Category Archives: mental health

Do You Know a King Baby?

I’ll bet you do. Almost everyone knows a grown-up in their life who has to be right all the time, has to be catered to, and blames everyone else for failures or unpleasant events.

Who is a King Baby? (Not to be sexist. There is also Queen Baby.) Someone who never grew up, at least not emotionally. King baby expects everyone to love him, take care of him, and solve all his problems for him.

Reference.com says that a King Baby: “is typically selfish, rejects criticism, complains, is obsessed with money and belongings and doesn’t feel like rules should apply to him. In short, he is someone who refuses to mature.” Tom Cunningham wrote the book (well, the 28-page pamphlet) on King Baby Syndrome in 1986. It’s still available from Hazelden, which is good because King Babies haven’t gone away, nor are they likely to.

King Babies view the world as their plaything and other people as someone whose only function is to meet their needs. Physically they are adults, but emotionally they are still infants. Typical King Baby remarks are, “That’s not fair,” “This is what I want,” “That’s not how I do it,” “Do this for me,” and “I’m the best at everything.”

Needless to say, King Babies are very trying to be around.

I learned about King Baby syndrome from my husband. Not that he has King Baby syndrome. But he used to work as a counselor with various therapy groups. One thing he told me was that when someone was trying to pull King Baby shit, one of the others might call him on it by saying, “Wah!”

King Baby goes by other names as well. Probably best known is the Peter Pan Syndrome, from an 80s pop psych book of the same name. Years before that hit the bookshelves, though, writer Aldous Huxley produced a novel called Island, which talks about “dangerous delinquents” and “power-loving troublemakers” who are “Peter Pans.” In addition, he said, they are “boys who can’t read, won’t learn, don’t get on with anyone, and finally turn to the more violent forms of delinquency.” Huxley cited Adolf Hitler as an example.

King Baby syndrome is not an actual psychological thing. It is not covered in the DSM, the psychiatrists’ bible of mental illnesses and like conditions. But the DSM does include Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which shares some of the same characteristics:

  • exaggeration of accomplishments
  • saying they have done things they haven’t really done
  • acting or feeling more important than others
  • believing they are special and unique
  • having a need to be admired all the time
  • expecting to be treated differently, with more status than others
  • exploiting others to get what they want or need
  • pretending concern towards others or lacking empathy
  • being jealous and competitive with others
  • thinking that others are jealous of them
  • acting arrogant and superior

So what do you do with a King Baby? My advice is to avoid him or her if possible. You can, like the people in my husband’s therapy groups, call the person out for such behavior, but it is not likely to do any good. Often it’s best just to cut King Baby out of your life. If you do, though, expect anger, blaming, and recriminations.

If you do have to live with a King Baby, perhaps the best thing you can do is to recognize the behavior when you see it happening and not fall into the trap of trying to meet King Baby’s every need. This won’t make any difference in King Baby’s behavior, of course. You’ll have to deal with pouting, sulking, poor-me talk, and even retaliation.

Because just as vampires never grow older, King Babies never grow up. They can’t and they won’t. So there.

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Lies We Tell About Bullying

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Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

Beating the Rejection Slip

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Writers fear them, yet they are inevitable: rejection slips. I’ve seen many a one in my life as a writer. (That’s what good about blogs. You never have to send yourself a rejection slip.) They can be cruel. They can be perfunctory, mass-produced and not even signed by a human being. An actual rejection slip may never arrive at all, leaving a writer to wait in anxious hope forever.

Rejection slips can be devastating. They can be empowering, too, in a strange sort of way. I’ve known writers who’ve defiantly papered their walls with rejection slips until they got a book contract. Once in a while a rejection slip comes that makes it clear the editor or agent has actually read the proposal or sample chapters. He or she may even provide helpful comments that can lead to improving your writing. Or the editor may say that your writing is good, although the book is just not for them. Those desperate for validation (most writers) treasure the first half of the evaluation.

Short story and nonfiction article writers and certainly poets get rejection slips, too. But the book rejection slip can be the most devastating because you may have spent literally years preparing your manuscript.

But here is a tale that may give you hope: I just beat the rejection slip. I have been offered an author contract.

How did I do it? I followed the rules. I gave up. Then I got lucky.

Since my book was a memoir (non-fiction), I knew that I had to prepare a proposal with sample chapters. (Fiction requires a completed manuscript, not just a proposal.)

Then I combed the Internet for agents that were accepting new clients and publishers that would accept proposals directly from authors. I sent out my query letters or proposals. I was very careful to send each recipient what they preferred and to make it meet their specs: query only, proposal only, proposal with three sample chapters, or ten pages, or whatever. I attached my proposal or pasted it into the email, whichever they wanted.

