Feeling the Squeeze

Martian Popping ThingNot that this is news to anyone, but dealing with bipolar disorder isn’t for pansy-asses.  It takes a kind of courage I’m only beginning to comprehend.

The depression has been big these last two weeks, my internal world inhospitable and frightening.  Lies and faulty thinking I thought I’d corrected long ago are back.  Mindfulness is out of reach.  I do what I can—move through the water every morning, go someplace that smells like coffee, write in my journal, call a friend.  But I can only poke holes in the darkness.  And as my therapist and I start using the tools in Radical Acceptance, I’m catching glimpses of—something—on the periphery.

There’s a terror within me that I’ve never touched.  I’m being asked to do that now.  Intellectually, I see this as therapeutic and full of potential.  But in our first session doing this Work, so much resistance came up that my body went numb.  Everything in me wanted to run out of Megan’s office.  When she talked to me, it was as if she spoke a foreign language.  I could not comprehend what she said.

I’ve tried working with difficult aspects of my illness before—the compulsive eating and spending, the anxiety, the insatiable longing.  I’ve noticed that when I start challenging one of these pieces or bring awareness to it, the others thrash around like two-year-olds.  To me it feels like a kind of pressure valve.  When I pay attention to my feelings of loneliness and wanting, I eat everything in sight.  When I put structure to my eating, my credit card starts smoking from all the on-line shopping.  I feel like one of those rubber Martian Popper dolls.

But I’ve not really had a partner in doing this work.  My previous therapists were either traditional, ineffective, or so flaky that they never should have been practicing in the first place (I’ve had some whack-os.  That’s another story).  But now I have someone who feels safe and competent, someone who shares my view of mental illness as a spiritual path, someone who knows more than I do about this Work.  I don’t have to figure this out alone any more.

And while I’m scared, I’m also relieved.  I’m trying not to have expectations, just face whatever comes the best I can.

But I think I’ll have to find one of those Popper dolls to take with me to my next session.

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Radical Acceptance

handmade greeting cards, collage artI knew I’d come to the right place when my new therapist went to her stuffed bookshelf and pulled down When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

“That’s one of my favorite books,” I told her, craning my neck to see what other jewels she had.

Unphased, she rifled through a few more.  “Then, you’ll like this one, I think,” she said.

I stuffed it in my bag and forgot about it in the wake of bronchitis and $500 spend on medicines that didn’t help much.  Yesterday, I decided I was done being sick—not physically, I’m a long way from well, but mentally.  I threw my book bag over my shoulder, took a slow stroll over the railroad yard to the Starbucks at HyVee, and settled into a cafe booth to journal.  And I found the book Megan loaned me.  Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach.

By the end of Chapter 2, I had to close my eyes and sit quietly while all the doors inside opened.

I could see how my fear of repeating last year (bronchitis—depression—hospitalization) pushed me into going to the doctor and obscured what I knew to be true.  Medicine has never helped me recover from my chronic respiratory infections and only drains my resources.  But Fear drowned out that quiet voice, the one that understands it just takes time, patience and healthy practices to get well.

radicalRadical Acceptance talks about waking up from the trance of unworthiness and accepting all our immediate experience offers.  From that perspective, I could see how I might work with my fear differently next time.  There’s nothing new in this approach—it’s as old as Buddhism—but coming face-to-face with the perfect example always slams home the Teaching.

To simply see that fear is in play is the first and hardest hurdle.  It acts as an underground driver, pushing, directing, demanding action.  So to be able to wake up in that agitation and See what stirs it takes practice.  Then, the task is to observe the fear, hold it gently, watch the stories it generates, feel the push and pull, and listen carefully to the quiet voice on the other side of it.  That quiet voice is my own Wisdom, something I don’t trust anymore, something that got lost in the sea of delusion my bipolar disorder created.  But, in accepting my fear I begin to Remember.  I remember that I do have a wiser self that isn’t delusional or lying.  I’ve ignored it a long time.  I’m out of practice finding it.

I sat in my booth and listened.  This wise part of me is so quiet, so gentle.  It offers suggestions that are kind and sensible, not the wild plans of my delusions.

