Passing for Normal

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

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

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

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

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

Holding On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sidelines

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting a Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Truth Doesn’t Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sick Squared

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inspiration or Hypomania?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Case of Emergency, Become Sane

My brain is weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Mind’s Pants Are On Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s Playground

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

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

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

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

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

You Don’t Say?

So, my psychiatrist thinks I am depressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing Nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raw

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

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

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

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

Oh….what’s that you say?

Not everybody does this?

Shit.

Flooded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Strength

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

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

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

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

Blankets Kill

I hear a lot of blanket statements about mental health care these days. The people making them usually mean well, and do not realize the harm they are causing.

In recent years, there has been growing awareness about the overprescription of psych meds, the irresponsible assigning of diagnoses and other toxic aspects of the domination of Western medicine perspectives. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately, however, it is getting translated into a common and frequently aired attitude that ALL psych meds are bad and anyone taking them is some kind of a) ignorant victim in need of enlightenment or b) lazy, compliant sheep unwilling to face their feelings without some kind of crutch.

Blanket statements about ANY group of people are dangerous. When the group of people is at constant risk for serious to fatal behaviors, blanket statements can kill. They can kill by increasing stigma and decreasing the tendency to get help.

Anyone managing a mental health issue has been on the receiving end of so much stigma and judgment already that your words have incredible power.

So you’ve got opinions about this issue. So you think Big Pharma is evil and out for money. Fine. But quit with the black and white thinking and admit you don’t understand the contents of everyone’s skull. Open your mind to the idea that there can be people who have tried many things and found a responsibly managed meds regimen to be the least of evils. People, like me, who choose it because it allows them to be more present in the world, to help their families and others, to stick around instead of hurting themselves. People who find it a useful tool to add to the psychological and emotional work they ARE doing.

You want to help? Advocate for making competent help available to all, so people aren’t getting these meds from unqualified doctors. Advocate for making competent psychotherapy and counseling available to the non-wealthy, since we know that with or without meds this is a huge need. Advocate for a general decrease of stigma.

And stop judging us. Somebody, somewhere, committed suicide today because they were caught in a web of shame and saw no road out. Blankets kill.

My Book is a Bastard

So what are these projects that have been sucking up my writing spoons? Well, as far as poetry is concerned, I am trying to put together a chapbook for a feature I am doing in November. It will be the first time I offer written poems for people to take home. It’s just a low end thing, but I have to go through the horror of figuring out which poems to put in it.

The other one, the really new one, is my nonfiction book. I have always had a vague idea of using the essays I’ve written for the last five years as raw material for something, but recently I’ve hammered out much more of a plan and begun writing pieces that are targeted specifically for that.

This book is a bastard. A hybrid. A mutant.

Why?

Because it doesn’t fit into an easy category, like memoir or inspiration or self-help. I don’t want it to be just another “here’s the story of some shit that I survived” memoir–but there will be memoir pieces in it designed to help a reader identify or get a perspective on eating disorders, addiction and mental illness. It’s not a “here’s what to do to change your life for the better” book–but it will contain some ideas of things that might be worth trying, or tips on finding your own ways. It’s not a psychology book–but part of what makes it a bit different will be the experience of going through some of this stuff as a person who already had a clinical background, and where knowledge is and isn’t helpful. It’s not a “spiritual inspiration” book–but will certainly contain some metaphysical thoughts on why not to give up.

From a marketing perspective, some might say I’d be well advised to change it to fit a category, because bastards are hard to market. But I don’t think I can do that; I need the outreach element to be there. We’ll see. It’s all so embryonic that the most important thing to do at this point is to keep writing.

Something New

Six years of essays, three years of poetry…and now adding something completely different.

My essays have always been personal, but in response to some feedback from fellow writers that saw a few of them I’ve been experimenting with longer pieces of more intimate and detailed memoir. These would ultimately form part of my pet long-term nonfiction book project.

I’ve gotten very good response on them so far, but it is a new kind of writing for me with a new quality of emotional experience. I need to be careful not to get overwhelmed.

I also don’t want to neglect my poetry (haven’t so far) or posting here on this site (which I definitely have.)

I have this idea that I’ll challenge myself to post every day for the coming month of October–but, knowing me, there’s a certain probability of that being bullshit. I want to post a lot, though, because there are interesting things happening with my creative life and its interaction with my health and sanity.

Discomfort Zone

When I grow, it’s because I did things beyond my comfort zone. Granted, there are times my comfort zone is smaller than my own skull, but whatever it was at the time, I made conscious efforts to leave it. In everyday living, in social interaction, and especially in writing, I try to push the edges and perhaps push them a little further next time. And, naturally, I dance with the questions of whether it’s wise to push a certain edge at a certain time.

It isn’t productive for me to push in ways that will render me nonfunctional for days. It’s productive for me to push just enough for discomfort, just enough to require some courage. Enough to have consequences in my thoughts and emotions for days or weeks, but have them be consequences that I can manage without being propelled into a serious dip that will make me useless.

