Dynamic

Last night my partner covertly recorded us at dinnertime. Our interactions were in the upper range of stressful for our family, but only from an annoyance standpoint, rather than one of violence. Of course, here, I am referring to interactions with my oldest child and the impact of her behavior on the rest of the family.

After dinner, my partner invited us all to listen to the recording. I felt sick with the revelation that we had been recorded—what if there was proof of my terrible parenting in there? My youngest seemed to want to move on to a different topic, but she is not one to press her case. My oldest continued to beep and scream around the house, teasing here, riding the dog there. But I swallowed my fear of exposure and we all listened.

First of all, no evidence that I am a bad parent. In fact, if the recording is anything to go by, I have the patience of a saint (except for when I don’t).

But the overwhelming feeling I got from this—because passively experiencing it is so very different from living with it, managing it in real time—was one of incredible sadness. I felt sorry for myself. How had I lived with this kind of torment for so long? How unfair for my youngest! And then I felt awful for betraying my oldest by thinking in this way.

At several points in the history of our family, things have gotten intolerable. I think we’re at another one. We need help, ideas, suggestions. Her doctor suggests that we are the problem. This is so not what we need to hear after ten years in the trenches and three shelves of parenting books, almost all of which have proven completely useless. In fact, I found Buddhism in my search to be a better parent (early on I believed that achieving enlightenment was the only way I could understand/help my child). No, I do not believe that the problem lies in our parenting (we have another example of a product of our parenting, understand, and she does not behave like this—and even the first child doesn’t behave like this outside the home!). Bad parenting, my ass.

I think the problem is one of dynamics. Relationship dynamics. In particular, the imbalance between my partner’s beliefs, values, and approaches and my own. He and I are at the opposite ends of the spectrum on damn near everything. It is challenging for us to manage our own dynamic—and we are frequently unsuccessful. But for a child who is in desperate need of clear and immovable boundaries, a child who can see only in black and white (at least when it comes to rules about how to behave), and a child who needs a clear understanding of her neuro-difference and what that does and does not mean, to have to manage messages from misaligned parents must be crazy-making.

So, it kind of sounds like I’ve talked myself back around to parenting being the culprit here. But again, I think it is the dynamic between the three of us: elements that the oldest contributes, which frequently trigger differing elements from the parents; elements that each parent contributes that frequently contradict or shift something the other parent had already established. And the end result is that everyone is miserable at least some of the time.

It is ridiculous to hope that my partner will be more like me—although that is the obvious solution to our difficulties. So, we just need to work on our dynamic, and hope we’ve sorted it all out by the time the oldest becomes an adolescent.

But then, even this is just a theory. My doctor once told me that to best mother my first child, I was likely going to have to keep trying new things—for the rest of my life. That there was no single solution that would work. I had hoped then that she was wrong. But she was almost never wrong.

I feel like I have walked thousands of miles on my journey of mothering this child from the moment of her difficult birth. She has been my greatest teacher. No doubt I’m going to need a new pair of shoes if I’m going to have any chance of walking the next thousand.

second thoughts

I’m two days into my nicotine-free project: detox and withdrawal. And, though it’s nothing like coming off of something harder, my head is an ironic opera. Every now and then I forget…and when I remember again, like the death of a loved one, the longing is once again as fresh as it was the moment I started this project. Other times I forget my project and look for my vape pen—but before I find it, before I get a chance for relief, I realize what I’m about to do and wither with shame. I read yesterday that things are supposed to get harder for a few weeks following the third day of detox. I’m not looking forward to that.

Before I quit nicotine and became incapable of thinking about anything else, I was thinking a lot about the past. Specifically, the things I have done in the past when I have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or—and I was focusing quite a bit on this one in particular—when I have been experiencing a bipolar episode, or having had a psychotic break.

My main question is: to what extent should we be held responsible for the things we do when we are in a psychotic state? What about mania, but not psychosis? We know that our grounding in reality is eroded; we know that our ability to reason is gone; we know that something other than us seems to be sitting in the passenger seat but having an awful lot of say over what we do. (Why do we want to please that voice so much?)

Or maybe I was just hypomanic, was more or less grounded in reality—as much as I could be on old school antipsychotics—and simply do not remember doing something hurtful, ill advised, and destructive. Should my carer have taken the reigns here? Or am I required to take full responsibility of my actions in such a state too? I can’t see how I would have been able to make an informed decision because I had no sense that what I was doing was wrong or hurtful.

What about when I’m nicotine detoxing. Am I responsible for my disoriented behaviors in this hardcore slow-motion life transition?