I tried to be at least a little sensible. I looked for people who wanted the kind of writing I was doing – nonfiction or memoir or mental health. I looked over their websites to see if there was one particular agent/editor who was more interested in my genre and addressed my query to that person. I never sent a “Dear Agent” or “Dear Editor” query.

I did this dozens of times. I kept a list of where I sent each and crossed them off when the rejections came.

And after a number of years and rejections, I gave up. I decided to abandon my book (by that time it was completely written) and move on to another book-length project in another genre.

While I was struggling with that manuscript, however (I still am), I noticed a new independent publisher who was looking for nonfiction books on mental health issues. So I said, what the hell? I was pretty much inured to rejection by then. I sent a query letter.

And I got a reply, within days. Did I have a proposal or a completed manuscript? Encouraged, I said that I had both. They asked to see the manuscript. And within a week, I had an offer. Given the length of my rejection list, I jumped at the chance.

I was a little wary of throwing in my lot with an indie publisher, and a start-up at that. But the founder was someone I had heard of, someone who was a noted expert and activist in the field of mental health. It was not a vanity press.

And now I have signed my author contract and been assigned an editor (I look forward to many fruitful conversations with him). They also introduced me to the intern who had picked my manuscript out of the slush pile, to whom I am eternally grateful.

I’m not a novice at writing. In addition to these blog posts, I have written and published nonfiction articles and children’s stories. But being a BOOK author is the best! The day I get my 25 printed copies I will indeed squee, long and hard.

Say hello to the next author from Eliezer Tristan Publishing – me!

 

A Brief Guide to Gaslighting

“You’re crazy. I never said that.”

“That’s not the way it happened. You’re crazy.”

“No one believes you. You’re crazy.”

“You’re crazy. You’re just overreacting.”

What do these statements have in common? Obviously, they involve one person telling another that she or he is crazy.

More subtly though, the speaker is saying that the other’s perceptions and feelings are invalid, untrue – wrong.

And that’s gaslighting.

Gaslighting describes a mind game that emotional abusers use to control their victims. (Gaslight is also an old movie, in which a husband uses the technique to try to convince his wife that she is insane.) The victim of gaslighting is usually a woman and the perpetrator usually a man. Of course this is not always true. Either sex can be the gaslighter and either sex the gaslightee.

Back when I was in college and extremely depressed, I had an experience of being gaslit. My grasp on reality was not entirely firm at the time, both because of the depression and because I was physically, socially, and emotionally cut off from the outside world, family and most friends. This isolation left the gaslighter, Rex, in a position of control.

I endured everyday denials of reality, like those mentioned above, but the most obvious one – the one that made me aware that I was being gaslit –happened when I suggested that we go for couples counseling. Rex asked if I was sure I wanted to, as he and the therapist could declare me a danger to self and others and have me put away. That, of course, was not true and I knew it wasn’t, which gave me my first clue that something was amiss.

When we got to the couples sessions, Rex tenderly held my hand and spoke of how concerned he was about me and how much he wanted to help me get better. In other words, he was saying that I was the crazy one and that he wasn’t. That is the very basis of gaslighting – to make the other person seem or possibly even become crazy.

Once a person recognizes the gaslighting for what it is, she can begin learning to trust her own perceptions again. This will not be easy. I know it wasn’t for me.

It took a long time and a lot of healing before I could recognize what had happened, how my circumstances had been controlled, how my perceptions had been invalidated – how I had been gaslit. That was a vast revelation. It was like turning the tube of a kaleidoscope and seeing a different pattern come into focus. The elements that made up my life may have been the same, but the new perspective changed everything.

Having someone outside the situation who can validate your perceptions is an important tool in recovery. Sometimes a friend or family member can perform this function, but mental health professionals who have been trained in the process are often more successful. They are the people we often turn to who can tell us we are not crazy, that our feelings are valid, and that the mind game of gaslighting has affected us.

With help, a person’s thinking becomes more clear, accurate, and trusted. Turning off the gaslight is like turning on a much more powerful kind of light – one that illuminates your life, improves your clarity of vision, and begins to break through the gloom and despair.

And that light is more powerful than gaslight.

 

A version of this post appeared earlier in my “Bipolar Me” blog (bipolarjan.wordpress.com). It proved so popular that I thought I’d share it here.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

What’s With All the Crazies? Are They Crazy?

Yes. Yes, they are.

And no, they’re not.

I say yes, because so many political extremists out there are acting, well, crazy.

