Saturday, August 1, 2009

Latest Poll Results - It's Official: We're Miserable

What a lousy week. In July, I asked you how your “last seven days" went. Out of 127 responses, only four of you (3%) replied, “couldn’t have gone better.”

By contrast, seven times as many of you (28, 22%) told me your week “totally sucked.”

Okay, let’s check out the adjoining categories. One in five of you (23, 18%) said the last seven days went “pretty well.” Add that to the three percent of you who had a great week, and - guess what? - it still rounds off to a pathetic one in five who could look back on a positive week.

Contrast that to four times as many of you - nearly half - who had a negative week. We arrive at this by adding the “totally sucked” group to the one in four (31, 24%) who reported the week “posed a serious challenge.”

Filling in the middle, one in three of you (41, 32%) reported that the last seven days “had its ups and downs.”

How would I have answered this poll? At the beginning of July, I came back from a road trip with a moderate depression and what I thought was a bad leg cramp. Put me in the “posed quite a challenge” week.

Then the leg cramp intensified into excruciating pain that kept me flat on my back for eight days looking up at the ceiling fan. Sciata. Life “totally sucked.”

Could I squeeze a good week out of my entire month? No. “Serious challenge" was the best I could do.

Granted, July was an anomaly for me. I like to think in any given month, I can cobble together at least two weeks that “went pretty well.” As for “couldn’t have gone better,” you gotta be kidding. Never in my entire life, not for a seven-day stretch, anyway.

I have bipolar. You’d think I could count on at least one reliable hypomania to rocket me through a week I would never forget. But in case you haven’t noticed, hypomania isn’t all its cracked up to be. Mine come preloaded with high anxiety and road rage. So - whenever I hear some stupid doctor saying we go off our meds because we’re addicted to our manias, well, never mind.

Obviously, our population has extreme difficulties with the concept of happy. Meanwhile, we have miserable nailed. I suspect the general population is similarly - though not as excessively - predisposed.

Maybe we’re simply not meant to be happy, and the sooner we acknowledge this the happier we’ll be. Maybe our perception of happiness is totally wrong, and we become miserable chasing after the wrong things. Maybe life is all about successfully negotiating its special challenges, instead. Maybe the best we can hope for is quiet acceptance.

Who knows? What this admittedly unscientific poll clearly tells us is that an overwhelming majority of us are having considerable difficulties negotiating this rather ubiquitous presence called life. Obviously, we need to do a better job.


Elizabeth said...


It's hard to make conclusions about such studies, but they're worth our reflections. I came to this site for knowledge, understanding, communication, and advice, and for those of you playing around the edges, just listening and perhaps frightened, let me just say this: this is a good place to be.

We don't venture into websites like McMan's because all is peachy, or something we can handle on our own. People like me enter in because we hurt badly. We need community of a kind we just can't get from even our most well-meaning friends who don't share our disorders. John is offering us a space to speak of our pain, our hope, our perceptions, our advice--even if it's a little bit of insight to take us through the moment.

Lately I haven't been working, and am embarrassed by how much I check out and respond to this site. Can't I get a life, for goodness sake? But this is what I really need. A place to talk to people who are going through it. Sometimes to help, sometimes to get help. Respond. Help. Seek help. Bleed. Give blood.

Anonymous said...

No doubt we all see life through our own eyes, our own experiences. John, as your readers we were empathetic with you as you went through this month with your sciatica pain. Personally I was extremely impressed that you continued to work as you did and catch the insight that you did that...yes there is always someone struggling more if we can get out of our own heads.

Here is my beef with this post: MAYBE people do not see the word maybe in front of these sentances and take them too literally? I'm sure you realize you have a lot of influence to those of us with mental illness, particularly bi-polar. I'm not suggesting you blow sunshine up our butts, but we all know it is easy for us to gravitate to the negative side. So maybe the statement "we're simply not meant to be happy, and the sooner we acknowledge this the happier we'll be", was a little extreme?

I love the idea of quiet acceptance! But if I cannot continue to hope for happiness, serenity, peace and such then what is it all about?

I may have a mental illness, but I am human first and my bi-polar is just a condition I manage and deal with. Without a doubt there are days, and there even have been months that my ubiquitous presence called life was just a hump lying in bed but I'll be damned if it ever takes away my idea that it CAN get better! That is why we click into your web-site regularly. That is why we are interested in the research that is going on to help understand and treat mental illness, because we have hope for better and happier lives.

