I just finished reading Stephen King’s newest doorstop, 11/22/63.  It’s a story about time travel and the Kennedy assassination, and one of the themes is that the past fights hard to stay the same.  Yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that the present (particularly my present) will roll over anyone (insert “me”) to stay the same.

I visited the Animal Shelter yesterday to discuss volunteering.  The gal at the desk asked me what I’d like to do.  I said anything that needed doing.  She signed me up to work next Monday afternoon.  I walked back out to my truck in a daze.  I’d been in the building a good seven minutes.

On the drive back to town I kept telling myself, “You can do this.  It’s one afternoon.  It’s doggies and kitties.”  But, the anxiety started low in my gut and crept up to my throat.  Where was all that positive, life-affirming determination that shot me out of Minneapolis and back to Marshalltown with a vision of My New Life?  Stuck under the depression that’s since arrived, I imagine.  It was as if a part of me fought hard to stay the same.  Because the same is known, safe.

Later I went to Wal-Mart.  To start beautifying my little apartment and make it more my home, I asked my mom to help me purchase a storage cabinet for my bathroom.  Always happy to have something concrete to buy for me, Mom agreed.  I found a reasonably priced one online and had it shipped to our local store.

“Some assembly required” meant a box full of boards (Not boards, pressboard—the next step up from cardboard) and a big bag of hardware.  I’m pretty handy.  I mean, I’ve got my own drill, for heaven’s sake.  So, I wasn’t too concerned about putting an over-the-toilet cupboard together.  The instruction manual neglected to mention fronts or backs of any of the pieces, so I “assembled” the thing three times.  By then the anchors were tearing out of the pressboard, and even Gorilla Glue wouldn’t keep it standing up.  After five hours of wrestling with the thing, I gave up and took it back.  At least I got my money back.

The present took one last jab this morning.  As I was cleaning the pieces of my CPAP machine, I poked a hole in the hose that connects the machine to my face mask.  I stood at the bathroom sink, holding up both ends of the hose, watching water squirt out the hole, and I thought.  “Okay.  I give up.”  I can’t afford any more accidents (I fell on the ice out side Wal-Mart and also getting into my truck) or medical issues (an old shoulder injury is painfully back in town and there’s some gynecological shenanigans going on in my nether-regions).  I get the message.

But, there’s a part of me outside the current depression that’s getting steely-eyed.  I can feel her reaching for the Uzi.  Entropy may be a powerful force, but so is the Bad-Ass.  I’ll regroup and rethink while the depression grips me.  But, after that.  Yippy-Ki-Yay, Motherf*****.

Through the Ice Darkly

Tomorrow I leave for an excursion into the arctic north.  I’m spending the next ten days in Minneapolis, first to sit with a friend as she undergoes a simple, but scary surgery.  Then, to visit other friends—some I’ve not seen since my exodus to Iowa five years ago after I had ECT.

It’s a weird juxtaposition of memory holes and my different lives laid on top of each other like layers of ice on a frozen lake.  Some are Jasper-green and opaque with soft spots and groaning cracks, others sludge-gray with craters.  Others still carry bits of fish scale, algae, and ash from shoreline campfires of summer.  They stand rock solid even in the spring thaw.

Seeing these beloved friends again, touching them, will be like taking nourishment and starving.  Love and loss.  A life remembered through “the glass darkly.”  I hope to maintain my curiosity as broken memories crack the surface of consciousness, as my friends remind me of what we were together and what I was then.  I hope to hold them and myself with compassion, respecting our feelings and our words, watching the rise and fall of emotions without grasping, allowing myself to simply love them in the moment of being together.  I hope to remember my life now, who I’ve become, traveling like Frankenstein’s monster on a frozen floe with growing awareness and a spark of dignity.

It will be an interesting time away.

I will greet you all again on or around January 16.

Not Underestimating

Never underestimate our inclination to bolt.—Pema Chodron

Every fiber in my being tells me to run.  Don’t stop to pack a bag.  Don’t leave a note.  Just throw on some shoes, grab the keys and get out of Dodge.  All this end-of-life business with my dad shouts Danger!  Land mines and razor wire ahead!  I’d Turn Back If I Were You!

They’re coming.  The old family issues are working their way up to the surface like shrapnel.  And along with that itchy, fevered momentum, I feel myself assuming my usual role in the family—the Baby.  As the Baby in the Family, I do what I’m told, can’t be held responsible, and toddle off to stay out of the way.  But, I’m not the only one tying on my old mantle.  My sister is Cleaning.  My brother is Absent.  Mom is Fretting.  We’re like retired superheroes pulling on Spandex that holds our younger shape, but doesn’t quite fit anymore.

