The Bipolar Diet

What is dieting success, and who defines the difference between success and failure?

Of all the posts I’ve made on this site, the one garnering the most likes has been my recent post “Soup du Jour” in which I talk about the inconsistency of my eating patterns. Did it strike a chord for people, or was it just that it wandered into a highly populated tag? I suspect the latter.

Whatever the case, eating and weight is always an issue worth discussing for me. People with mental health issues have trouble feeding themselves healthfully and consistently even if they didn’t start off with an eating disorder like I did. I’ve spent decades of my life traveling up and down the scales, eating every diet imaginable. At five feet seven inches, my lowest adult weight (for about ten minutes) was 145. My highest adult weight was 315 pounds. Today, and for about six years now, I maintain a weight in the range of 215 to 235 pounds.

Am I a success for learning to maintain a weight at least 80 pounds lower than my highest? Or am I a failure for being unable to sustainably go even lower? Depends who you ask. Certainly doctors, insurance companies, and clothing designers will never be pleased with me. But if you’ve never been as overweight as I have been, you don’t know what a difference that 80 to 100 pounds makes to my health and mobility. It’s night and day.

If anyone had told 17-year-old, 125-pound me, throwing up her Herbalife supplement after packing her 500-calorie lunch, that she’d one day be grateful to weigh 220 pounds, her head would probably have exploded. It would have exploded again if someone had told her that this future 220-pound woman would experience a level of self-acceptance unimaginable to the desperately thin girl.

Waiting for the Other Shoe

Uh-oh…I feel good today. The side effects of my meds change have died down, and the new med is looking promising. I’m a bit less hypomanic, I’m sleeping a teeny bit better, and my morale is up. Thinking about my writing projects and publishing issues, while still chaotic, doesn’t feel quite as overwhelming.

So, I’m waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for a relative’s health to take an abrupt turn for the worse, or for the dog to start throwing up, or for the nearby oil refinery to have a toxic leak. Because people with brains and/or backgrounds like mine are wired to expect disaster.

That’s one reason I carry a deep conviction that feeling happy is always the precursor to trouble. The other reason has to do with the deep shame I still battle–not the shame over things I’ve done, but the unexplainable shame I seem to have been born with. It tells me that there will always be a price for any happiness I experience; that in taking anything for myself I am stealing it from the world.

All this makes it harder to appreciate days like this, but I try. It’s a gorgeous fall day here in Northern California. We won’t be on fire again for several months, and the air is crisp and fresh. I got five glorious hours of sleep last night. My favorite jeans are clean. So is my hair. And there’s nothing I have to do for the rest of the day. Life is good.

Mystery Potion

I never, never want to change my psych meds. The overwhelming urge is to leave them alone, because I’ve found a regimen that has a minimum of side effects. Problem is…they’re not doing the job right now. I’ve had a consistent pattern of frequent hypomania for months, and the symptoms are starting to impact my life more. My rapid and disjointed speech is sometimes noticeable to others. Sleep is worse than my already-bad levels. I am hypercreative, but unable to settle to one project or get anything on paper. The urge to self-medicate with overeating is strong, and I’m not always able to resist it. So, it’s time for me to open my mind to a change. The last change I did was just a slight increase in the med I was already taking, but this one is adding something new.

Imagine you’ve been handed a magic potion in an opaque flask. You know you need to drink it, but you have no idea what it’s going to do to you…caught between the misery of the moment and your fear of the unknown, you raise it to your lips and swallow. And then you wait.

The next day, you feel sick. And the day after that. Or you’re semiconscious, or your mouth is so dry you can barely speak, or you can’t have sex anymore, or you’re heart-poundingly anxious, or you have sudden self-destructive thoughts, or you’re dizzy…but you continue to drink the potion, because you’ve been told all this is normal and will pass soon. But when will I feel better? you plead with the wizard. In six to eight weeks we’ll see, is the common reply.

Yes, though there are a few “big guns” of psych meds that have immediate effect, such as tranquilizers and antipsychotics, most others manifest side effects long before any therapeutic effect is felt. Which is why the popular misconception of popping an antidepressant to lift one’s mood is a pile of crap.

After an eternal couple of months, it’s time to assess whether the new med seems to be helping–and if not, it’s time to start over again with the next candidate, beginning the cycle of side effects all over again. Anyone who thinks psych meds are a crutch used by people who want to avoid the pain of life is invited to ride this merry-go-round a few times, until they understand it’s not the easy way out. It sucks, and we wouldn’t do it if we weren’t convinced it was our best bet for being more present and useful to the world and the people we love.

My Halloween Costume is a Human

How many times have I sat in a group of people and wondered how long it would be before it became clear that I didn’t belong there? Whether someone would call me out at group level, or take me aside politely and say, “No offense, but this space is for humans only?”

I saw my psychiatrist on Friday, and as often happens, the process of digging into my symptoms makes me more aware of them. I get used to the way things are for me, but when I’m sitting with the psychiatrist, when he nods sagely at a description and suggests increasing or adding a med, well…I get reminded how far from normal-normal my normal is.

I know normality isn’t a real thing, nor should it be a goal. But when I feel so far from it that I see myself as an alien cosplaying as a human, that’s a problem. It’s a problem when the sounds around me fade out and an invisible spotlight appears above my head, marking me as the intruder.

As a result of Friday’s meeting, I am facing another meds change. This means, at a minimum, days of disorientation. Other side effects could happen, maybe for weeks. Historically, I tend to have a pattern of “it gets worse before it gets better.” So…I might be feeling even more like the alien in the human suit soon.

Trick or treat.

Gratitude. Ugh.

Sometimes I worry that a person in pain will take gratitude-related advice as “suck it up, whiner!” I feel that inappropriately-timed reminders of gratitude’s importance can be condescending, minimize the importance of someone’s pain, and make them feel it’s not safe to express said pain.

That being said…yeah, cultivating gratitude is vital. Ugh. It’s as necessary as air for me, because self-pity was the biggest saboteur of my early attempts at drug abuse recovery and at managing my mental health. I felt sorry for myself when it become clear that recovery wasn’t going to make my brain normal, or let me sleep, or get me to a level of functioning suitable for the kind of work I wanted to do.

Today, it’s helpful for me to at least attempt a gratitude-centered perspective when things are tough. And my past gives me lots of useful fuel. Annoyed that my back hurts after doing dishes? Remember the many times dishes weren’t even an option. Feeling frustrated that I can’t be of more help in my daughter’s health struggles? Remember how close I came to not being there for her at all. Tired or scattered about my writing projects? Remember I could have died without writing anything.

