Hedgehog

There comes a point, after being physically and mentally sick for several months, that I can feel choice starting to return.  It doesn’t happen all at once, and it’s not always real.  I get nudged by shame, or a little belch of hypomania propels me, or an invitation seems less daunting.  I feel like a hedgehog, unrolling from a hibernation ball all spiny and prickly, testing the temperature and taste of the air.  The urge to stay rolled up, safe and warm, takes a long time to fade.

I’ve gone through this process so many times now, learned to be kinder and gentler with myself, practiced my coping skills until they are second nature.  Still, reengaging takes enormous effort—starting over at the pool, making a coffee date with a friend, accepting my minister’s offer to tell my story at church.  As soon as I start to move out, I retreat—back to the warm den of my bedroom where I cut paper and listen to the extended extras on The Hobbit DVDs.  They keep me company enough, the voices of actors and production crew.  Sitting on my bed doesn’t make my arthritic knee ache or start a fit of coughing.  I’m content enough.

And I know reengagement is required.  I know my body needs to move more.  I know I must go out in the real sunshine.  I know there’s a different kind of healing in looking into real people’s eyes and listening to voices who wait for my response.

I know.  I’m just not there yet.

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Trust

Trust is completely paradoxical:

The thing with which to begin when

you have nothing.

The end point, which

somehow you must find first.

The smallest of present moments,

measured haltingly into a past.

Both question and answer, when every

word of your acquaintance has fled.

You think the arc of the horizon

should split, one side jaggedly askew,

one forever gone.

The horizon doesn’t split.

Its edges remain.

You think the ocean should dry to sand because

all the tears it held, you have used up.

You have stolen water even from the clouds.

But the ocean is not dried, nor the clouds

gone, though you have cried them both,

multiplied, and more.

You rub your eyes that grains still ripen,

plums turn blue, still the moon increases.

You thought all of this was gone.

Such is the unimaginable you have lived.

You thought everything was gone.

But,

without your doing, the world is fashioned

in this way: moments

become other moments; steps

lead somewhere; all things breathe,

even without remembering.

One day, after a very long time,

without rubbing your eyes you see

the arc of the horizon still

an arc; the ocean, full.

And you are not betrayed, but glad.

♦ Nancy Shaffer ~ Instructions in Joy

Waiting

Out-Out Patient Care at my mental health clinic came with pluses and minuses, like everything in life.  Was it better than going through a hospital program?  I think so.  Maybe.  It gave structure to my day, a safe place to be, no red tape or ridiculous bureaucracy, no crazy-making group therapy.  It also left me too much alone, no program except what I brought with me—my art supplies, a book about mindful depression that I never read, worksheets from my therapist on dialectic behavioral skills that irritated me in their simplicity.  Mostly, it was a different way to wait out the storm, which is really the most important skill in dealing with bipolar disorder.

I’m not right.  Not yet.  I still feel disconnected, separated from the rest of the world by a transparent, sound-muffling barrier.  People seem alien and unappealing.  The nightmares still come.  Agitation keeps me fidgeting between making my Solstice cards, playing Farm Heroes Saga or Cookie Jam on my phone, and jumping in my car to stalk the perfect binge food.  I’m not done with bronchitis, either, which adds another layer of weariness and self-pity.

So, more waiting.  And accepting each day as it comes.  Today I will do laundry, sort letters cut out of magazines, give my cats treats, watch Fringe on my bed with a cup of squash soup, sew beads.
 
And I will wait.

Out-Out Patient

Triggered by a traumatic event a few weeks ago, bipolar depression brought its bags and settled in for a long visit.  This past week I started going to my therapists’ clinic every morning to break up depression’s momentum and build my own form of Out-Patient Care.  I arranged the little alcove they set aside for me—a folding screen and white noise machine to make the patients in neighboring offices feel safe in their privacy plus the high table and chairs.  I brought in my art supplies and a large cushion to sit on the floor, and went about filling the tall, gray walls with words and colors that I needed.  But that wasn’t enough.

Yesterday, my therapist and I discussed how to create a real program that would help me tolerate this depression without resorting to hospital out-patient care.  I find the hospital programs themselves to be helpful, but interacting in the large group model difficult to the point of undoing any good done there.  So here’s what we’re trying first:

My daily schedule will be from 8:30-1:30, five days a week.  Daily, I will work on DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) worksheets dealing with tolerating distress, read one of Megan’s many children’s books and journal about it, and make art—either for the space or in my journal.

I feel a lot of dread and the usual suicidal litany gallops through my mind.  I’m uncomfortable and scattered.  My calendar empties out as I can’t tolerate most people or the pressure of going somewhere at a designated time.  But I did ask a friend to lunch yesterday, even though I phased out after twenty minutes.  Concentration doesn’t last long.

