Stronger and More Frayed

Vistas of BewildermentMiraculously, I’ve finished another week of work.  My life is both easier and harder.  Holding this paradox seems to be the Work set before me.

Easier:  Mom left me her 2011 Honda CRV, a car with features and comforts I never thought I’d have again.  I can hardly believe it’s mine.  After scraping a few dollars off the top of my disability check each month to save for a Smart Car, this thing of luxury dropped into my lap (or parking lot).  The first time I filled the gas tank, I cried.  It cost about half of what it took to fill my dad’s truck.

When Mom bought the car after Dad died, she said to me, “You know you’ll probably get this soon.”  It was just one of hundreds of references she made to her own death (It’s that thing old people do—”I won’t be around much longer, so you better…”).  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was glad she had a zippy little car that she loved.  Driving made her feel safe and in control.  I absolutely understand that.

Harder:  My schedule at work is all over the place—mornings, afternoons, mid-day.  I’ve told my supervisor that I need consistency.  I need time for my own self-care, and I need to be able to depend on it.  I’ve tried to hold my fifteen hours a week to afternoons, but this week was the worst so far.  And it’s all to make sure I attend an endless parade of mind-numbing meetings.  Some of them have been important—orientation to the organization, introductions to other agencies working with us, procedure—but most are irrelevant to my position.  Our boss wants us all to be cross-trained.  Part of that, I think, comes from not knowing what our jobs really are yet.  But the more of these meeting I go to, the more I can see what’s mine and what’s not mine to own.

Easier:   My boss relented on the meetings.  She created a buddy system, so my buddy will let me know if I miss anything important.  That allowed me to take charge of my own schedule.  I’m working 1:30-4:30 every day starting next week.  Good for me, but also good for the team.  Now they know when I’ll be available for client interviews and care conferences (what I should be doing).

Harder:  I had built up a reservoir of stability with my routine and daily monitoring.  That’s used up.  Everyday is a fight to turn my fear and negativity around.  Everyday I feel myself sliding toward lethargy and old habits.  I’m hypersensitive and my concentration is fragmenting.  I can still see it happening.  I can still pause, breathe, and choose not to react, but I’m getting so tired.

Yesterday I had to leave a meeting.  The woman leading it was one of those people who starts a sentence, restarts it, jumps to another topic, restarts that sentence and never gets to the point.  I know a couple of people like this.  They drive me ape-shit.  It’s a neurological thing—my nerves want to grab them by the throat.

Luckily, it was the end of my day, and I ran to the Chinese restaurant to eat lunch, listen to my iPod and journal.  It helped, but I’m not getting back to my set point like I used to.  I’m not able to repair the damage each day all this stress creates.  It’s only a matter of time before I really blow.

Easier:  Our parents left us some money.  It’s not enough to live on the rest of my life, but it will give me some breathing room.  I can do my laundry every week.  I can get some work clothes.  I can even plan a trip to the Southwest this winter to see if more sun and open space will keep me from needing hospital-level care come spring.  Poverty has been the biggest stressor in my life.  Mom and Dad knew that.  They planned their last act of love carefully to ease that for me.  I’m so grateful.

No matter what happens, no matter how the easy and the hard continue to play against each other, I am a success.  I have gone to work every day for three weeks.  That’s a miracle.  Walking through the office door is a miracle.  Waking up and doing it again is a miracle.  Even if it all stops today, I’ve triumphed.  No one can take that away from me.  It’s all mine.

Man, I freakin’ rock.

Cracks in the Sidewalk

????????????????????It’s always a shock when reality stubs your toe—especially when you thought the path was clear.  Oops, where was I when the sidewalk heaved?

I was managing this Week of Ultimate Change like a boss.  Before the Y closed for its annual week of maintenance, I called around to find another pool.  But with the rise in parasitic infections in public pools and school starting soon, all the pools I called were closed or closing.  So, instead, I parked my truck and walked everywhere.  I thought putting new inserts in my old sneakers would be a good idea, but ended up getting blisters.  Oh, well.  That’s what Band-aids are for.  The weather was mild this week, and I loved tramping all over town with my iPod.

True to my word, I followed up on the referral my group counselor gave me for Peer Support information.  What I got back were more referrals, so I fired off more queries.  I have a feeling I’m knocking on doors still under construction, but I’ll keep at it.  At the same time, I made sure my mental health records transferred to my new clinic and got an intake appointment scheduled for September.  All the ducks started lining up.

