Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bipolar Recovery: How To Survive a Mauling

My psychiatrist has a life-sized stuffed tiger in his waiting room. At the big cat’s feet is a plastic bin serving up a mangled heap of smaller stuffed animals — parrot, cat, whale, unicorn — and plastic babies missing a limb or an eye. Freud was the first to have a therapy dog. His red chow, Jofi, would lie on the couch next to patients, and when the dog got up to scratch at the door for a pee, Freud would say to his patient, “You see, Jofi is so excited that you’ve been able to discover the source of your anxiety!” But a therapy tiger? Before my daughter knew the crisscrossed scars on my arm were self-inflicted, she used to call them my “tiger stripes,” and she was amazed that I had survived such claws. This tiger, too, comes with a warning. Taped to the wall is this notice: For Your Safety Please Do Not Sit on the Tiger.
I think about this posted warning. Is it a test? Does my doctor really want me to sit on the tiger? What are my unconscious motivations for wanting to sit on the tiger? What neuroses keeps me from sitting on the tiger? And really, safety’s sake aside, I’m supposed to take risks. So, reverse psychology? Or does he want me to make associations? As in, “Eye of the Tiger” — “Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet, Just a man and his will to survive...”
Another patient sits across from me, beside the tiger, nervously flipping through the pages of a kids’ Highlights magazine. Maybe he’s searching for cups and candles and lamps in the Search and Find picture. His knee jiggles. Anxiety? Hypomania? Low-flying schizophrenia? He doesn’t even look at me when I walk over, inches from his bouncy leg, to take a picture of the tiger as if I’m on some psychiatric safari. I sit back down and glance down at my tiger stripes. The last time I did anything like that was five years ago, which was also the last day I drank.
What I remember from that day: arriving at my friend’s baby shower, a blue ribboned gift in hand (cheerful whale stitched onto a matching bib, socks, and onesie), desperately sad because my life had unraveled. Bipolar, anorexic, alcoholic. The perfect, decimating storm. A surge of longing when I gazed at my friend’s moon belly. Always, I had imagined my future with three children. Oldest, middle, youngest — a noisy triumvirate. And I would be the kind of mother capable of holding all that needy, exhausting love.
But after the birth of my second child, my bipolar disorder escalated and my doctors said “no” to my irrational contemplation of a third, and my husband, who bore the brunt of my breakdown, adamantly refused. Too risky, too much, too sick. Besides, I hadn’t needed a tampon for two years — starvation accompanied by over-exercise had turned off the fertility switch. But baby hunger was all I could think about while playing the chocolate-smeared-on-a-diaper game. No more crazy Momma. Just my composed self rocking a warm baby, my lips against the heart-fueled pulse at the fontanel.
What I last remember: standing alone in the kitchen, laughter pealing in from the living room, an island crowded with wine bottles. I had promised my husband I wouldn’t drink since I could no longer control how much or what would happen when I did. But that magnum of acrid cabernet promise? I could blot myself out, find my funny again, instead of sitting on the couch full of nervousness, envy, and loneliness. A glass or two of wine would shake me loose. I filled a plastic cup and drank it down in one swallow. Then another, quickly, desperately. How many could I drink before someone came into the kitchen and caught me? Six, seven, the whole bottle?

What I next remember: waking in the hospital, cuts up and down my arms, and my husband standing in the corner of the room, his lips pressed together, no longer worried and forgiving, but hard and immobile. My kids were nowhere. That is, they were stashed somewhere safe because I was unsafe.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again, adding to my long recitation of sorry’s over the years.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asked. He hadn’t accepted my apology.
“There was the shower and I drank.” Nothing else after, just an empty, black hole that I didn’t know how to fill.
“After you guzzled wine, you ran outside into the snow and cold without your shoes or coat and wouldn’t come back. Your friends called me, so I could come get you. When I found you out by your car, you insisted you were going to drive off and kill yourself. You meant it. I got you home, but then you did that to your arms. Your doctor said you needed to be admitted.”
I can do this better, I thought. I can do this over. I can stop and be well.
My husband didn’t move toward the bed, but was rigid with fury and resolve. Couldn’t he remember that he had promised to love me, in sickness and in health? Couldn’t he give me another chance, and another chance, and a chance after that? But I knew there would be no talking myself out of this, as I had before: I promise, I promise, I won’t drink so much. I’ll count my drinks. I’ll pay attention.

“I won’t do this anymore,” he said. “If you don’t stop drinking, you lose the kids and me. It’s your choice but this is it.”
The room fell away. Lose them? They were the only reason I was alive. And my husband marooning me with self-loathing and despair? My daughter once drew a picture for me when I was in the hospital during one of my manic episodes: an enormous green and black winged creature with the words, “Momma Come Home!” It was fierce and fiery, born of courage and will. She was calling me to that again.

“Yes,” I said. There was no alternative, not anymore. I had to go home, whatever it took.

