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).

Sinking into the Day

handmade greeting cards, collage art, RumiLost Days.  Bad Days.  I used to have all kinds of names for days like today.  Symptomatic.  Hard.  Dead.

It’s a day when all plans and lists get set aside, all hopes for how the day might be spent suspended.  It’s a day when the rapid cycling pulls me under into the darker waters.  Drowning can occur.

But not today.

Today, as I schlumped home from the Y, brain fog closed off any line of sight to the shoreline.  I was left adrift with the nattering and fussing it grinds out on days like today.  The fibromyalgia that comes with depression deposited rusty spurs in every joint.  I could hear my muscles creaking.

Okay, my brighter mind conceded, let’s just sink into the day.

At home, I ate breakfast, watched an episode of Fringe, took Advil, then went to bed.  If I’m exhausted and aching, this part of my mind reasoned, then rest.  I slept for hours—deep sleep punctuated by cats.    Up in the early afternoon, I set about making soup with whatever I had left in my pantry and fridge—a little of Bob’s Red Mill Whole Grains and Beans Soup Mix, a can of corn, two little sweet potatoes, garlic, and half a bag of spinach.  I didn’t have any vegetable broth left, so surrendered my vegan status for the day and threw in a couple of chicken bouillon cubes.  Parsley, Garam Marsala, salt and pepper rounded it out.

While  my soup simmered, I spent the afternoon on Pinterest, looking at dreamy and beautiful images.  I went to the pinners I follow who gather their boards together with style and grace, then wandered off to experience some of their favorites.   Sinking into the beauty, sinking into the art, I let the images and words hold me like a raft on the dark waters.  I brought a bowl of soup back to my computer and sank deeper into the rhythm of the gentle pictures and soft colors, spooning a bite of sweet potato, a mingling of spice and savory.

Now, the day is almost done.  Henry is buzzing his little cat-snores behind me in the big chair.  The sun comes through the western windows, throwing squares of light on the floor for Emmet’s bath.  It’s quiet here.  No drowning.  Just sinking into what the day brought and resting there.

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.

Where Everything is Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

• • •

Dont’ worry about saving these song!

And if one of our instruments breaks,

it doesn’t matter.

·

We have fallen into the place

where everything is music.

·

The strumming and the flute notes

rise into the atmosphere,

and even if the whole world’s harp

should burn up, there will still be

hidden instruments playing.

·

So the candle flickers and goes out.

We have a piece of flint, and a spark.

·

This singing art is sea foam.

The graceful movements come from a pearl

somewhere on the ocean floor.

·

Poems reach up like spindrift and the edge

of driftwood along the beach, wanting!

·

They derive

from a slow and powerful root

that we can’t see.

·

Stop the words now.

Open the window in the center of your chest,

and let the spirits fly in and out.

—Rumi

Hold Your Horses

This woman did not fly to extremes; she lived there.

—Quentin Crisp

• • •

Enthusiasms are suspect in someone with bipolar disorder.  There’s a thin, fuzzy line between passion and obsession, drive and driven.  So it is with cautious optimism that I pursue my intention of becoming vegetarian.

As I sat in my coffee shop yesterday, journaling, I could feel the buzz of mania—my thoughts leaping and shoving each other out of the way, the Crusade taking me over with its conviction, dedication and magical thinking.  But, after the despair of this past weekend, the energy and purpose felt like a reward for slogging through the Pit.  A Reprieve.  And yet, I knew it would be a mistake to identify with the high I was feeling.  I was still there, behind the excitement and the speed, so the task was to watch and wait.vegetarianism

Starting new projects while manic can definitely get them off the ground with a bang.  The energy acts like a catapult—but the one pulling the trigger isn’t too concerned about aim.  I once ripped out the carpet in the whole basement of my house in an hour.  Did it need to be done?  Maybe.  My cat had been peeing on it for years.  Did it need to be done at 11:00 at night?  Probably not.  The trick with mania is not to do anything that can’t be undone later.

vegetarianism, Alicia SilverstoneHolding that maxim, I spent a couple of hours in the library reading about vegetarianism and retrieving information buried in my defunct memory.  I remembered that I flirted with this years ago, influenced by my friend, Dee, who is a devout vegetarian.  The basics all came back to me and seemed so easy.  Could it be that easy?  To a manic, sure.  We are invincible—gods in our own minds.  We scoff at the feeble attempts of mere mortals!

Yesterday, I was able to set my super powers aside and assume a gentler approach.  Instead of running to Trader Joe’s and dumping money I don’t have into miso and tempeh, I bought a bag of pinto beans and some produce.  I still have my Moosewood Cookbook—one of the few things that has survived my many manic purgings—and found my favorite (and simple) recipe for refried beans.  Last night I made a meal so beautiful, I had to take a picture—corn tortillas with my homemade refried beans, brown rice, green onion, yellow bell pepper, topped with salsa and mango.

