Sunday, September 20
I wish I weren't awkward.
I can deal with other aspects of autism - not getting sarcasm and having to listen and look for cues that only give me a hint of true meanings. I can handle being attracted to random guys, the ostracization that comes when guys think I like them, and the difficult conversations when they realize I'm not romantically interested in them, but they like me. I can deal with not being able to really feel appreciated, loved, or valued. I can carve out a spot between the demanding twin demons of nothingness and awesomeness. I could work around the despair that bipolar brought, and the chaos that came in its wake. I can even handle feeling *different* and never, ever being able to fit in, no matter where I go.
But the one flaw God gave me, the one blessing He put in my life, the one curse of my existence, the one thing that makes me shout and rage and cry more than anything else: being awkward - not intuitively understanding social norms, or communication, or people - that one hits me hard.
I think it's ironic that I found a way to cure my bipolar. It's an incurable, lifelong mental disorder that sometimes threatens people into subservience, sometimes smashes them into oblivion. For me, it was one of the few things in my life that I could really deal with. Something that gave me stability, and something that, every so often when the hypomanic phases set, made me awesome. Compared with the ever-present inadequacies that being on the autism spectrum provides, bipolar was a breath of fresh air.
I don't know if I can explain how much turmoil is constantly in my mind.
I don't have a gut feeling about how people feel about me, about relationships, even about total strangers. It's like playing darts while blindfolded on a moving, spinning platform. It lends itself to strange things. With only a few exceptions (close friends and family), I have to treat total strangers almost the same way I treat everyone else. I like to think I treat everyone well, but I'm still playing darts from a moving, spinning platform. I literally write out conversations before I have them in person or by phone, trying to cover every single possible contingency and interpreting the little information I have from every angle. Then, when someone reaches out to me, I try to categorize the interaction: Is this person just being nice? Are they constrained by social norms to talk with me and not really interested in continuing beyond what's required? Are they trying to initiate conversation because they want something - information, help, advice, or perspective on a specific issue? Did they just feel the desire to communicate one-way with me, and don't necessarily need or want me to respond? Do they need a friend who can reach out and be there for them? Or do they honestly want to be my friend?
I talked with my sister about it once a few years back, and we realized that I end up analyzing every single social interaction with the same intensity as a girl who likes a guy but doesn't know if he likes her back. She mentioned that she goes through turmoil trying to figure out what the guy is thinking - interpreting every gesture, every word, re-reading text messages, and even determining everything that *isn't* said - and ultimately ends up with only a cursory amount of information. It's the same for me. But instead of going through turmoil for just one person, and only or a while, my turmoil involves *everyone*. Forever.
There are some people where I know pieces of their long-term feelings. My family members love me. Acquaintances and friends at a distance - people who don't spend time with me outside of scheduled times - are at least indifferent, and probably somewhat warm towards me, as long as they're not angry. My best friend goes from one side of the spectrum to the other. I've lost lots of close friends in the past, so I equate any steps to close friendship with danger. That has made it really hard to trust any close friendships... but for now I can trust he'll still be there for me tomorrow.
But beyond those basic, core understandings, I feel like I know almost nothing. Even about family and close friends. I can sometimes tell when people are really angry - a dramatic increased use of directed, situational sarcasm is one cue there - and I can hear honest happiness in people's voices - something about the way they talk belies that feeling. But even those are processed emotions. Puzzle pieces put together with information gleaned from a conversation, intonation of voices, specific word choice. Running the entire experience through a thousand different rules and attempting to get a feel for the whole entire thing.
Someone asked me once why I care. Why I care so much about people and their lives... why I want so badly to be a part of their lives and want them to be part of mine. Many people with autism, at least to outsiders, don't really want to be involved with other people. And I've learned that many people don't deeply care about the feelings or lives of strangers. They don't feel an intense hunger to understand and befriend everyone they meet. So why do I?
It's taken me a while to figure out the answer.
