Fighting For My Life

I felt fierce and proud and forever free.I’m in a mood.

I’ll just put that out there as a disclaimer so you know what follows is tainted.

This is a mood that seems to keep coming back.  Well.  That’s bipolar disorder in a nutshell.  So to speak.

I know this mood and I have history if only from how big Bipolar Bad-Assery is in my little Cloud of Topics at right.  I recognize the ferocity and physical stamina.  A terrible intolerance develops.  And then there’s the ice-cold anger.  It started a few days ago with a niggle in the back of my mind.  At odd moments it would pop into full consciousness like Schwarzenegger bursting through a door.

I’m fighting for my life.

It surfaced at TOPS yesterday, and again in the water this morning as I swam my mile.  So I took myself for a drive today to give this moody thought some room.  What I found is that this isn’t the whole thought, just the opener.  In toto, it goes like this.

I’m fighting for my life, so step up or get out of the way.

And suddenly the anger and intolerance make more sense.  Even the extra strength and endurance.  I’m gearing up to go solo again.

This mood, this attitude, runs counter to all the discussions I’ve had with my therapist about relationships.  She’s counseled me about how relationships change, how people come and go out of a life.  She reminds me to take people for what they are and to be accepting of what they can offer.  This is realistic advice.  But, sometimes, I can’t see how it helps me much.

I don’t need coffee dates or tactfully casual conversations as much as I need allies who will get bloody up to the eyebrows with me.  But, finding a loyal berserker isn’t easy.  Or realistic.  Real people have messes of their own to worry about—sick parents, and mortgages, and unemployment.  All that feels like do or die for them, too, so they’re hardly going to save their ammo for me.  Or if they do happen to save a clip, they end up shooting in the wrong direction or even at me.  Friendly fire, of course, but still lethal.


Which leads to another conversation with my therapist—my need to make people understand me.  I don’t like being misunderstood.  I don’t like others deciding what’s best for me or making assumptions about me.  But, really, all that is none of my business.  I can’t help what other people think or do.  I can’t stick my hand inside their gray matter and plant the seeds I want growing there.  But, sometimes, they act out of the stories they’ve told themselves about me.  And then they make it my business.  Which I don’t handle with great diplomacy.  I don’t mind so much if you can’t fight alongside me, but get in my way and I might blow your head off.  Nice.  You can see why I might have trouble holding onto friends.

I see what’s happening here.  I’m turning into that Hero person who Stands Alone.  Maybe I’ve always been that person.  It might be one of the reasons I was drawn to comic books as a kid.  As soon as I was able to read, I stole from my brother’s Marvel collection.  Those guys understood.  They fought for their lives every month.  They were me.

winter soldierWhen I went to the new Captain America movie last week and watched Steve Rogers risk everything, the niggle in my head practically shouted.  That’s me!  And then [SPOILER ALERT] when he quit fighting and let Bucky beat him to smithereens, the niggle still shouted.  That’s me, too!  Cap had allies.  He even had a handful of people he trusted.  But, basically, he was alone.  I get that.  And sometimes the hero just gives up.  I get that, too.

That’s as far as this train of thought is going, because to follow it any further would just indulge the mood.  It will shift in a few days and all this Hulk energy will drain.  But, there might be some new questions for my therapist on Monday.  Life and death questions.  Because in the end, I’m still fighting for my life.


Focus on Gratitude: Day 14

handmade greeting card, collage artThis series on gratitude started as a whistle in the dark, a talisman against the darkness and bogey-boos lurking there.  It’s my version of faith, I guess—throwing out a thin line into the black and believing it will pass through into something greater.

It takes effort, gratitude.  It takes a conscious wrenching away from the ugly, subconscious natterings to fix one’s gaze on a blessing.  It takes a willingness to soften the defensive posture long enough to let the blessing sink in.  It takes practice.

