Naming Your Feelings

In everyday society, I have learned that when most people ask, “How are you feeling today?,” they don’t really want to know the truth (or at least the full truth) so “I’m fine, how are you?” is our automatic response, which is often a lie and deflects the question away from ourselves and onto the other person. I am guilty of this and find it problematic for a number of reasons, mainly that I feel “fake” when I don’t answer truthfully/fully and that I think that this action doesn’t support good emotional health.

I don’t think that I need to explain why the response leaves me feeling fake when I use it, so I’ll dive right into the emotional health bit. If you have ever been to talk therapy, you know that the first question that is asked of you every time you visit is, “How are you feeling today?” In this situation, the therapist wants an honest answer from you and “I’m okay,” “Fine, thank you,” “Not good,” and other vague replies usually don’t cut it. For instance, I tend to say “I’m feeling okay,” at which point my therapist asks me “What does that mean? What feelings do you identify with right now?” The first time that a therapist asked me this and wouldn’t give up, I must have looked lost because I have a hard time putting a name on my feelings. Luckily, this particular therapist was quite resourceful. She dug around in her file cabinet for a few minutes, found a handout, and made me a copy of something very similar to this:

How Do You Feel
Image credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/564x/07/76/24/0776245ef14968c0b0f6074553ca3000.jpg

As I sat across from my therapist, I felt bad about myself because I had a difficult time naming my feelings even with the help of this handout. The official word for this condition is alexithymia, and this is what Wikipedia teaches us about it:

…a personality construct characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, alexithymics have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding. Alexithymia occurs in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions.

While my therapist and other mental health professionals never offered me this label, which I find morbidly ironic, she had me bring my “How Do You Feel Today?” handout to every session. I would look at each face at the beginning of our meeting and try to decide if that was how I felt. There were at least a handful of faces/words on my list like demure, loaded, purlish, and surly that I simply couldn’t relate to and my personal list of feelings was extremely limited (happy, sad, angry, bored, disappointed, frustrated, lonely, overwhelmed, scared, hopeful, proud, tired, and worried). Eavesdropping was also on the list, which really confused me. Isn’t that an action, not a feeling? I mean, you can feel like eavesdropping on someone, but that’s an urge to take action. I digress. My original handout, with my added list of feelings:

How Do You Feel Today?

A Facebook friend posted something today that made me start thinking about all of this:

Emoticons
Emoticons explained. Credit: Shira Dotnet.

Lightbulb moment! I have been frustrated with myself because I always use the same boring emoticons: 🙂 & <3. I realized today that it’s probably because I have a hard time matching the expression to the feeling! I saved Shira’s post. I don’t really care if I use emoticons on my personal accounts, but I have a small business and I want to use them more in those posts.

Almost a decade later, I choose not to attend therapy regularly anymore but I continue to try to get more in touch with my feelings in terms of putting a name on them. I just found the term, alexithymia, today and I am 100% certain that I have it, as I have issues with social attachment, interpersonal relating, and emotional responding too. I plan to learn more about it. After reading a little, I found out that it is not considered to be a mental disorder in the DSM-IV, but rather a personality trait that can influence mental health. The cause is unknown. Also from Wikipedia:

A person’s alexithymia score can be measured with questionnaires such as the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), the Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire (BVAQ), the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire (OAQ-G2) or the Observer Alexithymia Scale (OAS).

Do you struggle with identifying feelings? How do you cope? Do you have any tips for becoming more aware of your feelings? Please share!

Le Chat Domestique
The Domestic Cat and His Character. I purchased this poster while strolling along the Seine River in Paris in 2005.

My Psychiatric Drug List

It’s important to keep track of your own psychiatric history drug because you will be asked about it in the future and it is much easier when you have everything written down. I wasn’t smart enough to do this from the beginning, but I requested copies of my medical records later when I was applying for Social Security Disability. This is a running list that I will update as needed.

