Spontaneous Combustion

This past weekend I experienced rapid cycling (alternating depressive and manic episodes over a short period of time) for the first time since I weaned off all my meds 18 months ago.  And while very uncomfortable, I managed fine.  It did make me wonder about my stress level, though.

Losing weight is stressful for anyone.  Making major behavioral changes is very stressful for anyone.  On top of those, I’ve also eliminated two of my life-long, sure-fire methods of dealing with my bipolar disorder—TV and compulsive eating.  So not only am I under a great deal of stress, but I’ve lost the two most powerful ways of coping with it.  What’s left in my old bag of tricks is compulsive spending and sexual fantasy, which are both shouting for constant attention.

“Hmm,” I pondered, “perhaps I need a bit more support as I tear my life apart.”

So, today I went to my therapist.  Michelle said all the things I knew she’d say, but it was so comforting to hear them out loud:

All these changes are positive and incredibly stressful.

Don’t worry too much about Captain America and The Huntsman hanging out over your shoulder—have fun with them.

Keep journaling and tracking your feelings.

Try not to be rigid—if the agitation gets too big, allow yourself some TV.

Okay, then.  I’m not hallucinating when I hear Chris Hemsworth mumbling behind me.  And I’m not failing when eating my supper sans distraction makes me cry with loneliness.  No.  It’s just me ripping my life apart and feeling the effects.  Feeling, without numbing those feelings, is frightening and painful.  Many days I feel like an open wound.  But, I’m okay.  And the hunks standing behind me are okay.  However, I’m going to keep seeing Michelle for a while.  She knows how to hose me down if I burst into flames.  Everyone needs a buddy with flame retardant.

Too Much of a Good Thing

There’s no doubt about it.  I am in a manic phase.  The flood of ideas and potential projects keep washing over me, each one more brilliant than the last.  What I’m trying to do is stay aware and stay focused.  I’m journaling to capture the ideas and get them out of my head.  When the mania lets go of me, I’ll be able to look at them objectively.  Often I find the ideas are still good ones, but not practical or timely or worth pursuing.

For example, yesterday I envisioned a new soft art piece—a Winter Solstice banner using a cloth-charring technique and quilting with used dryer sheets; revisited an idea for a novel about a bipolar woman living with her gay best friend in a conservative small town; and party favors for my Callinda party using cloth, beads, stamps and quotes from the story.  Swirled among those ideas are the details of the day today.  Get to the Y. Remember to take my food journal to TOPS.  Remember to take items for the silent auction at TOPS.  Strip the bed to do laundry.  All thoughts, all details, carry equal weight and flash in and out of my mind.  So writing them down and making lists helps to drain some of the wildness out of them.

I’m also trying to watch what the giddy energy brings up in me.  So far, I’m not feeling the compulsions.  Yesterday, I went shopping with my friend, Cheryl, and only indulged in a magazine (The Writer, for research purposes, of course) and craft adhesive (which I needed).

I have less of a desire to eat than usual, which may be part of the mania and the energetic spin.  Since I don’t have mania nearly as often as depression, I’m not familiar with this symptom.  Or I don’t remember it.  I’ve always been so identified with being a compulsive overeater, that the idea of not being hungry or even caring about food seems freakishly alien.  So I will watch this and mark it.

But, there is definitely an urge to GO, and I catch myself spinning around starting to do one thing, stopping, starting another, stopping.  I feel the nervy, acidic churn in my stomach.  Last night at our weekly Criminal Minds get-together, I noticed that Tom turned up the volume on the TV several times, so that told me how much more I was nattering.

Management today will be a constant returning to my breath, reminders to stop and relax.  Thursday is a busy day for me, and that will help use the energy my mania generates.  So will more exercise.  Our TOPS group plans to walk around a lake after our meeting today, which is perfect.  As always, the Observer must be in the forefront, monitoring the impulses and flurry of thoughts, creating a space between them and me where I can find myself, creating a space to rest and slow down.

It’s all part of the Bipolar Dance.  One cha-cha at a time.

The Bad-Ass Project

While I was finishing Callinda, I knew I was hypomanic.  The writing was just going too well, the ideas coming too fast.  I slept less, ate less, exercised more (given post-op restrictions).  I knew it wasn’t the time to make any important decisions—no major purchases, no sudden left-turns.  So, when the Wild Hair sprouted in my mind, I just set it aside.  When the impulsivity and grandiosity settle down, I reasoned, I’d take another look.

