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.

 

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March Madness

TumbleweedPhew!  February is behind us.  Enough, now, of the darkness and bitter cold and on to mud below and sun above.  Historically, March is the time I rouse from my mental hibernation and blink at the mess I’ve made while thrashing around in the dark.  I spend too much money when I’m brain-sick.  I eat compulsively.  Fat and broke, I usually overreact.  Last year and the year before, I put myself on strict money and food diets… and I ended up in partial hospitalization.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is a pattern I need to address in IPR.

The mission of IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation) is to help those of us with mental illness succeed at a goal we choose.  My goal is to keep living in my apartment, not taking sabbaticals in the hospital, so my caseworker, Aly, and I look at any skills needed to do that.

Partial hospitalization gives me structured support, a place to do the hard work of managing my illness when it’s overwhelming, and accountability to professionals who understand me.  One of my new skills is to seek out more structured support outside the hospital setting.

Seeing my therapist and participating in IPR every week are two kinds of structured support.  Recently, I added a weekly meeting with my Peer at Integrated Health Services (where I worked for a time last summer).  Allison and I sit for an hour and talk about doing the hard work of recovery.  The more I can get this kind of help, the less likely another hospitalization.  And since the Partial Hospitalization Program closed its doors last year, my only option now is full admission to a psych ward.  To me, that’s not an option.

So, it’s also important to look at this pattern of deprivation in the early spring.  As Aly and I talked through this, it seemed so simple.  Now is not the time to white-knuckle anything—not my budget, not my diet, not an out-dated version of myself as responsible and in control.  If there was ever a time for my Kinder, Gentler practice to kick in, it’s in March.  Now is the time to acknowledge how ill I’ve been and how well I’ve coped.  Now is the time to gently come back to cooking at home when the depression lifts enough to allow it.  Now is the time to remember that this is what my savings is for—to pay the bills my illness created over the winter and to give me space to breathe.  I’ll be able to live within my means again, but not right now.

This whole idea is radical—not clamping down to pay off my Visa bill or repaying the money I took from savings.  The idea that I can do those things later, should do them later, boggles my mind.  So simple.  So very Kind and Gentle.  It’s lovely to be my own best friend.

Basic Care

Keep CleanYesterday a crack opened in the bipolar depression that’s been at me for weeks.  Enough to let me remember to return to basics.  Because I’ve looked in the mirror every morning and said to that shocked face, “We’re not going to the hospital this year.  We’re not.”

First a call to the group I worked for this past summer—Integrated Health Services.  Their whole mission is to keep mental health clients out of the hospitals and emergency rooms.  I know I need more support now—I’ve been hearing from my providers all year that I don’t have enough in the best of times.  I’m not sure what IHS can do, but I made an appointment for Monday with Rosario, my care coordinator, and with Allison, my peer, to sit and figure that out.  They are both kind, heart-centered women.  I feel safe going to them.  The fact that I was just able to make the appointment helped.  Doing something, anything, sometimes helps.

Daily PlanToday I will start using my Daily Plan sheet, the one I created after my partial hospitalization last spring.  It will help me focus on small goals and remember to do every day tasks that get waterlogged by the swampy emotions.

I looked at how much money I’ve spent this month and cut back to the essentials.  Today I’ll figure a budget to get me through to May (February is just the beginning.  March and April can sometimes be even worse).  I’ll try to make it something I can live with, not something that will punish me for being sick.

HenryI cleaned out my refrigerator of all the liquefying vegetables and bought a few simple groceries.  I swam at the Y.  I sat with my fading bedspread for a while and sewed a blanket stitch around the frayed edges with gentle music playing and the cats behind my head on the chair.  Henry’s belly makes a gurgling, crackling sound when he’s digesting, and I pressed my ear against his fur to listen while he slept.

My apartment is a sickroom now.  No sudden moves.  No grand expectations.  Everything deliberate and gentle.  I must tend to my sleep, get to the Y every day, maintain my journal, plan quiet visits with friends, try to eat fresh food.  I will try to keep the structure sound while the storm carries on inside.  I will treat myself as someone worthy of care and respect, as someone that I love.

