries for our mental illnesses just leads to problems in a relationship when “You told me it was okay to touch you there!” “It is, just not now…” or “You can’t do that, it triggers me.” “But yesterday you told me you liked it.”

Obviously a lot of this is highly personal stuff, but a lot of it can apply across relationships as well. “How come you said you can’t stand to be boxed in, but when we went out the other night you let Dave back you against the wall?” “Why is it that my asking you to the movies always triggers you, but you go out with Gina all the time?”

I’m not sure how much sense I’m making here. I expect a lot of people who have dealt with mental illness in poly relationships are nodding along, and a lot of folks who haven’t experienced mental illness are scratching their heads going “What does being backed against the wall have to do with relationship agreements? Who has boundaries about going to the movies?”

Mental illness. It fucks with your head in the weirdest ways. Like I said before, I tend to focus on a boundaries approach to relationships, but in my time I’ve had boundaries and rules about what I could eat for dinner, how and when I would kiss someone, how my SOs interacted, and even where I would sit when out at the movies or in a booth at a diner. All to cope with my mental illnesses.

For people trying to find ways to make boundaries and/or rules/agreements accommodate their mental illness quirks, I highly suggest using hard and soft boundaries as a starting point of the discussion. It won’t be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Before I wrap up let me briefly mention one other fun bit about dealing with mental illness and boundaries. Some people, dealing with some types of mental illness, will be driven to break rules and boundaries. I got no good answers for the kinds of mess this can cause. The law allows an insanity plea for a reason–in some cases people with mental illnesses really can’t be held responsible for their actions. But that doesn’t stop the damage those actions do. If you someone who is self aware enough to know your illness will drive you to break agreements, rules, and boundaries, I can think of two (probably not the best) ideas. First, try to be in relationships where everyone agrees to do without rules and/or boundaries as much as possible. Relationship anarchists and such might be cool with that type of relationship, and if there aren’t and rules or boundaries to break it’s harder to be driven into breaking them. Second, work with your partners to come up with lots of little rules and boundaries with the understand that in this case some rules are literally made to be broken, and it will be a no harm, no foul situation.

Anyone with ideas, suggestions, or experience dealing with rules/agreements and/or boundaries with mental illness, please share in the comments.

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



Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”

Standard Poly advice: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Nothing is more important to a healthy relationship than communication. If we aren’t keeping our SOs in the loop about how we feel and what is going on with us, then small problems will become big problems until someone comes home from work to find their stuff sitting on the front steps.

Right. A few years ago I wrote about when communication is a bad thing. Here’s one of the key takeaways:

good communication is when you are in control of, and expressing, your feelings. Bad communication is when your feelings are in control of you, and expressing themselves.

See, it’s all well and good for me to tell Michael I feel like shit, depression has taken over my brain, and I’m feeling neglected and needy. But everyone dealing with mental illness has times when we are just being irrational. Sometimes, especially when our illness is well managed, we can recognize that irrationality and discuss our feelings. Other times that irrationality can drive us into “communicating” things that we would never say when we were in control of ourselves. What we “communicate” when our mental illnesses are in control can be hurtful, damaging, false, or just plain misleading. Sometimes communicate is not the fucking answer.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Assess, Plan, Then Communicate

Mental illness loves impulse. Acting on your first thought is great for your mental illness, because it is much easier for the monster to control you when you don’t stop and check yourself.

Before you communicate, stop and assess yourself. Are you in control? Is your mental illness? Engage your logic circuits if possible. Maybe just take fifteen minutes to let yourself get past your immediate thought/reaction/idea.

For most part, DON’T try to be your you emotions. That’s an invitation for your mental illness to take over. Instead either A) think about what you want to say and why or B) do something to distract yourself for a few minutes and come back to what you wanted to communicate a bit later and see if you changed your mind.

If you find that what you wanted to say seems to be coming more from your mental illness than from anything else, you may still want to tell your poly partners, but make sure you tell them as an “this is how my mental illness is affecting me.”

Plan what you are going to say and how. Write out talking points, go over it in your head, whatever works for you. When you have a plan it is harder for mental illnesses to impulse-drive you into saying you’ll regret later.

When you’ve accessed and planned, then it’s time to communicate.

