Saturday, October 24, 2015

'Tis the Season(al) Affective Disorder

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

With the kids jingle-belling

And everyone telling, “Be of good cheer!”

In the right (read: black and bleak) frame of mind, this Christmas carol can sound, to someone who is depressed, like the most banal, irritating, foolish advice.  That season again, when I’m wandering, zombie-like, around Big Lots, in search of bags of cheap Halloween candy (no deep pockets, so no Darth Vader or Disney Princess gets a King-sized Hershey from me), 24-packs of toilet paper, and weird boxes of Belarusian cookies.  Jolly holly carols blare from the loudspeakers, all with the underlying message: Try smiling!  Think positive!  It will all work out!  Tell that to the squashed chipmunk I sidestepped on my walk this afternoon through the cemetery, a deliberate destination that helps me remember that at least I’m alive.

Tis’ the season.  Not that season, not yet anyway.  But what has become a seasonal trek in search of a new psychiatrist.  This time, just when I found a doctor with the right combination of bio-psychiatric smarts and therapeutic warmth, he has an “inappropriate” relationship with a patient.  His license was suspended, and I’ve been waiting out the suspension for months, willing to overlook his transgression because he was that good.  This week he closed up shop for good.  Truth be told, I’m not sure I could have seen him again.  Instead of waiting for him to ask, “How are you?,” I would have shouted, “How could you?”  Maybe even shook my fist.  (Mood erratic?  Feeling a little out of control?  No--his transgression just hits too close to home.) 
So yesterday, I saw my primary care physician for medication refills.  I’ve only met him once before and so tried to act brave and nonchalant when he asked questions about my mental health history; I shrugged off my twenty hospitalizations, and told him I was feeling “mostly fine” considering the past year—divorce, betrayal, a-thus-far--futile job search.  Circumstantial rather than biological depression. 

He looked at me carefully, assessing my sarcasm.  “Do you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?” 
I laughed, “Aside from the everyday ones?” 

For a moment, I thought he might press his stethoscope to my temple to listen to the chatter in my brain.  “Really,” I said, “nothing atypical for Bipolar disorder.” 
Later, when I told him about the (literal) pain in my butt from running (piriformis syndrome), he slowly worked his thumbs down my spine.  Ahh, I thought, he is an osteopath.  Maybe he’ll try some sort of adjustment, shifting my spine and brain back into alignment.  And, too, I thought, with some shame, this is the most intimately I’ve been touched in years.  I wanted him to run his thumbs down my shins and up my forearms, to palpate my stomach, thump my back.  Alternately, I thought I could go see a massage therapist—it was clear why some people might pay for sex or professional cuddling.

But the exam ended, my spine, indeed, as straight as ever.  I left with my prescription refills-what are necessary to keep it all in balance, but what cannot cure a broken heart.    


Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Momma Was Mad: Bipolar Awareness Day

Today is Bipolar Awareness Day.  I assume you are the targeted audience and not me, because I am aware of this condition every day.  A “condition” rather than an “illness” because (1) “illness” suggests ongoing dissipation, hollow-eyed, marginal stability; (2) “condition” suggests an achievable management of symptoms; (3) in my mind, anyway, “illness” summons pity and shame, and “condition” more an optimal, practiced functioning—like Crossfit and how it maintains and develops strength and balance.  I’m working on staying upright, not yielding to the dark, annihilating voice that wakes me at four a.m. trying to persuade me that I am empty and done and a failure, and really, truly, Kerry, not interesting to anyone or loved by anyone, okay, your kids maybe but that’s genetically foreordained, and besides, you let them watch a lot of Dr. Who and buy them Burger King chocolate shakes.
But here’s the difference between having a condition and being actively ill.  Five years ago, I would have been drinking or cutting those dark thoughts away, would have been actively planning my exit, would have been unable to slow down for a walk with friends (or speed up, if running all out would help squash the voice), would have been once again locked in the quiet room at the psych hospital.  I was admitted so many times, and for so long, that the staff knew me by name, and always looked at me with tender if trepidacious concern: I was the manic woman who walked thousands of laps around the halls, refused food and conversation, and prayed every night that I wouldn’t wake up because my kids and husband would be better off without a mad, mad momma.

Shame.  The core emotion that ran my life, twisting thoughts and feelings in a Gordian knot.  All the things I was losing because of this illness.  My beloved job that helped me be who I was meant to be, which was helping students find their most authentic and intellectually ambitious selves. My now ex-husband never able to look at me in the same way again (how could he, after seeing me strapped down in the ICU, arms hacked up by the Devil of Depression?)  My children lost trust in me because of my vacillations between silence and rage, and leaving them for one hospital after another.  My friends and family tried to help in so many generous, selfless ways, but I turned my back on them in favor of the illness’s demands: drink, disappear, die.
All that’s almost five years ago.  And thanks (not really) to almost twenty five rounds of ECT treatment, I can’t remember much of it.  My hard drive wiped clean.  Ten years of my recollected past, which creates identity after all, is gone—I have to ask other people about my life, about the places I don’t remember travelling to, the readings I’ve given, books I’ve read, awards received, and most devastating, what my children were like when they were little.  Photos fill in the gaps, but the emotional resonance is often gone.  And writing!  The imagination relies on memory, drawing on existing knowledge and experience to create new ideas, new descriptions, new characters.  I am wed to a thesaurus and a screen that is often blank, throbbing in disappointed frustration. 

Most of what I recollect about my years of active illness is due to this blog’s archive.  I have to reread entries every few months to believe that I was as ill and out of control as people remember.  The only visceral indication I have about those years is a churning pit of dread that I carry with me, a ball python coiled in the gut that bites down when I get complacent.  But now, I rely on my healthier, conditioned voice: Calm down, deep breath, think happy thoughts, and no, this isn’t the time to go off your Lithium.  So much of what has happened this year—divorce, the betrayal, living on my own for the first time and half that time without my kids, a seemingly impossible job search—all of this could have sent me back down the rabbit hole.  Because yes, mental illness was fuzzy and safe, despite the cut-up arms and overdoses and hospitalizations.  Giving in to all the insane impulses meant I didn’t have to try to live anymore, didn’t have to love myself anymore—I could check out of myself.  (It was why I loved the moment when I was going under on Propafol for ECT—a little death each time.)  But in forgetting, I also get to relearn how beautiful my children are, how supportive my friends and family are, how much I am loved, and how loving I am.