Stronger and More Frayed

Vistas of BewildermentMiraculously, I’ve finished another week of work.  My life is both easier and harder.  Holding this paradox seems to be the Work set before me.

Easier:  Mom left me her 2011 Honda CRV, a car with features and comforts I never thought I’d have again.  I can hardly believe it’s mine.  After scraping a few dollars off the top of my disability check each month to save for a Smart Car, this thing of luxury dropped into my lap (or parking lot).  The first time I filled the gas tank, I cried.  It cost about half of what it took to fill my dad’s truck.

When Mom bought the car after Dad died, she said to me, “You know you’ll probably get this soon.”  It was just one of hundreds of references she made to her own death (It’s that thing old people do—”I won’t be around much longer, so you better…”).  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was glad she had a zippy little car that she loved.  Driving made her feel safe and in control.  I absolutely understand that.

Harder:  My schedule at work is all over the place—mornings, afternoons, mid-day.  I’ve told my supervisor that I need consistency.  I need time for my own self-care, and I need to be able to depend on it.  I’ve tried to hold my fifteen hours a week to afternoons, but this week was the worst so far.  And it’s all to make sure I attend an endless parade of mind-numbing meetings.  Some of them have been important—orientation to the organization, introductions to other agencies working with us, procedure—but most are irrelevant to my position.  Our boss wants us all to be cross-trained.  Part of that, I think, comes from not knowing what our jobs really are yet.  But the more of these meeting I go to, the more I can see what’s mine and what’s not mine to own.

Easier:   My boss relented on the meetings.  She created a buddy system, so my buddy will let me know if I miss anything important.  That allowed me to take charge of my own schedule.  I’m working 1:30-4:30 every day starting next week.  Good for me, but also good for the team.  Now they know when I’ll be available for client interviews and care conferences (what I should be doing).

Harder:  I had built up a reservoir of stability with my routine and daily monitoring.  That’s used up.  Everyday is a fight to turn my fear and negativity around.  Everyday I feel myself sliding toward lethargy and old habits.  I’m hypersensitive and my concentration is fragmenting.  I can still see it happening.  I can still pause, breathe, and choose not to react, but I’m getting so tired.

Yesterday I had to leave a meeting.  The woman leading it was one of those people who starts a sentence, restarts it, jumps to another topic, restarts that sentence and never gets to the point.  I know a couple of people like this.  They drive me ape-shit.  It’s a neurological thing—my nerves want to grab them by the throat.

Luckily, it was the end of my day, and I ran to the Chinese restaurant to eat lunch, listen to my iPod and journal.  It helped, but I’m not getting back to my set point like I used to.  I’m not able to repair the damage each day all this stress creates.  It’s only a matter of time before I really blow.

Easier:  Our parents left us some money.  It’s not enough to live on the rest of my life, but it will give me some breathing room.  I can do my laundry every week.  I can get some work clothes.  I can even plan a trip to the Southwest this winter to see if more sun and open space will keep me from needing hospital-level care come spring.  Poverty has been the biggest stressor in my life.  Mom and Dad knew that.  They planned their last act of love carefully to ease that for me.  I’m so grateful.

No matter what happens, no matter how the easy and the hard continue to play against each other, I am a success.  I have gone to work every day for three weeks.  That’s a miracle.  Walking through the office door is a miracle.  Waking up and doing it again is a miracle.  Even if it all stops today, I’ve triumphed.  No one can take that away from me.  It’s all mine.

Man, I freakin’ rock.

Fewer Doritos, More Gene Kelly

handmade greeting cards, collage artNow that the whole Valentine’s Day business is over, I can get back to the posts that REALLY matter.  Me.  Me Me Me.  Me.

Sometimes I’m dumbfounded by my self-absorption, my complete lack of empathy or interest in anyone else.  I always heard this is what happens when a person lives alone for too long—there’s no one around to poke holes in the ego, no one to interrupt the flow of internal dialogue.  And I suppose those of us with mental illness have a predisposition to belly-button gazing.  We’re taught to monitor our internal world carefully.  We build complicated sieves to sift through every emotional burp and gurgle.

So, when I have to spend time with others, it takes me a few minutes to adjust my worldview.  It’s a refocusing of the camera from micro to macroscopic.  And there’s always a little vertigo involved if the shift happens too fast.  But, I seem to still do okay, interacting with others.  I can still pull out my ability to be with someone and listen to them without making everything they say about me.  I can still sit in a group and join the discussion without spiraling off on a tangent like my brother, a bachelor all his life and firmly ensconced in a World of Me.