Treasuring the Rope

Rope 1In a bipolar life, there are days, weeks, sometimes months, where the illness never lets up.  Most of the time, I can ride those long spells.  They’re a fact of my life.  I understand that.  But, I suppose like anyone with a chronic illness, the relentlessness of it sometimes swamps me.  The despair of dealing with the illness combines with the despair it creates.  The extra weight guarantees sinking to the bottom and makes it that much harder to fight my way back to the surface.

I’ve been going through one of those spells—a long season of black.  It’s been a different kind of hard this time without my two water wings of compulsive eating and compulsive spending.  Oh, the compulsions are still there.  I still pace my kitchen like a caged bobcat, opening all the cupboards, the fridge, the pantry, hoping I slipped and brought home something, anything, that will dull the wild scrabbling in my brain.  And even when I’ve budgeted a trip to Des Moines, have cash to pay for a movie and gas, the urge to keep spending is a fish hook under my sternum.  Pulling, pulling always pulling.

This past week my Start With One Serving mantra saved me from getting lost in food, but I still gained a couple of pounds.  Compared to other similar seasons, though, that’s nothing.  And while I’m on the edge of nothing in my checking account, I have enough in my piggy bank at home to get through the month.  Since I paid all my bills, put money in my car fund, and made my planned Visa payment, this, too, is far from the disaster such seasons usually bring.

I’m sure the tension of fighting these old behaviors contributes to the illness itself, but the fight is required if I’m ever to find any freedom.  I know how lucky I am to even have the option of fighting.  I’ve met others like me who don’t, who don’t have an inkling of insight, who are utterly lost in the illness itself.  I understand them.  I am them.  But, I’m also this.

There was one day last week where I thought about surrendering to being lost.  What if I quit fighting and just turned into the crazy cat lady on the corner?  Would that be so bad?  There’s a siren song to mental illness that can be so seductive.  Go to sleep, it says.  I’ll take care of everything.

Emmet AlertBut, after all this time, I recognize that purring song.   It’s part of me, but not all of me.  So, I start looking for joy.  Tiny moments.  Gentle kindnesses.  Things that make me close my eyes in appreciation.  The light on Emmet as he watches the birds.  The silky slide of the water as I swim.  A song on my Pandora station.  A kind note from an almost-friend.  The perfect taste of a vanilla latte with one squirt of raspberry.  The ballet-like fight scenes in Captain America’s new movie.  The wonder of creating an exquisite background paper for a card.  The smell of rain.  A deep breath.  An old feeling of lightness that comes while driving through town in the orange light of dusk.  A chance to listen so someone else in pain.

My friend, Lily, once told me something that has soothed me for years.  Sometimes, all you can do is hang on.  This is true.  Hang on until the season turns.  Hang on because this—whatever it is—won’t last.  Grip the rope and wait.  Most of my life I’ve focused on the tension of waiting, the feeling of not being able to hang on much longer, the sense of fingernails ripping away.  What I’m finding is that it’s even more important to notice how beautiful the rope is and to treasure it.

from my Pandora station

Wait! What?

Refined Bad Ass, Patrick Stewart, handmade greeting card, collage artI just realized that what I do every day is not spend money and not eat.  All my attention is focused on these anti-compulsions.  Awesome!  I’m so completely Bad-Ass now I can hardly stand myself!

White-Knuckle Budget

handmade greeting card, collage artThis is a Pattern:

Live in Denial.   Wake up.  Overcompensate.  Go Crazy.  Repeat.

Basically, this is my Pattern for living.  It’s definitely my financial strategy.  This past year I thought I was getting comfortable with my poverty—coming to terms with it—my smug self said.  But what really happened was that I just pretended it didn’t exist.

I know lots of people do this with money.  Statistics from The Federal Reserve say that the average U.S. household credit card debt is $15,270.  That doesn’t include medical or mortgage debt, so imagine what the real number might be!  People all over the country plug their ears with their fingers and sing, “La la la la.  I can’t hear you.”  Knowing this makes me feel a little less crazy, my compulsive spending a little less shameful.  It makes my combined debt of $3000 seem paltry.  But I still have to deal with it.

My hope is that every time I go through this cycle I learn a little something.  Maybe I can adjust the pattern a wee bit this time.  Maybe that’s denial talking, but it seems like I’m required to try.  Right now I’m between Waking up and Overcompensating.  Maybe I can keep from swinging too far into a way of living that’s unsustainable.  I did that when I decided to save money for a new car, cinching the financial belt so tight I passed out from stress and threw myself into a month of rapid cycling.   Neuro-normals go through this, too, I’ve learned.  There’s even a term for it—Frugal Fatigue.  They don’t land themselves in a mental hospital, though.  Well, I’m guessing they don’t.

