Ghosts in the Fence-Line

She's a FighterA friend once introduced me by saying, “This is Sandy—she has shitty boundaries.”

At the time, he was absolutely right.

I was coerced into a sexual relationship by a doctor who was treating me.  One of my therapists was a sexual predator.  I didn’t see either of them coming.

Since then, I’ve worked hard at keeping control of my own power.  It still takes time to realize I’m being stepped on or pushed, but when the lightbulb goes off, I push back now.  It’s difficult and painful, since the old traumas tend to rise from their graves when I stand up for myself.  I’m told this is a form of PTSD.  Great.  One more acronym for my file.

Like everything else, if it takes too much effort to push back, or the discomfort of it is too much, I bolt.  Run from the danger, run from the past, run-run-run.  But, I’m working hard at that, too—working to stretch my tolerance for distress, which includes the distress of planting my fence posts in the ground and defending them.

I had to do that at work this past week.  I have a set schedule that I can count on now—1:30-4:30, Monday-Friday.  I can plan around it.  I can plan on it.  But some of my co-workers keep trying to undermine it.  “Can you meet with a client at 10:00?”  No.  “Can you come with me at 1:00?”  No.  “If you could flex a bit,” they say.  Or the last straw for me on Monday—”We can wait until you’re ready.”  Ready for what?  To be valid?  To be Normal?

I watched my brain do it’s thing—thrash around with the Ghosts of Boundaries Lost and make preparations to quit the job.  But, then a miracle happened.  I’ve been watching this s-l-o-w shift for a while now.  It’s like my mind puffs out, a little more air in the pink balloon up there, and other options present themselves.  Suddenly, I remembered that my boss is on my side, that she wants me on the team.  So, I sent her a careful email.  “Help.  Do you have any ideas?”

Her response was immediate.  “I didn’t know this was happening.  I’m sorry.  It will never happen again—I’ll make sure of it.”

So, when I met with Luke Skywalker yesterday (my interim therapist), the Ghosts were swirling.  Just walking into his office brings them up anyway—he’s my care-provider, he’s a guy.  The Crypt yawns wide.  He gave me some options—stick them back in the vault for the time being and play a game of Uno with him instead or take them on.  I’m not one for pussy-footing, so I said, “Come on, let’s go.”

Most of that work yesterday was simply staying with the feelings as they rose and fell—terror, shame, guilt, self-hatred, self-recrimination.  There were moments I couldn’t catch my breath, moments I cried so hard it scared me worse than the emotion.  As I write about it now, a sudden swell of despair passes through me.  It’s so strong it washes in the idea that death would stop the pain.  The return of that old impulse, however fleeting, shocks me.  And pisses me off.  How dare those old perverts still have any control over me!

It’s always a restless night when the Ghosts swarm, so I’m heading off to the pool a little bleary-eyed and emotionally hung-over.   But, I’m heading off to the pool.  And then to my new therapy group, and then to work.  Because I’m getting good at mending my fences.  And I’ve got the barbed wire scars to prove it.

Tempest in a Teacup

Don't Know BeansHere I am, finishing up my second week of work.

The stress is enormous, not just for me, but for everyone trying to learn this new program and making up the next steps as they are needed.  The real challenge for me is to moderate the anxiety and pressure.  Under stress, I’m easily overwhelmed.  I’m like a teacup that flattens, slopping out my ability to concentrate and my emotional flexibility.  I lose capacity.

I also become reactive, and my first instinct is to bolt.  I run from the stressor, fling it off and dive into a hide-hole.  So, the words “I can’t do this” fly in and out of my head regularly.

But part of my personal journey is to work on increasing my tolerance to distress.  If I’m ever to make any lasting changes in my behavior and my life, I need to work this work situation like a puzzle.  What do I need to do to stretch my envelope of tolerance?  As always, I created a plan.

The first piece is to breathe.  It’s my starting point.  When the acronyms start flying and I can feel my body vibrating like a tuning fork, I stop and breathe deep into my belly.  It tells me to come back to myself.  It starts the process of flinging off the assumptions and negativity.  Breathing deep, I can remember why I’m doing this.  I can remember I don’t need to understand.  I can remember that I’m not alone.

I also realized that creating more structure would help soothe the anxiety, so I put an After Work plan in place.  I go straight home, change, and go to the Y to ride the recumbent bike for an hour.  That helps burn off some of the adrenaline and agitation.  Then, I journal with a cup of something soothing.  Then, I meditate.  After that, I’m rational enough to eat a sensible supper.  This helps.  Instead of bingeing all night with a movie, I’m taking positive action to stretch my tolerance.

