Sleep Problems And Mental Illness

One of the early warning cues to future mental health problems is changes in sleep patterns.  I’ve been sleeping only five to six hours a night for the last two weeks.  I usually average eight hours a night.  Usually when I sleep too little, eventually I’ll have problems with irritability and anxiety.  When I sleep too much I’ll have problems with depression and lethargy.

While not needing much sleep usually allows me to be more productive, it comes at a price.  In time I’ll become more anxious and easily angered.  After dealing with mental illness problems for almost twenty years, I’ve come to recognize long term trends and problems before they arise.  One way I’m trying to get back into a more even sleep pattern is reducing caffeine.  This is a tough one for me as I love both coffee and black tea.  I also won’t eat at least four hours before bed because, for me, eating anything gives me a boost and makes me stay awake later.

But this time it isn’t the late nights that are the issue.  It’s the early starting mornings.  I have literally been awake before sunrise probably all but two days in the last two weeks.  Not sure what to make of this.  I’m thinking it’s possible that all these years I was convinced I was a night owl was really my caffeine addiction talking.  If I was smarter, I’d go a couple days without any caffeine and see if that resets my sleep patterns.

In short, my sleep patterns have been heavily slanted to not getting much sleep lately.  I can tell it’s starting to take it’s toll.  I’ve been slightly more irritable, anxious, and more short tempered than usual.  It’s time to change this trend before it leads to more serious issues.

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Dealing With Stupid and Rude People

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I never could figure out why there were people who flaunted their ignorance, rudeness, and stupidity.  To look at some of these fools, you would think they were getting paid to be clueless and cruel.  I never understood why it is that dumb is cool, smart is lame, being a jerk gets you places, and being a humanitarian is a loser’s bet.  But then, I never could figure out why most people act the way they do.  There are times I think those who would be considered mentally stable are the ones who actively work against their best self interests.  It used to be far more frustrating than it is now.

It doesn’t bother me much now that I’ve just accepted that many people I meet are going to be stupid and mean.  I really try to keep my wisdom to myself if I sense my advice will fall on deaf ears.  It is tough as the intelligence finds ways to pop up at the worst times.  I’ve been accused of being a ‘show off’, a ‘know it all’, and even intimidating simply because the intelligence doesn’t stay hidden for long.  But it doesn’t really bother me anymore that people are going to do stupid and rude things.  The outside world is messed up but I don’t have to be.

I consciously choose not to be messed up.  The fact I consciously choose my actions and thoughts puts me far ahead of the bulk of humanity.  I’ve seen far too many people who go thorough life just drifting along and not really examining what they can do or what they want.  After much trial and error, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never do well at a traditional type of job.  It seems anymore that my best chances of having any kind of purpose or money that a traditional job would give people will be through something internet based.  Which is fine with me as I never could stand being told what to do and how to think.  I think many people with anxiety problems and social awkwardness would do well with an internet based set up.

I try not to let stupid and rude people get to me.  I’m not perfect at it.  But I’ve gotten to where I no longer envy or resent them.  Most of the people that act stupid and rude are not interesting or thought provoking.  They are not rare.  I choose to be conscious of what I do and think.  I choose to be different.  I choose to stand out.  I choose to not be stupid and rude.

Worry and Stress

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Worry and stress hinder the mentally ill and the neurotypical alike.  No one can escape it.  It served us as a species well for most of our history when hunter gatherers needed successful hunts and fight other bands.  Otherwise they would die.  Worry and stress are natural to us.  It allowed humans to go from barely surviving to modern civilization.

Yet our natural inclinations to worry are deteriorating our quality of life.  The old fight or flight mentality isn’t serving us as well.  We are seeing more people going through depression, panic attacks, anxiety problems, and physical health problems brought on by mental stress.  We haven’t yet developed the ability to mentally let go of worry.  This skill is not natural to us.  It has to be learned.

Learning how to let go of stress and worry, even with years of practice, won’t be perfect.  I have been taking steps to lessen my worry for several years and I occasionally slip into old habits.  Things I have found helpful include keeping journals, engaging with negative people as little as possible, venting slightly on occasion, and never watching news broadcasts.