I’ve been sharing poetry with others for two years now, and I recently began to share prose for the first time. My essays on my blogs, theoretically, have been shared for years, but never critiqued by other writers or otherwise given feedback. That’s the new thing I did this week, and it was a very different experience from sharing poetry.

One piece of feedback I got is that people wanted more personal detail in some of the pieces. They encouraged me to depart a bit from the conversational style of these essays and branch out into a more personal viewpoint. So this week, I’m writing a piece that focuses more on describing an experience and isn’t about outreach per se.

It’s hard. It brings back the memory in a more visceral way, without the intellectual and the clinical to soften the edges. Even without that discomfort, it’s just different. For the millionth time, I’m the new kid at school.

Time To Pay the Piper

Well, it is starting. My “up phase” is transitioning to the not-so-fun part of the process. The energy that sparked through me, that last week required caution to manage, is now turning to anxiety. I can almost feel it–it’s like listening to an engine rev and then suddenly hearing a grinding, clanking sound. Energy is now stuck and fouled up in the gears of my brain instead of passing through. It’s overflowing into my body, making it hard to breathe deeply or sit still.

Bipolar II, like its more acute cousin Bipolar I, is classified as a mood disorder. However, sometimes it makes sense in my own experience to think of it more as an energy disorder. Some more philosophical types even compare it to kundalini energies and such–whatever it is, the brain is taking in and/or processing some type of energy a different way. Mood changes are either a result or a parallel process. Not that other issues don’t relate to energy as well–one reason those who deal with depression suffer so much frustration when given advice that is only mood-based. 

At any rate, I feel it and I know from experience what will come. “But wait,” I can hear the next self-appointed free-lance psychiatric counselor I meet say, “Aren’t you being negative expecting bad things like this? What about the power of positive thinking? You’re creating defeat for yourself.”

To which I reply, take your chemically balanced brain and go…well, to put it politely, just go away.

Understanding my patterns and making “weather predictions” based on past observations is NOT defeatism or negative thinking. It does not exclude the presence of grace, the opportunity to make progress in handling whatever happens, or the power of hope. It’s a tool like any other. It’s hiking through mountains and canyons with my eyes open instead of being blindfolded and experiencing terror with every drop.

The Eye Roll

Part of living with bipolar disorder is encountering the Eye Roll from loved ones.

The Eye Roll goes like this: I, currently in an “up” state of mild or moderate hypomania, gush about all of the new things I have decided to do. Classes I have decided to take, new languages I have decided to learn, writing projects I have just decided are awesome and should receive devotion, exercise programs I have decided to start…you get the idea.

These bursts of dedication can happen to anyone; certainly we have all had the experience of starting and abandoning new projects. However, with hypomania they are ALL trying to happen at once. In a single week or less I experience–and babble to my family at length about–all of the above and more.

So the Eye Roll is a normal reaction developed over years, in someone who has watched me start so many new projects only for them to disappear during my next depressive phase (and often, rather than reappear during my next up period, be replaced by my NEW set of great ideas.)

My loved ones want to encourage me in taking actions. They’d rather see me engaged than depressed, so they try not to make the Eye Roll obvious. Nevertheless, it is felt and I have enough self-knowledge to respect it.

The spirit behind it has helped me put some cautions into practice. If an idea or desire recurs over months, during a series of up phases, it may be worth following up. However, if it is brand new, it’s not an idea I should spend significant money on or make any life-altering decisions about.

A little money, well, that might be okay. Buying a new wall calendar to lay out plans, or downloading an app, is no big deal. But it’s NOT the time to buy a treadmill, spend hundreds of dollars on a class, or get a tattoo. I need to wait and see if my wonderful new idea has legs or not.

Useful

How do I maximize my usefulness to others? How do I assess my strengths and weaknesses honestly and make good choices about how hard I should push myself at any given time? How do I repeat this assessment frequently and deal with the self-doubt that tries to make me push myself too hard out of guilt or shame? How do I resist the impulse to apologize constantly for what I am doing and the fact that it’s not enough?

I’ve written on this theme before. I’m sure I will write about it at intervals for the rest of my life. Two years ago I wrote this, in fact:

“I don’t want to live my life as a walking apology, but I also don’t want to become the kind of person who sees no need for regrets about how my condition and/or my shortcomings affect others.

Where is the line; where does a realistic assessment of my condition end and making excuses begin?

Could I be allowed to stop making promises, or even implied promises, that set me up for the inevitable apologies?

There’s no way for anyone else to assess, or even for me to assess reliably, the subjective amount of effort I’m making. So how can I, when unable to perform consistently, express that the thing, principle or person is still important?

Can I ever be good enough, do enough, love enough to have it mean something?”

Looking that up was interesting because it really made my point: This theme recurs. It recurs because the question is always relevant in a world that needs us to do our best. It’s not going to stop recurring, and I need to meet it with honesty and humility whenever it arrives.

Suddenly, It Sucks

Many writers know this experience. We’re chugging along with our stories or poems or whatever. We don’t think they are perfect, but there are things we really like about them. Then, WHAM! We hit a pocket of insecurity.