My place is a mess? Got a place to live. Hate cooking? Got food to cook. Getting old? Beats the alternative. I can go on and on–if I’m willing to go there. But does it really do anything? It doesn’t fix everything, that’s for sure. And it won’t help if I try to force it because of a sense of duty or shame…”why am I sad? I should be grateful…”

But if I can let gratitude in, let it coexist with my other perfectly valid emotions, it will help balance my tendency to dwell on the negative. And I can use the help.

Off Switch

How do I get my brain to STOP? When I know it’s tired enough not to be productive, or I know I’m not well enough to be productive anyway, what button do I push that will convince it that it’s OK to relax and not learn or create anything right now?

Well, what button BESIDES drugs, compulsive eating, and other destructive things? For over a decade, I used ever-increasing numbers of sleeping pills because my brain wouldn’t yield to anything less than a chemical hammer. Opioids during the day also soothed my hyperactive brain. A box of donuts is usually good for shutting it up, but eating large amounts of junk comes with a high physical and mental cost.

I know, I know…I should exercise and meditate. Well, my Tai Chi classes finally reopened, so that’s a step in the right direction. But except when I am actually doing it, it doesn’t seem to change much.

Right now, for example, I just stopped in the middle of typing this to grab a piece of paper and write down an idea about how to fix a problem with the video editing I’m trying to learn. I had to remind myself that I’m in the middle of something.

What I really want to do is unplug for the day. It’s Friday afternoon, there’s nowhere I need to go, and I only slept 2 hours last night. I want to zone out and play Minecraft, or put an old, comforting movie on. And my head hurts from the video editing stuff. And I don’t want to think about the different projects I am working on, or how messy the house is, or my latest NEW writing idea. I don’t want to think at all. But the mild hypomania that has been in play more often than usual for the last few months means I spin, and spin, and spin.

La La La La I’m Not Listening…

“Don’t believe everything you think,” goes the saying. There’s a constant negative monologue in my head, competing with and trying to drown out anything positive I generate, and when I’m in a depressive dip it gets fucking LOUD. I want to stick my fingers in my ears and hope it gets tired and shuts up. But that doesn’t work. Trying to artificially pump up positive thoughts doesn’t work either. Trying to debate or fight the dark feelings just fuels them because now they’re getting more attention. I have to coexist with the voices, not fight them, not try too hard to distract myself from them…but, somehow, not believe them.

When I was studying counseling, one of my favorite professors told a story about a schizophrenic client who believed he lived on the moon. The professor, then a young therapist, tried the techniques he had been taught to challenge and question the client’s delusion. But all this did was reinforce the client’s resistance. One day, tired and discouraged, the therapist went a different direction. He decided, just for the day, that he would not try to convince the client of anything. Instead, he asked, “What’s it like to live on the moon?”

And for many sessions to come, he listened to the client’s stories about living on the moon. As the client came to trust him more, the therapist was able to tie some of the stories to what was happening in the real world and engage on that level some of the time. But he had let go of the idea that it was his job to convince the man to give up his reality for a more approved one.

I have to be like that therapist. I have to sit in a room with the dark version of reality my mind generates and allow it to be itself…but maintain a certain detachment from it. It isn’t me. There’s an entire universe outside of that metaphorical room, full of light and dark, too complex for words.

Diagnose Me

There’s someone in my life who is starting to dig deeper into their neurodivergence. Whatever diagnosis might fit–adult ADHD, bipolar II, something else–they want it. They want it so they can try associated treatments that haven’t been available to them before. They want new items to add to the list of things that might help them, a list that is all they have to cling to on some hard days. They want to get at what might be standing in the way of doing what they need to do to improve their other conditions.

When I was taking psychopharmacology in grad school, many of my fellow students had a lot of negative feelings about diagnosis in mental health. They didn’t like the idea of putting people into boxes. They felt certain diagnoses were given too freely and caused more harm than good. And both of these things are valid concerns.

But here’s my own experience–the right diagnosis was life-changing for me. Until I was diagnosed with bipolar II, I spent more than a decade being treated with medicines that were ineffective at best and dangerous at worst (for example, many antidepressants have unfortunate effects on a bipolar person). After being diagnosed, I started to be treated with medicines that, while they didn’t fix everything, were far more on target. Having the diagnosis also gave me a language for the things I had been experiencing and made them a little less scary. It validated what I’d been going through and gave more opportunities to seek new methods of treatment. It empowered me.

I hope this new seeker finds a way to get the screenings and evaluation they need (no easy task, these days, if you aren’t rich). I celebrate the insight they’ve reached about themselves and their desire to address it. And I pray that diagnosis will be a useful tool for them; one that opens doors.

Brick and Acid

There’s a huge brick sitting on my chest. My stomach feels as if it’s trying to eat itself. I jump at the slightest sound. The cause: my dog has been sick. Nothing too catastrophic, it seems, since she is better than yesterday. We just came back from the vet where they drew some blood for tests.

Anyone would be anxious when their beloved pet is ill–but my spouse, unlike me, has been sleeping at night. He seems to be able to draw a deep breath. I’m obsessively listening for every tiny sound the dog makes, at every hour of the day and most hours of the night. I did catch two hours of sleep last night, and I am grateful for that much.

My limbic system, the part of the nervous system responsible for sensing and reacting to threats, is hypersensitive. It always has been, and it got worse when the bipolar disorder came along. Abusing drugs that relaxed me, and thus neglecting to exercise the parts of my psyche that manage anxiety, probably didn’t help either.

The crisis is over for the time being. She’s feeling better and eating again. But tell my limbic system that…I know that tonight, and probably several nights after that, will have me straining my ears for the tiniest clue, the tiniest sound that might mean she’s throwing up or having trouble breathing or being abducted by aliens. And my sleep debt, already large this last week, will grow and grow.

I hear my poet and writer friends talk about serious stresses going on in their lives, and I wonder how they manage to write through it…how do they focus on anything else when the brick is pressing so hard and the acid is so sharp?

MacBeth Shall Sleep No More

Shakespeare characters suck at sleeping, just like me. Hamlet wanders around the castle and sees ghosts. Henry V soliloquizes about how lucky peasants are to labor all day because they can sleep soundly at night. MacBeth, when talking about his murder-induced guilt, focuses on the fact that he’ll never again know peaceful sleep.

They all know the loneliness of being awake while the world sleeps around you. The worry of knowing you’ll be too tired to function in the morning and knowing you must. The pain and fatigue and vague nausea all the next day. Trying not to wake up those nearby while wishing they would wake up and keep you company; telling them to go back to sleep and resenting that they can.

