If Wishes Were Bathtubs…

… Then Dreamers Would Soak.

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bathtub Chris

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Today was my last day in IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation).  For the past year, I’ve been working towards the goal of living successfully in my current home and making changes that will help sustain me and my mental health.  Through IPR, I dreamed, made lists, researched, planned, strategized, and started putting my Master Plan into action.

Henry in Old TubOne thing about my apartment I wanted to change was the bath tub.  Since I live in a government-subsidized apartment, I never for a moment thought that was possible.  I considered myself lucky to have running water.  But, since IPR is all about dreaming, I put it on my list.  How nice it would be to have a tub I actually fit into instead of a freakishly narrow trough with sliding doors that rolled open on their own while I showered.  When the poltergeist doors stayed shut, my XL body sported bruises from snagging on sharp edges.

Hot baths with scented oils or salts used to be a staple in my mental health tool box.  A long soak with relaxing music, a glass of wine, a candle—the ritual calmed my brain and soothed my soul.  To compensate, I learned to meditate in the hot tub at the Y after swimming.  Close, but no cigar.

Emboldened by IPR, I asked the apartment manager last winter if it was possible to get a bigger tub if my family helped me pay the cost.  She didn’t immediately say no.  “No one’s ever asked for anything like that,” she said.  “I’ll check with management.”

New TubWithin a few days, she called me to say she and the property’s maintenance man would get bids from contractors.  What?  I smelled lavender in my future!

Several months passed, but eventually we found a reputable plumber who gave a reasonable offer.  Last week, he and his carpenter buddy took a sawzall to the old tub and replaced it with a heavenly soaking tub.  The cats and I holed up in the bedroom for two days while they worked, the cats hiding under the bed while I made a shopping list for Bed, Bath and Beyond.

After the contractors left, it was my turn to go to work.  With raw drywall around the new surround, I needed to prime and paint.  And if I had to paint, I wanted make it count.

bagua-map-rectangleFirst I consulted my Feng Shui book, Wind and Water by Carole Hyder.  I love Feng Shui.  I don’t know if it works, but it’s one way to organize a home, a way to bring intention to areas of one’s life that need a boost.  It helps me remember important things like the Helpful People in my life and to foster gratitude.  Feng Shui feels clean and uncluttered.  It pays tribute to the natural world and our place in it.  I like to do what I can to align with the flow of chi in my little space.

Most of my bathroom sits in the Wisdom, Self-Knowledge and Rest section, which seems right and proper.  But parts of it overlap into the Career, Health and Family areas.  What I wanted most in my bathroom was harmony and peace, so it felt right to acknowledge those other areas in my color scheme.

       blueGraygreen

New Tub2At our local paint store, I chose Fantasy Blue for the Wisdom area, Pale Smoke to acknowledge the black element in the Career area, and Nob Hill Sage for the long wall that overlapped the Family area.  Since my little pantry closet sits in the Health area, I’ll find a nice buttery yellow for that later (One project at time).  Armed with chi-enhancing colors, my step-ladder and some masking tape, I set to work over the Fourth of July weekend.

GreenBlue WallsFor those of you who are homeowners, this stuff is old hat—drywall, paint, hand tools.  I remember.  I used to be one of you.  But, for those of us who rent or have little control over the aesthetics of our environment, this kind of freedom is rare and sweet.  With every stroke of the brush, I thought, “I chose this color.”  And I couldn’t quite believe it.

As I hauled myself up and down the ladder or on and off the floor, I felt the room becoming mine.  I felt it welcoming me and the cats.  I felt the peace and harmony I so longed for settle into place.  After three days of work, I was exhausted and hobbling, but I knew I’d done what I set out to do.  We had our sanctuary.

Cat Station HighAfter we revel in this success for a while, I’ll move on to the next project on my IPR list.  Because if wishes were horses, I’d be riding high.  For now, this dreamer plans to soak.

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I Think We Need a Bigger Boat

boatI found out today that my therapist and the nurse practitioner who provides my medication supervision are leaving to start a private practice of their own near Des Moines.

If you’re in the mental health delivery system, you’ve probably experienced this kind of trauma.  It takes years of searching to find a therapist who gets you, to find a psychiatrist or NP who works with you, only to have them leave, or the clinic closes, or whatever kind of insurance you have doesn’t work anymore.  The most essential piece of your recovery drops out of existence.  So you flounder, and in that vulnerable state, have to start searching all over again.