Today, I’m tired of the fight.  My therapist moved furniture out of the way for me yesterday so I could pace while I sobbed and raged.  She was very kind to me, offered a couple of things to think about in a soft, non-confrontational way.  She can shift gears like that—slapping me upside the head when it’s needed, but also sitting quietly and just listening when it’s the only thing to be done. I feel safe with her.  I feel like I have a partner, finally, in dealing with my life.

And I feel the thread unrolling out of me again—this filament of grace and light, this acknowledgment of blessing and bounty.  I am grateful for Megan and all she’s brought to my life in such a short period of time.  And I am hopeful about what that gossamer strand may find on the other side of the void.

Today, I’ll try to rest in this place while the depression and agitation swirl.  I’ll hold to that delicate string without clutching, without adding more drama.  I’ll remind myself to breathe.  And to wait.  And to be grateful.

A Head-Scratcher

handmade greeting card, collage art

♦ ♦ ♦

I don’t have the words.

This is not a problem that often comes up for me.  Lucid, delusional, manic or morbid, I can generally put words to the experience.  Not this time.

I’m not in exactly the same state as before I went to the hospital, but I’m not far from it.  The stressors that sent me scrambling for help are still in place and still unresolvable.  Tried and true tools for getting back on the Bipolar Bad-Ass track don’t work any more (or at least aren’t working now).  Instead, older, unhealthy coping mechanisms are in play, and I drift through the day in exhausted apathy.  Or my frequent blasts of anger turn me into someone I don’t recognize—defensive, bitter, paranoid, hateful.

I’m stumped.  I don’t have a map for this place.  I feel like I’m not asking the right questions or turning my face in the wrong direction.

By the time I got into the Partial Hospital Program (PHP), I’d decided solitude was the best option for me.  My people skills had deteriorated to utter confusion.  I was lonely, but the dangers and disappointments in connecting with others were too high a price.  I knew this wasn’t the healthiest choice, but I couldn’t see a way around it.

In PHP, we talked about relationships, boundaries and community.  My resolution to keep people at a distance had to be reconsidered.  The counselors said the five people you spend the most time with are who you end up becoming.  They asked us to look at who we hang out with, if they were our role models, and if not to think about who we would like to become.

I took that to heart when I came home and reached out to people I admire.  Every day I spend time with those lovely friends, or talk to them, or arrange dates for another time.  It’s incredibly hard work.

But the PHP staff was right.  My heroes lift me up.  They mirror my best back at me.  Their light and laughter part the clouds in a truly biblical way.  Still, there’s trauma in shaking loose of the folks I don’t want to become—the glass-half-empty folks.  I’m just trying to spend more time with my heroes, not reject the others.

I don’t know how to do this, either.  I’m fumbling around in the dark, banging my shin on the furniture and stepping on the cats.  Worst yet, I don’t have the words to frame this weird, new place.  I’m called to be patient, to keep moving through alien terrain until I learn the language, until I can decipher the code.  I’m uncomfortable, and frightened and angry.  But I must try to wait.  Just wait.


handmade greeting card, collage artMmmfrph.  This is my first morning after my first night on a sleeping pill in over three years.  Erg.  Still didn’t sleep through the night, but part of my brain seems to be unaware of this fact.

Speaking of drugs, my conversation with the hospital shrink was quite satisfactory.  She was the one three years ago who told me pharmacology had nothing more to offer me, which set me on my Bipolar Bad-Ass course.  I thanked her for that, which caused some wide-eyed blinking and mention of new meds I might try.  Thanks, but no.  But after two more nights of only three hours of sleep and no opportunity for a nap during the day, I agreed that a sleeping aid was in order.

Changes is one’s sleep pattern is an early warning sign of mental distress, but I wasn’t paying attention.  It’s too easy for me to just take a nap during the day if I’m tired.  I’d been doing this for so long, I forgot it wasn’t healthy.  So now I have to retrain my body and brain to the required eight consecutive hours.  It will take a little time and tolerance for the morning hangover.

