Mean and Scary

mousy-ladiesSince my last post, words of love and encouragement, texts, phone calls, offers, cards and funny videos poured over and through me.

Part of it is Facebook. This was the first “I’m thinking about suicide” post that I put on Facebook, so some of this kindness comes from people I’ve not seen in decades—junior high school friends, relatives, etc.  They don’t know that, while serious, this is a side of the illness that comes around every few years.

Part of it is the word.  Suicide.  It brings out the panic in people.  It ignites folks like other incendiary words—God, Abortion, Trump.  And fire requires action.

Part of it is that kind people need to do something to help.  And they’re used to sicknesses that get better.  A little chicken soup, a little gift, and the icky stuff goes away.  They don’t understand that I’m always sick—more or less—no matter how sane I sound or look.  It’s a matter of degree.  A little chicken soup-kindness everyday would be lovely.

It’s been difficult—teaching about mental illness, resetting my boundaries, and reaffirming what I really need—at a time when I want to punch most people in the face.  This is not how one thanks everyone for kindness and thoughtfulness.

I isolate when I’m “unwell,” but this is something more.  I can’t seem to navigate the niceties of social interaction.  I can’t pretend to listen to other folks’ three-ring shit shows (and I normally do a grand job at that).  I can’t tolerate the nattering of voices or the pressure (albeit internal) of protecting others from my illness. I’m scary at present.  And mean.

The last thing I want to do is hurt kindhearted folk.  It’s one of my nightmares—shoving away everyone who loves me with this illness.  It’s such a huge disconnect—hanging on every kind word and pushing away the people who speak them.

All I can say is Thank You and I’m Sorry.  Don’t stop asking questions—not about what you can do for me, but about the illness.  I am a font of knowledge on mental illness and if you need to understand, I’m your gal.  That’s one interaction that won’t get you punched in the face.

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30 Day Forecast

Start BoldlyWednesday was my last day in partial hospitalization.  It was a surprise.  I went to the scheduled appointment with my counselor to talk about my progress and the work I’d been doing on my discharge plan.  When I asked him when he thought I might be ready to leave the program, he said, “I’m thinking today.”  I took a deep breath, swallowed hard, and said, “Okay.”

Because I know recovery isn’t about feeling perfect or feeling done.  It’s about practicing new behaviors in spite of how I feel.  It’s about The Work.

Every morning in the group, we filled out a plan for the day.  It included things like errands and chores, what we planned for exercise and relaxation.  We kept track of our sleep patterns, listed things we were grateful for that day, and our successes.  But at the top of the page, we rated how we were functioning.  On a scale of 1-10, we noted how well we were able to perform our daily tasks, not how we felt.  That distinction was important.  Emotions, moods, and thoughts changing like the weather can make a person feel dysfunctional.  Noting objectively that we got out of bed, ate breakfast and washed the dishes, drove to group, and made plans to see a friend afterward proves that we can still operate in the world even if we don’t feel like it in the moment.  What we do matters.

And while I feel much more stable emotionally, it’s a high pressure system that comes and goes.  The practices I put into place and actually perform every day will help me weather what comes next.  And next.  And next.

And there’s a lot of Work to do.  It’s mostly planning and monitoring, but it’s also reinventing myself as a social creature.  I’ve written here about my tendency toward isolation, my resistance and anxieties where other people are concerned.  So, I’m trying something different.  I’m attempting to let go of my old notions of Support Systems, Intimacy, and Soul-Matedness, and simply ask people to Play with me.  I plan something I want to do (like see the new X-Men movie or go for a walk) and just invite others to join me.  No huge expectation.  No smoldering resentment or disappointment.  Just play.  And it’s amazing to me how easy this is.  Simple.  For a mind that complicates and twists on a regular basis, simple is good.  Real good.

As part of my discharge planning, I have a list of goals for the next 30 days.  These will determine the nature of my practice for now.  And they will also help me make these changes into habits that, hopefully, will carry into whatever weather the future holds.

It’s up to me.

It always is.

I’m on an Adventure.

Fighting For My Life

I felt fierce and proud and forever free.I’m in a mood.

I’ll just put that out there as a disclaimer so you know what follows is tainted.

This is a mood that seems to keep coming back.  Well.  That’s bipolar disorder in a nutshell.  So to speak.

