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.

The Good Fight

handmade greeting cards, collage artSo, I’m ducking and weaving with this whole idea of letting Life be instead of knocking it to the ground.  It’s a weird place for me, the Ultimate Gnat’s Ass Detailer.  My modus operandi is to schedule, make lists, revise the schedule, scrap the first list and make a new one.  I’m never comfortable without a Plan.  But, see, after all this time, the Plan is ingrained.  I know what works and what doesn’t as far as my bipolarness goes.  And there will never be an Answer. There’s no alchemy, no incantation of To Do lists that will halt the rapid cycling or turn me into someone who can work a day job.

What I’ve got are a few tools to help me be the healthiest I can be in the moment—daily exercise, an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, distraction that does no harm, and an attitude of skepticism when it comes to what my brain says.  That’s all really.  Turning from “what’s the plan” to “what do I need now” is incredibly hard.  I’m giving up my fantasy of the future.  But when I take a breath and notice the details around me right now, that unlikely future loses its glamour.

Yesterday, walking around the track at the Y, I had to dodge clots of teenagers.  Bored from watching the girls’ volleyball tournament, they hung out around the free weights or wandered aimlessly back and forth across the track, not paying attention to the runners and walkers.  Several times, I had to gently push them aside as I marched past.  One girl stopped right in front of me and I had to straight-arm her out of my way to keep from falling.  But, no one fell.  No one stumbled.  No collisions or recriminations.  No anger or scolding.  Just paying attention and making adjustments.

And then there was that golden, winter afternoon light that shot through the high windows and kissed me on every lap.  Sweet, blinding sunlight for a moment.  A flash of warmth on my face.  A gift, if I only turned my face toward it.

Of course, there will be backsliding in my acceptance of moment-to-moment life.  Last night I rebelled.  After seven months of vegan eating, I ordered a Super Supreme from Pizza Hut, ate half of it with a bottle of wine, and watched “Win a Date with Tad Hamilton.”  This, my sad and angry little brain told me, is as close to sex as you’ll ever get again.

Richard ArmitageYes, facing reality instead of living in fantasy is a little hard to swallow sometimes.  I watched Richard Armitage in The Vicar of Dibley on YouTube and cheered.  A handsome stranger falls head-over-heals for an obese, middle-aged cynic—oh, dream come true!  But, dreams like that keep me from living.  There are no handsome strangers in real life, just banter with the happily married help-desk guy at the Y.  Losing weight will not transform me into a young, desirable princess.  I am firmly in Queen territory now, fast approaching Crone-hood.

There are pleasures and delights in my life as it is—a purring, furry presence to wake me in the morning, an iPod full of cheer, train whistles in the dark, the kindness and patience of friends.  This is my life—quixotic and painful with moments of grace.  This is the fight now—to stand side-by-side with my bipolarness and duke it out together for place to stand.  To live together in the moment.

To be real.

Shot-Gun Rider

Madness will push you anywhere it wants.  It never tells you where you’re going, or why.  It tells you it doesn’t matter.  It persuades you.  It dangles something sparkly before you, shimmering like that patch on the road up ahead.  You will drive until you find it, the treasure, the thing you most desire.

You will never find it.  Madness may mock you so long, you will die of the search.  Or it will tire of you, turn its back, oblivious as you go flying.  The car is beside you, smoking, belly-up, still spinning its wheels.

—Marya Hornbacher from Madness: A Bipolar Life

♦ ♦ ♦

I just finished Hornbacher’s account of her life with bipolar disorder.  Part of me is furious.  Part of me identifies so completely with her life that I want to buy copies of her book and give them to everyone I know.  “Here,” I want to tell them.  “This is what the inside of my head looks like.”  Part of me feels sick and crazy and wants to binge or drive really fast until the screaming in my own head stops.  Part of me just wants to punch something.

So, I guess the furious part is winning.  Here’s a woman who survived anorexia so severe she once weighed 55 pounds, raging alcoholism, drug addiction and rapid-cycling, mixed-state bipolar disorder.  She was hospitalized over and over again.  She even received electroshock treatments from the same doctor who gave them to me.  I should be compassionate.  I should be empathetic.  I should get her life.

