Coming Out

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

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

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

Lion Spread

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

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

Failed Michael

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

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

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

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

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

FYTeesha

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

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

 

Focus on Gratitude: Day 5

Starbucks’ Venti, Skinny, Peppermint Mocha with Almond Milk.  The Starbucks in Marshalltown is in HyVee, so they just grab almond milk off the shelf for those of us who keep bugging them for it.  That’s customer service.  Thank you.

Starbucks

Where Everything is Music

handmade greeting card, collage artI hardly recognize myself.  Twelve days of clear skies and mental calm seas.  Fourteen days since the last time my illness made me jump in the truck and escape to the movies.  I get up, go to the Y and come home to my own table with my own chai.  A few weeks ago, the thought of living without a coffee shop would have made me weep with grief.  Now, it’s nothing.  Nothing.

I come home and journal with my own chai, work on my manuscript as easily as I type this.  No angst, no sharp hooks of remembered pain when I enter the old journals.  Just typing.

I prepare a hearty lunch of sautéed vegetables and pasta.  I cook every day.  Cook with pleasure.  A few weeks ago the idea of cooking filled me with terror.  Now, it’s nothing.  Nothing.

There’s a bone-deep satisfaction in all I’m doing, how I can choose to stay home, prepare my meals, walk to the Y.  I’m saving money.  Me.  When only a few weeks ago I didn’t know how I would survive to the end of the month.  The strangle-hold of poverty let go.  In this place of gentle weather, I have enough, and I can make this choice to set money aside for my car fund.  A choice.  I have a choice.

In the afternoons, I go back to the Y and walk with my iPod.  The music pulls the day together—the work, the pleasure, the satisfaction all flow into my feet and my swinging arms.  Here I am.

I go home to make a card, blend a fruit smoothie, and sit with Jane Austen.  The cats gather.  Night grows deeper.  We listen to the music singing us, so quiet and calm.  And it’s nothing.  Nothing.

• • •

Dont’ worry about saving these song!

And if one of our instruments breaks,

it doesn’t matter.

·

We have fallen into the place

where everything is music.

·

The strumming and the flute notes

rise into the atmosphere,

and even if the whole world’s harp

should burn up, there will still be

hidden instruments playing.

·

So the candle flickers and goes out.

We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

·

This singing art is sea foam.

The graceful movements come from a pearl

somewhere on the ocean floor.

·

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge

of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

·

They derive

from a slow and powerful root

that we can’t see.

·

Stop the words now.

Open the window in the center of your chest,

and let the spirits fly in and out.

—Rumi

Debt and Agitation

handmade cards, collage artI lost my mind for a little while this morning.

I’ve been struggling to hold my compulsive behaviors at bay, which is like telling the ocean to be still.  When the bipolar tide comes in, there’s no arguing with it.  Silly wall of water!  You just go back out to sea where you belong!  Sure, I could scold all day long.  Trouble is, I’d still drown.

When I’m severely agitated, I bolt.  I can’t make myself stay in my apartment or even in town.  I have to get in my truck and drive.  Usually to a friendly coffee shop in Ames or Des Moines where I can sip and write in my journal.  This soothes me.  This allows the anxiety and hysteria to ooze out until I can once again function like a human being.

I used to be able to moderate my rabbitty behavior by going to a coffee shop here in town.  But, Haven closed, and all the other cafés or bakeries or restaurants have too many strikes against them—too expensive, too loud, too dark, bad food, bad coffee, bad service, and the worst—uncomfortable chairs.  I have no middle ground anymore, no place where I can get away from my apartment without driving at least 45 minutes.

This is not an ideal situation for someone with no money.  I have to charge gasoline to my credit card, but can’t pay the balance.  So it grows.  And if I try to pay more on the balance each month, I have no cash and dip into the tiny cushion of my checking account.  So that’s shrinking, too.  As I sink deeper in debt, the stress of trying to physically rein in my symptoms and the squeeze of lack triggers more agitation, depression and manic flights of escape.  This morning I could not see a way out of this loop.  And the undertow of hopelessness pulled me under.

I talked to my mental health clinic about payee services in my area.  Could I find someone to help me manage my money?  But the thought of turning over my credit card or trying to “budget” my flights out of town made me sob out loud.  I thought about what else I could eliminate from my expenses.  I thought about asking my mom for money.  Everything seemed penny-pinching and ineffective.  The only real solution is to be mentally stable.  Silly old mental illness!  Just go back to whatever genetic pool you came from and let me get on with my life!

