Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Insanity but were Afraid to Ask


Yesterday I shared that I was struggling with my memoir project.  I admitted the difficulty I faced writing about my childhood and my father’s link to organized crime and decided I’d be more productive if I focused for now on my ongoing recovery from bipolar disorder—an illness that derailed my life in the ‘90s—trashed it both personally and professionally.

(For background on this memoir project click here and here.)

And as usual, you, my readers, offered wise advice—committing to come along for the ride, offering to ask questions, and suggesting that, perhaps, I was focused too heavily on audience.  These comments and so many others provided a clarity I’d been lacking—got me going again.  Thanks to each of you for your support and inspiration.

What I took away from all of this was a realization, an understanding that balance between internally and externally driven writing  could be key to my success in this project.  Could I not use your questions to get me thinking in new ways about my past, but once those questions are offered, answer them first for myself, to generate ideas and insight, before tailoring that material for audience consumption on the other end?  A key could be telescoping in and out, finding focus, shifting fields of vision and focusing again.

Maybe a key to writing this is not so much what happened, but how it happened, what it felt like—not so much what, as what it was like, how I felt, what I thought.

I remember clearly thinking that what was happening was my fault, when, in fact, I experienced a huge disconnect—watching myself go crazy, almost from a distance, and being completely powerless to interrupt the process.  Probably thinking the illness was my fault created the illusion of control and comfort.  On some level I suppose I thought if I had caused it, I could stop it.  The human psyche does amazing things to save itself!

So I’m open to any questions you might have, if you have them.  Is there anything you have always wanted to ask a former psychiatric patient, but were afraid to–afraid that to ask would be rude?  If you could ask me anything, what would it be?  I’m curious, not only so I can tailor specific answers, but also so I can get myself thinking about the issue of mental illness in new ways.  Just like you may never have been insane, I will never know what it’s like to not have had this experience.  I have no real way of knowing this from outside, no way of knowing what you might wonder, what you might think, what bias you might bring to the table. 

Sometimes mental illness looks like this.

(Watercolor on paper I painted more than 15 years ago.  Click on image to enlarge.)

Yes, I’m largely well these days, but I cannot undo having been psychotic, and I wonder what those of you who have not had a close encounter with “crazy” would like to know about it.  Don’t worry.  You won’t offend.  Honest dialog is essential to erasing stigma and raising awareness.  If you don’t have questions, that’s cool too.

But in the meantime, what have you always wanted to know about insanity, but were afraid to ask (let alone go there yourself)?

52 thoughts on “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Insanity but were Afraid to Ask

    • Thanks so much! I’m so glad you enjoy the art and think I’m strong, but sometimes I think we just do what we have to. I’d love to think I’m strong, but I don’t know. Can’t tell you how much I appreciate your reading, Astra!

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  1. My question evolves around the people and how they might have treated you during these times. I have a son with autism and it absolutely amazes me how mean, rude, and self centered people can be. It amazes me how others judge with little known about a person and can simply disconnect and walk away. I am very interested in how you felt during any of this and what your perspective was during this time. By the way I agree with Astra, your art is amazing!

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    • Wow, I’m so sorry to hear about your son. But, yes, people can be incredibly cruel. That’s why I think a blog like this can be important for raising awareness, as I think most of this insensitivity is rooted in ignorance and a lack of understanding. I love this question, as it also gives me an idea for a specific post I could do. Thanks, Kim!

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      • Hi Kathryn, I was going to post exactly this, that insensitivity is rooted in ignorance and a lack of understanding. But those who have ‘survived’ or ‘escaped’ or otherwise been released from psychosis are the ones who truly shine light into the subject of mental disorder. I’ll have to read more to understand more fully your experience, but I’ve been to the brink and back. I can see it clearly now, although its not as easy as just looking back and seeing one picture. Depending on what part of the picture one is looking at, will determine which part of the picture has the clarity. 🙂

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      • You have said some extraordinarily important things here! Yes, insensitivity is rooted in ignorance–so, so often, once people gain some insight, they behave very differently, actually say kind and supportive things. So many have simply not been exposed to mental illness–only respond to stereotypes.

        Thanks so much for this insightful comment! I appreciate your perspective–and really, really hope you’ll come by again!