But, I’m finding my tolerance for the macroview shrinking.  I don’t seem to understand people the way I used to.  Motives, and machinations, and offenses seem incomprehensible.  Other people take note of subtle nuances, remember details of previous conversations, maneuver chit chat with charm and ease.

As Time Goes By, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer

All that stuff happens somewhere over my left shoulder, out of sight, beyond my reckoning.  And trying to fix on those things exhausts me.  It’s like trying to learn a new language by emersion—everyone is speaking gibberish.

So, I end up running back to my little apartment, pulling on my pajama pants, eating a sack of Doritos, and watching three seasons of As Time Goes By just to blow off the agitation.

Great Expectations, 2011, Helena Bonham Carter, Miss HavishamPeople are hard work.  There are days I want to give them up, like a bad habit.  Instead of quitting Doritos, I’ll quit people.  But I know that’s a slippery slope mental health-wise.  Affiliation.  Belonging.  Support.  Socialization.  These are bedrock words in the How to Be Less Looney Handbook.  And I have a feeling that the road to Crazy Cat Lady would be very short indeed if I went cold turkey on people.  Something along the lines of Miss Havisham with calicos.

Gene Kelly, Singing in the RainIt’s an edge I must continue to explore—how to be a social animal without depleting my energy or overstimulating my nerves.  It’s a dance, sometimes stumbling over my own feet, sometimes gliding gracefully.  Like everything else in my life, the dance changes—new  music, new partners, new steps—and I’ll keep trying.  But, I’ll also keep practicing my solo, because coming home to myself needs to be a place of joy as well as rest.

Fewer Doritos, more Gene Kelly.

Princess Bridezilla

Funny that The Princess Bride keeps rattling around inside my head when I’m in the midst of rapid cycling. Well, funny might not be the right word.  Inconceivable, maybe.

Princess Bride, Fire Swamp

It’s a dire warning when I’m more depressed getting out of the water than when I get in.  My deep water aerobics class is the highlight of my day, nearly guaranteed to jump-start a little feel-good chemistry.  It may not last long, but even a couple of hours of relief when the depression is mighty feels like heaven.  Lately, it’s been more like the Fire Swamp with lightening sand and Rodents of Unusual Size sucking my energy.

There are days when nothing helps, not even my most radical back-up plan.  Driving through the beautifully cool morning?  Nope.  Starbucks and my journal?  Just pisses me off more.  A double feature?  Blowing a credit card wad on British DVDs?  A healthy, vegan dinner at Hu Hot?  Distracting and numbing, but once finished I’m back in The Pit of Despair.

 

There are times when my skin is just too thin.  Everything seeps in.  I checked out the Masterpiece Mystery! series Wallander from the library last week and devoured it.  The BBC adapted Swedish writer Henning Mankell’s murder mysteries with lush photography; tight, complicated plots; and a jaw-dropping performance by Kenneth Branagh as Wallander.  The music is haunting and images of the forlorn Swedish countryside painfully beautiful.  Wallander himself is just as haunted.  There is no doubt that this deeply depressed detective will never gain a shred of insight or be able to change his self-destructive ways.

I feel the guy’s pain.  Literally.

Wallander, Kenneth Branagh

I walked into my mom’s nursing home on Sunday to a dining room full of drooling, slumped souls waiting to be fed, or cleaned up, or wheeled elsewhere.  My compassion turned tail and yike!yike!yiked! it out of there.  The only thing left was my wide open nerve ending and a smattering of guilt.  I ducked my head to keep from making any eye contact, but I still needed to wade through the moist miasma of smells to the other side of the room.  It was as horrific to me as anything Stephen King ever put his name to.  It crawled under my skin and festered.  And in the back of my mind, The Dread Pirate Roberts smirked, “Life is pain, Highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

The refrigerator is too loud, my tee shirt too green, the bushes outside my apartment too bushy.  Nothing on my iPod sounds right.  And if Henry gives me one more of those looks I’ll burst out crying.

Yesterday I researched a little for my story Technical Consultant.  Carrie Severide will have to go to London, and I needed to find out what that might look like.  Getting a passport, managing a long and lousy flight, jet lag, bad food—it all started to make me sweat.  I got anxious for her, this creation in my head, and had to stop.