The fact that I actually cooked a meal is not lost on me, either.  Cooking can be a major source of anxiety, but the process of soaking and cooking the beans felt very relaxing.  There was a sense memory in running my hands through them, hearing their clatter against the strainer.  Another question arose—could this process help me find the creative cook that vanished when I got sick?  This, too, I’ll hold gently as the adventure unfolds.

Because, I am on an Adventure!

Count the Blessings

I’ve been down with an intestinal flu the last couple of days.  Nothing to do but watch movies, drink ginger ale and ponder the year that’s about to end.  But pondering can be a dangerous exercise, especially when I’m sick and in the middle of an episode.  I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to give too much attention to the thoughts that swirl up then.  Too much darkness, too much regret, too much grief.  So instead, I’ll focus on a few of the blessings 2011 brought me.

A place to sell my art cards.  My last visit at The Perfect Setting was disappointing compared to all the other times I’ve sold my cards there.  Pam, the owner, placed another employee in charge of the greeting cards.  This person pulled a couple of mine as “inappropriate”.  It seems she and I don’t share the same sense of humor.  So, Pam bought only half of the bunch I brought in this time instead of all of them.

Even though I know better, I took it very personally.  I know every shop has to make careful selection and cater to the clientele, but it surprised me since Pam always seemed to love everything I brought in.  Every artist has to tailor their work to fit the market—I know and understand this.  It just caught me on a very bad day, and I haven’t been able to sit at my studio table since.

This isn’t sounding much like gratitude.  But I am extremely grateful to Pam for taking a chance with my work.  She hung my weird collages even though no one in Marshalltown will ever buy them.  She bought all my cards, even when her other employees raised eyebrows.  She let me be the square peg in the town’s round hole—no one else here has ever done that for me.  Yes, I’m grateful.  And eventually, I’ll start making more of the cards that the town will accept—along with a few naughty ones.

Healing.  This year I learned how to manage without psychotropic medication.  I developed my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training guidelines.  I graduated from the Silver Sneakers water exercise class to the deep water, high-powered, water aerobics class.  I pushed the envelope of my reading disability and actually finished eleven whole books this year.  I’m learning how to be a woman alone without being lonely all the time.  I’ve moved past my fear of cooking and can now fix supper for myself every night.  I’ve started again on the weight loss journey, losing 12 pounds since my visit with the allergist at the beginning of December.

It’s an important practice to remember all the healing this year brought, all the hard work and dedication I put into it.  The illness always grabs center stage.  The loss of Will, the scrambled routine, the swamping thoughts tear down self-worth and confidence.  It’s so easy to see only failure.  So, remembering the success and joy play a vital part in bringing reality back to true.

Saying Good-bye to my dad on my terms.  I am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad in his final days and participate in his funeral in a meaningful way.  It was a gift.  Just as easily, my illness might have flared like it did this past Christmas, incapacitating me and keeping me from any human interaction.  Frankly, I expected to be a nut case during my dad’s rituals, and the stress did eventually cause an episode.  But I was fully there when I most wanted to be.  A miracle.  A prayer answered.

These are just a few of the gifts the Heart of the Universe placed in my lap this year.  What treasures did you receive?

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 19

One of the main reasons I went to Pittsburgh was to get my teacher’s input about the next step in my spiritual work.  As I journaled on my way out there:

It’s more than being on the road and on my way to Melanie.  I’m fine.  I haven’t had an episode in three weeks.  That’s a new record.  Truly.  What’s happening?  Are the drugs finally out of my system?  Has my brain started to manufacture the chemicals it needs again?  Is my practice working?  Is it the energy of the group coming together?  Is it the work with the Gratitude Journal?  Could it be possible, can I dare imagine, that maybe now I can actually work on the food compulsion?

Melanie and I discussed the nature of compulsion, how it’s the complete absence of Will.  She suggested I read about Will from authors like P.D. Ouspensky and G.I Gurdjieff to get a sense of what compulsion is not.  And, like Geneen Roth, Melanie believed many clues to riding the compulsion will come from attending the sensation of it in my body.  Where do I feel the drive to eat in my body?  Does it rise and fall?  Does it expand and contract?  Does it have edges or boundaries?  Does it change as I bring attention to it?

I thought I had come a long way in paying attention to my body, but I realized I’d just begun.  Now it’s time to let my body be in control.  My job is to pay attention to the signals and give my body what it wants.  I love ice cream, but it gives me diarrhea.  My body is telling me something.  I love coffee, but it makes my stomach bloated and gassy.  My body is telling me something.

Another piece came to me one morning as the group sat in meditation.  I became aware of my body as separate and also part of the group.  I was Group.  In that state, the Group Will became accessible to me, something more subtle and more powerful than my little will.  I realized that to work with my compulsion I would have to connect with and call on this larger, higher Will.  This was a key piece for me.  As with any Twelve Step Program, the process of relying on a Higher Power opens up the psyche to all manner of possibilities.  What my little will cannot do, a larger Will can.