I’m not sure the mania has completely drained, but I’m sleeping better and feeling less like I’m floating on air.  So, I’m willing to consider the Crazy Idea:

Make a Book out of the Blog

The act of finishing Callinda gave me a measure of confidence I didn’t expect.  It opened me.  It made me willing to do what needs to be done in order to actually publish a book—research the genre, do the leg-work in finding an agent, prepare the material.

Since I’ve gone through this horse and pony show before, I enter into this fully aware of the piles of manure, big bitey teeth and sharp hooves.  The process of getting a book published (or rejected) is hard work and heartbreaking, but it feels like the next step for me.

So, yesterday I spent hours copying all the posts off this blog in order to start sifting and sorting.  Long hours at the library perusing mental illness memoirs and The Writers’ Market await me.

I’m on an Adventure.

What Gifts, Mania?

What gifts, Mania?  What roads flowing liquid through the dreamscape?  What treasures piled like tart grapes?  What moons shining?

For awhile, mania is a lovely thing.  This time, I am driven to write.  In the past few days, I’ve finished my novel, crafted two short stories, outlined the first few chapters of the next novel, and gathered notes to write at least three more short stories.  I wake up in the morning with scenes and dialog fully formed and spewing from my head.

I come to a resting place, a place where I would usually put the story away and let it percolate in my subconscious for a day or days.  But now, the rest lasts the length of an episode of Mad Men, and I’m back at the computer with the perfect solution, the perfect turn, the perfect word.

I know I’m manic.  I feel the obsessive itch.  To counter it, I push away from the stories and play with my art.  But, there, too, I am flooded with potential.  The cards I make can take me over an hour to assemble.  I made a dozen cards this weekend, all different, all elaborate, all beautiful.

This is the place we of the bipolar persuasion yearn for—this place of making, this effortless disgorging of ideas and images that takes form as something real and whole.   This is the Promised Land and Enlightenment and good Rock ‘N’ Roll all bundled together.  We’ll do anything to stay here.

But, it doesn’t last—not the clear, cool mind, not the ease, not the glee.  Mania shifts into agitation and deepening impulsivity.  It tears away sleep and clouds the mind with grand delusions.

I started buying DVDs on eBay to keep me entertained next week after my surgery.  The mania shoves me to keep buying.  I posted my new stories here.  The mania sends me back ten-fifteen-twenty times a day to look for comments, to look at the photos, to tweak one more word.  Small irritations detonate into rage.

The gifts of mania are the gifts I carry with me always.  My talent for making came with my blue eyes and my German bones.  No shift in brain chemistry opens a door or closes it.  No mood determines my potential.  My inborn gifts come through because I use them.  When I’m manic, I just use them more.

So, I shift, and shift again.  The thoughts will slow from their frenzied pace.  The body will tamp down the fires.  And I will still be a Maker.

Winter Solstice

The World Tree

by Carol Singer

Surely, deeply, a holy Tree grows in your heart.

Ancient wisdom is there in a touch of its bark.

Its joyous leaves catch Heaven’s light,

The roots are strong with Earth’s own might,

To keep you through the longest night

And lead you out of the dark.

∞ ∞ ∞

The longest night of the year.

For those of us with bipolar disorder, this day is more than simply the beginning of winter.  It’s a reminder that even the darkest nights end, the deepest depressions, the craziest mania.  While in the dark, we can’t see an ending, we can’t feel the Earth turning and tilting.  But the Universal cycles continue nevertheless.  Winter Solstice reminds us of the turning and the promise of Light returning.

An image often associated with Winter Solstice is Yggdrasil, or the World Tree.  In Norse mythology, it embodies the concepts of renewal, it’s branches reaching into Heaven, and it’s roots into the Earth and Beyond.

Today, I invite you to take a moment from your day to mark the Solstice.  Remember yourself with branches reaching into the Divine and roots deep in the safe, warm Earth.  Standing tall in the dark, feel the moment of Light returning.  Feel the promise fulfilled.  Breathe, and be at peace.

A New Learning Curve

With the return of my bipolar symptoms comes an opportunity to begin working with my compulsive behaviors in a new way.  What I’ve discovered so far is that agitation seems to be the underlying energy for the compulsive eating and spending as well as the restlessness and urge to “Get Out of Dodge” that sends me tooling down the highways.

In a bit of synchronicity, Vivien over at ManicMuses just posted a piece about new emergency room treatment of agitation in psychiatric patients, which got me thinking more about the shape and origin of agitation.  I’ve also heard from other folks who live with bipolar disorder that this type of mixed state can be fairly common.