There are some things I do right.  I keep a spreadsheet of every penny I spend.  I pay my bills through the Bill Pay option with my bank, so things like rent and internet service get paid the same time every month.

There are things I’ve gotten better at doing.  When I was recovering from electroshock and very brain-sick, cooking threw me into scary anxiety attacks, so I ate a lot of take-in.  I mostly enjoy cooking now, especially when I create something fabulous from digging through my pantry (see my Kitchen Sink Chili recipe below).  But, there are still times when I’m so brain-sick I can’t face cooking.  I try to have easy, microwaveable stuff on hand for those times.  And if I can’t even do that much, then try to limit the splurging to one meal, one item, one treat.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.

Making wise money choices while cycling through mixed states is sort of a contradiction in terms.  The urge to bolt in my truck requires gas.  The day-long camp-outs at the theater require tickets.  Then, of course, we have the standard binge-eating and internet shopping wallows.  I’m trying to work on those things with my therapist, but squeezing them too tightly also causes backlash.  So, I need to plan for them while I work at minimizing their effects.  Tightrope walking at its finest.

So, here’s the first draft of my plan:

  1. Stop using my credit card.  That means buying gas for my truck with cash, which means a lot less driving.  That translates to only going to Des Moines in cases of mental emergency.  It also means walking as much as I can, which may have to wait until it gets warmer.  The windchill today is -8, so I think I’ll be driving to the Y later.
  2. Try something new.  This time around I’m going to try the envelope system.  I’ll take out my budgeted amounts for food, gas, laundry and entertainment each week and keep them in separate zip-lock bags.  When the money’s gone, it’s gone.  I have a friend who has used this system for decades, but I’ve always thought it seemed too restrictive.  Well, restriction is what’s needed, so I’m game to try.
  3. Keep saving for the new car.  That’s a priority for me, so I’ll keep tucking away a little each month.
  4. Adjust my medical payments.  Paying $40 a month to my mental health clinic wasn’t taking care of my co-pay from Medicare.  I asked them for a statement and found out I owe about $500.  I’ve increased my monthly payment (through Bill Pay) to cover my weekly therapist visits and start whittling at the debt.
  5. Start chipping away at the credit card balance.  I’ve routinely paid a lot more than the minimum required, but never enough to cover the monthly charges.  If I’m not using my card, I can start reversing that trend.

Personal financial experts suggest test-driving a budget before making a huge commitment.  That makes sense to me.  I won’t be able to start until my Disability check comes in February, then I’ll take this puppy for a spin.  Until then, I’m committed to zero spending.  I have gas in the truck, food in the cupboard, a gift card to the theater here in town if I need a movie.  I have $11 in my billfold, and I’m determined to still have it come February 3.  I’m good.  Really good.

Here’s what I created yesterday—a vegan chili recipe that is so delicious I couldn’t believe it.  Score!

Kitchen Sink Vegan Chili

½ C dried beans (I used pinto beans, but any kind would work.  And canned beans are just fine, too.)

¼ C Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grain Wild and Brown Rice (Again, this is what was in my pantry.  Use whatever rice or pasta you have.)

1-16 oz. can diced tomatoes

1-16 oz. can corn

1-6 oz. can tomato paste

1-4 oz. can green chilies, chopped

1-2.25 oz. can sliced black olives

½ onion, diced

Water

Seasonings: salt, turmeric, chili powder, sweetener (I used a packet of Truvia, so 2 tsp. of sugar would be the same)

*

Soak and cook the beans according to the directions.  Same with the rice (or pasta).  Beans need a couple of hours to cook.  Wild rice needs an hour.  Drain.

Add all the other stuff.

Add water to make the chili a consistency you like.

Add seasonings.  I think seasoning is personal and requires tasting, so I don’t have any measurements for them.  Turmeric was a creative choice this time and turned out to be fabulous.  Use whatever you’ve got.  The one exception to my chili seasoning rule is sweetener.  It cuts the acid of the tomatoes and just makes any kind of chili better (in my humble opinion).

This made 4 big bowls of deliciousness—231 calories/bowl.  I topped it with crumbled up corn bread (add another 150 calories).

