Planting Flags

Duck DodgersI lived in or near Minneapolis and St. Paul for 24 years.  It was home.  It’s also where my life imploded under bipolar crisis.  So while some of my closest friends are there, and the energy and sensibilities of The Twin Cities resonate in me like music, the sorrow and loss of a life destroyed seep up out of the cracks.  I’m saturated in Minnesota, and my groundwater rises.

This past year, I decided to fight the sludge.  The idea started in IPR when we took a close look at my natural support system (friends, family, associations, etc.).  It was a relief when Aly, my case worker, declared my natural supports woefully inadequate.  Instead of fighting against feeling “needy” or berating myself for not being more sociable, I could finally acknowledge that I didn’t have the kind of support that would benefit me.  I no longer belonged to a Tribe.

Aly and I brainstormed.  From those sessions, I chose a dual approach—get involved in the Unitarian church in Des Moines and spend more time in the Twin Cities with my friends.

It has been a weird year, being a visitor in what feels like my hometown.  My zeal in the beginning caused me to over-extend myself, then watch shame and guilt rise about being symptomatic when I was among the people who understood and accepted me unconditionally.  How could I forget that these were the people who watched me self-destruct and didn’t run?  My anxiety or social phobia melted off them like October snow.

Dying of NostalgiaSorrow snuck up on me at odd times—journaling in a Starbucks, intermission at the Guthrie theater, watching a jogger with his golden lab lope along the crosswalk in Minnehaha Park.  Sorrow dragged memories up from the depths—regrets, bridges burned, the parts of my life that sloughed off and lay half-decomposed along the roadsides.

When I discussed this discomfort with my therapist, she said I’d have to dredge all that up and deal with it before the sorrow could lift.  “You have to know why you’re grieving before you can move past it.”  But I already knew why I was grieving.  I’d done that work.  Ad nauseum.  I wanted the “moving past it” part.

I decided to just Watch.  That always seems to be the answer to everything, so why not this?  I saw that sorrow came when I attended events alone, so I started asking my friends to go with me.  Lily and I went to the opera a few weeks ago (free tickets provided by Jim and Duane).  The show itself was dreadful (a German comedy, which has to be the definition of oxymoron), but Lily and I had a wonderful time swearing at the traffic jam caused by hockey fans.

I saw that sorrow rose when I felt separate from my friends’ real lives–a visitor instead of a fixture.  So I planned trips around going to Duane’s presentation to high school students and their parents about AIDS and safe sex, and Jinjer’s workshop on Beginning Astrology, and in December, Carol’s choir concert.

SPilgrimage Cafeorrow seemed to hide in my old haunts, places I loved in my Old Life, so I look for new places to plant my flag now.  A few weeks ago, Jinjer and Carol introduced me to Pilgrimage Café, a neighborhood restaurant with a quirky, delicious menu.  This past weekend I went back there by myself, and felt the café embrace me like a lover.  I sat at a repurposed church pew, my journal on the slab of wooden table, sipping pumpkin ale and breathing in the smell of welcome.

Slowly, I am reclaiming my old hometown for the Nation of Now.  I chose the unfamiliar and travel streets I don’t know.  I cherish my Tribe and go deeper with them while I forge new friendships and expand out like ice crystals knitting across the lakes.  There’s no room for sorrow in all that Light.

Daft Trek

Social Services, the Final Frontier.  These are the voyages of one unclassifiable nut-job.  Her ongoing mission: to explore convoluted government gobbledy-gook; to seek out new services that might actually help; to boldly leap over the cracks in the system where no one has leapt before.

ξ

After I finished the Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation program in late June, the search was on to find some kind of support that might fill the gap.  IPR wasn’t therapy, but working with Aly for two hours twice a week turned out to be the best therapy I’d ever had.  How can you not go deep and actually problem-solve with that much one-on-one time?  Most participants in IPR spend half their time in groups, but we had trouble finding peers for me (I’ve got so much insight, you know), so Aly and I just met by ourselves.

We both knew no social service could provide what Aly gave me, so we looked at the kinds of support I might find.  She and my therapist thought Lutheran Services of Iowa might be a fit.  I went through two-hour assessments with both my caseworker and LSI, was approved, and started seeing a caregiver in July.

I have a caregiver.  To say I have mixed feelings about that is like saying Emmett is a little nervous (though, here’s a barely-related photo of both guys sitting next to me as I write this with Em combed and smiling).

Together

Anyhoo, it’s taken me all summer to get used to the idea of being a person who could benefit from a caregiver.  When I look at it in terms of what I need to stay out of the hospital, I get it.  But, like everything else concerning my mental health, I don’t fit in the usual categories, so we had to get creative.

