Pulling the Plug

I am What I amAfter my session with Luke Skywalker yesterday morning, I decided it was time to call it quits on my stint as a Peer Support Specialist.  I’m quite proud of myself for hanging in as long as I did, and for staying relatively stable through the stress and uncertainty.  I learned a lot about what I need and what I will tolerate.  But, I have bronchitis now, and that means being sick for at least a month.  I was waiting for something to tip the balance on whether to stay or go, and this is it.

The part of me that thinks in black and white wants to consider this a failure, but I’m not having any of that.  I may be returning to a less stressful life, but I’m not the same person I was when this whole job journey started.  I’m more flexible and resilient than I was.  I bring all that back with me.  And, who knows?  There still might be a job out there for me.  But, first, there’s bed and Kleenex.

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In The Trenches

More Traditionally GallantThe last time I had this much change, pressure, and emotional hoo-haw in my life I ended up getting electroshock.  That was then, as they say.  This is now.

Yesterday I started my job as a Peer Support Specialist.  The Integrated Health Services team (of which I am a part)  is squeezed into one tiny office and a converted utility closet (the sink is still there).  Ten people with lap tops, all talking on the phone, or to each other, or elbowing into their TV-tray-sized work spaces.  The plan is to move the team off-site to a real office space.  But for now, we are literally on top of each other.

barnabasA year ago—heck, three months ago—I would have bolted from that chaos after a half hour.  But, I didn’t.  And the fact that I didn’t makes me proud.  I could feel dread and panic creeping into my head like Dark Shadows mist, turning my thoughts sour and rigid with resistance.  But then I went on my first client visit, and the doubt and hysteria melted.

Talking to clients, listening to them, asking questions, empathizing and marveling at their courage and resilience—it all fell into place.  What I used to do as a nurse, what I do now with this blog, even what I’ve become as a person all come into play when I’m with the clients.  I was made for this job.  I can do this.

So, last night I drank a beer, popped a Xanax, and slept long and hard.  This morning I was ready to jump back into the fray.  Until I got my own TV tray, I set my laptop on top of a waste basket to do my work.  That was fine.  I’m relearning Windows after eight years alone with my iMac.  That was fine, too.

Everyone on the team is supportive, enthusiastic and only a little less confused than I am.  This roll-out of Integrated Health Services across the state is enormous, complicated, sometimes incomprehensible.  It makes us comrades.  They sent a lovely card and a plant when my mom died, and I’d only met them twice.

Sad SmileWe’ve been digging through lots of old stuff at my mom’s house.  We found a box with my grandfather’s WWI kit and a trunk of my dad’s with his WWII navy uniform and a photo album.  In those pictures, I can see how tight the bonds are between Dad and his friends.  I understand that a little.  I’m not saying we’re experiencing anything like what Dad and Grandpa went through, but adversity and a common goal does something to a group.  Those of you in business know more about this than I do.  There’s probably even a name for it.

I know these people have my back.  I know they won’t let me fail.  I know they will understand if I ever do have to bolt from the room.  And I’m not afraid to do it if I have to.  Because I know how to take care of myself now—without plugging into the power grid.

“The Storm is Up, And All is on the Hazard”

tempestThere’s a kind of frenzy that happens after a death in the family.  There’s a sea-change during the rush of funeral arrangements.  Details drag at the ankles, family and well-wishers swarm, then dart off.  It’s like dropping to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and popping back up without a decompression chamber.  Something in the blood bubbles.

Then there’s the Bank Dash, a treasure hunt for the right piece of paper, guarded by people who speak a foreign language.  Just when a few words start to make sense, the Lawyer pulls out a different map and the hunt gallops off in another direction.  Everyone has a different opinion about how to read the legend, how to get from Here to There.  It’s the Tower of Babel flattened to an Iowa cornfield.

