Fighting For My Life

I felt fierce and proud and forever free.I’m in a mood.

I’ll just put that out there as a disclaimer so you know what follows is tainted.

This is a mood that seems to keep coming back.  Well.  That’s bipolar disorder in a nutshell.  So to speak.

I know this mood and I have history if only from how big Bipolar Bad-Assery is in my little Cloud of Topics at right.  I recognize the ferocity and physical stamina.  A terrible intolerance develops.  And then there’s the ice-cold anger.  It started a few days ago with a niggle in the back of my mind.  At odd moments it would pop into full consciousness like Schwarzenegger bursting through a door.

I’m fighting for my life.

It surfaced at TOPS yesterday, and again in the water this morning as I swam my mile.  So I took myself for a drive today to give this moody thought some room.  What I found is that this isn’t the whole thought, just the opener.  In toto, it goes like this.

I’m fighting for my life, so step up or get out of the way.

And suddenly the anger and intolerance make more sense.  Even the extra strength and endurance.  I’m gearing up to go solo again.

This mood, this attitude, runs counter to all the discussions I’ve had with my therapist about relationships.  She’s counseled me about how relationships change, how people come and go out of a life.  She reminds me to take people for what they are and to be accepting of what they can offer.  This is realistic advice.  But, sometimes, I can’t see how it helps me much.

I don’t need coffee dates or tactfully casual conversations as much as I need allies who will get bloody up to the eyebrows with me.  But, finding a loyal berserker isn’t easy.  Or realistic.  Real people have messes of their own to worry about—sick parents, and mortgages, and unemployment.  All that feels like do or die for them, too, so they’re hardly going to save their ammo for me.  Or if they do happen to save a clip, they end up shooting in the wrong direction or even at me.  Friendly fire, of course, but still lethal.

River

Which leads to another conversation with my therapist—my need to make people understand me.  I don’t like being misunderstood.  I don’t like others deciding what’s best for me or making assumptions about me.  But, really, all that is none of my business.  I can’t help what other people think or do.  I can’t stick my hand inside their gray matter and plant the seeds I want growing there.  But, sometimes, they act out of the stories they’ve told themselves about me.  And then they make it my business.  Which I don’t handle with great diplomacy.  I don’t mind so much if you can’t fight alongside me, but get in my way and I might blow your head off.  Nice.  You can see why I might have trouble holding onto friends.

I see what’s happening here.  I’m turning into that Hero person who Stands Alone.  Maybe I’ve always been that person.  It might be one of the reasons I was drawn to comic books as a kid.  As soon as I was able to read, I stole from my brother’s Marvel collection.  Those guys understood.  They fought for their lives every month.  They were me.

winter soldierWhen I went to the new Captain America movie last week and watched Steve Rogers risk everything, the niggle in my head practically shouted.  That’s me!  And then [SPOILER ALERT] when he quit fighting and let Bucky beat him to smithereens, the niggle still shouted.  That’s me, too!  Cap had allies.  He even had a handful of people he trusted.  But, basically, he was alone.  I get that.  And sometimes the hero just gives up.  I get that, too.

That’s as far as this train of thought is going, because to follow it any further would just indulge the mood.  It will shift in a few days and all this Hulk energy will drain.  But, there might be some new questions for my therapist on Monday.  Life and death questions.  Because in the end, I’m still fighting for my life.

 

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Curses, Foiled Again

Another respiratory infection?  Really?  Seems like I just got over pneumonia or the flu.  Oh, yeah, I did.

Dudley Do-RightThe allergens must be particularly virulent this season.  Or my immune system is shredded.  Or my body is trying to tell me something.  Whatever the confluence of inner and outer weather, my head is full of snot and my voice is once again in the Louis Armstrong register.  But, hey!  After a week of fighting back with antihistamines, zinc and green tea, my lungs are still clear.  Score!  Anytime I can keep a head cold in the head is a victory.  Ask anyone with asthma and allergies—lungs are like pale, Victorian flowers of femininity, they faint at the first blush of a virus.  Sort of like Nell in the old Dudley Do-Right Cartoons.