Suddenly, everything we have written sucks. It’s cliched. Trite. Boring. Unoriginal. What were we thinking?

I experience an augmented version of this when I am in a depressive phase. Today, I am aware of a general feeling of pessimism about all aspects of my life. My writing is no exception; I am looking at drafts that pleased me a week ago and wanting to scrap them.

Actually, as recently as two days ago I was really happy with a work in progress that I’m planning to read at an open mic this weekend. I had that impish grin I get when I’ve just successfully completed a draft, and was looking forward to reading it. Now I’m not even sure I want to go, and not at all sure I feel comfortable reading my new creation if I do.

The good news is, I’ve been through some crap that has taught me I shouldn’t always believe what I am thinking.

The Importance of Being Evil

I cannot be a whole person unless I understand and accept that I am partially evil. This understanding took me years of work, and the acceptance of it will probably be a lifelong task. 

The idea that we all have evil is not new, but I am not concerned with that. Nor am I taking on the endless task of defining what exactly evil is and is not. I am only speaking for myself: some of the things I personally define as evil undeniably exist in my psyche. There is some dark crap in there, and it’s not going to go away. Self-improvement and spiritual work can help me improve my behavior, but there are some things that cannot be changed. I will never be pure. 

Why is understanding this so important to me? It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to explain the huge leap in self-acceptance I made when I was able to incorporate these parts of myself into the whole. It’s hard to explain how much closer it makes me feel to the rest of humanity (a feeling of closeness I need, since I so often feel alienated.)

Instead of my self-esteem being based on inherent goodness, I can base it on my behavior. Now I don’t have to feel like an impostor every time an uncharitable thought or angry fantasy comes into my mind. 

I can be angry at people doing bad things and still understand that I am not a different species from them. I can know that however dark and twisted the labyrinth of their actions and motivations might be, it is still a human labyrinth and I have one too. I can understand that I am just as capable of terrible things as anyone else given a different set of circumstances, different brain chemistry, different trauma–even different past life baggage if you’re into that kind of thing. I’m not better than anyone. I am a potential supervillain.

Battling addiction, mental illness and general despair requires a powerful sense of self. Anything that makes me more connected with that sense of self has the potential to save my life and give something to the world. I’d rather be a partially evil person trying to act non-evil than someone whose useless quest to be good helped to kill them.

Through the Clouds

I want to believe I’ll be creative for the rest of my life.

I want to believe that if I get very ill I’ll use the time and the change in perspective to write, or at least expand my mind by learning a new language or something. I want to believe that if I die of natural causes at an advanced age, my feeble fingers or quavering voice will still be trying to communicate. I want to believe that my mind is and always will be more powerful than my body.

I want to believe my drive toward thought and clarity can always overcome issues with my body. And there is some truth and merit to the idea; there’s truth in the idea that my mind and soul have a great deal of power. There’s truth in the idea that the battle for clarity is not hopeless and that it’s well worth fighting.

That belief, however, is not always backed up by actual experience. My experience has been that my mind’s activities are linked to the functioning of a physical object known as my brain. This organ, whether I like it or not, is a part of my physical body. It’s affected by every other organ I have. It relies on the contents of my bloodstream for oxygen and nutrients. When my body gets sick, or is affected by hormone fluctuations, or takes a new medicine, my brain gets a different cocktail. There’s a tipping point to these things beyond which it’s very hard to muster enough energy or original thought for any productive act.

The truth is that for someone like me, the state of optimal body and brain function is more like a theoretical norm than an actual one in the sense that there always seems to be something going on. As I age and experience more physical issues and age-related cognitive decline, the clouds may get thicker. This thought scares me quite a bit.

As I often do when I feel fear, I grope for a metaphor. Today it’s astronomy.

Astronomers, as least the old-school or amateur types who must perform their observations from the surface of the Earth, try do their field observations on clear nights. When it is cloudy, they reschedule, because the portable instruments they have may not be powerful enough to get anything useful through the cloud cover.

But what if the climate changed and it was always, or nearly always, overcast? They’d have two choices: give up astronomy or build more powerful instruments (or do all their observations from space, but in this metaphor that seems like a post-death thing and we are looking at this lifetime.)

Even if they began to build better instruments, they’d have to accept that they now get less data for more work. They’d have to decide it was still worth the work and dedication.

I have to accept a similar thing. I have to believe that an effort I make on one of my bad days is still vastly, stupendously superior to doing nothing.

Just Sick Enough

When you have a psychiatric diagnosis, there are times when it’s obvious you need help. Other times, it might not be as obvious.

I had to jump through some hoops recently to get seen by a psychiatrist with my new insurance. Among these hoops were multiple rounds of the same questions about the nature and severity of my symptoms.  As I tried to answer as patiently and honestly as possible, I was aware of feeling anxiety about whether I would be deemed “sick enough” to be worthy of care.

You see, although I have been under some form of care for many years, it’s been seven years since the last time I was in a hospital outpatient program and nine years since the last time I was hospitalized outright. I’m only on one relatively benign mood stabilizer.

