Watch Me Pull a Rabbit Outta the Hat

Rocky and BullwinkleI really don’t think anyone else is interested in my financial prestidigitations.  I’m just opting for transparency.  Since compulsive behavior is part of my bipolar kit, I need to open it up for inspection.  And since living on Social Security Disability is a fact of life for lots of folks with mental illness, maybe we can trade magic tricks on how to make those dollars stretch.

Even though I started tightening my belt a week before, the real test came with my February check.  It seemed silly to be nervous about walking into the bank with my little list—a month’s worth of quarters for laundry, a $50 bill for the car fund, and cash for the week’s groceries and gas.  Nervous, I guess, because I don’t do this very well—sticking to what feels like severe restriction.  So, I tried to reframe my thoughts.  Not restriction, stewardship and different choices.  I’m making different choices about how I spend my money.  I’m doing this.  It’s not being done to me.

I know a big part of budgeting is planning.  I’m an expert list-maker and always have A Plan.  I’m just not as hot at actually implementing The Plan.  The bipolar part of the equation gets in my way.  Knowing that about myself makes any plan tentative—possible, but not probable.  Planning seems to set me up for failure, so I’ve learned to make plans loose and friendly to give them a fighting chance.

I made a loose meal plan, a handful of ideas for meals that I could mix and match—stir fries, chili,  roasted vegetables, hummus wraps—then made a grocery list from that.  This week I had plenty in my food budget for the initial shopping trip, plus a little left over.  That little bit extra felt expansive to me—I could get cornbread mix to go with my chili or a frozen pizza later in the week if I wanted to.  Since cooking still makes me anxious sometimes (especially when I’m under stress), it helped to have this bit of breathing space.

Fridley Theaters gift cardI didn’t bother trying to walk in this cold, and managed fine on my budget of $15 a week for gas.  I’m surprised that staying home hasn’t felt restrictive, especially since I’ve experienced several days of depression and anxiety.  Usually that makes me want to bolt.  I went to the movies a couple of times here in town on the gift cards I received for Christmas.  My friends and my sister treated me to meals out.  I’m also still seeing my therapist every week.  So even though I’ve been cycling fast and hard, I seem to have enough distraction and support to keep the symptoms manageable.

The new mental health program I learned about last week is Medicaid-funded, so I probably don’t qualify.  I make too much money.  But a friend does pay me a little bit each month for odd jobs, and that might be enough to qualify me as working disabled.  This makes no sense to me, but that’s a whole other post.  It does look like I will be reimbursed for about half of the rent I paid in 2013 (who knew?).  That would pay off all my medical debt.  Sweet!

This is hard.  But, I’m hoping the longer I stick with this budget and continue to see results, the more comfortable I’ll get with it.  The most important factor is to reduce my stress, make this as easy as possible, so that my symptoms don’t overwhelm me.  That’s the rabbit I keep fishing for inside the hat.

The Beagle and the Teacup

handmade greeting card, collage artI’m breaking one of my Golden Rules by not telling you how crazy I am at the moment.

Honesty.  That’s what I pledged.

So, okay.

I went to a presentation today about some of the new programs rolling out with ObamaCare and the Mental Health Redesign in Iowa.  A program called Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (IPRS) focuses on reducing a client’s stressors.  Because (this is radical, now) reducing stress will reduce symptoms, which will ultimately allow someone with a mental illness to function more independently.

Thank you, People in Suits, for finally getting it.

Last week, I wrote that I had $11 in my billfold, and that I was determined to still hold that $11 when my Disability check came.  Well, I didn’t make it.  If I was only going to do laundry every other week ($15 at the laundromat), I needed more socks.  So I bought socks.  And a 89¢ notebook to keep track of grocery prices and specials.

Preferred Pest Control, bed bug, beagleThen, the landlord tacked up a sign that said Radar, the bedbug-sniffing beagle, was coming for his quarterly inspection the next day.  That meant packing up the cats (which they hate), their litter boxes, food, and anything Radar might get into and hauling everyone out to my Mom’s for the day.  She’s only marginally tolerant of animals in the house, so the boys had to stay in the basement, where Emmett promptly found a hidey-hole that he refused to leave.  Cut to seven hours later, and he sashayed past me with thirty-year-old dust bunnies stuck to his fur.  Finally, we got home, but I’d lost my only winter hat and my phone.