For thirteen years now, I’ve had a pretty intractable case of insomnia. During my years of drug abuse, I used ever-increasing amounts of sedatives and hypnotics to cudgel my brain into sleep, only to have them stop working as I developed tolerance. The longest I’ve ever gone without any sleep at all is six days, a bipolar episode that ended in the hospital. Normally, I would drop off sometime between 3 a.m. and dawn, often to the soothing first chirping of the birds, only to be awakened by my alarm one to three hours later. It made my other issues worse; not surprising, considering the effects of sleep deprivation on everything from mood to pain threshold to executive function.

It was awful, all right…but what a bonanza of self-pity for an addict! I always had a plausible excuse for retreating to my room and skipping something I didn’t want to do. “Sorry, the sleep deprivation’s crossed a line and my survival requires a nap.” It was useful to the side of me that wanted no part of responsibilities that would get in the way of taking painkillers.

Fast forward to recovery, and needing to abstain from all the meds I used to abuse: I had to work at changing my attitude about sleep; I had to become willing to stay clean even if it meant I’d never sleep through the night again. I had to accept that I’m not in charge of how much sleep I get, and that I’ll get just enough when I need it badly enough. It meant practicing acceptance when lack of sleep interferes with my energy or mood. It meant letting go of any question of fairness about it all.

Of course, I fail at these enlightened principles. Often. I want to snarl at people who give advice on how to sleep…yeah, thanks, I haven’t tried your sleep hygiene tip any time during the last decade and a half of suffering. I have to guard my mind against the human, understandable, but very dangerous thought: “I really need one night of sleep. Just one night. I’d feel so much better. I haven’t taken sleeping pills in years now, so one would probably work really well. No one would have to know…”

But I don’t need “one night of sleep.” Not at the price I’d end up paying.

Turn the Faucet Back On

I can’t get out of “edit” mode. I’ve been in “edit” mode for so long (to me, this mode includes things like proposal writing, research into agents and publishing options, etc.) that I’m having a hard time switching back to “flow” mode and actually creating something. Right now, I have some waiting to do in terms of getting my memoir queries ready to submit, so it makes sense for me to be working on other projects in the meantime. Especially Poppytown, which is slated to be the next thing completed. There are poems still to write for that…and I can’t seem to turn on poetry-writing mode!

Yesterday, I did some useful organization…created a binder with everything I have, then inserted a blank page with title only, placed in its proper order, for every poem that is conceived but not yet finished. The idea is that when I’m ready to tackle a certain poem, that blank page will serve as initial brainstorming space. Having it in order will let me keep the book as a whole in mind. So that’s all good. But it won’t help unless I can take one of those pages and produce a poem.

I know anxiety/information overload is part of it…half an hour of research into the world of publishing can leave my overactive brain whirling and lead me to a night of nail-biting ruminations. Maybe it’ll be less overwhelming as I learn more, but right now every fact I learn sends me down a new rabbit hole of information, some of it contradictory.

If I’m going to be an author, I have to learn to switch between modes. I have to learn to compartmentalize. When writing and revising my memoir, I managed it by deciding I wasn’t going to think about what to do with it until it was done. But that won’t work any more. I’m sure I am not the only writer to struggle with this, although my weird brain chemistry may add a bit of exotic seasoning to the brain stew. It’s just another new thing to learn, at a time when I’m already learning a ton of new things but can’t afford to let any of them compromise managing my conditions.

Lighthouse

There are many reasons I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder and other neurodivergence. There are many reasons I wish I weren’t an addict. But none of them compare to the gut-wrenching regret about how these conditions affect my legacy to my daughter.

No matter how hard I tried to minimize the effects back when I was using painkillers, no matter how hard I tried to keep my mental issues from overcoming the good things in our relationship, it all had to have an impact. Today, there have been many improvements and I’m able to do a lot that I couldn’t do before. But some things don’t change. This young woman still got issued a breathtakingly imperfect mother. She sees me struggle with large problems and trivial ones. She sees me be inconsistent with self-care and the tasks of daily life.

But there are good messages I pass along to her as well. She sees me fail–but she always sees me try again. She sees me struggle with the impulses of my addictions–but she always sees me rededicate myself to recovery. She sees me be down-hearted–but she always, in an hour or day or week, witnesses me hauling myself up with the power of imagination and metaphor. She sees me be self-critical–but she always sees me come back to a place of love and self-acceptance.

I’m teaching her that we fail, and the world doesn’t come to an end. I’m teaching her that there’s a way back from the dark places. I’m modeling humility, and perseverance, and hope. I know this–but like any parent, I want to be better. As a mother, as an addict in recovery, as a person with mental health issues, I want to be a message of hope strong enough to accompany her through everything. I want her to see me fucking win.

I want to be an ever-present, brilliant beacon. But I’m not. I am a lighthouse–shining, going dark, then shining again.

Once More, With Feeling

This is what happens when you awaken the creativity of a middle-aged person with a mild form of bipolar disorder and decades of expression squished down inside them.

I’ve been neglecting this blog because there’s so much going on that I thought I would need to start a new one about my memoir project. Then I thought I’d need two new ones, because of my other book project. Then the experience of having finished a book fired me up with the knowledge that if I wrote one book, I could write others…and I thought I’d need a blog for those.

Argh! Enough! I’ve made peace with the fact that, like me, any blog I do is going to be multifaceted. So this’ll be the hub for it all…you’ll hear about different book projects. You’ll hear about living a creative life with bipolar disorder. You’ll hear about my successes and failures in self-care, my ongoing journey in recovery from opioid addiction, and whatever is helping me get by on a particular day.

Sometimes I’ll post old essays that never made it onto here. Sometimes I’ll write new ones. But mostly, I’ll try to write with honesty about my breathtakingly imperfect day-to-day life. The life of someone who used to live on the edge of suicide, but now lives on the messy, jagged edge of possibility.

I is for Inconsistency

Case in point: how many days/letters I just skipped. This is a fact of life. Anything I start has a good chance of not getting completed the way I or others envision it. I have to either abandon a project or be willing to come back to it humbly, again and again if necessary, owning my past neglect and trying not to make excuses for it.

We all have to do it. We tackle our horrific bathroom, chiding ourselves for letting it get this bad. We try to save a dying plant, knowing it wouldn’t be dying if we’d been more diligent about its care in the past. We start exercising again, bemoaning the body that would be so much stronger if we hadn’t stopped.

Yes, we all do it. But when I’m coming out of a depressive dip–or a series of them with some good old procrastination in between–it’s a big barrier to get over. It’s bad enough when it’s a chore, or paperwork, or my health, but it’s worse when it’s relationships I neglected.