I’m too poor to be bipolar, that’s all there is to it.

Hysteria is never helpful.  I recognized this as I sobbed into my napkin and the other patrons at Panera tried not to stare.  Yes, my compulsive behaviors are active and overwhelming at present.  Yes, I am in debt.  But, I have people who love me and won’t let me end up sleeping in my truck.  This season will pass.

I don’t have a solution.  My view is too narrow and constricted right now.  But, that actually seems okay.  There are just some things that can’t be fixed.  Like bipolar disorder itself, maybe this is another partner I have to write onto my dance card.  I don’t know.  Not knowing is terrifying, but I can relieve myself of the burden to fix this situation for now.  That helps.

It’s like floating.  When the ocean seizes a person, they can fight and exhaust themselves, or they can float and save their strength.  For now, I’ll float and dream of life rafts.

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.

“Feed Your Hunger. Quench Your Thirst.”

I found out my coffee shop will be closing its doors for good on November 1.  Small businesses struggle all across the country, but our town eats them for snacks.  Haven limped along for almost three years, and even though it had faithful customers, it operated at a loss the entire time.  The end was inevitable.

Since my depression is treacherous at present, I can’t allow myself to consider the implications.  November first is a lifetime away.  No need now to mourn or worry about how I’ll spend my mornings.  Instead I comfort myself the way I have over the last three years—sitting in the sunshine at “my” table with a bit of breakfast, chatting with the other regulars, and writing.  Always writing.

Holiday Survival Tactics

I don’t like holidays.

I would rather scratch them all from my calendar.  I understand that the weary working need and savor this break, but they only make me sick.  The YMCA closes, my coffee shops close, the folks I interact with on a daily basis trot off to be with their families or throw parties—all of which blasts apart my routine.  Without my routine, I am a Bipolar Time Bomb with a very short fuse.

Since I was already in a heightened state of stress going into the holiday, I knew I needed some serious backup planning to keep from wigging out completely.  I planned to walk the neighborhood to make up for my missed aquatics classes.  Yesterday’s temperature was supposed to top out over 100 degrees, so I took my walk at 4:00 AM.  I was awake anyway with a yammering cross-fire of spiky thoughts (courtesy of the Bipolar Agitation Fairy), so why not use the time, right?

I decided to allow myself some TV, but the only thing on was Magic City, a Starz series about hotels and the mob in 1959—sort of like Mad Men with dead bodies.  I got hooked immediately and had to watch six episodes in a row until I couldn’t take any more depravity or naked women.  More yammering, only now it’s images of icky, greasy mobsters doing icky things.  Ick.

The urge to bolt seized me, and all I could think of was to go to a movie.  That I’d already seen.  Which was fine.  Air conditioning and popcorn with a little distraction from the yammerers.  But after the movie I was right back where I started.  I made birthday cards for a while, cooked some supper, worked three crossword puzzles.  I tried to soothe my traumatized cats when the fireworks started up, but they would have none of that.  They planted themselves under my bed and stayed there.

When I finally crawled into bed myself, all I sent up a little prayer of thanks.  I made it through another holiday.  Sort of.

Return of the Bad-Ass

This morning I got up on the good side of the bed.  And I didn’t even know I had one.

Life in general is taking a turn.  Our family is slowly finding a new rhythm without Dad.  My incision hurts less all the time and water aerobics is morphing back into something enjoyable instead of torture.  I have a plan for combating the respiratory infections that have plagued me the last couple of years.  My bipolar disorder is quiet for the time being.  And my new doc planted some motivational seeds to take up the weight loss banner.  Again.

It’s the return of the Bipolar Bad-Ass.  Thank the stars!  It’s been a couple of months since I felt this strong and clear with some sense of direction and the energy to follow through.  I quit whining about not having the perfect coffee shop to do my word smithing and planted myself at Muddy Waters.  This is where I first started writing again after my bipolar collapse.  The folks there know me, welcome me and treat me well.

I checked out two juvenile books at the library, on the recommendation of my friend, Joa, the Children’s Librarian, and put my name on the waiting list for Stephen King’s new book.  My ECT-fried brain is a lot like my stiff arm after surgery.  The muscles and skin ache and resist stretching, but they have to be worked in order to function.  I haven’t read anything in awhile, and I need to.  It’s part of my Training.

