Choosing to be Vulnerable…or Not


“We waste so much energy trying to cover up who we are
when beneath every attitude is the want to be loved
and beneath every anger is a wound to be healed
and beneath every sadness is the fear that there will not be enough time…
Our challenge each day is not to get dressed to face the world
but to unglove ourselves so that the door knob feels cold
and the car handle feels wet
and the kiss goodbye feels like the lips of another being
soft and unrepeatable.”

 

~ Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Over the past several weeks, the concept of vulnerability and its importance to intimacy has followed me like a stalker.  At the same time, I heard from a friend about how sad and hurt she is over my silence and disconnect; I swore at my sister (via text) for the first time in my life; and I annoyed another close friend with my narcissism (my words, not hers).

I believe without a doubt that I’ve lost the ability to listen deeply to others.  Compassion and caring used to be important to me.  They were qualities I purposefully cultivated and practiced.  I believed in the power of kindness to change the world around me.  I have also felt that belief dribbling out of me over the past decade.  I’m easily annoyed and impatient with other people’s problems. I avoid social settings and leave when I feel my tolerance unraveling. Mental illness has made me guarded, judgmental and mean.

There’s a reason therapists caution against isolation—not just because human connection is vital to all forms of health, but because the mentally ill are already vulnerable, and making real connections with others requires us to risk being more vulnerable.  It’s too hard, too painful.  So much easier to barricade behind thicker and thicker walls, then complain about being lonely.

I can see the path I’m on leading to life as a hermitic sociopath.  Maybe I’ve binge-watched too much Dexter, but I can identify with his lack of empathy and complete self-absorption.

Then, Tara Brach, or my therapist, or an article in a magazine suggests an alternative path—to “unglove” as Mark Nepo puts it.  It’s painful and terrifying.  It seems like too much work that requires more courage, more bad-assery, more, more, more.  To be fair, Tara suggests gentleness and tiny acts of willingness.  I’m not being asked to tear down the walls, just look at them.  Or sit with my back against them and feel their warmth and strength.  Still, I don’t know that it’s worth it.

And I don’t know if I have a choice.

 

 

 

 

 

I Wasn’t Cut Out to Be a Cheerleader

After tumbling around for a couple of months in the worst my bipolarity can offer, I resolved to set aside all thought, expectation, plans and hope of moving.  It would happen in its own time (in months, maybe, or even a year), but until then I needed to reengage with my life instead of living with one foot out the door.  The stretch of that cheerleader’s pose had strained my brain into a constant trembling.  Mental-muscle exhaustion.

I could feel the eminence of a raging relapse on the horizon.  I had to do more than Wait.  So, I made appointments with my therapist, reinstated my Y membership, asked my cleaning lady to postpone her scheduled attack on my Moving Out Cleaning List.  I asked my friends on dates, opening doors that I’d almost closed.

Armed with a new Plan, I slid my foot back inside the door of my life as it is, not what it might become.  I slept a little better.  My capacity seemed a little deeper.

And, of course, yesterday my sister called to say the Move is On.  The tenant I’m replacing is being evicted, and the townhouse could be ready for me as soon as mid-April.

handmade cards, collage artHowever, my new-found footing kept me from spinning at this news.  I’m sorry for whatever reason this woman must be expelled from her home.  I send my heart out to her, hoping she can find a better home, hoping she has support and help to transplant her to a place that is loving and absent of fear.  I also refuse to take note of that “mid-April” business.  It’s just an invitation to more brain-splits, and I’m not having it.

Worried, my sister wanted to know how I was taking this news.  I said I’d just do the next thing (scan and email her all the documentation required), then eat supper.  And if it falls through, that’s fine, because I’m on terra firma.

As I was scanning and emailing last night, I checked my In Box to find a new message from Art Journaling Magazine.  My journal passed muster, and I’ve been invited to write a 700-800 word article about it.  As one of the artists featured in that (as yet unknown) issue, I’ll be part of a forum where we’re asked questions like: How did you get started in art journaling?  What’s your favorite way to fill empty spaces on a journal page? How would you describe your style?

I had to laugh.  If there’s anything I believe in, it’s synchronisity.  In finding my balance and feeling my agitation and anxiety abate, I became ready for The Next Thing.  And after all my years of struggling to be a published writer, it comes to me now on the wings of an art form I love more dearly than writing.

The Universe is a perverse and whimsical partner.  But, I’m much better at dancing with It than I am at cheerleading.

Take-Aways

anton/compassion

…be attentive to what is arising within you, and place that above everything else… What is happening in your inner most self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it.