This is a topic I’ve written about before and will probably write about for the rest of my life: finding the balance between appropriate remorse and destructive shame. Not being someone who saunters around saying, “Well, this is just how I am!” but also not hiding away from the world and refusing to give what I can.

E Is For Elephant in the Room

You know the one. Someone brings up the topic of addiction, or mental illness, or meds…and suddenly the elephant is there, pointing its trunk right at you, and there’s an awkward pause in the conversation. Or maybe you’re watching a movie with friends, and the plot introduces something to do with the condition(s) you have, and you feel tension in the room as others wonder how you’re reacting and you wonder whether the fictional character is changing the way they see you. Or you’re at a support group meeting and someone’s sharing about the horrible things Person with Condition X has done to them and people who know you flick their eyes towards you and away and you’re there thinking, “Well, Person with X sounds to me like a total asshole who just happens to have Condition X.”

I’m only one of many who experience this kind of thing. An even more pervasive version is experienced by a Black woman I know who finds it incredibly frustrating to be the only person of color at a gathering because people see her as a “representative” and expect her to react to and weigh in on any remotely race-related topic. She can’t just be in the group as herself.

Sometimes the elephant is present when people know just a little about me and what I have. They’re curious to know more, but they’re uncomfortable about asking. Every decision point makes them unsure whether they will offend. Meanwhile, every misconception they’ve absorbed in their earlier life is coloring how they see me and their judgment of whether I’m a safe person to invite closer.

So when my book is polished a bit more, can I just carry it around and force every new acquaintance to read it? Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way.

D Is For Despair

Sometimes despair looks like roses.

It did for me, one day in 2011, when I looked at the roses in my yard for what I thought would be the last time as I prepared to leave and carry out my plan for suicide. (Spoiler alert, I didn’t go through with it.)

Despair looks different on everyone. It can look like slumping on a couch, surrounded by paraphernalia of one’s substances of choice, staring into the distance. It can look like careening through one destructive relationship or hookup after another. It can look like sitting at a computer all night, whether working or gaming, not wanting to see the external world or another person’s face. It can look like a perfectly normal life and come through in nothing but occasional body language cues and microexpressions.

One person’s hallmarks of despair might not indicate despair on another person. They might just be in a fallow period, or a mentally hyperactive period, or be acting out a bit following a breakup.

How is despair different from depression, or grief? I think it’s different because it’s more than a set of phenomena like symptoms, emotions, or behaviors. Despair is any or all of those things grown into a worldview; a set of beliefs. Beliefs about what life is, what possibilities do and don’t exist, and the worth of one’s own self and experiences.

If emotions are weather, despair is geographical change. Sometimes it sets in abruptly, like an earthquake, but more often its effects are slow and insidious. And sometimes it lifts or alters abruptly, with a change in circumstances, but it can also recede as subtly as it came.

That’s what it was like for me. The return of hope was so quiet, so gradual, that it was a shock when I realized it was there.

B Is For Brain

Does changing my brain mean changing who I am?

I believe in some type of consciousness that surpasses matter. But in everyday life my emotions, thinking ability, and creativity are profoundly influenced by the physical qualities of the lump of soggy goo that lives inside my skull. It requires fuel. It responds to its chemical environment. When I get sick, it loses function. When I took drugs, it responded to that. And when that lump of soggy goo developed bipolar disorder, it changed my life on so many levels I can’t imagine a hypothetical self without it now.

There’s a novel in which the protagonist, an old man, gets his brain transplanted into the body of a young, beautiful woman. He had his original brain and all its memories, but that brain was now bathed in a different chemical soup. The author chose to have the character, a heterosexual man in his old body, become bisexual with a strong preference towards men. The explanation given was twofold: a bond with the previous owner of the body, and the influence of female hormones.

Do I think that explanation is realistic? No, and I think some of the author’s attitudes about gender are quite dated, but it is food for thought. How much of our sexuality, for example, lies in the body, how much in the brain, and how much in a mysterious entity that is neither? Extrapolating, how much of my very identity lies in each?

I don’t mean to define myself by a diagnosis in a self-defeating manner, nor do I mean to discount the role of attitude and insight in my quality of life. I’m simply saying that understanding that I’m coping with a certain kind of brain can help me structure and create a life that suits it as well as possible. I know there’s a huge amount I can do to influence it–but I’m still starting with my individual lump of soggy goo.

A Is For Acceptance

I used to think acceptance was the coward’s way out. It would be wrong for me to accept my conditions or their limitations, because that would mean I was giving up instead of fighting, fighting all the time, fighting to create a “normal” life like all the inspirational stories out there tell us a disabled person is supposed to do.

The culture I live in glorifies fighting. When a person develops cancer, their process is framed as a battle. Their perceived job is to fight–and if the cancer proves to be terminal, the battle is lost. Death is framed as a failure. For millions like me, life with compromises is seen as a failure. Accepting that I cannot work full-time, or spend too long in certain environments, means stepping away from the meritocracy and accepting a role of someone who’s not in the race.

Settling into a regimen of care that doesn’t fix everything but has been sustainable for years is seen as a failure. I’m supposed to be trying things, constantly seeking alternative treatments, and spending my life in an endless search for a cure instead of living it.

Of course, there’s a balance needed between accepting and fighting. There are many battles to fight every day. If a heavy depression has kept me from washing my hair for days, accepting my greasy locks and itchy scalp isn’t the best choice. Better to fight the inertia, if I can, and drag myself to the shower. Ditto for hundreds of other arenas where I take on my demons to win the prize of some meaningful action.

But accepting myself, in general–accepting that I have the life I do–is key, no matter what it costs.

No Help To Be Had

This morning I made calls to ten more therapists whose names were given to me by the network my health care plan referred me to because they have no more capacity. I have now contacted about fifty therapists and found no openings in a process that has lasted six months. Even before that, my visits had been dropped to one every six weeks.

The pandemic has ripped the band-aid from several wounds in our society, and I hope this is one of them. There is something fundamentally wrong about mental health care for the non-wealthy; it has been wrong for a while, but this is a tipping point. The ERs are going to be flooded more than they already are–mental health ER visits have increased markedly in many areas.

California’s process for licensure as an MFT or social worker is one of the longest and hardest in the nation, and structured in a way that makes it nearly impossible to achieve working part time because if you don’t finish in six years they make you start over. Counselor trainees, and anyone not working in out-of-pocket private practice, are overworked to the point of breakdowns. Usually, their one goal is to get into private practice and escape their hell.

What is the answer? Peer counseling? A lower-level licensure to work with clients who mostly need coaching and someone to listen? What the hell do we do about this? I want to help, but licensure has been off the table for a while because I can only work part-time. I know I could do useful counseling, if there was a framework to do so. But there isn’t.