Kidding aside, I would love to know what the law says about culpability in altered states. It does seem strange to hold a person accountable for what she has done in a psychotic, manic, or detox episode.

sticks and stones

Words will never hurt me.

Almost five years ago I published a collection of short stories and a novel, and exhibited my artwork in my first solo exhibition—all within the space of a year. Yes, I was manic.

I had not read either of my books since then, and have only looked at some of those early paintings because I recently restructured my website to make way for new ones. With the novel, my feelings are pretty straightforward: I am afraid to read it. It is largely autobiographical, and was my way of processing the loss of my oldest and best friend (so you can imagine there is a lot of anger and sadness there). I will get around to it eventually, just not now.

My paintings are easy. I simply cull. Any painting that no longer accurately represents what I want to say (or was painted badly, frankly), I simply take down from the website. In the studio, I reuse the support, paint something new. It’s like the old one never existed.

But my short story collection. This has haunted me in the last couple of days. Now that I have some distance from the stories, I feel like I can be more objective about them. I have reread the collection. Some are good; one or two are very good. And a number of them are not very good at all. I know I was writing filler stories by the end, trying to get enough pages in to complete the collection. I was not paying attention to quality. I was accepting mediocre writing.

But that’s not the worst of it. The thing is, those stories will never go away now. They cannot be edited or culled. I have to live with them as a part of my creative output forever. My one solace has been that very few people will ever read them, and fewer will judge them (because most of my readers are family).

Until yesterday. A family member on my partner’s side had started to read my stories, and took umbrage at one of them. She was heartbroken. Which, frankly, breaks my heart.

It is true that there were connections between characters or events in the story and people or occurrences in real life. But I never meant them as character assassinations. It was more an exercise in borrowing this and that to build a story that was ultimately about psychological and behavioral reactions to feelings of inadequacy.

But how to explain this when someone only sees themselves in something you’ve written?

My body was overcome by icy-hot tingles when I heard the news. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt so ashamed—of my work, or putting it out into the world at all, ashamed of my manic self. I felt exposed. And weirdly, I felt humiliated. Understandably, I felt misunderstood. Again. (Which, in a way, is also an emotion explored in the story in question.)

How do I deal with that? How do I deal with my own horrible feelings as well as those of my family member? How can I take away something that was written and then published? How can I keep readers from being hurt by my fiction? How can I atone for what I’ve done in a manic episode?

Words cut deep. And somehow, words are never enough to make things whole again.

tepid coffee

I once laughed out loud at a cartoon of one stick figure holding up a teapot and offering to another: “Tea?” The other stick figure, with a straight-line mouth, says: “No.” The cartoon was titled “Anarchy in the UK”. Having spent quite a bit of time in the UK, I found this hilarious. Mostly because it’s so true.

I was back in the UK this past summer, continually trying to soften my Americanness without losing myself in the process. But I think my anarchic spirit shone through somewhat in my request for coffee when everyone else was having tea. A little bit Boston Tea Party, a tad stick-figure cartoon, and honestly me.

The problem with my unintentional strategy was that British folks drink a lot of tea, and I was drinking coffee to match (in between sleep-inducing conversations about the weather, of course). And now I have something of a habit on my hands.

I now find myself drinking a cup of tepid coffee—my third of the morning, but surely not my last for the day—and thinking about addiction: the substances I’ve been addicted to; the ones I’m still addicted to; and a number of angering conversations with drug counselors who insisted that alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are the same thing.

Maybe it’s ridiculous to split hairs on this point, but I really don’t think so. Folks with a similar neurological makeup to my own (bipolar, BPD, anxiety disorder) are very likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol at some point in their lives. It’s a way of managing symptoms—a chaotic and ultimately unhelpful one, but a short-term solution to dealing with incredible psychic pain. And to consider us all addicts because of our tendency to abuse is grossly missing the point. For us, abusing alcohol is a symptom rather than the problem that requires treatment. That being said, I think quite a few of us go on to develop addictions.

I wish I could be addicted to healthy things like drinking green tea and doing yoga daily. But my addictions have always been at least mildly self-destructive. I am thinking about this because I want to quit vaping. I took up smoking again (my oldest “friend”) after my dad died, but switched to vaping because it seemed less harmful to myself and others and is certainly less antisocial.

The idea of being addicted to anything disturbs me. There’s vaping, but also coffee and my dragon game. So, I have a crutch (nicotine), an energy booster (caffeine), and a mode of withdrawal (dragons). All because I can’t do these things for myself? Or because I think I can’t?

