Treasuring the Rope

Rope 1In a bipolar life, there are days, weeks, sometimes months, where the illness never lets up.  Most of the time, I can ride those long spells.  They’re a fact of my life.  I understand that.  But, I suppose like anyone with a chronic illness, the relentlessness of it sometimes swamps me.  The despair of dealing with the illness combines with the despair it creates.  The extra weight guarantees sinking to the bottom and makes it that much harder to fight my way back to the surface.

I’ve been going through one of those spells—a long season of black.  It’s been a different kind of hard this time without my two water wings of compulsive eating and compulsive spending.  Oh, the compulsions are still there.  I still pace my kitchen like a caged bobcat, opening all the cupboards, the fridge, the pantry, hoping I slipped and brought home something, anything, that will dull the wild scrabbling in my brain.  And even when I’ve budgeted a trip to Des Moines, have cash to pay for a movie and gas, the urge to keep spending is a fish hook under my sternum.  Pulling, pulling always pulling.

This past week my Start With One Serving mantra saved me from getting lost in food, but I still gained a couple of pounds.  Compared to other similar seasons, though, that’s nothing.  And while I’m on the edge of nothing in my checking account, I have enough in my piggy bank at home to get through the month.  Since I paid all my bills, put money in my car fund, and made my planned Visa payment, this, too, is far from the disaster such seasons usually bring.

I’m sure the tension of fighting these old behaviors contributes to the illness itself, but the fight is required if I’m ever to find any freedom.  I know how lucky I am to even have the option of fighting.  I’ve met others like me who don’t, who don’t have an inkling of insight, who are utterly lost in the illness itself.  I understand them.  I am them.  But, I’m also this.

There was one day last week where I thought about surrendering to being lost.  What if I quit fighting and just turned into the crazy cat lady on the corner?  Would that be so bad?  There’s a siren song to mental illness that can be so seductive.  Go to sleep, it says.  I’ll take care of everything.

Emmet AlertBut, after all this time, I recognize that purring song.   It’s part of me, but not all of me.  So, I start looking for joy.  Tiny moments.  Gentle kindnesses.  Things that make me close my eyes in appreciation.  The light on Emmet as he watches the birds.  The silky slide of the water as I swim.  A song on my Pandora station.  A kind note from an almost-friend.  The perfect taste of a vanilla latte with one squirt of raspberry.  The ballet-like fight scenes in Captain America’s new movie.  The wonder of creating an exquisite background paper for a card.  The smell of rain.  A deep breath.  An old feeling of lightness that comes while driving through town in the orange light of dusk.  A chance to listen so someone else in pain.

My friend, Lily, once told me something that has soothed me for years.  Sometimes, all you can do is hang on.  This is true.  Hang on until the season turns.  Hang on because this—whatever it is—won’t last.  Grip the rope and wait.  Most of my life I’ve focused on the tension of waiting, the feeling of not being able to hang on much longer, the sense of fingernails ripping away.  What I’m finding is that it’s even more important to notice how beautiful the rope is and to treasure it.

from my Pandora station

Wait! What?

Refined Bad Ass, Patrick Stewart, handmade greeting card, collage artI just realized that what I do every day is not spend money and not eat.  All my attention is focused on these anti-compulsions.  Awesome!  I’m so completely Bad-Ass now I can hardly stand myself!

Every Moment

At our Thursday TOPS meetings we draw a Pledge for the coming week.  It’s usually something healthy and weight-related we’re called to do every day—a reminder to keep proper nutrition and management at the front of our minds.  The penalty for not fulfilling the Pledge is a dime.  Not a huge deterrent, just a nudge.

This current bout of depression started its dive two weeks ago.  On my way down I jettisoned any semblance of control as the darkness took over my eating.  I bought what was cheap and could numb the pain.  I included fruit and vegetables, but that was like throwing a life-preserver to someone bitten in half by a shark.

The illness and the distorted thinking twisted me in knots of self-loathing.  I felt hideous inside and out.  It was intolerable.

So, when I weighed in today I knew what the scale would say.  I tried to remember that it was just a number, not an indictment.

In the meeting we talked about our goals and vision, why we continued to attend the meetings, and what we wanted.  I felt defeated and helpless against the constant cycle of compulsive eating, shame, and celery.  I hated myself.

Then, one of the women drew out our Pledge for the coming week.  “Every day, tell yourself you are worth the struggle.”