This is the danger of stress—breakage, forgetfulness, locking myself out of the apartment or truck, falling on the ice, losing stuff.  One flat tire turns into a fifty-car pile up.  And with each incident, my capacity for navigating and problem-solving shrinks.  I liken it to a teacup.  Stress shrinks the cup.  Too much stress flattens the cup into a saucer.  Then, the slightest bump sloshes out the tea.  And if the saucer empties out completely—hello, Psych Ward.

So, I talked to the caseworker at the presentation today and will be getting a referral for IPRS.  Mom found my hat in her driveway.  My phone was under some sacks in my back seat.  And I don’t have bedbugs.

Today was a pretty good day.

White-Knuckle Budget

handmade greeting card, collage artThis is a Pattern:

Live in Denial.   Wake up.  Overcompensate.  Go Crazy.  Repeat.

Basically, this is my Pattern for living.  It’s definitely my financial strategy.  This past year I thought I was getting comfortable with my poverty—coming to terms with it—my smug self said.  But what really happened was that I just pretended it didn’t exist.

I know lots of people do this with money.  Statistics from The Federal Reserve say that the average U.S. household credit card debt is $15,270.  That doesn’t include medical or mortgage debt, so imagine what the real number might be!  People all over the country plug their ears with their fingers and sing, “La la la la.  I can’t hear you.”  Knowing this makes me feel a little less crazy, my compulsive spending a little less shameful.  It makes my combined debt of $3000 seem paltry.  But I still have to deal with it.

My hope is that every time I go through this cycle I learn a little something.  Maybe I can adjust the pattern a wee bit this time.  Maybe that’s denial talking, but it seems like I’m required to try.  Right now I’m between Waking up and Overcompensating.  Maybe I can keep from swinging too far into a way of living that’s unsustainable.  I did that when I decided to save money for a new car, cinching the financial belt so tight I passed out from stress and threw myself into a month of rapid cycling.   Neuro-normals go through this, too, I’ve learned.  There’s even a term for it—Frugal Fatigue.  They don’t land themselves in a mental hospital, though.  Well, I’m guessing they don’t.

There are some things I do right.  I keep a spreadsheet of every penny I spend.  I pay my bills through the Bill Pay option with my bank, so things like rent and internet service get paid the same time every month.

There are things I’ve gotten better at doing.  When I was recovering from electroshock and very brain-sick, cooking threw me into scary anxiety attacks, so I ate a lot of take-in.  I mostly enjoy cooking now, especially when I create something fabulous from digging through my pantry (see my Kitchen Sink Chili recipe below).  But, there are still times when I’m so brain-sick I can’t face cooking.  I try to have easy, microwaveable stuff on hand for those times.  And if I can’t even do that much, then try to limit the splurging to one meal, one item, one treat.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

Making wise money choices while cycling through mixed states is sort of a contradiction in terms.  The urge to bolt in my truck requires gas.  The day-long camp-outs at the theater require tickets.  Then, of course, we have the standard binge-eating and internet shopping wallows.  I’m trying to work on those things with my therapist, but squeezing them too tightly also causes backlash.  So, I need to plan for them while I work at minimizing their effects.  Tightrope walking at its finest.

So, here’s the first draft of my plan:

  1. Stop using my credit card.  That means buying gas for my truck with cash, which means a lot less driving.  That translates to only going to Des Moines in cases of mental emergency.  It also means walking as much as I can, which may have to wait until it gets warmer.  The windchill today is -8, so I think I’ll be driving to the Y later.
  2. Try something new.  This time around I’m going to try the envelope system.  I’ll take out my budgeted amounts for food, gas, laundry and entertainment each week and keep them in separate zip-lock bags.  When the money’s gone, it’s gone.  I have a friend who has used this system for decades, but I’ve always thought it seemed too restrictive.  Well, restriction is what’s needed, so I’m game to try.
  3. Keep saving for the new car.  That’s a priority for me, so I’ll keep tucking away a little each month.
  4. Adjust my medical payments.  Paying $40 a month to my mental health clinic wasn’t taking care of my co-pay from Medicare.  I asked them for a statement and found out I owe about $500.  I’ve increased my monthly payment (through Bill Pay) to cover my weekly therapist visits and start whittling at the debt.
  5. Start chipping away at the credit card balance.  I’ve routinely paid a lot more than the minimum required, but never enough to cover the monthly charges.  If I’m not using my card, I can start reversing that trend.

