Stronger and More Frayed

Vistas of BewildermentMiraculously, I’ve finished another week of work.  My life is both easier and harder.  Holding this paradox seems to be the Work set before me.

Easier:  Mom left me her 2011 Honda CRV, a car with features and comforts I never thought I’d have again.  I can hardly believe it’s mine.  After scraping a few dollars off the top of my disability check each month to save for a Smart Car, this thing of luxury dropped into my lap (or parking lot).  The first time I filled the gas tank, I cried.  It cost about half of what it took to fill my dad’s truck.

When Mom bought the car after Dad died, she said to me, “You know you’ll probably get this soon.”  It was just one of hundreds of references she made to her own death (It’s that thing old people do—”I won’t be around much longer, so you better…”).  I didn’t pay much attention.  I was glad she had a zippy little car that she loved.  Driving made her feel safe and in control.  I absolutely understand that.

Harder:  My schedule at work is all over the place—mornings, afternoons, mid-day.  I’ve told my supervisor that I need consistency.  I need time for my own self-care, and I need to be able to depend on it.  I’ve tried to hold my fifteen hours a week to afternoons, but this week was the worst so far.  And it’s all to make sure I attend an endless parade of mind-numbing meetings.  Some of them have been important—orientation to the organization, introductions to other agencies working with us, procedure—but most are irrelevant to my position.  Our boss wants us all to be cross-trained.  Part of that, I think, comes from not knowing what our jobs really are yet.  But the more of these meeting I go to, the more I can see what’s mine and what’s not mine to own.

Easier:   My boss relented on the meetings.  She created a buddy system, so my buddy will let me know if I miss anything important.  That allowed me to take charge of my own schedule.  I’m working 1:30-4:30 every day starting next week.  Good for me, but also good for the team.  Now they know when I’ll be available for client interviews and care conferences (what I should be doing).

Harder:  I had built up a reservoir of stability with my routine and daily monitoring.  That’s used up.  Everyday is a fight to turn my fear and negativity around.  Everyday I feel myself sliding toward lethargy and old habits.  I’m hypersensitive and my concentration is fragmenting.  I can still see it happening.  I can still pause, breathe, and choose not to react, but I’m getting so tired.

Yesterday I had to leave a meeting.  The woman leading it was one of those people who starts a sentence, restarts it, jumps to another topic, restarts that sentence and never gets to the point.  I know a couple of people like this.  They drive me ape-shit.  It’s a neurological thing—my nerves want to grab them by the throat.

Luckily, it was the end of my day, and I ran to the Chinese restaurant to eat lunch, listen to my iPod and journal.  It helped, but I’m not getting back to my set point like I used to.  I’m not able to repair the damage each day all this stress creates.  It’s only a matter of time before I really blow.

Easier:  Our parents left us some money.  It’s not enough to live on the rest of my life, but it will give me some breathing room.  I can do my laundry every week.  I can get some work clothes.  I can even plan a trip to the Southwest this winter to see if more sun and open space will keep me from needing hospital-level care come spring.  Poverty has been the biggest stressor in my life.  Mom and Dad knew that.  They planned their last act of love carefully to ease that for me.  I’m so grateful.

No matter what happens, no matter how the easy and the hard continue to play against each other, I am a success.  I have gone to work every day for three weeks.  That’s a miracle.  Walking through the office door is a miracle.  Waking up and doing it again is a miracle.  Even if it all stops today, I’ve triumphed.  No one can take that away from me.  It’s all mine.

Man, I freakin’ rock.

Tempest in a Teacup

Don't Know BeansHere I am, finishing up my second week of work.

The stress is enormous, not just for me, but for everyone trying to learn this new program and making up the next steps as they are needed.  The real challenge for me is to moderate the anxiety and pressure.  Under stress, I’m easily overwhelmed.  I’m like a teacup that flattens, slopping out my ability to concentrate and my emotional flexibility.  I lose capacity.

I also become reactive, and my first instinct is to bolt.  I run from the stressor, fling it off and dive into a hide-hole.  So, the words “I can’t do this” fly in and out of my head regularly.

But part of my personal journey is to work on increasing my tolerance to distress.  If I’m ever to make any lasting changes in my behavior and my life, I need to work this work situation like a puzzle.  What do I need to do to stretch my envelope of tolerance?  As always, I created a plan.

