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…

At The Dig Site

I knew this wouldn’t be easy.

Lose Weight.  Such a simple sentence.  And it’s everywhere—magazines, TV, grocery stores, billboards, New Year’s Resolutions, the breath passing through many lips.  The sentence is simple, but the act is damn near impossible.  As my mental health team says, “If it was easy, anyone could do it.”

For me, it also means exhuming emotional skeletons, using tweezers and a soft brush to parse a knob of truth from harsh and debilitating bedrock.  I’ve worked this archeological site before.  Assembling all the artifacts never made much difference, just ripped a lot of fingernails and crushed me with failure.

But dig sites are layered and scattered.  Archeologists work a three-dimensional grid, moving out and down.  They know they have to dig deep.  They know they have to range far from the first find.  Their work is meticulous, choreographed, measured.  Patience, attention and delicacy are required.

I’m still not sure I can go through this again.  I don’t know if I can hold myself in compassion as the remnants of former lives resurface.  But I know I’m more equipped to do that now than I was even two years ago.

I believe life is a spiral, bringing us around again and again to the Work that needs to be done.  With each rotation, we come to the task with different tools.  That alone makes the experience different.

I thought I’d read every book on compulsive eating, but wondered if there wasn’t one I missed.  So I put it in my Plan—Check the Library.  There I found Better Is Not So Far Away: Decide to Recover From Bingeing, Starving, or Cutting by Melissa Groman.  Notice the title doesn’t promise recovery.  It only asks that you decide to recover.

The target audience is much younger than me—teens and young adult women—but the truths are so profound, they knock me flat.

In the pit of loneliness, you most likely feel the totally human ache to be understood, to be connected, to be soothed and loved.  But when you are in the pit, you do not believe these longings are normal, and getting them satisfied seems like a very remote possibility.

She [a client] is afraid of not having, not doing, not being, and just as afraid of having, doing and being.

This book helps, and it’s a trigger.  Anything that leads me further in triggers the compulsive eating.  It’s instinct now.

So, I’m uncomfortable, confused, angry and hateful.  I’m also resilient, patient, accepting and fine.

I always wanted to be an archeologist when I grew up.

Saying Good-Bye Well

Yesterday, I said my last good-bye to Mark Stringer, the minister at First Unitarian Church of Des Moines.  He told us six months ago that he was leaving the ministry, and I’ve been grieving ever since.

It’s weird—we never had a private conversation, just exchanged a few words as I shook his hand on Sunday on my way out the door.  But in the three years that I’ve been going to First Unitarian, I’ve been able to share enough of my story with him to make a connection.

No, that’s not quite right.  I felt connected to him.

From the first service I attended, I knew this guy got it.  His sermons seemed like extensions of my therapy sessions, filled with the importance of mindfulness, compassion, acceptance, and awareness of our own realities.  He made me laugh and cry—usually at the same time.  Finally, after searching for years, I’d found a spiritual home and someone who spoke to the things that mattered to me.

PTSD makes me vulnerable to abandonment-thinking.  Bipolar disorder distorts any thinking into darker twists of hopelessness.  I knew I needed to work this through or I’d probably never go back to the church once he was gone.

So, I attended every Sunday service (once I recovered enough from my last bronchial bomb).  I cried (okay, sobbed) through each one of them, Kleenex box clutched tight.  I made myself look him in the eye after our hug at the door and thank him for the opportunity to do this work.  Some mornings I was too verklempt to say the words, but Mark would hold my watery gaze and say, “I understand.”

While I grieved, I also noted every friend at church who sought me out, every acquaintance who grinned when our eyes met.  I forced myself to see that FU (you gotta love a church with those initials) offered me real community and relationships beyond Mark.  I made a point of wandering around after services to find people I knew and admired in order to weave another thread into our connection.

Yesterday we held his celebratory Farewell Tour at the performing arts theater of one of the city’s high-end high schools (very lovely).  We needed room enough for the whole congregation to honor Mark’s sixteen years of service.  He came to us straight from theological school and is moving on to be the Executive Director of the Iowa ACLU.