I pulled out my calorie counter, Clean Eating magazines, food journal and started paying attention to my intake again. Hearing Dr. Brown say “I know it’s hard, but you have to do it anyway” felt good.  I needed to hear that the obstacles in my way don’t really matter—the obsessive compulsive behavior, the fears, the wanting.  They are serious, and they are real, but I have to find a way to set them aside.  At this moment, I’m determined to lose 20 pounds (Yikes!  Did I say that out loud?).  I don’t know how long that will take, but there it is—my starting goal.  In black and white.

Of course, my mood will shift.  The depression will waft back in and blow my resolve.  But, I’m going to try to keep focus during the next episode.  And if I can’t manage that, I’ll try to get back to Bad-Ass Training sooner rather than later.  But, today is what I have, and today I’m in Training.  Today, the Bitch is Back.

Do Not Fold, Bend or Staple

There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.

— Alfred Hitchcock

‡ ‡ ‡

Girding my loins for what was surely to be excruciating pain, I followed the nurse into Dr. McCune’s treatment room.  My voice quavered when I told her I’d probably need a pan to puke in, that pain did that to me.

But five minutes later, the staples were out and my taciturn surgeon on his way to the hospital.

Wha???

I sat on the table and sobbed, not from pain but relief.

Oh, the knots we tie ourselves into!  I’d been dreading this day, sure the folks in the waiting room would call the police when they heard me screaming, afraid I’d have to punch my doctor in the nose.  And it was nothing.  As Christopher Robin says to Pooh, “Silly old bear!”

Actually, Dr. McCune cracks me up.  He reminds me of the actor, Sam Elliott—classic cowboy silence and steely-eyed calm.  I babbled while he worked, asking him how big the tumor was, did he weigh it, why the incision was so long, blah, blah, blah.  The only answer he gave to all that was he didn’t want the scar to be “dog-eared” and that pathology “didn’t find anything.”  Then, he helped me sit up, patted me on the knee and left.  If he had a cowboy hat, he would have touched a finger to it and muttered, “Ma’am.”

I’ll just pack up my little Drama Kit and slink over to Des Moines for a cuppa.  I’ll work on Callinda in a calm and refined manner, then sit meditation with my friends.

Move along, now.  The show’s over.

Where, Oh Where Has My Coffee Shop Gone?


I’m a girl who needs a dive, a hang-out, a haunt, a place.  As long as I’ve been writing, I’ve done my best work tucked away in a funky cafe, scribbling longhand on tables that wobble, with Alternative music floating out of the corners.   Menus change, the number of piercings and tattoos on the wait-staff change, the music definitely changes, but there’s always a hidey-hole I can call my own somewhere nearby.

So to be without a home away from home is unthinkable, yet, here I am—dive-less.  I admit I’m picky about my spots.  They can’t be too expensive or too busy:  I need to be able to enjoy the faire without sacrificing heat, shoes or one of the cats, and I must be allowed to linger without the staff snorting steam about turning my table for the next customer.  The chairs have to be comfortable if I’m to plant my butt there for hours, so booths or padded seats are a must.  Conversation, traffic, innocuous music, and espresso machinery actually add to my experience, but loud and opinionated Bible study groups, toddlers in tantrum mode, football games on TV, and fights in the kitchen don’t (though the kitchen fights can be entertaining).  The food and drink need to be edible, if simple—no tepid coffee kept for hours in an airpot, no breakfast burritos with mayonnaise guacamole and frozen centers.

One by one, I’ve eliminated all the writing holes my hometown has to offer.  Bad food, too expensive, uncomfortable seats, too busy, weird hours, too loud, too prejudiced, bad service.  For awhile I tried to rotate through them, putting up with their deficiencies by preparing for them.  I brought my own pillows, found the most isolated tables, dug out my old pocket CD player and earphones, brought my own food or ate before I arrived, altered my schedule—anything to make the experience pleasant enough to get some writing done.  But all this just gave me cramps from bending so far over backwards.

A new coffee shop has been under construction for over a year a few blocks from my apartment.  Each day I drive by and watch it inch toward completion.  Could this be The One?  Might my Goldilocks snuggle into this dive and find it just right?  Maybe, but I can’t stop searching.  Right now, I’m driving a half hour to sit in a near-perfect Panera’s.  I worry about spending too much money on gas, but my writing is going so well that I’m determined to make it work.  After all, it’s the writing that’s important here, not the quality of the lattes or the freshness of the scones.  Well… as long as they have blueberry.

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