My internal stimulus can be just as overwhelming as the external.  I’m water-boarded with wordswordswords.  Images tumble over each other like a litter of snarly opossums.  The brain red-lights into overload all on its own.

It takes a lot of deep breathing to pause and step back from all of it.  But, that’s the Work.  That’s always the Work.  To untangle and get the tiniest bit of perspective.  And it could be worse.  It could always be worse.  As Inigo Montoya says, “Let’s look on the bright side: we’re having an adventure, Fezzik, and most people live and die without being as lucky as we are.”

That’s it.  An Adventure.  Why didn’t I think of that?

Princess Bride, Inigo, Fezzik, Westley

Christmas Unplugged

handmade greeting cards, collage art,Phew!  Well, that’s over.

Unplugging from Christmas felt a little like traveling through a foreign country.  After 55 years of doing Christmas, undoing it was just weird.  I was able to see how much anxiety and stress the holiday generated in me from the time I was tiny (sleepless and hysterical, watching for a magical man with presents to land on my roof) through my years working retail and still making all the family gatherings, to buying presents I couldn’t afford and eating food that made me sick, to the sensory and emotional blitzkrieg that ultimately triggers a fierce bipolar storm.

Thanksgiving was a trial run, choosing not to attend the family dinner.  I had to navigate some pretty big potholes of guilt and shame, feelings of being mean, selfish, anti-social, unloving, ungrateful, etc.  It was about as difficult not to go to Thanksgiving dinner as it was to go.  But, I knew I was carving a new path, and that it would get easier.

It did.  As a whole, my family was supportive.  They missed me at the celebrations, but didn’t pile on any additional guilt (I still had some of my own to manage).  My brother and I are starting a new tradition of meeting for breakfast the morning he starts back for home (he lives nine hours north).  This is perfect.  I can still enjoy him without getting overwhelmed.  My sister took me to a darling little coffee shop last week where we could do the same.  Now, I need to figure out some new tradition to do with my mom.  Hmmm…

Jimmy Stewart, It's a Wonderful LifeIt helped that I was still enjoying fair mental weather this week.  So, cooking a pot of delicious, vegan soup yesterday was a joy instead of a stressor.  Listening to my holiday music and snipping new captions for cards felt relaxing and calming.  And then watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and getting weepy over the sweet Frank-Capra-isms was fun and kept me connected to the holiday.  I still ate too much yesterday, but all in all, it was a success.

And as a side note, my therapist gave me a tool I’d like to share with all my neuro-diverse friends.  It’s called The 14 Days of Christmas and is a way to navigate the stress the week before and the week after the holiday.  Here’s how it works:

The following activities are written on little slips of paper and put in a jar.  On each of the fourteen days, a slip is drawn and the activity carried out.  This helps in a number of ways:  each day has a small, doable goal; each day holds something to look forward to; and each day provides a small self-soothing or pleasurable activity.  All these benefits could mean the difference between losing one’s mind and keeping it.  Of course, there are times when no tool can keep the episodes from happening, but I like to have as many guns in my arsenal as possible.

Here’s the list.  Of course, everyone will have others to add that will make the list more personal.  I’m also going to fancy-up a jar and pack this with my Christmas decorations for next year.  That way I’ll have it ready to go.