—Rainer Maria Rilke (from the cover of an IOP handout on PTSD)

•Mindfulness and Self-Compassion change the  physical structure and chemistry of the brain.  Now there is scientific proof.

•Books I’ve ordered on the studies and effects of neuro-plasticity that have been referenced in IOP:

  1. Seeking Safety: A Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse by Lisa M. Najavits
  2. Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Richard Mendius and Rick Hanson
  3. Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being by Linda Graham
  4. Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James Doty
  5. The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel Segal, John Kabat-Zinn and John Teasdale
  6. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff

I’ll be in the program one more week.

Putting the Libra to Sleep

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I’ve completed six days in the Lutheran Hospital outpatient program, and I can’t tell yet if it’s making me better or worse.

There are two designations—IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) 1 and 2.  None of the literature explains the difference between the groups, but, basically IOP1 is for more functional, more acutely symptomatic folk.  IOP2 is for more severely ill folk who maybe require other services (home care, rehab, medical, etc.).

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The first two days I attended IOP1.  The group was HUGE, 14-18 people with the usual one or two who dominated every conversation and folks talking over each other.  I thought I would lose what little mind I had left.

I watched my intolerance and irritation skyrocket.  My Libra penchant for fairness blew up into a neurotic need to silence the blabbermouths so that the silent suffers might get a second to squeak out a comment.  But I also realized this was all my shit.  If the facilitators felt no need to shut down the usurpers or redirect the tangential wanderers, then it wasn’t my place to step in.  Instead I clutched my purse to my chest and took deep breaths.

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After the second day (and no sleep that night), I knew I needed to talk to my designated handler.  I told her through bitey, frantic, tear-and-snot laden spew that I couldn’t take another day of it.  She listened with a beatific smile and commented in a gentle don’t-spook-the-Tasmanian Devil voice.  Perhaps I should move to the other group.  And feel free to find a quiet place to breathe whenever the desire to punch a talky-talker in the face arose.

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My first day at “the other end of the hall” felt restful in comparison.  There were only five of us in group, and I learned things about PTSD—one of my diagnoses, though something my therapist and I have never really explored.  We usually have other immediate shinola to deal with, so we’ve only ever just touched on it.  THIS was what I was hoping for—some new information, some new tools, a direction.

But, the next day the group expanded to 13, and the whole issue of blatherers and time-sucks reappeared on a crazier level.  I tried to be compassionate, but that well seems to be dry at the moment.  I know folks talk out of nervousness, insecurity, etc., so I tried to reason with myself.  I still ended up out in the hall with my earbuds firmly in place, listening to Billy Joel sing “Innocent Man.”

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I blame the insurance industry and our butt-head Governor, Terry Branstad.  Most insurance coverage only allows three days a week in outpatient care, so Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays end up with twice the group size as Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s stressful to go from a small, intimate group where folks feel safe enough to open up, to a mob where everyone talks at the same time.

And because our Governor closed most of the mental health hospitals, took away funding for behavioral services, and basically told folks with mental illness to “get over it,” the programs that are left are bursting at the seams.

I watch the kind and knowledgable staff at Lutheran run around like headless chickens, trying to accommodate everyone’s needs, shore up folks enough to leave so that those who have been waiting a month for an opening in the program can take their place.  The nurse practitioner who talked to me about medication laughed long and loud when I called it “a three-ring shit show.”  This seems to be my new favorite phrase.

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I came home every day more exhausted and people-avoidant than ever.  I feel like an Introvert In Extremis, only able to function after hours of silent cat time, a couple episodes of Fringe and a frozen pizza from Costco (they have the best thin crust sausage pizzas…).  Even then, “functional” may mean taking a four-hour nap or washing the dishes.

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Yesterday I did my laundry at 3:00 in the morning, because I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the laundromat on the weekend when everyone else goes there.  So, because I was already awake at 3:00, I did laundry for the first time in my apartment complex’s washer/dryer.  Granted, one is not supposed to use the machines until 8:00 out of respect for the tenants who live next to the Common Room.  But since I hate people right now, I didn’t care.  And I tried to be quiet.  No one came after me with a knife, and no one slashed my tires later, so I think I got away with it.

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In between tippy-toeing, I sat at the nice dining table and worked on my journal.  Along with my wheeled laundry hamper, I brought my traveling studio (everything should be on wheels) and a big mug of hot chai.  I sat at my own little coffee shop with my earbuds in and the smell of clean wafting around me, and even through the itchy buzz of being up at 3:00 doing something illicit, I could feel my mind smooth out.

