What Gifts, Mania?

What gifts, Mania?  What roads flowing liquid through the dreamscape?  What treasures piled like tart grapes?  What moons shining?

For awhile, mania is a lovely thing.  This time, I am driven to write.  In the past few days, I’ve finished my novel, crafted two short stories, outlined the first few chapters of the next novel, and gathered notes to write at least three more short stories.  I wake up in the morning with scenes and dialog fully formed and spewing from my head.

I come to a resting place, a place where I would usually put the story away and let it percolate in my subconscious for a day or days.  But now, the rest lasts the length of an episode of Mad Men, and I’m back at the computer with the perfect solution, the perfect turn, the perfect word.

I know I’m manic.  I feel the obsessive itch.  To counter it, I push away from the stories and play with my art.  But, there, too, I am flooded with potential.  The cards I make can take me over an hour to assemble.  I made a dozen cards this weekend, all different, all elaborate, all beautiful.

This is the place we of the bipolar persuasion yearn for—this place of making, this effortless disgorging of ideas and images that takes form as something real and whole.   This is the Promised Land and Enlightenment and good Rock ‘N’ Roll all bundled together.  We’ll do anything to stay here.

But, it doesn’t last—not the clear, cool mind, not the ease, not the glee.  Mania shifts into agitation and deepening impulsivity.  It tears away sleep and clouds the mind with grand delusions.

I started buying DVDs on eBay to keep me entertained next week after my surgery.  The mania shoves me to keep buying.  I posted my new stories here.  The mania sends me back ten-fifteen-twenty times a day to look for comments, to look at the photos, to tweak one more word.  Small irritations detonate into rage.

The gifts of mania are the gifts I carry with me always.  My talent for making came with my blue eyes and my German bones.  No shift in brain chemistry opens a door or closes it.  No mood determines my potential.  My inborn gifts come through because I use them.  When I’m manic, I just use them more.

So, I shift, and shift again.  The thoughts will slow from their frenzied pace.  The body will tamp down the fires.  And I will still be a Maker.

Minimizing the Damage

I woke up this morning deep in depression.  This is one of the mysteries of my bipolar disorder—sometimes sleep acts as a transition.  I can go to bed feeling fine and wake up either manic or depressed, or go to sleep in the throes of an episode and wake up stable.  Something gets reset, some sticky switch gets thrown, some chemical process does or doesn’t happen.  If it wasn’t so deadly, it would be fascinating.

My whole focus today became doing the least amount of damage.  I was supposed to volunteer at the Animal Rescue League again this afternoon.  Instead of bolting completely, I rescheduled for Wednesday.  Canceling altogether felt too much like failure, which was the depression twisting my thoughts, but I needed to give myself a chance to succeed later, if I could.  Writing this helps me see how contorted my thinking is.  Boy, I’m deep in it alright.

I recently added a bunch of books to sell on my Half.com account.  Three orders came through over the weekend, and I needed to get them shipped.  This task felt enormous and impossible.  Driving to Staples filled me with anxiety, especially when they didn’t have the right size box.  All I wanted to do was load up on my favorite junk food and hide in my apartment.  But I went to the UPS store instead.  I let the nice folks there find the right box, the right mailers, then I stood at the counter and packed everything up.  Carefully.  It’s very easy to make mistakes—wad up tape, mis-print the address, mix up the orders.  I double checked, then checked the double-check.

I still planned on buying binge food when I dropped the packages off at Hy-Vee.  I knew there was no denying the compulsion, so the best I could do was read the nutrition labels and try to make better choices in junk—a smaller sized frozen pizza, Haagen Das instead of Ben and Jerry’s, baked Cheetos instead of regular.  At the Redbox, I got three movies instead of my usual depression fare of five or six.  I couldn’t stop the compulsions, but I could temper them a little.  Today, that felt like a huge victory.

After sleeping most of the afternoon, I feel like I can sit at my table and make a few cards.  The Eagles are crooning on my stereo.  Emmett is tucked into my big chair, sleeping his kitty dreams.  The traffic keeps the beat of evening coming on.  I’ve survived another day in Bipolar Paradise with a minimum of scars.

Path of Least Resistance

Ever since I got back from vacation, I can’t seem to climb on top of my compulsive eating.  I know what’s going on—I got WAY off my routine, and I’m in the process of revisioning what my life can be—two destabilizing and anxiety-producing elements that are calling up all my old (and dysfunctional) coping mechanisms.  I’m spending too much money on too much food.

