Agitation

I woke up this morning feeling like a troll. I haven’t been showering. I spent much of yesterday intentionally absorbed in other worlds and times. No yoga means my lazy posture is back. And I had onions on my sandwich yesterday.

My sleep pattern is tricky again. Rather, I find it difficult to let go of the day when a responsible bedtime rolls around. So I don’t, despite knowing that if I am not asleep before midnight, the next day will be lost. Somehow, I convince myself that it’s okay not to fall asleep just yet, even as I lament my lack of productivity that day and make (over)ambitious plans for tomorrow.

It is difficult to make healthy decisions. But being aware of this does not mean I make better decisions. I am just aware of how weak I am as I am arguing myself out of practicing yoga, or eating half a bag of corn chips before dinner. Self- control is eroding.

Somehow, I am even more socially inept than usual. (How is that possible?!) Or maybe it’s just increased paranoia that makes any interaction more fraught. I couldn’t even finish cognitive function testing last week without becoming combative with the test administrator. I have been ordering our groceries for my partner to pick up because I cannot manage my head in a crowd for the time it takes to select my groceries.

I can’t place the origin of my descent into whatever state this is. The school-to-summer transition. Change in routine. Limited time to myself. Anniversary of my father’s death.

Or maybe my withdrawal from the world is a preemptive correction of the agitation and potential mania of summertime. When the temperature rises, my blood begins to boil. Historically, I would drink more wine and tequila. We do this, don’t we—us folks with bipolar—to suppress rising feelings of agitation. We think we’re putting out the flames but we are lighting a fire within that spawns uncontrollable rage. I no longer drink alcohol. But these days I wish I could. This, combined with my current tendency to make unhealthy decisions, is a scary headspace to be in.

It seems that only a month ago I felt differently about myself. I liked myself. Things made more sense. I had a purpose. I had ideas and plans, and I could even remember some of them. And now, this. And from where? Very likely it is just my natural cycle. And no medication is sufficient to disrupt this cycle, it seems. Though I do sense that there is a net just above rock bottom that wasn’t there before. Perhaps that will break this fall, though there is every possibility that I will simply get tangled in it.

Alone. This neuro-eccentricity can make us so alone. Of course it sets us apart, but in such a state as this, when even accessing ourselves is a struggle, we are incapable of connecting with others. And, as connection is central to mental health, it seems mental illness is inevitable.

After half a year of wellness, my neuro-eccentricity is revealing my limits to me once again. And I am hoping that my family and I can survive it this time.

Morning harvest

Last year we moved the garden beds to the front yard, where the sun is strongest on our property. There were two things working against me: bad soil and exposure to the neighbors. Both of these factors meant I used more fertilizer than I had ever done before—I was desperately afraid of failing, and so publicly.

My plants struggled. Few tomatoes; no summer or winter squash; climbing beans with no flowers. Only the okra, chard, and sweet potatoes forgave my ineptitude.

This year I returned to my horticultural roots, focusing on improving the soil rather than fertilizing the plant.

Earthworm castings (so, worm shit) rather than expensive organic fertilizers have made all the difference. The plants have been quietly but steadily growing all spring, and are now flowering and fruiting as if they were specimens for a textbook.

I am not completely embracing my budding sense of glory—the summer sun has yet to reach its full force, and that will no doubt exhaust the majority of the plants in my garden. But I do think there is a lovely lesson here. Something along the lines of less is more. It would be cliche if it weren’t true.

Tribalism

There is an interview with Agnes Martin, in which she claims to have let go of all the theories in an attempt to keep her mind clear. It was more involved than that: she wanted to keep her ego out of the way when she was inspired to paint so that the original message remained unsullied.

The innocence and purity of this is blindingly beautiful to me. But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. I could write reams about Martin, her neuro-eccentricity, her work, our connection. But perhaps another day.

Today, I want to talk about that interview, and in particular when she says she let go of all the theories. Even evolution.

Ah, yes. To let go of evolutionary theory to embrace mindfulness feels like an impossible climb up the highest mountain. When I have a difficult problem, my automatic response it to run it through several filters to see what remains. The most important filter I use is one that resembles evolutionary psychology, my best tool for helping me make big decisions.

But one cannot be mindful and still filter experience through various theories.

