By Any Other Name

Language is the House of Being —Martin Heidegger

handmade cards, collage art

I spent the day paying attention to how I name things.  Specifically, my illness.  I’ve decided cycling doesn’t really fit my flavor of bipolar disorder, at least not at present.  And describing my day as good or bad isn’t helpful.  I need a new vocabulary.

So, I’m going to try some new terms, ones that will carry less judgement and limitation, ones that can hold the huge array of symptoms without lining them up on a spectrum, ones that allow for quick movement and change.

Maybe it’s a matter of thickness or mass.  Sometimes the illness feels heavy, like layers of wet wool pressing down on me.  Sometimes it feels lighter, more like cotton candy pulling apart in a sticky goo.

Maybe, as Stephen Fry suggests, weather vocabulary would be useful.  Barometric pressure plummets.  There’s freaky, baseball-sized hail and squalls.  Layers of clouds slide over each other with the sun just out of sight.

What happens if I say I’m thick at the moment?  Or that my brain is storming?  It may not help others understand my experience any better, but it gives me a different perspective.  Instead of looking to the horizon for that mythical stable period, I’m living in the moment, dealing with all the ways my mood and mind shift, then shift again.  A new vocabulary shines more light on this movement and the moments of sanity they contain.

This is play, but serious in a way.  How we label things, how we speak of them, creates reality.  To tell someone I’m having a bad day hammers a nail through that definition and fixes it to my consciousness.   I only see my day as bad now, not how it changes.  It’s never that simple.

Too Much of a Good Thing

There’s no doubt about it.  I am in a manic phase.  The flood of ideas and potential projects keep washing over me, each one more brilliant than the last.  What I’m trying to do is stay aware and stay focused.  I’m journaling to capture the ideas and get them out of my head.  When the mania lets go of me, I’ll be able to look at them objectively.  Often I find the ideas are still good ones, but not practical or timely or worth pursuing.

For example, yesterday I envisioned a new soft art piece—a Winter Solstice banner using a cloth-charring technique and quilting with used dryer sheets; revisited an idea for a novel about a bipolar woman living with her gay best friend in a conservative small town; and party favors for my Callinda party using cloth, beads, stamps and quotes from the story.  Swirled among those ideas are the details of the day today.  Get to the Y. Remember to take my food journal to TOPS.  Remember to take items for the silent auction at TOPS.  Strip the bed to do laundry.  All thoughts, all details, carry equal weight and flash in and out of my mind.  So writing them down and making lists helps to drain some of the wildness out of them.

I’m also trying to watch what the giddy energy brings up in me.  So far, I’m not feeling the compulsions.  Yesterday, I went shopping with my friend, Cheryl, and only indulged in a magazine (The Writer, for research purposes, of course) and craft adhesive (which I needed).

I have less of a desire to eat than usual, which may be part of the mania and the energetic spin.  Since I don’t have mania nearly as often as depression, I’m not familiar with this symptom.  Or I don’t remember it.  I’ve always been so identified with being a compulsive overeater, that the idea of not being hungry or even caring about food seems freakishly alien.  So I will watch this and mark it.

But, there is definitely an urge to GO, and I catch myself spinning around starting to do one thing, stopping, starting another, stopping.  I feel the nervy, acidic churn in my stomach.  Last night at our weekly Criminal Minds get-together, I noticed that Tom turned up the volume on the TV several times, so that told me how much more I was nattering.

Management today will be a constant returning to my breath, reminders to stop and relax.  Thursday is a busy day for me, and that will help use the energy my mania generates.  So will more exercise.  Our TOPS group plans to walk around a lake after our meeting today, which is perfect.  As always, the Observer must be in the forefront, monitoring the impulses and flurry of thoughts, creating a space between them and me where I can find myself, creating a space to rest and slow down.

It’s all part of the Bipolar Dance.  One cha-cha at a time.

Here, There Be Dragons

I think I’m moving out of the current bipolar episode.  I’m not sure, which feels disconcerting and new.  Usually, there’s a clear demarkation—the mood lifts, energy returns, thinking clears.  But, this time I seem to be seeping both ways at once like paint on watercolor paper.  I’m able to get things done—going to appointments, remembering to take back my library book, writing my novel—but my body aches and my energy is low.  My mood seems to be fluctuating more into the higher/brighter ranges, but a sudden Dark and Dangerous thought will still blow in and try to take over.  The compulsions are quiet, but my mind wants to fret about them anyway.