At home, I’ve put my TV in the bedroom, so the cats and I camp out on the bed as I try to work on my Solstice cards while half-listening to my go-to depression binge, Fringe (I just started Season Three).

I’ve also returned to Pinterest, where I can look at pretty pictures and hoard new photos of my Pretend Boyfriends.

Later today, I hope to go see the new Murder on the Orient Express and do my laundry.  That feels like a lot in my current condition, but I’ll try.  It’s really all I can ever do, keep trying, keep looking for new ways to get through the worst of the illness while waiting for the shift to come.

Some days it doesn’t seem like much of a life.  The distorted thinking makes that view darker and more hopeless.  Even then, I can see my courage at work, even when the list of obstacles grows like a Bugs Bunny nightmare.

This is my life.  Mine.  For better or worse.

Making A Home

This summer I spent some time considering a move to Des Moines, but after talking to a realtor (what was I thinking?) and finding out how impenetrable the subsidized housing process is there, I changed my mind.  Instead I opted to work at making Marshalltown my Home.

I grew up here and have been back for ten years, but I never really thought of it as home.  Growing up on a farm, “town” was a place to get groceries, a place the school bus dropped me off and picked me up.  After going through electroshock, losing my job, my home, and my husband coming back to Marshalltown mentally ill was a personal failure and a punishment.

I left Minneapolis with its liberal politics, diversity of culture and a townhouse I loved for a conservative rural backwater where I lived in my friends’ spare room with a curtain for a door.  I didn’t want to be here.

My life became richer over the last ten years.  I learned how to manage my illness better.  I moved into an apartment I loved.  Our eco-conscious public library and busy YMCA became part of my daily routine.  I embraced our Aquatic Center by water walking in the silky summer evenings.

But I still despised the town.  I hated the trains blasting at 5:00 AM along with the barking dogs and screeching kids next door.  I hated the yahoos who barreled along my street with their woofers blowing out my eardrums and their muffler-less pickups rattling my windows.  I hated the decrepit meth-lab houses and the soul-sucking poverty evident on most every street.  I still didn’t want to be here.

The work of Making a Home, I’ve discovered, is much like the work of Gratitude.  Instead of focusing on what I’m grateful for, I purposely seek out what I love about Marshalltown.  I quiz others about where they like to eat and hang-out, what they like to do here.  I’ve started reading the newspaper to look for events to attend and to get a better sense of the community.  I plan to take a class at the art center or with the continuing education program at our junior college.

Another part of making a home is practicing forgiveness, not just accepting people, places and circumstances for what they are.  The first target of forgiveness must be myself—for all the ways I let myself down, abandoned my dreams or my safety, and let the negative voices of my illness tell me how horrible I was.  Acceptance of my whole self took decades, but I feel like forgiveness can’t be that far away.  Whenever old resentments or regrets surface, I open to the possibility of forgiveness.  Whenever I turn my attention to the negative aspects of Marshalltown, I open to forgiveness and pull up my list of “Marshalltown Love” on my phone.  It’s startling how many times a day this happens.  It’s equally startling how long it’s taken me to be willing to forgive myself and others.

Forgiveness, like gratitude, requires a change of perspective, a change of heart. Sometimes those changes are a long time coming, so I’ve adopted an “act as if” attitude until it makes a home in my bones.  But, I’m determined to forgive.  I’m determined to find all the hidden spots of beauty and compassion in Marshalltown.  I’m determined to be my authentic self and thrive here.

Because, I’m still on an Adventure.

Learning

Learning how to write with watercolors

 

Learning how to use my Wanting

 

Learning how to stay when all I want to do is go.

 

The Unclenched Brain

Marking that moment of release in my art journal.

Another Train


So, nobody said I was particularly wise.

In my desperation to tame the Binge Eating Disorder beast, I regularly cycle around to doing stupid things—things I know in my adipose-caked heart won’t work.  Like diets.  But when an authority figure (aka my new doc) blamed all my physical woes on obesity, and my trusted nurse practitioner suggested a ketogenic diet, I jumped like water in a skillet of hot bacon grease.

I learned two things:

  1. A ketogenic diet made my gut unhappy in violent ways.
  2. I will binge on anything, so changing the type of food doesn’t change the behavior one iota.

So, now I’m back to mindfulness and paying attention to my triggers.

All this food-stress didn’t help my bipolarness.  I’ve been roiling, inside and out.  My thinking is still in desperation mode, so I need to be careful not to jump on every thought-train that pulls into my station.  Another train will come.  And another.  Sooner or later, this anxiety and agitation will shift.  The urge to hop a train out of town will ease.  Eventually, I’ll be able to leave the station and go home.

But, I’ve got this ticket in my hand…

Challenging the Truth

My therapist and I finished the program specific to PTSD in Seeking Safety by Lisa M. Najavits.  Some of it was good, some lame, but one particular exercise moved my whole life in a different direction.

