Vocabulary Lesson

Ravishing Sight

Proud: Feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.  —Unabridged Random House Dictionary

A couple of weeks ago, I met the nurse practitioner who will be my new primary care provider (more on that weird encounter here).  She gave me many gifts—opportunities to practice mindfulness, chances to hold an open mind, occasions to strengthen my tolerance and my boundaries.  After speaking with her for ten minutes, she also said she was proud of me.

(Cue Crickets)

See, I have a bit of an issue with people claiming to be proud of me.  The use of the word proud or pride means they have some vested interest in me, that they, in some way, are responsible for or can take credit for who I am or what I’ve done.

A few people can legitimately make this claim:

  1. My Immediate Family.  Those who raised me, shaped my character, or built the original hurdles I learned to jump can actually see their own handiwork in who I am today.  They are allowed to be proud of what they’ve done (or not so proud, as the case may be).
  2. Close Friends.  The people who stuck with me through the best and worst, who gave council and butt-kickings, who lost sleep and traveled distance to help me can also claim pride in their efforts to keep me alive.
  3. My Therapists.  The ones who actually made a difference.  The ones who struggled with and for me.  The ones who went above and beyond professional expectations.  They should be proud of themselves because of my successes and the fact that I’m still alive and walking around.

That’s it.

Now, I’m aware that people use proud and pride incorrectly.  Not everyone is an English major or is gnat’s ass picky about language.  What they really mean to say is that they admire me.  They might even be in awe of me.  Or even just happy for me.  That’s lovely.  And appropriate.  Thank you.

To claim to be proud of me after knowing me for ten minutes undermines my ownership of my own experience.  It’s a form of condescension—a pat on the head.  It effectively puts me, as a person with mental illness, in a place of less than, lower than, weaker than.  It tries to shove me in a corner.


That’s right.  Nobody.  And I don’t need Patrick Swayze to rescue me, either, because my world is round, Baby!  I know who I am, what I’ve accomplished, and what a freaking force of nature I’ve become.  All that’s needed is a little vocabulary lesson if this misusage flub happens again.  And it will.  Not just with my new PCP, but with anyone who feels so uncomfortable with my unusual life that they need to discredit it.

A gentle whack with my Unabridged Dictionary ought to do the trick.

An Experiment in Justice

IsisMost of the time, attending the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines is a joyful experience for me.  I’m fed by the music, the ethics of the community, the wisdom and passion of the ministers.  I feel at home there.

But, because it is an Unitarian community, social justice is a big part of the zeitgeist.  We are called to wake up and “stay woke” to the inequity of our justice and prison systems, to the destruction of black bodies.  Sermons, like Erin Gingrich’s message a few weeks ago, Black Lives Matter, gnaw at my comfort.  Adult education classes include discussion groups about books like Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  Affirmed Justice small groups meet to plan how to incorporate Restorative Justice into our schools and courts.

I’m proud to be part of this vibrant, caring community.  I just can’t figure out where I fit.

comptonYesterday, after a particularly fiery sermon, I left with a plan.  I would go see Straight Outta Compton, the movie about the first gangsta rap group, NWA. Rap music scares me.  The language, the violence, the rage—they all scare me.  But, I know all of it is someone’s real, lived, experience.  I thought, I can do this.  I can watch this movie with curious compassion and be mindful of my fear.  I can do this.

I had read in the church bulletin that next Sunday would be the Blending of the Waters ritual.  Congregants bring water from a significant source, talk about what it symbolizes, and pour it into a common bowl.  It’s a way to acknowledge the gifts we all bring to the community.

So, when I got my popcorn and diet Coke for the movie, I filled the cup to the top with ice.  This would be my offering to the bowl next Sunday, this ice that would hold my fear and my courage.

I came out of the movie shell-shocked, over-run by the full range of my bipolarness.  I drove home crying, raging, and ultimately locked-down.  I sedated myself and went to bed, hoping for clarity in the morning.