The evolutionary psychologist, Robert Wright, is holding an online course on overcoming tribalism through the Buddhist site Tricycle. I have read one of Wright’s books and get along well with his way of thinking and writing, and so I paid close attention to his announcement. Mindfulness over tribalism is something I have been struggling with lately, particularly with my extended family challenges. My instinct says one thing, but Buddhist teachings say another. How does one resolve such a conflict?

It’s not lost on me that this is an important topic of discussion for our time. I’m thinking here of political turmoil, and the move towards tribal thinking and away from humanism. But it is also an issue I need to sort out on the personal level, and the personal always seems more immediate and pressing. So, I have been waiting for an epiphany. Some guidance. A message. But I’m beginning to think I may need to go out and find one.

I suppose it really is true that if you let all the theories go, if you push your emotions and interpretations to the side, you can see things how they are. And presumably you will also know how to respond with compassion and kindness. But to let go of evolutionary theory? Ah, the complexities of the human condition!

Speaking of complexities, I feel compelled to mention that my oldest child and I are regular partners in a mood disorder dance. Family dynamics are complicated, and exponentially so with a neuro-eccentric member. But two? Half of all members with a neuro-eccentricity? Suffice it to say, shit gets really crazy in our house, with one triggering the other and spiraling out of control, and back and forth, and hypersensitivities meaning no-one can sneeze without someone thinking there was some hidden meaning behind it. Sometimes I wonder if I will be able to survive her adolescence. But just as my despondency reaches its zenith, we have a magical moment. Yes, our family is often agitated and dysregulated, but we are also colorful, vibrant, creative folks with an incredibly deep connection. I’m not sure how we’d do this without that silver lining.

Stress

My stress level is dangerously high. I know this not because I feel it—I generally have no sense of how anxious or stressed I am until I find myself hyperventilating behind a mannequin in a shopping mall. This time I know I am stressed because I have broken out into a rash.

My first explanation for the rash was the Lamictal—my doctor is easing me into a therapeutic dose slowly so as not to cause the rare but fatal rash that some folks get from the medication. So, of course I thought that was the cause. But I prefer Lamictal to lithium so much that I searched for and found another potential cause: that new soap I used for the first time that morning. Or maybe it’s the weather—like living in an armpit. Or lack of sleep—my partner has been away again, which always throws me back into mama sleep (up every hour or so to check on things which seem completely unimportant the next day). Or perhaps dehydration.

But only later, much much later, I remembered that time before my first solo art exhibition. Everyone had remarked on how serene I seemed, and I felt serene too. But the day of my exhibition, I woke up with a nasty full-body rash. And then I knew that I was not at all serene, but falling apart from the inside-out. Very much like I am doing now.

I was surprised to discover that the extended family dramas I have been living in for weeks and months, one of which is now coming to a head, could have turned me upside-down. I felt in control. I had things under control. Didn’t I?

I think I have talked about and worked on little else than these two big family problems for the last two weeks. It’s like an emotional seesaw: one day, the problem of alcoholism and abuse preoccupies my thoughts and engages my actions, and the next day the problem of child abuse and neglect and a teen pregnancy (coming to term today) requires my deepest consideration.

I have been making lists of ways to help out with the first crisis and working through the list one item at a time, and mediating between warring factions of my family for the second (I will be traveling with my sleeves rolled up in less than a week to get to work physically on this last one). Not to mention the psycho-spiritual crisis I have been having about how to love unconditionally folks who behave in detestable, life destroying ways. It’s so much easier to push these people out. It’s so much easier to hate. I am immersed in the most challenging of human emotions on a daily basis.

I have not been feeling triggered, particularly, but I think I have established how little my apparent feelings reflect what my mind is experiencing. So, when all is said and done with my extended family crises, no doubt the hauntings will begin afresh.

The only way I can think of to manage my stress in the meantime is through meditation. So, today I set out on a path of intensive daily meditation. When I can’t sit for 30 minutes, I do active meditation for as long as I can when I am alone. (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it, but I don’t know it. Basically, I go about my business, but slowed down so I can mentally acknowledge every action–turning on the tap; taking the soap; washing hands; rinsing; etc.) It’s been a few hours of that now, and my mind is quieter. Also, it has taken the place of my talking to myself, which is an unexpected but welcome side effect. I shudder to think of how many hours a day I waste in one-sided conversation.

I’ve written before about the intimate relationship between stress and mental health. I am glossing over how my stress level recently has impacted my mental health. But it undoubtedly has. That too was unknown to me until my children started looking at me differently. Children are a great barometer, more sensitive to subtle changes in a carer’s mood than most adults. Anyway, now that I know, I can protect against the potential for a bipolar/borderline episode. I can be more aware of where I allow my thoughts to go and how they impact my behavior towards my nuclear family.