But all I can think about is that she was diagnosed in her twenties and ignored every recommendation that was ever given to her.  Stop drinking.  Stop working so much.  Pay attention to your moods.  She ignored all of it until her illness was so advanced she had no other choice than to finally take some responsibility for her life.

What I wouldn’t give to have had a diagnosis in my twenties!

Of course, I may have done exactly what Hornbacher did—blow it off and let the madness run riot.  Of course I would have, because that’s part of the illness.  (Professionals call it “lack of insight,” which means the inability to recognize symptoms as symptoms.)  And that’s what pisses me off.

There was never any chance of stopping this freight train, never any chance of catching up to the mirage of sanity.  I knew that when I was eleven, but I keep forgetting.  I fool myself into thinking all this work I do, all the Observing and Monitoring and Substituting, will lock the craziness away and let me be normal. Always, in the back of my mind, I hold out that someday the monster will go up in smoke.  But these memoirs that I’m reading, as research for my own book on bipolar disorder, keep pounding a different stake through my heart.  “Snap out of it!” the Van Helsing-book yells at me.  “Bipolar isn’t the monster—chasing after Normal is the real monster!”

Uhhh.  My chest hurts where I’ve pulled out the latest stake.  Maybe I can figure out how to banish the magical thinking without needing a pointy two-by-four every single time.  Maybe I can teach myself to just enjoy the drive instead of keeping an eye out for the mirage.  Maybe, someday, I’ll finally accept this illness as the shot-gun rider that it is.  Maybe.  Someday.

Portion Control

Collage art, greeting card, humor

I’m forever looking for a different perspective on my bipolar disorder, a new spin, a fresh approach, some metaphor that will pop the lid on Magic and Truth.  Driving home from the movie theater the other day, another one presented itself.

My life is all about Portion Control.

Since impulse control is the Troll under my bipolar bridge, restraint and moderation have simply been beyond my reach most of my life.  Between episodes, I’m a paragon of virtue, walking the path of Divine Temperance with nary a glance to either side of Temptation.  But once I hit that bridge, Troll-Mind takes over.  It goes something like this:

GimmeGimmeGimme. MoreMoreMore. NowNowNow.

 

When I finally make it to the other side of the bridge, I look back at massive destruction, consumption, and extravagance.  Caligula was a poser in comparison.

So part of my quest is to find methods or structures that will enforce prudence where none exists.  For several years, I gave control of my money to my friend, Cheryl. She held my credit card and my checkbook.  She watched me pay bills and provided me a weekly allowance.  My sister kept track of my tiny savings account, and still does.  That money remains in a bank out of my reach.  Troll-Mind still sends me on spending sprees, but I seem to be able to compensate better than I used to.  The Troll seems to be satisfied with a scrap of indulgence now rather than pillaging a whole countryside.  And I wonder why.

Snow White Troll

The changes I’ve been making in my daily habits like exercising or reading memoirs instead of watching TV poke the Troll with a big stick.  I’ve felt my compulsive urges roar with renewed violence—a monster frightened of losing its power.  To find some balance, I’ve tried to offer it scraps—a movie at a theater instead of hours of TV, one ice cream cone from McDonald’s instead of a carton of Ben & Jerry’s at home, writing a schmaltzy romance story instead of pining for the perfect mate.  I wonder if offering scraps for these other compulsions will work the way it did for money?  I wonder if this version of portion control will lull the beast?

Time and practice will tell, I guess.  Until I stumble over the next metaphor.

Whittling

There are days when it seems that everything I do is aimed at shoring up my defenses.  I exercise to regulate my brain chemistry and strengthen my body.  I journal to catch any distorted thinking and plan my day to avoid impulse eating/spending/reacting.  I work on a short story or a longer fictional piece to bleed out the fantasy thinking that collects like rain water in my barrel.  I practice Tai Chi as an exercise in Will, proving to myself that I can do things that are uncomfortable or difficult.

An underlying tension runs through all this doing, a sense of glancing over my shoulder toward the horizon.  Something’s coming.  Then, I shake it off and get back to it.