When I keep journals, I don’t hold back. I write my frustrations, my anxieties, my annoyances, my fears, and the delusional thoughts that sometimes accompany my mental illness.  I get it out of my mind and onto paper.  But I don’t share these with anyone.  It does me much better to vent on paper rather than hold these worries in and drop them on someone else all at once.  Many of our problems with stress, I am convinced, come from the idea that we aren’t allowed to vent or have to put up a good front at all times.  I can’t change how anyone expects to act in public.  What I can do is vent in the form of pen and paper, get it out of my mind, and then move on.  Once the notebook is full, I throw it away.  Been doing this for at least two years.  It helps.  Sure I occasionally have problems and just dump my frustrations on family members.  But that’s the nature of the beast of mental illness and I do my best to minimize those blow ups.

I vent to my friends and family as needed to.  I used to be one of these people pleasers who listened to and try to solve everyone’s problems.  But I wouldn’t tell my problems to anyone.  It made me resentful and feel like I was being used.  I can’t remember when it was but during a conversation with someone I finally said, “I’ve heard enough of your problems.  Now you’re going to hear about mine.”  Fortunately for this relationship I wasn’t malicious about it.  But being resentful of listening to others problems while I didn’t stand up enough to have others listen to mine cost me at least a couple friendships.  My friends have problems.  I have problems.  We are now more balanced in talking about our issues.  I don’t just do all the giving while not taking some of my own anymore.

I don’t watch any of the 24 hour news broadcasts.  Haven’t for a few years.  Why should I?  I already know there is a lot of trouble and mess out there.  Always has been.  Always will be.  I have no need or desire to know every little bit of trouble going on, whether it’s halfway around the world or halfway across my country.  Seriously, why give myself more stress and anxiety then I already have?  I can’t solve all the world’s problems.  I’m not that good.  Anyone who has any kind of awareness knows that there are serious messes in the world around them.  Just because the world is messed up doesn’t mean I have to be.  Since I learned to let go of things I didn’t personally cause and can’t prevent, my life has had fewer worries and fewer stresses.

Continuing What Works and Discarding What Doesn’t

Right now I am currently in one of those long periods of stability bordering on normalcy.  Probably why I’ve gotten so much work on this blog done over the last couple weeks.  I’m currently on a hot streak.  To paraphrase Kevin Costner from ‘Bull Durham’, “when you’re on a winning streak, you don’t do anything to mess with it.  Respect the win streak.  They don’t come along very often.”

This overall ability to get things done and not be really phased by what problems arise is no doubt due to more than one factor.  For starters, spring has always been one of my better times.  Even before I had mental health problems I did my best school work, read the most, wrote the most, was the most physically active, and the most socially outgoing in the spring to early summer.  Too bad I can’t bottle this positive mojo juice to carry me though tough spots and darker days.

I don’t have access to ‘hot streak on demand.’  No one does.  Yet with the benefit of several years of accumulated self knowledge and experience, I can have the next best thing.  I have learned how to do great deals of work during good times.  I have learned how to do damage control during bad times.  I have learned how to make winning streaks last longer, feel better, and more productive.  I have learned things that lessen the darkness of bad spells.

The first step to sustainable productivity and happiness is knowing yourself.  Knowing yourself is not knowing what you think you should be.  It is knowing what you do well naturally, accepting it, and acting on it.  I’ve held enough jobs to know that a happy worker isn’t always productive or an irritable one isn’t always unproductive. Vice versa is true.  Some people are productive because they are Pollyanna types and some are productive because they are hard cases.  One is not necessarily better than another.