Fatigue makes me irritable and intolerant.  Concentration splinters and I lose my sense of humor.  Sitting in group all day with other people jangles all those weary nerves.  I try to watch as my irritability bubbles up, take a deep breath, and wait for the froth to settle before speaking.  So far, so good.

It helps to be working with interesting material.  Tuesday we spent the day on self-esteem.  Yesterday we started on boundaries and anger management.  More on those topics today.

Here’s part of a video we watched from Jack Canfield, the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I managed to stay awake for this one.

Hallmark Doesn’t Make a Card for This

hand made card, collage artBirthdays kinda suck.

It’s not the part about getting older.  That’s actually a triumph for me—making it through another year.  No, it’s all those demands to be happy, and to celebrate, and to have a great day.  I can’t take the pressure, man.  The revolving mixed state I’ve been in the last couple of days brought lots of presents.  Happy wasn’t one of them.  Nor was the capacity to celebrate more than climbing into bed.  And telling me to smile only makes me want to punch something.

Perhaps I’m a bit sensitive about that last point.  Ever since I was a wee bipolar lass, people have told me to “snap out of it,” or “put on a happy face,” or my favorite “what have you got to be sad about?”  So now that I’m a heavyweight in the Bipolar Bad-Ass division, I don’t tolerate folks telling me how to feel.  I may not actually whack them, but I do get deathly quiet.  Ooo!  Snap!

Back to this birthday business.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate the lovely cards and presents.  I am relieved that people remember who I am and that I was born.  It’s just that, birthday or not, I still have to figure out how to get through the day without

  • Eating the other pie I bought at Perkins last night
  • Driving hard and fast until the gas runs out in my dad’s truck
  • Putting my nightie back on and spending the day watching the ceiling fan turn

I have a couple of ideas.  I could try to get my hair cut.  I cancelled my last appointment when I was sick, and twice this week someone asked me if I qualified for their Senior Discount.  Hmm.  I know I’m 55 now, and could technically be someone’s grandma, but if that’s the case, then I’d like to look like a hip grandma.

I could try to get an appointment with Michele.  Nothing says celebrate like a session with your therapist!

What I’ll probably do is drive to Starbucks thirty miles away, get a Soy Chai, and spew all the obscenities and self-pity spared you here into my journal.  My Scottish friend, Evelyn, taught me a new epithet I’m dying to use—FEK OFF!

In fact, here’s what I want for my birthday—Everyone send me your best swear, your rudest, over-the-top expletive.  If I have to be riding this roller coaster today, I can at least have good stuff to shout at passersby.  And all those people who keep telling me to smile.

Now that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Failure, Seeds & Tidal Waves

collage art, hand-made greeting cardsI woke up this morning contemplating failure.

I knew last week would be rough.  When the Y closes for cleaning each summer, my whole schedule gets disrupted, but I planned around it the best I could.  However, I couldn’t foresee the bolus of anger that ignited my stress like tinder.  I didn’t anticipate the sudden plunge into a mixed state or the overwhelming return of my compulsions.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared to gain back six pounds.  This morning Failure glared like a jittery neon sign in my head.

But, if living with bipolar disorder has taught me anything, it’s that life is rarely that simple or black and white.  I needed to look at my week again, and again, and again, if necessary, to see the whole picture.

In my reading about anger this week, Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the seeds of anger that are in all of us.  Some have more seeds than others, or their seeds are strongly rooted.  I see that anger and resentment are deeply rooted in me. I keep old hurts precious.  I rail against Life and The Illness.  At times, I practice mindfulness and breathe into these seeds until they become transparent.  But, they remain.  Bipolar disorder, in me, shares a deep affinity with anger.  So, when my illness manifests, my seeds of anger sprout and grow strong.  It is part of the illness, and part of my practice.  Neither success nor failure, but an ebb and flow.

