If Wishes Were Bathtubs…

… Then Dreamers Would Soak.

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bathtub Chris

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Today was my last day in IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation).  For the past year, I’ve been working towards the goal of living successfully in my current home and making changes that will help sustain me and my mental health.  Through IPR, I dreamed, made lists, researched, planned, strategized, and started putting my Master Plan into action.

Henry in Old TubOne thing about my apartment I wanted to change was the bath tub.  Since I live in a government-subsidized apartment, I never for a moment thought that was possible.  I considered myself lucky to have running water.  But, since IPR is all about dreaming, I put it on my list.  How nice it would be to have a tub I actually fit into instead of a freakishly narrow trough with sliding doors that rolled open on their own while I showered.  When the poltergeist doors stayed shut, my XL body sported bruises from snagging on sharp edges.

Hot baths with scented oils or salts used to be a staple in my mental health tool box.  A long soak with relaxing music, a glass of wine, a candle—the ritual calmed my brain and soothed my soul.  To compensate, I learned to meditate in the hot tub at the Y after swimming.  Close, but no cigar.

Emboldened by IPR, I asked the apartment manager last winter if it was possible to get a bigger tub if my family helped me pay the cost.  She didn’t immediately say no.  “No one’s ever asked for anything like that,” she said.  “I’ll check with management.”

New TubWithin a few days, she called me to say she and the property’s maintenance man would get bids from contractors.  What?  I smelled lavender in my future!

Several months passed, but eventually we found a reputable plumber who gave a reasonable offer.  Last week, he and his carpenter buddy took a sawzall to the old tub and replaced it with a heavenly soaking tub.  The cats and I holed up in the bedroom for two days while they worked, the cats hiding under the bed while I made a shopping list for Bed, Bath and Beyond.

After the contractors left, it was my turn to go to work.  With raw drywall around the new surround, I needed to prime and paint.  And if I had to paint, I wanted make it count.

bagua-map-rectangleFirst I consulted my Feng Shui book, Wind and Water by Carole Hyder.  I love Feng Shui.  I don’t know if it works, but it’s one way to organize a home, a way to bring intention to areas of one’s life that need a boost.  It helps me remember important things like the Helpful People in my life and to foster gratitude.  Feng Shui feels clean and uncluttered.  It pays tribute to the natural world and our place in it.  I like to do what I can to align with the flow of chi in my little space.

Most of my bathroom sits in the Wisdom, Self-Knowledge and Rest section, which seems right and proper.  But parts of it overlap into the Career, Health and Family areas.  What I wanted most in my bathroom was harmony and peace, so it felt right to acknowledge those other areas in my color scheme.

       blueGraygreen

New Tub2At our local paint store, I chose Fantasy Blue for the Wisdom area, Pale Smoke to acknowledge the black element in the Career area, and Nob Hill Sage for the long wall that overlapped the Family area.  Since my little pantry closet sits in the Health area, I’ll find a nice buttery yellow for that later (One project at time).  Armed with chi-enhancing colors, my step-ladder and some masking tape, I set to work over the Fourth of July weekend.

GreenBlue WallsFor those of you who are homeowners, this stuff is old hat—drywall, paint, hand tools.  I remember.  I used to be one of you.  But, for those of us who rent or have little control over the aesthetics of our environment, this kind of freedom is rare and sweet.  With every stroke of the brush, I thought, “I chose this color.”  And I couldn’t quite believe it.

As I hauled myself up and down the ladder or on and off the floor, I felt the room becoming mine.  I felt it welcoming me and the cats.  I felt the peace and harmony I so longed for settle into place.  After three days of work, I was exhausted and hobbling, but I knew I’d done what I set out to do.  We had our sanctuary.

Cat Station HighAfter we revel in this success for a while, I’ll move on to the next project on my IPR list.  Because if wishes were horses, I’d be riding high.  For now, this dreamer plans to soak.

The Road Less Traveled

This was originally posted in June of 2011, four months before my dad died.  Not surprisingly, the prayer I offered for him at the end of this piece was never answered.

I see a lot of myself in Dad.  He’s always been a Glass Half Empty kind of guy, his thoughts and opinions naturally traveling down the darkest highway.  A card-carrying pessimist, his words of wisdom to us kids punctured any hope we might have had.  If we complained about doing our chores, he would say, “There are a lot of things in this world you have to do whether you want to or not” or “Get used to it, life is hard.”