This mess would have been a whole lot messier (at least from my side) had I not had Buddhist teachings to fall on. A long-standing atheist, I could not have known how immensely grateful I would be to have this spiritual structure to lean on, to guide me through these difficult interactions. But the work is still mine to do. And I will do my best to achieve Right Speech and Right Action in the process, rash or no rash.

The right path

There are certain sects of Buddhism that believe that karma binds us more to some of the people in our lives, to the extent that those bonds continue throughout various reincarnations.

I have uncomfortable feelings about reincarnation, but the idea of having a greater karmic connection with some folks sees obvious to me. I believe that all things in our lives play a role in our awakening. They are our teachers, unwittingly offering the challenges we need to develop into our true selves. In my experience, they return us to our path when we’ve meandered. And our meandering most often has to do with the challenges they’ve given us in the first place.

My point is, you start out on what you think is your path with the best of intentions: I will be this kind of mother; I will be that kind of wife. Then the folks you have chosen to walk that path with reveal to you bit by bit—or sometimes in much more significant ways—that you were never on your true path to begin with. They reveal yourself to you, and slowly you discover your footing on the right path.

I find that the most basic lessons take the longest to understand. And by understanding, here, I mean that kind of knowing that feels knitted in your bones—the kind of understanding that makes you realize the truth has always been with you, if only hidden from your view. So, things like how to love unconditionally, the significance of loyalty, the grace of self-sacrifice, the relief that comes with compassion and kindness (both giving and receiving). All the things the sages and prophets have shown us through the millennia, the things we know by heart (but not by bone). These are the fundamentals that take a lifetime to master but that life seems to be all about.

I discovered that for myself one day, trying frantically to unlock the mystery of enlightenment. You see, I had come to believe that the only way I could know how to help my oldest child, the only way I could know how to behave properly to best support my youngest, the only way I could truly be a good partner was to become enlightened, to become a buddha myself. Obviously, I am not enlightened, but these are some of the things I have come to understand from my seeking:

  • There are certain basic concepts that I will struggle to stretch my mind to understand until I realize I don’t need to understand them. I plant the seed, and eventually my understanding will grow in its own time. I think that is the “faith” that most belief systems refer to. It’s a kind of letting go.
  • Enlightenment is not an epiphany; it is the path, the daily practice of being. Like most things of universal value, enlightenment occurs by degrees, almost imperceptibly, through behaving as one who is enlightened.
  • The concept of the not-self is fundamental—there is nothing more distracting from my true path than my ego, my will. This, I think, is also a cornerstone of all belief systems, but one of the most difficult truths to fathom. Because, after all, how do we remove the self-interest from ourselves?

All of this started today with my children arguing—the oldest being mean to the youngest. Half of my cucumber seeds not germinating. Me feeling like an inadequate parent. Waking up to dog shit on the doormat. The potato plants flowering too early. Me uncharacteristically wanting—no, needing—social interaction—like, with people.  Sunny still sitting on her unfertilized eggs.

I more or less violently reject all of these things. I am attached to my idea of how all these things should be. But these things have something else to teach me, I feel, and I can only learn their truth by letting go of my ego, my own thinking about what is right, and recognize that there is something much larger at play here, something that I cannot see all the parts of.

I am fighting with myself about publishing these thoughts, partly because of my irrational fear of exposure, partly because I may be wrong, and partly because I may feel differently tomorrow (and somehow we have come to the strange conclusion that inconsistency is a bad thing). I am having to remind myself that the whole point of this blog was for me to catalog some of my thoughts and experiences before my cognitive functioning disintegrates entirely as part of the fallout from my neuro-eccentricity. I wanted proof, documentation, that I had thoughts, was capable of thinking. I wanted my children to see more than grocery lists for bologna and vodka, like I discovered in my father’s apartment after his death. There is more to us all, and to have only the litter of our choices be our legacy feels incredibly empty to me. But I am fighting with my ego here again. Ultimately, living a good life would leave no trace. Neither Buddha nor Jesus left any writings. So why my preoccupation with leaving evidence that I once had a mind?

Maybe that’s not really my goal. Maybe my goal is to outsource my memory so that in the darkest times to come, I can read this and remember the seasons, my preoccupations, the suffering and the beauty, my humanity. Maybe I am writing in celebration of and to remember living.

