Trick or Treat

werewolf-girlOne of the earwigs of my flavor of bipolar disorder is passive suicidal ideation.  I’ve learned that thoughts of death, the desire to be dead, and fantasies about my funeral are all just symptoms of my illness, not some conclusion or solution I arrive at on my own.  I’ve come to understand them as just one Tootsie Roll in the party favor basket of worsening depression.  I can root around in my stash to see if the other treats are there—insomnia, social isolation, hypersensitivity, lack of interest in things I usually enjoy, persistent hopelessness and despair.  This is not the Halloween candy I want, but it’s the loot I’ve been given.

One of the ways I counter these distorted hobgoblins is by remembering I have the ultra-rapid cycling form of bipolar disorder.  I can count on the witch’s brew of my brain chemistry to shift in hours or days.  All I have to do is distract myself until that happens.  I’ve gotten pretty good at that.

The other thing I can count on is the complete unpredictability of my illness.  My care providers and I have tried to track patterns and triggers.  We’ve charted seasonal changes (sometimes), stress (sometimes), length and depth of mood shifts (no pattern there).  This year has been like no other, but that’s like saying snowflakes are different.  So what?

graph-down-300x2252All I can really say is that last year around this time I got pneumonia.  Since then, I’ve been depressed except for the tempering effect of my cross-country trip out West and back.  I’ve had burps of hypomania, and a few good days, but each dip downward has been lower than the last.  And the good days are rare.

That’s a long time to keep distracted.  It’s a long time to push against the negativity and the whispers of a Final Relief.

Earlier this week I found myself shifting from passive to active suicidal ideation.  That’s a clinical and un-scary way of saying I starting planning how to get the job done.  If it weren’t for the promise I made to my cats, that I wouldn’t abandon them, I might have followed through.  I like to think not, but it was deep and dark in my head.

Instead I called Lutheran Hospital’s out-patient psych department and got on their waiting list for an intake interview.  Since my therapist had called them two weeks ago to get information, they bumped me up the list, and I’ll get that interview next week.

togetherIt sounds so easy when I write it out like that, but it took all the skill, energy, and courage I had in the moment to make that call.  It meant stopping the forward momentum that had been pushing me for months and turning in a different direction.

Once I made the call, the relief was immediate.  I’m still severely depressed, but the suicidal Junior Mints melted—which makes a nice treat for my cats since I’m out of catnip.  They deserve a treat.  Even if it’s only a mental construct, they saved me.  My heroes.

And now, in the spirit of changeability, for something completely different.

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Westward Ho! Day 10

IMG_0503This was my day.  I could do whatever I wanted.  So, of course I woke up at 3:00.

My host, Mary, had suggested I get to Muir Woods early before the crowds (on a Tuesday morning in April?), but I took my time and lounged.  Still I got there a few minutes before the park opened, and the ranger let me in free of charge.  Score!

I don’t know if it was the super-oxygenated air, or the urpy switchback road down to the forest floor, or the incredibly ancient energy, or just kickback from my “special cookie,” but had a little difficulty navigating.  I finally took off my tri-focals, which helped tons.  Watching an uneven path through reading-strength lenses would make anyone trip over the wildlife.IMG_0490

It was cool and dark.  Shafts of morning sun sliced through the canopy, but few reached the forest floor.  A shallow stream burbled along one side of the path.  Birds layered their voices unseen high above.

IMG_0499Whenever a tree was close to the trail, I reached out for it.  Redwood bark is dry and rough–papery.  It reinforced how old they were, these sentinels with their fragile skin.

IMG_0485I stopped at the same bench on the way out and back to sit with a Guardian at my back and meditate.  The cool, scented air. The quiet footsteps of others on the boardwalk trail. The massive presence behind me.  I was there completely.  Grounded.  Alive.

I hiked for about three hours.  After sitting for a week, it felt glorious to move (even if I was a little dipsey-doodle).  I felt the muscles of my legs and back sigh.

Soon enough, more hikers and lookie-loos wandered in.  I heard German and Japanese, Swedish (maybe, Norwegian), Spanish and Russian.  I smiled as one young dad admonished his little boys to “keep your eyes open now.”  What good advice in this place.IMG_0487

I ate lunch in the café; all organic and locally grown delights, shopped in the gift shop, then made my way back to Mill Valley without John’s help.  I found a teeny, tiny Whole Foods, bought fruit and a salad, then camped out on my little deck to play with my journal and talk to the crow fussing in the trees.

