Where The Hell Am I?

Just when I think my brain is running its last lap in this summer’s Looney Marathon, another starter gun fires, and we’re off on a downhill luge sled. Is this the Circles of Hell Olympics?

Oh, yeah. Right. It’s bipolar disorder.

I’m just not managing it very well this round.

Part of it is the swampy atmosphere — rain six out of the last eight days with 100% humidity in between.  The weather has turned me into a sweaty, gummed-up, ice bag-sitting Howler Monkey who can’t bear to leave my A/C and ceiling fans.

Another part is the new ear worm that comes with The Black listing all the vital coping tools (read: people) I lost in the move.  Distorted thinking is the true gem of mental illness. It’s exactly as clever, well-reasoned, and creative as the host brain, so everything it spins sounds completely true.  It takes tweezing through the rationale to find the flaws, and I’m too sweaty to hold the tweezers steady.

know I need to move my body. There’s a perfectly fine pool available six days a week and a yoga class that caters to the inflexible, but I can’t talk myself into leaving my cool, dry hidey-hole.

know I need to find a different therapist.  Alice is a lovely person, but she’s not equipped to help me. Just the thought of starting over again, searching for a therapist who accepts Medicare an hour away in Tulsa… Scarlett O’Hara sashays out of The Black and tells me to think about it tomorrow.

Yet, as I write this, I realize my sister will help me. She asked yesterday what she could do. Yesterday I had no idea. I was speeding downhill too fast in that stupid luge to see anything clearly. But maybe she can help me get my bearings. Maybe I can figure out where I am.

Part of the Village

This week I went to my grandnephew’s kindergarten graduation. There’s just all kinds of weird in that sentence alone. Children. Family. Social Event. Inclusion.

The school is K-12, laid out in a campus of what reminded me of Morton buildings—low-slung, metal barns. Here’s the south side of my sister as we make our way to the auditorium building

While I’m not one to follow the endless flow of depressing national news, I am invested in Oklahoma’s educational woes.  A January report in Education Weekly ranked Oklahoma schools 47th in the nation with teachers’ salaries ranked 49th.  Teachers went on strike in April, and while the state passed a bill to raise salaries slightly, it neglected to fund the bill.  It never addressed other issues like the lack of program funding and huge class sizes

Teachers are leaving the state like psychiatrists left Iowa, fed up with a system that cares very little about the end-user or those who provide for them.

Oktah, my grandnephews’ school, is considered better than average and receives a federal grant due to its number of low-income students. The superintendent, who spoke at Zane’s graduation ceremony, asked parents and friends to stay involved. More than ever, it seems, it takes a village.

So, I was verklempt, watching my one out of forty-eight kindergarteners dance, sing and use sign language to proclaim his new status.  So was my sister, the retired teacher.

I don’t know if I can help him or his older brother.  Volunteering has always ended up a bipolar casualty.  But I’m staying open to ways I might be part of that Village, even if it’s just being another grown-up (in closer proximity now) who will listen and answer their questions.

You never know the effect of just showing up. That’s something I can do.

To Boldly Go

Split infinitive.

You’d think Gene Roddenberry would have known better.

Still, Bill Shatner could Shakespearize anything, even bad grammar.

But I digress.

Boldly going, I’m moving to Oklahoma.

My sister and I started talking about it when I visited her there over Christmas.  We let it sit a while to see if it was just holiday cheer and wishful thinking, then decided the plan had legs.  What really put shoes on those legs, though, was my brother’s offer to support me enough to live somewhere other than subsidized housing.

It’s been a shock, really, to be given this unconditional support, to know that my siblings are with me, to come to understand that I am not alone.  We didn’t grow up this way, you see.  Grand generosity was never our family’s forté.  Small gifts, yes.  Limited support with strings, yes. Pull up your big girl panties and stand on your own two feet lectures, yes.  This level of largess requires a complete brain dump and reboot.  What I thought I knew as truth isn’t.

I’m also struggling with the urge to hide in my apartment until it’s time to move.  I can feel myself disengaging from my life here, from both difficult and delightful relationships, from the activities that fill this life.  All the reasons I want and need to leave this place rear up like trained elephants, trumpeting and rolling wild eyes at me.

But I have a trip to Taos at the end of February, to make art with friends and breathe in the mountains of the West.  I want to enjoy that trip.  And I know I will need time afterward for my brain to do what it does with change and stress.  It will be well into spring before I leave this little apartment that I’ve worked so hard to make into a Nest.  I need to stay present and grounded in now, take care of my friendships, do the work in front of me each day.