I smiled, grateful for the doors opening, grateful for a new way to Practice, grateful for finding my new therapist and her glorious bookshelf.

I have enough.

I am enough.

All will be well.

Dangers of the Blogging Life

handmade greeting card, Star Trek, William Shatner, collage artI haven’t posted a whole lot lately.  Mostly because I’m a little afraid to.  I found out that someone close to me misunderstood a piece I wrote and, instead of getting clarification, filled in the holes with her own imagination.  We all do this.  We all make assumptions, make up stories when there’s not enough information, then act as if those stories are real.  But, this time those acts had ramifications for me in the Real World.

This isn’t the first time a blog post effected my real life.  I lost an old friend because of a post.  She had been backing out of my life for a while anyway, but that post was the last straw.  The telling part of my friend’s reaction is that the post wasn’t about her or our relationship.  It was about how much I liked Dr. Phil’s book on weight loss.

We never know how our words will be received.

For the last couple of weeks, I wondered if I could keep blogging at all.  From the beginning, it’s been my mission to be honest about my bipolar disorder and how I manage it, which included all the crazy, bleak and sear parts.  I knew some of those peeks into my brain were uncomfortable, but I assumed anyone with a question would leave a comment or contact me through email.  (There I go, making assumptions…)  I didn’t know how to proceed, knowing that I could never predict when something I wrote might be misconstrued, or how that might cause chaos in my life.  I was afraid.

I was also really depressed these past two weeks.  If you tend to visit this blog, you might have noticed.  The depressive side of my illness feeds fear and prefers me to hide under the covers.

But, today, I made a decision to keep writing.  I checked with my therapist (imagining worst-case scenarios), who assured me I can’t be committed because of anything I write here.  That’s really all I care about.  I can’t stop anyone from bringing their own fears and demons to the computer screen.  I can’t keep folks from making up stories about what they might read here.  I can’t do anything but check my integrity and tell as much of the truth as I can see.

Because that’s my job.  It’s the only job I have, and I intend to keep on with it.  And if there are consequences—good or bad—I’ll deal with them.

The Dreadful, Horrible Day

After yesterday, when I was puttering along and actually living, today’s sudden plunge into abject terror and compulsive frenzy came as a shock—and I’m fairly used to the roller coaster ride.  I found myself pacing all over my little apartment, trying to figure out how I could get food when I had no money, seizing on that no money echo and scaring myself about surviving the rest of the month.  Schemes dashed in and out too fast to pin down, all rejected, all dug out of the trash to revisit.

Nicholas Cage, Bridget FondaFor distraction, I started to watch a sweet movie from the ’90’s, It Could Happen to You—Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda as a cop and waitress who share Lotto winnings.  Every few minutes I had to turn it off to pace from kitchen sink, to bathroom, to living room chair—I had to have FOOD.  What was the plan?  Grocery store? Convenience station?  Then, the compulsion would let go enough to watch the movie a little more until the next attack.  I tried to concentrate on the love story, the kindness and generosity of the characters, but they only seemed to rev me up even more.  A two hour movie took five hours to watch.

When the movie ended I went to bed—hoping sleep might trigger a shift in mood.  Hoping to blunt the fear with oblivion.  Frantic sleep—little burps of drifting off only to jerk awake with nightmares.  And those jerks sent the cats flying off the bed to mutter in the corners.

I gave up on that strategy and tried to work on my manuscript.  Instead of writing, I organized sections.  That helped.  Organizing.  Arranging.  Tidying.  All very calming distractions.

I’d decided earlier to hold out until 4:00, then I’d go to the movies.  I had just enough credit left on a gift card my sis gave me for one last movie.  And Tuesdays are “free popcorn matinees” at the local theater.  Food and distraction.  Perfect.

James Bond, Daniel Craig, SkyfallSo, I went to Skyfall, the new James Bond movie, got lost in the action and story, enjoyed the technical bits, and kept breathing.  Afterward, I was able to pick up a reasonable supper of vegetable fried rice instead of ransacking the candy aisle at the grocery store.  I could feel this mixed episode shifting.  There’s always a steely resolve that comes over me when I get to the other side of a particularly bad one.  It’s like once I survive that, I can survive anything.  As I pulled into my parking space at the apartment, I said to myself, “We made it.  Disaster averted.  Well done.”