Leanne, my caregiver, and I met for coffee once a week all summer at the new coffee house (Yaay! Marshalltown finally has a coffee house!)

Brew House

This was all part of my care plan—to get basic support.  It’s not therapy, but more than friends and family can provide.  For that hour, I get to talk without worrying about my social skills or being reciprocal in any way.  Most human interaction is two-sided.  Conversation is give and take.  And, while Leanne and I do converse, the point is we don’t have to.  For that hour, she’s there for me, and if I need all that time to process, I don’t have to feel guilty, or selfish, or worry about ruining our relationship.  Over the summer, we honed that process to where we’re both comfortable with it.  And it is a true and valuable tool.  Like my new soaking tub, I can relax with Leanne now and just let go.

The other part of my care plan is for Leanne to help me keep my apartment clean this winter.  Since I’m allergic to dust mites, I need a clean living space in order to avoid the asthma flares that lead to bad colds and, often, pneumonia.  And, since winter historically brings more severe depressive symptoms, cleaning (like anything requiring effort) flies out the window.

Halli, the LSI director, told me that their caregivers aren’t housekeepers.  They help clients set goals and work alongside them.  I’m expected to do the real work.  I like that concept.  I asked my sister to do that once, to come over and just help me figure out how to get my place cleaned.  I remembered what a huge help that was.  If I could get used to a stranger coming into my home, I thought that kind of support might help me avoid getting sick so much.

So, last Wednesday, Leanne came over and helped me replace the filters in my air vents.  It’s a big job, I even got the consultation from specialists of air duct cleaning in Kansas City, MO.  All the vents are in the ceiling.  I put filters in the ones I could reach by standing on a chair, but that was five years ago.  Last week, with a real step-stool, we replaced the black filters (ugh!) and got all the vents covered in the hour Leanne helped me.  I spent the rest of the day cleaning the grill on the intake vent (gross!) and laying filter material across that, too.

Intake Vent

Awesome!  Except I didn’t think to wear a mask.  Oops.  Now I’m fighting the very thing I tried to avoid—a bad head cold that will probably go south soon.  I should have known better.  I wore a red shirt that day, and we all know what happens to those guys.

De-Lamination

Unexplored CreviceThe word is out—sitting all the time will kill you.  Well, everything eventually kills you, but sitting is the new smoking in terms of health. It all makes sense to me.  I was a nurse once.  I know about circulation and oxygen flow.  But it was lamination that really sold me.

Lamination is what happens to the fat, fascia and muscles of your butt under the heat and pressure of sitting (think glued together and steam pressed).  I wish I could find the You Tube piece that explained it so well, but all I could find was this joker talking about Gibbon-Butt.  He makes a point, though.  Our backsides are not meant to be weight-baring.

I started researching standing desks.  With a desktop computer and a teeny apartment, I needed one adjustable desk, and those suckers cost big bucks.  Units that sit on the desk are cheaper, but I have a teeny desk, so all that scaffolding leaves no work space.  I was stumped. So Get Adjustable Desk became part of my IPR wish list for making my living space better and healthier.

This spring when I visited my nurse practitioner, I noticed her work space.  She had a big, simple adjustable desk with a chair on one end and a treadmill on the other.  She didn’t just stand at her desk, she walked or jogged, which seemed a bit excessive, but good on her, right?  I was more interested in the desk anyway.

Clean lines, simple, moderately priced and from IKEA (I’m partial to Swedish furniture—I used to be married to a Swede.  Some things stick, though are not necessarily laminated in place).  Minneapolis has a big IKEA store.  I often go to Minneapolis to visit friends.  I felt a plan forming.

Desk LowLast week I traveled to said Minneapolis to visit said friends.  I also brought home a desk in three boxes.  Yesterday I put it together (ridiculously simple) and started rearranging the jigsaw puzzle that is my apartment.  I’m shocked that I only have to get rid of two pieces of furniture:  my desk—a sweet little thing that was my first craft work table, and a night stand from an old bedroom set—repainted and pretty, but not very functional.  Everything else got redistributed and refiled (or will be).

I have to be careful with this kind of project.  I tend to purge while manic, and I’m hovering at hypomanic right now.  It would be so easy to get rid of all my crappy, second-hand furniture and just start over.  But, that’s crazy talk, so I will sit (or stand) with this one, new purchase until the fever passes.

Desk HighAlso, my cats are traumatized.  Henry won’t leave my side, and Emmett stays hidden under the bed.  First came the bathroom remodel, then I was gone for five days, and when I came home I brought in Big Things that Made Noise.  We all need a nice run of quiet days to let our nerves settle.

I’m standing at my desk now.  Henry’s taking in the afternoon sun.  Emmett’s still under the bed.  We’ll get de-laminated eventually.

