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So when do you determine a relationship is toxic and you need out?

Any relationship; lover, friend, family, work, whatever. When does it go from slightly abusive to toxic? What’s the line? What do you do when you get there?

A few years back I suffered from medication induced anxiety. I was misdiagnosed with anxiety, put on medication designed to help it and, in a grand feat of irony, began to worsen. The correct diagnosis was REM Behavior Disorder. During this time something amazing happened. Most of my friends exited my life. Two stuck around, but all the others who claimed to love and support me took off. Suddenly they couldn’t deal with me barfing every time I went to the store for groceries and it wasn’t fun when I sat in a corner quietly crying when they took me off to a party. There were times when I made an honest effort to overcome the anxiety and tried to talk to people, but I came off as loud and weird. All those people who swore that my friendship meant a lot to them suddenly left.

At the time it was devastating. I felt alone and abandoned and wondered how I would cope. In that time, the two friends who remained quietly stood by my side during some of the darkest days I have ever known. It’s a horrifying thing to be trapped inside your mind and these two men supported me while I ranted, raved, cried, ran in terror and eventually broke out of my prison. That is a type of friendship that goes beyond words and simple thank yous. To this day I still mist up when I think of these amazing men. When it came time to bury my father, one friend stood and held an umbrella over my head in the pouring rain. He got soaked to the skin so I could stay dry and say good-bye to my dear father.

Now that part of my life is over and I’m able to give back to these wonderful men who should, in my eyes, be given medals for what they’ve done for me. They don’t even have to ask now, if I can help them in any way to make their lives easier or better, I do it. I don’t even think about it. They’ve earned that much and more.

I look back on that time and realize now there were blessings in having endured that. I learned a valuable lesson as to what a friend is and what a good, healthy relationship is. Not everyone can stand to see the person they love or care for go through that kind of thing and I still suffer from residual effects of that time. However, you do what you can for those who mean something to you.

A good relationship is a symbiotic relationship. Each gives according to their abilities and each takes according to their needs (see? Communism isn’t a complete loss). During that period, I needed a great deal and the two men who stuck around gave what they could. I didn’t ask for any more than that. Okay. I did ask that they put up with 10 to 15 calls a day, but that’s just the insanity.

At no time during this period was I toxic to the people around me. I was a problem to myself, but not to others around me. It sounds odd now to say it, but I felt that would be rude. It’s one thing to destroy your own life with your insanity, it’s another to destroy the lives of others. So that was just something I tried very hard not to do.

A lot of dead weight left my life when those other friends left for bluer skies and saner people. One friend was a coke addict and unable to function in a healthy way. Another was so self-centred, he had an affair on his wife and saw his mistress during her chemotherapy treatments. Looking back, I’m glad those people aren’t in my life.

I now have good people around me, including one friend who goes along with whatever zany idea I come up with and plays along happily. I can talk to her in a deep, meaningful way and she can depend on me to listen when she has a problem she needs to air. When I tell her I’ve decided to cultivate a superpower and she gets to pick one, too, she doesn’t even miss a beat. It’s a way we can play and have fun. We watch b-grade horror movies and eat nachos and laugh at each other’s lives and antics. It’s good. It’s healthy.

What do you do, though, when a relationship becomes toxic? For me, it’s my sister. I’m not sure I can describe the situation but I’ll try.

My sister is obsessed with appearances. She has a boxy little house in a boxy little neighbourhood with boxy little people driving boxy little cars and leading boxy little lives. She has an apple tree in the backyard and a trellis in the front. Her grass is always green and her sidewalk always shovelled. She has her friends that are appropriate and they go out for supper or play bridge. They watch movies like “The Notebook” and cry in all the appropriate points. They loved “The Hunger Games”.

I’m an embarrassment to her.

I am outspoken, not concerned with convention and would probably go on a killing spree if I had to live in that neighbourhood. Or, at the least, leave burning bags of dog poop everywhere. I talk about religion and sex and politics. I have several lovers and even (GASP!) have no love of monogamy. I hated “The Hunger Games” and wanted to gouge out my eyes during “The Notebook”. I don’t understand social subtlety (I’m a little like Dr. Sheldon Cooper on “Big Bang Theory”. My friends will actually point out to me when someone’s being sarcastic) and my apartment is usually a disaster.

I could live with all that if that’s all it were. It isn’t.

My sister displays signs of being extremely manipulative and controlling. I have suspicions about this, but as I’m not a professional, I won’t offer any kind of diagnosis. Her need to have everything appear a certain way in her life leads to destructive behaviour. She appears not to notice it or see what she’s doing. Often, in the past, she will blame the reaction to her behaviour on the recipient of her actions. For example, she will make some comment about how writing isn’t a “real” job. When I then become angry and defensive, she tells me I’m “being oversensitive”. I no longer wear certain clothes or talk about certain subjects with her. They become too volatile. She does not know I’m pansexual. She has made it clear that is unacceptable to her and she doesn’t want to know.

My relationship with my sister is toxic. I have reached the point in my life where I have determined that once my mother passes away, she will no longer be in my life (I don’t want to distress my mother as she has Alzheimer’s and wouldn’t be able to understand). From the time I was in my teens to the time I came out of my medication-induced insanity, she has convinced me there is something wrong with me. That I’m somehow defective. In an effort to please her, I have gone from one psychiatrist to another looking for this mysterious problem. Instead of concentrating on my life, my happiness and my career, I have chased after her phantoms. I know this doesn’t sound awful, but when you are bombarded with endless psychological and emotional abuse, it gets to be enough.