I think the answer is the core of why autism, and the awkwardness, lack of social understanding, and other associated facets, is such a difficult thing for me. Why it rips me apart at the very core of who I am and makes me feel like an aspiring athlete with no legs or arms or feeling.
The truth is I don't care about understanding people, and being understood, primarily because I need friends. Don't get me wrong. I do need friends. Having a best friend has given me stability I never thought possible, and close friends, classmates, and colleagues have always been there in the moments that I needed someone. The reason I want to understand people is because I honestly...
It sounds dumb. Or cliche. Or self-aggrandizing.
It's because I honestly want people to be happy. Really, honestly, authentically, in-tune-with-God-and-themselves-and-others happy.
When I meet people - whether people I know or people I don't know - I often feel an insatiable desire to help them. It's not always. But almost.
My greatest wish, dream, goal, and the motivating factor behind most of the things I do is wanting to help people. It's like the desire to be a healer, but with far less emphasis on the physical side of mortality. I want to be a spiritual and emotional healer - to enable people to truly grow from the things they've faced in the past and become new people, full of hope and joy and light.
But I lack the ability to intuitively understand people - the way that most people see emotional or spiritual wounds. And who ever heard of a doctor who was blind?
I realize that, somehow, the tools to touch people are an inseparable part of me. I've had the ability to watch people undergo massive change at key points in their lives. At 10 years old I understood part of my calling in life when a random stranger poured out their life to me and asked for advice, and somehow I knew what to say. It's talked about in my Patriarchal blessing, and I've seen it literally thousands of times since then. Sometimes I've tried to avoid it, but I finally learned that the question wasn't *if* it would happen, but *how*. To extend the spinning blindly metaphor from before, now I'm trying to be a healer, but I'm blind, on a moving, spinning platform, and all I have are darts. People are the targets, and the darts are scalpels. No matter how softly I throw, someone will eventually get cut. People closest to me will probably get cut a lot. The question is only who, and where.
That's why every time I talk to someone, every time I write a letter, every time I compose a text message or determine even how much eye contact to use in an ongoing conversation, it's a decision that matters to me. I spend more time figuring out what I'm going to say to people than it ever takes to say it.
There is an exception. Here at (Gay) Mormon Guy I've somehow made myself believe that what I write here doesn't affect how people think of me. That it doesn't affect my relationships. Or that, at least if I'm completely honest and candid, any effects will be ok. When my best friend is having a rough day and I don't want to bring him down, or if I know I'd be rambling far longer than even family would want me to talk, I can still force myself to write it here. And while there have been just as many major repercussions from people interacting with (G)MG as in my real life, I can still force myself to publish here even when I'm so confused that I don't want to talk with anyone... because here I'm just talking.
Maybe that's why I blog. Because understanding my own feelings is one of the few things I can do, and writing about it gives me stability in a world I don't understand. Here at (G)MG, I'm not awkward. I'm just me. And, deep inside, I feel like writing may have just as much ability to help people figure out their lives as does talking, with far greater ability for others to dodge blindly flung darts. It comes with drawbacks. Every person who gets to know me here - where I force myself to just write what I feel - will always find me different in real life. Here it's totally ok for me to write for hours, and for you to read as much or as little as you want. To skip around and read something that shows me from yesterday or years ago. To delve my mind without feeling like you're prying and to stop without ever feeling like I've trespassed on your time. In real life, it doesn't often work that way. We could talk, or text, or email, and maybe we'd have some great conversations. But... I'm awkward.
I still wish I weren't awkward. When I watch people who are social butterflies and can easily understand the needs and feelings of others - people who can relate deeply and intuitively - I wish I had even a speck of their ability. I wish I knew all the rules that govern social engagement so I could keep them all running in my head all at once.
This was a perfect choice for my life, from God's perspective. I'm sure I came to life bringing with me the desire to touch people. And by binding the thing I want most - almost completely - He has perfectly set me up with a life full of complication. Trials. Blessings. Opportunities to grow. Opportunities to trust in Him instead of in myself.