And it seems to be working.  I may be an emotional puddle by the time I leave the office, but by the next morning my teacup is upright and able to hold water.

This is new behavior for me.  It’s also more stress than I’ve endured in years.  I’m proud of all that.  I’m also aware that I could blow at any time.  That’s the unknowable, uncontrollable piece to bipolar disorder.  All I can do is stay as mindful as I can from moment to moment and see what happens.

I’m on an Adventure.

tiny cups

In The Trenches

More Traditionally GallantThe last time I had this much change, pressure, and emotional hoo-haw in my life I ended up getting electroshock.  That was then, as they say.  This is now.

Yesterday I started my job as a Peer Support Specialist.  The Integrated Health Services team (of which I am a part)  is squeezed into one tiny office and a converted utility closet (the sink is still there).  Ten people with lap tops, all talking on the phone, or to each other, or elbowing into their TV-tray-sized work spaces.  The plan is to move the team off-site to a real office space.  But for now, we are literally on top of each other.

barnabasA year ago—heck, three months ago—I would have bolted from that chaos after a half hour.  But, I didn’t.  And the fact that I didn’t makes me proud.  I could feel dread and panic creeping into my head like Dark Shadows mist, turning my thoughts sour and rigid with resistance.  But then I went on my first client visit, and the doubt and hysteria melted.

Talking to clients, listening to them, asking questions, empathizing and marveling at their courage and resilience—it all fell into place.  What I used to do as a nurse, what I do now with this blog, even what I’ve become as a person all come into play when I’m with the clients.  I was made for this job.  I can do this.

So, last night I drank a beer, popped a Xanax, and slept long and hard.  This morning I was ready to jump back into the fray.  Until I got my own TV tray, I set my laptop on top of a waste basket to do my work.  That was fine.  I’m relearning Windows after eight years alone with my iMac.  That was fine, too.

Everyone on the team is supportive, enthusiastic and only a little less confused than I am.  This roll-out of Integrated Health Services across the state is enormous, complicated, sometimes incomprehensible.  It makes us comrades.  They sent a lovely card and a plant when my mom died, and I’d only met them twice.

Sad SmileWe’ve been digging through lots of old stuff at my mom’s house.  We found a box with my grandfather’s WWI kit and a trunk of my dad’s with his WWII navy uniform and a photo album.  In those pictures, I can see how tight the bonds are between Dad and his friends.  I understand that a little.  I’m not saying we’re experiencing anything like what Dad and Grandpa went through, but adversity and a common goal does something to a group.  Those of you in business know more about this than I do.  There’s probably even a name for it.

I know these people have my back.  I know they won’t let me fail.  I know they will understand if I ever do have to bolt from the room.  And I’m not afraid to do it if I have to.  Because I know how to take care of myself now—without plugging into the power grid.

“The Storm is Up, And All is on the Hazard”

tempestThere’s a kind of frenzy that happens after a death in the family.  There’s a sea-change during the rush of funeral arrangements.  Details drag at the ankles, family and well-wishers swarm, then dart off.  It’s like dropping to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and popping back up without a decompression chamber.  Something in the blood bubbles.

Then there’s the Bank Dash, a treasure hunt for the right piece of paper, guarded by people who speak a foreign language.  Just when a few words start to make sense, the Lawyer pulls out a different map and the hunt gallops off in another direction.  Everyone has a different opinion about how to read the legend, how to get from Here to There.  It’s the Tower of Babel flattened to an Iowa cornfield.

I don’t do well with frenzy, so there have been some outbursts.  Most notably, the sprint out of the lawyer’s office to cry in the street.  But, for the most part, I’ve managed with great aplomb, even if I do say so myself.  I’ve learned a lot since my dad died a couple of years ago.  I understand how stress affects me.  I know what to do to lessen the impact.  I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed.

Also, I’m blessed to have a sister who is In Charge.  Now that the initial chaos has settled, she deals with the insurance companies, the banks, the appraisers and auctioneers.  She’s tossed out that old map and made one of her own.  Thank the Stars.

We have a house to clean.  That’s something I can do.  If I break it down into the tiniest tasks.  Like emptying one drawer in one dresser.  Like bagging up the clothes in one closet.  Tiny tasks.  A beginning and an end.  That stops frenzy cold.  That turns a task into a meditation.  There’s space for deep breathing.  The blood starts to de-bubble.

And I need to practice coming back to mindfulness, because the stress isn’t over.  I start my new job as a Peer Support Specialist in a week, and I still don’t know what I’ll be doing.  My clinic is part of the whole restructuring of Iowa’s mental health delivery system.  I’ll be part of the Integrated Health Services Team, and I’ve met those folks—a nurse, case managers and an administrative assistant.  I’ve attended a couple of “professional development” sessions that made no sense to me—except for the HIPAA presentation.  I get HIPAA and how crucial confidentiality and privacy will be in my work.  The rest is gobbledygook.  I figure if I need to know this stuff, someone will tell me eventually.