I wept like everyone else, touched by his words and deeds (he performed the first same-sex marriage in Iowa), amazed at all he and the church had accomplished (doubled the membership and increased FU’s legislative presence on issues of justice).  But, my tears were of joy and gratitude, not grief.  I spent yesterday talking to my friends, making sure I told the speakers and the choir now much they moved me, and asking questions about the ministerial search process.  I did what I set out to do—I said good-bye well.

It might be good for me to get involved in the Search process, since who “ministers” to me is so very important.  But, I’m tucking that thought away until I learn more.  Will the various committees be able to use a bipolar member who lives an hour away and who may not be able to follow through?  Can I allow myself to be that vulnerable?  Can I get involved and accept my limitations?

It wouldn’t be an Adventure without some mystery and a little risk.

Here’s the first sermon I heard Mark deliver.  Seventeen minutes is an eternity in blogland, but it might be worth your while.

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.

Next?

TMy computer is in the hospital, gasping its last, I fear. So I’ll try to create a post with my phone. Technology–heh, heh–ain’t it sumthin’?

I finished the outpatient program and am trying to figure out what’s next. How do I re-engage with the human race? Aside from that being psychologically required, why would I want to?

No more Vyvanse, for one thing. It may have curbed some of my binge eating disorder, but gave me headaches and aggravated an old TMJ  injury. Aggravated seems the operative word here. The general consensus is that it also upped my “All People Stink” core belief, which may have contributed to a crankier-assed attitude this past year.

Mad Maxine

All I know is that it took weeks in group therapy before I could sit through the whole session. It was either bolt or punch some sap in the mouth. Not violent by nature, this impulse scared me a little. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say it also felt good. Which was scary in a whole other way.

Everyone in the group had issues with irritability (a common symptom of just about every mental illness), so we worked with it. A lot. So now I have a folder of “anger management” handouts in my Bipolar Badass arsenal.

Speaking of which, I designed myself a business card for my art show in December. Quite happy with the results.

Business Card 2016

Another “what next” was asking two of my friends who also suffer from depression and anxiety to form a Sanity Support group. We met last week, and the prognosis looks good for more get-togethers. This one stone could kill so many Crazy Birds for me that it’s hard to keep my WANTING in check. Patience, Grasshopper.

And since my computer is likely on its way to the Tech Morgue, I treated myself the day I discharged from the hospital with a 32 inch TV and a DVD player. No more incantations, Reiki treatments and uncomfortable yoga positions to get a disk to play in my wheezy computer. Now, all I need do is push a button. Pure Heaven.

New TV

The final “next” for now is working through the book Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse with my therapist. I’m sure the next “next” will rise from that.

Westward Ho! Day 12

Golden Valley, AZ (9:00 AM Pacific) to Durango, CO (6:30 PM Mountain).  469 miles.
Notables: (for singing loud) Wailin’ Jennys Live

IMG_0264 (1)So much for good intentions.

Melanie, my host in Golden Valley, lassoed me as I was loading the car, and we ended up gabbing for an hour in a sort of open-air living room;  old couch, recliner, and side table under a trellis in the front yard.  Magnificent view and another magical connection.

I cut loose before she could give me a tour of the property, though.  Like Mr. Frost, I had promises to keep.  And miles to go before I sleep.  Miles to go before I sleep.

So off I went across Arizona, through Hopi, Navajo and Ute land. There, buttes and mesas dominate; brick-red sedimentary formations.  Sometimes ponies pastured on top of them, which made for an unbelievably cinematic silhouette against the cloudy sky.

MV_dramatic_sky_jan_2011I spent most of the day on a two-lane highway with no rest stops and long patches of nothing between gas stations.  We women of a certain age don’t do well without regular “rest” stops.  Luckily, I grew up on a farm and knew how to duck into a cow path off the road.  Some skills never die.

I had texted my friend, Robert, and my Durango hosts about being late.  Robert said not to worry.  I never heard back from my hosts.  So, when I got to their drive, and the gate was chained and locked, I fretted.  Soon, Ginger drove down the lane toward me.  They thought I was coming the next night.  What worried me even more was that Robert said the same thing; he thought I was coming the next day and couldn’t have dinner with me tonight.