I’m lucky in that they will only be an hour away.  After talking with my therapist today, my plan is to stick with them if they can get Medicaid-certified.  Lots of “ifs.”  So, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.  Except it is.

I hate how stuff like this confounds and unmoors me.  Even with a solution in sight, I feel hysteria crawling up my throat.  Just when my support system seemed to be jelling, just when it seemed safe to go back in the water…

I have to watch my catastrophizing—I see sharks when it might just be tuna.  I have to keep breathing.  I have to remember I’ll be fine no matter what happens.  I’ve been here before—back when my boat didn’t even have a motor.  So, I’m okay.  I just wish there wasn’t so much chum in the water around me.

bigger boat

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.

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.

Season of Change

Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Star TrekThis is sort of a big week.  Wednesday will be my last Support Group session.  Thursday, my mom returns home from the nursing home.  Big changes.  And change is always a little dangerous for anyone with bipolar disorder.  The trick, I’ve learned, is to acknowledge the potential and Watch.

I feel like I’ve prepared well for the end of Group.  My mental health clinic has been in trouble for some time, first losing money, then losing our psychiatrist, and finally, when a larger clinic took over, losing most of the counseling staff.  It seemed like the right time to transfer my records to the clinic in my own town.  I’ll miss my therapist—she’s been my biggest cheerleader—but I’ll be able to join a support group offered here.

I never thought I’d benefit so much from a support group, but I’ve learned that my preference for solitude puts me at risk.  For the rest of my life, I will need to push against that tendency, and continuing with a group will help me do that.  I still have to go through all the intake interviews and paperwork, find a new therapist, and explain how I manage without medication.  But, that’s part of the process.  A little stressful, a little anxiety-producing, but eventually I’ll settle into a new routine here.

On Wednesday, I’ll get to say a few words of parting, then the group will pass around a token (like the ones folks get in Recovery programs).  Each person will get to hold the token and say a few words about me.  After three months in this group, I’ve participated in several parting rituals, and they’re always moving.  I imagine this one will be, too.  I’m bringing Kleenex.

But, it’s time to move on.  This group was always meant to be a transition between hospitalization and New Life—that’s why clients can only participate for three months.  I’m ready.  And still, it’s a big change.

The next day my sister and I will help my mom return home after three months recovering from a botched angiogram.  A lot has changed for her.  Still weak and somewhat unsteady on her feet, she’ll go home with a walker and a cast on her arm, a home health aide to assist with bathing and housekeeping, and  a whole new way of perceiving her life.  “I have to think of myself as handicapped now,” she told me yesterday.

I don’t know yet how Mom’s homecoming will affect me.  My sister always took the lead as far was Mom is concerned, but I live closer.  It’s an uncomfortable triad—I can generally hold my own one-on-one, but put us all together and I either fade into the wallpaper or try to do too much.  Old patterns and a history of nonexistent boundaries make my family the biggest trigger for my bipolar episodes.  So, I’m Watching.

What I’m Seeing are old coping behaviors popping up like Whack-A-Moles—binge eating, long daytime naps, lots of movies—with the expected dips into depression.  So, I keep Watching and, when I can, I go do something else.  Like take a walk or write a blog post.

Change happens.  We adapt.  Those of us with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses may need more time and resources to get to the other side, but we do.  My wish this time is to leave the least amount of carnage behind—not gain back the weight I’ve lost, not spend all my money, not hide in my apartment.  I hope to get to the other side of this season of change secure in myself and open to the benefits these changes bring.

Here comes the storm.  I’ll wet my finger with a little thankfulness and love, then turn to face it.

Whiplash

Secretaries, handmade greeting card, collage art

¤ ¤ ¤

I get to the hospital this morning, after pouring out our family’s latest saga here, and I find my mother with monitors, and O2, and IVs like a regular hospital-type patient intent on getting well.  So I lean in to ask what might be going on, and she pats my arm.

“The doctor said I had to take care of myself.”

Out I go to the nurses’ station.  Come to find out Mom got pretty uncomfortable overnight, what with no pain medication and no oxygen to easy her breathing.  She decided suicide wasn’t worth it.  Then, her doc for the past thirty-five years read her the riot act.  No one seems to know exactly what he said, and Mom’s not telling, but I have never seen her so compliant.

I watched with my mouth agape when the nurse asked how she felt and Mom’s answer was, “Fine.”  She took her meds, ate a little breakfast, worked without complaint with the Occupational Therapist.  All of a sudden the Dying with Dignity bus got rear-ended by a semi full of Let’s Get Better.