In the meantime, my sister is in High Research Mode, talking to her realtor friends and sussing out neighborhoods.  In a month or so, she’ll start looking at places for me to rent.  She has my Must Have list (I have several lists going—that’s one way to keep the Greener Pastures Gremlins from taking over).

Transition is always a challenge, as is stress.  Even good stress.  So, while I do the work in front of me, I must also Do My Work.  Be kind, gentle and generous with myself.  Allow the terrified elephants a chance to walk on four feet and sing themselves to sleep.

Because (all together now), I’m on an Adventure.

Breathing

I had a whole other blog post half-written, but when I came back to it, none of the bipolar drama mattered any more.

There was a theme of WANTING this summer, but we all know wanting comes from believing there is a hole in our soul that needs filling.  The cure for wanting isn’t changing our bodies or our location, it isn’t filling that hole with stuff or people.  The cure for wanting is to sit with it, cup it gently in our own two hands, breathe it in and out.  Then, we remember we are whole where and when we are.

I’ve been thinking about turning 60 in a couple of months.  I don’t usually pay attention to birthdays, but this is kind of a milestone for me.  See, I never expected to live to see 60.  In the back of my mind, far from consciousness, I think I was marking time until I made a decision to exit this world.  Turning 60 means I’ve made a different kind of decision.

At first I didn’t think I’d created much of a life—it certainly didn’t look like the life I imagined for myself when I was a girl.  But when one of my mental health gurus said, “I’ve always thought you were good at living,” I reconsidered.

My sister’s husband died three weeks ago after a long illness.  She had been preparing for that eventuality—buying a home in Oklahoma where her son and his family live, clearing out sheds and closets—but the last six months of constant caregiving along with Hospice drained her life energy.

I supported her the best I could.  When the time came, I stood beside her as her husband died and when some of his family members got ugly.  I stood at the graveside with one arm around my tall, cowboy nephew, and the other around his little son, and I felt alive with love for my family. Last week, my sis and I packed our vehicles with the last of her things and caravanned to her new permanent home.

Yesterday I returned to my home of geriatric (and complaining) cats, art projects in progress, the last week of water walking at the Aquatic Center before it closes for the season, watching the addictive drama of Big Brother with my friends, coffee and movies and lunches with other friends, meeting the interim minister at church and volunteering to lead a SoulMatters group.

I think it’s time to give up my hair shirt.  It’s time to embrace the good life I’ve created and allow forgiveness to become part of it.  Today, all I want is to be content, to be grateful.

Breathing in, I choose the Adventure.

♥ ♥ ♥

P.S. Happy Birthday, Richard.

Ours

Pale Simulacra

As the Veil thins

And the Wheel Turns,

May we open to the wisdom of those who came before.

Ancestors, known and unknown,

Who shaped our blood and bone,

Point us in a Direction

That we can follow

Or cast aside.

Still, their pull is undeniable

and, ultimately,

Ours.

Ask Already

Bipolar Mind

ψ

I forget that neuro-normals don’t always know how to bring crazy into a conversation.  I also know other folks with mental illness aren’t always as open as I am (i.e. in-your-face TMI) and have real reasons to keep their condition private.  So I grok that asking me how I am might be intimidating.  Old taboos, stigma, Midwestern Nice—for whatever reason, some folks are more comfortable asking other people how I am.

My sister told me about one mutual friend who said, “I know I’m not supposed to ask, but…”

Whaaaaa?

I guess it’s possible, during one of my Swampy Brain days, that I might have sprayed venom like a velociraptor if a human being invaded my space (which varies depending on the amount of Swamp).  Or muttered an F-word-laced answer to a direct question.  Or maybe just burst into tears.  It’s possible.

Gosh, I hope not.  I want people to ask after me—especially on those Everglades days.  When my hold on Reality is shakiest, I need to know people haven’t written me off or (horrors!) forgotten about me.  Kindness makes me cry, but I hope that isn’t a deterrent.

Come to think of it, inquiring directly about my state of mind could get pretty messy what with all the spittle, and weepage, and colorful expletives.  It might take someone with a HAZMAT suit and no sense of propriety.

I can live with second-hand concern.  I’m still touched by it.  And I apologize if a squirting, prehistoric potty-mouth responded to anyone’s approach.  I hope they try again.  I’ll use my words next time.

30 Days of Sandy Sue Altered: 4

A lot of the vintage photos I use are of my own family.  Here are a few of my favorites.

My Brother

Knucklehead

My Sister

(I made this for her when she was suffering from trigeminal neuralgia).

Broken Faces

Mom

Feisty One

Dad

Untested

Maybe my all-time favorite.