Antianxiety

  • Ativan 1mg BID (10/07-11/08? check BHR records)
  • Celexa
  • Klonopin 0.25mg, 0.5mg, 1mg PRN (7/05-

Antidepressant

  • Effexor XR 75mg, 150mg (12/03-8/04)
  • Lexapro 10mg, 15mg, 20mg (8/05-11/08? check BHR records)
  • Pamelor HCL 10mg
  • Remeron 15mg
  • Trazodone HCL 50mg
  • Wellbutrin 150mg, 200mg, 300mg (8/04-11/08? check BHR records)
  • Zoloft 100mg (3/03-12/03)

Antimanic

  • Depakote ER 1500mg, 2000mg
  • Lithium ER 300mg (am) + 450mg (pm), 400mg BID, 450mg BID, 1200mg (10/07-11/08? check BHR records)

Atypical Antipsychotic

  • Abilify 5mg, 10mg, 15mg, 20mg (2/06-4/06, 6/06-8/07, 2/08-11/08? check BHR records)
  • Latuda 20mg
  • Geodon 20mg
  • Seroquel XR 150mg, 200mg, 300mg

Mood Stabilizer

  • Lamictal 25mg (2/06-2/06)
  • Topomax 25mg, 50mg, 100mg, 150mg, 200mg, 50mg (am) + 150mg (pm) (3/06-

Eugeroic (Wakefulness-Promoting)

  • Provigil 100mg, 200mg (10/06-4/07)

Central Nervous System Stimulant

  • Ritalin 5mg (6/07-
  • Concerta 18mg (5/07-

Sedative

  • Ambien 10mg, 12.5mg (5/05-7/05, 6/06-7/06, 12/06-2/07, 5/07-)

Herbal & Over The Counter

  • Melatonin
  • Vitamin D3 2000 IUs

 

bold = possible personal gene-drug interaction (based on my GeneSight test results)

Falling Through The Cracks Update

If you read my post Falling Through the Cracks, you know how frustrated I have been with the process of getting a second opinion. Good news! After two months of waiting, my appointment with a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan is scheduled for July. Fingers crossed that this doctor-patient relationship is better than my current situation and that I am introduced to new treatment options aside from medication!

Psychiatric Drugs That Impair Memory

I scored a copy of Martha Stewart’s book Living the Good Life: A Practical Guide to Caring for Yourself and Others for fifty cents at Salvation Army last month and I just sat down to read it. Part 1 features a section on brain health and there’s a big list of medications that have been shown to affect memory. There are over 15 classes of drugs listed, from analgesics (pain killers) to steroids. I would like to share the relevant psychiatric drugs here in the name of informed consent.

Antianxiety Drugs

  • alprazolam (Xanax)
  • diazepam (Valium)
  • lorazepam (Ativan)
  • oxazepam (Serax)
  • temazepam (Restoril)
  • triazolam (Halcion)

Antidepressant Drugs

  • amitriptyline (Elavil)
  • imipramine (Tofranil)

Antipsychotic Drugs

  • chlorpromazine (Thorazine)
  • haloperidol (Haldol)
  • thioridazine (Mellaril)

Hormones

  • levothyroxine sodium (Synthroid)

Seizure Drugs

  • carbamazepine (Tegretol)
  • gabapentin (Neurontin)
  • valporic acid (Depakote)

Sleep Drugs

  • zolpidem (Ambien)

I have personally taken a number of these drugs as well as several of the antibiotics, antihistamines, decongestants, anti-nausea drugs, steroids, pain drugs, and hormones and I am certain that long-term use of the psychiatric drugs has caused memory problems. I did not have memory issues until college, which is when my prescriber put me on a bunch of different psych meds. I am 34 years old now and I have significant memory issues. What about you? Have psychiatric drugs impaired your memory? Did you know about this side effect before you agreed to take the drug? How does this make you feel? I am mad (to say the least). I intend to research when it was determined that each of the drugs that I took caused memory problems and, if I was not properly warned before taking the drug, file claims against the makers of the drugs.

