I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Henry David Thoreau
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. ~ Henry David Thoreau
Which brings us to now. I’m 43 years old, and I’d never been alone.
Earlier this year, I decided that it was really important that I get away. Just for a couple of days, all by myself. It was almost painfully difficult to describe why I needed to do it, but I just knew it was something that had to be done. And it specifically had to be done around April or May, as the pièce de ré·sis·tance to my year of self-care and self-discovery.
I had to be alone.
I had to give myself total space… to think, to feel, to grieve, to celebrate. I had to know, beneath the mom and the wife and the homemaker and the blogger, I WAS ALSO STILL ME.
I went into it with no expectations, other than to let it teach me what I needed to learn. I brought books (but it was okay if I didn’t read). I brought my laptop (but it was okay if I didn’t write). I brought journals and crafty things and sketch books (but it was okay if it all remained untouched.) I brought hiking shoes (but it was okay if they never made it out of my suitcase.) If I needed to cry, that was okay. If I needed to sit outside and drink coffee and watch the squirrels, that was okay.
As it turned out, I needed all of the above. I had no phone, no internet, and no outward distractions. It was just me… alone with nature and alone with myself. It was intense, and it was scary, and it was important.
From my journal, on the first night:
I’m sitting alone, in my little cabin. I feel… I don’t even know what I feel. I feel overwhelmed, and yet relieved at the same time. Broken, but so strong. Lonely, but empowered. I am crying, and don’t remember when I started. Crying for the girl that so badly needed this, crying for the girl that was so, so broken for so long. Crying for the woman, who needs to know, perhaps more than she’s ever known anything, that she is enough. Not enough as a mom, or a wife, or a daughter, or a sister, or a friend, but just ENOUGH. As a person. Stripped of all those other labels. I’m enough and I’m crying and uncomfortable and I needed this.
I’m not sure what made me think to do it, but I decided that first night (in the midst of a rather severe mental health crisis) to make a little video diary to chronicle the experience.
The rest of my story will be told through those short videos. They’re self-explanatory, but a couple of notes on the first one: It’s real and raw and not especially pretty. Also, notice how I have trouble catching my breath? That’s what the end of a panic attack sounds like. Or the beginning. I don’t even remember. To be honest, most of the first evening was one long panic attack.
Did I learn something new? Am I a new person because of my little 48 hour excursion? Well, no. The thing with life is that it keeps going, no matter how much we’d like to stop it sometimes. No sooner had I arrived back home, I was thrust back into responsibility and errands and obligations. Real life called. But I lost myself in those woods, and then I found myself again. And what I did realize is that that momentary peace I felt, that brief grasp of ataraxia (look it up) is something that I can work on feeling in the midst of the busy. In the midst of the chaos. In the midst of LIFE. And if I’ve learned anything in the past year – anything at all – it’s that life and relationships, even (or especially) relationships with yourself are not something that you can just anoint with a 48 hour balm and expect to be successful. They need constant, mindful, attentive care if you expect them to thrive, and expect them to be healthy and rich and fulfilling and worthwhile.
And as for myself? My little trip reminded me, more than I’ve ever been reminded before, that no matter how much I fight it, no matter how many times and how many ways I keep having to tell myself… no matter what society says or anyone says:
I am me.
And that’s enough.
*Fair warning: The end of the year always makes me crazy introspective, even under the best of circumstances.*
I went to an open mic night a couple weeks ago. We’ve been checking them out for Paxton (16 at the time of this writing), because he’s looking for local places to play his music. This one place we went, at an old church-turned-theater downtown, was really interesting. And I don’t mean “interesting” as a polite yet sarcastic way of saying it blew. I mean it really was interesting. All ages. All walks of life. All kinds of talents. There were poems and music, originals and covers. There was a little boy who sang a Bruno Mars song. There was a young woman who performed a rap that she’d written for a friend who’d died by suicide. There was a 75 year old comedian who I didn’t find particularly funny but respected like crazy for getting up there and doing his thing. There was a young girl who forgot the lyrics to her song, got swept up in her nerves, and stood there frozen and crying until two of her friends jumped onstage to help her finish. There was a room full of people giving nothing but massive amounts of love and support and encouragement for their fellow artists.
And the whole thing made my fragile little creative heart break and swell at the same exact time.
It was just like …. life. This being-a-human thing is so complex. The heartbreaking and the beautiful. The deepest of sorrow and the sweetest of elation. All captured and bottled and either tentatively eked out bit by bit, or forced out through a cataclysmic explosion. While friends stand by offering hugs, and encouragement, and “If you’re having trouble finishing your song, then dammit, I’m coming onto that stage and holding you up and singing for you until you’ve regained your own voice.”
Too. Many. Feelings.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads my blog, but I’ve had a hard year. I’ve actually had one of the hardest years of my life. And it was one of those years where just when I thought I had some forward momentum going, something or someone else would completely kick out my footing, and I’d be once again scrambling for air. Hope. Despair. Serenity. Anguish. I don’t think I’ve left a single emotion untouched in 2016.
