handmade greeting card, collage artI spoke too soon the other day.  Not up from the deep just yet.  A common mistake.  This rapid cycling is tricksy, let’s a person break the surface for a bit, enough to gulp air, then the waters close over the top before a soul can recognize the drag back into the black.  An odd feeling this time of being altered, alien, apart.  Of moving in a different time zone than the people around me.  Of speaking a different dialect.  Again, that sly bipolar brain working its funky alchemy.

Another day of doing what I can, when I can.  Moving through the water with goggles and the sound of my breath bubbling underneath—yes.  Packing up chai and journal to sit next to the big library windows—probably.  Acting like a normal consumer by checking Staples and Wal-Mart off my list—maybe.  It all depends on the Sturm und Drang playing in the background—the bipolar soundtrack can hurt the ears sometimes.  And a body pillaged by fractured sleep and rusty nails in the joints.

But the bed is made, the litter boxes clean, the dishes washed.  It could be a start.  It could be enough.

People Person

people personHa Ha.  Very clever, right?  But, there’s so much truth in this, it’s painful.  The rest of the truth is that my bipolar disorder ruined me first.

I had two serious situations this week where I was misunderstood.  The old me, the Sandy Sue before electroshock and buckets of drugs, before losing one life and starting over, before everything I am now, would have squared off and demanded to be heard.  Shoot them all and let God sort them out is, I think, the way that particular saying goes.  That was my modus operandi.  Because I’m so damn smart and enlightened.

Thank the Universe, I’ve learned those self-righteous leanings are mostly delusion and bent ego.  And thank the Universe, I’ve slowly learned to keep my mouth shut.  Mostly.  I still can’t clamp it shut fast enough to keep some spew from squirting out, but I’m getting better at it.  Unfortunately, the only way to practice this skill is through experience.  Ugh.  But, I’m finding a new truth in confrontation—nothing I have to say will make it better.  Especially if there’s some kind of emotion behind it.  I don’t need to be understood.  No one is required to see my point of view.  None of that is important.

Still, it doesn’t feel good to be accused or punished for perceived or future crimes.  And that sharp discomfort is hard for my illness to tolerate.  The stress sings my anxiety and agitation into action, urging me to cut and run, to find comfort, to gather the troupes and set up a perimeter against any further incursions.  The illness turns me away from them and toward me.  What do I need to do to feel safe?  What stories am I making up about what happened?  How do I reorient to this new situation?  How do I keep breathing until the anxiety settles and the New Place is mapped?  What resources do I have?

I have some work to do today, and in the days to come.  Being misunderstood is part of being bipolar.  And part of all human interaction.  I just have to find my way in it.  Without getting ruined.

Going Deeper into Bad-Assery

handmade greeting cards, collage artBy definition, a spiritual practice is never finished.  There’s no timeline, no stopping point, no date on the calendar that can be X’ed out.  The practice itself is the point—to keep returning to whatever activity was chosen to exercise mindfulness.  To keep using what is set before us in order to go deeper.

So, as a spiritual practice, bipolar disorder rocks.

For a couple of years now, I’ve seriously engaged my mental illness as practice.  I’ve tried to map the funky mental landscape.  I’ve gathered information from research and from my own experience to make changes in my routine and perceptions.  I’ve envisioned myself a warrior, doing battle with the vagaries of the illness.  A Bipolar Bad-Ass.

And now there’s a call to go deeper.

There’s no more data to gather, no more analysis to be done.  All that information is part of me now.  What’s called from me now is a deeper acceptance of the illness and my life as it is.  Always in the back of my mind, I held the belief that if I worked hard enough, stayed awake, fought my compulsions, slashed the delusions when they attacked, I would find peace.  Someday, I would get well.

In holding out for Someday, I skipped Today—which was deliberate, because Today is horrifying.  But, I’m called to embrace it.  All of it.  The poverty, the obesity, the solitude and the madness as well as my creativity and skills, the small pleasures and joys.  There’s a shift in the Bad-Ass from screaming in battle to something quieter.  I don’t know who she is yet, but I can feel her emerging.

Part of her Call is to be present to the Discomfort (once I pull away the drama and suffering, this is the word that fits best).  Discomfort drives the compulsions, attaches to the distorted thinking, flails and panics.  Discomfort underlies poor choices.  It warps reality.

But, it’s just Discomfort.  Greater or lesser degrees of it will travel with me the rest of my life.  My Constant Companion.  So, the next phase of Bad-Assery seems to include becoming comfortable with the Discomfort.  This feels like a koan, a riddle with no solution.  But, that’s also part of practice—holding a question for the sake of holding it.

Maybe this is part of my Bad-Ass’ journey—to set down the sword.  I can’t imagine it yet.

So, I’ll try to just sit with that discomfort.

I’m on an Adventure.

