Breaking the Surface

Today I worked out in my water aerobics class without a safety belt.  We all wear this big, blue styrofoam wedge strapped around our waists to keep us from going under, or at least, make it harder to go under.

Different parts of the routine require raising hands and arms in the air, so it’s hard to tread water.  Other exercises have us pointing straight up and down—conducive to dropping like a rock to the bottom of the pool.

But today, I needed to see if I was strong enough to do the exercises without the belt.  I did—without panicking—even when I could only keep my face above the surface.  I was exhausted when we finished, but felt like I accomplished something—proved something.

All day today, I felt like my head had broken the surface—a slight sense of relief, a subtle shift of the eyes up and out to a wider view.  I drove to Ames after my water class, and found myself ticking off things I was grateful for as I watched the empty corn fields roll past—my sister, my mom, the way Emmett body-slams against my legs when he’s happy.  I was grateful for the money Mom gave me so I could gas up the truck, drive to Ames, sit in Panera with a bear claw and coffee, and write for four hours without worrying about how to balance my budget for this indulgence.

I broke the surface in my writing, too, noting how the Callinda rewrites are taking a completely different turn from the original story.  I saw how I kept trying to bring the story back around to the original, twisting it unnaturally and making it illogical.  Then, I remembered a woman from a writers’ group I belonged to years ago and her sage words: “Kill Your Darlings.”

All of a sudden my vision expanded.  I was able to look up and out.  I’d been trying to keep all the “good parts” of the old story—my darlings—when they no longer fit.  I went back over the whole story so far, all eighteen chapters, with this broader point of view, editing out the darlings and tightening the plot  (Those edits will be incorporated in the Callinda chapters posted here soon).

This has been a long and difficult episode.  I calculated it’s been 22 days so far, with some moments or days a little lighter than others.  Most of the time, though, it’s been a deep dive into the abyss.  That’s a long time to hold your breath.  It cramps perspective.  So, it was a gift to break the surface today.  Even if it’s just for today, I feel a little stronger, like I accomplished something.


Drumsound rises on the air,
its throb, my heart.
A voice inside the beat says,
“I know you’re tired,
but come.  This is the way.”

∞ ∞ ∞

How to follow that quiet, wise voice inside.  Because it’s still there, much as my ears rush with this other sound.  There seems no other how but to do, to follow the dim suggestion to plant one foot in front of the other.

The old routine tastes off, contaminated by this unsavoriness.  The water still feels like comfort as my body stretches and churns, flexing out depression’s burrs.  But, Haven, my writing sanctuary, my one indulgence, irritates and offends.  Christian music blares from outside speakers, Easy Listening inside, and I hear both at my regular table.  No one will fix the cacophony for me, and I leave.  I’m done there, I think.

I look for a new shirt at Wal-Mart, but nothing is right.  I push my cart around and around the racks of clothes as if I can conjure what I want with the proper spiral.  I go to the grocery store, determined to buy healthy food, no junk.  Each selection requires long scrutiny, painful contemplation.  There are moments of standing blank in the aisle, staring into the sea of lunch meats and cheeses, holding two jars of spaghetti sauce.

I come home to waiting cats, mildly curious about my bags.  I put groceries away, heat up soup, make a sandwich, start to watch a movie I’m not interested in, lay down on my bed with Henry tucked close.

I hear the faint voice encouraging me, and I do the next thing.  Then the next.

“I know you’re tired,
but come.  This is the way.”

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 16

My treat, my indulgence, a cup of fancy coffee is the way I snap my fingers at poverty.  Three dollars a day is my investment in feeling like a worthy human being instead of a scavenger digging my fingernails bloody.  A caramel latte helps me keep perspective on my brother’s grousing about not quite making a quarter of a million dollars before he retired.  An iced cold press smooths out the worry when I think about my upcoming trip to Pittsburgh and the credit card debt I’ll have when I get home.  A rich dark roast tells me “All is well, and all will be well.”

Sip.  Breathe.  Remember that I have enough.  Know that I am enough.