And now there are 10 days left in the year, and I’m reviewing, and I’m reflecting, and… I wanna say breathing, but really I’m gulping… and remembering. My heart wants to make a list of the big lessons I’ve learned this year (and I still just might) but my brain tells me there may be bandwidth issues if I even try. I’ve learned a lifetime’s worth of painful, messy truths about myself and my life and why I work the way I work. But no one wants to hear that. Besides, while personal growth sounds all nice and everything, my final takeaway from 2016 is much more simple yet more profound:
I’m still here.
Still running. Still trying. Still fighting. Still loving.
I was here to see the 12 year old score his first touchdown. I was here to see the 8 year old play Alice in Alice in Wonderland. I was here to see the 16 year old sing his first solo song on stage. I was here. And more than that, I am glad I was here.
I’m glad I’m here… right here, right now. (And if you are reading this, wherever and whoever you are, I’m glad you’re here too.)
2016 didn’t take us down. We’re still here. And given the alternative, that’s a whole hell of a lot to be thankful for as we round out the year.
Did you ever notice how you have to learn the same damn lessons over and over before they stick? (Unless that’s just me?) You know in your heart that something is true, and right, and sensible… but there’s a disconnect somewhere in between your heart and your brain, and you can’t seem to make yourself do or practice or even believe that which you know is true. Then, when things start to go haywire – and they will go haywire, when you’re ignoring a vital piece of your well-being – you remember. And you go, “Oh yeah, I learned this once before. Maybe this time it’ll last.” But no. You’re stubborn. And busy. And stubborn some more. And before you know it you’re once again off the rails and the lesson comes screeching back to remind you.
Repeat 12,000 times. It’s exhausting.
For me, the area in which this most applies, BY FAR, is the idea of self-care. In fact I get a little cringey at the thought of self-care, particularly the idea of self-love. It just sounds so touchy feely and woo-woo and kind of makes me think of naked people hugging around some sort of goddess-worshiping sun circle. (*Disclaimer: I am not judging. More power to you if that’s your sort of thing. It just doesn’t happen to be mine*) It makes me feel uncomfortable and icky. Plus, as a mom, there’s the whole issue of balance. And guilt. And “Do I really want/deserve/have time for self-care, when I could be doing something for my kids? Or my house… Or my husband…” Really paying attention to self-care, and self-compassion (seriously, I even have trouble using the word, “love” in there) means prioritizing. It means deliberately choosing to take time away from something or someone else, in order to invest it in yourself. It’s hard. And it’s conflicting.
And it is so. freaking. important.
I hear moms all the time saying that they’d love to take up this hobby, or read this book, or pursue this craft, but that they don’t have time. That their KIDS are their hobby. Their kids are their passion. Their kids are their life. They don’t have time for anything else. I know because it’s what I’ve done. It’s what I do, even when I swear that I’m going to be better about it.
But you know what? I really am a better person – a healthier person, a stronger person, a more contented person – when I take time for myself. By extension, I’m a better mother too. A better wife. A better friend. I know this. I know this.
So why do I keep having to learn the same lesson over and over?
I’ve been depressed lately, and the approaching holidays (and all the trappings they bring) don’t help with that. Self-care – or any kind of care, if I’m being honest – has once again slid by the wayside. And I’m beating myself up because the laundry is piled up, the house needs cleaning, there are presents to wrap, there are cookies to make. So much to do and so little time, and I’m going to add more to my plate by doing something for myself?? I find myself constantly conflicted between giving myself the rest I so desperately need, and tackling the next Very Important Thing on my to-do list. The dissonance makes me immobilized, and the immobilization makes me sit there, hovering, right in the middle…. not doing anything to take care of myself, and not getting anything productive done either. I’m stuck. And guilty. And burnt out.
And again, I find myself having to confront the icky love stuff. The thing I can dole out in spades to my children … but not so much to myself.
I’m working on it. I have to work on it. It’s not optional. I’ve seen firsthand what it does – not just to me, but to everything around me – when I make it an afterthought. It isn’t pretty; it’s really not. My mental health suffers. My physical health suffers. My relationships suffer.
So I’ll deal with the discomfort of whatever it is that makes me balk so much at the very words, “self-love”. I’ll face all the yuck of my past that makes me think I’m not worthy. I’ll work through my issues of perfectionism and guilt and black-and-white thinking that make me think things have to be done to a certain standard or the whole world order will collapse. I’ll give myself the care that I deserve – and good grief, that I NEED – and not feel guilty about what I have to say no to in order to make it happen.
(Well, maybe just a little guilty. I’m a messy work in progress.)
It is now four o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve been home for about an hour. There’s unfolded laundry beside me. There are stains to be scrubbed out of the carpet. I need to vacuum. There are emails to answer, and bills to be paid. I need to make a list of cookie ingredients so I can go to the store. I still have to plan a menu for Christmas day. I need to finish shopping for stocking stuffers. There are packages to go in the mail. The bathrooms haven’t been cleaned in…. too long. And have I mentioned the laundry?? Holy hell, the laundry.