In recent years, I have been aware of how lucky I am to be where I am. I work hard not to throw this good luck away by falling back into addiction or other self-destructive behavior. But should “doing well” mean I don’t need help any more? Especially with bipolar, where patients are quite likely to float out the door while in a happy place, stop their meds, and wind up in the ER?

So it’s a dance. Be sure to appear “sick enough” to be taken seriously, without appearing so ill that you get a level of intervention you don’t need or want. Be eloquent enough about what goes on in your head to make sure someone knows you aren’t “fixed.”

Why? Why not just have enjoy having fewer appointments and one less thing on your current record? My reason is simple: my condition means that matter how well I am doing, it is possible for me to have a serious episode and need more help. Having a psychiatrist of record means having someone to call for an urgent meds adjustment. In the event of dire need, it means I have a name to give the ER staff.

It’s regrettable that people like me must defend our need to be responsible and prepared for trouble.

The Trap Door

An old dating show had prospects standing on a trap door above a dunk tank while being asked questions. At any moment, the contestant asking could push a button and splash! It was all over and the next person would move to stand on the trap door.

I often feel as if I’m in that situation. The feeling grows stronger when I meet and interact with new people, especially if I have a strong desire for those new people to like me and want to see me again. Everyone can have the “If they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me” feelings, but mine tend to center on a few specific things.

For example, yesterday I spent the day with a group of writers at a workshop (an awesome experience, and I am so grateful I was invited despite my lack of funds.) The social part also went well, but I did have one instance of the “trap door” feeling. It happened during lunch when the topic of psych meds came up briefly and several people expressed the common attitude of all psych meds being bullshit and/or evil.

The gears rumbled to life in my head and I began to project. So, if and when they know that I’m someone who chooses to take medication, they will have contempt for me. They’ll decide I am weak, or lazy, or unwilling to face difficult times, or just a compliant sheep controlled by Big Pharma. They’ll write me off. And if they would write me off for this, how quickly will they write me off once they know I am a drug addict in recovery? Should I speak up and tell all of these things about myself as early as possible so they can go ahead and write me off instead of wasting their time?

I felt the trap door opening under my feet. I felt the familiar brick settling onto my chest. I felt the familiar loneliness that tells me “You don’t belong. Don’t get fooled into thinking you could.” 

These moments are part of life for me, and I try not to let them control my actions. I try not to let them trigger defensive counterjudgments or mentally put people into boxes, but it’s hard sometimes. I’m aware that when I do that I am judging people in the same way I don’t want them to judge me.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Reminders

No matter how well I am doing, I must not forget what I am. No matter how much I am enjoying being a poet, or how invested I am in being a mother, I must not forget the conditions that have the ability to destroy it all if I don’t deal with them as responsibly as I can.

I live with a mental illness, and I’m an addict in recovery. These things become less and less obvious to people as I rack up more years clean and have the good fortune to stay out of the hospital for years as well. But serious mental health crisis always has the potential to happen–and, of course, relapsing back into my addiction would bring all my progress crashing down on myself and my loved ones.

Many of the people I meet these days don’t know about my past. Sometimes I am nervous about if, or when, or how to talk about it. I don’t know to what degree I will encounter stigma. Sometimes I expect, on some level, to be “written off” as a new acquaintance gets to know me. Not that I can’t be written off for many other things about myself, or just for general social awkwardness.

At any rate, my learning and growth have to be balanced with continued maintenance. New adventures have to be undertaken with an honest knowledge of my limitations. Even when I can “pass” for normal, I have to remember and accept that I am not.

The Conversation

I’ve been having the same conversation for a week.

The topic doesn’t matter. The other person involved doesn’t matter. None of it matters as I write this, because the distinguishing features of this kind of conversation have nothing to do with the actual words.

It’s the one you replay in your head, over and over again, long after the actual dialogue is over.

It’s the one whose sentences you rephrase, over and over again, trying to imagine what you could have said that might have let you be heard.

It’s the one you try to put out of your mind because thinking about it makes your stomach clench and your teeth grind and your chest hurt.

It’s the one that only seeps (mostly) out of your skin with time, fading into mist around you until the next time it coalesces and burns once again.

It’s the one that will never, never, never, never, never,

NEVER

be resolved by any effort you can make.

It’s the black hole. It’s the dry well. It’s absolute zero.

Intellectually, I know this. Even my training as a counselor can’t help me communicate over a large enough gulf between realities. My trouble is that when I get emotional, I forget the truth and get drawn in to the idea that it could be different.

I obsess. I rephrase. I fear. I fall into the psyche of that scared child who thinks it’s possible to change what’s going on around her if she is good enough. My reaction is fueled by my general bipolar symptoms, my usual level of insomnia gets augmented, and I exist in a state of limbic overdrive until I can survive long enough for time to settle things down.

Then, when I can, I do something like writing this. I remind myself that I am not alone. My reality is not dissolving; I still have my voice and my beliefs. The conversation will not claim my life today.

Wait a Minute…We’re Fish!