I'm grateful for it. Grateful for the things it has taught me, the miracles I've seen, and the faith it has helped me build.
But I still wish I weren't awkward.
Posted by Mormon Guy at 8:30 PM
Friday, September 4
This post is long. But it's been long in coming. A miracle like this has to be shared.
I used to be bipolar. Proof enough for those who understand is here on (G)MG, where many posts were written in the thick of depression or on the peak of a hypomanic high.
But I'm not bipolar anymore. And while people sometimes ask me what cured me, the reality is that, while the process itself was intensive and hard, it's only thanks to God that it happened at all.
I was diagnosed with Type 2 Bipolar Disorder the summer before beginning my MBA at BYU. I had gone in for a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (a long story) to a specialized clinic in Salt Lake City with the best-of-the-best in adult autism, and my psychiatrist explained that many high-functioning people on the spectrum have comorbid mood disorders.
I balked at her statement. I didn't have a mood disorder... because that was a really bad thing, right? I had good days and bad days, but everyone has good days and bad days. You do your best, don't worry about the things you can't do, and enjoy life when you have the chance.
She offered to explain the mood spectrum, and I was happy to listen. She explained depression, dysthymia, double depression, hypomania, and then got to bipolar. Simply put, anyone who has experienced a significant and lasting honest-to-goodness real depressive episode that isn't connected to outside experiences as well as a hypomanic or manic one has bipolar.
Had I ever considered suicide? Yes. Many times. But that wasn't really an issue, right? I knew that suicide was wrong. There were times that I avoided walking over bridges or up spiral staircases because of the intense desire to jump off and die or at least permanently main myself. And it wouldn't work anyway. I spent months as a teenager praying for God to kill me in my sleep, then got my patriarchal blessing, which said my life would be "extended" and promised that I'd return to full health if anything happened to me. Talk about exact opposite of what I had wanted to hear. I stopped praying that I would die young and resigned myself to living for as long as I had to. My thoughts of suicide, while common, were just pipe dreams.
My psychiatrist didn't get that whole story. She simply explained that if I had frequent or recurrent thoughts of suicide, and didn't have traumatic life experiences that could account for situational depression, that was a solid proof of major depressive episodes. That was it.
Hypomania or manic episodes are harder to characterize. It's like your brain just works better. Your body works better. You're smarter than you should be, happier than you should be, more able to juggle the things in life, more creative... In a manic episode, your brain requires itself and you can lose your sense of personal morals and cause-effect relationships, and honestly believe you can fly, which makes manic episodes potentially dangerous. Hypomanic ones have many of the pros but fewer cons.
I had definitely had those as well. I couldn't honestly explain how I worked on a thesis, started two books, juggled a job and calling in the elders quorum presidency, worked two shifts at the temple, ran a running club and intramural team, performed in a play, took 25 credits at BYU, and still had plenty of time for social activities all in one semester. It seemed totally normal to me. But my normal was not normal.
I refused medication because I hate medication, and because I didn't want to give up my highs. And because the medication wouldn't really be a cure. But what my psychiatrist said at the end stuck with me. People who have Type 2 Bipolar - me - which includes hypomanic episodes but not manic ones - usually see the number and length of depressive episodes increase with time. Maybe right now life was ok, but it would cause problems in 20 or 40 years... and I wouldn't be ok. I think I must have been hypomanic when I saw her, because that didn't faze me.
A few months later, I began a journal of my feelings... and found that I was experiencing depression up to 4x each month, for up to a week at a time. I also realized that I subconsciously never listened to any music, never read any books, and never watched any movies or plays because they could so easily trigger depression. Depression ruled my life. Everything I did was either to avoid getting depressed, keep depression from setting in, distract me from depression, or keep me from wanting to kill myself. During my highs, I made plans of how to keep myself busy and out of depression. During my lows, (when I could) I forced myself to write and focus on improving the quality of my life and goals.
