Breathing with my Fingers

As my current bipolar season continues, I’m ever so grateful for this new tool of Art Journaling.  Since there are several stages to creating a spread, I can always find some piece that will fit my state of mind.  Whether it’s pulling images out of my stash for the collage bits:

Civil War Spread


Or finding new ways to use text:

Air Spread


Or slipping into a Zen state while making boarders and lines:

Into the Storm Spread


Or trying out a new tool, like this very fine tipped Pilot marker:



I can camp out at my coffee shop with my journal and let my illness be.

Megan, my therapist, said I’m not fighting it anymore, and that feels true.  It seems to be getting easier to accept whatever my illness brings—the quicksilver changes in mood, the sudden shifts in functionality.  Those things aren’t good or bad anymore.  They’re just me.

I still try to stuff myself into a “normal” sausage casing sometimes, expecting to move around in the world the way other people do.  But, as I sit with my journal, with all the space it creates in my head, I’ve started to unhook from those expectations and get curious about how I might move differently in the world.

Today, for example, I looked at how I keep trying to make commitments (like being on a committee or taking a class) when my illness makes that nearly impossible.  At some point, when my symptoms become severe, I’m forced to drop everything.  So, instead of continuing to bash myself over the head for being “unreliable,” perhaps there’s another way.  Maybe it’s a matter of showing up when I’m able.  I know the world doesn’t work this way, but I do, and I would like to honor that more.

More acceptance.  More integration.  That seems to be a by-product of all this artsy-fartsy stuff.  I’m breathing more with my fingers, slipping into meditation with color and line.  It’s a new kind of Practice.

I’ve come to a place with my art that I found a while ago with my writing—loving the mistakes and crap as much as anything that “turns out.”  The Shitty First Drafts and the Muddled Attempts are my best teachers.  They point me to the next piece of Practice.  They’re the ones who taught me to accept it all—my writing, my art and, of course, my bipolar disorder.

Funny how that all comes together.

I’m on a Funny Adventure.


The Road Less Traveled

This was originally posted in June of 2011, four months before my dad died.  Not surprisingly, the prayer I offered for him at the end of this piece was never answered.

I see a lot of myself in Dad.  He’s always been a Glass Half Empty kind of guy, his thoughts and opinions naturally traveling down the darkest highway.  A card-carrying pessimist, his words of wisdom to us kids punctured any hope we might have had.  If we complained about doing our chores, he would say, “There are a lot of things in this world you have to do whether you want to or not” or “Get used to it, life is hard.”

Since the time I was in high school, I’ve listened to him bemoan every change in his aging body, never at peace with the natural adjustments any adult male has to make, never able to reconcile himself to the thirty-five year old he thinks he still should be.

I understand this fantasy thinking.  I understand the draw of the past and refusing to live in the present.  I’ve traveled his dark highway and know all the shortcuts.  I’ve watched my dad sit at the Table of Life and accept only scraps, convinced that’s all that’s being served.  He prides himself on being fun-loving, but his jokes and teasing carry a sharp edge that has more to do with defense than humor.  My dad was never a teacher, never had the patience to explain, but I learned his road map well.

When I’m with my dad, I try to poke holes in his perception, counter the negativity with perspective, try to do for him what I must do for myself.  But after a lifetime of indulging his world-view without question, his defenses are solid.  At times I see him struggle to consider the possibility of an alternate route.  If I hammer hard enough, he pauses in his argument to say, “Is that so?”  But, it’s exhausting work, and I can’t keep it up.  And I can’t make him willing.

The desire to turn off the dark highway  comes from within.  It comes from noticing flickers of light on the side of the road, glimpses of intriguing pathways and crossroads.  It comes from taking a risk and swerving off the black pavement for once.  Then, doing it again.  And it takes willingness to ask for directions from people who keep different kinds of maps in their glove compartments.

Father’s Day is tomorrow.  My gift for Dad is a simple prayer—to get the chance to take a side road.  I pray he finds the strength to stand on a bright lane with grass waving green and high on either side, a glass half full in his hand.

Shallow Lessons

handmade greeting cards, collage art

Taking a break from myself for the past week turned out to be an experiment in possibility.  Each morning I got up and posed the question “What do I need today?”  Most days involved some sort of exercise, often twice in the same day.  There was usually a call for delicious, healthy food that I cooked myself.  I read a lot, which startled me since reading has been difficult post-ECT.  Soy chai from Starbucks seemed to be the treat I craved most.  I took several trips to the City without being driven by mania or depression to see what that might be like (delightful, by the way).

What I didn’t do was journal or make art—things I’ve done almost every day since I moved back home six years ago.  I only interacted with strangers for the most part.  And I put a moratorium on thinking.