Since the time I was in high school, I’ve listened to him bemoan every change in his aging body, never at peace with the natural adjustments any adult male has to make, never able to reconcile himself to the thirty-five year old he thinks he still should be.

I understand this fantasy thinking.  I understand the draw of the past and refusing to live in the present.  I’ve traveled his dark highway and know all the shortcuts.  I’ve watched my dad sit at the Table of Life and accept only scraps, convinced that’s all that’s being served.  He prides himself on being fun-loving, but his jokes and teasing carry a sharp edge that has more to do with defense than humor.  My dad was never a teacher, never had the patience to explain, but I learned his road map well.

When I’m with my dad, I try to poke holes in his perception, counter the negativity with perspective, try to do for him what I must do for myself.  But after a lifetime of indulging his world-view without question, his defenses are solid.  At times I see him struggle to consider the possibility of an alternate route.  If I hammer hard enough, he pauses in his argument to say, “Is that so?”  But, it’s exhausting work, and I can’t keep it up.  And I can’t make him willing.

The desire to turn off the dark highway  comes from within.  It comes from noticing flickers of light on the side of the road, glimpses of intriguing pathways and crossroads.  It comes from taking a risk and swerving off the black pavement for once.  Then, doing it again.  And it takes willingness to ask for directions from people who keep different kinds of maps in their glove compartments.

Father’s Day is tomorrow.  My gift for Dad is a simple prayer—to get the chance to take a side road.  I pray he finds the strength to stand on a bright lane with grass waving green and high on either side, a glass half full in his hand.

Melancholia

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.

 

Full Voice

I took voice lessons from Barbara when I lived in Minneapolis.  One of the best things I ever did for myself.  If you have any interest in communicating better, spend 19 minutes here.

Thanks, Linda, for posting this on Facebook!

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.

Of Tribes and Farty Pants

Gathering at Barb's

This weekend I got to spend time with some of my Tribe.  These are folks who have travelled The Seeker’s path with me, going to workshops and intensives to learn how to be more conscious and mindful.  The four of us who get together in Des Moines for meditation are part of this larger community, called Foundation, as are people all over the country.

It was hard for me at first.  It always is when we come together.  I’m so used to being solitary, that more than two or three people can be overwhelming.  But I can say that to this group, and they hear me.  I’m safe with them.

I have history with these particular people, who knew me before electroshock.  Some of them hold parts of me I’ve forgotten.  Their memories of me are such a gift—like filling in holes with beautiful light.  Their prompts help me remember the person I was and, in many ways, still am.

Part of our tradition is to share meals together.  Food flows non-stop.  Many of us are trying special diets—vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, diets for blood type or a particular illness—so we’re not easy to please.  But we always have glorious, delicious meals.  It always works.

When we get together, we meditate and we talk.  Everyone is engaged, whether we study quantum physics, yoga or sacred dance; whether our lives are settled or are in chaos; whether we lead with our intellect or our heart.  Friction happens, which creates the best opportunities for mindfulness.  We get to watch how we react to each other and follow those reactions to the source—expectation, judgment, pattern.  Then, we discuss all that, too, if we want.

Often, our work together allows personal issues to surface—fears, anxieties, grief.  In the safety of the group, we can be vulnerable.  We can feel what we feel and be held by the group with compassion and genuine love.

And genuine laughter.  I never laugh so hard or as long as when I’m with these folks. Especially when Sandra whips out the Fart App on her phone.

Sandra's Fart Ap

Sandra and her Farty Pants app (I’m the one keeling over).

We gain so much from each other—not just the book lists we tend to generate, or the theories we throw around, or the practices we share.  We connect and are enriched by the connection.  We know each other on a deep level even if we don’t know each other well personally.  We really are We.

I drove back and forth from my home in Marshalltown to Des Moines each day, which takes about an hour.  While all my friends in Des Moines offered to keep me overnight, I wanted to drive.  I knew I’d need time alone to rest after being with a big group, and I wanted to be as functional as possible.  Driving home from Barb’s for the last time on Sunday, I felt in my bones that while I may be an introvert and solitary, I’m never alone.

