What Fresh Madness Is This?

I wanted to post something today, a little bit of art that might reflect the bipolarness of my now.  Not words.  Words feel acidic and tiresome in my head.

But I couldn’t find anything that I haven’t posted before—heads popping open with weirdness, lonely figures wandering in the Disconnect, wild jumbles of frantic images.  So I had to make it.

It’s almost 4:00 now.  I’ve been working on this card since 10:30 this morning.  Bathroom breaks.  Cat-watering breaks.  Little else.  I can feel that I’m hungry.  I know I need to take a shower (it’s been a couple of days).  But I look into this young girl’s face and fall into it.  The original didn’t have sleep-deprived eyes.  Those are mine.

I look at this young girl and feel her looking back.  We know.  We know the green monsters, and bitey teeth, and staring eyes, and nightmares that stick to our backs like tar.  We hold ourselves very still, because the madness feels new even though we know it is not.  We hold ourselves very still, because part of us believes a shift will come, a swing.  We will travel to a different place on our spectrum that will also feel new, but is not.

She knows there really is no Fresh Madness, just forgetting the feel of the Old Madness.  There are so many kinds, so many permutations.  Our brains, so clever in their Cooking Arts, never use the same recipe twice.  Or do they?  We forget.

Words start to dissolve and puddle, the brain-acid bubbling.

Shower.

Food.

Now.

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The Justice League—Bipolar Style

Merely AgogI’ve been in trouble for a while now, mental health-wise.  The amnesia that comes with severe symptoms keeps me from remembering that this is normal.  My brain yammers that I’m getting worse, that my social skills are devolving, that all my tools are useless, and that, maybe, by brain is starting to liquify.  But, the reality is I’ve been here before.

One of the many vital roles my therapist assumes is that of Archivist.  She starts a sentence by saying, “When you’ve been like this before…” and suddenly I can breathe again.  I spend so much energy and attention on navigating the whip-quick changes of the rapid cycling aspect of my illness, it’s very hard to pull focus and take in the larger picture.  Shifts happen in the slow time of seasons.  My Richter Scale rarely registers a catastrophic event, but like earthquakes, the tension builds over time to an inevitable break.

Recovering this broader perspective helps.  I’ve survived 8.9 quakes before, so how do I do that again?  Before, I would check into Mercy Hospital’s Out-Patient program (day-care for the neuro-diverse), but like so many other mental health care programs and hospitals in Iowa, it no longer exists.  The programs that are left focus on folks who need functional help.  I don’t need help doing my laundry (usually).

My Integrated Health Caseworker said something like this yesterday, “You’re so high-functioning, you fall through the cracks.”

It’s a Catch-22, being a Bipolar Bad-Ass.

img_0977Friday, I went early to my therapy appointment.  I brought my wheely cart of art supplies and camped out at their little corner table in the waiting room.  They thought that was a brilliant idea, and invited me back whenever I felt the need.  So, I went again yesterday and stayed all day.

There’s no therapy, no expectation of interaction beyond a quick hello, but it’s a safe place that’s quiet and welcoming.  Sorta like going to a coffee shop, except the baristas love and understand me.  I call it “Out-Out-Patient Care.”

My therapist and I are also exploring alternatives.  What about a Mindfulness class that would provide structure and an emphasis on Doing The Work?  What about some sort of spiritplantjourneys.org retreat?  These things cost money, so we pulled in my caseworker to help hunt for grants.

I am grateful everyday that I function as well as I do.  AND it’s hard work to find services that fit me.  AND it’s hard to think outside the box when thinking is most difficult. But, I have an actual team helping me now—my own little Mental Health Justice League.  I’m not feeling much like Wonder Woman at the moment, but with a little help, I might be able to find that lasso.

there-is-10-wonder-woman-border-free-cliparts-all-used-for-free-1ilm0d-clipart

Passing Grade

handmade greeting cards, collage artBack from my first round of the Peer Support Specialist certification process, I come victorious with my Basic Training diploma… and a nasty-ass chest cold.  Ah, the yin/yang of life!  There’s something oh-so poetic about how the instructor whispered to me that I’d gotten a perfect score on the test (I thought you maybe had answers written on your arm or something), and I then high-fived him with a hand crawling with virulent lung cooties.

I’m thinking it was the murky hotel pool.  Or maybe the phlegmy air conditioner in my room.  Whatever the source, my immediate surge of snot and fever kept me from enjoying any delights Council Bluffs had to offer—except for the Hy Vee pharmacy.  I collapsed in my room after our daily instruction with the cable guide and as many styrofoam cups as I could carry.  The hotel offered a hot breakfast every morning and kept the beverages available all day.  I barked my thanks to the staff for this service since I needed all the hot tea and orange juice I could down.

The class itself was not at all what I expected.  As a Peer, our most important asset is our own story—it’s how we can relate to others suffering with their mental illness and how they can begin to see some hope for recovery.  Much of the training centered around how to tell that story effectively, how to use it in different ways to either draw a client out, put them at ease, or offer a new perspective.  There was one day of dry legalese (state regulations, code of ethics, HIPPA laws, etc.), but most of the time we focused on The Story and the skills we needed to use it well.

I loved it.  And I liked our instructor—also someone with “lived experience,” as the lingo goes.  Since there was only one other student in this particular class, the three of us went out to lunch each day and got to know each other.  It was a lovely, intimate experience and made learning all that more fun.

I was worried about memorizing some of the drier stuff for the exam, but we received a pre-test, which took away the anxiety and gave me something specific to study.  I was shocked that I did so well, but feel even more confident now in pressing on to take the Advanced Training and to sit for the State Board Certification afterward.  Like our instructor, Dr. Daniels, kept saying, “We can do some stuff.”

For now, I’ll tend this infection, go to the doctor for the high-powered antibiotics and inhaler that can knock it back, and not repeat last fall.  Last year I was sick with this crud for months, then was depressed for months, then ended up in the hospital— where I first heard about Peer Support Specialists.  Everything has a purpose.  There are no accidents.  But, this year I’d rather circle around to a different lesson.  And maybe I can pass that one, too.

Peer Support Specialist, Life Connections

Memory and the Bipolar Showcase

Drew Carey, Price is RightAfter a week of fast and furious rapid cycling, I’ve made a new discovery.  Finding these little jackpots at the end of the game makes playing almost worthwhile.  At least I don’t have to leave the studio audience completely empty-handed.

My consolation prize this time was seeing how the illness affects memory and, in turn, how that affects suffering.

The first layer of this memory game is realizing that I forget what it’s like to be manic or depressed when I’m not in those states.  Maybe it’s like when women forget how painful labor is—the mind wants to gloss it over so they don’t live in fear of the next time.  But I think something else is happening, too.  I believe the extremes of depression and mania are altered states of consciousness.  The brain is altered chemically.  Thought processes and perception are altered.  When a person learns new material in an altered state, that material can’t be retrieved until the person is back in the altered state.  This is called state-dependent learning.

So any ah-ha moments I have while I’m cycling, any new tools I put in place, any comforting words of wisdom I hear from my therapist or friends get locked away behind Door Number Two until the next time.  Also, I forget what the symptoms are, how they manifest and what course the episodes take until I’m back there again.

The flip side of state-dependent learning is that when I cycle I forget what I’ve learned in a stable state.  I’m blank when I try to think of what I wanted to do differently this time.  I don’t call my friends for help because I’ve forgotten that’s what I’m supposed to do.  I forget that I just bought groceries (in a stable state) and go get more.

But aside from state-dependent learning, the stress of cycling wipes out my short-term memory.  I forget appointments.  Even if I write them down, I forget to look at my datebook.  Last week I needed to drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment.  I had Post-it notes on my computer, my bathroom mirror, and in my car so I wouldn’t forget.  As we got out of the pool one day, my friend offered me some of her fresh tomatoes.  By the time I reached the locker room, I’d forgotten what she said.

Stress focuses the attention on the immediate.  Only the details necessary for survival get any brain time.  If actions and thoughts aren’t part of a deeply-grooved routine, they get jettisoned.  Even some of those go if it takes too much effort.  I have to think that’s what happened when I forgot about my meditation group last week.  I’ve been co-facilitating the group for nine months now, but I was in such a high state of crisis, my brain dumped it.

I know lots of people my age start experiencing memory slips—names, dates, a particular word.  It’s part of getting older.  But when I’m stable, these memory storms don’t happen.  I know the difference.  At least I do now.  I probably won’t when I start cycling again.

What seems clear is that journaling and posting visual reminders are key to reducing the stress and panic all this forgetting causes.  I go back to my journals all the time to see what happened, how I felt, what I did.  Now I need to add a Memory Board.  I have a blank bedroom door that will serve.  I’ll tack up phone numbers of the friends I should call, reminders from my therapist, new things to try.  I’ll be able to send messages from one state to another—Dear Manic Girl, Remember to slow down or you’ll crack your hip on the desk again.  Dear Depressed Girl, Remember that eating a whole bag of Veggie Straws will give you a gut ache.

The biggest benefit of a Memory Board will be the reminder that I Forget.  When the cycling starts, I forget that I forget.  As Winston Churchill said, “…it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  But maybe this riddle has an entryway.  Maybe I can find one if I keep working at it.

Wayne, I’ll take Door Number Three…

doors

Meditation and Mental Health

Statue

∞ ∞ ∞

This morning I was led to a new blog The Existential Buddhist and Seth’s post Does All This Sitting Get Us Somewhere?  It reminded me that although I’ve been meditating for a couple decades, and teaching meditation for half that time, I forget how much it helps my mental health.  Even as I put together a presentation for the staff at my mental health clinic on Friday about the benefits of meditation, I forget to sit when my own illness is raging.  In part, Seth says:

We marinate in life and are cooked by it. It’s a process that happens, not something we accomplish. We didn’t build that. Things shift. We tire of hanging onto things. We cease repeating old mistakes. We laugh at ourselves. We open and soften. We come alive.

It’s not the sitting alone that does this. It’s every step we take on our path. It’s our understanding of impermanence, suffering, non-self, and emptiness. It’s our practice of compassion and generosity. It’s our letting go of past insults and injuries. It’s our growing respect for our bodies, our selves, our neighbors, our planet. All of this is reflected in each moment of sitting.

Does all this sitting get us somewhere?  No.  Sitting always gets us here.

For me, managing this illness is the same process.  Staying open and aware, allowing the powerful and dangerous feelings space, breathing into that space, brings me back to me and now.  Today I will sit.  Right now.  And I will remember me.

Moving On

After pulling out my Tai Chi DVD and working through the postures for several days, I’ve decided to move on.  Problem is, I don’t remember the instruction that went with the movements.  Thanks to ECT, that part of my memory is gone.  What I do remember about my Tai Chi class was that there was a lot to remember when doing the postures—stance, flow, follow-through, breathing, visualization.  And that’s just the stuff I remember about the stuff I’ve forgotten.

The demonstrator on the DVD (the director of the school I attended) moves through the postures quickly and turns her back to the camera for a long stretch.  So, not only can I not remember what to do, I can’t even see what to do.

I gave it a shot.  I think I’ll do Zumba instead.

Remembering in Dark Water

One thing I’ve learned about my particular flavor of bipolar disorder is to never take myself seriously—especially during an episode.  The musings, scrambling for Meaning, revelations, decisions and planning that go on while I’m the throes of my illness are, at best, untrustworthy, and, at worst, dangerous.  Like the other, darker thoughts that crowd in, these milder delusions are just flotsam—the foam churned up by my brain’s tidal changes.

So, I’m a little reluctant to pose anything my brain has spit out over the past few days.  These ideas always seem rational.  They feel reasonable, even helpful, but I know my judgment is faulty.  I won’t be able to see how much until the episode passes.

With that very large caveat, here’s the thought taking up space in my head.

I need to keep journaling.

During this episode, I’ve tried to do a little research for my next writing project.  Mostly, I’ve been reading my journals to get a sense of my illness before it was diagnosed.  Aside from the shock of seeing how ill I was, I was struck by my retroactive memory loss.  The months or years when I didn’t journal are gaps in my memory.  Sometimes I can conjure a vague image or touch a ghost of an emotion, but mostly the gaps are flat blanks.  That, I’m used to.  I’ve requested my medical and therapy records to try to piece together those times.  I’ll dig out photo albums and talk to people who knew me then.  I’ll be able to place something in those white spaces.

But even more disturbing to me is that I can’t remember the things I did journal about as recently as two years ago.  Some of the images are a little clearer, some of the emotion easier to touch, but the details of my life continue to slide into oblivion.  Once my days and nights leave the Now, they march like little lemmings off the cliff of Recall.

It’s hard for me right now to keep from making up stories about that, to refrain from following my Dark Brain’s search for the reason why, to not obsess about the possibilities thrown into depression’s sea-foam—electroconvulsive therapy, drugs, genetics . . .  

In truth, it doesn’t matter why my memory is so damaged.  What matters is how I deal with it now.  And aside from keeping my brain as healthy as possible, it seems keeping a record might be helpful.  If I ever thought journaling was self-indulgent, I don’t anymore.  It may be the only way to hang onto my days once they’ve passed.

While this current episode washes through, I’ll try to hold this idea lightly, try not to be frightened by what I’ve found, try to just breathe and wait.  If it still seems important on the other side, then. . . well . . . we’ll see.

A Wished-For Song

You’re song,

a wished-for song.

Go through the ear to the center

where sky is, where wind,

where silent knowing.

Put seeds and cover them.

Blades will sprout

where you do your work.

—Rumi

≈ ≈ ≈

Back from my trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and I hardly know how to talk about its profound effect on my life moving forward.  I expected my ten days there to be meaningful and challenging as I reconnected with friends I haven’t seen in five years—when I left defeated and broken after losing everything to the bipolar disorder.

What I didn’t realize is that I literally left my life there.  I never expected to survive moving back to Iowa, let alone start a new life.  Most of these past five years are a blur of mental pain, drug-fog and a near-sighted view of putting one foot in front of the other.  That’s not a life.  My life was in Minnesota.

But, I could never go back, so I shut that door and bolted it.  When I did visit one or two friends there, I kept my head down and my eyes shut because the grief and loss were too much to bear.

