Micro-Learning

It’s still hard for me to learn new things when I start out sucking spectacularly at them. I think we all get discouraged if we don’t show any kind of talent at the beginning…part of it’s embarrassment; part is more pure ego (If I can’t be the best, why bother?).

One area I’m weak in is technology. I’m not the worst for my age, but I need to get better, and right now my nemesis is video editing. I am learning how to use iMovie, and to say I am finding it bewildering would be an understatement. But with perseverance, and a bunch of humility, I am improving.

My secret is micro-learning. With the invaluable aid of YouTube, I learn one or two itsy-bitsy things per session. I’ll search something very detailed…how do I rename a project? how do I import an audio file? Not trying to tie it all together yet. Then I take notes for myself on the thing I just learned, because my messy brain is almost certain to forget it the next time I sit down with a project.

It’s an accomplishment for me, because it goes against a very old pattern. I got into a good college on the strength of some natural talent and a lot of natural test taking ability. When I found myself dealing with much harder material there, I had no idea what to do when I was bad at something. I didn’t know how to learn…and I definitely didn’t know how to ask for help.

It’s taken decades, but now I know how. And as long as I can learn, whole worlds are open to me.

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.

New Name

Just a quick note to any repeat visitors…you’re not imagining things; I did just change the name of this site. I decided that, in the coming years, having it and its address just be my name will make the website easier for people to find. It also reflects the fact that the site has become a bit more eclectic. The things I’m sharing have always been diverse, but most were focused on mental health, addiction, or, more recently, the psychology of writing. But now I’ll also be sharing news about what happens to the varied stuff I write–and, someday, links to my work itself. And how awesome is it that I’m thinking years ahead; that I fully expect to keep writing different things? Even when I’m scattered and frustrated with myself for being unable to focus in on one sometimes, I am aware that every dream is a gift.

Don’t worry, though, there will still be plenty of words about other aspects of what it’s like to be a bipolar recovering addict with an eating disorder! The conditions I live with sit with me, write with me, and dream my dreams with me. They will always be part of how I present myself to the world, because it’s a way of reducing stigma and perhaps making a reader here and there feel less alone.

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.

Pain We Obey

“To goodness and wisdom we only make promises; pain we obey.”

-Marcel Proust

I was 32 when chronic pain changed my life. I know many people who experience worse suffering than the pain that comes with my cracked vertebra…but when it’s your pain, and you have it all the time, it feels consuming. I know what it’s like not to be present in the moment because I’m counting the minutes until I can lie down and take painkillers. I know what it’s like to plan my days around pain, to quit activities I used to enjoy, and to struggle with the simplest daily tasks.

When it became clear I was an addict with a capital A and needed to go the abstinence route, I felt so sorry for myself. My black-and-white thinking painted the future as an infinite desert of unrelieved pain and bleak depression. It felt unfair. I had to change my attitude a lot to have a chance at staying clean.

When I went to rehab for the last time (well, let’s hope it was the last time) doctors told me that overuse of meds had screwed up my pain processing system to the point that my body was creating and amplifying some of the pain. They said for every year I had used narcotic painkillers, it would take about a month clean to figure out what my true pain level was. I’d used them for eleven years. So the first year of recovery was going to suck pretty badly.

Today, I can say with gratitude that the doctors were right. Though chronic pain is still part of my life, my average pain level is far lower than before I got clean. It gets bad occasionally, but “bad” now is what was normal back then. That’s only my story, of course. I got lucky.

Living with chronic pain, like living with mental illness or being in recovery, opens us to trying things that might not have been on our agenda if life had stayed “normal.” Spiritual exploration. Meditation. Trying to find and do small things that give pleasure. Examining our ideas about what we are if we’re not our jobs or our productivity. All of you who let pain steer you into a quest for growth inspire me: how amazing that we perform, however imperfectly, this mysterious alchemy that turns pain and despair into something beautiful.

Soup du Jour

What’ll it be today? What am I going to eat? When am I going to eat? How am I going to eat?