If Wishes Were Bathtubs…

… Then Dreamers Would Soak.

⊂ ⊃

bathtub Chris

 ⊂ ⊃

Today was my last day in IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation).  For the past year, I’ve been working towards the goal of living successfully in my current home and making changes that will help sustain me and my mental health.  Through IPR, I dreamed, made lists, researched, planned, strategized, and started putting my Master Plan into action.

Henry in Old TubOne thing about my apartment I wanted to change was the bath tub.  Since I live in a government-subsidized apartment, I never for a moment thought that was possible.  I considered myself lucky to have running water.  But, since IPR is all about dreaming, I put it on my list.  How nice it would be to have a tub I actually fit into instead of a freakishly narrow trough with sliding doors that rolled open on their own while I showered.  When the poltergeist doors stayed shut, my XL body sported bruises from snagging on sharp edges.

Hot baths with scented oils or salts used to be a staple in my mental health tool box.  A long soak with relaxing music, a glass of wine, a candle—the ritual calmed my brain and soothed my soul.  To compensate, I learned to meditate in the hot tub at the Y after swimming.  Close, but no cigar.

Emboldened by IPR, I asked the apartment manager last winter if it was possible to get a bigger tub if my family helped me pay the cost.  She didn’t immediately say no.  “No one’s ever asked for anything like that,” she said.  “I’ll check with management.”

New TubWithin a few days, she called me to say she and the property’s maintenance man would get bids from contractors.  What?  I smelled lavender in my future!

Several months passed, but eventually we found a reputable plumber who gave a reasonable offer.  Last week, he and his carpenter buddy took a sawzall to the old tub and replaced it with a heavenly soaking tub.  The cats and I holed up in the bedroom for two days while they worked, the cats hiding under the bed while I made a shopping list for Bed, Bath and Beyond.

After the contractors left, it was my turn to go to work.  With raw drywall around the new surround, I needed to prime and paint.  And if I had to paint, I wanted make it count.

bagua-map-rectangleFirst I consulted my Feng Shui book, Wind and Water by Carole Hyder.  I love Feng Shui.  I don’t know if it works, but it’s one way to organize a home, a way to bring intention to areas of one’s life that need a boost.  It helps me remember important things like the Helpful People in my life and to foster gratitude.  Feng Shui feels clean and uncluttered.  It pays tribute to the natural world and our place in it.  I like to do what I can to align with the flow of chi in my little space.

Most of my bathroom sits in the Wisdom, Self-Knowledge and Rest section, which seems right and proper.  But parts of it overlap into the Career, Health and Family areas.  What I wanted most in my bathroom was harmony and peace, so it felt right to acknowledge those other areas in my color scheme.

       blueGraygreen

New Tub2At our local paint store, I chose Fantasy Blue for the Wisdom area, Pale Smoke to acknowledge the black element in the Career area, and Nob Hill Sage for the long wall that overlapped the Family area.  Since my little pantry closet sits in the Health area, I’ll find a nice buttery yellow for that later (One project at time).  Armed with chi-enhancing colors, my step-ladder and some masking tape, I set to work over the Fourth of July weekend.

GreenBlue WallsFor those of you who are homeowners, this stuff is old hat—drywall, paint, hand tools.  I remember.  I used to be one of you.  But, for those of us who rent or have little control over the aesthetics of our environment, this kind of freedom is rare and sweet.  With every stroke of the brush, I thought, “I chose this color.”  And I couldn’t quite believe it.

As I hauled myself up and down the ladder or on and off the floor, I felt the room becoming mine.  I felt it welcoming me and the cats.  I felt the peace and harmony I so longed for settle into place.  After three days of work, I was exhausted and hobbling, but I knew I’d done what I set out to do.  We had our sanctuary.

Cat Station HighAfter we revel in this success for a while, I’ll move on to the next project on my IPR list.  Because if wishes were horses, I’d be riding high.  For now, this dreamer plans to soak.

Kind, Gentle and Generous

Give Him the Moon

Earlier this year I set a goal to stay out of the hospital or a hospital program this spring.  Three out of the last five years, I’ve ended up there.  It’s a good thing, really, to know when to make that call.  Lots of folks with mental illness aren’t able to do that for themselves, so I feel lucky and proud of the work I do to hang onto a little insight during the worst of times.

However, the program I’ve used in the past was eliminated, like many of the behavioral health programs across the state, because psychiatrists fled Iowa like rats on a sinking ship (some problem with Medicare reimbursement).  If I needed serious help now, I’d have to drive across the state and admit myself into one of the few psych wards left.  I’d rather not, really.