Truth is, as hysterical and flat-out bug-shit as I was today, I could have done a world of damage.  The fact that I didn’t has more to do with Grace than any kind of management technique or skill.  And yet there was some of that, too.  None of this is clear.  None of it tidy.  It’s hard to analyze while holding on by your fingernails.  In the heat of crisis, that’s all we bipolar’s have—our bloody fingernails and the cliff’s edge.  Analysis is for later, when the smoke clears and the fires burn down, when we can be a little more objective about the extent of the real damage done.

I’m hoping I get to do that tomorrow.  I’m hoping this shift into a less crazy gear sticks for a bit.  But, it may not, and I need to be ready for that, too.  And since I got a little taste of the Bad-Ass—that determined, Double-O-like creature—I’ll be okay either way.  Dignity under fire, that’s the Bond way.

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.

Remembering in Dark Water

One thing I’ve learned about my particular flavor of bipolar disorder is to never take myself seriously—especially during an episode.  The musings, scrambling for Meaning, revelations, decisions and planning that go on while I’m the throes of my illness are, at best, untrustworthy, and, at worst, dangerous.  Like the other, darker thoughts that crowd in, these milder delusions are just flotsam—the foam churned up by my brain’s tidal changes.

So, I’m a little reluctant to pose anything my brain has spit out over the past few days.  These ideas always seem rational.  They feel reasonable, even helpful, but I know my judgment is faulty.  I won’t be able to see how much until the episode passes.

With that very large caveat, here’s the thought taking up space in my head.

I need to keep journaling.

During this episode, I’ve tried to do a little research for my next writing project.  Mostly, I’ve been reading my journals to get a sense of my illness before it was diagnosed.  Aside from the shock of seeing how ill I was, I was struck by my retroactive memory loss.  The months or years when I didn’t journal are gaps in my memory.  Sometimes I can conjure a vague image or touch a ghost of an emotion, but mostly the gaps are flat blanks.  That, I’m used to.  I’ve requested my medical and therapy records to try to piece together those times.  I’ll dig out photo albums and talk to people who knew me then.  I’ll be able to place something in those white spaces.

But even more disturbing to me is that I can’t remember the things I did journal about as recently as two years ago.  Some of the images are a little clearer, some of the emotion easier to touch, but the details of my life continue to slide into oblivion.  Once my days and nights leave the Now, they march like little lemmings off the cliff of Recall.

It’s hard for me right now to keep from making up stories about that, to refrain from following my Dark Brain’s search for the reason why, to not obsess about the possibilities thrown into depression’s sea-foam—electroconvulsive therapy, drugs, genetics . . .  

In truth, it doesn’t matter why my memory is so damaged.  What matters is how I deal with it now.  And aside from keeping my brain as healthy as possible, it seems keeping a record might be helpful.  If I ever thought journaling was self-indulgent, I don’t anymore.  It may be the only way to hang onto my days once they’ve passed.

While this current episode washes through, I’ll try to hold this idea lightly, try not to be frightened by what I’ve found, try to just breathe and wait.  If it still seems important on the other side, then. . . well . . . we’ll see.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Last night I attended my first Sweet Adelines rehearsal.  I was nervous going in.  It had been a crappy day on the Bipolar Scale—the depression and distorted thinking causing all sorts of mental funk and warped perceptions.  I worried about being “good enough,” about exposing myself in a new social setting, even about finding my way to the small auditorium in the dark and freezing rain.  But, I kept breathing and running my mantra through my mind.  It’s just the illness.  It’s just the illness.  It’s just the illness.  My desire to sing helped me push through the bipolar muck.

I was completely unprepared for the warm welcome I received.  The director sat with me for some time, explaining barbershop music in comparison to other choral scores, asking about my range and experience, and outlining the process.  Guests come to rehearsals for three or four weeks, then must audition with a quartet of the members to join the group.  For the audition, another  member will sing my part (Lead) with me, and we sing a number that we’ve all rehearsed together the previous weeks.

