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.

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.

The End of Gratitude

Gratitude U

At least in collage form. For a while. Frankly, it was exhausting to summon up so much gratitude when I was hospital-worthy.

Gratitude V

Negative thoughts yoke themselves to negative emotions. One can trigger the other, strengthening the connection, creating a wider, smoother highway for each subsequent episode.

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Forging new neural responses through mindfulness and self-compassion takes time and lots of practice.  It feels counter-intuitive at first.  For years, perhaps, we’ve berated ourselves for not being strong enough, disciplined enough, grateful enough.  These core beliefs feel so true, we don’t even question them.

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You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection–Buddha

Science now supports what that old bodhi tree-sitter knew–mental illness must be embraced with love and awareness from those who suffer from it.

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It feels impossible only because it’s a path waiting to be created.  But I’ve found over the years of making my own trail through this bramble that it gets easier to remember the way back to it.  And once I remember to treat myself gently and with exquisite care, I find I can breathe again.

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And then, I can be grateful for the air, and my lungs, and this day.

Putting the Libra to Sleep

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I’ve completed six days in the Lutheran Hospital outpatient program, and I can’t tell yet if it’s making me better or worse.

There are two designations—IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) 1 and 2.  None of the literature explains the difference between the groups, but, basically IOP1 is for more functional, more acutely symptomatic folk.  IOP2 is for more severely ill folk who maybe require other services (home care, rehab, medical, etc.).

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The first two days I attended IOP1.  The group was HUGE, 14-18 people with the usual one or two who dominated every conversation and folks talking over each other.  I thought I would lose what little mind I had left.

I watched my intolerance and irritation skyrocket.  My Libra penchant for fairness blew up into a neurotic need to silence the blabbermouths so that the silent suffers might get a second to squeak out a comment.  But I also realized this was all my shit.  If the facilitators felt no need to shut down the usurpers or redirect the tangential wanderers, then it wasn’t my place to step in.  Instead I clutched my purse to my chest and took deep breaths.

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After the second day (and no sleep that night), I knew I needed to talk to my designated handler.  I told her through bitey, frantic, tear-and-snot laden spew that I couldn’t take another day of it.  She listened with a beatific smile and commented in a gentle don’t-spook-the-Tasmanian Devil voice.  Perhaps I should move to the other group.  And feel free to find a quiet place to breathe whenever the desire to punch a talky-talker in the face arose.

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My first day at “the other end of the hall” felt restful in comparison.  There were only five of us in group, and I learned things about PTSD—one of my diagnoses, though something my therapist and I have never really explored.  We usually have other immediate shinola to deal with, so we’ve only ever just touched on it.  THIS was what I was hoping for—some new information, some new tools, a direction.

But, the next day the group expanded to 13, and the whole issue of blatherers and time-sucks reappeared on a crazier level.  I tried to be compassionate, but that well seems to be dry at the moment.  I know folks talk out of nervousness, insecurity, etc., so I tried to reason with myself.  I still ended up out in the hall with my earbuds firmly in place, listening to Billy Joel sing “Innocent Man.”

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I blame the insurance industry and our butt-head Governor, Terry Branstad.  Most insurance coverage only allows three days a week in outpatient care, so Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays end up with twice the group size as Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s stressful to go from a small, intimate group where folks feel safe enough to open up, to a mob where everyone talks at the same time.

And because our Governor closed most of the mental health hospitals, took away funding for behavioral services, and basically told folks with mental illness to “get over it,” the programs that are left are bursting at the seams.

I watch the kind and knowledgable staff at Lutheran run around like headless chickens, trying to accommodate everyone’s needs, shore up folks enough to leave so that those who have been waiting a month for an opening in the program can take their place.  The nurse practitioner who talked to me about medication laughed long and loud when I called it “a three-ring shit show.”  This seems to be my new favorite phrase.

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I came home every day more exhausted and people-avoidant than ever.  I feel like an Introvert In Extremis, only able to function after hours of silent cat time, a couple episodes of Fringe and a frozen pizza from Costco (they have the best thin crust sausage pizzas…).  Even then, “functional” may mean taking a four-hour nap or washing the dishes.