I went on Lamictal (Lamotrigene) a short while later. It spaced out my depression from 4x each month to 1x each month. But it had side effects. I stopped dreaming at night. I felt like a piece of me was missing inside.
I didn't know what to do.
I went home to Chicago to buy a car, and while I was there my dad gave me a priesthood blessing. In the blessing, he promised me that, in time, I would "be healed" of the difficulty I faced.
Bipolar is permanent. It's a brain disorder that medication can't even keep under control. You can't take antidepressants and even the medication doesn't keep it from happening. It will just get worse and worse, period.
Autism is permanent. It's a literal different wiring of the brain to focus on different information processing patterns. My amygdala doesn't function to give me understanding in complex or vague situations where others do, and the processing part of my brain compensates by handling dozens of extra variables.
Same-sex attraction is permanent. I've talked with people who got happily married and fell in love with someone of the opposite gender, but it's a miracle each time.
As soon as he finished, I turned and confronted him. He explained that the phrase had come, and he said it. He didn't feel like it applied to same-sex attraction, but to the bipolar specifically and less so to the autism. He's not a medical guy... and he still didn't realize the extent of my issues. But the blessing had said it, and he was convinced it would happen. And I wondered how it would.
Two months later, I was online, looking up my medication when I stumbled on a diet for epilepsy. Lamictal is an epilepsy medication that works for bipolar, as many epilepsy medications do. I read somewhere that some doctors think that bipolar is epilepsy confined to specific parts of the brain - that micro seizures cause the mood swings. And that clicked with me. I could feel when depression was going to come, before it did... just like people could feel seizures before they happened.
The diet was called the Ketogenic diet and was based off studies done in the 1800's and early 1900's. During that time, people with major epilepsy were hospitalized. If they kept having seizures, they obviously couldn't eat. And an amazing thing happened: after a few days of not eating, the seizures would suddenly stop in almost every patient. They would eat again, and the seizures would start all over.
It was soon called the starvation diet, but was only prescribed in severe cases for short times, because you can't not eat for forever.
One doctor thought that certain foods could be triggering the seizures, and began giving only certain foods to his patients as they recovered. Without a knowledge of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and other factors, he wasn't able to exactly pinpoint the issue. But he found that grains, breads, fruits, vegetables, milks, beans, and similar products would cause seizures, while meat and some nuts would not.
Years later, it was found that carbohydrates - in all forms but fiber and from all sources - were the culprit. Why? Doctors still don't know. But the diet was prescribed for epilepsy from that time on, and people who followed the diet had major reductions in seizures. Those who followed it faithfully for a few years were sometimes cured for life.
Then something happened.
Another doctor found that ingesting small doses of lithium could dramatically reduce seizures in most patients. The pill only had to be taken once a day, and nothing else had to change. The brutal diet disappeared overnight in favor of the miracle pill, and within a few decades, was gone from the medical schools and doctor's memories.
The diet gained a new resurgence when an actor with a young son faced potentially debilitating surgery for his child with epilepsy. Medications weren't working. Other surgeries hadn't helped. And his 2-year-old wasn't going to live a normal life, or even a decent one. Scouring medical texts, he found a mention of the diet, and convinced a doctor to help him. Within weeks, the seizures were gone - something that had never happened before - and after a few years, his son was completely cured and could go off the diet with no seizures ever again.
Today, the Ketogenic diet is prescribed by very few doctors, and usually only after multiple failed attempts with medication and surgery, and only to children under the age of 10-12. It's often administered in a hospital or sometimes with at-home care, through a feeding tube that provides exactly measured nutrients.
I found one study ever that mentioned the Ketogenic diet and bipolar. All the participants dropped out, even the one who had stayed the longest and saw the biggest positive effects.
The potential to cure is only partial. The statistic I remember is this: 90% of people will experience a 50% or more reduction in seizures after a few weeks of faithfully following the diet. 50% will experience zero seizures on the diet after a few weeks. For those who experience complete reduction, 50% may be cured by following it without any relapses for at least 2 years.