There were so many ways my twisted brain wanted to argue with that statement.  But I just took a deep breath, came home, ate too much, then sat down at my work table.

The only positive voice in my head—when there is one—is baritone and British.  I thought I might just listen to that affirmation if I could imagine it in the Voice.  So I made a piece to stick on my bathroom mirror where I would be sure to see it every day.  Many times every day.

Every Moment, Benedict Cumberbatch

When I read these words, I know they’re not just about obesity and compulsion.  They’re about poverty, madness, and loneliness.  They’re about getting up after falling on the ice for the umpteenth time.  They’re about laughing when it would be much easier to cry.  They’re about taking a deep breath and looking up at the stars instead of keeping my head down in the cold.  They’re about Remembering who I am.

And if I need to hear these words in a British accent to believe them, then so be it.  We do whatever works.

Snapping Out of It

Downton MaryEveryone I know is a little discombobulated.  The holidays, the bitter cold—they’ve taken the normal way of things and dumped them, head first, in a snow bank.  It helps knowing others are slip-sliding, too, even though my befuddlement includes coming back from bronchitis and depression.  Misery loves company, as they say, but it’s not helping me find my footing any easier.

I tried streaming the first episode of Downton Abbey’s fourth season last night and found it echoed my spastic and burpy fits and starts.  Oh, this will never do!  I’m counting on the PBS online site to watch the new BBC Sherlock episodes starting on the 19th.  Since I don’t have a TV anymore and don’t subscribe to Netflix or Hulu, my options are limited.  So, as I write this, I’ve got Downton streaming on another screen, hoping that a good night’s sleep will give it the strength to play past the niggles.

Why should I care so much?  It’s just a TV show.  But it has more to do with control and expectation.  I’m at a total loss to get my eating under control, and the cold has kept me away from the gym.  My routine is hibernating, and I can’t wake it up.  The least I should be able to do is watch Downton!

I haven’t spiked a fever in almost a week and seem to be hacking less, so in spite of the -8F temp outside this morning, I’m determined to get to the Y and my swim class.  Then, I’m crossing the street to HyVee, snagging a Vanilla Latte, and camping out do get some writing done on Technical Consultant.

As for my binge eating, well, it’s back to mindfulness and pushing against the compulsion.  My therapist told me about Pandora yesterday, a site where you can program your own “radio station.”  I set up a mindfulness “station” with lots of lovely meditative music.  My intention is to go there before I eat, sit for 7 minutes listening to something soothing and breathing into the agitation that is my compulsion.  It sounds lovely, but in the throes of compulsion the idea of pausing seems impossible.  We’ll see.  It’s a new tool, and I’ll try anything.

I’ve been at the mercy of my health and the environment for too long.  I need to use this break in my internal weather to get back on track.  And I see on the other screen that Downton is unfolding without a hitch.  I’ll take that as a good omen.

Season of Change

Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Star TrekThis is sort of a big week.  Wednesday will be my last Support Group session.  Thursday, my mom returns home from the nursing home.  Big changes.  And change is always a little dangerous for anyone with bipolar disorder.  The trick, I’ve learned, is to acknowledge the potential and Watch.

I feel like I’ve prepared well for the end of Group.  My mental health clinic has been in trouble for some time, first losing money, then losing our psychiatrist, and finally, when a larger clinic took over, losing most of the counseling staff.  It seemed like the right time to transfer my records to the clinic in my own town.  I’ll miss my therapist—she’s been my biggest cheerleader—but I’ll be able to join a support group offered here.

I never thought I’d benefit so much from a support group, but I’ve learned that my preference for solitude puts me at risk.  For the rest of my life, I will need to push against that tendency, and continuing with a group will help me do that.  I still have to go through all the intake interviews and paperwork, find a new therapist, and explain how I manage without medication.  But, that’s part of the process.  A little stressful, a little anxiety-producing, but eventually I’ll settle into a new routine here.

On Wednesday, I’ll get to say a few words of parting, then the group will pass around a token (like the ones folks get in Recovery programs).  Each person will get to hold the token and say a few words about me.  After three months in this group, I’ve participated in several parting rituals, and they’re always moving.  I imagine this one will be, too.  I’m bringing Kleenex.

But, it’s time to move on.  This group was always meant to be a transition between hospitalization and New Life—that’s why clients can only participate for three months.  I’m ready.  And still, it’s a big change.