I’m not complaining.  Okay, maybe I am.  As a former nurse and spiritual guide, I should know how to drive this vehicle.  I can balance the fight for life with supporting one’s final wishes, but the drama on this particular highway is of pea soup quality.  By the time I left the hospital today, my new motto was “Let The Professionals Figure It Out.”

With my sister’s blessing, I’m taking a day off tomorrow.  I’ll visit with my meditation buddies in Des Moines, see the new Star Trek movie, and go to my post-hospitalization support group.  No freeway pile-ups, no sudden lane changes.  Just a day to loosen up enough to take the next hit.  Because another one is bound to come.  And this highway is crazy enough without adding my own special brand.

Remember Drivers, hands at 10 and 2.

The Good Fight

handmade greeting cards, collage artSo, I’m ducking and weaving with this whole idea of letting Life be instead of knocking it to the ground.  It’s a weird place for me, the Ultimate Gnat’s Ass Detailer.  My modus operandi is to schedule, make lists, revise the schedule, scrap the first list and make a new one.  I’m never comfortable without a Plan.  But, see, after all this time, the Plan is ingrained.  I know what works and what doesn’t as far as my bipolarness goes.  And there will never be an Answer. There’s no alchemy, no incantation of To Do lists that will halt the rapid cycling or turn me into someone who can work a day job.

What I’ve got are a few tools to help me be the healthiest I can be in the moment—daily exercise, an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, distraction that does no harm, and an attitude of skepticism when it comes to what my brain says.  That’s all really.  Turning from “what’s the plan” to “what do I need now” is incredibly hard.  I’m giving up my fantasy of the future.  But when I take a breath and notice the details around me right now, that unlikely future loses its glamour.

Yesterday, walking around the track at the Y, I had to dodge clots of teenagers.  Bored from watching the girls’ volleyball tournament, they hung out around the free weights or wandered aimlessly back and forth across the track, not paying attention to the runners and walkers.  Several times, I had to gently push them aside as I marched past.  One girl stopped right in front of me and I had to straight-arm her out of my way to keep from falling.  But, no one fell.  No one stumbled.  No collisions or recriminations.  No anger or scolding.  Just paying attention and making adjustments.

And then there was that golden, winter afternoon light that shot through the high windows and kissed me on every lap.  Sweet, blinding sunlight for a moment.  A flash of warmth on my face.  A gift, if I only turned my face toward it.

Of course, there will be backsliding in my acceptance of moment-to-moment life.  Last night I rebelled.  After seven months of vegan eating, I ordered a Super Supreme from Pizza Hut, ate half of it with a bottle of wine, and watched “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.”  This, my sad and angry little brain told me, is as close to sex as you’ll ever get again.

Richard ArmitageYes, facing reality instead of living in fantasy is a little hard to swallow sometimes.  I watched Richard Armitage in The Vicar of Dibley on YouTube and cheered.  A handsome stranger falls head-over-heals for an obese, middle-aged cynic—oh, dream come true!  But, dreams like that keep me from living.  There are no handsome strangers in real life, just banter with the happily married help-desk guy at the Y.  Losing weight will not transform me into a young, desirable princess.  I am firmly in Queen territory now, fast approaching Crone-hood.

There are pleasures and delights in my life as it is—a purring, furry presence to wake me in the morning, an iPod full of cheer, train whistles in the dark, the kindness and patience of friends.  This is my life—quixotic and painful with moments of grace.  This is the fight now—to stand side-by-side with my bipolarness and duke it out together for place to stand.  To live together in the moment.

To be real.

What Scared Looks Like

I’m scared.

I’ve gone through bad episodes before.  Being a “brittle” bipolar, that’s just a fact of life.  Some I get through with more grace and humor than others.  This isn’t one of those episodes.

Yesterday I completely lost my moorings.  Except for going to the post office and then the grocery store to get binge food, I stayed in my apartment and tried to shut it all down.  Of course that’s not possible.  After nearly fifty years of dealing with bipolar disorder, one would think I’d have figured that out.  Well, I have, but I forget.  And the desperation makes me try one more time.

I woke up screaming in the night.  Nightmares of a big, shadowy man sneaking through my door.  That’s this illness.  A huge black presence that creeps in and does despicable harm.

I’m nearly hysterical thinking I might gain back the weight I’ve lost this year.  I don’t trust my conviction or my strength.  I don’t believe I can really change my life.  I only see the pattern that leads back to fat and crazy.