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Yesterday I did my laundry at 3:00 in the morning, because I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the laundromat on the weekend when everyone else goes there.  So, because I was already awake at 3:00, I did laundry for the first time in my apartment complex’s washer/dryer.  Granted, one is not supposed to use the machines until 8:00 out of respect for the tenants who live next to the Common Room.  But since I hate people right now, I didn’t care.  And I tried to be quiet.  No one came after me with a knife, and no one slashed my tires later, so I think I got away with it.

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In between tippy-toeing, I sat at the nice dining table and worked on my journal.  Along with my wheeled laundry hamper, I brought my traveling studio (everything should be on wheels) and a big mug of hot chai.  I sat at my own little coffee shop with my earbuds in and the smell of clean wafting around me, and even through the itchy buzz of being up at 3:00 doing something illicit, I could feel my mind smooth out.

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The same nurse practitioner who laughed so hard with me suggested a new strategy for next week.  Bring my wheely cart and when group bugs me too much, take it to this out-of-the-way lounge I found and do art until I feel like coming back.  I tried that on Friday, and I left the hospital less drained.  I met my two meditation buddies for lunch and lasted about 30 minutes before I completely faded.  My well is dry.  That’s all there is to it.

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I think the trick is to not panic.  I feel myself considering the new drugs this kindly nurse practitioner suggests, even though I sat with my own NP before I started IOP and recounted my long list of Drugs Tried and why they didn’t work.  She reminded me that there really is nothing new in psychotropics, just tweaks to the same old formulas.  If they didn’t work then, they won’t now.

I’m grateful that the Lutheran staff is so willing to work with me.  It’s ironic that the adaptability and flexibility I need from them is part of what makes me so irritable there.  It’s a very loose, laissez-faire set-up for people who have different special needs.  I must try to give my Libran craving for fairness, order and rules a rest.  Maybe I can give her a Xanax.

An Alphabet of Gratitude

Superhero Covers

One of the things I did when I returned from ArtFest was repurpose my old, barely-used sketchbooks into art journals.  This is the one I’m in now.  It’s small (9X6), so I thought I could use it for funky lists and teeny collage bits.

It’s been a hard summer, bipolar-wise.  The rapid cycling twirls like a toddler in a tutu.  The mixed states tumble around like Bingo balls.  I’m a little dizzy from all that brain-flux.  And discouraged.

I’ve learned a lot from all these years of Bipolar Bad-Assery and Radical Acceptance.  I’m much kinder to myself and able to be whatever my brain chemistry dictates.  But some days are just God-awful.  Period.

So, I wanted to use my journal as a more deliberate form of therapy.  I decided on trying An Alphabet of Gratitude.

Gratitude P

Each spread has a side for a list of what I’m grateful for (all starting with the same letter) and a side to create some little piece of art relating to the list.  I made pretty paper out of my parent’s old farm ledgers, painted the 26 spreads funky colors and textures, then started pondering the positives in my life.

Gratitude A

There’s a lot.  We all have tons of wonderful things, people, places, talents, events that are easy to forget in this weird world.  And because I have a whole page to fill with all the same letter, some of my treasures get ridiculous and very specific, which tickles me.  Laughing is a good thing for persistent bipolarism.  Laughing is good for everything.

Gratitude B

I work on it every day, writing down random loves and appreciation.  It doesn’t take away The Black, but it does help me pull in The Light.  I can sit with that feeling of thankfulness and let it soak into my dry and sere places.  It’s enough to get me through to the next day, which is all I need.  Because with twirling and tumbling, a shift in mood is only a letter away.

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.

 

Welcome Home, Old Friend

Rage

Rage seems to be intrinsic to my flavor of bipolar disorder.  In a mixed state, where symptoms of both depression and mania manifest, my “manic” is some form of agitation—anxiety, compulsive behavior, or rage.

I made the journal spread above in the midst of anger so black and sharp I could barely breathe.  I painted over the picture on the right—mini-me with my dog, Rebel—then slashed at it with a steak knife.  The violence stunned me, violence aimed at myself, at the innocent and vulnerable part of me.  I painted in the gouges, then echoed the savagery on the opposite page.

I left it that way for several days, coming back to take in the images and process the layers of Truth I’d uncovered.

I used to believe there must be a reason I got so mad.  I used to sort through all the old betrayals, snubs, and layers of unfairness in my cheesecloth memory.  But, there’s no reason for my rage other than funky brain chemistry.  Trying to justify it only throws napalm on the fire.