An Aside

I find it really interesting that since I’ve been posting my 30 Days of Gratitude series, viewer-ship of this blog has radically dropped.  Is gratitude boring?  Or is it just that the little joys in my life are uninteresting to others?  Or maybe it seems self-indulgent (which might be a Webster’s definition for “blogging”).  Does this much gratitude make others uncomfortable?

Or is it that folks miss the drama of my bipolar chronicles?  Are posts about my dives into depression sexier than a page out of my Gratitude Journal?  Is there more meat in my struggles with poverty?  More juice in how I battle my compulsions?

Well, yes, of course.  This gratitude stuff is pretty bland.  Milquetoast. Bluebirds perched on Snow White’s dainty finger.  Where’s the charge in friendship and a good cuppa Joe?

By the time this series is over, I might have only my sister hanging on (I know she’ll still take a look now and then), but that’s really okay.  I’ve read other blogs where the authors worry about readership—how to increase it, how to keep it, how to turn it into something profitable.  That’s just not me.  I’m thrilled that folks come visit, honored that some leave comments, flabbergasted when those comments are thoughtful and heart-felt.  But, in all honesty, this blog is for me.

In the five months I’ve maintained this site, I’ve changed.  The way I manage my illness, the way I function in the world, the way I interact with others, the way I make art, the way I write—all changed.  I’m stronger, clearer, more accepting of myself and my illness.  I’m less fearful, less constricted, and far less likely to let the illness take away my will to live.  I don’t just exist anymore.  I’m living a life.

Fostering a sense of gratitude helps me live the kind of life I want.  I can feel my soul turn toward the light.  I can sense the brain chemistry shifting.  It may not be sexy, but gratitude is magic.  It’s holy.

So, I’ll continue my 30 Days of Gratitude as an exercise in transformation.  Who knows what or who may be on the other side?

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 12

I admit it.  I’m not an easy friend.  I don’t chitchat or gossip.  I don’t like shopping or care about make-up and manicures.  I dig into your personal life and snap open your psyche.  And if you don’t behave or think the way I think you should, I’ll set you straight.  Oh, and then there’s that bipolar thing that tends to annoy and exhaust potential friends before we even get started.  No, I’m not easy.

So, it’s a miracle that I can claim two (count ’em, two!) new friends since moving back to Marshalltown five years ago.  I met Matt at the Tremont, the cafe where I first reclaimed my ability to write.  He would come in for iced tea before going to his salon across the street.  Loud, outrageous, hilarious, he’d slide into my booth and we would spin off into endless directions, talking in multiple foreign accents and laughing until we wet ourselves.  Also suffering from clinical depression, Matt and I understood each other in ways others couldn’t.  We knew when to push and challenge and when to empathize and be gentle.  I don’t see Matt as often as I did since converting to Haven as my coffee-shop-of-choice, but when we do get together, it’s like we were never apart.  That’s the sign of a true friend.

Funny how those coffee shops keep providing me with a social life.  Joyce manages the “front” at Haven.   With her Betty Rubble laugh, she sees Haven as her Shop of Joy.  Her compassion and caring keep people coming back.  She and I connected from the very first latte. She’s someone I can go deep with, talking about our feelings, our fears, our dreams.  We share a love of crafts and thrift shops.  We laugh a lot and talk in a street lingo only white, middle class, middle-aged women would ever think hip (we down w’dat, sista).  As a Christian, Joyce carries her faith gently, never shoving it onto others, just letting it guide her actions and her choices.  I respect her deeply for this since our town seems choked with rabid conservative blowhards.  Someone who actually practices their faith by action instead of word warms my cockles.

I’m blessed to have found these treasures—complex, fascinating, loving individuals who consider me their friend.  Even if I’m not easy.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 10

Storms in the early morning yesterday knocked out power for twelve hours.  Some parts of town are still dark and closed.  I guess that’s a good enough reason to be a day late with this Gratitude entry.

