Tolerating the Discomfort

Years ago, a counselor at Mercy Hospital’s outpatient program in Des Moines suggested that we learn to stretch our ability to tolerate the discomfort of our mental illnesses. Such a benign term—discomfort. It hardly does justice to what really goes on inside a crazy person’s mind. But, it does keep us from catastrophizing the experience. Suffering, agony, or hysteria would be torture to tolerate. Discomfort seems more reasonable.

When I woke up at 2am again this morning, I knew I needed to follow this wise counselor’s advise. My mental and physical discomfort had been overwhelming me, and I needed to find a way to help myself.

So as soon as Starbucks opened at 6:00, I took this small journal and a few pens with the intention of just writing about the discomfort. My Round Robin art journal friends had used this size journal in our last project to send pages to each other. It contained their art, but I didn’t have to make anything. This felt important.

I had started this journal as a book of lists to send around to friends, hoping they would jot down their thoughts. That never happened, but the headings were still there. Some could be useful, Some not so much. I decided to use what might be helpful and leave the rest.

After I ranted a brain-dump on one of the blank pages, I felt a little calmer. I also thought a list of possible ways to stretch my tolerance for this discomfort might be the next step. I brainstormed (Ha! Such an apt term!) for a while and felt a little better still.

I had taken a clonazepam before I went to Starbucks, hoping to beat back the itchy, prickly panic. That little darling started to kick in, and I thought it best to go home and have a lie down. But before doing that, I tried a few things on my list: a nice hot soak with lavender bath salts, a fragrant candle, and a pair of comfy chenille footies. I turned on my new Audibles book (read by Pretend Boyfriend, Richard Armitage), and promptly fell asleep.

When I woke up, I took my little journal outside to sit in the sun and see what else might help me get through the day. As things came to me, I added them to my list, then checked them off as I practiced—like singing the Sia song “I’m Alive” loud enough to make all the neighbor dogs howl. I get so tired of their constant yapping that it felt powerfully naughty to sing so loud that they all shut up.

I took a little stroll around the garden in my bare feet (though my comfy footies waited on the patio for me). This helped my wobbly knee and gave me a sense of grounding. As my sissy bedecks the halls with her tubs of decorations, I needed a sense of myself (the non-Christmas atheist), my feet firmly on the ground, in the midst of the discomfort of my mind fighting its war with psych meds.

I have a new tool. A little journal to write about my discomfort and list ways to tolerate it a bit better. I need to add “Write a blog post” to the list, because this helped as well. It always does.

Focus on Gratitude: Day 8

iPodI know I gush about music.  It is truly one of the things that makes my life worth living.  When I bought an old-sytle iPod a couple of years ago, it was like winning the lottery.  I made a little carrier for it out of old socks and a shoelace so I could have my music everywhere—on my walks, in the truck, at the movies during that awful pre-show junk.  I sling that thing over my neck and rock.

But the most important part about carrying my music around is being able to sing along with it.  I’ve been told I have a fair voice, but even if I sounded like a chainsaw, I’d still belt it out with Adele and Bonnie Raitt.  It makes me feel good.  Singing pulls in oxygen, much like exercise.  It releases endorphins.  It’s a natural anti-depressant.  I firmly believe I started singing as a youngster to self-medicate.  Hells, yeah.

Yesterday, I felt like crap.  I’m at that point in a long bout of lung crud where there’s a kind of relapse—laryngitis, hot and cold flashes, endless coughing, general body funk.  So I went to see Desolation of Smaug again to cheer myself up a little.  As the credits rolled, everyone left (Cretins!  How dare they not stay to see who the Scenic Artist Foreman was!), and Ed Sheeran’s theme song started.

Alone in the theater, I sat up and belted it out in my croaky voice (because, of course, I have the song memorized).  When Ed hit the chorus, “I see fire…” I was on a roll—harmonizing and warbling, getting all those endorphins flowing.  And when the song ended, I sighed in contentment.

I looked over to get my coat and saw a man standing at the end of my aisle—mouth open.  He slowly lifted his hands and applauded.

Hells, yeah!

A Few Days of Gratitude: Remembering Saruah

Sarah Benson, Sound Healing, MusicOnce upon a time, I happened on my fairy godmother.  We met thirteen years ago at the Healing Sounds Intensive in Colorado when I was just learning about the physics of vibration, frequency and the power of sound.  Tiny, playful, loving, Sarah Benson (Saruah) invited me to study with her at her farm outside Boston.  I visited her there twice, spending weeks opening to the love she offered me and learning to offer that healing balm to others.  We kept in touch, and when she died a few years ago, I counted her as one of my great Teachers.