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The same nurse practitioner who laughed so hard with me suggested a new strategy for next week.  Bring my wheely cart and when group bugs me too much, take it to this out-of-the-way lounge I found and do art until I feel like coming back.  I tried that on Friday, and I left the hospital less drained.  I met my two meditation buddies for lunch and lasted about 30 minutes before I completely faded.  My well is dry.  That’s all there is to it.

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I think the trick is to not panic.  I feel myself considering the new drugs this kindly nurse practitioner suggests, even though I sat with my own NP before I started IOP and recounted my long list of Drugs Tried and why they didn’t work.  She reminded me that there really is nothing new in psychotropics, just tweaks to the same old formulas.  If they didn’t work then, they won’t now.

I’m grateful that the Lutheran staff is so willing to work with me.  It’s ironic that the adaptability and flexibility I need from them is part of what makes me so irritable there.  It’s a very loose, laissez-faire set-up for people who have different special needs.  I must try to give my Libran craving for fairness, order and rules a rest.  Maybe I can give her a Xanax.

Our Town

One People

Today I watched a police officer escort a homeless family out of HyVee’s café.    They had been in the booth behind me, so quiet I never even knew they were there—a mother, a father, a little boy about six and a baby in a stroller.  I didn’t see them bother anyone or cause a disturbance.  They were just resting, watching the big screen TV.

The young officer wasn’t mean, but he wasn’t kind either.  He asked what they were doing.  He asked if they were staying at The House of Compassion (our homeless shelter), then he got them up and out the door.

I don’t blame him—he was doing his job, I guess.  But I’m furious at whoever made the call to the police in the first place.  The family looked poor, but clean.  They didn’t smell drunk or seem high on street drugs.  The breakfast rush was over, so taking up space for paying customers couldn’t have been the issue.  Maybe the sight of the sleeping mother was offensive.  Maybe the whole idea of homeless people in plain sight was offensive.

I’m sure it never occurred to the complainant to ask if the family needed help or breakfast.  Or to call their pastor instead of the police (because anyone who needed to call the police must own a strong sense of morality and, thus, have a pastor).  And I’m positive they didn’t understand that a homeless shelter is far from restful, especially for adults who must protect their children.  Leaving a shelter exhausted in the morning is the norm.  Poverty is exhausting.

When I left HyVee, I spotted them far down the road—the dad pushing the stroller, the mom lagging behind with the little boy.  Even at 9:30, the morning was hot and humid.  I wondered where they would find a welcoming place to rest.  I wondered if that was possible in this town.

Phoenix

Merry Sidekick

As part of my quest for living a better life with bipolar disorder, I spent this past weekend in Minneapolis/St. Paul, reweaving connections with old and dear friends, and sending out a few new runners.  These are the kind of friends who will make me stand in their kitchen until they understand the difference between rapid cycling and mixed state; the kind of friends who find a restaurant for lunch on the other side of town because it will accommodate both their Paleo diet and my vegan preferences; the kind of friends who make me laugh until I have to hop to the bathroom to avoid leakage.

And when I have a melt-down (as I did on Saturday), these are the kind of friends who let me bolt back to my hotel without offense, who will hold my insecurities and shame like a porcelain bowl until I can shake the ashes into the trash.  We can say to each other after a morning of coffee and gab, “Are we done?  I’m done.”

These are people who allow me to be myself, who are honest and clear, who look at me with compassion and see all.  They are the keepers of my history since I can’t remember it.  They fit forgotten pieces into place.  They restore me.

This is a difficult time of year for those of us with Seasonal Affective elements included in the bipolar disorder.  Spring brings chaos, fluctuations in mood, and, for me, warp speed cycling.  This is the time of year I am most likely to be hospitalized.  I need the support of people who love me, but my tolerance for stimulation and novelty is severely limited.  It’s a quandary.  But my friends are willing to walk this weird tightrope with me.  And when I can rise up from the ashes, I am grateful.

The Problem with Nice People

handmade greeting cards, collage art

“Real compassion kicks butt and takes names, and it is not pleasant on certain days.  If you are not ready for this fire, then find a new-age, sweetness-and-light, soft-speaking, perpetually smiling teacher, and learn to relabel your ego with spiritual sounding terms.  But stay away from those that practice real compassion, because they will fry your ass, my friend.”  —  Ken Wilber

How’s That Workin’ For Ya?

I like Dr. Phil.

Some people find him abrasive, downright abusive.  But, to me, that’s just compassion wrapped in a Texas-sized, take-no-crap package.  As I’ve mentioned before, compassion isn’t gooey.  It doesn’t smooth feathers.  It lays out the hard truth and deals with it.  I appreciate that about Dr. Phil.  That and his goofy aphorisms.