First, the fish needs to say
“Something ain’t right about this camel ride…”

(Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky)

Self-acceptance. We talk about it, we advocate for it, we want it for ourselves–but we secretly fear that having it, or acting as if we do, would mean we are not trying hard enough. We see the logic of an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, but that logic breaks down when we consider giving ourselves permission to choose ways of living that work well for us, instead of breaking ourselves on the wheel until the choice is made for us.

When my daughter was a toddler, our favorite singer was Laurie Berkner.  Laurie had this self-deprecating grin and contagious laugh that I loved, and she seemed to enjoy her own songs as much as we did. Her song “The Goldfish” talks about some fish that are doing different things in each verse: for example, they go through detailed steps of taking a shower. But then, at some point they stop and say, “Wait a minute…we’re FISH! We don’t take showers! Let’s go swimming!”and off they go into the chorus. The next verse they get into another un-fish-like activity and have the same epiphany.

It was one of our favorite songs to sing with, because we loved shouting that phrase. There was something liberating about it. “WAIT A MINUTE…WE’RE FISH!!” we’d shout with the CD, breaking into giggles afterward. It felt exuberant, unapologetic, life-affirming.

I wish I’d embraced this idea more outside of my kitchen or car. I used to feel such shame when I struggled at a job. I’d sneak off for long restroom breaks that were really just an excuse to be somewhere out of everyone’s sight, get myself together, and go try to act normal until I had to take another one. I think it would have helped me to say to myself “Wait a minute…I’m a fish!” or some metaphysical equivalent. Even if, as many do, I needed to keep the job as long as I could for practical reasons, I might have felt less ashamed and uncomfortable there.

I could have accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable there because it wasn’t my right environment. Have it not be a value judgment but simply a fact: yes, things are going to be hard for me, I am going to feel different, and that’s what it is. I’m a fish in the desert, and it’s not going to come naturally…so I’ll do the best I can, and stop comparing myself to lizards, and try to arrange to go swimming soon.

Ah, but now I hear that voice: that critical voice ripping shreds in my little self-comforting speech. You think everyone else at your job felt comfortable? it says. They all probably hated it as much as you did. They were just as scared, just as ashamed, they probably threw up and had panic attacks in the bathroom too, but they are still there! They didn’t end up in the fucking psych ward. You know why? Because they’re better than you! They tried harder! They’re not lazy and they don’t make excuses! 

There it is. If I cut myself any slack based on my mental illness, that voice is right there saying it’s a cop-out. Imagine how hard it is for someone without a diagnosis to make a life choice that goes contrary to what their critical voice says they should be doing with their life! What courage it takes to choose to obey the call of our hearts or personalities for no other reason than wanting to do so: to be ourselves just because we want to, instead of first having to prove, time after bloody time, that being anyone else doesn’t work.

Hafiz joins Laurie Berkner in advocating an acknowledgment of the fish’s dilemma. The fish in his poem has self-acceptance: it doesn’t gaze at the dry sand and say “something’s not right about me.”  If we accept ourselves this way, then we are faced with the experience of realizing what’s not right around us. We get to look at how far we are from our ocean–and how much we long for it.

Dishes Lie

(Reposted from my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Don’t trust the dishes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m proud of being able to wash dishes. For years, it was a task shuffled off to my spouse; even more so than other mundane tasks because the specific posture and movements dishes require triggered my lower back pain intensely. Today, he can come home and have anywhere from a 75% to 95% chance of finding the sink and counter clear. Maybe not clean, but at least clear of objects.

The presence of clean dishes can, like laundry or a walked dog, be diagnostic. It can mean that I’m doing well enough physically and mentally to take positive actions. It makes sense that someone who loves me is pleased to see it.

But sometimes dishes tell gleaming, ceramic lies.

Sometimes clean dishes don’t mean anything at all, and the effort that produced them has nothing to do with how I am doing. Sometimes they’re the one task I do that day, not as a small accomplishment but as a ritual of guilt. Sometimes doing the dishes was just a postcard to a distant land where what I do means anything.

So, if your loved one is living with significant depression, don’t believe their foamy sales pitch. Don’t let the dishes convince you that things aren’t that bad. Understand that those duplicitous cups and plates don’t mean that your loved one washed their hair lately, or took their medicine, or had a day free of harming themselves.

And it’s not just dishes that can be lying bastards. Anything can. I used to meet weekly with a woman living in the most crushing, despairing gray mental landscape imaginable. The only time she left her cluttered and neglected home was for appointments related to her physical and mental health issues, but when she arrived to see me she was nicely dressed, clean and made up. Once a week, she’d dragged herself through a misleading shower, put on false-tongued cosmetics and walked into the world for a short outing before reverting to what was real for her.

People can love us, but they can’t save us. So I’m not saying that it’s anyone’s job to read our minds–I just want us, those who suffer both directly and indirectly from these scourges of the mind–to know that there’s often more going on than meets the eye.