To live with me is to, periodically, listen to my announcement of which nutritional and/or behavioral hack I have decided to use in my ongoing task of coping with my eating disorder and broken metabolism. To live with me is to notice, at some point, that I’m no longer doing the thing I announced to you a day or week or month ago. To live with me is to listen patiently as, when I get tired enough of things not going well with my eating, I announce my new plan.

I hate it. I despise the fact that I can’t settle on one nice, sensible way of eating and stick to it. Even if it has to be a weird way, I wish I could just pick one and stick with it. There are common threads–for example, being low on carbs is a thing during all but the most fuck-it phases because of my blood sugar issues–but a lot of other things vary.

How low-carb are we talking here? Strict, or more lenient? Am I practicing intermittent fasting? If I am, how extreme? How am I addressing the fact that my body’s satiety signals are pretty much broken, and I therefore need some kind of attention to portion control? Am I using behavioral rules or techniques, such as don’t-read-at-the-table, to help with emotional or mindless eating?

It varies. It varies because I vary. Sometimes I’m capable of certain things, and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes, when things get bad in other ways, being sloppy with food ends up being the least destructive way for me to act out. And, on one level, I’m ok with that. I’m even ok with the fact that all my back-and-forth efforts usually do no more than maintain my weight, because I know that if I weren’t doing my best, I’d be back up at my top weight of nearly 100 pounds above where I am now.

But I hate the inconsistency. I hate the judgment from people who don’t see why I can’t stop the merry-go-round and just eat like a normal person. And, of course, I hate that I can’t just eat like a normal person. Even other people in recovery from eating disorders sometimes judge me for my chaotic relationship with food–surely, if I were doing the emotional work, I wouldn’t flit back and forth like this. I see their point…but it’s the best I can do.

It’s almost as if I have bipolar disorder or something. Oh, wait, I do.

Goldilocks

I have come to the conclusion that Goldilocks is not an addict.

It’s not that she is without issues, most notably a lack of respect for others’ personal boundaries. But her behavior is clearly abnormal when considered from an addict’s perspective.

Come on–she samples two bowls of porridge and finds the third one to be “just right.” She eats it. Satisfied, she goes and finds a nice place to take a nap.

What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she rummaging through the bears’ kitchen, trying to find more of that perfect stuff? Or trying to mix the hot and cold porridge to capture that “just right” again? Or just gulping down the too-hot and too-cold porridge, because it’s better than nothing? How is it possible that she is moving on?

After decades of living with an eating disorder, I know how to eat in a way that my body and brain like. I’ve learned, the hard way, that starving myself sets me up for an inevitable compensating binge. I’ve learned, through much trial and error, which foods trigger cravings and are best avoided. I’ve learned not to deprive my body of fats and other things I used to be trained to withhold. When I eat the right way for me, I feel stronger, calmer, and in less pain. I don’t obsess about food between meals. My body and mind send me messages amounting to “About time, dumbass!”

There’s just one problem–I’m nothing like Goldilocks. The concept of moderation, of just right, of enough...my addict brain squirms in discomfort. No quick gratification from weight loss? No resolutions to starve virtuously after the latest episode of binge eating? No “tomorrow will be different?” Weird.

Embracing the reality of my eating disorder, and the need to deal with it even while other conditions might seem more urgent, is a balancing act I will never master. This process will never end, only ebb and flow. And I have to love myself anyway. Weird.

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.

The Parable of the Cursed Axe

So there I was, playing my old-fashioned dungeon crawler computer game when I should have been doing paperwork between counseling sessions. My character had survived and prospered long enough to have excellent armor, strength and health, but I was still wielding a lowly dagger. So I was pleased to find an axe, and picked it up, even though I knew some weapons were cursed.

On the next floor of the dungeon, I found myself surrounded by orcs. They aren’t too strong in this game, which is why they travel in large packs. So I was surprised when my attacks on the first orc seemed ineffective. Maybe I’d better switch back to my dagger…but when I tried to drop it, I saw the dreaded message: You can’t. It appears to be cursed. I was stuck with my axe. Checking my inventory, I realized it was minus-2 power. Ugh. This orc pack was going to take a while.

