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.

Traveling

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I haven’t posted much lately because it’s been scary inside my head.  There’s a fine line between sharing my practice of bipolar disorder and giving voice to the blackest symptoms.  When self-loathing and unrelenting despair become the landscape of my mind, there’s no scenic overlook.  While I strive to be honest here, I also know the scenery will change as my brain rolls on down the road, and that perspective provides a much better photo op.

While I attended Lutheran Hospital’s out-patient program, I stopped taking medication for Binge Eating Disorder (BED).  We needed to see if it was causing my headaches and contributing to the irritability and rage.  Subsequently, all the BED symptoms poured back in—food mania and uncontrollable bingeing.  I gained 15 pounds and hurt all over.

BED creates a downward (outward?) spiral—more weight causes less activity which gives all that food more permission to stick around.  I was already morbidly obese, but was at peace with my body.  Without the Vyvanse, negativity and self-hatred stuffed my head like a Christmas turkey.  The spiral became a hopeless vortex.

Nothing in my bag of tricks helped.  Death fantasies dogged me, but I knew two things would always stop me from actually taking my life—my cats (who are getting old) and the book I haven’t written.  In a weird perversion of logic, I decided that I’d better get cracking on that book if I wanted it to be a party favor at my funeral.  At least I’d have a project to work on.

So, this past weekend, I stayed with my friend, Lily, in Minneapolis and met with another friend, Jinjer, to talk about her experience of self-publishing.

coming-back-to-myselfAnd a very bipolar-ly thing happened.  Being with these friends, who love me unconditionally, traveling out of the struggle of my everyday life and into a few days of watching Netflix in jammies and spicy tea in handcrafted mugs, jolted the positive neuropathways awake.  The hateful Muzak in my head stopped.  My friends’ tender care helped me remember myself.  All the bits and pieces that BED and depression tore off me, fluttered back like Monarchs to their winter home.  Art happened.

And a book will happen.

While I knew Jinjer self-published at least two books, I had no idea one of her many talents was designing books.  So instead of beginning a steep learning curve, I gawked at a path as smooth and clear as asphalt.  She will take my manuscript (when finished) with the accompanying artwork and midwife it through the process.  I started working on the second draft as soon as I got home (and also started back on Vyvanse).

This book is my legacy, not a parting gift.  It’s proof that I lived and survived bipolar disorder, BED, PTSD and whatever acronyms stick to me next.  Like this blog, it speaks to the speed of landscapes passing through a traveling mind.

I’m still on an Adventure.  And I’m making my own Atlas.

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Meet the Artist

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My first “show” launched at First Unitarian on December 4.  My thanks to Ann Mowery and Jean Tauber for helping me set up, to Sue Crawford for playing photographer, to my First U friends who showed up at the last minute, and to folks I’d never met before who wanted my cards now or exclaimed prettily over art journal pages.  It was an ebullient forty-five minutes.

Ask Already

Bipolar Mind

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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.

Brain-Sick

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

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

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

Thank you for riding shot-gun on my Adventure.

 

Westward Ho! Day 13

Durango, CO (10:00 AM) to Lamar, CO (4:45PM). 351 miles.Spike
Notables:  Van Morrison’s Keep it Simple (thank you, Robert)
Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novel Small Favor (read by James Marsters, for all you Buffy fans)

CoffeeMeeting my bloggy friend, Robert, was like coming home.  None of the emotional crap I wrestled last night took that away.  He was the thoughtful, mindful, funny, articulate man I knew from his blog and mine.  His voice sounded exactly as I imagined, his clear gaze looked and saw.

We sat at Durango Coffee Company for about an hour, shedding the distance of friends who only know each other through letters. We asked big questions and dove deep for the answers.  And we laughed.

Robert wanted me to have some Van Morrison for the rest of my trip (I love how music-people know when you need a piece of music).  We strolled down to the music store, still talking, but we were too early.  And I needed to be on my way.  So, we took a detour to his truck where he pulled out Keep it Simple from his CD player and handed it over.

IMG_0552I was so enthralled, I forgot to have a barista take our picture.  Crap.  Next time.  Because there will be a next time.

The rest of the day took me through the Colorado Rockies, through lots of little burgs, and into a scape that looked almost like home.  Rock still juts out of Eastern Colorado’s skin, but the grass and trees are turning Prairie.  Soon all that tectonic majesty will be behind me and the sea of fields will take over.

