Take-Aways

anton/compassion

…be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything else… What is happening in your inner most self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it.

—Rainer Maria Rilke (from the cover of an IOP handout on PTSD)

•Mindfulness and Self-Compassion change the  physical structure and chemistry of the brain.  Now there is scientific proof.

•Books I’ve ordered on the studies and effects of neuro-plasticity that have been referenced in IOP:

  1. Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse by Lisa M. Najavits
  2. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Richard Mendius and Rick Hanson
  3. Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham
  4. Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty
  5. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel Segal, John Kabat-Zinn and John Teasdale
  6. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff

I’ll be in the program one more week.

Putting the Libra to Sleep

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I’ve completed six days in the Lutheran Hospital outpatient program, and I can’t tell yet if it’s making me better or worse.

There are two designations—IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) 1 and 2.  None of the literature explains the difference between the groups, but, basically IOP1 is for more functional, more acutely symptomatic folk.  IOP2 is for more severely ill folk who maybe require other services (home care, rehab, medical, etc.).

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The first two days I attended IOP1.  The group was HUGE, 14-18 people with the usual one or two who dominated every conversation and folks talking over each other.  I thought I would lose what little mind I had left.

I watched my intolerance and irritation skyrocket.  My Libra penchant for fairness blew up into a neurotic need to silence the blabbermouths so that the silent suffers might get a second to squeak out a comment.  But I also realized this was all my shit.  If the facilitators felt no need to shut down the usurpers or redirect the tangential wanderers, then it wasn’t my place to step in.  Instead I clutched my purse to my chest and took deep breaths.

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After the second day (and no sleep that night), I knew I needed to talk to my designated handler.  I told her through bitey, frantic, tear-and-snot laden spew that I couldn’t take another day of it.  She listened with a beatific smile and commented in a gentle don’t-spook-the-Tasmanian Devil voice.  Perhaps I should move to the other group.  And feel free to find a quiet place to breathe whenever the desire to punch a talky-talker in the face arose.

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My first day at “the other end of the hall” felt restful in comparison.  There were only five of us in group, and I learned things about PTSD—one of my diagnoses, though something my therapist and I have never really explored.  We usually have other immediate shinola to deal with, so we’ve only ever just touched on it.  THIS was what I was hoping for—some new information, some new tools, a direction.

But, the next day the group expanded to 13, and the whole issue of blatherers and time-sucks reappeared on a crazier level.  I tried to be compassionate, but that well seems to be dry at the moment.  I know folks talk out of nervousness, insecurity, etc., so I tried to reason with myself.  I still ended up out in the hall with my earbuds firmly in place, listening to Billy Joel sing “Innocent Man.”

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I blame the insurance industry and our butt-head Governor, Terry Branstad.  Most insurance coverage only allows three days a week in outpatient care, so Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays end up with twice the group size as Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s stressful to go from a small, intimate group where folks feel safe enough to open up, to a mob where everyone talks at the same time.

And because our Governor closed most of the mental health hospitals, took away funding for behavioral services, and basically told folks with mental illness to “get over it,” the programs that are left are bursting at the seams.

I watch the kind and knowledgable staff at Lutheran run around like headless chickens, trying to accommodate everyone’s needs, shore up folks enough to leave so that those who have been waiting a month for an opening in the program can take their place.  The nurse practitioner who talked to me about medication laughed long and loud when I called it “a three-ring shit show.”  This seems to be my new favorite phrase.

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I came home every day more exhausted and people-avoidant than ever.  I feel like an Introvert In Extremis, only able to function after hours of silent cat time, a couple episodes of Fringe and a frozen pizza from Costco (they have the best thin crust sausage pizzas…).  Even then, “functional” may mean taking a four-hour nap or washing the dishes.

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Yesterday I did my laundry at 3:00 in the morning, because I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the laundromat on the weekend when everyone else goes there.  So, because I was already awake at 3:00, I did laundry for the first time in my apartment complex’s washer/dryer.  Granted, one is not supposed to use the machines until 8:00 out of respect for the tenants who live next to the Common Room.  But since I hate people right now, I didn’t care.  And I tried to be quiet.  No one came after me with a knife, and no one slashed my tires later, so I think I got away with it.