My Achilles heel, my Bad-Ass’ pansy side, this proclivity for sucking up the current bug dates back to my earliest memory—Vicks Vapo-Rub on my chest covered by a warm, dry washcloth pinned to my jammies.  Barking coughs are my second native language.  Too bad I didn’t buy stock in Robitussin when I had money…

Dudley Do-RightFlu shots are generally as effective as cheap tissues (you know, the ones that shred at first honk), as is the rest of pharmacology.  My body laughs, Snidley Whiplash-like, at such puny weapons.  The dastardly villain is strong in the Dark Side (oops, mixed media metaphors).

Not that my body is evil.  It’s just developed a huge resistance to drugs.  They don’t work.  Period.  So, I’m left to other measures like rest, and lots of fluids, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and fresh air.  All those old-timey measures that support the body as it heals.

Dudley Do-RightThere’s no Canadian Mountie riding in at the last minute to untie me from the railroad tracks, no definitive thrashing of the Bad Guy.  Nothing as neat and melodramatic as all that  (My sister did bring me vegetable fried rice and strawberries when I was at my worst.  I don’t think her van is named “Horse,” though.).  Recovery takes weeks, sometimes months.  Very inconvenient, but oh well.  It’s just another dance.  Like a bipolar episode, respiratory infections swing me out of my fixed box step, the routine that I feverishly cling to.  I have to loosen up and let my dance partner lead, something I’ve never been good at.  But after all these trips to the train track, I’m learning.

A Cautious Step

Collage art, greeting card artA cautious optimism seems to be creeping up on me.  The last couple of days moved through with less frenetic, spastic energy; less explosive mood changes; more moments of quiet joy; more tolerance.  It’s too early to tell if this is a shift out of the mixed state rapid cycling I’ve been experiencing, or just another variation of it.  When all the bipolar symptoms get thrown in a bag and shaken up, moments of relief are bound to stick together once in a while, too.  So, the practice is not to name it, not to grasp it, but simply Observe.  And then take appropriate action.

“Appropriate” is a moving target, just like my symptoms.  What I’m capable of doing changes with each shift.  So, just when I sit down to make cards, I’m suddenly unable to tolerate being in my apartment.  Or when the urge to eat bends me over the bakery goods at Panera, I feel the compulsion vanish in an instant.  I guess it’s not surprising that I’m experiencing a lot of vertigo.  These jumps from one state to another to something combined make me a little loopy.  Lots of starting and stopping.  Lots of whipping around and muttering, “What?”

Even in this weird, stuttering place a few constants remain.  I can always exercise.  The pain that comes with the depressive symptoms may make weight-baring exercise more difficult, but there’s always water and my new friend, the recumbent bike.  And there’s always writing.  No matter how crazy I get, I can always write. It may be crap, but I’ve learned that crappy writing is a gift.  It starts the trek to the real story.  A crappy first draft or hideous turn of phrase marks where the story isn’t.  It’s a pushpin in a map.  With enough pushpins, I can see just where the path leads.  Even if I’m crazy, I can still read a map.

Exercise and writing give me a little foundation.  Whatever else I try to do with my day starts and ends there.  So, today I’ll stand on my foundation and cautiously pick up my Bad-Ass Training, knowing I may have to drop it if this moment of relief ends.  I’ll check to see where I’m leaking energy or money.  I’ll reach out to my support network.  I’ll take care of chores that have been abandoned.  I’ll shroud my TV.  I’ll do what I can in each moment to get ready for that moment to shift.

And while I’m getting ready, I’ll listen to my music.  Because that makes everything easier—like Eurythmics’ Miracle of Love.

The Play is the Thing

As I’m more and less skillful in adapting to the changes in my life, I also get to ride the slippery slope of my bipolar disorder.  Mania shifted to agitation, which dropped into a mixed state of depression and anxiety.  Now the depression has smoothed out into a deep darkness that I know well.