What’s a girl to do except beat feet?

First, I’ll try to stay awake and not slide into the comfort of oblivion.  If I can identify the old shards as they pimple my psychic flesh, I can extract them before they fester.  If I can recognize old patterns of thinking, I can challenge them before they turn into old patterns of behavior.

Second, I will practice Will.  So, while my body tells me to run, I will stay.  My intention is to visit my dad every day.  Not entertain him, not fix him, just visit him.  I will be available to my family.  I will take initiative.

And my ability to do these things will wax and wane.  As my friend Lily says, I will do the best I can, and that will be enough.

Just wrap my car keys in this old Spandex and put them where I can’t find them, would you?

An Inch of Will

Several weeks ago, I asked my spiritual teacher for advice on how to work with the compulsions I experience during a bipolar episode.  She suggested I read what G.I. Gurdjieff or P.D. Ouspensky had to say about Will.  After several library searches, I finally found a copy of Ouspensky’s The Fourth Way, and what he had to say about Will gave me some much-needed direction.

Both Ouspensky and his teacher, Gurdjieff, viewed Man as a sleeping, mechanical automaton.  What’s normally thought of as will, or free will, is actually a line of action that follows our desires.  Since our desires constantly change, the direction of our will changes with them, resulting in a line of action that goes every which way.  We think we’re heading in a straight line.  That’s part of being asleep.

To develop true Will, Ouspensky said, one must save enough energy to be able to struggle with weaknesses in the personality and to resist following one’s desires.  If a person doesn’t have enough energy to resist strong urges and big weaknesses, tackling something smaller and less difficult will save one’s energy.  These smaller battles also increase a person’s capacity for making the larger efforts.

It’s the friction generated by these struggles that create the energy needed to fight bigger and bigger battles.  I forget this.  During an episode, I become so focused on surviving and getting past it, that I forget to use it.  If Ouspensky is correct, the efforts I make in controlling my attention (taking it away from distorted thinking, for example) and observing myself help to grow true Will in that moment.

He said, one must try not to “escape” from the friction, which would call for a minimum of distraction.  Granted, he wasn’t talking about individuals with mental illness, so all this must be filtered through that particular lens.  Like most things, a balance must be found.  How do I hold the tension of resisting desires and controlling weaknesses in my character without stressing myself into an even worse mental state?

I believe I’ve started that process.  Last winter, I thought surviving a six-day bipolar episode was more than I could bear.  This current episode has lasted over three weeks, and while I’m certainly sick of it, I’m managing.  As my compulsive eating and spending rise and fall, I resist to the best of my ability.  Now, I’ll try to turn my attention to the energy being created by that resistance and use it to further my cause.

“Will has to be used,” Ouspensky said.  “We are never ready for Work, but we must Work all the same.  If one has an inch of Will and uses it, it will grow.”

The Sane Thing

Today marks Day 19 in my current mixed-state episode.  It begs the question:  Do I have to pay for the lovely, long spell of stability I enjoyed this summer with an equally long stint of instability?  Do the Bipolar Scales demand their own form of balance?

The thought of carrying on another month or more in this state is too horrible to even entertain.  It’s one of those niggling, self-defeating, Halloweenish thoughts that only the illness can produce.  When it came yesterday, it opened the door on a string of unacceptable thinking that went something like this:

Labor Day Weekend.  My friends are out of town.  I could set up the cats in their basement with litter boxes, and food and water.  I have to make sure they’re taken care of before I kill myself.  But, I don’t have a cache of pills anymore.  Every other method is so messy. . .

And while part of my mind meandered down this dark alley, another part of my mind woke up and said “Oops.”  Suicidal thoughts signal exhaustion for me.  The constant push against the symptoms, the struggle to maintain my routine when it used to be automatic, the fight to Observe my thoughts and feelings instead of become them are wearing me down.  I can feel the distorted thinking seeping in a little more.  The siren call of fantasy seems so much more attractive, so much easier, than the battle ground of real life.

But, this, too, is distorted thinking.  Every day is different (the very definition of mixed-state).  There are hours of clarity and joy.  Moments of creative inspiration.  All is not one bottomless bog.  I am not losing the fight.