IMG_0562Tonight, I get to cook my Ramen noodles in a sweet, shabby-chic B&B.  Lace curtains, antique furniture, quilt on the bed, and a retro bathroom all just for me.  There’s a house cat on the porch.  What Traveling Girl could ask for more?

Westward Ho! Day 6

IMG_0405I smartened up yesterday, dumped out one suitcase, and loaded it with all the art supplies I need to schlep to classes.  I’d seen other people doing this, so it’s not my brilliant idea.  Just took me a day.

Yesterday’s classes were with painters.  I’ve longed to learn how to use paint since high school (when I flunked art class).  It’s always intimidated me, so I ran through a gammet of expected emotions throughout the day.  It was a challenge to stay present, to breathe, to remember who I was and that I was okay no matter what.  Both teachers were kind, funny, helpful, nonjudgmental.  All that made a challenging day successful.

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Again, these pages are just beginnings; a way to learn techniques and start applying them.  We all wanted weeks to keep working on them.

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In Michael’s class, we started with a wash of paint, then slowly pulled images out of it with repeated layers of wash and white highlights.  This is one technique I want to try again.  It has a spooky, otherworldly quality that I dig in a big way, but couldn’t quite grok in three hours.

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Then it was time for the vendor show.  Half a table turned out to be a lot smaller than I expected, so I ditched my idea of showing my bigger collages and set up my cards as best I could.  My table-mate, Lynn, and her girlfriend, started laughing at my stuff almost immediately, so that helped me settle down and enjoy myself.

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And all I can really say is, “Holy Shit!”  People crowded around my end of the table until Teesha flicked the lights to call quits on the show.  Even then, a couple of new friends hung around, digging through my boxes and exclaiming over details like WW1-era papers and gilding paints.  Compliments bombarded me like little Nerf balls.  I loved telling the stories of cards people chose; This is my grandma… This is my mom and dad…This image came from a 1915 holistic health magazine…  This group of folks loved it.  I was in my perfect venue.

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I started out with four boxes of cards and ended up with two and a half.  I haven’t tallied the take, but let me tell you, it’s much more than I ever expected.  I was in shock when I packed up.

IMG_0403And stinky, sticky with adrenalin.

And my back ached like a son-of-a-bitch.

And What A Day!

 

Westward Ho! Day 3

Billings, MT (6:30 AM Mountain) to Spokane, WA (4:00 PM Pacific). 542 miles.
Pertinent Tunes:  Throat Culture’s Easter Island.
Audiobook: Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife

This was going to be another full day on the road, and I wanted to get to Spokane early enough to meet my bloggy friend, Linda, before I faded, so I set out before dawn.  Again.

I love that the day worked out just like that.  I love that I’ve been dancing with my bipolar disorder long enough to know what my limits might be and how to bring them into the dance.  I can’t tell you how much I love that.

So, John led me out of Billings under the cover of dark and flurries of snow.  He’s gotten me to every destination with only two hiccups.  Both times he told me to turn around and head back home.  I think I must have accidentally touched the screen, but still, mistakes such as these required proper admonishment and Python-worthy name calling.

runaway-truck-rampSo, properly chastised, he sent me up through the Continental Divide.  No more puny foothills, we were in the Big League today.  We traveled the kinds of roads that required special Runaway Truck Ramps for semis with fried brakes.  And wide places to pull off so one can attach their tire chains.  There we were, switchbacking and trundling along those straining Peterbilts, with snow and low-slung clouds obscuring the peaks.  Ooo, it was an exciting day!

And beautiful.  Majestic.  A complete Jeremiah Johnson experience.  There are no words.  Robert Redford’s “Agh” comes close.

Linda in SpokaneAnd then, it was Spokane, and bright warm sun, and Linda singing to me as she drove up the drive.  We’ve known each other through my blog (and my cards, and Facebook) for years, and finally got to hug and squee like proper girlfriends.  She took me to a little park for a nice walk and the beginning of our non-stop babbling. Three hours later, after a scrumptious Thai dinner and a tour of her home, she dropped me off, still singing.

Such an exciting day.

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.

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Changing the Story

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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.

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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.

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