Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Courage to Come Home




“The encouraging thing is that every time you meet a situation, though you may think at the time it is an impossibility, and you go through the tortures of the damned, once you have met it and lived through it you find that forever after you are freer than you ever were before.  If you can live through it than you can live through anything.  You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face.”

                                                                                                                --Eleanor Roosevelt

 
Someone should sound a Tibetan singing bowl because it’s been a long time since I’ve had a genuine crisis.  No five-alarm fires, no emergency response teams, not even an Epi-pen.  This period of relative peace and stability, while welcome, is uncomfortable as it feels unnatural.  I’ve been living for so long on high-alert status, waiting to implode or dissolve, living with a twitchy vigilance that refused all calls to put down my arms.  Take a deep breath and relax?  Pretend that I’m okay?  That I won’t derail at any moment?  That stability might in fact be more than a fantasy?
And yet, here I am, single-parenting again for a week while my husband is away for work, not just getting through it, like I might have once done—mood unstable, exhaustion dogging me, feeling flattened by the effects of barely managing, and castigating myself for being the universe’s worst mother—but thriving through it.  I’ve happily managed to get my son through one of his busiest and most important weeks of his life—he was in a college production of Medea; we all generally ate and slept well (snuggled up in bed together); we kept to a routine as it suited us and when it didn’t, we had pancakes for dinner; and I didn’t lose my shit as much as I used to when I was alone and in charge—I let things slip and slide.  My assessment this time around?  A pretty damn good mother.  Maybe even the best mother for my kids.

It takes courage to get through a week of single parenting.  For any parent on their own.  Much less a parent with Bipolar Disorder.  I can admit this now.  Before, I’d shrug.  Big deal.  It’s just a week, a few days, even a few hours.  What the hell do I have to worry about?  Feel overwhelmed by?  But when mania is running high or depression is drowning you, those hours alone and in charge might as well be years.  The voice of IT comes in, berating you for not being a good enough mother, telling you that your children would be better off with you dead, that you should save them from the scourge of yourself.
I am learning about courage from my son, who just might be one of the bravest people I know.  This Fall, he was on a soccer team and he was one of the younger, smaller, less advanced players.  He didn’t score any goals or make any big plays the entire season.  Nor was he Mister Sunnyside Up either.  He came home from many practices and games pretty down on himself, talking about how he was the worst player out there, how no one passed to him, how he would never score a goal.  And yet, despite what my daughter called his “self-esteem problem,” my son went on that field every week charged up; he refused to be intimidated by kids who were bigger or better than him, and he never stopped wondering, if maybe this wasn’t the game he might score a goal.

What does stability bring?  It has brought me two gifts this week that, had I been spinning in chaos, I don’t think would have come my way. 
Two days ago, I was contacted by Bipolar Hope Magazine—they want to interview me for an upcoming article on the pleasures and perils of traveling with Bipolar Disorder.  Obviously, as a frequent traveler across time zones, I can probably offer my useful two cents.  But what seems miraculous to me is the fact that I will be considered an “expert” in a publication with the words “Bipolar” and “Hope” together.  That I am now considered a voice of “Hope” for this disorder when not so very long ago I considered myself hopeless—indeed, I was even told I was hopeless.  And to be “out” in such a publication as one of the “Hopefuls” is for me an act of courage as it suggests that I am a believer—one who has a forward-moving future.   

And then just yesterday, I received a phone call from a woman in my 12-Step Recovery group asking me if I might be her guide through the 12-Steps.  A kind of quasi-sponsor as I’m not in town enough or available enough to be a full-blown sponsor.  This scares the ABSOLUTE SHIT out of me.  That she sees me as far enough along in recovery to help her in her recovery.  That she doesn’t see me as someone in crisis, someone headed in a downward spiral, but sees me as a beacon of hope, as someone who embodies courage.  Part of me wants to take back my “Yes.”  Because what if it all does go to shit again?  What if I fall apart again?  What if I fail her as I fail myself?  But this “Yes” takes courage, doesn’t it?
This “yes” is the “yes” I learned from my son this past weekend while he performed in his play.  It was amazing to me to watch him each night.  Of course, he’d spent the past several weeks rehearsing with the college cast, but still—he’s only eight years old and it was a real stage and the audience was packed.  Every night I’d drop him off at the dressing room with the other cast members and he would give me a quick kiss goodbye. 

“I’m fine!  I’m fine,” he insisted.  “Go!”
“Break a leg,” I said, and left, my heart swelling and aching.

I sat in my seat and watched the play, waiting for my son.  When he came on stage, he was so self-assured, so inspired, and without fear.  And I could see that he knew he had found his place in the world.
This is what I’m learning in recovery and through stability—to find self-assurance, inspiration, and to live without fear.  And as I’m finding it, I know I’m coming home. 

 

   

   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Bipolar Bad Hair Day





I am having the mental health equivalent of a very bad hair day.  Nothing so serious that requires hospitalization or even a call to my doctors, but really, I look in the mirror, and everything looks out-of-whack, frizzy, frumpy, out-of-style, unfixable even armed with the very best hair products that money can buy.  It’s moments like these that I might impulsively buzz all my hair off—and of course, regret that move tomorrow.  Better hide under some enormous hat and wait out the grotesque, restless, hopeless uglies, right?  After all, my favorite musical as a kid was “Annie,” and I used to annoy my entire family with renditions of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow”—belting the song in my warbly, screechy voice, believing indeed, at nine years old that it would always and forever keep getting better and better.
Today started, most indulgently, with a quasi-day off.  The kids have a day off from school, so the schedule shifts.  No need to rush out of bed, no need to run at top speed, no hustling everyone out to door, no need for me to try to stick to my own self-imposed schedule of working on my own writing which is then followed up by a run at the gym. 