You don’t have to have a diagnosis for this to be true, of course. Your boss who seems so full of himself cried like a baby in his therapist’s office earlier today. The guy who sold you a car spent last night compulsively masturbating to Internet porn, missing his wife who left him over his addiction. The prom queen’s bulimic, the football captain was molested; pretty much everyone has a disconnect between how they seem and how they are really doing.

I try to be pretty honest about how I’m doing–at least to the degree that I am able to be honest with myself. Even so, it’s just not possible to brief my loved ones in depth constantly; they’d be unable to function in their own lives if I did. When a family member asks how I am, the answer they get is never the whole story, and when I say goodnight in the evening there are always unread chapters.

Yes, I and others do sometimes make cries for help. But we do the opposite too. We try to look better, just a little, because we hate being a burden. Because we’re sick of trying to describe how we feel, and we imagine that the people we love are just as sick of hearing about it. We try to tough it out, and we try to do something, anything, to inject a little normalcy into the lives of those around us.

We do the dishes. And that’s a good thing, to do something. It’s better than staring at the wall.

But dishes lie.

Isolation

We use the word as a verb often these days. I’m isolating a lot. She started isolating. He tends to isolate when he gets depressed.

Isolating is different from just being an introvert or enjoying solitude. Isolating is ducking phone calls, declining invitations when we do get them, shunning gatherings or meetings we used to attend.

We do it because of depression, or shame, or pain and fatigue. We do it because we are too tired to face the dreaded question “How are you?”

Then we keep doing it because we feel guilty about having done it for a while. Guilty about the phone calls we ducked and the meetings we skipped. Overwhelmed at the thought of trying to explain why we flaked out on interactions when we don’t really understand how it works ourselves–or, if we do understand it well, we may have also learned that understanding it doesn’t make it any easier to explain.

It’s dangerous for us. It can make depression worse. If we are in recovery from an addiction, it increases our chance of relapse. It’s bad for our physical health and narrows our world in a way that can let our negative thoughts and traits begin to dominate.

So how do we stop doing it? How do stop doing it?

One thing that’s really hard for me to accept, even after years of work, is that my mental health issues may always manifest in cycles of mood and ability to interact. For me, the struggle is about harm reduction and trying to reduce the shame and fear that extend a cycle of isolation past its natural life span.

And when I find a foolproof way of doing that, I’ll be sure to let you know.

I’d Rather Kill An Antelope

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2013)

For a long time, I tried to pass for normal. By normal I mean my idea of what my normal should be, which many would call overachieving. I was gifted with some abilities and I had certain expectations about how they should be used. When I failed, or had a breakdown, or acted out with food or drugs to drown my symptoms or stifle the disconnect I felt from myself, I told myself that I would straighten out my problems and then I’d be able to succeed.

Eventually, over a period of years, I came to know and even to accept that there were some things about me that meant I needed to change my expectations. Part of it was accepting my mental health issues; part of it was just understanding my personality better. I tried to set new goals more tailored to my real self.

I’ll do or think just about anything to have a shot at feeling good about myself. On a very deep level, I believe I have to do or be something in particular to have earned a spot in this universe, and I try to convince myself that this is indeed happening. So, when I began to accept my differences, I tried to convince myself that those differences made me special. When I felt envy toward other mothers with clean houses and more organized lives, I dealt with my feelings of shame by embracing a sort of eccentric genius identity; someone above or beyond such mundane concerns. When I felt envy toward my former classmates who had great careers, I told myself that their lives must not be as psychically or spiritually rich as mine.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that I have something to offer because of and not just despite my differences. But it’s not right for me to use that idea to gloss over my responsibility to try to learn to cope with “normal” life as well as I can. It’s also not right for me to use this “weird equals special” idea to cover up the very real pain I have about the things I will always struggle with.

The truth is that there’s a part of me that will always long to be a relatively normal, functional person. The psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s early students, wrote that in ancient tribes the boys who ended up being shamans were usually unsuited to be hunters. Many of them would have rather been a hunter; would rather have been the hero who brought down the biggest antelope at the hunt. The young man who stood proudly at the initiation rite, being welcomed into the ranks of adults and feeling the satisfaction of having provided a meal for the hungry. The guy who married the prettiest girl in the tribe, had eight children and became a respected elder. They’d rather have been that guy than the guy living in the isolated cave, playing with bones and having his entrails metaphysically scattered by jackals.

Even if I join the writers and poets and the other shamans of our time, there will always be a part of me that is sad not to be a hunter. That envies my husband’s ability to function at a corporate job without having to take anxiety attack restroom breaks every hour; that cringes in shame when I read about friends who are working for social justice. I am learning to function better, and I have hopes about being able to help and serve others better, especially the dual diagnosis community. But I feel like a shaman on a hunt: I might learn to hit a squirrel with my slingshot, but the antelopes are for the real hunters.

I know that being the shaman had many compensations, and I’ve tasted some of the wonders and beauties that may enter my life more and more. I might become a good shaman. I might serve the minds and souls of others. I even hope to become a voice that will help bridge the gaps in understanding between groups of people. But it’s important to admit that I wish I could also be a hunter; that I cry when I think about the problems in the world and all the work that needs to be done. My people are hungry; the shaman cries: they don’t care where my soul is traveling tonight. They just want to eat, and neither my passion nor my tears can feed them.