The next day my sister and I will help my mom return home after three months recovering from a botched angiogram.  A lot has changed for her.  Still weak and somewhat unsteady on her feet, she’ll go home with a walker and a cast on her arm, a home health aide to assist with bathing and housekeeping, and  a whole new way of perceiving her life.  “I have to think of myself as handicapped now,” she told me yesterday.

I don’t know yet how Mom’s homecoming will affect me.  My sister always took the lead as far was Mom is concerned, but I live closer.  It’s an uncomfortable triad—I can generally hold my own one-on-one, but put us all together and I either fade into the wallpaper or try to do too much.  Old patterns and a history of nonexistent boundaries make my family the biggest trigger for my bipolar episodes.  So, I’m Watching.

What I’m Seeing are old coping behaviors popping up like Whack-A-Moles—binge eating, long daytime naps, lots of movies—with the expected dips into depression.  So, I keep Watching and, when I can, I go do something else.  Like take a walk or write a blog post.

Change happens.  We adapt.  Those of us with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses may need more time and resources to get to the other side, but we do.  My wish this time is to leave the least amount of carnage behind—not gain back the weight I’ve lost, not spend all my money, not hide in my apartment.  I hope to get to the other side of this season of change secure in myself and open to the benefits these changes bring.

Here comes the storm.  I’ll wet my finger with a little thankfulness and love, then turn to face it.

Returning

handmade greeting cards, collage artIf there’s an up side to rapid cycling, it’s that nothing last for long.  I get a few days now to reengage and refocus.

What I learned in the hospital this time around, is that being a social animal is required.  Solitude may feel safer, but it’s really just another compulsion that I must push against.  So, when these easier days come, I can look at how to do that.

I’m big on making plans.  My journals are full of lists, Things To Do, strategies, and abandoned schemes.  Over time, they’ve become less grandiose, more tempered, a little more grounded in my reality.  But still they trail behind me like toilet paper on my shoe—a reminder to wake up a little more before taking that first step.

What matters, I think, is making the effort.  Nothing changes unless we can envision it and then move in that direction.  It takes muscle.  This week I’m doing what a social animal does—making calls, meeting friends, dropping by on my way to somewhere else.  I’m choosing to engage.

And as I build up a little momentum, other actions become easier—working on my new collage at night instead of eating my way through a DVD, cleaning my apartment, going back to the Y late in the day for a second workout.  And after holding the question for a few days now, I’ve decided to go back to TOPS.  It’s a social group, which is what I’m to be working on, and if it helps me lose weight, so much the better.

I wrestled long and hard on my compulsive eating last year, then gave up when my bipolar symptoms went into overdrive.  It feels good to come back to this, to reengage this particular tension, to put my strong shoulder against the thing and push.  I hope to do it a little differently, with less black and white thinking, with more gentleness, but with definite action.  It will take more mindfulness than I’ve practiced lately.  It will take willingness to keep returning whenever the compulsion takes over.  Just like I’m doing now.  Returning.  As gentle as that.

These in-between days are always full of revelations, inspiration and fresh starts.  Most of them fall by the bipolar wayside, but a few survive for a while.  It all depends on me, where I put my intent and what actions I take.  Talk is cheap.  Ideas are easy.  The proof is in the doing.

Back to Work

handmade greeting cards, collage artI just finished reading Fat City, an article by Dr. Karen Hitchcock about the convoluted problem of obesity (Thanks to David Kanigan for leading me there).  It’s a long article, but worthwhile.

My main take-away is that there are no easy answers to obesity.  I knew that.  I’m proof of that.  But the article made me want to try again.

Like everything else in my life, I swing to extremes with weight loss.  I either set unrealistic goals and hate myself for not meeting them, or I stop thinking altogether and ride my compulsive eating into the sunset.  I’m swinging back from that mad gallop, but I’d like to find a place in the middle.  I don’t like the self-loathing, hot, itchy drive to be something else any more than I can stand the free-fall gobbling.  I have no idea where that place is.  I’ve never found it before.

I’ve learned a lot this past 18 months.  I made it my mission to understand my compulsive eating, to stay awake as much as possible through the binges and the cravings.  I studied the connection between my eating, loneliness and watching TV.  I marked how a vegan diet made my body feel.  And I watched the extremes of my bipolar disorder wink my Will out of existence when I thought it was firm.  I learned a lot but, as my friend Marshall is fond of saying, understanding is highly overrated.

