Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mood Disorders 101

One of the best things you can learn, as a person with a major psychiatric condition, is not to believe everything your brain tells you. And if you have a mood disorder, that goes double for your feelings.

Of course, it is the job of our medications to help our bodies react more realistically to life events, or at least trim off some of the excess. When we have all our chemical ducks in order, a more natural reaction follows.  But despite scary press, pills do not magically alter all our moods. So we have to learn, over time, to take our feelings with a grain of salt.

What I've found is that I will always have plenty of emotion, lots of big reactions, usually more than is appropriate. The anger will always be outsize, often a storm in a teacup that I marvel at later. There will always be more depression than there is good news. There will always be more fear than courage. The thing I hae learned is that emotion doesn't always have a reason. My emotions are bigger than my circumstances. Sometimes they have nothing to do with my circumstances at all. The trick is to know this going in and compensate.

Before I understood this, I was a tremendous drama queen, always the center of a hurricane. People often accused me of trying to get attention,  of 'acting dramatic'. I wasn't. I was reacting exactly as I felt. I just didn't know that my reactions were of jumbo dimensions, and always would be. Now I know, and don't cause The Scene From Hell in public places...mostly.

Here is my experience: If some happening triggers an enormous rush of feeling in me, almost more than I can hold, and it seems I must explode with it this instant: BE SUSPICIOUS. It is probably a chemical surge, and if I act directly on it I will cause havoc and regret it later. This is particularly true if the feeling is anger. If we start yelling without thinking - and of course, this is true of everybody - we could say the one thing that will end that relationship or that job (or that party), pronto. And later, when that wave of chemicals has receded, we'll be saying, "My God, did I really do that? How could I?"

We have to live with the consequences if we give in to instant emotions. And I have learned the hard way that, as a woman with a mood disorder, almost all my 'immediate' responses are inappropriate.  Some psychiatric conditions turn this inward, using the emotions against the bearer, and some die of it. Others, often bipolar like me, turn it outward, and do damage to lives.

That's why I've made it my policy to let the emotions sweep through me like a tidal wave, and then let them recede, before I open my big mouth. The best move, for the moment, is nothing. Later, if there's a real issue buried at the heart of that tidal wave, I'll be able to think it out and deal with it fairly. Perspective is crucial. I've learned to say, "I'm too upset to discuss this. Let's talk later." I've learned to say, "I'm feeling really weird. I think I'll go be alone for awhile."

The next thing to do is to get rid of all that emotion. We all know by now that repressing emotions isn't wise. (I'm just  saying it isn't wise to point them at anybody, either - including at yourself!) Emotions not handled and released are explosive and corrosive. What I am finally learning, bit by bit, is to release them as physical energy. Emotions are energy, and the energy must go somewhere, do something. It must actualize. If you don't want it to poison your interactions with yourself and those you love, you get it out of you via your body. Talking or journaling quite often isn't enough.  Destroy something, if you need to. I knew a woman once who bought cheap plates from Goodwill and then shattered them against the back fence. Or you can pound on something with a hammer. Actually, a heavy home project can be a good answer. Clean the garage. Scrub something. Rearrange furniture. Something that will take long enough to wear you out. A lot of times, the answer can be a big crying jag. A serious bout of weeping empties us out, so we can rest and come back to sanity. It's no accident people often fall asleep after they've sobbed. (And I personally don't think it's an accident that men, who often will not cry, have a higher suicide rate.) Or scream into a pillow, and pound it with your fists.

You get the point. Get that ball of energy out of your body. Anything we can do without hurting or frightening someone, or trashing valuable property, is valid.

After that energy is gone, we can deal with the problem, whatever it is, in a more rational manner. I don't know about you, but I don't want to be known as 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. I want to say one or two quiet words at the right time, words that count - and be listened to.

I'm happy to announce that my new book on coping with mental illness is finally out. You can purchase Is There Room For Me, Too? at, on Apple's iBookstore, on Kindle, and also direct from the publisher,, at For the rest of September, CreateSpace will give you a 10% discount if you use the code 36Y6UQ9U.