 

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

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Depressive Disorders and Polyamory

Apologies for the late post. I had this typed up and ready to go yesterday, and then the internet gremlins ate it. Took me until this morning to be able to rewrite it.

This post and others discussing specific mental disorders will reference the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Psychiatry and Psychology, Edition Five (DSM-V). Apologies to my international readers, I’m just not familiar enough with the ICD to use it as a reference.

Please note: everyone’s experience of depression is different. This is general information meant to give you an idea of what to expect. Nothing in this blog is intended to diagnose or treat. Please see a psych professional if you or someone you love is suffering from depression.

The Depressive Disorders

The DSM-V recognize four main depressive disorders:

  • Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD)
  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)
  • Single and Recurrent Episodes Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia)
  • Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)

Other depressive disorders are depression caused by medication or substance abuse, depression caused by another medical condition and two varieties of “other” depressive disorders (specified and unspecified).

Of the four main disorders, three are recognizably “depression”: major depressive disorder (MDD), Single and Recurrent Episodes Persistent Depressive Disorder (Dysthymia), and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD). While there are some symptom differences, the main distinction between these three disorders is the depth and duration of the depressive episodes.

These are the three disorders this post will focus on.

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) is only diagnosed among children and adolescents, and on the surface looks more like an anger/attitude problem than depression. However DMDD is usually a precursor to MDD or dysthymia, so it is included as a depressive disorder.

Symptoms of Depression

Given responses I’ve gotten, my post last week seems to be a very good description of many people’s experiences of a major depressive episode. (Diagnostically a major depressive episode (layman’s term) might fall under either MDD or dysthymia depending on how long it lasts). If you haven’t read it yet, take the time to check it out now.

The main symptoms of depression are depressed mood (sad or empty) and loss of interest in activities. One of these two symptoms need to be present for a doctor to diagnose depression. Other common symptoms are:

  • changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • restlessness and/or moving very slowly (sometimes both will be present at the same time)
  • exhaustion or fatigue
  • feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • loss of focus, inability to concentrate, or indecisiveness
  • suicidal ideation (thinking about dying without making actual plans or attempts)

Dysthymia is often (though not always) a subtle disorder with symptoms seeming to just be part of a person’s personality. Low energy, lack of interest in activities and low self-esteem are easy to see as “part of who you are” when they don’t reach the point of interfering in life’s basic necessities. PMDD is, as the name implies, a form of depression that strikes during pre-menstrual periods. It can range from mild to extreme, and some researchers believe it is triggered by hormonal changes. MDD is a major depressive episode that lasts at least two weeks. If the episode lasts for or recurs regularly for two or more years, it is an extreme case of dysthymia.

Treatments for Depression

The most common treatments for depressive disorders are medication and therapy.

Medication

Medication is said to have around a 50% success rate in treating depression, though it often takes several tries to find the right medication. SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) are the first line medication for depression. The idea is that depression is often accompanied by low levels of serotonin, so increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain should make the depression better. Personally I think it’s a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg problem–which came first the low serotonin or the depression? Regardless, many people do benefit significantly from medications–once they find the right one.

Therapy

The most effective form of therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on identifying the recurring thoughts and mental patterns that form an individual’s experience of depression and re-training the mind to stop those thoughts and patterns, and develop healthy thoughts and patterns instead. It sounds strange, but many people I’ve spoken with have commented on how helpful CBT was–and my own experience agrees.

Other forms of “talk” therapy are more familiar: “let’s talk about what’s bothering” or “how is your relationship with your mother” type stuff. Family system’s therapy is very difficult to find, but focuses on the family as an interacting unit, and can be very helpful when depression is part of a long-standing unhealthy life pattern within a family.

Talk therapy (CBT or other forms) combined with medication are usually more effective than either alone, but this will vary from person to person.

Outside of talk therapy there are “fringe” treatments such as art therapy, music therapy, animal therapy, and group therapy. These treatments are fringe only in not having been studied enough to assess their treatment value for depression, they are largely recognized and supported by the APA for some, though not all, mental illnesses.

“Alternative” Treatments

Some studies suggest 2 ounces of dark chocolate a day is as effective in treating depression as SSRIs. As dark chocolate has been shown to increase the serotonin levels of the brain (explaining why it is so many people’s go-to for when they are stressed) this fits fairly well with the current theories of depression.