And, by gum, that’s what I found.

My feelings of ineptness and desperation around social justice mirror my old feelings about work and being a productive member of society.  I had to keep trying to go back to work until I learned that my mental illness took that ability.  The stress of working is now a trigger.

Now I know that the stress of being an activist, of even considering being an activist, is also a trigger.  I can’t keep the pain, injustice and rage outside of me.  My boundaries aren’t that strong.

Knowing one’s triggers is important information for anyone with mental illness.  Self-knowledge and insight are vital tools.  Going to this movie set me free in many ways.  It gave me a new sense of clarity and purpose.  I will never be on the front lines with those in my church fighting for social justice, but I will be right behind them armed with my own kind of courage.

That’s what I intend to say next Sunday when I pour my melted-ice water into the community bowl.

The Hot Itch

Say Hi to the PopeLast week I met my new primary care provider.  I’ve been searching for a doc for a couple of years since the Best Doctor in the Whole World retired.  I try not to hold everyone to his standard.  I got spoiled.

So, everyone who’s anyone has recommended this OB/GYN nurse practitioner.  Great, I thought.  I was a nurse.  We can relate.

And, indeed, she was vivacious, and friendly, and practical (gotta love that).  Then, we took a sharp turn into The Twilight Zone.

I would characterize this NP as an evangelical Christian, which would normally be a non-issue for me.  As a self-proclaimed mystical atheist, I’m always interested in what other people believe.  I told her that.  She laughed and said she wouldn’t try to convert me.  I laughed and said it wasn’t possible.

So, with that bit of self-disclosure out of the way, she asked if I ever had thoughts of harming myself.  I gave my standard Psych History answer—”I tried to kill myself once.  I still have suicidal thoughts, but I recognize them as symptoms and a signal to get help.”

She said, “We all have bad thoughts, and most people go through some period of depression.”

(Okay, I thought.  She’s not a psychiatric nurse practitioner.  She may not know the difference between clinical and situational depression.  Just go with it.)

“Where do those bad thoughts come from?” she asked (rhetorically).  “If you believe in God, then you have to believe in the Devil…”

I must have gotten a LOOK on my face, because she stuttered to a stop and started talking about vaginal health.  Was I imagining things, or was this educated, medical professional about to tell me mental illness was caused by the Devil?  I was so shocked, I don’t remember what else she said, just that we wrapped it up pretty quick, and I was shuffling to my car in a daze.

The daze turned to anger before I left the parking lot.  Are we in the Middle Ages, I fumed.  What was next?  Burning at the stake?  Dousing?

Rage fueled a deep hopelessness.  I missed my old doctor.  Did I have to choose between the cold, condescending woman who took over his practice or this kind-hearted religioso?  Did I have to start the search all over again?

I met with my meditation group later in the day and felt righteous satisfaction in their outrage as I told the story.  It’s a hot itch, indignation.  It gets under the skin and festers.

AbsinthineSo, as we sat together in silence, I took a step back from what I was feeling.  I called up the part of me that observes my thrashing around with gentle curiosity.  What happened?

I saw that I’m not as tolerant as I like to believe.  I don’t like people pushing their religion at me.  I don’t like the blank stares when I say I’m an atheist.  As the pastor at the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines said on Sunday, I’m more than willing to share my faith with people who are genuinely interested, curious and open-minded.  But, that happens rarely.  It’s just easier to keep my mouth shut.

What does it matter anyway?  I tried to look a little deeper.

My ego hates to be misunderstood.  It hates to be dismissed or categorized.  And it really hates to be discredited.  I’m proud of how hard I’ve worked to regain some functioning in the world.  Proud.


I looked at my choices again.  Cold, Condescending Beeyatch or Evangelist?  I tried CCB the last time I got bronchitis, so I knew what to expect.  I had a feeling the Evangelist would be kind and thorough.  I suspected she would take very good care of my body.  And that’s what I needed her to do.  I might have to set some boundaries.  If I could nudge my ego aside, there might even be A Teaching Moment.