And you can define  “crazies” any way you want – alt-right, alt-left (two handy meaning-free terms), in-office, out-of-office, politicians, your Facebook friends, your Uncle Ned, whatever. We’ll just leave out for the moment the tin-foil hat squad.

Whoever your opponents are, there’s more than a fair chance that some of them are acting irrational, delusional – some variety of crazy. Is it crazy to run down peaceful protestors? Yes. Is it crazy to still be battling over the outcome of an election that happened close to a year ago? Yes. Is it crazy to carry rifles in Walmart? Yes. Is it crazy to spend news air time on the First Lady’s shoes? Yes.

Most of all, though, people are acting paranoid. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get us, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

And paranoid means crazy, right? (Unless, as the saying goes, “they” are out to get you.)

Well, not actually. “Paranoid” is a clinical term from psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is an actual psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

So, if by “crazy” we mean “mentally ill,” then no, the political and social “crazies” are not “crazy” as a group. Their tweets and posts and dinner table conversation are simply not enough to declare them mentally ill.

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits, or is a narcissist in the garden-variety meaning of the word, but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Our readiness to label people, both our acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. He’s a Southerner; of course he’s a racist. She’s a liberal; of course she’s a snowflake. If we can apply a label, we can make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true. (It can also lead us into “Not all X are Y” arguments, which are seldom productive.)

Stigma comes with the label “crazy” or mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to, despite the fact that their cognitive abilities are generally not impaired.

As for terrorists, they are in common understanding automatically mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. And we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. I know I’ll catch hell for this. But I’m not being an apologist for reprehensible behavior.  I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Now, as for the tin foil hat squad, they’re mostly harmless. Let’s leave them alone.

 

 

 

 

Creative Genius? Are You Crazy?

It is often said that there is a thin line between genius and madness, usually with a further remark about someone who is straddling that line. But do genius and madness really have anything to do with each other?

For a start, let’s use the terms creativity and mental illness. When we talk about genius, we often think of Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, geniuses in mathematics and theoretical physics. Or we think of prolific and significant inventors, like Thomas Edison and Elon Musk. And when we talk about mental illness, we usually envision killers – suicide bombers, spree killers, sociopaths, and the like.

Those views are limited, however. Creativity – or creative genius – encompasses art of all kinds. Picasso’s paintings, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music, Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, Rodin’s sculptures, and so many others are works of creative genius as well.

Now we come to the intersection of creativity and mental illness.

Emily Dickinson had Social Anxiety Disorder.

And Abraham Lincoln suffered clinical depression. So did Charles Dickens.

Bipolar sufferers include Beethoven, Schumann, and Isaac Newton.

Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, and Nikola Tesla were all obsessive-compulsive.

Autism, dyslexia, and various learning disabilities affected Einstein, Galileo, Mozart, and even General Patton.

And Van Gogh! Let me tell you about Van Gogh. He had epilepsy. Or depression. Or psychotic attacks. Or bipolar disorder. Or possibly some combination thereof. Something, anyway.

They must have been! They were geniuses! And some of them acted crazy! Van Gogh cut his ear off! Surely he was insane!

Well, really, no one can tell if any of those diagnoses is true. None of those greats is known to have undergone psychoanalysis by a real doctor who actually met them. Some of the diagnoses didn’t even exist while the creative geniuses were alive. We make assumptions based on what we know about the famous and what we know of psychiatry – very little, in most cases.

The same is true for famous villains and criminals. Nero was a pyromaniac. Saddam Hussein was a narcissist. The Marquis de Sade was, well, a sadist. Ted Bundy was a sociopath, or a necrophiliac, or had antisocial personality disorder, or, well, something. He was crazy!

(In point of fact, mentally ill persons are much more likely to be victims of violence than to commit violence.)

What do we actually know about creativity and mental illness? Damn little. Get five people in a room and try to get them to agree on a definition of “creativity.” Design a scientific experiment to measure the connection between creativity and mental illness. You can’t do it without a definition of creativity and a list of which mental illnesses or conditions you are studying. And any results would therefore be subjective.

One thing I do know about creativity and mental illness is that creative people can be reluctant to admit their diagnoses for fear of being dismissed as a “crazy artist” or stigmatized. Brilliant glass artist Dale Chihuly only recently revealed that he has had bipolar disorder for years. In an interview with the Associated Press, his wife, Leslie Chihuly, said, “Dale’s a great example of somebody who can have a successful marriage and a successful family life and successful career — and suffer from a really debilitating, chronic disease. That might be helpful for other people.”

Indeed. Many people who have psychiatric diagnoses – or who suspect that they might – are reluctant to seek help. Many believe that taking medications for a mental disorder, in particular, might impede their creative flow. That is, they too are equating their creativity with “madness” and refuse to treat one for fear of losing the other.