Getting sun, exercise, interacting with people in a healthy environment, meditation, and spending time with animals have all been shown to increase serotonin levels and be effective in fighting depression.

People with severe and lasting depression may qualify to receive a trained service animal (yes, there are service animals for mental illness. I’m most familiar with them in treating PTSD, but they can be “prescribed” for depression.)

When Depression and Polyamory Collide

Put a few of the common symptoms together–depressed mood, lack of interest in activities, low energy, low self-esteem–and it’s easy to understand how and why depression affects a poly relationship.

Dates and activities will be cancelled frequently as the depressed partner is unable to generate the interest or energy in going. Low libido will become a problem as low-self esteem, lack of interest and low energy combine to kill your sex life. Weepiness and other signs of a depressed mood can be off-putting to poly partners who don’t want to be “brought down” by hanging around someone who is never happy.

Perhaps most damagingly, for people who don’t know their partner is suffering from depression, or don’t understand depression, the limited sex life and frequently cancelled/turned down date nights and activities can seem like the depressed partner is no longer interested in them. In fact, depression does not affect how we feel about the people in our lives. It does curtail, severely, the ways we are able to express our feelings. And in a culture where “actions speak louder than words” it is very easy for a depressed person’s actions (or inability to act) to seem like a reality and their words of love an (at best) self-delusion.

Ways to Manage Depression in a Poly Relationship

Dates and activities are more likely to actually happen if they are low energy and low key. Needing to pick out a coordinated outfit, review possible restaurants, and take three busses to get to your meeting point are all major hurdles for someone with depression. Think of it this way: Getting done up for a night on the town is the depressed person’s equivalent of walking 500 miles to prove their love. It’s not something that can be done every night, or even every week[1].

Good dates or activities:

  • At home movie night curled up on the couch with popcorn
  • Sitting on the porch blowing bubbles or other sit-down outdoor activity
  • Eating out at a casual restaurant
  • Going for a walk

The closer you can bring a date to “throw clothes on, you are good to go” the less likely it is that your depressed partner will need to cancel due to their depression.

 

Don’t cancel a group date because a depressed poly partner doesn’t feel up to going. This can be one of the hardest situations for everyone. But canceling the entire date because your depressed partner can’t go will often just leave your depressed partner feeling worse due to guilt at ruining the fun for everyone. On the other hand, if everyone is going anyway, the group energy of people getting ready to go may help your depressed partner get motivated enough to come anyway–and in my experience we usually end up having fun after all. If they still can’t come, that’s okay. “We’d love for you to come, but we understand if you can’t” is often the best approach all around. No guilt, no pressure, and always welcome. If your depressed partner is always being left behind on group activities, work on coming up with group activities that are low-key enough they can join in, whether it’s a family picnic in the park or a night binge watching the latest Netflix release.

That said, the above does not apply if your depressed partner says “I need you to stay with me.” “I need you to stay” is very different from “I just don’t feel up to going out.” However much your partner needs you, only you can decide if the right thing to do is stay–there were times I asked my partners not to go to work because I needed them. I did, really and truly need them, but the bills needed to get paid too. Was I damaged when they went to work anyway? Yes. Was going to work the best decision they could make? Probably. The judgement call has to be yours.

 

Depression has a way of making you feel completely cut off from the world. Anything which bridges that gap–a hug, cuddling on the couch, reading to each other, playing a video game, holding hands, cooking a favorite meal–can make a big difference to a person battling depression. Incorporating small but regular interactions into your relationship can strengthen your relationship against the influence of depression, and help your depressed partner in their journey back to health.

 

How has depression influenced your poly relationships? What ways have you found to take care of your relationships in the face of depression?

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



Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be With Your Emotions”

Sorry for the late post today. I thought I had a draft saved for the next poly fiction list, but apparently not. Depression messing with my head, I guess.

So, today I’m finally going to take a look at some of the standard poly advice and how it applies (or more often doesn’t) to those of us struggling with mental illness. Starting with some of the most common “coping with jealousy advice” — take time to be with your emotions.

