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.

Begin Where You Are

handmade greeting card, collage artThese are good words to hold in my head today.  Begin.  Instead of panicking that I must pull my life together all at once.  Instead of ending where I am.  In apathy.  In exhaustion.  Begin.  Begin here, in my gym clothes, ready to move.  Begin here, with the garbage bagged and the litter boxes cleaned.  Begin here, with the bed made.

What is it that glimmers?  What rustling of life starts to waken?  What small effort is enough?

I breathe deep into my belly.  That’s a beginning.

A Small Life

handmade greeting card, collage artI met a friend the other day for coffee.  It’s a rare occurrence these days what with my Zero Money Initiative.  I felt rather posh, actually, pumping the Sugar Free Vanilla Syrup.  Simple pleasures.

My friend was in town with the sad task of attending to his late mother’s estate, so we talked about executor duties and sorting through a lifetime of accumulated stuff.  But, he needed distraction from all that, so we quickly moved on to other topics.

What I discovered while talking to him is that I don’t know much about the wide world anymore.  I don’t read the newspaper or watch TV.  The only news I see is what zips by on Yahoo as I scroll through to my email.  To keep my stress low, I avoid unpleasantness such as last week’s discussion topic at our Unitarian Universalist gathering on Human Trafficking.  I have enough horror in my life as it is.

As my friend and I talked about Illegal Immigration and The Economy, I wondered for a bit if I was failing in my duty as a citizen, if I should try harder to keep up with current events.  But, really, does anything change that much?  There’s a war somewhere—probably more than one.  There are groups and individuals doing horrific things to other groups and individuals.  Congress must be fighting over something or other.  And I’m sure we’ve discovered new and exciting things in space and in scientific research.  People carry out kind and inspirational acts in obscurity.  The environment is still threatened.  Babies still get themselves born.  I don’t think I’m missing all that much.

Talking with my friend did show me how the parameters of my life have shrunk.  I move mostly within a few blocks of my apartment, with occasional excursions farther afield, and the now-rare trek to The Big City.  I spend most of my time alone, with a daily dose of polite chit-chat at the Y or the library.  I facilitate my two meditation groups and plan one or two deeper interactions with friends or family a week.

I exercise, eat, write, make a little art, watch some DVDs from the library, and read.  I talk to my cats.  I put gas in my truck and get groceries.  I look at the stars at night, and I listen to the rain on the sidewalk.  I don’t really go anywhere or do anything.  And that’s just fine.

I used to miss doing stuff—going to concerts and plays, eating at interesting restaurants, taking classes.  I used to worry about being “productive,” about contributing to society and finding meaningful work.  I used to gobble up information.  I used to crave interesting people with views and lifestyles different from mine.  I used to want a lot more.

With a small life, much of the wanting falls away.  At least it has lately.  And without the wanting or the stress of a larger life, my rapid cycling seems to find equilibrium a little easier.  The cycles still happen, and the symptoms are just as rabid, but I’m granted a little more time to breathe between swings.  Who knew that simplifying to the point of nothing might be the best strategy?

Well, I guess those Zen monks knew.  But, who wanted to listen to them?

Hysteria in Aisle Two

handmade greeting cards, collage artI woke up yesterday frantic, bolted out of bed and grabbed up my journal.  Something had to be done.  I needed a plan.

The day before I’d stepped on the scale at the Y.  Twenty pounds had crept back on.  I nearly fainted with horror and despair.  Not again, please.  Not again.

So, I sat at my table at 4:30 in the morning, trying to figure it out, trying to find one thread I could pull out of that frayed panic to gather my Will and my focus back together.  Because, I reasoned, if I can’t stop the binging and the food frenzies, then how can I stop myself from compulsively spending?  If I can’t control my spending, I’ll never be able to save for a car.  I’ll be dependent the rest of my life.  If I can’t stop the weight from coming back, I’ve lost and the illness wins.

So, okay, I thought, today—only water with lemon, fruits and vegetables.  I’ll make smoothies.  I’ll stay at the library all day if I have to.  I can do this for one day.  I can.