The Best Medicine

Fish BoyBy now, we all know laughter carries strong, powerful juju.  It stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, reduces mental tension, and increases energy.  Since laughter stimulates both sides of the brain, it stirs creativity, problem-solving, and helps us focus.

A good guffaw can be especially helpful for those who suffer from mental illness and some brain-related illnesses.  Physiologically, laughter impacts the limbic system, which are parts of the brain effected by depression, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia.  Proponents of laughter as therapy claim that choosing to laugh helps to break the cycle of psychological negativity.  It doesn’t change our outer circumstances, but helps us become more flexible in viewing them differently.

For me, a good laugh, one that gets me braying like a donkey, is like brain Draino.  I can feel the crust and emotional hairballs blasted out by a rip-roaring belly laugh.  And cackling with someone else only adds to the mental benefit.  It’s a way to connect.  I feel closer, safer, more attracted to the people who enjoy the same kind of humor I do. (I get you, and we’re hilarious!).

One of the highlights of my week is watching TV at my friends’ house where we egg each other on until I either snort my Mountain Dew or lose urine (Hey, every medicine has side effects).  When I go home, I almost always feel better than when I got there.

Some days it’s hard to summon a chuckle.  That’s when I rely on the Pinterest board I created for such an emergency.  I fill it with little videos and memes that guarantee me a laugh.  A good dose of Braying Like A Donkey can turn a bad day around.  And isn’t that what drugs are for?

Here’s a little sample from my medicine chest.

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.

I Think We Need a Bigger Boat

boatI found out today that my therapist and the nurse practitioner who provides my medication supervision are leaving to start a private practice of their own near Des Moines.

If you’re in the mental health delivery system, you’ve probably experienced this kind of trauma.  It takes years of searching to find a therapist who gets you, to find a psychiatrist or NP who works with you, only to have them leave, or the clinic closes, or whatever kind of insurance you have doesn’t work anymore.  The most essential piece of your recovery drops out of existence.  So you flounder, and in that vulnerable state, have to start searching all over again.

I’m lucky in that they will only be an hour away.  After talking with my therapist today, my plan is to stick with them if they can get Medicaid-certified.  Lots of “ifs.”  So, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Except it is.

I hate how stuff like this confounds and unmoors me.  Even with a solution in sight, I feel hysteria crawling up my throat.  Just when my support system seemed to be jelling, just when it seemed safe to go back in the water…

I have to watch my catastrophizing—I see sharks when it might just be tuna.  I have to keep breathing.  I have to remember I’ll be fine no matter what happens.  I’ve been here before—back when my boat didn’t even have a motor.  So, I’m okay.  I just wish there wasn’t so much chum in the water around me.

bigger boat

Unboxed

In a Box.

The Darkest Hour is Just before the Box Pops Open. —Ancient Feline Proverb

Last Thursday was the third day in a row of fighting suicidal thoughts.  Fantasies of death consumed me.  My therapist scheduled extra sessions.  I sent lots of SOS texts to friends.  It was the worst of the worst.

I took a nap that afternoon and woke up different.  I couldn’t understand what was happening.  Was that sunshine coming in the bedroom window?  When did the grass get green?  What was this weird feeling in my body?  Energy?

I washed my face and put on my shoes.  Could I actually, like, go do something?  I ran errands.  In my car, driving to the auto parts store to get a windshield wiper I’ve needed for months, delivering the cards I made for the school district, I felt the sun, smelled the flowering trees, took deep breaths.  No intrusive thoughts.  No darkness.

Over the next few days, that sense of being normal continued.  Story ideas started coming back.  I made dates with friends and kept them.  I vacuumed.  I ate a bowl of vegan chili and felt something weird.  Full.  I could actually feel that I’d eaten enough and stopped—which started a conversation with my support staff about the correlation between the brain chemistry of bipolar disorder and binge eating.

Such an odd feeling of transition, to have the box of depression spring open after months of darkness and containment.  Like most cats, I don’t immediately hop out.  The eyes must adjust.  Safety must be evaluated, trajectory calculated.  And I must remember that this rush of freedom will not last, at least in this brilliant form.  I will be hopping in and out of the box all through the summer.  But I know that the lid is off.  The Mean Season seems to be over.

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