A perfect day.

Of Tribes and Farty Pants

Gathering at Barb's

This weekend I got to spend time with some of my Tribe.  These are folks who have travelled The Seeker’s path with me, going to workshops and intensives to learn how to be more conscious and mindful.  The four of us who get together in Des Moines for meditation are part of this larger community, called Foundation, as are people all over the country.

It was hard for me at first.  It always is when we come together.  I’m so used to being solitary, that more than two or three people can be overwhelming.  But I can say that to this group, and they hear me.  I’m safe with them.

I have history with these particular people, who knew me before electroshock.  Some of them hold parts of me I’ve forgotten.  Their memories of me are such a gift—like filling in holes with beautiful light.  Their prompts help me remember the person I was and, in many ways, still am.

Part of our tradition is to share meals together.  Food flows non-stop.  Many of us are trying special diets—vegetarian, vegan, Paleo, gluten-free, diets for blood type or a particular illness—so we’re not easy to please.  But we always have glorious, delicious meals.  It always works.

When we get together, we meditate and we talk.  Everyone is engaged, whether we study quantum physics, yoga or sacred dance; whether our lives are settled or are in chaos; whether we lead with our intellect or our heart.  Friction happens, which creates the best opportunities for mindfulness.  We get to watch how we react to each other and follow those reactions to the source—expectation, judgment, pattern.  Then, we discuss all that, too, if we want.

Often, our work together allows personal issues to surface—fears, anxieties, grief.  In the safety of the group, we can be vulnerable.  We can feel what we feel and be held by the group with compassion and genuine love.

And genuine laughter.  I never laugh so hard or as long as when I’m with these folks. Especially when Sandra whips out the Fart App on her phone.

Sandra's Fart Ap

Sandra and her Farty Pants app (I’m the one keeling over).

We gain so much from each other—not just the book lists we tend to generate, or the theories we throw around, or the practices we share.  We connect and are enriched by the connection.  We know each other on a deep level even if we don’t know each other well personally.  We really are We.

I drove back and forth from my home in Marshalltown to Des Moines each day, which takes about an hour.  While all my friends in Des Moines offered to keep me overnight, I wanted to drive.  I knew I’d need time alone to rest after being with a big group, and I wanted to be as functional as possible.  Driving home from Barb’s for the last time on Sunday, I felt in my bones that while I may be an introvert and solitary, I’m never alone.

The Price of Insight

F

I'm OK A prominent feature of  schizophrenia and bipolar disorder is anosognosia, a sick person’s unawareness that he is sick. — Algis Valiunas, New Atlantis, Winter 2009.

No one really understands why those of us with serious mental illness struggle with insight.  Current medical theory holds that it’s actually a core feature of our neurobiology.  It’s not that we’re in denial or stubborn—we simply can’t see.

This seems ridiculous to those observing from the outside as our behavior becomes more risky and disjointed.  But those are the times when our insight is most impaired, because anosognosia is also a symptom. We lose insight just when we need it most.

Lack of insight is relative.  It fluctuates as the illness fluctuates.  When we are in remission or in a more stable state, we can often see that we were ill.

Lack of insight is listed as the leading cause of non-compliance with medication (I’m not sick, so why should I take these drugs that make me feel lousy), and in another paradox, compliance with one’s medication regime can improve insight in some cases.

Aggression and violent behavior are also linked to lack of insight.

So, if insight is important to recovery and functionality, what can we do to foster it?  Unfortunately (and not really a surprise), the mental health delivery system has little to offer:  Take your meds.  Go to therapy.

I’ve been told by most of the professionals I’ve worked with that I have a high level of insight.  Even when my symptoms are at their worst, I retain some awareness, though it becomes harder to access and trust.  But very few of those therapists and psychiatrists ever asked me if I do anything to strengthen my awareness.  The fact is I work very hard at it.

I started meditating and working on mindfulness years before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and those practices continue to help me “wake up” in the middle of an episode.  Meditation is the only “exercise” I know that builds the muscle of insight.  And like any muscle, the more it’s worked, the stronger it becomes.  We can build insight by using insight.

It’s not for weenies, this practice.  Ask any neuro-normal who sits meditation or suddenly realizes he’s projecting his fears into the future instead of living in the Now.  Most people are asleep.  To be anything else requires dedication, courage and sweat.  It also requires forgiveness, tenderness and a willingness to observe rigid beliefs with gentle curiosity.  Even then, moments of awareness are fleeting.