But, even as I wrote that and meant it, another part of me knew I could never pull it off.  How many times had I tried extreme measures—fasts, cleanses, sudden dietary shocks meant to galvanize the metabolism?  That kind of clamping down on the ravenous feeding only made it worse.  Every time.  I knew, even as I promised myself one day of food sanity, that I was poking a very large animal with a pointy stick.

I white-knuckled it until noon, then found myself at the microwave, making a plate of nachos.

It was a relief, really, to acknowledge my true nature.

Compulsive eating is part of my illness.  So are compulsive spending and sex.  And because they are compulsions, there’s no rational way to get rid of them. Believe me I’ve tried.  My therapist and I have looked at these behaviors from every angle.  The only way I’ve found to work with them is to acknowledge them and give them space.  To hold them with an open hand instead of a closed fist.  Which seems counter intuitive when they are raging.  I want the gobbling to stop, not watch the freak show as it happens.  But, weirdly, watching does help.  It tempers the ferocity and lessens the destruction.

By trying to save money, I’ve put my self in a pressure cooker.  Being poor has always triggered me, so I knew choosing to be even poorer might be dangerous.  But, I also thought that having a goal, something to work toward, might make that stress easier to bear.  Could I temper the panic and the compulsion to spend money?

The answer, it seems, is yes.  But the anxiety and compulsivity squirted sideways in food frenzies.  They will not be denied.

I’m not giving up, though.  I just passed through a couple of ragged days, and it’s hard to watch when the depression, anxiety and mania color the view.  I’m clearer today, and calmer.  The radio in my head has dialed away from the Self-Hatred channel and is back on Easy Listening.  Today, I’m okay about gaining back the weight.  It’s a temporary adjustment to all the stress.  And if it’s not temporary, then, that will have to be okay, too.  I’m going to let it be.  Instead, I’ll turn my attention to the stress itself—the feelings of deprivation and powerlessness, the fear and uncertainty.

I’ll become an Observer, like September on Fringe, changing the outcome just by watching the experiment, noting the effects with a gentle, non-judgmental attitude.  Like September, I can’t be completely objective.  We both care about the outcome of the experiment too much.  And I may keep binging, but at least I won’t be eating raw roast beef sandwiches with seven jalapeños and tabasco sauce.  I still have a little dignity.

Fringe, September

People Person

people personHa Ha.  Very clever, right?  But, there’s so much truth in this, it’s painful.  The rest of the truth is that my bipolar disorder ruined me first.

I had two serious situations this week where I was misunderstood.  The old me, the Sandy Sue before electroshock and buckets of drugs, before losing one life and starting over, before everything I am now, would have squared off and demanded to be heard.  Shoot them all and let God sort them out is, I think, the way that particular saying goes.  That was my modus operandi.  Because I’m so damn smart and enlightened.

Thank the Universe, I’ve learned those self-righteous leanings are mostly delusion and bent ego.  And thank the Universe, I’ve slowly learned to keep my mouth shut.  Mostly.  I still can’t clamp it shut fast enough to keep some spew from squirting out, but I’m getting better at it.  Unfortunately, the only way to practice this skill is through experience.  Ugh.  But, I’m finding a new truth in confrontation—nothing I have to say will make it better.  Especially if there’s some kind of emotion behind it.  I don’t need to be understood.  No one is required to see my point of view.  None of that is important.

Still, it doesn’t feel good to be accused or punished for perceived or future crimes.  And that sharp discomfort is hard for my illness to tolerate.  The stress sings my anxiety and agitation into action, urging me to cut and run, to find comfort, to gather the troupes and set up a perimeter against any further incursions.  The illness turns me away from them and toward me.  What do I need to do to feel safe?  What stories am I making up about what happened?  How do I reorient to this new situation?  How do I keep breathing until the anxiety settles and the New Place is mapped?  What resources do I have?

I have some work to do today, and in the days to come.  Being misunderstood is part of being bipolar.  And part of all human interaction.  I just have to find my way in it.  Without getting ruined.

Holding Tension

handmade greeting cards, collage art, Leonard NimoyI hardly know how to function in this quiet place.