The first piece is to breathe.  It’s my starting point.  When the acronyms start flying and I can feel my body vibrating like a tuning fork, I stop and breathe deep into my belly.  It tells me to come back to myself.  It starts the process of flinging off the assumptions and negativity.  Breathing deep, I can remember why I’m doing this.  I can remember I don’t need to understand.  I can remember that I’m not alone.

I also realized that creating more structure would help soothe the anxiety, so I put an After Work plan in place.  I go straight home, change, and go to the Y to ride the recumbent bike for an hour.  That helps burn off some of the adrenaline and agitation.  Then, I journal with a cup of something soothing.  Then, I meditate.  After that, I’m rational enough to eat a sensible supper.  This helps.  Instead of bingeing all night with a movie, I’m taking positive action to stretch my tolerance.

And it seems to be working.  I may be an emotional puddle by the time I leave the office, but by the next morning my teacup is upright and able to hold water.

This is new behavior for me.  It’s also more stress than I’ve endured in years.  I’m proud of all that.  I’m also aware that I could blow at any time.  That’s the unknowable, uncontrollable piece to bipolar disorder.  All I can do is stay as mindful as I can from moment to moment and see what happens.

I’m on an Adventure.

tiny cups

Adding to to the Bad-Ass Arsenal

Xena 6Today is the end of the four-day week for those of us in treatment.  That means there’s a long, four-day weekend ahead of us with Memorial Day tagged on the end of it.  To get from this side of the holiday weekend to the other requires planning, setting goals for each day, getting out of the apartment, spending time with friends, tending to chores.  A structured mind is a tidy mind.

A couple of Ah-Ha moments this week.  My regular therapist, Megan, and I have been working on Mindfulness practices for several months, but one of the homework modules from treatment put that work in a different light.  It talked about developing a stronger tolerance to emotional distress.  We can’t stop the feelings and moods, but we can become more tolerant of them with practice.  Mindfulness is a way to do that.  The teaching material called it “doing the opposite” of what we habitually do in times of distress.  Most people try to escape the emotional pain, numb it, distract oneself from it.  The opposite of that knee-jerk reaction is to accept the current distress.  Sit with it.  Use meditation, journaling and other methods to pay attention to it and watch how it might shift.

The homework assignments my counselor in treatment have given me come from the Centre for Clinical Intervention, a wonderful Australian website where workbook-type modules on all areas of mental health are available for free.   What a wonderful service!  Those Aussies have the right idea.

The other Ah-Ha moment came with a suggestion in group.  I’ve always maintained a one-size-fits-all management plan for my illness, but it was put to me that I need a different plan when I’m suffering a lapse.  A lapse is when symptoms reappear, but haven’t dragged a person into a long bout that effects functioning in the world.  As someone with the rapid cycling form of bipolar disorder,  I considered myself symptomatic most of the time.  But, I can see now that there are symptoms and there are SYMPTOMS.  There are signs when my “normal” cycling shifts to a lapse—depression that lasts longer than three days, change in sleep quality, etc.  Like an early warning tornado siren, I can watch for the signs of a lapse and put my Emergency Step-Up Plan in place.  It gives me more power.  And I do love gathering sharp-edged tools for my Bad-Ass armory.  I added quite a bit to the arsenal this week.

Mundane is a Good Thing

I Was BoredNo big bucket of brain cheese to dish out, no blast of “Ah Ha!” light to blind the unsuspecting, no tortuous hobgoblins to exorcise.  Nope.  It’s just me, moving through my days.  There’s still mood swings, and anxiety, and bipolar weirdness, but that’s my normal.  I swim, chat up the Starbucks gals, and crawl a bit further on Technical Consultant.  I eat one serving at a time (consecutively), talk to my cats, and do a little art.  Sometimes I share a meal with a friend.  Sometimes I walk to the library.  Today, I washed out the litter boxes.

Very boring.

It’s heaven.

Feeling the Squeeze

Martian Popping ThingNot that this is news to anyone, but dealing with bipolar disorder isn’t for pansy-asses.  It takes a kind of courage I’m only beginning to comprehend.

The depression has been big these last two weeks, my internal world inhospitable and frightening.  Lies and faulty thinking I thought I’d corrected long ago are back.  Mindfulness is out of reach.  I do what I can—move through the water every morning, go someplace that smells like coffee, write in my journal, call a friend.  But I can only poke holes in the darkness.  And as my therapist and I start using the tools in Radical Acceptance, I’m catching glimpses of—something—on the periphery.