Years ago, when I lived in Minneapolis, my friend, Lily, and I would go on “shallow” dates.  Both of us tended to over-think and ponder deeply the meaning of Life, so we would pick a fluffy movie and go empty our brains together.  Trouble was, we always found The Lesson or A Point to even the most retarded movie.  We laughed that we could find the Gift in lint.

I tried something a little different this week.  I focused on sensation and intuition.  Both of these ways of knowing have become untrustworthy, co-opted by bipolar delusion and compulsion.  I learned not to trust myself, what I feel and what I desire, because the illness warps perception.  But this set up a constant, internal battlefield.  More than just holding tension, or observing my internal workings, I rejected them.  Or I labeled all feeling and desire as part of the illness.  Either/Or thinking is much easier than trying to tease out the healthy from the unhealthy.  It also requires a lot of thought and analysis.

So, this week I practiced not-thinking.  I tried to listen to my body for what it wanted.  I tried to turn in the direction of beauty and ease like a flower toward the sun (no thinking involved there).  And if I felt compulsion push at me, I listened and felt it instead of analyzing and reporting it in my journal.

It was like mud settling in a pond gone still.  Defensive and vulnerable when I started the week, I felt my body soften and my heart take a deep breath.  My aversion to people thinned and relaxed.  Issues shifted from vague discomfort to solid little pebbles with much less mass than I expected.  Pathways cleared.

My vacation contained good and bad days (or in my new vernacular, sunny and stormy mental weather), so I was able to practice not-thinking on my rapid cycling as well.  I found much comfort in the mantra “Don’t think, just feel.”

So, as I come back to the people and responsibilities in my life today, I feel refreshed and ready.  I have some changes to make and more work to do.  But I’ll try to keep it shallow.

By Any Other Name

Language is the House of Being —Martin Heidegger

handmade cards, collage art

I spent the day paying attention to how I name things.  Specifically, my illness.  I’ve decided cycling doesn’t really fit my flavor of bipolar disorder, at least not at present.  And describing my day as good or bad isn’t helpful.  I need a new vocabulary.

So, I’m going to try some new terms, ones that will carry less judgement and limitation, ones that can hold the huge array of symptoms without lining them up on a spectrum, ones that allow for quick movement and change.

Maybe it’s a matter of thickness or mass.  Sometimes the illness feels heavy, like layers of wet wool pressing down on me.  Sometimes it feels lighter, more like cotton candy pulling apart in a sticky goo.

Maybe, as Stephen Fry suggests, weather vocabulary would be useful.  Barometric pressure plummets.  There’s freaky, baseball-sized hail and squalls.  Layers of clouds slide over each other with the sun just out of sight.

What happens if I say I’m thick at the moment?  Or that my brain is storming?  It may not help others understand my experience any better, but it gives me a different perspective.  Instead of looking to the horizon for that mythical stable period, I’m living in the moment, dealing with all the ways my mood and mind shift, then shift again.  A new vocabulary shines more light on this movement and the moments of sanity they contain.

This is play, but serious in a way.  How we label things, how we speak of them, creates reality.  To tell someone I’m having a bad day hammers a nail through that definition and fixes it to my consciousness.   I only see my day as bad now, not how it changes.  It’s never that simple.

Xiang Yu and the Long View

I’ve been unwell for awhile now.

While I enjoyed a few days respite traveling with my family, it was more a form of crisis management than a shift in mood.  Like those mothers who can lift cars off their children in an emergency, my brain shifts into some primordial survival mode when faced with a crisis.  One more thing I can’t control.

But now I’m back in the deep.  These long episodes are always a test of endurance.  I just finished watching my Firefly collection (Joss Whedon’s short-lived series about a crew of survivors in a harsh off-world future).  A bit of dialogue caught my attention.

Serenity, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, Simon Tam, Shepherd BookShepard Book: Did you ever read the works of Xiang Yu?

Simon Tam: Xiang Yu the psychotic dictator?

The Shepard: Yep.  Fancied himself quite the warrior poet.  Wrote volumes on war… torture… limits of human endurance…”

Simon: That’s nice.

The Shepard: He said—live with a man forty years, share is house, his meals, speak on every subject.  Then, tie him up and hold him over the volcano’s edge.  And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

Simon: What if you don’t live near a volcano?

The Shepard: I ‘spect he was bein’ poetical.

It got my unreliable brain thinking—am I finally meeting the real me?

And then yesterday I saw the movie Cloud Atlas.  It’s a stunning treatment of Karma, The Long Life, and the weight of our thoughts and actions.  Not only did the movie distract me from my rampaging mind, it also helped me pull focus.  I ratcheted back from internal scrutiny to a wider view of my tiny drop of water in the vast ocean of the world and how that ocean might flow over time.

I can never trust the notions that my brain spits out while I’m in the deep.  Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder if things might be changing as I meet the real me in the context of my Long Life.  Instead of fighting change, instead of trying to recreate what was, perhaps I need to relax my grip.  Instead of concentrating on the details, the minutia, perhaps a wider view is required.