It’s uncomfortable here, but at least the burning itch to DO and GO has passed.  I want to eat everything in sight, but I’m too tired to act on my compulsion.  Mostly.  The sexual fantasies that crowded my thinking released their shameful grip.  My thoughts twist with self-loathing now, but I can distance myself from them better than the hot longing those fantasy men pull from me.  They still lurk in the background, but their siren songs are muted by the dark.

I remind myself to believe nothing my mind throws out.  What feels reasonable isn’t.  What seems like a course of action rises from compulsion, or aversion to pain, or grasping for comfort.  Paranoia pops out of social interaction.  Isolation feels so good it has to be questioned.

I can believe in the tools that have worked for me in the past—distraction through art and TV, exercise, reaching out for support.  I can remind myself to Watch, to feel the discomfort in my body, to be aware of the impulses my distorted thinking shoots out like lightening.

This is just another face of the illness, another long episode making a costume change between acts.  Sometimes I forget my lines in the middle of this play, but the Prompters are out there.  I’ve worked hard to place them around the stage, helpful voices in the dark to remind me where I am, who I am, and the artful response to Bipolar’s monologue.  I’ll get through this performance, and the next, and the next.  There’s always a curtain call, a chance to bow, smile and feel the lights come up.

Waking from the Dream

I woke up this morning after a dream about my high school boyfriend.  It’s a version of how I start the day full of regret in different parts of my bipolar cycle.

I used to dream about him regularly.  He and my ex-husband were interchangeable in my dreams—the men I loved and hurt deeply.  They were casualties of my illness and fear.  I wanted so to make amends to them both, and to believe that they could forgive me, but neither would respond to my letters.  And they had no reason to.  I knew the best thing to do, for myself and for them, was leave them alone.

Last year, my high school sweetheart’s mother died.  She was someone who cared about me and made me feel safe as a teenager.  I took a chance and offered my condolences.  He responded, and we started a hesitant correspondence.  I offered my apology and regrets and, while he never responded directly to them, I felt I had been heard.  My dreams about him stopped.

The dream this morning might have started another flood of regret, but that old wound is healed now.  I know these dreams are a well-worn path my mind travels down when I’m slipping into depression, not necessarily a photograph of old sins.  I can observe the reactions that rise because of the dream and disengage.  I can watch how my thoughts want to twist into self-recrimination and loathing without riding with them into the dark.

I can wake up from the dream, send blessings into the ether to my two exes, and start my day.  Today, at this moment, I am awake.

The Best Version of Me

Maybe I’m manic.

That’s always the first thing that comes to mind when this much joy bubbles up—which reminds me to hold the glee as lightly as the depression, without grasping or identifying with either.  So, with caution in the back of my mind, I can enjoy this delight.

The source, of course, is the story.  I’ve been working on a rewrite of my novel, Callinda, for a year now, and as I get closer to the climax, it has picked me up and carried me.  Every day, I’m surprised by what the characters do, the turns in plot, the places they are required to go.  Even though I have the whole story outlined with detailed notes, they break through those fences and find new ways to tell their tale.  I’m awestruck.

When I am writing, I am the best version of me.  The Creative Energy moves through me like water, raising me up and floating me out to where the ideas drift across my skin like lotus blossoms.  I can feel my mind open like a bud in the way it unfurls and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s toward the sun.  There’s a peace that settles in and a knowing—I am doing what I was made to do.

Even during the worst bipolar episode, part of me can still write.  Callinda taught me that when I wrote the first draft during the darkest of my dark days.  I was sick with relief that the ECT, the drugs, and the trauma didn’t take that from me, too.  I was changed in fundamental ways, but I was still ME.  I was still a writer.

And, wonder of wonders, I became a better writer.  No more writer’s block, no more fear of failure or of not being a good enough story-teller.  All those obstacles dropped away after I survived my suicide attempt.  I’m alive, so I write.  It became as simple as that.

