Bigger Picture

hand made card, collage art

Tomorrow I see my shrink for my annual review.  Since I’m not on medication anymore, we decided this once-a-year check-in was sufficient to keep me on as a patient.  In preparation, I’ve been looking back at the past year in relation to my mental health.

All I can say, is “Wow.”

I believe it to be a part of human nature to put one’s head down and focus on setting one foot in front of the other when times get rough.  Our view narrows to the immediate, the necessary and the loudest or most painful problem demanding attention.  When we watch where we step like this, it’s impossible to see either where we’ve been or where we’re going.  Not that I’m an advocate for living in the past or waiting for the future, but looking up once in a while can help us see where we are.

I’ve been so completely focused on how dysfunctional I am in the moment, that I’ve squeezed out the bigger picture.  When I consider this past year, I can see all the progress I’ve made—in setting goals and reaching them, in bettering my physical health, in developing new social networks, and in exploring my illness with new management tools.  I can see all the stressors, one after another, that I navigated and survived.  Most surprising, I can see a life taking shape out of all the experiments and false starts—the sum much greater than the individual parts.

I’m not sure what I’m feeling as I look at all this—humble and proud in equal measure, which seems fitting for a person with bipolar disorder.  I’ve worked hard and I’ve lived in Grace.  I’m not just jumping up and down like water on a hot skillet.  There is movement in my madness toward wellness and peace.  There is a gentle trajectory that is visible and real.

We all need to look up once in a while, especially if we’ve been slogging along for a long time.  That shift to a wider view, seeing the horizon on all sides, inspires a deep breath into the belly.  Here I am, we say.  Look how far I’ve come.

The Bad-Ass is Back

After almost three weeks en-episode, the Dark Visitor who took up residence in my head drifted on to other haunts today.  It felt exactly like a someone opened a window in my brain and aired the place out.  Colors brighten.  Sounds sweeten.  The body breathes a sigh of relief.

My first hint came while ripping through the deep water this morning.  There’s nothing like karate kicks and ab crunches to bring the Bad-Ass grin to a girl’s face.  I may take up double space on land, but in the water I’m a svelte powerhouse with Zen control.

At our TOPS meeting, I was shocked to find I’d lost weight this week.  After three weeks of relentless compulsive eating, I expected another week of gains.  I chalk up the loss to Grace and a balancing of the gain I had last week.  A person can’t take the numbers on the scale too literally—the body is always in flux.  But, I was reminded of why I joined TOPS last December.  I wanted a place to rest and receive support during episodes when I couldn’t control what I put in my mouth.

And when those episodes ended, I wanted folks who would help me jump right back on the horse.  My group does just that.  They’re the best wranglers in town.

Later, I drove to my mental health clinic to chat with my therapist and pick up my medical records.  The HIPAA regulations seem simple enough—any patient has the right to request a copy of their medical records.  A fee may be levied.  Unfortunately, therapy notes aren’t covered by the HIPAA guidelines.  And third-party records (another provider’s information that may also be in the chart) cannot be copied.

Luckily, my current shrink and the therapists who have taken care of me over the past six years decided I could handle reading my therapy notes.  So, I received copies of those.

And Michelle, my current therapist and head cheerleader, sat with me and figured out how I could contact all the hospitals, clinics, and former docs who hold the rest of my mental health history.  I left the clinic feeling clear and sharp.  I had a plan.  I always do better with a plan.

Bipolar episodes are never easy, but this last one seemed particularly grim.  I’m getting used to them lasting longer.  I’m getting more skillful at separating myself from the grue in my head. But there’s always a point in the battle when things can’t seem to get any worse—and then, they do.  This time is was the maintenance on my dad’s truck that totaled over $900.

But, my sister and brother jumped in with their swords drawn and slayed that beast for me.  Thank the gods for the folks who’ve got my back!  I’d forgotten basic Action/Adventure plot structure or I would have seen them coming.  The Crew always pops out of nowhere in the nick of time to keep the warrior from getting hacked to pieces.  My Sibling Cavalry.

So, with a deadly roundhouse kick, a spirited steed, a savvy crew and a plan of attack, the Bad-Ass is definitely back.

A Gratitude Journal Page on Thanksgiving

Cultivating a thankful attitude can be a challenge with bipolar disorder.  The illness tends to shun the finer energies of love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance for the heaviest emotions.  It twists truth into lies and reality into gruesome Grimm fairy tales. It takes vigilance to recognize The Dark Voice inside one’s mind, courage to reject the falsehoods it whispers, and superhero strength to open the mind to Light and Life instead.  It takes hard work to foster gratitude.

This Thanksgiving, however, I’m finding it easy to be grateful.  I may be uncomfortable and limited from my recent surgery, but the tumor the surgeon removed was benign, and I can look forward to healing completely.  This holiday season comes so soon after my dad’s death that the rest of the family still orbits the gravity well he occupied.  I’m so thankful that we can talk about him without awkwardness, that we can experiment with new rituals to see what might hold meaning for us now, and that we love and support each other as we hold Dad’s absence gently.

These are big blessings in gratitude.  But, I find I’m even more thankful for the moments of grace that dot my bipolar existence.  The sudden release of depression’s grip, an easing of anxiety, the way my thoughts untwist like a coiled rope let loose, a deep breath that tilts my head up to see the stars.  Like the illness itself, these gentle turns come without warning and in spite of anything I might do.  I don’t earn these moments.  They are Grace’s gift, a Mystery.  I can only lift my face to the sun and say, Thank You.

The Gift of Grace

Something wonderful happened on Sunday.  I woke up with nothing.  No burning thoughts, no fussing about how the day would play out, no tension of opposing forces sliding through my body, no resistance.  I got up and made a collage that had been hanging over my head for months.  Instead of sick doubt and creative freeze, nothing filled me.  I sat with the piece and, in a couple of hours, it was done.  Easy.

Then, I worked on rewriting a story that I want to post.  I’d been working on it all week, fear rising and falling, making me a little nauseous, making me bolt from the computer.  But, on Sunday, I rewrote a messy chapter.  Words came from beyond me.  Solutions materialized effortlessly.  Nothing pushed at me.  Nothing filled me except the story.  I posted the chapter yesterday.

All day I seemed to flow from one project to the next, one room to the next, in a state of grace.  Thoughts remained simple and the overarching emotional state was one of quiet joy.  No fighting myself about money or food.  No fighting at all.

The lesson for me when given a day like Sunday, is to be grateful without grasping.  How lovely to have more days like that!  But, it was a gift, and nothing I do or think, no spiritual practice, no amount of exercise or will power can recreate it.  To clutch at Sunday only brings suffering.  So the practice is to appreciate the moment and let it move on through.  I also tried to mark the day, journaling about the sensations and experience, so I can recognize it if a day, or hour, comes like that again.

I feel parts of Sunday still with me—an energy of gentleness, a slowing down and a deliberateness, and a drawing to me of small miracles and beauty.  Today I am blessed to be in a moment of grace.

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