Not Quite Bad-Ass

I know what I need to do.Marian Ravenwood, Karen Allen, Indiana Jones, Raiders

After a long spell of rapid cycling, mixed states, stressful situations and physical illness, my protocol is to summon the Bad-Ass and pull my life back together.  It’s a time to train, reassert discipline, and prepare for the next engagement with my bipolar disorder.  But, this time, I can’t seem to find her.

Maybe I’m still cycling.  I’m exhausted, but can’t sleep; fretful with no clear concern; compulsive in my eating and spending.  I feel my routine and structure dissolving, which jumpstarts my panic.  The drive to claw out some order from the chaos squeezes me from the inside.

So, okay, I’m still cycling.  Once I set the emotion aside, I can observe the behavior and the feelings with a little more clarity.  There’s no room for the Bad-Ass yet.  And even though the compulsive eating terrifies me, another part of me knows this is part of the illness.  Eventually, this will pass, and I’ll come to a place where I can do the work I long to do now.

What can I do now?

Exercise—I can walk today.  If I’m mindful, I can walk this morning and again later this afternoon.  Tomorrow I can go to my water class in the morning and walk or ride the recumbent bike in the afternoon.  Exercise is the most important tool I have to keep my brain flexible and the blood flowing.

Meditation and Tasks—Luckily, today is our UU small group, so I have an hour of meditation already built into my day.  I’m also leading the Fellowship gathering where we’ll discuss the physiological effects of gratitude.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow through on this commitment—I felt too foggy, too scattered, too panicked.  But this morning seems a little better, and I’m ready with my presentation.

There are some things I can do even in the worst of an episode.  Writing in my journal, making cards, even driving remind me that I can still function, that my brain can still create and make connections.  I’ve long given up my need for perfection in any of these things.  I just do them, and that’s enough to give me a sense of myself when it seems like the illness is everything.

Emma Peel, Diana Rigg, The AvengersEvery once in a while, I’m able to call on some old skills like public speaking and creating ritual, skills that I was proficient in once and can still use if the social phobia, agitation and moods aren’t too crippling.  Using these skills help me feel more human, but they also generate stress.  I’ll lead the small group and do the Fellowship presentation, but I may have to pay for it later in exhaustion and an exacerbation of my symptoms.  Maybe not.  It’s always a crap shoot.

That’s my plan.  Not a Bad-Ass plan, just a rope to pull me through the day.  But I know my Bad-Ass is on the other end of the rope, holding tight, waiting for her turn.

It will come.

The Play is the Thing

As I’m more and less skillful in adapting to the changes in my life, I also get to ride the slippery slope of my bipolar disorder.  Mania shifted to agitation, which dropped into a mixed state of depression and anxiety.  Now the depression has smoothed out into a deep darkness that I know well.

It’s uncomfortable here, but at least the burning itch to DO and GO has passed.  I want to eat everything in sight, but I’m too tired to act on my compulsion.  Mostly.  The sexual fantasies that crowded my thinking released their shameful grip.  My thoughts twist with self-loathing now, but I can distance myself from them better than the hot longing those fantasy men pull from me.  They still lurk in the background, but their siren songs are muted by the dark.

I remind myself to believe nothing my mind throws out.  What feels reasonable isn’t.  What seems like a course of action rises from compulsion, or aversion to pain, or grasping for comfort.  Paranoia pops out of social interaction.  Isolation feels so good it has to be questioned.

I can believe in the tools that have worked for me in the past—distraction through art and TV, exercise, reaching out for support.  I can remind myself to Watch, to feel the discomfort in my body, to be aware of the impulses my distorted thinking shoots out like lightening.

This is just another face of the illness, another long episode making a costume change between acts.  Sometimes I forget my lines in the middle of this play, but the Prompters are out there.  I’ve worked hard to place them around the stage, helpful voices in the dark to remind me where I am, who I am, and the artful response to Bipolar’s monologue.  I’ll get through this performance, and the next, and the next.  There’s always a curtain call, a chance to bow, smile and feel the lights come up.

