Monthly Archives: April 2014

Wearing my heart on my sleeve

I spoke in therapy the other week about the frustration I feel at having to bare my soul every time I bare my arms, I’ve been continuing to think over those thoughts and feelings ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under any allusion that I have especially severe scarring, or that I am worse off than people with burns or other scars.  This is not a pity party, this is just me talking about what it’s like to walk around in my body.

I self harmed from the age of 14 to somewhere around the age of 22, 23.  I stopped self harming on a daily-ish basis at around 19.  Inevitably, cutting and burning oneself for that period of time has a considerable impact on your skin.  My arms are pretty scarred up.  Year on year, as I continue to abstain, the scars fade a little more but it’s going to be a long time before they really become unnoticeable – or even just easy to miss.

Until May last year I had never ever worn short sleeves to work.  So that’s roughly 10 years in work wearing long sleeves in every weather – even the stiflingly hot days.  In May, at a conference at the University I work and study at, I broke.  I was wearing a thin jacket over a t-shirt in 30 degrees.  I was running around organising things and I realised that if I didn’t take my jacket off then, at 9:30am, I’d have sweat stains from armpit to ankle by the end of the day.  So I whipped off my jacket and did the day in a t-shirt.  Presenting my research to colleagues and superiors with my arms on show.  Hosting an all day event in an t-shirt.

That evening, stress and exhaustion and lack of food combined to make me roaring drunk after 2 glasses of wine.  At dinner I confided in a friend and colleague that this was the first time I had ever worn short sleeves in a professional environment.  Something flashed across her face before she spoke – relief I’d mentioned it? Horror I was talking about it?  She confessed “yes, [other colleague] and I spoke about [your arms] earlier, do you still do it?”.  “No,” I replied “not for years. But that’s just the problem, I have to carry around my teenage self and all her decisions for everyone to see.  Lots of people did stupid things as teenagers, but I can’t avoid people making assumptions about me based on what they can see, I can’t leave my teenage self behind”.  She sympathised but assured me that our work environment – a university – may be one of the best places to be ‘out’ about something like this. I’m sceptical about that, but that’s another post.

There was a lot of compassion and understanding in the conversation I had with my colleague that night, but her first response, the very first words out of her mouth confirmed what I always fear – the scarred flesh of my arms is a topic of conversation, it is worthy of remark.  I have been approached by strangers in the street in the summer who demand to know what is ‘wrong’ with my arms, I was cornered by classmates in Sixth Form accusing me of self harming and demanding I confess it to them, I have been asked by waiting staff, shop assistants, security officers.  Somehow, for some reason, visible signifiers of mental distress make your body public property. People believe they have the right to demand an explanation from you, to insist on [one way] emotional intimacy.

I can have a great day, sunning myself on the beach or in the city, shopping, laughing with friends, living life in the most enjoyable and energetic way but a single person, a single remark from a stranger can cut through all that, bring me crashing to earth feeling small and exposed.

“What’s wrong with your arms? You cut them, didn’t you?”

Having self harm scars is like walking around with a mental health hangover.  Always forced to reveal more than you consent to people you don’t know. Always knowing that whilst friends and colleagues might be understanding, might not care, it will invariably come after a gasp, a whispered conversation, a furtive look.

Perhaps it’s surprising then, that my primary response is anger.  You ask me directly, with no preamble, with no intimacy, what is ‘wrong’ with my arms and I’ll reply “nothing. What’s wrong with your face?”  Say “did you cut your arms?” I’ll say “no, I raise tiger cubs”. Call me a liar, I’ll call you a dick.

My body, not yours. Not yours to demand an explanation of, not yours to judge me by, not yours to know me by.

Anger is the big front to the awful, gnawing insecurity I feel about my arms.  I wear long sleeves to avoid these questions and assumptions, not to save anyone difficult considerations.  I wish the scars away sometimes.  But I also think of them as a part of my journey as much as the various tattoos I have.  Would I vanish them all tomorrow if I could? Almost certainly yes.  Although one of the biggest roles they play in my life today is as a disincentive to self harming again so I waver slightly at the thought of maintaining that resolve without a reminder of why.

Perhaps most frustrating is that whilst the scars on my arms hint at a past and mental health history, they don’t tell the whole story.  They give half a picture and a million assumptions and stereotypes about what a ‘cutter’ is.  They don’t say “fought past that, deal better now, in control, managing a whole other condition these days”  They don’t say “I’m more than this” They don’t say “you see one thing, but you don’t know what it means, where it came from, or where I’m going”.  And, somehow, they make me into an awkward teenager in the eyes of people who would otherwise see a thirty-something.

Scarred arms leave me no choice in who knows what, or when.  And that fucks me off.  But I’m not angry with myself – I’m angry with those people, those strangers, who think they know something about me because of it.

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Waking up on the wrong side of bed

One of the hardest things about having cyclothymia is waking up on the wrong side of bed.

Sometimes I can feel a low coming, I get the sensation of sitting at the top of a rollercoaster looking down and feeling the brakes just beginning to ease off.  On those occasions I go to bed at night with a sense of foreboding, almost sure I’ll be waking up to a thick brain fog and a sinking feeling in my stomach.  More often than not, though, I wake up, groggily smash at the alarm, stagger to the bathroom, and realise there is a black cloud descending as I try and start my day.

