From My Hero File

Stephen Fry, Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

stephen words

Feeling the Squeeze

Martian Popping ThingNot that this is news to anyone, but dealing with bipolar disorder isn’t for pansy-asses.  It takes a kind of courage I’m only beginning to comprehend.

The depression has been big these last two weeks, my internal world inhospitable and frightening.  Lies and faulty thinking I thought I’d corrected long ago are back.  Mindfulness is out of reach.  I do what I can—move through the water every morning, go someplace that smells like coffee, write in my journal, call a friend.  But I can only poke holes in the darkness.  And as my therapist and I start using the tools in Radical Acceptance, I’m catching glimpses of—something—on the periphery.

There’s a terror within me that I’ve never touched.  I’m being asked to do that now.  Intellectually, I see this as therapeutic and full of potential.  But in our first session doing this Work, so much resistance came up that my body went numb.  Everything in me wanted to run out of Megan’s office.  When she talked to me, it was as if she spoke a foreign language.  I could not comprehend what she said.

I’ve tried working with difficult aspects of my illness before—the compulsive eating and spending, the anxiety, the insatiable longing.  I’ve noticed that when I start challenging one of these pieces or bring awareness to it, the others thrash around like two-year-olds.  To me it feels like a kind of pressure valve.  When I pay attention to my feelings of loneliness and wanting, I eat everything in sight.  When I put structure to my eating, my credit card starts smoking from all the on-line shopping.  I feel like one of those rubber Martian Popper dolls.

But I’ve not really had a partner in doing this work.  My previous therapists were either traditional, ineffective, or so flaky that they never should have been practicing in the first place (I’ve had some whack-os.  That’s another story).  But now I have someone who feels safe and competent, someone who shares my view of mental illness as a spiritual path, someone who knows more than I do about this Work.  I don’t have to figure this out alone any more.

And while I’m scared, I’m also relieved.  I’m trying not to have expectations, just face whatever comes the best I can.

But I think I’ll have to find one of those Popper dolls to take with me to my next session.

Talking to Myself

handmade greeting card, collage artCycling again, and trying to experience it differently (My endless mantra—”Let’s try this…”).  Working with the practices in Radical Acceptance, I breathe and notice how the despair and sorrow feel in my body.  I try to give all that pain room and accept that this is my experience for now.

I’ve done this work before, realized that I feel nothing in the belly when depression is deep, constriction in my chest, constant pressure of tears trying to escape.  The new piece is acceptance and compassion for the whole of my experience—being kind to it all.

It’s too hard to do alone, so I’ll ask my new therapist to help me when I see her on Monday.  I want to run from the pain, numb it however I can, find diversion to keep from noticing it.  And that’s standard psychological practice—when symptoms are too overwhelming, find healthy diversion.  So, I wonder if I’m going too deep, trying to offer space when I should be sitting at the movies being distracted.  I’ve done both this week.

One thing Tara talks about in her book, is compassionate self-talk—telling yourself that you care about the suffering that’s happening.  When I read that passage yesterday, I realized that’s something I’ve done all my life through my stories.

I’ve always been a little embarrassed by my fan fiction.  It’s not considered “real” prose by literary types, just obsessive verbal stalking by lonely fan-girls.  To counteract my shame, I try to write well and develop a solid plot.  I do research and all the other things “real” writers do.  But they still feel like dirty secrets.  I’ve often wondered if my fantasies are pathological, even though every therapist I’ve ever seen says they’re good for me.  I go there, the place in me that holds and generates my stories, when my symptoms swamp me.  I feel ill and desperate when I go to that Haven, so I question whether it’s healthy.

But the stories that spin out are always loving, kind, supportive and validating.  The characters who show up tell me the things I can’t tell myself.  They are the friends who always  have time for me, the lovers who “see all my light, and love my dark.”  They take care of me, which reminds me of what I need to do to take care of myself.

Take the story that followed me around all day yesterday:

Tom HiddlestonI was at a party at Tom Hiddleston’s house with my boyfriend, Benedict Cumberbatch.  Tom hosted the party because Chris Hemsworth and his family were back in town (London) as were Anthony Hopkins and his wife (he lives in the US now).  David Tennant and his wife, and Simon Pegg and his wife, were also there.

These are all characters than have inhabited my Haven before.  It’s an ongoing stream, like real life, where people come and go.  Acquaintances become friends, friends become lovers.  We meet, part, meet again in different circumstances.  What we share and learn about each other carries over to the next scenario.  Sometimes these streams become solid enough to write.  Mostly they just live in my Haven and wait for the next development.