Insight is a Big Ticket item, and most people would rather spend their hard-earned psychic cash elsewhere.  I get that.  I’ve taught meditation for fifteen years with many online groups like Askyourguide and BeHere. Most people don’t stick with it.  Sitting with oneself can be uncomfortable.  It can be frightening.  Why not practice golf instead?  At least that’s fun.

That’s been my experience with neuro-normals.  Now I’ve been asked to teach meditation to folks like me with serious mental illness.  I’ll introduce it gently next week, then see if anyone wants to continue.

Because these are people who will recognize the price tag.  And they might decide it’s worth it.

Tempest in a Teacup

Don't Know BeansHere I am, finishing up my second week of work.

The stress is enormous, not just for me, but for everyone trying to learn this new program and making up the next steps as they are needed.  The real challenge for me is to moderate the anxiety and pressure.  Under stress, I’m easily overwhelmed.  I’m like a teacup that flattens, slopping out my ability to concentrate and my emotional flexibility.  I lose capacity.

I also become reactive, and my first instinct is to bolt.  I run from the stressor, fling it off and dive into a hide-hole.  So, the words “I can’t do this” fly in and out of my head regularly.

But part of my personal journey is to work on increasing my tolerance to distress.  If I’m ever to make any lasting changes in my behavior and my life, I need to work this work situation like a puzzle.  What do I need to do to stretch my envelope of tolerance?  As always, I created a plan.

The first piece is to breathe.  It’s my starting point.  When the acronyms start flying and I can feel my body vibrating like a tuning fork, I stop and breathe deep into my belly.  It tells me to come back to myself.  It starts the process of flinging off the assumptions and negativity.  Breathing deep, I can remember why I’m doing this.  I can remember I don’t need to understand.  I can remember that I’m not alone.

I also realized that creating more structure would help soothe the anxiety, so I put an After Work plan in place.  I go straight home, change, and go to the Y to ride the recumbent bike for an hour.  That helps burn off some of the adrenaline and agitation.  Then, I journal with a cup of something soothing.  Then, I meditate.  After that, I’m rational enough to eat a sensible supper.  This helps.  Instead of bingeing all night with a movie, I’m taking positive action to stretch my tolerance.

And it seems to be working.  I may be an emotional puddle by the time I leave the office, but by the next morning my teacup is upright and able to hold water.

This is new behavior for me.  It’s also more stress than I’ve endured in years.  I’m proud of all that.  I’m also aware that I could blow at any time.  That’s the unknowable, uncontrollable piece to bipolar disorder.  All I can do is stay as mindful as I can from moment to moment and see what happens.

I’m on an Adventure.

tiny cups

Five Hundred Lengths

Swimmer≈ ≈ ≈

We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we’re going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of them all, was found to have A.D.H.D. when he was a child; he has called the pool his “safe haven,” in part because “being in the pool slowed down my mind.”

We are left alone with our thoughts, wherever they may take us. A lot of creative thinking happens when we’re not actively aware of it. A recent Carnegie Mellon study shows that to make good decisions, our brains need every bit of that room to meander. Other research has found that problem-solving tends to come most easily when our minds are unfocused, and while we’re exercising. The neurologist Oliver Sacks has written books in his head while swimming. “Theories and stories would construct themselves in my mind as I swam to and fro, or round and round Lake Jeff,” he writes in the essay “Water Babies.”

Five hundred lengths in a pool were never boring or monotonous; instead, Dr. Sacks writes, “swimming gave me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it became at times a sort of ecstasy.” The body is engaged in full physical movement, but the mind itself floats, untethered.

~ Bonnie Tsui, The Self Reflecting Pool

reblogged (sort of) from David Kanigan’s Live & Learn

Goals for the Next 30 Days: Maintain New Behaviors

BBs on the LooseChange is a bitch.  Pardon my French.

We all have default settings, the status quo our minds and bodies roll into when we look the other way.  We’re like bee-bees, really, rattling around until we find that dent in the floor where we can rest.  Most of the time our dent consists of what’s easiest, cheapest and safest.  We’re all about comfort here in the pothole.

Confess.  We can all think of a change we’d like to make that would make us healthier, happier, more efficient… the list goes on and on.  We may even work at those changes, but damn, it’s hard.  We’re fighting against gravity and inertia.  We’re trying to jump out of the pothole.  But, if we persist, we may nudge ourselves in a new direction.  If our bee-bee jumps up and down in a new spot long enough, it will make a new dent.