How do you get through a day when you start it by feeling every muscle sink, every bit of energy drain out the bottom of your feet, and your brain slows to a wheezing crawl? With cyclothymia, and though I object to the terminology, down swings are not as severe as that associated with bipolar I and II, or major depressive disorder, the symptoms are fairly indistinguishable. For me, the recognisable difference between how I feel and how I understand those with the above disorders feel, is that though my feet drag along the floor, I still get out the door; though I can’t imagine anything more painful than having an ordinary conversation, I can muddle through the necessities of life and work.

Being able to put on a brave face – a fairly functional face – is both my salvation and damnation.  No doubt that sounds rather unlikely if you have ever suffered a depressive order and simply not been able to get out of bed – struggling on through is better than going under, right?  

When I’m going through a down-swing my mask of normalcy is not perfect; close friends can recognise it the moment I speak – something changes in the tone of my voice.  Acquaintances find me stand-offish and ‘grumpy’.  I ruin burgeoning friendships by appearing stand-offish, I inadvertently offend people by appearing disinterested, I frustrate close friends by refusing to talk about it, or ask for help.   Anecdotally, my friends and acquaintances who have learnt I have cyclothymia/depressive periods have always been surprised; people know something is different but they can rarely recognise the reason so they have no opportunity to offer understanding or give me a second chance.

I’m not going to argue that if I was unable to leave the house in down-swings I would be better off, there are clearly lots of ways that’s not true, and I’m not playing the ‘worse off’ game.   What I will say is that being able to get out the house and being able to limp through my days forces me to confront a life I temporarily can’t manage, friendships I can’t sustain, and life and work stresses which make me feel I’m going to snap in two.  And it happens with no warning.  No warning whatsoever; just wake up one morning with a body blow of shit feeling and none of the energy you need to, say, rearrange social commitments, negotiate a lighter workload for a few days, find the words to explain to those close to you what you need and how sorry you are you can’t be the person they like best right now.

I want to end this post by writing about how I’ve learned to manage down-swings and resolve all the social problems I run into as a result – particularly the emotional hangover that comes after a down-swing where I have to deal with the snubbed friends, half arsed work I did, and squandered burgeoning friendships.  But I don’t have an answer to that yet.  I wish I did.

As with other elements of managing my cyclothymia, I’m coming to realise this is something that’s going to take time to work out.  I can’t change the reality of ‘waking up on the wrong side of bed’, I can’t change the energy levels I have when a down-swing comes round, but with time I hope I can work on changing how I feel about it – reject some of the guilt and self-recrimination that spiral me down further – and the resources I have to be more open with the people around me about what is happening at these times.

So far, I’ve managed to come to terms with the fact that running myself into the ground to get a minimum amount of stuff done in a day doesn’t help me – and often extends a low period further.  I’m also lucky that there is considerable flexibility in my professional life right now that allows me to postpone certain tasks indefinitely which was one of the harder parts of my previous career in retail management and customer service (try dealing with a customer screaming in your face when you can’t even look at yourself in a mirror!).  There is more to be learned, and managed.  I’m trying to work those things through with a therapist at the moment, I’ll be sure to blog whatever I learn.

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Accentuating the positive

I’m conscious this blog could easily become a litany of misery – all the ways cyclothymia is ruining my life.  There’s a fairly clear reason for this – I don’t associate anything positive in my temperament with cyclothymia.  Is this fair?

I sometimes experience hypomania as rampant anxiety running through my tense, restless body, forcing me to think through every faux pas of my life in excruciating detail at double speed.  For this reason, I rarely speak about hypomania as an enjoyable experience.  That’s not the whole story though, as anyone with cyclothymia will attest.

Hypomania can also mean self confidence, sexual confidence, a real belief the future will be ok, the most wonderful sense of financial freedom (usually exhibited in spending sprees), high energy levels despite almost no sleep and often no inclination to eat meals, and a sense of creative inspiration manifested in becoming an engaging conversationalist and compelling writer.  I’ve redirected my life a few times on the strength of feeling sure everything will come up roses for me if I gamble on a series of long shots. The majority of the things I own were bought during spending sprees (although I do now find these spending sprees so inevitable I put off buying everything until the chemicals switch and not buying ALL THE THINGS becomes unthinkable)

The run up to a period of hypomania is one of my favourite times, the little niggles of life start to fade into the background, I start to crave social interaction, I begin to feel confident that my friends and colleagues really like me, I begin projects I’ve never found time for before, I laugh more, often at my own stories, but I also share my laughter easily with others.  I suddenly have enough energy to share – I have the emotional resources to give to friends, I have the energy to be everywhere and do everything.

God it feels good.

I was reflecting the other day on a question Stephen Fry put to interviewees on Secret Life of a Manic Depressive: if you could press a button and erase your mental health problem, would you? At the time, I recall, I cried watching that because my moods were out of control and I felt utterly lost. Yes, I would have pressed that button. My answer today is different. As I’ve said in other posts, the distinction between ‘me’ and cyclothymia is not immediately clear, so I don’t know what – or who – I’d lose if I pressed that imaginary button. But more than that, I don’t know I’d want to give up what I get from hypomania. Yes, sometimes I can’t think or write, but at other times I find I can look at things cock-eyed and in so doing see something I didn’t before – new inspiration on an old problem, like getting a fresh pair of eyes but it’s all in me. What would I have missed in my life if I didn’t spend one half expelling enormous amounts of energy maintaining ‘normal’ when I’m low, and the other half of my time throwing myself obsessively and totally into keeping myself occupied when I’m high?

Yes, cyclothymia can take a lot from you, but it still bestows some benefits in exchange. It can just be a matter of riding it out and grabbing at all the good points as they go flying past – although that’s easier to say when I’m not in the middle of a low.
 

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Filed under self-hood and cyclothymia, symptoms and habits