A Dream Deferred

collage art

You know those times when you wrestle with a decision?  When you want one thing, but the numbers don’t quite add up?  And then something—a person, an event, a seemingly random set of circumstances—brings it all into focus?  I’m in the middle of one of those epiphanies.

I really wanted to be a Peer (as in Peer Support Specialist).  I wanted to help other folks with mental illness and earn a little money doing it.  I got training last fall.  I was offered a volunteer position at the hospital in Des Moines where I was a patient.  I thought I was on my way.

The trouble is, it costs me at least $50 for gas each week.  That’s money I don’t have, so it goes on my credit card.  There’s still a big balance there from my Peer training, too.  Friends and my UU fellowship chipped in to pay about half (thank you very much), and I applied for scholarships from service clubs, but it doesn’t look like those will pan out.  Every month my balance creeps higher.  Every month I look the other way.

Then, yesterday I got the oil changed in my truck.  I looked at the $70 bill, which I put on my credit card, and knew I had to pay attention.

I can’t drive to Des Moines every week.  In fact, if I ever want to whittle my Visa balance down, I’ll have to park my truck and walk as much as I can.

It seems so simple now.

I’ve been uncomfortable about doing this support group ever since we started talking about it.  I attributed that discomfort to a lot of reasons—I’m too unstable to do the job, the hospital is in chaos, it’s too much stress.  But, those are all just niggles, all things I can work through.  The real reason is that I can’t afford it.

So, I’ll go tonight and tell everyone—the social worker who recruited me, the young man who would have partnered with me in creating the new group, the folks about to “graduate” from After Care who looked forward to on-going support.  I know the After-After Care group probably won’t fly now.  Dan could only convince the two of us to volunteer, and the job is too much for one person.  I am sorry for that.  But not sorry enough to rack up more debt in the hope that someday Mercy will offer me a job.  I can’t sacrifice myself out of fear.

It’s a relief to be done wrestling, a relief to see what needs to be done and be calm about it.  My dream will find a new shape in its own time.  When it does, it will probably seem quite random and serendipitous.  If I hold it lightly.

Holding Tension

handmade greeting cards, collage art, Leonard NimoyI hardly know how to function in this quiet place.

For the last couple of weeks, there’s been no drama, no hysterics, no uncontrollable urges.  I get up and go about my day, paying attention to what I eat, making sure I work out morning and evening, working on my manuscript.  I volunteered to be on the program committee for our UU fellowship, so I’m thinking about what our group wants in the way of spiritual substance.  I show up at the meditation groups I host and listen to what teachings might be called forward.  I touch base with my friends.

Anxiety still rises at times.  My Bad-Ass Training kicks in and, for now, it’s enough to keep me from spiraling.  Yesterday, I sat at the Hy Vee cafe in the light of the big windows with my iPod crooning in my ears.  The urge to bolt came on strong—Get Out! Go to Des Moines!  I wrote about it in my journal, then went out into the grocery store for Veggie Sticks (think healthy Cheetos) and a couple of movies from the Redbox.  I spent $10 instead of $60 and stayed home.  I felt like a warrior.

I tell the folks in meditation that developing consciousness is about holding tension—doing something that’s a little uncomfortable because it’s the right thing to do, then doing it again and again.  Soon our capacity for doing what’s difficult grows.  When my illness is quiet, I can practice what I preach.

Well, that’s not exactly true.  I hold tension most of the time, but when I’m ill, my capacity is very small.   And if there’s too much tension, my illness snaps like a rubber band in reaction.  That’s a learning, too, to be aware of that point of no return.  So, in this quieter place, it’s a little scary to challenge those urges to give up, eat, run, spend, relax or whatever my ego might prefer.  After months of being very gentle with myself, I’m not used to pushing hard.

So, today, again, I get up and go about my day—watching, testing and holding a little more tension.

Because I can.

Because I’m on an Adventure.

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.

A Bad-Ass Review

A page has turned.

Or, maybe, a season is done.

Whatever the metaphor, I’ve put closure to a few major events in my life—healing from surgery, Callinda, and celebrating Callinda.  Now it’s time to regroup, refocus and point myself in the next direction.

To do that, I turn to my Bipolar Bad-Ass Training, which seems odd since I’m not coming out of a bipolar episode.  But, the last six weeks threw my normal routine out the window, and Bad-Assery is all about putting routine back in place and setting focus.

Clean Eating

I was thrilled that I got all the party left-overs out of my apartment before I indulged in more than one binge.  Saturday night, I was exhausted after cleaning and schlepping.  All I wanted to do was self-medicate with food and go numb in front of the TV, which I did.  But, the next morning I gave away the rest of the left-overs or threw them in the dumpster.  Better in there than in me.

Getting too tired, too emotional, or too rigid are guaranteed triggers of my compulsive eating.  I’m pleased that I minimized the damage and am back to Paying Attention in this area.

Stamina and Strength

I’ve returned to my 6:00 AM water aerobics class.  I can still feel some soreness, and I’m not as fast or strong as when I left six weeks ago, but I’m back.  I know that a huge part of my quick recovery is due to my level of fitness going into surgery.  That feels wonderful.  Me?  Fit?  Who woulda thunk it?

The next physical issue to address will be my shoulder, reinjured when I swam laps in December.  My chiropractor suggested I get an MRI to check for structural damage, so I have an appointment to see my medical doc in a few weeks.