I don’t believe my new friends are real.  I don’t believe I’ll ever finish my book on my fight with this illness.  I’m terrified that I’m getting worse, remembering the studies I read that said bipolar disorder rots the brain and eventually leaves the patient stupid and demented.

I’m sure the flurry of activity on my new Etsy site was just opening day traffic from everyone I sent an email.  Now it will sink into oblivion, but I fuss and fret over it—making more cards and adding them to the shop, worrying about being fair, trying not to hope and doing it anyway.

Who is this panicky, desperate, tearful woman?  How can I be this petrified and isolated when just a few months ago I was riding the Bad-Ass train to a new and improved life with a cadre of companions?

I am not helpless.  I still have tools, even if they don’t work very well right now.  I’ll get myself to the Y, get in the water, and stay there until something shifts.  I’ll either break down in tears, get furious, or exhaust myself.  Any of those will be better than this jagged hopelessness.  I’ll call my therapist and pour out this jumble so she can help me sort through it.

I’ll go to a different cafe and journal.  I don’t think I can bear going to Haven anymore, even though they won’t close for another month.  The stink of failure and sadness is stronger than the coffee now.

I’ll get outside and walk with my iPod draped over my neck in the cozy I made out of a sock and a shoestring.  I’ll walk the cool, autumn streets and breathe.  I’ll let the music do its work and keep walking.  Walking back to a different place on the bipolar spectrum.  Walking through the fear.  Walking back to myself.

Portion Control

Collage art, greeting card, humor

I’m forever looking for a different perspective on my bipolar disorder, a new spin, a fresh approach, some metaphor that will pop the lid on Magic and Truth.  Driving home from the movie theater the other day, another one presented itself.

My life is all about Portion Control.

Since impulse control is the Troll under my bipolar bridge, restraint and moderation have simply been beyond my reach most of my life.  Between episodes, I’m a paragon of virtue, walking the path of Divine Temperance with nary a glance to either side of Temptation.  But once I hit that bridge, Troll-Mind takes over.  It goes something like this:

GimmeGimmeGimme. MoreMoreMore. NowNowNow.

 

When I finally make it to the other side of the bridge, I look back at massive destruction, consumption, and extravagance.  Caligula was a poser in comparison.

So part of my quest is to find methods or structures that will enforce prudence where none exists.  For several years, I gave control of my money to my friend, Cheryl. She held my credit card and my checkbook.  She watched me pay bills and provided me a weekly allowance.  My sister kept track of my tiny savings account, and still does.  That money remains in a bank out of my reach.  Troll-Mind still sends me on spending sprees, but I seem to be able to compensate better than I used to.  The Troll seems to be satisfied with a scrap of indulgence now rather than pillaging a whole countryside.  And I wonder why.

Snow White Troll

The changes I’ve been making in my daily habits like exercising or reading memoirs instead of watching TV poke the Troll with a big stick.  I’ve felt my compulsive urges roar with renewed violence—a monster frightened of losing its power.  To find some balance, I’ve tried to offer it scraps—a movie at a theater instead of hours of TV, one ice cream cone from McDonald’s instead of a carton of Ben & Jerry’s at home, writing a schmaltzy romance story instead of pining for the perfect mate.  I wonder if offering scraps for these other compulsions will work the way it did for money?  I wonder if this version of portion control will lull the beast?

Time and practice will tell, I guess.  Until I stumble over the next metaphor.

Becoming

What a wacky week.

On one hand, the rapid cycling and slow-motion despair dragged me into a “What’s the Use?” thought loop that quickly spiraled into suicidal ideation.  On the other hand, I was this month’s Biggest Loser at TOPS with a 9.6 pound weight loss.  The fact that I made it out the other side of this bipolar frenzy makes me know, deep in my soul, that I can make it through anything.  I told a friend, “If I didn’t kill myself this week, I never will.”

And that feels absolutely true.  Not delusional.  Not wishful thinking.

I could feel the Bad-Ass coming back yesterday, but I had to keep searching for her.  My grip would slip, but if I concentrated, I could find that sense of ferocity, that drive to survive and beat back the darkness.  That sure-footedness is a little stronger today.

I know I’m not done with the stress of challenging my compulsive eating and changing the fabric of my life.  I know the stress will trigger my illness again.  And again.  But somehow this battle is bringing me back to myself.  I’m finding a partner in me, someone I can finally count on to guard my back instead of sabotaging my efforts.  A new level of self-trust is forming, a new confidence.  I like this person I’m becoming.

Today I have to agree with Nietzsche—That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

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