After my attempted suicide, my teacher said to me, “The illness got away from you.”  It does that sometimes, even after careful practice and planning.  I think of myself on a beach with my little buckets and sand shovels, diligently digging trenches and building sand castles.  Sooner or later, a big wave crashes in.  It blasts the castles and erases the trenches I’ve worked so hard to make.

Storms are part of the deal when you live on the edge of the sea.  It’s important to clean up the damage, but just as important to take inventory of what survived.  While my rage was huge and consuming this week, I didn’t aim it at anyone.  And I may have eaten non-stop to deaden the pain, but I still ate nearly-vegan.  I still have my buckets and shovels.

Tidal WaveThis life is so tenuous.  I make plans and set goals to try to keep the sand from constantly shifting under my feet.  Plans and goals are sticks I jab in the sand to find solid ground.  When the storm comes and washes the sticks away, I wail over my lost place-holders.  I forget that this is a Game, and harder yet, I forget how to play it.

The game is to Find the Sticks—those unique and beautiful tools we create to manage the illness—then Plant them.  We notice everything—the resistance of the wet sand, the strength in our arms, the sun on our necks, the pleasant rhythm of the Work.  We stand back to see the pattern and progression of our creation.  And when the Storm hits, we run for shelter, come back when the waters recede, and start again.

There is no failure in this game.  No winners or losers.  There is just the slow, steady Work and the inevitability of the Sea.

Anger and Compulsive Eating

Part of the pledge we say every week in TOPS is “I am an intelligent person.  I will control my emotions and not let my emotions control me.”  Emotional eating, compulsive eating, is an enormous problem for most people in our group.  It is an issue we all struggle with and support one another to address.  But, as someone with bipolar disorder, I knew I would be lying if I said the pledge as written.  My moods are uncontrollable.  Emotions often erupt out of thin air.  I edited my version of the pledge to say “I will observe my emotions and not let my thoughts control me.”  I felt this put the TOPS pledge in alignment with my practice.  If I could observe my thoughts and emotions, I could discern which pieces might be out of my control and which ones I might be able to work with.

I received an opportunity to Observe this week.  For the past few days, I have been enraged, and I watched myself eat everything in sight.  This sounds like I was conscious.  I was not.  I was given moments, flashes, where awareness occurred in spite of the boiling rage.  These were gifts borne of Practice.  In those moments, I could see I was suffering and making the suffering worse.  I tried to hold my anger gently.  Then, the anger would wash over me, and I would go back to sleep.

Anger is part of my illness.  It is also part of being Human.  Rage does not make me a monster or a lunatic, but it pulls me from the path I want to travel.  This morning I knew I must find a different way to work with this particular manifestation of anger if I was to continue on my chosen path.  I needed a practice.  Admitting that made me remember a book I’d not touched in a long time, a book by someone I consider my Teacher—Thich Nhat Hanh.

What a shock to open his book and find the first chapter devoted to consumption.

We all need to know how to handle and take care of our anger.  To do this, we must pay more attention to the biochemical aspect of anger, because anger has its roots in our body as well as our mind.  When we analyze our anger, we can see its physiological elements.  We have to look deeply at how we eat, how we drink, how we consume, and how we handle our body in our daily life.

I expected my Teacher to offer me a way to take care of my anger so I could stop compulsively eating.  How ironic, how very Buddhist, to discover that Mindful Eating is the way.  At least, the first step of the Way.  So, today I will start.  I will follow the Mindfulness Training on consumption…

…to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming.  I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society.  I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest food or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations…

Today I will slow down and try to stay conscious about what I take in, not feeding the anger, not building more energy for my anger to use.  I will breathe, and practice, and try to be open to what rises in me.  The path is before me.  This is the first step.

Excerpts from Anger—Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hahn.

The Path Always Followed

I have a confession.  It’s not easy for me to admit this.  But, it’s time to face facts.

Bipolar Disorder has turned me into a Coot.