I’m sure much of this anticipatory dread comes from making so many changes in my lifestyle.  Change shakes everything up—physically, mentally, emotionally.  There’s no part of us that really likes it.  And those parts will fight to return to the status quo.  Dr. Phil calls this instinctual drift—the tendency for all organisms to revert back to their natural or learned tendencies.  It’s why all those “tame” wild animals keep mauling their owners.  It’s why lost weight always finds its way back.  Deeply ingrained patterns are just that—carved deep—and it will take more than a couple of weeks of tap dancing around them to make a difference.

The patterns that grew up around being bipolar kept me alive.  Maladaptive and unhealthy though they were, they became the only way to survive in my world.  Some days it feels like I’m jumping out of my lifeboat into shark infested water.  Ooo, and I hate sharks.

But, I have a precedent.  I have made a huge change before and incorporated it into my life.  I went from never exercising to working out at the Y five days a week.  Every week.  There’s no resistance to it any more.  It is simply part of my life.  So, I know change is possible for me.  It takes vigilance.  It takes making the choice every day, several times a day.  It takes carving out a new pattern one splinter at a time until that is the new learned response.

Every evening that I swim with my friend in her pool instead of watch TV is a splinter.  Every time I notice my thoughts turning to food and close the book I’m reading is a splinter.  Every time I walk uptown instead of getting into my truck is a splinter.  They all feel unnatural and forced.  My body twitches and there are parts of me that feel like I’m dying.  Sharks!

Sometimes I jump back in the boat, return to the comforting and numbing old ways.  But, the sharks are just a dream.  There is no water.  So I climb out of the rotten boat and start again.

I am shoring up my defenses—against my old patterns, coping skills that don’t serve me anymore.  What’s coming over the horizon is just a scared little girl flailing against pain and darkness.

Come here, darling.  Let’s whittle together.

A Bold, Bad-Ass Move

Turn off the TVWell, for me it is, anyway.  I’ve decided to unplug my TV this week.

As I read through my old journals, pulling out tidbits that might be useful in my next writing project, I see over and over again how I lament over my inability to stop eating while I watch TV.  For decades, I’ve been moaning about this.  For awhile I even lived without a TV (but soon after that I was diagnosed as bipolar, so the jury is still out on whether that additional stress was a good idea or not).

This morning, I berated myself once again for bingeing while channel surfing.  Watching TV is the perfect set up for compulsive eating.  It lulls me, distracts me, siphons away any awareness or consciousness I might have scraped together.  It’s a great tool when my illness is loud and dangerous.  TV is the shiny object that distracts the toddler from sticking her finger in the electrical outlet.

But compulsions rise out of mindlessness.  They operate best in the dark when no one is looking.

I believe the only way I will ever push against my compulsions is to See them.  I have to be alert enough to notice when they show up, feel them in my body, and stay with them long enough to keep from acting blindly.  I may still fall prey to them, but at least I’ll have a fighting chance.

Losing weight is only a small part of why I need to do this.  My compulsions are my Edge right now, the Next Thing in my quest to live a sane life.  Compulsive eating, spending, and sexual fantasy control me.  They are the mindless monsters that take over and use my body and mind.  When the depression and mania come, there’s no stopping them.

Xena Warrior Princess Bad-AssIt’s only now, in the between time, that I have any chance to practice pushing against them.  This is part of my Bad-Ass Training, and like any warrior, I need to be willing to step up to the challenge.  After only one day with the TV silent, I can feel the itch.  I’m uncomfortable and want to be soothed.  Like any habit, this will be hard to kick.  And like everything else in my life, I will succeed and fail.  But, each time I Look, each time I hold the tension between Falling Asleep and Waking Up, I’ll strengthen my sword arm.

I’m on an Adventure.

Shifting Sands

What I’ve found as a student of my own bipolar disorder is that I function best with a routine and a minimum of stress.  I can surf change and surprises if they remain small and limited, but pile on too many or shake up my world too much and I become symptomatic.

Over the last few days, I’ve watched my agitation grow—both motor (feeling like I have to keep moving) and psychic (intense inner tension).  I’m quick to anger, and I’m finding it difficult to focus on tasks.  At the same time, I have a nagging premonition of doom, like I’m forgetting something important.  My thoughts are heavy, self-defeating, distorted toward darkness.  This is all classic mixed-state bipolar disorder.