Coming home from meditation with my friends, I turned up the music and sang down the highway.  The ego is a stubborn little cuss.  Mine can be paranoid and hysterical if the mood is right.  Anything can offend it, and it defends itself with teeth and claws.  But, like a mediocre poker player, it has a tell—that hot itch of indignation.  When I feel that under my skin, I know it’s time to back up and look again.

I’m glad for that signal, and I’m glad I know what to do with it.

Thanks, Ego-Girl.  Keep raging.



Do Superheroes Get PTSD?


Several Teesha stamps on this card

One of the items on my IPR Bucket List is to attend a Teesha Moore art retreat.  I found Teesha years ago when I first started using rubber stamps.  Hers were grungy, and weird, and everything I loved.  As you can see from the link, she makes bizarre-o collages and art journals, and held Artfest annually near her home in Issaquah, Washington.

First she quit making rubber stamps (boo!), then she quit offering the retreats.  I never had the funds to get out there anyway, but I always hoped—you know—someday.  So, she stayed on my list, because weirder things have happened (like me going to London last year).

Yesterday, she sent an email to announce that Artfest had risen from the dead and would I like to register?  Boom!  Done!  Later, as I scrolled through the information about Artfest, I realized some Cosmic Convergence or Synchronicity Faerie worked unseen in the ethers, because the theme of the retreat is:

Calling All Superheroes to Unite

As Teesha says on her website:

It is my intention that by the end of Artfest Rising, we will all be flying out of there with our capes flapping in the wind and our confident faces to the skies from our newfound understanding of ourselves, our powers and our place in this world….not to mention an amazing super-sized journal packed full of the coolest artwork around!

What feels even more serendipitous is that I’ve been contemplating my super powers recently.  I know most people don’t consider mental illness a super power, but take my Clark Kent glasses for a moment and have a look-see. dark knight

There’s Bipolar Disorder, a cross between The Dark Knight and The Human Torch.  This is Human-Torchthe veteran, the Bad-Ass, the muscle. Fatale

Then, there’s Binge Eating Disorder.  She’s been around a long time, but never identified, never given her full cred in the super power department—sort of like Fatale, one of the Dark X-Men.  Deceptively evil—strong as the horse she’s usually eating. mistique

But the super power that’s come out to play recently is one I know little about.  She’s a Mistique, a chameleon, blending into her surroundings for the sneak attack.  This, of course, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  She’s played me for a while now, posing as memory, setting trip wires that jettison me into past trauma with anxiety and flashbacks.  I’m not used to thinking of her as part of the Superhero Pantheon, but this girl’s got game.

These three (four, really—Bipolar could never be content with one aspect) might seem like a hinderance, a handicap, but look again at their power.  They’ve protected me, kept me safe.  Sure, there’s a price.  And the bill never gets settled.  But the more I learn about them, their origin stories, their special abilities, the more I can see their beauty.  I’m making room for them, inviting them in instead of locking them out.  It’s a tentative truce, but we’re making progress.

I can’t wait to take them all to Artfest next spring to see what happens.

We’re on an Adventure.


Aches to FeelOriginally one of the Four Humours in ancient medical practice, the word melancholia comes from the Greek for “black bile.”  Someone with a melancholic temperament presented as despondent, quiet, analytical and serious.

Whole eras could be melancholic (The Dark Ages).  Movements in music, literature and philosophy grew around it—Germany’s Strum und Drang, William Blake’s art and poetry, Edgar Allen Poe in general.

Later, melancholia became synonymous with major clinical depression, but went out of fashion as a medical term.

My personal experience of melancholia contains a wistful element—a hole that can’t be filled, an undefined longing.  There’s a nostalgic flavor to it, an almost remembering.  It’s that feeling of waking out of a dream right before an answer is given, before arriving at the destination, before the consummating kiss.  Something very important slips through my fingers, only I can’t remember what it was.  I miss someone terribly, but I don’t know who.