Every morning I start over with my oatmeal, the solid bedrock of my daily menu, but by the end of the day I’m emotionally ravenous and flying around the apartment ripping open low-fat pudding cups by the dozen.

Thursday, at my first TOPS meeting in three weeks, I was elated to have gained only 0.2 pounds.  I thought for sure the whole ball of wax (or chub) would have rolled back on.  So, even though I’m eating too much, too many calories for my goal, I’m still avoiding the “really bad stuff.”  Small victories—I’ll take them.

The only thing to do is to try to stay aware of what’s going on.  I know I’m nervous about how to grow my life from this point forward.  I’ve taken some action—connected with an Unitarian group that meets at the Y on Sundays, called the Animal Shelter to see if they need volunteers, got information about the Sweet Adelines here in town.  Each little step feels huge with potential, but I’m letting them pull me off center.

I have to plant my feet firmly in the Here and Now.  Do the work, make the calls, try out a group.  I can’t get caught up in speculation or fantasy about the future, just like I can’t moon about the past.  I felt myself sliding into depression yesterday, and as I watched that I saw how my thoughts also slid to missing my friends in Minnesota and my life there.  “Ha!” my Observer cried.  “That’s just habit!  We’re all done grieving that, remember?”

It’s true.  I am done grieving my move from Minnesota, but my depression will roll my thoughts down that rutted track because it’s the path of least resistance.  Just like my emotional discomfort rolls out my compulsions. Eating and spending money on food is the path of least resistance.

So, today, I’ll try again to watch and make good choices.  I’ll try to take the Road Less Travelled.

Time to fix my oatmeal.

From the Corner

Each morning I wake up and think, “I need to find something to blog about today.”  But, there’s nothing helpful in the way I’m shambling through this depression—nothing inspirational and certainly nothing skillful.

I’m ashamed of the way it’s beaten me back into a very old corner.  I spend all my money on junk food that makes me physically sick and mentally dead, then I sleep to escape the shame and self-loathing.  I wake up and vow to stop, to change, to take back control, to make one positive gesture.  Then, the depression sweeps me off my feet and back into the corner.

I’m so angry.  Just when I think my hard work is starting to take effect, when there looks like a possibility of improving my quality of life, the illness blows in harder and faster than ever.  It scatters my fragile scaffolding like Tinker Toys, and I have to start all over.

Forget about volunteering at the Animal Rescue League—I can’t even rescue myself.  Forget about saving money for a new car—I spend every cent I have on Cheetos.  Forget about building a life with dignity and meaning.  Just forget all about that.

There comes a point in every episode where I can get up from the corner and start over.  I pick up all the Tinker Toys and start rebuilding.  I start my Bipolar Bad Ass Training.  But, I’m not there yet.  I’m not even close.  The thought of starting over—again—seems pointless and exhausting from this corner.  I’m not effecting any change. I’m not who I want to be.  This isn’t life, it’s limbo.

This isn’t fit blogging material.  There’s no uplifting moral to the story, no shaft of light, no plucky heroine.  It’s just me, bare-faced, in this horrible corner.  But, I promised myself at the beginning of this venture that I’d be honest here.  And while this post comes from a mind that’s twisted and distorted now from illness, it’s all I’ve got.  That and the corner.

An Inch of Will

Several weeks ago, I asked my spiritual teacher for advice on how to work with the compulsions I experience during a bipolar episode.  She suggested I read what G.I. Gurdjieff or P.D. Ouspensky had to say about Will.  After several library searches, I finally found a copy of Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way, and what he had to say about Will gave me some much-needed direction.

Both Ouspensky and his teacher, Gurdjieff, viewed Man as a sleeping, mechanical automaton.  What’s normally thought of as will, or free will, is actually a line of action that follows our desires.  Since our desires constantly change, the direction of our will changes with them, resulting in a line of action that goes every which way.  We think we’re heading in a straight line.  That’s part of being asleep.

To develop true Will, Ouspensky said, one must save enough energy to be able to struggle with weaknesses in the personality and to resist following one’s desires.  If a person doesn’t have enough energy to resist strong urges and big weaknesses, tackling something smaller and less difficult will save one’s energy.  These smaller battles also increase a person’s capacity for making the larger efforts.

It’s the friction generated by these struggles that create the energy needed to fight bigger and bigger battles.  I forget this.  During an episode, I become so focused on surviving and getting past it, that I forget to use it.  If Ouspensky is correct, the efforts I make in controlling my attention (taking it away from distorted thinking, for example) and observing myself help to grow true Will in that moment.