Nope.  This is how Bipolar Brain works.  An extra hour in bed.  The upended schedule (I stay home with the kids, forfeiting my work, hence my quasi-usefulness/productivity for one-day) leads to existential meltdown.  As I was lying in bed debating whether or not it was even worth getting out of bed, I wondered who, besides my kids would even care if I did?  Who was even expecting me to get out of bed?  No one.  This is Black and White thinking in the extreme—though it is shot around the edges with realistic thinking so it does try to makes its case, hence its powerful pull.  From there I ricocheted to: Would anyone care if I ever wrote another story?  Would I care?  And really, what did my writing add up to in the end?  Nothing much—and if I was going to amount to anything as a writer, it should have happened by now.  I had my chance and wasted it.  Look at me.  Just think about how hard it is now trying to get words on the page, struggling with memory lapses and word recall because of the ECT—is it worth the trouble? 
And just as I was beating myself up about this, I get an email on my phone from my agent.  My most recent story she’s been sending out for submission to magazines has been rejected again.  I know, I know.  You need a thick skin to be a writer.  And I have one.  But this is the fifth time this story has been rejected, and I was just so so so hoping for just a little lift. Just something to remind that, Yes, this is still my path. 

Instead, the rejection coincided with my contemplating whether I should just give this all up because I’m mostly just professional laundress anyway these days.  That and cleaner of the cat boxes.  I feel like my thinking brain has been switched off and I’m on automatic chore pilot.  That I’m purposeless beyond maintaining the house and picking up the kids from school.  Aimless.  Am uninteresting even to myself. I get why all those housewives in the fifties downed Martinis and valium.
When I was a kid there was this enormous brick wall near my house.  I used to take my tennis racquet and a ball and spend an hour whacking the ball against the wall as hard as possible.  I’d go there when I was bored, angry, or frustrated and I’d just pick a spot on the wall and aim the ball right at it.  Sometimes it was a face or a burning red hole.  It never failed to help ease whatever I was feeling. 

I wish I had a wall, a racquet and a ball today.  I think I could spend a few hours there.     

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Testing, Testing, Self-Compassion




Self-compassion—the ability to have self-empathy, self-directed kindness and understanding.  Apparently something I lack in spades.  My new (and fabulous) psychiatrist, Dr. D., has me working on self-compassion exercises, and even had me take a test measuring my self-compassion.  The result?  One of the lowest scores possible. 
When I think of a kind, encouraging voice—or at least my kind encouraging voice offering Hallmark variety affirmations?  I want to walk across hot coals.  Beat myself with a stick.  I remember once, on a Catholic weekend retreat in High School, we were given buttons that said, “God don’t make junk.”  I cringed, not only at the grammar lapse, but at the sweet-sickly sentiment of it.  I didn’t want something that could fit on a button—I wanted to be convinced by route of hard-earned, persuasive argument.  Not the soft shoulder pat. 

But I also know that all I tend to given myself are jarring shoulder smacks.  I don’t know any in-between.  I don’t know the gray.  I only live in the black or the white.  The land of exteremes.  The highs and the lows.  Which is what lands me in trouble.  Maybe it’s time to begin to practice self-compassion.  One way in which I’m constantly berating myself all day long is over the fact that I am Bipolar—or mentally ill, about being what other people sometimes label “crazy” because this is the label that echoes in me, that reverberates in me, that makes me question whether it was the ethical to allow myself to fall in love, to get married, to have children—to pass on my particularly destabilizing genetic flaws.  “Why did you?  How could you?”—this is the background white noise that plays all day—or at least is part of it, anyway.  Nothing compassionate about that.
See why it’s so hard for me to be compassionate?  I try to say the word and the anti-compassionate backlash begins.

But I will try.  So.  Maybe a separate, friendlier font will help.  And maybe a separate friendlier me, a “you” addressing me will help, too:
Do you remember a few months ago when you were looking for a new psychiatrist and you called the one recommended by your old doctor and before he would meet with you, he asked to see your records?  And then he finally called you back.  Do you remember what he said?  He said he couldn’t see you because you were too much of an “extreme case,” that you were too “mentally ill,” for him to treat.  And maybe if someone only read your records, only saw the objective line notes in a case file, an unattached observer might state that you are “beyond help,” or as another previous doctor told you to your face, “beyond hope.”  But don’t you see how the life you are living proves that you are not only able to be helped by others and able to help yourself, but that you are also living out hope?  You tried to die several times over but you are still alive, so there must be some greater reason for you still being here.  And maybe your mission has shifted from what you had hoped it would be, but that’s okay.  Did you ever really care what anyone thought of you? 

Do you remember your nickname as a kid?  “Crazy Kerry”  Kids called you that because you acted crazy—amped up—unable to pull back—unable to calm down.  Probably the early signs of bipolar hypomania.  But perhaps a telling nickname, one that might have been cutting then, one that might have stung, but one that you could use now as the way into anchoring your identity for good—for GOOD.  You didn’t DO ANYTHING bad to deserve this diagnosis.  You didn’t do anything to deserve becoming bipolar.  You didn’t do anything to deserve getting traumatized and sexually assaulted.  You didn’t do anything to have the genetic predisposition for alcoholism.  You didn’t do anything to have to genetic predisposition to become anorexic.  You aren’t inherently wrong or defective.  You aren’t meant to be taken out of commission because you are not operating at perfection.  Or your idea of perfection. 