The Conversation’s Getting Harder

Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve felt an unusual amount of pressure to keep it together. Not surprising…health care workers of all kinds are overloaded, so it makes sense that as a concerned person I’d want to avoid making them work harder.

Non-emergency mental health appointments are very difficult to get. My health care system dropped my video visits to once every six weeks, then none. I either cope on my own or, if I feel as if I’m going to harm myself, I am supposed to go to the packed, overwhelmed ER. There’s nothing in between.

I am all right, relatively speaking, so far. But I continue to be worried about others who need more care to manage their conditions—and when my symptoms rise, I’m afraid for myself too.

The conversation about needing help is harder to have these days, especially when extreme political turmoil is added to pandemic stress:

Person With Mental Health Issues: I’m not sleeping.

World: Duh. Nobody’s sleeping right now.

PWMHI: I’m…feeling really depressed.

World: Duh…

PWMHI: I’m anxious all the time. I can’t sit still. I really have the urge to use drugs.

World: Join the crowd.

PWMHI: …. (Struggles to find words to convey that their symptoms are more than just feelings, that they’re in danger from them. Gropes for words that might get them some understanding without making them look like a selfish person who just wants attention.)

World: Are we done here?

Splat

It happens so quickly. One moment, I’m me. I’m dealing with symptoms, but have a decent sense of self at the center of it all. Then a question comes up. Someone wants to know if I’m up to doing an optional, often recreational, thing. It might be as simple as watching a certain movie. But I freeze.

Am I up to it? Is my brain able to cope with whatever the thing is at the moment? I stare at my questioner like a deer in headlights as my brain whirls. What’s worse, to turn the person down or to try the thing and have it not work out? I think about all the reasons I should say yes; all the times I’ve had to say no in the past…and as I struggle to find words, I’m plastered against a wall of shame like a bug on a windshield.

Still staring at the person who waits for a reply, I’m consumed with hatred for the cycle of apologies that shapes my days. I despise that the necessity for some apologies remains, no matter how well I take care of myself or how much I grow in self-acceptance. I go through a miniature version of the anger and shame I felt when I was first diagnosed, or when I first realized my condition wasn’t going to let me do certain jobs.

At last I answer the question. But whatever my answer is, my mini-crisis churns inside me and tries to taint my experience.

Why Am I Surprised?

I know how this works. I’m hypomanic for a while. I get all sorts of great ideas for projects. I even work on some of them. My mind whirls with possibilities…then comes the crash.

Then come the nights of less and less sleep as the exciting part of hypomania turns into a complete inability to focus on one thought for amy length of time. Then the disorientation. Then the onset of a depressive phase.

I know how this works. So why is a tiny part of me still taken aback when it happens? Why am I surprised that now my mind is sluggish, or that I react to questions with a “deer in headlights” expression? Why am I surprised that the happy projects of a few days ago seem as far away as the moon and just as unattainable?

Why can’t I accept that I, in effect, have lost a good part of my intelligence for a few days? That I’m going to be physically clumsy and have to take care not to fall and hurt myself?

No matter how much acceptance I achieve, there’s a part of me that fights. I don’t want to be like this. I don’t want to slog through the days ahead and wait for the spark to return. I don’t want to be spending way too long writing this post because of the constant typos my fumbling fingers are making.

I don’t want it, but that’s the way it is.

Who Counsels the Counselors?

I’m not working in the counseling field right now. I may never be able to work in it again; I don’t know. But my experience from both sides of the relationship makes me acutely aware of both sides of the mental health crisis which is a secondary effect of the pandemic.

In the last six months, the therapist my health plan allows me to see (a sad once a month) has been replaced three times. There are no longer any therapists there qualified to run certain groups, the only type of help available more often. Counselors all over are quitting many jobs like rats leaving a ship because their client overload and working conditions become too much to handle.

The people who need ongoing therapy for their conditions need it more than ever. People who didn’t need help before now need some. And it’s getting worse as those who marshaled all their strength and white-knuckled it through the last six months feel their grip begin to slip.

Counselors have always faced a high risk of burnout. They must fight to protect their psyche against “vicarious trauma” that builds up when engaging with a client’s trauma. Well, I’ve heard it said that we are all experiencing low-level trauma right now. That means that the stress on the counselors now is not just a matter of time and energy. It’s a matter of extra injury to their minds and souls.

Passing for Normal

I felt normal today because I got to drink coffee from my favorite place, something I haven’t done since February. There were tables very far apart, so I sat drinking and feeling a breeze on the lower part of my face. Such a normal thing that I’ve missed a lot. It made me think of other times I’ve felt normal, or—more likely—just felt as if I looked normal.

I remember passing for thin. Around 2013, I was at the tail end of a very low-calorie diet that took my weight down close to “ideal.” I took a ballroom dance class but never lost the feeling of being an imposter. The body I had, even as it moved while held in someone’s arms, felt like an illusion tricking them.

I remember passing for normal as a mom, mostly when my daughter was little and I’d sit in the park exchanging innocuous facts with other mothers while laughing at toddler antics. Although I was far, far from okay on the inside, the outside looked wholesome.

I remember passing for a normal person at a ball game. The SF Giants were in the playoffs and I was in the stands with my spouse and daughter. I wore an old orange Giants T-shirt of his. I was in orange, just like everyone else. I felt happy to be part of the crowd.

And oh, God, I remember passing for normal at jobs, back when I could. Wearing an ID badge, nodding at meetings, writing up notes. Helping others. Looking competent and adult between my secret anxiety-attack bathroom breaks.

Holding On

So what’s the pandemic like through the eyes of a mental patient and recovering addict?

Well, there’s a lot of pressure to keep myself together, of course. Strong voices telling me this is NOT the time to have an episode or need a meds adjustment. And certainly not the time for a relapse on drugs.

It’s scary, because while not doing drugs is something I can control to a degree by practicing recovery techniques, the mental health thing is under less control. I can take my meds religiously. I can try to eat well and get a little exercise and do things that connect me to what I value. I can do all this, and it still might not be enough because neurochemical shit happens sometimes.

Meanwhile, all the “normal” people around me are experiencing levels of anxiety they aren’t used to. They need me to be functional so I don’t drain their energy away from managing their own stress.

“One day at a time,” is more real than it’s been for a while. I try to make plans…what part of mask sewing I’m going to work on today, what I’m going to eat for lunch, whether I’ll go for a walk. And while I do that I’m acutely aware of the degree of privilege I have compared to some of my fellow sufferers.

