Sunday, September 13, 2009

Onset - Prologue

Until now my posts have concentrated mainly on the challenge of managing bipolar disorder. In effect, I’ve looked at the illness from the outside. Yet what exactly am I trying to manage? I could rehearse the clinical criteria for manic depression. But you can easily get that elsewhere. The way in which this blog can be of most utility is, in addition to explaining the methods by which I manage the disorder, to explain the metaphorical demon that I face in terms of the subjective experience of having the illness.

This won’t be fun to do. But quite some time ago I wrote the first series of posts that focus on what it’s like when the demon attacks. I’ve long held them in reserve, partly because I did not want to post anything on impulse – it is imprudent for people with bipolar disorder to take any major step impulsively – but primarily because, well, this won’t be fun to do. You just put this stuff out there. Anyone can read it. Anyone can make of it anything they want. And while I anticipate that most people will be supportive, inevitably there are people out there who will not.

Even so, I’ve taken a deep breath and scheduled the series to begin publishing tomorrow morning. The entries will appear at staggered intervals, usually about every other day. The series will deal with the onset of the disorder, which in my opinion occurred nearly a decade before it was diagnosed. And rather than adopt a narrative approach in which I base the account on what I knew at the time, I'll write in the full light of what I've learned from therapy and from long personal reflection.

But before the first post appears, I have time to make one final comment about my parents. As I’ve said in the past, while by and large I can leave specific persons out of this and future accounts, my parents are another matter. And of all the things about this venture that give me pause, the principal one is that, in the nature of the case, I shall have to criticize my parents. To be precise, I shall have to hold my parents responsible for the errors they made in raising me.

No one, surely, would deny that parents have incalculable impact on their children, particularly during the early years when the family environment they create for a child becomes his template for understanding the world in general.

Although few people have heard of Dorothy Law Nolte, most are at least passingly familiar with her poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” written in 1959 and originally circulated in the Torrance (California) Schools Board of Education newsletter. In the decades that followed, Nolte revised the poem several times. Here is the last version, published in the book Children Learn What They Live (New York: Workman Publishing, 1998):

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

The poem underscores the power that parents wield and consequently the responsibility they must accept. In psychotherapy a very common initial approach is to explore the way in which the client was raised, the way they perceive their parents as having treated them, and the life lessons they learned from their parents, good and bad. The sessions tend to concentrate on the bad. This is necessary in order to revisit, and begin to undo, the damages of childhood, which vary in type and intensity from one client to another but which involve deep existential pain and distorted thinking (for example “you can’t trust anybody” or “I’m not worthy of love, success, etc.”) based on messages ingrained on the client, sometimes deliberately but usually inadvertently, by their parents.

The relevance of this to bipolar disorder is that I have found that a key to managing the illness is the ability to distinguish between depressions that are a function of biochemistry and depressions that have an existential source. Even more crucially, in order to find the strength to face the demon of bipolar disorder, I have had to confront, and cease to be haunted by, the ghosts of the past.

While in my opinion unavoidable, the process gives rise to the stereotype that therapy is all about blaming the parents and excusing clients from their own decisions and behaviors. It is true that some clients, unwilling to take the next step -- where are you in all of this, you’re no longer a helpless child, you don’t have to stick with the patterns you grew up with, you have the power to improve your life -- remain immobile for a long time or else terminate therapy altogether. However, the purpose is never to blame the parents, which is pointless and self-defeating, but simply to acknowledge that, relative to the child, they for years exerted almost god-like power and the impact of that power must be well understood.

And of course, it’s not as if these parents themselves had perfect fathers and mothers. They often also emerge from childhood with pain and distorted thinking, and while raising their children they either grapple with, or repress, or act out the imperfections of their own childhoods.

The Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz maintained, “In war everything is simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult.” Parenting is like that. Your objective is to love your children and raise them as best you can. Some parents think hard about the best way to do this and some pretty much follow the playbook learned from their own parents, but parents are almost continually shaping their children’s lives. There’s almost no downtime. And seemingly benign words and actions can have far different impacts than intended. The simplest thing frequently turns out to be very difficult indeed.

For instance, yesterday I heard a father rebuke his toddler with the words, “Why aren’t you minding your mother?” And I thought to myself, what possible response could the toddler give to such a question? So why couch it as a question? Maybe it just rolled off the kid’s back, but growing up I heard such rhetorical questions all the time, followed by the command, “Answer me!” It was a classic Catch 22. If you didn’t answer, you were insolent. If you did, you were insolent. And yet I doubt my parents ever considered this, still less that they intentionally placed me in a double bind. They were simply aping what they’d often heard other parents say within their immediate and extended families.

So in the posts that follow, bear in mind that I have neither the intention nor the desire to blame my parents for anything. But I am going to hold them responsible for the choices they made during the years when they had all the power and I had none, just I must hold myself responsible for the choices I make, now that I hold the power over my own life.

Prologue - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5


Barb said...

I've dealt with the parent issue in my own therapy and now choose how I want to deal with them. I'm an adult now and I have that choice. Currently, I'm at a point where I am able to be around them and even have a good time. If they say things to put me down, I have the choice to leave.

I don't blame them for the way they raised me -- they did the best they could and looking back at old photo albums, I know they loved me. But I do hold them responsible for my patterns of thinking. One of the big ones is having unrealistically high expectations of myself (so-and-so got a scholarship; what about you?). I've also learned that it's up to me, not them, to change this thinking, but it's a long, hard road.

Mark Grimsley said...

My own parents died over two decades ago. I've sometimes wondered if my relationship with either or both of them would have improved had they lived. Everyone is capable of growth, and my parents each showed some signs of growth in the last year of their lives. (This was particularly true of my father when he became a grandfather for the first--and as it turned out, only time). For many reasons, I have always felt sorry that they died so young. But since they did, I in effect have to deal with the ghost of the relationship I had with them, with no possibility of that ghost ever changing form.

Barb said...

I'm sorry to hear that, Mark, especially if they were showing signs of growth. It must be tough to have to deal with what was rather than what could have been. But I suppose there's no use in dwelling in the "could have's," either.

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