Focus on Gratitude: Day 1

mug 2Dealing with my second bout of bronchitis this autumn, I didn’t have much else to talk to my therapist about yesterday.  I was in basic survival mode—fluids, rest, Robitussin—and not thinking much about how physical illness usually leads to an eventual bipolar swing.  I’d deal with that when the time came.

But Megan asked me what I was doing to take care of my mental health as well as my physical wellbeing.  I held that question as I went home to bed.  And it rose with me when I got up in the middle of the night to de-snot.  I filled my pretty, new mug with chai and sat down to check email.  Gosh, I love this mug.

And I realized, that’s it!  All these small treasures that take on so much more meaning when I’m sick, all these morsels of gratitude—that’s what I should focus on.  So, that’s where I’ll point my thinking and my posts until the wheezing stops and the fever breaks.  And if this trail of grateful bread crumbs leads me through the next mood swing, all the better.

So let me tell you about this mug…

I found it on sale last week at Pier One.  I hadn’t been inside a Pier One in at least seven years.  With no money to fritter away on pretties, I don’t shop for the sake of shopping.  Nor do I give gifts at Christmas anymore. But last week I could feel the cold coming on, and I was hungry for beauty.   Gift shops can be dangerous to those of us with compulsive spending tendencies, but I thought I could take a chance this once to feed my soul.

I let myself spend $3 on this cheerful, nubby mug, which has turned into my constant companion.  It holds my chai and my soup.  It follows me from desk to chair to bed with warm comfort and a happy face.  It feels good in my hands.  It’s a little placeholder for abundance and luxury when I feel so depleted.

Such a small thing, but what a lift it gives me.  It makes me wonder—what little things in your life give you that boost?  Things your eye slides over or things you reach for without thinking?  I would invite you to pause a second today and notice.  And if you’ve a mind to, let me know what happens.

Hysteria in Aisle Two

handmade greeting cards, collage artI woke up yesterday frantic, bolted out of bed and grabbed up my journal.  Something had to be done.  I needed a plan.

The day before I’d stepped on the scale at the Y.  Twenty pounds had crept back on.  I nearly fainted with horror and despair.  Not again, please.  Not again.

So, I sat at my table at 4:30 in the morning, trying to figure it out, trying to find one thread I could pull out of that frayed panic to gather my Will and my focus back together.  Because, I reasoned, if I can’t stop the binging and the food frenzies, then how can I stop myself from compulsively spending?  If I can’t control my spending, I’ll never be able to save for a car.  I’ll be dependent the rest of my life.  If I can’t stop the weight from coming back, I’ve lost and the illness wins.

So, okay, I thought, today—only water with lemon, fruits and vegetables.  I’ll make smoothies.  I’ll stay at the library all day if I have to.  I can do this for one day.  I can.

But, even as I wrote that and meant it, another part of me knew I could never pull it off.  How many times had I tried extreme measures—fasts, cleanses, sudden dietary shocks meant to galvanize the metabolism?  That kind of clamping down on the ravenous feeding only made it worse.  Every time.  I knew, even as I promised myself one day of food sanity, that I was poking a very large animal with a pointy stick.

I white-knuckled it until noon, then found myself at the microwave, making a plate of nachos.

It was a relief, really, to acknowledge my true nature.

Compulsive eating is part of my illness.  So are compulsive spending and sex.  And because they are compulsions, there’s no rational way to get rid of them. Believe me I’ve tried.  My therapist and I have looked at these behaviors from every angle.  The only way I’ve found to work with them is to acknowledge them and give them space.  To hold them with an open hand instead of a closed fist.  Which seems counter intuitive when they are raging.  I want the gobbling to stop, not watch the freak show as it happens.  But, weirdly, watching does help.  It tempers the ferocity and lessens the destruction.

By trying to save money, I’ve put my self in a pressure cooker.  Being poor has always triggered me, so I knew choosing to be even poorer might be dangerous.  But, I also thought that having a goal, something to work toward, might make that stress easier to bear.  Could I temper the panic and the compulsion to spend money?

The answer, it seems, is yes.  But the anxiety and compulsivity squirted sideways in food frenzies.  They will not be denied.