Stress is different for everyone.  I’ve thought about this a lot as I considered volunteering at the public library.  The biggest, most consistent stressor in my life has always been work.  Before my mental break in 2006, I changed jobs almost every seven years.  That seemed to be my limit.  I would get physically sick, or quit on the verge of getting fired, or later, suffer anxiety attacks.

After moving home in 2007, I tried several times to work.  I’ve always said my problem was that I couldn’t be consistent, that holding to someone else’s schedule was impossible for me.  But, I’m not sure that’s the issue.  All I know for sure is that working causes me enormous stress, which makes me sick.

So I had mixed feelings when the librarian took my name, but said she didn’t have any work for me at present.  Relief mixed with irritation.  I recognize the irritation as part of the agitation pool I’m paddling in right now.  Relief is the proper response.  I don’t need to add another stressor right now.

Working on a new writing project, one without a clear form and direction, is very different from rewriting a piece of fiction.  I’ve learned enough about my writing process to know it will take shape eventually.  But, for now it slips through my fingers.  There’s no path to follow.  That’s very disconcerting and fodder for the distorted thoughts crowding into my head.

I knew that challenging myself to draw every day for a month would bring up old wounds to be healed, but I never anticipated the level of resistance I feel in my body.  Part of that is the agitation itself.  I’m genuinely shocked at the comments readers have left about the sketches I’ve posted so far.  They look like crap to me.  So, I Watch those thoughts, try to remain curious about where the distortion comes from, try to feel the anxiety in my body.  I hold the possibility that the sketches are fine, that the self-criticism is a product of my illness and a distorted view of my history.  I wake up a little bit and breathe.

Today, I will comfort myself as best I can while holding the tension—work out at the Y, go to Panera where I feel successful as a writer and can afford a couple of meals (both money and calorie-wise).  I’ll listen to my music and sing while I drive the half hour to Ames, take in the spring greens and count the baby animals (lambs are so clean!).

Seeing what’s going on, bringing awareness to my symptoms and lifting them up out of the shadows makes the process so much easier.  It drains off the fear and shame.  It helps me identify the delusions.  With awareness, I can place my steps more carefully in the shifting sands of my illness and keep moving forward.

A Bad-Ass Review

A page has turned.

Or, maybe, a season is done.

Whatever the metaphor, I’ve put closure to a few major events in my life—healing from surgery, Callinda, and celebrating Callinda.  Now it’s time to regroup, refocus and point myself in the next direction.

To do that, I turn to my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, which seems odd since I’m not coming out of a bipolar episode.  But, the last six weeks threw my normal routine out the window, and Bad-Assery is all about putting routine back in place and setting focus.

Clean Eating

I was thrilled that I got all the party left-overs out of my apartment before I indulged in more than one binge.  Saturday night, I was exhausted after cleaning and schlepping.  All I wanted to do was self-medicate with food and go numb in front of the TV, which I did.  But, the next morning I gave away the rest of the left-overs or threw them in the dumpster.  Better in there than in me.

Getting too tired, too emotional, or too rigid are guaranteed triggers of my compulsive eating.  I’m pleased that I minimized the damage and am back to Paying Attention in this area.

Stamina and Strength

I’ve returned to my 6:00 AM water aerobics class.  I can still feel some soreness, and I’m not as fast or strong as when I left six weeks ago, but I’m back.  I know that a huge part of my quick recovery is due to my level of fitness going into surgery.  That feels wonderful.  Me?  Fit?  Who woulda thunk it?

The next physical issue to address will be my shoulder, reinjured when I swam laps in December.  My chiropractor suggested I get an MRI to check for structural damage, so I have an appointment to see my medical doc in a few weeks.

Set Priorities

My basic priorities remain the same—Write, Make Art and Make a Life.  Today I started working on what I’m calling my Bad-Assery manuscript—my experience as a bipolar warrior.  Lots of work to be done, lots of research to explore, but today I started.

For the next month or so, I’ll be devoting my art time to drawing.  I can feel a big boulder of resistance in my gut over this, but just like I pushed through my fear of writing, I can push through my fear of drawing.  Each time I pick up my pencil, I will feel the resistance and push back, just a little bit.  Holding this tension will strengthen my Will and give me more energy to push back the next time.  Growing my Will is important.  It will help me to push back against my compulsive impulses when they rise.  Anyway I can do that deserves time and attention.