Recently a friend transferred a cassette tape of Sarah’s music to CD.   I have other, professionally recorded CDs of her music, but these are songs and invocations Sarah taught me personally.  I’m so relieved and grateful to have them preserved.  Sarah helped me find my Voice and a path to the Sacred.  She charged me with a higher responsibility and gave me tools that saved my life later when bipolar disorder threatened it.  She was a blessing to me, and still is.

Here’s an invocation Sarah taught me, which I’ve used in many spiritual gatherings.  Bright Garment is sung by Sarah and her student, Terra Desch.

Oh, Our Mother the Earth,

Our Father the Sky,

Your Children are We.

And with tired backs,

We bring you gifts you love.

Then weave for us a Garment of brightness.

May the warp be the white light of morning.

May the weft be the red light of evening.

May the fringes be the falling rain.

May the border be the standing rainbow.

Thus, weave for us a Garment of brightness,

That we may walk fittingly where birds sing,

That we may walk fittingly where grass is green.

Oh, our Mother the Earth,

Our Father the Sky,

Your Children are We.

Singing for Cover

Collage Art

I’m not in a bipolar episode, I’m living through a bipolar war campaign.

It’s a mixed state most of the time with the worst symptoms of depression jumbled together with anxiety and agitation.  But it jumps all over the place with grenades of hysteria and panic thrown in.

Sometimes, during a severe or long episode, there comes a point when I lose courage.  It’s as if my Bad-Ass blacks out from blood loss, and all that’s left to defend the perimeter is me.  The panic becomes me.  The despair becomes me.  I feel helplessly outnumbered.  I felt that happening yesterday.

I went to see my medical doctor to get an MRI scheduled for my shoulder.  I love my GP.  His parents owned a farm near ours, so we were part of the same community.  We briefly rode the same school bus when he was a senior in high school and I was in first grade.  He’s one of the kindest, gentlest men I’ve ever known and has always made sure I got what I needed.  Yesterday, we discussed my shoulder briefly, then he asked about my mental health.

We talked for another half hour.  I explained what was happening, how I was managing, my philosophy on mental illness.  Then I stopped, and he smiled.  I was talking a mile a minute, confident in my brilliance.  Pressured speech is the technical term.  I had jumped into full-blown mania.

The illness can always sense when the Bad-Ass goes down, and then releases the horde—bad choices, bad behavior, thinking so twisted it wrings itself out.  After I saw my doc, I felt myself overrun by Crazy.  The mania kept me up all night.  The only thing I could think of to do this morning was to go to the Y.

Working out has been the only thing that’s really helped during this mixed state campaign.  Sweat and blood and muscle clear a spot in my jumbled mind where I can back out of the firefight.  This morning I hopped on the recumbent bike, plugged in my iPod and started peddling for that clearing.  As my music pushed me faster, I sang along.  Out of breath, gulping air, I kept singing in my empty corner of the Y.  Bonnie Raitt.  John Mellencamp.  James Taylor.  Don Henley.  And I found it.  Cover.  And the Bad-Ass.  As I peddled, I could check to make sure her wounds weren’t fatal, her rifle loaded.  As I sang, I could feel my mind clear, my thoughts sink from their frenzy.  I could see the day ahead and what I needed to do.

As I rested there, the Bad-Ass rose on her haunches.

“Stay here,” she told me, pumping her rifle.  “I’ll take it from here.”

Peter Mayer’s Walk with a Lighter Touch was one of the songs that led me to cover.

Satin Breeze

It’s been a hard couple of days—one of those deep depressions that makes the body too weary to move.  Sunday, after struggling through my workout, having my pre-workout supplement routine set up and being sociable with my family, I grabbed a big bag of Cheetos at the Kwik Star and watched a horrible movie on TV.  I didn’t care.  All I wanted was oblivion.  Damn new ways of behaving.  Damn it all.

I made myself nauseous and slept for three hours.  When I woke up with Henry and Emmett both guarding me on the bed, I rolled over and thought, Okay, that doesn’t work anymore.

Today I took a different tack.  I went to my regular water aerobics class, then stayed for two more.  I figured, the longer I moved in the water, the less likely I was to do something stupid (like eat or go back to bed).  Then, I drove to Des Moines to my favorite theater and camped out for two good movies, Moonrise Kingdom and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  Quirky (the former) and Poignant (the latter).  High quality diversion at a discount (I had a coupon) with limited access to unseemly snacks (I don’t seem to have a problem limiting myself to plain popcorn at the movies.  This is a gift, thank you, Universe).