Did I get my dates mixed up?  It would have been so easy to do with all these B&Bs to keep straight.  I had a text exchange with my sister earlier in the day, and she noted that I didn’t give myself much down-time or slack in my schedule.  True.  And no place for fuck-ups.

All this really threw me.  Even though Robert and I made plans to meet for coffee tomorrow morning, even though Ginger apologized and said they’d looked at their AirBNB calendar wrong, I had to sit in my car for a while and bawl.

I know I’m tired, which makes me more reactive.  It also makes me more rigid (Go With The Flow went).  I felt choked by disappointment and embarrassed by weeping in front of strangers.  And really bipolar.

A teensy part of me watched all of it happen.  That part cooked Ramen noodles.  That part talked to Ginger and Phil about their old dog, Zeke.  That part took a deep breath and held the exhaustion tenderly.  That part of me is okay.

It’s getting bigger by the minute, that teensy part.  Pretty soon, all of me will be okay.

Again.

And still.

Invasion of the Zombie Day-Traders

Dead AliveThe down-side of taking high-powered antibiotics and steroids is that they wipe out your microbial Security Team and hold up the process of sending in replacements.  This leaves a person vulnerable to opportunistic infections, those Wall Street-type pathogens that sniff out weakness and engineer a hostile take-over.

I got a wicked sore throat last week.  When I bought a little flashlight to get a good look, I can only describe the scene as Wes Craven-esque.  When I stopped screaming, I pulled out my dusty nurse-lore.  What I worried about being a strep infection was, in fact, thrush.  Two words, then I won’t traumatize you any further: Cheesy.  Pustule.  Now back away slowly from Google, grab up your shotgun, and run.

But all is not Night of the Living Dead-Serious.  My physical hobgoblins haven’t triggered any mental ones—other than a few wisps of depression that passed like cabbage-induced air biscuits (Oh, how I love fart humor.  Go here if you do, too).  And my friend, Linda, sent me some major distraction.

She used to own a shop in Minneapolis that sold crystals, semi-precious stones, jewelry and pan-spiritual gifts and tools.  She also let me try to sell my cards there.  The shop closed several years ago, and Linda stowed boxes and bags of inventory while she took care of other life-business.  Last week she sent me a twelve-pound box of beads, cabochons, broken bits, and a big grab-bag of unsorted stuff—mostly seed beads and tiny shells.  Linda’s clear-out was my Merry Christmas!

Chair VictorSo, after I gargle and swish my new medicine (sort of a cross between Milk of Magnesia and Lysol), I fight Henry for the good chair, then sit at the table and sort.  Henry likes to sit with me when I’m at my studio, but doesn’t care for the straight-backed chair that goes with the old dining table.  Even when I tart it up with his Girlfriend (a purple throw that he romances regularly), he still shuns it for my comfy, rolling desk chair.  He casts the Evil Cat Stink-Eye until I switch chairs with him.  If I’m not fast enough, he climbs in behind me and wedges me out.  Giving up the chair is a matter of self-preservation, not indulgence.  Other cat-keepers will understand.

Sorting BeadsIt’s a fine way convalesce: a hot mug of apple cider and green tea at one elbow next to my blazing Happy Light, one cat snoring at the other elbow while another swirls around my ankles, my Pandora station filling the air with The Civil Wars and Dave Matthews, a gallon of goodies to sort.

Oh, and then there’s the shotgun in the corner—just in case.

ψ

An Experiment in Justice

IsisMost of the time, attending the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines is a joyful experience for me.  I’m fed by the music, the ethics of the community, the wisdom and passion of the ministers.  I feel at home there.

But, because it is an Unitarian community, social justice is a big part of the zeitgeist.  We are called to wake up and “stay woke” to the inequity of our justice and prison systems, to the destruction of black bodies.  Sermons, like Erin Gingrich’s message a few weeks ago, Black Lives Matter, gnaw at my comfort.  Adult education classes include discussion groups about books like Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  Affirmed Justice small groups meet to plan how to incorporate Restorative Justice into our schools and courts.