This is a different kind of in-between place for me.  Or is it?  Maybe I’ve just forgotten what happened last time.  Maybe I just slid through this phase faster when I was medicated.  Maybe other life-events or physical conditions have tweaked the process this time.  Maybe the mild weather fiddled with my internal barometer.  Maybe the stars are aligned a little differently.  Maybe…

If there’s one thing I know about bipolar disorder, it’s that it never stays the same.  So, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m moving through the cycle in a new way.  I don’t think I’m alone in wanting the comfort of familiarity, to be able to place myself on a known continuum.  Silly girl.  Just when I think I’ve got this illness mapped, a whole new vista opens up.  Like the ancient explorers, I’ve got sound sea craft in my head, a tough ship, and curiosity.  I’ll hoist my sails and see where the winds take me.


A few days after bronchitis set in, my computer died—we both shut down for repairs, so to speak.  But, today I can roll back the stone and bringing us both out of the crypt.

It’s been a very interesting couple of weeks.  Since I had bronchitis twice last winter, I wanted to see if I could do it differently this time—at least as far as mental health is concerned.  I found that I was much less agitated about the whole situation.  I didn’t feel any of that panic to get better fast or push myself to get back to normal functioning.  How many of us have gone back to work too soon or tried to workout when we should be in bed?  I tried to really pay attention to what my body needed.  Since I don’t have a job or a family to tend to, I could give my body all the time it needed to heal itself without the high-powered, expensive antibiotics my doctor would surely have given me.  I did crossword puzzles, slept, watched TV, slept, drank lots of juice, slept, took over-the-counter aids, ate lots of fruit and vegetables, and slept.

In two weeks, I’ve only had one day where I’d say my bipolar symptoms boiled up.  It was one of those days when I woke up full of regrets, my life scrolling by as a series of mistakes and failures.  Distorted thinking quickly recognized and set aside for more crossword puzzles and reruns of Gilmore Girls.  This in itself is noteworthy because I had been in a long bipolar episode when the bronchitis came on.  As I’ve experienced on several occasions, a physical shock interrupted the cycle.  Sometimes getting sick will trigger an episode, but this time it reset my mood to “center.”  It’s all so mysterious.

While all this expectorant naval-gazing was going on, our family had other matters to deal with.  My dad came to stay at the hospice facility while we made arrangements for him to enter a nursing home.  I say “we”, but it was really my sister and her husband who helped Mom with this huge decision.  I helped as I was able, but these things happen quickly and can’t wait.  It was the one time I did want to get better fast.

We will move Dad to the nursing home tomorrow.  Such a huge shift in our family.  I’m blinded a bit, stunned, like bright light stabbing into the darkness after the stone rolls away.  I may have to stand at the threshold awhile, hanging on until I get my legs under me again.

A New Learning Curve

With the return of my bipolar symptoms comes an opportunity to begin working with my compulsive behaviors in a new way.  What I’ve discovered so far is that agitation seems to be the underlying energy for the compulsive eating and spending as well as the restlessness and urge to “Get Out of Dodge” that sends me tooling down the highways.

In a bit of synchronicity, Vivien over at ManicMuses just posted a piece about new emergency room treatment of agitation in psychiatric patients, which got me thinking more about the shape and origin of agitation.  I’ve also heard from other folks who live with bipolar disorder that this type of mixed state can be fairly common.

This from Wikipedia:

In the context of mental disorder, a mixed state (also known as dysphoric maniaagitated depression, or a mixed episode) is a condition during which symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously (e.g., agitationanxietyfatigueguiltimpulsivenessirritability, morbid or suicidal ideationpanicparanoiapressured speech and rage). Typical examples include tearfulness during a manic episode or racing thoughts during a depressive episode. One may also feel incredibly frustrated or be prone to fits of rage in this state, since one may feel like a failure and at the same time have a flight of ideas. Mixed states are often the most dangerous period of mood disorders, during which susceptibility to substance abusepanic disorder, commission of violencesuicide attempts, and other complications increase greatly.