Rage is just another part of me, like the creeping hopelessness that sits on the other end of the spectrum, like my blue eyes, like the way I put words or colors together.  And like everything else, the only thing to do with it is welcome it home.  That’s when I pulled Thich Nhat Hahn’s Anger off my bookshelf and found the words my Rage needed.

Today, this moment, contains no rage.  This morning I wrote in my journal next to The Dalai Lama:

Dalai Lama

“When the symptoms are big, there’s always this base undercurrent of failure, a deep Mariana Trench of wrongness, that awful and vague sense that I should be doing something else/more, that I should be something else/more.  It negates all that I do and all that I am.  It robs me of any satisfaction or sufficiency.  Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to these journals now.  They are so immediate.  The rush of rightness washes over me without any censor.  Pictures together tell an immediate story.  Color bypasses thought.  The soft texture of the Pan Pastels signals instant comfort, and I feel masterful… I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for this tool.”

Yes, I do.

The Adventure Continues.

Primatives

Breathing with my Fingers

As my current bipolar season continues, I’m ever so grateful for this new tool of Art Journaling.  Since there are several stages to creating a spread, I can always find some piece that will fit my state of mind.  Whether it’s pulling images out of my stash for the collage bits:

Civil War Spread

 

Or finding new ways to use text:

Air Spread

 

Or slipping into a Zen state while making boarders and lines:

Into the Storm Spread

 

Or trying out a new tool, like this very fine tipped Pilot marker:

Eyeballs

 

I can camp out at my coffee shop with my journal and let my illness be.

Megan, my therapist, said I’m not fighting it anymore, and that feels true.  It seems to be getting easier to accept whatever my illness brings—the quicksilver changes in mood, the sudden shifts in functionality.  Those things aren’t good or bad anymore.  They’re just me.

I still try to stuff myself into a “normal” sausage casing sometimes, expecting to move around in the world the way other people do.  But, as I sit with my journal, with all the space it creates in my head, I’ve started to unhook from those expectations and get curious about how I might move differently in the world.

Today, for example, I looked at how I keep trying to make commitments (like being on a committee or taking a class) when my illness makes that nearly impossible.  At some point, when my symptoms become severe, I’m forced to drop everything.  So, instead of continuing to bash myself over the head for being “unreliable,” perhaps there’s another way.  Maybe it’s a matter of showing up when I’m able.  I know the world doesn’t work this way, but I do, and I would like to honor that more.

More acceptance.  More integration.  That seems to be a by-product of all this artsy-fartsy stuff.  I’m breathing more with my fingers, slipping into meditation with color and line.  It’s a new kind of Practice.

I’ve come to a place with my art that I found a while ago with my writing—loving the mistakes and crap as much as anything that “turns out.”  The Shitty First Drafts and the Muddled Attempts are my best teachers.  They point me to the next piece of Practice.  They’re the ones who taught me to accept it all—my writing, my art and, of course, my bipolar disorder.

Funny how that all comes together.

I’m on a Funny Adventure.

Coming Out

In my art bagJournaling in coffee shops is a big part of my MO.  It’s how I push the worst of the internal pain and distortion to my margins.  It’s how I remember who I am.  Journaling is vital for me.  It’s medicine.

Now that I’ve embraced art journaling, I needed to figure out how to make it mobile, how to make it as easy as my old $1 spiral notebooks used to be.  Some folks I met at ArtFest do their page set-ups at home and only journal out in public.  Some take a few art supplies.  Tracy likes to have people stop and talk about his journaling.  He even invites them to add to it.  Teesha wants to be left alone.

I put together a bag of supplies and launched.  It helped that our local coffee shop closed for a couple of days and reopened under new management—Georgina, a sassy, gregarious New Zealander who is bent on upgrading the food quality and increasing the friendly factor.  It seemed an auspicious start—new art form and new digs.

Lion Spread

Since I’ve journaled in public for years, I’m used to the odd personal inquiry.  I don’t get bothered much, but if folks see me as a regular with pen and notebook, eventually they ask what I’m writing.  I’m happy to share.  It’s also a chance to advocate as a person with mental illness.  Almost to a person, they are or know of someone with mental illness.  Conversation ensues.  Stigma weakens.  This is my superpower.