For the last couple of weeks, there’s been no drama, no hysterics, no uncontrollable urges.  I get up and go about my day, paying attention to what I eat, making sure I work out morning and evening, working on my manuscript.  I volunteered to be on the program committee for our UU fellowship, so I’m thinking about what our group wants in the way of spiritual substance.  I show up at the meditation groups I host and listen to what teachings might be called forward.  I touch base with my friends.

Anxiety still rises at times.  My Bad-Ass Training kicks in and, for now, it’s enough to keep me from spiraling.  Yesterday, I sat at the Hy Vee cafe in the light of the big windows with my iPod crooning in my ears.  The urge to bolt came on strong—Get Out! Go to Des Moines!  I wrote about it in my journal, then went out into the grocery store for Veggie Sticks (think healthy Cheetos) and a couple of movies from the Redbox.  I spent $10 instead of $60 and stayed home.  I felt like a warrior.

I tell the folks in meditation that developing consciousness is about holding tension—doing something that’s a little uncomfortable because it’s the right thing to do, then doing it again and again.  Soon our capacity for doing what’s difficult grows.  When my illness is quiet, I can practice what I preach.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  I hold tension most of the time, but when I’m ill, my capacity is very small.   And if there’s too much tension, my illness snaps like a rubber band in reaction.  That’s a learning, too, to be aware of that point of no return.  So, in this quieter place, it’s a little scary to challenge those urges to give up, eat, run, spend, relax or whatever my ego might prefer.  After months of being very gentle with myself, I’m not used to pushing hard.

So, today, again, I get up and go about my day—watching, testing and holding a little more tension.

Because I can.

Because I’m on an Adventure.

Debt and Agitation

handmade cards, collage artI lost my mind for a little while this morning.

I’ve been struggling to hold my compulsive behaviors at bay, which is like telling the ocean to be still.  When the bipolar tide comes in, there’s no arguing with it.  Silly wall of water!  You just go back out to sea where you belong!  Sure, I could scold all day long.  Trouble is, I’d still drown.

When I’m severely agitated, I bolt.  I can’t make myself stay in my apartment or even in town.  I have to get in my truck and drive.  Usually to a friendly coffee shop in Ames or Des Moines where I can sip and write in my journal.  This soothes me.  This allows the anxiety and hysteria to ooze out until I can once again function like a human being.

I used to be able to moderate my rabbitty behavior by going to a coffee shop here in town.  But, Haven closed, and all the other cafés or bakeries or restaurants have too many strikes against them—too expensive, too loud, too dark, bad food, bad coffee, bad service, and the worst—uncomfortable chairs.  I have no middle ground anymore, no place where I can get away from my apartment without driving at least 45 minutes.

This is not an ideal situation for someone with no money.  I have to charge gasoline to my credit card, but can’t pay the balance.  So it grows.  And if I try to pay more on the balance each month, I have no cash and dip into the tiny cushion of my checking account.  So that’s shrinking, too.  As I sink deeper in debt, the stress of trying to physically rein in my symptoms and the squeeze of lack triggers more agitation, depression and manic flights of escape.  This morning I could not see a way out of this loop.  And the undertow of hopelessness pulled me under.

I talked to my mental health clinic about payee services in my area.  Could I find someone to help me manage my money?  But the thought of turning over my credit card or trying to “budget” my flights out of town made me sob out loud.  I thought about what else I could eliminate from my expenses.  I thought about asking my mom for money.  Everything seemed penny-pinching and ineffective.  The only real solution is to be mentally stable.  Silly old mental illness!  Just go back to whatever genetic pool you came from and let me get on with my life!

I’m too poor to be bipolar, that’s all there is to it.

Hysteria is never helpful.  I recognized this as I sobbed into my napkin and the other patrons at Panera tried not to stare.  Yes, my compulsive behaviors are active and overwhelming at present.  Yes, I am in debt.  But, I have people who love me and won’t let me end up sleeping in my truck.  This season will pass.

I don’t have a solution.  My view is too narrow and constricted right now.  But, that actually seems okay.  There are just some things that can’t be fixed.  Like bipolar disorder itself, maybe this is another partner I have to write onto my dance card.  I don’t know.  Not knowing is terrifying, but I can relieve myself of the burden to fix this situation for now.  That helps.

It’s like floating.  When the ocean seizes a person, they can fight and exhaust themselves, or they can float and save their strength.  For now, I’ll float and dream of life rafts.