In the almost five years since that moment, I got sober and stable and ironically, divorced. The marriage couldn’t ultimately survive the turmoil of my illness or the betrayal of his affair.
For much of my life I said “No” — to love, grace, and assistance. I would go it alone, never mind if I could. Now, “yes” is reflexive. Can I love myself? Yes. Am I a good enough, at times even better, mother? Yes. Do I have the courage to live an authentic life, in truth and forgiveness? Yes. Am I afraid, legs wobbling, in this new life of mine? Yes, but the trajectory from that lonely woman, cut up and starving and hung-over, to the woman writing this without shame and with a belief that the universe is saying “Yes” back to me? I don’t sit on tigers anymore, but I am not risk averse. I risk integrity and truth now, and push my sleeves back, revealing my scars, my tiger stripes, and maybe even risk your seeing all that pain and healing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Saying Yes to the Universe

Even when I’m standing still, I’m still moving.  When I’m awake at night in bed, paralyzed by fear and regret, sure that my life is going nowhere (i.e., into the shitter), I’m still moving.  Our galaxy, the Milky Way, rotates at 225 kilometers per second, and careens through our infinite cosmos at 305 kilometers per second.  So every sixty seconds, I travel 20,000 kilometers, or 12,000 miles.  And so do you.

This is a fact, though physically, I can’t feel its truth in my body.  I stand at my window, watching the pit bull next door lope around the yard, or across a few weeks, notice the hostas push their twirled leaves through the ground and unfurl, or the man who staggers up and down the block in his ragged trench coat, dragging his wire cart behind him that is packed with cases of cheap beer.  Everyone else is moving but me.  The universe doesn’t hurl me through the glass and back out into the world with bloodied hands and knees, so I mistake my apparent stillness for the hopeless inertia. 

It didn’t always feel like this.  When I was a kid, I ran at the world.  When I was five, I put on my mother’s silver cuff bracelets which, I believed, imbued me with Wonder Woman’s vaulting powers, and stood on the top of a flight of stairs and jumped.  Of course, I broke my arm, but for a few brief seconds (one?), I was caught in an exhilarating tumble through the air.  At nine, I secreted myself in the basement in front of a robin’s egg blue Smith Corona, and typed out, with great assurance, the opening chapters to a torrid, Victorian romance novel.  What did I know about a heaving bosom and a throbbing manhood?  Nothing, except for when the neighbor boy and I showed each other all that we had in his backyard shed.  But I could dare to imagine what I didn’t know.

As an adolescent, the snake of Bipolar depression slithered in, and I drank to feel better, and cut myself to feel worse--an intertwined attempt at desperate self-medication.  Drinking could, in the moment, transform me into a funnier, more expansive, brash self.  I risked more (though might feel shame and regret later).  Cutting was a way to render unseen pain visible and specific (I smiled for the world while imagining jumping from a bridge).  My arms, concealed under long sleeves, throbbed in acute response to the injuries I suffered on myself.  
For many years, I was pinned beneath the immoveable rubble of illness (Bipolar, Anorexia, Alcoholism) and failure (loss of a job, end of a marriage), standing at the window as what could be my life rushed by at 12,000 miles a minute.  But I am in what is called “recovery” now—no more drinking, only necessary eating and stability.  We usually think of the word “recover” to mean a regaining of health or a return to some prior, longed for condition.  But its Anglo-French roots are more instructive: “to regain consciousness.”  A coming back to the essential self, the self before the shit; the self that can take imaginative, daring leaps into the cosmos. 

Over a year ago, I got divorced from the man who I believed, at least twenty years prior, was my soulmate, a heady designation, more suggestive of a na├»ve trust in those bodice ripper romances.  When I found out about his many years affair during our marriage?  Momentarily decimated.  For weeks, I was nauseated and sleepless, imagining them together, imagining myself never moving again out of bed, out of grief and anger, out of my life inscribed with pain and back into the world of movement and flight and joy.

But I decided that rather than stay put, I was going to say “yes” to whatever the universe offered me as long as the offering wouldn’t kill me.  Reconnecting with the friends I lost track of along the way out of shame in my years of illness?  Yes.  Try dating while sober?  Yes.  Try a heady fling that left its metallic taste of adrenaline in the mouth—like swallowing blood, sharp and clear?  Yes.  Try affection, transparency, and vulnerability with the people, new and established, in my life?  Yes.  Try to say “yes” with integrity and authenticity. 

In one of the photo albums at my parents’ house, there is a picture of me when I’m six in the hours before my birthday party.  The backyard table is strewn with streamers and party favors.  On each paper plate, a tasseled, pointed hat and one of those noisemakers that uncurl like a long, happy tongue.  For some reason, I am not in a party dress, but in a blue flowered bikini.  On my feet?  No MaryJanes, but roller skates.  My arms are opened wide and one foot is lifted from the ground.  Me, the photo seems to say, this is me moving into my boundless life.  It is the “yes” I say now.          