Oak Tree Debate

Have you ever written a story specifically to help you with a poem? I have a poem that’s been incubating for a couple of months now. Like many, it started from an image and a thought, but it will not coalesce into a phrase that serves as a “hook” for the poem I want. So, as I talked about recently, I’ll write about this as prose and see if that begins to help the process.

The time: May, 2011. The place: a residential drug rehab center in Northern California.

The center was set in a lovely area, surrounded with picturesque roads (and, ironically enough, wineries.) The buildings of the center housed about forty addicts in various stages of detox and early recovery.

Once you were deemed past the worst early detox symptoms, you were allowed to leave the house and walk about the grounds. There was an open area, away from the main compound, with a single bench. The bench faced the largest oak tree I had ever seen in person. It was the only tree in the field, and seemed sentient when you looked at it long enough.

People were encouraged to spend time there, thinking deep thoughts. I didn’t need encouragement; it was a pleasure to get away from people for a little while.

So that’s the image: a huge oak tree, spreading its old and complex branch systems against the sky. The pattern of branches seen against morning sky, and midday sky, and evening sky.

Some people might have used the place for meditation, and some for prayer. I sucked at meditation, and while I had nothing against prayer I couldn’t concentrate on that either. My mind was occupied, more often than not, with what I later came to call the Oak Tree Debate.

The subject of the debate was simple: Did I want to live? And, even if I did, did I deserve to live?

The oak tree, it seemed to me, was my judge. It was the embodiment of all that was natural and true, while my drug-tainted, mentally ill and self-destructive presence felt like the embodiment of all that was not.

Even the bench I sat on felt soaked with pain and toxicity. I thought about all the addicts who had sat there for decades before me. Ashamed, grieving, belligerent or hopeless. I thought about how many came back to the bench more than once, having relapsed after weeks or months or years. I thought about what the oak tree might think of them, and of me.

The trouble with presenting a case to my arboreal judge was twofold: I was not competent to be the best advocate for myself at the time, and I did not speak the oak’s language. My case was inconsistent at best, and even if the oak did render a verdict I could not be certain of what it was.

In the end, I had to go from that place without a clear conclusion to the debate. It has continued, off and on, through years of recovery and treatment for my mental health issues. Perhaps it will never end–but when I can, I choose to imagine a verdict that tells me to keep going.

Are We Disposable?

(Originally posted on my old page Not This Song, 2014)

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.

Estimable

(Originally published on Not This Song, 2013)

The good news is that I’m dressed and I’m wearing shoes. I took my vitamins, ate what I’m supposed to and I’m ready to tackle the rest of the day. The bad news is that it’s 1:47 p.m. where I am.

What is success, and who decides the difference between success and failure? I’ve had to change my ideas about it several times, because the alternative is self-loathing and despair. I’m honestly able to give myself credit for the good things I manage to do, and the harmful things I manage to refrain from doing. Sometimes. I compare myself to other people less often and less harshly than I used to. Sometimes.

I’m honestly pleased with myself for getting through my latest severely anxious phase. I’m pleased because I didn’t lose sight of the big picture and I didn’t do a lot of things to make it worse.

An accomplishment–but not the kind I can put down on a resume. Not the kind that makes good party conversation. Not the kind that comforts me a lot when I hear about friends and former classmates who are doing things…who are having accomplishments that can be listed and quantified.  During college, and later, I got to know some people who forged on and now do some pretty neat things. One works for NASA. A few others are scientists doing research with major institutes. Several are kick-ass teachers helping the next generation have a chance to learn. One’s an amazing minister and social justice advocate.

One of my biggest regrets about the last ten or twelve years is that I drifted further apart from many of these people. Inertia and laziness played a role, but most of it was my own insecurity, because I thought of them often. I never knew what to say when people asked me how I was doing, and I hated the idea of being seen as the “one who had so much potential.” I convinced myself that I had little to offer, and that they were too busy with their important and successful lives.

I was wrong. I lost touch with our shared essential humanity…I objectified them by forgetting that they have their struggles too, and I didn’t have the courage and humility to keep offering myself and let them decide what they wanted. As I grow, I hope to work on this…I don’t expect to be able to repair all of these relationships, but I want to become the kind of person who does things to show I’m thinking of them and I care.

This means I have to continue to work on my own insecurity, and learn to view myself as having something to offer even though it’s something different. It’s back to evolving a standard of success for myself, one that fits with who I am, what I have to work with and what I believe. One that will inspire and drive me, but not be used as a tool for self-shaming.

The psychologist Karen Horney once said “If you want self-esteem, engage in estimable behavior.” I love that quote because it makes it clear that building a good view of self isn’t about rubber-stamping all of my flaws…I don’t want to feel great about myself when I sit on the couch and do nothing. Compassionate, maybe, but not admiring or self-satisfied. The way to feel better about myself is to get up from that couch and do something, anything, that fits with my values.