I have loved ones in my house. I have access to the medicines I need. For now, my family isn’t in danger of losing our home or not having enough food. I’m lucky.

Do you hear that, brain? We’re lucky. Now show your gratitude by refraining from any shenanigans until further notice.

Sidelines

Yesterday, I heard an opinion that those like me who live with mental illness won’t suffer as badly during the pandemic as those who are used to being happy and productive.

The logic goes like this: we’re used to feeling bad, we’re used to sitting on the sidelines and not being able to do much, so how is this different?

I didn’t know how to react when I heard this. I wanted to talk about what it’s like to be seen as a constant liability to the world. I wanted to point out that right now a lot of mentally ill people are trying extra hard not to be a burden on an overloaded system. When their symptoms torment them, the knowledge of the crisis feeds their shame and lowers their resistance to judgment and stigma.

There is no time to be mentally ill while the world burns, the thought repeats. So what if they’ve run out of their meds, or if the only thing keeping them going was that therapist they can’t go see now.

They will not ask for help. They will try to cope as best they can. Some will fail to make it through.

Meeting a Reader

I had another “first” last week; the first of many new experiences for someone who’s never written a book before.

I was at a sort of cheesy group mindfulness class. Most of us had been referred there because we suffered from depression, addiction or other conditions, and didn’t get to see a one-on-one therapist very often on our health plan.

So, one woman in the class talked about not thinking the techniques we’re learning would work for her. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

“Okay, so maybe this homework will help with my depressive thoughts and feelings. But what if I have depression and addiction? What if I have depression and addiction and trauma to deal with? I’m supposed to just let it all in? It’s too much. I could never address it all at once. But if I stop working on any of them they sneak in and sabotage me.”

Her voice was edged with both resentment and resignation. Resentment because she was already feeling dismissed and expecting to be patted on the head and told to go play like a good girl. Resignation because even as she spoke, she didn’t think speaking up was going to do any good.

I wanted to let her know she was not alone. I wanted her to know someone understood what it’s like to deal with multiple conditions. Understood the “it’s too much” feeling, understood what it was like to feel different no matter what therapy you’re trying. What it’s like to throw yourself into treating one thing and work your ass off only to be tripped up by one of the others, until you’re where she is: a place of “it’s too much.” And I wanted to tell her there is life and growth coexisting with that place.

I said some things. I named the different conditions I live with. But what I really wanted to say to her would have taken a long, long time.

What I really wanted was to give her my book. Have her take it home, curl up and read it cover to cover and know she wasn’t the only one to feel some of what she felt.

The contents of my book are what I wanted to say to her. And that makes me feel that, no matter how hard the writing and editing is, I am on the right track.

Safe

“Safe space” is a concept these days, and I’m for it. But is there really such a thing as a safe space for me?

I’ve been struggling lately with the fact (as I’ve mentioned) that I no longer feel safe talking about any kind of physical or mental health issue with some people. From now on, when certain people greet me and ask how I’m doing, I am in perfect health and having a good day. Like a gazelle in a herd, I must not show weakness or injury lest I be targeted by wolves.

“But wait,” I interrupt myself, “isn’t it important to be authentic about your issues? Might you be missing an opportunity to be helpful to someone?” Well, I don’t put up shields lightly. This is a case where I’ve shared my truth several times and had it discounted.

So that’s become a space that is safe for me to talk about writing, but not other things. There are spaces where I can talk about addiction, but too much talk of psych treatment might get me rejected. There are therapy spaces where I can talk about mental health, but have to hold back on talking about my writing lest I be accused of intellectualizing.

Sometimes being unsafe is the right thing to do, of course. Sharing honestly in a recovery meeting may help someone feel less alone, so it can be worth consequences to me. I have to weigh the risks and benefits and make a choice about how transparent to be.

The book in progress, of course, represents a choice to be extremely transparent. It’s possible to do because I can tell myself that no matter how many “unsafe” places it ends up, it has a good chance of also reaching places where it could help someone else feel a little safer. A little more seen.

When Truth Doesn’t Matter

“Wait a minute,” I can hear readers thinking. “This author’s all about self-disclosure and authenticity and all that jazz. Truth has to be important to them.”

You’re right. Truth, in general, is of paramount importance. But I’ve recently been given food for thought about one particular circumstance in which truth may be a bit irrelevant.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been very popular for a while, and is helpful for many people. A central principle of CBT is to question your negative thoughts and assumptions, learn to recognize illogical thinking, and use various techniques to decrease the number and severity of negative thoughts you have.

In other words: get into the habit of believing, and trying to prove, that your negative thoughts about yourself or your life are not true (or at least vastly exaggerated.)

Although I find many of the techniques useful, I have encountered two issues with this. First, since the goal is to change my thinking, I feel like I’ve failed when negative thoughts are still such a big part of my consciousness. Second, the content of some of my negative thoughts is true and trying to argue with it doesn’t help at all.

My planet really is in trouble. I really do regret not writing for decades. Relatives really are going to get harder to deal with as they age. I really did irreversibly fuck up my body in some ways. The odds of my book getting published really are low.

Anyway, I just finished a book called “The Happiness Trap” that was recommended to me. I tend to avoid self-help books, as a rule, but I decided to give it a try. It advocates that we don’t try to argue with our negative thoughts, or control how often we have them, but rather work on coexisting with them and using mindfulness techniques to be less affected by them.

It suggests that when I’m aware of a negative thought I’m having or story I’m telling myself, I don’t ask myself whether it’s true or not–only whether, at this moment, it is helpful.

Sick Squared

Being sick is depressing, sure. For me, though, being sick is clinically depressing.

Maybe those of us with mental health issues are more sensitive than usual to the tiniest changes in our brain chemistry. If we’re on meds, maybe illness changes the way our bodies metabolize them. Whatever the reason may be, even a minor illness seems to guarantee a sharp depressive dip for me.

It was just a bad cold, for heaven’s sake. Severe congestion, touch of fever, no huge deal, only lasted three days…but I’m clawing my way out of leftover mental fog, compulsively pessimistic thinking, and hair-trigger anxiety.

Yesterday was the first day I actually thought about my writing projects again, and it wasn’t pretty. Every gloomy, nihilistic, they’re-no-good-and-even-if-they-were-it-wouldn’t-matter thought I’ve had about them came cascading down at once.

I know what to do; what I’ve had to do thousands of times. Baby steps. Little things like this. Do not try to tackle everything that has piled up, or I’ll end up crawling back under the covers.

I want my brain back to its best functioning now–but what I’ve got is a blog post and a sink full of clean dishes. And that’s probably it for today.

Inspiration or Hypomania?