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In between tippy-toeing, I sat at the nice dining table and worked on my journal.  Along with my wheeled laundry hamper, I brought my traveling studio (everything should be on wheels) and a big mug of hot chai.  I sat at my own little coffee shop with my earbuds in and the smell of clean wafting around me, and even through the itchy buzz of being up at 3:00 doing something illicit, I could feel my mind smooth out.

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The same nurse practitioner who laughed so hard with me suggested a new strategy for next week.  Bring my wheely cart and when group bugs me too much, take it to this out-of-the-way lounge I found and do art until I feel like coming back.  I tried that on Friday, and I left the hospital less drained.  I met my two meditation buddies for lunch and lasted about 30 minutes before I completely faded.  My well is dry.  That’s all there is to it.

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I think the trick is to not panic.  I feel myself considering the new drugs this kindly nurse practitioner suggests, even though I sat with my own NP before I started IOP and recounted my long list of Drugs Tried and why they didn’t work.  She reminded me that there really is nothing new in psychotropics, just tweaks to the same old formulas.  If they didn’t work then, they won’t now.

I’m grateful that the Lutheran staff is so willing to work with me.  It’s ironic that the adaptability and flexibility I need from them is part of what makes me so irritable there.  It’s a very loose, laissez-faire set-up for people who have different special needs.  I must try to give my Libran craving for fairness, order and rules a rest.  Maybe I can give her a Xanax.

The Justice League—Bipolar Style

Merely AgogI’ve been in trouble for a while now, mental health-wise.  The amnesia that comes with severe symptoms keeps me from remembering that this is normal.  My brain yammers that I’m getting worse, that my social skills are devolving, that all my tools are useless, and that, maybe, by brain is starting to liquify.  But, the reality is I’ve been here before.

One of the many vital roles my therapist assumes is that of Archivist.  She starts a sentence by saying, “When you’ve been like this before…” and suddenly I can breathe again.  I spend so much energy and attention on navigating the whip-quick changes of the rapid cycling aspect of my illness, it’s very hard to pull focus and take in the larger picture.  Shifts happen in the slow time of seasons.  My Richter Scale rarely registers a catastrophic event, but like earthquakes, the tension builds over time to an inevitable break.

Recovering this broader perspective helps.  I’ve survived 8.9 quakes before, so how do I do that again?  Before, I would check into Mercy Hospital’s Out-Patient program (day-care for the neuro-diverse), but like so many other mental health care programs and hospitals in Iowa, it no longer exists.  The programs that are left focus on folks who need functional help.  I don’t need help doing my laundry (usually).

My Integrated Health Caseworker said something like this yesterday, “You’re so high-functioning, you fall through the cracks.”

It’s a Catch-22, being a Bipolar Bad-Ass.

img_0977Friday, I went early to my therapy appointment.  I brought my wheely cart of art supplies and camped out at their little corner table in the waiting room.  They thought that was a brilliant idea, and invited me back whenever I felt the need.  So, I went again yesterday and stayed all day.

There’s no therapy, no expectation of interaction beyond a quick hello, but it’s a safe place that’s quiet and welcoming.  Sorta like going to a coffee shop, except the baristas love and understand me.  I call it “Out-Out-Patient Care.”

My therapist and I are also exploring alternatives.  What about a Mindfulness class that would provide structure and an emphasis on Doing The Work?  What about some sort of spiritplantjourneys.org retreat?  These things cost money, so we pulled in my caseworker to help hunt for grants.

I am grateful everyday that I function as well as I do.  AND it’s hard work to find services that fit me.  AND it’s hard to think outside the box when thinking is most difficult. But, I have an actual team helping me now—my own little Mental Health Justice League.  I’m not feeling much like Wonder Woman at the moment, but with a little help, I might be able to find that lasso.

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Brain-Sick

I'm Not OkayThere’s nothing new to say about rapid cycling mixed states.  I’ve railed against them and given in, pulled out every tool in my toolbox and given up, called for help and stayed silent, pushed against the maggoty words they whisper in my ear and believed every word.  My response to the turmoil in my head has been as varied as my illness.

But if anything is new, it must be the time it takes me to accept, breathe, and allow whatever my head and body chemistry need to do.  And I’ve gathered a larger support network around me, so that when I call for help (usually a few texts back and forth) I don’t have to burden the same few friends over and over.  Spread the Horror, that’s my emergency motto.

Thank you, all my Go-To People, who get those scary/sad/frantic texts and respond with such kindness and love.  You make all the difference.

Thank you for riding shot-gun on my Adventure.

