“Making Peace With Your Elephant: Part Two of How I Fight My Mood Disorder Every Day”
When I was 21, I had been in treatment for depression on and off for about six years. At one appointment with my psychiatrist, I told her, “Well, I feel miserable. I feel like something is terribly, horribly wrong, and I’m so angry and sad I can hardly move. But I know there’s nothing really wrong!”
She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Christine, something is wrong, and it has been for a long time.” I was devastated. I went home and cried for a long time. Even twelve years later, I have trouble with the idea that a mood disorder doesn’t simply mean that your emotions are all “messed up” and your feelings aren’t “all in your head.” What? Of course they’re “all in your head,” because emotions are run by chemicals in your brain! Sure, but that perception is inaccurate: just because your brain chemicals are “messed up” doesn’t mean that your feelings are any less real than anyone else’s feelings!
How to Make Peace With Your Elephant
Take your disorder seriously, and try to get your loved ones to take it seriously, too. Get help if you have to, but you and those close to you must come to an understanding that your mood disorder is a real disease that will not simply disappear one day. Getting this idea into your head and dealing with it can require therapy all by itself. A mood disorder needs to be taken seriously and treated before the person’s quality of life will improve. Also, when depressed or bi-polar people have an episode, their feelings are just as real to them as those of “healthy” people when a loved one dies, when they are in extreme danger, or when they experience a great triumph. Just because a friend thinks you are upset for “no reason” does not mean you don’t have a right to feel upset or you are simply supposed to “turn that feeling off.” That’s impossible.
Sadly, back then I didn’t quite wrap my head around what my doctor was telling me. She was trying to tell me that I needed to face my disorder head on and not only take it seriously, but also take responsibility for my treatment, as well. I did not take responsibility back then, and it was years before I even began to understand what that means!
You might be thinking, “Okay, so I’m sick. Great. Thanks. Now what?” You might also be thinking, “You’re stretching this elephant metaphor a little too far,” but that’s what the comments section is for. Besides, elephants are very large and can be stretched quite far with the correct equipment.
Yes, we’re sick, and yes, we hurt, but I’m sorry to say that we’ve got work to do, y’all! Sure it would be great if we could sit around and pop our pills, experience our horrendous and sometimes embarrassing side effects, and go to therapy all the time and whine about everything or have a breakthrough every once in a while, but that ain’t exactly how it works.
First, you’ve got to want to help yourself, and then you’ve got to step up and do it. Often, especially in the cases of people who have gone undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for long periods of time, people get used to being depressed or bipolar. It’s “comfy,” for lack of a better word. It’s scary to get healthy, and it’s also a lot of work to get healthy and stay healthy. Part of the reason I entitled this piece “How I Fight My Mood Disorder Every Day” is because in order to stay healthy, a person with a mood disorder works for it every day.
It’s much easier to slip into old patterns and be passive about the disorder. Medications not working even after the usual adjustment period? Are you taking them correctly? Really? Then go back to your doctor and tell her so you can both figure out a different plan. Did you lose it and behave badly because you were irritable and in the middle of an anxiety episode? Apologize and offer to make amends. Can’t tolerate your meds because of side-effects? Call your doctor, don’t just stop taking them. Sleeping too much in the daytime? How late did you go to bed last night? Can’t get to sleep at night? Are you exercising? Be honest with yourself! Your doctor cannot help you if you don’t help yourself. You have an active part in your treatment, and that includes doing everything you can to feel better, not just complaining about it when you don’t feel better. You are working toward the goal of having more good days than bad ones, and your doctor, family, and friends are there to help, not to do the work for you.
Keep in mind that the previous “steps” cover a lot of ground: it could take a person with a mood disorder months or years to even get close to what works for him or her in those departments. Still, like a stampede of elephants, we will forge ever onward, trampling everything in our paths.
A mood disorder, much like an elephant, is a large and unmanageable creature that doesn’t tame easily. You need help! Possibly a lot of help! Yep, this is the part in which we discuss “support systems.” A support system is simply a group of people: your doctor, your friends and family, a spouse, a support group, group therapy, or even an online community can all function as a support system or part of one. Many of us with mood disorders have trouble recognizing and/or building a support system because we have often alienated many of the people we really need the most!
And face it, you can’t just walk up to your brother and announce, “You will now be part of my support system. You will be required to help me through all my manic episodes.” Again, it doesn’t quite work that way. Nor does it mean you have to give every person who comes into your life all the gory details of your gooey innards. That, my friend, is called inappropriate personal disclosure, and we all know that person, don’t we? Yeah, we need to not be that person if we can help it.
I personally am still feeling my way through the whole “support system” issue. In the past, I either alienated my friends and family or made poor choices when it came to companionship. Out of all the relationships I developed during my formative years, I have retained only my immediate family, a few close friends, and my spouse (who is a trooper, by the way). Of the few relationships I have left to “choose from,” as it were, even fewer possess the levels of mutual trust required in order to be part of a support system in the traditional sense.
And this “support system” relationship, by the way, is mutual. I can’t call you crying at three in the morning if I am not also prepared to answer the phone for you at three in the morning. You can’t spend an hour on the phone with me telling me how much your mother is messing up your life without expecting me to also call you at some point to tell you I feel like a hair clog in the U-bend of life and enumerate the reasons why. Being friends (or lovers, or family, or married) takes work and energy. You have to be prepared to put that work and energy into your support system if you want to get some back, and that’s tough to do for those of us with mood disorders. Heck, sometimes I think that’s tough for anyone. Sometimes we don’t even have enough energy to decide what to eat for dinner, so how are we supposed do do something difficult like maintain a trusted relationship? The answer to that, as far as I have found, is practice. Practice, and hoping your friends and family are very forgiving people.
So we’ve acknowledged our Elephant Hat, we’ve taken responsibility for it, and we’re getting help dragging it around all the time. What’s next? In short? Rinse and repeat. Every day? Yep, every day. Bummer! Not really. You know how if you exercise regularly (which is good advice, by the way) you get used to it and even come to enjoy it (sort of)? Well it’s the same here. Think of it as mental hygiene. You take care of your mind, and your mind will take care of you, thus helping you achieve your goal of having more good days than bad ones. Remember that goal? In Part Three, we’ll look at some more ideas about achieving that goal, and some tips for the care and feeding of both yourself and your elephant.(http://www NULL.linkwithin NULL.com/)