A Fantastic Article on Mental Health and Finances from The Simple Dollar

I really recommend this brief article from Trent at The Simple Dollar. It’s so funny — I know intellectually that bipolar people face specific financial difficulties, but I experience tremendous shame and frustration about my relationship to money. I’ll take the time to write a full-length post about this later today. For now, I invite all of you to think about how mental illness — or even just normal emotional ups and downs — have affected your financial life.


My Worst Worry: What if I Get Laid Off?

For me, there's something especially poignant about packing up the few little items that made your office seem like home.
For me, there's something especially poignant about packing up the few little items that made your office seem like home.
The times being what they are, I fear being laid off. In fact, you could say that I’ve developed a morbid anxiety about the subject. Two nights ago I spent an hour staring out into space worrying with my cuticles and fretting about whether, like about half of my friends, I will be let go. A part of me feels like this would truly be the end of my life. So much of my identity is wrapped up in my work that losing it would feel like losing everything. So what to do?

As usual, it’s list-making to the rescue. Here are strategies that anyone can apply:

1. My first concern would be paying my mortgage, but the same step holds true if you rent: get a roommate. I am lucky enough to have a two-bedroom condo, but during a bad recession (so bad that it might even be a depression) it’s not a bad idea to try even if you can only rent out the living room. I did that as an undergraduate, and it can work. Sure, it’s uncomfortable and it will affect your privacy, but it will also halve the amount you pay for housing. Before you start advertising, though, make sure that your landlord or homeowners’ association approves; otherwise you and your new roomie could end up in hot water.

2. Register for unemployment payments immediately. As I’ve said before in this space, unemployment is not a form of welfare — it’s insurance for which both you and your employer pay premiums. Many people are reluctant to collect, but it’s something to which you are entitled if you should be fired or laid off. It’s important to register right away, since there may be a waiting period. Also, you will be required to hunt for a job actively while collecting it, so dust off your resume and make a plan.

3. Contact all of your creditors, explain your situation, and see if you can get some sort of temporary relief from payments. It’s best to start this process early since, in my experience, qualifying can involve a lot of red tape.

4. Once money starts to run low, sell everything nonessential. Have a big yard sale and either prepay your bills or apply the money towards debt reduction.

5. If you are a homeowner and the situation is truly dire, you can rent out your place and move in with friends or family. This would dramatically lower your costs; of course, it would also represent a serious blow to your quality of life.

6. Register for whatever mental health plan your state offers as a part of Medicaid. If your state has a program through which you can be declared Seriously Mentally Ill, apply for it and be prepared to document your situation and past treatment thoroughly.

7. Start volunteering. Choose activities that play to strengths that you’d like to use in your next job, and spend at least a couple days a week doing them. For instance, if I were laid off tomorrow, I would offer to work on my church’s newsletter and website.

8. Sign up with temporary employment agencies and work at getting a permanent job that way. This has worked well for me in the past. I got my current, excellent job by temping and impressing my boss, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened. At the end of a recession, employers will often begin hiring by taking on temporary employees, seeing how they work out, and then making them permanent. Remember, though, that you should never have to pay a fee to any agency to find a job; the employer should be paying all fees.

9. Take classes online or at a community college on Excel, PowerPoint, and other commonly used software. Learning a new skill always pays off, sometimes in cold, hard cash, sometimes in your ability to find a job at all. I would take a class in web design, since most people who sell their writing skills are now expected to be able to maintain, if not create, company websites.

10. Most importantly, don’t blame yourself, and don’t dwell on anything that you might have done wrong in the months leading up to your layoff. Instead, make lists of the ways you succeeded at your last job. What skills did you pick up that you would like to use in your next job? You must have done well on some projects; list them. Remember, no job or relationship is a failure just because it comes to an end.

The moral is, I wouldn’t drop dead if I got laid off — I probably wouldn’t even starve or go homeless. The same goes for you if you’re working right now. Bipolar disorder makes it harder to find a job, and much more difficult to go without employer-provided insurance, but it’s still possible to survive these times.

And now for a change in topic: I’ve mentioned my programmable thermostat several times in this space. I’d just like to send a shout out to my dad for installing it when my feeble efforts ground to a halt. Next: programming that sucker. I’m sure I’ll be turning the air blue with curses.

Love to all.

How to Cope When You’re Paralyzed with Anxiety

Before you snap, try these steps.
Before you snap, try these steps.
Yesterday afternoon I was so anxious that I felt like ants were crawling just under my skin. I was pacing from one room to another, poring over my list of things to do and rejecting every item, picking up books and putting them down. I felt terrible. After about an hour of this, I sat down to journal and discover what the heck had gone wrong and how to fix it.