I’m finding that art journaling is a more open invitation.  First it was the coffee shop staff—mostly college and very young adults—who seemed drawn to my booth like fluttery moths to a flame.  They were fascinated, almost giddy, and inordinately proud that I did this weird thing in their coffee shop.  I’ve become a kind of celebrity with my little bottle of matte medium and magazine gleans.  They introduce me to their families.  They give me muffins fresh from the ovens.  It’s so sweet, and totally baffling.

Failed Michael

It’s much more visual, this art journaling thing.  My crap is spread out on the table and hard to miss.  Other caffeinators wander by and stop to find out what it’s all about.  And I’m happy to share.

These last few weeks have been rough, mental health-wise.  The Bad Thoughts never stop, and reality is a little hard to recognize.  When it starts to drag me under, I take a deep breath and go glue something or spread paint.  It helps.

girl on fireIn one of my buying frenzies, I ordered some old art ‘zines from Teesha Moore, the wonderful art journalist who organized ArtFest.  I figured there’d be lots of stuff to glean and pretty pictures to soothe my Brain-On-Fire (which would be my Hunger Games name).

In one of the zines from 2007, Teesha wrote an article about how she created an art journal page.  The more I read, the angrier I got.  She had lots of Do’s and Don’ts, particularly Don’t ever, under any circumstance, just cut a picture out and glue it to the page without altering it.  And then there was an endless list of art supplies—types of paints and pens, markers and pastels—all with their own Do’s and Don’ts.

I thought, no wonder I could never do this.  Complete intimidation.  In my righteous indignation, I created a FuckYou,ThankYou,Teesha spread in my journal.  Part defiance, part homage, I used some of Teesha’s techniques and a lot of swear words.  And it is glorious.

FYTeesha

Anger can light a fire under creativity.  It can conquer Defeat.  It can pound a fence post in the ground and say, This is as far as you get to push me.

A Brain-on-Fire can be terrifying and it can be an open door.  With May being Mental Health Awareness month, I’m happy to share.

 

Westward Ho! Day 9.5

Roseburg, OR (9:30 AM) to Mill Valley, CA (7:00 PM). 462 miles.
Other Notables: Sting’s Brand New Day.

As I said in my previous post, yesterday started out in bipolar sludge.  But, it didn’t stay there.

IMG_0471I asked my Cat Whisperer to send photos of The Boys, and she responded lickety-split.  It helps to see that, while they miss me (evidenced by nervous spew), they look and act like themselves.  Emmett hides.  Henry dominates.  Eating and drinking and litter-boxing continue.  Nothing there for my worrisome thoughts to stick to.IMG_0468

I abandoned my Great Idea of taking most of my food with me in a borrowed cooler.  What seemed like a frugal adventure in South Dakota got boring food-wise and too high maintenance for me (like finding room in someone’s freezer every night for my ice bag).  In rebellion and shear peevishness, I stopped at KFC for lunch.  Then, at a gas station near Williams, California, I trashed my week-old Clementines and dumped the ice.  Instant relief.

knobAround 6:00, about two hours north of San Francisco, I felt a subtle shift.  Like an old TV channel knob, I felt the click–just one– to a higher frequency.

I noticed how the light, slanting in from the west, lit up the hillsides like chartreuse fire.  Those terran White Whales, furred over by tender spring greenery, breached the flat olive groves with house-sized barnacles casting long emerald shadows.  The beauty of all that blazing green did something to my brain.  Or my brain changed channels enough for me to appreciate it.  Tomato.  Tomahto.

IMG_0447I got to my nest for the next two nights; a  real nest in the middle of the redwoods.  All the houses in this neighborhood hang from the cliffs like aeries.

IMG_0451Mary met me as I parked in her carport as directed.  Thin, with a soft-spoken Scottish burr (yes!), she took me down the stairs from street level to the studio room under the carport.

IMG_0454I get my own little patio to commune with the trees and a completely private space.  More beauty.  More hospitality.  More gratitude.  I cooked up my Ramen noodles (not all foodstuffs ended in a dumpster) and felt better.IMG_0456

I don’t even mind (much) that there’s coffee and a coffee maker, but no cream or sugar. And nothing even remotely resembling breakfast.  There is, however, a tiny bottle of olive oil and a toaster over.  The second “B” in B & B, I find, is open to much interpretation. IMG_0455

I don’t care.  It’s a brand new day.

 

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