That’s what I’m trying to do with my Post-Hospital behavior.  When I get brain-sick, I slide into the oldest dent on my floor.  My default settings may feel safe and easy, but they really hurt me.  I’m just trying to jump up and down in this new place every day until I can carve out a new resting place.  Here’s what I’m doing:

  1. Limit Screen Time to 2 hours a day
  2. Plan more Activities Outside
  3. Practice Mindfulness Meditation daily
  4. Create a Cleaning Schedule

I’ve come to understand that Distraction is not necessarily the best way to manage my illness.  It is a standard method, widely accepted, and valuable when symptoms are so severe a person cannot tolerate living.  Getting busy doing something else gives the mind another focus.  It may not change the feelings, but offers a little break.  Sometimes that’s all we need.

But, when distractioYesn becomes the default setting, nothing else gets done.  That’s the story between me and my computer.  I can spend hours here (I’m sure I’m not alone in this).  I watch movies on it.  I listen to music through it. I blog and graze Pinterest.  I play neuro games on Lumosity.  Oh, I could live here.

And that’s the problem.  When I’m brain-sick, I do live here.  So, I’m weaning myself.  More writing off-line.  More interaction with real-time people.  More living on this side of the screen.

I’m also trying to get outside more now that the weather is fine.  It seems that winter sets me up for a tumble, or has the last couple of years, so I need to learn how to get more sunlight.  I’ll soak up what I can now and buy a full-spectrum light for the coming winter.  Maybe that will help keep me out of the hospital next spring.  For now, I’ve found a great trail that passes through some trees.  I haven’t gone there yet, but it’s on my list of things to do.

Tara Brach's CDMeditation has always been a cornerstone of my wellness.  I know it works.  But, even after all this time, it’s still not my default setting.  I still find it hard to meditate alone and put it off.  So, I got myself some lovely CDs and use them as I meditate.  That makes it so much easier—less effort required to jump out of that bee-bee dent.  I’m still not meditating every day, but I’m doing better.  That’s the important part.

My Pal SwifferCleaning is another practice that disappears when I’m ill.  It’s one of those things I absolutely cannot make myself do.  When I first started the hospital program, we broke that task down into the tiniest possible fragments.  One day, I was only required to dust one shelf on one bookcase.  I came home from the hospital that day and told myself I couldn’t have supper until I dusted that shelf.  It took herculean effort to get out the duster, but once I broke through the inertia, I was able to dust the whole bookcase.  But the next day (dust the night stand), the resistance was just as strong.  My little bee-bee had rolled back into its divot.

I’d like to make cleaning a habit (as per advice of the oriental rug cleaning in Syracuse, NY), so I include it as part of my daily tasks.  Today I will mop my kitchen floor.  That’s all.  That’s enough.  But, it still will take effort to get done.  That’s okay.  I figure I’m building mental muscle with these practices—cleaning, meditation, getting outside, and turning off the computer.  If I’m buff enough, maybe I can jump out of my safety dent for longer periods of time and start carving out a new place to rest.

Is Meditation the New Anti-Depressant?

Actually, it’s the oldest one.

A great article here on the benefits of mindfulness meditation for sufferers of anxiety and mood disorders.  Those of us who use and advocate meditation have known this for years.  Still, it’s gratifying when studies and anecdotal evidence back us up.

handmade greeting card, collage art

Thoughts Like Cashmere

Open to the MysteryEarly morning.  I plug in my twinkle lights and turn James Taylor on low.  Henry crunches kibble in the bathroom; Emmet reclaims the bed’s warm spot.

So good to feel this peace, to come back from the edges and settle into this nest.  For awhile it will be easy.  This life.  I’ll glide through the pool in the mornings with no thorny thoughts, laugh with the others in the class, get witty again.  I’ll sit with my Skinny Peppermint Mocha and get out of the way as my novel writes itself.  I’ll take my therapist’s advice and go back to the Y when I’m done writing, find another class to keep the endorphins flowing.

Now when I come back to the apartment, it welcomes me, feels like home.  I putter in my kitchen, throw together soups and sauces full of nutrition.  I work on Christmas cards after a long spell of not caring about my art.  Sitting Buddha-like at my work table, my fingers remember.  I sing along with Annie Lennox and The Dixie Chicks, talk to the boys whenever they wander by between naps, watch magic happen.

