Season of Change

Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Star TrekThis is sort of a big week.  Wednesday will be my last Support Group session.  Thursday, my mom returns home from the nursing home.  Big changes.  And change is always a little dangerous for anyone with bipolar disorder.  The trick, I’ve learned, is to acknowledge the potential and Watch.

I feel like I’ve prepared well for the end of Group.  My mental health clinic has been in trouble for some time, first losing money, then losing our psychiatrist, and finally, when a larger clinic took over, losing most of the counseling staff.  It seemed like the right time to transfer my records to the clinic in my own town.  I’ll miss my therapist—she’s been my biggest cheerleader—but I’ll be able to join a support group offered here.

I never thought I’d benefit so much from a support group, but I’ve learned that my preference for solitude puts me at risk.  For the rest of my life, I will need to push against that tendency, and continuing with a group will help me do that.  I still have to go through all the intake interviews and paperwork, find a new therapist, and explain how I manage without medication.  But, that’s part of the process.  A little stressful, a little anxiety-producing, but eventually I’ll settle into a new routine here.

On Wednesday, I’ll get to say a few words of parting, then the group will pass around a token (like the ones folks get in Recovery programs).  Each person will get to hold the token and say a few words about me.  After three months in this group, I’ve participated in several parting rituals, and they’re always moving.  I imagine this one will be, too.  I’m bringing Kleenex.

But, it’s time to move on.  This group was always meant to be a transition between hospitalization and New Life—that’s why clients can only participate for three months.  I’m ready.  And still, it’s a big change.

The next day my sister and I will help my mom return home after three months recovering from a botched angiogram.  A lot has changed for her.  Still weak and somewhat unsteady on her feet, she’ll go home with a walker and a cast on her arm, a home health aide to assist with bathing and housekeeping, and  a whole new way of perceiving her life.  “I have to think of myself as handicapped now,” she told me yesterday.

I don’t know yet how Mom’s homecoming will affect me.  My sister always took the lead as far was Mom is concerned, but I live closer.  It’s an uncomfortable triad—I can generally hold my own one-on-one, but put us all together and I either fade into the wallpaper or try to do too much.  Old patterns and a history of nonexistent boundaries make my family the biggest trigger for my bipolar episodes.  So, I’m Watching.

What I’m Seeing are old coping behaviors popping up like Whack-A-Moles—binge eating, long daytime naps, lots of movies—with the expected dips into depression.  So, I keep Watching and, when I can, I go do something else.  Like take a walk or write a blog post.

Change happens.  We adapt.  Those of us with bipolar disorder or other mental illnesses may need more time and resources to get to the other side, but we do.  My wish this time is to leave the least amount of carnage behind—not gain back the weight I’ve lost, not spend all my money, not hide in my apartment.  I hope to get to the other side of this season of change secure in myself and open to the benefits these changes bring.

Here comes the storm.  I’ll wet my finger with a little thankfulness and love, then turn to face it.

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Before and After

Sweet Relief.

I hit bottom yesterday, actually felt the jolt as my body slapped the Pit and bounced.  That little bit of momentum, the ricochet off Hell’s linoleum floor, felt like a heavenly watershed.

Before: I shambled, zombie-like, unable to rub two thoughts together without pain, unable to follow a conversation, unable to even hold my head up from the table at my TOPS meeting (The last time I remember laying my head on a table was in Miss Camp’s fourth grade class when we were required to “rest” after lunch).  I drowsy-drove to Mom’s with my laundry, but couldn’t figure out how to use the washer.  I rested in the basement until my brain could decipher the word “detergent.”  Then I slept on Mom’s bed until my sister came out and spoke in a foreign language I almost understood.

After: I actually opened a can of Manwich and microwaved it as spaghetti sauce.  I operated my mom’s DVD player and plugged in “Australia.”  I answered her in complete sentences when she asked me questions.  And as I drove home with my clean and folded clothes, I was awake.  Maybe not alert yet, but definitely headed in that direction.

After a weird night of what I call Transition Sleep, I feel almost myself.  The momentum is continuing.  I missed my normal Y class by oversleeping, but I’ll hit another one in a minute here.  I’ve got a plan and a direction for today, which is more than I’ve had in weeks (including the frantic scramble to set up my Etsy site and donation button).  Things are looking up, which is the only view from the bottom.

