I'm cured! Now what?
July 29, 2008 4:36 PM   Subscribe

I've spent the last fifteen years suffering from bipolar disorder (bipolar II with the emphasis on depression) and a sleep disorder. Four months ago I switched to a medication that turns out to be perfect for me. I feel normal. Assuming this continues, my mood disorder is essentially cured. Fifteen years of mental illness have really screwed up my life. How do I get it back?

I'm a 26 year old guy living in the UK. As a child I was academically gifted, but depression got in the way of qualifications. I eventually went to university - though not a good one - and graduated with a 2:1 in politics. Although I have no formal qualifications I'm reasonably good at computer-related stuff.

Since then I've worked in call-centres. Depending on the amount of effort I put into waking up, I either lose jobs from being hours late or feel terrible through lack of sleep. I went kind of crazy after a year of averaging 3 hours of sleep a night. For the last year and a half I've been off work. The sleep problem is not insomnia. I can get enough sleep if I can sleep whenever I need to. I can't maintain a fixed sleep schedule. This may mean that I'll be unable to work full time.

Although there have been a couple of casual things, my last relationship was the only serious one I've had and she was rather unstable herself. We broke up two years ago. My social circle is generally very narrow, although I have at least one good friend locally and a number of people from university who I see now and again.

I have very obvious self-harm scars, which I'm fairly comfortable with. I suspect other people may not be. This could contemplate employment (I'm not planning to go to interviews wearing short sleeves, but neither am I prepared never to wear short sleeves around colleagues). Also, I suspect they're something that will make people rule me out as someone they'd consider dating.

Other stuff, I'm in therapy (although this will end soon as it's provided by the NHS). I'm volunteering at a charity and currently working on an IT-related project for them.

So what do I want? I want a life. In fact, I want the life I thought I was going to get back before I became ill. Qualifications, a job that isn't in a call-centre, friends, relationships. But I don't know how to get there from here. How do I decide what to do with my life? How do I make up for all the social skills I've missed out on? In short, how do I make up for fifteen wasted years?
posted by xchmp to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
We learn social skills by interacting with people.
The only thing you can do is talk to people.
Call centers are good cause people are bored and they all relate to each other by how much they hate the job (I've worked call centers too)
Just talk to your coworkers.
At first, you'll be worried that you'll say something stupid and lose respect. It might happen but it's a learning experience.
posted by PowerCat at 4:46 PM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: You don't get those years back.

You spent them doing different stuff than you would have planned or liked - what's that John Lennon quote? Your life isn't any less valid because of how you spent those years - on the contrary, you learned a lot which could never have been learned any other way. Your experience has given you insight into an aspect of human life that people are often uncomfortable talking about. Maybe your experience provides you empathy and can serve you in some fashion. Maybe it can lead you to help others who are struggling with the same issues. Or maybe you have no interest in that, and that's okay too.

Anyhow the real waste of time is the time you spend dithering about the past. Your road is ahead of you. Where do you want to be? What do you need to get there? Can you make a series of small goals that lead to an ultimate goal? For instance, what can you learn that will lead you to better paying work? Your particular circumstances might work best with something freelance. Is there anything you're interested in, and potentially good at, that is appropriate for freelance work?

Don't worry about the scars - they're not going anywhere, and what good does worrying do? They're part of your story. Accept them, and celebrate having moved past that point of your life (if you have.) Make them mean something.

In the meantime, live. Eat good things, see beautiful things, listen to wonderful things, learn marvelous things. Pursue what fascinates you. The best place to find friends is along the way.
posted by Lou Stuells at 4:57 PM on July 29, 2008 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I can't offer you much in the way of practical skills, but one thing I'm gradually accomplishing after many years of depression and undiagnosed ADD is viewing myself as NORMAL. For so many years I've seen myself, told myself that I'm a fucked-up mess who can't cope. Now, I view myself as a good, resilient, normal person. Don't underestimate how important that shift in perception can be. I think I held myself back for too long by holding on to the identity I'd built for myself as a basket case. I told myself there were things I couldn't do or couldn't deal with because duh, I'm messed up. I see people I know do it sometimes too, if they've been struggling for a long time. Just, don't let your old identity carry over into your new life. You're not your illness or struggles or past. You are who you are, so hold your head up. Understand that many people suffer and that we're all human and you're human too, you're the same as all the rest of us. And it's wonderful!