Personal financial experts suggest test-driving a budget before making a huge commitment.  That makes sense to me.  I won’t be able to start until my Disability check comes in February, then I’ll take this puppy for a spin.  Until then, I’m committed to zero spending.  I have gas in the truck, food in the cupboard, a gift card to the theater here in town if I need a movie.  I have $11 in my billfold, and I’m determined to still have it come February 3.  I’m good.  Really good.

Here’s what I created yesterday—a vegan chili recipe that is so delicious I couldn’t believe it.  Score!

Kitchen Sink Vegan Chili

½ C dried beans (I used pinto beans, but any kind would work.  And canned beans are just fine, too.)

¼ C Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Wild and Brown Rice (Again, this is what was in my pantry.  Use whatever rice or pasta you have.)

1-16 oz. can diced tomatoes

1-16 oz. can corn

1-6 oz. can tomato paste

1-4 oz. can green chilies, chopped

1-2.25 oz. can sliced black olives

½ onion, diced

Water

Seasonings: salt, turmeric, chili powder, sweetener (I used a packet of Truvia, so 2 tsp. of sugar would be the same)

*

Soak and cook the beans according to the directions.  Same with the rice (or pasta).  Beans need a couple of hours to cook.  Wild rice needs an hour.  Drain.

Add all the other stuff.

Add water to make the chili a consistency you like.

Add seasonings.  I think seasoning is personal and requires tasting, so I don’t have any measurements for them.  Turmeric was a creative choice this time and turned out to be fabulous.  Use whatever you’ve got.  The one exception to my chili seasoning rule is sweetener.  It cuts the acid of the tomatoes and just makes any kind of chili better (in my humble opinion).

This made 4 big bowls of deliciousness—231 calories/bowl.  I topped it with crumbled up corn bread (add another 150 calories).

A Dream Deferred

collage art

You know those times when you wrestle with a decision?  When you want one thing, but the numbers don’t quite add up?  And then something—a person, an event, a seemingly random set of circumstances—brings it all into focus?  I’m in the middle of one of those epiphanies.

I really wanted to be a Peer (as in Peer Support Specialist).  I wanted to help other folks with mental illness and earn a little money doing it.  I got training last fall.  I was offered a volunteer position at the hospital in Des Moines where I was a patient.  I thought I was on my way.

The trouble is, it costs me at least $50 for gas each week.  That’s money I don’t have, so it goes on my credit card.  There’s still a big balance there from my Peer training, too.  Friends and my UU fellowship chipped in to pay about half (thank you very much), and I applied for scholarships from service clubs, but it doesn’t look like those will pan out.  Every month my balance creeps higher.  Every month I look the other way.

Then, yesterday I got the oil changed in my truck.  I looked at the $70 bill, which I put on my credit card, and knew I had to pay attention.

I can’t drive to Des Moines every week.  In fact, if I ever want to whittle my Visa balance down, I’ll have to park my truck and walk as much as I can.

It seems so simple now.

I’ve been uncomfortable about doing this support group ever since we started talking about it.  I attributed that discomfort to a lot of reasons—I’m too unstable to do the job, the hospital is in chaos, it’s too much stress.  But, those are all just niggles, all things I can work through.  The real reason is that I can’t afford it.

So, I’ll go tonight and tell everyone—the social worker who recruited me, the young man who would have partnered with me in creating the new group, the folks about to “graduate” from After Care who looked forward to on-going support.  I know the After-After Care group probably won’t fly now.  Dan could only convince the two of us to volunteer, and the job is too much for one person.  I am sorry for that.  But not sorry enough to rack up more debt in the hope that someday Mercy will offer me a job.  I can’t sacrifice myself out of fear.

It’s a relief to be done wrestling, a relief to see what needs to be done and be calm about it.  My dream will find a new shape in its own time.  When it does, it will probably seem quite random and serendipitous.  If I hold it lightly.

“An It Harm None, Do What Ye Will.”

handmade greeting card, collage artThese few little words make up the Wiccan Rede, or moral code.  It’s similar to the Hippocratic Oath (First, do no harm), but is more about how one lives one’s life rather than medical treatment.  Still, both phrases seem to be hovering over my head as I press on in the latest round of rapid cycling.

Frankly, I could use a little witchcraft to get through the day without making a mess or doing harm to myself.  I’m not talking about suicide or anything that dramatic.  My self-harm is much more mundane and boring—like piling on more debt to my credit card or buying bags of groceries that I throw away a week later.  Self-harm comes in the degrading, humiliating and hateful words my brain says to me.  Self-harm happens when I do anything to stop feeling the barbed constriction of my mind.