He said, one must try not to “escape” from the friction, which would call for a minimum of distraction.  Granted, he wasn’t talking about individuals with mental illness, so all this must be filtered through that particular lens.  Like most things, a balance must be found.  How do I hold the tension of resisting desires and controlling weaknesses in my character without stressing myself into an even worse mental state?

I believe I’ve started that process.  Last winter, I thought surviving a six-day bipolar episode was more than I could bear.  This current episode has lasted over three weeks, and while I’m certainly sick of it, I’m managing.  As my compulsive eating and spending rise and fall, I resist to the best of my ability.  Now, I’ll try to turn my attention to the energy being created by that resistance and use it to further my cause.

“Will has to be used,” Ouspensky said.  “We are never ready for Work, but we must Work all the same.  If one has an inch of Will and uses it, it will grow.”

The Sane Thing

Today marks Day 19 in my current mixed-state episode.  It begs the question:  Do I have to pay for the lovely, long spell of stability I enjoyed this summer with an equally long stint of instability?  Do the Bipolar Scales demand their own form of balance?

The thought of carrying on another month or more in this state is too horrible to even entertain.  It’s one of those niggling, self-defeating, Halloweenish thoughts that only the illness can produce.  When it came yesterday, it opened the door on a string of unacceptable thinking that went something like this:

Labor Day Weekend.  My friends are out of town.  I could set up the cats in their basement with litter boxes, and food and water.  I have to make sure they’re taken care of before I kill myself.  But, I don’t have a cache of pills anymore.  Every other method is so messy. . .

And while part of my mind meandered down this dark alley, another part of my mind woke up and said “Oops.”  Suicidal thoughts signal exhaustion for me.  The constant push against the symptoms, the struggle to maintain my routine when it used to be automatic, the fight to Observe my thoughts and feelings instead of become them are wearing me down.  I can feel the distorted thinking seeping in a little more.  The siren call of fantasy seems so much more attractive, so much easier, than the battle ground of real life.

But, this, too, is distorted thinking.  Every day is different (the very definition of mixed-state).  There are hours of clarity and joy.  Moments of creative inspiration.  All is not one bottomless bog.  I am not losing the fight.

I’ve worked hard at increasing my bipolar endurance.  While the emotions roil, and the thinking twists, and compulsions take over, there’s still a part of me that rises.  I still have the capacity to wake up in the middle of whatever symptom slips over me.  I still have the capacity to See.  I may not be able to stop them, but Seeing the sadness, the social phobia, the compulsive spending pulls a piece of me out of them.  Seeing helps me separate the symptoms from the woman.  And if I can put some distance between me and the illness, I create a pocket where I can rest.

I’m angry that I have to work this hard every day, every moment.  But, even that’s part of the illness.  The Work is the work.  Railing over the fact of my illness is a waste of time and energy.  Resistance leads to more suffering and depletes my resources.  If I didn’t do this Work, I’d be in a hospital or dead, so it’s a choice.  Sometimes I have to make that choice several times a day, but I always come back to it.

Really, it’s the only sane thing to do.

A New Learning Curve

With the return of my bipolar symptoms comes an opportunity to begin working with my compulsive behaviors in a new way.  What I’ve discovered so far is that agitation seems to be the underlying energy for the compulsive eating and spending as well as the restlessness and urge to “Get Out of Dodge” that sends me tooling down the highways.

In a bit of synchronicity, Vivien over at ManicMuses just posted a piece about new emergency room treatment of agitation in psychiatric patients, which got me thinking more about the shape and origin of agitation.  I’ve also heard from other folks who live with bipolar disorder that this type of mixed state can be fairly common.

This from Wikipedia:

In the context of mental disorder, a mixed state (also known as dysphoric maniaagitated depression, or a mixed episode) is a condition during which symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously (e.g., agitationanxietyfatigueguiltimpulsivenessirritability, morbid or suicidal ideationpanicparanoiapressured speech and rage). Typical examples include tearfulness during a manic episode or racing thoughts during a depressive episode. One may also feel incredibly frustrated or be prone to fits of rage in this state, since one may feel like a failure and at the same time have a flight of ideas. Mixed states are often the most dangerous period of mood disorders, during which susceptibility to substance abusepanic disorder, commission of violencesuicide attempts, and other complications increase greatly.

Yes, this would be me.