I’m not giving up, though.  I just passed through a couple of ragged days, and it’s hard to watch when the depression, anxiety and mania color the view.  I’m clearer today, and calmer.  The radio in my head has dialed away from the Self-Hatred channel and is back on Easy Listening.  Today, I’m okay about gaining back the weight.  It’s a temporary adjustment to all the stress.  And if it’s not temporary, then, that will have to be okay, too.  I’m going to let it be.  Instead, I’ll turn my attention to the stress itself—the feelings of deprivation and powerlessness, the fear and uncertainty.

I’ll become an Observer, like September on Fringe, changing the outcome just by watching the experiment, noting the effects with a gentle, non-judgmental attitude.  Like September, I can’t be completely objective.  We both care about the outcome of the experiment too much.  And I may keep binging, but at least I won’t be eating raw roast beef sandwiches with seven jalapeños and tabasco sauce.  I still have a little dignity.

Fringe, September

Zero Sum Bad-Assery

hand made card, collage artI happen to be a Libra.  And bipolar.   The irony of this tickles me no end.  While the Libra part of me strives for balance and harmony, the bipolar part makes sure that doesn’t happen.  It’s a conundrum, really, this constant, internal tug-of-war.  I feel like a mother with two teenage girls who share a bedroom.  Please just give it a rest, kids.

But, I think it’s the Libra part of me that keeps the bipolar part from overthrowing the entire Sandy government.  Take my current Zero Money Initiative.  In my quest to save money for a new car on a Disability income, and to practice some deep Work with my compulsive spending, I’ve tallied 31 days of success.  I’ve put money in the bank and not used my credit card once in that time.  Huge success.  Huge.  The only problem is I’m eating everything in sight.

I get the psychology of this—concentrate on one compulsive behavior and the others will flare—and I’ve tried to be gentle with myself about it.  Take away too many coping mechanisms and the stress could trigger a total meltdown (I can hear Scotty now—”Cap’n, she’s gunna blow!”).  I figured I was doing well to be cooking all my meals at home when, for so long, cooking created enormous anxiety for me.  No take-out, no restaurants—I was saving big money.  I also continued my vegan diet—quadruple portions, but vegan portions.

bowling ballThe sorry fact is that I’ve gained back 17 pounds.  That’s the weight of an average bowling ball.  Pick up a bowling ball sometime and carry it around all day.  Granted, I’m still carrying the whole tournament, but one less ball makes a big difference.  On the joints, on self-esteem, on buttons and zippers.

I really don’t want to continue this slow creep back to 300 pounds.  I’ve worked too hard to whittle that down, and still dream of the day when I can claim to be simply “obese” instead of “morbidly obese.”

So, it’s time pull out the old tools that have worked in the past.  I dusted off my Food Journal yesterday.  And my calorie guide.  And my food scale.  Even if I continue to compulsively eat, at least I’ll document accurate information about what I’m consuming.  I can’t change something I can’t see.

I’ll go back to eating my meals at the table instead of in front of the TV.  I may have cancelled my cable, but I can still watch movies on the DVD player.  And once I start eating in front of the TV, the grazing can go on for hours.

As always, it’s a matter of attention.  I’ve focused so much on Ninja Tightwaddery that I didn’t think I had any left for Sane Eating.  But, I have to try.  It’s the Libra in me that won’t let the chaos go on forever.  It’s the Libra that wants to pull both compulsions onto her scale and find what will balance them.  The bipolar part will play merry hell with Her, but that’s to be expected.  Let them scream at each other—I’ve got Work to do.

Workin’ It

As with most things I do when I’m stable, I’m totally rocking my Smart Car Quest—walking to the Y, saving all my errands for one trip, eating at home, keeping a list of things I want in order to delay gratification.  And just as I hoped, the Universe is conspiring to assist.  Yesterday, a friend offered to let me use a spare phone she just happens to have on her service plan.  She may also have a little job for me keeping a website up to date.  And as I promised, I’m staying open and accepting of the gifts coming my way.  With gratitude.

It feels so good to take back some control over my life.  Even if this is as fleeting as my mood, a few days of determining my own destiny helps me remember that being bipolar doesn’t have to equal being helpless.  Or alone.

Here’s a shot of my front door, where I stick all things inspirational.  Bruce is still coming to me in my dreams.  And I’ve added my own version of the typical work safety sign.  I’m aiming to put that puppy into the double digits. Because…

I’m on an Adventure.

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