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Saving Me from Suicide: In Reverence to a River

During my depressive bipolar cycles, a river is what remains in my mind. Always. The sea, now that you can forget—the way the wind ruffles the surface or falls calm like a lake– but a river is what remains after my memory of it has seemingly passed, even after my imagination stops adorning it with riffles and dark wet holes and oxbow lakes. It lingers.

I am an Alaskan woman in love with a river. I love the muskeg along the banks of that river, the crooked black spruce that struggle for the sky but always fail, their bark wet with the effort, their limbs broken from the start by their own soggy roots. In Alaska, muskeg means a river is nearby. In the case of my very own river, the Delta Clearwater, it means it is flowing, slow and cold and spring-fed, somewhere beneath the tundra at my feet, and somewhere beneath where my grandparents built my family’s rickety old cabin.

Someday, during one of my times of extreme mental pain, I think that this river will give me my last chance. I will be sitting on the corner of my bed, staring into my closet, as I always do when I feel this way, and I will find myself overwhelmed by the thought that there is only one way to end my pain. And then I will check the impulse to end that pain, put the pills or the weapon aside, and I will pack a few things and start my truck. I will leave my family and drive the seven hours to my river, and I will watch it, as my mind tries (again) to kill me. I will let the river take its course, and maybe my course, as it either pulls me into it or, possibly, hopefully, pulls the suicidal thoughts from my mind.

If I was given only a day to live, if my own mind gave me only minutes to live, then I think I could force myself to make it a day, and I would drive to my river, the site of so many childhood memories, this source of natural beauty, this place that I go to in my mind when the nurses take my blood pressure, to the river I imagine myself floating upon as they take my pulse.

If, after all, I am going to die, then I am going to die by this river, somewhere back in that struggling muskeg, or perhaps in the cold water itself. If I am going to die, why not go to my favorite place one last time? That river, the source of so much childhood love, could convince me to change my course. Or it could give me my perfect last panorama, eyes wet but open, looking up at those crooked black spruce for the last time, my back stained red by the low-bush cranberries.

I am going to give this river my final chance, and it will give me mine. These bipolar episodes are so short that by the time I pass the Matanuska Glacier, as I drive north along the Glenn Highway, the logic will slowly start seeping back in again. And then, five hours later, by the time I reach the Rainbow Mountains, I will have forgotten why it was I wanted to take my own life in the first place. And then I will be at the river, into which my grandparents’ and my aunt’s ashes have been released. And to the place where my father taught me what it meant to “just watch a river go by,” how to write in a journal on the cabin’s sloping deck, and where my mother first taught me to fly-fish.

These depressive episodes are like the mist that forms upon my river on some evenings. It is a passing fog, like the way my family’s remains looked when my parents and I gently dropped them into our river, and it is like the underwater cloud I once saw as a child, swirling beneath the convergence of the wild, glacier-fed Tanana River and the soft, clear waters of the Delta Clearwater. It is a cloud, like this episode. I tell myself, in the words of my mother and my therapist: Carin, it will pass. It will pass. The fog in my mind will fade, as I flow, from the edges of the cloud underwater towards the shore, where I am clear again.

Every time my mind tries to kill me, I will think of my river. Perhaps I can measure the episode out in time on the Glenn Highway, as I drive north, following the bends in the road. After two hours, the great expanse of the glacier to my right, with its blue beauty, will remind me of one reason to live. After I have driven for several more hours, the Rainbow Mountains’ multi-colored scree slopes will make me realize that I am very much, and tentatively glad, to still be alive.

By the time I paddle the canoe across the river and arrive at my cabin—and make what was supposed to be my last cup of coffee—and as I sit calmly with my journal on the chair my parents crafted from spruce sticks when my sister was only 14 weeks old, and as I watch the river just go by, I will find a way to survive. By the time I again see the white pebbles on the bottom of that clear, cold river, I will decide that, if nothing else, the very beauty of a river—for me the ultimate natural wonder—is something, in itself, to live for.

I’m Out: See my Blog Article at PsychCentral– Mania: The Side Effect of Genius

I wrote earlier in this blog about struggling to come “out” with my bipolar on the internet. Well, I’m out. On August 10, “Mania: The Side Effect of Genius,” was published on the World of Psychology blog at PsychCentral. See the article here: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2017/08/10/mania-the-side-effect-of-genius/

Another article is being published on OC87 Recovery Diaries in late September. I will keep you posted when that is published.