The 14 Days of Christmas Activities

  1. Make an Alphabet Gratitude List (A is for Aunt Tootsie, B is for Biker-Chic boots, etc.)
  2. Make a list of ten things you like about yourself or skills you have when you are feeling good, then keep it to read when the bad times come.
  3. Do at least one activity that appeals to each of the senses (visit a flower shop, light a scented candle, etc.)
  4. Make a collage with pictures/words cut out of old magazines.  Let it be about what soothes you.
  5. Write down a New Year’s Goal—something you have control over and is reasonable.
  6. Go to a cafe or coffee shop.
  7. Journal.
  8. Turn on loud, fast music and dance.
  9. Read your favorite book, magazine, paper or poem.
  10. Read a trashy, celebrity magazine.
  11. Go for a drive.
  12. Write a letter to someone you haven’t heard from in a while.
  13. Watch an inspirational or funny movie.
  14. Get a haircut or pedicure.
  15. Play a video game or card game.
  16. Make a scrapbook.
  17. Make a list of people you admire (real or fictional) and why.
  18. Blog
  19. Try cooking a new recipe.
  20. Get a massage or go to a spa.
  21. Pray or meditate.
  22. Go to the library or a bookstore.
  23. Do something with your hands (knit, crochet, build models, make art, etc.).
  24. Have sex (alone or with someone you care about).
  25. Do your favorite exercise.
  26. Talk to a friend on the phone.
  27. Go to a museum or art gallery.
  28. Find something funny to do (read the Sunday comics, visit “I Can Haz Cheeseburger” on the net, etc.)
  29. Take a nap.
  30. Write a Bucket List.
  31. Chat online.
  32. Invite a friend to your home.
  33. Sing or play a musical instrument.
  34. Make a simple meal and invite someone to join you.
  35. Watch TV.
  36. Go for a walk and take a picture of whatever catches your eye.
  37. Have a little chocolate.
  38. Go outside and watch the clouds or the stars.
  39. Visit your favorite Web sites.
  40. Go to the movies.
  41. Learn something new (a new word, new skill, idea, information about a friend, anything) and write about it.
  42. Give a gift (bought, made, an experience, time together, etc.).
  43. Join an Internet dating service.
  44. Shop (virtual or real).
  45. Go visit a friend.
  46. Listen to gentle music.
  47. Play a game with someone else.
  48. Sell the stuff you don’t want on eBay or half.com.
  49. Draw or paint a picture.
  50. Add to this list.

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.

Drumsound

  
Drumsound rises on the air,
its throb, my heart.
 
A voice inside the beat says,
“I know you’re tired,
but come.  This is the way.”
—Rumi

∞ ∞ ∞

How to follow that quiet, wise voice inside.  Because it’s still there, much as my ears rush with this other sound.  There seems no other how but to do, to follow the dim suggestion to plant one foot in front of the other.

The old routine tastes off, contaminated by this unsavoriness.  The water still feels like comfort as my body stretches and churns, flexing out depression’s burrs.  But, Haven, my writing sanctuary, my one indulgence, irritates and offends.  Christian music blares from outside speakers, Easy Listening inside, and I hear both at my regular table.  No one will fix the cacophony for me, and I leave.  I’m done there, I think.

I look for a new shirt at Wal-Mart, but nothing is right.  I push my cart around and around the racks of clothes as if I can conjure what I want with the proper spiral.  I go to the grocery store, determined to buy healthy food, no junk.  Each selection requires long scrutiny, painful contemplation.  There are moments of standing blank in the aisle, staring into the sea of lunch meats and cheeses, holding two jars of spaghetti sauce.

I come home to waiting cats, mildly curious about my bags.  I put groceries away, heat up soup, make a sandwich, start to watch a movie I’m not interested in, lay down on my bed with Henry tucked close.

I hear the faint voice encouraging me, and I do the next thing.  Then the next.

“I know you’re tired,
but come.  This is the way.”

The Dance

Still plugging away here in Bipolarville.  I’m fine as long as I don’t have to talk to anybody or think.  This is why routine is so important.  I don’t have to think about going to the Y, I just go.  I don’t have to think about working on my novel or making cards, I just do it.  Because I’ve carved out those little grooves in my gray matter, and the marbles just follow gravity.

Interacting with people is another thing.  Friday I had dinner at a friend’s house.  It was just the two of us and his sweet little dog, so I knew I’d be okay on the social anxiety front.  I also knew I could be myself.  Even though Jeff had never experienced the full beauty of my bipolarness, I knew he’d be accepting of whatever showed up.

We had a lovely evening, but it was still work.  Simple things that come naturally between episodes required thought, effort, execution.  Things like manners and following a conversation.  When something struck me funny, I felt my laughter launching into that maniacal, uncontrollable realm.

At one point, Jeff mentioned he could tell I wasn’t my usual self.  His term for it was that I wasn’t as “smiley.”  And that surprised me, because I thought I was ever-so jolly.  It just reminded me that how I perceive myself from the inside, no matter how much effort I put into it, is very different from what leaks into the outside world.

I did a lot on Friday.  My friend, Nancy, gave me a much-needed massage.  I went to a movie.  I looked through my favorite art magazines at Barnes & Noble.  I found a state park tucked away in the suburbs of Des Moines and journaled at a picnic table in the westering sun.  And I had dinner with Jeff.  So, I wasn’t surprised at my exhaustion the next day.  I could feel how brittle my tolerance had become, as if my sanity had been rubbed thin by so much exposure to the world.

