Wednesday, 23 February 2022

Too Small for Comfort: When Life Closes In On You

“The further in you go, the bigger it gets.”
— John Crowley, Little, Big

Have you ever felt your life getting smaller and smaller, as though it was closing in on you? Maybe a relationship has come to an end. Maybe you’ve lost a friend, or the opportunity to make a new one. Maybe it’s not about people, but your career, education, finances, health, or some other aspect of your life that’s limiting what you can do. Maybe it feels like you’ll never achieve all you hoped to, or live the life you dreamed.

It’s important to note there’s nothing wrong with “life lived small” as such. Everyone has their ideas of what constitutes a meaningful life and if yours satisfies you there’s no issue, no matter how others might view it. I’m talking here about feeling life is or has become too small for comfort. That might be because we’ve outgrown our current situation, or because life has closed in around us. Fran and I have discussed this many times in the course of our friendship, mostly in relation to her experience of a life lived with illness. I’ve talked about it with other friends too. Recently, I’ve been having similar thoughts myself.

I’m not going to go into all the different aspects of that right now. Some I’ve shared previously. I’ve written about my lack of a clear path at work, my frustrations within the mental health arena, and how my own mental health has taken a down turn of late. There are other factors at play too, some recent, others less so, which I choose keep private. But the impact of them I can — and want to — talk about, because I think there’s something universal at play which others might recognise, even though their circumstances will be as personal to them as mine are to me.

So, what do I mean by life feeling too small? How does that feel?

Most fundamentally, it feels as though I’ve run out of opportunities and ideas, or perhaps I’ve lost the motivation to pursue any opportunities and ideas that might present themselves. It feels like there’s no point attempting anything different — a new friendship, hobby, or training course; or some new direction at work — because nothing’s really going to change and I’ll only find myself back here again.

It’s not only new things. When I’m in this frame of mind, I have little interest in doing things I know I enjoy, whether that’s meeting up with people or doing something creative. Even blogging becomes a chore. It’s as though these things, which at other times lift my mood and open me up to new opportunities, no longer have the capacity to overcome the gravitational forces keeping things small. The following lines are from my personal journal.

Ah well, me scribbling about [all this] isn’t going to change anything. I need to focus on me. I just wish I knew what “me” wants and needs because it seems as time goes by, my world just keeps shrinking in on itself. I touched briefly on that with Fran yesterday. She asked “Are you bored?” I said no, not bored exactly. It’s not so much that I’m bored, it’s more like “I can’t be bothered” / “what’s the point?” No part of my life seems to be growing or deepening or expanding. Work, friends, home, wider engagement — it all feels static or even contracting.

In other journal entries and conversations I’ve talked about losing the “spark” I once felt; even missing the drama, good or bad, because at least I was feeling something intensely. “When did I last feel any intense emotion? Joy? Sadness? Even pain? “ I asked myself a few weeks ago. Very little sprang to mind.

A good deal of it centres on the key people and relationships in my life. Those I have remain strong, but there seems little opportunity for growing new connections and making new friends. It’s not just about people, however. The following is from my journal a few weeks ago. I’d been exploring ideas for blog posts.

Maybe [if I write] I’ll get some further insight into what I’m “supposed” to be doing, or some spark that helps me figure out what I want to do. Maybe I need a new creative project — except I’d need to get over the “what’s the point?” bump. [...] Have I always looked to others for my spark of inspiration? I don’t think so. I used to find it in me and in what I chose to do on my own. My diary, creative writing, crafts, photography, etc. Is that no longer enough for me, and if not, why? The simplest answer is that people — primarily Fran but others too — opened me up to feeling so much more. That’s the intensity I’m looking to find again.

You might be thinking this sounds a lot like depression. It might be, to some degree, but it feels more situational than pathological. Something — perhaps something important — I’m living with and (hopefully) moving through. It’s not the first time it’s happened. The last time I felt it on this scale was some fifteen years ago, following the death of one of my closest friends. I recall sitting in Starbucks one Saturday morning and feeling utterly bereft. My life felt stalled, career-wise, creatively, and in terms of my then circle of friends.