 

On Not Being Defective

For so long in my marriage, I have felt like the “defective” half of the relationship because of my bipolar disorder. My husband has never made me feel that way. I have made me feel that way. I have felt defective in many parts of my life because of the bipolar, and I have recognized that and am working to realize that I am not. I have bipolar disorder and it is an illness. It does not make me less of a person.

Throughout my life—since my diagnosis at 21—I have gone through different, long cycles of trying to accept my illness. For a year or so, I will accept it. I will have moved from denial through the various stages of the Kubler-Ross ladder of actualization. And then I will fall again. I usually “fall” back to not accepting my bipolar because of a particularly bad series of episodes that break me down into a person that begins to hate myself because I learn to hate the bipolar again. And then, as I get well, and am stable for a length of time, I move up through the stages of acceptance again.

I am working to “accept the bipolar” again. For the last year or two, I have not been in denial, but I believe I have been a little bit angry at the bipolar. I have felt that is “not fair,” I have directed the anger towards myself, I have been continually frustrated that I am so easily triggered. Much of this is because I have gone through so many medication changes, primarily withdrawal as I progressively removed each medication from my life. And I have made great progress in removing these medications. I have come off of lithium, Depakote, Latuda, Zyprexa, lorazepam and more. I still take a few bipolar medications (including one other benzodiazepine, unfortunately) but I am almost off of my Abilify as well. I was on maybe eight different psychiatric medications and now I am down to three. But I have definitely suffered through it.

My therapist says that my default program is to feel defective because I am bipolar. I am working hard to change that. I am not defective. I am as lucky to have my husband as he is to have me. My stepchildren are as fortunate to have me as I am to have them. I am full of love. I am talented. I have a mission (to write about mental illness) and I am succeeding at it, albeit slowly. As my husband says, the bipolar has helped to make me the wonderful person I am today: sensitive, empathic, caring, creative, compassionate.

I want to make a very clear statement: We are not defective. We are not less than other people, even though other people may not understand. We are whole. And even though we must go extensive periods of great pain, we get through it. It may make us feel guilty or ashamed, but there is no reason to be. We are never less-than-equal, and, again, we are never defective.

Kubler-Ross model

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

Interrupting the Eruptions

Firstly, interrupting your eruptions is much easier said than done.

Secondly, I personally have not come even close to mastering this. I only understand it on a philosophical, theoretical level. Yes, it makes sense to me, but it is very difficult to do in practice. My therapist and psychiatrist told me about these methods, and I want to pass them on as I continue to work on them myself. Both my therapist and psychiatrist believe I can get better if I use these tools.

What are The Eruptions?

This is from my own experience as a person with ultra-rapid cycling bipolar disorder (usually mixed episodes). What I call the Eruptions are the overwhelming, emotional, terrifying, obsessive thoughts that take over your brain when you are having a bipolar episode or a panic attack (I’m still not always sure which it is). These eruptions are extremely painful to experience and they manifest themselves in paranoia, fear, pain, feelings of worthlessness, anger, and despair.

This is what my therapist says is happening at these times:

  1. Your body becomes dysregulated because of a change in sleep, routine, or medications.
  2. Your body sends a surge of energy to your brain. Your amygdala fires up. Your limbic system over-activates. Your cerebral cortex (where your executive, logical functioning is) deactivates as you actually receive less blood to your frontal lobe.
  3. Your mind does not understand what is happening and tries to react.
  4. Thoughts, as usual, float through your mind. Except that this time, your mind needs to find a reason for why your body/brain is feeling this way.
  5. So you latch on to a thought that explains the painful biological eruption…. The thought that you latch onto is usually the scariest, most terrible thought you can imagine. It’s as if you are running your forefinger along a row of books on your “terror” shelf—and then you pull down the horror story.
  6. The mental eruption takes over.
  7. Your body and brain react by thinking that this thought is real when it is unreal.
  8. And thus the cycle continues until “the cloud passes.”

How do you interrupt The Eruptions?

According to my therapist:

“You learn to meditate when you are well. Through practice, you begin to watch your mind and see the thoughts float by. You learn not to grab onto the thoughts, not to latch on, but to let them float on by. For example, ‘Oh, that vase is orange. Oh, my husband might leave me. Oh, I love going to my cabin. Oh, I should do the dishes,’ and so on. You cannot practice this while you are cycling, because you are already cycling and all you can really do is let the cloud pass. The focus is on prevention—maintaining your routine and getting your mind used to not latching on to thoughts.”