1. In fact, it wasn’t until I wrote in my journal that I even realized that anxiety was my problem. When I jotted down my symptoms, though — too many thoughts seething around in my brain, physical restlessness and discomfort, pinching my forearms and rubbing my hands together — that it came to me. For me, the two require somewhat different approaches. So that’s my first piece of advice: write down your symptoms and judge which mood-shackles have snapped shut on you so that you can use the proper tools to break free. A substantial percentage of bipolar people suffer from co-occurring anxiety attacks, so it’s important to know if you have clinical-level anxiety in addition to your mood swings. Whether or not you do, we all worry, and the steps here will alleviate garden-variety worry, too.

2. Once you’re sure that anxiety is your problem, if you have an antianxiolytic to take as needed, drop a minimal dose and give it 20-60 minutes to work before you take the maximum you’re allowed. Benzos like Klonopin and Xanax are habit forming, so you do need to be cautious; on the other hand, there’s no point in suffering any more than you need to, and they will help you to make use of the following advice.

3. Figure out what triggered the attack, realizing that this may take a few guesses. I made a list of about five worries before I came to the core one: I was anxious because I spent a good deal of money at the craft store, and even though I have plenty in the bank right now, I was having my usual visions of a retirement spent sleeping under a freeway overpass.

3. List several small steps you can take immediately to resolve the problem. In my case, this meant checking all of my bank balances; canceling a transfer that I’d initiated from savings to checking; withdrawing the amount of cash that I need to get along until my next paycheck and resolving to live cash only until then; reading part of a very practical book on personal finance (Mary Hunt’s Live Your Life for Half the Price); deliberately and consciously enjoying something that I already own (in this case, craft supplies and a scented candle); and reading St. Augustine on the subject of the divided will.

4. Act on as many of these steps as you can. Creating and getting through my list took a couple of hours, but it was time well spent.

5. If you’re at work the problem is almost certainly procrastination, so determine which task is causing you the most guilt and dread, make a list of baby steps, and, again, act on them.

I find that action almost always cancels out anxiety, but I’m quick to forget that. So in the future, this article will serve as my reminder.

As always, I hope this find all of you well and productive.

Links, Including an Intriguing Article on Emotional Comfort

If you're happy, you may not be living according to a provocative post by Jonathan Mead
If you're happy, you may not be living according to a provocative post by Jonathan Mead
Avoid comfort — that’s the provocative advice that Jonathan Mead of Illuminated Mind is handing out this morning. Essentially, he’s arguing that if you feel comfortable and satisfied in life, you’re not pushing yourself and pursuing your dreams. The art of pursuing your dreams is intrinsically uncomfortable, he writes, so you should be anxious, even afraid, a good amount of the time.

I’m drawn to this suggestion, since I know that I get a heck of a lot more done when I’m dissatisfied and pushing myself. Witness this blog, which came about as a direct result of leaving a happy but complacent state and moving into a state of perpetual restless desire. And I often do feel anxious and unhappy when I’m socializing, for example, or engaging in other activities that I need to do but dread.

On the other hand, when you spend a lot of your time fighting the grinding misery of depression, it’s tough to get all excited about seeking out more unpleasant emotions. I think that for me, and perhaps for most bipolar and depressive folks, Mead’s advice applies only when we’re at our most healthy. I do believe that I need to push myself constantly in order to accomplish anything; it’s just that what I accomplish — keeping a job, having a friend or two, seeking a stable relationship — may look a lot more basic from the outside. I wanted to be a superstar for many years. Now I would settle for that “normal” life, simply since it seems to be out of reach for me. Perhaps achieving what looks like complacent normalcy is hard enough for some of us.

On the subject of happiness, JD at Get Rich Slowly, reviews Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, a book that I bought when it came out and still haven’t gotten around to reading. It sounds worth the time, though — the mental wellness techniques that JD singles out from the book are things that I’ve always advocated and tried to practice. Keeping a gratitude list, in particular, has benefited me recently; I intend to write more about it soon.

I came across Farewell Prozac via Furious Seasons, which supplies so many excellent links. The author of Farewell Prozac is struggling with quitting SSRIs (the family of drugs that began with Prozac and has given us such commonly prescribed drugs as Zoloft and Paxil). Going off of SSRIs is no party; there’s evidence that SSRI withdrawal may be significantly worse than going off of benzodiazapines, which are notoriously habit-forming. Certainly when I’ve run out of my SSRI accidentally, I’ve felt like fried shit. It will be interesting, then, to follow the travails and, I hope, triumph, of this excellent writer.

