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.

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.

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.

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.

Being

Years ago, before I was a mother, back when depression offered no possibility of joy within the darkness, an acupuncturist from China suggested that I simply fix my mind on positivity when I woke up in the morning. He was treating me for depression. At the time, I thought he was crazy, or that maybe people in China don’t get depressed.

Fix my mind?

But somewhere along the way, perhaps during the period of awakening following my breakdown, I began to understand his meaning. Because nothing is as it seems, everything can be something else. That is to say, my daughter’s rejection of me yesterday was in fact a natural step along her path. It was not a rejection at all for her, but an acceptance of the magnetic pull of the external world. My job was and is to let go.

Fix my mind.

I chose—yes, chose—not to descend. I did make it back to the school to have lunch with my younger child. I deleted my dragon game (all games, for that matter) from my phone. I made it out this morning to collect my meds. I planted out some sad plants that had been crying to extend their roots. I rubbed sandalwood oil on my third eye point. I meditated. I laughed to myself that my doctor—so square he’s a cube—prescribed daily yoga and meditation for me, out of respect for the things that he knows keep me balanced. I opened my heart.

I am fixing my mind on positivity. I am focusing on one task at a time. I will make my children dinner this evening—a dinner that doesn’t involve the microwave or leaving a tip. I am choosing to smack that black dog on its ass, and laugh as it runs, whimpering, back to the shadows.

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. But if that Chinese doctor is to be believed, if Buddha was really on to something, perhaps it is a simple matter of fixing my mind and seeing things as they really are. Ending suffering by not suffering.