In this gentle place, thoughts feel like cashmere.  I go to the laundromat and breathe in the clean, warm smell.  I open a new book on the brain and make room for Henry, who is just learning to claim space on me.  My thoughts echo his purring.

In a minute, I’ll prepare for our meditation group.  We’re sharing leadership now, which feels expansive.  Like a summer lake gently lapping the shore.  My turn today.  A piece, I think, from Pema Chodron:

[The paramita] of exertion has a journey quality, a process quality.  When we begin to practice exertion, we see that sometimes we can do it and sometimes we can’t.  The question becomes, How do we connect with inspiration?  How do we connect with the spark and joy that’s available in every moment?  Exertion is not like pushing ourselves.  It’s not a project to complete or a race we have to win.  It’s like waking up on a cold, snowy day in a mountain cabin ready to go for a walk but knowing that first you have to get out of bed and make a fire.  You’d rather stay in that cozy bed, but you jump out and make the fire because the brightness of the day in front of you is bigger than staying in bed.

The more we connect with a bigger perspective, the more we connect with energetic joy.  Exertion is touching in to our appetite for enlightenment.  It allows us to act, to give, to work appreciatively with whatever comes our way.

Meditation allows us to continue this journey.  When we sit down to meditate, we can connect with something unconditional—a state of mind, a basic environment that does not grasp or reject anything.  Meditation is probably the only activity that doesn’t add anything to the picture.  All that is necessary then is to rest undistractedly in the immediate present, in this very instant in time.  And if we become drawn away by thoughts, by longings, by hopes and fears, again and again we can return to this present moment.  We are here.

I am here.

A New Myth

Collage art, handmade greeting cards, vintage

A couple of weeks ago in meditation, we read from one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s books, The Voice of Knowledge.  Here’s the passage:

  • There is a conflict in the human mind between the truth and what is not the truth, between the truth and lies.  The result of believing in the truth is goodness, love, happiness.  The result of believing and defending lies is injustice and suffering—not only in society, but also in the individual.
  • All of the drama humans suffer is the result of believing in lies, mainly about ourselves.  The first lie we believe is I am not:  I am not the way I should be, I am not perfect.  The truth is that every human is born perfect because only perfection exists.
  • We humans have no idea what we really are, but we know what we are not.  We create an image of perfection, a story about what we should be, and we begin to search for a false image.  The image is a lie, but we invest our faith in that lie.  Then we build a whole structure of lies to support it.
  • Faith is a powerful force in humans.  If we invest our faith in a lie, that lie becomes truth for us.  If we believe we are not good enough, then thy will be done, we are not good enough.  If we believe we will fail, we will fail, because that is the power and magic of faith.
  • Humans can perceive truth with our feelings, but when we try to describe the truth, we can only tell a story that we distort with our word.  The story may be true for us, but that doesn’t mean it is true for anyone else.
  • All humans are storytellers with their own unique point of view.  When we understand this, we no longer feel the need to impose our story on others or to defend what we believe.  Instead, we see all of us as artists with the right to create our own art.

The task in meditation that day was to hold the question of what stories we believed about ourselves and to relax our grip on them.  The exercise was meaningful for all of us, but I came away with a new piece of Work to practice.

I saw that I define myself by my illness.  And I wondered what might happen if I stopped telling myself that story.  What would happen if, instead of identifying myself as bipolar, I said, “I’m Fine?”  Not “fine” as a term to flip off when people ask me how I am, or as a way to barricade myself against prying, but saying “I’m fine” as a mantra of truth?

Loki, Tom Hiddleston, The Avengers

Loki, God of Mischief

Under all the symptoms of the illness, under the worry about money and the angst of relationships, there’s a core part of me that is perfect.  The core is whole, sound and centered.  It is where I experience love and compassion, where I find courage, where joy sparks.  The bipolar disorder is weather storming around the core; a hot, gritty wind that obscures the view and causes mischief.

When I believe that I am fundamentally fine, the illness loses power and substance.  I can see it as the mischief-maker it is.  Like the Norse god, Loki, it causes chaos—serious chaos—but it is not the whole story.  Loki is a lesser god in the Norse pantheon, and bipolar disorder can be a lesser player in the entirety of my life.

At least that’s the story I’m telling myself these days.  I’ll see how the myth plays out.

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