Collecting Body Parts

Zombies are the current monster du jour (sorry, Twilight fans).  From what I can remember, their last heyday was in the ’70’s when George Romero put out Night of the Living Dead.  Oh, and then there was Thriller in the early ’80’s.  Now they’re all over the place again—on TV, in new movies, the subject of horror fiction.  I  never liked zombies—too messy and too dumb to be scintillating bad guys—but I’m developing a little empathy for the moldy creatures.

Lately, I feel like I’ve been collecting body parts that fell off when bipolar disorder radically changed my life.  Like a year-end clearance sale, everything had to go.  Skills, interests, possessions, and people all sloughed off to leave the bare-bones of survival.  Now as I try to piece together a new life out of the ruins, some of those bits may come in handy (so to speak).

But, I’m not a Mr. Potato Head.  The parts don’t snap back into place.  Like other reanimated creatures, I find there’s been a lot of damage (rot, gnawing—you know…).  There’s also the memory of what those parts felt like incorporated into the whole in contrast to how they function now.  It’s an unsettling juxtaposition.

Case in point.  Today I was to lead the meditation at the Unitarian Universalists meeting.  That information didn’t get to the folks who had volunteered to run the service.  They already had the mediation planned, which was fine with me.  No big deal, no attachment.  But then, they handed me the sign-up sheet for future programs, and without thinking too much about it, I volunteered to lead a full service in May.

It wasn’t until the meeting was underway that I remembered my illness had chopped off that particular body part.  Once I led a service two or three times a month.  Then, I lost the ability to be consistent and follow through.  Anxiety and social phobia got in the way.  And depression overwhelmed the rest.

But, I didn’t scratch my name off the list for May.  I don’t know if this piece is going to fit again, but it feels important to at least pick it up and look at it.  The UU services are simple, the people accepting and generous.  Meditation and teaching meditation is a part of me that survived my zombification, so that piece is whole and functional.  I figure my chances of pulling this off are better than 50/50.

And like all the other pieces of my “old life” I’ve been scavenging, if it doesn’t fit anymore (or yet), then I’ll set it back down without regret or drama.  I’m getting used to trying on these old body parts and giving them a whirl to see if the stitches hold.  They are heavy, and sometimes the weight of them is too much.  But, sometimes they reanimate in a whole new way.

George Romero would be proud.

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

Be Careful What You Ask For

A few weeks ago I set the intention of Creating a New Life.  I forget sometimes that the Universe is not always gentle in how It responds.

One aspect of building this new life is to find a way to contribute to and be a part of the community.  I thought that meant working as a volunteer in some capacity.  I tried the Animal Rescue League, and felt pretty successful about my day there.  But, when it was time to go back this week, I was in a deep depression.  I rescheduled, hoping I could go back when the depression lifted, then ended up canceling altogether.  As much as I celebrated my ability to get there on time and put in three hours of washing windows and collecting dog poop, I had to admit I couldn’t tolerate the animals’ emotional pain or the way the staff has to shut themselves down to deal with it.  It was an experiment.  Now I know.

However, the Universe plopped other options in my lap.  Through calls and emails, I found a local group of Unitarian Universalists.  The core group of about 30 people are just starting the process of affiliating with the national UU organization.  They’re enthusiastic and welcoming.  I felt right at home.  At the second gathering I attended, I was impressed by the meditation and talked with the woman who led it.  She said a poll of the members showed that most people are hungry for more spirituality in the services, but the board wasn’t sure how to provide that.  Like me, she and her husband would like to start a meditation group.  And then, she invited me to lead the meditation at the next service.  A way to contribute and be part of the community.