I don’t do well with frenzy, so there have been some outbursts.  Most notably, the sprint out of the lawyer’s office to cry in the street.  But, for the most part, I’ve managed with great aplomb, even if I do say so myself.  I’ve learned a lot since my dad died a couple of years ago.  I understand how stress affects me.  I know what to do to lessen the impact.  I’m a lot stronger than I ever believed.

Also, I’m blessed to have a sister who is In Charge.  Now that the initial chaos has settled, she deals with the insurance companies, the banks, the appraisers and auctioneers.  She’s tossed out that old map and made one of her own.  Thank the Stars.

We have a house to clean.  That’s something I can do.  If I break it down into the tiniest tasks.  Like emptying one drawer in one dresser.  Like bagging up the clothes in one closet.  Tiny tasks.  A beginning and an end.  That stops frenzy cold.  That turns a task into a meditation.  There’s space for deep breathing.  The blood starts to de-bubble.

And I need to practice coming back to mindfulness, because the stress isn’t over.  I start my new job as a Peer Support Specialist in a week, and I still don’t know what I’ll be doing.  My clinic is part of the whole restructuring of Iowa’s mental health delivery system.  I’ll be part of the Integrated Health Services Team, and I’ve met those folks—a nurse, case managers and an administrative assistant.  I’ve attended a couple of “professional development” sessions that made no sense to me—except for the HIPAA presentation.  I get HIPAA and how crucial confidentiality and privacy will be in my work.  The rest is gobbledygook.  I figure if I need to know this stuff, someone will tell me eventually.

Because none of the other Peers know what’s going on either.  That makes me feel better.  And the rest of the team is flying by the seat of their pants.  Professionals making it up as they go along.  So, I’ll find out more when I start next Monday.  Or not.

I know I’m at risk.  Stress exacerbates symptoms in anyone with a mental illness.  It can lead to a lapse or full-blown relapse.  Things could get pretty hairy.  But, I’ll do what I know to stay present and keep breathing.  And I’ll dream about my trip to London in September.  Because that won’t be stressful at all.

I’m on an Adventure.

Stepping Up To Recovery

DestinyAhh.  There’s nothing like two weeks in the hospital to perk a person up.

As always, the experience of partial hospitalization is a combination of learning and acceptance.  Because the program has changed so much, the learning curve is a little different this time.  Mercy Hospital merged their Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse programs.  Theoretically, this makes complete sense.  Most folks with mental illness turn to drugs and alcohol to dull the symptoms and escape from their emotional pain.  Treating both at the same time rounds up all the demons in one pen.

But, I’m one of the lucky few who’s only hooked on second helpings and Cheetos.  As I told my counselor at Mercy, “I understand the whole 12 Step shtick.  It’s a gateway to doing the inner work we all need to do.  It’s not my gateway, but I can respect it.”

So, I’m learning a lot about addiction, resistance, and willfulness.  I’m appreciating my life in comparison to folks who have faced a Rock Bottom a bit rockier than mine.  I admire these fierce, ruthless addicts in their fight to be free and clean.  I’ve made more personal connections this time around than ever before, because… well… I’m one of them.  Badasses tend to recognize one another.

And, again, I see a bit more clearly that I’m meant to do this work.  Once the depression started to lift, I found myself able to listen closely and catch signals of distress and/or bullshit.  Again, I found the staff remarking on those skills and encouraging me to continue.  One counselor said, “I need you working in the adolescent unit.”

I get it now.  I need to do this kind of work.  Not just because I’m good at it, but because it’s the next step in my own recovery.  I’ve been convinced for years that I’d never be able to re-enter the work force.  I’m too vulnerable, too capricious, too broken.  Well, it’s time to give up that belief.

It’s a slow process, changing firmly held beliefs.  Ask any Catholic-turned-Atheist.  Or a Reformed Republican.  We believe what we believe, and we always find evidence to support our beliefs.  So, I’m on the look-out now for different bread crumbs.  I intend to get that Peer Support Specialist job at my mental health clinic.  I’ll follow up next week, as is appropriate.  I’ll ask the counselors at Mercy to write me some recommendations.  If I ever hope to be free, I need to do this.