I dig the whole gestalt of writing in a cafe.  Some writers need solitude and silence, a special desk or pen, the perfect Bach concerto, or enough room to get up and pace.  When I find the right coffee shop, I can write for hours with a pencil and a stack of napkins.

Haven opened in March of last year, and it gave me everything I needed: a small table set a little apart from the others next to a big window; a padded chair (a must when fighting Writer’s Butt); a beautiful atmosphere; coffee; delicious treats at a very reasonable price; friendly, funny staff; coffee; interesting patrons; light and tasty meals (in case the writing is going well and I don’t want to stop); and did I mention coffee?

I love being a regular at Haven.  Just like Norm in “Cheers,” I’m greeted by name when I walk in the door.  I’m included in the goings-on of the place, from trying out new drink experiments to checking the spelling on the new menu.  This winter, when I was weaning off my medications, they called me at home when I didn’t show up for a couple of days.  I’ve made good friends there.

Like every establishment, all is not paradise.  Brian, the flamboyant manager, has a volatile temper that gives a whole new meaning to “scorched earth policy.”  But, Dan, the mild-mannered owner, and Joyce, the front manager, can generally counter-balance Brian’s outbursts.  It helps that most of the kitchen staff are laid back and witty.   There are some real Zen masters back there at the prep table.

A little drama.  A nice latte.  A few words with the local philosophy professor.  It’s all part of getting into my Word Groove.  That’s the bottom line for me.  If I can leave with a couple of new pages of the novel, a couple of pages of notes, and a plan for what needs to be written tomorrow, it’s a damn fine day.

Slogging through the Cesspool

Writing yesterday was a big grunt, pure crap.  Now, I’m fine with writing crap.  I’ve made my peace with the Perfectionist Fairy.  Most days the only way to get to the gold is through the crap.  So I just keep writing until the nugget floats to the surface.

But, my writing is just one of the ways I seem to be stuttering and shuffling at the present moment.  I stopped at Kwik Star on the way home last night and snarfed a bag of cheese curls.  I looked at my art supplies and watched a rerun of Gilmore Girls instead.  I’m seriously thinking about skipping the Y this morning.  Instead of one of the Circles of Hell, I’ve entered the Bipolar Septic Tank.

All my forward momentum is getting sucked down by the inertia of the illness.  In its wake are these clinging, maladaptive behaviors.  *shudder*

The only thing to do is stay present and not abandon myself in this sewage.  Seeing it, writing it, gives me enough umph to take another step.  I’ll throw the rest of the cheese curls in the dumpster on my way to the Y.  Then, I’ll go to Haven and write at least three pages of my finest crap.  Eventually, I’ll get to the other side of this cesspool.  Just one foot in front of the other.

Transition and the Tricksy Strategy

It was great while it lasted.

Today I can feel the transition coming.  Inordinate fatigue developed this morning, followed by a steady increase in mental mud.  I can also feel the compulsions needling their way back in.  It’s easier to notice them when coming from set-point or a place of feeling normal, easier to compare the changes happening today to how I felt yesterday.

I don’t know if marking these transitions makes any difference in the long run, but I know this practice helps me to put some distance between the illness and myself.  And that’s always a good thing.  With distance comes the chance to make choices, to observe and monitor my thoughts more quickly.  My hope is that the faster I can recognize the changes in thought patterns, emotions and physical symptoms, the less delusion I’ll have to wade through and the less I’ll get sucked along on the roller coaster.

I’m interested to see if I can maintain any sort of eating plan on this swing.  I want to drop it and run to Dairy Queen, but the compulsion hasn’t gotten too strong yet, so I can still set that urge aside.  My strategy for this afternoon is to go to Haven to write and have a bowl of soup, then spend the evening with friends watching TV.  This will help with all the shifting markers—mood, mental fog, eating compulsion.

Strategies are tricksy.  Success depends on how realistic they are, which depends on how delusional I am.  And the only way to really know if I’m delusional is after the fact (A couple of years ago my strategy was to never watch TV again in my life.  Not realistic, a bit on the grandiose side).  But, that’s what this practice is for, too.  Sometimes I can “wake up” in the middle of a twisted thought and realize it’s not kosher.  Over time, I’ve learned to keep my strategies simple and gentle.  If they start sprouting “should” and “never,” I know I’ve crossed over into LaLa Land.