According to my psychiatrist:

“You need to do positive affirmations every day. You need to look in the mirror and say ‘I love you. I am good. I am beautiful. Frank loves me.’ You need to repeat these things until the insecurity, fear and paranoia do not surface when you are in an episode.”

According to me:

When I go through extended periods of cycling, I break down. I crumble. My self-esteem collapses. I am hard on myself. The words I say to myself in my head are harsh and critical. When I go through periods of not cycling, I slowly build myself back up and the fears are not so easy to grab. So, in my mind, I need my health first. I cannot just make the fears and paranoid thoughts go away, especially when I’m already cycling. I must build myself up again, and the best way to do that is to find ways to be stable so I can celebrate myself again.

I also believe that understanding the biological function helps me (what my therapist explained). I tend to blame myself for my cycles and then the real me becomes lost in the fear, shame, and guilt.

I wonder if, through positive affirmations and meditation, if I will learn to interrupt the eruptions.

Tilting at April

I’m boldly dancing against it. My enemy, the impetus of my illness, the great aggravator, the silent agitator– spring sunlight. Not sunlight from above, but from the sharp angle below, piercing my eyes as it makes its way back from winter to the summer seasons. To say the return of the sun during Alaska’s springtime is dramatic is an understatement. Instead, it shines through my windshield at a thirty-degree angle, always in my eyes, despite the dark sunglasses, despite the hat brim pulled down as far as it will go.

My friends, family, and colleagues love the return of the sun. It is celebrated all over Alaska, with people flocking to muddy, still-snow laden hiking trails, rock climbers venturing upwards against the cold cliffs, the city-dwellers taking to the paved city bike trails. They love it while I absolutely hate it.

I love my office with no window. I use thick blankets to cover the windows in my bedroom and I darken the house (despite the quiet complaints of my husband and stepsons) at the early hour of 6 p.m. because that is what my psychiatrist recommends. I do not go to evening barbecues or do outdoor activities in the evening if I can help it. I try to pretend it is still winter.

I’ve tried everything but spring always strikes me sideways. Later on, when April and May pass, I will have little memory of it, because of the rapid cycling.

Fortunately, this spring is going better than usual. I think it may be my new medication, Lamictal. I have gotten off the Depakote and switched to this drug in the hopes that it will be less harmful to my body and more effectively combat my bipolar depressive cycles.

I already have an idea for next spring, though. Something I’ve never tried specifically for the springtime: an antidepressant just for those few months. My psychiatrist worries about triggering a manic episode, but I haven’t had a true manic episode in years.

I have about another month until I get through this. Until then, I hold on.

Coming Out with Your Mental Illness

I’ve recently decided that I will “come out” on the Internet about my mental illness. I am actually going to connect my name to what I write. I am going to start submitting as a guest blogger. I may– if I am actually brave enough– attach my name to this blog. I may.

My husband says that I should never be ashamed of my illness and that I should go for it. But stigma still exists and I worry about what some call your “digital footprint”– once I come out on the Internet with my name attached to bipolar disorder, I will never be able to remove it. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.

My main concern is my future employability. Do I want future employers to Google me and discover that I suffer from bipolar disorder? But then again, on the other side of the issue, why would I want to be employed by an organization that discriminates against those with mental illness? It could certainly become a case of weeding out the employers I do not want.

Or perhaps it will simply display my ability to write, and to share, and even how much effort I put into my work and my life despite my disability. My husband, always positive, always optimistic, says that I will be even more employable because I will have demonstrated my writing skills.

Coming out about such private matters is painful. And yet, I also think that people need to know that you can be bipolar and still function. Or perhaps the mentally “well” will learn more about mental illness and become more empathic and understanding. And always, maybe readers who do suffer from mental illness will find hope, or feel at least some kinship, with what I write about. I would love for someone to read this and think: “No, I am not alone in this. There are others like me. We are going through this together.”

On the other hand (and now I am reminding myself of Topol in The Fiddler on the Roof), my parents won’t even read my writing, if they can avoid it. It causes them too much worry, too much internal pain, too much parental guilt (which they have no reason to feel– but I think all parents feel guilt).

So I will be coming out. Not now. But soon. Tell me if you have considered the same thing, if you have done it and what has resulted.

I hope you have happy stories to tell.