I needed to change things up—not just my perspective, but what I do to manage this transition from winter to summer.  I found some new resources this year to help—Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation (IPR) and Integrated Health Services (IHS).  Both are new state programs trying to fill the gaps left by the psych docs.  Also, with my mom’s passing last summer, I now live frugally instead of crushed by poverty.  It’s a huge difference.

So, with this new net under me, I started to address the critical and disapproving voice in my head.  I started to wonder if my drive to do more and be more was actually another facet of that mean voice.  I watched how I withheld comfort, left no room for rest or rejuvenation, and squeaked by on the least.

I wondered how it might feel to do the opposite—to be kind and gentle in my self-appraisal, to be generous with my time and money.  I wondered how that voice might sound.  I wondered, for instance, what my grandma might say to me when rapid cycling ruined all my plans for the day.  Or what my friend, Lily, might say about me going to Ireland next year.

Whenever I started to hate on myself, or rail against the unfairness of living with bipolar disorder, or scold myself for going to Des Moines twice in one week, I tried to stop and conjure the people who love me.  Their kind and gentle voices filled my mind.  Their immediate generosity helped me breathe.

Over the course of the spring, I’ve tried to make those voices strong in my mind.  This is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.  I’m steeped in self-violence.  Recognizing the lie in that voice when it slithers into my thoughts takes time.  Then, countering it with petal-soft, open-armed sweetness is like speaking a foreign language.  But, I’ve learned a few words.  And my vocabulary is growing.

Being kind, gentle and generous to myself doesn’t alter the course of my bipolarity.  Rapid cycling fogs my brain and leaves me exhausted.  Emotions flip and tumble like Olympians.  Chores overwhelm me.  But, today, I have hope that I can navigate the hard road through Spring.  In my mind, I’m holding a warm, gentle hand.  It fits perfectly in mine.  Because it is mine.

March Madness

TumbleweedPhew!  February is behind us.  Enough, now, of the darkness and bitter cold and on to mud below and sun above.  Historically, March is the time I rouse from my mental hibernation and blink at the mess I’ve made while thrashing around in the dark.  I spend too much money when I’m brain-sick.  I eat compulsively.  Fat and broke, I usually overreact.  Last year and the year before, I put myself on strict money and food diets… and I ended up in partial hospitalization.  Hmmm.  Maybe this is a pattern I need to address in IPR.

The mission of IPR (Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation) is to help those of us with mental illness succeed at a goal we choose.  My goal is to keep living in my apartment, not taking sabbaticals in the hospital, so my caseworker, Aly, and I look at any skills needed to do that.

Partial hospitalization gives me structured support, a place to do the hard work of managing my illness when it’s overwhelming, and accountability to professionals who understand me.  One of my new skills is to seek out more structured support outside the hospital setting.

Seeing my therapist and participating in IPR every week are two kinds of structured support.  Recently, I added a weekly meeting with my Peer at Integrated Health Services (where I worked for a time last summer).  Allison and I sit for an hour and talk about doing the hard work of recovery.  The more I can get this kind of help, the less likely another hospitalization.  And since the Partial Hospitalization Program closed its doors last year, my only option now is full admission to a psych ward.  To me, that’s not an option.

So, it’s also important to look at this pattern of deprivation in the early spring.  As Aly and I talked through this, it seemed so simple.  Now is not the time to white-knuckle anything—not my budget, not my diet, not an out-dated version of myself as responsible and in control.  If there was ever a time for my Kinder, Gentler practice to kick in, it’s in March.  Now is the time to acknowledge how ill I’ve been and how well I’ve coped.  Now is the time to gently come back to cooking at home when the depression lifts enough to allow it.  Now is the time to remember that this is what my savings is for—to pay the bills my illness created over the winter and to give me space to breathe.  I’ll be able to live within my means again, but not right now.

This whole idea is radical—not clamping down to pay off my Visa bill or repaying the money I took from savings.  The idea that I can do those things later, should do them later, boggles my mind.  So simple.  So very Kind and Gentle.  It’s lovely to be my own best friend.

Saying Yes

Coming of AgeThe last couple of weeks created a lot of thrashing around for me.  In IPR, I was required to recount my history—something I’m loathe to do as it is only painful and seems to trigger the dark side of my bipolarity.  At the same time, I cast off my life-long dream of ever controlling my compulsive eating enough to lose weight and started seriously working on accepting myself as I am.   Self-love and PTSD may be strange bedfellows, but they seem to be making progress together.

I had a Bathroom Revelation—you know, when you’re in the shower or on the pot, your mind blissfully drifting, and BLAM! the Next Great Idea materializes out of the ethers (so to speak).  E=mc2 came to Einstein this way, so who am I to question a loo’s creative holiness?

Anyway, this simple thought came:

Mindfulness is Not Enough.

And from that, I understood that nothing would ever be enough.  Nothing I do will ever cure me of this mental illness.