Across the wide spectrum of my bipolar mood swings, this is the place I can tolerate the best.  I’m not surprised that poets, painters, musicians and philosophers created from this saturnine state.  I experience it as deeply romantic and full of movement—Catherine in Wuthering Heights, crying out for Heathcliff on the moors.  For me, this mood easily attaches itself to story, character, fictional angst and all things heart-wrenching.  I can use this form of depression.  I can’t say that about most of my other states.

It still requires mindfulness.  Melancholia’s longing draws in sorrow and angst from outside of me, be it real or fictional.  I dare not watch The Road or Atonement.  And after I finish that intense reunion scene with my short story characters, I’d better go watch funny kitten videos on You Tube.

Having a hole that can’t be filled creates incredible vulnerability.  The longing to fill an aching, raw void leads to desperate acts.  So, while this humour visits me, I will feed it art and words of love and belonging.  If I’m very lucky, I might even start to remember that nothing is missing at all.


Our Town

One People

Today I watched a police officer escort a homeless family out of HyVee’s café.    They had been in the booth behind me, so quiet I never even knew they were there—a mother, a father, a little boy about six and a baby in a stroller.  I didn’t see them bother anyone or cause a disturbance.  They were just resting, watching the big screen TV.

The young officer wasn’t mean, but he wasn’t kind either.  He asked what they were doing.  He asked if they were staying at The House of Compassion (our homeless shelter), then he got them up and out the door.

I don’t blame him—he was doing his job, I guess.  But I’m furious at whoever made the call to the police in the first place.  The family looked poor, but clean.  They didn’t smell drunk or seem high on street drugs.  The breakfast rush was over, so taking up space for paying customers couldn’t have been the issue.  Maybe the sight of the sleeping mother was offensive.  Maybe the whole idea of homeless people in plain sight was offensive.

I’m sure it never occurred to the complainant to ask if the family needed help or breakfast.  Or to call their pastor instead of the police (because anyone who needed to call the police must own a strong sense of morality and, thus, have a pastor).  And I’m positive they didn’t understand that a homeless shelter is far from restful, especially for adults who must protect their children.  Leaving a shelter exhausted in the morning is the norm.  Poverty is exhausting.

When I left HyVee, I spotted them far down the road—the dad pushing the stroller, the mom lagging behind with the little boy.  Even at 9:30, the morning was hot and humid.  I wondered where they would find a welcoming place to rest.  I wondered if that was possible in this town.

Life on Speed

CrackheadSay No to Drugs.  That’s been my mantra for the past five years.  After trying every psychotropic pharmacology had to offer, which either had no effect or made my bipolar symptoms worse, I chose to manage my illness drug-free.  I take a sleep-aide when insomnia pops up, because that can mess me up fast and hard, but that’s it.  I had to get over my dream of a Magic Pill.

A year or so ago, I also gave up the dream of losing weight.  I’d used every kind of diet and non-diet, mindfulness training and behavior modification, but compulsive eating always won in the end.  I felt it was time to shake hands with that old nemesis and accept it in the pantheon of players.  Better to accept all of me, I thought, than keep bullying the parts that didn’t behave well.

I’d never talked about my compulsive eating with the nurse practitioner at my psych clinic, but this spring I did.  It was part of my bi-annual check-in, a commentary on my relationship with myself.  But she had a different take on it.  Sarah said I was a poster child for Binge Eating Disorder, and that there was a drug that might help.

Was I leery?  Yes.  Skeptical? Of course.  One of the things I love about Sarah, though, is how conservative she is about medication.  She’s my loudest cheerleader, and our brief sessions usually consist of her grilling me on what new tools I’m using to manage drug-free.  I know to keep an open mind when Sarah makes a suggestion.  So, we talked about Vyvanse being a “clean” drug—it’s in your system or it’s not, no lingering effects, no weaning on or off it like the psychotropics.  Any side effects should present themselves right away.  We would start with the lowest dose and work our way up to find a level that would (ideally) curb the compulsion without throwing me into mania or insomnia.  I said, yes, let’s give it a try.