So, when a friend loaned me his book on weight loss, I thought it might be a fun read.  Even the title (The Ultimate Weight Solution: The 7 Keys to Weight Loss Freedom) carried a load of Dr. Phil attitude.  I didn’t expect it to say anything new.  I didn’t shake it to see if any keys actually rattled around in there.

The information may not be new, but it’s presented in a way I’ve not heard before.  The plan of attack is different. The types of mental and emotional housekeeping are different.  The way in and through is different.  After finishing one of the exercises on Right Thinking, I got too excited to continue.  Not only did this book offer me a reasonable way to reach my weight loss goals, but it gave me more tools in pushing against all my compulsive behavior.

It won’t be easy.  Dr. Phil says that right up front.  But he also says this in the introduction:

[Weight control is] about changing what you eat, why you eat, where you eat, when you eat, how you eat, and doing it all in a way that is custom-designed so that it is natural for you.  It’s about changing yourself from the inside out, so that being what is fit and healthy for you is as natural and normal as breathing.

Yesterday, I discovered that I honestly believe I can’t survive without TV.  In a very deep, very old part of my psyche, I know I will die one way or the other if I can’t use it.  Challenging that deep-seated belief is something I’ll be working on for awhile.  Finding it was a revelation.  And that was only Chapter One.

So, for me, as far as Dr. Phil’s book goes—son, that dog does hunt.

Double Whammy

I didn’t really think this whole surgery thing through.

I planned on the discomfort, and the limitations, and the loopy effects of the pain medication.  I stocked my cupboards and laid in supplies of crossword puzzles and movies.  I lined up folks to help me with chores.  But, I really didn’t consider the possibility of having a bipolar episode during this recovery period.  Oops.

This morning I woke up with depression. It exaggerated all the ickiness—my belly hurt more, the narcotics spun me in tighter circles.  But, worse than that, it blew apart my Zen space.

Even though I’d been nervous about the surgery, I purposefully cultivated peace going into it.  As a result, a solid level of acceptance and compassion came home with me, a restfulness in the Now of each moment, gentleness in acknowledging my limits.  Pain was simple and easily tended to.

The depression turned all that calm into suffering.  It twisted my thinking just enough to introduce feelings of abandonment and isolation.  It made me doubt my family and my friends.  It did what depression always does—focused on the negative and took me prisoner as it dove into the dark.

I’m working with it this afternoon, using my mantra to get some distance between me and the faulty thinking (It’s the illness talking, not me.  It’s the illness thinking, not me…).  I’m making cards and cutting bits out of magazines to keep the forebrain distracted.  And each time the depression shoves me into the future or wallows in the past, I come back to This Moment.  Right now, I am comfortable enough and safe enough.  There’s nothing I need to do, no one I need to answer to.  I’ve got a hankering for cherry pie.  I’ll call a friend and see if they can take me to Perkins later.  One step, one need, one healing at a time.

Hero

I just can’t seem to stop fighting this episode.  I have things to do, chapters to write, events to attend, but the depression, agitation and convoluted thinking keep getting in my way.  It’s like wearing a hair shirt on the inside of my body—the itch and irritation only compound my already-agitated state.  I’m not helping myself much lately.

I lose myself in fantasy for comfort and distraction, but that’s a treacherous path.  What I need to do is pay attention, not drift off into Star Trek-land where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” (thank you, Garrison Keillor).

This is a very old trope, almost as old as compulsive eating.  I leave the sadness and despair of my real life to create a fictional crisis where a hero Saves the Day.  Sometimes, I imagine a line up of potential heroic figures (Indiana Jones, Picard, Batman, Wolverine, etc.), and circle around each one like a fish monger, picking the Catch of the Day.  The winner gets to star in my mental melodrama.  I remember when Clark Gable was part of this line up back when we used to see Gone With the Wind in theaters every year.  I was in junior high.  That’s how old this form of distraction is.

But, like compulsive eating, it just doesn’t seem like a healthy or useful activity anymore.  It smudges the boundary between mental illness and creative storytelling.  It keeps me numb and blind.  And ultimately, it makes me even more sad, because there’s no finding those heroes in real life.

Today, as I churned up white water during my aerobics class, a tiny voice behind all that fantasy said:

You are your own Hero.  

My life gets interrupted all the time by this illness.  Projects have to wait.  Events get cancelled.  The “To Do” list gets thrown away.  Attention must turn away from those things and gaze upon the illness with compassion.  No need to fight.  No need to escape.  No need to be anywhere but here, treating myself the way I deserve to be treated.  Only I can do that for me.  I’m the only one who can save me.  I am the Hero.

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