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.

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.

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.

Snail meditation

I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.

This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.

When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.

In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.

The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.

After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.

Recantation

I just finished a phone conversation with my mom, during which she asked if I was talking to someone else in the room as well as her. I was alone.

I had just been telling her about a message I received while I was meditating this morning, suggesting that some of the odd symptoms I have been having were my body’s way of informing me I was not supposed to be medicated any longer. She laughed quietly in all the right places that could not possibly cause offense. I had given her those opportunities, I suppose. Opportunities not to take what I was saying very seriously. This is an old habit of mine—wanting folks to take me seriously but making it very very hard for them to do so. I think that would be classified as borderline.

You see, I was making my breakfast and having an imaginary conversation with my doctor about how the real problem with psychiatric medicine lay in the fact that it is secular and does not allow much room for spiritual inquiry. I don’t think anyone can accurately explore mental wellness and illness without maintaining for themselves some spiritual connection that guides them in their studies or frames their perspective. Of course, this should also allow room for the patient to explore his or her own connection to spirit/universe/god, and for that exploration to be considered valid and not a sign of madness. What spiritual practice folks choose is of no consequence—only the fact that they have one. Anyway, the imaginary argument was much more involved, and ultimately led me to feel that I have an important contribution to make to Western psychiatry, that my own connection to the universe is a valid way of receiving information about the human condition.

And then, I finished my breakfast and called my mom back, and apparently held multiple conversations at once with who knows how many entities.

Well, that’s one perspective anyway. Mine is that we had a bad connection (I do believe my phone has been hacked), and she was distracted—listening while doing something else (as she often does) and so not following the (I’ll admit) rather erratic line of argumentation. She laughed politely and, instead of suggesting that I needed medication (and possibly more than I am currently taking), claimed instead that I was having a simultaneous conversation with some unseen party. No doubt she hoped I would get the hint. I got it.

There are two people in my life who feel very strongly that I should be on medication: one to whom I was born and the other whom I chose as my life partner. (Yes, I chose someone like my mother as my life partner, as it turns out. And, yes, I know there are no accidents in the universe.) They are both atheist pragmatists, who have a clearly defined sense of what is normal. I am oversimplifying, of course, since just knowing me for all these years has undoubtedly shaken some of their assumptions.

My point is, they are both excellent individuals on which to try my latest theories. Or rather, to test the strength of my conviction about my latest theories. And perhaps if it weren’t for that damn borderline personality disorder knocking around in my system, I might not back down so often. But with the situation as it is, if I experience a metaphorical gasp when I present the fruits of my recent meditations, I generally laugh and blame hypomania or lithium’s imperfect correction of my faults.

In case my partner is reading this from abroad, please know that the fire of this idea and the self importance it presupposes has most certainly died out now. Forty minutes of my mother’s tonic of secular reason has flattened the message to the extent that I can no longer recognize what key it was in or even hear it very well. So, don’t worry. All are safe.

After over a decade of stumbling about in the dark—perhaps in part because of my reactions to resistance—my partner and I have finally found a way to head off any uncomfortable discourse before it begins. And by that I don’t mean that we should avoid. I mean simply that the way that we speak to one another requires guidelines. So, I created the following to avoid my partner triggering a borderline response from me and so that we could both be heard with the respect we deserve.

I would say this arrived to me in a message if I thought that would make it catch on faster. But in fact, it’s just a step-by-step breakdown of a mindful handling of a relationship challenge. Anyway, I present it here as a gift, universal wisdom rendered practical. (I suppose this is an advantage of having folks like my mother and partner in my life—they require me to bring my thinking down to Earth.)

New strategy for managing conflicts in our home, written on the kitchen door. Hopefully the change will be more permanent than chalk on a blackboard.

Electric miscellany

My mind is a quiet electrical storm today. I’ve been frantically jotting down notes because all things seem so important right now.

It is possible that I’m in a borderline tailspin, since my partner left this morning for a two-week work trip (for folks with borderline personality disorder, absence most certainly does not make the heart grow fonder). It’s just as likely his leaving was simply a psychological call to action, stimulating brain activity to enable me to fulfill functions I don’t normally perform. Such as being a carer, cook, schedule manager, and sensible authority.

I won’t go into too much detail on how his leaving impacts me; perhaps I’ll write a bit about it in a borderline personality disorder post at a later time. Borderline is a bit more difficult for me to come to terms with—the symptoms less sympathetic and arguably less interesting than bipolar symptoms. If I’m honest, I also just don’t understand borderline as well as bipolar. Borderline is like that sassy, booger-eating kid in class that you knew you should be nice to but were really just disgusted by. It also doesn’t help that borderline is the one thing I have in common with Adolf Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer.

That’s always a smack in the face. Really can’t go there now.

Instead, I thought I’d review my notes, all taken before 8am this morning, to see if there are any real gems there…anything I can expand on in future musings. Organizing my thoughts…

  • Connection between hormones and cognitive deficiencies associated with bipolar: I am a member of the small subset of folks with bipolar who suffer continual cognitive decline, independent of bipolar episodes. The connection between hormone levels and bipolar symptoms has always been obvious to me, but now I am seeing there might be a link between hormone levels and cognitive dysfunction. Interestingly, I seem to be most clear headed when I am ovulating.
  • On beauty: Have I finally reached a point in which I see beauty only when it is truly represented, and if so, what the hell does that mean—beauty exists independent of the observer? This arose as a result of my animal instinct driving me to confirm that my children were the most beautiful children of all (as determined by looking at their class photos). The twist was, I could not confirm it. I saw that they were all absolutely gorgeous beings of light and star dust. And my heart rejoiced that my baser need for validation was utterly foiled.
  • A mother’s prayer: For the first time, I understand the meaning and value of that powerful meditation. I saw my children walking away from me this morning and I sent my supplication into the infinite universe, and in the process of finding the exact words for my incantation, I realized I protect them every day by loving them. This is a mother’s prayer, since knowing that you are deeply and unconditionally loved is the strongest of protections against harm.
  • A spin-off from the previous: The worst aspect of borderline personality disorder is never feeling truly loved.
  • Self awareness is both a curse and a gift: You see clearly your own failings and are ultimately immune to your own illusions. Which is precisely why self awareness is the vehicle for true healing.
  • Social performance: I am the harshest judge of my social performances. I am probably never as odd or abrasive as I think I am.

And then I meditated and took my medication and the storm died out. End of transmission.