My own take on the Rede and the Oath is “Do the Least Amount of Harm.”  I know I’ll make poor choices now.  I know I’ll act out.  And if I can’t do something that is beneficial, maybe I can temper the hurt I cause myself.  Instead of canceling everything on Wednesday and going home to an empty apartment, I was able to seek out my meditation friends in Des Moines and sit in their company for a couple of hours.  It took a monumental marshaling of Will to do that—to sift through the noise and panic in my head to even consider it.  To drive there, sobbing.  To stand in Barbara’s kitchen, incoherent, while they circled and held me.  To fall asleep from exhaustion on her couch while the others chatted softly.  What started out as a grab at Doing Less Harm became medicinal.  I did something good for me.  I don’t know how to tell you what a miracle that is.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the movies—my Safe-House.  I can stay all day without eating too much, or spending too much, or alienating any more people in my life.  I can rest at the movies.  Sometimes it’s all I need to reboot and come at this weird illness from a different perspective.

I’ve become fascinated with August: Osage County.  This horrible, dysfunctional, destructive family is what goes on in my head when I’m brain-sick.  There are tyrants, and betrayals, and screaming matches.  There are parts of me in absolute denial, and parts so strong they survive at all costs.  There are the loving bits that can bend.  And other more tender parts that get smashed flat.  There’s beauty, and ugliness, and a sense of being caught in a cycle of despair.  I hope Meryl Streep wins the Oscar.

August Osage County, Little Charles, Ivy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne NicholsonThe part I keep focusing on is a tiny little scene between the two incredibly damaged characters who are still capable of gentleness and love.  They hold each other up.  They save each other.  In the middle of my worst brain-sickness, I also have a Little Charles and an Ivy, causing absolutely no harm.  They sit at the old Hammond organ and sing quiet love songs to each other, wrapping themselves in safety from the chaos around them.  I can hear that sweet little song and lean into it.  A miracle.

Is Meditation the New Anti-Depressant?

Actually, it’s the oldest one.

A great article here on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for sufferers of anxiety and mood disorders.  Those of us who use and advocate meditation have known this for years.  Still, it’s gratifying when studies and anecdotal evidence back us up.

handmade greeting card, collage art

Ninja Ballet

BBC Sherlock, Scandal in Belgravia, Benedict Cumberbatch

It’s been a good week.  Holy Harmonic Convergence, Batman!  How long has it been since I’ve been able to say that?

These lovely in-between places are where I used to pull out my Bad-Assery and get into training for the next bipolar campaign.  But my mindset has shifted a little.  I don’t need to train to be a Bad-Ass any more—I am one.  The training has become more and more internal—acceptance, awareness and experimentation becoming as important as routine and discipline.

Part of that is due to my therapist.  I have a partner now, someone with experience in going deep, someone with an even bigger arsenal.  It feels very different fighting this battle with someone at my side, someone whispering a plan of attack I never considered, someone with Ninja skills.

These slow, subtle movements are hard.  I’m teaching my mental body to move in different ways, ways that feel foreign and beautiful at the same time.  I keep thinking of a ballet dancer with blistered, bloodied feet.  It takes practice.  And hardening.  And more practice.

Yesterday I drove to the city for a mandatory meeting at the psych hospital for all the support group facilitators.  Dan, the social worker who recruited me, told me about the meeting a couple of days ago.  He didn’t know what the meeting was for, couldn’t be there himself, and apologized for yet more chaos as the Center tries to reorganize and align with health care reform.  So I showed up at the appointed time and place—to find I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the Psych Tech who was helping with the meeting said she’d go over the material with me then and there.  I signed a confidentiality agreement (which I’d already done with Dan) and answered a ten-question True/False quiz on the role of facilitator.  The whole encounter took fifteen minutes.

I had issues when I left.  Since thought generates emotion which drives behavior, it could have been the start of a very bad day.  Or week.  But my Ballet Ninja skills surfaced.  I was able to acknowledge that I’m out of practice dealing with workplace miscommunication.  This stuff happens all the time.  It’s not personal.  And there’s no need to get trapped in it.  All I have to do is show up on Wednesday nights, sit with whoever else shows up for group, and see what happens.  Management stuff will work itself out.