You had a lousy month, but you survived it, you did not crash and you are a great example because you are that's what I love about the mentally ill!!!


Louise Woo, CABF L.A. Area Support Group Coordinator said...

Actually, instead of thinking that your perception of happiness is totally wrong, have you ever considered that your perception of "misery" is totally wrong?

Let's face it: From a statistician's point of view the results "should" have fallen into a standard bell curve with about 33 percent of people clustered in the middle ("had its ups and downs") and the other 67 percent divided evenly between the happier and unhappier ends of the spectrum.

As it turns out, you DO have almost 33 percent in the middle. But you had almost twice as many people unhappier (46 percent) as there were happy people (21 percent).

Part of this could be a problem with the happiest category, "Couldn't have gone better!" Honestly, how many weeks of one's life could fit in this category? Winning a MacArthur Fellowship or a Pulitzer Prize or the Powerball Lottery? Yeah, those would qualify! But rarely do we experience events that we think are our peak experiences in life.

On the other hand, "totally sucked" events are as common as rain. People die tragically. People die from totally normal reasons like old age. Spouses leave you for someone else. Your company is bought out and half the workforce fired. Stocks plummet (goodbye retirement!) Children total your car.

See? Common as rain.

Does this mean people with mood disorders are more miserable that people who don't have them? Doubtful. I've had plenty of those "totally sucked" experiences in the past 50 years and I can assure you -- They WERE miserable!

But as the (non-mood disordered) mother of a bipolar son, I can tell you that his interpretation of "totally sucked" was quite out of kilter with ours during his younger years.

No lie. He would descend into a crying pit of misery over the following events when he was a child: His cookie broke in half when he bit into it. The phone was busy when he called a friend. He used up all the paper in a sketchpad and there wasn't anymore in the house.

Weeping. Crying. Misery.

It was really tiresome for the rest of us. Really, really.

So maybe many of you are NOT really miserable, but need some self-help skills in managing disappointment? With that, many people might recategorize themselves upwards into the next category.

However, unless the lottery starts handing out more $100K checks, I DON'T think you're ever going to see much uptick in the "Couldn't have gone better" category. Things can almost always go better!

herb said...

Hi Lori,

That’s a very good point you’ve made. Maybe John should’ve stated “I’m” instead.

It took my spouse some 37 years of hope and persistence to reasonably stabilize her mood disorder and obtain remissions. It’s not perfect but the approximately last 10 years have certainly been better and happier at least as I see it from my vantage point as a support person and caregiver.


John McManamy said...

Hi, Elizabeth, Lori, Herb, and Louise. Really great comments. I'll see if I can respond globally, without leaving anyone out:

First, my interpretative comments were in the way of a quick sketch. I raised issues that I clearly need to expand upon in future blogs. I've also ventured into some (for me) unexplored territory, which I'm looking forward to exploring with your help.

What I love about doing these polls is that they force me to speculate on the results, which in turn leads to your feedback, which in turn gives me a lot more food for thought. So many thanks for feeding me.

So it looks as if we're looking at things from two ends:

1. The happiness end. I suggested we may have to rethink happy. Otherwise we're never going to be happy. This is what I love about Buddhism and Ecclesiastes, which point out we go chasing after empty desires. Maybe it's time to pause and reflect on what really matters in life. (Granted, some of those empty desires would really make my life a whole lot easier.)

And we're obviously doomed to disappointment if we make our happiness contingent on fantastic events, which occur only rarely. As Louise pointed out, the very difficult and tragic events in our lives vastly outnumber those peak experiences. The Buddha said it all: "Life is suffering." Bummer. So how do we deal with the bummers? Ah, interesting question.

Clearly, happiness should be a goal in our recovery and we should not have to settle for anything less. But what is it? Ah - I'm going to have fun with this.

Incidentally, Gretchen Rubin has an award-winning blog, The Happiness Project. Also, she has a book coming out. I'm going to start my research there and urge you to join me.

Also, Martin Seligman of UPenn might be described as the dean of happiness, so why don't we also check him out?

2. Misery. Boy, are we good at this. I'm sure I mentioned this very recently in a blog, but I'm drawing a blank. In other words, if an event is neutral - such as "partly cloudy" - our population tends to interpret it as rain. Even mildly positive events get interpreted as negative. And negative events are recast as complete disasters. Bring on the depression.