I’m proud to be part of this vibrant, caring community.  I just can’t figure out where I fit.

comptonYesterday, after a particularly fiery sermon, I left with a plan.  I would go see Straight Outta Compton, the movie about the first gangsta rap group, NWA. Rap music scares me.  The language, the violence, the rage—they all scare me.  But, I know all of it is someone’s real, lived, experience.  I thought, I can do this.  I can watch this movie with curious compassion and be mindful of my fear.  I can do this.

I had read in the church bulletin that next Sunday would be the Blending of the Waters ritual.  Congregants bring water from a significant source, talk about what it symbolizes, and pour it into a common bowl.  It’s a way to acknowledge the gifts we all bring to the community.

So, when I got my popcorn and diet Coke for the movie, I filled the cup to the top with ice.  This would be my offering to the bowl next Sunday, this ice that would hold my fear and my courage.

I came out of the movie shell-shocked, over-run by the full range of my bipolarness.  I drove home crying, raging, and ultimately locked-down.  I sedated myself and went to bed, hoping for clarity in the morning.

And, by gum, that’s what I found.

My feelings of ineptness and desperation around social justice mirror my old feelings about work and being a productive member of society.  I had to keep trying to go back to work until I learned that my mental illness took that ability.  The stress of working is now a trigger.

Now I know that the stress of being an activist, of even considering being an activist, is also a trigger.  I can’t keep the pain, injustice and rage outside of me.  My boundaries aren’t that strong.

Knowing one’s triggers is important information for anyone with mental illness.  Self-knowledge and insight are vital tools.  Going to this movie set me free in many ways.  It gave me a new sense of clarity and purpose.  I will never be on the front lines with those in my church fighting for social justice, but I will be right behind them armed with my own kind of courage.

That’s what I intend to say next Sunday when I pour my melted-ice water into the community bowl.

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.

March Madness

TumbleweedPhew!  February is behind us.  Enough, now, of the darkness and bitter cold and on to mud below and sun above.  Historically, March is the time I rouse from my mental hibernation and blink at the mess I’ve made while thrashing around in the dark.  I spend too much money when I’m brain-sick.  I eat compulsively.  Fat and broke, I usually overreact.  Last year and the year before, I put myself on strict money and food diets… and I ended up in partial hospitalization.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is a pattern I need to address in IPR.

The mission of IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation) is to help those of us with mental illness succeed at a goal we choose.  My goal is to keep living in my apartment, not taking sabbaticals in the hospital, so my caseworker, Aly, and I look at any skills needed to do that.

Partial hospitalization gives me structured support, a place to do the hard work of managing my illness when it’s overwhelming, and accountability to professionals who understand me.  One of my new skills is to seek out more structured support outside the hospital setting.

Seeing my therapist and participating in IPR every week are two kinds of structured support.  Recently, I added a weekly meeting with my Peer at Integrated Health Services (where I worked for a time last summer).  Allison and I sit for an hour and talk about doing the hard work of recovery.  The more I can get this kind of help, the less likely another hospitalization.  And since the Partial Hospitalization Program closed its doors last year, my only option now is full admission to a psych ward.  To me, that’s not an option.

So, it’s also important to look at this pattern of deprivation in the early spring.  As Aly and I talked through this, it seemed so simple.  Now is not the time to white-knuckle anything—not my budget, not my diet, not an out-dated version of myself as responsible and in control.  If there was ever a time for my Kinder, Gentler practice to kick in, it’s in March.  Now is the time to acknowledge how ill I’ve been and how well I’ve coped.  Now is the time to gently come back to cooking at home when the depression lifts enough to allow it.  Now is the time to remember that this is what my savings is for—to pay the bills my illness created over the winter and to give me space to breathe.  I’ll be able to live within my means again, but not right now.

This whole idea is radical—not clamping down to pay off my Visa bill or repaying the money I took from savings.  The idea that I can do those things later, should do them later, boggles my mind.  So simple.  So very Kind and Gentle.  It’s lovely to be my own best friend.

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