A Fine Distraction

Makes Me Tired

Distraction gets a bad rap.  Motivational-type folk would have us paint it neon yellow and stick it in a cage.  It’s anathema to focus and achievement.  It leads us astray, eats our time, keeps us from becoming superheroes.   Distraction is the slithery serpent holding us back from paradise.

Well… no.

Mind PalaceOne of the many lessons my bipolar disorder taught me was that distraction is vital.  When one’s focus locks onto the pain and confusion of a tumbling mind, a trapdoor to another room can keep pain from turning into suffering.  I’ve spent years moving slowly from self-destructive and unhealthy distractions to ones that, at least, cause no harm.  My list of What To Do When I Get Wonky hangs on my Mind Palace door in case I need reminders (I like to think my Mind Palace is like Sherlock Holmes’—a tidy place where everything that needs remembering can be accessed immediately.  But, it’s really more of a Mind Dumpster).

cookie JamI’m finding it’s just as important to use distraction in the midst of physical illness.  I need something to keep me from cataloging every pulmonary gurgle and wheeze, to take my mind off how everything except Ramen noodles tastes like school glue.  So, I made my Winter Solstice cards and played lots of Cookie Jam on my iPhone.  I’ve tried to watch movies, but generally nod off half way through.  Same with reading.  I keep apologizing to Henry for dropping my book on his head.  He is not amused.

Now, between naps, I’m working on the “swaps” I’ll take with me to ArtFest in March.  I’ve never done anything like this, but I’ve heard about it.  When artists get together, they trade little pieces of their work, or bring goodie bags with samples of their favorite supplies and materials, or chocolate.  It’s a cool way to get to know people and appreciate the kind of work they do.

Since Teesha Moore is known for her art journals, I thought I’d journal for a few days with white gel pen on card stock as an hommage, then use that as the beginning of my Artist Trading Cards (ATCs).  I like working in miniature, so these tiny cards (3 ½ X 2 ½ inches) are fun for me (fun being a relative term when muffled by antibiotics and inhalers).  The finished ATC isn’t exactly what I had in mind, but my stuff generally runs wild, and I’ve learned to get out of the way.  I like it.  This piece will represent me well.

CIMG3418

So, anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah.  Distraction.  Don’t let the Anthony Robbins’ of the world make you feel bad about it.  Focus can’t untwist distorted thinking or clear fluid out of lungs.  Setting goals can’t change a diagnosis.  But distraction can make all that a little easier to bear.  Paint that in yellow neon and put it in your Mind Palace, Tony.

Give Me a Reason

It’s been a bad day.

It’s one of those days when thoughts of death and fantasies of how seep through the cracks.  It’s one of those days that demand a reason—any reason—to keep on going.

Like the push of a kitty’s paws against my side as he settles me for a nap.

Or a job that needs to be finished.

So, I left Emmett to sleep under the covers and finished a project—cards for the people retiring this year from our school district.

Retirement1

This is the third year I’ve been hired to make these cards.  When I think about it, even though I ended up in partial hospitalization the last two years, I still got the cards made.  They nudge me toward life, these pieces of gratitude.  My hands remember beauty even if I can’t at the moment.  As I work the sun swings around to my westward-facing window, giving Henry his chance to bask.

Another day nearly done.  And I made it to the other side.

The Other February

FebruaryAll of these valentines I keep posting and adding to my Etsy shop, the snappy comments and sass, they’re just spackle over the cracks that open up in February.  It’s the hardest month.  It always has been.  I forget that.  Every year.  If not for my piles of journals, I never would have made the connection.  I’m in danger in February.

I forget how the cold and the dark take up residence, even while North America is turning back toward the sun and the snow melts.  Inside me, the cold and dark stay. Even this year with a light box.  There’s no escape from February.

I forget how my skin grows burrs on the inside that snag and startle.  I’m so uncomfortable in my own skin.  Even murmuring words of kindness and acceptance to counter the sudden self-hatred, I can’t get out from under the briars.  I feel bloody and raw from the inside out.

I forget how strong the wrong-thinking gales blow through me, knock me down, rip off my flimsy protection.  I drown in panic and confusion as that storm snatches away each breath.  There’s no shelter, no leeward side to center and regroup, just the unrelenting force of despair screaming through and around me.

I forget how lonely February feels, locked in this dungeon, a barred window between me and all the people passing by on the street above.  I see them, can almost touch them, but I can’t get out.  And they can’t get in.  Some speak gentle words.  Some take parts of me for safekeeping until I can remember that I’m human.  I don’t make sense to them, and they sound silly to me.  Or infuriating.  I’m safer not talking at all, which makes me more alone.