In the meantime, I’m in treatment for another week or two at the least.  That’s fine.  I still have a lot to learn.

Seekers Find

Temporal Map

I’m starting to notice a pattern.  Whenever I reach critical mass with my bipolar symptoms and seek additional help, something wonderful happens.  Is it the Universe putting things in balance?  Do I open up to a wider definition of “help”?  Is my distress signal amped to a new frequency?  Or is it that I’m surrounded by more professionals with more resources and more ideas?  Maybe it’s just coincidence.  Or maybe I need to quit over-thinking it.

After being in partial hospitalization this past week, I got a call from my mental health clinic at home.  They will be developing a Peer Support program and asked the Nurse Practitioner and therapists if they had any recommendations for candidates.  My name came up.

So, I met with the team yesterday.  They’re still not sure what to do with Peer Support—the mandates are purposely vague to let providers plug Peer’s into a variety of roles—but they have some ideas.  It was fun to thrash those around with them.  I was honest about being in treatment now and my anxiety about returning to work.  But I think I presented myself well as a professional with skills.  I felt welcomed and respected.  It was a positive experience.

They have a lot of work to do—more candidates to interview, decisions to make.  It will probably be a few weeks before I hear from the committee again.  That’s fine.  The seed is planted.  What I need to do now is concentrate on my own Work—attending the outpatient sessions at Mercy during the week, meeting with the counselor assigned to me there (my buddy, Dan, who got me started on this Peer Support path in the first place), doing the homework assignments, watching my resistance and my anxiety.  A new rhythm will develop.

As a Trekker, geek fan-girl, and spiritual renegade, this convergence feels like the Laws of Attraction and Vibratory Resonance in action.  That comforts me.  But, it doesn’t really matter what’s at work here.  All that matters is that Opportunity Happens when I ask for Help.

A Dream Deferred

collage art

You know those times when you wrestle with a decision?  When you want one thing, but the numbers don’t quite add up?  And then something—a person, an event, a seemingly random set of circumstances—brings it all into focus?  I’m in the middle of one of those epiphanies.

I really wanted to be a Peer (as in Peer Support Specialist).  I wanted to help other folks with mental illness and earn a little money doing it.  I got training last fall.  I was offered a volunteer position at the hospital in Des Moines where I was a patient.  I thought I was on my way.

The trouble is, it costs me at least $50 for gas each week.  That’s money I don’t have, so it goes on my credit card.  There’s still a big balance there from my Peer training, too.  Friends and my UU fellowship chipped in to pay about half (thank you very much), and I applied for scholarships from service clubs, but it doesn’t look like those will pan out.  Every month my balance creeps higher.  Every month I look the other way.

Then, yesterday I got the oil changed in my truck.  I looked at the $70 bill, which I put on my credit card, and knew I had to pay attention.

I can’t drive to Des Moines every week.  In fact, if I ever want to whittle my Visa balance down, I’ll have to park my truck and walk as much as I can.

It seems so simple now.

I’ve been uncomfortable about doing this support group ever since we started talking about it.  I attributed that discomfort to a lot of reasons—I’m too unstable to do the job, the hospital is in chaos, it’s too much stress.  But, those are all just niggles, all things I can work through.  The real reason is that I can’t afford it.

So, I’ll go tonight and tell everyone—the social worker who recruited me, the young man who would have partnered with me in creating the new group, the folks about to “graduate” from After Care who looked forward to on-going support.  I know the After-After Care group probably won’t fly now.  Dan could only convince the two of us to volunteer, and the job is too much for one person.  I am sorry for that.  But not sorry enough to rack up more debt in the hope that someday Mercy will offer me a job.  I can’t sacrifice myself out of fear.

It’s a relief to be done wrestling, a relief to see what needs to be done and be calm about it.  My dream will find a new shape in its own time.  When it does, it will probably seem quite random and serendipitous.  If I hold it lightly.