I’ve worked hard at increasing my bipolar endurance.  While the emotions roil, and the thinking twists, and compulsions take over, there’s still a part of me that rises.  I still have the capacity to wake up in the middle of whatever symptom slips over me.  I still have the capacity to See.  I may not be able to stop them, but Seeing the sadness, the social phobia, the compulsive spending pulls a piece of me out of them.  Seeing helps me separate the symptoms from the woman.  And if I can put some distance between me and the illness, I create a pocket where I can rest.

I’m angry that I have to work this hard every day, every moment.  But, even that’s part of the illness.  The Work is the work.  Railing over the fact of my illness is a waste of time and energy.  Resistance leads to more suffering and depletes my resources.  If I didn’t do this Work, I’d be in a hospital or dead, so it’s a choice.  Sometimes I have to make that choice several times a day, but I always come back to it.

Really, it’s the only sane thing to do.

A New Learning Curve

With the return of my bipolar symptoms comes an opportunity to begin working with my compulsive behaviors in a new way.  What I’ve discovered so far is that agitation seems to be the underlying energy for the compulsive eating and spending as well as the restlessness and urge to “Get Out of Dodge” that sends me tooling down the highways.

In a bit of synchronicity, Vivien over at ManicMuses just posted a piece about new emergency room treatment of agitation in psychiatric patients, which got me thinking more about the shape and origin of agitation.  I’ve also heard from other folks who live with bipolar disorder that this type of mixed state can be fairly common.

This from Wikipedia:

In the context of mental disorder, a mixed state (also known as dysphoric maniaagitated depression, or a mixed episode) is a condition during which symptoms of mania and depression occur simultaneously (e.g., agitationanxietyfatigueguiltimpulsivenessirritability, morbid or suicidal ideationpanicparanoiapressured speech and rage). Typical examples include tearfulness during a manic episode or racing thoughts during a depressive episode. One may also feel incredibly frustrated or be prone to fits of rage in this state, since one may feel like a failure and at the same time have a flight of ideas. Mixed states are often the most dangerous period of mood disorders, during which susceptibility to substance abusepanic disorder, commission of violencesuicide attempts, and other complications increase greatly.

Yes, this would be me.

In a way, I’m relieved to learn that a mixed state is serious and difficult to treat.  It pumps up my ego to know that I’m fighting a worthy adversary and helps me take in stride all the times the compulsion simply runs me over.  Learning a new way to work with this agitated energy won’t be easy.  There are no other guidelines out there except the use of powerful drugs.

The results of a mixed state are the scariest, craziest part of bipolar disorder for me.  I feel like something takes possession of my body and my brain, and there’s nothing I can do except ride along until I’m released.  The impulses are so strong, and the drive to flee from them so ingrained, that it will take time and much effort to even begin to imagine something else.  But, that’s what I’m doing.

When I’m able, I get still, either by sitting in a comfortable chair or lying on my bed.  I breathe.  I start to explore where the agitation manifests in my body.  Sometimes I feel it in my gut, sometimes my chest, and sometimes it seems to be only in my head.  And then, I stay with that sense of placement for as long as I’m able—sometimes just a few moments.

When the compulsions are already in control, I try to at least acknowledge them, watch them as they push me into eating or spending or fleeing.  When I resist, the compulsion only grows, so instead I try to choose a lesser target (Subway instead of Dairy Queen, buying one item online instead of a dozen).

I’m also using meditation as much as I can, but there’s a resistance to that as well.  I’m not sure what part of me is fighting this very useful tool, but I find I “forget” to meditate a lot and brush it off when I do think of it.  This resistance is something else to learn from, I think.

So, while being symptomatic again truly sucks, there are lessons to learn and maps to chart.

I’m on an Adventure.

To Everything a Season

I’m not exactly sure what’s happening.  Then, again, maybe I am.

For the last three days I’ve been more tired, more achy, more prone to sadness and irritation.  I want to eat, and my motivation flags.  I think my summer vacation is over.

But after three days, my mood doesn’t seem to be getting any worse.  Small interventions seem to make a difference.  I felt better yesterday after making a Gratitude Journal page and a card.  Today I felt better after working on my story, Callinda, all morning.  I’m not as clear and even as I was last week, but I’m not debilitated either.  So, this could be a transition into depression.  Or it could be a new state, one that’s milder than my usual depressive episodes.  Or it could be something else entirely.

Whatever it turns out to be, the process for me is still the same.  Pay attention.  I must watch the eating compulsion expand and contract.  I’ve spent a week meditating before I prepare supper, but have gotten lax the last couple of days.  This is the time to be consistent, to take note of how the compulsion feels in my body, to rest in the state of meditation and allow in the grace that’s present.