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  2. A couple years ago, after diligently trying therapy and having no results, I finally went on anti-depression/anti-anxiety meds. Voila:No rushing unproductive thoughts, endlessly looping over and over. Except, now I have these occassional nagging doubts: What if I can’t get access to meds? Am I really this person or am I really that other person? Did I take the easy way out or should I have learned to tough it out? And the worst: Now, when people tell me how wise and incredible I am, a real role model of what it means to be a woman over 50 (and I get that a lot), my kneejerk thought is “But it’s not real. I’m on meds.” So, if I have these thoughts/fears and my depression/anxiety is relatively mild, what must others go through? Do you have thoughts like this?

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    • Great question, Renee! And the answer is ABSOLUTELY!–especially when the manic me is so DAMN CREATIVE and the non-manic me has to work my ass off to create (oops, did I say “ass” with my outside voice?). Wow, I have got to get my journal out and write down these questions, as they are all great topics for posts. Actually, I could probably write an entire book on this one! I’ll address this in a post SOON–brilliant question!

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      • Oh, Lordy, I’m going to have to go back and look at this post. I don’t remember it well enough to know exactly what you’re refering to–maybe the inability to decide what’s real. Whichever, I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with that! No fun, for sure!

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  3. Had to laugh out loud at that title! 🙂 As you know I love asking questions . . . your post was so unexpected though, that I need time to think about it. Never had an invitation and opportunity like this one before!

    P.S. Seems you have got over your writer’s block.

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    • You make me laugh, Lisa! Yes, you do like to ask questions, and you are SOOOOOOO good at it. I remember in the early, early days of this blog how your questions got me going, thinking, writing! Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!

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  4. I have a question very similar to Renee’s. I experience a great deal of “impostor” feelings when it comes to graduate school (“one day they’ll discover that I’m not as smart as I seem to be. One day they’ll find out that it doesn’t come easily/naturally to me, that I have to work very hard”). So, as a corollary to Renee’s question, how do you negotiate your way around those types of feelings? I guess first, how did you realize that you weren’t well (maybe that it wasn’t the authentic “you”?)? And then, as you recovered, how do you work your way around those feelings of imposture, of inauthenticity?

    And then, on a different note and corollary to Kim’s question, I wonder if and how you dealt with your own feelings of stigma against mental illnesses? Were there any assumptions/stereotypes that you held and that you had to resolve yourself? And, if so, how did you rework your understanding of mental health by your experience?

    Do those questions make sense? Lol, it’s early and my morning’s already been stressful. I might go back to bed. 😉

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    • My god, Amanda, these are brilliant questions, beautifully articulated! Just a quick answer to the first question, as I will do at least a post on this–yes, I still feel like an impostor. This is not resolved. I wonder who I am underneath all the drugs I have to take to keep me passing for normal–make me a walking around kind of human being, as opposed to someone cowering in some corner, babbling to myself.

      The second quesion is complicated to answer and one I’ve also not resolved. But yes, I have my own stereotypes about mental illness and a stigma I place on myself because of it–fear, for example, that WordPress will never again Freshly Press one of my posts since I’ve now admitted I’m a crazy person–or was one-or still am one underneath it all. Does that make sense? What does it take to legitimize a blog about mental illness? That may be a “crazy” question, but I wonder this, as I move my blog in this direction. How do I make my blog about mental illness not insane, but real and accessible?

      Thank you so much for these quesions, Amanda! Thank you from the bottom of my heart!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  5. Kathy, how brave of you! A question did come to mind as I was reading your lovely post: you mentioned that you felt a huge disconnect. When you were ill, did you realize that you were ill? When did you realize it was out of your control – more than you could handle on your own?

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    • Wow, this is also a great quesion–damn good! I think I was unsual in this regard, as I seemed almost always aware that something was wrong, at least on some level. There waa a dissociative quality to my illness–like I was watching myself go crazy and only able to get help if I could get back in control and find it. I’ll have to write a good bit about this, as I don’t fully understand this aspect of my own symptomology. Does that make sense?

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  6. I also wonder about the issues of your “true self”. As an academic by training, I am reluctant to believe in a fixed Self that exists independently of social interactions/customs/communication, etc., but still– do you ever wonder if it is possible to be your ‘real self’ while on medication? Do you feel like going off meds completely in the service of the ‘true you’? Do you find yourself questioning whether certain symptoms or experiences you have are ‘real’ or if they are just a byproduct of your bipolar disorder or the medications you are taking?