Oddly enough, remembering I’ve been here before brings some sense of comfort and hope. If my life moved on and opened up as dramatically and wonderfully as it did back then — albeit it took a while to do so — there’s no reason to imagine there aren’t equally wonderful times ahead of me now. On the other hand, it reminds me that all things, whether we label them good or bad, joyous or painful, are necessarily temporary. The low/flat times may keep coming around, but so do the good times. I’m reminded of conversations I’ve had with Fran in the past about her life with bipolar disorder. The following is from our book, High Tide, Low Tide:

The episodic nature of bipolar disorder has both positive and negative implications. During an episode of either mania or depression it is reassuring to know — though Fran may struggle to believe it at the time — that with appropriate care and treatment she will come through the other side. On the other hand, there is no cure, and no matter how vigilant she is Fran cannot rule out further episodes.

I’m also reminded of a conversation with a former colleague I bumped into recently. His life has utterly changed for the better since we last spoke a couple of years ago. His mental health has improved dramatically, he’s moved roles at work and is now happy in his job, and indeed with his life generally. It was wonderful to see, and a valuable reminder that things can turn around, no matter how dark and hopeless they might appear.

How to effect that kind of transformational change, though? In my experience a good deal of it comes down to chance, but we need to be open to noticing and taking advantage of opportunities as they arise. To do that now, I need to overcome the “what’s the point?” stuckness, but I’ve done it before.

A few years ago I experienced a similar sense of my life having shrunk in on itself. There was no lack of intensity then though, I felt the apparent contraction in my circumstances very intensely indeed. Perhaps driven by that intensity, I was able to motivate myself to do something about it. I took an online course relevant to what was going on for me. I discussed how I was feeling with Fran and others. It took a while, but I was actively seeking how to move forward, rather than just waiting for things to change. It’s as though I was treading water, keeping my head above the surface of the water rather than sinking beneath the waves, until I could figure out which direction in which to swim. I remember one moment of insight from that time.

[I just had a] crazy idea that I could turn this on its head and pretend/present as though I am over it and put myself back out there for something new. It’s ridiculous on so many levels — so ridiculous that it is worth giving some thought to. [...] It doesn’t have to lead to anything. It’s not about results, but attitude. Am I gaining anything by moping and withdrawing from everything?

There’s an element there of what Fran and I call faking fine. Pretending things are better than they are isn’t a fix for anything but it can help us take the next step. We can feel the fear and do it anyway, as Susan Jeffers might say. Whatever it takes to motivate us to take that next step, I think mindset is important. We may or may not be responsible for whatever led to this place where life feels too small for us, but we can take ownership of how we respond to it.

I was chatting with a friend the other day. Talking about the changes she’s making in her life, she said “As things evolve here...” She paused a moment before observing, “I think evolving is a good word.” I think so too. Evolution adds a sense of development or progress to the cycles of life we experience. I’ve felt my life was too small in the past, as I do now, but I am not the person I was back then. I’ve experienced and learned so much in the intervening years. I may not know what is coming next but I can be certain something is coming. I can choose to see my present situation as a useful — even a necessary — period of pause, rest, and introspection, as I figure out what I want to work towards in this next phase of my life. That brings a degree of hope, even as I write these words.

As I mentioned in a recent article about how distract myself when I’m feeling down, I’ve been watching a lot of mathematics and physics videos on YouTube. One topic that fascinates me is the idea that the universe might be on a cyclical journey of expansion and contraction. If you’re interested, check out What If the Big Crunch Theory Is True, by Unveiled. If that’s true, if the entire universe will one day stop expanding, pause, and then contract before (maybe) starting out all over again — and has possibly done so many times before — then occasionally feeling my life is a little small for comfort doesn’t seem such a bad thing after all! Maybe a period of smallness is necessary to fuel the next phase. I’m up for finding out.

Have there been times when your life felt too small? How did you feel, and what steps did you take to move on from there? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch.

 

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash.

 

Wednesday, 16 February 2022

Laughing Out Loud

By Janet Coburn

There’s nothing funny about bipolar disorder. In fact, one of the ways that I know I’m having a spell of bipolar depression is that my sense of humor flies out the window. Nothing brings a smile or a laugh – not my husband’s awful jokes. Not my friend Tom’s silly songs. Not a funny movie like Arsenic and Old Lace.