Shallow Lessons

handmade greeting cards, collage art

Taking a break from myself for the past week turned out to be an experiment in possibility.  Each morning I got up and posed the question “What do I need today?”  Most days involved some sort of exercise, often twice in the same day.  There was usually a call for delicious, healthy food that I cooked myself.  I read a lot, which startled me since reading has been difficult post-ECT.  Soy chai from Starbucks seemed to be the treat I craved most.  I took several trips to the City without being driven by mania or depression to see what that might be like (delightful, by the way).

What I didn’t do was journal or make art—things I’ve done almost every day since I moved back home six years ago.  I only interacted with strangers for the most part.  And I put a moratorium on thinking.

Years ago, when I lived in Minneapolis, my friend, Lily, and I would go on “shallow” dates.  Both of us tended to over-think and ponder deeply the meaning of Life, so we would pick a fluffy movie and go empty our brains together.  Trouble was, we always found The Lesson or A Point to even the most retarded movie.  We laughed that we could find the Gift in lint.

I tried something a little different this week.  I focused on sensation and intuition.  Both of these ways of knowing have become untrustworthy, co-opted by bipolar delusion and compulsion.  I learned not to trust myself, what I feel and what I desire, because the illness warps perception.  But this set up a constant, internal battlefield.  More than just holding tension, or observing my internal workings, I rejected them.  Or I labeled all feeling and desire as part of the illness.  Either/Or thinking is much easier than trying to tease out the healthy from the unhealthy.  It also requires a lot of thought and analysis.

So, this week I practiced not-thinking.  I tried to listen to my body for what it wanted.  I tried to turn in the direction of beauty and ease like a flower toward the sun (no thinking involved there).  And if I felt compulsion push at me, I listened and felt it instead of analyzing and reporting it in my journal.

It was like mud settling in a pond gone still.  Defensive and vulnerable when I started the week, I felt my body soften and my heart take a deep breath.  My aversion to people thinned and relaxed.  Issues shifted from vague discomfort to solid little pebbles with much less mass than I expected.  Pathways cleared.

My vacation contained good and bad days (or in my new vernacular, sunny and stormy mental weather), so I was able to practice not-thinking on my rapid cycling as well.  I found much comfort in the mantra “Don’t think, just feel.”

So, as I come back to the people and responsibilities in my life today, I feel refreshed and ready.  I have some changes to make and more work to do.  But I’ll try to keep it shallow.

A Different Kind of Vacation

handmade greeting cards, collage art

ø ø ø

I’m trying something different.  I’m taking a vacation from my life.

I don’t know if this is brilliant—a true Oprah “Ah Ha” inspiration—or a self-destructive twist of bipolar delusion.  I guess I’ll find out when I’m on the other side of it.

All I can see right now is that nothing seems to be working.  Diet, exercise, meditation, routine, writing, making art—none of these things give me any juice or comfort.  And I’m suffocated by people—the friends I love, the family I love, the communities I’ve joined, the faces I see around me every day.  I can’t fake another conversation, or feign interest, or hold another smile.  I can’t be socially acceptable for another minute.

So, I’m taking a vacation from people and from my normal routine.  I’ll get out of bed when Henry tells me to (he usually pounds on the closet door around 5:00, but some mornings he lets me sleep in).  I’ll pay attention to what seems to need attention.  I’ll see what rises.  I’ll go out, move, watch and listen.  And I’ll see what happens.

This is more than a vacation.  This is coming to terms with my life as it is, not what it might be in the future, not what it was in the past.  It’s coming to terms with who I am, not the girl I was, not who I think I should be, not who I dreamed I’d be.  Maybe this vacation will be a sort of practice in sitting companionably with myself, my real self.  Maybe I’ll finally see her.  Maybe this won’t be a vacation at all, but a new way of living.

I won’t know until I start.


Taking the Bad-Ass into Battle

XenaSo, okay.  I’m deep in depression and have been for months now, navigating the best I can, but that’s not working anymore.  When bipolar disorder rips all the skills away and leaves raw flesh, something is still there.  Some sort of intelligence, some sort of animal instinct.  It may not be logical or sane, but something is moving under the madness.

It manifests as compulsive behavior—a thrashing around to find solace, relief and oblivion.  It’s old, and ingrained, and mindless.  I’ve always thought of it as wild, savage, completely uncontrollable.  I’ve managed it by moving the breakables out of its way and cleaning up after it rampages through my life.  But, like I said, that strategy isn’t working anymore.

The only thing I can think to do now is bring the Bad-Ass.

I’m not sure what that is, but I know what it’s not.  It’s not telling myself to suck it up, snap out of it, or get over it.  I already know that doesn’t work.  Ditto on setting unrealistic goals or lists of things to do.  Bringing the Bad-Ass is not an assault on myself, it’s not hacking at my illness with judgment.