Tumble

I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door.  It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!

—Rumi

° ° °

It has been a day full of tumbling—from solid to uncertain, from meadow to briar patch, from empty to brimming.  The transition from Clear Mind to an itchy melancholy stretched out over the weekend and somersaulted to a stop today.

Once again, I adjust my expectations.  I remind myself to stop Training and focus on Survival.  I feel the despair and hopelessness, the isolation and incompetence, and I know they are products of a mind twisted dark and untrustworthy.  I reach for my routine—move in the water, push the pen across the page—and reach for the tools that will help me lift my face into the breeze.

I knock on Rumi’s door and feel knuckles rapping inside my chest.  I stand at the brink and am the feet lifting into the air and the grass left behind.  I hold both worlds in my two fists and will not let go.

Shifting Sands

What I’ve found as a student of my own bipolar disorder is that I function best with a routine and a minimum of stress.  I can surf change and surprises if they remain small and limited, but pile on too many or shake up my world too much and I become symptomatic.

Over the last few days, I’ve watched my agitation grow—both motor (feeling like I have to keep moving) and psychic (intense inner tension).  I’m quick to anger, and I’m finding it difficult to focus on tasks.  At the same time, I have a nagging premonition of doom, like I’m forgetting something important.  My thoughts are heavy, self-defeating, distorted toward darkness.  This is all classic mixed-state bipolar disorder.

Stress is different for everyone.  I’ve thought about this a lot as I considered volunteering at the public library.  The biggest, most consistent stressor in my life has always been work.  Before my mental break in 2006, I changed jobs almost every seven years.  That seemed to be my limit.  I would get physically sick, or quit on the verge of getting fired, or later, suffer anxiety attacks.

After moving home in 2007, I tried several times to work.  I’ve always said my problem was that I couldn’t be consistent, that holding to someone else’s schedule was impossible for me.  But, I’m not sure that’s the issue.  All I know for sure is that working causes me enormous stress, which makes me sick.

So I had mixed feelings when the librarian took my name, but said she didn’t have any work for me at present.  Relief mixed with irritation.  I recognize the irritation as part of the agitation pool I’m paddling in right now.  Relief is the proper response.  I don’t need to add another stressor right now.

Working on a new writing project, one without a clear form and direction, is very different from rewriting a piece of fiction.  I’ve learned enough about my writing process to know it will take shape eventually.  But, for now it slips through my fingers.  There’s no path to follow.  That’s very disconcerting and fodder for the distorted thoughts crowding into my head.

I knew that challenging myself to draw every day for a month would bring up old wounds to be healed, but I never anticipated the level of resistance I feel in my body.  Part of that is the agitation itself.  I’m genuinely shocked at the comments readers have left about the sketches I’ve posted so far.  They look like crap to me.  So, I Watch those thoughts, try to remain curious about where the distortion comes from, try to feel the anxiety in my body.  I hold the possibility that the sketches are fine, that the self-criticism is a product of my illness and a distorted view of my history.  I wake up a little bit and breathe.

Today, I will comfort myself as best I can while holding the tension—work out at the Y, go to Panera where I feel successful as a writer and can afford a couple of meals (both money and calorie-wise).  I’ll listen to my music and sing while I drive the half hour to Ames, take in the spring greens and count the baby animals (lambs are so clean!).

Seeing what’s going on, bringing awareness to my symptoms and lifting them up out of the shadows makes the process so much easier.  It drains off the fear and shame.  It helps me identify the delusions.  With awareness, I can place my steps more carefully in the shifting sands of my illness and keep moving forward.

Minimizing the Damage

I woke up this morning deep in depression.  This is one of the mysteries of my bipolar disorder—sometimes sleep acts as a transition.  I can go to bed feeling fine and wake up either manic or depressed, or go to sleep in the throes of an episode and wake up stable.  Something gets reset, some sticky switch gets thrown, some chemical process does or doesn’t happen.  If it wasn’t so deadly, it would be fascinating.

My whole focus today became doing the least amount of damage.  I was supposed to volunteer at the Animal Rescue League again this afternoon.  Instead of bolting completely, I rescheduled for Wednesday.  Canceling altogether felt too much like failure, which was the depression twisting my thoughts, but I needed to give myself a chance to succeed later, if I could.  Writing this helps me see how contorted my thinking is.  Boy, I’m deep in it alright.