I took a long break from The Simple Dollar because I felt like he frequently ignored or even insulted single people without kids, and that’s a sore spot with me when it comes to personal finance bloggers. He’s tempted me back, though, and I’m glad, if only for this post on spending and mood. The author has noticed that he spends more money in the fall simply because his wife and kids are out of the house more; he believes on some level that this spending will make him miss them less. Like so many of us, though, he’s a recovering spendthrift, and he quickly realizes that buying a board game actually makes him less happy, though he subconsciously believed as he bought it that it would somehow help him to share more good times with his family.

As I’ve remarked before in this space, I often wonder how much of my struggle with overspending has to do with depression and mania, and how much is simply normal in this cancerous consumer culture. This post helped me to see that my spending isn’t that unusual, and, if I become more conscious of my motives, I can almost certainly control it.

So those are the links for the day; many aren’t specifically related to bipolar disorder, but all of them got me thinking more about aspects of my illness.

Love to all.

The Latest Installment in My Financial Advertising Campaign

This stark motto comes from, um, God, via Jan Alkire's excellent book, Healing: Stories of Faith, Hope, and Love.
This stark motto comes from, um, God, via Jan Alkire's excellent book, Healing: Stories of Faith, Hope, and Love.
It’s been awhile since I’ve produced a new ad, and I’ve noticed that I’m getting to that place where I look right past the old ones, no matter how prominently I display them. This tag line comes from Deuteronomy 30:19, and was brought to my attention by an amazing book on healing that I stumbled across in my church’s library. I may well review it. It’s not directly related to bipolar disorder, but it does give solid advice about how to use every resource at your disposal to battle chronic illness.

Things to Do When You’re Bored and Want to Spend Money

Boredom can strike even the caffeinated.
Boredom can strike even the caffeinated.
For me, money is the great Boredom-Slayer. When I’m lolling around the house, reluctant to do something constructive but not tired enough to take a nap, I typically go somewhere and spend some money. It might be to the bead store to get equipment for a project, or my favorite nursery to buy a pot nice pot for a recently purchased plant. Whatever. When it comes to amusing myself late on a holiday Monday, I see my Old Stuff with a jaded eye and long for New Stuff.

Buying Stuff for fun is an expensive hobby, and it makes me angry at myself when I’m trying to save money and pay down debt, as I am now. Yesterday afternoon I was just seething with the desire to shop, but I’d promised myself that I’d go another week without buying anything unnecessary, and I couldn’t stand the idea of failing on the first day.

So Labor Day found me drifting around the house, taking little naps and procrastinating about what was, admittedly, a series of dull tasks on my to do list. I haven’t done these things by the end of a long weekend because they’re, um, boring. I cleaned my desk, which was buried under a layer paper gray like crusty old snow. In the end, in desperation, I sat down and made the following list of, yes, Things to Do When You’re Bored and Want to Spend Money:

1. Pick a recipe, get the ingredients, and cook something from scratch.
2. Clean the cat box and do a load of laundry.
3. Tidy up 27 items (shoes and books lying around, receipts that have drifted under the bed, and the like).
4. Call someone and let them amuse you.
5. Look at your to do list and do the following:
A. Choose one thing you don’t want to do, like giving yourself a pedicure.
B. Write down why you don’t want to do it. For this example, we’ll say that it seems like a lot of trouble and the polish will just chip off anyway, reminding me that life is full of the horrors of entropy.
C. If it’s a concrete problem (like not having the right materials out), then solve it; if the problem is your attitude, either decide that, indeed, doing your toenails is an exercise in futility and strike it off your list, or remember why you wanted to do it in the first place (I always feel proud and pretty when my toenails shine like sequins).
D. If you’re still feeling indecisive (Entropy or beauty? Entropy or beauty?), make an excruciatingly detailed list of steps, then do the first one. Remember, if it’s intolerably unpleasant, you can quit at any time.
6. Read a randomly chosen book for 15 minutes.
7. Read what looks like the dullest book on your bookshelf for 15 minutes.
8. Look over all of your bookshelves, pick out anything that you know damn well you won’t read, and take them to a used bookstore. J.D. says somewhere in his excellent personal finance blog Get Rich Slowly that unused media (books, CDs, video games, and the like) often represent a self that you once were and want to hold on to (in my case, college professor), or a self that you fantasize about being (college professor who reads Latin). If this self doesn’t represent what you truly want in rour conscious, right mind, get rid of the damn clutter already. If you’re uncertain about it, box it up and sell anything you haven’t rooted up and used a year later.
9. Pick up a book that looks sorta engaging and read the first paragraph to see if it sucks you in.
10. If you don’t have any books on hand, find the website for your local library, search on a few topics of interest, and order a few. If it’s open, you could even go there physically.
11. Pray. Structured prayer like the liturgy of the hours or a rosary is excellent for times of low inspiration. Or pray for guidance about what to do.
12. If you have an RSS feed, read the first three items in your feed, no matter how dull they look. (In my case, blurbs about scandals about drugs I’ve never taken and will never take. [Levitra, anyone?])
13. Check out something you’ve bookmarked on your computer and never actually used, such as a debt calculator or an intriguing ebook.
14. Start a project so ambitious that you clearly won’t be able to finish it today, and will have to leave the materials out, cluttering your counter space. This is to counteract your mind’s argument that you would do something, if only it weren’t all so darned overwhelming.
15. What is the most boring, icky task you can think of. Go do it. Yes, polish that cat box! It’s more interesting than staring at the wall.