In and Out

hand made cards, collage art

♦ ♦ ♦

Awake at 4:00.  Panic and sinking despair.  Read email and blogs to calm, calm, calm. But the discomfort like gravel under the skin, ants in the brain.  Go! Go! Go!  Dash water on our face and find clean underwear.  Enough grooming.  Go!  Will jump in the truck and Drive.  To the Forbidden City.  Starbucks.  A movie later.

Another voice.  So quiet.  *wait.

Check billfold.  $45 to last two more weeks.  Not enough.  Check movies and times.  Ah, one we haven’t seen.  Print out the free soda coupon.  Check bank account.  Balance on the Visa is HighHighHigh.  Nothing left in checking.

*don’t do this today.

We lay on the floor to listen better to the quiet voice.  Want to bolt.  Need to bolt.  But can’t squeeze past the facts.  Have to.  Have to.  Can’t stay in town.  No proper coffee in town anymore.  No proper writing place.  Can’t come back to the apartment-prison.  Can’tCan’tCan’t.  Go now.

*wait.  can you hold the tension?

No.  Too much.  Drowning.

*think of it like an experiment.  try, and see what happens.  try one thing.

On the floor with Henry watching from the chair.  We can go to the Y.  Ride the recumbent bike.  Walk.

*yes, then what?

Then, we’ll see.

*good.

We walk to the Y.  Ride the bike.  Moving through syrup.  Pain.  Exhausted before starting.  Stumbling tired after.

*what now?

Experimenting and holding the tension of flight or fight.

*can you stay?  *can you keep from spending money today?

We will stay in town.  We have a gift card for the movies here.  Maybe go later.  Forget going to the inadequate cafe.  Make our own chai.  Need almond milk.  Forget going to the grocery store.  Too tired.  Too much pain.  Make a meal from what we have.  Healthy, but too much.  Staying, but eating.  Can only hold so much tension.  Drop into eating and watching a movie.  Then, drop into full sleep.  For hours.

Wake up like a drunk.  Out on the sidewalk with the iPod and an apple.  Walk.  Eat a proper snack.  Feel the breeze—sun-warm on the top, October-cool on the bottom.  Shuffle through drifts of leaves.  Plodding, plodding.  Still, the gravel under the skin.  Still, the ants in the brain.  Feet are platters, swollen and sore.  Body feels huge, bloated.  FeelFeelFeel.  But, the urgent voice is quiet.  Only the Other voice is here.

*breathe.  turn your face to the sun.  yes…

We miss our street concentrating on putting one platter in front of the other.  Funny.  At home, we pound a nail and hang a picture.  We need a companion for this picture.  TensionTensionTension.  Online we find one.  Not too expensive.  And we need double-sided tape.  And…and…and…  Tension stretches and snaps.  Running free.  Almost.  Remove items from the shopping cart.  DeleteDeleteDelete. $35 spent.  Not too bad.

*come back to holding the tension. be curious.  can you keep coming back?

Daylight fades.  Henry sits at the window watching the street go dark.  Time to shroud the TV.  Time to write.  Time to breathe.  In and out.  Like the tension.  Like the experiment.  In and out.

In and out.

Scooping the Loop in Bipolar Town

hand-made cards, collage art

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like. —Lao Tzu

= = =

Change is hard for me.  I guess it’s hard for most people.  We get comfortable in our routines, settle in and snooze.  Life rolls along in a predictable way that’s soothing and reliable.

Change requires attention, energy, planning, and action.  It shakes us up and makes us re-evaluate everything we’ve taken for granted.  It knocks us out of that fuzzy comfort zone.  Sometimes it’s painful—letting go of ideas, people, places, things we hold dear.  Sometimes it rocks us to the core.

Part of my bipolarness is the need for routine—a generally consistent schedule to my day or week.  My routine comforts me.  It soothes the anxiety and agitation that are constant companions.  It gives me a way to move through the day when that seems impossible.

Also, my routine helps me maintain my priorities and meet my goals.  When the mood swings start looping one after another, it’s hard to move forward.  Routine is like a light over a familiar off-ramp that I can’t see in the dark.  Instead of driving around and around on the Rapid Cycling clover leaf—not able to focus, not able to make a choice about what to do—I can maneuver my car to that off ramp with my routine’s help.  I can keep moving forward, however slowly.