David Tennent, Simon PeggAt this particular party, Tom asked if I would sing for them (I sing a lot in these stories—always beautifully and with stunning effect).  I didn’t want to.  In the story I was sliding into depression and didn’t know some of the people there.  But I agreed anyway.  After singing the Alanis Morissette song “Everything” (which happened to be playing on my iPod), David and Simon wanted to set me up with a music producer they knew.  Their insistence was too much, their enthusiasm pushed me too hard.  I escaped out the front door to the street.  I was overwhelmed, embarrassed, worried that I’d ruined the party, worried that I’d wear out these new friends like I’d worn out everyone else in my life, worried that Benedict would leave me now, and basically felt wretched.

Anthony HopkinsSir Anthony came after me.  I’d never met him before that night, but enjoyed his company at dinner.  He brought a jacket—I’d run out without one—and asked if he could walk with me.  He asked what happened, and I told him.  He asked gentle questions that gave me space.  He talked about his own struggle with alcoholism and depression.  He understood.  He reminded me that my friends’ enthusiasm was just their way of loving me.  We talked about acting, and music, and living fully with mental illness.  He’d seen work I’d done (of course, I act in these stories, too), and said he had a script at home that he wanted to send me. He thought we’d be brilliant in this piece together.

Benedict CumberbatchWhen we went back into the house, Benedict was waiting.  Not worried, just present, ready to provide whatever I needed—comfort, acceptance, steadfastness.  Tom was worried that he’d caused me distress (because I think that’s what Tom Hiddleston would really do).  The rest of the party didn’t pay much attention to Tony and me going out—they had moved on to other conversation and high-energy story-telling.  And I was fine in my vulnerability, cocooned in love.

This story played out all day yesterday.  I was in a lot of distress, and when journaling and movies quit distracting me, the Story would come back and a new piece of comfort and space opened up.

I think I’m done being embarrassed by my stories.  I think I finally understand how important they are to my mental health.  When I need love and acceptance the most, I give it to myself through them.  And, really, I think that’s pretty cool.

Our Bodies—A Foreign Language

handmade greeting cards, collage artTara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, has offered me a treasure trove of learning and tools.  There’s so much, and the lessons run so deep, that I’m digesting it slowly.

Today I started the chapter on Desire and Wanting—what I’ve considered my biggest nemesis and Fatal Flaw.  Wanting turns me into someone else—ravenous, obsessive, and ultimately unworthy.  I’ve tried sitting quietly with it, holding it with curious compassion, but usually end up drowning it in whatever will make it shut up.  Of course, nothing does that for long.

Tara tells about a time when she was at the beginning of a new relationship.  She went off to a meditation retreat, looking forward to peace and rejuvenation, but all she could do was fantasize about her new boyfriend.  Here’s what she says about it:

After several days, I had a pivotal interview with my teacher.  When I described how I’d become so overwhelmed, she asked, “How are you relating to the presence of desire?”  I was startled into understanding.   For me, desire had become the enemy, and I was losing the battle.  Her questions pointed me back to the essence of mindfulness practice:  It doesn’t matter what is happening. What matters is how we are relating to our experience.  She advised me to stop fighting my experience and instead investigate the nature of wanting mind.  I could accept whatever was going on, she reminded me, but without getting lost in it.

While often uncomfortable, desire is not bad—it is natural.  The pull of desire is part of our survival equipment.  It keeps us eating, having sex, going to work, doing what we do to thrive.  Desire also motivates us to read books, listen to talks and explore spiritual practices that help us realize and inhabit loving awareness.  The same life energy that leads to suffering also provides the fuel for profound awakening.  Desire becomes a problem only when it takes over our sense of who we are.

We are mindful of desire when we experience it with an embodied awareness, recognizing the sensations and thoughts of wanting as arising and passing phenomena.  While this is not easy, as we cultivate the clear seeing and compassion of Radical Acceptance, we discover we can open fully to this natural force and remain free in its midst.

Feeling my emotions in my body is something I’ve been practicing for only a short time.  I’m more used to sitting in meditation and simply noting my physical state, not pausing in the midst of emotional pain to find it in my body.  Frankly, it’s frightening.  But the more I do it, the more I can accept whatever my body feels.  It’s hard not to jump ahead and wonder if this might be another piece in the puzzle of how to deal with my compulsive symptoms (There’s Wanting, again).  So, I just note that—feel the jittery, acid-burn of Wanting in my belly; the buzzy energy lighting up my arms and back—and breathe into the experience.

This is new, and exciting, and scary.  I want more.  But not today.  Today I’ll just stick to paying attention to what this experience feels like in my body.  That’s enough foreign language to digest for one day.

“It’s The Garden Spot of Ceti Alpha Five!”