I checked on my mom, coordinated schedules with my sister to share duties, paid attention so as to not over-extend myself.

At TOPS, I neither gained nor lost, which seemed miraculous with all the change swirling around me.  But, I chalked it up to lucky brain chemistry and tried not to eat to celebrate.

And writing came easy this week—bits and pieces of my current story in Shitty First-Draft form (that is a technical term).  I can feel the words pulling me now, which is the pay-off for putting butt to chair and pen to paper every day.  I spent several hours everyday on my memoir as well, sorting through 800 pages of rough copy.

I knew I was enjoying one of my respite phases, a break in the bipolar Push Me-Pull You, but I started to take credit for it.  All this work I was doing, being all responsible and productive, must be good for me.  I know better than to take ownership of my brain’s haphazard chemical stew, but ego is a determined little bugger.  And its voice is so lovely.  Look how easy this is, it said.  Look how you’ve cleared the path…

So, of course,  there came a day when I tripped.  I completely forgot about my meditation group.  Only after my friends called to make sure I was all right did I really stop and Look.  I felt the agitation, the ramping up of ‘productivity” into spinning, the push to quiet it with food, the antsy itch to bolt.

Sly, sly Mania!  It knows I’ll ignore it as long as I can, because it feels so good.  But it gives itself away eventually, whether by grandiosity or giddiness or obsession.  The energy of it won’t let things stay tidy and organized.  Cracks break open in the sidewalk.  As Yeats said, “the centre will not hold.”

Being manic doesn’t discount the work I’ve done this week.  It’s just a reminder to not get cocky and to watch where I’m going.

Season of Change

Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Star TrekThis is sort of a big week.  Wednesday will be my last Support Group session.  Thursday, my mom returns home from the nursing home.  Big changes.  And change is always a little dangerous for anyone with bipolar disorder.  The trick, I’ve learned, is to acknowledge the potential and Watch.

I feel like I’ve prepared well for the end of Group.  My mental health clinic has been in trouble for some time, first losing money, then losing our psychiatrist, and finally, when a larger clinic took over, losing most of the counseling staff.  It seemed like the right time to transfer my records to the clinic in my own town.  I’ll miss my therapist—she’s been my biggest cheerleader—but I’ll be able to join a support group offered here.

I never thought I’d benefit so much from a support group, but I’ve learned that my preference for solitude puts me at risk.  For the rest of my life, I will need to push against that tendency, and continuing with a group will help me do that.  I still have to go through all the intake interviews and paperwork, find a new therapist, and explain how I manage without medication.  But, that’s part of the process.  A little stressful, a little anxiety-producing, but eventually I’ll settle into a new routine here.

On Wednesday, I’ll get to say a few words of parting, then the group will pass around a token (like the ones folks get in Recovery programs).  Each person will get to hold the token and say a few words about me.  After three months in this group, I’ve participated in several parting rituals, and they’re always moving.  I imagine this one will be, too.  I’m bringing Kleenex.

But, it’s time to move on.  This group was always meant to be a transition between hospitalization and New Life—that’s why clients can only participate for three months.  I’m ready.  And still, it’s a big change.

The next day my sister and I will help my mom return home after three months recovering from a botched angiogram.  A lot has changed for her.  Still weak and somewhat unsteady on her feet, she’ll go home with a walker and a cast on her arm, a home health aide to assist with bathing and housekeeping, and  a whole new way of perceiving her life.  “I have to think of myself as handicapped now,” she told me yesterday.

I don’t know yet how Mom’s homecoming will affect me.  My sister always took the lead as far was Mom is concerned, but I live closer.  It’s an uncomfortable triad—I can generally hold my own one-on-one, but put us all together and I either fade into the wallpaper or try to do too much.  Old patterns and a history of nonexistent boundaries make my family the biggest trigger for my bipolar episodes.  So, I’m Watching.

What I’m Seeing are old coping behaviors popping up like Whack-A-Moles—binge eating, long daytime naps, lots of movies—with the expected dips into depression.  So, I keep Watching and, when I can, I go do something else.  Like take a walk or write a blog post.

Change happens.  We adapt.  Those of us with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses may need more time and resources to get to the other side, but we do.  My wish this time is to leave the least amount of carnage behind—not gain back the weight I’ve lost, not spend all my money, not hide in my apartment.  I hope to get to the other side of this season of change secure in myself and open to the benefits these changes bring.

Here comes the storm.  I’ll wet my finger with a little thankfulness and love, then turn to face it.

Calls in the Middle of the Night

handmade greeting cards, collage are, vintage photoHenry had finally re-settled himself after a 4:00AM marching tour of the bed when I heard a weird noise.  I’ve taken to wearing ear plugs to bed—Henry often accompanies his marches with a call to arms—so hearing anything was weird.  Then, I remembered that I’d found a louder ring tone on my phone.  The phone going off at 4AM is not a good sign.

By the time I really roused and fumbled it out of my purse, I’d missed the call.  Two missed calls from my sister, the first one at 2:30.  My stomach knotted.

But checking the messages, it wasn’t the worst of news.  Mom fell at the nursing home and broke her wrist.  Calling my sister back, I got the details.  She fell both going to and from the bathroom.  Big knot on her head and bruised all over, but just the wrist broken.

It was inevitable, this fall.  She gets dizzy suddenly and is not to get up without someone with her.  Early on, Mom was content to let her Depends do their job if the aides didn’t get to her in time.  But, since she’s gained some strength and a little more clarity, she sneaks to the bathroom on her own sometimes.  I sympathize.  I don’t think I could wait and eventually wet myself if the bathroom was just a few steps away.

It’s incredibly hard to accept new limitations.  My mom has always been a strong, independent woman.  She was the driving force in our family, always early to appointments, always referring to her wall calendar for what was next.  Whatever it was, Mom got it done.  I think she’s been remarkably reasonable about her slow recovery from a botched angiogram, but I understand the drive to regain what was lost.  Every few months I get the urge to get a job even though I know I’m not capable of that anymore.  It’s like an amputation.  I feel the phantom sensation and think that limb is still healthy and whole.  The ability to get up and go to the bathroom must seem even more fundamental.

I hope this will be a learning for Mom, a way for her to come to terms with these new limits.  Without the use of one arm she’ll be even more dependent on the care staff.  It’s a set-back for her, but maybe a necessary one.

Early Morning Bad-Assery

handmade greeting card, collage artPre-dawn, and the robins are chirp-elling.  Emmet hops up on the towel I keep for him by the computer and contorts his pudgy body for optimal ear-scritching.  I’m back from a week of scary depression.  Everybody here is feeling Life.

This morning I can pull my feet under me and stand up.  After the rapid cycling that landed me in partial hospitalization, after my mom’s ordeal, after the stress of all that knocking me back into Crazy Land, I’ve strung together a couple of days of uprightness.  It always feels tentative, rising up out of the carnage.  Is it just a bubble of calm?  A friendly town I pass through on my way to the next extreme?  Or do I get to stop and take in the sights for a while?

Yesterday, we moved Mom to a nursing home near my sister.  Mom will either get stronger and go home or not.  Either way, she’s in a safe place.  And my sister can check on her without driving an hour every day.  And I don’t have to.  I came home from that and slept for hours.

Now Henry is making his rounds, announcing his supremacy, eyeballing the birds in the one spindly tree outside the bedroom window.  He lived on his own a long time before someone took him to a shelter.  He’s got the battle scars to prove it—and the predator’s passion.  He’s my hero.

So, today I’ll tour my own perimeter.  I’ll revision, reset and restock.  I’ll eyeball the juicy bits of my life and point my energy in that direction.

The birds are quieting now.  The whoosh of traffic crescendos.  Henry and Emmet settle into napping puddles.  Sun’s up.  Time to march.

I Choose Life

handmade greeting card, collage artComing down from a stretch of mania—that feeling of a greasy rope flying through my hands.  Later I’ll feel the burn, the skin of my palms flayed.  Now it’s just the rope.  Too fast.  No grip.  And the foreknowledge of when the frayed end finally comes—and goes—I’m done.  Then, it’s the limp fall.  Out of control.

I couldn’t go to the hospital today, or yesterday.  I spent all day Friday there, finally realizing I couldn’t help my mom.  She won’t or can’t choose life, says no to food, to therapy, to any action that will move her toward living.  A stubborn non-choosing. I counted off all the ways I’d done what was expected—held vigil for three weeks, cajoled and pleaded, coordinated with my sister, planned to provide care if and when she goes home—trying to be something I’m not, trying one more time to be good enough and worthy.  I was ready with my bag of distractions today, ready to camp out once again after working out at the Y and after meditation group.  But as I fast-walked around the Y track, sliding from mania to depression with the rope smoking my hands, I chose life.