I know this mood and I have history if only from how big Bipolar Bad-Assery is in my little Cloud of Topics at right.  I recognize the ferocity and physical stamina.  A terrible intolerance develops.  And then there’s the ice-cold anger.  It started a few days ago with a niggle in the back of my mind.  At odd moments it would pop into full consciousness like Schwarzenegger bursting through a door.

I’m fighting for my life.

It surfaced at TOPS yesterday, and again in the water this morning as I swam my mile.  So I took myself for a drive today to give this moody thought some room.  What I found is that this isn’t the whole thought, just the opener.  In toto, it goes like this.

I’m fighting for my life, so step up or get out of the way.

And suddenly the anger and intolerance make more sense.  Even the extra strength and endurance.  I’m gearing up to go solo again.

This mood, this attitude, runs counter to all the discussions I’ve had with my therapist about relationships.  She’s counseled me about how relationships change, how people come and go out of a life.  She reminds me to take people for what they are and to be accepting of what they can offer.  This is realistic advice.  But, sometimes, I can’t see how it helps me much.

I don’t need coffee dates or tactfully casual conversations as much as I need allies who will get bloody up to the eyebrows with me.  But, finding a loyal berserker isn’t easy.  Or realistic.  Real people have messes of their own to worry about—sick parents, and mortgages, and unemployment.  All that feels like do or die for them, too, so they’re hardly going to save their ammo for me.  Or if they do happen to save a clip, they end up shooting in the wrong direction or even at me.  Friendly fire, of course, but still lethal.

River

Which leads to another conversation with my therapist—my need to make people understand me.  I don’t like being misunderstood.  I don’t like others deciding what’s best for me or making assumptions about me.  But, really, all that is none of my business.  I can’t help what other people think or do.  I can’t stick my hand inside their gray matter and plant the seeds I want growing there.  But, sometimes, they act out of the stories they’ve told themselves about me.  And then they make it my business.  Which I don’t handle with great diplomacy.  I don’t mind so much if you can’t fight alongside me, but get in my way and I might blow your head off.  Nice.  You can see why I might have trouble holding onto friends.

I see what’s happening here.  I’m turning into that Hero person who Stands Alone.  Maybe I’ve always been that person.  It might be one of the reasons I was drawn to comic books as a kid.  As soon as I was able to read, I stole from my brother’s Marvel collection.  Those guys understood.  They fought for their lives every month.  They were me.

winter soldierWhen I went to the new Captain America movie last week and watched Steve Rogers risk everything, the niggle in my head practically shouted.  That’s me!  And then [SPOILER ALERT] when he quit fighting and let Bucky beat him to smithereens, the niggle still shouted.  That’s me, too!  Cap had allies.  He even had a handful of people he trusted.  But, basically, he was alone.  I get that.  And sometimes the hero just gives up.  I get that, too.

That’s as far as this train of thought is going, because to follow it any further would just indulge the mood.  It will shift in a few days and all this Hulk energy will drain.  But, there might be some new questions for my therapist on Monday.  Life and death questions.  Because in the end, I’m still fighting for my life.

 

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.

Totally Subjective and Non-Scientific

handmade greeting card, collage artYesterday was my first day in the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP).  This handout was the first bit of business our group worked through.  In Parts One and Two, we marked the items we’ve experienced in the past three months.  Then we marked the items we experienced more than three months ago.  This was to help us see patterns of distorted thinking, isolation and a victim mentality.  In looking at Part Three, we were asked to pick the one item we felt was most important to our mental health.

I think this bodes well for the week.

Steven James’ Totally Subjective, Non-Scientific Guide to Illness and Health

How to Get Sick

  1. Don’t pay attention to your body.  Eat plenty of junk food, drink too much, take drugs, have lots of unsafe sex with lots of different partners and, above all, feel guilty about it.  If you are over-stressed and tired, ignore it and keep pushing yourself.
  2. Cultivate the experience of your life as meaningless and of little value.
  3. Do everything you dread or hate and avoid doing what you really want.  Follow everyone else’s opinion and advice while seeing yourself as miserable and stuck.
  4. Be resentful and hyper-critical, especially toward yourself.
  5. Fill your mind with dreadful pictures, then obsess over them.  Worry as much as possible.
  6. Avoid deep, lasting, intimate relationships.
  7. Blame other people for your problems.
  8. Don’t express your feelings or opinions.  Other people wouldn’t appreciate it.  If at all possible, don’t even know what your feelings are.
  9. Shun anything that resembles a sense of humor.  Life is no laughing matter.
  10. Avoid making any changes that might bring you greater satisfaction and joy.