Natasha Romanov, Black Widow, AvengersIt seems to be more of a shift in how I hold my body.  I square my shoulders a little more and pay attention to how I walk—a firm, strong gait instead of waddling with pain or shuffling off-balance.  Yes, I feel suicidal and hopeless, but the Bad-Ass is there, too, and allowing her to be there gives me more physical strength.

There’s also a sense of the Bad-Ass in the gaps.  This season of insanity hasn’t been one thick slab of cement.  It thins sometimes, pulls apart in gaps before closing up again.  And if I allow it, the Bad-Ass can fight through those gaps.  I could do that yesterday, and spent an hour strategizing.  Where am I feeling the most out of control?  Is there anything to be done?  What messes have I made?  How can I clean them up?  Are there any tools that still work?  Can I capitalize on those more?

This is not the time to make changes or try something new.  My illness won’t tolerate that.  But the Bad-Ass helps me return to tools that work, ones that I lost along this long road.  I can go back to keeping a Food Journal and weighing myself every day.  It doesn’t matter right now if the news is grim, the act of doing those things will bring back a sense of routine.  They help channel the wildness.

Because I had to cancel all my obligations the past few days, I see I need to put some contingency plans in place.  I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before—probably my wishful thinking that this time I could be reliable.  Oh, the delusions, the delusions… The Bad-Ass takes care of business in the here and now.  Through her, I can ask for back-up, make sure there’s someone who can take over when I can’t lead the meditation groups.  That will relieve a lot of pressure.

I dream of the day when the Bad-Ass can be with me all the time.  I guess it’s my fantasy of recovery, of beating back this illness forever.  But maybe there’s a way to bring her to the battle more often, to use her strengths and hutzpah while I’m cycling, to feel her calm, steely resolve even when I’m caught in my compulsive behavior.  All I can do is be open to it and watch what happens.

I’m on an Adventure.

Inside the Distortion

handmade cards, collage art, Leonard NimoyJournal Entry:                   Monday December 3, 2012

I’m in a weird purgatorial place, full of angst and thrashing against my life.  Yesterday, Penny rescued me.  We went to Des Moines after Fellowship—shopped, went to Hu Hot, laughed and had real conversation.  She talked about what a gift I was to her and Karen, how much I benefit their lives and what I give to others.  It made me cry.  Makes me cry now.  I feel so lost.  It’s not that I think I’m worthless.  I know I’m skilled and offer something of value.  And I know that’s important and necessary for my own wellbeing.

But, it’s not enough.

It’s not enough to beat back the darkness.  It’s not enough to stop the wanting.  It’s not enough to fill the hole.

Last night before bed, I ticked off my blessings for the day.  When I came to Penny, I was thankful for this honeymoon period of friendship—before I screw it up like I have all my other relationships.  I haven’t hurt her too badly yet, broken her trust or lied to her.  I haven’t scared her too much yet, or dragged her through a suicide attempt.  I haven’t strangled her with neediness or used up her generosity.

But it will come.  It always comes.  The craziness goes a little too far, my ability to rein it in slips a little too much.  The balance sheet tips and there’s a realization that the price of keeping me in a person’s life is too high.

How do I keep living this life?  How can I keep losing everyone?  I know my thinking is twisted now.  This will pass as the moods always pass.  But what’s left?  What’s underneath?  What’s constant?  Is there something in me that does more than survive?  A part that does more than just hang on to the guard rail?  How do I keep living like this?  How do I keep wanting to?

Six Flags over Cuckoo

Come with me as we tour the Bipolar amusement park.  Stick with me long enough and you’ll see it all!

Dante's Inferno

Danté’s Pit may be behind us, but now we get to ride the Boomerang roller coaster of rapid cycling.

Crazy as it sounds (this is the FunHouse after all), we ride the Mad Hatter’s Agitated Teacups while on the Boomerang!  Don’t let all the spinning make you puke!  Tickets cost more to complainers!Disneyland Mad Hatter Teacup Ride

Swing the sledge hammer and ring the bell, but be careful!  Popeye could sail that striker into the stratosphere, and you can, too! Popeye high striker

And with all that grandiosity, you can probably call on several superpowers to either fly after the striker or shoot it down with laser vision.X-Men, Cyclops

Clowns?  We got ’em!  Don’t look them in the eye or get too close, though.  They tend to sharpen their teeth with files of delusion and mean it when they bite.

scary clown

But, best of all is the carousel, because this ride goes on and on and on and on. . .

What Scared Looks Like

I’m scared.

I’ve gone through bad episodes before.  Being a “brittle” bipolar, that’s just a fact of life.  Some I get through with more grace and humor than others.  This isn’t one of those episodes.