Of course not, right?  Everyone knows there’s no cure.  But everyone isn’t me, and I was sure I could crack this nut.  I would find the Key—my own, personal Incantation—that would unlock this prison.  If I worked hard enough.  If I followed every lead.  If I…

But, suddenly, I understood what Luke Skywalker tried to tell me this summer about striving, how there was no way to win that game.  Working hard at managing my bipolar disorder became another club to bludgeon myself over the head.

What happens when I let go of that dream as well?  What happens if I really accept all of who I am—obese and bipolar, creative and destructive, intelligent and compulsive, single and romantic, mindful and delusional?  What happens when I relax into all of that?  Allow all of that?  Say, “Yes” to it all?

So far, it means pulling back from the rigidity of my routine, from documenting every gnat’s ass detail of my brain flatulence.  It means trusting myself a little bit more, following my instincts a little.  And crying a lot.

This is new territory for me, this saying “yes” business.  It’s different than galloping after compulsions or riding a manic wave.  Saying “yes” comes from a loving place, a place of plenty and safety.  When the depression was darkest last week, it meant holding myself and saying, “Yes, this is part of me, too.  I’m not broken or wrong.  I am simply this, too.”

There is benefit from a Plan when the illness is raging at either end of the spectrum or when I’m sliding into those two extremes.  That’s when I forget what helps.  That’s when I can’t remember “yes,” and a Plan is needed to wade through to the other side.  But I’m trying to live looser in the between times.  Instead of scribbling out a Daily Plan, I look at this on my way out of the door.

Nurture

Create

Connect

 

And maybe that’s enough.  We’ll see.

Because I’m still On an Adventure.

Patch Girl

Every once in a while I have homework to do for my Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation program (IPR).  Last week I gave a little presentation about someone famous who suffers from my brand of mental illness (Stephen Fry, of course), and showed part of his documentary “The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive.”  Stephen is one of my heroes, so it was fun to share him with others.

Now, I’m tasked with writing my Life History.  Groan.  If I had not done this a million times before in a million different ways for a plethora of mental health professionals, I might not mind mucking around in all that sour, spilt milk.  So, I tried a different approach—inspired, no doubt, by watching three seasons of Once Upon a Time in four days.  I offer you the results.

♦ ◊ ♦

Patch Girl

a Life History Fairy Tale

The Voice

Once upon a time, in a land of Patchwork People, a baby girl was born.

“Oh, no!” Mother cried, pushing the baby away.  “She is missing a patch—a huge patch!”  She narrowed her eyes at Father.  “This is your fault.  Go at once to the doctor and make sure we have no more of these disappointments.”

“Yes, dear,” Father said, because his only wish in life was to make Mother happy.

“Get that thing out of my sight,” Mother said to Sister.

“Gladly!” Sister cried.  “She will be my dolly.  I will dress her so no one sees the missing patch.”

“Good,” said Mother.

“Humph,” muttered Brother behind his book.

But as the Patch Girl grew, she tired of the clothes Sister made her wear.  They were too tight, too scratchy, and much, much too heavy.  One day she stripped them off and stood in her natural patchy-ness.

“Stop!” Sister yelled.  “You are my dolly, and I will dress you however I like!”

“I am not a dolly.  I am Patch Girl,” the young one said.

“Humph!” Sister sniffed, pointing.  “A Patch Girl with a big, ugly hole where a patch should be!”

Patch Girl looked down and, sure enough, there was big, ugly hole where a patch was meant to be.  “Give me my patch!” she yelled at Sister.

“Ha!  I don’t have it, stupid child!  Go away and find it.  You’re not my dolly any more.”

Patch Girl ran from the farmhouse with glee.  If I find my patch, Mother will love me, she reasoned.  If I find my patch, Father will protect me.

She climbed over fences and danced around trees.  If I find my patch, Sister will play games with me, and Brother will come out from behind his book!  If I find my patch, we will live happily ever after!  

She ran first to the barn to look for her missing patch.  Esmerelda the Cow swayed in her stanchion, chewing her cud.  The mouse family scurried across the cement floor to their homey-hole.  Hay dust drifted in the sunlight like golden snow, and the air smelled green.

“Oh,” Patch Girl whispered.  “What a magical place.  Surely my missing patch is here.”

She touched Esmerelda’s wet nose and felt the breath huff out her nostrils.  “Do you have my patch?”

The cow blinked her soft brown eyes and swallowed.  “Ask the Cat,” she lowed.

Patch Girl tip-toed further into the barn to a warm, dark nest behind the bales of hay.  Mother Cat lay on her side with three kittens suckling.  Patch Girl saw their tiny paws kneading Mother Cat’s white fur, their perfect little claws flexing in and out.