It’s a weird dance, staying upright during an episode.  I think I’m executing a graceful turn, when really I’m tripping over my own feet.  I’m only guessing at the steps.  But there is a deep knowing under it all.  If I can get still, I can feel the rhythm and recognize the music.  If I can breathe into that knowing, my feet will find their way.

A Mental Hidey-Hole

The sense of this episode is one of being overwhelmed.  It’s like my brain has lost all elasticity and resilience.  I’m unable to problem-solve even small hiccups in the day much less figure out how to deal with unusual tasks.  My cognitive ability seems mired in glue, and at the same time my body perceives each decision to be made as a threat.

For example, the apartment management notified us that the bedbug-sniffing dog would be coming around to all the apartments today.  They do this every 3-4 months, since we have a history of infestation.  Still, it’s an ordeal, since I have to pack up the cats and all their paraphernalia two hours before the dog arrives.  Usually I take them to a friends’ house, but they’re having work done on their basement, so I had to devise another plan.

I was at a total loss as to what to do.  My mind spun.  I tried to approach the problem, but the vortex whipped me away.  Finally, after crying in the pool at the Y this morning, I suddenly thought of calling my mom and taking the cats out there.  Problem solved, but I was exhausted and frayed.  Mom asked me if I wanted to take home some tomatoes a neighbor had brought her, and I burst into tears.  Then, my neighbor in the apartment building called to say the inspection had been cancelled.  I sobbed so hard Henry came running to see what all the racket was about.

All of a sudden I have appointments and meetings written all over my calendar through the end of the year (a normal week will have one item, at most).  And even though I write them all down so I won’t forget, I keep forgetting.  I can’t hold them in my head.  And when a few do stick, they bump around in there like mad hornets.  These aren’t things I can blow off.  I had my annual physical, and there are specialists to be seen, lab work to be done, boobs to be squished.

Between episodes, I could manage all this just fine.  But right now it feels like non-stop attack.  I want to find a hidey-hole like my scaredy-cat, Emmett, and tuck myself into a ball so small no one can see me.

What this tells me is that I need to eliminate everything but the essential right now, keep social contact to no more than two people at a time (that seems to be my limit), put off making any serious decisions (like buying a new swim suit), and do what I can to soothe the exposed nerve endings.  I can’t avoid situations like today, but I can choose not to go to a party and a church supper this weekend like I’d planned.

It makes me sad to give up those social opportunities since I don’t get many of them.  But, it’s just bad timing.  Better to live in reality than suffer in denial.  At least that’s what Henry says.  When Emmett comes out of his hidey-hole, he’ll probably have a different opinion.

Navigating Grief in the Bipolar Sea

If I thought life in general was hard to navigate with bipolar disorder, life in a state of grief and profound adjustment is like charting unknown waters.  I’ve been preparing and processing the eventuality of my dad’s death all summer, so these feelings that rise and fall are familiar and almost comforting.  I’ve also partnered with my sister and mom in his care, so I know how they respond to their own feelings.  I know what to expect from them, which is also a comfort.  Bipolar demands consistency or it flies off its fragile fulcrum, becoming symptomatic.  At least it does for me.

What I’m finding is that my deep weariness is tweaking the illness and making me even more sensitive to stimuli.  Too many details to take care of, too many  retellings of Dad’s final days, too many people needing to express their own grief to us, too much odd food.  My ability to flex and adapt is compromised.  I dread the upcoming public events—Visitation and the Funeral.  I don’t think I can stand so many people crowding close, talking, touching.

So, I have to figure out how to do this without losing my mind, how to be a part of this process and not get so overloaded that I’ll cease to function.

Two things are important to me—to be able to support my mom and to do the pieces of the funeral service that I’ve prepared.  Supporting Mom requires awareness—seeing when she needs to stay busy and in control, when she needs to talk about Dad and her feelings, and when she needs quiet and rest.  Supporting Mom means keeping other worries at a minimum (like whether or not I’ll fall apart) and supporting her decisions instead of throwing out my own quixotic ideas.  Awareness requires that I stay conscious of my own inner turmoil and thoughts.  Circumstance and emotion carry a strong undertow now, so keeping my head above the surface is wicked-hard.  I’m already bone-tired, so this added struggle feels like flailing.  I’m doing the best I can, but the waters are winning.