Take everything here with a large grain of salt. Everyone’s mental illness is different, everyone heals, grows, and learns to manage at a different rate, and what works for one person will be a disaster for another. Nothing that follows is “One size fits all”.

Standard Poly Advice: Be with/Sit with your emotions

We hear this one a lot when it comes to dealing with jealousy or other negative emotions in poly relationships. I think the general point is meant to be “spend some time watching your emotions so you can understand exactly how you feel and what is making you feel this way.” Which isn’t exactly bad advice, in fact it is damn good advice…usually. If I’m not in a major depressive episode or anxiety attack, yeah, I’ll sit with my emotions, spend the time to understand what is going on, then figure out how to deal with them.

When my mental illnesses are out of control?

You want me to sit down with the metastasized monster that is tearing my mind apart and spend time with it while it uses my out of control emotions to pummel me? Are you out of your freaking mind? Uh uh. No way. Go directly to jail, do NOT collect $100 when you pass Go. Unless you want to see me go from depressive funk to unending downward spiral, ain’t fucking happening.

This is the mental health equivalent of seeking out your stalker, handing them a club and saying “Hey, I’m just gonna stand here while you attack me, okay?”

NO.

Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill: Use Your Logic

It is damn hard to engage the logic circuits when your mind is messing with you. Combine mental illness with jealousy or other relationship problems and it gets even harder. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I am saying it will help. Sit down and make a “Pro/Con” list, draw a Venn diagram, make a MindMap, assign numbers to things that are happening and try to come up with a mathematical proof to explain what is happening vs how you are feeling. Or do something else entirely. But if you can engage your logic circuits, they can act as a reality check on your out of control emotions. “I feel like Dan is neglecting me, but if I actually write down everything, he does a lot for me. Reality check. I am not being neglected.” Will this make you feel any better? Maybe, maybe not. Logic has limited control over your emotions. But it will give you some truth to hold onto when your mind tries to lie to you and sabotage you. It will help you avoid damaging your relationships by throwing around emotion- and mental illness-driven accusations. It will help you go to your partners and say “So, this is how I feel. Based on x, y and z, I get that my feelings aren’t matching up with reality, but can you work with me to help me not feel this way?”

And you know what? If you manage to engage your logic circuits, and you look through it all, and see Sheila really has been canceling most of your dates to spend time with Paul, you aren’t just imagining things because of jealousy? Having that stuff written out will make it easier to talk about and focus on what matters, without getting side-tracked (or worse, having your concerns dismissed because of your mental illness).

 

That’s it for today folks. Sorry again for the late post. Sunday, my mental health willing, I’ll follow up on the last post with a more clinical look at depression, its symptoms, effects, and most common treatments.

I’ll get back to the poly fiction series when I’m a little saner. In the meantime, Poly Advice for the Mentally Ill will continue next Wednesday.

This post is part of the Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series.

 

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Polyamory and Mental Illness Blog Series

  1. Polyamory and Mental Illness (Guest post by Clementine Morgan)
  2. Facts About Mental Illness for Poly Partners
  3. Opening Up About Mental Illness
  4. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 1)
  5. How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)
  6. A Rant: “I Know I am Being Irrational Right Now”
  7. When Polyamory and Mental Illness Collide (Part 1)
  8. Living With Depression
  9. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Be with Your Emotions”
  10. Depressive Disorders and Polyamory
  11. Polyamory Advice for the Mentally Ill: “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”
  12. Polyamory Boundaries and Mental Illness
  13. Living with Anxiety
  14. Anxiety Disorders and Polyamory
  15. Mental Illness: The Course of Treatment
    1. Recognizing Your Need Help
    2. Getting a Diagnosis
    3. Treatment Options
      1. Medication
      2. Talk Therapy
      3. Alternative Therapies
      4. Alternative Medicine
      5. Home Care
      6. Treatment Intensity
        1. Treatment Intensity and the Impact on Polyamory
    4. The Treatment Roller Coaster
  16. Fucked Up Parts of Mental Illness: Punishing Myself for Having Fun
  17. The Wrong Diagnosis (Guest Post by Michon Neal)
  18. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 1)
  19. Polyamory and PTSD (and other trauma and stress-related disorders) (Part 2)

The Mental Illness blog series is on hiatus for a few months. It will resume when I finish the series on abuse in polyamorous relationships.