I forget that even with my huge collection of tools and skills February drains them of any meaning.  Days become a string of distractions, tiny moments of relief swallowed up by February’s vast pain.  It’s instinct that drives me—a wrong-headed survival mode that grabs and clutches at whatever floats by in the roaring floodwater.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I started blogging four years ago at the beginning of February—screaming from the heart of the maelstrom, “I’m here!”

I’m here.

I’m here.

Brain-Sick

When the Voices ComeBrain-sick.

It’s how I describe my state in the worst of my bipolar symptoms.  It feels more positive than saying, “I’m having a bad day” or any other way of answering the question “How are you?”  But, after almost four years of blogging, I’m still hesitant to announce it.  As a rapid cycler, the icky way I feel now will change soon, so why carp?  Why give the demons a voice?  Then, the mood changes again, so I’m right back where I started.  To tell, or not to tell, that is the question.

Yesterday was one of those days where I didn’t dare pay attention to my own thoughts.  I went to the movies instead.  It’s a kind of meditation, giving the thoughts a padded corner to fuss and do their gymnastics while I turn my attention to the soft darkness of the theater, the popcorn, and the old friends up on the screen.  I went to three movies in row, seven hours of peace, seven hours of safety.  The twisted thinking and sorrow waited for me outside the theater.  We went to a nice dinner together where I ignored them with my journal and pretty fresh strawberries with whipped cream.  I forgot to take my sleep aid, so they woke me up early for another day together.

This is just the way of it.  There are days of moving forward and days, like these, where standing still is an enormous victory.  I’m thankful that I don’t judge either any more.  I’m grateful that I can simply accept being brain-sick.  It’s almost as comforting as returning to Middle Earth.  Almost.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

Channeling Scarlett

scarlettI wish I had something new to say about rapid cycling and mixed states.  I wish I had a pithy “Ah-Ha” moment to relate, something inspiring and brave that illustrates the worthiness of the fight.  Maybe I’m just not there yet.  I’m still in the middle of it, so my perspective is limited.  I can only see the bark on one tree, not the forest.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I believe to be true:  Almost everything in my head right now is a lie.  It’s the almost that’s tricky, especially since my discernment is faulty, too.  This is when I try not to think, try not to problem-solve or make decisions.  This is when I discard the first, second, and third reaction to what people say to me, or their silences.  This is when I don’t trust myself to look in a mirror, or feed the lies by buying clothes or watching the news.  This is when I pare everything down to its simplest form and stick to a schedule:  Get up, Swim, Get Coffee, Journal, etc.  This is when I spend my time pulling pictures out of magazines and organizing my vintage photos.  This is when I text my friends and say, “Tell me you love me,” then try to accept their immediate responses.

There’s something about rapid cycling and mixed states that filters out the loving and positive while reinforcing the hateful and negative.  It’s part of the illness.  It’s not who I am, though for decades, I believed it was.  All the hurtful, doubting thoughts sound true, feel true.  Sometimes I can see the falseness, sometimes I can’t.  Sometimes the best I can do is channel Scarlett O’Hara.  I won’t think about that now.  I’ll think about it tomorrow.  That way I don’t have to decide if the thought stream gurgling through my head is true or not.  That, in itself, is restful.

Because I know, with bipolar disorder, with rapid cycling and mixed states Tomorrow is Another Day.

Frail and Exotic Flower

Frail & Exotic Flower

⊂  ⊃

This is one of the flavors of my depression, feeling translucent and fragile, a melancholy scrim of gossamer floating untethered in the sharp October air.  This is when I yearn for deliverance, rescue, capture by warm and gentle hands.  My weepy mind slides into fantasy to protect itself from the hard edges of the world.  It pulls Heroes around itself like cashmere.  And it tries to sleep.

I am here, now, in this place of soft sorrow.  One eye on the Hero, one eye on the rhythm of the Real.  Train whistles in the distance mourn and warn traffic.  The pumpkin colored oak tree across the street paints across gray canvas and readies for winter.  I am both hibernating in the safe corners of my mind and stepping out to do laundry, meet a friend, have a birthday meal with my sister.  I am both insulated and exposed, denying and tolerating this phase of my bifurcated moon.

But, duality is home to me, my nature, and this season will pass to the next.  All I must do is wait.  In the cashmere and in the banging drum.  Both.  Always both.

The Other Shoe

It was inevitable.  Stress + Bipolar Disorder = Bipolar Disorder.

Also a Dark SideI flopped around all yesterday morning, hoping this dive might even out before it was time to go in to work, but, alas, no.  So, I Instant Messaged my boss and a couple of my co-workers, and tried not to feel like a dip-shit on top of the bipolar mess.

It’s still really hard for me to believe that a workplace—any workplace—will put up with my limitations as an employee.  On top of what we’ve already negotiated, I have these days—these unpredictable absences.  They’re why I’ve lost or quit every other job I’ve ever had.  But, so far, everyone seems very cool about it.  More than that, all the responses have been incredibly kind and supportive.

