Putting the Libra to Sleep

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I’ve completed six days in the Lutheran Hospital outpatient program, and I can’t tell yet if it’s making me better or worse.

There are two designations—IOP (Intensive Outpatient Program) 1 and 2.  None of the literature explains the difference between the groups, but, basically IOP1 is for more functional, more acutely symptomatic folk.  IOP2 is for more severely ill folk who maybe require other services (home care, rehab, medical, etc.).

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The first two days I attended IOP1.  The group was HUGE, 14-18 people with the usual one or two who dominated every conversation and folks talking over each other.  I thought I would lose what little mind I had left.

I watched my intolerance and irritation skyrocket.  My Libra penchant for fairness blew up into a neurotic need to silence the blabbermouths so that the silent suffers might get a second to squeak out a comment.  But I also realized this was all my shit.  If the facilitators felt no need to shut down the usurpers or redirect the tangential wanderers, then it wasn’t my place to step in.  Instead I clutched my purse to my chest and took deep breaths.

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After the second day (and no sleep that night), I knew I needed to talk to my designated handler.  I told her through bitey, frantic, tear-and-snot laden spew that I couldn’t take another day of it.  She listened with a beatific smile and commented in a gentle don’t-spook-the-Tasmanian Devil voice.  Perhaps I should move to the other group.  And feel free to find a quiet place to breathe whenever the desire to punch a talky-talker in the face arose.

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My first day at “the other end of the hall” felt restful in comparison.  There were only five of us in group, and I learned things about PTSD—one of my diagnoses, though something my therapist and I have never really explored.  We usually have other immediate shinola to deal with, so we’ve only ever just touched on it.  THIS was what I was hoping for—some new information, some new tools, a direction.

But, the next day the group expanded to 13, and the whole issue of blatherers and time-sucks reappeared on a crazier level.  I tried to be compassionate, but that well seems to be dry at the moment.  I know folks talk out of nervousness, insecurity, etc., so I tried to reason with myself.  I still ended up out in the hall with my earbuds firmly in place, listening to Billy Joel sing “Innocent Man.”

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I blame the insurance industry and our butt-head Governor, Terry Branstad.  Most insurance coverage only allows three days a week in outpatient care, so Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays end up with twice the group size as Tuesdays and Thursdays.  It’s stressful to go from a small, intimate group where folks feel safe enough to open up, to a mob where everyone talks at the same time.

And because our Governor closed most of the mental health hospitals, took away funding for behavioral services, and basically told folks with mental illness to “get over it,” the programs that are left are bursting at the seams.

I watch the kind and knowledgable staff at Lutheran run around like headless chickens, trying to accommodate everyone’s needs, shore up folks enough to leave so that those who have been waiting a month for an opening in the program can take their place.  The nurse practitioner who talked to me about medication laughed long and loud when I called it “a three-ring shit show.”  This seems to be my new favorite phrase.

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I came home every day more exhausted and people-avoidant than ever.  I feel like an Introvert In Extremis, only able to function after hours of silent cat time, a couple episodes of Fringe and a frozen pizza from Costco (they have the best thin crust sausage pizzas…).  Even then, “functional” may mean taking a four-hour nap or washing the dishes.

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Yesterday I did my laundry at 3:00 in the morning, because I couldn’t stand the thought of going to the laundromat on the weekend when everyone else goes there.  So, because I was already awake at 3:00, I did laundry for the first time in my apartment complex’s washer/dryer.  Granted, one is not supposed to use the machines until 8:00 out of respect for the tenants who live next to the Common Room.  But since I hate people right now, I didn’t care.  And I tried to be quiet.  No one came after me with a knife, and no one slashed my tires later, so I think I got away with it.

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In between tippy-toeing, I sat at the nice dining table and worked on my journal.  Along with my wheeled laundry hamper, I brought my traveling studio (everything should be on wheels) and a big mug of hot chai.  I sat at my own little coffee shop with my earbuds in and the smell of clean wafting around me, and even through the itchy buzz of being up at 3:00 doing something illicit, I could feel my mind smooth out.

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The same nurse practitioner who laughed so hard with me suggested a new strategy for next week.  Bring my wheely cart and when group bugs me too much, take it to this out-of-the-way lounge I found and do art until I feel like coming back.  I tried that on Friday, and I left the hospital less drained.  I met my two meditation buddies for lunch and lasted about 30 minutes before I completely faded.  My well is dry.  That’s all there is to it.