But it’s okay. IT’S OKAY. It really is. And I’ll sit. And I’ll write, and I’ll drink my tea and eat my candy cane, and I’ll breathe, and I’ll know that I’m not doing nothing, but rather doing something… for me. And once I’ve done something for me, and filled up my own cup (another phrase that gives me the absolute heebie-jeebies but I’m going to use anyway), I’ll know that it’ll be easier to commit myself fully to whatever task I decide to tackle next. Full attention on me. Full attention on the next thing. And so on. Non-negotiable from here on out. And I’ll resist and I’ll whine and I’ll grumble… and I’ll lean into it all and trust that eventually I’ll get it. Eventually it won’t be so hard.
Because I really am worth it. I really do kick ass.
And sooner or later I want to be able to say the words, “Yes, I DO practice self-love”, and no longer wince when I say it.
I’ve never cried in therapy.
In fact, I sort of pride myself on not crying… which in itself shows how far I have to go. Why on earth would a person attach any positive significance to not showing an emotion?? Right or wrong, it makes me feel as though I’m winning somehow, because I think my early stereotype of therapy included someone cross-legged on a couch, weeping into a bottomless box of Kleenex.
But I’ve never cried. And I don’t even have a couch as an option. (I feel a little cheated. I’m not gonna lie.)
The problem with my self-imposed no-crying policy is that I spend an inordinate amount of time actively focusing my attention on trying not to cry… ranging in intensity from “You’re cool, just take a breath. You’ll be fine” to “Good God, big emotions. Don’t make eye contact. Concentrate on fiddling with your ring. Or examining your fingernails. Or inspecting the seam in the arm of the chair. Emotions! Big, big emotions. Whatever you do, keep looking at the seam.” None of this goes unnoticed of course. Once when I was directing all my I-refuse-to-cry angst into wrapping my ear buds into a tight little ball, he asked me, “You’re waiting to cry until you leave here, aren’t you?” It was both embarrassing and for some reason oddly touching. And yes, yes I was waiting to leave before I cried. My poor Land Cruiser has seen more tears than a confessional. (Disclaimer: I’m not Catholic, and I’ve never actually been in a confessional. But I imagine it lends itself to crying.)
So why the big bias against witnessed tears? I guess I find it embarrassing, and I have …. issues. But I also fear that once I start crying that the floodgates will open and I’ll never stop. You know that scene in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams’s character keeps telling Will, over and over and over, “it’s not your fault,” until he finally breaks down and starts uncontrollably bawling onto his shoulder? That would be me. Except I’m pretty sure that in real life therapists aren’t actually supposed to hug their clients. Nor put them in a throat hold like he did during their first session.
But I digress.
This past week, we were near the end of the hour when my therapist said, “Be your own best friend.” I laughed, because it sounded like a bumper sticker, and he tends to say a lot of bumper-sticker-esque things. But I was glad there were only a few minutes left in the session, because even as I laughed it was there, in the back of my throat. “Dammit, I’m about to cry again.”
By the time I got to Starbucks – It’s part of my weekly therapy routine. I circle the city until I can quell my tears enough so that I don’t look like I just witnessed my dog being shot, then I treat myself to a Trenta iced coffee for the rest of my ride home – By the time I got to Starbucks, I’d connected a dot I’d never connected before. I realized that the times that I get so choked up in therapy, the only times, are those times we talk about me. Not peripheral things related to me… not relationships or goals or past experiences, but ME. My darkness. My light. My self worth. And I finally realized why that is.
It’s because my whole life, I’ve been told the opposite… by the people around me, by my church, by myself. Be compliant, Jennifer. Be nice. Be quiet. Be small.
I was conditioned with a phrase that I heard so many times, in so many ways: “What would God have to say about that?”
The inference being that it’s the *world* that wants you to think about yourself, and care for yourself, and make yourself a priority. It’s the *world* that wants you to be best friends with yourself. God wants your sole focus, and your sole friendship, to be with Him.
I’ve decided I think that’s bullshit.
And I mean that with no disrespect and no levity. I have a relationship with God that spans forty two years. It’s important. But it’s not the end of the story.
Because day to day, in the middle of the fray, you – we, I – need to take some ownership. It’s ME who has to decide to put two feet on the floor every morning. To get up when I fall. To make decisions for self-care. To get in my car and drive to therapy even when that voice that says, “Screw you, this is unpleasant and hard and I’m not going to do it anymore” threatens to take over. To hold on, for just one more day.
To learn to finally, finally stand up for myself, and accept wherever the chips may fall.
To own my warts, and shortcomings, and mistakes, of course. And my TEARS! For heaven’s sake, a person shouldn’t be afraid to cry!! But also the good stuff. And the beautiful parts. And the things I’m proud of.
To be my own best friend.
To simply be me. Every time. Every single time. With no disclaimers and no apologies.
And so, I think I finally have an answer to the question I asked up above. What would God say to the “wordly” admonition to love myself? I think God would say:
And then He’d ask me what the hell took me so long.
I can’t breathe.
I don’t mean that in a figurative sense (though clearly, I’m not taking a whole lot of figurative deep breaths either)
I mean I literally can’t breathe, thanks to the cold that took residence a week and a half ago and seems to have no plans to vacate.
I’m a mouth-breather.
With the chapped lips to prove it.
And there’s the cough and the runny nose and the coughing and snoring 8 year old who’s been sleeping beside me, and the coughing and snoring 42 year old who’s also been sleeping beside me.