I also volunteered to do the program at last week’s T.O.P.S. meeting.  Usually, someone will read an article about weight loss or nutrition.  I decided to tell a bit of my story and speak about using awareness with compulsive eating.  The response floored me.  People lined up afterward to talk to me, about their own struggles with mood disorders or those of loved ones, about the concept of awareness (how does that work again?), about standing up in front of a group and telling something so personal (maybe I could do that, too).  This week I received emails and cards from members of the group about my presentation.  Yesterday at the meeting, folks were still talking about it and thanking me.  I offered to do more programs as needed.

Then, last night, I followed up on a connection I made at my dad’s funeral this fall.  My cousin, Ray, confessed to me at the funeral reception that he meditated regularly.  He seemed agreeable to sitting together sometime, so I vowed to myself that I’d push through my social phobia and call him.  I procrastinated.  I didn’t know Ray except as a name and a face in the haze of distant relatives.  But, I had a feeling.  I made the call.

Last night I discovered a kindred spirit, another seeker.  Last night we shared our stories, sat meditation together, shared more stories.  Ray loaned me a book that I didn’t know I was looking for, a piece of my story, October Roads, that was missing.  What a gift to find him, precious fruit on my own family tree.

Yeah, be careful what you ask for.  The Universe will provide.

Getting Out There

I just finished my first shift as a volunteer at the Animal Rescue League.  I’m exhausted—and triumphant.  I actually put myself in a pseudo-work environment and didn’t suffer off-the-charts anxiety.  I did leave early, but that was because my back was killing me after washing all the windows (inside and out) and doing poop patrol in the exercise yard, picking up 15 gallons of dog do.  My backache feels more like a badge of honor than overworked musculature.  I did it!  And I signed up to do it again next week.

This is a huge step for me.  Every time I’ve tried to work an “easy” job in the past few years, volunteer my time, or commit to anything requiring a set schedule or responsibility, my illness has galloped off into the sunset.  I’ve always said that the hardest part of being bipolar is the inconsistency (okay, there are a lot of hard parts, but this is my number one gripe).

I told myself going into this volunteer position that it was just one afternoon with dogs and cats.  If I didn’t want to do it again, I didn’t have to.  The staff at the Shelter are extremely laid back—they gave me a task then let me alone to do it.  I liked that.  While I went through the building washing windows, I could stop in the cat room for a while and see who all was in residence.  Whatever work I did was appreciated, whenever I wanted to schedule myself was okay.  The only pressure I felt I put on myself to do a good job while I was there.  Even then, a few streaks in the windows and a few missed dog muffins were just fine.

I think I can actually do this.  At least, I’m going to try.

Count the Blessings

I’ve been down with an intestinal flu the last couple of days.  Nothing to do but watch movies, drink ginger ale and ponder the year that’s about to end.  But pondering can be a dangerous exercise, especially when I’m sick and in the middle of an episode.  I’ve learned it’s never a good idea to give too much attention to the thoughts that swirl up then.  Too much darkness, too much regret, too much grief.  So instead, I’ll focus on a few of the blessings 2011 brought me.

A place to sell my art cards.  My last visit at The Perfect Setting was disappointing compared to all the other times I’ve sold my cards there.  Pam, the owner, placed another employee in charge of the greeting cards.  This person pulled a couple of mine as “inappropriate”.  It seems she and I don’t share the same sense of humor.  So, Pam bought only half of the bunch I brought in this time instead of all of them.

Even though I know better, I took it very personally.  I know every shop has to make careful selection and cater to the clientele, but it surprised me since Pam always seemed to love everything I brought in.  Every artist has to tailor their work to fit the market—I know and understand this.  It just caught me on a very bad day, and I haven’t been able to sit at my studio table since.

This isn’t sounding much like gratitude.  But I am extremely grateful to Pam for taking a chance with my work.  She hung my weird collages even though no one in Marshalltown will ever buy them.  She bought all my cards, even when her other employees raised eyebrows.  She let me be the square peg in the town’s round hole—no one else here has ever done that for me.  Yes, I’m grateful.  And eventually, I’ll start making more of the cards that the town will accept—along with a few naughty ones.