I’ll get to my metaphor soon. Honest.

Then, a rust monster appeared. With every hit, this feared being damages your weapons and armor. My minus-two axe became minus-three, seven…minus-twenty by the time I managed to kill the thing. I was now fighting the swarm of orcs with what amounted to a shapeless hunk of iron too heavy to lift. But I couldn’t put it down.

Wielding a cursed weapon sucks. But we’ve all done it, haven’t we? Haven’t we had a response, or a coping mechanism, that has become ineffective at best and destructive at worst, but we just can’t put it down? We swing it helplessly at the problems around us, unable to pick up a healthier method even if we know of one. We have trouble accepting that our old weapon isn’t working, hasn’t been working for a while, and is never going to work again.

Addiction is one example, of course. We wield our drug or behavior of choice to the point of self-destruction. But there are so many other cursed weapons out there, and some of these became part of our arsenal when we were very young. If we learned to shut down, avoidance becomes our default response and is difficult to change. If we learned angry confrontation as the go-to reaction, that’s our cursed weapon. If we learned to please and placate others, we hack our way to a lifetime of inauthenticity.

What are your weapons? Are they working? If they’re not, can you put them down? Or are they cursed, cursed in a way you can’t uncurse without magic?

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?

Acting My Age?

As I progress through middle age, I’m going through the emotional adjustments everyone does. In my case, it plays out in my writing experience (Aaah, too little too late, no one your age can be a success at writing, the writers you know have been doing it for 25 years, etc.) and several other arenas. Some feelings are sharpened and complicated by my years of illness and addiction, such as when I envy others my age who never became disabled and therefore have more financial security. And some feelings are just garden-variety internalized ageism.

Case in point: my hair. I’m getting it cut short today. I’ve had it long for years, but the already fine strands have become thinner and finer with middle age. It won’t stay in a scrunchy or barrette; individual strands are always escaping and tickling my nose. I can’t wait to get rid of it and have a neater, low maintenance look. So what’s the problem? Nothing, really, just old stuff.

Somewhere–don’t know where–I got a message that long hair is a. more youthful and b. more feminine. What’s up with that? And I never think that about my female friends with short hair, only about myself. There’s a tiny part of my brain that feels as if getting my hair cut off is a kind of desexualization. Maybe it’s remembering a certain drastic haircut I gave myself in my freshman year of college, when I hacked off my long hair while upset after a housemate told me I looked like a tramp. Hmmm.

I din’t have any answers about this; it’s just interesting to examine attitudes I didn’t realize were lurking in there. It’s a good reminder that not everything I go through is about mental illness, or addiction, or even the ups and downs of being creative…I still get to participate in all the general human stuff, including growing old. And that, considering the alternative I came so close to, is a privilege.

The Arena

Sometimes, for me, dissolving a block requires brute force. Screw letting my creativity flow and bubble spontaneously–been there, done that, and this poem still won’t yield even a rough draft. I haven’t written a new poem for months–got preoccupied with memoir tasks, then found when I returned to Poppytown that my efforts at creating drafts for the missing poems met with internal silence.

Yesterday, I vowed to make a rough draft of something. No matter how rough. Jagged, uneven, sharp-edged, whatever. I dragged this title into the arena and swore that only one of us was coming out alive. I took out the paper with the poem title on top. I set a timer for one hour. Go.

And it worked. There’s a draft now. I’ll worry about revision later–what matters is that there’s something to revise. Is it as good as the version of the poem that may or may not have ever come to me in a gentler way? I will never know. But I’m pretty sure it is better than a blank page.

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.

Birth is Messy

I was hesitant to put information about my in-progress projects up on this site. I thought I should wait until each one reached a certain point…talk about Enough, but no, maybe not until I get it farther along the road to some kind of publishing. Don’t talk about Poppytown until the manuscript is actually done. Don’t talk about my Tarot hobby-turned-serious-study until I have a business identity, website, and YouTube channel up and running.