Today, I sucked in the cool air.  I lifted my eyes to the white, cumulus clouds rowing a jewel-blue sky.  I saw a movie, sat journaling at the Hy-Vee cafe with soothing chai tea and kept choosing life.  I’m not done with Mom.  I’ll never be done with Mom.  But I won’t sacrifice myself for her anymore.  No more.

These past few nights, waking up at 2AM, I tried something new.  I laid a quilt under my bedroom window, piled pillows—a poor girl’s zafu—and sat meditation.  I tried to find a different rhythm, tried to let it speak to me instead of chasing or forcing it.  And when the discomfort got too big, when it gripped the place under my left breast, when my brain sighed in sorrow and begged for mercy, then I rested in the Fantasy Man.

He stands in the near distance, his back to me, looking ahead.  Jeans, dark blue dress shirt, dark hair.  Relaxed, but alert.  Hands in his pockets.  Long grass waves against his legs in a silent breeze.  The sky is overcast.  I walk toward him, and that’s enough—to know I will reach him, to see the comfort coming.

Friday night, I dreamed Hugh Jackman was wildly in love with me.  He was ready to leave his wife for me.  And it broke my heart, because what I admire most about him is his devotion to her and his children.  “You can’t do that,” I told him.  “That’s not who you are.”

Broken-hearted.  The core of my bipolar-ness.  I feel the shards rubbing against each other under my breast and fantasize about a heart that is worthy and more than enough.  As my mood shifts this time, I do more than manage, I choose.  On the bed this afternoon with Henry and Emmet close, a breeze slid through the open window.  It slid over my skin like smoke.  It slid me into a place of hearts whole and beating life.


Secretaries, handmade greeting card, collage art

¤ ¤ ¤

I get to the hospital this morning, after pouring out our family’s latest saga here, and I find my mother with monitors, and O2, and IVs like a regular hospital-type patient intent on getting well.  So I lean in to ask what might be going on, and she pats my arm.

“The doctor said I had to take care of myself.”

Out I go to the nurses’ station.  Come to find out Mom got pretty uncomfortable overnight, what with no pain medication and no oxygen to easy her breathing.  She decided suicide wasn’t worth it.  Then, her doc for the past thirty-five years read her the riot act.  No one seems to know exactly what he said, and Mom’s not telling, but I have never seen her so compliant.

I watched with my mouth agape when the nurse asked how she felt and Mom’s answer was, “Fine.”  She took her meds, ate a little breakfast, worked without complaint with the Occupational Therapist.  All of a sudden the Dying with Dignity bus got rear-ended by a semi full of Let’s Get Better.

I’m not complaining.  Okay, maybe I am.  As a former nurse and spiritual guide, I should know how to drive this vehicle.  I can balance the fight for life with supporting one’s final wishes, but the drama on this particular highway is of pea soup quality.  By the time I left the hospital today, my new motto was “Let The Professionals Figure It Out.”

With my sister’s blessing, I’m taking a day off tomorrow.  I’ll visit with my meditation buddies in Des Moines, see the new Star Trek movie, and go to my post-hospitalization support group.  No freeway pile-ups, no sudden lane changes.  Just a day to loosen up enough to take the next hit.  Because another one is bound to come.  And this highway is crazy enough without adding my own special brand.

Remember Drivers, hands at 10 and 2.

That’s All, Folks


After a week in ICU, Mom was getting better.  Yesterday, we moved her into a regular hospital room with a nice view.  She was alert and making her wishes known.  Unfortunately, her wish was to die.

She told the nurses to take away her heart monitor.  She refused food and all medication, even a Tylenol for pain.  When her oxygen saturation levels dropped, she refused oxygen.  At those low levels, her brain will become oxygen-starved soon, and after that, the rest of her organs.

As always, Mom attended the details.  She waited until my brother left yesterday morning before starting her refusals.  She wanted him on the road and unreachable.  She will take a few sips of ice water, but makes us fill the cup where she can watch.  She doesn’t want us slipping her any medication Mickeys.

As someone who has tried suicide, I should understand this better.  As someone who knows first hand my mom’s fierce need for control, I should have seen this coming.  Maybe it’s just that we spent the last week wrenching her back from an accidental death, watching in amazement as her 88-year-old body rallied in ways that shocked the medical team.  Strong-willed, she just chose to point that will in a different direction.

My sister and I tried to wrap our heads around this, flipping from anger to despair to resignation.  But, my nephew reminded us that this is what Mom wants, this is her choice, and that all we have to do it stay out of her way.  I can do that today.  I can watch Mom meet death the way she met life—on her own terms.

The Ties That Bind

handmade greeting card, collage art


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