“Oh,” Patch Girl sighed, feeling full and whole.  She touched one finger to the calico kitten’s head.  “This must be my patch.”

“No, dear,” Mother Cat said.  “You already have that patch.  See?”

Patch Girl looked down and saw one of the patches next to her hole glowing with golden light.

“But, I must find my patch,” she told Mother Cat, unhooking the calico kitten’s claws from her patchy body.

“Go see Grandmother,” Mother Cat suggested.  “She may have your missing patch.”

Patch Girl hurried from the sweet-smelling barn and followed a grassy path through the apple orchard.  At the end of the path, through a flowery trellis, she found a white cottage ringed by violets and dandelions.  Patch Girl rounded the cottage and spotted an old woman digging in her flowerbed.

“Hello,” said Patch Girl.  “Are you Grandmother?”

“Oh, I’m much more than that,” the old woman smiled.  “What is that flower there?”

Patch Girl bent to where Grandmother pointed.  A delicate face looked up at her—fuchsia veined with purple.  Patch Girl sniffed the flower, and the petals were so delicate they went up her nose and tickled.

“It’s a petunia!” she laughed.

“Exactly!” Grandmother laughed with her.  “And that is what I shall call you—My Little Petunia.”

“Is this my missing patch,” the young one asked hopefully, the flower’s tangy scent still in her nose.

“No, dear.  You already have that patch.  See?”

Patch Girl looked down and another patch around her hole glowed like a fire opal.  “Do you have my missing patch, Grandmother?” she asked, tears wetting her cheeks for she already guessed the answer.

Grandmother brushed the dirt from her fingers.  “Come with me, Little Petunia.  We have work to do.”

“Work?” Patch Girl jumped up, forgetting for a moment about her missing patch.  “What kind of work, Grandmother?”

“Why, we have lace to tat and embroidery to stitch.”

She stepped into the cottage and rummaged through a wooden chest full of baubles and trinkets.

“Oh,” Patch Girl breathed, picking up a tiny porcelain tea cup, then a brass Chinese dog with smoke drifting from its mouth.

“Or…” Grandmother’s muffled voice came from the bottom of the chest where she was digging.  “…should we start with the watercolors?  Wait! I know!”

She pulled herself out of the trunk, a little flushed from being head-side down.  She held up a paper tablet in triumph.  The bright red cover displayed the noble profile of an Indian Warrior.

“Stories!”  Grandmother said, placing the tablet in Patch Girl’s outstretched hands.  From her silver curls, she plucked a sturdy pencil with a fine eraser.  “Write me a story, Little Petunia.”

Patch Girl smelled the wood of the pencil, the dusty magic of the paper.  Once Upon A Time she wrote on the first line of the first page.

“Oh, Grandmother,” she sighed, feeling full and whole, “surely this is my missing patch.”

“No, dear,” Grandmother said.  “You already have all these patches.  See?”

Patch Girl looked down and, sure enough, a patch next to her hole glowed amber like the lights in the library.  Another glimmered azure blue like the little square in the watercolor palette.  And still another gleamed like a tapestry with rosy stitching.

Patch Girl burst into tears, for while her patches were wondrous and beautiful, the hole of her missing patch had grown deeper and more painful.

“If I find my missing patch,” she sobbed, “Mother will love me, Father will protect me, Sister will play with me, and Brother will come out from behind his book.  I must find my patch, Grandmother.  Then, we will live happy every after.”

“Oh, dear,” Grandmother worried.  “I don’t have your missing patch, my Little Petunia.  Perhaps The Mage has it.”

She pulled out her sewing box and sorted through the scraps.  “It is a long journey, and you need something to hide that hole.”

“Sister stuffed me in doll clothes,” Patch Girl sniffed.  “I didn’t like that.”

“Ah, try this.”  Grandmother’s blue eyes twinkled.  She fastened a scrap over Patch Girl’s hole by safety-pinning it to the surrounding patches.  “You are a clever, clever girl.  Your cleverness will keep those pins strong and in place.  No one need ever know about your hole.”

“But, I can still feel it, Grandmother.  And it hurts.”

Grandmother smoothed the make-shift patch with her big hands, then dug in the pocket of her apron.  “Have a cookie, dear.  It will help.”

She led Patch Girl out of the cottage where a sliver moon smiled in the night sky.

“Listen to the stars, My Little Petunia, they will guide you,” Grandmother said, waving her onto the road.   “Good-bye.”

“Good-Bye, Grandmother,” Patch Girl replied, nibbling the cookie (it did help dull the pain of her missing patch).

She travelled long and far.  Night became Day.  Days became Years.  Sometimes Patch Girl forgot why she was on the road, and then the hole of her missing patch ached, and she remembered to look for The Mage.