What is not good is thinking you always have to be one thing at all times, especially when that one thing goes against your core nature.  For myself, I know I am not naturally Mr. Social Hour.  I do better at a job, or any undertaking, when I’m not chatting with others and making small talk every ten minutes.  I can’t stand small talk at all.  Yet because I keep silent when I work and get engrossed in problems, I am have been condemned as anti-social and a poor team player since childhood.  Should it matter if I don’t comment on the weather or don’t know when my coworker’s wife is giving him a hard time?  If I’m doing a good job and providing some value, it really shouldn’t matter.  Likewise, I don’t take offence should a coworker or friend be too busy to talk as long as they are professional and courteous.  I don’t need my ego stroked at all times.  I don’t need to hold hands and play nice at all times to get my work done.  I know myself well enough that I know that is not how I become productive.  My core nature would rather ‘kick ass and take names’ instead of ‘kiss ass and drop names.’

Unfortunately I haven’t found many environments outside of blogging and working alone that allow me the freedom to play to my strengths.  It is far easier for me to research for this blog and my own enlightenment for ten hours straight than do twenty minutes of messaging the egos of others.  Most of these egos wouldn’t need messaged if these people felt free to play to their strengths more and discard what doesn’t work for them.  Kind of crazy how people are usually more productive and happy when they are free to use their individual strengths.  Sure there are social pressures to conform to fit certain types.  Yet we aren’t happier with ourselves and others when we do and compromise our strengths and integrity.

For example, I get annoyed every time I go to my bank to buy quarters for laundry or chat with a banker and the poor clerk or personal banker has to feign interest in my day or chat me up because it’s ‘part of the job’ or it’s ‘being part of the community.’  Who cares how good or bad my weekend was?  Even I don’t care sometimes.  I have a hard time imagining somebody like J.P. Morgan talking about the weather with Thomas Edison or making idle chit chat with an Andrew Carnegie type when he wanted to borrow money to build a new blast furnace.

And it’s not just my bank that does this faking interest because some boss thinks it adds a personal touch.  I get this practically every time I go shopping, especially at the large bookstore I shop at.  Every time I go through a check out line the poor clerk is forced to take interest and comment on what I’m buying and reading.  Just once I should have said, “Thank goodness I’m not buying ‘The Anarchist’s Cookbook’ or ‘Best of Letters to Penthouse.’ ”  I totally know why online retailers like amazon and eBay are doing so well.  Heaven help us when AI is figured out and my computer is forced to fake interest in my activities.  Hopefully the computer will be intelligent enough to not fake interest because it is illogical and pointless.  Having faux interest and playing nice at all times doesn’t always work and thus should be discarded.

Changes In Sleep And Mental Illness

With my mental illness, one of the early warnings of problems is changes in sleep.  If I go too long without consistent sleep I’ll have problems with anxiety and irritability.  If I have several days of too much sleep I’ll have issues with depression and apathy.

Since I have become aware of the importance of consistent sleep, I’ll make changes to my behavior if my sleep has been erratic for more than a few days.  Recently I had been getting only five to six hours a night, and not usually all in one setting.  To bring my sleep back into line, I reduced caffeine and stopped drinking water two hours before bedtime.  I’ll also stop reading or using my laptop in bed for awhile.

Another useful technique to get myself back into consistent sleep is breathing exercises.  I’ll just deepen and slow my breathing until I am relaxed in both my body and mind.  This may take only a few minutes or it may take almost an hour, depending on how tense I am.

In the past when I was sleeping too much I would run into problems with depression and apathy.  I’ve found when I am physically active and more outgoing socially, these help to reenergize me.  I really haven’t had problems with too much sleep since I’ve been more active physically and socially.  When I wasn’t active physically or socially I’d find myself sleeping almost twelve hours a day.  I’d sleep out of depression and boredom and I’d be depressed because I slept so much.  It’s a vicious cycle that has to be broken.

Too little sleep and too much sleep can cause problems with mental stability.  While researchers say the idea amount of sleep is seven to eight hours, this is a guideline.  It varies among individuals.  The best way of treating sleep, and all problems in mental health, is knowing what works for yourself.  A brilliant philosopher from ancient Greece, I believe, once said “Know yourself.”  Good advice for anyone.

A Letter To My 18 Year Old Self

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High school graduation season is in full swing in my home state.  Some times it’s tough to believe I’ve been out of high school for sixteen years.  So much has happened since I became an adult.  What follows is what I would tell myself if I had a time traveling DeLorean or funky booth like Dr. Who.

