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.

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.

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.

Routine

I am just emerging from a haze induced by three weeks of disrupted routine and augmented by oblivion-seeking behaviors involving a dragon video game. I am rediscovering the value of routine in helping me to manage myself emotionally and practically.

My partner replaced our  fence on his three-week holiday from work. Which means that there were at least three days when our private lives were completely exposed. I had not realized what an intensely private person I am, how much I perceive exposure as a danger. I banned the use of all overhead lights at night. I found myself retreating to my cave of bedcovers day and night. (It occurred to me at the time that the bear is my spirit animal.) I became super sensitive to everything; anxious in all situations outside of my curtained room. And I lost the fight against my oblivion-seeking self.

It didn’t help that there was disruptive news from extended family. Deeply troubling, and particularly upsetting to me with no routine to anchor me to this life. I floated away.

No yoga, meditation, writing, or painting. My third eye closed. I kept up only with my plants, perhaps more as a way to feel I had accomplished something at the end of each day. Or maybe just because I felt most comfortable with plants. Anything or anyone requiring more than a gentle chat and a watering felt like an awful lot of stress.

My cognitive functioning is a wreck. I am misplacing words and names in almost every sentence. I am hearing music again in white noise—samba from the vacuum cleaner; a violin ensemble from the spring winds. I am smelling stale piss, burnt garlic, and dog shit, and removing things from the house which seem, at the time, to be the source of the odors. Of course, the odors are merely hallucinations. I refuse to take anti-psychotics ever again, but that means that reality can get pretty squishy in high-stress situations. Without a routine.

And maybe that’s where our tendency to seek out oblivion comes from: maybe folks with bipolar are trying to slow things down, quiet our minds, grow some skin—in short, manage our stress before the rush of mania or psychosis sweeps us off our feet. It seems counter-intuitive that we should choose activities that ultimately make us lose control (drugs, alcohol, dragon video games) in an attempt to take control of ourselves. But maybe it’s not really about control, but about having a buffer between the world and us. Because, at such times, we are skinless–we feel everything with excrutiating intensity. And we just need it to stop. Bear in a trap. No time for thinking things through.

At least with oblivion-seeking behaviors we have chosen our outcome. And we no longer notice so acutely all the noise in our heads. Yes, self-medicating mental anguish, and all that. Not condoning, just explaining.

Anyway. The importance of routine. Bipolar tendencies for oblivion-seeking behaviors. Disruption and skinlessness. Stress. It’s all connected.