A Blessed Life

climbing
Climbing many years ago at Smith Rock, Oregon.

Years of rock-climbing wisdom told me not to try to climb down. The only way was up, but I was frozen with fear, my hands pressed against the granite slab, hips tight and straining against the cliff, my right foot holding all of my weight on a tiny foothold below me. I was high above a rocky valley we Alaskans call Hatcher’s Pass, and snowflakes were beginning to fall around me. If I fell now, my body would hit the wall’s face before the rope pulled taut.

 

Climbing down a cliff is nearly impossible. As you peer down its face, your body simply gets in the way. Climbing up is the only thing you can do. That day, I could not show the tough guy belaying me that I was afraid. And so I kept on climbing.

Later, many years later, when I was in my late thirties, after a divorce and while waiting to learn whether I had cancer or not, that same tough guy told me that my life had been “tragic.”

I could not disagree more. Yes, I have suffered—but we all have. I have struggled with my greatest challenge, bipolar disorder, throughout my life. I have experienced the sturm und drang of extreme moods that would alternate between euphoria and absolute despair. Yes, I have not yet achieved the lofty goals I once set for myself, because I have at times struggled to be able to even complete the basic activities of everyday survival.

Several years ago, I went through an extremely painful divorce, when my ex-husband told me that my bipolar disorder was a “mountain of darkness” that he could not recover from. Last year, after the discovery of three tumors in my body, I spent several months not knowing whether they were benign or malignant. (And, thank God, they were benign.)

But, my life has been blessed in so many ways. Since birth, I have always been surrounded by love. My parents and sister have never, even for a moment, let me doubt their warm, true-hearted love and support for me, even when we have all had occasional difficulties during the worst moments of my illness. My parents taught me many things, including how to write, how to fly-fish, and—simply—how to be a good person.

I am still lucky enough to be surrounded by love. I am blessed to have a family now, with a husband who rubs lavender oil on my back when I cycle, who supports and cares for me every single day, and who brought two boys into my life whom I love with all my heart.

Yes, I have struggled, and, at times, the pain of bipolar disorder has completely overwhelmed me, often for weeks or months at a time. I have, at times, lost all ability to function because of side effects or medication withdrawal. Yes, there have been times when I could not get out of bed, when I could not go to work, but I have had a successful career.

Mine has been a blessed life. That day when I was on the cliff in Hatcher’s Pass, I eventually unfroze and found that handhold to pull myself up. Although I often write about my illness, I also want to write about my wellness, about the wonderful pieces of my life- and all of the things that keep me climbing up.

The Bipolar Superhero

Maybe if I can control it, I can use it to help humankind. –The Incredible Hulk

I stood at the base of a mountain, its peak hidden from view, as sleet crept under my collar. Giant, wet snowflakes hit my cheek. There was some semblance of clarity that morning, for the first time in days. The clarity engendered a sliver of hope. I began to hope that I may, again, stretch my hand up and into the sky.

The night before, as I lay on the bed on my back, I wrote it on the ceiling with my mind: “Try harder. Try harder and you will make it.” I have tried so hard that I have often crumpled under my own effort. I have tried so hard that, at times, I made myself even sicker. Over the years, I tried to not only break my illness as if it were a willful animal, but to somehow control it so that I could still ride the waves of my grandiose childhood dreams.

Before I had no control over the bipolar cycles, when I was in my teens, I used my capacity for trying hard, for working hard, to improve myself. I was like any child who wanted to be a superhero, except I wanted to save humankind with the written word. My words would someday change the world, I thought, if only I tried enough. And so, I trained. I read every classic piece of literature I could get my hands on. I wrote up to four times a day in my journal. I practiced, over and over again.

Of course, these thoughts would later be labeled manic “delusions of grandeur” or grandiose delusions, GDs, for short. My GDs were gorgeous, floral, ethereal things and, like acid flashbacks, refuse to be erased. Most children grow out of their desire to be a superhero, because they realize it’s not possible. But for me, it still—at forty years old—seems possible. Just out of reach, yes, but possible.

In the past few months, and after decades of hiding my writing, I finally decided to share my words with the world. I want to use words to help people—people like me who simply want to survive yet another bipolar day, and those who also occasionally want to be a superhero in their own lives. I want to engender that sliver of hope in them, too, that during their times of clarity, they also can share, and, slowly, carefully reach for the sky.

Although I go to a job every day and take several psychiatric drugs so that I can function and to quiet my secret, seminal desires, I still am occasionally mesmerized by a mountain and the thought that perhaps, one day I could still become a superhero.

 

 

 

 

A Chemical Hiccup: Medicated Oblivion and Art

“I want to hold you in a warm Atlantic,
A sea of my own making, a meringue of lapis wine.”

It is bedtime, and I have swallowed my evening cocktail of bipolar drugs: 300 mg of Seroquel, the Lamictal, and, of course, the Clonazepam. The Seroquel silence is seeping in. I have about 20 minutes on this dead-end road. Soon, I will fall asleep, content and comfortable, a pleasant and sleeping “high-functioning bipolar,” but I will not get to think about what happens to that person in the warm waves of the Atlantic or find the rhythm that goes with my lapis wine.

Read the rest of my article at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2017/10/04/a-chemical-hiccup-medicated-oblivion-and-art/

Read my Essay on OC87 Recovery Diaries– Bipolar Disorder: Never Giving Up

On the rivers I used to float upon in western Alaska, I liked to just eat the peanut butter out of the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. There was just too much chocolate in the whole thing for me. As I sat on the edge of the big rubber raft in my waders and wading jacket, I would fling each piece of extra chocolate into the ripples below. A velvety gift to whoever fancied it.

Read more at http://oc87recoverydiaries.com/bipolar/

 

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.