Yes, this would be me.

In a way, I’m relieved to learn that a mixed state is serious and difficult to treat.  It pumps up my ego to know that I’m fighting a worthy adversary and helps me take in stride all the times the compulsion simply runs me over.  Learning a new way to work with this agitated energy won’t be easy.  There are no other guidelines out there except the use of powerful drugs.

The results of a mixed state are the scariest, craziest part of bipolar disorder for me.  I feel like something takes possession of my body and my brain, and there’s nothing I can do except ride along until I’m released.  The impulses are so strong, and the drive to flee from them so ingrained, that it will take time and much effort to even begin to imagine something else.  But, that’s what I’m doing.

When I’m able, I get still, either by sitting in a comfortable chair or lying on my bed.  I breathe.  I start to explore where the agitation manifests in my body.  Sometimes I feel it in my gut, sometimes my chest, and sometimes it seems to be only in my head.  And then, I stay with that sense of placement for as long as I’m able—sometimes just a few moments.

When the compulsions are already in control, I try to at least acknowledge them, watch them as they push me into eating or spending or fleeing.  When I resist, the compulsion only grows, so instead I try to choose a lesser target (Subway instead of Dairy Queen, buying one item online instead of a dozen).

I’m also using meditation as much as I can, but there’s a resistance to that as well.  I’m not sure what part of me is fighting this very useful tool, but I find I “forget” to meditate a lot and brush it off when I do think of it.  This resistance is something else to learn from, I think.

So, while being symptomatic again truly sucks, there are lessons to learn and maps to chart.

I’m on an Adventure.

Parallel Tracks

I seem to be maintaining altitude so far, not dipping any lower on the bipolar altimeter.  I’m tired but moving ahead on my story rewrites and my art.  My eating compulsion gnaws at me, sometimes taking a big bite, but most of the time I can still make good food choices.  I can hear, faintly, the negative thoughts nattering in the background—wisps of doubt and dread.  But, I’m also still carrying a great capacity for delight.  All in all, this particular state is very livable as long as I do my work.

Life seems to be running on parallel tracks.  The track I operate in is the Bipolar Track.  Here I’ve got my daily routine, my daily goals, the tools I use to manage symptoms, my apartment and my cats and all the familiar sights and experiences.  Along side the Bipolar Track run other parts of Life.

Last week my dad, who is 88, fell and suffered a compression fracture of the spine.  He’s in quite a bit of pain, but my mom is determined to take care of him at home.  My sister and I are helping as much as they will allow, but my parents are fiercely independent.  It’s a dance that I let them lead.

School finally ended for my friend, Cheryl, and she’s out on summer vacation.  Yesterday we shopped at Wal-mart.  We chattered and laughed and goofed around.  We pushed our carts up and down the aisles, oggled colorful pretties, and I bought some things I’ve wanted for years—a pair of slip-on shoes, new underwear.  To top it off, we stopped at Wendy’s for a Coke, but decided to give the Wild Berry Tea a try.  Spontaneous delight.

My spiritual buddies in Minnesota and I are starting to plan our trip to Pittsburgh in July to work with our teacher for a week.  There are lots of questions flying back and forth—who’s driving?  who’s riding with whom?  who can bring a tent? sleeping bags? air mattresses? when are people arriving? how long are they staying?  All plans are still squishy-soft.

These tracks seem oddly separate from my Bipolar Track.  I feel them running next to me, I feel myself participating in them, but they’re still outside of me.  Maybe the state I’m in is screwing with my perception.  Maybe I’m hesitant to fully engage.  Maybe running in the Bipolar Track takes all my attention.  Whatever the reason, it’s an odd sensation.  Not unpleasant, not threatening, not scary.  So, I’ll just keep trotting along and watch.

I’m on an Adventure.

Transition and the Tricksy Strategy

It was great while it lasted.

Today I can feel the transition coming.  Inordinate fatigue developed this morning, followed by a steady increase in mental mud.  I can also feel the compulsions needling their way back in.  It’s easier to notice them when coming from set-point or a place of feeling normal, easier to compare the changes happening today to how I felt yesterday.

