Big Brother Addiction

Hi.  My name is Sandy.  And I’m a Big Brother addict.

I believe Reality TV is the scourge of television.  It panders to our lowest animal instincts, serving up people acting their worst and getting famous for it.  But, America loves a train wreck, and watching people behave like two-year olds in dangerous grown-up bodies seems to be the wreck of choice.

I, alas, am no exception.

I started watching Big Brother the summer after I moved home to Marshalltown.  I was still loopy from ECT treatments I had that winter, and changing medications every two or three months.  I was not in my right mind, okay?  I couldn’t help myself.

Cast of Big Brother, Season 13

I don’t know about other reality shows (because I don’t watch them), but Big Brother puts people in a pressure cooker, then records the results for all the world to see.  Players start out with integrity and compassion, but over the course of the summer, lose that to the drive to survive in the game.  They forget they’re playing a game, and take the posturing and manipulation of others personally.

And then the stress just gets to folks, so emotional outbursts and fights become more common as the season advances.  Some players enter the game with every intention of lying and cheating their way to the end, but the surprising friendships they develop with other players completely changes their strategy.  Alliances form, dissolve, and reform.  “Show-mances” develop, romantic relationships squeezed out by all that forced intimacy.  It’s all very human.  And fascinating.

This past Thursday night, my favorite player got evicted from the Big Brother house.  Jeff Schroeder first played Big Brother two years ago.  He developed a show-mance with fellow player, Jordan Lloyd, which was chaste (Jordan would only let him kiss her on the cheek) and sweet.  He sacrificed plays in the game for her, and she faithfully supported him.  Their romance continued off-screen, and Big Brother invited them back this season.

Like the other players in the pressure cooker of Big Brother, Jeff lost his temper, took things personally, and fought hard in competitions.  But, unlike most others, he never lost his integrity.  He talked straight and kept his word.  He stayed loyal to those in his alliance, even when they didn’t act in his best interest.  He continued to treat Jordan with respect, acting as her protector and partner.  Jeff maintained his sense of humor and his perspective, and always found his way back to Center.

I imagine when players recover from the trauma of participating in Big Brother, they must be embarrassed, or at the very least see they’re not quite the kind/honorable/humane people they thought they were.

I imagine some of their parents must wear disguises to the grocery store.  But, when I think of Jeff’s family, I can only imagine how proud they are.  He’s an unlikely role model, a Reality TV version of The Hero.  He was a surprise treasure amidst the train wreckage strewn across TVland, and I wish him well. (Go, Jordan!)

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 30

My computer is a remnant of my old life, before psychotropic drugs, before electroshock, before my world went blewie.  Back in 2004, this iMac was state of the art, and it continues to be a workhorse for me.  There are new-fangled things it can’t do, but I’m not so new-fangled either, so it’s limitations suit me fine.

Back in February, when I launched this blog, I had no idea what I was doing, only that it seemed like the next step in both managing my bipolar disorder and moving out into the world again.  Every day, I sat at my trusty iMac, and ideas for posts came.  I gave little thought to who might actually read my words, only that they were necessary, true and free to travel the cybersphere.

Then, I started to hear from you.  Through my old iMac, I discovered a world of talented, complex people who caught my words as they drifted past and allowed them into their hearts.  I became acquainted with you, then fell in love with you.  Your struggles and joys, your compassion and sincerity, your acceptance and understanding poured from my computer.  I was shocked.  I was humbled.  And I was so very grateful.

As I finish my Gratitude Challenge today, I offer up my deepest thanks and appreciation for those of you who read these words, whether you breeze by or stop and hang out for a while.  Like most things I’m grateful for, this gift of community was unexpected and life-altering.


30 Days of Gratitude: Day 23

As of today, it’s been 44 days since my last episode of either depression or mania.  To me, this is a miracle.  The longest I’ve gone between episodes before this is 10 days.  Nine months ago, I was rapid cycling with full swings of depression and mania happening twice and sometimes three times a day.