I tried not to have any expectations.  I turned down the volume on The Song of the Magic Pill.  I didn’t want to set myself up for another round of disappointment and failure.  Sarah encouraged me to focus on changes in the compulsive thinking and my feelings, not weight.  I created a chart for the back of my journal to keep track of those parameters.  I was ready.

Three weeks in and I’m cautiously, furtively whispering, It’s a miracle.

The first thing I noticed was the sensation of fullness.  I never felt full when I ate, not even after bingeing for hours at a time.  What allowed me to stop was a weird click in my head, like a timer that said I was done.  Feeling full was a totally alien concept, and I was astonished at the minuscule amount of food that produced the effect.

I also noticed when the Vyvanse wore off and the compulsion returned.  It was like fire ants scuttling over my brain, a swarm of nattering food-thought—What do I want? What do I need? Where? When? How much? What else?—that hadn’t been there a moment before.  It was fascinating.  And it helped me identify the compulsion more clearly.  I could see the difference between the frenzied drive and habit.

Habits are the things normal people deal with—popcorn at the movies, a snack with TV, a trip to Dairy Queen to celebrate.  I found that without the engine of compulsion pushing my habits, I could brush them aside.  I spent a couple of hours reading without eating.  I watched a movie without a snack.  Habit carries its own power, so I have to be intentional and mindful, but now mindfulness actually works.  I still overeat and make crappy choices otherwise.

With time and attention, habits can be changed.  This is my hope.  I went to Starbucks the other day and stopped before I ordered.  I thought my regular Venti latte might make my stomach uncomfortably full.  I was perfectly satisfied with the Grande I ordered instead.  I can’t adequately express how weird and wonderful that little triumph felt.  With nary a fire ant in sight.

I’m on an Adventure.

The Price of Insight

I'm OK A prominent feature of  schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is anosognosia, a sick person’s unawareness that he is sick. — Algis Valiunas, New Atlantis, Winter 2009.

No one really understands why those of us with serious mental illness struggle with insight.  Current medical theory holds that it’s actually a core feature of our neurobiology.  It’s not that we’re in denial or stubborn—we simply can’t see.

This seems ridiculous to those observing from the outside as our behavior becomes more risky and disjointed.  But those are the times when our insight is most impaired, because anosognosia is also a symptom. We lose insight just when we need it most.

Lack of insight is relative.  It fluctuates as the illness fluctuates.  When we are in remission or in a more stable state, we can often see that we were ill.

Lack of insight is listed as the leading cause of non-compliance with medication (I’m not sick, so why should I take these drugs that make me feel lousy), and in another paradox, compliance with one’s medication regime can improve insight in some cases.

Aggression and violent behavior are also linked to lack of insight.

So, if insight is important to recovery and functionality, what can we do to foster it?  Unfortunately (and not really a surprise), the mental health delivery system has little to offer:  Take your meds.  Go to therapy.

I’ve been told by most of the professionals I’ve worked with that I have a high level of insight.  Even when my symptoms are at their worst, I retain some awareness, though it becomes harder to access and trust.  But very few of those therapists and psychiatrists ever asked me if I do anything to strengthen my awareness.  The fact is I work very hard at it.

I started meditating and working on mindfulness years before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and those practices continue to help me “wake up” in the middle of an episode.  Meditation is the only “exercise” I know that builds the muscle of insight.  And like any muscle, the more it’s worked, the stronger it becomes.  We can build insight by using insight.

It’s not for weenies, this practice.  Ask any neuro-normal who sits meditation or suddenly realizes he’s projecting his fears into the future instead of living in the Now.  Most people are asleep.  To be anything else requires dedication, courage and sweat.  It also requires forgiveness, tenderness and a willingness to observe rigid beliefs with gentle curiosity.  Even then, moments of awareness are fleeting.