She searched in churches and universities, for surely Wise Men labored there.  She took jobs and quit them again when no Mage appeared.  She befriended other travelers who adored her for her wondrous patches, but Patch Girl never let them too close for fear they might discover her safety pins and the secret behind them.

Once, she met a Scribe who looked up from his book long enough to smile.  He reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t remember who.

“Marry me,” she told the Scribe.  “Protect me.”

“Humph,” he answered, returning to his book.  “If you like.”

But the Scribe could neither protect her nor come out from behind his book for long.  So, Patch Girl continued her search.

One day, a Black Imp danced out from behind a tree.

“Halloo, Patch Girl.  I understand you seek a Mage.”

“Yes,” she answered.  “Do you know him?”

“Know him?”  The Imp cavorted around her and made her laugh.  “I am him!”

“You?”  Patch Girl eyed him skeptically, but she was weary from traveling.  She had lost many of the safety pins Grandmother had given her, and just wanted the search to be over.

“I see your hole, Patch Girl.”  The Imp leered at her.  “I have just the thing to fill it.  Let me fill it and you need never search again.”

The Imp’s promises were so appealing, Patch Girl didn’t even cry.  She knew at once that he wasn’t The Mage, but she no longer cared.

Mother will never love me now.  Father will never protect me.  Sister will never play with me again.  And Brother will never come out from behind his books.  This is what I deserve.

The Black Imp dragged Patch Girl to his hut where he cast a powerful spell upon her and threw her into a cage.  He filled her hole with all manner of vile things, but none of them was her patch.  The Imp shared her with his minions, who promised to protect her and help her find her patch, but they never did.

One night, as Patch Girl cried herself to sleep in her cage, Grandmother appeared to her in a dream.

“Where is My Little Petunia?” Grandmother wondered.  “Where is my clever, clever girl?”

“Here I am,” Patch Girl cried.  “Right in front of you!”

“So you are,” Grandmother said.  “Leave this horrible place at once!”

“How, Grandmother?  I’m locked in.”

“You’re a clever girl,” Grandmother winked.  “You’ll find a way.”

Patch Girl woke with a start.  She could hear the Black Imp and his minions snoring nearby.  Creeping to the door of her cage, she felt for the lock.  Then, she took her last safety pin, straightened it out, fit it to the lock, and pushed the door open.  As she ran from the hut, the covering Grandmother had placed over her hole so long ago fluttered into the mud—lost forever.

Patch Girl ran as far and as fast as her weak legs could go.  The hole from her missing patch gaped wide.  The surrounding patches, once so strong and beautiful, sagged pale and limp.  Those who met her on the road cried out in terror and in pity.

“Try this elixir, “ they said.

“Take this potion.”

“Stand out in the rain and let the lightening strike.”

Patch Girl tried everything every Wise Woman and Fool suggested, but nothing patched her correctly.  She stood under the night sky and wept.  She no longer wanted to search for her missing patch.  She no longer wanted to live at all.  It was too hard, too painful, and much much too heavy.  So Patch Girl left the road and laid in the soft grass to wait for Death.

While she waited, and it did seem to be taking Death a long time to find her, Patch Girl gazed up at the stars.  She heard their quiet song as they trembled like jewels in their velvet setting.  She smiled, remembering Grandmother’s instructions, and rested in the stars’ serenade.  She reached into her now-silver curls and found a pencil with a sturdy eraser.  She smelled petunias nearby.  In her pocket, she fingered the brass Chinese dog and many cookie crumbs.

Near the road, something rustled in the tall grass, but Patch Girl wasn’t afraid.  As she watched, Mother Cat stepped into the starlight with her three kittens trailing behind her.

“Hello, Patch Girl,” Mother Cat said.  “Did you ever find your missing patch?”

“There never was a patch,” Patch Girl answered.  “I was born as the night sky was born—full of wondrous lights that can only be seen because of the dark that surrounds them.”

“And what of your happy ever after?” Mother Cat asked, climbing up on the jeweled light that radiated from Patch Girl’s wondrous patches.

“Oh, Mother Cat,” Patch Girl chuckled.  “That’s just a fairy tale.”

“Ah,” Mother Cat purred, arranging her kittens.  “You finally did find The Mage.”

“Yes.”  Patch Girl smiled up at the singing stars, her fingers tickling the kittens.  “Yes, I surely did.”

The End

Watch Me Pull a Rabbit Outta the Hat

Rocky and BullwinkleI really don’t think anyone else is interested in my financial prestidigitations.  I’m just opting for transparency.  Since compulsive behavior is part of my bipolar kit, I need to open it up for inspection.  And since living on Social Security Disability is a fact of life for lots of folks with mental illness, maybe we can trade magic tricks on how to make those dollars stretch.