The trouble with these ideas is that the process is at least as important as the product. By talking about it, I have the opportunity to share a process; to let someone observe the gestation, birth, and development of something new. Pregnancy takes time. Birth is messy and inconvenient. And have you ever seen a newborn baby, as in minutes old? They’re funny-looking, they can’t do much, and they really need a bath.

So, I’m going to try to be honest about where I am with everything. My readers will get to watch my learning curves as I struggle with being the new kid in school in the realms of the literary world, technology, and business. I’ll look scattered, and inconsistent, and clueless at times. And?

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.

Murdering My Darlings

An English author, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, coined the phrase “murder your darlings” to describe a good editing process. I’ve had to murder a lot of darlings while shaping my first draft, and I can only imagine how many darlings will meet destruction as the thing gets polished.

It’s hard! Especially when the darling in question is really–well, darling. Well-written. Poetic. Touching. A sentence, or paragraph, or even a chapter, that is wonderful writing but doesn’t belong where it is.

The chapters I wrote, one at a time, over the last two or three years contain a lot of writing that has to stay out of the book. Not because it isn’t good. It is. But the book has to have a story arc, and the content has to serve the arc. Not to mention issues around word count.

This week I cut the first chapter of the book. Just cut it, outright. I slipped a little exposition into what was Chapter Two, but all the writing from the previous Chapter One is gone. The book now begins in a completely different way.

Oh, darling. I’m so sorry.

Eating Disorders Have Weird Rules

Yes, lest those who read my stuff ever forget: I’ve lived with an eating disorder since I was thirteen or so. It coexists with my mental health issues and with my life as an addict in recovery. It’s there to a greater or lesser extent every day of my life.

I’ve been blessed in recent years with being able to take better care of my body in some ways. Many days are relatively free of compulsions, many other days are moderate, but a few still take me back to the worst days.

A couple of days ago, I felt myself teetering close to a binge and didn’t want to go there, so I tried to do some “harm reduction.” At the grocery store, I bought a couple boxes of artificially-sweetened treats (yuck) to bribe myself out of buying other things.

So there I am, yesterday, with a terrible stomachache from the treats my body is not liking. I decide, disgusted, that I don’t want them around any more. I don’t want them around tomorrow, because if they are around tomorrow, I will eat them and have another stomachache and feel like crap all day.

This where the awful rules kick in. You see, I am not allowed to throw the treats away. No. I bought them, I made that choice, and now I have to pay for it. If I don’t want them around tomorrow, there is only one allowable way to get rid of them. I have to eat them. All of them. Tonight.

I hate the rules.

Scary Progress

Here’s the thing…I wrote a book.

I have to say it that way now, because the rough draft exists. I’ve even let a few people read it and give me some basic feedback.

I have written a story about a young girl with an eating disorder who grew up to be a scientist, a mother, a person with bipolar disorder, a counselor, a drug addict, and at last a person who tries to balance all of these things.

It’s still got some editing ahead of it before I begin trying to take the next steps, but the fact that it exists is scary.

My second project, a full-length poetry compilation about the opioid epidemic, is also making frightening progress. I’d say it’s 60% done, including the hard part of deciding how to structure it.

What the actual fuck. How did this happen? If anyone had told me ten years ago…

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.

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.

Stop Writing Right Now!

That’s what my brain has been telling me for a few days. Whether it’s the result of my latest biochemical dip, or the stage of my projects, or environmental factors, is unimportant. And there’s no writer who doesn’t live with frequent self-doubt. Still, I hate it when the “stop writing” thoughts take over for days at a time.

They lay out, in excruciating detail, an array of reasons why my two big writing projects a) suck and b) are meaningless.

Sometimes they focus on the book and tell me it’s boring, self-absorbed, and won’t actually help anyone. Sometimes they focus on the poetry compilation and tell me it’s trite and not topical any more; that the pandemic means nobody cares about addiction even though overdose rates continue to rise.

