I is for Inconsistency

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

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

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

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

E Is For Elephant in the Room

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

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

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

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

B Is For Brain

Does changing my brain mean changing who I am?

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

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

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

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

Stop Writing Right Now!

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

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

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

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

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

The Conversation’s Getting Harder

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

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

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

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

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

World: Duh. Nobody’s sleeping right now.

PWMHI: I’m…feeling really depressed.

World: Duh…

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

World: Join the crowd.

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

World: Are we done here?

Splat

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

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

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

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

Why Am I Surprised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Counsels the Counselors?

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

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

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

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

Passing for Normal

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

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

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

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

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

2000 Words

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

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

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

Ready? Go.

Are They All Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Deserve

Do I deserve coronavirus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Control, See?

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

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

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

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

Cue the eating disorder.

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

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

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

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

Masks

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

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

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

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

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

Things I’m Not Doing

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

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

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

That addict could be me.

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Write Together

You are loud today, world.

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

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

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

So get comfortable.

I have found extra chairs.

Sit here, pandemic.

Read over my shoulder, climate change.

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

Let us write together.

Meeting a Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

When Advice Hurts

I’m coping with some health stuff right now. Nothing worrisome in the long term, but I’m on my third antibiotic since early December. I’m frustrated at the decrease in creativity caused by fatigue and discomfort. That’s not all, though.

I had to cancel a writing group meeting last Friday. Instead of saying anything about the infection, I lied and said I had to go out of town.

Why did I lie? Because I was tired.

I didn’t want the lectures I knew I’d be given if some of them knew I was (a) sick and (b) using Western medicine. Lectures I’ve heard from these folks before.

I didn’t want to hear I wouldn’t have these problems if I were vegan. Or if I took the right supplements. Or did homeopathy.

I didn’t want to hear that all my ills are caused by dairy, or not doing yoga, or my childhood vaccines.

I don’t make any medical decision, including using antibiotics, lightly. I use the knowledge I have (including my degrees in biology) to weigh the data and make my choices. But people seem to see me as some sort of compliant, brainwashed sheep if I choose a treatment a doctor recommends.

Many of these people are kind. They don’t realize they’re hurting me. Not just frustrating and infantilizing me, but hurting me. They don’t realize that when they keep repeating advice, this is the message I receive:

Because you’re making some kind of choice that differs with my opinion, everything you are suffering is your fault. You didn’t get sick; you made yourself sick. You deserve no kindness, only judgment.”

Yes, I get that message loud and clear, whether I should or not. And it makes me feel so fucking alone. Because these are the type of people who also belong to the “all psych meds are evil and you can cure your mental health condition with positive thinking and vegetables” school of thought.

Which means I’ll never, ever be able to please them. Because even if there should come a time when meds don’t need to be in my toolbox, I’ll still be standing firmly on the side of their responsible, case-by-case, nonstigmatized use by others.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for the sheep to go take the next dose of her evil antibiotic. Baa.

Third Time’s the Charm?

Today I wrote the third version of the few pages that mark the beginning of a new phase of my book. The first version got okay feedback, but I and my fellow writers agreed the voice wasn’t quite right.

So I wrote it for a second time. I changed the voice and changed the tone in a way I thought would sound more personal. I put in some new, clever stuff as well. Satisfied, I stuffed the stapled pages into my backpack and brought them to the group.

They hated it.

I wasn’t even surprised–by the time I finished reading the section out loud, I knew it wasn’t working. What had escaped me at the keyboard became obvious to my ears. I hadn’t just failed to improve it; I’d made it much worse.

So today I wrote a third draft. It’s different from the first two; it doesn’t try to cover as much and it’s definitely more personal. (Cried while writing it, which is usually a good sign I’m being authentic.) But I have no idea whether it works or not.

What’s really hard is that I haven’t got a plan for what to do if this isn’t better. I’m pretty sure I’ll need to put it aside for a while and try to work on another section, but I don’t want to. I want to be happy with this piece before I do later ones.

And I want a pony.

First Principles

What helps me when I get overwhelmed by my writing projects, or by life in general? Sometimes nothing…I get to be overwhelmed for a while. I do mindless things, try very hard to choose mindless things that are not self-destructive, and generally buy time until the intensity of the feeling passes.

But when the overwhelm is about my books, it helps if I can go back to what I call my first principles: Why am I working on these projects? What is my duty in regards to them? Do I understand that I am not in control of how they are received when the time comes to send them out? Am I willing to do my best, with no guarantee that they will be published or widely read? Am I willing to resist comparisons and fight insecurity when I hear of fellow writers’ productivity, networking and other successes?

The insight I had (and was questioning) about the structure of my nonfiction book has crystallized into an updated plan. This is exciting, and it’s making me more connected to the book’s arc…which, in turn, sends my mind into the future where the book’s a book and I’m querying agents et cætera. This is not the time for those thoughts. Maybe some writers can do it, but I know I need to concentrate on getting a draft of the book done.

I’m not trying to seal off any knowledge of or respect for the realities of the publishing industry. I’ll continue to get feedback from other writers, but right now I know I’ll hamstring my creativity if I try too hard to write for anyone but me and the people I’d like to help.

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!

Oh, No! Not Perspective!