 

Welcome Home, Old Friend

Rage

Rage seems to be intrinsic to my flavor of bipolar disorder.  In a mixed state, where symptoms of both depression and mania manifest, my “manic” is some form of agitation—anxiety, compulsive behavior, or rage.

I made the journal spread above in the midst of anger so black and sharp I could barely breathe.  I painted over the picture on the right—mini-me with my dog, Rebel—then slashed at it with a steak knife.  The violence stunned me, violence aimed at myself, at the innocent and vulnerable part of me.  I painted in the gouges, then echoed the savagery on the opposite page.

I left it that way for several days, coming back to take in the images and process the layers of Truth I’d uncovered.

I used to believe there must be a reason I got so mad.  I used to sort through all the old betrayals, snubs, and layers of unfairness in my cheesecloth memory.  But, there’s no reason for my rage other than funky brain chemistry.  Trying to justify it only throws napalm on the fire.

Rage is just another part of me, like the creeping hopelessness that sits on the other end of the spectrum, like my blue eyes, like the way I put words or colors together.  And like everything else, the only thing to do with it is welcome it home.  That’s when I pulled Thich Nhat Hahn’s Anger off my bookshelf and found the words my Rage needed.

Today, this moment, contains no rage.  This morning I wrote in my journal next to The Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama

“When the symptoms are big, there’s always this base undercurrent of failure, a deep Mariana Trench of wrongness, that awful and vague sense that I should be doing something else/more, that I should be something else/more.  It negates all that I do and all that I am.  It robs me of any satisfaction or sufficiency.  Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to these journals now.  They are so immediate.  The rush of rightness washes over me without any censor.  Pictures together tell an immediate story.  Color bypasses thought.  The soft texture of the Pan Pastels signals instant comfort, and I feel masterful… I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for this tool.”

Yes, I do.

The Adventure Continues.

Primatives

Breathing with my Fingers

As my current bipolar season continues, I’m ever so grateful for this new tool of Art Journaling.  Since there are several stages to creating a spread, I can always find some piece that will fit my state of mind.  Whether it’s pulling images out of my stash for the collage bits:

Civil War Spread

 

Or finding new ways to use text:

Air Spread

 

Or slipping into a Zen state while making boarders and lines:

Into the Storm Spread

 

Or trying out a new tool, like this very fine tipped Pilot marker:

Eyeballs

 

I can camp out at my coffee shop with my journal and let my illness be.

Megan, my therapist, said I’m not fighting it anymore, and that feels true.  It seems to be getting easier to accept whatever my illness brings—the quicksilver changes in mood, the sudden shifts in functionality.  Those things aren’t good or bad anymore.  They’re just me.

I still try to stuff myself into a “normal” sausage casing sometimes, expecting to move around in the world the way other people do.  But, as I sit with my journal, with all the space it creates in my head, I’ve started to unhook from those expectations and get curious about how I might move differently in the world.

Today, for example, I looked at how I keep trying to make commitments (like being on a committee or taking a class) when my illness makes that nearly impossible.  At some point, when my symptoms become severe, I’m forced to drop everything.  So, instead of continuing to bash myself over the head for being “unreliable,” perhaps there’s another way.  Maybe it’s a matter of showing up when I’m able.  I know the world doesn’t work this way, but I do, and I would like to honor that more.

More acceptance.  More integration.  That seems to be a by-product of all this artsy-fartsy stuff.  I’m breathing more with my fingers, slipping into meditation with color and line.  It’s a new kind of Practice.

I’ve come to a place with my art that I found a while ago with my writing—loving the mistakes and crap as much as anything that “turns out.”  The Shitty First Drafts and the Muddled Attempts are my best teachers.  They point me to the next piece of Practice.  They’re the ones who taught me to accept it all—my writing, my art and, of course, my bipolar disorder.

Funny how that all comes together.

I’m on a Funny Adventure.

Coming Out

In my art bagJournaling in coffee shops is a big part of my MO.  It’s how I push the worst of the internal pain and distortion to my margins.  It’s how I remember who I am.  Journaling is vital for me.  It’s medicine.

Now that I’ve embraced art journaling, I needed to figure out how to make it mobile, how to make it as easy as my old $1 spiral notebooks used to be.  Some folks I met at ArtFest do their page set-ups at home and only journal out in public.  Some take a few art supplies.  Tracy likes to have people stop and talk about his journaling.  He even invites them to add to it.  Teesha wants to be left alone.