Insight is a Big Ticket item, and most people would rather spend their hard-earned psychic cash elsewhere.  I get that.  I’ve taught meditation for fifteen years, and most people don’t stick with it.  Sitting with oneself can be uncomfortable.  It can be frightening.  Why not practice golf instead?  At least that’s fun.

That’s been my experience with neuro-normals.  Now I’ve been asked to teach meditation to folks like me with serious mental illness.  I’ll introduce it gently next week, then see if anyone wants to continue.

Because these are people who will recognize the price tag.  And they might decide it’s worth it.

Give Me a Reason

It’s been a bad day.

It’s one of those days when thoughts of death and fantasies of how seep through the cracks.  It’s one of those days that demand a reason—any reason—to keep on going.

Like the push of a kitty’s paws against my side as he settles me for a nap.

Or a job that needs to be finished.

So, I left Emmett to sleep under the covers and finished a project—cards for the people retiring this year from our school district.


This is the third year I’ve been hired to make these cards.  When I think about it, even though I ended up in partial hospitalization the last two years, I still got the cards made.  They nudge me toward life, these pieces of gratitude.  My hands remember beauty even if I can’t at the moment.  As I work the sun swings around to my westward-facing window, giving Henry his chance to bask.

Another day nearly done.  And I made it to the other side.

Kind, Gentle and Generous

Give Him the Moon

Earlier this year I set a goal to stay out of the hospital or a hospital program this spring.  Three out of the last five years, I’ve ended up there.  It’s a good thing, really, to know when to make that call.  Lots of folks with mental illness aren’t able to do that for themselves, so I feel lucky and proud of the work I do to hang onto a little insight during the worst of times.

However, the program I’ve used in the past was eliminated, like many of the behavioral health programs across the state, because psychiatrists fled Iowa like rats on a sinking ship (some problem with Medicare reimbursement).  If I needed serious help now, I’d have to drive across the state and admit myself into one of the few psych wards left.  I’d rather not, really.

I needed to change things up—not just my perspective, but what I do to manage this transition from winter to summer.  I found some new resources this year to help—Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation (IPR) and Integrated Health Services (IHS).  Both are new state programs trying to fill the gaps left by the psych docs.  Also, with my mom’s passing last summer, I now live frugally instead of crushed by poverty.  It’s a huge difference.

So, with this new net under me, I started to address the critical and disapproving voice in my head.  I started to wonder if my drive to do more and be more was actually another facet of that mean voice.  I watched how I withheld comfort, left no room for rest or rejuvenation, and squeaked by on the least.

I wondered how it might feel to do the opposite—to be kind and gentle in my self-appraisal, to be generous with my time and money.  I wondered how that voice might sound.  I wondered, for instance, what my grandma might say to me when rapid cycling ruined all my plans for the day.  Or what my friend, Lily, might say about me going to Ireland next year.

Whenever I started to hate on myself, or rail against the unfairness of living with bipolar disorder, or scold myself for going to Des Moines twice in one week, I tried to stop and conjure the people who love me.  Their kind and gentle voices filled my mind.  Their immediate generosity helped me breathe.

Over the course of the spring, I’ve tried to make those voices strong in my mind.  This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.  I’m steeped in self-violence.  Recognizing the lie in that voice when it slithers into my thoughts takes time.  Then, countering it with petal-soft, open-armed sweetness is like speaking a foreign language.  But, I’ve learned a few words.  And my vocabulary is growing.

Being kind, gentle and generous to myself doesn’t alter the course of my bipolarity.  Rapid cycling fogs my brain and leaves me exhausted.  Emotions flip and tumble like Olympians.  Chores overwhelm me.  But, today, I have hope that I can navigate the hard road through Spring.  In my mind, I’m holding a warm, gentle hand.  It fits perfectly in mine.  Because it is mine.

Previous Older Entries Next Newer Entries

Blog Stats

  • 113,451 hits

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,225 other followers

%d bloggers like this: