Listen, Listen


Listen, Listen

This wonderful sound brings me back to my true self.—Thich Nhat Hahn

Long ago and far away, I practiced sacred sound.  I led meditations using sound and chant.  I taught classes and workshops on vibrational metaphysics.  I used sound in hands-on healing.  I studied with respected sound researchers and practitioners.  Sound, toning, singing, chant, and music were a big part of my life.

When I got sick, that all went away.  Whether the ECT fried a connection, or the medications changed my brain chemistry, or some other shift occurred, the knowledge was still there, and a few of the memories, but the skills and spiritual connection disappeared.  Now I look back on that life (what I can remember of it) like Scooby Do—”Rrr?”  There’s no sadness or sense of loss, just wonder.  Was that really me?  Huh.

One thread from that old life travelled with me during the worst of my illness.  Music.  Some days all I could do was lie on my bed and listen to music.  But, my tastes changed.  I turned away from the chakra-balancing, chi-enhancing CDs in my little library.  I craved rock and roll.

It was as if my Music Brain tried to reboot and called up an old operating system.  I wanted James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, the musicians I listened to when I was in junior high school.  I wanted Three Dog Night and Neil Diamond.   But most of all, I wanted The Eagles.

I never paid much attention to the band as a teenager, but all of a sudden, their music soothed me like no other.  Don Henley’s gravelly poetry and Glenn Frey’s wavering tenor gave me a foundation to rest upon.  I felt stretched out like a lake on the boys’ close harmonies.  I played Hell Freezes Over and Long Road Out of Eden over and over and over…

Music is a powerful healing tool.  I’ve seen it perform miracles.  But, I never understood what a lifeline it can be.  Those dark days, lying on my bed, I could feel the rope music threw me.  It kept me attached to the earth, to life.  It included me when I felt isolated.  It gave me the extra link to take a breath and stay.

Like Don and Glenn sing:

Say goodbye to all your pain and sorrow • Say goodbye to all those lonely nights • Say goodbye to all your blue tomorrows • Now you’re standing in the light • I know sometimes you feel so helpless • Sometimes you feel like you can’t win • Sometimes you feel so isolated • You’ll never have to feel that way again ••• You are not alone.

The Voice of Home

♦ ♦ ♦

Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.

Stephen King

My brother introduced me to Stephen King’s The Stand when I was in nursing school.  It was summer, I had a bad cold, and I devoured the book in a week.  Since then, I’ve read everything the man has written—long, short, good, bad, fiction, essays, whatever.  It’s not that he’s the best writer in the world.  It’s that when I read his words, they feel like home.

I love his potty humor.  I love the gross-outs.  My mind moves with the same cadence, grooves on the same rock and roll music he so likes to sprinkle through his stories.  His characters act the way I would act in the same situation.  His voice is my voice with more testosterone.

Before I knew the name of what ailed me, I always read Steve when my depression bottomed out.  He was the ultimate distraction, like sinking my sore brain into a warm bath.  When I couldn’t get out of bed, when I couldn’t sleep, when all I felt was nothing, I could still read Steve.  I think it’s safe to say his books kept me alive back then.

After I had ECT (electro-convulsive therapy), I lost the ability to read.  I could get through short magazine articles, but even those wiggled out of my grasp sometimes.  Words floated by my eyes, unconnected, empty.  I would start to grasp meaning at the beginning of a sentence and lose it by the end.  I was terrified, furious, desperate.  I talked to a high school reading teacher I know.  She said I sounded like her kids with attention deficit disorder or with certain kinds of brain injury.  She said I had to re-teach my brain to read.  She told me to get junior high-age,  non-fiction books because there would be fewer words on the page, pictures, and lots of white space.  She told me to read out loud and to take notes.  She told me to set a specific goal before I started reading—a page, maybe—then to stop when I reached that goal. I did everything she told me to do.

The first novel I read cover to cover after ECT was one of Steve’s.  I remember getting to the end of the first chapter of Under the Dome and crying.  Of course I could read Stephen King.  If anyone could bring me back from scrambled-eggs-for-brains, it would be him.  My brain already knew his rhythms, his vocabulary, the way his characters walked and talked.  He took up residence so deep and wide he couldn’t get fried out of my brain.

So, when I tell people Stephen King is my guilty pleasure, that’s not true.  He’s a buoy in Dark Water.  He’s a lighthouse reminding me where Home is.  He’s part of my sense of faith, a thin string I unravel from my heart and launch into the Void.  He’s also the first entry on my Bucket List—

1. Coffee with Stephen King.

Gosh, I hope he drinks coffee.

Sharp Turns

A Thin, Frayed Line

My most recent hospitalization was in April of last year.  My shrink let me attend an out-patient program in Des Moines for a week instead of forcing me to be admitted.  This was my third hospital experience in five years, so I thought I knew the drill.  I never expected it to be a turning point in my life.

These counselors gave concrete tools for living.  It was the first time I’d heard that exercise was the most important element in managing depression and mood swings–sometimes more effective than medication.  They introduced me to Dr. Daniel Amen’s work on brain function and health.  And they provided tools for monitoring the distorted, negative thinking that slips in as mood fluctuates.  The only other place I’d ever heard about monitoring thought and reaction was in my spiritual studies and practice in becoming more aware.

The psychiatrist assigned to the unit also gave me new information.  In the five years since being diagnosed, I’d tried every anti-depressant, anti-convulsive and mood stabilizer on the market.  When the doctor prescribed Trileptal (an anti-psychotic) for me, she said, “This is it.  Once this stops working for you, you’re on your own.”

Clearly, I needed to take a more proacitve approach to my mental wellness!  So, this summer, when I read Robert Whitaker’s book. Anatomy of an Epidemic, I was primed.  The book followed research on psychotropic drugs and how a large percentage of patients got worse instead of better.

I recognized myself in the studies.  Before I started medications, I rarely experienced manic episodes.  But, in the years since I had several manic episodes a month and developed “rapid cycling” where mania and depression rise and fall quickly, sometimes several times in a day.  I believed my memory loss and reading disability had resulted from the electroconvulsive therapy I received in 2006, but Whitaker’s book uncovered research linking these symptoms to anti-psychotics and anti-depressants.

The book scared the crap out of me.  So, I asked my doctor to help me wean off my medications.  He agreed reluctantly.  It took four months to become medication-free, and I’m still detoxing.  The process wasn’t pretty–complete brain fog, lots of watery depression, anxiety, and just plain weird thoughts and sensations.  But, I could afford the chaos.  I don’t work and I don’t have a family to take care of.  My obligations are very simple.

Now, my memory is coming back, and I can read a book without having to take notes or read out loud like the Reading teacher at our high school advised me to do.  I haven’t had a manic episode in over 2 months, and the depressive episodes are changing.  They last longer, which is crappy, but the skid down and the rise back up take up most of that time.  I just came out of an episode that lasted 12 days.  On medication, I would drop suddenly, stay in the dark for 3-4 days, then pop up into mania–or visa versa.  So, I still have a lot of adjusting to do and new skills to pick up–like how to practice patience, gentleness and resiliency with these longer episodes.

Since that last hospitalization, I’ve moved into my own sweet apartment (HUD housing for folks with mental disorders), gone off medication, and just this week started managing my own finances again.  Life took a sharp turn back in April, and the trajectory takes me farther and farther from the person I was.  All things seem possible now.

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