I don’t know if marking these transitions makes any difference in the long run, but I know this practice helps me to put some distance between the illness and myself.  And that’s always a good thing.  With distance comes the chance to make choices, to observe and monitor my thoughts more quickly.  My hope is that the faster I can recognize the changes in thought patterns, emotions and physical symptoms, the less delusion I’ll have to wade through and the less I’ll get sucked along on the roller coaster.

I’m interested to see if I can maintain any sort of eating plan on this swing.  I want to drop it and run to Dairy Queen, but the compulsion hasn’t gotten too strong yet, so I can still set that urge aside.  My strategy for this afternoon is to go to Haven to write and have a bowl of soup, then spend the evening with friends watching TV.  This will help with all the shifting markers—mood, mental fog, eating compulsion.

Strategies are tricksy.  Success depends on how realistic they are, which depends on how delusional I am.  And the only way to really know if I’m delusional is after the fact (A couple of years ago my strategy was to never watch TV again in my life.  Not realistic, a bit on the grandiose side).  But, that’s what this practice is for, too.  Sometimes I can “wake up” in the middle of a twisted thought and realize it’s not kosher.  Over time, I’ve learned to keep my strategies simple and gentle.  If they start sprouting “should” and “never,” I know I’ve crossed over into LaLa Land.

So, I’ll finish out the day simply and see where that takes me.

I’m on an Adventure.


The bubble on my bipolar level seems to be plumb once again.  But, I’m noticing that some symptoms leave watermarks or stringy residue behind.  My sleep pattern is still erratic.  All my joints, especially my neck, hips and hands, are stiff and sore (The barometric pressure has been low here for days, though, so the stormy weather may be mostly responsible).  I feel emotionally tentative, not quite trusting of the good humor and the ease with which I interacted with my family and friends this weekend.  It’s a feeling of looking a gift horse in the mouth—is this another slide into mania or can I stay here for a while?

Since I’ve decided to chart the states and qualities of my illness, I want to pay attention to these trailers.  I know that even in my best moments, there are aspects of the disorder that still manifest.  It’s so weird that I can’t remember what they are.  It seems that I have to experience them, be in that particular state, to remember, to be able to say, “Oh, yeah, this is normal for me.”  If this is true for other people with BP, no wonder we get so scared.  Each time one of these trailers pops up, it spooks us until we can recognize it and remember how we dealt with it.  Then, we have to figure out if that strategy worked or if we need a new plan.  We’re constantly starting over from square one.

I read on the Bipolar Blog yesterday some terrific tools for management.  One was very similar to what I’m trying to do with mapping, but they called it keeping a journal or diary.  I know some folks have regular rhythms to their episodes, or that specific events can trigger them.  How wonderful to have that information, to be able to plan ahead, prepare, and talk yourself into staying calm while the illness runs its course.  I’ve tried this, and while my episodes seem to have no rhyme or reason, I did notice how my “normal” mood changes throughout the day.  In my case, I get anxious in the evening.  I can deal with minimal anxiety by watching TV or working on art, but if it’s more pronounced, I go to my friends’ to watch TV with them.  I think of it as my own form of Sundown Syndrome.  This is a trailer I need to pay more attention to.

In the meantime, it’s time to get back into Bipolar Bad-Ass Training.  This really helped me pull focus after the last siege, and made going into the next one much less painful.  My training checklist includes  Clean Eating, Building Stamina, Setting Priorities, Eliminating Distraction, Laying in Supplies, Securing Downtime, Securing Back-up, and Plugging any Emotional Leaks.

Do folks out there have other elements of their lives they focus on during the “good days?”  Other parts of their lives that they clean-up, straighten out or strengthen?  Things they do to get ready for the next episode or to recover from the last one?  Please share with us.

Uncharted Territory

I thoroughly enjoyed my day off yesterday, reading art magazines with an iced coffee at Barnes and Noble, purchasing a few supplies (on sale!) at Hobby Lobby and Archivers, and then finishing the day with my meditation group.  As usual, we sat around Barbara’s kitchen table to catch up with each other’s spiritual work and personal lives (which are often the same thing), enjoying Barbara’s brewed tea and delicious Ranger cookies.