Set Priorities

My basic priorities remain the same—Write, Make Art and Make a Life.  Today I started working on what I’m calling my Bad-Assery manuscript—my experience as a bipolar warrior.  Lots of work to be done, lots of research to explore, but today I started.

For the next month or so, I’ll be devoting my art time to drawing.  I can feel a big boulder of resistance in my gut over this, but just like I pushed through my fear of writing, I can push through my fear of drawing.  Each time I pick up my pencil, I will feel the resistance and push back, just a little bit.  Holding this tension will strengthen my Will and give me more energy to push back the next time.  Growing my Will is important.  It will help me to push back against my compulsive impulses when they rise.  Anyway I can do that deserves time and attention.

For me, making a life means finding ways to be in the community.  Tutoring kids was too stressful and helping at the Animal Rescue League was too sad.  So, I stopped at the library today to see if they could use a volunteer.  I’ll talk to the person in charge about details tomorrow.  There’s also my involvement in TOPS and the Unitarian Universalist group.  A Life is definitely being made.

Lay in Supplies

There are chores and maintenance items to attend to, things I let go because I either wasn’t strong enough after surgery, didn’t have the time while planning for the party, or didn’t have the money.  It’s time to take care of those things.

Refocus.  Regroup.  Take stock.  And take the next step.

I’m ready.

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.

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.


I just finished reading Stephen King’s newest doorstop, 11/22/63.  It’s a story about time travel and the Kennedy assassination, and one of the themes is that the past fights hard to stay the same.  Yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that the present (particularly my present) will roll over anyone (insert “me”) to stay the same.

I visited the Animal Shelter yesterday to discuss volunteering.  The gal at the desk asked me what I’d like to do.  I said anything that needed doing.  She signed me up to work next Monday afternoon.  I walked back out to my truck in a daze.  I’d been in the building a good seven minutes.

On the drive back to town I kept telling myself, “You can do this.  It’s one afternoon.  It’s doggies and kitties.”  But, the anxiety started low in my gut and crept up to my throat.  Where was all that positive, life-affirming determination that shot me out of Minneapolis and back to Marshalltown with a vision of My New Life?  Stuck under the depression that’s since arrived, I imagine.  It was as if a part of me fought hard to stay the same.  Because the same is known, safe.

Later I went to Wal-Mart.  To start beautifying my little apartment and make it more my home, I asked my mom to help me purchase a storage cabinet for my bathroom.  Always happy to have something concrete to buy for me, Mom agreed.  I found a reasonably priced one online and had it shipped to our local store.

“Some assembly required” meant a box full of boards (Not boards, pressboard—the next step up from cardboard) and a big bag of hardware.  I’m pretty handy.  I mean, I’ve got my own drill, for heaven’s sake.  So, I wasn’t too concerned about putting an over-the-toilet cupboard together.  The instruction manual neglected to mention fronts or backs of any of the pieces, so I “assembled” the thing three times.  By then the anchors were tearing out of the pressboard, and even Gorilla Glue wouldn’t keep it standing up.  After five hours of wrestling with the thing, I gave up and took it back.  At least I got my money back.

The present took one last jab this morning.  As I was cleaning the pieces of my CPAP machine, I poked a hole in the hose that connects the machine to my face mask.  I stood at the bathroom sink, holding up both ends of the hose, watching water squirt out the hole, and I thought.  “Okay.  I give up.”  I can’t afford any more accidents (I fell on the ice out side Wal-Mart and also getting into my truck) or medical issues (an old shoulder injury is painfully back in town and there’s some gynecological shenanigans going on in my nether-regions).  I get the message.

But, there’s a part of me outside the current depression that’s getting steely-eyed.  I can feel her reaching for the Uzi.  Entropy may be a powerful force, but so is the Bad-Ass.  I’ll regroup and rethink while the depression grips me.  But, after that.  Yippy-Ki-Yay, Motherf*****.

From the Corner

Each morning I wake up and think, “I need to find something to blog about today.”  But, there’s nothing helpful in the way I’m shambling through this depression—nothing inspirational and certainly nothing skillful.

I’m ashamed of the way it’s beaten me back into a very old corner.  I spend all my money on junk food that makes me physically sick and mentally dead, then I sleep to escape the shame and self-loathing.  I wake up and vow to stop, to change, to take back control, to make one positive gesture.  Then, the depression sweeps me off my feet and back into the corner.

I’m so angry.  Just when I think my hard work is starting to take effect, when there looks like a possibility of improving my quality of life, the illness blows in harder and faster than ever.  It scatters my fragile scaffolding like Tinker Toys, and I have to start all over.

Forget about volunteering at the Animal Rescue League—I can’t even rescue myself.  Forget about saving money for a new car—I spend every cent I have on Cheetos.  Forget about building a life with dignity and meaning.  Just forget all about that.

There comes a point in every episode where I can get up from the corner and start over.  I pick up all the Tinker Toys and start rebuilding.  I start my Bipolar Bad Ass Training.  But, I’m not there yet.  I’m not even close.  The thought of starting over—again—seems pointless and exhausting from this corner.  I’m not effecting any change. I’m not who I want to be.  This isn’t life, it’s limbo.

This isn’t fit blogging material.  There’s no uplifting moral to the story, no shaft of light, no plucky heroine.  It’s just me, bare-faced, in this horrible corner.  But, I promised myself at the beginning of this venture that I’d be honest here.  And while this post comes from a mind that’s twisted and distorted now from illness, it’s all I’ve got.  That and the corner.


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.

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