Living with Depression

I hadn’t meant to start introducing the different mental illnesses yet. I hadn’t meant to write this post this week. But for reasons that will hopefully be obvious it is the only post I could write. Here then is a look at depression from the inside.

Depression is hell. Depression is a different hell for everyone. My hell is icy. I sit in 80 degree weather shivering, cold down to the marrow of me with no way to get warm. The cold goes so deep it locks me up. I can’t move, I can’t think. My brain is a clouded fog. Focus is a faint memory. One of the torments of hell is remembering being able to move, to think, to get off your ass and fucking do stuff, knowing that once upon a time that was only yesterday you were capable and functional and goddamn useful and today you are a frozen lump, unable to think beyond the constant mental ravaging of how you should be doing this, or you could be doing that, if only you weren’t such a useless pile of shit.

Depression, the first shrink to ever help me said, is anger turned inward. It’s when all the hateful, horrible things you would never dream of saying—of even thinking—about anyone else become the unshakeable truth of who you are. It’s sabotaging everything you are, everything you believe in, everything you try to do, not because you mean to sabotage yourself but because you hate yourself so much you can’t do anything else.

Everyone’s hell is different. But this is my hell. This is my depression.

You can’t live like that. You can’t live hating yourself that way, destroying yourself that way. So you stop living. Your mind shuts down, your body slows and freezes, and all the hatred and horror and self destruction get buried under the ice of nothingness. Because being nothing, doing nothing, reducing yourself to a frozen lump on the couch that can never get warm is the only way you can protect yourself from the way you are trying to destroy yourself.

You know you could feel better. If you go out with friends, if you get out in the sun, if you exercise, if you go see your boyfriend, if you do anything other than playing endless games of solitaire until you’re ready to set fire to every pack of playing cards in the world. But you can’t. The ice numbs you, makes it impossible to think of warmth, of happiness, of friends, and fun, and loved ones. If you can melt the ice you can manage to get moving—but if you melt the ice you find the self-hatred underneath, saying you don’t deserve to be happy, you don’t deserve the wonderful people in your life, you don’t deserve anything.

Did you know that people who are put on anti-depressants are at an increased risk for suicide? That’s why. The anti-depressants, when they work, take the ice away. They leave you able to move, and think and feel, and with no retreat, no defense, against just how angry you are with yourself, just how worthless and hopeless and useless you think you are. And there’s a knife, or a rope, or a gun. Or a car to drive off a cliff. You can think now, you can act now, you can end it. That’s why anti-depressants kill. That’s why you aren’t supposed to go on anti-depressants without medical supervision, preferably psychological supervision, able to help you navigate the self-hatred and catch you if you are in danger of leaving the ice while holding onto the self-hatred.

The scary fucking thing is knowing it’s all a lie. I am a good person, I’m not useless or worthless. I’ve touched a lot of lives and kept my family going through some impossible times. I may not be Mother Fucking Teresa, but I don’t deserve the thoughts and nastiness I’m directing at myself. I know that. I just can’t stop it.

I’m pregnant. Big news, wonderful news, happy news. But the hormones trigger my depression. It’s why I schedule myself five days off of work every month when I get my period. I know that when the hormones kick in, so will the depression and anxiety, and for a few days I’ll be a wreck. The human body is a wonderful thing. [sarcasm] I know for those few days my hormones make my mind lie to me, I know that I just need to wait it out, indulge in some comfort food, and the lies will pass.

But this isn’t just a few days. This is past 2 months now, with no sign of stopping. My work is suffering, my friendships are suffering. My relationships? Well thankfully Michael’s been down this road with me already. He holds me tight and tells me it’ll be okay, and the evil thoughts in my head are lies, and we’ll get through this together. Hunter I haven’t seen much of the past few months, but we’re supposed to get together tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be able to go see him. Hopefully.

I’ve learned to use the anger. Dig down through the ice with meditation or long walks, or by letting stupid irritations build up and build up, and build up until real feeling bursts through. Take the anger I feel at myself and redirect it. Turn the anger into an adrenaline rush which is how I got up off the couch to sit down and write this. Still can’t think clearly enough to put together one of my usual posts, but with the energy I can at least pour out my thoughts and feelings and fears.