Dear Zach

You have just finished high school and your adult life now lays ahead of you shooting off into the unseen distance like the open highway in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.”  You didn’t take any time to appreciate the fact you graduated from high school, looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities of college instead.  You should have appreciated your time being somewhat of an outsider in your high school.  First because the people that struggle socially in high school often are the ones who adapt to the adult world better.  Be happy the highlight of your life wasn’t your last football game or Senior Prom.  You will face far tougher issues than losing the big game. You will have greater thrills than wearing an ill fitting rented suit and dancing among tinsel and paper miche decorations in a basketball gym.  Things like that will be remembered by NO ONE.

The challenges you will face in the coming years will be great and many.  When these challenges and disappointments come, you will be thankful for having developed a strong mind and ability to handle adversity, loss, loneliness and pain.  Because you didn’t have legions of fair weather friends, you will appreciate true friends and confidants.  Because you know what it’s like to be treated poorly, you will have compassion for others.  Because you didn’t allow yourself to concentrate on only academics or football or speech or your weekend retail job, you have made yourself a well rounded and well versed man.  Being well rounded won’t help you in a corporate job, but it will make you more self reliant and more aware of what’s going on around you.  It will make you interesting too.

I see you have your high school annuals.  You’ll be happy you kept them even if you go entire years without looking at them.  In coming years you will be amazed at how much you were involved, how much you accomplished, and how well prepared for college and the ‘fast times and hard knocks’ of the first several years of life in the real world.  Be happy you acted in the school play for two years, you won’t have that back.  Be happy you did three years of competitive speech, you developed courage and an ability to improvise, make split second decisions, and hide your fear from the outside world.  Be happy you played football for three years, even though you were at odds with your teammates. Not many people can say they did athletics in high school.  Millions may watch football from the stands in towns all over America on fall Friday nights, but you were part of the action.  It’s the closest you’ll ever get to feeling like a rock star or Roman gladiator.

Take joy in the fact you went to a small high school.  You may not have had dozens of Advanced Placement classes or a program for gifted students, but it will drive you to read and study on your own.  Be grateful you were unable to disappear in the crowd when you were harassed and annoyed by other students, it forced you to face your fear because you couldn’t run away.  Things like that develop courage and fortitude, running away from your problems or hiding in a clique won’t.  Be happy you couldn’t spend your days reading comic books or playing D&D.  Later on you’ll have friends whose only out of school activities were just that.  While they are good guys, be happy you had to rely on your own imagination to develop your own stories and got to draw upon real people and real experiences to find inspiration.  That, and most girls don’t find D&D and comic books fantasies very sexy.

Speaking of girls, don’t believe the nonsense you’ll date, party, and sleep around several nights a week in college.  “Animal House” has nothing to do with real college.  John Belusi won’t be your roommate.  You can go hang out, get a little crazy, etc. at times.  But you’ll be far ahead of 80 percent of your classmates when you keep things like that in moderation.  The few who do nothing but study won’t have the friends or the experiences.  You will be shot down and have girls stand you up even more in college than in high school.  You will have bad breakups, you will have terrible dates with girls, you will be frustrated, and you will have heartaches.  You will also realize that there are worse things than not having a girl in your life.  When you see high school and college classmates go through divorces and unhappy marriages, you might even be grateful for loneliness.

As far as your classes go, don’t get tough on yourself for not making Dean’s List or not graduating with honors.  Most people that get those honors studied easier subjects than Pre-Med or Business Management.  Spoiler alert, Zach, you won’t get the dream job you gunned for all the way through high school.  You will experience pains and horrors that make Dante’s “Inferno” look like an Adam Sandler comedy.  I won’t go into details because you won’t believe such things could happen to someone who worked as hard and was as ethical as you.  Just believe me when I say bad things happen to even good people.  That and no employer will ask to see your college diploma.