I never thought it would happen.  I expected to be easy-going and spontaneous to the end of my days.  Fun-loving.  Ready for adventure.  Alas, genetics had other plans.

RAGBRAI, Marshalltown

Two days of disruption in my normal routine have left me cranky.  On Wednesday, our town welcomed thousands of bicyclists in The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI).  For forty years, bikers from all over the country have come to Iowa during the last full week in July to ride from one side of the state to the other.  Approximately 460 miles in six days.  The host towns along the route offer food, entertainment, camp sites or shelter.  It’s a big deal.  A week-long party of endurance.

RAGBRAI, Marshalltown, IowaMarshalltown has been in an uproar all summer preparing.  And as soon as the big day dawned, I got the heck out of Dodge.  I had no interest in watching the sweaty masses peddle past my apartment all day long in 105 degree heat.  I didn’t want to get stuck behind them in my truck, or try to find a parking space at the Y between their support RVs and campers, or elbow my way through the throngs in my coffee shop.  I grumped my way over to Ames where civilized people sat in air conditioning instead of lying prostrate on the pavement.

K9 Inspection, BedbugsThen, yesterday, our apartment complex had its quarterly bedbug inspection by the K9 unit.  This time, the manager gave us proper notice, so I had a day to clean, then properly pack up my cats and all their paraphernalia.  We spent the day at my mom’s house.  The boys explored vast, basement hide-holes while I did laundry.  We also napped.  Because, that’s what coots do.

Agitation, Bipolar Disorder, RoutineI’m well aware that my cootishness is a direct result of routine disruption, and that burns my *ss even more.  I don’t want to be ruled by sameness, or thrown into an episode by an unscheduled activity.  I don’t want to be that fragile or that flaky.  I want to go with the flow and embrace whatever comes along (imagine a hippie-girl running through a meadow here—daisies in her hair, mellow without pharmaceuticals).

Well, too bad.  At least I had warning about both events.  That kept the fragile breakage to a minimum.  To be honest, fragile is not how I’d describe myself today.  Belligerent would be more accurate—as in a Clint Eastwood Make my Day sort of way.  So, don’t cross me, or I’ll beat you with a bicycle pump and flick bedbugs at your head.

Shot-Gun Rider

Madness will push you anywhere it wants.  It never tells you where you’re going, or why.  It tells you it doesn’t matter.  It persuades you.  It dangles something sparkly before you, shimmering like that patch on the road up ahead.  You will drive until you find it, the treasure, the thing you most desire.

You will never find it.  Madness may mock you so long, you will die of the search.  Or it will tire of you, turn its back, oblivious as you go flying.  The car is beside you, smoking, belly-up, still spinning its wheels.

—Marya Hornbacher from Madness: A Bipolar Life

♦ ♦ ♦

I just finished Hornbacher’s account of her life with bipolar disorder.  Part of me is furious.  Part of me identifies so completely with her life that I want to buy copies of her book and give them to everyone I know.  “Here,” I want to tell them.  “This is what the inside of my head looks like.”  Part of me feels sick and crazy and wants to binge or drive really fast until the screaming in my own head stops.  Part of me just wants to punch something.

So, I guess the furious part is winning.  Here’s a woman who survived anorexia so severe she once weighed 55 pounds, raging alcoholism, drug addiction and rapid-cycling, mixed-state bipolar disorder.  She was hospitalized over and over again.  She even received electroshock treatments from the same doctor who gave them to me.  I should be compassionate.  I should be empathetic.  I should get her life.

But all I can think about is that she was diagnosed in her twenties and ignored every recommendation that was ever given to her.  Stop drinking.  Stop working so much.  Pay attention to your moods.  She ignored all of it until her illness was so advanced she had no other choice than to finally take some responsibility for her life.

What I wouldn’t give to have had a diagnosis in my twenties!