For me, making a life means finding ways to be in the community.  Tutoring kids was too stressful and helping at the Animal Rescue League was too sad.  So, I stopped at the library today to see if they could use a volunteer.  I’ll talk to the person in charge about details tomorrow.  There’s also my involvement in TOPS and the Unitarian Universalist group.  A Life is definitely being made.

Lay in Supplies

There are chores and maintenance items to attend to, things I let go because I either wasn’t strong enough after surgery, didn’t have the time while planning for the party, or didn’t have the money.  It’s time to take care of those things.

Refocus.  Regroup.  Take stock.  And take the next step.

I’m ready.

Hero

I just can’t seem to stop fighting this episode.  I have things to do, chapters to write, events to attend, but the depression, agitation and convoluted thinking keep getting in my way.  It’s like wearing a hair shirt on the inside of my body—the itch and irritation only compound my already-agitated state.  I’m not helping myself much lately.

I lose myself in fantasy for comfort and distraction, but that’s a treacherous path.  What I need to do is pay attention, not drift off into Star Trek-land where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average” (thank you, Garrison Keillor).

This is a very old trope, almost as old as compulsive eating.  I leave the sadness and despair of my real life to create a fictional crisis where a hero Saves the Day.  Sometimes, I imagine a line up of potential heroic figures (Indiana Jones, Picard, Batman, Wolverine, etc.), and circle around each one like a fish monger, picking the Catch of the Day.  The winner gets to star in my mental melodrama.  I remember when Clark Gable was part of this line up back when we used to see Gone With the Wind in theaters every year.  I was in junior high.  That’s how old this form of distraction is.

But, like compulsive eating, it just doesn’t seem like a healthy or useful activity anymore.  It smudges the boundary between mental illness and creative storytelling.  It keeps me numb and blind.  And ultimately, it makes me even more sad, because there’s no finding those heroes in real life.

Today, as I churned up white water during my aerobics class, a tiny voice behind all that fantasy said:

You are your own Hero.  

My life gets interrupted all the time by this illness.  Projects have to wait.  Events get cancelled.  The “To Do” list gets thrown away.  Attention must turn away from those things and gaze upon the illness with compassion.  No need to fight.  No need to escape.  No need to be anywhere but here, treating myself the way I deserve to be treated.  Only I can do that for me.  I’m the only one who can save me.  I am the Hero.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I feel like Drew Carey on The Price is Right—the next revelation, Come on Down!

I spent the weekend in Minneapolis with our Teachers’ Training group.  After several years of on again, off again gatherings to learn how to teach the material in Foundation fashion, this was my final learning module before I “graduate.”  The Foundation approach is holographic, using cross-cultural mysticism, hard science, art, literature, history, sociology, psychology and varied religious practices to open students to consciousness and to help them create a spiritual practice of their own.

What I discovered, after being in emotional distress most of the weekend, is that I’ve been holding on to this group as a piece of Minneapolis Grief.  Yes, I’ve known and worked with some of the people in the group for over twelve years.  Yes, I learned the skills that help me manage my bipolar disorder there.  But now that my grief over leaving the Twin Cities has faded and begun to heal, I’m seeing More about the group and myself.

My spiritual compass has been pointing me toward being more of a phoenix than a teacher.  My aim is to build a rich, meaningful life out of the ashes my bipolar disorder made of my old life.  If any quality of teaching exists in that it will come from my writing, from sharing my story, or from quiet one-on-one conversations.

I held on to this group out of hunger and pain.  We do share an openness and acceptance for others’ spiritual paths, but there are only two women in the larger Minnesota group whom I’m close to and consider friends.  The rest are acquaintances—like folks in a church congregation who chat and share a potluck dinner.  Even my teacher, Melanie, is an acquaintance.

It was difficult to let them go after holding on so long.  Fingers cramp and remember the strain of grasping.  But, a few days after the fact, my relief and sense of expansion hints that this might have been the correct course of action.  There’s more room now for what’s to come next.  More ashes for the phoenix to use as raw material.

Strain and resistance are powerful forces for transformation.  David Bowie had the right idea.  Turn and Face the Strain.

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