Karen Horney didn’t define what “estimable behavior” is, that’s for me to do. If I’m in a crippling depression, I have to accept that dragging myself outside or to a meeting qualifies. If I’m having an anxiety attack, I need to give myself some credit for writing about it, and cutting out collage pictures to occupy my hands, and being honest while it was going on. All of the things I am doing that are out of my comfort zone are estimable in their own way, if I can avoid comparing them with someone else’s version.

This is my fifty-third post on Not This Song. That means that in the last three months I’ve written more than fifty essays. Created fifty things that didn’t exist before. Opened up fifty times about some idea that has meaning for me. Would anyone care to guess how many pieces I wrote in the previous five years? That’s right. Zero.

I will be proud of this.
I will learn to admire the accomplishments of others without turning them into a condemnation of my own.
I will allow my essential self to purge the poisons of envy and shame from me.
I will.
Even if it takes more than one lifetime, there’s no better time to begin.

Talking to Seagulls

Originally posted on Not This Song, 2013

Today I had the privilege of going on a trip to the beach with my daughter. Yes, I engaged in a mundane, family-oriented, pleasant activity that many people see as a very normal thing. I do not, because for me it is anything but mundane. I don’t take things like this for granted. For example, being near the ocean today reminded me of a very different day near the ocean, and this is the story I will tell.

It was one of those days. THOSE days. There was a thick gray veil between me and the world, and my thoughts moved sluggishly but malevolently beneath a matching oil slick on the surface of my mind. I was on a medication merry-go-round, with well-meaning professionals trying to find the right chemical to help stabilize my brain chemistry. Every new attempt brought a set of nasty side effects, and I was urged to be patient for at least eight weeks to see if the medicine would have a therapeutic effect. When the side effects altered my mood enough to be dangerous, the doctor would add something else to the mix to try to combat this.

At this point I felt the way my poor dolls must have felt when I cut their hair as a child: it turned out a little uneven, so I would cut more to fix that, then more when it was still uneven. I can still see their traumatized little doll faces under a few uneven hanks or hair clinging to their holey little doll scalps.

When my family suggested a drive to the beach, I didn’t want to go. After all, I had planned to spend some quality time in the fetal position. But I knew from experience that being outdoors was good for my mental state, and I was lured by the tactile pleasures to be found at the beach. I knew I could sit and run my hands through cool, wet sand, again and again, reducing the gray whirl in my head.

So that’s what I did, after my husband and daughter parked me in a congenial spot and wandered closer to the surf. I’m sure it was a relief for them to know I was peacefully occupied, because being on an outing with me in this state is like carrying a balloon: the balloon isn’t really contributing to the conversation or the activities, but you have to hold on to the string all the time or it will drift away.

As I raked through the cool sand, the breeze seemed to wake me up and I began to feel more anxious. A seagull alighted on a nearby mound of sand and I talked earnestly to it, talked about how I was feeling and how frustrating it was to be in my head. The seagull was a good therapist, I suppose, but a little old school for my tastes. I like a little more feedback, or at least some attention to the relationship.

I needed more. So when the family came back I told them I wanted to go for a walk alone. I was too tired and weak to go far, but I found a rock to sit on and watch the waves. It hurt so much to see so much beauty around me and yet not see it, to feel so many sensations and yet not feel them. I decided I should try to pray. I believed in Something, but I always felt stupid trying to talk to it. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt as awkward as usual. I thought maybe my God would send me some kind of sign, that an eagle would swoop across my vision or a rainbow would flash from the spray of a wave at a dramatic moment. I was ready to take something like that as a sign that I should hold on; a sign that there was a plan and things would get better. Nothing happened.

I felt my energy draining away again, and I was about to get up and make my way back toward the car when an impulse made me take one more deep, deep breath of salt air. Looking one more time at the rocks and waves, I said one last sentence to my God–the God who doesn’t fit any one religion, the God I was not at all convinced could help me with anything. I said “Well, I won’t give up if you won’t.”

Feel free to roll your eyes at this point in my story, because I did see something then. Not a bird or a rainbow from above the water, but a wet, brown head popping into view from below it. A sea lion, so close I could count his whiskers. I’d never been so close to one before. He or she swam toward me, rolled in the water a couple of times and was gone below the surface again.

This is the part where I tell you that this was the turning point for me; that I was never that low again, that the little sea lion was a messenger of hope and meaning that has never left me. But none of that would be true, and if you share some common ground with me your life probably doesn’t work that way either. Things did get better for me, but not right away. And later they got worse again. And worse still. And then better. You get the idea.

It was a moment, that’s what it was. A lovely, funny moment like a cherry in a bowl of gruel. It’s stuck with me because it was the first time I prayed in a way that portrayed me and my God as a team. It’s stuck with me because I love the ocean and I feel so much gratitude for a day like today when I can really see it. I drove us to the beach today, and I walked several miles along the shore. Nobody had to hold my string. I can’t expect that it will always be this way, but I can appreciate the moments. We all can.