In a way, I’m relieved to learn that a mixed state is serious and difficult to treat.  It pumps up my ego to know that I’m fighting a worthy adversary and helps me take in stride all the times the compulsion simply runs me over.  Learning a new way to work with this agitated energy won’t be easy.  There are no other guidelines out there except the use of powerful drugs.

The results of a mixed state are the scariest, craziest part of bipolar disorder for me.  I feel like something takes possession of my body and my brain, and there’s nothing I can do except ride along until I’m released.  The impulses are so strong, and the drive to flee from them so ingrained, that it will take time and much effort to even begin to imagine something else.  But, that’s what I’m doing.

When I’m able, I get still, either by sitting in a comfortable chair or lying on my bed.  I breathe.  I start to explore where the agitation manifests in my body.  Sometimes I feel it in my gut, sometimes my chest, and sometimes it seems to be only in my head.  And then, I stay with that sense of placement for as long as I’m able—sometimes just a few moments.

When the compulsions are already in control, I try to at least acknowledge them, watch them as they push me into eating or spending or fleeing.  When I resist, the compulsion only grows, so instead I try to choose a lesser target (Subway instead of Dairy Queen, buying one item online instead of a dozen).

I’m also using meditation as much as I can, but there’s a resistance to that as well.  I’m not sure what part of me is fighting this very useful tool, but I find I “forget” to meditate a lot and brush it off when I do think of it.  This resistance is something else to learn from, I think.

So, while being symptomatic again truly sucks, there are lessons to learn and maps to chart.

I’m on an Adventure.

Reloading

This past week has been a long, slow slide out of mental wellness.  It seemed like my world sprang a leak, and the bright colors I enjoyed most of the summer gradually bled out.  Then, a needling apprehension crept in under my skin.  Overnight, Life became worrisome and difficult again.

I knew the respite wouldn’t last.  I knew the tide would turn and the next bipolar episode was inevitable.  What surprised me was that I forgot how to tread water when the flood came in.  I found myself flailing, overwhelmed by the increasing pain.  For 50 days I had my old brain back, and suddenly it was hijacked again.  The frantic, querulous voice in my head belonged to someone else.  The impulse to kill the pain grabbed me like a powerful undertow and dragged me back into compulsive eating and spending.  The smart, savvy Bipolar Badass was gone, and in her place bobbed a waterlogged poppet.

I can’t believe what a huge effort it took to fight my way back to the surface—how much effort it still is taking.  The Y was closed this week for its annual maintenance, which destroyed my routine.  I had to get creative about exercise.  I tried walking around the neighborhood, but the resulting pain (fibromyalgia + arthritis in the feet + obesity) left me hobbling and unable to sleep.  I went to the Aquatic Center (swimming pool, water slide, etc.) where they have a Lazy River—a waist-high channel with a current for tubing.  Forty-five minutes before the Center opens, they let people come in to water-walk in the Lazy River.  I did that the last couple of days and can feel my aches and pains receding.  The lap pool at the Y will be open again today, and the aerobic classes will start on Monday, so I can get back on schedule.

I spent $100 that I don’t have.  Part of it went on my credit card, but most came out of my checking account.  Luckily, the amount is manageable.  I still follow the practice of taking an allowance each week from my checking account.  For the rest of the month, I’ll just take less, which means no money for gas, or lattes, or a haircut and spending the barest minimum on groceries.  It’s doable.  I don’t need to go anywhere, I’m trying to cut down on coffee, and I can be shaggy for a couple of weeks.  And I’ve got enough turkey hot dogs and frozen entrees to last with a modest supplement of fresh produce.  I’m good.

The credit card purchase was a night of fine dining at the steakhouse down the street.  All compulsions merged that night—the drive to bury my growing mental discomfort with food and spending whatever it took to make it happen.  That was the turning point for me.  I waddled out of Jax’s, sat in my truck, and just stopped.  Even I could see I was out of control.

I took a couple of deep breaths and started looking.  I reminded myself that the anxiety, the nattering thoughts, the sadness were chemical reactions, not me.  I reminded myself that the only way through this episode was to relax into it, accept it, and use the tools that I have.  I reminded myself that I wanted to try something different with the compulsions—to use meditation and awareness of them in my body.  Was I willing to try that?  Could I gather enough self-awareness to even attempt it?

This is not the worst episode I’ve ever had—not by a long shot.  But, I really let my guard down.  Over that long, lovely stable period, I unbuckled my gun belt, unstrapped my sword, and emptied my pockets of grenades.  The Observer grew lazy sifting through normal, everyday reactions and bursts of ego.  It was so nice to relax—really relax—but I may have done myself a disservice by taking all the guards from their posts.