Zach, be grateful for the challenges ahead. They will teach you that you don’t need a prestigious job or lots of money to live a happy and content life.  You will learn the best things in life are other people and your experiences.  Be happy you went to the small college you did.  You got to make friends from all over America and the world.  Most people that go to large, prestigious universities don’t get to have the variety of friends you will.  Be happy when you get to learn early on that life isn’t about working most of your waking moments at a mind numbing job, chasing money to buy junk you don’t need to impress people who don’t care.  All I will tell you is every day you wake up, be thankful if aren’t a cubicle jockey or a serf in a designer suit racking up debts on meaningless trinkets and thrills.

In closing, Zach, always remember the words of the late Bill Hicks: “It’s just a ride.  And you can change it anytime you want.”  Be happy that you can and will.

Yours truly,

Your older self.

Self Talk and Respecting Ourselves

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In one of my earlier posts I wrote about hiring a new counselor.  I’ve been seeing him every two weeks for four months.  The relationship on a professional level has been established.  The large theme we found is that I often have self defeating thoughts.  My counselor thinks we get caught up in negative thinking about ourselves and act on thoughts whether we are aware or not.

At first I thought this was one of those meme type philosophies like ‘what you think about comes about’ that oversimplifies.  For years I thought my mental health problems were mostly the result of a bad draw when it came to genetics.  The more I went into what my counselor was saying, the more I realized I wasn’t being proactive enough in my thinking.  I was allowing bad things and poor thoughts to happen because I thought I was essentially powerless to change what was happening in my mind.  I had fallen into the trap of being too reliant on psych medications and not adjusting my thoughts and behaviors.

While psych medications can knock down some of the immediate anxieties and depression, they are unable to address the issues of behaviors and self image.  A med can’t make anyone think better about themselves.  We still have some control over what we tell ourselves and how we see ourselves.  We are not condemned to a lifetime of failure because we have mental health problems.  I have heard about too many people with issues to think depression and anxiety are death sentences.  Just Google or Wikipedia Famous People With Mental Illness and you’ll see names including Noble Prize winners (John Nash), U.S. Presidents (Abraham Lincoln), musicians (Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd), and so on.  I would argue that famous explorers and inventors like Daniel Boone, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Leonardo da Vinci, etc. would have been considered ADHD and problem children by 21st century standards.  Some people simply don’t fit some preordained little box to be ‘normal citizens.’  People like this are the ones who change the world for the better and make life more interesting.  Just because someone is quirky and doesn’t fit in socially doesn’t mean that person is doomed to a life of pain and obscurity.

What we think about and act on has an influence on our lives.  Once I took charge of my health, started dwelling on how I can make myself healthier, started exercising, started to eat healthy, my physical health began improving.  It all started with the idea that I could go against my previous trends and improve my health.  I’m finding the same thing with my mental self image.  As I’m thinking, and acting on, the idea I don’t have to be threatened by feelings of anxiety or depression, things are improving in those regards.  As I think, and act on, the idea I don’t have to believe anything anyone says, my life has changed for the better.

Once I accepted that I don’t have to always be the one giving without receiving good in return, I have found that others respect me more.  I respect myself more now.  Feel free to tell others ‘no’ when you aren’t up to helping them.  Tell others ‘no’ when they keep taking from you without giving anything back to you.  You know what it’s like to be disrespected.  We all do.  Ways to get more respect include respecting yourself, setting boundaries, telling others ‘no’ when they are using you and treating you poorly, and don’t go out of your way to bend to whims of disrespectful people.  If you don’t think you should respect yourself, don’t expect respect out of others.

Talk yourself up.  Start small if you have to.  Do not buy into the idea that you have to be humble and groveling at the feet of others.  Far too many people believe that being humble means thinking poorly of yourself.  Because people think poorly of themselves, they allow themselves to be victims of their circumstances, their diagnoses, and of every hustler and con man who comes along.  Think well of yourself.  Treat yourself with love and respect.  Think good about your ability and accomplishments.  We all have accomplishments and talents.  We just discount them because they are ours.  We, mentally ill and neurotypical alike, need to talk more dignity, honor, and respect into ourselves on a daily basis.  If we don’t hold ourselves with higher regard, we have no reason to be sickened when others won’t treat us with dignity and respect.  What we think about and act about does come about.