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.