Because none of the other Peers know what’s going on either.  That makes me feel better.  And the rest of the team is flying by the seat of their pants.  Professionals making it up as they go along.  So, I’ll find out more when I start next Monday.  Or not.

I know I’m at risk.  Stress exacerbates symptoms in anyone with a mental illness.  It can lead to a lapse or full-blown relapse.  Things could get pretty hairy.  But, I’ll do what I know to stay present and keep breathing.  And I’ll dream about my trip to London in September.  Because that won’t be stressful at all.

I’m on an Adventure.

Is This Grief?

Damned TiredUp at 2:30 this morning, awake but toting sludge for brains.  Is this grief?

Yesterday I felt proud that I could stand with my family and greet everyone that came to Mom’s visitation.  Two and a half years ago, when my dad died, I had to sit in a quiet room apart from the others.  Like a bipolar queen, I held audience for my closest friends and family so that I wouldn’t explode from the over-stimulation.  I felt then like I do this morning—dumb with exhaustion.

I don’t know what I need.  I don’t know what could help.  The idea of going to the pool makes me want to cry and crawl back into bed.  But, I know that’s not the answer.  So I’ll go to the pool and bleed some of this weirdness into the water.  I’ll feel better afterward.  I always do.

Then, I’ll go with my brother and sister to Mom’s lawyer and try to stay present in all the talk about insurance and trusts.  I’ll try to watch my anxiety and keep breathing.  I’ll try to keep stepping back instead of stepping up.  I’ll try to remember that everything will settle without me pushing it.

So, it’s a little easier to carry, this grief/exhaustion/bipolarness, now that I’ve named it and slopped it out in words.  I breathe and let my Pandora station hold me. All that pretty music.  Like the water in the pool, it supports me.

Pillows and cushions are everywhere.  Like this lovely song by Mat Kearney.  I can lie down anytime I need.

 

Adding to to the Bad-Ass Arsenal

Xena 6Today is the end of the four-day week for those of us in treatment.  That means there’s a long, four-day weekend ahead of us with Memorial Day tagged on the end of it.  To get from this side of the holiday weekend to the other requires planning, setting goals for each day, getting out of the apartment, spending time with friends, tending to chores.  A structured mind is a tidy mind.

A couple of Ah-Ha moments this week.  My regular therapist, Megan, and I have been working on Mindfulness practices for several months, but one of the homework modules from treatment put that work in a different light.  It talked about developing a stronger tolerance to emotional distress.  We can’t stop the feelings and moods, but we can become more tolerant of them with practice.  Mindfulness is a way to do that.  The teaching material called it “doing the opposite” of what we habitually do in times of distress.  Most people try to escape the emotional pain, numb it, distract oneself from it.  The opposite of that knee-jerk reaction is to accept the current distress.  Sit with it.  Use meditation, journaling and other methods to pay attention to it and watch how it might shift.

The homework assignments my counselor in treatment have given me come from the Centre for Clinical Intervention, a wonderful Australian website where workbook-type modules on all areas of mental health are available for free.   What a wonderful service!  Those Aussies have the right idea.

The other Ah-Ha moment came with a suggestion in group.  I’ve always maintained a one-size-fits-all management plan for my illness, but it was put to me that I need a different plan when I’m suffering a lapse.  A lapse is when symptoms reappear, but haven’t dragged a person into a long bout that effects functioning in the world.  As someone with the rapid cycling form of bipolar disorder,  I considered myself symptomatic most of the time.  But, I can see now that there are symptoms and there are SYMPTOMS.  There are signs when my “normal” cycling shifts to a lapse—depression that lasts longer than three days, change in sleep quality, etc.  Like an early warning tornado siren, I can watch for the signs of a lapse and put my Emergency Step-Up Plan in place.  It gives me more power.  And I do love gathering sharp-edged tools for my Bad-Ass armory.  I added quite a bit to the arsenal this week.

The Lance

handmade greeting card, collage art

In the past when sorrows, or problems, or ideas were too much for me, I learned to deal with them in a way of my own.  At night when I got to bed I lay on my back and gave to their solution what I knew would be many sleepless hours.  I would let the problem enter me like a lance piercing my solar plexus.  I must be open, utterly open, and as I could stand it the lance went deeper and deeper.

As I accepted each implication, opened to my hurt, my protest, resentment and bewilderment the lance went further in.  Then the same for others involved—that they did, said, felt, thus and so, then why, face why and endure the lance.