    Marty has suffered from chronic Lyme’s Disease since 2002, and we always wonder if certain symptoms of his (like muscle fatigue or memory loss, for example) are just a sign of ‘getting older’ or if they can be directly attributed to the bastard tick that bit him. I’m really curious how you manage these issues and, ultimately, how you resolve (in your own mind and heart) to take medications. What makes all the meds worth it for you, in your own opinion?

    PS: As if you’ll never be FP again. These posts about mental illness are SHEER GENIUS!!

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    • My God, how could I be blessed with readers who are able to come up with these questions?! These are brilliant, Dana! And obviously I can’t begin to answer in this format–these deserve a number of posts–books! I do struggle with the medication issue but the other me is simply not able to function in the every day world–so unless someone were willing to take care of me as a creative, crazy genious, I won’t stop the meds. I don’t think it would be fair to Sara, for example. I do miss the intensity of creativity–I miss that DESPERATELY. My goal is to learn to dip down into that place to create and come back out again–but that’s REALLY hard to do–and I can only do it sometimes–actually, rarely. More on this in posts.

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      • I find it fascinating how creative the mentally imbalanced are. I was imbalanced (diagnosed with borderline bi-polar, borderline personality disorder, diagnosed with dysthymia, diagnosed with depression with manic episodes…I think that’s all…) and my creativity was stifled. Buried. Non-existent. I see that a lot in other creative types. Since the wires of my mental instability have started to untangle, my creativity has begun to flourish. There’s freedom in the untangling…

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      • The thing that frustrates me is that I was most creative when I was the most symptomatic. Having worked through so many issues, I’m still able to create, and maybe able with more predictability, but what I produce doesn’t seem to come from a place as deep inside as some of the other stuff. Does that make sense?

        Again, thanks for this great comment! Thanks so much!

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  7. Some questions for you:

    – Could you write more about what Bipolar Disorder actually is, and the treatment for it. I’m not asking for the Wikipedia version here, but how you, as somebody suffering from it, would describe it and what you think of the treatment available.
    – What other measures do you take to help you cope? E.g. to deal with chronic migraines I have to make sure everything in my life is pretty constant – amount of sleep I get, blood sugar levels, amount of stimulants like caffeine I consume.
    – How young were you when you first realized you were different? How did you family react to you? Did they assist in getting you help?
    – How and when were you diagnosed?
    – Have you ever stopped taking your medication deliberately? I’m on anti-depressants and like Renee, even though it makes me feel very “dull” and somewhat disconnected, I know I can’t cope without them.
    – Besides being more creative because of the bipolar, which “you” do you like better? The creative weird person, or the more in control one?
    – Which “you” is more social? The medicated one, or the un-medicated one?
    – Recently it seems you’ve been struggling more again with the bipolar. What caused this “relapse”?

    I’m sure I’ll come up with more, but these should get you started! 😉

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    • First, let me clarify. I haven’t had a relapse at all. I am only talking about the illness in an effort to write a memoir. Nothing is different than it has been for years–I’m still a bit symptomatic at times, but for the most part, pretty “normal.” I have posted material that I wrote when I was very sick, but this is actually not happening in any huge way right now in my life. Sorry to confuse you.

      Also,the quesion about what I do to cope is REALLY important. I will definitely write a post on that–great idea, Lisa! For me, it’s all about managing stress though–getting regular sleep, yes, those kinds of things–exercise, etc.

      Again, Lisa, brilliant questions–also forgot, yes, I will describe the illness, lay out symptoms, etc. I hadn’t thought of that. That’s why these quesions are so valuable, as I might have overlooked that detail.

      And thanks for the chance to clarify the difference between then and now. I have never been symptom free. In recent years my symptoms have just been very well managed by medication and stress management, etc–but no real recent change.

      Thanks again, my friend!

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      • Sorry, “relapse” was a bad word to use. I actually meant symptomatic. That’s why we need you to give us (especially me) the Bipolar 101.

        Your mentioning stress management, makes me think of another question. What kind of situations do you find more stressful than others?

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      • Great question! And, yes, there is so much to explain and the words mean different things depending on your expereince. But, yes, there are some things that are more stressful than others. For example, I need predictability, but of course I’m partnered with someone who works in disaster response. Those damn disasters just don’t want to cooperate with my sense of scheduling, so we have to come up with ways to build a degree of predictability into the seeming and potential chaos that is natural disaster. But I need to explain that more, as that might be interesting to folks, actually. Thanks, Lisa! I love your questions-love, love, love them!