There are still days when I futz about my contribution to society, my purpose, my reason for being.  Those are the days when the depression comes and yanks my thoughts off true.  I know why I’m here.  I know what my work is.  I’m doing it.

And it gives me joy.

Through the Ice Darkly

Tomorrow I leave for an excursion into the arctic north.  I’m spending the next ten days in Minneapolis, first to sit with a friend as she undergoes a simple, but scary surgery.  Then, to visit other friends—some I’ve not seen since my exodus to Iowa five years ago after I had ECT.

It’s a weird juxtaposition of memory holes and my different lives laid on top of each other like layers of ice on a frozen lake.  Some are Jasper-green and opaque with soft spots and groaning cracks, others sludge-gray with craters.  Others still carry bits of fish scale, algae, and ash from shoreline campfires of summer.  They stand rock solid even in the spring thaw.

Seeing these beloved friends again, touching them, will be like taking nourishment and starving.  Love and loss.  A life remembered through “the glass darkly.”  I hope to maintain my curiosity as broken memories crack the surface of consciousness, as my friends remind me of what we were together and what I was then.  I hope to hold them and myself with compassion, respecting our feelings and our words, watching the rise and fall of emotions without grasping, allowing myself to simply love them in the moment of being together.  I hope to remember my life now, who I’ve become, traveling like Frankenstein’s monster on a frozen floe with growing awareness and a spark of dignity.

It will be an interesting time away.

I will greet you all again on or around January 16.

Tease

The depression eased up for about four hours yesterday.  I sat here working on Callinda and thought, “Yipee! It’s over!”  But, alas.  It was just my brain teasing me, dangling Clear Mind in front of me like a bobbing apple.  Soon enough, the Transylvanian Fog rolled back in, and I spent the rest of the day watching endless episodes of Gilmore Girls.

Still, it was a breather, a reminder that my thoughts will eventually stop gravitating toward the Dark Side.  I feel myself getting battle weary from warding off the latest volley of despair and worthlessness.  Ugh.  To counter that today, I worked on a collage for my new grand-nephew, Zane, who was born October 25.

Mom, my sister and her husband will be leaving Friday to go visit the new baby (and his big brother, Wyatt).  I want to get the piece finished so they can take it with them.  It seems to be coming along fine, but it takes so much effort.  I can measure how severe this episode is by how little interest I have in my art or my writing.  A little scary, but that’s just attaching meaning to feelings that are really meaningless.

The lack of interest, the digestive grumblings, the achy joints and muscles, the distorted thoughts, the hinky sleep, the social anxiety—they’re all just the illness throwing out its normal chemical spew.  If I can keep watching as they vomit forth, I can keep from grabbing them up as if they are worth something.  Deep breath, drink some water, and queue up some more diversion.

Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, Revised—Part 1

Never get Too Tired, Too Hungry or Too Rigid.  That’s one of my new mottos (Another is Laugh ’til You Lose Urine, but that’s a different post).  So in my quest to avoid rigor mortis, I’ve incorporated a few of Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts and ideas into my personal Bipolar Bad-Ass Training Regimen.

It’s been six months since I first set up some guidelines for making the best of my time between bipolar episodes.  Those checklists and goals have served me really well, but there’s always room for improvement.  Plus, our needs and priorities change, and I don’t want to be stuck hanging on to an old ideal when it no longer fits.  That way lies madness and a surplus of guilt and shame.  Pass.

Clean Eating is still a big priority for me, and continues to be elusive.  I feel like I’ve come a long way in fostering my Will, but bipolar episodes and my recent illness threw me right back into compulsive behavior, which starts and ends with non-stop eating of the worst possible crap.  There’s no easy answer to this one, I’m afraid, just awareness and diligence and gentleness.