I have been in a spell of depression for a little while now. As I mentioned last week, part of it may be reactive depression. But here’s the thing. Reactive depression feels the same as bipolar depression. You have the same sense of misery, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, anomie. But you know what caused it and that it will end pretty soon, relatively, unless you tip over into a true depressive episode, which can last a lot longer than that.

But yesterday I laughed. And that was a good thing. It didn’t pull me completely out of my depression, but it let me know that escape was possible, and maybe even starting.

It happened like this:

My husband and I were sitting on the couch, watching TV. I was not enjoying it. Then a commercial came on about “man-boosting” pills that increase testosterone. It promised everything: strength, leanness, stamina, and outstanding performance in the bedroom.

Dan turned to me and said, “Hey, honey. Maybe I should try some of that. Improve my performance in bed-woo-woo-woo!”

I turned and looked him straight in the eyes. I said, in a solemn, deadpan voice, without a trace of a snicker: Woo. Woo. I never got to the third Woo because we both dissolved in giggles. And it felt good – not only that I could laugh, but that I could make him laugh. Just thinking about it made us laugh all over again.

Today I am back to feeling overwhelmed, if a little less miserable, but still functioning on some kind of level. I don’t think my depression is over with. But for just a moment, I saw a ray of hope. Yes, it was over something stupid. Yes, I delivered the line with a flat affect. No, I didn’t know it was going to be that funny. I even thought Dan might be offended that I was making fun of him. But the important thing is that we both laughed.

What I’m saying is that laughter, by itself, is not a cure for depression, however much the memes and the positive thinkers tell you that it is. But if laughter happens to you, it at least reminds you that the depression will end sometime – maybe quicker than you think. The giggles are building blocks that will help you climb up out of your hole, or at least see that there is a way out.

That’s a lot of philosophizing about two words (or syllables, really), and I’m not sure the magic would happen again if either one of us said Woo. But I am taking the memory of that moment with me, for whatever strength it can give me and whatever amusement will stay with me when this depression ends.

Originally published in March 2021 at Bipolar Me.

 

About the Author

Janet Coburn is a freelance writer/editor with bipolar disorder, type 2. She is the author of two books: Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us.

Janet writes about mental health issues including talk therapy, medication, books, bullying, social aspects, and public policy, but mostly her own experiences with bipolar 2. As she says, “I am not an expert and YMMV – Your Mileage May Vary.”

 

Wednesday, 2 February 2022

Talk. Listen. Change Lives. Time to Talk Day 2022

I’d like to share a few thoughts for Time to Talk Day, which this year falls on Thursday 3 February. The event was launched in 2014 by Time to Change, a campaign run in England to end mental health stigma and discrimination. This year’s event is organised by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness in partnership with Co-Op. As described on the event’s website, “Time to Talk Day is the nation’s biggest mental health conversation. It’s the day that friends, families, communities, and workplaces come together to talk, listen and change lives.”

I volunteered with Time to Change from February 2016 until the campaign closed in March 2021. I’ve shared my experiences previously, including a look-back piece written in April last year. You can read some of my previous #TimeToTalkDay posts here:

In a recent intranet post written for Brew Monday, one of the lead Mental Health First Aiders where I work remarked that starting a conversation can be a game-changer for the person needing support. I agree whole-heartedly but I’d go a step further. It can also be a game-changer for the person holding space for the conversation to take place. Based on my experience as a Time to Change volunteer, as a Mental Health First Aider, and in my personal life, I see this kind of conversation as a win-win opportunity for growth and understanding. We all benefit, on both a personal and a wider societal level, from engaging in honest and open conversations about mental health.

I didn’t always appreciate this. I’ll be sixty-one this year, and for the first fifty years of my life I understood very little about what it means to live with mental illness. This wasn’t from lack of opportunity. As I’ve described previously, I actively isolated myself from what others were going through – family and friends included. Mostly, this was because I was terrified of engaging and overwhelmed by what I perceived as the depth of their need for support. I lost many opportunities to help people I cared about but didn’t know how to care for.

My stoic attitude helped me deal with my own ill health, but left me incapable of responding with compassion to the needs of others. I mistakenly believed that caring for someone meant making their pain and hurt go away. It would be many years before I learned to open my heart and simply be there for those I care about. I am still learning.