Even though I started tightening my belt a week before, the real test came with my February check.  It seemed silly to be nervous about walking into the bank with my little list—a month’s worth of quarters for laundry, a $50 bill for the car fund, and cash for the week’s groceries and gas.  Nervous, I guess, because I don’t do this very well—sticking to what feels like severe restriction.  So, I tried to reframe my thoughts.  Not restriction, stewardship and different choices.  I’m making different choices about how I spend my money.  I’m doing this.  It’s not being done to me.

I know a big part of budgeting is planning.  I’m an expert list-maker and always have A Plan.  I’m just not as hot at actually implementing The Plan.  The bipolar part of the equation gets in my way.  Knowing that about myself makes any plan tentative—possible, but not probable.  Planning seems to set me up for failure, so I’ve learned to make plans loose and friendly to give them a fighting chance.

I made a loose meal plan, a handful of ideas for meals that I could mix and match—stir fries, chili,  roasted vegetables, hummus wraps—then made a grocery list from that.  This week I had plenty in my food budget for the initial shopping trip, plus a little left over.  That little bit extra felt expansive to me—I could get cornbread mix to go with my chili or a frozen pizza later in the week if I wanted to.  Since cooking still makes me anxious sometimes (especially when I’m under stress), it helped to have this bit of breathing space.

Fridley Theaters gift cardI didn’t bother trying to walk in this cold, and managed fine on my budget of $15 a week for gas.  I’m surprised that staying home hasn’t felt restrictive, especially since I’ve experienced several days of depression and anxiety.  Usually that makes me want to bolt.  I went to the movies a couple of times here in town on the gift cards I received for Christmas.  My friends and my sister treated me to meals out.  I’m also still seeing my therapist every week.  So even though I’ve been cycling fast and hard, I seem to have enough distraction and support to keep the symptoms manageable.

The new mental health program I learned about last week is Medicaid-funded, so I probably don’t qualify.  I make too much money.  But a friend does pay me a little bit each month for odd jobs, and that might be enough to qualify me as working disabled.  This makes no sense to me, but that’s a whole other post.  It does look like I will be reimbursed for about half of the rent I paid in 2013 (who knew?).  That would pay off all my medical debt.  Sweet!

This is hard.  But, I’m hoping the longer I stick with this budget and continue to see results, the more comfortable I’ll get with it.  The most important factor is to reduce my stress, make this as easy as possible, so that my symptoms don’t overwhelm me.  That’s the rabbit I keep fishing for inside the hat.

The Beagle and the Teacup

handmade greeting card, collage artI’m breaking one of my Golden Rules by not telling you how crazy I am at the moment.

Honesty.  That’s what I pledged.

So, okay.

I went to a presentation today about some of the new programs rolling out with ObamaCare and the Mental Health Redesign in Iowa.  A program called Intensive Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (IPRS) focuses on reducing a client’s stressors.  Because (this is radical, now) reducing stress will reduce symptoms, which will ultimately allow someone with a mental illness to function more independently.

Thank you, People in Suits, for finally getting it.

Last week, I wrote that I had $11 in my billfold, and that I was determined to still hold that $11 when my Disability check came.  Well, I didn’t make it.  If I was only going to do laundry every other week ($15 at the laundromat), I needed more socks.  So I bought socks.  And a 89¢ notebook to keep track of grocery prices and specials.

Preferred Pest Control, bed bug, beagleThen, the landlord tacked up a sign that said Radar, the bedbug-sniffing beagle, was coming for his quarterly inspection the next day.  That meant packing up the cats (which they hate), their litter boxes, food, and anything Radar might get into and hauling everyone out to my Mom’s for the day.  She’s only marginally tolerant of animals in the house, so the boys had to stay in the basement, where Emmett promptly found a hidey-hole that he refused to leave.  Cut to seven hours later, and he sashayed past me with thirty-year-old dust bunnies stuck to his fur.  Finally, we got home, but I’d lost my only winter hat and my phone.

This is the danger of stress—breakage, forgetfulness, locking myself out of the apartment or truck, falling on the ice, losing stuff.  One flat tire turns into a fifty-car pile up and a long discussion with the tire store.  And with each incident, my capacity for navigating and problem-solving shrinks.   I liken it to a teacup.  Stress shrinks the cup.  Too much stress flattens the cup into a saucer.  Then, the slightest bump sloshes out the tea.  And if the saucer empties out completely—hello, Psych Ward.

So, I talked to the caseworker at the presentation today and will be getting a referral for IPRS.  Mom found my hat in her driveway.  My phone was under some sacks in my back seat.  And I don’t have bedbugs.

Today was a pretty good day.

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