Safety Girl

LukeSo, I saw Ben this week—my substitute therapist who looks like Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.  I like him a lot.  I just keep expecting him to mutter, “Stay on target.  Stay on target.”

Those introductory sessions can be awkward and, honestly, boring.  I’m so sick of telling my story.  Ancient history.  So, instead we talked about us—how Ben works, how I work, what I need from him.  We laughed, I cried, we made another appointment.

He said he digs superhero movies, which endeared me to him immediately.  He also said he was big on themes in therapy, which made absolute sense.  People have patterns and some kind of energy generates those patterns.  Identifying the common threads that run through our lives and calling them themes has a nice, literary ring to it.  And nothing simplifies complex internal themes like a superhero, so this all fit nicely together in my fan-girl brain.

A theme he noticed in our discussion that day was safety.  Ahh, the Force is strong in this one.

Feeling safe—physically, financially, emotionally— drives me and is easily threatened.  And since Safety is pretty low on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (just one step above Breathing), it’s hard for me to advance to meeting higher needs.  Survival seems to be where I spend most of my time.

ElectraI like to think of myself as a Bad-Ass and courageous in my battle with bipolar disorder, but in most parts of my life I’m terrified.  I’m aware of this.  I watch my anxiety rise.  I watch my body respond to the flood of adrenaline.  I feel the fear tip my bipolar scales.

There’s no light saber that can slice through this old pattern.  All I can do is practice awareness, see when the theme is running me, and face it.

I guess that’s the real definition of courage—being scared shitless and facing the Dark Side anyway.  But, it’s always easier to do that with help.  Either a therapist or protocol robot will do.

Tempest in a Teacup

Don't Know BeansHere I am, finishing up my second week of work.

The stress is enormous, not just for me, but for everyone trying to learn this new program and making up the next steps as they are needed.  The real challenge for me is to moderate the anxiety and pressure.  Under stress, I’m easily overwhelmed.  I’m like a teacup that flattens, slopping out my ability to concentrate and my emotional flexibility.  I lose capacity.

I also become reactive, and my first instinct is to bolt.  I run from the stressor, fling it off and dive into a hide-hole.  So, the words “I can’t do this” fly in and out of my head regularly.

But part of my personal journey is to work on increasing my tolerance to distress.  If I’m ever to make any lasting changes in my behavior and my life, I need to work this work situation like a puzzle.  What do I need to do to stretch my envelope of tolerance?  As always, I created a plan.

The first piece is to breathe.  It’s my starting point.  When the acronyms start flying and I can feel my body vibrating like a tuning fork, I stop and breathe deep into my belly.  It tells me to come back to myself.  It starts the process of flinging off the assumptions and negativity.  Breathing deep, I can remember why I’m doing this.  I can remember I don’t need to understand.  I can remember that I’m not alone.

I also realized that creating more structure would help soothe the anxiety, so I put an After Work plan in place.  I go straight home, change, and go to the Y to ride the recumbent bike for an hour.  That helps burn off some of the adrenaline and agitation.  Then, I journal with a cup of something soothing.  Then, I meditate.  After that, I’m rational enough to eat a sensible supper.  This helps.  Instead of bingeing all night with a movie, I’m taking positive action to stretch my tolerance.

And it seems to be working.  I may be an emotional puddle by the time I leave the office, but by the next morning my teacup is upright and able to hold water.

This is new behavior for me.  It’s also more stress than I’ve endured in years.  I’m proud of all that.  I’m also aware that I could blow at any time.  That’s the unknowable, uncontrollable piece to bipolar disorder.  All I can do is stay as mindful as I can from moment to moment and see what happens.

I’m on an Adventure.

tiny cups

Goals for the Next 30 Days: Lose 8 Pounds

Did You Wash Your SocksI knew when I wrote that goal down that it was pretty unrealistic, but I’m more interested in the process than the final result.  To that end, I’m taking a lot of positive, healthy, nurturing steps in the right direction.

Before I went into partial hospitalization, I volunteered to be the Weight Recorder for my TOPS chapter.  There’s not a lot of structure to TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), but we do have to weigh in every week.  At the time, I thought being the Weight Recorder might keep me involved with the group and make me more accountable.  What I didn’t foresee was how much fun it would be.  I love the woman who is the Assistant Weight Recorder—she has an infectious laugh and a practical, no-nonsense nature.  We’re easy together and create a supportive atmosphere for what can sometimes be a painful part of the meeting.  We focus on the positive, ask questions that might help our members make small adjustments to their plans, and do lots of cheering and hugging.  Positive juju begets more of the same.  It also keeps weight loss in the front of my brain.

lose itI also started using the Lose It site.  Keeping a food journal helps me lose weight, and doing it online is fast and easy.  I can also keep track of my exercise there.  Lose It lets me calculate the amount of weight I want to lose each week and provides a daily calorie budget.  I can set goals and join all kinds of challenges.  I’m doing four of those right now—Log in all 30 days in June, Lose 3 pounds in June, Log in how many minutes I meditate over the summer, and Stay at or under my calorie budget for the summer.  I find the challenges to be fun and motivating, but even more so with all the “Friends” there.  It’s a real social activity—people sharing their successes and struggles, passing along tips and what works for them.  And, again, there’s lots of cheerleading and support.  Another very happy place.

diana-nyad-670The challenges on Lose It have also helped me step up my exercise.  I’m at the Y seven days a week now—six in the pool and Sundays on the recumbent bike and track. This week I’m trying to add in an afternoon walk as well, though dry land isn’t as kind to my feet and back.  I figure I need to get ready for all the walking I’ll do in England!

Of course, the biggest obstacle to losing weight is my compulsive eating.  Last week I could feel the anxiety building and knew I would binge, so I tried to stay as aware as I could.  Was there a way I could minimize the damage?  Allow the release that eating brings without blowing up my calorie budget?  I hit on a great compromise—a sackful of raw veggies and a bottle of lite Ranch dressing.  I ate a big bowl of colorful, delicious, healthy food and was satisfied.  That, my friends, rarely happens.

With all of these wonderful tools and methods of support, I’m making better choices and moving in a healthier direction.   I feel stronger and, even more important, more in control.  The counselors at the hospital had a saying—Don’t be a victim of your brain.  Make it work for you.  I try to hold those words as I work on all my discharge goals, but even more so with my weight loss efforts.  I doubt I’ll make my original goal of losing 8 pounds this month.  But I will make my Lose It goal of 3 pounds.  That feels like success—for me and my brain.

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).

Feeling the Squeeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

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