I still can’t control the life-or-death compulsion to eat when it takes me.  At times I can temper it, make less horrible choices, but I’ve never been able to deny it altogether.  So, no matter how many good choices I make in a day or a week, the compulsion can wipe out the benefits in a few hours.

So, okay.  That’s my Constant Companion.  Maybe I can make friends with it.  Maybe I can work around it.  Maybe I can find some compromise that will satisfy both of us.  I have no idea.

What I will do today is pull out my food journal again and write down what I eat.  I’ll resist.  I’ll forget.  But this is one tool that seems to help.  We’ll see.

As always, I’m on an Adventure.

Hysteria in Aisle Two

handmade greeting cards, collage artI woke up yesterday frantic, bolted out of bed and grabbed up my journal.  Something had to be done.  I needed a plan.

The day before I’d stepped on the scale at the Y.  Twenty pounds had crept back on.  I nearly fainted with horror and despair.  Not again, please.  Not again.

So, I sat at my table at 4:30 in the morning, trying to figure it out, trying to find one thread I could pull out of that frayed panic to gather my Will and my focus back together.  Because, I reasoned, if I can’t stop the binging and the food frenzies, then how can I stop myself from compulsively spending?  If I can’t control my spending, I’ll never be able to save for a car.  I’ll be dependent the rest of my life.  If I can’t stop the weight from coming back, I’ve lost and the illness wins.

So, okay, I thought, today—only water with lemon, fruits and vegetables.  I’ll make smoothies.  I’ll stay at the library all day if I have to.  I can do this for one day.  I can.

But, even as I wrote that and meant it, another part of me knew I could never pull it off.  How many times had I tried extreme measures—fasts, cleanses, sudden dietary shocks meant to galvanize the metabolism?  That kind of clamping down on the ravenous feeding only made it worse.  Every time.  I knew, even as I promised myself one day of food sanity, that I was poking a very large animal with a pointy stick.

I white-knuckled it until noon, then found myself at the microwave, making a plate of nachos.

It was a relief, really, to acknowledge my true nature.

Compulsive eating is part of my illness.  So are compulsive spending and sex.  And because they are compulsions, there’s no rational way to get rid of them. Believe me I’ve tried.  My therapist and I have looked at these behaviors from every angle.  The only way I’ve found to work with them is to acknowledge them and give them space.  To hold them with an open hand instead of a closed fist.  Which seems counter intuitive when they are raging.  I want the gobbling to stop, not watch the freak show as it happens.  But, weirdly, watching does help.  It tempers the ferocity and lessens the destruction.

By trying to save money, I’ve put my self in a pressure cooker.  Being poor has always triggered me, so I knew choosing to be even poorer might be dangerous.  But, I also thought that having a goal, something to work toward, might make that stress easier to bear.  Could I temper the panic and the compulsion to spend money?

The answer, it seems, is yes.  But the anxiety and compulsivity squirted sideways in food frenzies.  They will not be denied.

I’m not giving up, though.  I just passed through a couple of ragged days, and it’s hard to watch when the depression, anxiety and mania color the view.  I’m clearer today, and calmer.  The radio in my head has dialed away from the Self-Hatred channel and is back on Easy Listening.  Today, I’m okay about gaining back the weight.  It’s a temporary adjustment to all the stress.  And if it’s not temporary, then, that will have to be okay, too.  I’m going to let it be.  Instead, I’ll turn my attention to the stress itself—the feelings of deprivation and powerlessness, the fear and uncertainty.

I’ll become an Observer, like September on Fringe, changing the outcome just by watching the experiment, noting the effects with a gentle, non-judgmental attitude.  Like September, I can’t be completely objective.  We both care about the outcome of the experiment too much.  And I may keep binging, but at least I won’t be eating raw roast beef sandwiches with seven jalapeños and tabasco sauce.  I still have a little dignity.

Fringe, September

Zero Sum Bad-Assery

hand made card, collage artI happen to be a Libra.  And bipolar.   The irony of this tickles me no end.  While the Libra part of me strives for balance and harmony, the bipolar part makes sure that doesn’t happen.  It’s a conundrum, really, this constant, internal tug-of-war.  I feel like a mother with two teenage girls who share a bedroom.  Please just give it a rest, kids.

But, I think it’s the Libra part of me that keeps the bipolar part from overthrowing the entire Sandy government.  Take my current Zero Money Initiative.  In my quest to save money for a new car on a Disability income, and to practice some deep Work with my compulsive spending, I’ve tallied 31 days of success.  I’ve put money in the bank and not used my credit card once in that time.  Huge success.  Huge.  The only problem is I’m eating everything in sight.