“Crazy Kerry”—things haven’t been “right” from the get go.  You didn’t make some devastatingly wrong turn or decision at some crucial juncture—i.e., if only you could go back and right the wrongs.  This disease doesn’t work like that.  It works inside the brain from the start, incrementally.  It has always been.  In preschool you have always been.  In first grade, you have always been.  In sixth grade, you have always been.  Just at varying degrees.  “Crazy Kerry.”  NOT Oh, all was perfect, until one afternoon, at fourteen, you had a bad depressing, manic moment and cut your arm and that was that and if only you could do it all over again your life could be perfect.

The only thing wrong?  The people around you who responded—or failed to respond—who ignored, who didn’t recognize—or pretended it was not happening—who insisted that you lie about what you were experiencing—who demanded that hospital records be expunged—who created a façade for you to live inside.  Thus, your “real” experience, your “real” feelings weren’t to be trusted, weren’t acknowledged even by you.  It’s why the only thing that feels safe is the outside façade.  If everything looks perfect--the outside self, the outside life—then the inside self can be tricked into going on for just one more day.  The delay-suicide-pact that works for a bit. 

But everything doesn’t have to be so breathlessly scary anymore.  You don’t have to hide beneath perfection anymore.  You don’t have to keep suicide at bay anymore by running down the clock.  It is okay.  It’s going to be okay.  I know you don’t believe me.  But you don’t have to take care of yourself on your own anymore.  There might be people who truly care about you who want to help you that you can trust.    The kind of falling backwards with your eyes closed into their arms kind of trust.  The hardest thing for you to do.  But you can do this because you are loved.

 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Back-To-School Mania


 
Back-To-School season.  Impossible not to feel revved up.  Pushing the shopping cart up and downthe store aisles, hyped up on the SALES!!!, the lure of “Buy 1 Get 1 Free!”, the idiotic sense of accomplishment as I check off once, then twice just to be sure that I’ve managed to score the yellow highlighters, the jumbo packs of No.2 pencils, the pens, the 48 pack of crayons, the 5 multi-colored folders, the 5 marbled notebooks, the pencil-tip erasers, the pink ear buds, the locker mirror, and the pencil sharpener.  But what about the locker magnets and mini-dry erase board and extra loose-leaf packs and extra-extra notebooks?

Can Back-To-School shopping induce mania?  I know when I got home, I went right to work organizing my daughter’s backpack, which would, within the first day, become its usual chaotic mess—a jumble of pens and pencils and anime drawings on the back of handouts—a disorganization that makes sense to her.  But there I was putting all the little pencil tip erasers in one zippered pocket and the pack of crayons in another, and sharpening half the pencils and lining them up in the same direction inside her blue pencil case. 

This has been the one reliable (and perhaps annoying to others) effect of my Bipolar Disorder: my thoughts and emotions might often be a disordered mess, like getting stuck in the middle of tangled briar patch, but my tangible external world, the rooms, the cabinets, the purses, the pencil cases, these places and things can be orderly and rational.  So that when I look at them, I don’t have to get lost but can see a clear and reliable way in and out.  No mess, no tangles, no getting stuck.

I do these “clean-outs” all the time, often to the consternation and panic of my husband.  He’ll come home from  work or a trip and I’ll have cleaned out the attic closet or the kitchen cupboards: what were once cluttered, suffocating mazes of old lamps, boxes of outdated receipts, clothes too big and moth-eaten; or packages of stale crackers, cans of weird soups bought at a close-out store, bad chocolate, or furry olives are now orderly shelves and racks, only what is needed is kept, surfaces bleached clean, insect husks vacuumed away, everything with a place and in its place.

What inspires my husband’s panic is a few past zealous mistakes on my part—I’ve thrown out some things that should have been saved—some documents that were, after all, necessary; food items that weren’t past date (though they looked it to me); objects that were not-so-lovely but had sentimental value.  So I’m more circumspect—checking for legal or love references, sniffing and, if warranted, licking, and asking thrice (“Soooo, do you really, really, really need this?”) 

But when it comes to my junk?  I’m ruthless.  Maybe it ties into my longing to take a stiff broom to my brain, sweep it clean--a blank slate.  Sweep up all the suicidal impulses, every last desire to hurt myself, sweep up all the hurt and emptiness and sadness, all the trauma.  A nice big pile, sweep it into a dustbin and fling it out to sea.  But this is just a fleeting image.  The re-cycling mania and near constant rumination prevent any permanent housekeeping.  Bipolar Disorder creates constant clutter—it’s like wandering the stacks of a University Library at hyperspeed grabbing this book on Chemical Thermodynamics and that book on Nautical Curiosities and this book on the Butterflies of Jamaica and that book on the Jamestown Settlement. 

Which brings me back to Back-To-School.  I miss the purpose of going back to school.  As a kid, it was a container for my impulsiveness, for my speed, for my intensity.  The school day offered order and direction, and because I loved books and learning, it showed me how to channel my drive.  It showed me how to slow down my breathing and make it a game: complete my tasks, watch the clock, beat the clock, have time left over 

And I had my pencil case.  Hello Kitty.  Magnetic Lid.  Everything I needed to survive the day was inside.  3 sharpened pencils lined up in the same direction. 1 eraser.  How could that be enough?  In the time left over at the end of official tasks, I wrote my secret stories in my extra notebook.  Story after story after story.  3rd grade. 4th grade. 5th grade. I’m still writing stories, though they’re no longer secret anymore.       