So, I’ll finish out the day simply and see where that takes me.

I’m on an Adventure.

Uncharted Territory

I thoroughly enjoyed my day off yesterday, reading art magazines with an iced coffee at Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few supplies (on sale!) at Hobby Lobby and Archivers, and then finishing the day with my meditation group.  As usual, we sat around Barbara’s kitchen table to catch up with each other’s spiritual work and personal lives (which are often the same thing), enjoying Barbara’s brewed tea and delicious Ranger cookies.

I can always bring my questions and ponderings to these women.  They listen.  They offer their insights.  And they often push me to the edge of my comfort zone.  I felt that yesterday as I talked about my observations during my recent wide mood swing from full mania to depression.  Barbara commented that the layers of my depression and mania, with state-specific memories, brought to mind the different states of awareness we’ve studied from authors like Castaneda, Charles Tart and J.G. Bennett.  This chilled me, because I’d also wondered about a correlation and had sent that question to my teacher, Melanie.  Laney looked at me and said, “You’re doing new work.  No one’s done this before.”

Oh, dear.  All I want to do is learn how to manage my illness.  If I find anything useful, I’ll share with the class, but I’m not out to chart new horizons.  It felt pompous to me, grandiose.  Of course others have looked at these layers of symptoms and feeling states.  I’m sure every case is different, but there must be some similarities.  There must be something written about it somewhere.

But, when I got home, I found Melanie’s reply to my email.  Aside from being my spiritual teacher, Melanie is also a registered nurse and holds an MBA.  She worked as a psych nurse before becoming a college professor, so she understands the practicalities of mental illness.  After reading her note, I’m willing to hold the possibility that cartography may become part of my journey.

It seems that you have a better grasp of your condition than do most people with bipolar illness.  Given this ability, you may be charting new territory and you may be able to help others learn to discern the realities of their mental states.  In my past experience with bipolar students, I have observed that the difficulties of the psychotic phases have sometimes caused people to assume that they were clear when they were, in fact, delusional or even paranoid.  Assuming that you have cleared this hurdle, you will be a wonderful resource for others.

Love, Melanie

What I’d like to do is create a new page for this blog.  On it I’ll describe the different states of depression and mania as I experience them.  It will take me a little time to distill my notes and journal entries, but this feels like right action.  It feels like I’m stepping up to the plate without a head blown out of proportion with grandiose pomposity.

Of course, delusion can be tricky that way.

Roller Coaster Lag

Woo-ee, what a ride.  I can’t tell yet if the roller coaster has actually come back to the station, but it’s stopped the loop-di-loops.  No more clackity-clackity as the car creeps up the vertical slope before plummeting straight down.  I hate roller coasters—hate the barfing, hate the feeling of the car flipping off the track, hate the useless “safety” bar, hate the other people laughing and throwing their arms in the air.  No, give me a nice ferris wheel any day.

I’m tired.  Today I’m going to the Big City to do my favorite things:  read magazines at Barnes & Noble, go to a coffee shop for a fine beverage and a turn with my journal, shop at Hobby Lobby for my Extravagance Of The Day—a new white gel pen, and sit meditation with my buddies.  I might even go to the arboretum and luxuriate in all the flowers.

I need a break from all the seriousness and flop sweat-effort of the last couple of weeks.  I need to laugh and look at pretty things, smell cut grass and listen to water fountains. Just getting in the truck and singing with the radio, driving through the countryside for an hour, will help charge my batteries.  That’s all I’m asking, a little juice.  Then, I will gladly hand over my ticket for the next ride.

If I have to.

Though, I’d much rather take a boat out onto a placid lake where the ripples have miles of water to spread out and fade away.  The gentle sway of the boat.  The touch of the breeze.  The loons warbling in the distance.

Sorry, I drifted off there for a minute.  At last.

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