Fears. I am scared. I’m scared because I know this isn’t going to end in a few days. My relationships will survive—I know my relationship with Michael is solid and I believe my relationship with Hunter will weather this. My friendships will either survive or they aren’t the right friends for me. My work? God my work. My clients are waiting for me, my writing is completely halted, my social media…well, at this point it’s more “What social media?”

My family needs me able to work. Able to bring in money, and build my business because until Michael is medically fit for work (for the first time in 5 years I can say that in time he WILL be fit for work, huge, huge, fucking deal, but he’s not there yet), until then I’m the only income my family has. We can’t afford for me to fall apart like this—which of course becomes one more log on the self hatred everyday that I don’t manage to keep up with my work.

Grateful. I am so insanely fucking grateful that I know what is causing this. That I know it is temporary. That in 7 months or so, the baby will be born and this will pass (assuming I don’t miscarry, but hell, gotta think positive, right?). I remember what it was like when depression was an unending hell with no rhyme or reason. When I had no idea why I was in hell and no hope of escape. I am so goddamn lucky to be able to point to the calendar and say “Then. I’ll be better (mostly) then.”

I am lucky beyond words to have Michael, who has stood with me through 6 years and one other pregnancy, who knows both the depths of the ice and the horror of the self-hatred and holds fast through all of it. Who will believe in me when I can’t believe in myself, and give me an anchor to cling to, a connection to the world, when I’m lost to everything else.

The adrenaline is gone now. The tears still trickle slowly down to fall on the keyboard. For a few minutes, I can think enough to recognize just how much of my mind is closed of to me, terra incognita so I can be protected from myself. It hurts now, with the ice and adrenaline both gone and the feeling is like a knife in my guts that is so horribly familiar and yet never the same twice.

The ice will close in soon. I’ll struggle through it, using numbed and weakened hands to fumble through my days, using what spoons I have to do the absolute necessities first, so that at least when the ice becomes to much to fight, my family will have been fed, and I’ve done a bit to take care of myself, and maybe gotten half an hour of work done. And try not to hate myself too much for all the things I am failing to do.

This is my hell. This is my depression. For the next 7 months, this is my life.

Hell is different for everyone. So is depression. This is mine.

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



When Mental Illness and Polyamory Collide (Part 1)

The Complexity of Mental Illness and Polyamory

In some ways, mental illness and polyamory actually go very well together. The larger support network can be a huge benefit for someone dealing with mental illness, while the increase in available support also means that no one person gets overwhelmed trying to support the mentally ill partner all on their own.

But vague generalities almost always sound good. It’s when you get into the nitty-gritty that the problems develop.

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This post can’t cover the entirety of the interactions of mental illness and polyamory. Both mental illness and polyamory are so varied that an entire book couldn’t cover all the interactions. My goal here is to introduce some of the ways they interact, so you can get a feel for the variety of interactions possible. More interactions will be covered when I  get into reviewing the various types of mental illness.

Manic NRE

Most of us are familiar with new relationship energy. The hormonal high that turns our brains to mush, pumps the libido up to “10” (whatever that may mean for each of us individually) and can strain existing relationships to the breaking point.

If you don’t have or know someone with bipolar disorder you may not be familiar with manic episodes. These bursts of energy, optimism, and irrationality can last anywhere from hours to months. During a manic phase it will seem perfectly reasonable to spend your life savings on shoes or to quit your job and start a new career throwing sex toy parties (when you have no savings, a family to support and have never even used a sex toy). It isn’t uncommon for people in manic phases to have so much energy they don’t sleep for weeks on end.

My own experiences watching someone go through manic NRE have been (relatively) mild. For which I can only be grateful. I don’t think it takes a quantum physicist to look at the brain-drain of NRE, the irrational exuberance of a manic phase, and see how these two combined can be a very bad thing.

OCD “Fairness”

Just like we all experience depressed days, we all have a few OCD tics. The difference between your obsessive need to always have the toilet paper hanging over the top of the roll and someone with OCD is that while it drives you crazy when the toilet paper is facing the wrong way, and you correct it whenever possible, someone with OCD will not be able to leave a public restroom until they have checked every stall to make sure the toilet paper is hanging properly. To not do so is to court a mental breakdown.