Monday, August 19, 2013

Emancipation from Emaciation


 
 
Last week, I was sitting in my nutritionist’s office for what was close to my 100th appointment: almost two appointments every month, sometimes every week, for the past five years.  Each appointment usually began with clockwork terror and double-fisted anxiety as I stepped on the scale—shoeless, lest I try to add any cheaters’ ounces (or pounds in winter boots) to my grand total. Of course, no one ever checked my underwear, which on more than one occasion, I stuffed with three pound squishy, hand weights and a smooth two pound stone I hefted from my garden.  After, I gave a general recounting of my meals and snacks, of any restricting and purging, my honesty waxing and waning as my anorexia tightened and loosened its grip over the years.  I wouldn’t say I was always deliberately lying, as oftentimes, those imaginary meals seemed as real as the ones I threw up in toilets and behind trees on the street.  Finally, we’d discuss all of the issues I was struggling with in regards to body image and disordered thinking—and by discuss, I mean I’d often, with hostility, pontificate on all the ways in which I would not eat more, could not love my loathsome body (never ever), and really, could not see why everybody couldn’t just leave me alone because I was fine as is, even if my heart was acting out, and my system was in starvation mode, and all signs pointed towards death; I didn’t need to eat anymore—maybe it would be better if I could stop purging what little I did eat, but I felt set free when I was empty and I didn’t want to go back.
But this time was different.  This time, when I stepped on the scale, I didn’t have any hidden rocks, my teeth weren’t clenched, and I wasn’t ready to try to argue the numbers down with my nutritionist: “Okay,” I used to say, “That is too high.  I’m too fat.  Huge.  Disgusting.  Obviously you need to reduce my meal plan.  This is out of control.”

This time, I knew what was coming because a week before, after running at the gym, I weighed myself and found that I was a few pounds under my target weight.  What happened?  Panic.  I started to panic because I didn’t weigh enough.  This is the crazy, reverse logic of somebody who has settled into Eating Disorder Recovery.  My response?  I actually, and on my own, stepped up my meal plan.  No, I didn’t start going through the fast food drive-thrus, ordering super-sized fries and chocolate shakes, but I did start adding additional servings of my trail mix, increased my portions of peanut butter, had bowls of cereal and soy milk as a mid-morning snack, and dessert?  Every night.  So when my nutritionist weighed me that day?  I was exactly where I was supposed to be and I felt good.  Better than good.  At home in my body. 

Next?  We talked about my meals over the past month, and truly?  Not much to talk about except that A.) I was eating my three meals and two snacks a day; B.) I didn’t have any urges to restrict or purge; C.) No foods seemed to be on my “Off Limits” list (i.e., once upon a time, anything with fat or carbs could not pass my lips or if it did, it passed my lips twice).
Finally? Well, no point in lying and saying that I no longer had any body image issues or disordered thinking.  Most days, I still look in the mirror and don’t like what I see, but I don’t obsess.  A year ago?  Likely 1000 Eating Disorder/Negative Body Image thoughts a day came at me like a battering ram.  A constant voice on endless repeat all day long, all night long.  I couldn’t enjoy eating a bite of just-picked Empire apple, a crumble of dark chocolate sprinkled with sea salt, a piece of my own blueberry cobbler hot out of the oven, a wedge of the stinky-est, yummiest, runniest French brie.  I couldn’t take a shower without cataloguing all of my naked faults and wanting to slice them off with the razor I was using to shave my (too fat, too thick, too too too legs).  The voice of an Eating Disorder is the Voice that destroys Joy, it is the Voice of Death.

But what I told my nutritionist is that I can honestly say that 1000 thoughts are now 100.  A miraculous improvement.  And food?  I can taste the joy of food again.  All of it.  Even the food I hate, like pork chops and raw onion.  Even the food I love, like ripe tomatoes and carrot cake.  My body?  Getting there.  I’m allowed to exercise again because I eat again and weigh more.  I love feeling powerful and strong more than I love feeling underweight and weak.  So I eat more when I lose pounds because I run too far and too often.  But it’s a good bargain.  A necessary one.   
When I look in the mirror?  I don’t always look away.  And sometimes I smile back because what I see has been worth the fight.  An imperfect survivor.  I can choose how close I want to get to that mirror each time—how far I want to step back—how much I want to magnify—or not.  My choice.  Not the automatic orders of some inflexible despot bent on my destruction.  But I also know the mirror no longer has the power to kill me.  A mirror bears me no ill will.  It has no intention.  Only I do.  Even Neolithic Man (or Woman) made mirrors, grinding obsidian stone down to flat surfaces, then polishing them to a reflective sheen with ash.  Somehow, I don’t think my primitive ancestor was spending an inordinate amount of time wondering whether or not her stomach was flat enough or whether her ribs and clavicles showed enough or if there was enough hollow space between her thighs—after all, she was likely already on the verge of starving (bad wooly mammoth season), and more importantly, she was transfixed by the absolute wonder of her own being reflected back at her.  I am me.  What a real and true and beautiful thing.  (Never mind the unintentional, lice-filled dreadlocks and lack of orthodontic care.)

The mirror just reflects me without judgment, without interpretation.  It’s my responsibility to let my reflection be.  Be still.  Be real.  Be true.  Be beautiful as myself, in myself, WITHOUT COMMENTARY.