And the dog with diarrhea – which really has nothing to do with a cold, and is a just another small part of the whole reason I am not sleeping again.
Is “again” really the right word when I haven’t really slept for as long as I can remember?
I almost said in “forever”, but forever’s almost never a fair word, and I’m pretty sure I slept when I was a kid.
I’m not allowed to complain about the dog, because he’s not supposed to be here in the first place.
He was a stray, abandoned on a desert dirt road. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed him, just as much as he needed me.
We didn’t choose him. But he chose me. I saved him from the harsh desert, but really…. he saved me.
And now he has diarrhea.
I’m tired, so very tired, and only partly because of the diarrhea.
And the cold.
And the lack of sleep.
And the lack of breathing.
It’s mostly because my brain Doesn’t. Stop. Thinking.
At all. Ever.
My therapist tells me I shouldn’t expect an on/off switch (which is good, because I’m certain such a thing doesn’t exist, at least not for me)
He does say that I should be able to dial it down though.
I think he’s lying.
Or my dial is broken.
BROKEN, I tell you.
It’s forever stuck – except forever’s almost never a fair word – stuck on the highest setting.
Like the Vitamix, when you flip it up all the way up to that mega setting that shows it you mean business.
The one that makes your teeth rattle, and keep your hand on the cover for fear that your banana berry Jamba Juice smoothie knock-off is going to end up all over the damn kitchen ceiling.
Only instead of blending up a banana berry Jamba Juice smoothie knock-off, my brain is blending up a soup of regret, and hope, and worry, and problem solving, and wondering, and religion and politics and pop culture and the kids and the pets, and the thing I said to my best friend’s brother when I was seven, and the mistake I made when I was 22, and my to-do list for the next 24 hours and the next 24 years, and the question of whether or not I’ll even be given another 24 years, or hours.
I want to dial it down.
I do. I DO.
But I don’t know how.
And so I do the only thing I know to do and I sit.
And I drink my coffee and I try to breathe.
Except I can’t breathe thanks to the cold that took residence a week and a half ago and seems to have no plans to vacate.
I’m a mouth-breather.
And I’m tired.
I recently whined to a good friend about having to go to therapy. It was the morning of my appointment, and I wanted – with every little fiber of my being – to stay home. “I know it’s hard,” she said. “But don’t you feel better afterwards?”
“No,” I told her. “Most of the time, I feel worse.”
Having no basis for comparison, I have no idea if it’s it normal or not, but I dread it. I do. I sort of leave one appointment, and immediately start stressing out about the following one.
And I mean, there are positives. I like my therapist… he is warm and good at what he does. There are those rare times I leave feeling good, having made some big breakthrough or something. Sometimes I gain a deeper appreciation of the absurdity of it all. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes I leave with a helpful new tool for dealing with worry or anxiety or any of the other perks that come with being me. Sometimes I go home having learned something really huge about myself, or about life, or about how the mind works.
But… yeah, it’s still pretty much breaking me. And even on the good days, it’s all just so MUCH. So exhausting. So emotionally and mentally draining.
The other day, I realized something (In the shower, because that’s where I do my best thinking. I also tend to do a lot of thinking in my car, but there are so many things to distract me when I’m driving. There’s not much to distract me in the shower, unless I’m running out of conditioner, and have to keep reminding myself for the rest of my shower – conditioner, conditioner, conditioner – so I won’t forget to write it on the shopping list when I get out.) I realized that my brokenness, my feeling raw and ripped open and vulnerable, no matter how unpleasant it is, serves a real purpose. It’s a precursor – a necessary precursor – to healing. Sort of like how doctors sometimes have to re-break a bone in order to set it so that it can heal correctly. I’m the broken bone.
And I hate it. I hate everything about it. I hate uncovering more broken bits that need attention. I hate talking about myself. I hate worrying that I’m being too ______ (fill in the blank). Too annoying, too crazy, too whiny, too narcissistic. I console myself with the fact that maybe to a therapist it’s like I was when I was teaching yoga. All the new people worry that they’re not flexible enough, or that they’re doing the poses wrong, or that they’re being judged. And I – and every other teacher I’ve ever known – think they’re rock stars just for showing up. Every single one. Every single time. It would make me feel a lot better if I could think of myself as a rock star, just for showing up.
But I’m not a rock star. I’m a human. A human who’s working and fighting but raw and bruised and bloody from the battle. A human who’s broken. And sweet baby Jesus, I didn’t think I could get more broken than I was when I first walked into his office three months ago. I was wrong.
It’s a weird thing, therapy. Did you ever think about it? It’s just an odd, odd thing. Baring the most shameful, embarrassing, painful parts of your psyche to … a stranger? And there’s a professional rapport there I guess, and a certain amount of trust, but … you know NOTHING about this person. And for all the sharing you do, for all the emotional gut-wrenching stripping, you might as well be completely naked. Now that I think about it, because I’ve really never looked at it in that way before, I’m pretty sure that I’d find being physically naked preferable. I’m not even kidding.