The romantic comedy “As Good As it Gets” with Jack Nicholson, while having all the many, many flaws of romantic comedies everywhere, was one of the few truly good representations of extreme mental illness in the media. Not everyone’s experience of OCD will be like that–if only because the movie simply could not give a good view of the obsessive thought side of the illness. But still, damn good portrayal.

Now, we’ve all run across the dangerous idea that poly relationships should be kept fair. That if you sleep with A one night, you have to sleep with B the next night. If 1 takes you out for an expensive night on the town, then 2 needs to take you out somewhere just as special. Most standard poly advice points out how ridiculous this is, and suggests that treating your partners as individuals with their one unique needs, wants and desires is healthier than obsessing about treating them both (or being treated by them both) “equally”

In general, I agree and have no quibble with this. However, I have known people with OCD whose compulsion was keeping everything balanced. If they stamped their left foot, they had to stamp their right foot. If they hang a picture on the right side of the wall, they have to hang a picture on the left. Do you see where this is going?

Someone with an OCD balance compulsion may need to keep a “balance” in their poly relationships. If they sleep with partner A one night, they have to sleep with partner B the next, if they buy a present for partner B, they need to buy an equally valuable present for partner A.

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

A Rant: “I Know I am Being Irrational Right Now”

Some 7 years ago (give or take) I was sitting in a room with three other people in my poly network. My PTSD and anxiety had been severely triggered, I was not thinking clearly, I was feeling jealous and persecuted. Long experience with my own mental illnesses allowed me to recognize that what I was feeling and experiencing in no way matched up with reality.

“I know I am not being rational right now, but this is the way I am feeling…”

I needed their help. I needed their support. Most of all, I needed them to understand what I was going through and why my reactions were so out of sync with reality.

What I got was long lecturing responses about how it was completely unreasonable for me to feel the way I was, how everything I was saying was wrong, how I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about and X, Y, and Z proved it.

I took a deep breath and tried again. “I know that what I am feeling doesn’t make sense, I’m not saying anyone has done anything wrong. I just want to tell you how I am feeling and why I am feeling this way. I feel like…”

Cue more protestations of innocence, how I was completely off base to accuse them of…, how I was being irrational and unreasonable and the reality was that everyone had been going out of their way to be supportive and what can they do to make me understand that the things I am saying are completely wrong and unrealistic.

We went through 2 or 3 more variations on this before I gave up and walked out.

 

Let me state the obvious:

When someone is coming to you in a mental health or emotional crisis to trying to explain how they are feeling and why, telling them all the reasons they are wrong to feel they do doesn’t fucking help.

If you missed it, please check the fifth heading on Facts About Mental Illness for Poly Partners:

Mental Illness Is Out Of Our Control

This actually applies to any strong emotions, whether related to mental illness or not. Emotions are irrational, unreasonable and not under our control.

Exception: Super-human Zen Masters, Buddhas who have achieved Enlightenment and other masters of esoteric traditions may have gained level 20 skills in emotional control. I’ve never met one, but I’ve heard legends.

Not being a legendary uber-human, your mentally ill poly partners will feel things that are completely unreasonable. If they have reached the point of being able to tell when their feelings are irrational and unreasonable while feeling them, that is great! That is 300 level of mental illness management. Recognize this. Celebrate it with them. Help them figure out what they need to find their emotional balance and get past the irrational feelings. Sometimes it will be as simple as “I understand why you feel that why. Can I hold you for a while so you know you are not alone?” Other times it will be a lot more complicated. Sometimes there won’t be anything you can do except let them know you understand and are there for them.

But by all that is fucking holy, if someone in an emotional or mental health crisis comes to you saying “I know my feelings aren’t real, but I need you to know this is what I am feeling” or any variation on that theme do not attack them, do not get defensive, do not waste time and spoons trying to convince them that what they are feeling is irrational. Just listen, and let them tell you what they need/want.

Please, for the love of little green apples.

Next week we’ll start reviewing some common problems in poly relationships and how they can impact (or be impacted by) mental illness.