When she introduced me to the whole group, they seemed downright giddy when I said I was looking for a place to sing. Their open-armed acceptance stunned me.  And then, the director plunked me in the middle of the front row and started.

Oh, my.  That close, barbershop harmony felt delicious standing in the middle of it, and even more tasty creating it.  I was surprised as how fast I picked up the songs, even more surprised that I could still read music and make my voice do what the music said.  I hadn’t tested those skills since undergoing ECT, so wondered if they would be a casualty.  They weren’t.

The women around me were encouraging and fun.  They worked hard, preparing for a competition next month.  Sweet Adelines is a serious business, like Show Choir for adults (Glee for Grannies), with choreography and constant reminders to “bring the face.”  I was exempt from all that emoting, but I could feel myself getting into it.  A little corny, but hey, that’s show biz.

The downside is the cost.  There are monthly dues, costumes to buy, and travel expenses.  I told the director the dues alone would be a severe stretch for me.  She told me not to worry (which made me wonder if there might be financial assistance available), and also said I could join without being required to perform.  That was a shock and a relief.

I left tired (standing for two hours straight), thrilled, and cautious.  Since my experience at the Animal Rescue League, I understand myself a little better.  I can’t trust my first impulses when it comes to reentering the wider world.  I reach for what I used to be, which is often beyond my bipolar limits.  It will take time and more exposure to see if I can navigate the pressure this group will create—the anxiety, social phobia, and agitation.  A weekly commitment feels like a lot when I have so much difficulty with consistency.  I’ll just hold all this lightly and observe.

In the meantime, I get to SING!

Here are my friends Carol Singer and Rochelle Bayers, singing with me on my last day as a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community.

How Can I Keep From Singing

Getting Out There

I just finished my first shift as a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League.  I’m exhausted—and triumphant.  I actually put myself in a pseudo-work environment and didn’t suffer off-the-charts anxiety.  I did leave early, but that was because my back was killing me after washing all the windows (inside and out) and doing poop patrol in the exercise yard, picking up 15 gallons of dog do.  My backache feels more like a badge of honor than overworked musculature.  I did it!  And I signed up to do it again next week.

This is a huge step for me.  Every time I’ve tried to work an “easy” job in the past few years, volunteer my time, or commit to anything requiring a set schedule or responsibility, my illness has galloped off into the sunset.  I’ve always said that the hardest part of being bipolar is the inconsistency (okay, there are a lot of hard parts, but this is my number one gripe).

I told myself going into this volunteer position that it was just one afternoon with dogs and cats.  If I didn’t want to do it again, I didn’t have to.  The staff at the Shelter are extremely laid back—they gave me a task then let me alone to do it.  I liked that.  While I went through the building washing windows, I could stop in the cat room for a while and see who all was in residence.  Whatever work I did was appreciated, whenever I wanted to schedule myself was okay.  The only pressure I felt I put on myself to do a good job while I was there.  Even then, a few streaks in the windows and a few missed dog muffins were just fine.

I think I can actually do this.  At least, I’m going to try.

Mirror, Mirror

The impetus for my recent trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul was two-fold.  A good friend was about to undergo a simple but scary surgery all by herself, and I wanted to be there to support her.  Another friend and I had talked about me “coming up” in January sometime to spend the weekend.  It worked out that I could do both in the same trip.

I’ve been fond of saying lately that I’ve lost my people skills.  I used to be pretty gregarious and easy-going, but since my bipolar blow-up five years ago and the subsequent struggle toward sanity, I seem to be much less tolerant of humankind in general.  Staying in other people’s homes for ten days made me realize that what I’m really uncomfortable with is the view in the mirror.

Those of us who have gone through therapy, or done any spiritual work, or seen Dr. Phil know that when other people irritate us, we’re really just reacting to the same or similar qualities or fears in ourselves.  People act as a mirror to show us what we dislike about ourselves, and where we need to focus our love in order to heal.  Other people don’t piss me off.  I piss me off.