I’m not sure what this means, or if I should even pay attention to it.  What I think it means today, is that I’ll stop hunting for a new coffee shop.  That sounds really petty when I write it down, but coffee shops are my sanctuaries.  The right ones can make me feel normal like nothing else can.  But the focus feels too limited now, too fear-based.  I need to look up and out.  Perhaps in all things, I need to look up and out.

I am hanging over the volcano, and maybe the true me is emerging.  But, maybe, there’s more than the fire.  Maybe, there’s also the Ocean.

Bigger Picture

hand made card, collage art

Tomorrow I see my shrink for my annual review.  Since I’m not on medication anymore, we decided this once-a-year check-in was sufficient to keep me on as a patient.  In preparation, I’ve been looking back at the past year in relation to my mental health.

All I can say, is “Wow.”

I believe it to be a part of human nature to put one’s head down and focus on setting one foot in front of the other when times get rough.  Our view narrows to the immediate, the necessary and the loudest or most painful problem demanding attention.  When we watch where we step like this, it’s impossible to see either where we’ve been or where we’re going.  Not that I’m an advocate for living in the past or waiting for the future, but looking up once in a while can help us see where we are.

I’ve been so completely focused on how dysfunctional I am in the moment, that I’ve squeezed out the bigger picture.  When I consider this past year, I can see all the progress I’ve made—in setting goals and reaching them, in bettering my physical health, in developing new social networks, and in exploring my illness with new management tools.  I can see all the stressors, one after another, that I navigated and survived.  Most surprising, I can see a life taking shape out of all the experiments and false starts—the sum much greater than the individual parts.

I’m not sure what I’m feeling as I look at all this—humble and proud in equal measure, which seems fitting for a person with bipolar disorder.  I’ve worked hard and I’ve lived in Grace.  I’m not just jumping up and down like water on a hot skillet.  There is movement in my madness toward wellness and peace.  There is a gentle trajectory that is visible and real.

We all need to look up once in a while, especially if we’ve been slogging along for a long time.  That shift to a wider view, seeing the horizon on all sides, inspires a deep breath into the belly.  Here I am, we say.  Look how far I’ve come.

Why I’m Grateful for Pneumonia

DaVinci sketchMy ears are plugged.  My breathing sounds like some kid shaking up his marble bag.  And I cough up a fester of frogs.  But, I can’t help but feel grateful.  On so many levels.

I’ve gone ten months without a respiratory infection.  Miraculous!  I could count on at least one a season, maybe more, that might turn as ugly as this one.  Then, I met with an allergist who told me I had asthma and an allergy to dust mites.  I credit his instructions (and my faithful following of them) with my ability to beat back the many throat tickles since then with Zinc and a cheap decongestant.  It became my new Super Power.  Who needs magic Amazon bracelets or a green lantern when you can banish cold viruses at will?  Even Batman needs a Kleenex once in a while.  Gratitude Count Number One.

Unlike my employed and familied friends, I can take as long as I need to get well.  I remember the pressure of Sick Days and Family Medical Leave, watching that span of safety rope grow shorter and shorter until one either goes back to work sick or loses the job altogether.  Stress on top of stress.  I remember the demands of keeping a house and while I never had children, I watched my friends who did.  Parents can’t afford to get sick.

Living on Social Security Disability income may put me 200% below the poverty line, but it does mean I have all the sick time I need.  And as long as I have cat food and litter, my family makes no demands on me.  No one cares if the vacuuming doesn’t get done this week, in fact, I think Emmett would be grateful for that.  Gratitude Count Number Two.

While my body is this sick, it seems to leave off the bipolar business.  There’s sleeping, and coughing, and slurping soup.  There’s watching TV at three in the morning and cooking water in the microwave for tea.  There’re visits from my mom and friends with supplies, and calls from others with concern and love.  But, there’s no depression or mania.  While my body fights this virus, the bipolar ogre sleeps.  Gratitude Count Number Three.

beefsteak tomatoIt’s so dang easy to catastrophize.  Oh, woe is me!  I’m at Death’s Door!  But, really, if it wasn’t this particular ailment, it would be something else, right?  An unexpected bill.  A nasty confrontation with a friend.  A dead car.  Bad weather.  Pimples.  You name it.  It’s the human condition.  Life is a shit-storm if we look at it that way.  But, we do have a choice.  Bemoan the feces raining down or hoe it into the garden for an amazing crop of tomatoes.  Takes a little work, a little creative thinking, and willingness to get poopy, but I’ll opt for tomatoes every time.

Failure, Seeds & Tidal Waves

collage art, hand-made greeting cardsI woke up this morning contemplating failure.