The weather today in central Iowa was perfect, so after the movie marathon, I walked to PF Chang’s down the road and sat out on the veranda for a supper of Dim Sum and Wrinkled Green Beans.  Still depressed, I could nonetheless gaze out at the big pond with its ducks and geese, feel the satin air slide over my skin, and appreciate the pedestrians wandering along the walkway  Toddlers bobbed on splayed legs, an elderly couple shared a piece of cheesecake, middle-school boys tried to look like a tough gang.  I breathed it all in, feeling my sadness, relishing the sweet garlic of the green beans, wondering about the little girl in pink sunglasses riding her daddy’s shoulders.

I took a turn around the pond myself, talked to the ducks going tail-up in the water to feed on the bottom, remembered other lakes and rivers I’d strolled around, remembered to ignore the regrets and dark twists my thoughts wanted to take.  I rolled down all my windows on the drive home, letting that luscious air blow through my hair, and sang as loud as I could with my iPod.

I wanted to think of Sunday as a failure, but that’s not right.  Diving back into pattern is expected in this process of change.  Each time I make different choices, like I did today, those old ways lose a little more power.  One binge in three weeks is actually quite miraculous for me.  That’s what I need to focus on, not the dire and dismal that my depression shoves in my face.

So, tonight, as Henry and Emmet settle nearby, I’ll turn my face toward the open window and take another hit of that satin, summer breeze.

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Last night I attended my first Sweet Adelines rehearsal.  I was nervous going in.  It had been a crappy day on the Bipolar Scale—the depression and distorted thinking causing all sorts of mental funk and warped perceptions.  I worried about being “good enough,” about exposing myself in a new social setting, even about finding my way to the small auditorium in the dark and freezing rain.  But, I kept breathing and running my mantra through my mind.  It’s just the illness.  It’s just the illness.  It’s just the illness.  My desire to sing helped me push through the bipolar muck.

I was completely unprepared for the warm welcome I received.  The director sat with me for some time, explaining barbershop music in comparison to other choral scores, asking about my range and experience, and outlining the process.  Guests come to rehearsals for three or four weeks, then must audition with a quartet of the members to join the group.  For the audition, another  member will sing my part (Lead) with me, and we sing a number that we’ve all rehearsed together the previous weeks.

When she introduced me to the whole group, they seemed downright giddy when I said I was looking for a place to sing. Their open-armed acceptance stunned me.  And then, the director plunked me in the middle of the front row and started.

Oh, my.  That close, barbershop harmony felt delicious standing in the middle of it, and even more tasty creating it.  I was surprised as how fast I picked up the songs, even more surprised that I could still read music and make my voice do what the music said.  I hadn’t tested those skills since undergoing ECT, so wondered if they would be a casualty.  They weren’t.

The women around me were encouraging and fun.  They worked hard, preparing for a competition next month.  Sweet Adelines is a serious business, like Show Choir for adults (Glee for Grannies), with choreography and constant reminders to “bring the face.”  I was exempt from all that emoting, but I could feel myself getting into it.  A little corny, but hey, that’s show biz.

The downside is the cost.  There are monthly dues, costumes to buy, and travel expenses.  I told the director the dues alone would be a severe stretch for me.  She told me not to worry (which made me wonder if there might be financial assistance available), and also said I could join without being required to perform.  That was a shock and a relief.

I left tired (standing for two hours straight), thrilled, and cautious.  Since my experience at the Animal Rescue League, I understand myself a little better.  I can’t trust my first impulses when it comes to reentering the wider world.  I reach for what I used to be, which is often beyond my bipolar limits.  It will take time and more exposure to see if I can navigate the pressure this group will create—the anxiety, social phobia, and agitation.  A weekly commitment feels like a lot when I have so much difficulty with consistency.  I’ll just hold all this lightly and observe.

In the meantime, I get to SING!

Here are my friends Carol Singer and Rochelle Bayers, singing with me on my last day as a Ministerial Guide at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community.

How Can I Keep From Singing

Friendship Forward

I left a lot of good friends behind in the Twin Cities when I moved to Iowa.  I only stayed in contact with a rare few, mostly because it was too painful.  They belonged to a life abandoned and forever lost to me—I thought.  A big part of my healing as been reconnecting with these cherished treasures.

This trip I went to see two women who set up residence in my heart years ago.  I met Jinjer and Carol at Lake Harriet Spiritual Community.  We were all seekers, trying to find a meaningful way to the Divine.  Bright, soulful, creative, talented and committed to the Earth, these two women became part of my everyday life.

With Jinjer I learned to be a better writer, how to craft rituals that would honor the Divine in nature, and how to take myself and others to that still place of communion with the Universal Source.  With Carol I learned how to use sound and music to reach a new level of joy and spiritual experience, and a way of moving and being in the world with compassion and grace.  Together we laughed and cried, played, shared every holiday, and every important event.