This week, out of the blue, while I ate supper with my friends Kirk and LaRae, they suddenly invited me to move in with them.  I dismissed it immediately (the door stayed firmly bolted), but other friends suggested I consider it.  So, for the first time, I cracked the door and imagined what my life might look like if I went “home.”

The three of us talked more about the possibility, and it became clear that it wouldn’t work.  But the process of considering, of listing what I want in my life, of writing down what I value and what I need, started a whole avalanche of inner change.

The crippling grief lifted.  The overwhelming sense of loss and desperate longing for my old life vanished.  I started to envision how I could create a life worth living in Marshalltown—a life that celebrates the glorious parts of me that survived and the Bad-Ass parts born here.

I started planting seeds today, and will continue to do the Work required to help them grow.  Now, I feel like I can go back to Minneapolis anytime, reconnect with more of my old crew, take those friendships forward instead of spinning in the past.  And then, I can come home, to Marshalltown, where my life is growing.  Where my life is.

Through the Ice Darkly

Tomorrow I leave for an excursion into the arctic north.  I’m spending the next ten days in Minneapolis, first to sit with a friend as she undergoes a simple, but scary surgery.  Then, to visit other friends—some I’ve not seen since my exodus to Iowa five years ago after I had ECT.

It’s a weird juxtaposition of memory holes and my different lives laid on top of each other like layers of ice on a frozen lake.  Some are Jasper-green and opaque with soft spots and groaning cracks, others sludge-gray with craters.  Others still carry bits of fish scale, algae, and ash from shoreline campfires of summer.  They stand rock solid even in the spring thaw.

Seeing these beloved friends again, touching them, will be like taking nourishment and starving.  Love and loss.  A life remembered through “the glass darkly.”  I hope to maintain my curiosity as broken memories crack the surface of consciousness, as my friends remind me of what we were together and what I was then.  I hope to hold them and myself with compassion, respecting our feelings and our words, watching the rise and fall of emotions without grasping, allowing myself to simply love them in the moment of being together.  I hope to remember my life now, who I’ve become, traveling like Frankenstein’s monster on a frozen floe with growing awareness and a spark of dignity.

It will be an interesting time away.

I will greet you all again on or around January 16.

Books I Read in 2011

It’s a short list, but I’m thrilled that I’ve tackled some “adult” novels and non-fiction.  I’m also finding that Juveniles rarely hold my attention, even though they’re easier for my ECT-fried brain to digest.  I just end up wanting to slap those pouty, whiny teenagers silly.  Oh, well.

I didn’t include all the books I started and stopped.  Lots of those.

Hoping to get even more books read in 2012!

  1. Greene, Bob. The Life You Want.  Oprah’s body guru on fitness, weight loss and “happiness.”  Some good stuff.  Nothing you haven’t heard before.
  2. King, Stephen. Full Dark, No Stars.  Four novellas.  Excellent King.
  3. Larsson, Stieg.  The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Wow.  The movie of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was my introduction to Larsson, and I had to try to read the books.  To my delight, this book slipped through my reading disability like water.  Love the protagonist.  Love the setting.  Love the bad guys.  Love it all.  Must have more!
  4. Martin, George R.R. Wild Cards, Book One.  Shared universe anthology about folks in the 1950-1960’s with genetic mutations—the making of superheroes and supervillans.  Interesting.
  5. Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight.  Okay, okay, I succumbed.  In my quest to read juvenile books, I had to see what all the fuss was about.  I must say I liked the book’s clumsy, sweet Bella much better than the wooden, petulant actroid that played her in the movies.  But, there was w-a-y too many longing looks and brushing of the lips with cold fingers.  Even for me, the Heaving Bosom Queen.
  6. Oates, Joyce Carol.  We Were the Mulvaneys.  Set in the 1970s, this is an amazing study of the disintegration of a strong family after the daughter’s assault.
  7. Ouspensky, P.D. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution.  These are transcripts of five lectures that outline the Gurdjieffian method of raising consciousness and spiritual development.  If you dig spiritual evolution, an interesting read.
  8. Pullman, Philip.  The Golden Compass.  The first book on my list of “Juveniles”.  I loved the world Pullman created—so much like Earth, but with interesting differences.  There are two more books in the series.  I’ll probably read the next one.
  9. Rubin, Gretchen.  The Happiness Project.  So-so memoir by a whiny New Yorker trying to cultivate gratitude.  She does offer some good ideas, though.
  10. Shpano, Noam. The Good Psychologist. Interesting protagonist, interesting psychology.
  11. Smith, Dean Wesley and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Enterprise: By the Book.  One of the early novels based on the Star Trek: Enterprise series.  A good plot.  Interesting for this Trekker to see how the characters are handled when no one knew them very well yet.

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