How to Get Sicker (If You’re Already Sick)

  1. Think about all the awful things that could happen to you.  Dwell on negative, fearful images.
  2. Be depressed, self-pitying, envious and angry.  Blame everyone and everything for your illness.
  3. Read articles, books and newspapers; watch television programs; and listen to people who reinforce the viewpoint that there is no hope.  You are powerless to influence your fate.
  4. Cut yourself off from other people.  Regard yourself as a pariah.  Lock yourself up in your room and contemplate death.
  5. Hate yourself for having destroyed your life.  Blame yourself mercilessly and incessantly.
  6. Go to see lots of different doctors.  Run from one to another, spend half your time in waiting rooms, get lots of conflicting opinions and lots of experimental drugs, start one program after another without sticking to any.
  7. Quit your job, stop work on any projects, give up all activities that bring you a sense of purpose and fun.  See your life as essentially pointless and at an end.
  8. Complain about your symptoms, and if you associate with anyone, do so exclusively with those who are unhappy and embittered.  Reinforce each other’s feelings of hopelessness.
  9. Don’t take care of yourself.  Try to get other people to do it for you, and then resent them for not doing a good job.
  10. Think how awful life is and how you might as well be dead.  But make sure you are absolutely terrified of death, just to increase the pain.

How to Stay Well (Or Get Better if You’re Not Well to Begin With)

  1. Do things that bring you a sense of fulfillment, joy, purpose and that validate your worth.  See your life as your own creation and strive to make it a positive one.
  2. Pay close and loving attention to yourself, tuning in to your needs on all levels.  Take care by nourishing, supporting and encouraging yourself.
  3. Release all negative emotions—resentment, envy, fear, sadness, anger.  Express your feelings appropriately, then forgive yourself.
  4. Hold positive images and goals in your mind, pictures of what you truly want in life.  When fearful images arise, refocus on ones that evoke feelings of peace and joy.
  5. Love yourself and everyone else.  Make loving the purpose and primary expression in your life.
  6. Create fun, loving, honest relationships that fulfill your needs for intimacy and security.  Try to heal any wounds in past or present relationships, such as with old lovers or family members.
  7. Make a positive contribution to your community through some form of work or service that you value and enjoy.
  8. Make a commitment to health and well-being.  Develop a belief in the possibility of Total Health.  Develop your own healing program, drawing on the support and advice of experts without becoming enslaved to them.
  9. Keep your sense of humor.
  10. Accept yourself and everything in your life as an opportunity for growth and learning.  Be grateful.  When you mess up, forgive yourself, learn what you can from the experience, and then move on.

It Takes A Village

handmand greeting card, collage artMichelle’s post today in The Green Study got me thinking.  She focused on how easy it is to over-share in blogs and wondered if it’s all just naval-gazing from self-absorbed recluses.

Well, that would be me.

My gazing tends to point farther north to what’s in my skull, but I am self-absorbed and self-centered.  I justify this by reminding myself that most people with my flavor of bipolar disorder are living in group homes or institutionalized.  Self-absorption or self-preservation, I can’t tell the difference any more.

The recluse part of me is something I’ve started reframing as healthy instead of pathological.  For years I’ve heard how “telling” it was when I isolated, cut myself off from others, quite reaching out, and turned down social engagements.  My health posse at the time would panic, remove all sharp objects and count the pills in my bottles.  They had good reason.  I did try it once.

But, I’m discovering the joys of reclusiveness.  Well, not joy exactly.  Peace is better descriptor.

People wear me out.  Yesterday on my walk around the neighborhood, I saw a little girl (who didn’t know any better) tease a puppy that was tied to a stake.  She didn’t hurt the puppy, but I could hear the meanness in her preschool voice and the pitiful whine of the puppy.  It made me sick and scared, and I hated myself for not doing something about it.  Something gentle.  Something as easy as walking across the street to talk to her and lay a calm hand on the puppy’s head.  But, I didn’t do that.  I walked faster.

When got home, I was sad and tired, disappointed in myself, and could feel my mood slip/slide like ice over black water.  I made a pizza, plugged in an episode of Fringe, and put on my nightgown—done with the outside world and with people.  Then, my doorbell rang.