Healing.  This year I learned how to manage without psychotropic medication.  I developed my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training guidelines.  I graduated from the Silver Sneakers water exercise class to the deep water, high-powered, water aerobics class.  I pushed the envelope of my reading disability and actually finished eleven whole books this year.  I’m learning how to be a woman alone without being lonely all the time.  I’ve moved past my fear of cooking and can now fix supper for myself every night.  I’ve started again on the weight loss journey, losing 12 pounds since my visit with the allergist at the beginning of December.

It’s an important practice to remember all the healing this year brought, all the hard work and dedication I put into it.  The illness always grabs center stage.  The loss of Will, the scrambled routine, the swamping thoughts tear down self-worth and confidence.  It’s so easy to see only failure.  So, remembering the success and joy play a vital part in bringing reality back to true.

Saying Good-bye to my dad on my terms.  I am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad in his final days and participate in his funeral in a meaningful way.  It was a gift.  Just as easily, my illness might have flared like it did this past Christmas, incapacitating me and keeping me from any human interaction.  Frankly, I expected to be a nut case during my dad’s rituals, and the stress did eventually cause an episode.  But I was fully there when I most wanted to be.  A miracle.  A prayer answered.

These are just a few of the gifts the Heart of the Universe placed in my lap this year.  What treasures did you receive?

The Morning After

This has catastrophe written all over it.—Sydney Ellen Wade in The American President

I started feeling depressed again about a week ago.  It was more like a low-grade fever—the voices of despair and hopelessness in the background with the Christmas Muzak.  Just enough to slow me down, to make the holes in my day yawn like hungry mouths. Counter measures could still beat it back at times—long workouts in the water, three full hours writing—but the Sunset Syndrome was back.  Anxiety and agitation moved in as the sun went down, so the evenings proved particularly uncomfortable.  And the urge to eat drowned me then.

But, I hung on—counted my calories, kept to my routine.  I balanced on that edge for days.  Then, Christmas came and I tumbled over.

I think I can now safely say that Christmas is a trigger for me.  After last year, I wondered if I should ease out of the family events.  But, then, Dad died, and it felt important to all be together this year, to try to find a way to do our normal activities without him.  But the stress was too much.

Once my brother arrived, he never stopped talking, so there were usually two or three conversations going on at the same time with no-one really listening.  Mom interrogated and fired off new information the minute I walked in the door—I tried to call, where were you? Tyler called and said… What’s in this bag?  We watched The Man Who Would Be King last night…  My body interpreted all this stimuli as an attack, and the only responses were fight back or escape.  So Christmas became an exercise in keeping my anger in check and not running out the door.  I failed.

The more I failed, the more my illness seized my thoughts, and the worse I failed.  Opening presents was a nightmarish ordeal.  I announced months ago that I couldn’t afford to give presents this year, but at the last minute I couldn’t stand the poverty-mindedness of it and bundled up packages of cards I’d made to give out.  Some gave me gifts anyway, some didn’t.  I  felt ridiculous, poor and just plain wrong.  This isn’t how our family does Christmas.  We always have loads of gifts and great fun opening them.  I didn’t belong anymore.

Then, there were the looks and the whispering.  Oh, they had every right to whisper about me, I was in rare bipolar form, but it always hurts to catch them at it.  It makes me feel so very crazy.

I dreaded this weekend.  I knew it would be bad.  And I started to wonder if my family dreads being with me as much as I dread being with them.  I could see my sister’s concern, her desire to pull together all the elements that would make Christmas feel normal without Dad.  And Mom brushed off my apologies as if my outbursts were the most normal things in the world.  They deserve time together without wondering if I’m going to implode.  I love them.  I want to be with them.  But, it seems like I can’t.  And that makes me incredibly sad.