I’m glad to be home.

Advanced Peer Support training was interesting, and I brought back the official certificate to prove my worthiness.  But class ended every day by 2:00, so I had a lot of time to fill.  Since I was in better health his time around, I thought I’d explore Council Bluffs a little.

Green Acres Natural FoodsI found a funky little natural market with homeopathic remedies, essential oils, supplements, cruelty-free cosmetics and some organic foods.  It smelled like heaven, or more like the hippy apothecary I used to frequent in Minneapolis, Present Moment.  I chatted with the staff for a while and bought a packet of lavender bath salts.  I figured I might as well enjoy my hotel room’s large tub while I had it.

One afternoon I visited the public library to see if their computer lab ran any faster than the ancient Windows machine at the hotel.  It was the weirdest set-up I’d ever seen.  Each carrel had a glass top.  Patrons had to look down through the glass to the screen under the desk.  I’m sure there’s some ergonomic reason for this, or maybe the computers felt safer locked away from humans, but I left after a half hour ready for that hot soak.

rebumbant bikeMostly I just hit the great Chinese restaurant on my way back to the hotel, watched endless episodes of Supernatural and NCIS, and went to bed.  Which meant I woke up at an ungodly hour.  But, no one else was in the Fitness Room at 3:30 in the morning, so that worked out fine.

horseshoe casino, council bluffsMy hotel was in the casino part of town, which might have been an option if I wanted to empty my billfold and eat at Hooters.  There was also an AMC theater down the street, but why go to a movie with back-to-back episodes of Castle on TV?  Psssht.

I did enjoy the free breakfast every morning.  The ladies in charge were saintly in their patience with the guests who stumbled in and tried to make their own waffles.  We talked about putting up a sign with directions on how to do it, but decided folks that hung-over and bleary-eyed would never read it.

Peer Support Specialist Training, Dr. Braden DanielsIn the final analysis, it was a successful road trip.  I learned some stuff, got to hang out with the same great dudes from Basic Training, and ate fabulous Chinese take-out.  And I didn’t get sick.  So, while Council Bluffs may not be my vacation Mecca, it took me where I needed to go.  With waffles.

A thousand points to the fellow nerdling who knows the source of this post’s title.

Good Things Happen

abandoned hotel

On Monday, I head back to Council Bluffs for my week of Advanced Peer Training.  Since I’m finally well enough to get through the day without a nap, that works out just fine.

To keep from checking into another Walking Dead Hotel, I turned to William Shatner and Priceline to find a nice place that wouldn’t cost me a lung.  I’ve got a Comfort Inns and Suites room waiting for me—a $112/day room for the low, low price of $49/day!  I feel like a total Shat-boss, ready to kick old ladies and children out of my way at the complimentary breakfast line.Priceline, William Shatner

My friend, Bea, will act as cat concierge again, making house calls on the boys while I’m away.  I’ll leave them with plenty of food and water, but a week without human fawning would be intolerable.  Bea will offer the proper level of deference and admiration.Henry, cat in a box

I plan to stop at Whole Foods on my way West to load my cooler with kale and collard greens.  Being sick has made me sloppy, doing what’s easy instead of what’s best.  Getting out of town and doing something besides watching old movies and sleeping will help me point my energies in a healthier direction.  I can expend a little more effort in eating my greens, in using the stationary bike at the hotel’s Fitness Center (another win for the Shat!), and in taking walks after class around the funky downtown area.  I’ll be a good girl and keep my food journal, not just to keep from paying the fine at TOPS next week (50 cents!), but because I need the information.  My ponies haven’t galloped too far down range, but there are several I haven’t ridden in a while.  Time to hop on all those horses and ride.

peer supportAnd when I get home, I’ll have something special waiting for me.  Yesterday, I talked with Dan, the social worker who pointed me toward Peer Training when I was in partial hospitalization last spring.  The hospital program I went through offers an after-care support group, but it’s designed to be short-term.  Folks are only allowed to attend for three months.  Part of recovery is finding other means of emotional support through family, friends and other groups.  Many people have asked for an after-after-care group, one that would let them continue with the friends they’ve made in group.  Dan said the hospital finally approved a peer-led after-care group, and he wants me to be part of the peer team.  The week after I get home from training, I’ll meet with Dan to start orientation and training.

The position is unpaid, which bummed me at first glance.  But I quickly realized it’s the perfect way for me to ease into this work and a possible work-life.  I’ll be with people I know, working in a program I believe in at Mercy Franklin (the only place I ever saw myself working).  It’s a baby step, and that’s the only way to proceed here.