I recently added a bunch of books to sell on my Half.com account.  Three orders came through over the weekend, and I needed to get them shipped.  This task felt enormous and impossible.  Driving to Staples filled me with anxiety, especially when they didn’t have the right size box.  All I wanted to do was load up on my favorite junk food and hide in my apartment.  But I went to the UPS store instead.  I let the nice folks there find the right box, the right mailers, then I stood at the counter and packed everything up.  Carefully.  It’s very easy to make mistakes—wad up tape, mis-print the address, mix up the orders.  I double checked, then checked the double-check.

I still planned on buying binge food when I dropped the packages off at Hy-Vee.  I knew there was no denying the compulsion, so the best I could do was read the nutrition labels and try to make better choices in junk—a smaller sized frozen pizza, Haagen Das instead of Ben and Jerry’s, baked Cheetos instead of regular.  At the Redbox, I got three movies instead of my usual depression fare of five or six.  I couldn’t stop the compulsions, but I could temper them a little.  Today, that felt like a huge victory.

After sleeping most of the afternoon, I feel like I can sit at my table and make a few cards.  The Eagles are crooning on my stereo.  Emmett is tucked into my big chair, sleeping his kitty dreams.  The traffic keeps the beat of evening coming on.  I’ve survived another day in Bipolar Paradise with a minimum of scars.

A Gratitude Journal Page on Thanksgiving

Cultivating a thankful attitude can be a challenge with bipolar disorder.  The illness tends to shun the finer energies of love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance for the heaviest emotions.  It twists truth into lies and reality into gruesome Grimm fairy tales. It takes vigilance to recognize The Dark Voice inside one’s mind, courage to reject the falsehoods it whispers, and superhero strength to open the mind to Light and Life instead.  It takes hard work to foster gratitude.

This Thanksgiving, however, I’m finding it easy to be grateful.  I may be uncomfortable and limited from my recent surgery, but the tumor the surgeon removed was benign, and I can look forward to healing completely.  This holiday season comes so soon after my dad’s death that the rest of the family still orbits the gravity well he occupied.  I’m so thankful that we can talk about him without awkwardness, that we can experiment with new rituals to see what might hold meaning for us now, and that we love and support each other as we hold Dad’s absence gently.

These are big blessings in gratitude.  But, I find I’m even more thankful for the moments of grace that dot my bipolar existence.  The sudden release of depression’s grip, an easing of anxiety, the way my thoughts untwist like a coiled rope let loose, a deep breath that tilts my head up to see the stars.  Like the illness itself, these gentle turns come without warning and in spite of anything I might do.  I don’t earn these moments.  They are Grace’s gift, a Mystery.  I can only lift my face to the sun and say, Thank You.

Breaking the Surface

Today I worked out in my water aerobics class without a safety belt.  We all wear this big, blue styrofoam wedge strapped around our waists to keep us from going under, or at least, make it harder to go under.

Different parts of the routine require raising hands and arms in the air, so it’s hard to tread water.  Other exercises have us pointing straight up and down—conducive to dropping like a rock to the bottom of the pool.

But today, I needed to see if I was strong enough to do the exercises without the belt.  I did—without panicking—even when I could only keep my face above the surface.  I was exhausted when we finished, but felt like I accomplished something—proved something.

All day today, I felt like my head had broken the surface—a slight sense of relief, a subtle shift of the eyes up and out to a wider view.  I drove to Ames after my water class, and found myself ticking off things I was grateful for as I watched the empty corn fields roll past—my sister, my mom, the way Emmett body-slams against my legs when he’s happy.  I was grateful for the money Mom gave me so I could gas up the truck, drive to Ames, sit in Panera with a bear claw and coffee, and write for four hours without worrying about how to balance my budget for this indulgence.

I broke the surface in my writing, too, noting how the Callinda rewrites are taking a completely different turn from the original story.  I saw how I kept trying to bring the story back around to the original, twisting it unnaturally and making it illogical.  Then, I remembered a woman from a writers’ group I belonged to years ago and her sage words: “Kill Your Darlings.”

All of a sudden my vision expanded.  I was able to look up and out.  I’d been trying to keep all the “good parts” of the old story—my darlings—when they no longer fit.  I went back over the whole story so far, all eighteen chapters, with this broader point of view, editing out the darlings and tightening the plot  (Those edits will be incorporated in the Callinda chapters posted here soon).