For years, I spent time in their home every week, so to walk back through their front door after more than five years made me light-headed with the sense of homecoming.  The spicy, fresh-baked-bread smell; the familiar paintings and books; even their beautifully remodeled kitchen and bath felt right and familiar.  It was as if I’d never been away.

Our friendship seemed like an independent entity—a swift, tumbling river that swept below us and carried us on its waves.  I knew them, and they knew me, and we settled into that knowing immediately.  Our conversation tasted the same as always—complex, dark-chocolate-rich, and so satisfying.

And, as usual, spending time with these two beautiful women left me clearer, lighter and more grateful for my life.  Insights and healing always happened when we were together, and happen still.  We are good juju together.

With this trip, I reclaimed Jinjer and Carol as my friends.  Present tense.  I won’t let go of them so easily again.

Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, Revised—Part 1

Never get Too Tired, Too Hungry or Too Rigid.  That’s one of my new mottos (Another is Laugh ’til You Lose Urine, but that’s a different post).  So in my quest to avoid rigor mortis, I’ve incorporated a few of Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts and ideas into my personal Bipolar Bad-Ass Training Regimen.

It’s been six months since I first set up some guidelines for making the best of my time between bipolar episodes.  Those checklists and goals have served me really well, but there’s always room for improvement.  Plus, our needs and priorities change, and I don’t want to be stuck hanging on to an old ideal when it no longer fits.  That way lies madness and a surplus of guilt and shame.  Pass.

Clean Eating is still a big priority for me, and continues to be elusive.  I feel like I’ve come a long way in fostering my Will, but bipolar episodes and my recent illness threw me right back into compulsive behavior, which starts and ends with non-stop eating of the worst possible crap.  There’s no easy answer to this one, I’m afraid, just awareness and diligence and gentleness.

My thoughts and plans for Strength and Stamina still hold true.  If anything, I’m more determined than ever to exercise every day and add more activity to my daily life.  I also have a physical tomorrow, so I made a list of things to discuss with my doc—how to deal with this persistent recurring bronchitis (allergy testing?), removing a benign but growing cyst in my armpit, and getting the regular blood work and tests out of the way.  It’s part of Doing What Needs To Be Done (another motto).

When I looked at my priorities, I found I needed to make an adjustment.  I always thought I’d go back to school for a Master’s Degree, but it’s just not realistic for me anymore.  My ECT—induced reading disability seems to be holding fast and my financial situation hardly supports a return to college.  It was an old dream that just doesn’t fit who I am now.

My priorities now are Writing, Making Art and Growing.  My goals are to finish my novel, Callinda, by the end of the year and continue to blog at least every other day; make art every day and start drawing again.  As for continuing to grow, I’ve got a couple of things in mind.  I want to call the Animal Rescue League and see if I could volunteer a little bit.  I’m curious about other writers who love fan fiction and plan to research that.  Maybe I’ll find a kindred spirit or two.  I plan to spend more time at the public library, reading magazines I would never normally pick up.  I want to start at the beginning of the racks and work my way through them all.  I can’t wait to soak up all that new stimulation.  And lastly, I want to find a local chapter of the Sweet Adelines.  I miss singing, and maybe they’d take a croaky alto.  We’ll see.

One thing Gretchen Rubin did to keep her accountable to her new resolutions was to create a chart where she could track her daily activities.  She said the steady reminders kept her focused and the gold stars and check marks as she accomplished her goals kept her motivated.  I don’t know that I need more motivation than living saner, but I thought I’d try tracking my progress.  I loaded up my new iCalendar program so I can see at a glance what I’m doing and what I’m avoiding.  Meh.  We’ll see if the motivation outweighs the nuisance.

30 Days of Gratitude: Day 14

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting around our kitchen table on the farm, the family eating and talking, when one of us would say something that contained a song lyric.  Suddenly, my mom would burst into song with that fragment as a prompt.  We’d all groan and laugh, but it was a great bit and something all the women in our family continue.

My mom, my sister and I all love to sing.  We joined choruses and choirs, sang solos for events, and generally use any excuse to warble.  My friend, Deb, also has a gorgeous voice.  When she and I get together, we crank up the volume to operatic proportions and caterwaul until the walls tremble.  And there’s just nothing as satisfying or as life-affirming for me as driving down a country road, harmonizing with my old rock ‘n’ roll favorites.  I can belt it out with Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt on a good day.

Singing is energy.  It’s light and love pouring out of my body and into the Universe.  It’s health and delight.  It grounds me.  It’s who I am.

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.

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