My Experience with Geodon

Ziprasidone (the generic form of the antipsychotic drug Geodon) was prescribed to me in the spring of this year because I was experiencing a long-lasting bout of moderate to severe bipolar depression with episodes of rapid cycling bipolar and intrusive suicidal thoughts. Ziprasidone is used to treat acute manic or mixed episodes associated with bipolar disorder and to treat symptoms of schizophrenia. It is also used as a maintenance treatment of bipolar disorder when added to lithium or valproate (Depakote). I took the medication as prescribed (1 20mg capsule by mouth at bedtime with food) along with my other meds (depakote extended release, trazodone, metformin) for four days before I had to stop. Geodon caused me to wake up in the middle of the night every night and have strange thoughts. More specifically, I wanted to go outside and run as fast as I could through the woods behind our house. My sleep was disturbed despite taking trazodone at night for sleep. Complete prescribing information can be found here. FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) can be found here.

Writing Your Own Story

Last Saturday, I attended a workshop called “Narrative Medicine: Unpacking and Authoring Our Stories” at Kalamazoo College’s Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, facilitated by the Icarus Project. It was geared particularly towards individuals with mental illness. We discussed labels, who we get them from, how they are used, and how we can change the way that our personal stories are told in order to better represent us.

I have been rapid cycling between depression and mania for the past several months, something which I do not normally do. As a result, I have not taken the best care of myself and I have been isolating myself because I don’t want people to see me this way. I know that isolating is a terrible idea. Anyway, attending this workshop was a big step for me and I’m glad that I went. Although I didn’t brush my hair or shower, I did put on a nice outfit. I didn’t talk to many people because I’m experiencing confused speech and self-consciousness, but I did contribute to the group discussions.

First, we looked at the labels that we have been given during our lives. The facilitator asked us to raise our hands when we heard a label that we have either been given or that we personally identify with. Some of the labels: anxious, depressed, too sensitive, moody, difficult, dramatic, complicated, angry, irritable, aggressive, autistic, bipolar, troublemaker, irresponsible, flaky, lazy, borderline, paranoid, antisocial, immature, shy, broken, clingy, needy, and narcissist. Just about everyone in the room raised their hand for “anxious,” and the facilitator listed three different interpretations of anxiety. Her point was that there is more than one meaning for the word.

Next, she asked us to write a list of our personal labels and include where we got them from/who gave them to us. I would like to spend some more time on this, but I found the activity to be eye-opening. A lot of the labels associated with my mental illness were given to me by my family and peers when I was young. I was told that I was moody, too sensitive, bipolar, antisocial, and shy early in my life. Some labels were given to me in my adult life by medical professionals, significant others, co-workers, and peers: anxious, irritable, lazy, clingy, needy, flaky, depressed. Others are core beliefs that I attached to myself: broken, difficult, dramatic, complicated.

After taking some time to write these things down, we came together as a group to discuss our thoughts. I shared that the majority of my labels were given to me when I was young. The facilitator asked if I still identify with them (I do). This is something that I will ruminate over. Other thoughts from the group:

  • Many of us didn’t list any “positive” labels.
  • There’s power in labels. They control our behaviour. We eventually believe them even if they’re not true to us.
  • We may be quicker to internalize labels due to certain circumstances.
  • Can we escape labels? Who can do this? Some are easier to drop than others.
  • Powerful people label others despite their lack of personal understanding.
  • Being called “needy” by your significant other stifles your expression of love.