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  8. Jacquelin beat me to the punch on my question…I was thinking about hearing that many Alzheimer’s patients are aware of their illness, and are terribly frustrated by it. Is it the same when you’re manic…aware of it, but powerless to do anything about it (without meds)?

    I have a friend who is bipolar…he has a government license to grow marijuana for his own use…it’s the only thing that keeps him out of the hospital (this is just an FYI).

    Looking forward to reading your memoirs…

    Hugs,
    Wendy

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    • Gosh, Wendy, I love Canada! I want to move there–a country that allows gay marriage and would allow me to grow marijuanna for personal use!

      Actually, I would be afraid to use pot–as years ago when I tried it, it seemed to exacerbate my symptoms. I don’t even drink for that reason–or drink very rarely. I’m soooooooooo boring!

      This question about awareness of the illness is a GREAT one, as I think I am different than most in this regard. I’m going to go back through my journals to be sure I’m remembering correctly, but I seem to have remained aware on some level that something was amiss. I only remember clearly one time when my doctors insisted I was VERY sick and obviously psychotic and I could NOT SEE IT AT ALL!

      You all are giving me SOOOOOOOO much to think about. I don’t know how to thank you enough–truly. I never dreamt this could be so helpful! Thank you, dear Wendy!

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  9. Kathy…
    do you miss it?
    I mean…does “normalcy” seem…beige, lukewarm?

    Is the way you feel in your life being “well” as fulfilling as when you weren’t?

    in terms of creativity, passion, fire…

    and in terms of your own idea of who you were?

    if that makes ANY sense…

    😉

    blessings
    jane

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    • Gosh, Jane, thanks for this question, because, yes, as crazy as it sounds, I DO miss it! I miss the intense creative energy–desperately, to be honest. I’ve wanted to do a medication vacation to see what would happen, but honestly, I don’t think I’m brave enough, since inevitably it all becomes too intense and then scarey. I wish there were a thermostat I could adjust to get just the right level of energy and intensity, but it just doesn’t happen that way. Alas!

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  10. I’ve been lucky to only experience subtle shades of insanity. It all sounds sort of familiar though.

    I’ve no questions, I’m just glad you’re rocking it.

    Wonderful painting too.

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  11. I don’t have questions, for the time being anyway. (Might just be I’m in a bad frame of mind tonight.) But I am very interested to follow your journey as you write it and I am behind you 100%.

    Hugs!

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  12. This may seem like a very broad question, but what do you remember about the stages of decline into insanity? I figure you must have had stages of reasoning where you accepted ideas that previously would have seemed crazy but became increasingly reasonable us you lost your power to reason or filtered out mechanisms for discerning reality. Can you think of any pivotal moments when your thinking changed and you rationalized and accepted the necessity of cutting off a friend or a counselor or any other habit that had previously tempered your irrational side? Does this make sense?

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    • Good God, this is a great quesion! The process of decline? I don’t know the immediate answer–but during my first psychotic break there seemed to be a decline. I think I need to go back through the journals I kept at that time to figure out an answer–but I know it all culminated with the belief that I should tear up the carpet in my living room and then actually doing it in the middle of the night–hulling huge hunks of carpet to the dumpster and setting up a ladder beside the dumpster so I could lift the pieces up and into it–all this in a rental apartment.

      I will do a post on this. Thanks so much for this quesion– I hope you’ll come back by for the answer!

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  13. I meant to respond to this post yesterday, Kathy, and then I thought about it again this morning. I wonder if you’re having trouble writing about your childhood because you were raised to keep your dad’s connection to crime a secret, and so writing about it would feel like a betrayal of sorts. That’s a tough demon to face. Loyalty is a funny thing.

    I’m with you on how agonizing it can be to share such personal accounts with the people who visit you at this space each day. Each time I post something personal, I regret it to some degree. When you open yourself up, that means there’s room for the world to reject you. But look at it this way–it also means there’s room for the world to accept, welcome and urge you to keep moving forward.

    Give it time…a memoir takes courage, and that kind of courage is built over time, through the process of writing and revising. Have faith in yourself.

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    • You are absolutely right, Maura! I was supposed to keep it a secret, so telling the story is definitely taboo! Yes, that makes perfect sense–doesn’t it? Don’t know why I didn’t think of that————— Guess thats where great readers come in! Thanks for this insight!