There you have it.

Why is she telling us this, you may ask. This is supposed to be a blog on bipolar disorder. As I’ve pointed out ad nauseum, bipolar folk tend to have poor impulse control (that lack of executive function, dontcha know), and to play ducks and drakes with whatever money they can scrounge up. This is character-building stuff, and it may ward off a depression triggered by tedium. It will also keep yourself from asking the existential question, if I dislike work and long for the weekends, why is it that I can never amuse myself on the last day of any given weekend? Do I dislike my life outside of work, too? Do not ask this question. It will only need to progressively darker ruminations.

For the record, I did scoop the cat box, do laundry, read 15 minutes of a book for this blog (more on that later), get the ingredients for a recipe, and pick out an armload of books to sell.

Love and productivity to all.

Bipolar Disorder and Reckless Spending

I read an excellent post this morning on Get Rich Slowly in which the writer examines her unspoken assumptions about money. Apparently her family never discussed it as she was growing up, and like so many young people (myself included), she lavishly furnished her life with credit cards and spent years undoing the damage. Along the way, she had to undo a whole series of attitudes about what good, middle-class people do.

What does this have to do with bipolar disorder? Well, for me, the issue of money is my biggest is-it-bipolar-or-am-I-just-being-irresponsible dilemma. You see, until very recently, I was terrible with money. Terrible. I made more stupid mistakes than you could shake a stick at, including getting a $50,000 doctorate (and that was a state school), cracking open my 401K upon changing careers, and financing a new car instead of paying cash for a late-model used one. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve made stupid mistakes at pretty much every turn, and it’s cost me dearly in money and peace of mind.

In my saner moments, I’ve asked myself, “Did I make that idiotic decision because I’m bipolar and lack impulse control at times, or is it just that I’m ignorant and foolish?” I think in this case I’ve blamed manic depression for some very common, non-crazy behavior. After all, when I read the personal finance blogs, I read repeatedly about people making the same mistakes I made or even worse ones (such as leasing a car — *shudder*). These folks can’t all be bipolar. There must be larger social forces at work. And so there are: changes in the credit card and banking industries in particular.

I think that up until very recently, I’ve been fatalistic about my ability to change my behavior around money. I assumed that when I spent recklessly it was because I was hypomanic and my judgment was impaired, or I was depressed and looking for a lift. And that may be partly true. This returns us to the percentage argument, however. If I can improve my behavior even by 20 percent, then it is my responsibility to do so. And insofar as I don’t trust myself, I can put structures in place that will help me to act responsibly.

I’m finding that this time around, I’m having more success in controlling my finances. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First, it’s the only goal I’m focusing on right now. I’ve finally taken my own advice and stopped trying to improve everything about myself all at once. Instead, I have faith that improving my finances and my behavior surrounding money will influence the rest of my life positively so that when the time comes, say, to really step up my yoga practice, I’ll be more prepared.

I’ve also found some great tools, after searching desperately for years. For me, what’s worked is a combination of online community for inspiration, books for education, and effective personal development techniques. This, after years of reading self-help books as a way of entertaining the fantasy of change without having to do the hard work of actually changing.

Working in the community to help other disabled people has given me an increased sense of responsibility, too. There’s nothing like acting as a representative of bipolar disorder to make you want to whip yourself into some semblance of functioning.

However, all of this depends on one premise: the belief that I can actually control my behavior to a measurable degree. That belief rests upon several things, but the most important is finally giving myself credit for a remarkable record of accomplishment in the face of tremendous difficulties. I have scratched and clawed and struggled to be where I am. I am deeply grateful for what has been given to me — most especially, caring and committed parents — but at the same time I realize that I got where I am on my own merit. If I can put my life back together twice, then I can do it as many times as is necessary. If I can piece my life back together after total loss, then I can accomplish a lot — perhaps not everything I dreamed of accomplishing before the onset of this rotten illness, but a lot. Including improving, if not perfecting, my behavior around money.

Love to all.