Congratulations on this turn for the better!
posted by loiseau at 4:57 PM on July 29, 2008 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: The social skills I think I lack are the ones you can't really pick up just by interacting with people and observing them - making non-superficial friendships and maintaining them, initiating relationships, etc. I don't think I come across as a social wreck. I know how to talk to people (the call-centre work did help with this), I don't know how to do the more complicated stuff.
posted by xchmp at 5:00 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think loiseau is right about learning to accept yourself as Normal. I once asked a therapist if I seemed odd to her, explaining that I often felt that everybody else was clued in, and I wasn't. Most people have inadequate social skills, and are clueless about a lot of things but they don't know/ don't care/ don't think about it.

Set some goals, like developing a circle of friends, going out occasionally, learning to cook, or ski, or knit. Dating will be okay; not everybody will understand, but many women will. You're still young, your life is not as far off track as you may fear. Getting diagnosed and getting the right meds is something to be grateful for / proud of.
posted by theora55 at 5:08 PM on July 29, 2008

loiseau is right, your mindset will dictate how you act.
Do you ever relate to people? Find things you have in common?
Make them talk by asking questions. Relate and then build a connection. Spend more time with the person.
What do you want in a friendship?
Pretty much goes the same with getting a girlfriend.
posted by PowerCat at 5:12 PM on July 29, 2008

you won't give a damn about the time you've lost if you find things you really love right now. from a superficial outsider's perspective, you're doing frickin' great. 26 is young as hell, you've got many many years of strength and accomplishment to look forward to. my experience with difficult circumstances from the past is that it's largely a waste of time to analyze them and try to "redo" them. take what you've got this very second and enjoy the shit out of it.
posted by facetious at 5:17 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, one of the most compellingly attractive men I know has (what I have always assumed are) self-harm scars. In no way does this diminish his attractiveness, nor has it put off the number of stunningly beautiful and drop-dead sex pot women I know who have had the distinct pleasure of bedding him.

You are only what, four years out of uni? That's nothing. Plenty of people don't graduate or start the careers they enjoy until they're well into their 30s.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:52 PM on July 29, 2008

Best answer: In terms of social skills, you already know how to meet people and start conversations, right? If you think they are interesting, force yourself to take the next step and invite them to do something with you. After that, be yourself - your non-depressed, non-sleep deprived, real self. Stable people tend to attract stable people so healthy, interesting, non-depressed people will be open to getting to know you too.

If you feel awkward at times, that's normal. If you don't know what else to do, try being honest "I'm feeling awkward because I would like to get to know you better but I'm not sure if you are interested in that." Try to meet a wide variety of people and see where it goes.

Job-wise, a better alternative to part-time might be contract work where you get paid by the results and set your own hours. That way you can work an 8 hour day but the 8 hours of your choice. Maybe some other people can suggest specific career options that would work for you.
posted by metahawk at 6:15 PM on July 29, 2008

Scars would never stop me from dating someone, no matter how they received them. Scars are the past. A scar is how you know something is over. It's done. A scar is what happens when you heal.

Congratulations on healing.
posted by wannaknow at 6:48 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

Forget the scars. I have a couple of nasty scars across my wrist which could be seen as self-inflicted. Hey, they were but not intentional. (Sheet metal beats soft tissue every time.)

You're (getting) healthy so now you get to chose who/how to be in the world. What fun! Sure, there are skills you missed out on but the trade-off has already been mentioned above and that is something to appreciate.

One of the ways people acquire new skills is to "act as if". So, to learn how to be more social, pretend that you already are. Do that for as long a period as you can manage it, then stretch that out. After a while you will notice that you aren't pretending anymore.
posted by trinity8-director at 7:06 PM on July 29, 2008

My very best wishes xchmp. I was depressed for quite a while; had lost hope that I could ever be a functioning, productive person. Prozac cured me, and now that all seems like a distant memory. I'd advise you to forget about the lost time (as I think I have) and rejoice in the fact that you're back to normal, which is a wonderful thing. I'm very happy to hear it, buddy.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 7:39 PM on July 29, 2008

Also, I suspect they're something that will make people rule me out as someone they'd consider dating.

Adopt this as your mantra: If someone rules you out as a potential mate because of your scars, you probably wouldn't have wanted to date them anyway.