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I think the trick is to not panic.  I feel myself considering the new drugs this kindly nurse practitioner suggests, even though I sat with my own NP before I started IOP and recounted my long list of Drugs Tried and why they didn’t work.  She reminded me that there really is nothing new in psychotropics, just tweaks to the same old formulas.  If they didn’t work then, they won’t now.

I’m grateful that the Lutheran staff is so willing to work with me.  It’s ironic that the adaptability and flexibility I need from them is part of what makes me so irritable there.  It’s a very loose, laissez-faire set-up for people who have different special needs.  I must try to give my Libran craving for fairness, order and rules a rest.  Maybe I can give her a Xanax.

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Mean and Scary

mousy-ladiesSince my last post, words of love and encouragement, texts, phone calls, offers, cards and funny videos poured over and through me.

Part of it is Facebook. This was the first “I’m thinking about suicide” post that I put on Facebook, so some of this kindness comes from people I’ve not seen in decades—junior high school friends, relatives, etc.  They don’t know that, while serious, this is a side of the illness that comes around every few years.

Part of it is the word.  Suicide.  It brings out the panic in people.  It ignites folks like other incendiary words—God, Abortion, Trump.  And fire requires action.

Part of it is that kind people need to do something to help.  And they’re used to sicknesses that get better.  A little chicken soup, a little gift, and the icky stuff goes away.  They don’t understand that I’m always sick—more or less—no matter how sane I sound or look.  It’s a matter of degree.  A little chicken soup-kindness everyday would be lovely.

It’s been difficult—teaching about mental illness, resetting my boundaries, and reaffirming what I really need—at a time when I want to punch most people in the face.  This is not how one thanks everyone for kindness and thoughtfulness.

I isolate when I’m “unwell,” but this is something more.  I can’t seem to navigate the niceties of social interaction.  I can’t pretend to listen to other folks’ three-ring shit shows (and I normally do a grand job at that).  I can’t tolerate the nattering of voices or the pressure (albeit internal) of protecting others from my illness. I’m scary at present.  And mean.

The last thing I want to do is hurt kindhearted folk.  It’s one of my nightmares—shoving away everyone who loves me with this illness.  It’s such a huge disconnect—hanging on every kind word and pushing away the people who speak them.

All I can say is Thank You and I’m Sorry.  Don’t stop asking questions—not about what you can do for me, but about the illness.  I am a font of knowledge on mental illness and if you need to understand, I’m your gal.  That’s one interaction that won’t get you punched in the face.

Brain Ferrets

Noise in My Head

I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to listen to my brain, especially when the noise is negative. And adamant.  So, I’ve stuck my fingers in my ears a lot over the summer.  Lalalala.  I can’t hear you.

But brains are insidious, crafty, gray matter ferrets. Mine can sniff out a weak spot and gnaw until there’s room for a nest.  Pretty soon, baby brain-ferrets slink through the cracks of my reality.  They shred everything, those little stinkers, until fact, delusion, awareness, perception, fear, and anything else they find turn into one, pulpy mess.

I wouldn’t mind this so much if they’d just shut up about it. Unfortunately, I speak fluent Brain Ferret.

chewingWhy even go to church?  You can’t make any commitments. You can’t even sign up for fun stuff like the Murder Mystery dinner or the music concerts without cancelling most of the time.

Shut it, Boba Ferret.

And nobody noticed that you didn’t attend all summer.

Yes, they did. Scott and Karen said they missed me.  And what about those emails from Linda and Sally?

Months ago.  That’s not the Community you hoped for.

Shut up, Ferret Bueller.  They’re not mind-readers.  They can’t know I’m brain-sick unless I tell them. Contrary to your opinion, I’m not the center of everyone’s universe.

You wanted to participate, teach meditation, work on Social Justice teams.  Face it.  You can’t do that stuff anymore.  You’ve lost the capacity to be around people.

Well … Maybe …

ferretsYou lasted 30 minutes at your cousin’s funeral this weekend before you had to bolt and find a quiet place outside.

I know …

And those are people you’ve known all your life.

Stop.  Just stop a minute.

You’re losing your social skills.  Your tolerance for distress is shrinking.  You’re getting worse.  Maybe your brain is starting to rot.

Sometimes it does feel that way.

And that stupid art journal.  What is that crap?

Listen here, Family von Ferret, I see the mess you’ve made here.  I can’t sort it out right now, so I’m just shutting this door…

WE’LL CHEW THROUGH IT!

And I’m calling the Exterminators.

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Uh huh.  That’s right.  Slink back to your nest and stay there!