Ninja Ballet

BBC Sherlock, Scandal in Belgravia, Benedict Cumberbatch

It’s been a good week.  Holy Harmonic Convergence, Batman!  How long has it been since I’ve been able to say that?

These lovely in-between places are where I used to pull out my Bad-Assery and get into training for the next bipolar campaign.  But my mindset has shifted a little.  I don’t need to train to be a Bad-Ass any more—I am one.  The training has become more and more internal—acceptance, awareness and experimentation becoming as important as routine and discipline.

Part of that is due to my therapist.  I have a partner now, someone with experience in going deep, someone with an even bigger arsenal.  It feels very different fighting this battle with someone at my side, someone whispering a plan of attack I never considered, someone with Ninja skills.

These slow, subtle movements are hard.  I’m teaching my mental body to move in different ways, ways that feel foreign and beautiful at the same time.  I keep thinking of a ballet dancer with blistered, bloodied feet.  It takes practice.  And hardening.  And more practice.

Yesterday I drove to the city for a mandatory meeting at the psych hospital for all the support group facilitators.  Dan, the social worker who recruited me, told me about the meeting a couple of days ago.  He didn’t know what the meeting was for, couldn’t be there himself, and apologized for yet more chaos as the Center tries to reorganize and align with health care reform.  So I showed up at the appointed time and place—to find I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the Psych Tech who was helping with the meeting said she’d go over the material with me then and there.  I signed a confidentiality agreement (which I’d already done with Dan) and answered a ten-question True/False quiz on the role of facilitator.  The whole encounter took fifteen minutes.

I had issues when I left.  Since thought generates emotion which drives behavior, it could have been the start of a very bad day.  Or week.  But my Ballet Ninja skills surfaced.  I was able to acknowledge that I’m out of practice dealing with workplace miscommunication.  This stuff happens all the time.  It’s not personal.  And there’s no need to get trapped in it.  All I have to do is show up on Wednesday nights, sit with whoever else shows up for group, and see what happens.  Management stuff will work itself out.

Then, I was able to watch the emotion drive my behavior.  I had already planned to find a frame for the beautiful print my friend Rob send me, so I watched as my internal agitation pushed me to add more things to the list.  And then to snatch up stuff as I wandered through the antique mall.  There was a graceful slowing down as I watched, a deceleration, and a returning to center point.  I bought the frame.  Nothing else.

And on the drive home, I felt the residual effects of emotion spinning out possible lunch scenarios—where to eat, what to eat, how much I to eat.  I felt the familiar spin and shove of using food to calm down, using food to feel normal, using food to make the rest of the internal discomfort stop.  I watched and allowed all that mess.  And then I went home and made lunch.

ninja balletMy brain feels bloodied and blistered from pausing.  It’s so much easier to let the thoughts and emotions run, to just get out of their way and tag along.  But each time I practice, I build a little more stamina, a little more mental body memory.  These foreign maneuvers of acceptance and interruption may always be difficult to perform, but that’s part of what makes it art.  It’s part of what makes an audience gasp.

So, today I’ll try again to stalk myself, to be stealthy and nimble.  A Bipolar Bad-Ass Ninja in toe-shoes.

“It’s The Garden Spot of Ceti Alpha Five!”

I’m glad to be home.

Advanced Peer Support training was interesting, and I brought back the official certificate to prove my worthiness.  But class ended every day by 2:00, so I had a lot of time to fill.  Since I was in better health his time around, I thought I’d explore Council Bluffs a little.

Green Acres Natural FoodsI found a funky little natural market with homeopathic remedies, essential oils, supplements, cruelty-free cosmetics and some organic foods.  It smelled like heaven, or more like the hippy apothecary I used to frequent in Minneapolis, Present Moment.  I chatted with the staff for a while and bought a packet of lavender bath salts.  I figured I might as well enjoy my hotel room’s large tub while I had it.