Then, I was able to watch the emotion drive my behavior.  I had already planned to find a frame for the beautiful print my friend Rob send me, so I watched as my internal agitation pushed me to add more things to the list.  And then to snatch up stuff as I wandered through the antique mall.  There was a graceful slowing down as I watched, a deceleration, and a returning to center point.  I bought the frame.  Nothing else.

And on the drive home, I felt the residual effects of emotion spinning out possible lunch scenarios—where to eat, what to eat, how much I to eat.  I felt the familiar spin and shove of using food to calm down, using food to feel normal, using food to make the rest of the internal discomfort stop.  I watched and allowed all that mess.  And then I went home and made lunch.

ninja balletMy brain feels bloodied and blistered from pausing.  It’s so much easier to let the thoughts and emotions run, to just get out of their way and tag along.  But each time I practice, I build a little more stamina, a little more mental body memory.  These foreign maneuvers of acceptance and interruption may always be difficult to perform, but that’s part of what makes it art.  It’s part of what makes an audience gasp.

So, today I’ll try again to stalk myself, to be stealthy and nimble.  A Bipolar Bad-Ass Ninja in toe-shoes.

Snapping Out of It

Downton MaryEveryone I know is a little discombobulated.  The holidays, the bitter cold—they’ve taken the normal way of things and dumped them, head first, in a snow bank.  It helps knowing others are slip-sliding, too, even though my befuddlement includes coming back from bronchitis and depression.  Misery loves company, as they say, but it’s not helping me find my footing any easier.

I tried streaming the first episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season last night and found it echoed my spastic and burpy fits and starts.  Oh, this will never do!  I’m counting on the PBS online site to watch the new BBC Sherlock episodes starting on the 19th.  Since I don’t have a TV anymore and don’t subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, my options are limited.  So, as I write this, I’ve got Downton streaming on another screen, hoping that a good night’s sleep will give it the strength to play past the niggles.

Why should I care so much?  It’s just a TV show.  But it has more to do with control and expectation.  I’m at a total loss to get my eating under control, and the cold has kept me away from the gym.  My routine is hibernating, and I can’t wake it up.  The least I should be able to do is watch Downton!

I haven’t spiked a fever in almost a week and seem to be hacking less, so in spite of the -8F temp outside this morning, I’m determined to get to the Y and my swim class.  Then, I’m crossing the street to HyVee, snagging a Vanilla Latte, and camping out do get some writing done on Technical Consultant.

As for my binge eating, well, it’s back to mindfulness and pushing against the compulsion.  My therapist told me about Pandora yesterday, a site where you can program your own “radio station.”  I set up a mindfulness “station” with lots of lovely meditative music.  My intention is to go there before I eat, sit for 7 minutes listening to something soothing and breathing into the agitation that is my compulsion.  It sounds lovely, but in the throes of compulsion the idea of pausing seems impossible.  We’ll see.  It’s a new tool, and I’ll try anything.

I’ve been at the mercy of my health and the environment for too long.  I need to use this break in my internal weather to get back on track.  And I see on the other screen that Downton is unfolding without a hitch.  I’ll take that as a good omen.

Delicates

handmade greeting card, collage artI was talking with a friend yesterday when suddenly I realized I was back.  Back in my right mind.

It’s such an odd feeling, sort of like taking off panty hose.  There can be lots of false starts to getting that waistband unrolled, but eventually the freedom and relief become real. And looking at that stretched-out puddle of spandex on the floor, it seems completely alien and counter to anything a person might actually wear.

I looked at my rants with my therapist and the thoughts that tortured me over the past couple of weeks as a weird jumble of hosiery that couldn’t possibly fit me.  But, there was no denying my butt-print there.   So I found a certain amount of tenderness in washing them out in the sink.

I’ll have to play dress-up again, become someone squeezed out of right mind.  And whether I want to or not, the sausage casing will find its way back on me.  Better to take care of the over-extended fabric.  Better to treat all those delusions and frantic scramblings for relief with a little Woolite and warm water.  And forgiveness.

There’s a reason they’re called delicates.

Riven

handmade greeting card, collage art

Easier now.

The tight stranglehold of madness relents

to allow rivulets of clarity into a brain tingling

like a foot fallen asleep.

Circle dance, spiraling to a familiar stop:

How much damage to repair?

How much footing lost?

A pause in the wreckage

to take stock

before turning.

Like a centrifuge spinning

sediments of blood into sight,

Madness separates substance

from goss.

Not purified,

riven.

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