This from Wikipedia:

In the context of mental disorder, a mixed state (also known as dysphoric maniaagitated depression, or a mixed episode) is a condition during which symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously (e.g., agitationanxietyfatigueguiltimpulsivenessirritability, morbid or suicidal ideationpanicparanoiapressured speech and rage). Typical examples include tearfulness during a manic episode or racing thoughts during a depressive episode. One may also feel incredibly frustrated or be prone to fits of rage in this state, since one may feel like a failure and at the same time have a flight of ideas. Mixed states are often the most dangerous period of mood disorders, during which susceptibility to substance abusepanic disorder, commission of violencesuicide attempts, and other complications increase greatly.

Yes, this would be me.

In a way, I’m relieved to learn that a mixed state is serious and difficult to treat.  It pumps up my ego to know that I’m fighting a worthy adversary and helps me take in stride all the times the compulsion simply runs me over.  Learning a new way to work with this agitated energy won’t be easy.  There are no other guidelines out there except the use of powerful drugs.

The results of a mixed state are the scariest, craziest part of bipolar disorder for me.  I feel like something takes possession of my body and my brain, and there’s nothing I can do except ride along until I’m released.  The impulses are so strong, and the drive to flee from them so ingrained, that it will take time and much effort to even begin to imagine something else.  But, that’s what I’m doing.

When I’m able, I get still, either by sitting in a comfortable chair or lying on my bed.  I breathe.  I start to explore where the agitation manifests in my body.  Sometimes I feel it in my gut, sometimes my chest, and sometimes it seems to be only in my head.  And then, I stay with that sense of placement for as long as I’m able—sometimes just a few moments.

When the compulsions are already in control, I try to at least acknowledge them, watch them as they push me into eating or spending or fleeing.  When I resist, the compulsion only grows, so instead I try to choose a lesser target (Subway instead of Dairy Queen, buying one item online instead of a dozen).

I’m also using meditation as much as I can, but there’s a resistance to that as well.  I’m not sure what part of me is fighting this very useful tool, but I find I “forget” to meditate a lot and brush it off when I do think of it.  This resistance is something else to learn from, I think.

So, while being symptomatic again truly sucks, there are lessons to learn and maps to chart.

I’m on an Adventure.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 23

As of today, it’s been 44 days since my last episode of either depression or mania.  To me, this is a miracle.  The longest I’ve gone between episodes before this is 10 days.  Nine months ago, I was rapid cycling with full swings of depression and mania happening twice and sometimes three times a day.

What’s changed since then?  I’ve been off all medications for seven months.  I’ve worked hard at being physically healthy.  I’ve worked hard at being aware of my thoughts, emotions and reactions.  I meditate every day.  And now, I’m working hard at being aware of my compulsions.

I don’t know why I’ve been given this long, lovely reprieve.  I know the episodes will return.  I’m just so very grateful.

Finding the Gift

For the last few days I’ve been stuck in an uncomfortable place.  I haven’t posted much because I can’t find the “gift.”  If I sit with my discomfort, if I do the spiritual and mental work, there’s always insight—eventually.  I just haven’t gotten there yet.

Frankly, I’m frightened.  None of my ideas or plans for managing this illness seem to work for long.  I can follow through when I’m stable, but lately that state only lasts about a week before the depression or the mania return.  I believed going off medication would make a bigger difference than it has.  I’m clearer, my memory is better, and I no longer experience rapid cycling, but I had hoped for more.  I guess I was looking for a miracle.

I have to sit back for a minute, take a deep breath, and concentrate on the gifts I already have—a nice apartment, a vehicle that runs, my friends and family, clean clothes, two sweet cats, a place where I can swim and dance, food in the cupboard, a network of cyber-friends who understand me.  I can see the list going on and on.  If I hold onto these gifts, maybe I can wait out the fear and resignation, not get too mired in them.  This all will turn.  It always does.

Normal

For the last week, I’ve felt normal.

This is a loaded word.  For some of us with mental illness, we use it on ourselves like a baseball bat.  We hold it up as an unreachable and longed for goal.  Other people slap us around with it.  Normal carries the same kind of charge that God carries for other people.  As a writer, I’ve tried to be sensitive to that charge and to find other ways of expressing this particular state, but nothing comes close.  So I guess I just have to keep using it and try to explain myself.