So my chances were 25% at best.
But something inside me told me I needed to do it. I contacted a nutritionist at the University of Utah medical center. She said that her patients all got their diets from prepared formula. I contacted a nutritionist through BYU who told me that I was being stupid. She also told me that being vegan was stupid and there was no way to do the Ketogenic diet and be vegan.
Ironically, the only professional who supported me was the BYU psychiatrist who had prescribed me medication. She told me I should try it if I felt like it could work.
So I did.
The Ketogenic diet is not easy. As an adult, I focused on eating fewer than 10 grams of carbohydrates each day, from all sources, and ate/drank medium chain triglycerides (fractionated coconut oil) for 30% of my calories. Carbs includes vegetables, grains, maltodextrin in "calorie-free" foods, fillers in multivitamins, and the carbs each week when taking the Sacrament. Being vegan made it both harder and easier. Easier because I was already used to saying no to almost everything people offered. Harder because most Ketogenic diets consist of lard, cream, eggs, and meat.
The first few weeks are hard. Then it gets harder. Drinking fractionated coconut oil made me have to vomit the first 20 times I did it, no matter what. Food without sugar or starch gets old fast. And then it finally gets easier. I had done my research, and I fast-forwarded by beginning my diet with a 7 hour running/biking/swimming session until I felt like I had hit ketosis.
I used ketone test strips in the beginning to make sure I was creating ketones. I cut the strips into thirds because they seemed expensive, and they still worked just fine. I tested my ketones in the morning and at night, and kept track of them and what I ate for about a month. Then I stopped testing and just kept going.
I stopped seeing my psychiatrist after three weeks - I went off my medication because I stopped having mood swings. And my dreams came back, but they were of eating whole-grain bread. Honestly. I thought about eating greasy, gooey orange rolls one day when they were offered.
I was always hungry for food I couldn't eat.
It got better. But I could never, ever cheat. And that was hard. I made pasta out of Konjac powder, looked up the actual milligrams of carbs in every food I thought about eating, said no to literally everything people offered, and ate seeds, rare nuts, some tofu, olives, and fractionated coconut oil every day.
If I had had a doctor who could test me, I would have tried other things too. Extreme exercise (running/swimming for 5 hours) can also cause ketosis by using up all the glycogen in my body, and had worked in the past to keep bipolar episodes from hitting with full force... but was it worth cheating and then exercising if eating carbs would still affect my brain and ruin the lasting effect of the diet? No.
Doctors aren't sure why the Ketogenic diet works for epilepsy. Some think that it's from a higher concentration of energy - ketones have 5 Calories per gram, while carbs have 4. Some think the acidic ketones displace excess sodium, similar to lithium, but that doesn't explain lasting effect.
The brain switches over to ketones over a Very. Long. Time. While the rest of the body can switch in seconds or minutes (the feeling of "hitting the wall" while running a marathon is going into ketosis), the brain continues to request sugar (created by gluconeogenesis, created by processing glucogenic (vs Ketogenic) proteins). As the level of ketones in brain fluid increases and then stays consistently high, brain cells switch over to preferentially using ketones, and the need for sugar decreases. After a year on ketosis, something like 70% of the brain has finally switched. My guess is that the whole brain has to switch over, then have time to use the extra ketone energy to somehow heal damaged pathways or something similar, to effect the lasting cure.
I won't say that the diet was easy. It was miserable. I had no physical energy and even less strength. But I found ways to have fun. One day I made a vegan, low-carb "cheesecake" from a crust with flaxseed, stevia, and cinnamon oil, a filling of tofu, some nuts, and lemon oil, and a topping of strawberry flavoring mixed with xanthan gum. It still counted as maybe 4 or 5 carbs, but it was awesome.
Then my brother got acute leukemia.
I was in the second year of my MBA program at BYU, and had taken a job as a teaching assistant and another as a research assistant, along with helping to manage Nature's Fusions (my essential oil company). I was taking 20 credits, which isn't allowed, but the secretary never went through with her threat to drop one of my classes. And my brother was hospitalized at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake.