When I came home, I looked at habits and practices that set me up to ignore my body and went about making some changes.  For the past few days, I’ve sat in meditation before making supper, getting in touch with the Group Will and concentrating on the signals my body sends me.  I make choices on what to fix based on those signals, then check in several times in the evening to see if my choices were received well.  I’m finding that the signals are very clear.  I’m also finding that it takes energy and my little will to keep making good choices, though I can sense the greater Will at work weaving a new matrix.  My intent is to keep reinforcing this new pattern for three weeks until it becomes habit, then continue to draw on Group Will to maintain it.

That’s my plan.  We’ll see what happens.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 7

So many people, animals and places have taught me how to live my life, how to cultivate the best in me, and how to perform the skills needed to maneuver in the world.  These four are the ones who have floated to the top of my consciousness at this moment in time.

(Clockwise from the top left) Melanie Oates has been my spiritual advisor and mentor since 1999.  She introduced me to all the Buddhist teachings that became instrumental in managing my bipolar disorder—living in the moment, detachment, observation of self, the difference between pain and suffering, developing consciousness, etc.  Her holographic teachings—bringing in information from ancient mystery schools, current science theory, history, sociology, metaphysics, as well as using art, interpersonal relationships, and physical activity—gave me an entirely new sense of what is humanly possible.

Marshall Wright served with me as a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis.  He shucked off a financially successful business persona to live life “In The Flow.”  Marshall never lets me get away with half-truths or any kind of delusion.  He carries a big stick wrapped in love which he routinely sets in my path to stumble over.  We communicate through a kind of poetry that is open to multiple interpretations, so I find I listen very closely and choose my words with greater care.  Marshall helps me remember my connection to nature and ancient traditions.  In the picture above, he took me on a walking tour of a Florida river.  If there were crocs or snakes nearby, they didn’t bother us.  We were in the Flow.

My grandma passed on to me all her creative skills—needlework, cooking, drawing, the love of color, and gardening.  Like a fairy tale, she lived in a tiny cottage on our farm.  The path to her house wound from our back yard, through our apple orchard, to her trellised gate.  Like my dad, she tended to look on the gloomy side of life, but she never showed that side to me when I was little.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my stories, praised my drawings and the first little quilt I made for a doll.  She helped me tend the Kitty Cemetery I kept in the woods for all the strays and kittens that died.  Gramma entered into my world and played with me there.  She taught me it was perfectly fine to do just that.

Sarah Benson was a Master of Sacred Sound.  I started working with her when we met in Colorado in the ’90’s and made several treks to her home in the Massachusetts woods.  She taught me about the sacred geometry of sound, the levels of healing and transcendence it can reach.  With Sarah’s help, I rediscovered the power of my own voice and its natural ability to foster healing in others.  Her playful, pixie-like attitude kept me from taking myself too seriously and reminded me to always turn toward joy.  Sarah died a few years ago, and is sorely missed by a world-wide community.

These are my teachers of this moment—wise and stumbling, educated and street-smart, pillars of society and apart from the world.  The one thing they have in common is love—their love of others, and my abiding love for them.

Training Checklist: Clean Eating

This isn’t Bipolar Boot Camp.  Been there, done that, got the ECT burns.  This is the survival training that comes after that, the Do It Or Die conditioning, the stuff I personally have to do to get myself ready for the next episode.  Part healing, part emotional strength training, part preparing the physical vessel.

The first thing to attend to is my diet.  After being sick most of the winter and basically giving up on eating in any rational, balanced way, there’s lots of mop up to do here.  While I’m not an advocate of any particular diet, there is wisdom to be found in several places.  Dr. Daniel Amen has lots of good advice about eating for the health of one’s brain (just dodge his tacky self-promotion and stick to the articles).

As a compulsive eater or food addict, I already know more than the average consumer about food (hey, it’s a hobby!).  I know all the diets, all the tricks, all the latest miracle cures for obesity, all the medical facts.  Putting this vast knowledge into practice is another side of beef entirely.  But, I’m in training now, and practice is exactly what I need to do.  A non-rabid form of clean eating seems healthiest and easiest for me.  The tenets are these: Eat the freshest food available— fruits and vegetables, lean protein, whole grains.  Stay away from slop (like Cheetos and Chips Ahoy) and processed food.  Drink more water.  Eat smaller, more frequent meals.

Eating clean requires that I cook, which often makes me anxious, but I’m in training so cooking is what I will do.  While in training, for as long as this non-episodic period lasts, it feels vital that I push myself.  How will I ever make important changes in my life if I don’t push?  So, no excuses, no forgetting, no slacking off.  This window of opportunity won’t stay open forever.  I’ve got to get as much out of it as I can.

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