One afternoon I visited the public library to see if their computer lab ran any faster than the ancient Windows machine at the hotel.  It was the weirdest set-up I’d ever seen.  Each carrel had a glass top.  Patrons had to look down through the glass to the screen under the desk.  I’m sure there’s some ergonomic reason for this, or maybe the computers felt safer locked away from humans, but I left after a half hour ready for that hot soak.

rebumbant bikeMostly I just hit the great Chinese restaurant on my way back to the hotel, watched endless episodes of Supernatural and NCIS, and went to bed.  Which meant I woke up at an ungodly hour.  But, no one else was in the Fitness Room at 3:30 in the morning, so that worked out fine.

horseshoe casino, council bluffsMy hotel was in the casino part of town, which might have been an option if I wanted to empty my billfold and eat at Hooters.  There was also an AMC theater down the street, but why go to a movie with back-to-back episodes of Castle on TV?  Psssht.

I did enjoy the free breakfast every morning.  The ladies in charge were saintly in their patience with the guests who stumbled in and tried to make their own waffles.  We talked about putting up a sign with directions on how to do it, but decided folks that hung-over and bleary-eyed would never read it.

Peer Support Specialist Training, Dr. Braden DanielsIn the final analysis, it was a successful road trip.  I learned some stuff, got to hang out with the same great dudes from Basic Training, and ate fabulous Chinese take-out.  And I didn’t get sick.  So, while Council Bluffs may not be my vacation Mecca, it took me where I needed to go.  With waffles.

A thousand points to the fellow nerdling who knows the source of this post’s title.

Good Things Happen

abandoned hotel

On Monday, I head back to Council Bluffs for my week of Advanced Peer Training.  Since I’m finally well enough to get through the day without a nap, that works out just fine.

To keep from checking into another Walking Dead Hotel, I turned to William Shatner and Priceline to find a nice place that wouldn’t cost me a lung.  I’ve got a Comfort Inns and Suites room waiting for me—a $112/day room for the low, low price of $49/day!  I feel like a total Shat-boss, ready to kick old ladies and children out of my way at the complimentary breakfast line.Priceline, William Shatner

My friend, Bea, will act as cat concierge again, making house calls on the boys while I’m away.  I’ll leave them with plenty of food and water, but a week without human fawning would be intolerable.  Bea will offer the proper level of deference and admiration.Henry, cat in a box

I plan to stop at Whole Foods on my way West to load my cooler with kale and collard greens.  Being sick has made me sloppy, doing what’s easy instead of what’s best.  Getting out of town and doing something besides watching old movies and sleeping will help me point my energies in a healthier direction.  I can expend a little more effort in eating my greens, in using the stationary bike at the hotel’s Fitness Center (another win for the Shat!), and in taking walks after class around the funky downtown area.  I’ll be a good girl and keep my food journal, not just to keep from paying the fine at TOPS next week (50 cents!), but because I need the information.  My ponies haven’t galloped too far down range, but there are several I haven’t ridden in a while.  Time to hop on all those horses and ride.

peer supportAnd when I get home, I’ll have something special waiting for me.  Yesterday, I talked with Dan, the social worker who pointed me toward Peer Training when I was in partial hospitalization last spring.  The hospital program I went through offers an after-care support group, but it’s designed to be short-term.  Folks are only allowed to attend for three months.  Part of recovery is finding other means of emotional support through family, friends and other groups.  Many people have asked for an after-after-care group, one that would let them continue with the friends they’ve made in group.  Dan said the hospital finally approved a peer-led after-care group, and he wants me to be part of the peer team.  The week after I get home from training, I’ll meet with Dan to start orientation and training.

The position is unpaid, which bummed me at first glance.  But I quickly realized it’s the perfect way for me to ease into this work and a possible work-life.  I’ll be with people I know, working in a program I believe in at Mercy Franklin (the only place I ever saw myself working).  It’s a baby step, and that’s the only way to proceed here.

It’s so easy to focus on the crappy stuff—being sick, being crazy.  Good Things happen, too.  Especially when I point my energy and thoughts in that direction.  I am infinitely grateful for that reminder today.

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

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