As my understanding deepened I could finally accept the truths that lay behind the first truths that had seemed unendurable.  At last, the pain of the lance was not there and I was free.  No, free is not the right word.  My barriers had been lowered and I knew what I had not known before.

from The Measure of My Days by Florida Scott-Maxwell

Chop Sticks

Uncover in the Mess

I am playing the violin, that’s all I know, nothing else, no education, no nothing.  You just practice every day.—Itzhak Perlman

Changing behavior.  That’s the Work in front of me these days.  How do I pull the power plug from my life-long companion, Compulsive Eating and her little sister Compulsive Spending?  How do I change personally destructive behaviors that have actually served me by easing the emotional turbulence of bipolar disorder?

The short answer is slowly.  With lots of help from my therapist.

It’s a painful process, waking up.  And that’s basically what’s called for in changing behavior.  The whole point of compulsive eating and spending is to go to sleep, to numb the pain and shut down the barbed, twisted thinking.  Nothing hurts when you’re unconscious.  But, nothing changes, either.

I’ve always believed the path to change and to a healthier life was through mindfulness.  I’ve tried my best to raise my consciousness and to pay attention.  But these two compulsive behaviors have been stronger than me for a long time.  I knew I needed help, and more than what I found in meditation and self-help books.  Once my therapist and I decided to focus our attention here, I felt real hope for the first time.

Scales and FingeringWe work in baby steps, and in a spirit of Practice.  It’s a lot like when I learned to play the piano.  I do my drills every day.  I play my simple pieces, missing notes and flubbing the rhythm.  I get frustrated and have little tantrums.  I rebel and skip practice, then have to spend extra time at the keyboard the next day.

We watch and pay attention to what happens.  My moods flop around and my thinking strangles itself in convoluted knots.  Then, that all evens out for a day or two before starting in again.  It’s hard to choose to stay awake through all of it.  It’s painful.  It’s humiliating.  It’s ugly.  Megan reminds me that this is practice.  Every small success is just that.  And every fall back into old behavior is just that.  Perfection and failure are not words we use.

What seems to help is to stay busy with projects, especially creative work.  I’ve long understood the connection between watching TV and overeating, so anything that can keep me away from that is helpful.  Playing with my junk and pretties fosters joy and a sense of mastery.  I can use a little of that right now.

To point me in a positive direction, I decided to make something out of gratitude.  And what do I have the hardest time being grateful for?  People.  What better target for this project than the people who brighten my days with small gifts of kindness—the baristas at my Starbucks, the grill cook at the cafe who makes my toast, the group at my UU fellowship who sponsored my Peer Support training, the friends who consistently schedule time to be with me, the virtual friends who lift me with their words and images, the actors and actresses who sit in the dark with me when I’m at my worst.

Blessing CardI sat at my table, creating little Blessing cards, holding each face in my mind, generating positive juju.  I decided to purposely use up a lot of my favorite materials—an antique German prayer book, purple card stock and ribbon that are no longer available,  fibers from a company that went out of business.  I used my favorite things to prove to myself that I have all I need.  Plenty and more.

I ended up making more cards than I needed.  I could have sent them to a lot more people—the folks on the fringes of my life—but I decided to trust my first take on the purpose of this project.  To keep it simple and immediate.  So, I put the rest of the cards in my Etsy shop.  Maybe someone else can use them.

And while I worked on this project, I kept my budget and lost 7 pounds.

Okay.  That’s lovely.  Now.  Back to the keyboard.

 

Making It Real

handmade greeting card, collage artBack in October when I took the first week of Peer Support training, I applied to my sister’s P.E.O. chapter for financial assistance.  The ladies who interviewed me were lovely—kind, supportive, sure that the Iowa board of directors of their group would approve my request.  One of them had even read this blog.

It was a nice way to spend a morning, but I didn’t set my hopes too high as I still was in need to get money today.  I’d been negotiating philanthropy and human services long enough to know my chances of being disqualified for one reason or another were more likely than not.  The ladies said it would be after the first of the year before a decision would be made.  Okay.

After my wake-up call in January about my growing debt, it was hard not to hope for reprieve.  My sister called to say something had gone wrong with the application and had to be done over.  Okay.  A few weeks ago, she called again to ask questions that I’d addressed in my initial letter.  Okay.

I thought I was staying relatively detached.  There might be a slim chance out there in the ethers, but I needed to concentrate on the Work in front of me—finding the strength to stick to my budget without the stress triggering one more hospitalization.