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

How Can I Support my Mentally Ill Poly Partner? (Part 2)

Part 1

Learn Our Cues

When my anxiety gets bad I start rocking in my seat. Just moving forward and back, forward and back, while I type or read, eat or chat with friends. It’s a little idiosyncrasy that can tell you a lot about my mental state. After six years living with him, I know when Michael is spiraling into a self-hating depressive funk. His attitude, self-expression, and especially tone of voice change are warning signs, and I know to batten down the hatches for a rough time. I also know approximately how long his funks last. A few years ago, I could reliably expect them to last at least a week. Now that he is finally on the proper medication and getting competent help, they usually pass in a few hours.

Your poly partners who are dealing with mental illness will have their own cues. Some of those cues you can pick up fairly quickly–like my rocking. Others will take time to understand and recognize. When you are familiar with your partner’s cues you can do two things:

  1. Prepare yourself for the coming (or current) phase so you aren’t blind-sided later by big problems appearing “out of nowhere”
  2. Ask your partner what you can do to prevent the problem from getting worse.

If you see a partner who has panic attacks in crowds is giving off cues that an attack is coming you can ask, “Would it help to leave the party?” If you see someone falling into a depressive spiral sometimes—sometimes—you can stop it before it starts (Sex was always a good way to stop Michael’s spirals if I caught them early enough. Still don’t know why, but I’m not complaining.)

Shut Down the Idiots

Stigma against mental illness is pretty rampant in the US, and from I can tell it isn’t any better in the rest of the world. Having people you thought were friends gang up on you for “being a party pooper,” blame you for trying to come out and socialize while dealing with depression, and tell you that if you can’t get over yourself and start being cheerful you aren’t welcome anymore is horrible. Having your partner hold you in place and force you to listen while they tear apart what little self-esteem you have after depression is done with you is a special kind of hell. Having your partners stand there ignoring the conversation while you fight through the tears and despair to defend yourself alone because they “thought you were handling it” is not that big an improvement.

Don't worry, dude. Darth got your back.
Don’t worry, dude. Darth got your back.

If you see your mentally ill partner taking shit from anyone over their mental illness, they need and deserve your support. If they are coherent enough to speak for themselves, then stand at their back, put a hand on their shoulder, ask them if they want to get the fuck out of there, whatever you can do so they know they aren’t dealing with this shit alone. If they are at the point of being incoherent, are starting to give cues that the situation is getting beyond their ability to handle or are turning to you looking for help shut the idiots down. Do it politely, do it rudely, do it by force choking them into submission. Whatever the hell works for you. But get it done.

If you can, discuss with your poly partner(s) how they prefer to handle these situations before it comes up. Boundary-wise this is their mental illness and their decision on how to handle it. If you don’t have a chance to discuss it, follow their lead as much as possible—if they are willing and ready to fight, back them up. If they indicate they want to get the hell out, help them get out.

Just don’t leave them alone with their back to the wall while some fucking idiot shreds them to ribbons.

Don’t Be Afraid to Push (Sometimes)

This is last on the list for a reason—get everything else down first. That said, after you’ve listened, got your head wrapped around how our spoons work, learned about your partner’s mental illness(s), know how to recognize at least the major cues, and have your partner’s agreement, sometimes pushing can be a good thing.

One of the best things you can do for depression is go outside, get sun, fresh air and exercise a bit. One of the hardest things to do, when you are in a major depressive episode, is actually get yourself outside and motivated to get moving. So giving a poly partner dealing with depression a small push

“Hey, let’s make our date tonight a walk around town. It might help you feel better, and we can get a snack at (local store) while we’re out.”

can be a good thing. Sometimes. If someone with social anxiety is afraid to go to a movie theater because their anxiety might be triggered, then maybe encourage them to try, and if they are triggered you can leave immediately.

Pushing someone with a mental illness is kind of like exploring boundaries in kink: sooner or later you are going to hit a landmine. Something that you thought was safe turns out to be a major trigger and the backlash can last for weeks (months in some cases). So only push when your partner has agreed that sometimes it is good for you to push. And only push when you understand enough about your partner’s illness to recognize when pushing is making this worse.

 

There may be more things you can do to support your poly partner(s) struggling with mental illness. The best way to find out? Ask them!

But these should get you started.

Next week I’m going to give myself permission have a little rant about one of my personal pet peeves about the way people respond when I (or anyone else with mental illness) is being completely irrational and knows it. See you then!

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

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