I’ve done some reading about the nature of thoughts, especially the usefulness of being aware that what I think of as a thought is, in fact, nothing more than a set of words. It has no power. Whether a true story or a false one, it is a story.

I don’t beat myself up for buying into thoughts more when I’m in a depressive dip. It makes sense that my defenses get exhausted then. But it helps to know that I’m doing it; to see the process happening and know it is a process.

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.

2000 Words

I’m revising an interesting chapter in my memoir/outreach book this week.

In the chapter, I’m 44 years old and in rehab (again) for painkiller and sleeping pill addiction. I’ve arrived here with the absolute conviction that it will not work; that this is just a way station between life and death. My plan is to stay long enough to clear my mind so I can write a few goodbye letters. Then I’m going to leave and kill myself so my family doesn’t have to deal with my addiction and mental illness any more.

All right…in 2000 words or so, describe this state of mind to a reader well enough to draw them in and give them a shadow of understanding. Convey the numb and matter-of-fact certainty of one’s worthlessness and lack of hope. Use images and scenes to increase a sense of reality. Make everything you’ve already written coalesce into this moment. Do this while making sure the writing is free of melodrama or self-pity.

Ready? Go.

Are They All Right?

I can’t stop thinking about people from my past. Wondering if they’re okay, what they are doing, how they are dealing with the pandemic. Whether they live alone or with others, whether they’re working. Do they have enough money, how is their health, how are they coping spiritually?

I can reach out to some, if I get up the nerve. “Hey, it’s me, I know we drifted apart decades ago, but how’s it going?” People would understand even if they think it’s weird. These are weird times, after all.

But in a few cases, I can’t for fear of harming the person by bringing up memories that might disrupt their current life. The most painful case is an ex-partner from my mid-twenties. There’s a lot I would like to say to him and a lot I’d like to apologize for, but I’ve never tried because I don’t want to risk negative consequences for him. But I miss him, almost three decades later.

Thoughts of him normally come and go, but they’re so strong now. I don’t know whether he’s married or has kids, if he has a job, if he is struggling to care for an elderly parent…I know nothing. He could be sick. He could be dead.

Over the years, I’ve often pushed away the thought of hiring a PI or paying a website to get just a few pieces of information without him knowing. Just enough for me to know whether he’s within reach of OK. But it feels unethical.

I know I’m probably not alone. I hope other people are braver than me, and free from reasons to hold back.

What I Deserve

Do I deserve coronavirus?

As the pandemic becomes more real and more obviously not going to go away any time soon, I’ve started to be more afraid of getting sick. I’m lucky enough to be sheltering in place except for trips to the grocery store, and I live in an area where folks are obeying the mask rules. But I have an illogical conviction that I’m going to get sick. Seriously sick.

I know it isn’t illogical to think I’ll be exposed if this goes on long enough. And I’m somewhat vulnerable because of being over fifty and having diabetes. But my odds are still decent for having a less catastrophic illness than my imagination portrays.

When I sat and unpacked this feeling a bit, I realized it comes from the part of me that thinks I deserve to get sick. That I don’t deserve to stay healthy when so many “better” people aren’t.

Survivor’s guilt. I know it. I’ve tasted it often when thinking of my fellow addicts who died, or fellow mental illness sufferers who didn’t make it through a bad episode. Especially when I think about the roles privilege played in my survival—white privilege, education, health insurance, etc. Regardless of how hard I worked, these other presences can’t be ignored.

And there’s no doubt privilege plays into my survival odds in the pandemic as well. Racial and economic inequities are achingly clear. So it makes sense that I’d have these thoughts. But too many of them are dangerous for me because they feed depression and apathy. Self-care is sliding. I’m not going out for walks. Sleep is worse than usual (and usual sucks.)

Writing sucks too. But today I did small revisions on a segment. And I wrote this.

Control, See?