Next, we learned that nobody is capable of telling your story better than you. The facilitator read Mary’s story. The story described Mary’s physical, medical, financial, environmental, family, educational, mental, social, and employment situation. Here’s Mary’s full story: Mary’s family has lived in chronic poverty since the sources of employment in her rural town were closed down and most people in town lost their main source of income. Therefore, Mary has been poor all of her life. Despite the lack of wealth, Mary’s family is very loving and supporting. They make a point to get together at least twice a week and they share a meal, watch a movie, have conversations, or play board games. Mary’s town was deeply impacted by environmental trauma. For most of her life, Mary drank poisoned water that has given her a chronic illness. Because of lack of resources, Mary is not able to get the medical help she needs. She missed school so much that she dropped out of high school. This made Mary very lonely and depressed. Mary was embarrassed and started progressively isolating from her peers until she hardly had and friends left. Mary spends her days with her nieces, whom she enjoys very much, her next door neighbor, or her pets. Because of the unpredictable nature of her condition, she is not able to remain employed. Mary has been unemployed for the last decade. She is very angry about her lack of ability to hold down a job because of medical reasons and often lashed out at employers and co-workers. Mary eventually stopped leaving her house except for a few social outings every week. Mary has been receiving social benefits that allow her to meet basic food and housing needs.

Then, the facilitator read the town mayor’s version of Mary’s story. The mayor wants to make budget cuts to social services because he thinks that people are lazy and abusing the system. The mayor’s version of the story only included the facts that Mary has been poor all of her life, she dropped out of high school, has been unemployed for the last decade, previously lashed out at employers and co-workers, and has been receiving social benefits that allow her to meet basic food and housing needs. The mayor’s story doesn’t paint the full picture. Mary’s doctor has another version. After listening to the exact same story from Mary, they write down that she has been poor all of her life, has chronic illness, dropped out of high school (which made her lonely, depressed, embarrassed), isolated from her friends until she barely had any left, is unemployed and angry, lashed out at employers and co-workers, and has stopped leaving her house. Again, this is not the whole story. Finally, the facilitator read Mary’s rich uncle’s version of Mary’s story. Mary is struggling financially, but her uncle doesn’t want to help her because: Mary’s family is very loving and supporting. They get together at least twice a week to share a meal, watch a movie, have conversations, or play board games. Mary spends her days with her nieces, whom she enjoys very much. She also spends time with her next door neighbor and her pets. She goes on social outings every week and she has been receiving social benefits that allow her to meet her basic food and housing needs.

This last section really stuck with me because I have seen firsthand what happens when someone else tells my story. I am the only person that can tell my full story, and the first step to doing so is to examine which labels are attached to me and determine whether or not they serve me.

Finally, we discussed ways to reclaim our personal narratives. Here are a few things that we came up with:

  • “My existence is resistence.” Just living your life.
  • Being seen in public spaces.
  • Using our voices (refusing to be silenced).
  • Finding/Creating/Supporting safe spaces, where you have permission to be fully yourself unconditionally.
  • Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable (within a safe space) in order to be true to ourselves and inspire others to do the same.
  • Finding/building community and standing together.
  • Art expression (shared is especially powerful).

The Icarus Project

“The Icarus Project is a support network and education project by and for people who experience the world in ways that are often diagnosed as mental illness. We advance social justice by fostering mutual aid practices that reconnect healing and collective liberation. We transform ourselves through transforming the world around us.” (quoted from their website)

I was not familiar with the Icarus Project prior to this workshop, but I’m happy that I discovered them. The workshop gave me a lot of things to think about regarding my personal situation, and I like that they provide great resources such as publications and handouts on their website.

The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership 

“The ACSJL is an initiative of Kalamazoo College whose mission is to develop and sustain leaders in human rights and social justice through education and capacity-building.” (quoted from their website)

I have found the Arcus Center to be a safe space that offers enriching social justice leadership workshops. Besides this event, I attended a workshop on self-care for social justice leaders and a film screening/discussion related to human trafficking, both of which provided me with a wealth of knowledge and resources. (Delicious) meals are usually served at their (free) workshops, which are listed on their Facebook page and website. Please note that you must register in advance in order to eat. I subscribed to their mailing list so that I don’t miss any announcements.