Scaredy Cat Postscript

Back to Normal 10:10:15

Houston, all systems nominal.  Green lights across the board.

Roger that, “Purry 1.” Glad to have you back onboard.

(Okay. I saw “The Martian” today.  These are my steely-eyed missile men.)

Cats. Go Figure.

bookCats are a puzzlement. I’ve lived with them my whole life. Some of my earliest memories are of searching the barn for the litters of spring kittens hidden like furry contraband by their mams. And after all these years, I still can’t predict or even hazard a guess about how they might behave.

I’ve read books, talked with vets, consulted other dedicated cat keepers. We’re all mystified. We might get to understand one cat a tiny bit—enough to keep from constantly pissing them off—but the next feline, like the next human, will be completely different.

sudokuThis is actually one of the joys of sharing space with cats. Learning their quirks, recognizing their different personalities, even devising unique methods to discourage unwanted behavior pose a fun challenge akin to Sudoku. The purrs, and blinky-kisses, and intellectual conversation are more than worth it.

I enjoy dogs, too. There’s nothing like a dog’s flat-out joy or unconditional loyalty. But where dogs are Captain Obvious, cats are Greta Garbo. Subtle, slit-eyed, cats rarely show all their cards and generally “Vant to be Alone.”  Or at least companionable on their own terms. Breach feline etiquette at great risk—a disapproving cat will make you pay.

knottsSo, I’ve tried not to make too much of Emmett’s nearly-constant state of anxiety this summer.  I know he’s the Don Knotts of kitties—bug-eyed and jittery with nerves, ready to bolt at the slightest hint of… well… anything.  But, it seems like he forgot who I was, where he was.  Nothing registers in his little brain except some awful soundtrack from one of the Friday the 13th movies.

I spent the last three days in Minneapolis playing with friends.  Driving home last night, I wondered how Emmett navigated my absence.  Did it stress him out even more, or was it a relief?

When I got home, he was tucked under the comforter of my bed—a good sign, a normal sign.  And then he hissed at me when I peeked at him.  A very good sign.  I’ll take hissing over paralyzed submission any day.

SharingAnd then this morning, after Henry stole my chair and I had to drag over the footstool to catch up on email, this happened 

Emmett got up behind me and fell asleep against my backside.  And he let me take a picture.

He looks a little mangy, but I’ll get the comb out tomorrow.  One miracle a day is all I can handle.

Cats. Go Figure.

Rounding the Bend

Nice CatI’ve been quite worried about my scaredy cat, Emmett.  It seemed like he just went off the rails completely this summer after being terrified by big, loud men tearing up our apartment, then developing a bladder infection from all that stress.  For the past two months, he’s chosen to live in his gulag—a cat-carrier in the relative dark and quiet of the bathroom with food, water, and litter box nearby.

He seemed tolerant of my visits, purring his BMW purr whenever I reached in to scritch his itchiest spots.  Henry and I coming in and out to attend our own hygiene needs also seemed acceptable.  But, he cringed to the back of his cell when I swept the floor, and literally curled up in a ball when I pulled him out in order to clean the gulag.  I tried not to bother him any more than necessary, but for the last couple of weeks, I combed and pet him during the cell toss.  He needed grooming.  And I needed to touch him.

Em Tempt1
I also tried to bribe him—get him purring then set a treat out on the floor.  He had to actually come out of the carrier to get it, or I’d pick it up and leave.  Being Emmett, he was completely inconsistent.  Some days he would come out three times to get three treats.  Some days he just stared into the corner of his cell, hoping the screw would just leave him alone.Em Tempt2

He also made little forays into the kitchen—slinking low to the floor for a few seconds before dashing back to safety.  If I looked at him, or talked to him—BAM—he was gone. And then, sometimes he’d come right over and arch up to be petted.  All my wiles were hit and miss.

Em Out1I used cat nip a couple of times to see if that would tempt him.  He did stay long enough to roll around in it one evening, so that felt like a small victory.  But, then, he refused to come out at all the next two days.   Contrary, thy name is Emmett.Em Out4

Yesterday, we went through our weekly routine.  I gently pulled him out for grooming and a pep-talk, dumped the stray litter out of his carrier, filled food and water bowls, tidied the boxes, swept the floor.  He popped his head out of the bathroom door a few minutes later, then zipped back inside.  I went to the grocery store.  When I got back, I told Em I was coming in to put things away.

The gulag was empty.

“Henry,” I whispered, “where’s your brother?”

Em 9:13Henry zoomed to the bedroom and jumped on the bed.  There was a familiar lump under the covers.  Henry yodeled non-stop.  The whole house was excited.

“Em.”  I patted him gently through the comforter.  “You came out.”

He didn’t stay when I went to bed last night.  When I pulled back the covers (slowly, and talking the whole time), he grumbled, then bolted.  But, when I came home from the coffee shop this morning, the bed was lumpy again.

This is good.  This is very good.

Everyone heals in their own time—even cats.

Kitty in the Coal Mine

Em in a BoxAs blasé as cats seem, they are actually quite sensitive creatures.  Stress makes them sick, especially if they are inside cats and can’t de-stress with normal feline activity like snapping a squirrel’s neck or dashing up a tree to escape the neighbor’s dog.  The urinary tract is especially susceptible.  My Henry develops crystals in his bladder without a special diet.  And now Emmett has a urinary tract infection.

Emmett has always been a Scardy Cat.  Plastic bags send him running.  As does a flushing toilet.  And don’t get me started on the vacuum cleaner.  He hates being picked up or handled in any way.  When we moved to the apartment, it took him almost two years to jump up on the bed with us at night and burrow under the covers.  He actually loves being petted and groomed, but on his terms.  That’s usually when I’m on the toilet or sitting quietly in my big chair.  I am the elephant in the room, and Emmett feels much safer if I’m not stomping around.