So this is me, naked. Barenaked (anyone remember that song by Jennifer Love Hewitt in the early 2000’s??). I’ll be okay. I will. I WILL. But right now, I’m not too okay. I’m naked and afraid and vulnerable and would legitimately be contemplating drinking right now – at nine in the morning – if I hadn’t given up drinking, one of my favorite things, in my quest to face my issues and finally be well.
This is hard you guys.
A dear friend recently, and aptly, described it like this:
It’s like cleaning my damn house
Every time I think “surely I’m almost there”
Some new closet of junk appears
The closets are killing me. So very many closets.
I know my online presence has been a little scarce lately, but I’m still here. Still plugging. Still learning. Still broken. And naked and…. in a closet, apparently? (Sorry, way too many metaphors for one blog post.) But I’m here. And after all the hard work and time and tears I’ve invested in myself over the last three months, I feel confident in saying that I’ve no plans to go anywhere.
It’s been nearly three months since I began treatment for Bipolar Disorder. Three months. Which is …. a long time and also no time at all. Most people, even those who were remarkably supportive in the beginning, have pretty much gone silent in my life by now. And it’s not that I blame them. I don’t. I think that a general lack of understanding just makes them believe that I’d be “better” by now. That I’d take a couple pills, go to a few therapy sessions, and voila. All cured. Or maybe it’s not that at all, and it’s the fact that life just goes on. We’re all busy, we’re all involved in our own stuff. We all have our own problems. Truth be told, I think I’m a little jealous of those who’ve essentially stopped talking to me. I wish that I could live in the oblivion, if even temporarily, of not having to think about it. But I don’t get to take a break. Bipolar is a cheap polyester Christmas sweater, permanently woven into every fiber of my being.
But I’m still here, still working this all out, still finding my way through a mysterious world that is revealing more and more to me as I go.
About a week ago, I started getting sick. And then I got really sick… with something I’m pretty sure is the plague. Or at the very least, dysentery. So, so sick. Sickness of any sort, of any duration, tends to throw me completely off my game. My mind immediately bends toward what my therapist calls, “Catastrophic thinking.” I’ll never feel well again. I’ll never catch up on the housework. I’ll never be able to do anything fun again. I’ll lose all the momentum I’ve gained with exercise.
This time though, the thing that most plagued me was the fact that I missed a concert (and meet & greet) that I was, so, SO looking forward. The concert was A Great Big World and Matt Nathanson, two of my absolute all time favorites, but the part that I was looking forward to the most was meeting Chad and Ian from GBW, so that I could see them in person, and put a face with my “won’t stop running” story. (If you’re wondering what the heck that means, skim this post) I was looking forward to it so, so much. So much. The day of the concert, I woke up nauseous and light-headed, as I had for the last week. I prayed I’d rally though, and for a little while I did. I took a shower, got dressed, put on some makeup, started doing my hair…. and just the act of being up and about made me feel sicker and sicker as I went. In hindsight, I could have made it through the concert – probably – and just felt 0ff while I was there. But in the end, I couldn’t in good conscience risk having to leave early and ruining it for Tegan, (who’s eight at the time of this writing, rivals me as their biggest fan, and was looking forward to it every bit as much as I was) So I stayed home, sent her off on a Daddy/daughter date, and nursed both my sickness and my bitter disappointment, curled up in a ball on the couch.
The next day, Sunday, saw me sliding, or SLAMMING as the case may be, into a deep depression. The combination of being sick for a week; the forced and abrupt halt of the momentum I’d gathered with exercise, sleeping right, and faithfully taking my supplements; the house arrest; me being me; and the final nail of missing the concert just smashed me right into a Very Bad Place. I knew I was feeling better physically – not good by any stretch, but better – while mentally I was withering. Seeing this, Mike (mostly gently) made me get up, get out and go to the store with him. After that he (again, mostly gently) convinced me to go the arena football game with him and the kids. He would tell me later that what he was seeing in me scared him, and he didn’t want me to be alone. Which scared me too. Ordinarily I love Rattlers games, and look forward to going every week…. but yesterday, I didn’t want to be there. Didn’t want to be here. Didn’t want to be anywhere. But I made myself do it, and I put on my blinged-out Rattlers shirt and my Mardi Gras beads, took a bunch of ibuprofen for my headache, and steeled myself for the trip.
Now, a lot of people compare bipolar to a roller coaster. And I mean, sure, it’s an apt enough (if grossly overused) description. Ups, downs, twists, turns. Blah, blah, blah, blah.
Last night I realized that what it really is is a football game, one that starts before you even get there.
We usually take the light rail when we’re going to any sort of sporting event downtown. I hate the light rail. It’s crowded, it smells funny, and it always makes me nauseous. Which is apropos in its own right, but it’s not the way we traveled last night. Last night we drove in and parked in the parking garage.
And that’s where I first realized it, the moment I stepped out of the car.
The parking garage is the depression. It’s dark and spooky. It’s the depths of hell, or at the very least, it’s Satan’s armpit. It’s hot. It’s steamy. Like the light rail, it too smells funny. But not ha-ha funny. More like car exhaust and Mexican food farts and death. It’s dirty, but not regular dirty. There are stains on the floors (and the walls and in the corners and on all of civilization that managed to survive) that make you wonder if someone was recently murdered. The stairwell seemingly takes you up and up and up, but its oppression is so heavy, so stifling, that it makes you doubt if you’re ever going to see the light of day again.