The thin layer of sanity I wear so proudly got ripped off and the raving lunatic gamboled in the streets. I’m humiliated and defeated.  And another part of me knows this will pass.  I’ll be forgiven, this episode will run its course, and the cycle will start again.  I must be careful now to watch my thoughts, come back to my routine, do all the things I know to do that will keep me healthy and sane.  I must use this Christmas as a learning, a marker, and make adjustments.  When I feel stronger, I’ll talk to my family about what happened.  It’s all part of the Work.

Ding Dong Ditch

Earlier this week, I visited with my therapist about my ongoing quest to approach relationships differently.  I’d done a lot of pondering and journaling about this issue, especially after an incident with an alcoholic friend.

One thing I realized is that part of my tendency to ditch uncomfortable people is something I learned growing up.  I’d never connected the dots before, but once I started revisiting my family’s conflict resolution skills, I got the Big AhHa.  We never fought with people, we just never talked to them again.  Anyone who was perceived as different, difficult, needy, or pesky in any way was avoided.  Transgressions were “forgiven, but never forgotten.”  When I considered this learned behavior and added my bipolar bonus points of isolation, distorted thinking and emotional friability, I was grateful that I still had anyone to talk to.

I’ve said it before, and I suppose I’ll keep on saying it—people are hard.  At least they are for me.  They are scary, hairy creatures, and if they turn around too fast, I run for the hills.  At the same time I yearn to connect, to hear the words “I feel exactly the same way.”

Michelle, my therapist, couldn’t give me any tips or pointers (damn it).  As is her usual M.O., she acted as cheerleader, waving her pompoms in the direction of my successes.  She made a point of reminding me that setting boundaries is not the same as dumping someone, and that the act of setting boundaries can be done in a loving and respectful way.  Good distinction.  Maintaining boundaries is as hard for me as staying, but I see the difference.

What this all boils down to is yet another spiritual practice.  I can’t change my behavior if I’m not aware of how it works on me, so I must bring consciousness into play.  I get to watch how people make me squirm and then follow the squirmy bread crumbs back to whatever twisted thinking is at fault.  I get to watch my desire to bolt.  I get to unwind Old Truths that don’t make sense anymore (if they ever did).  Every disagreement isn’t a threat, nor is every misunderstanding a negation of my worth.  These are deeply ingrained.  With time, compassion and curiosity, I may yet work them loose.

Many of you weighed in on how to approach my friend and his abusive behavior when drunk—thank you.  I want to especially thank Kana at Kana’s Chronicles for her words of wisdom.  I ended up following her suggestions and was able to set boundaries with my friend without abandoning him.  I feel like I was respectful to both of us, and he seemed to hear what I said without taking offense.  Time will tell, of course.

The Lessons just keep on comin’.  I’m on an Adventure.


The depression eased up for about four hours yesterday.  I sat here working on Callinda and thought, “Yipee! It’s over!”  But, alas.  It was just my brain teasing me, dangling Clear Mind in front of me like a bobbing apple.  Soon enough, the Transylvanian Fog rolled back in, and I spent the rest of the day watching endless episodes of Gilmore Girls.

Still, it was a breather, a reminder that my thoughts will eventually stop gravitating toward the Dark Side.  I feel myself getting battle weary from warding off the latest volley of despair and worthlessness.  Ugh.  To counter that today, I worked on a collage for my new grand-nephew, Zane, who was born October 25.

Mom, my sister and her husband will be leaving Friday to go visit the new baby (and his big brother, Wyatt).  I want to get the piece finished so they can take it with them.  It seems to be coming along fine, but it takes so much effort.  I can measure how severe this episode is by how little interest I have in my art or my writing.  A little scary, but that’s just attaching meaning to feelings that are really meaningless.

The lack of interest, the digestive grumblings, the achy joints and muscles, the distorted thoughts, the hinky sleep, the social anxiety—they’re all just the illness throwing out its normal chemical spew.  If I can keep watching as they vomit forth, I can keep from grabbing them up as if they are worth something.  Deep breath, drink some water, and queue up some more diversion.

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