helen-louise (baratron) wrote,

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"How are you?" - the problem with LiveJournal.

A friend wrote recently in email: "How are you? I've been following your ups and downs on LiveJournal, but I always find that's a poor indicator of how someone's actually feeling because it tends to record mainly the highs and lows." Of course, that's true - the majority of my life is fairly boring, so what gets recorded here is only the stuff that either I'm very excited about or very bothered about. I thought my journal gave a good impression of how I'm doing on any particular day, but clearly it doesn't.

Then, yesterday an online acquaintance said that zie is somewhat squicked by LiveJournal. Zie's not much of a journal person anyway, but on top of zir natural aversion, too many people lately have answered zir question of "How are you today?" with "Go and look in my livejournal", and zie hates that. Although this looks like the complete opposite of the problem above, I suspect it arises for the same reasons.

Assuming that someone genuinely wants to know and is not just asking as a ritual greeting, for me, the answer to "how are you?" depends on three things: mental health, sleep state and physical health. The latter is the least important of the three, because my physical ailments rarely cause me problems. Unless I actually have a bug of some sort, whether I'm ill or well enough to say anything more exciting than "fine thanks" depends largely on how much sleep I've had and what my mental health is doing at the time. However, neither of these can be simply described.

My sleep problems are weird - all over the place in a vague sort of pattern. Generally speaking, any night of good sleep will be followed by one of bad insomnia and a couple more of mild insomnia. This would not be so much of a problem if it wasn't for the strange mental places that I can get in when lacking in sleep. For example, on Monday I was exhausted as I hadn't slept since Sunday afternoon, but I found myself lying awake for hours because I was worried about wasting time by being asleep. [I think the logic went something like "Normal people sleep at night - if I can't sleep at night then I don't need to sleep"]. I eventually fell asleep some time in the afternoon, but woke up & got up about 8.30pm because I wanted to see something on the television. I went to bed again about 4am, and then lay in bed all day, because I was enjoying being in bed far too much. Every time I woke up I thought "mmmm.... warm... safe... stay in bed". So I eventually got up when Richard came home from work, which was 11pm. Great.

My strange sleep patterns also impact on my mental health. Not being able to sleep makes me more depressed - any problems I have seem much worse. Then, if I am sleeping but at the wrong time of day, I'm prone to depression from that too - if I haven't seen sunlight for a few days. What else? It goes the other way round too - being depressed can stop me from sleeping or make me wake up all through the night with nightmares. If I forget to take my antidepressants or take them too late, or simply if I'm having a bad time depression-wise, I get nightmares. I don't know why - I've never met anyone else who's had this as a symptom.

So after dispensing with the simpler problems of physical health and sleep, I get onto how I'm feeling in terms of mood. This can get extremely hard to describe. Part of the problem is that my moods are really not very stable - I tend to cycle between states much more rapidly than most people. At this point, I need to launch into a vaguely mathematical description, so if you're scared of maths, ignore any bits in italics.

Imagine a graph of my mood against time, with time along the x axis and mood on the y. Obviously, I'd put "good" moods on the positive y and "bad" on the negative. My moods cycle up and down on a short time scale. Usually, the baseline for my mood cycling is in the negative part of the graph - y<0. This fits with the fact that my mood pattern most normally resembles dysthymia [1], which is a chronic, low-grade depression which lasts for years. My moods get better or worse, but they tend to stay on the depressed side of "normal". Then, on top of the dysthymia pattern, I have had a couple of major depressive episodes. These are "attacks" of a high-grade form of depression that seriously affect my ability to function, but tend to last for months to years rather than a lifetime. So picture on top of the relatively small changes in mood the odd major dip as the baseline suddenly drops right down to a position low on the y-axis. It does come back up again, but this is a process in several stages that takes weeks. This is my normal pattern.

Weirdly, however, I don't seem to have simple depression. Every so often (perhaps every couple of months), it's as if the baseline for my mood cycling shifts upwards - instead of being at a point considerably lower than y=0, it moves upwards. This is significantly more than temporary euphoria over underlying depression (which would occur for example when a depressive goes to see a favourite band or has good sex), and it's different from recovering from depression because the mood cycling remains. I get into something that looks like cyclothymia or a bipolar mixed state - a mix of hypomania and depression, where my moods are shooting off high into the positive part of the graph, but not staying there for very long. Strange.

I've actually had rapid mood swings for as long as I can remember. I'd forgotten about them, because even quite extreme ups and downs don't seem to be particularly important when overall you're mostly down. However, a couple of weeks ago I noticed that I was verging into hypomania, and I was terrified. The only other time I could remember being like that was when I had a nervous breakdown (scary). Then, after a few hours, I suddenly remembered that I'd had mood cycling including big peaks in the positive before, some years ago, when I came out of my last major depressive episode. (I remember asking my then-doctor in serious concern whether I had manic depression, and being patronised terribly as the doctor deemed my mood swings to be "too rapid" and "not serious enough".)

Where this leaves me is in a position where letting people know how I'm doing isn't a simple task. I have so many more ups and downs than most people that I don't even bother to write down half of them, and in keeping my journal, I have to perform a balancing act between giving out information that people don't want to know, and brushing off genuine concerns with a quick answer. I'm more likely to post in detail here than on irc, because here I can hide things behind an lj-cut tag, meaning that only people who really want to know can see what I've said, and also because I often run out of energy to explain the same thing over and over again. Having found a good way to express how I am at any one time, it does seem easier to point people at this than to go through the desperate searching for words again. But now that I've been told, I do appreciate that some of the people who talk to me on irc find that offensive. Perhaps having read this, they might understand why I do it.

[1] dysthymia - I don't have a good definition for it. It's a type of depression which is so long-term that sufferers will often think that it's part of their personality rather than a disorder. Think of Eeyore: "habitually pessimistic; lethargic; introverted; skeptical; self-critical and self-derogatory; and preoccupied with inadequacy, failure, and negative events."

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