Monday, February 18, 2013

The Outer Limits, Again

You and I both know this blog is a week late. I apologize. But I just had a little emotional breakdown, and I needed time to recover.

I’ve been intending to write a blog about learning your limits. Now is a good time, because I have just become a perfect object lesson. I ignored my own limits, and was within two minutes of calling the psych ward. When you ignore your limits as a mentally ill person, a breakdown is what you can expect.

Here is the lowdown, in case you don’t know. Many of us with psychiatric conditions are not symptomatic all the time. We have episodes: periods when we are more or less fine or functional, and periods when something goes haywire and we walk on the wild side. Some of these episodes are beyond our control: they seem to be chemical surges that medical science doesn’t understand yet. But those of us who have been at this game awhile have probably found that we have triggers, environmental phenomena that make us more unstable, more likely to have symptoms or episodes or psychosis, or relapse into whatever condition we carry.

These triggers tend to include anything that one would normally consider “stressful,” plus maybe a handful of things that don’t make sense at all. Take me, for instance. I do badly around noise, crowds, hurry, anything that involves multitasking (even listening to a conversation while the radio is playing), hunger, frustration, and of all things bright sunlight. I have no idea why. It could be a case of photo-sensitivity gone wrong. All I know is that if I walk around on a bright day without a hat or frequent retreats to the shade, I end up with irrational attacks of rage that ruin everybody’s day. I am also oversensitive to stimuli in general. If I don’t get some complete solitude and quiet every 24 hours, I start to fall apart within days. That’s just a sample list. Any other patient could have a different one.

When you know what your triggers are, you can work around them or avoid them. If you can’t avoid them, you can at least be aware that you are in the danger zone, and make arrangements to duck out if necessary. What happened last week was that I ignored my triggers for 3 days straight, 8 hours a day, thinking I could handle it. I ended up shaking and sobbing in an empty room, crying out, “There’s no safe place! There’s no safe place for me!” and wondering if I would ever stop feeling such terror, whether I would ever take a deep, calm breath again without sedation. I don’t know how long this went on. It felt like a long time. A few minutes more and I would have called some kind of emergency services. It’s called decompensating, and it’s not pretty. All the defenses you have built to protect you in the world come completely undone, you shatter, and the men in white coats come and take you away. I ignored my personal limits, and it happened to me. And I should have known better.

Respect your limits! This is how you stay out of the hospital. This is how you live a relatively normal life. When the pressure builds up inside you, back off. Whatever you’re doing, however important it seems, it is NOT more important than your sanity. The job can wait. The partner can wait. ANYTHING can wait, when your sanity is on the line. Anything or anyone who will not let you take care of your sanity first does not belong in your life. You are allowed to look stupid, you are allowed to act like a jerk, so long as you save your sanity. Really.

I know this, but somehow after decades of practice I forgot it. I won’t be doing that again any time soon.

Next blog, I’ll talk about some of the ways I learned to identify triggers. Anyone can do it with time and observation.

Deborah is the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness, available at Amazon and other major vendors. Visit her web page at, or see her catalog at