In fact – and as a person with bipolar disorder I say this from experience – getting treatment can actually improve a person’s imaginative, creative, or scientific output. Level moods, time not lost to depression, freedom from the pain and fear of worsening symptoms, and other benefits of psychological and medical help can increase the time and the vigor and the passion that a creative person puts into her or his work.

That’s one of the reasons that it’s so important to erase the stigma associated with mental disorders. We could be missing out on the next creative genius.

For Caregivers Everywhere

I have bipolar disorder. My husband is my caregiver. He didn’t sign up for this gig when we met, except for later vowing the part about “in sickness and in health” when we married. I could not negotiate life without him. I try to thank him daily.

My mother was my father’s caregiver when he was dying of multiple myeloma. She knew she was doing a good job of taking care of him, but she asked me to tell her that. She needed someone to tell her she was doing it right.

So this is for my husband and my mother, and for caregivers everywhere.

Thank you. Good job. We need you and we know it.

Some of you are unpaid caregivers who help loved ones for the necessity of it, for the obligation of it, or for the love of it. All of you deserve our thanks.

Some caregivers receive pay, and you deserve our thanks, too. There are many other professions or jobs you could be doing, but you chose to help those who needed it most.

All parents are caregivers, but the parents of special needs children are extra special. You share a task and a worth that few others recognize. You didn’t ask for the job, but you step up to it every day.

You work in homes, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, schools, and group homes. Your work matters more than most people realize. You help not just the sick, but the struggling, the frail, the dying, and the trying.

Respite care workers deserve recognition too. You allow caregivers to continue their work refreshed – give them a space to catch their breath and recharge their spirits. You are caregivers as well.

The care you all give is not easily definable. It involves the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional needs of the medically, mentally, or emotionally fragile. It provides sustenance, both literal and figurative. It keeps the people you care for going, or helps them lay down their struggles.

Recently I wrote a blog post called “Caregivers Need Care Too,” specifically about people who care for the mentally disturbed (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-wh). It talked about what caregivers need in return for the attention, care, support, assistance, and love they give.

In it I said that those who care for others need something from those they care for, and from the rest of society. They need appreciation, validation, time away to refresh and re-energize themselves, understanding, support, and recognition. Not all of the people you care for are capable of giving back, for whatever reason.

So, please accept this from me, one who has known caregivers and benefited from caregivers, and loved caregivers. Your work and your devotion do not go unnoticed, Even if the ones you care for are not capable of saying “thank you,” I say it for them.

You are appreciated. You are worthy. You are loved. You are respected. You make a difference. You have value. You are valued. Even if you never hear these words from those you care for, please accept them from me.

I am grateful.

 

 

The Weather Is Not Bipolar. I Am.

Yeah, I get what you’re saying. The weather changes a lot, and sometimes drastically, so you say it has mood swings. And what’s more associated with mood swings than bipolar disorder?

I know, it’s a metaphor – a shorthand way of comparing things to each other, like comparing a choice to two roads diverging in a yellow wood.

The problem is, there are people on one side of this comparison, and they have a mental disorder. Bipolar literally means a neurochemical disorder of the brain that a person cannot control.It isn’t warmth in December and snow in April. It’s not just a matter of feeling happy one day and sad another. Everyone gets that.

Not everyone has bipolar disorder.

I do.

I have no control over whether I will wake up in the morning eager to get out of bed and start my day, or unable to get out of bed at all. No, you can’t control the weather either, but that’s nothing compared to being able to control your own moods, thoughts, and even actions.

Bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental disorders are conditions that affect, inhibit, and even ruin people’s lives and relationships. They are not conditions to be made light of, any more than developmental disabilities are. Bipolar is a disorder – a disease, if you will – that can confuse, terrify, and impair you; unsettle, disrupt, and destroy your relationships; shred your memory; take you to the brink of suicide and beyond, if you’re unlucky or untreated.

So, no. Your picky friend probably does not have OCD. OCD is a psychological condition that inhibits a person’s actions based on a complex series of numbers, behaviors, and rituals. It’s lots worse than simply straightening picture frames. Narcissism is not just being vain. Just like high blood pressure is not just someone who avoids salt or diabetic is someone who just avoids sugar. They are medical conditions. We may joke about needing insulin when a new couple overdoes the endearments, but that’s a far cry from really needing insulin. 

Many mental disorders involve neurons and synapses and neurotransmitter chemicals in your brain, and maybe genes. Can you control those by yourself? I thought not. Neither can I.

What I can do is go to a psychiatrist who gives me medications that help control those pesky neurotransmitters. And a psychologist who shares with me ways to cope with the messiness of the life I have to deal with.