I can always bring my questions and ponderings to these women.  They listen.  They offer their insights.  And they often push me to the edge of my comfort zone.  I felt that yesterday as I talked about my observations during my recent wide mood swing from full mania to depression.  Barbara commented that the layers of my depression and mania, with state-specific memories, brought to mind the different states of awareness we’ve studied from authors like Castaneda, Charles Tart and J.G. Bennett.  This chilled me, because I’d also wondered about a correlation and had sent that question to my teacher, Melanie.  Laney looked at me and said, “You’re doing new work.  No one’s done this before.”

Oh, dear.  All I want to do is learn how to manage my illness.  If I find anything useful, I’ll share with the class, but I’m not out to chart new horizons.  It felt pompous to me, grandiose.  Of course others have looked at these layers of symptoms and feeling states.  I’m sure every case is different, but there must be some similarities.  There must be something written about it somewhere.

But, when I got home, I found Melanie’s reply to my email.  Aside from being my spiritual teacher, Melanie is also a registered nurse and holds an MBA.  She worked as a psych nurse before becoming a college professor, so she understands the practicalities of mental illness.  After reading her note, I’m willing to hold the possibility that cartography may become part of my journey.

It seems that you have a better grasp of your condition than do most people with bipolar illness.  Given this ability, you may be charting new territory and you may be able to help others learn to discern the realities of their mental states.  In my past experience with bipolar students, I have observed that the difficulties of the psychotic phases have sometimes caused people to assume that they were clear when they were, in fact, delusional or even paranoid.  Assuming that you have cleared this hurdle, you will be a wonderful resource for others.

Love, Melanie

What I’d like to do is create a new page for this blog.  On it I’ll describe the different states of depression and mania as I experience them.  It will take me a little time to distill my notes and journal entries, but this feels like right action.  It feels like I’m stepping up to the plate without a head blown out of proportion with grandiose pomposity.

Of course, delusion can be tricky that way.

Remembering in Layers

What I’m finding this time as I move through the extremes of my bipolar disorder is that there are so many layers.  I’ve noted this in my journals before, but I always forget.  Just like I forget how to navigate in the deepest levels of the depression, I forget what these other levels feel like.  I want to mark them again, if only to have a record for next time.

Yesterday I felt myself rise from a prickly, desperate state to something smoother.  The constriction within me loosened.  The day before I could only focus on 15 minutes at a time, scrambling to find an activity that would distract me for that long.  But, in this new level, I could focus on the activity itself.  I spent 90 minutes in the water, just moving moderately with the aerobics class, knowing any kind of movement was positive.  It was a relief to have that block of time taken care of.  I didn’t have to make any decisions about how to distract myself next.  I could focus on moving my body.

When I got home, I noticed I could sit with my magazines and cut out words and pictures for my collages without agitation.  It felt like I had risen into a more fluid layer of depression.  Anguish and sorrow drifted through me like light, scuttling clouds that haze the sky, then move on.  I could feel the gaps between those brushes of pain, and I could let them pass through without being overwhelmed by them.

This is the layer of depression where I’m able to use my tools.  I forget that at the deeper levels, the depression paralyzes me, fills me with such despair that all I can do is thrash around in panic.  I chide myself for not managing this level better, for not being more diligent in using my tools, but the fact is I don’t have many tools for the lower levels.  Most of them are the ways I learned to run from the pain when I was very young—overeating, sleeping, watching TV.  They are deeply ingrained, unhealthy, more instinct now than choice.  I have learned to see the depression, to recognize the twisted thoughts as illness and not me, which is no small feat.  But, there’s more work to be done at these denser levels.

I forget that most of the tools in my toolbox need that looser, smoother layer to take effect.  Exercise isn’t useful if I can’t get myself to the Y.  Calling a friend or my therapist doesn’t help if I can’t pick up the phone.  I can push myself here.  I still struggle to make healthy choices, and the depression drags at me like dead weight, but I’ve built up enough mental muscle and endurance to slog through the morass.

I’ll see my therapist in a couple of weeks.  I want to talk to her about this.  Is there any way to bring consciousness to the worst of the depression?  Can I develop different tools to use there?  Will I remember?

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