Or maybe it’s all more immediate than that. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me put names to feelings that might otherwise disrupt my mood. Writing for an audience requires me to frame things more positively or, ideally, with humor, and my final thoughts on a subject are then colored by that positivity.

Yes. I like the sound of that one best. I am not having an ego or attachment crisis—just making sense of some of my experiences. And in the process of writing this, it has been revealed to me that all those things that I so violently rejected this morning are simply the stuff of life. Accepting those things and dealing with them with compassion is, in fact, my path.

Belonging

I am preoccupied with thoughts of my eldest child. But hers is not my story to tell, so I’ll talk about Sunny and belonging—two topics which, on the surface, seem completely unrelated.

Sunny is my most fussy chicken. She’s a fancy French breed with a noisy call and five toes and feathered feet. She reminds me a bit of a country music star—yodeling, fringed, and spangled.

The days are lengthening, so Sunny is trying to make her unfertilized eggs hatch. She has spent three days cooped up in the nesting boxes, taking only a few minutes each day to scarf down some peas, gargle some water, and shout at the other girls, who are not so shaken up by their hormones. Today, I locked her out of her nesting box for the morning, and returned to the chicken yard to find that she had flown the coop—into the children’s play yard.

I can only say that I am incredibly grateful that my fence is so high, so that nobody could watch the spectacle of me trying to round up a temperamental, broody hen. In short, she’s back in the chicken yard, the nesting boxes are open for service again, and I have no idea what I will find when I next make it through the orchard to chat with the chickens.

Hormones make us crazy. I’m sure that’s a loaded statement, but I mean to discharge such a load. Hormones make us so blind to how things really are that we can view a loved one trying to help us as an assailant trying to cause us harm. They can make us obsess fruitlessly until our feathers are dull. They can reveal aspects of our personality that we don’t even recognize as part of ourselves. And all the while, everyone watching from afar knows what it is and that it will pass, though we do not.

I have read and watched many biographies of folks with bipolar, and there are a few common threads among all those fraught stories: namely, the age of the first (albeit, mild) episode and the feeling from childhood of being apart, an alien, or in the wrong family—basically, of not belonging.

I’ve covered the first in my Sunny illustration. The doctors believe bipolar first reveals itself at adolescence. But you ask any parent or sufferer, and they will likely tell you that the turning point was closer to nine or ten. The flood of hormones that occurs at adolescence only amplifies the potential that has been there for years.

The second is significant because I believe you cannot achieve mental health without a sense of belonging to something, someone, or someplace. This is the relational connectedness I talked about in an earlier post. And folks with bipolar seem predisposed to feel that they do not belong—and in fact, our difference unfortunately makes it so in so many cases.

I remember a time a few years back when I was in corpse pose following root chakra yoga. There came a point in the deep relaxation of all of my muscles when the instructor said something like relax into the Earth; know that you are welcome; know that you belong; know that you are home. I burst into an ecstatic fit of tears, grieving for my poor lost self that had struggled for so many years, and elated that I had found my place; I had inhabited my place all along.

That new sense of belonging to this world was crucial for my awakening (or maybe a result of it). In any case, I felt reborn. I had spent so much time fighting against everyone and even myself, and all because I felt I did not belong, that no one wanted me. And once that sense of belonging was intact, I was free to begin building my life, truly, for the first time. Previously, I had been going through the motions, and then regularly tearing down all that I had built. Belonging meant I could now build with stones instead of paper.

My worry is that you cannot bring another to a sense of belonging. Perhaps you can offer her comfort or respite along the way. And hope she doesn’t succumb to oblivion-seeking behaviors in the meantime. But there is no magic word, no perfect touch to help someone realize that she already belongs. I make a habit of saying to my children that they belong to me, to our family, to our community. That they have an important role to play in this world. That they could have come into existence at only one point in the history of the universe, and that makes them magnificent beings with significant work to do here—that we need them. And I hope, with skin-tingling, hand-shaking effort, that those words find their way into their bones.

My eldest child’s struggles are by no means new. But it is the first time she is experiencing them. And it is deeply troubling to come to this point, after decades of personal struggle and suffering, and still not be able to give her what she needs to find her way. We can inherit our parent’s shame, but not their wisdom. It seems that wisdom is something we can only gain through first-hand experience. And with hormones beginning to mold my child into an adult, I once again find myself battening down the hatches in preparation for an incredible storm.