It’s so easy to focus on the crappy stuff—being sick, being crazy.  Good Things happen, too.  Especially when I point my energy and thoughts in that direction.  I am infinitely grateful for that reminder today.

Getting My Breath Back

handmade greeting cards, collage art

The transition from hacking bed-lump to fully engaged routine-aphile is a long, slow process.  There comes a point about two weeks into a typical bout of bronchitis where I lose all good humor and go limp with despair.  The “I’ll never get well—I’m cursed with putrid lungs—Kill me now” kind of despair.  All my clothes are sweat through, all my dishes dirty in the sink, and all I want from the grocery store is junk that makes me even more comatose.  I’m convinced everyone I know has forgotten I even exist.  Even the cats slink away from me and hide in the closet.  It’s not a pretty picture.  The pity-pot is glued to my ass.

But I knew that phase was coming and watched for it.  I knew the chances were good that being sick would trigger bipolar symptoms, which just compounds the fun.  I’ve noticed fluttery spasms of anxiety and waves of depression that drift like clouds across the sun.  They catch me up short, a completely different experience than the sick-too-long slump.  But, so far, I’ve been able to just breathe through all these mental discomforts.  As soon as I could, I drove out to the little lake south of town and walked in the warm October sun.  Everything looks better with that jewel-blue sky above and the golden slant of light blazing against the wildflowers.

This week I returned to my water aerobics class.  The water welcomed me back, as did the folks in class, and even though I’m slow and still hacking, I’m not nearly as weak as I thought I’d be.  Then, I sat at the HyVee cafe with my Starbucks skinny latte and wrote.  The brain is rusty, and I’m exhausted when I go home, but pulling part of my routine back on feels right, necessary, and as cozy as pulling on my winter fleece.

We all carry unfortunate baggage.  I happen to have asthma, allergies and bipolar disorder.  They cause disruption.  I can guard against infection and monitor my thoughts, but they will still show up.  The only real defense I have is in how I respond to their effects.  Health lies in how I push against my old reactions and chose something else.  Something positive.  Something loving.  Recovery depends on unloading as much weight from those bags as possible.

So, tomorrow (my birthday!), I’ll greet my friends in the water.  I’ll climb into my truck, plug in my earbuds, and head for Des Moines where good coffee, a good movie, and time with my meditation buddies will fill my creative well.  The baggage is still there, but I’m carrying it a little easier these days.

Radical Acceptance

handmade greeting cards, collage artI knew I’d come to the right place when my new therapist went to her stuffed bookshelf and pulled down When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

“That’s one of my favorite books,” I told her, craning my neck to see what other jewels she had.

Unphased, she rifled through a few more.  “Then, you’ll like this one, I think,” she said.

I stuffed it in my bag and forgot about it in the wake of bronchitis and $500 spend on medicines that didn’t help much.  Yesterday, I decided I was done being sick—not physically, I’m a long way from well, but mentally.  I threw my book bag over my shoulder, took a slow stroll over the railroad yard to the Starbucks at HyVee, and settled into a cafe booth to journal.  And I found the book Megan loaned me.  Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

By the end of Chapter 2, I had to close my eyes and sit quietly while all the doors inside opened.

I could see how my fear of repeating last year (bronchitis—depression—hospitalization) pushed me into going to the doctor and obscured what I knew to be true.  Medicine has never helped me recover from my chronic respiratory infections and only drains my resources.  But Fear drowned out that quiet voice, the one that understands it just takes time, patience and healthy practices to get well.

radicalRadical Acceptance talks about waking up from the trance of unworthiness and accepting all our immediate experience offers.  From that perspective, I could see how I might work with my fear differently next time.  There’s nothing new in this approach—it’s as old as Buddhism—but coming face-to-face with the perfect example always slams home the Teaching.

To simply see that fear is in play is the first and hardest hurdle.  It acts as an underground driver, pushing, directing, demanding action.  So to be able to wake up in that agitation and See what stirs it takes practice.  Then, the task is to observe the fear, hold it gently, watch the stories it generates, feel the push and pull, and listen carefully to the quiet voice on the other side of it.  That quiet voice is my own Wisdom, something I don’t trust anymore, something that got lost in the sea of delusion my bipolar disorder created.  But, in accepting my fear I begin to Remember.  I remember that I do have a wiser self that isn’t delusional or lying.  I’ve ignored it a long time.  I’m out of practice finding it.

I sat in my booth and listened.  This wise part of me is so quiet, so gentle.  It offers suggestions that are kind and sensible, not the wild plans of my delusions.

I smiled, grateful for the doors opening, grateful for a new way to Practice, grateful for finding my new therapist and her glorious bookshelf.

I have enough.