Of course, I may have done exactly what Hornbacher did—blow it off and let the madness run riot.  Of course I would have, because that’s part of the illness.  (Professionals call it “lack of insight,” which means the inability to recognize symptoms as symptoms.)  And that’s what pisses me off.

There was never any chance of stopping this freight train, never any chance of catching up to the mirage of sanity.  I knew that when I was eleven, but I keep forgetting.  I fool myself into thinking all this work I do, all the Observing and Monitoring and Substituting, will lock the craziness away and let me be normal. Always, in the back of my mind, I hold out that someday the monster will go up in smoke.  But these memoirs that I’m reading, as research for my own book on bipolar disorder, keep pounding a different stake through my heart.  “Snap out of it!” the Van Helsing-book yells at me.  “Bipolar isn’t the monster—chasing after Normal is the real monster!”

Uhhh.  My chest hurts where I’ve pulled out the latest stake.  Maybe I can figure out how to banish the magical thinking without needing a pointy two-by-four every single time.  Maybe I can teach myself to just enjoy the drive instead of keeping an eye out for the mirage.  Maybe, someday, I’ll finally accept this illness as the shot-gun rider that it is.  Maybe.  Someday.

Shifting Sands

What I’ve found as a student of my own bipolar disorder is that I function best with a routine and a minimum of stress.  I can surf change and surprises if they remain small and limited, but pile on too many or shake up my world too much and I become symptomatic.

Over the last few days, I’ve watched my agitation grow—both motor (feeling like I have to keep moving) and psychic (intense inner tension).  I’m quick to anger, and I’m finding it difficult to focus on tasks.  At the same time, I have a nagging premonition of doom, like I’m forgetting something important.  My thoughts are heavy, self-defeating, distorted toward darkness.  This is all classic mixed-state bipolar disorder.

Stress is different for everyone.  I’ve thought about this a lot as I considered volunteering at the public library.  The biggest, most consistent stressor in my life has always been work.  Before my mental break in 2006, I changed jobs almost every seven years.  That seemed to be my limit.  I would get physically sick, or quit on the verge of getting fired, or later, suffer anxiety attacks.

After moving home in 2007, I tried several times to work.  I’ve always said my problem was that I couldn’t be consistent, that holding to someone else’s schedule was impossible for me.  But, I’m not sure that’s the issue.  All I know for sure is that working causes me enormous stress, which makes me sick.

So I had mixed feelings when the librarian took my name, but said she didn’t have any work for me at present.  Relief mixed with irritation.  I recognize the irritation as part of the agitation pool I’m paddling in right now.  Relief is the proper response.  I don’t need to add another stressor right now.

Working on a new writing project, one without a clear form and direction, is very different from rewriting a piece of fiction.  I’ve learned enough about my writing process to know it will take shape eventually.  But, for now it slips through my fingers.  There’s no path to follow.  That’s very disconcerting and fodder for the distorted thoughts crowding into my head.

I knew that challenging myself to draw every day for a month would bring up old wounds to be healed, but I never anticipated the level of resistance I feel in my body.  Part of that is the agitation itself.  I’m genuinely shocked at the comments readers have left about the sketches I’ve posted so far.  They look like crap to me.  So, I Watch those thoughts, try to remain curious about where the distortion comes from, try to feel the anxiety in my body.  I hold the possibility that the sketches are fine, that the self-criticism is a product of my illness and a distorted view of my history.  I wake up a little bit and breathe.

Today, I will comfort myself as best I can while holding the tension—work out at the Y, go to Panera where I feel successful as a writer and can afford a couple of meals (both money and calorie-wise).  I’ll listen to my music and sing while I drive the half hour to Ames, take in the spring greens and count the baby animals (lambs are so clean!).

Seeing what’s going on, bringing awareness to my symptoms and lifting them up out of the shadows makes the process so much easier.  It drains off the fear and shame.  It helps me identify the delusions.  With awareness, I can place my steps more carefully in the shifting sands of my illness and keep moving forward.

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