On Wednesday at the funeral, I will lead a guided meditation to send Dad off to his next adventure, then do a reading from Awakening Osiris.  In my old life as a ministerial guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis, I performed weddings and funerals as part of my calling.  I led a weekly meditation service.  Spiritual transitions were what I did best and what I loved to facilitate.  Doing that for my own dad and for those of us grieving him is important to me.  I know I’m not the person I was when I used to perform ministerial functions.  I know it will be incredibly difficult to stand in front of a congregation again.  But I need to do this, and my family is willing to let me.

Part of my passion around this is to balance the service.  My Dad was a devout atheist.  When I asked him once where he thought we went when we died, he said, “We don’t go anywhere—we’re dead.”  If he had a whiff of spirituality, it involved the cycle of the seasons, the power of rain and sun and earth.  He said several times that he didn’t want “someone preaching over me.”

But, I know a funeral is for the living, it’s to give comfort to the survivors and offer hope when the uncertainty of death rises up.  And since the majority of people coming to Dad’s funeral will be Christians, a Christian service is necessary.  But, like my dad, I’m not a Christian.  Scripture and words about “going home” offer me no comfort.  The young pastor from my sister’s church is a lovely man and willing to adapt his service to fit Dad’s beliefs to a point.  But, if I want something to take away from this ritual, I have to provide it myself.

So these next few days will be a crucible for me.  Can I maintain some level of awareness even though my illness is active?  Can I find ways to limit the sensory stimulus so that I can remain a part of the events?  Can I support my mom without sacrificing myself?  Can I call up an old part of myself that’s been dormant for years and offer something of substance to those who grieve my dad’s passing, including myself?

I’ll do my best and, as always, that will be enough.

Normal

For the last week, I’ve felt normal.

This is a loaded word.  For some of us with mental illness, we use it on ourselves like a baseball bat.  We hold it up as an unreachable and longed for goal.  Other people slap us around with it.  Normal carries the same kind of charge that God carries for other people.  As a writer, I’ve tried to be sensitive to that charge and to find other ways of expressing this particular state, but nothing comes close.  So I guess I just have to keep using it and try to explain myself.

For me, normal is the set point, the fulcrum on the teeter-totter where no motion happens.  In this state, I’m asymptomatic.  Since I’m focusing on food right now, I’m watching how easy it is to change my eating plan.  There’s no compulsive thinking.  Last night I watched TV while I ate supper and ate too much.  There was no frantic rodent in my head scrabbling ’round and ’round to get at the food.  I simply got distracted.  When I realized what I’d done, I stopped.  When I’m in this state, I can stop.  When I calculate my calorie intake for the day, I can look at it and adjust what I’ll have for supper or for an evening snack.  This is part of being normal for me—the absence of compulsion.

This quietness has also settled into my relationship with money.  When I’m at set-point, when I’m normal, I have plenty of money.  I make adjustments to my wants and needs accordingly.  This week I chose to go to the new X-Men movie instead of driving to my meditation group.  Instead of the choice feeling like a punishment, instead of wishing I could do both, I felt no emotion at all about it.  It was simply a choice.  When the compulsion goes to sleep, I can be practical.  I actually put $17 into my piggy bank this week.

I feel normalcy in the way I’m working on projects.  While I was manic, and then depressed, I could only tinker with the periphery of my story-writing.  I obsessed over the genealogy charts, organized my notes, and made lists.  But, yesterday I felt the last trailing, symptomatic shreds drift away.  I wrote part of a new chapter.  And in the collage I’m doing now, I noticed the same quiet sureness.  When I’m in this normal place, I don’t feel constricted or boundless.  There’s no trace of the self-loathing, self-defeating thought forms that depression creates, or the jittery, tumbling flood of ideas produced by mania.  When I’m normal, I can see the path through the project and can move with conviction along the path with a strong, steady stride.

Other people tell me that when I feel normal, I behave and look like the person they knew before the illness took over.  I’m sure that means something different to each of them, but I can imagine what some of those traits look like.  When I feel normal, I’m not hypersensitive to sound or smells, so I can sit at a noisy dinner table and join in instead of escaping to another room.  I can exercise in the pool room with music blaring and sing along.  When I feel normal, the world opens up and is not all about me.  So when my mom tells strangers at a garage sale that I live on disability and have no money, I can chuckle at her method of bargaining instead of taking offense.  And I’m able to see and listen to other people without the veil of symptoms floating between us.

Coming back to this set-point is always a gift.  Not everyone gets this reprieve from symptoms, and I’m so very grateful for it.  I will enjoy it, use it, and then let it go as the tide of my illness turns.  Because that, too, is normal.

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