I've had to convince myself of this regarding several aspects of my life; I don't take it to a stubborn degree and use it to excuse behaviors/aspects of myself that need improving, but I've learned to stop letting what other people MIGHT think of me control my actions.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 10:10 PM on July 29, 2008

I have a loved one who suffers from Bipolar II, and medication has only helped moderately... Would you mind sharing the name of the medication which has worked so well for you?
posted by Alabaster at 12:12 AM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would never consciously judge someone's suitability for employment over self-harm scars (unless fresh). However, unconsciously it's probably a strike, especially if combined with any kind of current flakiness, unreliability or workplace crankiness. I sympathize deeply with the irregular sleep schedule. I've been having similar problems for a long time, and it is hard to explain or excuse when you can't be there for people. I try to schedule important appointments for the late afternoon, and get work where my output is judged more than when I do the work.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:45 AM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: Alabaster: It's nothing unusual and I know people who are on the same medication who haven't found it nearly so helpful or side-effect free. I'm currently taking 200mg of Lamictal and I also take an 800ug supplement of folic acid daily.
posted by xchmp at 3:15 AM on July 30, 2008

Best answer: The social skills I think I lack are the ones you can't really pick up just by interacting with people and observing them

You need to continue interacting with people and observing them, but in new situations. Try different types of social groups, clubs, classes, etc. A ballroom (swing, tango, salsa, etc.) dance class or club of some sort might be particularly good for you, since it sounds like a lot of the interacting you have done has been on the phone. Don´t expect to get much ¨interacting¨ practice until you have gotten the basic dance steps down, and stick with this for a bit until you do that. You will also become more comfortable around members of the opposite sex. If you have more of an interest in members of the same sex there are social dance groups for that too.

I´m not telling you this out of the classic ¨make new friends¨ advice. I´m telling you this as a way to get practice interacting with people in different ways and expand your abilities. In addition to these more structured situations, practice initiating conversations with people (not people that you have romantic intentions on, just people in general) in places like grocery stores, bars, outdoor events, waiting in line.

Practice making eye contact in appropriate ways and pay attention to body language.

There isn´t really an easy way to learn the specific skills you want to work on now, just focus on continual improvement with what you are moving toward as goals. Slowly, over time, you will get better and better with things and get what you want. It also takes time and meeting lots of people to find the people that you can have deeper interactions with. Keep working at this and you will gradually get better and better, sometimes this change can be so slow that it is hard for you to recognize, and sometimes you will have sudden breakthroughs.

Other people probably do see you as being normal and having good social skills -- but if you know that you want to improve, don´t let others talk you out of it. At the same time, know that many people will like you as you are.
posted by yohko at 11:44 AM on July 30, 2008

Dear heart, I went thru the same as you only I didn't even get a diagnosis till my forties.

I am fine now, and a few months away from being fifty.

It is true those years are lost but first, thank God you are still fairly young-you have a lot of time now to make up for those lost years-and two-even in my own case I can see where my own suffering taught me things I could not have learned any other way.

It is okay to grieve what you lost but only if you promise yourself to move on, too.
posted by konolia at 12:32 PM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: sondrialiac: I've tried Seroquel, which paradoxically made my sleep patterns worse. Other medications haven't helped either. But I'm going to (another) specialist in a month so possibly there'll be something new to try (I'd guess that melatonin is a likely candidate). I have fairly low expactions about what can be achieved through medication, but I remain hopeful.
posted by xchmp at 3:06 PM on July 30, 2008

I think you have a true sleep disorder. Can you get that looked at medically?

One thing that did help me with sleep patterns was natural light. Making sure that I was in sunlight (or a light box would probably help here) when I needed to be awake then making sure I was in a dark room when I needed to be sleeping. It is true that problems with circadian rhythm can have a lot to do with bipolar. Too bad about the Seroquel...it knocked me flat on my can at a tiny dose then made me feel hungover so I wasn't too much of a fan.
posted by konolia at 6:28 PM on July 30, 2008

I know people who are on the same medication who haven't found it nearly so helpful or side-effect free. I'm currently taking 200mg of Lamictal

Successful for me also (same dose/same med). That's not to say it has been side-effect free [I broke out in a rash the first couple of false starts, but the the third try came without the welts and has been alright since then. Also had to do quite a bit of slow titrating until finding the dosing sweet spot], but it is the first and only antidepressant I've tried in 18+ years that is anti-ing the depression.

FWIW I think I know what you mean about the 'what now?' -- it's like getting to put on some new fancy duds then not being sure where to go in your purdy get-up. It's perfectly okay to just hang out in your own skin for a while w/o worrying about what you "should" be doing. Oh, and one thing I've noticed is that I'm far less inclined these days to gush apologies for who I am in the world. That's liberating.

Best wishes to you.
posted by mcbeth at 10:48 PM on July 30, 2008

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