I am desperate for some shred of control over my life, my future, my daughter’s future…control I do not have.

Some can take this desire for control and turn it into concrete action, no matter how small, toward improving the situation.

Sometimes I manage that, especially if I can define writing as a beneficial action. Said definition is of course a matter for ongoing debate. I can also make masks, however inexpertly, or clean, or cook meals for my family.

But as many of us do, I’m also seeking control in other spheres of my life. Spheres not directly related to the big problems; spheres where I can have a feeling of control.

Cue the eating disorder.

I’m hearing it from many sufferers…the stress is driving them to more frequent binges, or to more restrictive behavior if that’s a problem, or both.

I knew I’d never make it through these months staying the same weight. Maintenance is not my strength. I’m either going to gain a lot of weight or lose some. In an effort to choose the latter, I put myself on a stricter regimen a couple of months ago.

It’s helping me avoid binges. I’ve even lost a few pounds. But I’m achingly aware of how I cling to the faint sense of control it gives me. I’m thrilled when I lose a pound; I’m worried and upset when I don’t. In the face of this overwhelming world, my brain dwells on such a trivial thing.

I understand. I know it’s what brains do sometimes. I know I’m not alone. But it’s humbling to watch myself race in a circle, knowing full well why I’m doing it, yet still racing.

Masks

I am sewing masks, the way many people are lately. I don’t sew very well, and I swear like Samuel L. Jackson whenever I stab myself with a pin, which is often.

I am asking myself frequently whether it’s worth the amount of time, frustration and literal blood it takes for me to produce a small fraction of what I see better sewing folks and/or those with more physical and mental stamina are producing.

It has been many years since I approached what I think of as a “normal” level of productivity. Because my disability is mostly invisible (unless you live with me) I struggle with internalized ableism and hold myself to a standard I will never meet.

I know I’m not alone. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others. But sewing’s the least of it…I pour myself into my writing in little chunks, knowing I’ll never be able to put in the kind of hours, or networking time, or number of events others can.

These feelings are normal for me. They don’t get argued away. I just have to make sure my deeper beliefs coexist with them: Yes, what we do matters. Yes, every little bit helps. Write the book. Write the poem. Make the mask.

Things I’m Not Doing

Right now, a drug addict paces in the ER, so desperate for a fix that COVID-19 holds no terror for them.

Right now, some sick person is waiting too long for an ambulance because two paramedics are running up to an addict’s apartment to Narcan them for the third time this month.

Right now, an addict is spamming one of their doctors’ overloaded phone lines with demands for prescriptions.

That addict could be me.

It’s been more than eight years since I got clean. Since I experienced the magic mix of luck, grace, privilege, and yes, hard work too, that helped me (so far) beat the odds.

If I were still deep in my addiction right now, I could do any of the things I’m thinking about. It would feel like a matter of survival to get the drugs I needed, and the threat of deadly illness to myself and others would feel very far away.

Someone who routinely takes a handful of pills they know might kill them isn’t exactly dialed in to any logic of self-preservation, let alone consideration of others.

I’m not doing anything great in the pandemic so far. I don’t work in an essential business like health care or food acquisition. I’m one of the many whose most useful contribution is to stay the fuck home and take really good care of myself to minimize the chances of getting sick, or having to go the ER for any other reason.

But at least I’m doing that instead of being an active liability. And if all I’ve accomplished in the past eight years is just developing the ability to be less of an asshole at a time like this, I’ll take it.

Let Us Write Together

You are loud today, world.

This is not a week when I can even try to defy you, blot you out or forget you.

There is no muffling the parts of your voice that shriek at me not to write. That tell me it won’t matter, that any story I tell is unimportant. That thinking about the projects I cherish is shallow and self-absorbed.

You are here in the room with me, humming and babbling and singing.

So get comfortable.

I have found extra chairs.

Sit here, pandemic.

Read over my shoulder, climate change.

Correct my spelling, cruelty. Play with my paper clips, ignorance. Have a mint, fear.

Let us write together.

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.