I get the psychology of this—concentrate on one compulsive behavior and the others will flare—and I’ve tried to be gentle with myself about it.  Take away too many coping mechanisms and the stress could trigger a total meltdown (I can hear Scotty now—”Cap’n, she’s gunna blow!”).  I figured I was doing well to be cooking all my meals at home when, for so long, cooking created enormous anxiety for me.  No take-out, no restaurants—I was saving big money.  I also continued my vegan diet—quadruple portions, but vegan portions.

bowling ballThe sorry fact is that I’ve gained back 17 pounds.  That’s the weight of an average bowling ball.  Pick up a bowling ball sometime and carry it around all day.  Granted, I’m still carrying the whole tournament, but one less ball makes a big difference.  On the joints, on self-esteem, on buttons and zippers.

I really don’t want to continue this slow creep back to 300 pounds.  I’ve worked too hard to whittle that down, and still dream of the day when I can claim to be simply “obese” instead of “morbidly obese.”

So, it’s time pull out the old tools that have worked in the past.  I dusted off my Food Journal yesterday.  And my calorie guide.  And my food scale.  Even if I continue to compulsively eat, at least I’ll document accurate information about what I’m consuming.  I can’t change something I can’t see.

I’ll go back to eating my meals at the table instead of in front of the TV.  I may have cancelled my cable, but I can still watch movies on the DVD player.  And once I start eating in front of the TV, the grazing can go on for hours.

As always, it’s a matter of attention.  I’ve focused so much on Ninja Tightwaddery that I didn’t think I had any left for Sane Eating.  But, I have to try.  It’s the Libra in me that won’t let the chaos go on forever.  It’s the Libra that wants to pull both compulsions onto her scale and find what will balance them.  The bipolar part will play merry hell with Her, but that’s to be expected.  Let them scream at each other—I’ve got Work to do.

Not Quite Bad-Ass

I know what I need to do.Marian Ravenwood, Karen Allen, Indiana Jones, Raiders

After a long spell of rapid cycling, mixed states, stressful situations and physical illness, my protocol is to summon the Bad-Ass and pull my life back together.  It’s a time to train, reassert discipline, and prepare for the next engagement with my bipolar disorder.  But, this time, I can’t seem to find her.

Maybe I’m still cycling.  I’m exhausted, but can’t sleep; fretful with no clear concern; compulsive in my eating and spending.  I feel my routine and structure dissolving, which jumpstarts my panic.  The drive to claw out some order from the chaos squeezes me from the inside.

So, okay, I’m still cycling.  Once I set the emotion aside, I can observe the behavior and the feelings with a little more clarity.  There’s no room for the Bad-Ass yet.  And even though the compulsive eating terrifies me, another part of me knows this is part of the illness.  Eventually, this will pass, and I’ll come to a place where I can do the work I long to do now.

What can I do now?

Exercise—I can walk today.  If I’m mindful, I can walk this morning and again later this afternoon.  Tomorrow I can go to my water class in the morning and walk or ride the recumbent bike in the afternoon.  Exercise is the most important tool I have to keep my brain flexible and the blood flowing.

Meditation and Tasks—Luckily, today is our UU small group, so I have an hour of meditation already built into my day.  I’m also leading the Fellowship gathering where we’ll discuss the physiological effects of gratitude.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow through on this commitment—I felt too foggy, too scattered, too panicked.  But this morning seems a little better, and I’m ready with my presentation.

There are some things I can do even in the worst of an episode.  Writing in my journal, making cards, even driving remind me that I can still function, that my brain can still create and make connections.  I’ve long given up my need for perfection in any of these things.  I just do them, and that’s enough to give me a sense of myself when it seems like the illness is everything.

Emma Peel, Diana Rigg, The AvengersEvery once in a while, I’m able to call on some old skills like public speaking and creating ritual, skills that I was proficient in once and can still use if the social phobia, agitation and moods aren’t too crippling.  Using these skills help me feel more human, but they also generate stress.  I’ll lead the small group and do the Fellowship presentation, but I may have to pay for it later in exhaustion and an exacerbation of my symptoms.  Maybe not.  It’s always a crap shoot.

That’s my plan.  Not a Bad-Ass plan, just a rope to pull me through the day.  But I know my Bad-Ass is on the other end of the rope, holding tight, waiting for her turn.

It will come.

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