What’s changed since then?  I’ve been off all medications for seven months.  I’ve worked hard at being physically healthy.  I’ve worked hard at being aware of my thoughts, emotions and reactions.  I meditate every day.  And now, I’m working hard at being aware of my compulsions.

I don’t know why I’ve been given this long, lovely reprieve.  I know the episodes will return.  I’m just so very grateful.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 11

In 2008, after a couple of years of near-total inactivity, I started walking around the track at the Y.  It was torture.  Every step hurt my feet, my back.  I couldn’t catch my breath.  But, I weighed 300 pounds, and I knew I had to start somewhere.

A few months later I started Water Walking—a slow stroll back and forth across the Recreation Pool (maximum depth around 4 feet).  Then, I added the water aerobics class for seniors (mostly stretching with a little cardio).

I added a second water aerobics class, and then a third.  I started using the weight machines and the recumbent bike.  Now I go to the “Boot Camp” water class with people my own age and younger, and I’ve started swimming laps on the weekends.  Oh, and there’s the Line Dancing class on Wednesday afternoons.

My perception of exercise has shifted radically in the past 3 years.  What drove me in the beginning was the desire to lose weight.  Then I learned what a vital element exercise is in managing bipolar disorder.  And once I stopped taking the psychotropics, I discovered I needed regular exercise to control fibromyalgia and arthritis pain those meds had masked.

Going to the Y has become part of my everyday routine.  I don’t think about it.  I don’t fudge.  I just get up in the morning and go.  This, in itself, is a miracle to me.  I also receive financial assistance, so what I pay for my annual membership is very affordable and a priority in my budget.

Every year I’m asked to write a thank-you note to the benefactors, which I’m delighted to do.  I tell them their generosity saved my life and continues to do so.  I like to imagine that makes their gift seem worthwhile.  It certainly is for me.

Finding the Gift

For the last few days I’ve been stuck in an uncomfortable place.  I haven’t posted much because I can’t find the “gift.”  If I sit with my discomfort, if I do the spiritual and mental work, there’s always insight—eventually.  I just haven’t gotten there yet.

Frankly, I’m frightened.  None of my ideas or plans for managing this illness seem to work for long.  I can follow through when I’m stable, but lately that state only lasts about a week before the depression or the mania return.  I believed going off medication would make a bigger difference than it has.  I’m clearer, my memory is better, and I no longer experience rapid cycling, but I had hoped for more.  I guess I was looking for a miracle.

I have to sit back for a minute, take a deep breath, and concentrate on the gifts I already have—a nice apartment, a vehicle that runs, my friends and family, clean clothes, two sweet cats, a place where I can swim and dance, food in the cupboard, a network of cyber-friends who understand me.  I can see the list going on and on.  If I hold onto these gifts, maybe I can wait out the fear and resignation, not get too mired in them.  This all will turn.  It always does.

The D Word

For a while yesterday, I wanted to die.

The depression, the poverty, the constant, never-ending struggle to simply exist was too much.  All I could see was want, loneliness, misunderstanding and pain that my fantasizing would never change.  Jumping around in the water, scribbling little stories, pasting pieces of paper together, starting book after book only to set them back down just marked time while my life tick-tocked by.  Death would be such a relief.

For someone who is bipolar, this thought is a marker.  It’s not the same as wanting to commit suicide.  And it’s still distant to developing a plan to commit suicide.  Nevertheless, thoughts of death signal a serious turn in the depression.

I stayed with those thoughts long enough to write them all out in my journal.  As soon as I actually wrote the “D” word, actually admitted to feeling that lost and desperate, I surrendered to my training.

This is what training is for.  It kicks in without conscious thought.  It’s habit, so deeply ingrained that it runs automatically.

I mopped up my tears, finished my coffee and went home.  I gathered together some old pictures and took them to Minute Man to get copied.  I bought refills for my ink pens and furniture polish.  I picked up my new glasses.  I stood outside and lifted my face to the warm sun, let myself feel the mild breeze.  I glued borders around Nancy’s collages.  I made two cards.  For the rest of the day, I distracted my brain from the hopelessness.