Now I know I need to keep a sentry on duty, even in the best of times.  I need the warning cry, the time to gather the troops and check the ammo.  Because I forget each state of my bipolar illness when I’m not in that state, I need checklists posted where I can see them.  Like a field guide, I need to use them to remind myself of the shape of the enemy’s tracks and the lay of the land ahead.

I’m back today. Frosty.  Armed.  That 50 day vacation is just a picture in my scrapbook.  What’s important is the engagement ahead.

Sh*tHellF*ckDamn!

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

I’m not ready for another swing into depression.  I just came up for air a few days ago, and I haven’t had time to clean up the mess yet!  I have things to do, appointments to keep.  I spent too much and ate too much while I was down, and I need a functioning brain to figure out how to make the rest of my money and groceries stretch to the end of the month.  I’m not ready!

Well, it’s just too f*cking bad, isn’t it?  I don’t get a say in this, I just have to suck it up and do the best I can.  Again.

Yesterday

I’m managing.

And suddenly, I’m not.

Bam!  The pain overpowers me.  Rational thought scatters.  Awareness shrinks to a tiny hole.  At my chiropractor’s office I lay crying into the face slit of his treatment table, pinned there by acupuncture needles, trampled by runaway despair.  I focus on the snot stringing from my nose, the tissue paper on the table sticking to my wet face, anything but the flood of emotion—that sickening sense of drowning.  I try to stay present, to surf instead of sink.  What should I do next?  How do I get through this day?

But the roar of the flood is deafening.  I can’t hear myself think.  A plan forms and smashes against the rocks.  I can only grab at wreckage as it slams past.  Nothing will work, I think and immediately know that’s not true.  Hold on, I hear my friend Lily’s voice say.  How do I hold on?

Oblivion is the only answer.  Find something louder than the storm, something that will push it into the background.  I drive across the street to the movie theater and stay there all day.  Super 8 pushes the noise back, and I sink into the story.  Sweet, exhilarating, new.  Then, I wait in the bathroom for a few minutes and sneak into X-Men: First Class.  Again.  I want it again.  I know what to expect, but I want the bits I missed.  I see more, hear more.  Swallow it like food.  The noise in my head and my body stays quiet, acquiesces to the story, the images, the thundering explosions, the music.

When it ends, I hurry out, focused on not getting caught, but in the parking lot the flood screams back in.  I sit in my truck and clutch the steering wheel, sobbing, hanging on, waiting for a break in the storm, a chance to pull a thought out of the chaos.  What next?  What next?

I drive to Tom and Cheryl’s for supper with their family.  I can’t do this.  I can’t do this.  But, I do.  Tom greets me, asks me if I’ll take care of the dogs while they’re away this weekend.  Of course I will, but in my mind Dogs, Care, House fragment and skitter away.  “Write it down for me,” I tell him.  “I can’t think today.”

I sit out in the front room, away from the noise of HGTV, away from Cheryl’s silence that I’m turning into a slight.  I try to read Geneen Roth’s new book about compulsion.  She says:

Obsession is a form of autism, a way to cover our ears and block out the background noise, a way to protect ourselves when the situation feels vulnerable or dangerous or anxiety producing.  Obsession is a way to change the channel when you don’t like what’s barreling across the screen of your mind.

Maybe, I think.  But what if you have to change the channel to survive?

At those moments, my life belongs to the unconscious associations I’ve made, the particular way my psyche has equated love with buying, stillness with despair.  Survival trumps good intentions every time.  When the imperative to shop (or eat or drink or take drugs) takes over, nothing else exists.  It’s why diets don’t work, budgets get thrown out, credit-card debt keep accumulating.  The momentary imperative of survival will always, in every situation, hijack long-range perspective.

…the only way through [the imperative] is awareness itself.  Which means that instead of reacting in the same ways to the same needs, I begin widening the perspective.  I realize I have other choices… It takes time.  It takes willingness to tolerate discomfort.  It takes motivation to see through the patterns.  It takes the courage to actually see that we don’t want to see.  It also takes confidence that it is possible to get to the other side.

Yes, but what if under the discomfort of obsession lies mental illness?  There is no “other side” to mental illness.  There’s only bringing awareness to it and stripping back the distorted thinking.  Again and again and again.  Pulling off the black thoughts and flinging them away like leeches so the swelling and shrinking flood can be seen.

I see you, I say to the raging storm inside me.  Crying, I shut the book.  I walk into the TV room and watch HGTV with my friends.

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