Big changes to my routine can trigger a blow-up of my symptoms.  And, since nothing stays the same except change, I’m discovering I need a strategy to manage those times.

Last week I had to quit my beloved deep water aerobics class.  The routine had changed over the summer from mostly cardio and core work to more arm exercises.  Too much of that makes my bum shoulder worse, so I tried to adjust my workout, ask for help, do my own thing.  But I wasn’t getting the workout my brain needs, so today I went back to the shallow water classes.

I’ve made good friends in the deep water class.  We created a tight community that supported each other.  But I know how important a hard workout is to my brain chemistry and to my over all health.  The decision was excruciating.  Not just because of what I had to give up in the class, but because it mucked up my routine.

Add to that my homelessness in terms of a coffee shop/writing aerie, my conversion to a vegan diet, and developing several new friendships and my routine is pretty much shot to hell.  I know in time I’ll pull together a new structure, but right now I’m free-falling.  And the anxiety that produces keeps me from rational thought.

All I can think of to do today is seek comfort—not the bipolar versions of comfort which are all obsessive-compulsive (though those are really calling to me), but something more useful, healthy and safe.  And if I can’t do that, then maybe I can aim for the least amount of harm in my compulsive behavior.  I’m not sure I can even do that.

I have to hold Lao Tzu’s words as a mantra today.  Let reality be reality.  Let this illness be what it is.  Flow with the changes without resistance.  Breathe.  Eventually, I’ll start to slow down.  Eventually, a new off-ramp will show up with a light bright enough to steer by.  Hold that wheel lightly.  Observe.  Embrace the new road coming—a new life is on the other side.

Singing for Cover

Collage Art

I’m not in a bipolar episode, I’m living through a bipolar war campaign.

It’s a mixed state most of the time with the worst symptoms of depression jumbled together with anxiety and agitation.  But it jumps all over the place with grenades of hysteria and panic thrown in.

Sometimes, during a severe or long episode, there comes a point when I lose courage.  It’s as if my Bad-Ass blacks out from blood loss, and all that’s left to defend the perimeter is me.  The panic becomes me.  The despair becomes me.  I feel helplessly outnumbered.  I felt that happening yesterday.

I went to see my medical doctor to get an MRI scheduled for my shoulder.  I love my GP.  His parents owned a farm near ours, so we were part of the same community.  We briefly rode the same school bus when he was a senior in high school and I was in first grade.  He’s one of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever known and has always made sure I got what I needed.  Yesterday, we discussed my shoulder briefly, then he asked about my mental health.

We talked for another half hour.  I explained what was happening, how I was managing, my philosophy on mental illness.  Then I stopped, and he smiled.  I was talking a mile a minute, confident in my brilliance.  Pressured speech is the technical term.  I had jumped into full-blown mania.

The illness can always sense when the Bad-Ass goes down, and then releases the horde—bad choices, bad behavior, thinking so twisted it wrings itself out.  After I saw my doc, I felt myself overrun by Crazy.  The mania kept me up all night.  The only thing I could think of to do this morning was to go to the Y.

Working out has been the only thing that’s really helped during this mixed state campaign.  Sweat and blood and muscle clear a spot in my jumbled mind where I can back out of the firefight.  This morning I hopped on the recumbent bike, plugged in my iPod and started peddling for that clearing.  As my music pushed me faster, I sang along.  Out of breath, gulping air, I kept singing in my empty corner of the Y.  Bonnie Raitt.  John Mellencamp.  James Taylor.  Don Henley.  And I found it.  Cover.  And the Bad-Ass.  As I peddled, I could check to make sure her wounds weren’t fatal, her rifle loaded.  As I sang, I could feel my mind clear, my thoughts sink from their frenzy.  I could see the day ahead and what I needed to do.

As I rested there, the Bad-Ass rose on her haunches.

“Stay here,” she told me, pumping her rifle.  “I’ll take it from here.”

Peter Mayer’s Walk with a Lighter Touch was one of the songs that led me to cover.

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