Both of them present the same way: I have an idea. An amazing idea. The best idea I’ve had in a long time. My head begins to whirl with plans for executing it, alternative plans, and alternatives to the alternatives. I sleep even less than usual because the ideas keep chasing themselves around in my head.

Eventually, one of two things happens: If it’s just inspiration, I question it obsessively, but (hopefully) eventually overcome procrastination and insecurity to take some step toward carrying it out. If it’s hypomania (a symptom of my condition, Bipolar II) I just whirl and whirl until I eventually burn out and crash. After I come back from whatever self-destructive crap I might have done while crashing, the idea seems ridiculous or lackluster.

But what if it’s not either-or? What if it’s a little of both?

The large-scale planning of my book continues. It’s reached the next level after a recent attempt at rounding out a chapter instead of focusing on shorter segments. For several days, I could tell my brain was in high gear, no matter what I was doing. I did mindless things quite often in an effort to slow down and relax, but while I was doing said mindless thing the thoughts were churning in endless circles.

Then a breakthrough seemed to happen: I had a vision for a new way of organizing the chapters that would be more blended and less choppy. It calls for changes about what goes where, using the 90,000 words I have so far as raw material but not necessarily in their current segments.

Evidence on the side of inspiration: I’m already making a lot of notes and at least trying to get the ideas down in some form, which counts as action.

Evidence on the side of hypomania: My brain fucking hurts and I really want to go eat donuts to club it into silence.

In Case of Emergency, Become Sane

My brain is weird.

This isn’t news, of course. But one particular weirdness is obvious this week: the way horrible, debilitating anxiety can click over into calm action during an emergency.

I can have gasping, chest-hurting anxiety over a phone call or a doorbell ringing. But a few days ago when our house was two blocks from the edge of a fire evacuation zone, I sat calmly writing a list of what to grab.

When my daughter had unexplained stomach pain the next day, I worried and obsessed constantly about what it was. But when it became clear we needed to go to the ER, I became completely focused. Driving with someone vomiting and moaning in pain in the passenger seat isn’t easy, but I did fine.

Turned out to be a kidney stone. A night later, she had to go back because she couldn’t keep down her meds. The night after that, she had a sudden, new symptom. Things had been calming down, and when this happened it hit me like a blow from a club. I lost my breath, my chest hurt…what is this? Will it go away? Should I call someone? Should I take her to the ER again? But after it was clear we needed to go, the magic switch flipped.

My husband asked if I was OK to drive. I told him yes. He knew it was true. He could see it clearly–the wife who had been pacing and gasping only a minute ago now met his eyes with solid certainty. And even when the scary symptoms got worse on the way to the hospital, I kept my eyes on the road and got us there. (She’s going to be fine, thank goodness; it was an uncommon meds side effect and they were able to treat it.)

So what’s the story? I know I’m not the only one; I’ve heard others talk about it too. Some highly anxious people actually thrive in crisis-oriented jobs like ER work. I think it has something to do with defined tasks that leave no space for indecision. Whatever choices have to be made must happen fast and be followed by action. The urgency blots out the endless future tripping and second guessing.

Someone I know thinks it’s a type of dissociation, and those of us with certain kinds of brains or trauma are just better at it. That makes sense to me.

Whatever causes it, I’m grateful I can be less of a liability in an immediate crisis. But how I wish I could flip that mysterious switch on command!

My Mind’s Pants Are On Fire

Once again my mind is lying to me. It often does. Logical arguments don’t help much, because these kinds of lies are built around a core of reality.

Here’s how it goes: My brain becomes especially anxious. Physically, biochemically, something is going on. No idea why. But my psyche won’t tolerate free-form anxiety. It insists on finding a focus for it.

What to choose? I have many sources of stress in my life. The anxiety zeroes in on one of them and hangs itself on it like a coat on a hook. I begin to worry obsessively about the thing.

Nothing has changed recently with the thing. There’s no new data. But suddenly I’m incredibly worried and can’t stop thinking about it. My mind is lying to me about how serious the thing is, because a day or two ago I was coping with that exact set of circumstances and was much less anxious.

It’s also lying because it’s not necessarily choosing the most urgent of my worries. It just reaches into the grab bag for one. It could have done the same amplification for any of the others.

Even though I know this, it’s hard to argue with it when the core worry is a real one. I can’t tell my brain there’s no reason to worry about it, because my brain will know I’m lying. All I can do is try to stay aware that I’m experiencing an exaggerated version of the truth.

The Devil’s Playground

There’s an old saying that “an idle mind is the Devil’s playground.” This can be especially true for addicts. Not only addicts, of course, but anyone to whom the inside of their skull is a potentially dangerous place.

Today I have the house to myself for eight hours. I’m not used to being alone here for more than a couple of hours at a time, because between my spouse and our 19-year-old there’s usually someone around. But my daughter just got a job (yay!) so she’s at work (weird!) and I’m here by myself until it’s time to go pick her up.

It’s not that I don’t have plenty of things to do. I could work on one of several writing projects I have going. I wouldn’t even have to write; I have storyboarding and planning I need to do. I could unpack more stuff. I could put away the laundry sitting in the dryer. I could take a walk, or do ten minutes of my neglected Tai Chi. I need to take a shower. If I feel the need to be completely unproductive, I could watch a show or read a book or play a video game.

Or, I could eat things that harm me. I could sit and stare at the wall, building darker and darker scenarios in my head, with no one here to ask me if I’m okay. I could call up someone toxic in my life and have a conversation I’ll regret. Anxiety has been especially troublesome for me lately, either paralyzing me or goading me into unwise action.

So for the moment, I decided to do this. And now that I’m done, I’ll have to decide what to do next.

You Don’t Say?

So, my psychiatrist thinks I am depressed.

More than usual, I mean; my general diagnosis includes a type of depression. But just because I told him about how often I’ve been thinking about death lately, and how much I’ve been struggling with food and other self-destructive behavior, and how much time I spend in circles that talk a great deal about the dark aspects of all our futures on this planet…he thinks I need more help with depression.

So out he comes with this particular health care organization’s chart of meds and starts suggesting things to add to my regimen.

Poor man. He means well. But either he hasn’t been taking notes at our previous sessions, or he hasn’t been looking at them.

The names of the meds are listed in little boxes by group, and as he proposes things I have to keep shooting him down.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. I’ve tried many of them, and they increase anxiety to a dangerous level. No, I don’t care if this one is new, I’ve seen the chemical formula. They moved a hydrogen atom so they could get a new patent, that’s all.

No, we can’t add anything from this box. They’re all addictive. I know my addiction history is in my chart. I made a point of putting it there.