And in the evening I told my Bipolar Buddy that I had thought about dying.  My friend Cheryl is my Bipolar Buddy.  Three years ago, after I tried to kill myself, I promised Cheryl that I would always tell her if thoughts of death ever came back.  I’m accountable to her.  I’m honest about my thoughts, and she witnesses—that’s our agreement.

In the past, I would have called my mental health clinic.  My therapist would have called my psychiatrist, who would have sent me to a hospital where medications would have been adjusted or changed, thus starting a four to eight week period of confusion and fog-brain while my brain and body adapted to the new drugs.

It was never the drugs that made me better, it was the slap of being hospitalized, the challenge to my distorted thinking that pulled me from the edge.  So, I learned to challenge my own thinking.  Once I realized the medications actually made my symptoms worse and I was able to wean off them, I became even more able to see the distortions.  I’ve not had thoughts of death for a long time, but it’s part of the illness.  They had to come back around sooner or later.

I’m better this morning—not great, but better.  Thoughts about my life being pointless still crowd me from behind, but I’m not entertaining them.  What I will do today is trust my training.

Day 6

Day Six of this current depressive episode.  Ugh.  It feels like I’ve been in this place for weeks.

Since going off my medications, all rapid cycling has stopped—no more bouncing back and forth between depression and hypomania, no more days of flipping between the two states every couple of hours.  This is a good thing.  But now, when the depressive episodes come, they last longer.  My longest stint used to be three days, then I’d start to feel the mood lift.  I’ve said before that I need to develop some new skills to get through these longer bouts.  I just don’t know what those new skills should be.  I will see my therapist in May.  This is something we need to discuss.

My compulsions are in full force.  I’m spending all my money on food, neatly combining compulsive spending with compulsive eating.  I’ve gained ten pounds since getting bronchitis last month.  I’m isolating, shunning my friends, coming home after my Y classes instead of going to the coffee shop, screening my phone calls and not picking up.  Since I’ve used up my allowance for the week, I won’t be able to fill up and drive to my meditation group on Friday.  Consequences.

I’m afraid being physically ill and the stress of tutoring triggered this episode.  It seems logical, but I can’t trust the way  my brain is working right now.  To know for sure, I’d have to test each variable separately.  Would it be worth it?  This isn’t the time to decide something like that.  It’s best to just turn the volume down on my thoughts by doing something mindless, like cut pictures and words out of magazines, listen to music, watch a little TV.  Best to distract my thoughts with a shiny object.

I can’t help but think these posts are whiny and boring.  Blah, blah, blah.  Poor me and my bipolar brain.  It’s a lifeline, though.  I know it.  I feel it.  Hang in here with me, will you?

And Now For Something Completely Different

In my quest for a Life With Meaning inside a bipolar brain, I latched onto this philosophy after President Obama took office:  Education is the only way out of our country’s quagmire, therefore, it is my duty as a citizen to do my part.  I decided I would volunteer at our high school to tutor language skills.  Never mind that teenagers terrify me.  Never mind that I can’t keep a schedule, so setting up times to meet with kids would be… oh, I don’t know… impossible.

Undaunted, I went to the district office to announce my tutorship.  Everyone I talked to just looked at me and blinked.  There was no volunteer program, in fact, the V-word seemed nearly blasphemous.  I talked with administrators, the Special Needs director, teachers.  No-one knew what to do with me.  I went home and waited.

Last year, my friend, Cheryl, an English teacher at the high school, set up a meeting with one of her students.  I sat in the foyer of the public library, waiting for the girl to show up, nauseous with anxiety.  It was a mistake, I thought.  I can’t do this.  Luckily, the girl never arrived, and I went home believing I dodged a very messy bullet.  But, my drive to contribute, to be of service remained.  After weaning off my medications, I thought I might be able to follow through better, manage the scheduling/commitment anxiety. I reminded the teachers I was available and, once again, waited.