She is my sister and people tell me I’m supposed to love her no matter what. What if I can’t? What if loving and supporting her devastates my life as it has already?

I have decided there are times in your life when you need to cut certain people from your life. Even if that’s family. I asked myself the question, does this person make my life toxic? If the answer is yes, they’re gone. My sister creates a toxic waste in my very being that I cannot ignore any longer. Family is important, that’s true. However, my well-being is more important.

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Last night I opened my freezer and discovered a bottle of Diet Pepsi in the freezer. I stared at it blankly. When did the house fairies put that in there? Nothing they do surprises me any more. House fairies are amazing. They can move anything in the blink of an eye to mess you up. Trip over a coffee table? I guarantee the house fairies moved it when you weren’t looking so you’d trip over it. Cat running around the house like he just ate an 8-ball? House fairies are either chasing him or letting him chase them. You can blame anything on the house fairies.

However, the Diet Pepsi in the freezer, as much as I’d like to deny doing it, was me. I don’t remember it and that’s the part that frightens me. I have a sleeping disorder called REM Behavioural Disorder which often causes me to do things in my sleep. I have done amazing things in my sleep such as baking, cooking and even somehow winding up halfway across the city in my pyjamas in a field in the middle of winter. To put that in context, I live in Edmonton, Alberta and temperatures in winter can often reach -40 degrees Celcius. So, doing odd things like putting a bottle of Diet Pepsi in the freezer is not so out of the norm for me. It’s entirely possible.

The other problem is Alzheimer’s runs in my family. When I was in my early 20s, my mother started showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s. It was amusing at first, then it was sad, now it’s bleak. At first it was small things, forgetting to get something from the store or repeatedly getting the same thing over and over. My family and I had a good chuckle over some of the things that happened. Until she got arrested for shoplifting.

My mother did the grocery shopping and was looking at some jam. Four jars of it. She put the jam in her basket, not sure if she was going to buy it or not and promptly forgot it was there. In the basket was her purse. She thought she had put the jam in the basket, she later told me, but in reality she had placed the jam in her purse. She paid for her purchases and forgot about the jam. Store security caught her as she was walking out and had her arrested. This was the wake up call for my family.

So now I wonder if Diet Pepsi in the freezer is my wake up call or if it’s simply my nocturnal habits again. I’m not sure. The problem is that while an MRI scan can be done to diagnose for Alzheimer’s at an early stage, Alberta doctors won’t order it done. Why is beyond me. If I had the money I could go to a private company and get it done. I don’t have the money so any early diagnosis and treatment is beyond me.

For now I’ll tell the house fairies to stop putting my Diet Pepsi in the freezer. I’ll leave out some cookies for them instead. I hear they like chocolate chip.

For years I was medicated for a condition I didn’t have; anxiety. What went undetected was two things; a sleeping disorder and the fact that I react very badly to psychiatric medications. This didn’t come out until later when I was put on Clonazapam for the sleeping disorder and began seeing shadows moving toward me (think of the movie “Ghost”). The logical part of my brain made the connection that the Clonazapam was bad for me. The other half of my brain enjoyed the trip.

After I was taken off the medications and put on Melatonin (thank the gods for herbals) I felt like Alice down the rabbit hole. Nothing was as it should be. I didn’t get random anxiety attacks anymore. I didn’t feel like throwing up when I went grocery shopping. The sheer terror of day to day life was gone. When you live with something like that long enough, it becomes normal, even expected. Then when it’s gone, suddenly as in my case, there’s a gaping hole where your life used to be. Don’t get me wrong. Life is far better this way, but the lack of anxiety has presented me with a problem.

When you have anxiety, or any other psychiatric disorder, you learn to cope with day to day life using certain tricks and behaviours. Take away the anxiety and the behaviours remain. They don’t go away easily. So, when I was coping with anxiety the behaviours helped and even made sense. Being shy when you’re dealing with heart-stopping terror on a moment-to-moment basis makes sense. Being shy when you don’t, doesn’t. I’m normally a gregarious person. I actually like people and like being around people. However, I have learned a behaviour; being shy. So that behaviour and my gregarious nature collide. The result is frustration for me and the people I deal with and then I get cranky.

I’ve been told to “just get over it”. “Move on”. Okay. How? I’d like to make an interjection here. If you’re one of those people who give unsolicited advice, no matter how well-meaning, I’d like to make a request. Stop it. Your advice could be the best, most sound advice in the world. It may have come to you directly from the divine. Stop it. Those of us who are victims of your well-meaning intentions get confused when we need to do things our own way. You aren’t helping, you’re confusing. So unless someone has asked you for advice directly, just shut up.

Back to the topic at hand. So how do you live a life where you have anxiety behaviours but not the anxiety? How do you unlearn years of damage? One step at a time, usually, but it’s not easy. I have friends who are willing to stand silently by and let me struggle. They offer their support and know how important it is that I do this on my own. It’s hard for them sometimes to watch and do nothing but they understand.

A large part of my life was stolen from me when the doctor decided to medicate me and not listen to everything I was telling him. Anxiety needs medication. That’s a fact. Or is it? Is medication right for everyone? Is it okay to blanket everyone with the same medication knowing our individual biologies are different and what may work for one person may be a horrific mistake for another? I don’t think so.

I’m still re-learning how to live. How to be a whole human being in this new world without anxiety. Yes, stress brings a certain amount of anxiety, but I’m learning to cope with that. I want my life back. My life before the medication and the madness. I can’t have it. It’s gone. So what now?

September 2017
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