And that’s really the bottom line for me.  How much can I push against the illness without blowing up?  How long can I keep with this budget and work on my compulsive eating?  I’ve never thought in terms of time.  There’s no benefit to that, is there?  There’s just today, doing the best I can, practicing my Start with One Serving mantra and doing everything on the cheap.  I know the intensity of this time is temporary, but I can’t focus on an end date when I don’t know where it is.

This week I received a letter from the P.E.O. board.  They will be sending me about half the money I asked for.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m grateful for it, grateful for anything, and glad the waiting is over.  But no immediate reprieve is coming.  Instead I can now plot out an end date to the extreme financial squeeze.  July.

That doesn’t seem like much.  Four months.  But when I look at the two months I’ve already spent doing this hard work, experiencing the worst of my bipolar symptoms with just my therapist standing fast beside me, I can’t comprehend four months.  I feel myself contract even more, hardening to anything but The Work.

This isn’t good.  Becoming rigid like this invites a kind of shattering that takes a long time to heal.  I need to let in some softness, find a way to play and laugh, figure out a way to be with people that doesn’t end in rage and resentment.  (Ah. I think we’ve hit on the agenda for my next therapy session.)

Because this shit is real now.  I’m not spot-training anymore, I’m going the distance to an actual finish line.  Can I pace myself and push my limits at the same time?  Am I ready to be a bipolar Olympian?

laurel leaf crownReady the laurel leaves, boys.  I’ll see you in four months.

Radio Station KFKD

handmade greeting card, collage art, HitchcockI had a difficult day yesterday.

The floor fell out of my little stable platform and the bipolar elevator rocketed into the basement.  Wham!  Just like that, in the middle of doing laps at the pool, I turned my head for air and nearly choked on a sob.  I had to stop and clear my goggles before I could go on.

It happens like that sometimes.  With rapid cycling, a person never knows how the next episode will present itself.  I’m always surprised.

I’m living an antithetical life, the twist in my brain said.  All my energy is focused on negativity—not doing things instead of living and doing.  What kind of a shit-hole existence is this?

I couldn’t shake this nihilistic mindset.  I spent most of the day in bed.

Change is hard for anyone.  Geneen Roth in her book Women, Food and God says this about change:

The biggest obstacle to any kind of transformation is the voice that tells you it’s impossible.  It says:  You’ve always been like this, you’ll always be like this, what’s the point.  No one ever really changes.  Might as well eat [or spend money, or do whatever it is you’re trying to change].  By the way, have you taken a look at your arms recently?   And excuse me, did you forget to put on makeup or is that what you look like when it’s already on?  Why do you even bother?  And did you just say what I think you said to your boss?  Who are you, Queen of the Universe?  How many times do you have to fall flat on your face before you learn to keep your mouth shut?

Anne Lamott calls it Radio Station KFKD.  [Geneen Roth] calls it The Voice…. The Voice feels and sounds so much like you that you believe it is you.  You think you are telling yourself the truth.

RadioAnd if Radio KFKD is loud for neuro-normals, imagine how loud it gets for us neuro-diverse folk as we try to address compulsive behavior or add healthier activities into our routine.  Even when I recognize the propaganda coming across those air waves as doo-doo, that doesn’t stop the transmission.  When I’m brain-sick, more transcievers pop out of my mental landscape and boost the signal.  The genius of propaganda is that even when it’s identified, it can still sniff out the tiniest crack and infiltrate like smoke.  Or DDT.  And like Geneen Roth said, pretty soon I think I’m telling myself the truth.

I still get suckered.  That’s part of mental illness.  But, I’ve also developed a pretty good doo-doo filter.  It might take a while to sift out the choicer pellets, but eventually they show themselves for what they are.

Toward evening, the lead weight of the depression lifted enough for me to realize that Radio KFKD had taken over my thinking.  I am not spending all my time not eating.  I’m working on a practice my therapist gave me for increasing mindfulness.  The mantra is Start with One Serving.  Prepare one serving.  Enjoy one serving.  If I want more, I can have it.  But, again, just one serving.  This makes me pause.  It makes me wake up a little from my normal food-haze.  Pausing and waking up are the only ways I’m ever going to change this behavior.  And it’s hard.

I’m not using all my energy to not spend money.  I am paying off my debts.  This is a fine and responsible goal.  I have less discretionary funds now in order to reach that goal, but eventually those debts will be gone.  I will have done something amazing, and new, and difficult.  And then I’ll have a little more money to work with again.

I had a difficult day yesterday.  But just as fast as the elevator plummeted, it rose.  That’s also the deal with rapid cycling—Radio KFKD switches off like magic sometimes.  I was back in the pool this morning, doing my laps.  And I didn’t need to clear my goggles once.

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