Then suddenly you’re out, and there’s the burst of sun, so strong it takes your eyes a minute to adjust. You’re in the real world. Those are the days in between the mania and depression, the days when you get a feeling for what it must be like to be a “normal” person. They’re not particularly exciting, but they’re not particularly depressing either. You exist in a state of sort of homeostasis. A state of just being for a few minutes. It’s a nice place to visit, but it’s a very short walk to the stadium. Those days of normal are short lived. Soon you’re at your destination.
The stadium is the mania. There is just So. Much. Going. On. Your senses are all heightened, by sixty jillion percent. There are the people, and the sounds, and the smells, and the relentlessly constantly whirling, swirling energy. It’s exciting. It’s exhilarating. Unfortunately, what starts off as exciting and exhilarating eventually descends into overwhelming and scary. You look for a corner to hide in, but no such corner exists. The only option – if you can really call it that, since you have no other options – is to keep walking, right through the fray.
The food is the mania and the depression. Sometimes, those over priced, fast food, ball park chicken tenders are the most juicy, succulent morsels of food you could ever put in your mouth, better than any meal you’d choose to order at a 5 star restaurant. Other times, those very same chicken tenders taste like fried moist cardboard, sit like a rock in your stomach, and make you spend the rest of the game praying you’re not going to suddenly and violently have to vomit and have diarrhea.
I never know which one I’m going to get.
Your family and friends sitting beside you, they’re (and I kind of hesitate to say this, because I feel like it minimizes the huge role they actually play), but they’re the mood stabilizers. They’re the right diet. They’re regular exercise. They’re 8 hours of sleep. In other words, they don’t cure you. They don’t make the ups and downs go away. But they soften them. They make them less intense. They smooth out the edges. They remind you to breathe when you’re anxious. They hold your hand when you’re scared. They give you light on the journey, and they make you laugh along the way. Your friends and your family are the safe spot in the middle of the chaos around you.
The game itself is the actual work of reaching, and maintaining, wellness. It’s the therapy. It’s the day-to-day changes you make to control your illness instead of letting it control you. Of course you’re not actually watching the game… you’re playing, in every position. Sometimes you’re the quarter back, calling the plays. Sometimes you’re a receiver. Sometimes you’re on defense. And you’ve got a whole team of people ready to back you up. There’s a defined set of plays, but you have to be able to read what’s going on, and adjust and tweak as you go. You have to stay flexible, and think on your feet. (And just as a football game often – usually, always – veers off from its best laid plans, so do medication, therapy, and all other aspects related to treatment. You have to roll with it) Sometimes the game is exciting. It’s not just the touchdowns, but it’s the little moments – that are really big moments – along the way. The thrill of an interception. A sacked quarterback. A recovered fumble.
Sometimes it’s frustrating. The missed PAT. The tackles and fumbles and penalties… sometimes a lot of penalties. Sometimes there are fist fights (although if you’ve got good, classy teammates, they gently pull you away from the fight, use their bodies to block you from the heat, and make sure everyone stays safe). Sometimes there are injuries. Sometimes you need to call a time out. Sometimes the game makes you sublimely happy, but half the time it just pisses you right the heck off. Sometimes you’re down by 4 touchdowns, and you’re really discouraged and demoralized. You can hear the taunts from the crowd.
Sometimes there are cheers from the crowd too. Sometimes the stadium is just FILLED with cheers. Sometimes there’s an opening, and you manage to perfectly execute a really long pass, resulting in an epically beautiful touchdown. It’s those kind of plays that make the entire game worth it.
Win or lose, it is all So. Much. Work. At the end of the game you are spent, you are sweaty, and you are exhausted. But no matter the final score, you learned something. You gained something. You got better, and stronger, and more experienced. You took another step toward the Arena Bowl.
As for me, personally? I’m still in the first quarter. I have a lot of work ahead of me. I’m continually trying to find that balance of giving 100% without burning myself out before I even get to half-time.
And then, it’s over. That brief visit to the land of normalcy, then you’re once again in the pits of hell. AKA the parking garage. AKA depression.
On an endless loop, every day, forever.
And the thing is, just like me on Sunday night, you don’t necessarily choose to go the football game. But since you have to be there, you learn not to just make the most of it, but to embrace it. You learn to squeeze every bit of enjoyment out of every little moment that you can. You learn to appreciate the color and the joy and beauty that exist both in the middle of the game, and in the stillness between the plays.
You learn to grab that football game by its balls (see what I did there?), you hold on for all you’re worth, and you tell your teammates, and you tell the crowd, and you tell the WORLD:
“My game. My rules. And dammit, I’m gonna play to win.”
I used to be very adamantly against pharmaceuticals. I remember after the birth of my first son – 19 years ago – they offered me Tylenol with codeine and I declined. Then they wanted me to take a stool softener, and I declined that too. I was kind of obnoxious about it too, now that I think about it. I didn’t need that stuff. I had my supplements and my herbs (and if essential oils were as big a thing back then as they are now, I’m sure I would have used those too). I had my ideals. I had my self-righteous resolve.