It’s okay to let go of the long (50 days) period of stability I enjoyed this summer.  It’s okay to flow into whatever is next.  I am here now, turning with a new season.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 7

So many people, animals and places have taught me how to live my life, how to cultivate the best in me, and how to perform the skills needed to maneuver in the world.  These four are the ones who have floated to the top of my consciousness at this moment in time.

(Clockwise from the top left) Melanie Oates has been my spiritual advisor and mentor since 1999.  She introduced me to all the Buddhist teachings that became instrumental in managing my bipolar disorder—living in the moment, detachment, observation of self, the difference between pain and suffering, developing consciousness, etc.  Her holographic teachings—bringing in information from ancient mystery schools, current science theory, history, sociology, metaphysics, as well as using art, interpersonal relationships, and physical activity—gave me an entirely new sense of what is humanly possible.

Marshall Wright served with me as a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community in Minneapolis.  He shucked off a financially successful business persona to live life “In The Flow.”  Marshall never lets me get away with half-truths or any kind of delusion.  He carries a big stick wrapped in love which he routinely sets in my path to stumble over.  We communicate through a kind of poetry that is open to multiple interpretations, so I find I listen very closely and choose my words with greater care.  Marshall helps me remember my connection to nature and ancient traditions.  In the picture above, he took me on a walking tour of a Florida river.  If there were crocs or snakes nearby, they didn’t bother us.  We were in the Flow.

My grandma passed on to me all her creative skills—needlework, cooking, drawing, the love of color, and gardening.  Like a fairy tale, she lived in a tiny cottage on our farm.  The path to her house wound from our back yard, through our apple orchard, to her trellised gate.  Like my dad, she tended to look on the gloomy side of life, but she never showed that side to me when I was little.  Instead, she encouraged me to tell my stories, praised my drawings and the first little quilt I made for a doll.  She helped me tend the Kitty Cemetery I kept in the woods for all the strays and kittens that died.  Gramma entered into my world and played with me there.  She taught me it was perfectly fine to do just that.

Sarah Benson was a Master of Sacred Sound.  I started working with her when we met in Colorado in the ’90’s and made several treks to her home in the Massachusetts woods.  She taught me about the sacred geometry of sound, the levels of healing and transcendence it can reach.  With Sarah’s help, I rediscovered the power of my own voice and its natural ability to foster healing in others.  Her playful, pixie-like attitude kept me from taking myself too seriously and reminded me to always turn toward joy.  Sarah died a few years ago, and is sorely missed by a world-wide community.

These are my teachers of this moment—wise and stumbling, educated and street-smart, pillars of society and apart from the world.  The one thing they have in common is love—their love of others, and my abiding love for them.

This Is It

Five months ago, when I started this blog, I thought there would be so much to share.  Navigating the morass of bipolar disorder would pose unique questions, yield startling results.  I was bound to open strange doors and make discoveries that would change my life.  But, at this point in the journey, my most unexpected find is quiet and small.  And because it twinkles as a thought in my mind, I can’t trust it.  I can savor it now as it catches the light of my understanding, but tomorrow it may disappear or transform into something else entirely.  I can look, but not touch, not hold.  I can sigh in appreciation of its beauty, but I dare not attempt to own it.

Here’s the bright gift:  This is it.

We live within the pattern of our lives, pressing along its sides like a mouse content in its maze.  We find soft spots, places where the walls stretch and give, but the pattern remains basically the same.  We spend time and resources trying to break free, but real freedom comes from learning everything we can about our maze.  Where are the corners?  the slopes?  What happens if we slow down?  speed up?  What are the walls made of?  What is that delightful scent?  Cheese?

I’ve spent the last five years trying to jump over the walls.  I thought there must be a door somewhere, or at least a crack I could squeeze through. I believed a cosmic hand picked me up by the tail and dropped me into someone else’s maze.  I didn’t belong here.  But the more I explored the pattern, the more familiar it became.  I didn’t fall into a strange maze.  I just got turned around.

There’s no magic pill, no ultimate insight, no Harmonic Convergence that will propel me out of the pattern of my life.  The compulsions, mood swings, anxiety and social phobia along with the storytelling, creativity and wit make up the structure of my maze.  I must run through them, not escape them.

My perspective has shifted slightly.  Instead of looking at the top of the wall in order to find a way over it, I’m peering more closely at the wall itself.  In the days ahead, I’ll try to keep looking, but I know some days I’ll run the maze with my eyes shut.  That’s okay.  There’s really nowhere else to go.

The Road Less Traveled

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 always carried a bit of the crypt.  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.

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