You’d have to have known my dad and his infamous “catch that and paint it red” line to truly appreciate this.  This is his father’s family.  Grandpa John in in the back with a little jewel dot (or gas bubble) above his head.

Prodigious Farters

Changing the Story

Flinch

When my nurse practitioner told me on Monday that she was treating me for pneumonia, I felt an inordinate amount of satisfaction.  Smug, even.  And at the same time, I was angry and resentful that my friends and family weren’t rallying around me.  When I stopped to look at all that head-ichor, it felt contradictory and very, very old.

We’ve been exploring ancestry in our UU study groups—how ancestors may differ from relatives, how we receive transmissions and transfer them on to the next generation, how we are given gifts and responsibilities.  With that in the back of my mind, I began to see my reactions to illness and support as a transmission.  They are as much traditions in my family as oyster stew on Christmas Eve.

wicked witchThe only time we could count on our mom giving us positive attention was when we were sick.  She touched us with care.  She looked at us.  It was acceptable to wake her up in the middle of the night to say, “Mom, I don’t feel good.”  It was not acceptable to be scared of the Wicked Witch on The Wizard of Oz.  I learned that at the age of three, sitting on Mom’s lap.  “If you’re going to be that way,” I remember her saying, “I’m turning off the TV.”  I got it: Emotions=Bad.  Illness=Good.

It was also a long-standing tradition to value illness that could be named, especially by a doctor, or was freakishly out of the ordinary.  So, my brother scored lots of points for the fast growth spurt he experienced as a teen when he woke up one morning unable to move.  The story of my dad carrying him in a fetal position to the car is legend in my family.  Same with the story of my brother accidentally dropping a pitchfork on my sister’s face and how the tine curved around her eye instead of puncturing it.  These are the fairy tales I heard as a child.

merthiolateGetting a cold wasn’t legendary, but having warts that disappeared before the doctor could inspect them smacked of magic and mystery—and worthiness.  I knew when I fell off my bike I’d better have gravel for Mom to pull out with tweezers or I wasn’t worthy of her time.  I learned how to wash a wound, dab on merthiolate and blow the sting away, wrangle a Band-aid without it sticking to itself.  I learned not to bother Mom with minor injuries.

But worthiness carried over into other areas of our life.  Recently, I talked to my brother about this.  It was no secret that he won the Most Worthy Award in our mom’s estimation.  He wrote to our parents every week from the time he left for college until Mom died last year.  He came home for Christmas every year, a nine hour drive from Bemidji, often through bad weather.  He kept the same job with the state of Minnesota his entire work-life and still works part-time, though he is officially retired.  He’s a little eccentric, which somehow made him more dear rather than worrisome.

I asked him why he did it.  Why did he write faithfully every week for all those years?

“Mom told me to,” he said.

testMy brother passed a test I failed long ago—obedience and demonstration of affection.  It was our responsibility to prove to our mom that we loved her, to do what we were told.  After my dad died, I think my sister understood unconsciously that a new test was in the wind.  She called our mom every day.  She helped her buy a new car and new furniture.  Of course she wanted to support Mom in her grief and confusion, but there was a frantic quality to it, a blurring of boundaries that sapped my sister’s emotional energy.  Eventually, my sister backed away enough to rebuild her boundaries.  And, of course, Mom felt abandoned.  And angry.

As I consider my family’s emotional legacy, I see all of it playing out in me.  I made light of my chest cold as just another annual event and went about being stoic and “taking care of it myself,” because it was nothing special.  At the same time, I silently tested my friends and family to see if they “cared enough” to call or offer help.  When they didn’t, I got angry and marked them as unworthy.

My care-giver, Leanne, visited yesterday, and she slapped me awake like a Zen master.  “How can they offer help if they don’t know you’re sick?”

Holy crap.  I’d turned into my mom, expecting people to read my mind and anticipate my needs.  I had carried forward a story that may have started generations ago.  What happened in my mom’s young life to make her so insecure about being seen and loved?  What happened to her mother to demand a boundary-less relationship with her youngest daughter?  I felt compassion and sorrow, imagining my mother and my grandmother trying to scratch affection out of a barren landscape.  Or, more accurately, what they perceived as barren through the lens of this family fairy tale.

Oz

So, I did a scary and fairy tale-contradictory thing yesterday.  I announced on FaceBook that I had pneumonia and would appreciate kind words and help.  The outpouring of love and people rushing to come to my aid knocked me senseless.