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

When You're Sober and Your Partner's Not

When I got sober, I didn't ask my then-husband to quit drinking.  In the foggy, shame-filled logic of early sobriety, I felt guilty.  After all, he had moved the booze from a locked cabinet (which I easily picked open with a kabob skewer) to some other super secret place in support of my recovery.  Underground bunker?  Mars?  A few months in, though, he wondered if it would be okay to bring it all back home.

"Yes," I said.  "I'm fine.  I'm the one who can't drink, not you."

The cabinet was reassembled with the delicious clutter of scotch, gin, vodka, ouzo, tsipouro, brandy, kahlua, rum, tequila, and wine.

It was mostly fine, except when it wasn't.  At night, over dinner, he would pour himself a glass or two or a third splash of wine, and sitting beside him on the couch, I could smell that dark promise, just like the little vial marked "Drink Me" in Alice in Wonderland, filled with "not-poison" liquid that smelled of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.  I scrambled to remember that what he was drinking would indeed kill me.  Maybe not right there on the couch in front of the blazing fire and the big screen TV broadcasting The Walking Dead and its rotting, zombie bodies, but in a few drinks, a few days, a few bottles.  Alcohol flips the suicide switch in my brain.  I might be sitting on the couch eating an arugula and egg pizza, but after a bottle of cabernet, I want to cut my wrists with the crusts.

I believed that my recovery was my fault, my business, my responsibility.  It was and is.  But in a marriage or relationship, recovery is pursued together.  I believed this even as we sat on the couch pretending that our marriage was also healing.  Even as I fetched him a scotch glass at the end of the evening so he could pour himself a snoot or two.  After all, he had the difficult job of living through and with me.  It was the least I could do.  Even as I gathered up the wine glass and scotch glass and hand washed them. I hated scotch, but in the last days of my drinking, took swigs straight from the bottle, swallowing fast and hard, trying to obliterate myself.  Still, I reasoned, this was my just dysfunctional penance.

Some nights, fewer in the end of our marriage, we had sex, a sign that we were still bound to each other (though, he was already, by this time, bound to another woman).  Since sex necessitates bodies against each other, mouth against mouth, breath against cheek, I had to hold my breath when he moved close.  Not out of distaste for him, but for the booze.  I couldn't taste his scotch and wine in my mouth, couldn't breathe in the potential for damage.  Sex shifted from (fraught) pleasure to my fending off a longing for drink and drunkenness, and my turning away (staring at the wall, the dresser, the knobs on the dresser) to stay intact.

Alcohol always made sex easier for me; I was less barbed with the thorns of insecurity and disconnection.  By extension, alcohol made it easier to forget what I'd done while drinking alcohol which would then, once again, make me do shameful things which I would need to again forget.  The ouroborus.  The snake eating its tail.  At one of our very drunken Christmas parties  (think guests throwing up in the bathroom or passed out on the couch), I batted my eyelashes at my husband (who thought maybe I's had enough to drink), and wooed him into sex on the back steps.  Thrilling because we could be discovered, but it was my way to deflect his attention.  He would be agog at my daring and I could continue with vodka cranberries.  The next morning, hungover, I could only feel shame.  That wasn't me, not really.  

What was becoming clear, too, was that the "me" who had married my husband, who had spent years and years drinking at ports of call all over the world, and waking up hungover and ashamed in these places, was no longer able to sit on the couch and pretend that his drinking with me was okay.  Alcohol muddies intentions.  Did he want to have sex with me, or, like my plastered performance on the stairs, was his desire fueled by booze?  Beer-wine-scotch goggles?  Was he interested in authenticity and integrity with me, something I was trying to practice in recovery?  (Apparently not, evidenced by his secret, several-years affair).

I don't know if a future partner will have to be a sober partner.  Perhaps my now-ex-husband's drinking was troublesome because we had spent so many years ritually drinking together.  We clinked glasses on balconies and in vineyards and on beaches in Italy, France, Greece, and Turkey.  Many of our loveliest and most poisonous memories are strung together by booze and its accompanying love and anger and betrayal and regret.  How do you come out from under that weight?  How does one partner summon the hopeful promise (writ small: soft unwinding of a day) of Laphroig in a crystal Tiffany snifter while the other is trying not to guzzle the bottle (that same hope, writ large: this will finally make me okay).

Now that I live on my own, in a house without booze, I am less vigilant.  Maybe I'll binge on mandarin oranges or handfuls of Lucky Charms, but there's nothing (barring a slip on a dog squeaky toy or impalement by Legos) that can kill me.  When I need to blot myself out, I call friends and talk until empty.  When I'm feeling insecure, or unhappy or unfunny or unlovable, I write my truth, hug my kids and dog, and expend all that prickly energy at CrossFit or on the track.  And sober sex?  With its clear intent and active choice, it is dangerous and thrilling because it is full of feeling.