Don’t worry.  Take care of yourself.  Sending Light and Healing.

I honestly don’t know what to do with that.  It’s a completely new experience for me.  And I’m afraid to trust it.

I’m also in a deep dive, so whatever my brain is churning out is unreliable.  My best course is to ignore all thought happening up there and concentrate on clearing an easy path through the weekend.

ITS FamilyPart of that will be to indulge in a little Richard Armitage.  His new movie “Into the Storm” is out this weekend.  It’s basically a horror movie with a killer tornado as the monster.  It’s special effects-driven—bad news for an actual story or interesting characters.  Oh, well.  It’s Richard.  And when I meet him in London (because I will wait at the stage door with the rest of the Armitage Army), I can tell him his Midwestern accent was spot-on.

I’m also going to Anytime Fitness since the Y is closed for cleaning.  Losing my pool for a whole week always throws me, so I knew I needed a real option this year.  They’ve got a nice recumbent bike, and I’ve got my iPod.  It will work.

I also started working on new cards with the old photos I found at my parents’ house.  I haven’t felt like doing art for a long time, but I know how it can help keep keep my brain busy on something positive.  I will make myself sit at my art table.  Something will come of it.

So, there’s A Plan.  And there’s Acceptance.  And there’s Waiting.

And that’s the best a bipolar girl can do when it’s raining shoes.

Goals for the Next 30 Days: Maintain New Behaviors

BBs on the LooseChange is a bitch.  Pardon my French.

We all have default settings, the status quo our minds and bodies roll into when we look the other way.  We’re like bee-bees, really, rattling around until we find that dent in the floor where we can rest.  Most of the time our dent consists of what’s easiest, cheapest and safest.  We’re all about comfort here in the pothole.

Confess.  We can all think of a change we’d like to make that would make us healthier, happier, more efficient… the list goes on and on.  We may even work at those changes, but damn, it’s hard.  We’re fighting against gravity and inertia.  We’re trying to jump out of the pothole.  But, if we persist, we may nudge ourselves in a new direction.  If our bee-bee jumps up and down in a new spot long enough, it will make a new dent.

That’s what I’m trying to do with my Post-Hospital behavior.  When I get brain-sick, I slide into the oldest dent on my floor.  My default settings may feel safe and easy, but they really hurt me.  I’m just trying to jump up and down in this new place every day until I can carve out a new resting place.  Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Limit Screen Time to 2 hours a day
  2. Plan more Activities Outside
  3. Practice Mindfulness Meditation daily
  4. Create a Cleaning Schedule

I’ve come to understand that Distraction is not necessarily the best way to manage my illness.  It is a standard method, widely accepted, and valuable when symptoms are so severe a person cannot tolerate living.  Getting busy doing something else gives the mind another focus.  It may not change the feelings, but offers a little break.  Sometimes that’s all we need.

But, when distractioYesn becomes the default setting, nothing else gets done.  That’s the story between me and my computer.  I can spend hours here (I’m sure I’m not alone in this).  I watch movies on it.  I listen to music through it. I blog and graze Pinterest.  I play neuro games on Lumosity.  Oh, I could live here.

And that’s the problem.  When I’m brain-sick, I do live here.  So, I’m weaning myself.  More writing off-line.  More interaction with real-time people.  More living on this side of the screen.

I’m also trying to get outside more now that the weather is fine.  It seems that winter sets me up for a tumble, or has the last couple of years, so I need to learn how to get more sunlight.  I’ll soak up what I can now and buy a full-spectrum light for the coming winter.  Maybe that will help keep me out of the hospital next spring.  For now, I’ve found a great trail that passes through some trees.  I haven’t gone there yet, but it’s on my list of things to do.

Tara Brach's CDMeditation has always been a cornerstone of my wellness.  I know it works.  But, even after all this time, it’s still not my default setting.  I still find it hard to meditate alone and put it off.  So, I got myself some lovely CDs and use them as I meditate.  That makes it so much easier—less effort required to jump out of that bee-bee dent.  I’m still not meditating every day, but I’m doing better.  That’s the important part.

My Pal SwifferCleaning is another practice that disappears when I’m ill.  It’s one of those things I absolutely cannot make myself do.  When I first started the hospital program, we broke that task down into the tiniest possible fragments.  One day, I was only required to dust one shelf on one bookcase.  I came home from the hospital that day and told myself I couldn’t have supper until I dusted that shelf.  It took herculean effort to get out the duster, but once I broke through the inertia, I was able to dust the whole bookcase.  But the next day (dust the night stand), the resistance was just as strong.  My little bee-bee had rolled back into its divot.