A casual friend from swim class and also from my meditation group ferreted out where I lived by Sherlockian means—knowing my truck, seeing where it was parked in the apartment lot, peeking at the collaged sign on my front door.  She was hesitant, cautious about showing up unannounced.  She said she had something for me.

It’s always disconcerting when someone rings my doorbell.  Firstly, it’s rare.  Secondly, it’s usually politicians or the landlord.  Thirdly, I’m usually in my nightie.  My little apartment is private space where Henry, Emmett and I weave a cocoon of safety.  Company jangles us.  I may not dash under the bed like Emmett, or growl like Henry when the doorbell rings, but I understand the sentiment.  Still, I try to shift gears and put on a welcoming face.

My friend came back from the parking lot with a big box.  She said her mother ran a food bank in a neighboring county.  “I told her about you,” my friend said, “that you live on Disability and don’t have a pot to piss in.  So, Mom packed a box for you.  I hope you’re not offended.”

What is a person to do with such startling kindness?  I took the box, thanked her, introduced her to Henry and Emmett (who didn’t dive under the bed), thanked her again, and watched her leave.  I stood in my kitchen, touching the box, feeling my friend’s true regard and care.

handmade greeting cards, collage artThere are people in my life who love me, but there are others who actually like me.  They value me (their word, not mine).  They want to support me and are generous and bold in their affection.  I don’t say this because I think I’m unloveable or valueless.  When folks first get to know me, they usually like me—I’m not without a certain amount of charm—but, generally, it doesn’t last.

If folks hang around long enough or get closer, the bipolarness sours their regard.  Rage, judgment, neediness, inconsistency, intolerance have chased away friends and family.  Shutters bang closed over their faces and conversation floats on the surface like dead fish.  I wanted to say to this new friend, “Thank you so much for your gift, but if you get any closer your sweet desire to be of service will shrivel up and die.”

But, I didn’t, because, sometimes, it doesn’t shrivel up and die. Sometimes, people get their bearings and decide the hassle of me is worth it (also their words, not mine).  Sometimes they’re willing to dance with me until we find our rhythm.  I have a precious few who reaffirm their commitment when I get in this mood, who will stick with me when society at large is too jarring.

People are hard.  I’m hard.  The effort it takes to balance naval-gazing with true personal interaction seems herculean at times.  But, we make these gestures of love at each other, little acts of kindness, drive-by thoughtfulness.  So, I guess I’ll keep blogging about both—the belly button lint and the food boxes.  And maybe on my next walk around the block, I’ll be able to squat down by the little girl and pet her puppy.

A Different Kind of Vacation

handmade greeting cards, collage art

ø ø ø

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

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

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

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

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

I won’t know until I start.

Today.

Cancelled Until Further Notice

handmade card, collage artI know it’s bad when I start canceling.

Responsibility.  Dependability.  Steadfastness.  These are qualities my illness took away.  I’ve never had them, really, just wanted them.  I remember trying to be dependable, trying to be that person others could count on, call on, lean on.  That desire made me sign up, volunteer, make promises, reschedule, say yes, push push push.  But, eventually, the illness cancels everything.

Ask any of my friends.  Ask my family.  Ask the bosses of all the jobs I’ve quit.  Or the clubs, classes, and meetings I’ve missed.  It’s gotten to a point now that even a hint of obligation makes me nervous.  I hold my breath when I write a date in my little day planner.  To be required to be someplace at a specific time on a regular basis is the same as strapping on a vest bomb.  It will go off, I just don’t know when.

When the illness is at its worst, it hits the eject button.  The blast doors open and the vacuum of space sucks everything out of the cargo bay.  Out went my meditation group last night.  And watching Criminal Minds with my friends.  Out went the TOPS Christmas party today.  And out will go anything having to do with other people.

By the time the illness jettisons everything, people have become completely alien.  I can’t speak the language or decipher the signals.  Every encounter feels threatening, dangerous.  I’m exposed, unable to find an acceptable face to wear or words skillful enough to keep a safe distance.

I know these are people I’ve said yes to, made plans with, even fought hard to win back their confidence.  These are people I care about.  It doesn’t matter.  When bipolar disorder seizes the ship, it dumps ballast indiscriminately.  Everything and everyone goes.