I put together a bag of supplies and launched.  It helped that our local coffee shop closed for a couple of days and reopened under new management—Georgina, a sassy, gregarious New Zealander who is bent on upgrading the food quality and increasing the friendly factor.  It seemed an auspicious start—new art form and new digs.

Lion Spread

Since I’ve journaled in public for years, I’m used to the odd personal inquiry.  I don’t get bothered much, but if folks see me as a regular with pen and notebook, eventually they ask what I’m writing.  I’m happy to share.  It’s also a chance to advocate as a person with mental illness.  Almost to a person, they are or know of someone with mental illness.  Conversation ensues.  Stigma weakens.  This is my superpower.

I’m finding that art journaling is a more open invitation.  First it was the coffee shop staff—mostly college and very young adults—who seemed drawn to my booth like fluttery moths to a flame.  They were fascinated, almost giddy, and inordinately proud that I did this weird thing in their coffee shop.  I’ve become a kind of celebrity with my little bottle of matte medium and magazine gleans.  They introduce me to their families.  They give me muffins fresh from the ovens.  It’s so sweet, and totally baffling.

Failed Michael

It’s much more visual, this art journaling thing.  My crap is spread out on the table and hard to miss.  Other caffeinators wander by and stop to find out what it’s all about.  And I’m happy to share.

These last few weeks have been rough, mental health-wise.  The Bad Thoughts never stop, and reality is a little hard to recognize.  When it starts to drag me under, I take a deep breath and go glue something or spread paint.  It helps.

girl on fireIn one of my buying frenzies, I ordered some old art ‘zines from Teesha Moore, the wonderful art journalist who organized ArtFest.  I figured there’d be lots of stuff to glean and pretty pictures to soothe my Brain-On-Fire (which would be my Hunger Games name).

In one of the zines from 2007, Teesha wrote an article about how she created an art journal page.  The more I read, the angrier I got.  She had lots of Do’s and Don’ts, particularly Don’t ever, under any circumstance, just cut a picture out and glue it to the page without altering it.  And then there was an endless list of art supplies—types of paints and pens, markers and pastels—all with their own Do’s and Don’ts.

I thought, no wonder I could never do this.  Complete intimidation.  In my righteous indignation, I created a FuckYou,ThankYou,Teesha spread in my journal.  Part defiance, part homage, I used some of Teesha’s techniques and a lot of swear words.  And it is glorious.

FYTeesha

Anger can light a fire under creativity.  It can conquer Defeat.  It can pound a fence post in the ground and say, This is as far as you get to push me.

A Brain-on-Fire can be terrifying and it can be an open door.  With May being Mental Health Awareness month, I’m happy to share.

 

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

As winter progresses, I watch this long spell of nearly-normal fade in the rear view mirror.  It’s a horrible feeling, watching that image of the real me shrink and shrink as the bipolar hitchhiker takes over the wheel.  I can feel the Vyvanse losing its grip and rolling under the tires.  I worry that I’ve forgotten how to do this—how to manage a life instead of living it.

Hello DarknessAnd, of course, all that is a story.  I’ve promised to guard against telling stories.

So, let’s just say it’s an adjustment.

There is more depression and distorted thinking, more fibromyalgia pain and insomnia, more compulsive eating and anxiety.  But, the truth is we all expected this, even while we hoped Vyvanse could beat back winter (we being my therapist, nurse practitioner/med provider, and me).

Miracle enough that an amphetamine meant to curb my eating disorder also managed to smooth out my moods for six months.  I don’t want to get greedy.  Six months of feeling joy and gratitude for my life, of sitting in the driver’s seat, can’t be minimized.  Ever.

And all is not lost yet.

Vyvanse acted like a screen door, keeping the bipolarness on the front porch.  But as soon as the drug flushed out of my system each day, the rapid cycling and mixed states poked their heads in and wanted coffee.  They’re just pushier now.  And obviously, they’ve been lifting weights this summer.

I couldn’t tell if V was helping at all the past few weeks.  I just knew I was miserable the moment I woke up and couldn’t discern any difference throughout the day.  So, I started taking V as soon as I got out of bed.  Now, by the time I finish at the Y, I can feel a lift.  The depression is still there, but quiet and more polite.  Again, this seems huge.