My thoughts and plans for Strength and Stamina still hold true.  If anything, I’m more determined than ever to exercise every day and add more activity to my daily life.  I also have a physical tomorrow, so I made a list of things to discuss with my doc—how to deal with this persistent recurring bronchitis (allergy testing?), removing a benign but growing cyst in my armpit, and getting the regular blood work and tests out of the way.  It’s part of Doing What Needs To Be Done (another motto).

When I looked at my priorities, I found I needed to make an adjustment.  I always thought I’d go back to school for a Master’s Degree, but it’s just not realistic for me anymore.  My ECT—induced reading disability seems to be holding fast and my financial situation hardly supports a return to college.  It was an old dream that just doesn’t fit who I am now.

My priorities now are Writing, Making Art and Growing.  My goals are to finish my novel, Callinda, by the end of the year and continue to blog at least every other day; make art every day and start drawing again.  As for continuing to grow, I’ve got a couple of things in mind.  I want to call the Animal Rescue League and see if I could volunteer a little bit.  I’m curious about other writers who love fan fiction and plan to research that.  Maybe I’ll find a kindred spirit or two.  I plan to spend more time at the public library, reading magazines I would never normally pick up.  I want to start at the beginning of the racks and work my way through them all.  I can’t wait to soak up all that new stimulation.  And lastly, I want to find a local chapter of the Sweet Adelines.  I miss singing, and maybe they’d take a croaky alto.  We’ll see.

One thing Gretchen Rubin did to keep her accountable to her new resolutions was to create a chart where she could track her daily activities.  She said the steady reminders kept her focused and the gold stars and check marks as she accomplished her goals kept her motivated.  I don’t know that I need more motivation than living saner, but I thought I’d try tracking my progress.  I loaded up my new iCalendar program so I can see at a glance what I’m doing and what I’m avoiding.  Meh.  We’ll see if the motivation outweighs the nuisance.

An Inch of Will

Several weeks ago, I asked my spiritual teacher for advice on how to work with the compulsions I experience during a bipolar episode.  She suggested I read what G.I. Gurdjieff or P.D. Ouspensky had to say about Will.  After several library searches, I finally found a copy of Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way, and what he had to say about Will gave me some much-needed direction.

Both Ouspensky and his teacher, Gurdjieff, viewed Man as a sleeping, mechanical automaton.  What’s normally thought of as will, or free will, is actually a line of action that follows our desires.  Since our desires constantly change, the direction of our will changes with them, resulting in a line of action that goes every which way.  We think we’re heading in a straight line.  That’s part of being asleep.

To develop true Will, Ouspensky said, one must save enough energy to be able to struggle with weaknesses in the personality and to resist following one’s desires.  If a person doesn’t have enough energy to resist strong urges and big weaknesses, tackling something smaller and less difficult will save one’s energy.  These smaller battles also increase a person’s capacity for making the larger efforts.

It’s the friction generated by these struggles that create the energy needed to fight bigger and bigger battles.  I forget this.  During an episode, I become so focused on surviving and getting past it, that I forget to use it.  If Ouspensky is correct, the efforts I make in controlling my attention (taking it away from distorted thinking, for example) and observing myself help to grow true Will in that moment.

He said, one must try not to “escape” from the friction, which would call for a minimum of distraction.  Granted, he wasn’t talking about individuals with mental illness, so all this must be filtered through that particular lens.  Like most things, a balance must be found.  How do I hold the tension of resisting desires and controlling weaknesses in my character without stressing myself into an even worse mental state?

I believe I’ve started that process.  Last winter, I thought surviving a six-day bipolar episode was more than I could bear.  This current episode has lasted over three weeks, and while I’m certainly sick of it, I’m managing.  As my compulsive eating and spending rise and fall, I resist to the best of my ability.  Now, I’ll try to turn my attention to the energy being created by that resistance and use it to further my cause.

“Will has to be used,” Ouspensky said.  “We are never ready for Work, but we must Work all the same.  If one has an inch of Will and uses it, it will grow.”

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