What opened my eyes was a chance meeting online in May 2011 on the social media page of someone who was having a really hard time. A woman called Fran Houston who I didn’t know at all challenged me about a comment I’d posted to our mutual friend. It was the start of a friendship which has had a profound effect on my understanding of mental health and my ability to support others.

As most readers know, Fran lives in the United States with bipolar disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS/ME), and fibromyalgia. She has other friends and a good professional team, but despite living three thousand miles away, I quickly became – and remain – her primary support and carer. Our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder was published in 2013 as a guide for others who want to know how to support someone living with mental health issues.

The most important thing I’ve learned with Fran is how vital it is to keep the channels of communication open. Whether you live on opposite sides of the world or on the other side of the street, a commitment to staying in touch is the key to any successful relationship, and the cornerstone of caring support. This has never been more important than in the past two years, as we’ve all navigated the Covid-19 pandemic, in many cases physically separated for long periods from those we care about. My long-distance friendship with Fran undoubtedly helped me keep in touch with other friends when face-to-face meetings were impossible.

Time to Talk Day, Brew Monday, Bell Let’s Talk Day, and other wellbeing events encourage us to open up to one another and take better care of our needs. I was inspired last year by a work session organised for International Men’s Day to make an appointment with my doctor for the first time in thirty years. Nevertheless, such initiatives are not without criticism.

Some people reject awareness campaigns as trivialising conditions they live with all the time, not just on a few officially designated days in the year. Others point to professional services which struggle to meet the needs of those encouraged to seek help. Talking with friends, family, and colleagues can be hugely beneficial and protective – Fran has told me many times she would not still be here without my support – but it’s no substitute for professional help and treatment when that’s called for. Fran needs her doctor, psychiatrist, and the rest of her professional team too. The same is true of other friends, who live with a range of physical and mental health conditions. Some of these questions are addressed on the Time to Talk Day page at Mind.

Something else can get lost in the “talk to someone if you’re struggling” rhetoric. Despite the best endeavours of Time to Change and similar campaigns around the world, stigma and discrimination are still experienced by many people. Opening up to someone can be a scary thing to do. It requires a great deal of trust, and there’s no guarantee of a helpful or supportive response.

As important as all that is, Time to Talk Day isn’t just about encouraging people to talk about their problems. Sharing our stories can bring hope and help others feel less alone. There’s a tendency to feel isolated when things aren’t going well, and it helps to realise others are going through something similar or have done so in the past. That’s the primary motivation behind our book and weekly blog posts.

Other people’s stories can also open our eyes to their lived experience. My friend Aimee Wilson blogs at I’m Not Disordered about her life with borderline personality disorder (BPD, also known as emotionally unstable personality disorder, EUPD). I’ve learned so much from Aimee’s blog. It’s helped me be the friend she needs me to be and to support her more effectively. This includes understanding that there are times my presence is neither needed nor helpful.

I don’t have a mental health diagnosis, but there are times when I struggle to cope with what’s going on. Over the past year or so I’ve found this happening more and more. I explore this in my personal diary and in public blog posts, but talking about how I’m feeling with others is also incredibly valuable. That hasn’t always been easy, not least because most of my close friendships grew on the basis that I was the relatively stable and well person in the relationship. Admitting that I need support too, and asking for it, requires me to trust not only the other person, but that our friendship is strong enough to handle the shift in dynamics. In all cases, this has proven to be the case. If anything, my friendships are stronger because of it.

I believe passionately that all of us — you, me, everyone — can make a difference. Fran knows this first-hand, and I can do no better than close by sharing her words from the epilogue to our book.

Friends like Marty who are willing to be with me in the darkness are the ones who give me light. Yes, there are medications. Yes, there is therapy. Yes, there is personal responsibility. But caring friendship is the best medicine of all. Then life begins to have purpose. [...] Stick around. It may not be easy, but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

I hope you’ve found my thoughts and experiences of interest, and that they’ll encourage you to have more conversations about mental health and wellbeing. If you or someone you know need urgent support, contact professional services or a relevant crisis line. Check our Resources page for crisis and support line links.

 

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