So, I received gift after gift of insight while staying with my friends.  I discovered that my best friends are my cats, and that I really don’t want to bother with anyone else.  I realized that I expect to be catered to, my needs anticipated and planned for through some miraculous act of clairvoyance (so much easier than all that pesky communication crap).  If I don’t have a person’s rapt and undivided attention, I am unloved, unworthy and unimportant.  I’ve gotten so fixed on order and routine that untidiness of any kind feels like a threat to my sanity.  And, perhaps hardest of all, men make me nervous, but I want one.

Holy Hand Mirror, Batman!  No wonder I hole up in my apartment with the covers over my head and a cat in my armpit.  I do not want to see these things about myself, but there they are—hiding in plain sight along with other niggles I’ve yet to translate.  But, this is the nature of the Work.  Look.  See.  Be curious about funny reactions to things and people.  Go deeper.  Look again.

I love and adore my girlfriends who opened their homes to me.  I bless them for tolerating my fussiness as I gazed into their beautiful mirrors.  And I thank them for the gifts, which give me my next bits of Homework.  On the other side of that work will be someone who breathes deeper and is more comfortable in her own skin.  And maybe even a better friend.

The Morning After


This has catastrophe written all over it.—Sydney Ellen Wade in The American President

I started feeling depressed again about a week ago.  It was more like a low-grade fever—the voices of despair and hopelessness in the background with the Christmas Muzak.  Just enough to slow me down, to make the holes in my day yawn like hungry mouths. Counter measures could still beat it back at times—long workouts in the water, three full hours writing—but the Sunset Syndrome was back.  Anxiety and agitation moved in as the sun went down, so the evenings proved particularly uncomfortable.  And the urge to eat drowned me then.

But, I hung on—counted my calories, kept to my routine.  I balanced on that edge for days.  Then, Christmas came and I tumbled over.

I think I can now safely say that Christmas is a trigger for me.  After last year, I wondered if I should ease out of the family events.  But, then, Dad died, and it felt important to all be together this year, to try to find a way to do our normal activities without him.  But the stress was too much.

Once my brother arrived, he never stopped talking, so there were usually two or three conversations going on at the same time with no-one really listening.  Mom interrogated and fired off new information the minute I walked in the door—I tried to call, where were you? Tyler called and said… What’s in this bag?  We watched The Man Who Would Be King last night…  My body interpreted all this stimuli as an attack, and the only responses were fight back or escape.  So Christmas became an exercise in keeping my anger in check and not running out the door.  I failed.

The more I failed, the more my illness seized my thoughts, and the worse I failed.  Opening presents was a nightmarish ordeal.  I announced months ago that I couldn’t afford to give presents this year, but at the last minute I couldn’t stand the poverty-mindedness of it and bundled up packages of cards I’d made to give out.  Some gave me gifts anyway, some didn’t.  I  felt ridiculous, poor and just plain wrong.  This isn’t how our family does Christmas.  We always have loads of gifts and great fun opening them.  I didn’t belong anymore.

Then, there were the looks and the whispering.  Oh, they had every right to whisper about me, I was in rare bipolar form, but it always hurts to catch them at it.  It makes me feel so very crazy.

I dreaded this weekend.  I knew it would be bad.  And I started to wonder if my family dreads being with me as much as I dread being with them.  I could see my sister’s concern, her desire to pull together all the elements that would make Christmas feel normal without Dad.  And Mom brushed off my apologies as if my outbursts were the most normal things in the world.  They deserve time together without wondering if I’m going to implode.  I love them.  I want to be with them.  But, it seems like I can’t.  And that makes me incredibly sad.

The thin layer of sanity I wear so proudly got ripped off and the raving lunatic gamboled in the streets. I’m humiliated and defeated.  And another part of me knows this will pass.  I’ll be forgiven, this episode will run its course, and the cycle will start again.  I must be careful now to watch my thoughts, come back to my routine, do all the things I know to do that will keep me healthy and sane.  I must use this Christmas as a learning, a marker, and make adjustments.  When I feel stronger, I’ll talk to my family about what happened.  It’s all part of the Work.

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