There’s a terror within me that I’ve never touched.  I’m being asked to do that now.  Intellectually, I see this as therapeutic and full of potential.  But in our first session doing this Work, so much resistance came up that my body went numb.  Everything in me wanted to run out of Megan’s office.  When she talked to me, it was as if she spoke a foreign language.  I could not comprehend what she said.

I’ve tried working with difficult aspects of my illness before—the compulsive eating and spending, the anxiety, the insatiable longing.  I’ve noticed that when I start challenging one of these pieces or bring awareness to it, the others thrash around like two-year-olds.  To me it feels like a kind of pressure valve.  When I pay attention to my feelings of loneliness and wanting, I eat everything in sight.  When I put structure to my eating, my credit card starts smoking from all the on-line shopping.  I feel like one of those rubber Martian Popper dolls.

But I’ve not really had a partner in doing this work.  My previous therapists were either traditional, ineffective, or so flaky that they never should have been practicing in the first place (I’ve had some whack-os.  That’s another story).  But now I have someone who feels safe and competent, someone who shares my view of mental illness as a spiritual path, someone who knows more than I do about this Work.  I don’t have to figure this out alone any more.

And while I’m scared, I’m also relieved.  I’m trying not to have expectations, just face whatever comes the best I can.

But I think I’ll have to find one of those Popper dolls to take with me to my next session.

Getting My Breath Back

handmade greeting cards, collage art

The transition from hacking bed-lump to fully engaged routine-aphile is a long, slow process.  There comes a point about two weeks into a typical bout of bronchitis where I lose all good humor and go limp with despair.  The “I’ll never get well—I’m cursed with putrid lungs—Kill me now” kind of despair.  All my clothes are sweat through, all my dishes dirty in the sink, and all I want from the grocery store is junk that makes me even more comatose.  I’m convinced everyone I know has forgotten I even exist.  Even the cats slink away from me and hide in the closet.  It’s not a pretty picture.  The pity-pot is glued to my ass.

But I knew that phase was coming and watched for it.  I knew the chances were good that being sick would trigger bipolar symptoms, which just compounds the fun.  I’ve noticed fluttery spasms of anxiety and waves of depression that drift like clouds across the sun.  They catch me up short, a completely different experience than the sick-too-long slump.  But, so far, I’ve been able to just breathe through all these mental discomforts.  As soon as I could, I drove out to the little lake south of town and walked in the warm October sun.  Everything looks better with that jewel-blue sky above and the golden slant of light blazing against the wildflowers.

This week I returned to my water aerobics class.  The water welcomed me back, as did the folks in class, and even though I’m slow and still hacking, I’m not nearly as weak as I thought I’d be.  Then, I sat at the HyVee cafe with my Starbucks skinny latte and wrote.  The brain is rusty, and I’m exhausted when I go home, but pulling part of my routine back on feels right, necessary, and as cozy as pulling on my winter fleece.

We all carry unfortunate baggage.  I happen to have asthma, allergies and bipolar disorder.  They cause disruption.  I can guard against infection and monitor my thoughts, but they will still show up.  The only real defense I have is in how I respond to their effects.  Health lies in how I push against my old reactions and chose something else.  Something positive.  Something loving.  Recovery depends on unloading as much weight from those bags as possible.

So, tomorrow (my birthday!), I’ll greet my friends in the water.  I’ll climb into my truck, plug in my earbuds, and head for Des Moines where good coffee, a good movie, and time with my meditation buddies will fill my creative well.  The baggage is still there, but I’m carrying it a little easier these days.

Scuttled

handmade greeting card, collage artI spoke too soon the other day.  Not up from the deep just yet.  A common mistake.  This rapid cycling is tricksy, let’s a person break the surface for a bit, enough to gulp air, then the waters close over the top before a soul can recognize the drag back into the black.  An odd feeling this time of being altered, alien, apart.  Of moving in a different time zone than the people around me.  Of speaking a different dialect.  Again, that sly bipolar brain working its funky alchemy.

Another day of doing what I can, when I can.  Moving through the water with goggles and the sound of my breath bubbling underneath—yes.  Packing up chai and journal to sit next to the big library windows—probably.  Acting like a normal consumer by checking Staples and Wal-Mart off my list—maybe.  It all depends on the Sturm und Drang playing in the background—the bipolar soundtrack can hurt the ears sometimes.  And a body pillaged by fractured sleep and rusty nails in the joints.

But the bed is made, the litter boxes clean, the dishes washed.  It could be a start.  It could be enough.

A Different Kind of Vacation

handmade greeting cards, collage art

ø ø ø

I’m trying something different.  I’m taking a vacation from my life.

