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.

“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.