As my appointment came to a close, my nutritionist smiled.  Instead of opening her scheduler as usual and scanning for the next available slot, she said, “Well, I think you’ve been doing really good for the past year and maintaining your weight.  Keeping everything in balance.  I think it’s time for you to see me on an as needed basis.  You seem like you’re ready for this, like you’ve found your way free from the Eating Disorder.”

“Free?”  I took a deep breath.  “I’m not sure I’m free as in Scott free.  It’s like with drinking.  One drink and I could be back sneaking shots of vodka in the basement and having blackouts, two and half years of sobriety out the window.  This is the same thing.  One deliberately skipped meal due to disordered thinking could easily lead to another skipped meal could lead to a week and suddenly I’m right back in Anorexia’s grip.  It happened five times so I know how much this disease would like to see me dead.  So I have to maintain vigilance.  But I am free of the lying and the manipulation and the desperation and the loneliness and terror.  Emancipation from Emaciation.”           

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Vacation from Bipolar Disorder?

I think I finally got it: there’s no vacation from Bipolar Disorder. Yes, I’ve been living with this diagnosis for over twelve years. Yes, I’ve been hospitalized numerous times when it’s been life threatening. Yes, when medication hasn’t been effective, I’ve even received an overzealous (and permanently memory-damaging) number of Electro-Convulsive Treatments (old school name: electric shock treatments) to save my horrifically, depressed, suicidal self. Yada Yada Yada.

But somehow I always still cling to the idea that geography—specifically the Greek Aegean Island geography--is the antidote to manic-depression: the reliable sunshine, the deep blue waters, the multiple, daily swims back and forth across Aliki Bay on Thasos Island, the pure, Mediterranean food (nevermind the fact that just a few years ago I was both anorexic and purging on another Greek island—nevermind the fact that AA reminds me not to believe in the geographical cure for whatever ails me…).

Of course, it didn’t help that this time I left in a manic state induced by severe insomnia.

“Surely, surely the less frenetic island pace will slow me down,” I told myself. “I’m always happy there, lying on the beach, eating real, ripe peaches, hiking through the olive groves, and snorkeling in search of sea urchin shells.”

Okay, a whole lot of revisionist history going on here. It’s been years since my travel abroad has been uncomplicated for the simple fact that I am now a mother who travels with two kids and their needs must supplant my own. Alongside this, I’ve been traveling either as an active alcoholic and anorexic or, for the past few years, as one in recovery from both, which doesn’t make it easy to travel to a port of call where people are often happily drinking around the clock and where European displays of female “thinness” often exceed even our American hyper-idealized notions. And then there is the fiction of a vacation uncomplicated by Bipolar Disorder.

It seems “crazy,” doesn’t it, to be unhappy in such a beautiful place—no, to be miserable, even on some days, flat out suicidal, wanting some days to swim out into the blue sea and keep going and going, letting the sea take me, wanting some nights to hurl myself off a steep cliff. I write this and feel the impulse to delete these sentences, to deny the words—but then, wouldn’t that be the same as denying what this disease feels like? How it stretches its long fingers into everything, curling around all possible moments and places I might go, refusing to loosen its grip? I say this not to terrify, but as a matter of practicality because I always seem to forget.

For instance, this trip to my Paradise. When I traveled to Greece in my twenties, I could live through the mania and depression, medicate it with alcohol, stay up all night, night after night, and managed, by chance, to stay alive. Now? What has kept me stable the past two years—the longest I’ve been without a trip to the hospital—has been a fairly predictable (i.e. predictable and rigid) routine: the same wake and bedtimes; healthy, routine exercise; seeing and talking to my support system/friends; seeing my therapist/psychiatrist; not being alone too much but also having time alone to decompress. The difficulty that I realized this time around was that the routine meant I was often alone with the kids for long stretches of time (out of necessity as my husband was working) which meant while I was often “alone” in my head I was never really alone, dinners only started around 10pm (the norm in Greece) which is my usual bedtime at home which meant a pretty chaotic wake/sleep schedule, and outside of my husband, the virtual absence of a reliable support system.

I don’t want to think that this means having Bipolar Disorder limits my ability to travel the world because that is such an essential part of who I am. But this is the first time that I felt limited by Bipolar Disorder in my travels and it was demoralizing. But maybe it just means that I have to plan more carefully in advance from now on. I’m always so busy trying to manically compress and compress everything into one tiny carry-on in the week before I travel that I forget to take stock of myself, to make a travel plan, to map out a routine and find a way to stick to it when I’m away regardless of the prevailing routines of everyone else. Find a way to keep maintenance going otherwise I risk losing everything I’ve worked so hard to gain these past two years. Bipolar Disorder doesn’t like to be crammed into a carry-on—I need to give it the space it needs. So if that means a giant suitcase in checked baggage? So be it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sleepless in Thasos

Day 4 of cold-turkey Abilify withdrawal. And no, being on the Greek island of Thasos, surrounded by blinding bright skies, by blue Aegean seas, by hot white stones underfoot, by fat drowy bees buzzing enormous geraniums, by new and old writer friends, by my family happy in their Hellenized, barbarian selves has not mitigated the hell of the side effects,

None of this helps. No one warned me that once the drug cleared my system--a necessity since it seemed to be the cause of sudden, unrelenting severe insomnia that triggered mania--that it would feel like wet cement continuously poured over my head and shoulders. Blink, blink, shrug, shrug. The only way to clear it away from sight, to retain some movement. Or the dogged, splitting headache throbbing like a wa-wa pedal pushed over and over whenever I try to focus or look at the ruins of ancient Aliki across the cove, the ragged temple, the tall column. It hurts to see. Or focus on anyone trying to talk to me, trying to listen to what they are telling me because I want to hear what they are saying but it often sounds like their voice is moving around and around through a nautilus.