We’ll be back.

Yeah, I know, Arnold Schwartzenferret.

I know.

Giving Thanks for Bloggy Friends

I’ve recently been gifted with two amazing pieces of art, both from friends I’ve met through this blog.  As someone who struggles with relationships and the weird complexity of human interaction, making connections like this is something out of Harry Potter.  Magic.  With lots of sparkles.

I sent them both a picture of their gifts mounted on my Wall of Romance.  I can lay on my bed and be comforted by my Pre-Raphaelite prints and the blossoms Robert and Carol gave me.

Pre-Raphaelite art, nature photography

Here’s a better shot of Rob’s work.  And of Carol’s.  Beautiful, aren’t they?

This day is starting off quite hard for me, so I’m trying to focus on my gratitude, my bounty, and my friends.  The rest will take care of itself.

Fewer Doritos, More Gene Kelly

handmade greeting cards, collage artNow that the whole Valentine’s Day business is over, I can get back to the posts that REALLY matter.  Me.  Me Me Me.  Me.

Sometimes I’m dumbfounded by my self-absorption, my complete lack of empathy or interest in anyone else.  I always heard this is what happens when a person lives alone for too long—there’s no one around to poke holes in the ego, no one to interrupt the flow of internal dialogue.  And I suppose those of us with mental illness have a predisposition to belly-button gazing.  We’re taught to monitor our internal world carefully.  We build complicated sieves to sift through every emotional burp and gurgle.

So, when I have to spend time with others, it takes me a few minutes to adjust my worldview.  It’s a refocusing of the camera from micro to macroscopic.  And there’s always a little vertigo involved if the shift happens too fast.  But, I seem to still do okay, interacting with others.  I can still pull out my ability to be with someone and listen to them without making everything they say about me.  I can still sit in a group and join the discussion without spiraling off on a tangent like my brother, a bachelor all his life and firmly ensconced in a World of Me.

But, I’m finding my tolerance for the macroview shrinking.  I don’t seem to understand people the way I used to.  Motives, and machinations, and offenses seem incomprehensible.  Other people take note of subtle nuances, remember details of previous conversations, maneuver chit chat with charm and ease.

As Time Goes By, Judi Dench, Geoffrey Palmer

All that stuff happens somewhere over my left shoulder, out of sight, beyond my reckoning.  And trying to fix on those things exhausts me.  It’s like trying to learn a new language by emersion—everyone is speaking gibberish.

So, I end up running back to my little apartment, pulling on my pajama pants, eating a sack of Doritos, and watching three seasons of As Time Goes By just to blow off the agitation.

Great Expectations, 2011, Helena Bonham Carter, Miss HavishamPeople are hard work.  There are days I want to give them up, like a bad habit.  Instead of quitting Doritos, I’ll quit people.  But I know that’s a slippery slope mental health-wise.  Affiliation.  Belonging.  Support.  Socialization.  These are bedrock words in the How to Be Less Looney Handbook.  And I have a feeling that the road to Crazy Cat Lady would be very short indeed if I went cold turkey on people.  Something along the lines of Miss Havisham with calicos.

Gene Kelly, Singing in the RainIt’s an edge I must continue to explore—how to be a social animal without depleting my energy or overstimulating my nerves.  It’s a dance, sometimes stumbling over my own feet, sometimes gliding gracefully.  Like everything else in my life, the dance changes—new  music, new partners, new steps—and I’ll keep trying.  But, I’ll also keep practicing my solo, because coming home to myself needs to be a place of joy as well as rest.

Fewer Doritos, more Gene Kelly.

Returning

handmade greeting cards, collage artIf there’s an up side to rapid cycling, it’s that nothing last for long.  I get a few days now to reengage and refocus.

What I learned in the hospital this time around, is that being a social animal is required.  Solitude may feel safer, but it’s really just another compulsion that I must push against.  So, when these easier days come, I can look at how to do that.

I’m big on making plans.  My journals are full of lists, Things To Do, strategies, and abandoned schemes.  Over time, they’ve become less grandiose, more tempered, a little more grounded in my reality.  But still they trail behind me like toilet paper on my shoe—a reminder to wake up a little more before taking that first step.

What matters, I think, is making the effort.  Nothing changes unless we can envision it and then move in that direction.  It takes muscle.  This week I’m doing what a social animal does—making calls, meeting friends, dropping by on my way to somewhere else.  I’m choosing to engage.