I’m well aware that being able to say pneumonia still carries a lot more brownie points in my mind than the less worthy chest cold.  Editing this old story will take time and patience.  But my hope is that the legacy stops here.  Part of my work as a point on the continuum of time and ancestry will be to pass on a different story of who we might be.  In that fairy tale, everyone is worthy.

Vocabulary Lesson

Ravishing Sight

Proud: Feeling pleasure or satisfaction over something regarded as highly honorable or creditable to oneself.  —Unabridged Random House Dictionary

A couple of weeks ago, I met the nurse practitioner who will be my new primary care provider (more on that weird encounter here).  She gave me many gifts—opportunities to practice mindfulness, chances to hold an open mind, occasions to strengthen my tolerance and my boundaries.  After speaking with her for ten minutes, she also said she was proud of me.

(Cue Crickets)

See, I have a bit of an issue with people claiming to be proud of me.  The use of the word proud or pride means they have some vested interest in me, that they, in some way, are responsible for or can take credit for who I am or what I’ve done.

A few people can legitimately make this claim:

  1. My Immediate Family.  Those who raised me, shaped my character, or built the original hurdles I learned to jump can actually see their own handiwork in who I am today.  They are allowed to be proud of what they’ve done (or not so proud, as the case may be).
  2. Close Friends.  The people who stuck with me through the best and worst, who gave council and butt-kickings, who lost sleep and traveled distance to help me can also claim pride in their efforts to keep me alive.
  3. My Therapists.  The ones who actually made a difference.  The ones who struggled with and for me.  The ones who went above and beyond professional expectations.  They should be proud of themselves because of my successes and the fact that I’m still alive and walking around.

That’s it.

Now, I’m aware that people use proud and pride incorrectly.  Not everyone is an English major or is gnat’s ass picky about language.  What they really mean to say is that they admire me.  They might even be in awe of me.  Or even just happy for me.  That’s lovely.  And appropriate.  Thank you.

To claim to be proud of me after knowing me for ten minutes undermines my ownership of my own experience.  It’s a form of condescension—a pat on the head.  It effectively puts me, as a person with mental illness, in a place of less than, lower than, weaker than.  It tries to shove me in a corner.

baby

That’s right.  Nobody.  And I don’t need Patrick Swayze to rescue me, either, because my world is round, Baby!  I know who I am, what I’ve accomplished, and what a freaking force of nature I’ve become.  All that’s needed is a little vocabulary lesson if this misusage flub happens again.  And it will.  Not just with my new PCP, but with anyone who feels so uncomfortable with my unusual life that they need to discredit it.

A gentle whack with my Unabridged Dictionary ought to do the trick.

The Road Less Traveled

This was originally posted in June of 2011, four months before my dad died.  Not surprisingly, the prayer I offered for him at the end of this piece was never answered.

I see a lot of myself in Dad.  He’s always been a Glass Half Empty kind of guy, his thoughts and opinions naturally traveling down the darkest highway.  A card-carrying pessimist, his words of wisdom to us kids punctured any hope we might have had.  If we complained about doing our chores, he would say, “There are a lot of things in this world you have to do whether you want to or not” or “Get used to it, life is hard.”

Since the time I was in high school, I’ve listened to him bemoan every change in his aging body, never at peace with the natural adjustments any adult male has to make, never able to reconcile himself to the thirty-five year old he thinks he still should be.

I understand this fantasy thinking.  I understand the draw of the past and refusing to live in the present.  I’ve traveled his dark highway and know all the shortcuts.  I’ve watched my dad sit at the Table of Life and accept only scraps, convinced that’s all that’s being served.  He prides himself on being fun-loving, but his jokes and teasing carry a sharp edge that has more to do with defense than humor.  My dad was never a teacher, never had the patience to explain, but I learned his road map well.

When I’m with my dad, I try to poke holes in his perception, counter the negativity with perspective, try to do for him what I must do for myself.  But after a lifetime of indulging his world-view without question, his defenses are solid.  At times I see him struggle to consider the possibility of an alternate route.  If I hammer hard enough, he pauses in his argument to say, “Is that so?”  But, it’s exhausting work, and I can’t keep it up.  And I can’t make him willing.

The desire to turn off the dark highway  comes from within.  It comes from noticing flickers of light on the side of the road, glimpses of intriguing pathways and crossroads.  It comes from taking a risk and swerving off the black pavement for once.  Then, doing it again.  And it takes willingness to ask for directions from people who keep different kinds of maps in their glove compartments.

Father’s Day is tomorrow.  My gift for Dad is a simple prayer—to get the chance to take a side road.  I pray he finds the strength to stand on a bright lane with grass waving green and high on either side, a glass half full in his hand.

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