What’s left is the cool dark of space.  Unencumbered, weightless, the relief feels vast and soothing.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is that my illness won’t tolerate stress.  I used to think my unreliability was a character defect.  But I see now that it is extreme stress management.  Half measures don’t work.  Socially acceptable techniques fail.  Bipolar disorder demands that I turn off all the lights and shut all the doors.  And if I don’t do it, the illness will do it for me.

So, I cancel.  And I wait.  And if I’m very lucky, the people in my life will wait, too.

The Cost of Honesty

It’s hard to be honest when The Illness reaches this level of intensity.  I’ve been told the despair and hopelessness are too scary, too intimidating, too uncomfortable to witness and cause a ricochet of helplessness and a drive to fix me.  So, I don’t share this very much, even though it’s the time I need human contact the most.

When I am at my worst, the cost of asking for support is more than I can afford.  The illness has already rubbed away my self-worth, so in my mind I don’t deserve it.  And as my thoughts become more distorted, I imagine the dread my friends and family must feel when they hear my voice on the phone or see me drive up to their homes.  Not again.  I don’t want to spend the last bit of goodwill I may have with these people.  What if I get worse and have nothing left in my account with them?

The other cost is trying to endure the inevitable Question—What can I do to help?  When the illness gets this severe, there’s no way to answer that question, no way to even consider it.  What I need is whatever they want to do.  I can’t possibly tell them what that might be.  I can’t tell them what they’re capable of or willing to try.  I need them to figure it out.  I need them to offer.  Because I’m lost in here.  If I could find my own way out, I would, believe me.

And if it’s hard to be honest during the worst of an episode, it’s impossible to tell the truth.  I can’t trust whatever my brain labels as The Truth and have learned that speaking it out loud only terrifies my loved ones and lands me in the hospital.  Truth morphs to the reality of the moment, and that is in constant flux during a severe episode.  So I try to ride on top of the Dark Absolutes that seem so inevitable.  I try not to pick up the words my mother said once when I was very sick—This is not a life—and turn it into an anthem.

Last night, driving in my truck, crying so hard I couldn’t see, I took a chance with a new friend.  She knew about my illness, and had always been very kind, but I’d not dipped into the equity we’d built up.  She took me in without any sign of fear or horror and just chatted about “normal things.”  She offered her time, and her presence, and a simple way to distract me from myself.  I couldn’t concentrate very well, but that didn’t matter.  The sound of her voice, the taste of the iced coffee she gave me, the sense of being safe pushed back the darkness so that I could go home and sleep.

And while I was terrified to ask Penny for help, I knew I had to.  I knew I wouldn’t survive the night without reaching out to someone.  And if I could just risk the costs involved, I could hang on until the illness shifted.  Because is always does.  That is an absolute truth.

Honest.

The Play is the Thing

As I’m more and less skillful in adapting to the changes in my life, I also get to ride the slippery slope of my bipolar disorder.  Mania shifted to agitation, which dropped into a mixed state of depression and anxiety.  Now the depression has smoothed out into a deep darkness that I know well.

It’s uncomfortable here, but at least the burning itch to DO and GO has passed.  I want to eat everything in sight, but I’m too tired to act on my compulsion.  Mostly.  The sexual fantasies that crowded my thinking released their shameful grip.  My thoughts twist with self-loathing now, but I can distance myself from them better than the hot longing those fantasy men pull from me.  They still lurk in the background, but their siren songs are muted by the dark.

I remind myself to believe nothing my mind throws out.  What feels reasonable isn’t.  What seems like a course of action rises from compulsion, or aversion to pain, or grasping for comfort.  Paranoia pops out of social interaction.  Isolation feels so good it has to be questioned.

I can believe in the tools that have worked for me in the past—distraction through art and TV, exercise, reaching out for support.  I can remind myself to Watch, to feel the discomfort in my body, to be aware of the impulses my distorted thinking shoots out like lightening.

This is just another face of the illness, another long episode making a costume change between acts.  Sometimes I forget my lines in the middle of this play, but the Prompters are out there.  I’ve worked hard to place them around the stage, helpful voices in the dark to remind me where I am, who I am, and the artful response to Bipolar’s monologue.  I’ll get through this performance, and the next, and the next.  There’s always a curtain call, a chance to bow, smile and feel the lights come up.

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