Dear God, no, we can’t add anything from this box. Two of them almost killed me when I tried them; I’ve told you that before. You cannot give me any of these unless I’m an inpatient under close supervision so I don’t walk into traffic.

We could try a slight increase in this one med I’m already taking, or we could try one from this tiny box here…or maybe we could get me a therapist I could see more than once every six weeks.

Ha, ha, just kidding, I know that’s not going to happen.

Through the Cracks

I just found out I am one subject of criminal irresponsibility on the part of my particular health care system.

After some of the struggles of this spring and summer, I decided it was time to make a couple of appointments with my mental health team. When I went onto the website, the name of the psychologist I see was gone. I inquired with the department and discovered she doesn’t work there any more.

I assumed I would be scheduled with a replacement, but was told that it would take some time. Basically, I am going to be treated like a new patient again.

It took nine months to get in to see someone when I was new.

So, first, putting me back in the new patient group isn’t right. Second, even if they had to, someone could be letting patients know their care provider is gone and put them in the queue for upcoming openings, instead of only starting the process when the patient (who, hello, has a mental illness that affects their functioning) manages to reach out.

I’m upset on my own behalf, but I think I’m more upset about people who are doing worse than me right now. Being cut off like this may tip them from barely coping to needing hospitalization.

Not to mention the stress of losing what may have been an emotional support without warning, or a chance to say goodbye, or a single sign that anyone associated with their treatment gives the slightest fuck about them.

Doing Nothing

My job today is to do nothing. Specifically, my job is to do nothing self-destructive. I hate days like these, where I’m just trying to get back to zero by letting my body and mind recuperate from whatever abuse I inflicted on them recently.

But the days when I’m actually doing the harm are, of course, worse. After nearly a year and a half of grace on my let’s-keep-diabetes-in-remission way of eating, I began to struggle in the spring and have not yet recaptured the blessed place I was in. A week or two of difficult abstinence has tended to be followed by a few days at a time of the hideous and painful rituals of binge eating. Although I haven’t relapsed on drugs, the eating disorder brings plenty of suffering in the form of sickness, shame and secrecy.

Sharing about this is important, because I don’t ever want anyone to get the idea that the work I’ve done on myself has solved anything. It hasn’t. I’ll be dealing with my issues for the rest of my life, just like I’ll be an addict in recovery the rest of my life.

If you think that’s a defeatist attitude, I understand, but I must disagree. Understanding that these things are a part of me and my life, rather than some demon I can exorcise forever if I just get it right, has been vital in acquiring more self-acceptance.

This is only day two back on plan. If and when I rack up a few days and get my mind clearer, I may look at whether to get in touch with my psych team over the general pattern I’m seeing (sleep worse than usual, biting nails until they bleed, anxiety spikes.) It’s the usual dilemma: are my struggles a sign that I need more help with my symptoms, or do I just need tough love and other attitude adjustments?

But today, the goal is nothing. Like the old story of someone who’s deep in a hole crying out to their God, “Please, God, get me out of this pit!” And God replies, “Okay, but I can do it faster if you stop digging!”

I’m not digging today. And that’s going to have to do.

Raw

Don’t you hate it when you bite your nails late at night until they bleed? And tear bits of skin off around the nail beds, exposing raw red flesh? And it hurts, but only for a little bit, and you finally go to sleep. Then you wake up in the morning feeling as if your fingertips have been dipped in acid.

Washing your hands is excruciating. The thought of doing the dishes makes you want to cry. But the dishes don’t care. They sit there waiting. And you don’t live alone, so you can’t just let them pile up. And you think about asking someone else to do them, but you tell yourself you don’t deserve that kind of consideration, because you did this to yourself.

Then you try to put bandaids on all ten fingers so you won’t keep bumping the skinned flesh into things. Then you realize you need to wash your hands.

Then you sit down to work on a poem and can’t stop looking at your stubby, raw, red fingertips moving over the keyboard.

Oh….what’s that you say?

Not everybody does this?

Shit.

Flooded

How do we know when we’re writing too much?

It’s tempting to think they’re’s no such thing as too much. Maybe that’s true for some people, especially if the things they write cover a variety of styles and subject matter.

But this week, I’m conscious that I may be writing too much of a project too quickly. My nonfiction project contains many memoir-style pieces for the purposes of outreach, and I am working on some that cover a very dark time in my life.

My task is to convey, at different times, an authentic tone of what it’s like to be a practicing addict, to take doses of drugs you know might kill you and not care as long as you get high, to be deep in clinical depression or overwhelming anxiety, to be suicidal, to be convinced that suicide is the best thing you can do for those you love, to know that you have lost and drugs have won, to plan your own disappearance and death, to know that you deserve nothing better…

My task is to write it so well that an addict or a mental illness sufferer will identify strongly, while someone not familiar with the feelings will have a window opened to a bit of understanding.

Strong feedback I’m getting tells me I am at least partially succeeding in this. But there’s a cost: I’m writing it authentically enough to affect myself as well.

Floods of old emotions, ones that are always there but more in the background, wash over me. Old grief, guilt, and shame come up often. The otherworldly loneliness of that time echoes.

Too much of this is dangerous to my current mental health. I’m noticing hits to my self-care and changes in how I relate to my family.

These things need to be written…but I need to pace myself.

Seeing Strength

I spend a lot of time making sure I am aware of my weaknesses and limitations. Not (most of the time) in a self-critical or self-defeating way, but out of the necessity for managing my conditions responsibly. No one is helped if I take on too much and end up unable to do anything. So, through the years since the last time I needed hospitalization, I have worked hard on this.

Last weekend, though, I got reminded that it’s okay for me to take a moment to see strength. For the first time in nearly ten years, I attended my local Unitarian Universalist church. I used to sing in the choir there, and met some wonderful people…and, eventually, slunk away because of my insecurity and my worsening mental health issues. Already near-suicidal, I came away from every sermon more ashamed and more depressed, the calls to action and social justice reminding me how little I was doing for the world as I struggled just to stay here in it. 

I had considered trying again for a while, and on Sunday I got to see that things have, indeed, changed in the last ten years. The old tapes did play, often, but they did not rule me. I felt plenty of social insecurity, but not enough to make me flee. As I sat and listened to the sermons, I realized that the process in my head was different. Alongside the old tapes, a different track played…ideas for poems, ideas for other ways I might be able to help, a consciousness that, even though I am not doing as much as I might wish, I am doing something.

I came away more at peace with what I am and what I do these days. More at peace with the fact that my battlefield is the psyche, that my focus is on helping others like me escape from prisons inside their skulls–so that, one day, they can be more present in the world and help fight the battles that need fighting.