All this focusing, trying, and blinking and shrugging is leaving me exhausted in this place I love best, this place of peace and beauty that most days so far I cry--and often, in small desperate jags--and in public--in the bathroom, reaching under the table for my purse, turning away as I reapply sunscreen. The tears come hard and quick; the sobs stifled. I write about this not looking for self-pity, just to remind those of you who also experience this frustrated desperation of Bipolar Disorder that we live with the "againness" of it. It is, after all, cyclical. Bipolar is never done with me, even when I've had a good stable spell, neither plummeting too low nor ascending too high, it is always waiting to pounce.

This caught me off guard. Just the simple addition of Abilify a few weeks ago "to help even things out a little more on a daily basis. To help you with your moods in the day-to-day scheme of things. We can do better," my doctor said. And he was right, it worked, mostly, at a ridiculously low dose--basically a non-therapeutic dose.. So I agreed to a small raise, just 3 more milligrams. Then my doctor left for vacation--through no fault of his own. But all hell broke loose for me. This tiny increase had an immediate, disastrous effect: instead of falling asleep at my usual 10:30 pm, my clock shifted to midnight, and worse I started waking up at 4:30 am every night thereafter. Some people can manage on very little sleep, but if you are Bipolar, your body has specific, regular sleep needs. Mine: 7 hours. It's been 3 weeks now of 4 and 1/2 hours of nightly sleep.

Dr. B. almost pulled the plug on the trip since I fit the criteria for being hospitalized for mania, but we worked out a Greece "evacuation" plan. Obviously, Greek psychiatric hospitals, in this austerity crisis, won't work, so my friend from New York has agreed fly over here to chaperone me back and will check me into a New York psych hospital should things get "that" bad. A sort of Bounty Hunter for the Manic Depressive. Of course, Dr. B. and I also agreed on the criteria: drinking, cutting, suicidal ideation, and unmanageable manic behavior. As I write this, sitting on my porch at 6:30 am, this all seems impossible. I seem perfectly fine. The waves are crashing beneath me where a line of shaggy cypress trees all lean to the right, bowed from years of fighting the wind. Like me, I suppose. This illness blows and howls, pushing against me, and I can wrap myself in a blanket and stand outside, letting it rage against me, and keep trying to stand upright, or? Or what? What is the alternative? To have stayed home? To have gone inpatient while a hospital doctors sorted out the mania and insomnia? But then, who would have watched the kids? And what of their disappointment over a cancelled trip, not meeting up with their father, and their mother in the hospital again? I have to believe, as the ancients did, in the healing powers of this place. After all, there are the remains of both a temple to the pagan gods and the remains of an early Christian church here--all on the same site. This is an elemental world, made of the very same properties that comprise the medications used to treat Bipolar Disorder. The sea is made of water and salt. Lithium is a salt. Sunshine, an anti-depressant, targets Vitamin D and dopamine. And in my daily swims in the Aegean, I float easily in all that salinity, buoyed up on the surface--a natural mood stabilizer. How can it not soon be better here? But like the ancients, I made an offering this morning and took a walk out along the jagged peninsula to the small chapel, a cave carved into the rock built for sailors a decorated with icons of saints, Mary and baby Jesus, festooned with hanging votives. A chapel to offer up prayers for safe return, for protection. I wrote my own prayer on a piece of paper and then burned it in the fire of a cansdle: Please. Help. Peace.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Crazy Like Me


 
"Everybody needs his memories.  They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door."
                                                                               --Saul Bellow
 
About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town.  I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers.  Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?
“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments.  I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties.  And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously.  I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist.  However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting.  Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure.  The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder.  So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living.  I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness.  Part of my mission is the blog that I write.  Let me know if you are interested.”

Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before.  Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with.  More than vanity, though.  There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself.  That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know.  That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized.  Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like.  And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you?  You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you?  You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?
Here’s the truth.  Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position.  He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience.  We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment.  So I had them sent.  And waited and waited and waited.  Finally, he called.

“Ms. Bakken,” he said.
“Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to look through your records.  They’re quite extensive.”
I laughed nervously.  I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient.  Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat.  The range of severity is too extensive.  I hope you can understand.”
If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did.  In fact, idiotically, I reassured him.  “Of course.  I know how difficult I must be.  Don’t worry.  I’ll find someone else.”

It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off.  Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away.  Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off. 
Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends.  Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.

Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem.  To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill.  I am well.”
But the gift given back to me?  The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness.  Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma.  But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm.  That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact.  I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter. 

To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this.  But his letter is the gift of memory.  Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments.  A woman held on to memories of me in her dying days.

 

     

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ready to Run in Recovery





On Saturday, Derby Day, I won first place in my age group (40-44) for a 5k running race.  And while nobody covered me in a glorious blanket of 564 roses, I was given a medal, an actual hang-around-your-neck medal, my first—my first for running, anyway--but perhaps my most meaningful as it was the first time back competing in a race since I had to bow out, most unceremoniously, five years ago because I was emaciated, suffered from irregular heart rhythms, and hypotension, all by products of anorexia.  But on Saturday, under clear blue skies, in crisp morning air, my legs prickled with goose bumps, breathing in and out, in and out, glad to be alive and there, I stood at the starting line with all the other runners ready to run.
Let me say that again.  Ready to run.  Not ready to win.  This is important and something that I am still learning in my recovering from all of IT’s manifestations—Anorexia, Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, Self-Injury.  Ignore the voice that says: Be Perfect.  Be the best.  Anything else is shit, is failure, is grounds for starvation/ruminative self-loathing/drinking to excess/cutting.  That’s how Anorexia works best.  Lose 10 pounds.  Now another 10.  Now another 10.  You are still too fat.  Still not good enough.  Still not the thinnest in the room, in the hospital.  Worthless if you are just mediocre, finishing fourth, or worse, always second. 