For me, normal is the set point, the fulcrum on the teeter-totter where no motion happens.  In this state, I’m asymptomatic.  Since I’m focusing on food right now, I’m watching how easy it is to change my eating plan.  There’s no compulsive thinking.  Last night I watched TV while I ate supper and ate too much.  There was no frantic rodent in my head scrabbling ’round and ’round to get at the food.  I simply got distracted.  When I realized what I’d done, I stopped.  When I’m in this state, I can stop.  When I calculate my calorie intake for the day, I can look at it and adjust what I’ll have for supper or for an evening snack.  This is part of being normal for me—the absence of compulsion.

This quietness has also settled into my relationship with money.  When I’m at set-point, when I’m normal, I have plenty of money.  I make adjustments to my wants and needs accordingly.  This week I chose to go to the new X-Men movie instead of driving to my meditation group.  Instead of the choice feeling like a punishment, instead of wishing I could do both, I felt no emotion at all about it.  It was simply a choice.  When the compulsion goes to sleep, I can be practical.  I actually put $17 into my piggy bank this week.

I feel normalcy in the way I’m working on projects.  While I was manic, and then depressed, I could only tinker with the periphery of my story-writing.  I obsessed over the genealogy charts, organized my notes, and made lists.  But, yesterday I felt the last trailing, symptomatic shreds drift away.  I wrote part of a new chapter.  And in the collage I’m doing now, I noticed the same quiet sureness.  When I’m in this normal place, I don’t feel constricted or boundless.  There’s no trace of the self-loathing, self-defeating thought forms that depression creates, or the jittery, tumbling flood of ideas produced by mania.  When I’m normal, I can see the path through the project and can move with conviction along the path with a strong, steady stride.

Other people tell me that when I feel normal, I behave and look like the person they knew before the illness took over.  I’m sure that means something different to each of them, but I can imagine what some of those traits look like.  When I feel normal, I’m not hypersensitive to sound or smells, so I can sit at a noisy dinner table and join in instead of escaping to another room.  I can exercise in the pool room with music blaring and sing along.  When I feel normal, the world opens up and is not all about me.  So when my mom tells strangers at a garage sale that I live on disability and have no money, I can chuckle at her method of bargaining instead of taking offense.  And I’m able to see and listen to other people without the veil of symptoms floating between us.

Coming back to this set-point is always a gift.  Not everyone gets this reprieve from symptoms, and I’m so very grateful for it.  I will enjoy it, use it, and then let it go as the tide of my illness turns.  Because that, too, is normal.

Uncharted Territory

I thoroughly enjoyed my day off yesterday, reading art magazines with an iced coffee at Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few supplies (on sale!) at Hobby Lobby and Archivers, and then finishing the day with my meditation group.  As usual, we sat around Barbara’s kitchen table to catch up with each other’s spiritual work and personal lives (which are often the same thing), enjoying Barbara’s brewed tea and delicious Ranger cookies.

I can always bring my questions and ponderings to these women.  They listen.  They offer their insights.  And they often push me to the edge of my comfort zone.  I felt that yesterday as I talked about my observations during my recent wide mood swing from full mania to depression.  Barbara commented that the layers of my depression and mania, with state-specific memories, brought to mind the different states of awareness we’ve studied from authors like Castaneda, Charles Tart and J.G. Bennett.  This chilled me, because I’d also wondered about a correlation and had sent that question to my teacher, Melanie.  Laney looked at me and said, “You’re doing new work.  No one’s done this before.”

Oh, dear.  All I want to do is learn how to manage my illness.  If I find anything useful, I’ll share with the class, but I’m not out to chart new horizons.  It felt pompous to me, grandiose.  Of course others have looked at these layers of symptoms and feeling states.  I’m sure every case is different, but there must be some similarities.  There must be something written about it somewhere.

But, when I got home, I found Melanie’s reply to my email.  Aside from being my spiritual teacher, Melanie is also a registered nurse and holds an MBA.  She worked as a psych nurse before becoming a college professor, so she understands the practicalities of mental illness.  After reading her note, I’m willing to hold the possibility that cartography may become part of my journey.

It seems that you have a better grasp of your condition than do most people with bipolar illness.  Given this ability, you may be charting new territory and you may be able to help others learn to discern the realities of their mental states.  In my past experience with bipolar students, I have observed that the difficulties of the psychotic phases have sometimes caused people to assume that they were clear when they were, in fact, delusional or even paranoid.  Assuming that you have cleared this hurdle, you will be a wonderful resource for others.

Love, Melanie

What I’d like to do is create a new page for this blog.  On it I’ll describe the different states of depression and mania as I experience them.  It will take me a little time to distill my notes and journal entries, but this feels like right action.  It feels like I’m stepping up to the plate without a head blown out of proportion with grandiose pomposity.

Of course, delusion can be tricky that way.

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