I’m also aware that any mind-altering substance is considered harmful in Buddhism. So, there’s always that gnawing at the back of my mind. Dropping these addictions would be Right Action. Yes, it would.

I guess what I really want to say is that weeks ago, I selected a date that would be my last day to vape. That day is tomorrow. Tomorrow now looks to be one of the worst days to quit anything if I plan to be successful at it. I have meetings in the morning discussing a child’s learning difficulties, and appointments in the afternoon discussing the same child’s behavior, which has been making our home life beyond challenging. Basically, I know I’m going to need a crutch tomorrow.

So the question is, do I put it off a day and give myself the best chance of quitting? Or will putting it off only give me a pass to keep going until the “ideal” day comes around? And always, always, the real question behind everything is: how strong am I really? Can I manage to live comfortably without outside help for my emotional stability?

Honestly, I’m not sure I ever have.

black fish

A black koi fish in Asian paintings is meant to neutralize negative energy and bad luck, and is thus considered a symbol of protection. It’s as if the black fish absorbs all of the surrounding negative energy so that all others can fulfill their purpose.

I think people can be black fish too.

A couple of weeks ago, I received the following horoscope from the visionary Rob Brezsny:

I estimate that about 25 percent of your fear results from your hesitation to love as deeply and openly and bravely as you could. Another 13 percent originates in an inclination to mistake some of your teachers for adversaries, and 21 percent from your reluctance to negotiate with the misunderstood monsters in your closet. But I suspect that fully 37 percent of your fear comes from the free-floating angst that you telepathically absorb from the other 7.69 billion humans on our planet. So what about the remaining four percent? Is that based on real risks and worth paying attention to? Yes! And the coming weeks will be an excellent time to make progress in diminishing its hold on you.

The angst from others that I “telepathically absorb” constitutes 37 percent of the fear I experience, according to this highly attuned, ultra-sensitive reader of messages from the universe. Yes, Rob, that feels about right.

So, what does this actually mean for my life, past and present? I think it means that I have to find a way to process it all without allowing myself to be harmed by the negative energy I absorb. And that, undoubtedly, I have not been very skilled at this so far.

But I wonder if this also means that my presence can be of service to those around me, in the sense that my absorption of others’ angst results in a reduction of the angst they experience—just like the black koi. Like sucking out the poison. If so, you’re welcome.

On the other hand, I have to consider the possibility that my absorption of angst (or what others’ have referred to as my “sensitivity”) has no real impact on anyone else’s life. Although, it may make me a better artist.

Either way, I consider my black fish-ness a gift. Either way, I have to learn to process this negative energy without letting it harm myself or others. Interestingly, just being able to frame my experience in this way has already reduced the tension I feel around other people. Next task: to make progress in diminishing fear’s hold on me.

Thanks, Rob.

Hiatus

Summer is over, or, at least school is back in. I’ve been such a zen master these last two months that I have a mind to tell my doctor that I’m cured (as long as he’ll continue to prescribe lamotrigine). But seriously, like many folks with bipolar, summer has historically been a highly agitated time for me. And while my last post was in fact about my agitation, I feel as if it has generally been under control since then.

I mean, there have been the occasional surges of rage—just a few days ago I stopped myself from throwing eggs at my child. Clearly that wouldn’t have been the best strategy for teaching a child to listen to her mother and help out. But the point is, I realized that and breathed until my thoughts were back under control. And we had the eggs for breakfast this morning.

For a couple of weeks this summer we stayed with my parents-in-law, which was a fairly triggering affair. But at each tricky moment, again, I breathed through it, cultivated compassion for the offender, and didn’t have a single outburst. And, yes, that is a record.

So, what’s going on? Full disclosure (which deflates my zen master bubble somewhat), my lamotrigine dose is finally at a therapeutic level. But it makes me feel rather powerless to attribute my successes to chemistry alone. Surely meditation and mindfulness training along with a healthy dose of Buddhist principles are the primary source of my newfound self control? Maybe something just clicked, and all my preparations found a place in my behavior?

I suppose it’s most likely that it’s a little of both: my medication has taken the heat out, so I’m comfortable enough to let things go.  I’m free to be downright cheerful and much less a victim of my own fears. And I’m experiencing something of a personal creative renaissance with big (for me) plans to actively seek out a gallery for representation.

In short, I feel great—for the moment. And I’m trying not to think about the shaky ground I’m on, the fact that my moods can and do regularly pull the rug out from underneath me. For now, I truly do feel better than I have for decades.

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.