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      • In the briefest of brief nutshells, in my experience and what I’ve seen with others, most mental instability and disorders are sourced in this kind of bondage. Secrets. Abuse. Lies. Misunderstanding. A lot of times we have no idea what it is. Sometimes we have to search for it. Sometimes it just comes to us. There are many ways to find the source. But once the source has been revealed, shared, processed and worked out…there’s no more chaos there. There’s freedom there. The tricky thing with it all, though…is that there’s usually a lifetime of bondage to uncover. A lifetime of walls that were built to protect that space, that need to be torn down.

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      • I agree that there can be a kind of bondage–very often abuse. At least there was for me. But when I was the “sickest,” I was also the most creative. It seems like when I was the most ill, the walls were nearly non-existent. Also, however, I would get stuck in that space–if that makes sense.

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  14. I have a long history with depression, which one side of my family don’t seem to understand, they say things like “oh, you’ll get over it” or “are you really still taking medication after all these years?” I asked my GP about the stigma of mental illness (it runs in my other side of the family). His response has lifted me – I no longer have any doubts about taking meds (even when I thought that I should be coming off them, as I was encourage by others) – “so what if you have to take the meds for the rest of your life, if they only serve to bring your balance back to what society calls normal – if you feel you function at what is a an expectation of yourself or even loved ones, just lie to them (my immediate family believes I am med free), but do what is right for you if that gets you through.” I have had new in-laws comment on how much more stable I am than the rest of the family, my cheeky answer to them has been, “I am the only one who is medicated,” they laugh as do I. I know they are aware I am different, I don’t make contact as much as other family members, I am often aloof – they just think I’m eccentric. I don’t feel that I am being an imposter, rather the meds lift me to where I should be – if that makes any sense? I don’t like the person I am unmedicated – who is often angry, aggressive and abusive, the person I am when medicated is level headed, accepting and responds rather than reacts – is that so wrong?

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    • I can very much appreciate your experience. There is a significant history of mental illness on one side of my family, as well. During the time I was symptomatic my family was not involved–which was sad, but that’s okay. I’m certainly happy now to be taking meds–though I must admit that I’d love to be off them. In some ways I enjoyed the crazy me more than the sane me. I was not abusive or aggressive, but I was not able to function. I miss the intense creativity I expereinced when I was sick, but I’m happy now to be on meds and funtioning in the world more normally. Actually, someone meeting me now would never know.

      Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment, Anne! I hope you’ll come back————————

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  15. Hi Kathy, I was awestruck by your description “I experienced a huge disconnect—watching myself go crazy, almost from a distance, and being completely powerless to interrupt the process.” It sounded like the spiritual experience I’ve heard so many teachers describe. “Watching myself” sounds like you tapped into the realm of pure consciousness, “the observer”. The observer is the non-judgemental part of our true selves according to the spiritual teachers. Pure consciousness observes in peace and non-judgement. It observes itself acting in the realm of the human psyche. This is such a gift, to realize this. Bryon Katie and Eckhart Tolle are two teachers that I highly recommend to read their story. Both came from the depths of madness to awakening into pure consciousness. Eckhart’s story is in his book,”The Power of Now” and Katie’s story is in her book, “Loving What Is”. You may find help in making sense out of your own personal experience.
    I have personal experience with clinical depression and anxiety. I understand what it is like to live with a form of mental illness and how debilitating, frustrating and shameful it can be.
    Now, I view life as an experience of events that can be so very very interesting.
    I love your idea to write about what it felt like and what you thought. I think that is the most important thing of all.
    Hugs to you, Kathy.

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    • This is really fascinating, Marianne! I have to admit having wondered if there was necessarily a big difference between what I expereinced and what some might consider a spiritual one. I will definitely have to check into this. What you saying sounds fabulous, really! Thanks so much for sharing this. Hugs to you too——————-

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  16. A very belated question – I wonder whether you have spent much time talking to people with similar symptoms and experiences as your own and how common those experiences are? I would imagine that there’s a great deal of individuality in experiencing mental illness, but there also seems to be a lot of commonality, even between people with entirely different diagnoses.

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    • I have spent time talking with other folks with similar diagnoses. I don’t know that I’ve spent a LOT of time, but a decent amount. I tend to notice more similarity than difference. Generally, it’s this commmonality that makes diagnosis possible, I guess. This is really a great question. Maybe the bottom line is that I’m often surprised by how common other’s experiences are to mine–by how often I’m told that by folks who have read what I’ve written or feel it reading how others have described their symptoms. Hope this makes sense.

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