I am enough.

All will be well.

Passing Grade

handmade greeting cards, collage artBack from my first round of the Peer Support Specialist certification process, I come victorious with my Basic Training diploma… and a nasty-ass chest cold.  Ah, the yin/yang of life!  There’s something oh-so poetic about how the instructor whispered to me that I’d gotten a perfect score on the test (I thought you maybe had answers written on your arm or something), and I then high-fived him with a hand crawling with virulent lung cooties.

I’m thinking it was the murky hotel pool.  Or maybe the phlegmy air conditioner in my room.  Whatever the source, my immediate surge of snot and fever kept me from enjoying any delights Council Bluffs had to offer—except for the Hy Vee pharmacy.  I collapsed in my room after our daily instruction with the cable guide and as many styrofoam cups as I could carry.  The hotel offered a hot breakfast every morning and kept the beverages available all day.  I barked my thanks to the staff for this service since I needed all the hot tea and orange juice I could down.

The class itself was not at all what I expected.  As a Peer, our most important asset is our own story—it’s how we can relate to others suffering with their mental illness and how they can begin to see some hope for recovery.  Much of the training centered around how to tell that story effectively, how to use it in different ways to either draw a client out, put them at ease, or offer a new perspective.  There was one day of dry legalese (state regulations, code of ethics, HIPPA laws, etc.), but most of the time we focused on The Story and the skills we needed to use it well.

I loved it.  And I liked our instructor—also someone with “lived experience,” as the lingo goes.  Since there was only one other student in this particular class, the three of us went out to lunch each day and got to know each other.  It was a lovely, intimate experience and made learning all that more fun.

I was worried about memorizing some of the drier stuff for the exam, but we received a pre-test, which took away the anxiety and gave me something specific to study.  I was shocked that I did so well, but feel even more confident now in pressing on to take the Advanced Training and to sit for the State Board Certification afterward.  Like our instructor, Dr. Daniels, kept saying, “We can do some stuff.”

For now, I’ll tend this infection, go to the doctor for the high-powered antibiotics and inhaler that can knock it back, and not repeat last fall.  Last year I was sick with this crud for months, then was depressed for months, then ended up in the hospital— where I first heard about Peer Support Specialists.  Everything has a purpose.  There are no accidents.  But, this year I’d rather circle around to a different lesson.  And maybe I can pass that one, too.

Peer Support Specialist, Life Connections

Bipolar Blats

handmade greeting cards, collage artMy bipolar disorder and I seem to be co-existing a bit differently these days.  Compared to the warp speed cycling I’ve come to expect, with a grab-bag of symptoms from both ends of the spectrum at once, the illness seems almost asleep.  It’s dreaming, though, and it snores.

My capacity seems to be a little bigger, my ability to flex with change a little more limber.  The illness still bleeds through—a morning of crippling hopelessness, or agitation that fractures my memory.  But these incidents don’t last long.  And they don’t require my usual Siege preparations.  I can usually continue on with the day, get work done, keep my appointments and not fall into compulsive behavior.  These mini-episodes are sudden, sharp, painful, then over—like those god-awful air horns fans use at football games.  I’ve started calling them blats.

No way of knowing if this is a new trend or just another fancy.  Sometimes I think my illness enjoys entertaining itself, playing dress-up with new frocks and wigs and prancing around in front of a mirror.  I’ve learned not to get too attached to whatever costume it happens to be wearing.

Whatever is going on in my funny little brain, I’ll take it.  I’ll take being able to chauffeur my mom to her doctor’s appointments, to hear kindness and respect in my voice when I talk to her, and to roll with her needs and changes.  I’ll take being able to prepare a big salad, enjoy it while watching an episode of Parade’s End, then not going back to raid the cupboards.  I’ll take sitting down at a café to write and looking up three hours and eight pages later.  I’ll take swimming laps for 45 minutes without stopping.  When my illness decides to change clothes, and I’m sure it will, I’ll still be grateful for these wonders.  Each time I’m able to be a little more my real self,  each time I push through the illness to the other side, I consider it a gift.  And I never take gifts for granted.

On Monday, I’ll load my truck and travel to Council Bluffs for Peer Training.   I’ll pack a cooler full of greens and veggies, wrap up my Sacred Salad Bowl and bring my prep tools.  In goes my journal, my iPod and my swimsuit.  I’ll spend a week in a new place, learning new things and living—living with or without blats, cycles and episodes.  Living.  Oh, I like the sound of that.

The gifts I’ve received to help make this trip possible have all come from the folks who read this blog.  Even now, I can hardly believe that.  Such generosity and kindness.  Thank you.  May I never take you for granted.

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