And as I build up a little momentum, other actions become easier—working on my new collage at night instead of eating my way through a DVD, cleaning my apartment, going back to the Y late in the day for a second workout.  And after holding the question for a few days now, I’ve decided to go back to TOPS.  It’s a social group, which is what I’m to be working on, and if it helps me lose weight, so much the better.

I wrestled long and hard on my compulsive eating last year, then gave up when my bipolar symptoms went into overdrive.  It feels good to come back to this, to reengage this particular tension, to put my strong shoulder against the thing and push.  I hope to do it a little differently, with less black and white thinking, with more gentleness, but with definite action.  It will take more mindfulness than I’ve practiced lately.  It will take willingness to keep returning whenever the compulsion takes over.  Just like I’m doing now.  Returning.  As gentle as that.

These in-between days are always full of revelations, inspiration and fresh starts.  Most of them fall by the bipolar wayside, but a few survive for a while.  It all depends on me, where I put my intent and what actions I take.  Talk is cheap.  Ideas are easy.  The proof is in the doing.

It Takes A Village

handmand greeting card, collage artMichelle’s post today in The Green Study got me thinking.  She focused on how easy it is to over-share in blogs and wondered if it’s all just naval-gazing from self-absorbed recluses.

Well, that would be me.

My gazing tends to point farther north to what’s in my skull, but I am self-absorbed and self-centered.  I justify this by reminding myself that most people with my flavor of bipolar disorder are living in group homes or institutionalized.  Self-absorption or self-preservation, I can’t tell the difference any more.

The recluse part of me is something I’ve started reframing as healthy instead of pathological.  For years I’ve heard how “telling” it was when I isolated, cut myself off from others, quite reaching out, and turned down social engagements.  My health posse at the time would panic, remove all sharp objects and count the pills in my bottles.  They had good reason.  I did try it once.

But, I’m discovering the joys of reclusiveness.  Well, not joy exactly.  Peace is better descriptor.

People wear me out.  Yesterday on my walk around the neighborhood, I saw a little girl (who didn’t know any better) tease a puppy that was tied to a stake.  She didn’t hurt the puppy, but I could hear the meanness in her preschool voice and the pitiful whine of the puppy.  It made me sick and scared, and I hated myself for not doing something about it.  Something gentle.  Something as easy as walking across the street to talk to her and lay a calm hand on the puppy’s head.  But, I didn’t do that.  I walked faster.

When got home, I was sad and tired, disappointed in myself, and could feel my mood slip/slide like ice over black water.  I made a pizza, plugged in an episode of Fringe, and put on my nightgown—done with the outside world and with people.  Then, my doorbell rang.

A casual friend from swim class and also from my meditation group ferreted out where I lived by Sherlockian means—knowing my truck, seeing where it was parked in the apartment lot, peeking at the collaged sign on my front door.  She was hesitant, cautious about showing up unannounced.  She said she had something for me.

It’s always disconcerting when someone rings my doorbell.  Firstly, it’s rare.  Secondly, it’s usually politicians or the landlord.  Thirdly, I’m usually in my nightie.  My little apartment is private space where Henry, Emmett and I weave a cocoon of safety.  Company jangles us.  I may not dash under the bed like Emmett, or growl like Henry when the doorbell rings, but I understand the sentiment.  Still, I try to shift gears and put on a welcoming face.

My friend came back from the parking lot with a big box.  She said her mother ran a food bank in a neighboring county.  “I told her about you,” my friend said, “that you live on Disability and don’t have a pot to piss in.  So, Mom packed a box for you.  I hope you’re not offended.”

What is a person to do with such startling kindness?  I took the box, thanked her, introduced her to Henry and Emmett (who didn’t dive under the bed), thanked her again, and watched her leave.  I stood in my kitchen, touching the box, feeling my friend’s true regard and care.

handmade greeting cards, collage artThere are people in my life who love me, but there are others who actually like me.  They value me (their word, not mine).  They want to support me and are generous and bold in their affection.  I don’t say this because I think I’m unloveable or valueless.  When folks first get to know me, they usually like me—I’m not without a certain amount of charm—but, generally, it doesn’t last.

If folks hang around long enough or get closer, the bipolarness sours their regard.  Rage, judgment, neediness, inconsistency, intolerance have chased away friends and family.  Shutters bang closed over their faces and conversation floats on the surface like dead fish.  I wanted to say to this new friend, “Thank you so much for your gift, but if you get any closer your sweet desire to be of service will shrivel up and die.”