 

Ridiculous thoughts

I just recorded a video of myself on my computer talking about how I feel when I am well because I am well now. This is for me to play when I am cycling. This is primarily because when I am cycling, I have obsessive, depressing thoughts that:

  • I am a terrible person
  • My husband doesn’t love or want me anymore
  • My husband is not being honest with me
  • I am ugly both inside and out
  • I am a bad stepmother
  • I am a bad wife

I recorded a video called “When I am well.” I recorded it today, when I am feeling well. I told myself that I am a wonderful person, that when I am well I know that my thoughts when I am cycling are ridiculous, that my husband does love me, that he is faithful and honest with me, that everything is OK, that I am a great stepmom and wife and basically that I am a good, lovable person.

I haven’t tried watching this yet when I am cycling but it might be a good thing to try. I am headed into spring and even though everyone tells me “don’t worry about it,” I do worry about it.

The Smartest Girl in the World

I wrote a book several years ago about living with bipolar in the extreme landscape and seasons of Alaska. I wrote it because I had to– I had so many stories to tell, and I needed to “get it out.” I also wrote it because I’d been inspired by the many books about bipolar, especially, of course, The Unquiet Mind, and I felt I could help other bipolar people living with the disease.

I’ve always been a writer, and I finally put it all down on paper– well, on 350 pages of paper. Since finishing the book, multiple times as I edited and revised, cut and culled, I have tried to find an agent or a publisher. I’ve given up several times and put it away in a drawer. The most recent time I put it away was for two or three years.

I’m not sure what to do with the book or how to keep enduring the rejection. I have had such positive feedback from some agents (the quality of the writing, the idea behind it– but it just didn’t “fit” with their agency) and from all of my readers, I am just not ready to give up yet.

Either way, I won’t give up. Bipolar needs to be written about. We need to share. It can be a devastating illness but so many of its sufferers are blessed with creativity. Share. Share. Share.

Bipolar and PMDD

I’ve been reading a lot about PMDD a lot lately. It stands for Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (sorry to all the guys reading this). Every month, when I get PMS, my bipolar gets out of hand. I begin to worry, to cycle, to feel terribly insecure, to get this fluttery feeling of anxiety in stomach, but most of all, I become suspicious and even a little paranoid. I know it’s the bipolar making me feel that way, but I still can’t help it. I hate the feelings of suspicion most of all. I begin to think that my husband is tricking me. I begin to think that my colleagues hate me. I worry about everything– money, love, my marriage, my work. I often also have trouble sleeping through the night, or I have nightmares, or I wake up in the middle of a cycle.

I have trouble going to work. I hate being alone. I am constantly scared.

But then I seem to have three weeks of euthymia (at least lately). My husband, my therapist, my mom, my doctor, they all remind me that it’s temporary and will go away after a few days. But I hate it.

But, spring is coming and I need to be prepared. I start a new job next week and I really want to make a great impression. I am hoping it is less stressful and that my much-shortened commute will decrease my stress, although I am taking a major pay  cut.

Withdrawals

Over the last year-and-a-half, I have slowly been tapering off of my medication cocktail. I had gotten up to maybe eight bipolar medications and now I’m down to about half that many. This process has worn me out, damaged my self-esteem, and almost wrecked me. I feel sorry sometimes for my husband, who comforted and loved his newlywed wife through the ups and downs and crazies of coming off the likes of Latuda and lithium.

It’s so easy to start a medication. The doctor just prescribes it, without thinking that you may have to get off it one day. As a result, I’m still on clonazepam, a benzodiapine, and, yes, I’m totally addicted.

Even though I’m getting older, I want to have a baby. It’s my only real regret in life– that I never had my own children. My young nieces have babies, and I am secretly envious– I am twice their age, and I’ve never given birth. I would be a very high-risk pregnancy, and I am worried about how my mental illness will react to not being on any medicine, but I am willing to try. The clock ticks away, but right now I am weaning off two more. I worry about weaning off of them and what it might do to me, but I am doing well so far.

My husband is wonderful. He takes care of me when I am ill. I try to make it up to him– although he says I don’t need to– by feeding him and providing for him in any way that I can. He puts up with the paranoia, my overwhelming fears, and the obsessive thoughts. He protects me when I have suicidal thoughts. He does have a limit though. He gets stressed out and short-tempered after a few weeks of cycling. I’ve learned that it takes about three weeks of withdrawal before it starts to affect him too. Even though it is sometimes hard, he loves me completely.