Yesterday I completely lost my moorings.  Except for going to the post office and then the grocery store to get binge food, I stayed in my apartment and tried to shut it all down.  Of course that’s not possible.  After nearly fifty years of dealing with bipolar disorder, one would think I’d have figured that out.  Well, I have, but I forget.  And the desperation makes me try one more time.

I woke up screaming in the night.  Nightmares of a big, shadowy man sneaking through my door.  That’s this illness.  A huge black presence that creeps in and does despicable harm.

I’m nearly hysterical thinking I might gain back the weight I’ve lost this year.  I don’t trust my conviction or my strength.  I don’t believe I can really change my life.  I only see the pattern that leads back to fat and crazy.

I don’t believe my new friends are real.  I don’t believe I’ll ever finish my book on my fight with this illness.  I’m terrified that I’m getting worse, remembering the studies I read that said bipolar disorder rots the brain and eventually leaves the patient stupid and demented.

I’m sure the flurry of activity on my new Etsy site was just opening day traffic from everyone I sent an email.  Now it will sink into oblivion, but I fuss and fret over it—making more cards and adding them to the shop, worrying about being fair, trying not to hope and doing it anyway.

Who is this panicky, desperate, tearful woman?  How can I be this petrified and isolated when just a few months ago I was riding the Bad-Ass train to a new and improved life with a cadre of companions?

I am not helpless.  I still have tools, even if they don’t work very well right now.  I’ll get myself to the Y, get in the water, and stay there until something shifts.  I’ll either break down in tears, get furious, or exhaust myself.  Any of those will be better than this jagged hopelessness.  I’ll call my therapist and pour out this jumble so she can help me sort through it.

I’ll go to a different cafe and journal.  I don’t think I can bear going to Haven anymore, even though they won’t close for another month.  The stink of failure and sadness is stronger than the coffee now.

I’ll get outside and walk with my iPod draped over my neck in the cozy I made out of a sock and a shoestring.  I’ll walk the cool, autumn streets and breathe.  I’ll let the music do its work and keep walking.  Walking back to a different place on the bipolar spectrum.  Walking through the fear.  Walking back to myself.

Shot-Gun Rider

Madness will push you anywhere it wants.  It never tells you where you’re going, or why.  It tells you it doesn’t matter.  It persuades you.  It dangles something sparkly before you, shimmering like that patch on the road up ahead.  You will drive until you find it, the treasure, the thing you most desire.

You will never find it.  Madness may mock you so long, you will die of the search.  Or it will tire of you, turn its back, oblivious as you go flying.  The car is beside you, smoking, belly-up, still spinning its wheels.

—Marya Hornbacher from Madness: A Bipolar Life

♦ ♦ ♦

I just finished Hornbacher’s account of her life with bipolar disorder.  Part of me is furious.  Part of me identifies so completely with her life that I want to buy copies of her book and give them to everyone I know.  “Here,” I want to tell them.  “This is what the inside of my head looks like.”  Part of me feels sick and crazy and wants to binge or drive really fast until the screaming in my own head stops.  Part of me just wants to punch something.

So, I guess the furious part is winning.  Here’s a woman who survived anorexia so severe she once weighed 55 pounds, raging alcoholism, drug addiction and rapid-cycling, mixed-state bipolar disorder.  She was hospitalized over and over again.  She even received electroshock treatments from the same doctor who gave them to me.  I should be compassionate.  I should be empathetic.  I should get her life.

But all I can think about is that she was diagnosed in her twenties and ignored every recommendation that was ever given to her.  Stop drinking.  Stop working so much.  Pay attention to your moods.  She ignored all of it until her illness was so advanced she had no other choice than to finally take some responsibility for her life.

What I wouldn’t give to have had a diagnosis in my twenties!

Of course, I may have done exactly what Hornbacher did—blow it off and let the madness run riot.  Of course I would have, because that’s part of the illness.  (Professionals call it “lack of insight,” which means the inability to recognize symptoms as symptoms.)  And that’s what pisses me off.

There was never any chance of stopping this freight train, never any chance of catching up to the mirage of sanity.  I knew that when I was eleven, but I keep forgetting.  I fool myself into thinking all this work I do, all the Observing and Monitoring and Substituting, will lock the craziness away and let me be normal. Always, in the back of my mind, I hold out that someday the monster will go up in smoke.  But these memoirs that I’m reading, as research for my own book on bipolar disorder, keep pounding a different stake through my heart.  “Snap out of it!” the Van Helsing-book yells at me.  “Bipolar isn’t the monster—chasing after Normal is the real monster!”

Uhhh.  My chest hurts where I’ve pulled out the latest stake.  Maybe I can figure out how to banish the magical thinking without needing a pointy two-by-four every single time.  Maybe I can teach myself to just enjoy the drive instead of keeping an eye out for the mirage.  Maybe, someday, I’ll finally accept this illness as the shot-gun rider that it is.  Maybe.  Someday.

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