This has been a long and difficult episode.  I calculated it’s been 22 days so far, with some moments or days a little lighter than others.  Most of the time, though, it’s been a deep dive into the abyss.  That’s a long time to hold your breath.  It cramps perspective.  So, it was a gift to break the surface today.  Even if it’s just for today, I feel a little stronger, like I accomplished something.

Triage

I’m going to say I’m back from the bipolar battlefield even if I’m not sure.  I seem to be back enough to do triage, sorting the casualties into who needs immediate attention, who can wait, and who is too far gone to warrant any attention at all.

What needs immediate attention is my home.  During an episode, I tend to “let things go.”  So, the bathroom needs a scrub, as does the kitchen.  Laundry, vacuuming and a general picking up and putting away.  I have a duffel bag full of pictures and photo albums to put away from creating the slide show for Dad’s funeral.  A general dusting might be a good idea, too.

Concurrently, I need to get my routine back.  It’s not too far off—I’ve been getting to the Y every day, doing a little writing and art—but off enough.  Watching TV during an episode is positive distraction, but watching too much and continuing on after the episode fades like this sets me up for mindlessness and compulsive eating.

Once I get my apartment and routine in order, I need to stock up.  The cupboards are pretty bare, which makes me reach for take-out, which I can’t afford.  I’m out of any kind of analgesic (Advil, Tylenol, et al.) and Kleenex (little things, but vital when you’ve got fibromyalgia and allergies).

Finally, I need to move ahead with projects and plans that I set for myself.  Check out another juvenile book from the library.  Call my cousin, Ray, to set up a time to meditate together.  Call my friend, Joyce, who I haven’t even told about my dad yet.  Go out to the Animal Rescue League and talk to them about volunteering. Get outside while the weather holds.  Dust off my sketchbook and draw.

I’m relieved to see no dead bodies in this triage run, no parts of my life that I’ve ruined or blown up, no relationships destroyed or bridges burned.  That, in itself, is a miracle, considering my past.  It makes me think I can actually evolve with this illness, learn from it, and make a few lasting changes.  One thing about bipolar disorder is that there’s always another opportunity to practice these new ways of thinking and behaving, always the next crazy-bomb set to explode.  Hopefully, the casualties will continue to stand up and walk away.

Zane!

I wanted to share the collage I made for my new grand-nephew, Zane.  As I write this, it’s heading south to Oklahoma with my mom, sister and her husband.  While his big brother, Wyatt, holds a special place in my heart, Zane carries a little extra spiritual juju.  He was born two weeks after my dad died, and I like to thing of them passing each other in the ethers, offering their wisdom about the realms they’re about to enter.  You can see Great Grandpa Fred in the upper right corner of the piece, calling Zane.  It makes me a little hungry to hold that new baby boy.

Here, There Be Dragons

I think I’m moving out of the current bipolar episode.  I’m not sure, which feels disconcerting and new.  Usually, there’s a clear demarkation—the mood lifts, energy returns, thinking clears.  But, this time I seem to be seeping both ways at once like paint on watercolor paper.  I’m able to get things done—going to appointments, remembering to take back my library book, writing my novel—but my body aches and my energy is low.  My mood seems to be fluctuating more into the higher/brighter ranges, but a sudden Dark and Dangerous thought will still blow in and try to take over.  The compulsions are quiet, but my mind wants to fret about them anyway.

This is a different kind of in-between place for me.  Or is it?  Maybe I’ve just forgotten what happened last time.  Maybe I just slid through this phase faster when I was medicated.  Maybe other life-events or physical conditions have tweaked the process this time.  Maybe the mild weather fiddled with my internal barometer.  Maybe the stars are aligned a little differently.  Maybe…

If there’s one thing I know about bipolar disorder, it’s that it never stays the same.  So, I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m moving through the cycle in a new way.  I don’t think I’m alone in wanting the comfort of familiarity, to be able to place myself on a known continuum.  Silly girl.  Just when I think I’ve got this illness mapped, a whole new vista opens up.  Like the ancient explorers, I’ve got sound sea craft in my head, a tough ship, and curiosity.  I’ll hoist my sails and see where the winds take me.

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