I drove to the hospital every afternoon after school, stayed there until midnight, and drove home for 2 hours through the I-15 Core Project construction. I ran out of food, and I wasn't eating. I finally broke down and called the relief society president of my singles ward and asked if people could bring us food. That night, there were containers of food in my fridge, with names on them... and it was food I could eat. I knelt on my kitchen floor, crying, more grateful than I had ever felt in my life.
I stopped following my diet soon after. People brought food, but it was impossible for all of them to understand what I could eat. And I couldn't focus on myself, two jobs, my company, school, and my brother. So I took a break, fully aware that I'd have to start over again.
Almost a year later, when my brother was cancer-free and I was close to finishing my MBA, I started again. This time I began with a 5-day fast, because I knew I still lacked the strength to exercise for long enough to make a difference, and because fasting is soooo much easier than taking carbs out. The diet was easier because I already knew how to eat, but it was still miserable.
During all that time off the diet, I had two bipolar mood swings - and those were late in the months during my break. I felt like that was proof that it was working. On the diet, I had maybe had one mood swing, a few months into the process.
I followed it again for over a year. And then I woke up one morning with a deep, powerful, peaceful feeling that I could stop. I kept going for a couple months, but I felt like it was time to be finished. I set a date, and on that day I made homemade hummus. I didn't eat much of it - it didn't feel like it was worth it. And when someone offered me a drink of juice, I said no without even wanting to try. My desire for sugar and starchy foods had disappeared.
That was almost a year ago.
And now I'm not bipolar.
I haven't had a mood swing in a long time. I haven't felt depression at all. But I also haven't had the hypomanic highs.
In total, it's been a good thing. I was able to do some things I loved - start another business called "The Soap Factory," start and run an a cappella group called Grace, find and keep a best friend. Just finding a best friend has been worth everything else - honestly. With the bipolar gone, though, now I'm trying to figure out my life.
The harsh reality is that for decades of my life, everything was based on the cycle. When I was depressed, I did this. When I was hypomanic, I did that. I was a rapid cycle bipolar, so everything got done on time - I just waited for the time in the cycle. Laundry only ever got done when I was hypomanic. Blogging usually happened when I was depressed - and when I wasn't, it served to help me find meaning in the constant flux and chaos. Goals and plans were made in hypomania. Those same goals and plans were trimmed to the essentials in depression. Working out happened in hypomania because I wanted to, and depression as a major coping mechanism. Playing the piano and playing video games were other coping mechanisms that happened only in depression. I was outspoken and friendly in hypomania, and quiet and contemplative in depression. And nothing - literally nothing - happened in-between.
Now I'm in the in-between for forever.
I'm no longer bipolar. The cure has been miraculous, and I have 70 more years of life to reap the benefits.
I say I'm no longer bipolar - no mood swings - but there are still some things left behind. I still believe that I'm both superman and less than dust, as I always have. Only people with bipolar have ever understood - in my brain I am both simultaneously. During mood swings, the feeling of total worthlessness or total awesomeness would be stronger than the other. It wasn't like depression "hit" me - it just pushed past and overwhelmed me. Now, they're both simply there - coexistant in a way that I've never been able to explain. They don't actually go together. It's not like the feeling of being powerful with God and also small in His sight. These are completely opposite and opposing in every possible way, and each one has powerful aspects that they lend to who I am. Simultaneously, they're in my mind... and I think they're there to stay.
I'm still autistic, and still attracted to guys, so life isn't a sugar-free vegan cakewalk, but I no longer feel the overwhelming sadness of depression, the desire to end my life, or the intense, excruciating emotional pain that won't respond to any treatment. I no longer pull away from people or cut ties in relationships.
In exchange, I have piles of unwashed laundry... and I'm relearning how to live my life.
Posted by Mormon Guy at 9:31 AM