I knew last week would be rough.  When the Y closes for cleaning each summer, my whole schedule gets disrupted, but I planned around it the best I could.  However, I couldn’t foresee the bolus of anger that ignited my stress like tinder.  I didn’t anticipate the sudden plunge into a mixed state or the overwhelming return of my compulsions.  And I certainly wasn’t prepared to gain back six pounds.  This morning Failure glared like a jittery neon sign in my head.

But, if living with bipolar disorder has taught me anything, it’s that life is rarely that simple or black and white.  I needed to look at my week again, and again, and again, if necessary, to see the whole picture.

In my reading about anger this week, Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the seeds of anger that are in all of us.  Some have more seeds than others, or their seeds are strongly rooted.  I see that anger and resentment are deeply rooted in me. I keep old hurts precious.  I rail against Life and The Illness.  At times, I practice mindfulness and breathe into these seeds until they become transparent.  But, they remain.  Bipolar disorder, in me, shares a deep affinity with anger.  So, when my illness manifests, my seeds of anger sprout and grow strong.  It is part of the illness, and part of my practice.  Neither success nor failure, but an ebb and flow.

After my attempted suicide, my teacher said to me, “The illness got away from you.”  It does that sometimes, even after careful practice and planning.  I think of myself on a beach with my little buckets and sand shovels, diligently digging trenches and building sand castles.  Sooner or later, a big wave crashes in.  It blasts the castles and erases the trenches I’ve worked so hard to make.

Storms are part of the deal when you live on the edge of the sea.  It’s important to clean up the damage, but just as important to take inventory of what survived.  While my rage was huge and consuming this week, I didn’t aim it at anyone.  And I may have eaten non-stop to deaden the pain, but I still ate nearly-vegan.  I still have my buckets and shovels.

Tidal WaveThis life is so tenuous.  I make plans and set goals to try to keep the sand from constantly shifting under my feet.  Plans and goals are sticks I jab in the sand to find solid ground.  When the storm comes and washes the sticks away, I wail over my lost place-holders.  I forget that this is a Game, and harder yet, I forget how to play it.

The game is to Find the Sticks—those unique and beautiful tools we create to manage the illness—then Plant them.  We notice everything—the resistance of the wet sand, the strength in our arms, the sun on our necks, the pleasant rhythm of the Work.  We stand back to see the pattern and progression of our creation.  And when the Storm hits, we run for shelter, come back when the waters recede, and start again.

There is no failure in this game.  No winners or losers.  There is just the slow, steady Work and the inevitability of the Sea.

Theory of Mind

This amazing bit today from Susanne Antonetta’s A Mind Apart:

One persistent theory of autism—I would call it a bias—holds that autistics have no “theory of mind,” defined as the ability to recognize or infer the mental life of another person.  No theory of mind, the thinking goes, leads to a lack of empathy.  Many clinicians still believe this.

Autistics argue they may develop a theory of mind later than neurotypicals, but the compensation for this later development is a theory of mind that’s far more sophisticated, that recognizes the uniqueness of each individual’s mental life.

Neurotypical theory of mind tends to infer the mental state of others by following the rules of one’s own.  As one clinician puts it, the autistic may rely on a not-like-me awareness of the other, rather than a like-me awareness.  A contributor to the Institute for the Neurological Typical addresses theory of mind this way:  the neurotypical theory of mind is that everyone thinks like me, while the neuroatypical theory would be that everyone’s mind is “vastly and mysteriously” different from my own.

“Have you ever noticed that ‘normal’ people cannot think about the possibility that each person might live in a separate world?” he asks.

I have not polled normal people to see whether or not they can think this.  I know it has been clear to me since childhood, when each set of eyes that passed me, including those of my closest family, seemed like windows in a jetliner taking off, never clearly visible and becoming invisible in no time at all.

What this section made me realize is that early in my life I held a neurotypical theory of mind, in that I believed everyone thought and felt the same way I did.  Now my theory of mind is firmly neuroatypical.  I know no one thinks like I do.  Even other folks with bipolar disorder have very different universes swirling in the vastness of their minds.  We do manage to enter each others’ orbits on occasion, but I’ll never again make the mistake of assuming anyone else populates my planets.


I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door.  It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!


° ° °

It has been a day full of tumbling—from solid to uncertain, from meadow to briar patch, from empty to brimming.  The transition from Clear Mind to an itchy melancholy stretched out over the weekend and somersaulted to a stop today.

Once again, I adjust my expectations.  I remind myself to stop Training and focus on Survival.  I feel the despair and hopelessness, the isolation and incompetence, and I know they are products of a mind twisted dark and untrustworthy.  I reach for my routine—move in the water, push the pen across the page—and reach for the tools that will help me lift my face into the breeze.

I knock on Rumi’s door and feel knuckles rapping inside my chest.  I stand at the brink and am the feet lifting into the air and the grass left behind.  I hold both worlds in my two fists and will not let go.

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