I knew all the hubbub this summer would be stressful for both of them—the bathroom remodel, the bed-bug inspection, and then my five days away in Minneapolis.  I tried to soften the effects—keeping them shut up with me in the bedroom while the contractors worked on the bathroom, providing lots of hidey-holes, having a friend they knew come visit while I was away.   Emmett went into deep hiding, which is fairly normal for him.  But then he urinated under my chair in the living room.  Houston, we have a problem.

So off to the vet for confirmation and a time-released antibiotic.  Not a huge concern.  But, I was hysterical.

Immediately, I was reliving a time in my life when a different kitty peed where she shouldn’t.  At that time, several traumatic events happened at once.  I wasn’t just remembering that time, I was in it, feeling all the terror and helplessness from twenty years ago.  I bolted awake from nightmares.  When the UPS man rang my doorbell, I screamed.  I knew I was over-reacting, but couldn’t talk myself out of it.  Then, I remembered working with my substitute therapist, Ben, last summer, and how I had the same kind of reactions.  He named it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It was hard for me to accept.  I’m not a war veteran or a rape survivor.  But as we slowly worked through the memories and flashbacks then, I began to see that what had happened to me was bad enough.  So I went to Megan, my regular therapist, and we worked through it again.

Bed Lump

Emmett and I are slowly coming back.  He’s spent the last two weeks in the safe cubby I made for him in the bathroom with access to food, water and the litter box.  He didn’t mind me sitting next to the nest and reaching in to pet him, but he bolted when I turned on the shower.  So, on the days when I didn’t go to the Y to shower, I tucked him under a blanket on my bed.  He complained loudly about being moved and handled, but would stay under the blanket all day.  He was too scared to come out from that safe, dark place.  To make sure he drank some water and used the box, I had to pull him out and set him back in the bathroom.

His fear broke my heart, but that reaction is also part of my old trauma.  It’s confusing, this layering of past and present.

A few minutes ago, he came out of the bathroom for the first time on his own.  I tried not to make too much of it, staying put in my chair and greeting him in a soft voice.  But when he heard me, looked up and saw me, he scurried back into the bathroom.  Emmett is my mirror and my Teacher in this particular lesson.  We both need to relearn who is safe and who is dangerous.  We both need gentleness and time to come back to ourselves.

Of Tribes and Farty Pants

Gathering at Barb's

This weekend I got to spend time with some of my Tribe.  These are folks who have travelled The Seeker’s path with me, going to workshops and intensives to learn how to be more conscious and mindful.  The four of us who get together in Des Moines for meditation are part of this larger community, called Foundation, as are people all over the country.

It was hard for me at first.  It always is when we come together.  I’m so used to being solitary, that more than two or three people can be overwhelming.  But I can say that to this group, and they hear me.  I’m safe with them.

I have history with these particular people, who knew me before electroshock.  Some of them hold parts of me I’ve forgotten.  Their memories of me are such a gift—like filling in holes with beautiful light.  Their prompts help me remember the person I was and, in many ways, still am.

Part of our tradition is to share meals together.  Food flows non-stop.  Many of us are trying special diets—vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, diets for blood type or a particular illness—so we’re not easy to please.  But we always have glorious, delicious meals.  It always works.

When we get together, we meditate and we talk.  Everyone is engaged, whether we study quantum physics, yoga or sacred dance; whether our lives are settled or are in chaos; whether we lead with our intellect or our heart.  Friction happens, which creates the best opportunities for mindfulness.  We get to watch how we react to each other and follow those reactions to the source—expectation, judgment, pattern.  Then, we discuss all that, too, if we want.

Often, our work together allows personal issues to surface—fears, anxieties, grief.  In the safety of the group, we can be vulnerable.  We can feel what we feel and be held by the group with compassion and genuine love.

And genuine laughter.  I never laugh so hard or as long as when I’m with these folks. Especially when Sandra whips out the Fart App on her phone.

Sandra's Fart Ap

Sandra and her Farty Pants app (I’m the one keeling over).

We gain so much from each other—not just the book lists we tend to generate, or the theories we throw around, or the practices we share.  We connect and are enriched by the connection.  We know each other on a deep level even if we don’t know each other well personally.  We really are We.

I drove back and forth from my home in Marshalltown to Des Moines each day, which takes about an hour.  While all my friends in Des Moines offered to keep me overnight, I wanted to drive.  I knew I’d need time alone to rest after being with a big group, and I wanted to be as functional as possible.  Driving home from Barb’s for the last time on Sunday, I felt in my bones that while I may be an introvert and solitary, I’m never alone.

Tumble Damp


I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.  — Alice

After a very long spell of hypomania—a delicious month of productivity, creativity and blissful good-humor—I seem to have fallen into an industrial-sized clothes dryer set on tumble.  Rapid cycling wakes me up with hyper-vigilance and terror, then flops into stultifying depression, with a finishing spin of insomnia and obsession.  Tumble, tumble.

In times like these, it’s best not to take anything seriously—not the spiky little thoughts in my head, or any plan I had for the day, or misconstrued texts, or the dog barking across the street.  Better to put on comfy clothes and make popcorn.  Better to turn on all the twinkle lights in the apartment and light incense.  Better to read something like The Hunger Games that won’t tax my dendrites in the least.

And when the silly megrims come calling, better to smile at their oddness and offer raison toast.

Everything is funny, if you can laugh at it.  —  Lewis Carroll

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.

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