And, make no mistake, those professionals and those chemicals do help. They give me more control over my emotions than you have over the weather.

So if you shouldn’t call the weather bipolar or your picky relative OCD, what about public figures? Aren’t they fair game? Can we say, for instance, that Donald Trump is a narcissist? Most likely, yes. Can we say that he has a psychological condition called Narcissistic Personality Disorder? Or Borderline Personality Disorder? Or Sociopathy?

No. The most we might say is that he displays some narcissistic traits, or that he is, in colloquial terms only, narcissistic. But can we diagnose him, say that he has one or another of these psychological conditions? It’s tempting to diagnose from a distance. That’s dangerous. Actual psychological disorders can be diagnosed only by a professional who has actually spoken to the person in question. Anything else is pop psychology and a disservice to the mental health profession. Not to mention a disrespect to people who actually live with those conditions.

I know that psychological terms get tossed around loosely, especially in everyday, colloquial English. I get that they’re shorthand for more complex ideas. Still, it bugs me when someone says weather is bipolar or Trump is a sociopath. I like precision in language. I like it especially when it hits close to home.

What I have is not like the weather. Oh, it comes and goes. But I can’t get away from it just by going indoors. I can’t lessen its effects by putting on or taking off layers of clothing. I can’t turn on the Weather Channel for a prediction of how I will feel later in the week. I can’t move to a place where bipolar is more pleasant.

That would be crazy.

 

 

 

 

Poor? Mentally Ill? Sorry, You’re on Your Own.

Poverty and mental illness have something in common.

There is a stigma attached to both.

Both are seen as moral failings. If only people tried harder, worked more, improved themselves, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Without relying on anyone else’s help, which would be shameful.

And if only people stopped being so negative, looked on the bright side, smiled more, thought more about others, their positive mental attitude would make all those shrinks and pills unnecessary. They wouldn’t be shooting people with assault rifles and sucking up tax dollars for disability payments, which is shameful.

Society can’t afford poverty and it can’t afford mental illness. Why should we make the effort when the poor and the mentally disturbed don’t?

Why should these two conditions both be associated with such stigma and for such similar reasons? It’s simple. People don’t want to think that poverty or mental illness could happen to them.

The truth, however, is that a vast number of Americans are living one paycheck or one illness away from poverty, and one in four or five Americans will face a mental or emotional disorder at some point in their lives. And they are afraid. So they tell themselves that the conditions only affect Other People. And those people must be stupid or lazy or unmotivated or something, or they wouldn’t be poor or mentally ill in the first place.

And that’s where stigma begins.

And what are the consequences of stigma?

Well, first of all, it means that no one wants to spend money alleviating either condition. If these Other People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve, the thinking goes, why should we pay them not to? Job training programs, child care, higher minimum wage, insurance coverage, community mental health centers, treatment programs for addiction, need to be paid for some way, but not with our tax dollars, by God!

And it means we don’t want to look at the Other People for fear of seeing ourselves. Don’t put halfway houses, group homes, unemployment offices, treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and other reminders in our neighborhoods. Not In My Backyard!

It’s not just a failure of compassion, though it’s that too. It’s not just a failure of the social “safety net,” though it certainly is that as well. It’s also a failure of the imagination – what would it be like if poverty or mental illness should happen to me? The reality is too unpleasant to think about, so don’t.

And while we’re talking about unpleasant, let’s mention the place where poverty and mental illness intersect – homelessness. Don’t we assume that homeless people are both poor and mentally ill? As such, spending money on them is doubly wasted. Why bother? It’s not like it’s going to help. Poverty, homelessness, and mental illness are incurable, after all. (Unless a person can cure their problems without outside help, of course.)

So what’s my stake in all this? Am I a bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder who wants to cure society’s ills and make us all foot the bill for it?

Well, yeah.

But I’m also living month to month on my income. My husband makes only a bit over minimum wage. We have both, at one time or another during our lives, been on unemployment and/or food stamps. We have no nest egg or emergency fund. It wouldn’t take much in the way of reversals to wipe us out. Even at that, we’re relatively privileged.

And I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder 2. Without insurance, I could not afford to see a psychiatrist, or buy medication (one of mine costs $800 per month), or get inpatient treatment if I ever need it. Right now my condition is moderately well controlled, but if I should suffer a setback, I might not be able to work at all. And there we are, back at poverty.

These two unfortunate conditions – poverty and mental illness – affect me directly, so I can’t look away and say they only happen to Other People. I know that they affect others more severely than they do me, and I don’t know how those people make it through.

But I do know that stigma isn’t helping any of us.