But, I didn’t, because, sometimes, it doesn’t shrivel up and die. Sometimes, people get their bearings and decide the hassle of me is worth it (also their words, not mine).  Sometimes they’re willing to dance with me until we find our rhythm.  I have a precious few who reaffirm their commitment when I get in this mood, who will stick with me when society at large is too jarring.

People are hard.  I’m hard.  The effort it takes to balance naval-gazing with true personal interaction seems herculean at times.  But, we make these gestures of love at each other, little acts of kindness, drive-by thoughtfulness.  So, I guess I’ll keep blogging about both—the belly button lint and the food boxes.  And maybe on my next walk around the block, I’ll be able to squat down by the little girl and pet her puppy.

People Person

people personHa Ha.  Very clever, right?  But, there’s so much truth in this, it’s painful.  The rest of the truth is that my bipolar disorder ruined me first.

I had two serious situations this week where I was misunderstood.  The old me, the Sandy Sue before electroshock and buckets of drugs, before losing one life and starting over, before everything I am now, would have squared off and demanded to be heard.  Shoot them all and let God sort them out is, I think, the way that particular saying goes.  That was my modus operandi.  Because I’m so damn smart and enlightened.

Thank the Universe, I’ve learned those self-righteous leanings are mostly delusion and bent ego.  And thank the Universe, I’ve slowly learned to keep my mouth shut.  Mostly.  I still can’t clamp it shut fast enough to keep some spew from squirting out, but I’m getting better at it.  Unfortunately, the only way to practice this skill is through experience.  Ugh.  But, I’m finding a new truth in confrontation—nothing I have to say will make it better.  Especially if there’s some kind of emotion behind it.  I don’t need to be understood.  No one is required to see my point of view.  None of that is important.

Still, it doesn’t feel good to be accused or punished for perceived or future crimes.  And that sharp discomfort is hard for my illness to tolerate.  The stress sings my anxiety and agitation into action, urging me to cut and run, to find comfort, to gather the troupes and set up a perimeter against any further incursions.  The illness turns me away from them and toward me.  What do I need to do to feel safe?  What stories am I making up about what happened?  How do I reorient to this new situation?  How do I keep breathing until the anxiety settles and the New Place is mapped?  What resources do I have?

I have some work to do today, and in the days to come.  Being misunderstood is part of being bipolar.  And part of all human interaction.  I just have to find my way in it.  Without getting ruined.

A Different Kind of Vacation

handmade greeting cards, collage art

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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.

Cancelled Until Further Notice

handmade card, collage artI know it’s bad when I start canceling.

Responsibility.  Dependability.  Steadfastness.  These are qualities my illness took away.  I’ve never had them, really, just wanted them.  I remember trying to be dependable, trying to be that person others could count on, call on, lean on.  That desire made me sign up, volunteer, make promises, reschedule, say yes, push push push.  But, eventually, the illness cancels everything.

Ask any of my friends.  Ask my family.  Ask the bosses of all the jobs I’ve quit.  Or the clubs, classes, and meetings I’ve missed.  It’s gotten to a point now that even a hint of obligation makes me nervous.  I hold my breath when I write a date in my little day planner.  To be required to be someplace at a specific time on a regular basis is the same as strapping on a vest bomb.  It will go off, I just don’t know when.

When the illness is at its worst, it hits the eject button.  The blast doors open and the vacuum of space sucks everything out of the cargo bay.  Out went my meditation group last night.  And watching Criminal Minds with my friends.  Out went the TOPS Christmas party today.  And out will go anything having to do with other people.

By the time the illness jettisons everything, people have become completely alien.  I can’t speak the language or decipher the signals.  Every encounter feels threatening, dangerous.  I’m exposed, unable to find an acceptable face to wear or words skillful enough to keep a safe distance.

I know these are people I’ve said yes to, made plans with, even fought hard to win back their confidence.  These are people I care about.  It doesn’t matter.  When bipolar disorder seizes the ship, it dumps ballast indiscriminately.  Everything and everyone goes.

What’s left is the cool dark of space.  Unencumbered, weightless, the relief feels vast and soothing.

What I’ve learned over the past few years is that my illness won’t tolerate stress.  I used to think my unreliability was a character defect.  But I see now that it is extreme stress management.  Half measures don’t work.  Socially acceptable techniques fail.  Bipolar disorder demands that I turn off all the lights and shut all the doors.  And if I don’t do it, the illness will do it for me.

So, I cancel.  And I wait.  And if I’m very lucky, the people in my life will wait, too.

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