Don’t make me be aware of how gigantic and complicated the world of writing is! Let me stay in my little bubble of blogs and local poetry readings!

This week I’m trying out a new submissions tracker online. You can use a lot of filters to search for publishers or agents that accept the things you want to send out. I decided to look into it because they really keep their listings current–when I used books, I’d often go to a publication’s website to find they didn’t exist any more or hadn’t accepted new material in years. The tracker also has stats on things like average response time.

I’ve really done very little submitting to non-local things, and I want to change that. But I have to admit it’s intimidating to read some of these sites. I have a tendency to look at whatever I am thinking of sending them and think “nah, they’d never want this.” Especially the heavier literary sites. I suspect some of the guidelines are written in such a way as to discourage as many people as possible from adding to their undoubtedly huge slush pile.

But submitting is not just emotionally intimidating, it’s a pain in the ass too when you’re a newbie. Many publications only accept submissions electronically these days through an engine like Submittable. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. However, they don’t all use that. Some want you to set up an account on their very own server just to do a one-time submission. And everyone wants you to tweak your files in a different way.

And then there are submission fees. They usually run about $3, except for contests and book-length works. It’s an amount designed to feel like no big deal, but they add up! I’ve heard an author brag that she never, ever submits anywhere that has fees–well, that leaves the majority out. She can afford to be picky now that she’s well-known, but…at any rate, I’m budgeting to do about 8 submissions a month. It’s what I can afford.

It’s always overwhelming being the new kid at school. On the bright side, it’s a role I’ve played many, many times. I’d like to think I’ve become more comfortable with it. Or at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.

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.

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.

The Deadly Reflex

Have you ever won something, or been chosen for something, and immediately started playing a negative tape in your head about it? Coming up with reasons it’s no big deal instead of just being happy and honored?

Two weeks ago I sent out a piece applying for a narrative writing workshop. I thought getting in was pretty unlikely, but decided to give it a shot. Well, I’m in.

Any bets on how many seconds it took that part of my brain to go from joy to rationalization?

They must not have received many submissions. The submission process was probably just a marketing ploy to make the workshop seem more exclusive and therefore more desirable. They’re really taking anyone who is willing to pay the fee.

It has to be something like that, right? Surely they couldn’t have really liked my writing and chosen it over some actual competition?

Yeah, I do this. When I won a couple of prizes in a local poetry contest last winter, I told myself the contest must have had very few entries. When I shared the happy news that one of my poems was accepted for a gallery show project, I always emphasized that it was a small gallery!

The weird thing is, not all of me is this way. I’m capable of the opposite. I can admit that I really like how I write; that I think it’s good. (And why not? Of course I like my own style, and work toward improving it in ways that make me like it even more. It’s mine.)

But that other voice is eager to chime in, and I need to recognize it. “Oh, you again. Hi. Uh-huh. Really. All right, you’ve had your say, now fuck off.”

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.

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.

Fighting Fire With Poetry

Readers who don’t live in California may still already know this, but just in case–we’re on fire. Worse than ever before. Hundreds are dead and more hundreds missing. Ash and smoke have rendered the air bad enough to close schools and other things; masks are being worn for hundreds of square miles.

What do poets do at a time like this? We write, of course. We write about what’s going on–and sometimes, for our own survival, we go on writing about other things too.

Or we write about what’s going on, but indirectly. We write things that come from ourselves after we strain current events through the cloth of our psyche. Odd inspirations that come to us, or characters inspired by people we met or heard about.

I had an experience like this a couple of nights ago when I read a wildfire-related poem at an open mic. It was a strange one–for some reason, what came from my psyche was a poem about visiting a friend in the psych ward while the fires were burning, and about the way his mental illness was severe enough to cut him off from being able to feel or care about them.

But strange can be good sometimes–as I know I’ve said before, writing about the same basic things from a million perspectives is what poets do, because you never know which angle will touch somebody.

 

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.

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.

How to Take a Compliment

I know I am not the only one who has trouble with this concept. I’ve actually worked pretty hard to learn to respond to a compliment with a simple “thank you” and put a period at the end of it. Just say “thank you” instead of making some self-deprecating remark, or some remark about how it’s no big deal, or some remark about how I could or should have done it better and this is why that didn’t happen.

I am getting a refresher course in this skill as I continue to get positive feedback about my poetry from people. I went to a reading last night and had several people respond positively to my recent work. Also, I recently had a poem accepted for a gallery show in June that is going to feature artwork inspired by local poets’ work about women’s issues. Right now, as I write this, some Bay Area artist is working on a piece that is inspired by my poem. My poem is going to be on the wall of the gallery for several weeks along with the artwork. I’m going to be reading at the gallery opening. How crazy is that?

I noticed that after learning my poem was in, I had a tendency to minimize it when telling people. I emphasize that it’s just a small gallery or just a local thing. Why do I do this? The truth is, this is awesome and I feel honored to be a part of it. It doesn’t matter that I’m a relative newbie in the poetry community. It doesn’t matter who else is in the show. I sent in work and somebody thought one of them was a good fit for their vision of the show. I’m allowed to feel good about that.

So are you, poets out there. You’re allowed to send your work out if that’s something you enjoy. You’re allowed to read at open mics. And when you get a compliment about your work, you’re allowed to accept it.