I’m trying to use these moderate shifts of mood to prepare for the hairier, meaner moods that will crash through the door.  I got groceries this morning and made two quiches (one to freeze).  If this pattern holds, I’ll bake a chicken/wild rice dish tomorrow and stick it in the freezer, too.  I can’t cook when I’m brain sick, so doing this feels smart and kind.  I am nurturing and being nurtured—like being my own grandma.

This is all new territory.  Mental illness tries to keep me from seeing that.  It tells me all is lost and will forever be lost.  But, that’s just a story.

The truth is—

—I’m on an Adventure.

Nesting

Henry's Pillow 2

It’s autumn.  Time for apple cider and the annual ugly chest cold.  Time to put away shorts and see if the crotch in any of my old jeans will embarrass me in public.  Time to start work on my Solstice cards and pull out my Happy Light.

I love autumn, even if the waning light makes me think St. John of the Cross was probably bipolar and talking about winter when he coined the term dark night of the soul.  I love the smell of corn dust and how it hangs in the air.  I love the slant of the sun as it hits a golden point on its arc, how it burns through a single, curry-colored leaf stuck in the weeds.

I’m profoundly aware of how much I’m enjoying autumn this year.  Even with bronchitis and a pantheon of prescription inhalers on my counter, I watch the squirrels in their pre-winter frenzy and feel joy rise up.  Like a breath.  Like a sigh.  Clear lungs are not required.

I’ve had moments of bipolarness over the past five months.  Moments—not days or weeks or months.  Moments where the illness broke through to remind me to stay sharp.  I can’t go back to sleep.  And I also don’t fight or fret when the illness presents itself.  This is me, too.  All of this is me.

New BookcaseMy energy amazed me, and the way my mind opened to possibility and change.  Over the summer, I catalogued my apartment—the rotting furniture, the squeeze and mess of a tiny space, all the ways I made do when the idea of doing more overwhelmed me.  Getting a new bathtub and replacing the damaged linoleum floor suddenly made anything possible.

On my trips to Minneapolis to see friends, I also visited IKEA.  I gave away or trashed furniture that was too big, too ruined or too inefficient and replaced it with four beautiful pieces put together with my own two hands plus one great recliner from the Club Furniture.  Now our living room fits us.  There’s room for the cats to chase each other, new places to nap, and a more inviting entry (rather than sliding in sideways and banging a hip on some ouchy corner).

Cabinet Before

Before

Cabinet After

After

Desk Before

Before

Desk After

After

I’m also working on more efficient storage.  I installed roll-out, metal baskets under my kitchen sink and bathroom vanity.  I cleaned out a skinny cupboard in the kitchen, found tubs that fit the narrow space, and got seldom-used art supplies out of the way.

Before

Before

After

After

valje-wall-cabinet-red__0290149_PE424853_S4IKEA carries a wall cabinet—basically, an open box with mounting hardware.  I tossed the hardware and stacked two of those on my coat closet shelf to wrangle the magazines I glean for greeting card captions (My closets have lots of height, so I’m always looking for stackables).  There was plenty of room left over to store other crafty stuff.  No more cascades of musty magazines when I get out the broom.

Autumn is the season for nesting.  We make ourselves snug and warm, surround ourselves with treasures and love, settle in for the long winter.  Nesting makes a place a home.  We should find comfort and relief there.  And joy.

Sitting here at my desk, with Henry curled on his pillow, I listen to James Vincent McMorrow and feel my home breathing with me.

A moment of joy.

Drama, Magic and Miracles

In Their DNA

It seems almost sacrilegious to not have any drama in my life.  I’ve even lost count of how many weeks I’ve been symptom-free—six or more I’m thinking.  And to not worry about what I eat, or even think very much about food.  It’s that darn Vyvanse!  Not only does it curb my binge eating, but has kept my mood at this nice, even place with a clear mind and plenty of energy.  What the Hell?

Winter is still the real test for this magic pill.  But even if my mood is a little better than usual this season, it will still be magic.

So, if I’m not constantly managing my illness, if I’m not on alert for distorted thinking and the Big Fat Liar in my head, if I’m not The Bipolar Bad-Ass Warrior, who the heck am I?

Honestly, I have no idea.  Survival has been my entire existence for the past ten years.  It has changed me, honed me, made me fierce in ways I never expected.  I’m not the same person I was ten years ago.

I like this version of me.  I like it a lot.

That has to be the biggest miracle of all.

The Adventure Continues!

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