I’d like to make cleaning a habit (as per advice of the oriental rug cleaning in Syracuse, NY), so I include it as part of my daily tasks.  Today I will mop my kitchen floor.  That’s all.  That’s enough.  But, it still will take effort to get done.  That’s okay.  I figure I’m building mental muscle with these practices—cleaning, meditation, getting outside, and turning off the computer.  If I’m buff enough, maybe I can jump out of my safety dent for longer periods of time and start carving out a new place to rest.

Thaw

Promise of SpringThere’s melt in the streets.  And a strange sound over my head—water drizzling down from the eaves into the downspouts.  Winter is letting up—at least it’s affording us a breather.  A collective sigh rises up from the whole town.  Folks hunched over their coffee cups at the café sit up a little straighter.  Smiles come a little easier to winter-tired faces.

My own internal winter is letting up as well.

Wednesday I hit a wall of despair.  Swimming my laps in the pool, I knew I couldn’t go back to my apartment for one more day of fighting myself and losing.  I gave my self permission to go to Des Moines.  After six weeks of frugal living, I allowed a therapeutic splurge.

The movie was awful, but the actual movie is never the point.  It’s the going.  It’s the ritual of driving through Starbucks, going into Panera for my bagel, sitting in the huge, empty food court and writing in my journal with earbuds firmly in place.  It’s the familiar rite of ticket, popcorn, and finding the perfect seat.  It’s making a nest and soaking in the previews—all those good movies coming.  The rhythm of ritual is comfort and safety.  It’s my rosary with a different kind of bead.

Afterward I went to Barnes and Noble to read magazines and fell asleep in the big easy chair.  So tired.  Worn through by this long depression.  Then, meditation with my friends, who were so glad to see me after six weeks away.  And in our quiet conversation, I felt the melt begin.  A subtle shift of temperature.  A warming of my mental air.  I thought the day and my friends might have just cheered me a little—I’ve been fooled by false springs before.  But, the thaw seems to be holding.

I can feel my brain recalibrating and leavening as the mental ice floes break apart.  It’s a little easier to do what I want instead of being driven by compulsion.  There’s a suggestion of joy, like the tremor of seeds under the frozen earth.  And it’s enough.  Just knowing winter doesn’t last forever.  It’s enough.

“An It Harm None, Do What Ye Will.”

handmade greeting card, collage artThese few little words make up the Wiccan Rede, or moral code.  It’s similar to the Hippocratic Oath (First, do no harm), but is more about how one lives one’s life rather than medical treatment.  Still, both phrases seem to be hovering over my head as I press on in the latest round of rapid cycling.

Frankly, I could use a little witchcraft to get through the day without making a mess or doing harm to myself.  I’m not talking about suicide or anything that dramatic.  My self-harm is much more mundane and boring—like piling on more debt to my credit card or buying bags of groceries that I throw away a week later.  Self-harm comes in the degrading, humiliating and hateful words my brain says to me.  Self-harm happens when I do anything to stop feeling the barbed constriction of my mind.

My own take on the Rede and the Oath is “Do the Least Amount of Harm.”  I know I’ll make poor choices now.  I know I’ll act out.  And if I can’t do something that is beneficial, maybe I can temper the hurt I cause myself.  Instead of canceling everything on Wednesday and going home to an empty apartment, I was able to seek out my meditation friends in Des Moines and sit in their company for a couple of hours.  It took a monumental marshaling of Will to do that—to sift through the noise and panic in my head to even consider it.  To drive there, sobbing.  To stand in Barbara’s kitchen, incoherent, while they circled and held me.  To fall asleep from exhaustion on her couch while the others chatted softly.  What started out as a grab at Doing Less Harm became medicinal.  I did something good for me.  I don’t know how to tell you what a miracle that is.

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the movies—my Safe-House.  I can stay all day without eating too much, or spending too much, or alienating any more people in my life.  I can rest at the movies.  Sometimes it’s all I need to reboot and come at this weird illness from a different perspective.

I’ve become fascinated with August: Osage County.  This horrible, dysfunctional, destructive family is what goes on in my head when I’m brain-sick.  There are tyrants, and betrayals, and screaming matches.  There are parts of me in absolute denial, and parts so strong they survive at all costs.  There are the loving bits that can bend.  And other more tender parts that get smashed flat.  There’s beauty, and ugliness, and a sense of being caught in a cycle of despair.  I hope Meryl Streep wins the Oscar.

August Osage County, Little Charles, Ivy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne NicholsonThe part I keep focusing on is a tiny little scene between the two incredibly damaged characters who are still capable of gentleness and love.  They hold each other up.  They save each other.  In the middle of my worst brain-sickness, I also have a Little Charles and an Ivy, causing absolutely no harm.  They sit at the old Hammond organ and sing quiet love songs to each other, wrapping themselves in safety from the chaos around them.  I can hear that sweet little song and lean into it.  A miracle.

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