Over the next several years, I would spend a lot of time studying, reading about, and learning about natural health and nutrition. I took several courses, and I earned a handful of certificates. I was passionate and motivated and… have I mentioned obnoxious yet?
And then I got gall stones… in a gall bladder that eventually got inflamed and infected. Then I got gall stones lodged in my bile duct. Then I got pancreatitis. Then I needed surgery. Next was kidney stones, followed by hydronephrosis and a stent. A couple of years later, it was two rather painful shoulder surgeries in as many years, one involving detaching my bicep and reattaching it on a different spot on my bone, held in place with a permanent metal screw.
Suffice it to say, I made my peace with allopathic medicine.
Over that tricky six year period, there were narcotics, there were muscle relaxants, there were antibiotics, there were anti-emetics, there were sleep aids. Last year I tried, and eventually rejected, a medication prescribed for suspected fibromyalgia. It’s not that I’m proud to say I took all of that… but I’m not ashamed of it either. I made informed decisions, I took what I needed, and I took it all responsibly. At the time of this writing, I’m taking a mood stabilizer (which is making a world of difference for me) and am in the process of carefully weaning myself off of a benzodiazepine, prescribed during an acute time of crisis when I began treatment for bipolar disorder. I’m not ashamed of that either.
And the thing is, I never abandoned anything I learned when I studied natural health. In fact, having bipolar and wanting to get well has necessitated my paying more attention to it than ever before. I absolutely understand the importance of nutrition. I know how inextricably our stress levels are tied to our health. I’m exercising, six days a week. I’m taking a careful supplement regimen, designed with the help of my doctor. I’m meditating daily. I’m not drinking any alcohol. I’m using essential oils, for all kinds of things. I’m working hard to develop better sleep patterns (even giving up watching TV in bed, one of my favorite things, in an effort to create healthier habits). Self-care and natural health are wonderful things indeed.
But there’s a balance.
I don’t think I truly understood that balance until I went through my own health crises, and to an even greater extent until I was met with my former self, again and again, in the form of people whose version of “help” included chastising me for my choices. There was the one who messaged me after my second shoulder surgery, not to offer up a “get well soon” but to lecture me about the dangers of prescription painkillers. There was the one who, after I’d already had my gall bladder removed, told me why I should never have done it, and how I should have just healed it naturally instead. There were the countless others, who no matter what the issue, were convinced that I just needed to take more supplements/get better sleep/eat more whole foods/take more walks in the sunshine. I saw in real time the black and white thinking to which I myself had once subscribed. I saw the danger of, and felt the sting of, polarity. I saw how many people tried to shame me (and who continue to try to shame me) for not taking a solely natural approach.
I saw judgment – So. Much. Judgment. – from family members to friends to strangers alike.
That’s the natural health movement that leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth. That’s the natural health movement that I no longer want to be a part of.
I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we just trusted one another to make informed decisions. To learn not just about treating disease but about maintaining health. To weigh the pros and cons of all our options. To educate ourselves about natural remedies and pharmaceuticals both. To learn about risks of side effects versus possible benefits. To respect that my path to health is different from your path is different to your best friend’s neighbor’s path. To completely remove shame from the equation.
And if you ever have to have your bicep drilled back into your humerus, I hope that your recovery goes as smoothly as possible. I hope that you’re given all your options to control the pain, and that you make the choice that best works for you…. whether it’s a steady regimen of Vicodin or a thrice-daily walking meditation session in a sunny meadow.
I promise not to judge you either way.
June 2, 2016
Yay, you made it to the end! If you’re confused by that, and you’re coming here for the first time, you might want to go back to the beginning.
I started writing these last several posts for two reasons (and I realize that it would have made much more sense to mention this at the beginning of the story, instead of the end. But I’m doing it at the end. Let’s just make peace with it.)
I started writing them for two reasons:
To process. This part was entirely selfish (a healthy kind of selfish, I believe). I was dealing with a lot of new information, thoughts, and feelings, and once enough time had passed that those thoughts and feelings starting cohering themselves into words, I needed to start putting them down and getting them out of my head so I could move through them, and
To connect with others. A lot of people don’t understand the need/desire to open up about stuff like this. There’s a definite segment of society with an attitude of “We’ve all got issues, so what? Doesn’t mean you need to blab about them all over the internet.” Or “Why would you want to share something so private?” Or “Why do you think anyone would care about your problems?” And this is why: First, I think it’s important to stand up and say – again and again – that there is no shame in mental illness, and no shame in seeking help. Second, no one wants to feel alone, especially when they are struggling. When all of this peaked for me, it helped me in ways I can’t even express to see others telling their stories, being open with their struggles, and giving hope about recovery. Hope!! And so, whether this is shared with 10 people or 10,000, if ONE is helped in some way, if ONE feels a little less alone, if ONE finds a new sense of solidarity, if ONE feels a little more hope…. it’s worth the vulnerability it took to share it.