I've been around people who excel at this sort of thing, and after a while I can no longer be around them. The following is true - one person I know interprets June 22 as the onset of winter. It doesn't matter that the hottest days of summer lie just ahead and that in my section of the country winter is a no-show. In his mind, the days are getting shorter and in six months (obviously in his mind right around the corner) he's going to have to get out his lightbox.

His whole thinking is full of these cognitive distortions. Trust me, if he ever won the Powerball lottery, he'd probably be depressed at the thought of sharing the $100 million with two other winners.

I should have made reference to this type of negativity in my piece. Clearly, if we can reframe events to bump us up a category (and CBT is very good in this regard) then life is a lot less bleak. Not only that, we can enjoy our summers and our Powerball lottery winnings.

Anyway, it's clear we've tapped into a motherlode for future blogs. Oh, hell, more work. Just kidding. I'm really excited about this. :)

Anonymous said...

Louise Woo's comment was quite interesting. She talks about how tiresome it was to deal with her son's meltdowns. She seems to think that his behavior problems are a result of attitude. If bipolars could act normally when they have symptoms then, well, they wouldn't really be symptoms, would they? So bipolar is just an imaginary disease?

I know that dealing with our attitudes is absolutely necessary, and we have to work hard at it to even get close to the comparable effortlessness of the mentally well. But Louise seems to be holding onto an all-to-common attitude that comes down to something like "I know my son is bipolar, but does he have to act like that?" Would anyone say "I know my son is epileptic, but does he have to flop around on the floor so wildly?" Or "I know my son is paralyzed, but it's just so tiresome to have to carry him around."

The point is, everyone can sympathize with physical illness, but most people without mental illness have trouble sympathizing with mental suffering. You can say, sure, that they can't possibly understand something they haven't experienced. But then, I've never been paralyzed or blind, and I can certainly sympathize with those who are.

I know the pain of having family, who are supposed to love me best, despise and ridicule me for my disease. I know that having a mentally ill family member can be very tiresome. Yet I also know that the few times I've lashed out at family members, my rage has been fueled by their attitude toward my illness.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. I think part of the problem Louise describes is that our brains are wired to see events in a negative light. Add to that the fact that our brains are wired to let too much thought and emotion and sensory input in. So 1) We interpret an event as negative 2) The emotion from this so-called negative event overwhelms us. 3) We lose it.

Assuredly, this is going to drive anyone close by nuts, be they friend, colleague, significant other, or parent. I have been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior from many different people, and - as understanding as I think I am (being prone to this, myself) - I can assure you it practically always catches me by surprise.

If you are in a situation where you have a zillion things going on at once and need to get things done right now, or - the very opposite - you need some peace and quiet or precious time to yourself (the very situations harassed moms and people in the workplace find themselves in) your first reaction is understandably one along the lines of: "Your cookie broke and you're crying? For Chrissake, get over it!"

I can assure you Louise is a very understanding mom with great kids. The fact that she has recognized the phenomenon as abnormal has meant she has found ways of dealing with it in terms of giving her kids the support they need.

Anyway, I appreciate very much where you're coming from. We're caught in a cruel double bind - a brain that plays tricks on us combined with our over-emotions. And that is extremely difficult to deal with. I know I have to deal with it every day. And I also know I'm capable of driving away the very people who love me most.

It's a major challenge. Anyway, that's why we're here - together maybe we can figure out a thing or two. Welcome to "Knowledge is Necessity" and please keep posting.

Anonymous said...

Yes, John, I see you're doing your best to look at this issue from both angles, as you should. And I should have accentuated the fact that I do realize that parenting a bipolar child must be extremely frazzling, even life-sucking. I'm a bipolar single parent. Even "normal" kids can be a real challenge--they have tantrums, freak out over what seems to be nothing, have very little control over their emotions, are experts at pressing your buttons, etc. Like that Onion piece that reported that most infants are bipolar. Oh, how true. There were times I had to call a friend in and say, look, I need a few hours, I can't deal with this. Thank God I had such friends. I certainly wouldn't hold myself up as a poster mom during those times I was going through my own bipolar meltdowns as I was trying my best to deal with my small child. Just the thought of it gives me a sharp pain in my heart, and thankfulness that I somehow, with lots of prayer and help, kept it together.

If such problems were easily dealt with, we'd be living in a Disney movie. But when we do make it through in the real world with all our difficulties and without being abusive or cruel, my, my, that's something to really celebrate! And a far better movie that is!--because in the real world, the real problems aren't those bad guys from the outside, but the demons within. Whether you have a diagnosis or not.