Today I met with my first student.  Oh, my!  The crazy-making thoughts buzzed my brain all day like B-52s.  Anxiety burned my stomach and made me want to scratch off my skin.  I went to the library early, just to get out of the apartment and quit waiting.  I had speeches planned for every contingency—a lazy kid, a smart-ass kid, a late kid, an unprepared kid.  What I hadn’t planned for, though, was the sincere little girl who walked into the study room.  When she started talking, all the craziness fell out of my head.  Nervous, she rambled about her late assignments, her wardrobe, and her boyfriend all in one sentence.  She wanted to be a better student.  She wanted my help.  We talked for an hour.

I sat in my truck in the parking lot after our meeting, dazed.  What just happened?  I kept an appointment with a teenager, which was huge in itself.  But more than that, I connected with her.  It wasn’t a matter of being of service, it was a matter of being human, of listening, of staying in the moment and offering whatever came up.  Oh, for Heaven’s sake, I thought.  Here’s one more freaking practice.

We’ll meet again tomorrow.

Health Rant

I’ve got bronchitis again.  This is the third major respiratory infection I’ve had since December, which is just too weird.  I’ll go to the doctor today and get antibiotics, but something else has to shift here.  I started sneezing as soon as the heat came on last fall, so I’ve put filters on all my HVAC registers to try to keep out any bugs that might be in the system (the maintenance man said he changed the furnace filter).  I take vitamins and supplements.  I eat my veggies.  I exercise.  I’m not sucking on or licking people.  My immune system just seems to be shredded for some reason.

I know that the energy spent during my bipolar episodes depletes the chi.  I’m wondering if all my fussing about money, my compulsions, the death of my car, etc. wiped me out.  Maybe this particular bug is really virulent and the antibiotics just slow it down for a while before it bounces back.  Maybe going off my psych meds kicked my immune system in the ass.  Maybe, I’m just telling myself stories.  I guess the thing to do is be aware of where I put my attention and energy, keep up with my healthy habits, and concentrate on healing.  My family doc is a sweet man—maybe he’ll have some ideas.

At any rate, today it’s Earl Grey—hot for me, my snuggly comforter and a cat on my lap while I watch DVRed episodes of Star Trek Enterprise.  I hope your day is snot-free.

Sound and Fury

Like other people with bipolar disorder, I’m hypersensitive to sensory input.  Too much stimulus of any kind can trigger an episode if the stars are aligned in a certain way.  At least, that’s the only reason I can figure out.  Some days, I can go to the Y and participate in my water aerobics classes, chatty conversations going on all around me, music blaring from the speakers and bouncing around the huge pool room, then go about my day.  Some days I can’t.

This morning the combination of The Andrew Sisters be-bopping from the speakers and the woman whose voice cuts granite standing next to me drove me out of the pool.  I hurried to the hot tub and submerged, hoping the hot water would soothe me.  I cried for a while, soaked, got out.  It took about a half hour for my nerves to stop thrumming, but they did, which feels like a miracle.  Thank you, Jesus (as my friend Lily would say).

Smells are also particularly offensive.  I can’t stand perfumes or cooking odors.  The boys’ litter boxes are cleaned regularly because the urine tang cannot be tolerated (Oddly enough, the poopy smell doesn’t bother).  Even in the depths of winter, I  open up all the windows in the apartment every day to freshen the air.  It’s amazing how much that helps.

Crowds of people create the worst environment.  With crowds there’s noise, stink, pushing and shoving (or just standing too close to too many people for too long) and the constant visual bombardment.  I don’t do well in crowds.

Hypersensitivity, I’ve discovered, occurs in folks weaning off their medications.  I’ve chatted with lots of people in the process of going off meds, and while their symptoms are varied, hypersensitivity seems to carry through.  So, I wonder if, as my body adjusts to life without drugs, this Delicate Flower syndrome will fade.  That would be nice, but I’m not banking on it.  For now, sensory input is just another element to manage, like negative thinking and quality of sleep.  Meditation helps to calm the nerves.  I’ll be with my meditation group this afternoon, so that will help today.

I’ve learned to excuse myself from social situations and step back from anything that feels like it’s too much.  In living with an illness that swings to extremes, minimalism provides the counter balance.  It’s true what they say, a little bit goes a long way.

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