I can turn anything into a competition—usually against myself since I no longer play team sports.  I time myself at little tasks—I have to unload the dishwasher before a round of commercials is over on TV.  Ridiculous, I know, but when I hear the third commercial begin, my chest tightens, and I pick up my already frenetic pace.  I justify this by telling myself I’m making mundane chores interesting, but really, it’s compulsive.  Like shaving my legs in the shower—again, part of a time game—so, no shaving cream = precious seconds saved to come in under my five minute goal.  There’s the grocery store game where I’ll given myself x number of minutes to get in and out depending on how many items are on the list and whether the kids are hanging from the cart.  All of this is to say it is very hard for me to turn off the voice in my head that is always competing for The Woman Who Could Chug the Most Beers (Won that one in Jamaica on Spring Break one year), The Woman Who Had Fast-Track Admission to the Psych Ward (Well, almost, but everybody did know my name…), The Woman with The Most Scars on Her Arms (100+ but fading now so what does that mean when they’re gone?).
But I wasn’t thinking about winning at that starting line.  Instead, I was filled with gratitude.  How lucky I was, and am, to be connected again to my body which is healthy.  Unbelievably healthy because truly, I should be dead many, many times over.  I have tried to kill this body with deliberate means.  I have woken up in emergency rooms and in an intensive care unit rescued by strangers from my suicide attempts.  All of the alcohol my body has processed and recovered from (not to mention my brain).  All of the wounds my body has healed because that’s what it does when it is trying to recover from my best, competitive attempts to die.  All of the pounds lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and finally, hopefully for good, regained.  This body standing in shorts and a tank top and sneakers, ready to run because it was healthy.  A healthy body in the middle of a pack of what looked like other healthy bodies, other people ready to bolt into the wind and sunshine, ready to run the course.

I’ve won medals before, and trophies.  I’ve played sports my whole life, but with the attitude of DO OR DIE.  Competitive tennis from the age of five to eighteen, bruises purpled my shins because every time I flubbed a shot, really screwed one up, I’d whack myself in the shin with the tennis racquet.  No joy in the playing, because there was no playing—there was just me executing a perfect performance and when I failed, as I always did, I enacted penalties. 
Ready to run.  I ran.  Without expectations.  Just do what you can do, I told myself over and over.  Of course, it was a race, so I wasn’t going to lollygag and keep vigil at the dead possum or chit chat with other runners.  I was there to run my best, which meant with all I could give, but which also meant without IT’s voice.  So when I crossed the finish line and saw that my time was faster that I imagined, because I’d been feeling a bit fatigued by the long hill, I was already elated.  And then when they posted the results and I saw my finish, and later still, when I received the medal, I knew what the medal was about: ready to run into my life and into hope.             

 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Tickets to Greece, So What?: Or, Thanks Bipolar Depression




I am listening to my daughter sew together a bright, green platypus, her machine humming non-stop with imaginative (bright green? platypus? what else do you do with scraps?!) industry.  Her original design was a duck, but the beak, in execution, turned out to be a bit long and wide and floppy, so she improvised and re-imagined her pattern, which really only called for her to say, “Platypus” instead of “Duck,” to be flexible in vision and creation.  Not to be rigid in expectation.
 
I could learn something from her.  What have I been doing simultaneously down the hall in the den?  Sending an email to Dr. B., at his request, assuring him that I will not act on any suicidal impulses and if they do become acute, I will call him immediately.  The black dog of Bipolar Depression once again has its fangs around my heels—for three weeks now--and though I’m doing my best to hang on and wait it out, this down cycle is thoroughly exhausting.  If you’ve ever played the game “Don’t Break the Ice,” that’s what this feels like: Depression is the hammer tap, tap, tapping away at each little block of ice which falls through, so that you’re left wondering when all the surface will finally give way, and finally you’ll sink underwater for good.  Welcoming that shattering, that final fall.  And I do mean the little hammer is tapping away all day long at your brain—a low grade headache comes along with this.  And the desire to snip all communication lines. 

All day long, your brain peruses its own internal suicidal ideation flip-book.  Everything spurs images of possible self-injury or suicide.  Driving home from the airport the other night, I spent ninety minutes trying to keep myself on the road rather than in the ditch.  Stupid ideas seem plausible.  Maybe a misstep off a curb could lead to a fall in front of a car?  Just now, I was thinking about my daughter’s sewing and how in earlier times, a prescription for depression might have been industriousness and a basket of mending and I saw myself with my heart poked through with a knitting needle.  Horrific, self-indulgent crap.  But it’s hard to imagine a platypus when you can’t even turn on the machine.
 
Hard to imagine going to Greece and that doesn't even require imagination since I've been there a dozen times over the past eighteen years.  We just bought our tickets and while it's still almost two months away, most of me couldn't care less, which is not like me at all.  Not care about guaranteed sunshine?  About swimming laps in my beloved Aegean?  About the platters of olives and juicy tomatoes and warm feta and ripe peaches?  I write this now and it is as if I am trying to talk myself into the desire to leave this tedious depressed self, this bleak Me who is, but who is not, Me.  What I know to be true is traveling away from here, this place where I live, Meadville, and traveling away from this place that I live, Me, will not cure Me, will not shake the dog from my heels.  All I can do is hope that by departure time rolls around, the dog will have slunk back to its cave and my wounds will have scabbed over and I will be able to taste the salt and the sweet again, and will be able to feel the pleasure of floating in the sea under warm sunshine again.
 