I don’t know if this is brilliant—a true Oprah “Ah Ha” inspiration—or a self-destructive twist of bipolar delusion.  I guess I’ll find out when I’m on the other side of it.

All I can see right now is that nothing seems to be working.  Diet, exercise, meditation, routine, writing, making art—none of these things give me any juice or comfort.  And I’m suffocated by people—the friends I love, the family I love, the communities I’ve joined, the faces I see around me every day.  I can’t fake another conversation, or feign interest, or hold another smile.  I can’t be socially acceptable for another minute.

So, I’m taking a vacation from people and from my normal routine.  I’ll get out of bed when Henry tells me to (he usually pounds on the closet door around 5:00, but some mornings he lets me sleep in).  I’ll pay attention to what seems to need attention.  I’ll see what rises.  I’ll go out, move, watch and listen.  And I’ll see what happens.

This is more than a vacation.  This is coming to terms with my life as it is, not what it might be in the future, not what it was in the past.  It’s coming to terms with who I am, not the girl I was, not who I think I should be, not who I dreamed I’d be.  Maybe this vacation will be a sort of practice in sitting companionably with myself, my real self.  Maybe I’ll finally see her.  Maybe this won’t be a vacation at all, but a new way of living.

I won’t know until I start.

Today.

A Disturbance in the Force

handmade greeting cards, collage artI’m in that freaky phase of rapid cycling where all the laws of physics and biology flip.  Coffee puts me to sleep.  Water gives me gas.  I get pissed off by menu typefaces.  Loud, rude strangers are hilarious.

It’s hard to find a way to comfort myself when the map is suddenly in Elvish (though I would like to learn that).  At least I know enough to abandon all attempts at normal—whatever that is.  I tried my water class yesterday, and froze to death, so I’m skipping it today.  Which could be a gateway behavior to chucking the whole routine.  Must watch that.  Journaling still holds some mass in this gravity well, so I’ll do some of that today.  My therapist asked if there was anything that could distract me from this weirdness.  Movies.  Movies always work.  Even if the Space/Time Continuum ruptured so badly that Walter Bishop couldn’t fix it, movies would still be my go-to balm.

So, after I take a shower (if water still falls earthward), I’ll camp out at the theater and wait for the Universe to regain its sanity. Or mine.  Whichever comes first.

Weirdly Good

hand-made cards, collage art

←  ↑  ↓  →

It’s been a weird few days.  Up is down.  Left is right.  I’ve given up on a definition of reality for now.

My friends who teach the deep water aerobics class bent over backwards to adjust the workout for me.  I was overwhelmed by their caring and determination to keep me in the class.  I feel like Sally Field at the Oscars.  “They like me!  They really like me!”  A week that started out miserable and discombobulated suddenly smoothed out.

I caught a 24-hour flu bug on top of my bipolar dive into depression, spiked a fever, lost my appetite (miraculous), downed Advil and lots of green tea.  Now I feel fine.  Wha??

Meghan GilletteMy beautiful and brilliant niece is a poor PhD student living in tiny quarters with three cats.  Her vet said the cramped space was stressing her male kitty and causing urinary tract infections.  So, Meg got Feliway, a diffuser that emits Momma Cat pheromones which calms and relaxes kitties.  She recommended Feliway to me when I told her I was worried my also-teeny apartment was making my cats stir-crazy.

Now, I’ve had Henry and Emmett for seven years.  In all that time, Henry has been companionable, but not overly affectionate.  He sleeps next to me in bed and will occasionally allow me to pick him up, but anything more over than that is frowned upon.  (And those of you with cats know what that frown is like.)  He has never sat in my lap or on my legs.  The only time he really touches my body is when he thunders over the top of me in the middle of the night during a Martian fit (He sees invisible Martians and attacks them like a good guard cat should).

HenryTwo hours after plugging in my Feliway diffuser, Henry crawled onto my lap and fell asleep.  I was so shocked I started to cry.  Then, when I went to the bathroom he didn’t follow me.  Since moving into the apartment, Henry has followed me everywhere. Toilet time is family time.

To be fair, Emmett is still skittish and squirrelly, but he keeps sniffing the air.  He knows something new and delicious is wafting through our home.  I can’t wait to see what happens, or doesn’t happen next.

At the moment, my mind is a quiet fog—like chenille dryer lint.  I took a shower to get rid of flu-hair and am about to walk uptown to get my take-out order of vegetable fried rice.  Life is weirdly good.

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