Having said all that, I have no intentions of turning this into a mental health blog (and the people cried, “Amen!”) I don’t want to start writing about bipolar all the time, and I don’t think anyone wants to read that. I know I’ll write about it from time to time as it’s part of my life, but …. I want to get back to talking about parenting, and unschooling, and the current
mess state of American Christianity, and current events, and all the other things that tick people off on a daily basis.
This was just something I had to write about until I felt done. And as of last night, for now, I feel done.
Because last night, my husband made a joke. Aimed at me. And bipolar. I feel like I shouldn’t actually repeat the joke, out of respect for the people who are raw and sensitive (and/or who don’t use wildly inappropriate humor as a coping mechanism like we do in my family), but to set the scene: we were all eating dinner, talking about what we perceived must be the pros and cons of long term RV travel as a family. I said something about nobody wanting to be in that close proximity with me for too long because I’m crazy, he made his joke…. and there was Dead. Silence.
It was only a fraction of a second, but I felt it. I felt the silence, I felt all four kids look at me, and I felt the unspoken question of, “Wait, is this okay to joke about???”
And then I laughed, because it was funny. And then the kids laughed.
And then we all breathed.
It’s now been two weeks since I wrote this last installment (and over 5 weeks since I started treatment), and I didn’t feel right posting it without giving one final little update on where I am today. The problem is that I don’t really know how to explain where I am today. I’m…. working on it. I’m making strides. I’m celebrating small victories. I’m taking my medication faithfully, and building routines, and getting exercise and forcing myself to go to therapy even when I don’t feel like it.
Therapy by the way, is very different than I thought it’d be. I thought I’d hate it, and it turns out that I DO sort of hate it, just for different reasons than I anticipated. I like my therapist. He is kind and knowledgeable and really good at what he does. But therapy is REALLY FREAKING HARD. Facing your issues and figuring out your shit when you’ve had the lies of bipolar yelling in your ear for 20 years is excruciatingly painful (especially when you’ve taken looking for answers in the bottom of a bottle of Captain Morgan off the table). Like, one of the most painful things I’ve ever done kind of painful. I told my therapist last week that for every issue I’m learning to manage, I unveil another 50 issues that I’ve been avoiding. A veritable Pandora’s Box of dysfunction. But I’m doing it. And I’m learning. And I’m taking baby steps. I have some tools now, rudimentary though they may be, and I’m adding to them every week.
I had a rough couple of days earlier this week, the worst I’ve had since I started treatment. I panicked. I braced myself for the downward slide. And I did slide. But I didn’t slide all the way. Instead I stopped, and I looked around and I clawed my way back up. Today is Friday, and today I’m smiling. And I’ll tell you what. Depression that lasts for three days is a hell of a long way from depression that lasts for six months. I will take it. I will celebrate the heck out of it. I have no doubt that there’ll be more bad days, but I also have hope that I’ll be increasingly equipped to handle them when they come. Good days are out there somewhere, too. And they’re so, so close.
I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.
Thank you, for reading, and for being so awesome.
June 1, 2016
In case anyone ever opens up to you about a mental illness (and please believe me when I say that it takes an ENORMOUS amount of trust in you to do so), here are some of the perfect, and encouraging, and loving responses that my friends gave me when I told them. Some knew that I’d been struggling, and for others it was completely out of the blue.
“That sounds really, really hard. Please let me know how I can best support you.”
“I am holding you in my heart.”
“I am happy you were able to get help. Take it one day at a time. I’m here if you ever need to talk.”
“I am so glad that you have something to work with. Onward and upward toward sunshinier days. This is the start of a brand new chapter for you.”
“Thank you for trusting me to tell me.”
“I’ll be thinking of you. Please keep me posted.”
“I’m so sorry that you’ve been having such a hard time, and I’m really glad that you were able to seek out help. I’m so proud of you for taking care of yourself.”
“Oh my goodness, that is a lot. A blessing to know what you’re dealing with, and to be able to start treating it. I’m here for you if you ever want to talk.”
“I love you.”
*I could add to this list greatly from all the kind and wonderful messages I’ve gotten since I published my first post about this, but I won’t. These were the earliest ones, so I want them to stand. The only thing I’ll add came from just one single person, and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. She’d written me a very sweet message of encouragement, let me know she was thinking of me, and closed it with “No response needed.” I responded anyway, but it was so appreciated, and was a very, very cool way to take the pressure off at a time when responding to emails, even kind and wonderful ones, took a lot.*
My personal favorite came from my 8 year old daughter (who is mature beyond her years, and has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I know) Being the youngest, her level of understanding isn’t quite that of the boys, both because of her age, and because I’m of course a little more selective about what is shared in her presence. But there’s only so much you can shield. She walked in on me crying one day, and set about making me this:
It’s tempting to close with a list of well-meaning things that absolutely did NOT help (that list is longer) but to just touch on the biggest and most frequent categories of offenders: Please don’t try to diagnose, treat, or fix. Don’t minimize what is a serious issue with things like, “Cheer up,” or “You just need a glass of wine, a long walk, a good cry.” Etc. And DO NOT say you understand if you haven’t been through it yourself. If all else fails, trust that your friend is doing what he/she needs to get well – whatever that path may be – leave the questioning/counseling/advising/treating to their professionals, and just see them, hear them …. and be there.
(Continue to Part Six)