I know this will pass.  It pisses me off to say it.  I hate platitudes.  “This too shall pass.”  Because what I want to say is, “Fine.  It will pass.  But the Depression will come again.  So where’s the meaning in it?  How am I any better for it?”  Really, I don’t know that getting through these down cycles makes me any stronger each and every time because there’s just a numbing sameness to the Depressions.  What I do know is that I need to start to rethink how I use my time outside of the mire—my time in vision and creation, when I am humming along, when my ducks can become platypuses.       

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mind the Gap: Eating Disorders and Clothing Fit


 
 
Yesterday, I was swiveling back and forth in the beauty salon chair, paging through the latest issue of Vogue, waiting for the timer to ping! so my stylist could wash out the purple-that-will-turn-black dye from my hair.  One of the results of being Black Irish?  Silver stands started showing up in my late thirties—and they’re not the cascading Emmylou Harris kind of silver, but the wiry crone variety.  So, I do my best to fight time and get to read all the magazines I don’t buy for myself for the forty minutes or so it takes for the magic to work.
Except this time what should have been a vapid fashion ad knocked the breath out of me.  A model, beautiful, of course, long, almost colorless blonde hair, pinned in a half up-do, wearing a halter top, no doubt made of calf-skin, or some material that cost more than my monthly mortgage payment.  She teetered on rickety heels, from what I can remember, not much to them other than strings across her toes and around ankles.  Her face was glacially clean, as if she had spent a week scrubbing it so only the clean angles of her bones, which were beautiful and hard, were left.  But all of this, really, is ordinary—you can flip to most pages in Vogue or Elle and find this presentation.  What stopped me was this:

The gap.
Between her pants and her body.

Rather the waist of the pants and her waist.
Her pants didn’t fit.

The anorexic gap.
I looked at the model and though: Either A.) They put her in pants that were too big or B.) She is too small.  I dismissed A.) Because from what I know of the industry, they generally use a fit size of 0 or 00, so that would be just silly for a 0 or 00 to be too big; which means she is B.) Too small?  Or maybe  C.) WORSE.  The ad deliberately makes her look like she is too small for the clothes, that she is underweight, has grown out of/is undersized for the clothes she is wearing.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on a diatribe against the modeling industry and their links to eating disorders.  Certainly the industry didn’t cause my eating disorder.  As most of us know, Eating Disorders are complex, have many “causes,” though I prefer the term “triggers,” and these triggers work in chaotic combinations.  Obviously, when it comes to Body Image triggers, seeing images of underweight bodies as represented by women in the modeling industry can be a trigger as they can be used as ideal aspirations.  But for me, and for many women who have or are struggling with Eating Disorders, we move past these “ideal aspirations” into Anorexia.  You don’t usually see the emaciated, feeding-tubed woman skipping around in her cute, green ballet flats and flouncy champagne pink skirt on the cover of the latest J. Crew catalogue, do you?  Not exactly going to sell a lot of cashmere cardigans.
So I saw that gap, that space between the pants fitting and the pants not fitting, the pants touching and not touching, and I felt that old, or not so old trigger, rear its ugly head.  Because for me, when I was deep in Anorexia, that was my yardstick.  First, it was trading pants sizes down.  A sense of accomplishment.  This is too big, let’s move smaller.  This is too big, too.  Smaller still.  Smaller still.  Smaller still.  Until I got as small as I could go.  As small as the sizes would go.  Until there was the gap.  And then the gap became me.  See?  Nothing can touch you.  That’s how you know that you are small enough.  That’s how you know you haven’t become big again.  That’s how you know that you are okay.  If the waist touches you, then you are fat, big, wrong, a failure.  Just like the Tube announces in London: MIND THE GAP.

But there was this moment, close to the end of it all, close to when I was sent away for my last inpatient Eating Disorders recovery, when I was in a store trying to buy a dress for some party.  I grabbed three or four in the smallest size and went into the dressing room which had a three-way mirror.  Ages since I’d looked at myself in any real way and suddenly I was face-to-face-limb-to-limb-stomach-to-ass with myself and I was breathless because I didn’t recognize who I was.  But…I wasn’t about to find out because I wasn’t ready yet, so I quickly slipped Dress #1 over my head.  Enormous.  Dress #2.  Enormous.  Dress #3.  Enormous.  Nothing fit at all.  I had fallen into the gap and disappeared.
My clothes fit today, even if there are days when I resent that.  Sometimes I catch myself wishing for my jeans to start sliding off my hipbones.  Or I start wondering what the point of exercise is if not to lose weight.  Or just the need to keep on top of myself to eat consistently if I am exercising because that’s how I maintain a healthy weight and prevent disappearing back into the gap.  Which is funny. If anyone is as old as me and remembers back in the early, early ‘80’s, The Gap’s ad campaign had a jingle that went, “Fall into The Gap.”  Of course, about luring you into their stores.  But for me, is the perfect antithetical complement to the Tube’s “Mind the Gap.”  It is so easy for me to fall back into the gap, into the kind of thinking that triggers Eating Disordered thoughts and behaviors—a slippery slope.  It is much harder, but payoff means living in recovery, if I am mindful, always, of the gap.