We all have beliefs—things we know to be true.  But beliefs can keep us stuck if we don’t risk challenging them.  In “Discovery,” we take beliefs and create a plan to find out if they are really true.  In my first round of Discovery, I looked at how I believed I was helpless to stop getting lung infections every year.  I did two things to test that truth—I hired someone to come clean my apartment once a month to see if getting rid of dust on a regular basis would help, and I arranged to see a pulmonologist.

The effect of better housekeeping won’t show up for a while, but the pulmonologist I saw a week ago gave me some straight dope.  It’s doubtful I even have asthma (though I went through more testing earlier this week to be sure), and aside from anemia there was only one other cause for all my physical symptoms.  Obesity.

When I read that in the doctor’s report, I phased out for a bit.  Dissociated is the clinical term.  The brain protects itself by going bye-bye (My experience of dissociation feels like I’m about to faint—my hands and feet go numb, I can’t hear, and I lose time).

There’s something about food, dieting, fat and binge eating that feels too horrible to face.  If I thought I felt helpless about my lungs, the belief is multiplied a thousand fold around controlling my intake.  I can’t control it.  I never have been able to control it.  I firmly believe I never will.

But, I also knew the doctor was right.  I used to be a nurse.  I still remember a little physiology.  Increased risk of infection, higher blood pressure, skin breakdown, joint pain and damage can all be hitched to the Obesity Train.

So, I went back to Discovery, because I’m very stuck in these beliefs around food.  I talked to both Megan, my therapist and Sarah, the nurse practitioner, who are my mental health team.  We drew up a plan to test my truth, and I decided early on to say, “yes” to whatever they proposed.

Sarah suggested I try switching to a low carb/high fat diet (one diet I’d never tried).  It seems counter-intuitive, and feels really weird, but I’ve been doing it for four days now.  After eating vegan for a couple of years, it seems wrong to buy sirloin and pork cutlets.  But, I’m doing it.  I still feel like I have the flu—urpy, roiling gut, drop-dead exhaustion—but I was warned about this “adjustment period” as my metabolism switches from burning carbs to burning fat.

The compulsion to binge eat is still there, but there’s not much to binge on.  It seems easier (at least in this initial phase) to go do something else.  But, I hate the way food feels in my mind.  It’s like a rubber band that’s stretched too tight.  I don’t know that I’ve ever noticed that before—the discomfort, the pressure, the tension.  I’m seeing how I seek to be numb where food is concerned—something to explore in therapy.

I will lose weight, I always do.  It’s just that I’ve never kept it off and usually gain back more.  This feels like my last chance to figure it out.  I would love to have a toolbox for Food as comprehensive as my toolbox for Bipolar Disorder.  Pretending the problems don’t exist isn’t much of a tool.  Neither are the industry standards in nutrition.  As Sarah said, “We have to do more than think outside the box.  We have to create a whole new box.”

They’re both doing this low carb diet with me, and when I go for my appointments, we’ll do them walking around the block.  I feel like there’s a chance we could actually create something new.

Life is never what one dreams.  It is seldom what one desires, but, for the vital spirit and the eager mind, the future will always hold the search for buried treasure and the possibility of high adventure. — Ellen Glasgow

Mirrors

There’s nothing like being brainsick over a holiday weekend to remind me of my demographic status.  I’ve struggled for several days with vicious, distorted thoughts, but holidays add more stress with regular support services closed, carefully constructed routines disrupted, and human support unavailable as they enjoy time with family and friends.  Long weekends are difficult, and I’m not the only one who feels it.

So far this weekend, emergency vehicles have visited my ten-unit complex five times.  That means half of the residents have been in such a state of crisis that their only option seemed to be 911.  And the day’s only half over.

To try to calm my own agitation, I went to our common room this morning to do laundry, sit in the quiet, and maybe journal. I found one of the window latches broken.  In the bathroom, the toilet seat was broken in half with feces on the floor.  I cleaned that last bit as best as I could, weeping at the level of distress that person must have felt.  Afterward, I emailed the apartment manager with the details, knowing she wouldn’t read it until tomorrow because it’s a holiday.

I’m fully aware of how lucky I am to be “high functioning,” to have friends I can text most anytime, to have a sister who would come to my aid if I needed it.  I don’t interact much with my neighbors, because some of them can’t follow a conversation.  Others are quite shy and introverted or belligerent and aggressive.  I keep to myself.

But I understand all of it.  I am all of it—at times introverted or belligerent, unable to translate my thoughts into words, unable to concentrate on what someone might be saying to me.  I understand being in crisis and feeling like there are no options.

I live in an apartment complex of mirrors.  It makes me more human to look into them from time to time.

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